The Subway Gamer: Tiny Tower

I might be in trouble.  Tiny Tower is scratching an itch that I’d thought I’d gotten rid of.

Tiny Tower came out a week or two ago, to much acclaim from some of the gaming press.  A free-to-play title, filled with pixelated charm, capable of devastating addiction if not watched carefully.  I downloaded it (of course), but the tutorial was a bit confusing and I didn’t quite understand what I was supposed to do.  So I put it away and forgot about it.

But people kept talking.  That’s the curse of today’s social media – if you’re plugged in, you can’t escape it.  I was bombarded with too many tweets and forum posts about Tiny Tower’s addictive qualities, and then somebody referred to it as a vertical Farmville, and suddenly I understood what the game was about.

And now I’m hooked.

I used to have a Farmville problem.  In fact, now that I think about it, it’s been just over a year since I pulled the plug.  Lots of people hate Farmville, and I suppose I understand where they’re coming from, even if most of the hate is simply based against Zynga’s horrendous business practices and/or “casual” gaming in general.  For me, though, there was something about it that was tremendously compelling.  In fact, now that I think of it, I realize that the appeal of Farmville (and other similar titles) was very similar to what I wanted to like about the Civilization games – it’s resource gathering, but without enemies or antagonists.  There’s no pressure.  You build, you reap, you sow, you earn, lather, rinse, repeat.  The Keflings games on XBLA scratch this itch for me too, although in both of those games I ended up screwing myself by running out of builders.

But Tiny Towers scratches this itch like crazy.  You, as a building developer, are continually adding floors to your tower.  A floor may be residential, or one of 5 different kinds of store.  You move people into your building and give them jobs in the stores.  Each person (or “Bitizen”) has certain preferences for where they want to work, and it’s up to you to manage their happiness – the happier the employees are, the easier (and cheaper) it is to restock their stores’ inventory.  That’s it.  When you’re done with all that stuff, your main task (besides watching the money roll in) is to work the elevator that lets visitors go to different floors.

The addiction sets in when you realize that need to build another floor because your tower has a need for a certain type of store, and then you realize that the floor you just built doesn’t have enough Bitizens to properly staff it, and so you then need to build another floor because you need to house all the Bitizens in order to staff that store, and then you need to build another floor because you have too many Bitizens without jobs, etc.

And the dangerous part is that each task in the game takes time.  But if you need instant gratification, you can spend “Bux” to speed the process up immediately, or you can transmute your “Bux” into in-game currency which can then be used to buy new floors.  And “Bux” cost real U.S. Dollars.  As the game is free on the iTunes store, I did succumb to temptation once and bought some “Bux”, but I rationalized it by saying it was a thank-you to the developer.  I am hopeful that it was just a momentary lapse of weakness.  I can’t get sucked in again.

Thankfully, this isn’t really something you can play for more than a minute at a time (unless you’re endlessly buying things, which you can only do with real money).  My commute to work is around 40 minutes or so, and there’s only so much elevator-ferrying I can do before I start getting restless.  But it is something I check in on every hour or so when work gets slow, and since the game is constantly running in the background, every time I log in I’m greeted with a large amount of cash that’s accumulated since my last check-in.  So that’s nice.

NameTiny Tower

Price:  Free, with endless opportunities for micro-transactions.

Description:  Some sort of tower-building sim thing.

Can it play background music?:  Yes.

Can you play one-handed?:  Yes

Do you look like an idiot when you play it?:  No.

The Final Word:  I’m giving this a 4 out of 5.  It’s relentlessly charming, and fiendishly addictive.  Your mileage may vary depending on your taste for this particular sort of gameplay; it’s not necessarily for everyone.  But it’s certainly for me.  Goddammit.

Introducing: The Subway Gamer

[This is the first of what will hopefully be a regularly recurring feature here at SFTC:  The Subway Gamer, wherein I talk about what I’m playing on my iPhone on my way into and from work, as well as what I see other people playing.]

