A Super Mario 64 mod may be as close as we ever get to Mario Maker 3D

Super Mario Maker and its sequel are terrific games that let fans create and share their own Mario levels with ease. But it was a bit of a disappointment that Nintendo only factored in the 2D Mario games. None of the plumber's 3D incarnations have made it to a Mario Maker title to date. So thank goodness for modders.

A pair of modders named Arthurtilly and Rovertronic have released an open-source Super Mario 64 mod that aims to make it a cinch for players to create and share their own levels. You'll need your own (legally obtained) Mario 64 game file and a separate piece of software to infuse the mod into it. It's even possible to use Mario Builder 64 on a Nintendo 64 if you have a supported flashcart.

You'll have more than 100 parts to build your levels with. The creation tool includes some custom parts from a previous mod, so you have extras like permanent powerups at your disposal. To share your creations and find those made by others, the recommended places to look are a website for Mario level modders and Rovertronic's Discord server.

It'll be interesting to see if ridiculous 3D kaizo-style levels start popping up, while the mod could allow speedrunners to create custom training grounds where they can practice strategies. Personally, I'm hoping for creators to build levels that rely on half-A presses to beat.

This article originally appeared on Engadget at https://www.engadget.com/a-super-mario-64-mod-may-be-as-close-as-we-ever-get-to-mario-maker-3d-204024562.html?src=rss

Paper Mario The Thousand-Year Door review: A Switch remake (mostly) befitting a masterpiece

It’s criminal that there’s been no way to play Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door for over a decade. The only way to experience the original 2004 Gamecube title was on that console or the Wii, which thankfully supported Gamecube discs (something that feels like a genuine miracle now). There was no Gamecube hardware support on the Wii U, unfortunately, and The Thousand-Year Door never popped up on its online store. So here we are, 20 years later, with a complete remake for the Switch. It’s fantastic, befitting a game that was already a masterpiece — it’s just a shame that Nintendo took so long to revisit the game.

Here’s some sobering perspective: I first played through The Thousand-Year Door as a senior in college, where my roommates and I made it a communal adventure. Now I’m married with two kids but I still lament the loss of Gamecube titles almost daily. Where’s Eternal Darkness, one of the best horror games ever made? Where’s Skies of Arcadia, an RPG I adored on the Dreamcast and which was later re-released on the Gamecube? I realize re-releases take work, but surely there’s an audience for these beloved titles!

Anyway, back to the remake of The Thousand-Year Door: It’s great, you should play it. It’s an easily accessible RPG for newcomers with a cute setup: Princess Peach has been kidnapped (of course), but this time it's by aliens! It's up to Mario and a group of friends — including a treasure-hunting Goomba named Goombela, and Koops, a cowardly Koopa — to save her by solving the mystery of an ancient civilization.

Like Super Mario RPG and Paper Mario before it, Thousand-Year Door is sort of a hybrid action RPG. You get to explore worlds and level up characters like an RPG, but battles also involve some responsive button mashing to keep you on your toes. A well-timed button could let you jump on an enemy's head more than once, or counter incoming attacks. It's an innovative approach to RPG mechanics that I wish more games picked up – the excellent Sea of Stars was a rare exception.

Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door
Nintendo

Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door is also well worth revisiting for the olds with nostalgia for the original. The graphics are richer and more detailed, with sharper sprites and lighting that makes the environments feel alive (the reflections, in particular, are often stunning). The game's score has also been revitalized to feel less MIDI-like – don't worry, there's also an in-game perk that can change everything back to the original Gamecube tunes.

It’s too bad Nintendo had to lower the frame rate down to 30fps from the Gamecube’s silky smooth 60fps, but it’s not the end of the world. If you can enjoy some of the greatest games ever made in 30fps, like Breath of the Wild and Tears of the Kingdom, The Thousand Year Door is no different. The remake also adds enough new graphical elements to make it look better than the original. I’m sure I nailed the game's timing-based moves more often in 60fps, but they're still fairly easy to pull off (except for those damn counters).

Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door
Nintendo

Had Nintendo released this remake earlier in the Switch’s lifespan, I’m sure fewer gamers would be complaining about the 30fps dip. But at this point, the Switch is on its last legs and we’re awaiting news about its successor. Both Sony and Microsoft have had “next-gen” consoles out for so long they’re considering mid-cycle upgrades. It’s simply odd to see a game running more slowly today than it did on the Gamecube 20 years ago, especially when Nintendo is charging $60 for a lesser experience.

Perhaps the Switch 2, or whatever Nintendo’s new console is called, will be able to run The Thousand Year Door at 60fps. But it really doesn’t matter. It’s still a masterpiece, even at half the frame rate.

This article originally appeared on Engadget at https://www.engadget.com/paper-mario-the-thousand-year-door-review-a-switch-remake-mostly-befitting-a-masterpiece-130052569.html?src=rss

Senua’s Saga: Hellblade II review: A series of unfortunate events

Senua’s Saga: Hellblade II shoves hopeless brutality in your face and screams at you to recognize its beauty. Its landscapes are littered with disemboweled corpses and shrines of rotting flesh, and its shadows conceal monsters carrying blood-stained blades. Every chapter in Hellblade II is a parade of suffering and pain, and every scene has a backdrop of taunting whispers. After just a few minutes of playtime it can feel like you’re strapped down, trapped in Senua’s claustrophobic reality on the Icelandic coast, suffocating under the dark waves with her.

And here’s the thing — it is absolutely beautiful.

Hellblade II is a third-person narrative adventure set in Iceland in the 10th century, and it’s the sequel to Ninja Theory’s 2017 game, Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice. Senua is a young warrior who hears a cacophony of disembodied voices in her mind, judging her every move. The whispers are a critical and permanent part of Senua’s psyche — a lesson she learned in the first game, after realizing the depths of her father’s abuse when she was a child. In Hellblade II, Senua is figuring out how to live outside of her father’s influence, but his voice still rumbles in her head at inopportune times, drowning out the female whispers that she’s come to view as her allies.

Senua's Saga: Hellblade II
Ninja Theory

Senua regularly sees the ghosts of the warriors and civilians that have died around her, and she carries their souls as a mental shroud, fueling her intense desire to save as many oppressed people as she can. She has targets right away: Hellblade II opens with Senua and others held captive on a slave ship during a catastrophic storm. The ship is thrown ashore, scattering slavers and the enslaved on the black rocks. This is where Senua finds her sword.

She makes her way inland, where she finds companions and learns about a plague of giants terrorizing the local villages, slaughtering entire communities and destroying precious farmland. Throughout her journey, Senua fights the giants and hordes of human-sized enemies — always one at a time — with a single broadsword and a bit of magic. The whispers provide a constant soundtrack of criticism, encouragement, warnings, fear, anger and doubt, hisses slicing through the silence and interrupting moments of dialogue, inescapable.

Hellblade II is more of an extended, extremely anxious and violent vibe than a traditional adventure game. Its combat is OK, its puzzles are slightly tedious and, emotionally, it’s one-dimensional — but as an interactive brutality visualizer, Hellblade II is outstanding. Senua fights until her pores ooze blood, screaming through each swing of her sword as the whispers surround her, cuing her when to strike and telling her to ignore the pain. Every fight is close combat and one-on-one, warriors waiting in a circle of fog for their turn to rush in, punch her in the face and slice her to pieces. The sounds of flesh smacking against flesh join the whispers and the screen splatters red when Senua is hit. Hellblade II revels in physical violence.

