Computer Science is a vastly under served industry. Given how interconnected technology has become, all industries are looking at the next generation of workers to be well versed in Computer Science and engineering.
An organization called TEALS (Technology Education and Literacy in Schools) works at the high school level to provide tech-savvy volunteers, curriculum for teachers, and computer lab lesson plans. The goal is to empower teachers and schools to provide Intro level Computer Science courses to prepare young people for an increasingly tech-focused world. And they do it using video games.
I attended a TEALS panel at PAX South earlier this year to learn more about their philosophy and process. The panel was hosted by Brett Wortzman, Instruction and Training Manager and John Jannone, Regional Manager for South Central.
“We help build sustainable high school computer science programs,” said Jannone. “Because of how hard it is for teachers to learn how to code, and how much money people in tech can make not doing education, we decided to pair them off.”
TEALS brings volunteers from the tech industry to partner with schools and teachers to help teach the unique games-based TEALS Computer Science programs.
TEALS has been operating since 2009 and is supported through Microsoft Philanthropies. Jannone mentioned that they don’t use or promote any Microsoft products in their courses so as not to create conflicts of interest: “We couldn’t do this job effectively if people thought we trying to sell something.”
Leveling Up Gaming in Education
Why use games to teach computer science? Jannone referenced a 2012 TED talk by Daphne Bavelier, a college professor and research scientist who studies games and their affects on our brains. Her findings turned a lot of pre-conceived stereotypes of gaming on its head: Gamers have better attention and sharper vision than non-gamers. They can also resolve visual conflicts and process mental problems quickly. In fact, 10 hours a week of playing action games can improve cognitive functions by a noticeable margin.
TEALs sorted through a hundred thousand studies that involved gaming. “Asking are games good or are they bad in education is no longer the question we should be asking,” said Jannone.
TEALS uses three approaches in using gaming in education: Engagement, Motivation, and Mindset.
“Students tend to be more engaged when there are gaming activities in the classroom,” said Wortzman. Gaming offers a low barrier to entry. Students are more comfortable in a gaming environment, and it promotes active learning. “We can sort of ‘trick’ students. We can use an entertaining veneer over what we would consider boring topics.”
For motivation, gaming is an obvious benefit. “There’s an immediate feedback loop in most gaming activities,” said Wortzman. “There’s an opportunity to very quickly and very definitively find out if they’ve been successful or not. In school students wait hours, days, even weeks to get a grade, and they still might not know how well they did.”
Gaming provides intrinsic motivation, with rewards in the games themselves, like earning points or gaining treasure. Wortzman also suggested using classroom leaderboards to incite healthy competition to promote students to keep going.
The gaming mindset works well when adapted to the classroom. “[Students] are used to being successful in games, but they’re also used to having to try a few times,” said Wortzman. “They’re not used to that in the classroom. There are a lot of students that believe they should get it right the first time and if they can’t they should just give up.” The acceptance of failure and repetition that gaming provides is an important concept that can be applied to classroom learning.
Not every game can be a great educational tool. The panel outlined four levels of using games as a framework for teaching tools.
Level 0: Coincidental Learning
The game wasn’t designed to be an educational activity, you just happen to learn something from it.
“I played Civilization and along the way I learning something about the ancient Aztecs,” explained Wortzman.
Level 1: Game-influenced Learning
Also known as “game-ified learning.” Games of this level are often used as assessment or review of learning that has happened prior to playing the game.
Level 2: Game-supported Learning
Games are combined with learning objectives and other activities (such as writing assignments).
Level 3: Game-based Learning
The game stands on its own as a complete learning tool. This is the ultimate goal for using games in education.
Design, Create, Play
TEALS does more than just provide games to play. Classrooms also design and create their own games as part of the Computer Science curriculum. Design, Creation, and Play all contain their own levels depending on how effectively the game content is used in the classroom.
“In our Intro Computer Science course, most of our projects are game assignments: recreation, riffs, or watered down versions of traditional well-known games, such as a Super Mario Bros. platformer, Pong, and Zork text adventure,” said Wortzman. “They are creating these games as part of our project-based curriculum. They are learning and practicing their programming skills by designing and implementing these games.”
