Wizorb, an independently made arcade-style block breaker with light RPG elements, has the lowest aggregate review score of any of the games in my top 25 most played Steam games by almost 20%. Critics accuse the unassuming $3 title of failing to innovate on the block breaker formula, but more heinously (in the realm of video games), they accuse it of being boring.
Now, if Wizorb is indeed a boring, stale offering, it is very curious that it has held my attention for over thirty hours. So what do I see in this game that others are glad to overlook? I see nothing more and nothing less than a prime example of the format of game design and distribution that I would love to see sweep across the entire industry.
Before I get to the bigger picture, I would like to briefly respond to those criticisms of Wizorb. To the reports of boredom, as much as I would like to dismiss them outright because they appear primarily in Steam reviews by people who had played the game for barely an hour, I do think that Wizorb is inviting these criticisms in a seemingly innocuous way: through its difficulty options. If the game is played on its lowest difficulty, or even on its medium difficulty (for skilled players), the ball moves too slowly to keep the game challenging until fairly far into the campaign.
The most boring thing a game can do is fail to challenge the player. If the player has nothing to overcome, then there is no sense of achievement or satisfaction at completing the game. So, if anyone decides to give Wizorb a whirl after reading this, please do yourself a favor and crank up the difficulty. I would advocate selecting the medium difficulty if you have never played a block-breaker before, or the highest difficulty if you have. This makes the mana mechanics, the powerups, and the continue system integral to the playthrough.
As to the other accusation, of Wizorb not being particularly innovative, I completely agree. ‘Block-breaker’ is a game that has been done many times over, and while the town provides a nice set of side-goals, the addition of a few RPG elements to an arcade game is not unique. Where this game shines is not in its ingenuity, but in its execution.
Wizorb is a humble game, asking a few dollars to be played and attempting to provide a few dollars worth of entertainment. It provides a brief, punchy campaign with stellar, vibrant pixel art graphics; interesting (if predictable) enemies, mini-bosses, and bosses; tightly responsive mouse controls; some secret bonus levels; and jaunty, enjoyable music throughout. It has a very smooth difficulty curve and gets challenging toward the end (provided, as I said, that you tell it to be).
Wizorb‘s attributes (fun, short, cheap, challenging, and single-player) seem practically alien in an industry obsessed with budgeting games for returns well into the tens of millions, and measuring games in the hundreds of potential gameplay hours.
The indie game scene, however, has been providing many brilliant titles which follow this exact formula, such as VVVVVV, Limbo, BIT.TRIP RUNNER, Electronic Super Joy, Hotline Miami, and Super Hexagon, among others. To this list I would also add, as close relatives, the torrential outpouring of wonderful roguelikes that have come into prominence in recent years, such as Spelunky, Super House of Dead Ninjas, Risk of Rain, Rogue Legacy, FTL, The Binding of Isaac, and all the rest.
Meanwhile, the lone solid, uncontestable example of a title with all of these attributes from one of the industry giants in the past ten years is the original Portal. In fact, there is a very recent example of a big studio trying to do a smaller game, The Order: 1886, and utterly failing because they tried to put out a short campaign at the usual AAA price with the usual hand-holding AAA mechanics, overstuffed AAA aesthetics, and complicated AAA plotline. Once upon a time, many of the biggest games (e.g. most of the earliest Metroid, Sonic, Castlevania, and Mario Bros. titles) were shorter, simpler, more difficult experiences.
The problem is that indie developers today are mostly making these games for the very same reason that bigger studios used to make games like this: limitations. Games were short because there was not enough memory for them to be longer, and difficult because they took longer to play if they were hard to complete. Today indie studios simply do not have the time or the employees to put out larger games. But this implies that when or if these small studios grow, much like their industry forebears, they will abandon this style of game-making.
Dedicating fewer resources to a project and putting out a short, simple, high-quality game at a lower cost (for bigger studios, aiming for a price point between $15 and $30 could steer development) is a prospect with huge potential to move a high volume of games, especially to the giant chunk of gamers in the 20 to 40 age bracket who work at least 40 hours a week and do not have 100 hours for every single-player campaign that comes along.
I should clarify, as well, that I am not knocking longer games. Some of my favorite titles take over fifty hours to finish. Nor am I implying that every long game is necessarily easy or cluttered, as great games like Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls can well attest. Ideally, there would be a variety of titles with varying ambitions and varying prices. I was honestly fairly surprised way back when Portal came and went without ushering in a wave of games like this. It seemed that many developers at the time missed the lesson and just pumped out more quirky puzzle games instead.
The real worry is that this golden age of indie gaming may one day come to an end, and leave in its wake only those studios willing to conform to the old system. After all, lengthening games and making them accessible at all costs is already something many indie creators are happy to move toward. Tribute Games, the studio behind Wizorb, most likely made Wizorb in this style because it was all they could do at the time. In fact, Tribute Games’ more recent release, Mercenary Kings, is a game truly deserving of that most unenviable adjective, ‘boring,’ due to its over-emphasis on minute customization and graphic under-emphasis on gameplay and setting variety.
Mercenary Kings, an attempted love letter to a very different sort of arcade game, is a repetitive affair that makes sure that you’re tired of its old tricks before it will drip-feed you any new ones. It wanted to be a bigger, longer game. But if it had been a shorter, smaller game with the same enemy variety, the game would have seemed lush and alive rather than bland and drawn-out. In contrast to this, Wizorb never overstays its welcome, and gives you a new board with new challenges in every single level.
Ultimately, Wizorb is disliked for the very simplicity and purity I admire in it, under the guise of it being without innovation. People expect more from it than it has ever promised. It achieves what little it sets out to achieve, and it does so with panache. It only takes a few hours to complete, and its charm more than survives its duration. Now if only more developers, and especially larger studios, would make high-quality games in this style by choice rather than necessity, there would be a more varied video game landscape.
Through the Looking Orb: