Celebrate Sonic’s 25th Birthday with ‘Sonic Generations’

Sonic holding up three fingers
Nope, you’re older than that, Sonic.

It’s hard to believe, but it’s the 25th anniversary of Sonic the Hedgehog, that blue blur who gave Mario a run for the money (coins? rings?) back in the ’90s.

That was a time when Nintendo and Sega were big rivals, with the SNES head to head against the Genesis. I didn’t have much loyalty to either brand at the time. My first console was Super Nintendo, but I remember hungering to own a Sega Genesis. Sadly, my parents refused to buy me a second gaming system.

It felt a little like fate that day at Genuardi’s when I learned the grocery store had a lottery to give away a new Genesis core system. All you had to do to enter was fill out a form and stick it in the box. Naturally, I filled out five forms…on every shopping trip for a month.

I won! I figure it was either probability (I did stuff the ballot) or the store manager’s pity (“Wow, this poor Adam Bender kid REALLY wants a Genesis.”) Look, the important thing is that I got the Genesis. The first game I played Sonic the Hedgehog 2.

Chemical Plant Zone has one of the catchiest theme songs ever.
Chemical Plant Zone has one of the catchiest theme songs ever.

I loved the concept of Sonic. He was really fast, he looked cool and yet kind of angry, and his best friend was a flying fox — not like a massive Australian bat, but an actual fox who could fly! (Please note that this blogger was in elementary school at the time.) But I’ll be honest with you — I was pretty bad at this game. The level pictured above, Chemical Plant Zone, comes fairly early, and yet it took me forever just to survive the part where pink toxic water fills up over Sonic’s head and you have to get him out before he drowns. Plus, there was no way to save (this feature was pretty rare in the early ’90s), so Game Over meant playing the whole damn game over.

I got pretty far with the help of my friend Adam (yes, he was also Adam; no, he wasn’t imaginary). We’d take turns, switching off every level or when one of us lost a life. On one particularly brilliant day, we worked out that it was easier to focus if you muted the soundtrack. I don’t think we ever beat the game, though. But you know, even though there were so many times when I wanted to slam my controller into the wall, I can’t deny that game provided many hours of fun. And I guess I’ve always looked back fondly at Sonic since then.

I didn’t play much Sonic after that. I never got a Dreamcast, so I missed Sonic’s foray into 3D adventures. There wasn’t much incentive, either, since most of these new Sonic games received mixed reviews. Also, Sonic just wasn’t as cool as he used to be. Apparently, spunky mascots with ‘tude belonged to the ’90s.

Nowadays, there just isn’t the same fanfare when a new Sonic games comes out, which is pretty damn often. Maybe that’s the problem. Whereas there tends to be multiple years between each major Mario game (not counting various spin-offs, remakes, etc.), it feels like there’s at least two new Sonic games a year.

So when Humble Bundle recently announced a 25th anniversary Sonic bundle, you might say I was conflicted. One the one hand, it included Sonic the Hedgehog 2 and a bunch of other Sonics from that era — nostalgia! But then again, it also included a bunch of the newer Sonic games that I’d come to equate with mediocrity. Still, I could get them all for $10…

So I did it. I skipped lunch* and used that $10 instead for Sonic games. And guess what? I’m happy I did! Here’s the kicker: I say that not for the nostalgia of playing old Genesis games, but for the nostalgia-rama that is Sonic Generations.

I RECOGNIZE THAT! I RECOGNIZE THAT!
I RECOGNIZE THAT! I RECOGNIZE THAT!

In Generations, classic-look Sonic meets his 21st century update. You get to play as both, racing through classic side-scrolling levels as the old Sonic and grinding through 3D roller-coasters with the new one. Amazingly, both styles are fun!

I feel like Sega made this game just for old Sonic fans like me. The developer basically remade all my fond memories of Genesis-era Sonic with beautiful graphics, then added the modern platforming genre conventions to which I’d become accustomed. It’s the most fun I’ve had in a platformer since Kirby’s Epic Yarn, or maybe even Super Mario Galaxy.

Please note that I did not say Sega remade Genesis-era Sonic, but rather my fond (and possibly incorrect) memories of that Sonic. This is very deliberate, because the truth is that when I played Sonic the Hedgehog 2 again, I still nearly threw the controller at the wall. Not so with Generations! I’m not terrible at it! I can save my game!