[EDIT:  Can’t believe I posted this without the incredibly obvious scoring mechanism that I’ve now inserted at the bottom.]

Regular NYC commuters generally understand, whether they like it or not, that if they read a book, people will look at what they’re reading, make subjective assumptions based upon what you’re reading, and, more often than not, end up reading over their shoulder (especially if they’re reading a newspaper).

The same thing holds true for handheld gaming, more or less.  I’m constantly playing games on my iPhone when I’m on the subway, and from time to time I see people glancing at what I’m doing.  (This is mostly when the game I’m playing requires lots of hand movements, and I look like an idiot.)  Likewise, if I see someone else playing something on their iPhone, I’ll take a gander and see if it’s something worth playing for myself.  (I’ve discovered quite a few awesome games in this manner – Grim Joggers, Train Conductor and Cover Orange, for starters.)

There are a number of important criteria that I take into consideration when it comes to subway gaming.  The first, and possibly important, is whether or not I can listen to my own music while playing.  This has actually been somewhat of a deal breaker for me, to be honest – I’ve got a ton of supposedly really good RPGs on my iPhone, but I’ll never get around to playing them because I’m stuck listening to their music – music that doesn’t necessarily enhance the gaming experience.  By and large, the games that I tend to play are more puzzle-based rather than story-based, and so generally this isn’t that big a deal – my commute isn’t long enough to really get sucked into a story, anyway – but it’s a big enough deal that it bears mentioning.

Another issue is whether the game can be played with one hand or not.  (Don’t get any ideas.)  The general unspoken rule (actually, sometimes it is spoken – this is New York, after all) is that able-bodied, 30-something males are the lowest on the priority list if an empty seat is available on the train.  This means that I’m standing up 99.99% of the time, and I’ll need something to hold on to.  If I’m playing a game that requires 2 hands to play and I’m on a bumpy stretch of track, well, that affects the gameplay experience.  (It doesn’t mean the game itself is bad, of course; I’m speaking purely about my own personal experience on the subway.)

There’s other things like loading times and restart times, whether the game is fairly priced, whether the game needs to have wi-fi access, if the iPhone needs to be tilted or manhandled or needs the aforementioned crazy hand movements or requires you to do anything that makes you feel self-conscious and awkward.  And, of course, the game needs to be fun, and worth playing more than once.

At some point in the near future I’ll be putting up some Favorite iPhone Games lists so that you know where I’m coming from, but for now I just want to get started with a belated review of Flick Golf Extreme!, the sequel to Full Fat Productions’ excellent Flick Golf!

NameFlick Golf Extreme!

Price:  $2.99

Description:  A sequel/expansion pack to the original, outstanding Flick Golf!, a touchscreen-based bulls-eye golf game.  The new game is 2 dollars more expensive, and yet features less content than the original.

Can it play background music?:  Yes.

Can you play one-handed?:  Yes, although your scores probably won’t be as good.

Do you look like an idiot when you play it?:  If you’re really into finessing your shots with spin, you might have some arm flailing.

The idea behind the Flick Golf games is simple; simply flick the ball, and get as close to the hole as possible.  The closer you get, the more points you score.  You can adjust your ball’s trajectory mid-flight by swiping your finger across the screen, and you can also make adjustments to the ball’s spin once it hits the ground.  At higher levels, wind becomes a factor.  Very simple, very self-explanatory.

There are several different modes – one is simply a straight-up score competition, another tasks you with reaching a certain score in a certain amount of time (and great shots reward you with extra time), and yet another starts you out with only 5 balls (although you can earn more shots by getting holes-in-one).

This Extreme! sequel features only 5 courses, and they’re a little bit harder than in the original – you have much less surface area to work with.  This isn’t much of a problem if you’re a veteran of the first game and have a general idea of what you’re doing, but for the newcomer I would expect this game to be pretty difficult when starting out.  (The newcomer really ought to play the original game first, anyway, as it’s cheaper, contains more courses, and has been made a bit easier to get through in terms of scoring benchmarks, via recent updates.)

