The last time I was a video game judge, I carried a gavel, gave it to a chimp to nibble on and wound up on national TV doing the hula atop a special exercise step machine called the Wii Balance Board.
So when I was asked to be a video game judge again, I said, "Sure." The last time I was judging games, I was doing it as a so-called Game Critic at the big E3 games show. This new opportunity would allow me to help select the best up-and-coming computer games for this year's Independent Games Festival, to be held February 18-22 in San Francisco. It was a good offer. The IGF contest is the top American competition for independent computer games and has honored many games I've enjoyed, including "Braid," "Narbacular Drop" and "Everyday Shooter." Plus, with no hula games apparently on the nomination list, I could play everything I was judging while sitting.
Or so I thought.
It turns out that you can't play a mash-up of "Super Mario Bros." and "Guitar Hero" without standing up.
The game that fits that description is a Swedish project called "Fret Nice." It was on my list of games to judge during the IGF's preliminary first round late last year. I was doing my judging at home, where I also had a new copy of MTV's "Rock Band." I took the MTV game's guitar and plugged it into my computer. "Fret Nice" looks like a standard side-scrolling platform game, but you make the game's hero run right by pressing two of the fret buttons on the guitar, left with the other two buttons. The guy jumps when you tilt the guitar. And he attacks enemies when you play riffs.
At first I felt silly playing "Fret Nice." Why am I holding a plastic guitar in front of a computer, using it to zap waves of bad guys and to raise and lower fret-triggered platforms? But that question is what made me realize the game is a winner. In a world in which the development team that made "Donkey Kong: Jungle Beat," a side-scrolling platformer controlled by plastic bongo drums, could go on to make "Super Mario Galaxy," there is room for "Fret Nice."
"Fret Nice" didn't have the monopoly on making me feel like a goof. Another game I voted for late last year that made the final round is the Russian "Hammerfall." It's a side-scrolling shoot-'em-up set in a sort of medieval fantasy era during which the most effective machine of war is a little flying pod armed with a giant ball and chain, or a spinning blade. To spin the ball or the blade, players have to move their mouse in circles, like you're scrubbing a stove top. The game felt like it would work well on the DS, where the stove-cleaning gesture could be replaced by a scribbling-circles gesture. The game has finely rendered, dark, bronze-tinted graphics. I thought it deserved a push to the last round, even if it sometimes felt a little too much like Saturday-afternoon housecleaning.
I had to score six games in the first round. Then, a few weeks ago, I was sent my order to play through the finalists to select the winners. There were 20 games up for consideration, including three of my first-round six. They were nominated for six categories: Excellence in Audio, Excellence in Visual Art, Design Innovation Award, Technical Excellence, Best Web Browser Game and overall grand prize. While there were some funny coincidences — a game called "World of Goo" up against a game called "Goo!" for Technical Excellence — mostly the 20 games were significantly distinct. The Best Web Browser Game nominees, for example, pitted a cute-monster multiplayer-only bumper-cars kind of game called "Globulus" against "Tri-Achnid," a physics-based game about moving a three-legged spider over an uneven landscape, and "Iron Dukes," a comedy game about sailing a 19th-century ship through storms and diving for treasure. I enjoyed all three and had a tough time picking a winner.
Physics games remain popular. There are a few in the finals, including "Crayon Physics Deluxe," "Tri-Achnid," and "World of Goo." Music games are increasingly prevalent too. In the preliminary round, two of my six games were music titles. In the final round, there are three more, including a game called "Audiosurf." That game generates rocket-car abstract highways that are shaped to match the contours of the sound of any MP3 you load into the game. Fast parts of a song are represented by downhill slopes. Slower, building sections of the song are modeled as inclines. Players drive through the track once, collecting combinations of colored notes, which are also arranged in patterns based on whichever MP3 the level is based. For starters, I played it to some Nas and then tried some Wilco. The Nas racetrack wasn't that interesting. The Wilco one was full of highs and lows.
I played most of these games during an IGF binge last week. I stayed up late, got up early, snuck in a few during work. Yes, even the gaming reporter has to sneak games in. I'm particularly proud of my developing skills in "World of Goo," a game that involves connecting animated blobs of goo into wobbly Tinkertoy structures in order to create bridges across precarious gaps or as towers that reach to the sky.
There were 49 other judges also submitting their picks for the IGF last week. The roster includes game reporters, developers, academics and businesspeople. The winners culled from our picks will be announced February 20. And when can people play them? Several games, including the "Super Paper Mario"-style world-swiveling platform game "Fez," already sport Xbox 360 control interfaces. They may have a relatively easy time coming to Microsoft's machine. "World of Goo" was announced as an upcoming release for the PC and Wii just over a week ago. Others are already available and can be downloaded via the IGF site.
The IGF nominees are worth a try. Judging games during one weeklong binge? That's not recommended.
Recent Video Game Coverage From MTV News:
We let loose an avalanche of "Grand Theft Auto IV" news last week, confirming all sorts of details about what you can do in the game (drive drunk, fire guns more accurately, hail a taxi, surf the Internet) and what you can't (get overweight from overeating, have the game's main guy kiss another guy). But what so many other sites on the Internet cared the most about was that, yes, "GTA" creators Rockstar Games place some of the blame for the game's delay out of October 2007 to the new date of April 29 on the challenge of making a game for the PlayStation 3. Though we're now told that the Xbox 360 and PS3 games are "neck and neck."
Early last week Fox News ran a segment entitled "'SE'XBOX," which featured debate about the sex scene in last year's top-selling Xbox 360 role-playing game "Mass Effect." On one side was gaming journalist Geoff Keighley. On the other was author Cooper Lawrence. While Fox News reported that the game featured "full digital nudity," and Cooper condemned the game for being marketed to kids, Keighley called the allegations untrue. Immediately after the segment, a Fox News panelist called the game "Luke Skywalker Meets 'Debbie Does Dallas.' " Electronic Arts, the publisher that owns the studio behind "Mass Effect," called for a correction. Fox News, as reported first at MTV Multiplayer, answered by saying EA ignored invitations to appear on Fox News. Enraged gamers wrote dozens of scathing reviews on the Amazon.com listing for Lawrence's book. And on Saturday, Lawrence told The New York Times that she had been led to believe that the scenes in "Mass Effect" were pornographic. Upon further review of the game, she said, it seemed less harmful than an episode of "Lost."
For all that and more, check out Multiplayer.MTV.com.