Even though very few people talked about it, the single most impressive thing about E3 this year (in my book, anyway) wasn't the new hardware or the hundred upcoming sequels that were announced; rather, it was the way Sony has quietly revitalized the Vita. ("You can't spell 'revitalize' without 'Vita'!" -- a marketing tagline I hope they never use.) The system has gone from dead on arrival to genuinely compelling, and the secret isn't a raftload of big-budget AAA-wannabe releases from major studios. Instead, the Vita has become the ultimate portable indie game showcase, every nerd's mobile counterpart to Steam.
It works. A game like Floating Cloud God Saves the Pilgrims in HD! fits the platform much better than Killzone: Mercenary -- no offense to Guerilla Cambridge, of course. But there's a not-so-fine line between console and portable systems, and for most of the years that Sony's been in the portable space its platforms seem to attract studios who think simply downsizing their console titles and adding some awkward gimmick features (I'm looking at you, back-touch.) makes an awesome portable game. This year, Vita at E3 was all about the little guy, and the platform was infinitely better for it.
And, it turns out, the little guy wants to make really challenging software that calls back to the glory days of 8- and 16-bit gaming. For years, I've been worrying about the industry's polarization between HD games from huge studios and two-bit mobile games, with only a handful of Japanese developers holding down the middle ground on Nintendo's platforms -- a middle ground whose games seem to be localized ever more infrequently by third parties averse to take a chance after getting burned by market bloat and piracy on DS.
So Vita seemed like a godsend at E3. Here we have a handful of intriguing mid-tier games from Japan (Muramasa Rebirth, Ys: Memories of Celcetta), a couple of releases from fairly high-profile studios (the aforementioned Killzone, which looks pretty cool despite my trepidation about it, and Media Molecule's wonderful Tearaway), and a ridiculous number of small-scale but immensely playable indie games from both home and abroad. For us old-timers who need to leaven their forced diet of first-person shooters and QTE-driven third-person action games with reminders of a simpler bygone era, Vita's indie lineup made for a welcome sight.
Of course, a lot of these games also appear on PS3, PS4, Wii U, and even to a lesser degree the Xbox family, but they seem somehow most at home here. Maybe it's the screen. Lower budgets make for games that don't necessarily scale well to 60" flat screens... but a 5" OLED? Just perfect.
I didn't get to sample as many of the Vita's offerings as I'd have liked to -- those damnable E3 lines -- but two of the games I spent time with really scratched an itch for me. And they were hard. Crazy hard.
You probably know Spelunky by now. Originally released for free on PC, Derek Yu's addictive blend of roguelike RPG and classic platformer Spelunker came out in a fancied-up form last year for Xbox 360. The Vita version is based on that updated rendition, with lush hand-drawn graphics replacing the original 8-bit visuals.
Great as Spelunky has been in its previous incarnations, it's always begged for a portable rendition. Death comes quickly in Spelunky, a game of instant, permanent failure in unpredictable procedural worlds. A strong run can go south in a matter of seconds, and in my experience a Spelunky session usually lasts about five to 10 minutes. That's exactly the kind of game that portable systems excel at (well... that and, curiously enough, incredibly slow and expansive role-playing games).
Nothing about Spelunky seems to have been toned down or removed for its Vita version. I played for a few minutes, jumping in from someone else's session in progress, just in time for that huge ghost to start chasing me across the screen. I managed to reach the exit before the ghost reached me, but I died a few seconds into the following stage when I got a little cocky and jumped from too great a height to survive the fall. In my next session, I found my hero's health slowly whittled away by spiders, dart traps, and other hazards, ultimately falling to a humble snake, of all things.
In short, it's Spelunky, and it's fantastically evil.
Originally launched as an Xbox indie game called Aban Hawkins & the 1000 Spikes, the ever-so-slightly spikier 1001 Spikes will, I'm told by Tyrone Rodriguez of publisher Nicalis, make the original look "like a prototype by the time we're done." Where the original version was the work of one man, the possibly sadistic Samu Osada, 1001 Spikes marks a more collaborative approach between Nicalis and Osada. However, the team approach hasn't toned down its deliberate cruelty.
The E3 show floor demo offered players a crack at the first 10 stages of the game, but it also imposed a 15-minute time limit on the action. By the time I checked out the demo kiosk, at the end of E3's second day, no one had yet made it to the end of stage 10. "We've had some people come close," programmer Jeremy Stevens told me, "even some coming back to try again. But no one's reached the end."
Me? I didn't even get within spitting distance. I made it one block from the end of stage six before being struck by a poison dart in the back of the head, which meant I barely even cleared the game's prologue. By that point I was down about 20 lives of my stock of 1001. I have no idea how much of the overall game was left; Nicalis' folks would only tell me, "There are a lot of stages."
So here's how 1001 Spikes works: You're a little explorer who can run, jump to two different heights, shoot a weak pistol, and push blocks. You apply these skills to a series of platform-based puzzles in which every action (and every inaction) can be absolutely deadly. The greatest hazard comes from the eponymous spikes; some of them sit in the open, plain as day, but for the most part they're hidden in blocks. Some pop up on a regular cycle, while others only spring forward once the hapless protagonist stands in range. Spikes can appear from seemingly anywhere, and what makes them particularly deadly is the way they're placed to surprise you while you're worrying about other dangers. You may pause in a seemingly safe spot in order to wait for a timed spike trap to run through its cycle, only to find -- bam! -- you were outsmarted by the designer, who put a spring spike trap in that block because he knew you'd use it to stage a jump.
There's a sort of cat-and-mouse interplay between the player and designer in 1001 Spikes. It's clearly the work of someone who has spent ample time watching how people approach his puzzles, then taken notes to kill them most efficiently. It's really quite a remarkable piece of work. Most of the time, beta testing smooths over the rough patches, but in the case of 1001 Spikes I feel like testing has been used to more effectively rough up the smooth patches... not to mention the player, too.
And that's really just the tip of Vita's indie iceberg. I've never been so eager to die (over and over again) before.