Senua's Saga: Hellblade II
Ninja Theory

Outside of combat, Senua’s body is sacrificed to the elements, caught in swirling riptides and burned to ash in bursts of hellfire, pieces of broken earth floating around her. Senua steps gingerly into dark pools filled with the ghosts of the damned, shadowy figures wailing and trying to pull her down. A giant’s hand slams to the ground, smashing a body with a wet splat beneath its palm. Reality bends and shatters, and Senua is trapped in torturous, psychedelic nightmares narrated by her father’s booming voice. She burns herself at the stake. Her face fills the screen, panic spewing from her lips and horror sharp in her eyes. In every scene, the whispers persist.

Basically, it’s metal as hell.

I played Hellblade II on Xbox Series S without headphones and on a high-end gaming PC with headphones. The game is stunning in both formats, though of course the details and lighting looked a bit crisper on PC. There may be no laughter in Senua's life, but there are breathtaking landscapes dotted with delicate shrubs and rough boulders, fine red dust stretching to the horizon. There are towering cave systems lit by the soft glow of blue flames; there are beaches with roiling waves; there are snow-capped mountains backlit by a golden setting sun. The environments in Hellblade II are all phenomenally detailed, which is great news for the game's Photo Mode.

Senua's Saga: Hellblade II
Ninja Theory

Whether on console or PC, I encourage every Hellblade II player to wear headphones in order to fully enjoy the binaural audio. In this format, the whispers surround your head as they do Senua’s, spawning from various directions in a terrifying way. With no UI in the entire game, stellar acting from Melina Juergens as Senua, and headphones full of soft, hissing judgements, Hellblade II can get incredibly immersive.

Outside of its aesthetic and tonal merits, combat in Hellblade II is simplistic and sometimes frustrating. The game has pared-down mechanics, and Senua has just a standard and heavy sword attack, plus an evade move, a parry and a special power-up. Timing is everything in battles, and Senua moves sluggishly enough that last-second adjustments rarely land. Additionally, Senua’s special move is — dare I say — overpowered, and it basically guarantees she’ll kill whatever minion she’s fighting. Between the annoying timing structure and a too-strong power-up, it’s difficult to find a rhythm with any enemy in Hellblade II. That may indeed be a rhythm to be found in these battles, as demonstrated by the original Hellblade, but I couldn’t identify it in my initial playthrough.

Senua's Saga: Hellblade II
Ninja Theory

The most successful puzzles in Hellblade II involve Senua magically changing the landscape around her, focusing on specific vortices to manifest platforms where she needs them. These riddles aren’t particularly challenging and they don’t gain layers of complexity as the game progresses, but their settings are gorgeous, generally contained to cave systems that glow like the night sky. The game’s most annoying puzzles are the symbol-hunting ones, where Senua has to find pieces of an ancient language in the environment. These moments feel like filler; they don’t advance the story in any meaningful way and they make me squint at the screen uncomfortably. That last one might be because I need new glasses, but still, I could do without the symbol-seeking puzzles entirely.

Hellblade II uses a limited set of inputs — just directional, sprint, focus and interact — and portions of it are fully playable with one hand, whispers shadowing Senua’s steps. Everything that Senua does is cloaked in apocalyptic framing; every conversation she has, whether with herself or her companions, is drenched in anxiety and urgency. There is no joy in Senua’s life, no respite from the pressure to save everyone, nowhere to run from the guilt that already weighs heavily on her mind. Senua’s singular emotion is desperation, her trauma is repeated over and over, her ghosts are explained again and again.

It’s as if Ninja Theory built Hellblade II to be an art installation at a busy museum — like they expected its audience to be milling in and out of the room, paying attention for spurts at a time, and they wanted to make sure every scene told the full story. Though Senua gathers a few allies along her journey, every character in this harsh world feels transitory, and their presence lacks lasting impact. Hellblade II is stuck at 11 on the emotional scale and it doesn’t offer any opportunities for falling or rising tension, causing its climax to fall a bit flat. The final scenes are epic, like the rest of the game, but they also feel like… the rest of the game. So much so, that I was surprised when the credits started to roll.