TEALS uses a custom-built Minecraft mod as a learning tool. A former TEALS student took the Minecraft Forge project and added extensions and scripts, letting students create their own objects. It’s a good tool for teaching students how to operate within third party software that they didn’t create, which is how a lot of professional game design operates.
“I’ve been using Minecraft educationally for the last six years,” said Jannone. “There’s curriculum, there’s inspiration, there’s YouTube videos filled with Redstone circuitry. People make functional computers and Pong games using nothing but the mechanics of Minecraft. It’s an amazing tool. That sandbox environment encourages kids to be more exploratory and experimental.”
Game-based learning doesn’t have to be restricted to programming in Computer Science class. One example Wortzman used was for English or Language Arts. Students would read Lord of the Rings, and their assignment would be to create a character from the novels within World of Warcraft. What class would Frodo be and why? What equipment would they have? It’s an example of game-supported learning (Level 2) by using World of Warcraft as a book report.
Games can also be used as a springboard to teaching bigger concepts in a variety of school subjects. Board game Settlers of Catan can be a case study in economics and geographical dependency and sociology. The simple mobile game Angry Birds can be used to discuss parabolic motion in Physics class. These kind of games can easily be applied as Level 1 and Level 2 teaching tools. They would still require a teacher to bridge the connection between the game and the lesson plan.
For a true Level 3 game-learning experience, see Kerbal Space Program. “You can learn a ton about gravity, orbital dynamics and astrophysics just by playing Kerbal Space Program,” said Worzman. “If I were teaching a class on that, I could just tell you ‘Go play KSP for 6 weeks – you’re going to learn everything you need to learn.'”
For an in-house example, Wortzman created a game called Space Battle. “This is a programming game a bit like [board game] Robo Rally, except that you have to lay out all your programs at the beginning, and then not touch anything for the rest of the game.” Students program their out spaceships to include in the game, then gather around a projector to watch how their ship performs based on the programs they implemented. “They watch and scream and teachers three doors down tell us to be quiet because they’re giving a final exam – true story,” said Wortzman.
Once we accept games as learning tools we can begin to use them to enhance lesson plans, motivate students, and integrate gameplay and mechanics into lessons as outlined above. Even just using games in the simplest ways, like creating the Lord of the Rings characters in World of Warcraft, is hugely motivating to young people in which gaming is a normal background of their lives, and can make classroom education far more engaging and fun.
Today TEALS programs can be found in 329 high school classes in 225 schools in 25 states. Over 750 volunteers from 400 different companies help bring engaging computer science lessons to schools. TEALS is always looking for volunteers from tech industry professionals, teachers, students, and anyone who’s interested in helping support education and promoting games for learning.
PAX South 2017 hosted a large expo hall full of tabletop and video games, from wonderfully obscure indie titles to the large spectacle of the Nintendo and Capcom booths. I saw and played as many games as I possibly could over the weekend, and met with some amazing developers.
I didn’t get a chance to see everything that the convention had to offer. But here’s my list of 20 promising games you’ll want to look for this year.
Developer: Phoenix Labs Platforms: PC Release: 2017
Cooperative Action-RPG Dauntless channels the classic Monster Hunter series. Up to four players choose their weapon fighting style before being dropped into a large battlefield, facing off against a monstrous behemoth.
The PAX South demo included the four heroes shown in the trailer, as well as two behemoths. Shrike was a big owl monster that leapt at us and churned up wind blasts with his wings. Pangar resembled an armored ankylosaurus who balled up and smashed over us. You could chain attacks together to create combos, like a fighting game. I enjoyed using the warhammer’s rocket jump for a leaping strike, and turning his warhammer into a short-range shotgun blast.
The free-to-play title promises a variety of weapon styles and customization options, and promotes quickly jumping into cooperative monster slaying.
Death Squared is a delightfully charming cooperative puzzle game. The art style and theme is very reminiscent of the Portal games, as players work together to solve non-violent puzzles within a top-down arena.
