Crispy Gamer's First White Elephant Gift Exchange
The holiday season is a great time to be a gamer, with big new releases hitting seemingly every week. But for game journalists, it can also be a stressful time, full of rushed reviews, tight deadlines for gift guide features and visits to family members that don't even have an HDTV (what is this, the Stone Age?).
To relieve some of that stress, some members of the Game Trust took part in a virtual White Elephant gaming gift exchange this year. It was a chance to take the focus off the latest and the greatest and exchange some cheap-but-fun-but-overlooked games from the recent past in a relaxed environment. It was also, hopefully, a way to learn something more about our fellow Game Trusters.
Here's how it went down.
Internet's Fastest Game Reviewer Extraordinaire Evan Moore was up first, deciding to open a gift from the Game Trust's scruffiest member, Gus Mastrapa, to start things off. Mastrapa chose to give a little-known DS roguelike, Mystery Dungeon: Shiren the Wanderer, because, as he put it, "it's a woefully underappreciated reissue of a semi-influential game. Millions of kids play Pokemon Mystery Dungeon every day without an inkling that they're playing a roguelike. Shiren isn't the first every Mystery Dungeon game, but it's very close."
Gus used the opportunity to rail against the game's horrible marketing in the U.S. "The reason I can get the game so cheap (in the $7.99 ballpark) is that Sega released it with TERRIBLE box art and little education as to what the game was and how genuinely awesome and challenging it is," he said. "If the game had been in the hands of someone like, say, Atlus, things could have been different for this reissue."
Resident strategy-game expert and well-known book reader Troy Goodfellow was up next, choosing to open up a gift from press watcher and news videographer Kyle Orland. Orland chose the Wii Virtual Console release of the NES classic Milon's Secret Castle because, as he put it, "it harks back to a simpler time in game design -- a time when a game could feature a boy running around a castle in his pajamas with absolutely no explanation. A time when an entire game could be built around shooting tiny bubbles at a slight angle until you find the one hidden block in a multi-screen room that leads to the exit. A time when games gave cryptic clues like 'Crystal has mysterious powers' instead of holding your hand and telling you exactly what to do next. A time when dying even once, at any point, even hours after you started, sends you all the way back to the beginning of the ENTIRE GAME."
It might seem cruel, but Orland insists there's a silver lining to receiving such an awful game. "Seriously, I chose it to make the recipient have a new appreciation of today's games. No matter how bad the latest shlock release is, you can almost always look back and say 'We've come a long way since Milon's Secret Castle.'"
Orland was up next to choose a gift, and after openly insulting Gus' roguelike he decided to open the gift from editor and noted SDTV owner Ryan Kuo. Kuo revealed his choice of Xbox Live Indie game AtomHex, which he described as "an amazing little dual-stick shooter that plays like a puzzle game gone mad."
Kuo expanded on his choice by describing the gameplay a bit. "Your enemies start out harmless, but then they begin to combine with each other, forming bigger, more dangerous enemies that beget more enemies. So you have to whittle down their numbers before they start to work together. Waste too much time, and the screen gets filled with giant beetles that chase you everywhere, evil prisms that shoot laser beams, etc. The catch? You can only destroy enemies by firing shots of the same color. So this game works your twitch reflexes as well as your match-three skills."
But there's more than just reflexes to AtomHex, according to Kuo. "I think Atomhex is the smartest arena shooter out there. It's an ethical twitch game. It makes you feel like you're unraveling the game's rules as you play and painting a beautiful picture at the same time."
Orland tried to hide his excitement, so as to prevent the vultures from stealing his hard-won gift. "Sounds right up my alley. Hope I get to keep it," he said. "I mean ... um ... 'Wow ... what a crappy gift! No one should steal it from me!'"
Things got interesting in this round, with Kuo using his turn to steal Shiren the Wanderer from a poor, unsuspecting Moore. Kuo explained that the game has "been on my list ever since Gus told me to buy it last year," and that "the only reason I haven't is because the box art really is that terrible." Evan took the theft with good grace, quipping, "OH NOES! My Shiren is Wandering away," and then admitting he "[doesn't] even know what a 'roguelike' is."
Moore moved on by opening a gift from video editor and Swag Tester John Teti, who chose to give the Xbox Live version of Ecco the Dolphin, "because I like dolphins and fish, and this game has a lot of those things. Also, it's hella hard, as [Evan] Narcisse would say." Teti seemed a bit perturbed as he wove a tale of revisionist history behind the game. "This game originally came out for the Sega Genesis. The original concept was for a walrus that would rape Sonic the Hedgehog. Merry f***ing Solstice."