Senua's Saga: Hellblade II
Ninja Theory

As a side note, I’ve never had a game trigger my phobia of crashing waves quite like Hellblade II. I had to close my eyes for half of one segment because it involved Senua getting swept up by the raging sea in regular pulses, waves repeatedly crushing her body and the camera, and it was making my stomach turn. This is far from the only deep-water horrorscape in the game, so fair warning.

Hellblade II is an impressive sensory experience interrupted every so often by tedious symbol-hunting puzzles. It’s an epic poem in video game form, violent and timeless.

Senua's Saga: Hellblade II is available on Xbox Series X/S and PC, included in Game Pass.

This article originally appeared on Engadget at https://www.engadget.com/senuas-saga-hellblade-ii-review-a-series-of-unfortunate-events-080047631.html?src=rss

Indie developers are trying to make horse games that don’t suck. It’s not easy

Video game horses tend to play a fairly uncomplicated role, at least in mainstream titles. Like semi-sentient meat bicycles, they often exist as little more than a way to make the player travel faster, jump farther or occasionally defy the laws of physics. With the exception of Red Dead Redemption 2, an outlier beloved for its equine verisimilitude and breadth of riding-related activities, horses in video games are generally emotionless props, notorious for janky animations and unnatural anatomy.

That’s fine for most players’ needs, but for those who are drawn to certain games in part because they have horses, there's a lot to be desired. Especially since the alternatives — dedicated horse games — haven’t proven to be much better. The genre is plagued with shoddy graphics, unoriginal storylines and drawn-out, repetitive caretaking tasks like hoof-picking. While horse games of the aughts, like the Barbie Horse Adventures series, sparked a lasting interest in the niche for a lot of young gamers, we’ve yet to really see what their maturation can look like for the now-adults still chasing that high.

The biggest actual horse game today, the decade-old MMORPG Star Stable Online, is distinctly tween-girl-coded. Suffice it to say, there’s a hole in the market as big as a Clydesdale. But some extremely passionate developers are trying to change that.

Alice Ruppert, who runs The Mane Quest — the go-to blog for all things relating to horse games — has cultivated a community of “horse-interested gamers and game-interested equestrians” over the last five years by churning out news, reviews, analyses and wishful editorials covering the latest developments in the genre. As a lifelong equestrian who also has a professional background in game design, she’s become an authoritative voice at the intersection of these two worlds.

The way Ruppert sees it, dedicated horse games have long been stuck in place. Budgets for new titles over the years were kept tiny based on the assumption that these games would only land with a very small niche of gamers, namely young girls. Limited resources resulted in the creation of subpar games, with “basic mistakes of game design and usability,” causing those games to be poorly received. Bad sales and negative reviews ensured future projects wouldn’t be given bigger budgets, and the cycle repeats.

There’s been a shift more recently, she says, “as the game development space is getting democratized and more people start trying to make games.” That has introduced a host of new issues, like “very amateur teams launching really big projects… and not being able to deliver,” Ruppert said, but she thinks that's “a better problem to have than just nobody making any games at all.”

After Ruppert panned Aesir Interactive’s Windstorm: Start of a Great Friendship (Ostwind in its original German, based on a movie), the studio got in touch and later brought her on as a consultant and eventually creative producer for its 2022 title, Horse Tales: Emerald Valley Ranch. The game is far from perfect, Ruppert admits, but despite joining the project at a pretty late stage, she says she was able to make some contributions toward creating an experience that could be appreciated by people who actually know and love horses.

A still from Horse Tales: Emerald Valley Ranch showing a rider on a horse standing in front of a lake and waterfall
Aesir Interactive

That included helping to correct funky details that might not have registered to a non-equestrian but would stick out like a sore thumb to anyone in that world — like a bizarre transition when changing a horse’s leading leg in a canter. “Whenever I spotted something that was wrong, I was like, okay no, we need to fix this because the horse game crowd is going to care,” she says.