Each player, whether playing solo or with up to three others, plays a different colored cube. Each cube has to reach a certain spot on the board to complete the puzzle, avoiding spikes, traps, and being knocked off the edge. Hilarity quickly ensues with multiple players, as one person moving too far could crush another with spikes. Thankfully failure and reloading is instant, and the game focuses on cooperation and a fun series of trial and error.
Divinity: Original Sin 2
Developer: Larian Studios Platforms: PC Release: 2017 (Currently Available via Steam Early Access)
Divinity: Original Sin was my favorite game of 2014. The sequel is shaping up to be better in every way. The most impressive addition is that Larian has managed to double down on both single and multiplayer, including four player co-op within a massive turn-based tactical RPG. PAX South showcased the new PvP Arena Mode, which takes all the best elements of the excellent battle system. Multiple arenas were available with a bevy of delicious environmental hazards that you can manipulate using a wide variety of elemental skills and spells.
Divinity has been in Early Access since late last year to help generate feedback, bug fixes, and additional content. Recently a new “AI 2.0” update has been added. Now enemies will use their surroundings to gain every advantage against you. As a huge fan of tactical RPGs, Divinity: Original Sin 2 is easily one of my most anticipated games of the year.
Developer: HoloSpark Platforms: Steam PC, PS4, XBO Release: Early 2017 (Launching on Steam Early Access first)
I loved the Left 4 Dead games, but in recent years purely cooperative games have been sadly ignored (and Evolve mostly crashed and burned). HoloSpark aims to pick up the co-op torch and run with it in their four player first-person shooter Earthfall.
Claiming that Earthfall is Left 4 Dead with aliens is a compliment, but it also feels like a natural evolution of the co-op shooter. Up to four friends complete objectives while surviving against waves of flesh-hungry aliens. You’re given more options than just “make it from point A to point B”, like a 3D printer you can use to make weapons, as well as turrets and barricades to help form a solid defensive perimeter. Earthfall brought back all the fun memories I had playing Left 4 Dead with friends, and I can’t wait to help defend against the alien invasion.
Developer: Northstar Games Platforms: PC, Mobile Release: 2018 (Kickstarter coming in Summer 2017)
Board games have become a huge business among the geek crowd, and with the proliferation of mobile devices many make a perfect fit for digital versions. Northstar Games’ Evolution is the latest to receive the digital treatment. Despite being still being a year away, Evolution was fully playable on PC and mobile devices at PAX South, and a lot of fun.
Evolution is a 2-6 player game where each player creates a series of creatures using multiple traits. Keeping your creatures well-fed earns victory points, but you have to manage your cards between making new creatures, increasing their numbers, or adding new traits like Carnivore and Burrowing to give them the edge they need. The digital version will play up to four, and displays everything on a lovely board with the watering hold in the middle, and cards are displayed on the bottom Hearthstone-style. You can easily drag and drop to make the choices you need.
Northstar Games will be launching a Kickstarter to help create the game and add multiplayer support. Look for the Kickstarter this Summer, and the full release next year.
First Impact: Rise of a Hero
Developer: Red Meat Games Platforms: Steam PC, HTC Vive Release: February 3, 2017
VR games have a reputation of being more tech demos than full-fledged games. But First Impact: Rise of a Hero felt like an actual game. You’re a superhero wielding the powers of the four elements in a mini open-world island with its own city. Each power can be used in three different ways, from projectiles to shields and movement. Earth+Shield produces a giant wall of stone, while air+movement gives you flight.
Flying around a city shooting fireballs in virtual reality is crazy fun. The art style feels like a classic silver age comic book, and you’ll be given missions and tasks to help defend your citizens against newly powered enemies. Becoming a superhero has always been a childhood fantasy and First Impact takes the first steps towards living it out.
Developer: Jason Roberts Platforms: iOS, Steam PC Release: Spring 2017
Gorogoa wins my personal “you have to play this game” award at PAX South. Everyone I talked to I had to mention this game. I could barely even explain it properly; you had to play it to properly experience its unique and beautiful take on environmental puzzles.