The game certainly looks beautiful.  The retina display is used to great effect here; colors pop off the screen, backgrounds are nicely detailed, and the game runs very smoothly.  Each level does take between 12-15 seconds to load up, which can get somewhat annoying, but once you’re in a level you can restart it instantly (which is very much appreciated – at later levels your score requirements get pretty high, and if you miss early you’re doomed).

I’ve been having quite a bit of fun with this one, but I can’t necessarily recommend it to anyone who hasn’t played the original.  The original game is only 99 cents, has a lot more content, and is a bit easier to get into.  As noted above, this game is $2.99, features less content, and is a bit more difficult.  $2.99 is right around the threshold for me, in terms of how easily I’ll succumb to my consumer desires; considering how little is here, I’m a little bummed.  Still, though, it’s certainly fun for what it is, and if you enjoy the first game you’ll probably enjoy this one, too, and maybe you’ll justify the extra cost as a thank-you to the developers who packed in so much content in the original.

The Final Word out of 5.  This could go up, though, if they release more (free) content in future updates.

Going back to New Austin; going back to Civ

So I guess I’m playing Red Dead Redemption again, for real.  The brief foray back into the multiplayer side reminded me just how much I enjoyed the single-player, and since there’s nothing else going on, I figured I might as well dive back in.  It feels like I’m rereading one of my favorite books; there’s no surprises anymore, but I’m already comfortable with the lay of the land, and I can better appreciate some of the subtler aspects at work.  For example, the relationship between John Marston and Bonnie MacFarlane at the beginning of the game is so incredibly well written and performed; there’s a tenderness between the two that’s genuinely touching, even though nothing will ever happen.

And I still maintain that it’s one of the most gorgeous games I’ve ever played.  Riding into the sunset is thrilling.  The environment really does feel dry and dusty, and yet the thunderstorms are earth-shatteringly intense.  I suppose the illusion falls apart every once in a while – I got sidetracked last night doing the 3rd Treasure Hunter mission, where the treasure is hidden away in the middle of a cliff, and so it became obvious that the rock face was just a texture map and not really as layered as it appeared from far off.  That’s nit-picking to the nth degree, and I kinda felt guilty for noticing it, to be honest.

I don’t know that I need to liveblog every RDR session from here on out, unless something truly blog-worthy occurs.


Let me save you the worry – Wipeout: In the Zone is a piece of shit.  My wife and I are fans of the TV show, much in the same way that we’re fans of America’s Funniest Home Videos – we’re not proud of it, but watching people fall down is always funny.  And so it’s not like we had high hopes for the videogame, as licensed products are almost always terrible and it’s not like Wipeout is some bastion of high quality.  Still, though, it’s even worse than you’d expect.  The Kinect controls are horrendously unresponsive, which belies the whole point of the experience.  If you jump in real life, you expect your avatar to jump as well; if you crouch, your avatar crouches.  This is the 1:1 experience that Kinect is supposed to offer.  I’m not sure that the development budget for this Wipeout game was more than $75, though, and it’s clear that none of it was spent on getting the thing to work.

If you absolutely need an avatar-based obstacle course game to play, I would heartily recommend Doritos Crash Course, which (a) has working controls and (b) is actually kinda fun.  And I think it’s free?


I’ve been trying to get into Civ World, the much-anticipated Civ title for Facebook.  Let me rephrase that – I did finally literally get into it (as the servers were melting when the beta finally opened up), but I’m having trouble figuring out just what I’m supposed to be doing.