Horse Tales: Emerald Valley Ranch is an open world adventure game where players can explore on horseback, tame wild horses, breed and train horses, and maintain their own ranch. It takes a realistic approach to breeding and genetics, and the horses each have unique personality traits. The team crowdsourced horse names, too, so the game’s automatic name generator spits out the names of community members’ real horses.

Still, the game drew some harsh criticism after its release, and the reviews overall have been mixed, with common complaints of game-crashing bugs and a world that feels empty. (The team released a final patch for the game in April devoted entirely to bug fixes.) It has its fans, though, and if there’s one thing players seem to agree on, it’s that the horses and the riding mechanics look great.

Aesir also announced last month that it’s releasing a remastered version of Windstorm: Start of a Great Friendship. The revamped game includes improvements like “replacing those horse animations that I’ve been complaining about for the past five years,” wrote Ruppert — who has separated from the studio — in a blog post. It’s slated for release in June.

As more and more efforts from the horse games community pop up, “The really promising developments are going to come when either those amateur projects learn and grow into something better, or when more experienced indie devs start picking [them] up,” Ruppert says.

One such example she points to is The Ranch of Rivershine, a horse game developed and published by Canadian studio Cozy Bee Games that’s currently in Early Access. The studio, founded by developer Éloïse Laroche, focuses on cozy games (think Stardew Valley and Animal Crossing), as the name would suggest, and already had a handful of highly rated titles under its belt before putting out The Ranch of Rivershine. That includes Capybara Spa and the baking sim Lemon Cake.

While it may not be “the horse game to end all horse games,” Ruppert says, “I do think it does a lot of things really well.” The Ranch of Rivershine takes a format Cozy Bee Games has shown it excels in, and applied horses. It isn’t groundbreaking — players are tasked with building up their own ranch, where they can breed, take care of and train horses — but it doesn’t necessarily need to be. There are trail rides, cross country competitions, villagers to interact with, auctions and lots of pretty horses. Unlike many of its peers, The Ranch of Rivershine has mostly positive reviews.

Arthur Morgan rides a brown paint horse through a shallow body of water
Rockstar Games

To this day, Red Dead Redemption 2 stands widely accepted as the best horse game out there despite it not technically being a horse game. Red Dead Online has drawn hordes of equestrian-minded players over the last few years for organized in-game meetups, trail rides, horse shows and other horse-centered activities. The horses themselves, though they’re not without flaws, are far more lifelike than others heretofore have achieved. And the game places importance on actually bonding with them.

It’s so good, it’s become a pain point for projects that have emerged in its wake. AAA games like Red Dead Redemption 2 set a bar that is “almost impossible for an indie game studio to reach, which puts a lot of pressure on creators,” says Jonna Östergren, a 3D animator working with the Hungary-based developer Mindev Games on Unbridled: That Horse Game. Nevertheless, they’re aiming high.

Engadget caught up with the Mindev team recently over a Discord group chat. “I have loved horses for as long as I can remember,” Östergren says, they’ve “been a big part of my life.” So have video games, and in 2017, she started learning how to make them using tools like Unity and Blender. Östergren by chance connected with Jasmin Blazeuski, the founder of Mindev, years later while working on her own horse game that had hit a dead end. “I had big aspirations but I was alone and I was trying to learn all the things, from coding to animation. It was a lot,” Östergren said.

After talking with Blazeuski, “I offered to help them make some 3D models if they needed it. One thing led to another and I became a much bigger part of the team than I had first imagined.”

Unbridled’s creators envision the game as one that allows the player a lot of freedom. “You decide how you want to play and manage your stables,” Blazeuski said. “If you want to make money over competitions, breeding horses or farming — it is all up to you.” They’re striving for realism, in terms of the horses’ physical appearances but beyond that, too. “I have never had a horse game with a simple yet so cute detail such as horses looking outside the stable. Casual, real things horses do, we want them all in the game.”

The emotional elements are crucial. Even in games where horses are the main subject, they often “lack personality and liveliness,” Östergren said. “They are not really their own being with their own mind… That is something that I would love to change in our game. Not making the horse a nuisance that never does what you want it to do, but to make it so that your horse feels alive in the world that you are in as your character.”

