This Week in Games - Birthdays the Beginning

by Dustin Bailey,

I mentioned last week that I'd begun setting up a Windows 98 PC for old games, and the project's pretty much done at this point. I'm still shifting parts around and messing with various drivers, but that screamin' Pentium III 500MHz is doing its job and I've got a fresh classic gaming station. One of my areas of interest is early Maxis titles—SimCity, SimAnt, et cetera—and in an oddly timely coincidence, I spent a fair bit of time playing with SimEarth this week.

SimEarth fits well in the “software toy” category that Maxis created for their early titles, less game and more interactive sandbox. This one presents you with a planet fresh off the creation of the universe and gives you controls over various aspects of the environment, letting you alter the conditions of the atmosphere, surface temperature, and lots of other nitty gritty science stuff. The “goal,” such as it is, has you creating conditions conducive to life and guiding some species or other to sentience and global domination. It's a little like the much later Spore in subject matter, but not execution—where Spore ended up being about taking direct control of a species through various minigames based on the development of their civilization, SimEarth is all about controlling the parameters of the environment to let autonomous bits of life develop there.

In the most unlikely of coincidences, a brand-new game with a very similar concept is out this week, and it's a strange combination of ideas, style, and creative talent that seems custom-engineered to directly speak to my specific interests. Right down to the dinosaurs.

First Impressions - Birthdays the Beginning

When I found out that Harvest Moon creator Yasuhiro Wada was making a new game, I was interested. When I found out it was a god game exploring the origins of life, I was intrigued. When I saw the adorable little dinosaurs that permeated the game's aesthetic, it was all over—throw in the towel, a game has been made explicitly to cater to each and every one of my particular interests.

Birthdays has you maintaining a cube-shaped planet as you would a virtual aquarium, shaping the world and conditions of the environment in a way that's conducive to life. You start out with a barren rock, and have to carve the oceans from which emerges that primordial ooze that gives birth to existence. Then, through eons, you're constantly reshaping that bit of ground to encourage the evolution of new creatures, from deep seas housing ancient coelacanths to the first ground-walking amphibians. Rearrange the earth into steamy jungles to bring about the age of dinosaurs, then freeze it all down to kill off the lizard kings and facilitate the rise of mammals.

There's a framing story that sees you—as a young child—happening upon the world cube inside a mysterious cave, and controlling a superhero avatar to reshape the land. Your little sentai dude functions mostly as a cursor, flying around the cube and choosing points to raise or lower the terrain. Adjusting the altitude of individual tiles is pretty much the only control you have, but it affects every aspect of the planet. Building high peaks will cool the surface temperature, while digging out deep valleys and allowing the oceans to fill will warm the planet, offering a variety of options to encourage evolutionary development. Things like moisture and temperature are localized to specific points on the map—humid oceanside jungles and dry, flat deserts—but also factor into a few universal stats for the map.

Time stands still while you're carving out your planet cube, and limited HP ensures you can only make so many changes at a time. Limited items let you restore energy and make a few unique changes to the environment, but eventually you'll have to leave the micro-level view and pass time through the macro lens, where the eons can pass, your vitality will restore, and life will gradually start to populate according to the changes you've made.

It's essentially a gardening game—dig a few holes with an understanding of what the things you're trying to keep alive need, then sit back and wait to see if you've made the right choices in putting things together. Your goals are bringing to life specific species from a massive tree of life, and the whole endeavor is pretty reminiscent of Rare's (criminally overlooked) Viva Piñata, since both have you learning what certain creatures want, then reshaping your garden to bring them into the fold.

That process is simple but entrancing, and while the hard division between the creation of micro mode and the development of macro mode makes it all feel a bit limited and regimented, that cycle also keeps you in a constant cycle of experimentation and observation. Double-check what the creature you're trying to evolve needs, then adjust the landscape, drop some items, and see what happens. If it appears, move onto the next animal in the tree—if not, repeat the process. The HP limitations initially feel like an arbitrary means to keep you from fully developing the land as you want, but by forcing you to constantly shift between modes the game ensures that you never leave the cycle that makes it entertaining.

The cycle of development, though, is pretty much all Birthdays offers. After about four hours I'm nearly done with the central story—which takes you from geological zero to the birth of human civilization—and beyond that it's challenge missions and free play mode, all of which are about the same thing: making some specific creatures evolve. No cuboid-earth-shattering changes to your capabilities seem to be on the horizon, and a certain sense of “oh, that's it?” has begun creeping in as I approach the genesis of humanity.

Birthdays may be a bit pricey for the simple toy that it is, but for its simplicity it's still managed to drive some hooks in me. If the zen of recreating all of biological history sounds appealing, then this little garden is well worth tending—at least, if you're a nerd for bio-sims and cute dinosaurs.