The striking hand-drawn art style immediately pulled me in. The screen includes four quadrants where you drag and drop different paintings. Most pictures let you zoom in and out, changing what you see and letting you manipulate objects. Sometimes you can combine pictures in clever ways, like dragging a doorway onto a brick wall to create a new opening. The silent world teased an emotional story as you lead a young boy on a journey through the pictures. Gorogoa was one of the single biggest surprises of the entire convention.
I enjoyed Hand of Fate and with its rogue-like Action-RPG infused with tarot cards and games of chance. Hand of Fate 2 is very much a sequel, improving on everything that worked and adding more content to fit its card-based world.
The Dealer is back from his near death experience and sets out to train a new pupil. The sequel keeps the timed action combat most famously used in the Batman Arkham series while alleviating some frustrations from the first game. A big help is an AI ally who helps keep the often large number of foes manageable. The randomized chance mechanics have also been greatly improved, and now include new mini-games like rolling dice in addition to choosing cards.
Developer: Frozenbyte Platforms: Steam PC, PS4, XBO, Nintendo Switch Release: March 28, 2017
Has-Been Heroes was briefly teased during the Nintendo Switch Presentation, and at PAX South I got my hands on it. It’s a rogue-like strategy-RPG where your veteran heroes have to escort the young princesses to school. You control three heroes who each occupy a separate lane while enemies creep toward you, similar to Plants vs Zombies. Combat is designed to let you pause frequently to set up attacks and spell combinations.
It’s a unique combination of side-scrolling tower defense and action-RPG that requires you to learn a rhythm of timing your attacks and chaining spell effects together – like drenching foes in water before shocking them with lightning. Randomized map layouts, spells, and items ensure a plethora of replayability. I wanted to play a lot more of this game, and that’s always a good sign.
Developer: Daylight Studios Platforms: PC, Mac, Linux Release: February 14, 2017
With a crew of veggie-people and a name like Holy Potatoes! We’re in Space, you know you’re in for a silly adventure. But there’s a great-looking sim management and spaceship combat game here as well. You’ll need to hire engineers, researchers, and a pilot to command your massive starship. Building new facilities and weapons is simple and fun, yet there’s also a lot of tactical options in deciding which weapons to mount where and who will fire them. A procedurally generated universe should bring a hefty does of depth to the bright, cheery art.
It would be presumptuous to call this the next FTL, but fans of that indie rogue-like spaceship adventure should definitely take a look.
Developer: Nexon America Platforms: Steam PC Release: 2017
I initially rolled my eyes at the goofy art style and MOBA gameplay, but then I sat down to play Hyper Universe. I’m now prepared to declare it one of my favorite games of PAX South.
Hyper Universe is a 2D, side-scrolling MOBA. This creates an interesting combination of 2D platformer with classic MOBA gameplay. You choose from a colorful cast of characters ripped straight out of sci-fi and popular culture. In the demo I played as a squid captain, clearly a take on Davy Jones from Pirates of the Caribbean.
Hyper Universe uses all the familiar mechanics of a MOBA, from farmable NPCs to multiple lanes and towers, but the 2D format really makes it unique, and creates an interesting arcade-like experience. It’s deliciously chaotic and colorful during massive team fights. Hyper Universe has been in beta in Korea since last year, and is hitting the U.S. for beta testing soon.
The Inner World
Developer: Headup Games Platforms: Mobile, PC (previously released), PS4, XBO Release: 2017
If you think the only kind of adventure games still being made are from Telltale, you need to pay attention to what’s coming out of Germany. Headup Games previously released their classic point and click adventure The Inner World on PC and mobile devices. At PAX South they showed off the new controller support as The Inner World heads for consoles.
The hand-drawn, cartoon graphics make The Inner World very accessible for all ages, and I couldn’t help but smile through the dialogue and descriptions in the opening area. Using a controller for an inventory-based adventure game takes some getting used to, but getting a chance to play this charming adventure is well worth it.
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild
Developer: Nintendo Platforms: Nintendo Switch, Wii U Release: March 3, 2017
It’s Zelda. You want it. I want it. We all want it. I got to play about 15 minutes of the press demo at PAX South and it only confirmed my beliefs that The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild was really something special.