The team, also including 3D artist and longtime equestrian, Sara Wermuth, points to childhood games like Horse Illustrated: Championship Season, Riding Champion: Legacy of Rosemond Hill, Pippa Funnell: Ranch Rescue, My Horse Friends, and Pony Girl (1 and 2) as sources of inspiration. Only Unbridled’s programmer, Amon Ahmad, comes from outside the world of horses and horse games, and had to watch “a lot of gameplays from different horse games” to get up to speed.

Between the old and new games, “I noticed that nothing has actually ever changed, apart from the graphics or the style,” Ahmad said. “New functions, new gameplays, new ideas in general are missing.” The team aims to avoid those trappings with Unbridled, which is being built meticulously using the Unreal Engine.

A rider and horse stand in a field under a full moon
Mindev Games

Horse games have a tendency toward tedious and repetitive tasks or mini-games, which can be detrimental “no matter how much detail and love was put into it,” Östergren said. They don’t want to go down that road. And Unbridled will have unique systems for dressage and jumping to give players a challenge, without predetermined points that will guarantee a well-executed jump, according to Ahmad. Instead, players will have to train their horses and develop a feel for the timing.

But making a game of this scope that is fun, engaging and realistic can be a slow process, not to mention an expensive one. The team’s recent Kickstarter campaign failed to reach its funding goal, and it’s relying on avenues like Patreon for financial support to see the project through. An update posted in February noted that half of the team has picked up part-time jobs to bring in additional income.

The animation alone is a huge undertaking. The complexity of horses’ bone structure, all the bending points, plus “getting the gaits right and all those little details of movement is very difficult [to do] by hand,” Blazeuski said. But, “we will take our time to perfect everything.”

Unbridled: That Horse Game has been in a closed beta since November, allowing the developers to get direct feedback from the community, but the team estimates it’ll be a few years yet before the full release.

Astride, another horse game being developed by a small team with big ambitions, is setting itself apart with its focus on Nordic horse breeds, like the Norwegian Fjord Horse and the Norwegian Dole, as well as gaited breeds like the Icelandic Horse. The studio behind it, Raidho Games, was formed in 2021 after Maja Nygjelten (CEO and concept artist) and Mathilde Kvernland (Community Manager and 3D artist) decided to get serious about their idea to create the horse game they’d always been in search of.

A rider and horse jump over a log in a field next to a training area
Raidho Games

They put word out on a Norwegian Facebook group for gamers and ultimately expanded the team to five people, including fellow equestrian Tirna Kristine Mellum, who joined as a 3D artist and Project Manager. Using their combined experience with horses in real life to guide the process, Mellum said, “We are hoping to have a horse game where the horses feel like horses.”

“We know what to look for in references” to provide their animator, Marius Mobæk Strømmevold, so the horses’ gaits and other movements look true to life, Nygjelten said. “I think that's very important, to [not] take a random animation from YouTube” but instead provide him with references that they’re confident show the proper result.

The main focus of the game at launch, which is somewhat scaled down from the original vision, will be on breeding horses in the fictional Scandinavian town of Eldheim and training them to compete. “Most [horse games] have show jumping as the first feature, including us… [but] I think we will stand out a lot with the breeding and everything,” Nygjelten says. “We have very realistic horse genetics,” according to Mellum, and that will initially be what the game leans into most.

The early gameplay is centered around the stable and interactions in the Eldheim community rather than grand adventures. It’s being designed to be an online multiplayer game, so players will also be able to meet up with friends. Down the line, the plan is to implement more complex storylines and quests to keep building out the experience.

The project has had some successful funding efforts, including a Kickstarter campaign in spring 2022, but it’s also suffered delays. An Early Access version of the game was released behind schedule last June to very mixed reviews. But, the team emphasizes, it’s still a work in progress.

