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This morning while walking the dog, I stopped her...

This morning while walking the dog, I stopped her from exploring into a neighbor’s yard and said, “That’s someone else’s house. We can’t go that way.”

I realized my dog is a video game protagonist and I’m the narrator throwing up invisible walls and forcing her to turn around when she hits the edge of the accessible map.

Gonna think about that next time I play a game and feel the designer tighten the leash.

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Gotta solve 'em all

The first Picross game I played was Pokémon Picross over five years ago. I’m curious how many people followed this pattern: when the My Nintendo loyalty program launched, its most intriguing reward was an exlusive game, My Nintendo Picross: The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess. I was only dimly aware of Picross and wasn’t sure I wanted to plunk down 1000 Platinum Points to pick this game up, but Pokémon Picross had come out fairly recently and was free-to-play, so I used it as a Picross demo. I quickly learned that I liked Picross, abandoned Pokémon Picross, and started in on the many non-F2P Picross offerings on 3DS: the Twilight Princess one, Mario’s Picross on the virtual console, the PICROSS e series, Pic-a-Pix Color, and Picross 3D Round 2.

Between those and some other Picross games on mobile and Switch, I’ve now solved somewhere in the vicinity of two thousand Picross puzzles. And I can confidently state that the 3DS is straight-up the best place for Picross. The combination of buttons, touchscreen, and stylus in a light handheld are perfectly suited to the gameplay. Using just a mobile touchscreen or just buttons on Switch is so clunky by comparison. A lot of Picross games on the Switch don’t even support touchscreen controls, which is baffling to me.

When I got a Switch and basically stopped using my 3DS, I also basically stopped playing Picross games because they just weren’t as enjoyable anymore. This is one of the biggest reasons I’m sad about the loss of the DS/3DS/Wii U paradigm.

But I’ve been picking my 3DS back up recently and have been tucking back into Picross there. I still have three more PICROSS e games to get through (apparently there’s a final Japan-only one? and the 3DS is region-locked, so I can’t just sign in to the Japan eshop to pick it up? how expensive can it be to localize a friggin' Picross game when you’ve already localized all the UI for it? sigh) plus Sanrio Characters Picross, but that’s about it - there were a couple other Japan-only games and nobody’s putting out new Picross on the 3DS anymore.

So I figured I might as well take a second look at Pokémon Picross too. And it definitely lands a bit differently with me now. When I was using it to learn Picross, I considered its time targets aggressive - five minutes for a 10x10 grid stressed me out. Now I solve those puzzles in about one minute. I also wrote that “the Pokémon are mostly just a way to cheapen the core puzzle gameplay” since their abilities were either just assist features or shortcuts to solve part of the puzzle for you and “[i]f you don’t want to solve the puzzle yourself, why play Picross?” Now, after solving thousands of puzzles, I find those features add some interesting variety and flavor to the game, where before they were a crutch that robbed me of much-needed practice.

But the fact that I now actually enjoy the game only makes it that much more frustrating that, a couple days in, I’ve run into the monetization wall. The game quickly got a lot less fun to play and I have no desire to monetarily reward a design that so clearly sacrifices the quality of the experience to persuade me to open my wallet.

Unlike most F2P titles, there at least is a cap in how much you can spend, after which the “fun pain” goes away. But my understanding is that while the game is about twice the size of a PICROSS e title (about 300 puzzles as opposed to 150) that spending cap is five times the cost of a PICROSS e game ($30 in the most efficient method and of course the IAP structure is confusing, compared to $6 for a PICROSS e title). The non-spending alternative makes use of a daily reward (which I dislike) that has to be earned every day for about a year to unlock everything, and that’s if you are careful to optimize rewards in ways that make the game less fun to play.

So, ultimately, my review of Pokémon Picross stands. It’s best used as a demo to see if you like Picross before moving on to better-priced and more-respectful options.

But being honest with myself, I think there’s a real possibility that once I exhaust the other options on 3DS, I will sigh, roll my eyes, and plunk down the $30 to be able to enjoy Pokémon Picross. Because it’s still going to be better than Picross on Switch.

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Ratchet & Clunky Adaptations

After seeing me play Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart, Allie was intrigued by the story and characters and suggested we could finally watch the Ratchet & Clank movie.

We didn’t like it.

As a quick reminder - in 2016, there was a Ratchet & Clank movie which rebooted the franchise’s story, changing at least as much as it kept from the plot of the original game. Alongside this was a game called simply Ratchet & Clank, which was sort of a remake of the original 2002 game, but also a direct adaptation of the film, which was itself loosely based on that original game.

I’d previously understood, thanks mainly to Super Bunnyhop’s analysis, that the 2016 game was technically solid but had its story and characters substantially worsened by needing to conform to story beats from the film, which itself was a mediocre and generic kids' movie. After seeing the film, I think this was a generous assessment or that I’d overestimated the quality I could expect from a mediocre kids' movie. The film’s storytelling and characterization is also quite weak (weaker than most of the games; Allie’d been intrigued by Rift Apart and was bored by the movie) and there are multiple out-of-place-feeling scenes that seem to only exist because of the tie-in game.