I’ve been lax with my 3D Zeldas. I never finished Twilight Princess and didn’t even play Skyward Sword. But Breath of the Wild is an astonishing leap forward. It’s a gigantic open world full of reactive enemies, dynamic weather, and a fully integrated crafting system. Zelda purists may actually balk at some of these changes but most of us will see them as long-awaited improvements. Breath of the Wild is set to completely redefine what it means to be an open-world game.
Developer: Daedalic Studio West Platforms: Steam PC, PS4, XBO Release: 2017
The Long Journey Home is a space exploration adventure that aims for a slightly more serious take than the other Daedalic published space game, Holy Potatoes. Your crew of four is stranded far from Earth, and will need to use their skills and the tactical choices you make to get back home.
Starting a new game generates a new galaxy to explore, filled with aliens that range from trade-happy to aggressively hostile. You’re given complete freedom on where to go and what to do. You can find and interact with aliens, harvest resources from planets, and make new discoveries. There’s a hefty dose of realistic space physics I saw first hand, like sling-shotting around planets and melting from radiation if you fly too close to a star. In a post-No Man’s Sky world, The Long Journey Home looks like a much more manageable and engaging space-based adventure.
Mages of Mystralia
Developer: Borealys Games Platforms: PC Release: 2017
On the surface Mages of Mystralia looks like a nice indie Zelda clone. But there’s an incredibly cool spell-crafting system that lets you modify every spell at your disposal into near infinite combinations.
Zia is a young mage just learning to use her newfound powers. Instead of gaining weapons and items to defeat enemies and solve puzzles, you’ll be given spells. Not just spells – runes to modify each spell.
Each of your four spell slots can be equipped with multiple runes that change the nature of the spell. Attaching an arrow to fire lets you shoot firebolts. Eventually you can attach several runes to create some crazy cool powers. One example I saw was dashing forward, leaving behind a decoy that then rotated around and fired fireballs at an angle. You’ll need to manage your mana levels and you’ll gain more advanced runes as you go. With a story written by Ed Greenwood (of D&D fame), Mages of Mystralia is looking like a must-buy indie title.
MetaArcade Adventures Platform
Developer: MetaArcade Platforms: Mobile, PC, Mac Release: 2017
If you’re too young to remember the old black and white Tunnels & Trolls role-playing books from the 70s and 80s you should still recall the Choose Your Own Adventure books. These stories allowed you to create your own personal role-playing story, crafted by the choices you make on each page. MetaArcade’s new Adventure Creator recreates this system, giving the tools to craft these user-friendly RPG adventures directly into players’ hands.
MetaArcade acquired the Tunnels & Trolls license, allowing them to produce the over 30 published adventures. In addition to creating these adventures, the release of the Adventure Creator will allow anyone to make their own text-based dungeon-crawling adventures. At PAX South I helped create a classroom section that rewarded the player based on three different choices. I look forward to what great story-tellers can do given this nifty tool.
Snipperclips: Cut It Out, Together!
Developer: Nintendo Platforms: Nintendo Switch Release: March 2017
I was hugely impressed with Nintendo’s little cooperative puzzle game Snipperclips. Snipperclips was designed for two player local cooperative play using the two halves of the Joy-Con.
Within the cute paper world, the two paper characters could rotate their bodies and snip each other to fit shapes and solve puzzles. Puzzles were open-ended and could be solved in multiple ways, such as creating certain shapes to push buttons and move objects. The art style and design is very kid-friendly. Snipperclips will be a very nice addition to the Nintendo Switch’s near-launch lineup.
Developer: Nintendo Platforms: Nintendo Switch Release: Summer 2017
Splatoon 2 played just like you’d expect – exactly like the first game. Two teams of four square off in third-person shooting mayhem. Your goal is to paint more of the map in your team’s colors, and you can choose from a variety of weapon types and special abilities.
The PAX South demo just showed the standard PvP mode, which didn’t have much new to offer. A new jetpack ultimate ability boosted you in the air where you could rain down rocket blasts of paint at foes. A whirlwind attack let you blast a large area right around you. If you loved Splatoon or missed out on the first one, the sequel will definitely deliver more of that paint-shooting goodness.
