Matthew Gallant

Game of the Year awards are almost never consensus picks. Different gamers like different types of games. Here at Snackbar Games, we have a diverse staff of writers and editors, and between now and the end of the year, they’ll each be telling you, however they choose, about their top ten of ’08. Today, we feature writer Matthew Gallant. He’s Canadian, and just this once, we’ll leave in those funny spellings.

Here are my top 10 picks for 2008:

1. No More Heroes
No More Heroes is a punk pastiche, a loving tongue-in-cheek tribute to the history of video games. It surprised, confounded and delighted me at every turn. Every time I thought I had the game figured out, I discovered a new ridiculous minigame, over-the-top character or creative Wiimote implementation. Suda 51, shine on you crazy diamond.

2. Sins of a Solar Empire
More than any other title this year, Sins of a Solar Empire had me staying up ’til the wee hours of the morning without noticing. The scope of the game is astounding: you command an empire across several solar systems, but can zoom right in to watch a single ship. Ironclad managed to flawlessly marry the pacing of a 4X strategy game with real time gameplay.

The name “Season One” is revealing, as this collection of Sam & Max adventures has a lot in common with a box set of your favourite cartoon or sitcom. The humour is wacky, the cast is familiar and the episodes all play out in a roughly similar way. Like a rerun it’s comforting and enjoyable, even if it isn’t as deep or engaging as other titles.

If you’re unfamiliar with the series, here’s a quick primer. Sam & Max are freelance police officers (think Dick Tracy) who fight crime using sarcasm and cartoon violence, respectively. Their adventures began with the highly rated Hit The Road back in 1993, developed by LucasArts during their adventure game golden years. The market for the genre dried up soon after, and plans for a sequel were dropped to dismay of many. In 2005, Telltale Games, a company founded by ex-LucasArts employees, announced plans to revive the series in episodic format. Sam & Max: Season One collects the first six episodes of this new series ported from the PC.

While veteran fans will appreciate the return of long-running gags, each of the game’s episodes is an entirely self-contained adventure and no previous experience is required. Depending on your grasp of the game’s cartoon logic, it should take you under an hour to complete a particular case. The format works well, as it neatly excises two problems that plague most adventure games: large obscure inventories and tedious backtracking. Furthermore, it’s nice to be able to complete an entire story in one sitting.

The game features a simplified version of typical adventure game controls. The Wiimote functions as a competent mouse substitute, allowing you to move Sam around the environment and interact with objects and characters. While the puzzles are relatively straightforward for the genre, they do require some creative logic and lateral thinking. Fortunately, the wrong answer will never cause your game to end, so you’re free to experiment with clever solutions. The simplified mechanics make this an ideal game for genre newcomers and casual players.

Each episode follows a template: every mystery begins with Sam and Max in their apartment, fighting over who gets to answer the call from the Commissioner. Bosco the paranoid shopkeeper will always have a different disguise, and Sybil will always have found a new profession. The main street becomes so familiar that it’s possible to figure out which objects will require your attention just by observing the differences. The small variations are actually quite entertaining, and quickly establish a quirky regular cast.

While pointing with the Wiimote is rarely problematic, in all other respects Sam & Max has been ported rather poorly. There are fairly significant load times between screens, and the game stutters visibly when an event is triggered. This is especially noticeable during the occasional timing-based driving sequence, and makes them much more difficult as a result. It’s quite a disappointment too, as even older machines can handle the PC version’s system requirements.

Sam & Max: Season One is the gaming equivalent of a sitcom. It’s a light, fun way of spending half an hour with a wacky cast of characters, situations and locations. However, it won’t satisfy, compel or challenge you in the way that a game like Grim Fandango would. Even on the Wii, last year’s Zack & Wiki showed how the Wiimote could be used creatively in adventure games. Simply put: there are better options out there, including the cheaper and technically superior PC version.

Plays Like: A typical point-and-click adventure game

Pros: Humorous dialogue, fun characters and situations, puzzles have a good difficulty balance, strong jazz soundtrack

Cons: Stuttering graphics, moderate load times

ESRB: T for Teen. Cartoon Violence, Crude Humour, Mild Language, Use of Alcohol and Tobacco

Indie developers 2D Boy revealed figures last week that indicate that the piracy rate for their puzzle game World of Goo may be as high as 90%. This statistic is based on the number of sales versus the number of IP addresses that submitted high scores. The game was released without DRM, software specifically designed to hinder pirates. However, developer Ron Carmel notes that Reflexive Entertainment’s Ricochet featured in-house DRM and was pirated at a similar rate (92%).