That’s probably true of all the Civ games I’ve played, if I’m being honest.  I really enjoyed Civilization Revolution, and bought it for both XBLA and my DS (and I’ll admit to having the free version on my iPhone), even though I never played above the easiest difficult setting, and the one time I played multiplayer I got trounced in about 10 minutes – I was still sending out lone warrior units meant to conquer barbarians, and I think my opponent was already working with tanks.  Still, though, I really enjoyed the general idea of the thing, and so, because I’m a man easily obsessed and with little to no control over impulse purchases, I bought and played exactly one (1) game of Civ 4 on my PC, which I enjoyed, even though it’s rare that I have 8 uninterrupted hours to play with.  I also bought and played a few games of Civ V on my PC (and Mac – it’s one of the first things I installed when I got Steam up and running on the new MacBook); I was able to appreciate the differences between Civ 4 and 5, and certainly appreciated the few things it took from Civ Rev.

I still can’t get beyond the easiest difficulty level, though.  I work slowly.  To tell you the truth, one of the reasons why I got so addicted to Farmville was that I could take my time doing the things that needed to get done, with little to no resistance from the world at large.  My thing with the Civ games is that I get really into building up my little towns, and then before I know it it’s the 1900s and the other countries have submarines and bomber jets.

Anyway, so the thing with Civ World is that I’m kinda just making my little town, and my main issue is that I don’t seem to be getting enough Production out of my city.  I build houses but they’re not immediately settled, and I don’t know if they’ll ever be settled; the server is a bit wonky and unreliable.   Meanwhile, people are leveling up all over the place and doing all sorts of things that I’m nowhere near ready to do.  I’m still somewhat enjoying my little town, to be sure, but I know that I’m not necessarily playing the game the way it was intended to be played, which means that I’m doing it wrong.  And whatever enjoyment I might be getting out of doing whatever it is I do is tempered with the knowledge that the hard-core Civ players would laugh at me and tell me to go back to Farmville.

Oh well.

I’m not sure what’s on tap for the weekend; probably more Red Dead, and perhaps a little more of the Uncharted 3 beta, even though I’m still terrible at it.

Weekend Recap: fireworks and saddle sores

Back in the early 00’s, the AV Club used to have a somewhat regular feature called “Justify Your Existence” where they asked musicians one simple question:  “Why should anybody buy your record?”  I’m assuming they retired it because the vast majority of responses went something like this – “Oh, jeez, um… I’ve never had anybody ask me that.  I have no idea.”

To that end, I’m officially taking back anything nice that I may have said in last week’s thing about Alice: The Madness Returns, the sequel that nobody asked for to a game that a lot of people didn’t like.  Somewhere towards the end of Chapter 3 (out of 6!!!) I ran out of steam and patience.  Endless combat sequences stacked within endless platforming sequences, no rhyme or reason to any of it, and anything that may have been fun in the first few hours quickly grew tiresome.  To borrow a quote from Hannibal Lecter:  “Tedious.  Very tedious.”   I forget what exactly it was that got me to give up; it was either one of the incredibly stupid music sequences (similar in every way to the lute playing in Fable 3, except with very poor timing controls), or yet another combat sequence featuring not one but two frustratingly difficult enemies.  If someone were to ask the developers why anybody should play the game, they’d probably say “we’ve got a lot of great art!”  That’s only somewhat true.  There is a lot of great art, yes, but there’s even more dumb art that surrounds it, and it’s all too much.

It’s not that the game is bad; it’s just that it was never edited down, and as a result it’s hard to separate what’s necessary from what’s filler, and ultimately it all blends together.  For every truly imaginative location – and there are a few – there are at least a dozen more that aren’t all that imaginative – or they’re simply repetitive.  The player is continually bludgeoned with awe at every turn until the senses are dulled.


I got back into Red Dead Redemption, of all things.  Rockstar was having a 4x XP weekend, and I needed something to cleanse the palate after sealing up my copy of Alice.  I’m still terrible at competitive multiplayer, but I still love exploring that world, and it was very easy to level up 4 or 5 times simply running Pike’s Basin over and over again.  I did a little bit of the Undead Horde mode, or whatever it’s called – it’s RDR’s answer to Gears’ Horde mode, and it’s a lot of fun (provided you have enough people – it’s very difficult with just 2).   I’m still amazed that there’s no PC version – I would love to see it on my monster machine.  Oh well.  The summer release schedule is looking pretty slow right now, and I can see myself losing many hours to running the single-player campaign again.