Developer: Trion Worlds Platforms: PC, PS4, XBO (currently in open beta) Release: 2017
Trove is a voxel-powered MMORPG, which is fancy for “it’s like Minecraft.” Trove feels like much more of a structured game, however, with a variety of character classes you can switch to on the fly. It’s an easy game to jump into and far more action-packed than Minecraft. You can still build and construct worlds, but the goal will be to jump in and go on quests and battle monsters with friends. Each server can host up to 60 people, and you don’t even need to be in a group to share experience and loot with people around you.
Trove is currently in open beta and being crafted as a free-to-play title, with player-created items, mounts, costumes, and entire zones to explore and adventure in together.
A new sub-genre of adventure games called First-Person Narrative Adventures are becoming more popular, with Gone Home being the biggest example and a champion of the genre. What Remains of Edith Finch is told in a similar vein. Edith returns to her creepy yet wondrous childhood home, where all her relatives have died. Their rooms have been sealed up but Edith finds ways inside, and relives their last moments.
That may sound like a horror game but What Remains of Edith Finch is actually much more introspective and emotional. You experience the hopes and dreams of your past relatives, and even shift to entirely new perspectives. When I explored Molly’s past, a girl that died in the 1940’s, I searched for food, eventually climbing outside and morphing into different animals as I hunted prey.
Your goal is to complete each section of the family tree and explore your home and your past. For fans of this relatively new and interesting genre, What Remains of Edith Finch looks like a definite winner.
Developer: HoloSpark Platforms: Steam PC, PS4, XBO Release: Early 2017 (Steam Early Access)
PAX South 2017 featured gigantic alien statues beckoning newcomers to check out HoloSpark’s upcoming cooperative first-person shooter Earthfall. Earthfall draws heavily from Valve’s Left 4 Dead series, and aims to fill the co-op void left behind after Left 4 Dead 2 released back in 2009.
“I’ve been banging on my buddy at Valve for two years to make Left 4 Dead 3!” laughs Russell Williams, CEO of HoloSpark. “I love PvE. It’s much less stressful to play as the heroes where you’re not getting shot in the head half the time.”
Earthfall’s gameplay is immediately familiar to anyone who has played Left 4 Dead. You choose one of five survivors of a near-future alien invasion and start with only a pistol. You and up to three friends (or AI) journey across the alien-ravaged Northwest and find new weapons and seek out objectives while monstrous aliens continually harass you. Earthfall uses a more advanced version of the AI director that Left 4 Dead famously employed to keep the action varied and unpredictable in each mission.
Like Left 4 Dead the action will be broken up into multiple campaigns, and each campaign will include several maps with a variety of objectives. Aliens feature simple grunts as well as advanced units that force you to change tactics, such as volatile exploding aliens, stealthy hunters, and a massive tank-like creature that takes all four survivors to take down.
Earthfall will also feature its own additions to the genre, such as placeable defenses. Players can find automated turrets (like in the film Aliens), as well as mechanical barricades to bar doorways, allowing only the survivors to pass but blocking aliens (for a time at least). You’ll also find and power 3D printers that you can use to create weapons.
Levels will range from standard “go from point A to point B” to completing objectives in a specific area. In the PAX demo I played, we had to repair and refuel a van to get the hell out of dodge. This included finding tires in a nearby junkyard and pushing the van into the garage. Meanwhile the aliens never stopped pouring in, and we foolishly got caught outside during a massive wave.
Williams teased out a deeper story than this genre usually portrays. “If these aliens are able to travel between the stars, why are they running at you to eat you? There’s a reason for that. Every campaign you will learn a new piece of information.” The story in Left 4 Dead was mostly left to notes on the walls of your safe house, so I’m pleased to hear about a stronger focus on the story telling.
When asked about any PvP components, Williams remained realistic on his team’s goals. “We’re a relatively small team on an aggressive timeline. We really want to nail this experience and make it great, then we can build on that.” He teased the story again, which should make PvP easier to integrate in their future plans.