Seriously, how did I miss this game when it came out?
Seriously, how did I miss this game when it came out?

Also, those same qualities that made Sonic a total badass in 1992 now make him … actually quite cute! The real shame is that classic Sonic has to share the game with the modern version, Sonic the still-dated-but-slightly-less-so Hedgehog. In fact, by embracing classic Sonic’s datedness, classic Sonic has somehow transcended into the less dated of the two hedgehogs! And here is a final sentence in which I use the word dated!

The crazy thing is that Generations came out like a million lame Sonic games ago (2011). And yet I missed it due to an assumption that if most Sonic games these days are just-OK, all of them are just-OK. I’m sure many of you have made the same mistake. But here’s the good news — you still have a chance to correct course and restore your positive memories of a gaming icon!

Happy birthday, Sonic.

*I didn’t actually skip lunch. That’s just crazy.

Enter a surveillance society in this text adventure by the author of We, The Watched!

Happy holidays, everyone! As a gift to my fans, I’ve just created an interactive text adventure in Twine based on my novel We, The Watched.

Cover for the novel We, The Watched
Read it today!

The novel and its sequel Divided We Fall are set in a dystopian nation in which the government keeps a Watched list of its own citizens. Citizens must be careful about what they say because there are surveillance cameras everywhere. Meanwhile, the Church has become as powerful as the State, and people who resist are called Heretics and face execution.

The books follow a young man called Seven who wakes with no memory in this surveillance society. His amnesia gives him a blank-slate perspective that helps him see through the propaganda, and he soon gets involved with a group of rebels called The Underground.

The new text adventure follows Chapter One of We, The Watched, in which Seven wakes up in the middle of a forest with no idea of where he is or how he got there. It’s a lot of fun and is a great introduction to my books for new readers! You can play the game below or in full-screen here.

Also don’t forget to check out my other We, The Watched game, Watched Sweeper!

How motion saved the Steam Controller

Change! Innovation! Weirdness! These are all things that led me to buying a Steam Controller. My experience since then has been a mix of wonder, excitement and frustration.

For those who are unfamiliar, the Steam Controller ($49.99 at Amazon) looks like this:

The Steam controller with included batteries, USB wireless dongle and PC attachment.
The Steam controller with included batteries, USB wireless dongle and PC attachment.

That might look kind of flipped when compared to this Xbox One controller, which you’re probably a little more familiar with:

An Xbox One controller
Credit: Microsoft

That’s because the front of the Steam Controller actually bends inward (concave for you geometry fans). This is to make it easier to access the signature feature of the Steam Controller — touch pads! Yes, touch pads have replaced traditional control sticks. (Except for that one stick they threw in at the last-minute when people freaked out … but it’s only one and most games use two.)

So do the touch pads they work for gaming? Yes … but it takes a lot of getting used to. I read in another review somewhere that this is like an “alternate universe” controller that decided against control sticks. Pads can work just as well, but the problem is our thumbs have become accustomed to the movements associated with pushing a stick.

As you might expect, then, the pads work best as a replacement for a mouse in games built for a keyboard/mouse setup. I found Valve’s flagship Portal 2 to work pretty darn well with this controller. However, in a game made for the Xbox controller–such as Batman: Arkham Knight–by default you have the pad simulating a control stick, and it’s kind of weird.

Also read: Steam Link: Great for console fans, but you might want to wait

See, when you simulate a mouse with the pad, as in Portal 2, it acts a lot like a trackball. Keep rolling it in the direction you want. It even feels good thanks to haptic feedback. But when it’s simulating a game pad, you’re “holding” an imaginary stick in the direction you want the camera to turn, and then returning your thumb to the center of the pad when you’re done moving it.

After about a week of play, I did find myself getting better at this. I could definitely play Arkham Knight and do well. However, I always felt handicapped anytime I needed to make small, accurate movements such as aiming the cannon of the Batmobile, or checking on the position of unsuspecting criminals before making a sneak attack.

Gyros and customization to the rescue!

After more time spent with the controller and hanging out in the Steam community, I found two solutions. One that made me feel a little better about the Steam Controller, and one that makes me think it might even work better than an Xbox controller.