I’ve managed to avoid doing too much damage in this year’s Steam Summer Sale.  They run sales so often that I more or less already own everything I’d want to buy.  I played a few minutes of Back To the Future Episode 1; it feels a little clunky, at least in terms of the controls.  I like those movies but I don’t adore them, which may contribute to my general feeling of “meh”.

Some thoughts on Alice: The Madness Returns

I’ve been playing Alice: Madness Returns this week, on loan from Gamefly.  I never played the original; all I know about that first game is that it was made by something named American McGee, it featured doors that refused to conform to right angles, and that Old Man Murray was not all that impressed.  I’m a bit more tolerant of 3D platformers than most people, I suppose, and since we are more or less officially in the summer doldrums, I figured I’d give it a shot.  What the hell, right?

What the hell indeed.  I never thought I’d ever say this about any game ever again, but I think it’s fair to say that Alice is too long.  It is relentlessly dreary, with an omnipresent ambient soundtrack that’s supposed to be “creepy” but really just sucks all the energy out of the room (when it’s not getting under your skin).  The dialogue tries so incredibly hard to sound convincingly Lewis Carroll-ian, but there’s no wit – instead it sounds like a depressed high school junior’s attempts at Victorian poetry.  It’s not all that well acted, either, but you can’t really blame the actors – I’m not sure that anybody could make this work.

The problem is that there’s actually some good stuff here.  Some of the environments are absolutely gorgeous; the game’s first introduction to Wonderland is absolutely breathtaking, reminding you (and developers everywhere) that the Unreal Engine is capable of more colors than just grey and brown.  The characters look great, although they animate stiffly and don’t lip-sync with their dialogue all that well, if at all.  And the basic combat is certainly satisfactory and responsive (for the most part), and there’s lots to explore and many hidden treasures to find.

Frankly, there’s almost too many hidden things to find; it’s easy to get lost, and in some cases what you think is a secret door is actually where the level wants you to go, and then the level cuts you off so you can’t go back and explore.

Let’s stay on this topic of too much to do, because it’s important, and it’s the first point I brought up about the game and I never went back to it.  I feel weird about criticizing a game for being too long, especially since we live in a world where 99% of the time, a game is too short.  But in this case, there’s definitely too much; there are long stretches of platforming that don’t need to be there, especially since a lot of the time it’s unclear where and why Alice is going in the first place.  Chapter 1 took me 4-5 hours to finish, which seems ridiculous considering what my ultimate objectives were.  I’m sure that when it came time to edit, it was really hard for the designers to see sections go – I mean, there’s a tremendous amount of art all over the place, and I’m sure nobody wanted their carefully designed and detailed mini-labyrinth on the cutting room floor.  But I have to say that after a few hours of going from one similar-looking room to another, one gets the impression that they left everything in.  It’s exhausting.  It feels relentless.  I just want to get to the next checkpoint and STOP.

Speaking of checkpoints, the checkpoint system here is fucked up.  If you miss a jump and fall to your death (which will happen often), you often are reset no more than 5 seconds from where you fell.  But if you die in combat, you are often set back a good 5-10 minutes, which doesn’t make any sense – if there’s no real penalty for dying in a jump, why is there such a harsh penalty for getting sideswiped by 8 demons?  It makes the combat feel like a punishment.  And since there’s so much of it, you feel punished almost constantly.

I am going to push through with it through the weekend, because what the hell else am I gonna do.  Certainly the art and design is impressive enough to serve as a motivation to keep going.  But it’s exhausting.


I am not yet ready to debut the new iPhone roundup feature – the week got away from me.  But I can say that I’ve picked up a LOT of stuff this week, some better than others.  Maybe I’ve picked up too much.  Anyway – look for that next week; I hope to make it a regular feature.