Williams was clearly passionate about what he hopes to be a new co-op franchise. “Eventually when we do Earthfall 2, we look at Alien versus Aliens. Now we’ve got rifles and we’re marines, but now there’s a million of them! But right now our goal is to make this a great game.”
Earthfall is coming Early 2017 to Steam Early Access.
Nintendo was in full force at PAX South last weekend. A large, permanently crowded booth stood near the front of the show floor. You could wait in line for hours to play half a dozen titles for the newly announced Nintendo Switch. The marquee title, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, had its own roped off section within the booth area. That was a separate line that filled up instantly, creating a three hour wait to play the 20 minute demo throughout the weekend.
Thankfully I got a chance to meet privately with Nintendo and get some quality time with the Switch.
The first thing that hit me upon seeing the Switch for the first time was the tiny size of the detachable Joy-Con controllers. They slide right off the handheld screen and fit in the palm of your hand as you wrap your fingers around. The wrist strap easily slides onto each half. Depending on the game you can hold one half like a super tiny controller with both hands, or grip each in one hand.
The motion control felt like a huge step up from the Wiimote. It still creates the gimmicky toy feel of the Wii, but motion control games like 1, 2, Switch and Arms felt fine-tuned, precise and intuitive. That feeling of bubbles or tiny balls within the Joy-Con uses accelerometer and gyrometer technology to track precise movement, and it worked really well in everything we tried.
The two halves of the Joy-Con can attach to the handheld screen to create the portable mode of the Nintendo Switch. It looked and felt similar to the Wii U gamepad, but more smooth and far less bulky. The buttons all felt responsive and everything was in the place you’d expect. I was also really impressed with the seamless transition from pulling the handheld screen out of the dock and vice-versa. Instant switch from portable to home console.
For a more traditional controller experience the Pro controller was up to speed. It felt decently weighty and more substantial than the Wii and Wii U’s equivalent Pro controller. For serious gaming while the Switch is docked, the Pro controller definitely felt like the preferred way to play. Unfortunately it’s sold separately.
With any console it all comes down to the games. Here are the games I played for the Nintendo Switch at PAX South.
1, 2, Switch
1, 2, Switch is very much the Wii Sports of the Nintendo Switch. It’s a large collection of mini-games designed to show off the Switch’s impressive motion controls. It will also serve as a big draw for party games. Like the Wii, it could serve as a major incentive for folks that aren’t necessarily big on video games.
I tried a number of games that used the two halves of the Joy-Con for one-on-one competition. Most games could be played without even looking at the screen, and instead looking at your opponent. You could play as dueling gunslingers trying to shoot each other by being the first to raise your Joy-Con, or try to catch each other’s samurai swords with your hands as your opponent swung their Joy-Con downward. There was even an awkward milking game as you both used your controllers to quickly milk a cow.
Each game was designed to play in just a few seconds and played a short, funny video with real actors showing how to do it. The whole experience was very much designed for groups of people to take turns. I was shocked to learn that 1, 2, Switch is not going to be a pack-in title like Wii Sports was in the U.S. Even more shocked to learn the price tag – $50!
1, 2, Switch will be available at launch on March 3.
Snipperclips: Cut It Out, Together!
Of all the Switch games I saw Snipperclips was the most delightfully surprising. It’s a cooperative puzzle game designed for two players to play locally, each with one half of the Joy-Con. Each person controls one of the cute animated paper figures in a world made out of graph paper and doodles. Each figure can jump and rotate their bodies.
Their signature ability is to cut each other. That sounds like anything but cute, but it’s incredibly endearing thanks to their adorable animations. You cut shapes out of each other to try and solve puzzles, like pushing buttons or getting a basketball into a hoop. There are multiple ways to solve each puzzle. The design reminded me a lot of Scribblenauts with the cute paper world and free-form puzzle solving.
Snipperclips will be a $19.99 downloadable title. This is could be a big hit for the Switch, and do an excellent job of offering a unique cooperative experience. It’s not quite a launch title but will release later in March.
At first glance Arms looks like another gimmicky motion control game. While it does use the motion control of the Joy-Con, Arms is a much deeper fighting game than I was expecting. In Arms you play as a fighter with extendable arms, powered entirely by the motion of your actual hands and arms while holding the Joy-Con. We played in split-screen on TV Mode and each player needs to have both halves of the Joy-Con in each hand to control your two separate arms.