World of Goo

November 5, 2008

With the rush of highly anticipated titles being released this fall, it would be a true shame if World of Goo got lost in the shuffle. While lacking the advertising budget of many of this season’s megahits, World of Goo has been championed by enthusiastic gaming press, indie game developers and PC gaming apologists. Add my voice to the chorus, because World of Goo is a terrific achievement that overflows with creativity and humor.

The crux of the game involves building fantastic functional constructs out of titular goo. The player must drag and drop the goo adjacent to two other goo ball vertices, which will snap new edges into place between them. These connections can bend and eventually snap, as you might expect a viscous material would.  

The puzzles in World of Goo involve transporting the goo to a distant pipe. This is accomplished by building a structure towards it with as few goo balls as possible.  The game begins with fairly straightforward puzzles: build a tower, bridge a gap, circumvent an obstacle. While the solutions require creativity, flexibility and lateral thinking, there is typically only one correct strategy for each puzzle. The only written instructions consist of cryptic clues from the enigmatic Sign Painter. The player is therefore required to discover the fundamentals of goo construction on their own. For better or worse, it’s impossible to proceed without learning things the hard way. Fortunately, the rules that govern World of Goo are logical and consistent. 

Once the player has a firm grasp of the fundamentals, the creativity of the game really begins to shine through. The game introduces a menagerie of goo varieties. Bamboo-like green goo can be repositioned, pink goo balloons float, red goo is flammable, and many more. These new species build seamlessly on the existing mechanics, and introduce fascinating new challenges. Best of all, while the fundamentals always carry over, there is very little strategic overlap between levels. The player must constantly adapt, reevaluating old ideas and developing new ones. 

The strong mechanics and puzzles are backed by beautiful cartoon-like art direction. Backgrounds are painted with broad strokes while people and objects have exaggerated proportions, not entirely unlike a Dr. Seuss book. There is a fair variety in the music, but every tune had a “magical factory” vibe to it that was actually rather grating after a while. 

The game has a loose story told via short cartoon cut-scenes between levels. It’s cute and has nice anti-corporation and anti-consumerism themes, but is ultimately forgettable. Much stronger is the writing presented within the levels themselves. The messages from the mysterious Sign Painter are both humorous and helpful, reminding me quite a bit of the notes left behind by Dungeon Man in Earthbound. There are also some fantastically nerdy inside jokes hidden in the level names and descriptions, especially in the final world. 

It’s tempting to let indie games off the hook sometimes due to their constrained development conditions. With World of Goo no such disclaimer is required; it’s a truly accessible, brilliant, and innovative game. Furthermore, 2D Boy went the extra mile in customer service by releasing the game on all three major operating systems (Windows, OSX, Linux) and completely DRM free. World of Goo is without a doubt one of the must-play titles of this fall.

Plays Like: The Incredible Machine

Pros: Challenging creative puzzles, accessible gameplay, innovative goo physics, delightful cartoon graphics, strong humorous writing

Cons: Music can be grating, learning gameplay fundamentals by trial and error requires persistence

ESRB: E for everyone; with no violence whatsoever, this is less offensive than a Disney game or movie


THQ announced yesterday that a second expansion pack for the popular World War 2 strategy series Company of Heroes is in development by Relic Entertainment. The new entry is named Tales of Valour, and will be arriving for the PC in Spring of 2009. The game will feature new campaigns, maps, units and multiplayer modes. It also boasts a new “direct-fire” feature that will increase the player’s level of tactical control.

While the Second World War has become a staple of first person shooters, Company of Heroes managed to make the setting look fresh again with its fast-paced tactical combat. The first expansion Opposing Fronts built effectively on the original, and answered many criticisms by including an entire campaign set from the perspective of the German Panzer Elite division during Operation Market Garden. Perhaps the next expansion will explore the Russian front or the East African campaign? We’ll find out this Spring.

Check out the full press release here.