Astride still has some years left of development,” says Nygjelten, “The game will continue to grow every single day, and it will probably be very different in a year.”

This article originally appeared on Engadget at https://www.engadget.com/indie-developers-are-trying-to-make-horse-games-that-dont-suck-its-not-easy-140008337.html?src=rss

Indie developers are trying to make horse games that don’t suck. It’s not easy

Video game horses tend to play a fairly uncomplicated role, at least in mainstream titles. Like semi-sentient meat bicycles, they often exist as little more than a way to make the player travel faster, jump farther or occasionally defy the laws of physics. With the exception of Red Dead Redemption 2, an outlier beloved for its equine verisimilitude and breadth of riding-related activities, horses in video games are generally emotionless props, notorious for janky animations and unnatural anatomy.

That’s fine for most players’ needs, but for those who are drawn to certain games in part because they have horses, there's a lot to be desired. Especially since the alternatives — dedicated horse games — haven’t proven to be much better. The genre is plagued with shoddy graphics, unoriginal storylines and drawn-out, repetitive caretaking tasks like hoof-picking. While horse games of the aughts, like the Barbie Horse Adventures series, sparked a lasting interest in the niche for a lot of young gamers, we’ve yet to really see what their maturation can look like for the now-adults still chasing that high.

The biggest actual horse game today, the decade-old MMORPG Star Stable Online, is distinctly tween-girl-coded. Suffice it to say, there’s a hole in the market as big as a Clydesdale. But some extremely passionate developers are trying to change that.

Alice Ruppert, who runs The Mane Quest — the go-to blog for all things relating to horse games — has cultivated a community of “horse-interested gamers and game-interested equestrians” over the last five years by churning out news, reviews, analyses and wishful editorials covering the latest developments in the genre. As a lifelong equestrian who also has a professional background in game design, she’s become an authoritative voice at the intersection of these two worlds.

The way Ruppert sees it, dedicated horse games have long been stuck in place. Budgets for new titles over the years were kept tiny based on the assumption that these games would only land with a very small niche of gamers, namely young girls. Limited resources resulted in the creation of subpar games, with “basic mistakes of game design and usability,” causing those games to be poorly received. Bad sales and negative reviews ensured future projects wouldn’t be given bigger budgets, and the cycle repeats.

There’s been a shift more recently, she says, “as the game development space is getting democratized and more people start trying to make games.” That has introduced a host of new issues, like “very amateur teams launching really big projects… and not being able to deliver,” Ruppert said, but she thinks that's “a better problem to have than just nobody making any games at all.”

After Ruppert panned Aesir Interactive’s Windstorm: Start of a Great Friendship (Ostwind in its original German, based on a movie), the studio got in touch and later brought her on as a consultant and eventually creative producer for its 2022 title, Horse Tales: Emerald Valley Ranch. The game is far from perfect, Ruppert admits, but despite joining the project at a pretty late stage, she says she was able to make some contributions toward creating an experience that could be appreciated by people who actually know and love horses.

A still from Horse Tales: Emerald Valley Ranch showing a rider on a horse standing in front of a lake and waterfall
Aesir Interactive

That included helping to correct funky details that might not have registered to a non-equestrian but would stick out like a sore thumb to anyone in that world — like a bizarre transition when changing a horse’s leading leg in a canter. “Whenever I spotted something that was wrong, I was like, okay no, we need to fix this because the horse game crowd is going to care,” she says.

Horse Tales: Emerald Valley Ranch is an open world adventure game where players can explore on horseback, tame wild horses, breed and train horses, and maintain their own ranch. It takes a realistic approach to breeding and genetics, and the horses each have unique personality traits. The team crowdsourced horse names, too, so the game’s automatic name generator spits out the names of community members’ real horses.

Still, the game drew some harsh criticism after its release, and the reviews overall have been mixed, with common complaints of game-crashing bugs and a world that feels empty. (The team released a final patch for the game in April devoted entirely to bug fixes.) It has its fans, though, and if there’s one thing players seem to agree on, it’s that the horses and the riding mechanics look great.