Moore masked his obvious ecstasy behind a wall of ironic detachment. "And I thought getting a 'roguelike' for my DSi was exciting! Now I can play a game I couldn't figure out when I had it on Sega Genesis!"
Mastrapa was up next, chosing to open a gift for Crispy Gamer's resident superhero expert Evan Narcisse, who revealed his gift to be the Xbox Live Arcade game Every Extend Extra Extreme. "If its PSP predecessor was a Game That Time Forgot, then this XBLA offshoot is a Game That Time Never Even Noticed in the First Place," he explained. "It's got the same 'un-shooter' mechanics of EEE, but adds a rhythmic timing element that switches things up a bit. It also features a Wiz Ur Muzik mode that lets you upload your own tunes, a neat twist in a game where rhythm affects strategy. The graphics are geometrically psychedelic and it'll be almost like being able to play in a world of trippy Christmas lights."
Mastrapa was genuinely pleased with his gift. "That's a game I'd actually want. Narcisse wins Christmas!" Kuo was similarly awed. "Shoot. That's a good one..." But Orland wasn't as impressed, comparing the game unfavorably to the PSP original. "The Xbox version added a five-second-or-so 'invincibility' period after coming back from each self-destruct, and removed the constraint of a set number of lives," he said. "The effect of this was that, by my second play, I was able to focus on the time power-ups during invincibility, explode semi-randomly with the beat before, and inevitably cause a big-enough chain reaction to keep going indefinitely, with no risk of death. I actually quit an hour in out of boredom."
"But, er, I'm glad you like your gift, Gus," he added, awkwardly.
Mastrapa didn't get to enjoy EEEE for very long, as Teti decided to steal the game in the very next round, because he "didn't understand that paragraph that Kyle just typed." Moore used the brief stealing break as an opportunity for a sales pitch. "I have this great game called Ecco the Dolphin. It's like the No. 3 dolphin-oriented game of all time. OF ALL TIME. Anybody want it?"
Mastrapa did not, deciding instead to open up a present from GDC panelist and man-about-town Scott Jones. After joking that he got a sweater from the Gap for the exchange, Jones revealed his actual gift, a WiiWare game called NyxQuest: Kindred Spirits.
Jones called his pick a "wonderful platformer ... even though it has a terrible, totally forgettable name. Seriously, why not just call it Forgettable Impossible to Pronounce Game. ... It's pretty short -- Gus has insane skillz, so he'll probably blow through the entire thing in two to three hours. The whole operation might seem a little slow to younger whippersnappers out there, but I enjoyed Forgettable Impossible to Pronounce Game's pacing and inventive platforming moments. Gus: Enjoy your present! I am glad you are the one to receive this."
Gus, as always, was upbeat. "The game sounds like a tie-in for cold medicine. Leave it to Jones to deliver a game I never heard of. I'm genuinely psyched to play it."
The Evans stuck together this round, with Evan Narcisse choosing to open the gift from Evan Moore, with the caveat that the resulting present "better not be anything DDR-related." The result was definitely not DDR-related, but it wasn't an actual game, either. "My gift is a Space Invaders Ice Cube Tray! This tray is made of that awesome rubber silicone, so you won't get that pesky ice cube in the middle that doesn't pop out."
While Moore's gift technically broke the rules for the exchange, Narcisse quickly left for vacation shortly after his pick, and so couldn't raise any objections. Hey, that's what you get for flying away in the middle of a gift exchange.
The gift exchange ended with a whimper, not a bang, when Jones decided to open Goodfellow's last remaining unopened present rather than starting one last cycle of stealing. Goodfellow managed to pick a game nobody saw coming. "In a year of highly acclaimed zombie games, how have we missed EXOR Studios' Zombie Driver?" he asked rhetorically. "Available on Steam, this game mixes zombies AND driving!"
And with that, it was over. What did we learn from the experience? We learned it always better to give than to receive, especially if you're giving Milon's Secret Castle. We learned that Sonic the Hedgehog should watch out around walruses. But most importantly, we learned that there's more to gaming than the latest $60 releases, and that all it takes is a bit of digging to find some interesting, cheap alternatives to the AAA hype machine.
Happy holidays, everybody!
For last-minute gift ideas, check out Crispy Gamer's Holiday Gift Guides.