The truly cool thing about the Steam Controller is that you can customize just about everything with the controller. This includes more than what the buttons do in a game. You can adjust sensitivity of inputs, turn the touch pads into a keypad and much more. And if that’s all too technical, you can simply apply control schemes uploaded by either the game developer or other people in the Steam community. Meanwhile, Valve itself continues to add more functions to the controller as users provide feedback.

The first thing I discovered that made Arkham Knight play more easily was the ability to change the behavior of the right touch pad (which stands in for the right control stick and controls the camera) to work as a “mouse-like joystick.” This mode, Valve says, is built for games that don’t let you play with a gamepad and mouse at the same time (actually I don’t understand how a two-handed person would do that anyway). Through magical engineering (or something), this just lets you use the pad as if it’s a rolling trackball.

That feels far more intuitive, at least, but it still does not feel super accurate, especially when you’re under fire in a Batmobile and a helicopter keeps dive-bombing you.

Get a free copy of the novel WE, THE WATCHED by Adam Bender

That’s when I discovered motion controls. Or, I should say, the Steam community discovered them. Turns out the Steam Controller has a gyro sensor, much like the Nintendo Wii controller, which allows it to track physical movements of the hands. Well, what happened is that some genius (not sarcasm) in the Steam community got the idea to turn this feature on in addition to the mouse-like joystick behavior.

When I switched to this control scheme, I kid you not — it was like removing a neck brace

To turn this on, go to the controller customization settings and select the gyro icon under the center of the controller diagram (it looks a bit like an atom). Set this up as a mouse joystick and you’re good to go!

The motion controls let you adjust the camera (or your cross-hairs) by moving the entire controller up, down, left or right. To ensure you don’t do this accidentally, it only detects movement while your thumb is on the right touch pad.

This would never work by itself, because you’d basically have to turn away from the TV if you ever wanted to do more than 45-degree turn. But for small movements–lining up the cross-hairs or taking a quick peek at something peripheral–it feels very natural. When you do want to make a bigger turn, you swipe the touch pad like before … and to be honest it’s fine for that.

When I switched to this control scheme, I kid you not — it was like removing a neck brace. In fact, now I really can’t imagine going back to the old way.

Worth the trouble?

You might be thinking to yourself: “That sounds cool, and it’s great that you got the Steam Controller to work for you … but the Xbox controller already works for me. Why bother?”

Yes, I would agree that is a fair point. If you’ve got an Xbox controller already, and it’s working for you, and you have no desire at all to try something new, there really is little reason to get a Steam Controller.

Besides the pads, the Steam Controller’s other big issue for me is the placement of the A, B, X & Y buttons. While in reach, the placement of this diamond arrangement feels a bit low and could lead to some wrong presses until you get used to it.

Also, I should caution that I’ve only tested the Steam Controller in console-like action games. I’ve not tried it for mouse-intensive genres like real-time strategy. I’ve written this article from the perspective of someone who wants a controller for games made for controllers.

However, if anything about the Steam Controller intrigues you — perhaps the customization, or maybe just the fact that it’s not made by Microsoft or Sony — I am here to say that it is in fact a solid controller that can do a lot now and has promise to do a lot more in the future. Buying a Steam Controller is not the equivalent of buying a knock-off Mad Catz Xbox controller (sorry, Mad Catz) to save $10 off of the official brand.

You do have to go in knowing that it’s not necessarily going to work perfectly from the moment you start up a game. There will be fiddling. In the future, there will be more community control schemes available that will make this fiddling easier. But you’ll still have to fiddle to make the Steam Controller work for you.

Also check out my impressions of the Steam Link!

Steam Link: great for console fans, but you might want to wait

My early impressions of the Steam Link after three weeks playing with Valve’s PC game streaming system.

For a long time, I had this problem. Valve would announce these great deals for PC games on Steam, and naturally I wouldn’t be able to pass them up. The issue was that I was actually a console gamer, and my laptop at the time wasn’t really built for games.

So why did I buy games on Steam that I couldn’t actually play? Well, you see, I had this plan to become a PC gamer. I was living in Australia at the time, and so I told myself that when I eventually moved back to the USA, I would build a desktop computer and play all these Steam games I’d been amassing.

We made the move back to the US this summer, and moved into an apartment a little over a month ago. It was finally time–I was ready to build a gaming PC.