Like traditional fighting games, Arms has multiple fighters, arenas, and even a variety of arm types. Fighting is balanced on the holy triangle of attack-grab-block. Performing each move requires a simple flick of your wrist. “There’s no complex button controls, everything you need is right here,” said J.C. Rodrigo, Manager of Product Marketing for Nintendo Treehouse. Your fighters can also block and dash around the arenas. One arena we fought in was like a mad scientist’s laboratory. You could hide behind vats of liquid or destroy them.
Motion controls for a fighting game definitely presented a learning curve. Once I found a decent rhythm I could see the fun potential. Time will tell if the game’s depth will win over fighting game fans, or if the motion controls will seem too bizarre.
Arms is due out in the first half of 2017.
Super Bomberman R
Bomberman was easily the most disappointing title I played for the Switch. The last Bomberman game I played was on the Nintendo 64, and it didn’t look like much had changed in the last 20 years. The game played in a single top-down arena as four players (me against 3 AI bots) dropped bombs in a destructible environment. Chaos ensues as you try to explode your rivals while watching out for enemy (and your own) bombs.
It felt very simple and archaic, but the full game boasts dozens of levels, and both cooperative and competitive play. It will release alongside the Nintendo Switch on March 3 for a ridiculous price tag of $49.99.
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild
“Did you ever play the first Zelda? The very first one?” said Rodrigo. “This game is more akin to that.” So began my all-too-short experience with The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. A special 20 minute demo was designed for press and fan previews. It starts Link off in a small temple. Upon exiting you’re treated to a massive vista that shows the scope and gorgeous level design of the world. I even got fed the classic Bethesda line: “If you see it, you can go there.”
The classic third person action-adventure gameplay felt perfect, but more impressive was how much that familiar gameplay is being pushed forward in this new entry. There’s a full-blown crafting and cooking system as you gather ingredients. There’s loot that feels more like a Diablo-esque ARPG, and you can easily switch weapons on the fly with the D-pad. You’ll need to switch weapons as they’ll break after enough uses. Enemies can be disarmed – and can disarm you. The real physics in the game, from lightning striking your metal armor from the dynamic weather system, to chopping down a tree and rolling it down a hill to trample foes was astonishing.
It’s entirely possible that Breath of the Wild could very well redefine what it means to be an open world game. The term has been over-saturated ever since Bethesda ran away with it with Elder Scrolls and Fallout. As my friendly Nintendo reps pointed out, Zelda was really the progenitor of the whole genre.
I asked about the differences between the Wii U and Switch versions. The Wii U will require a portion of the game to be installed on the system, about three GB. Sound quality, mostly ambient, will be slightly inferior on the Wii U. Finally the total resolution in TV mode will be slightly lower for the Wii U (Normal resolution is 720p on handheld, 1080p when docked for TV). Content and graphics will be exactly the same.
The main selling point for the Switch over the Wii U will be in portability. If you want to play Zelda on the go, you need the Switch.
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild launches for both systems on March 3.
Splatoon 2 wasn’t available in the private press meeting but I got a chance to play it later on the show floor. I got to to play two matches, and I made sure to try out the new dual gun and jetpack setup.
The gameplay was exactly like the first Splatoon. Two teams of four are dropped onto a map. In the demo each player could choose one of four weapons with the goal of painting more of the map with their color. You can swim through your color paint to reload your paint gun and avoid enemy fire. Getting knocked out caused you to respawn at the entrance for a few seconds.
It felt just like Splatoon in all the right ways. I played on the Pro controller and motion control was on by default. That sounds horrifying (and it was at first) but the Switch is vastly improved with motion controls.
There wasn’t much new compared to the first game and Nintendo seems to be approaching this from a “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” angle. I suspect that enough people missed out on the Wii U that many titles for the Switch will simply by relaunches of Wii U games (see also: Mario Kart 8 Deluxe). Splatoon 2 very much feels like that. On the other hand Splatoon was a darn fine game.