NEWS

PEOPLE REALLY LIKE THAT MARIO KART 8

Last week's column was all about the kart-racing delight that is Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, and it seems I'm not the only one to be enamored by it. The game sold nearly a half-million copies on launch day alone, and that's a serious number for a new game on a console that's only been out for a couple of months. Nintendo's calling this the “fastest-selling” Mario Kart ever, just beating out the Wii edition of the game—which, incidentally, came out nearly three years the console's launch when nearly everyone had managed to find the system.

It's “the” post-launch game for the system so its success was (to some degree) assured, but the continued enthusiasm people have for the Switch is pretty incredible. It might not be the runaway mainstream that the Wii was, but it seems people are actually interested in buying games for the platform, which puts it a step ahead of Nintendo's biggest-seller in terms of sustainability. The success of MK8, in particular, is also a reminder of the massive gap in the immediate success of the Switch and the Wii U.

THERE'S A NEW DYNASTY WARRIORS ON THE HORIZON

To no one's great surprise, Koei Tecmo announced a new Dynasty Warriors game. But while the march of further Musou is inevitable, this one actually seems to be making some serious strides toward the new. According to the Famitsu reveal, this will be the first open-world game in the series, putting each of the Three Kingdoms of China on a massive, single map.

Everything progresses along with the flow of history, with main missions pushing the timeline forward, and sub-missions offering a way to ease the difficulty of the larger battles. The areas promise to be open enough to allow you to circumvent castles and fortresses thanks to whatever terrain features you can take advantage of. It'll be awhile before we see how this pans out, but it's certainly an interesting direction for the series to take.

BIG VIDEO GAMES COME TO PC

Despite (sadly, finally) abandoning that gorgeous 2D art the series is known for, people seem to like that King of Fighters XIV. People also seem to like playing games on PC, and in a glorious marriage of things people like, KOF14 will be hitting Steam soon. Preorders and a closed beta will be hitting this month, so by “soon” I definitely do mean “soon.”

But that's not all! The teased Vanquish port was also officially announced, and will be hitting Steam on May 25th. The trailer promises “unlocked resolution,” “unlocked framerate,” and “unlocked adrenaline,” so they certainly seem to know what's up, and based on the excellence of the recent Bayonetta port this is likely to be the definitive version of the game. I never got the chance to play Vanquish, so I'm looking forward to rectifying that here.

NEXT WEEK'S RELEASES

AKIBA'S BEAT
Developer: Acquire
Publisher: XSEED
Platform: PlayStation 4 / PlayStation Vita
Release Date: May 16
MSRP: $49.99 / $39.99

Akiba's Trip: Undead & Undressed was perhaps best known for its theoretically-titillating-but-actually-not stripping-based combat, but its sequel—this week's Akiba's Beat—completely reworks things into a more traditional action-RPG. It's still set in the streets of Akihabara, but this time you're set to delve into the dungeon-like “delusions” of the district's inhabitants.

HAKUOKI: KYOTO WINDS
Developer: Otomate
Publisher: Idea Factory
Platform: PlayStation Vita
Release Date: May 16
MSRP: $39.99

Hakuoki is a prolific series of visual novels that have seen occasional release in the West, and focus on a young woman meeting a host of eligible samurai bachelors in mid-1800s Japan. I am poorly equipped to intelligently discuss an otome game, but I can certainly tell you that this is a remake of the first entry in the series, complete with new episodes and character routes.

INJUSTICE 2
Developer: NetherRealm
Publisher: Warner Bros.
Platform: PlayStation 4 / Xbox One
Release Date: May 16
MSRP: $59.99

The Mortal Kombat makers aren't going to let a host of bad movies stop them from stepping back in the DC universe, and Injustice 2 once again sees the heroes and villains of the world go at it. This sequel refocuses the roster on some of the more obscure characters in the canon—from Atrocitus to Captain Cold—but screw all that noise because Gorilla Grodd is in this game and that's just the best.

OPERATION BABEL: NEW TOKYO LEGACY
Developer: MAGES / 5pb / Experience
Publisher: NIS America
Platform: PlayStation Vita / PC
Release Date: May 16
MSRP: $39.99

Much like its predecessor, Operation Abyss, Operation Babel: New Tokyo Legacy is a dungeon-crawling RPG set in a futuristic Tokyo. A new character customization system promises unique options for hybrid classes, item-based abilities and skills offer further choice, and there's a new story with new dungeons to delve into.

THE SURGE
Developer: Deck13 Interactive
Publisher: Focus Home Interactive
Platform: PlayStation 4 / Xbox One / PC
Release Date: May 16
MSRP: $59.99

After a pretty solid fantasy Souls-like in Lords of the Fallen, Deck13 is taking things to the future for the Surge. It's built on that familiar style of of hard-hitting, tough melee combat, but character development is a bit different thanks to the presence of cybernetics, allowing you to mix and match components to customize your character's abilities through individual bits of gear.

ALSO AVAILABLE:
The overwhelming and acclaimed rhythm-action game Thumper comes to Switch this week, and the developers are saying all the right things about the port. Also, there's a new confectionery-themed Cooking Mama, and I assure you that they've continued to make new games in that series for the past decade.


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