Or so I thought. See, I’d just purchased a fancy new TV, and now I wanted to play games on that. I reconsidered my gaming plan. Maybe I should spend less money on the PC–use that for productivity–and get a PS4 for games. But then again, what about all those Steam games?

That’s when I started thinking seriously about the Steam Link ($49.99 on Amazon). The device, released last month, hooks up to a TV and streams games from the PC to the TV over a wired or wireless home network. It was October and Steam Link wasn’t due out until early November, so I had no idea how well this would actually work in practice. But early buzz was good, and it seemed like it would satisfy my two main gaming desires–playing Steam games, but doing it on a TV.

Some of you may be asking, “Uh, why didn’t you just connect a really long HDMI cord from your desktop to the TV? Didn’t you say you’re living in an apartment?”

To which I would reply, “I have a wife.”

Trust me, the concept of Steam Link as a seamless streaming device that avoids the need for long wires is a very good thing. Anyway, it’s only $50! Get over it!

So I went ahead! With the help of a good friend who knows his stuff when it comes to computers, I built a new gaming PC and pre-ordered the Steam Link and Steam Controller (also $50 — I’ll write up some impressions of this product at a later date).

Setting up the Link

My Steam gear arrived on November 10. I was amazed by the small size of the Link. You can look up the specs on your own time, but I’ll just say it’s got everything you need and nothing you don’t. And it disappears completely into the TV stand. Given how easily that can get filled up, that’s totally fine by me.

Connecting the Link to my TV was a breeze — the thing was pulsing on my TV screen before I even realized I had turned the thing on. It also recognized my controller right away without me having to do any setup other than connecting the wireless dongle to a USB port on the Link.

The Steam Link next walked me through connecting it to my network. Valve recommends a wired connection, but supports wireless networks including the fastest available, 802.11ac (5GHz). I’m doing a mix–my PC is hardwired by ethernet to the router, but I connected the Link wirelessly on the 5GHz network.

A quick word about my PC: My graphics card is an EVGA GeForce GTX 970 with 4GB VRAM. My PC has 8GB of RAM. The processor is Intel Core i5-4590 3.3GHz Haswell Processor. It’s not the highest spec PC you can get, but it’s pretty damn good.

Smooth video, but some audio annoyances

I put on Batman: Arkham Knight first. Maybe not a totally fair test, considering all of the issues the PC port has suffered. But the latest patch worked great for me, and it felt just like playing the old Arkham games on Xbox 360.

Next, I tried a game from last generation, Alan Wake, and encountered a major bug with Steam Link — audio crackle. In 1080p, the video ran smoothly, but the audio skipped and made crackling sounds. The next day, I tried Portal 2 and discovered the same problem. The video was running a silky 60 frames per second, but the sound kept making annoying crackling noises.

I started reading the Steam Link forums, and discovered quickly I was not the only one with the problem. A handful of users blamed some kind of interference involving wireless controllers, but most people seem to blame it on a bug related to using a wireless connection for the Link. What fixed it for everyone was downgrading the resolution to 720P.

I went back to Arkham Knight to see if I could figure out why that game wouldn’t have the same problem. Afterall, it was running in 1080p, too. As I went through the settings, I discovered the framerate had been set to 30fps. Shocked I wasn’t seeing the game in its full glory, I upped it to 60fps. As soon as I did, the audio started crackling.

Having to downgrade graphics settings for Link when they work fine on your PC is obviously not ideal. For their part, Valve has acknowledged the audio problems and appears to be working on it.

A recent update (Build 388) to the Steam Link included a “temporary” fix for the problem that seemed to resolve the problem for me in my games. According to Valve’s documentation, however, it seems that the fix merely limits the resolution on wireless networks to 1600×900. I’m still waiting for a more permanent fix that lets me play in 1080p.

Update: About a week after I wrote this article, a Steam Link update fixed most of the audio crackle issues I describe above. There are still occasional sound glitches, but these aren’t quite as distracting.

A lot of promise

It’s great to see Valve releasing a steady stream of updates to fix problems with the Link. And I should point out that the audio issue above is something you can work around. Unless your screen is massive, games still look pretty good in 1600×900 or even 720p. On the other hand, if you don’t absolutely need something like the Steam Link in your home right away, you might want to wait until all the bugs have been worked out.