While I’d previously been frustrated by the negative impact the movie had on the game, I’d assumed this was due to Sony and others prioritizing the movie and so at least the movie had probably basically achieved its goal. This doesn’t seem to have been the case. The movie lost several million dollars, which resulted in the Sly Cooper movie getting shelved. So this was a purely destructive trade-off. The story reboot doesn’t even seem to have stuck; while Rift Apart doesn’t directly contradict anything from the 2016 film/game, it also doesn’t acknowledge any of its events or characters but does directly follow up events and plot threads of other previous games.

What a waste that movie was.

In looking into this, I found out there’s also an upcoming TV series. Based on the pilot, it’s not quite in line with the canon, tone, or characterization of the games but is at least better constructed than the film and more like what I had pictured as mediocre kid’s media. I don’t think it’ll do as poorly as the film, but I don’t think Allie or I will want to watch it.

(Also it’s weird to me how many references to the games are in both the film and the TV pilot. I feel like the people who catch them are also the people who would be upset at how much those adaptations change the canon and the characters.)

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Ratchet & Clank: Binge Apart

I did a slightly weird thing this last weekend. I played Ratchet & Clank.

I mean, that’s not the weird part. I’ve been a fan of R&C since the first game in 2002 and have played every game in the series (including re-releases) usually to 100% completion and usually multiple times (the multiplayer-focused All 4 One and Full Frontal Assault presented challenges in that area as none of my friends then were as into R&C as I was).

To get to the weird part, you have to know that I don’t have a PS5 and that the recent Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart is so far the only PS5 exclusive that I care about. I want to play it, but I don’t want to pay several hundred dollars to play it (while supporting the casual erosion of privacy along the way). But one of Allie’s friends turns out to be as big of an R&C fan as I am, and he has a PS5 and the game. He offered to loan me both for a weekend so that I could play it.

I had several reactions to this. First, I was excited that I could get a chance to play the game without buying a PS5. Second, I was grateful that the friend was willing to be so generous. Third, I recognized that this couldn’t possibly be the best way to experience the game and I would probably enjoy it more if I just waited for an opportunity to play the game under less time pressure. And fourth, I found myself wondering if I could do it. In sort of the same way you might decide to try spending 24 hours in a Target - you know it’s going to be a bit rough, and it’s not like it’s a notable achievement or anything, but you kind of want to know what it’s like and whether you’re up to the challenge. So I thanked him, accepted his offer, and set out to complete Ratchet & Clank and get the platinum trophy within a weekend.

He showed up with the PS5 on Friday evening and I started Rift Apart at 7:00 PM. I proceeded to binge-play it in a way I haven’t done with any game since I was single, unemployed, depressed, and hooked on WoW. I played for a few hours, went to bed, woke up early Saturday morning, and went right back to playing. Apart from dog-walking, some quick bio breaks, and a brief trip to the carpet store with Allie, all I did on Saturday was play Rift Apart.

It was a bit disorienting. It started fun, but every time I reached a point where normally I’d want to put the game down and do something else, I forced myself to continue. By Saturday night, I was convinced the whole thing had been a mistake. I was clearly still at least an hour or two away from being done, but I was tired of the game and could no longer enjoy it. I had burned my entire Saturday for a rushed, sub-par experience of a game I’d rather savor. Probably the biggest issue is that while I usually get steps while I game, for some reason trying to do that here made me dizzy. So, I got very little exercise all day which left me feeling a bit lousy. I decided I didn’t want to throw good days after bad and I’d probably just give up on the game and have a normal Sunday at least.

But after sleeping, when I got up Sunday morning I decided to give it another shot. And the game was fun again! The same content that I’d found frustrating the previous night was now a blast. By 11:30 AM, I’d completed the game and most optional objectives and earned the platinum trophy. (I had gotten all the collectibles, including those for which there is no trophy, but did not complete a challenge mode playthrough because of the time constraints. Normally I don’t consider a R&C game completed until I’ve finished challenge mode, but under the circumstances compromises had to be made.) And then I had a half-normal Sunday and got some exercise before returning the PS5 that evening.

Overall, I’m glad I did this and grateful to Allie’s friend for the loan. I rose to the challenge and it was an interesting experience. I already knew that my mood, energy level, and burnout could strongly affect whether I enjoyed a game, but this was a really stark example of it - I was ready to write the game off Saturday night, but both before and after that I enjoyed the game a lot. (Definitely increases my empathy for game reviewers who have to rush through titles to get release-day reviews up.) And frankly - the fact that I enjoyed the game as much as I did (it’s easily the best R&C since 2009’s A Crack in Time) when I played it this way means the game is really good! Just imagine how much I’d have enjoyed it if I could have really savored it.

I had honestly been ready to write off R&C as an effectively dead franchise - I’m both relieved that Insomniac is making good R&C games again and annoyed that this probably means I will eventually get a PS5. Because when the next R&C game comes out, I’d like to have a bit longer of a span to enjoy it.

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