Waiting will also mean you’ll have more features available. For example, you can’t today connect a USB or Bluetooth headset to the Link. It has USB jacks and Bluetooth, and the Link will recognize them. However, if you try to set it up for action via the Steam Link menu, the device will joyfully inform you that this feature is coming soon.

As an early adopter of the Steam Link, I kind of figured there’d be some kinks to be worked out going in. I mean, the thing works well enough. I’m playing games on the TV and having a lot of fun.

But I’m the kind of guy who enjoys installing updates and finding out what’s been changed for the better. A lot of people–especially console gamers–are used to their gaming systems more or less working right out of the box. They don’t want to play with settings or go to online forums to work out what’s wrong with their setup.

For those kinds of gamers, I really believe the Steam Link can still be a good option … but only in time.

The good news is that Valve seems to be working hard to make this product as perfect as it can. When I’ve had problems with other tech products in the past, I’ve looked online for answers only to discover the vendor had abandoned the product. This is not so with Valve and Steam Link.

But it still means we all have some waiting to do.

Are you using Steam LInk? What have been your impressions so far? Sound off in the comments! I’m also happy to answer questions or clarify any details about my Steam setup.

Three clever and relaxing mobile games

I don’t play a lot of mobile games, but when I do, I look for ones that get my brain working and reduce my tension level.

Since I’m writing all the time, I like to play something that lets me exercise the logic side of my brain. At the same time, if I’m riding a massively delayed train with a ton of people complaining about said delay, the last thing I need is a game that requires me to do something complicated before time runs out. I also don’t want to play a touch screen game with a complex control scheme. Touch screens in my experience are just not as responsive as a controller, so if I have to do button combos to win at a game, well … I’m probably going to turn it off in frustration halfway through level one.

Fortunately, I have come across a few winners, all of which are available on Android and iOS. These are all beautiful-looking games with simple concepts. Most importantly, they never punish you for looking up from the phone to check why everyone is yelling “Fire!”

Monument Valley

This dream-like game by developer ustwo is all about the visuals. And I don’t mean it just looks pretty, I mean the visuals play a key part of the gameplay. In Monument Valley, Players guide a princess through an isometric world by raising and turning objects in the environment to create a path. The brilliant thing is that this world functions like an Escher painting, or those impossible shapes from geometry class, so that turning a platform on the lower level sometimes connects it to a higher level.

While there are occasional crows (possible band name?) that block your path, they don’t try to kill the princess. Players simply have to find a way around them. It’s also relaxing just to look at the game and listen to the music. The guy sitting next to you might think you’re a weirdo, but hey, that’s his problem.

My one complaint is the game is fairly short and there’s no incentive to replay completed levels. There are a couple of expansions available, but they only extend the experience by a couple of hours. Regardless, this game sticks in my memory as one of my favorites, on any gaming platform, of the last few years.

Hook

This monochrome puzzle game by developer Rainbow Train proves that a strong gameplay concept is more important than fancy special effects. In Hook, Players must find a way to remove all of the parts (in this case hooks) without bumping them against each other. It’s easy at first but gets more challenging as the game progresses.

Importantly for one’s tension level, no one yells at the player to finish in a certain amount of time. Just keep at it until the puzzle is solved. The very basic graphics and light music also keep things mellow.

And no, Peter Pan is not involved.

Blip Blup

While it may not look quite as pretty as developer ustwo’s other game, Monument Valley, this puzzle game is another interesting concept that starts out simple and gets increasingly difficult as the player goes on. Blip Blup presents players with a grid that they must fill with light. When the player touches a square, light shoots out in all directions, but obstacles can stop the light from reaching every square of the grid. The idea is to cover every bit of the grid in as few moves as possible.

Like the other games in this list, there’s no time limit, and players can keep trying until they get it right. The music’s pretty relaxing, too. It also has a bit more replay value than the other games on my list because, while a given level might be passed in three moves, Blip Blup gives extra points for doing it in two.

So that’s my list! If you have any recommendations for other relaxing mobile games, please sound off in the comments. I’m eager to give it a try to calm my shattered nerves! Oh, and don’t forget to check out a game I made called Watched Sweeper. I don’t know if it’s clever or relaxing, but it is a game!