Aesir also announced last month that it’s releasing a remastered version of Windstorm: Start of a Great Friendship. The revamped game includes improvements like “replacing those horse animations that I’ve been complaining about for the past five years,” wrote Ruppert — who has separated from the studio — in a blog post. It’s slated for release in June.

As more and more efforts from the horse games community pop up, “The really promising developments are going to come when either those amateur projects learn and grow into something better, or when more experienced indie devs start picking [them] up,” Ruppert says.

One such example she points to is The Ranch of Rivershine, a horse game developed and published by Canadian studio Cozy Bee Games that’s currently in Early Access. The studio, founded by developer Éloïse Laroche, focuses on cozy games (think Stardew Valley and Animal Crossing), as the name would suggest, and already had a handful of highly rated titles under its belt before putting out The Ranch of Rivershine. That includes Capybara Spa and the baking sim Lemon Cake.

While it may not be “the horse game to end all horse games,” Ruppert says, “I do think it does a lot of things really well.” The Ranch of Rivershine takes a format Cozy Bee Games has shown it excels in, and applied horses. It isn’t groundbreaking — players are tasked with building up their own ranch, where they can breed, take care of and train horses — but it doesn’t necessarily need to be. There are trail rides, cross country competitions, villagers to interact with, auctions and lots of pretty horses. Unlike many of its peers, The Ranch of Rivershine has mostly positive reviews.

Arthur Morgan rides a brown paint horse through a shallow body of water
Rockstar Games

To this day, Red Dead Redemption 2 stands widely accepted as the best horse game out there despite it not technically being a horse game. Red Dead Online has drawn hordes of equestrian-minded players over the last few years for organized in-game meetups, trail rides, horse shows and other horse-centered activities. The horses themselves, though they’re not without flaws, are far more lifelike than others heretofore have achieved. And the game places importance on actually bonding with them.

It’s so good, it’s become a pain point for projects that have emerged in its wake. AAA games like Red Dead Redemption 2 set a bar that is “almost impossible for an indie game studio to reach, which puts a lot of pressure on creators,” says Jonna Östergren, a 3D animator working with the Hungary-based developer Mindev Games on Unbridled: That Horse Game. Nevertheless, they’re aiming high.

Engadget caught up with the Mindev team recently over a Discord group chat. “I have loved horses for as long as I can remember,” Östergren says, they’ve “been a big part of my life.” So have video games, and in 2017, she started learning how to make them using tools like Unity and Blender. Östergren by chance connected with Jasmin Blazeuski, the founder of Mindev, years later while working on her own horse game that had hit a dead end. “I had big aspirations but I was alone and I was trying to learn all the things, from coding to animation. It was a lot,” Östergren said.

After talking with Blazeuski, “I offered to help them make some 3D models if they needed it. One thing led to another and I became a much bigger part of the team than I had first imagined.”

Unbridled’s creators envision the game as one that allows the player a lot of freedom. “You decide how you want to play and manage your stables,” Blazeuski said. “If you want to make money over competitions, breeding horses or farming — it is all up to you.” They’re striving for realism, in terms of the horses’ physical appearances but beyond that, too. “I have never had a horse game with a simple yet so cute detail such as horses looking outside the stable. Casual, real things horses do, we want them all in the game.”

The emotional elements are crucial. Even in games where horses are the main subject, they often “lack personality and liveliness,” Östergren said. “They are not really their own being with their own mind… That is something that I would love to change in our game. Not making the horse a nuisance that never does what you want it to do, but to make it so that your horse feels alive in the world that you are in as your character.”

The team, also including 3D artist and longtime equestrian, Sara Wermuth, points to childhood games like Horse Illustrated: Championship Season, Riding Champion: Legacy of Rosemond Hill, Pippa Funnell: Ranch Rescue, My Horse Friends, and Pony Girl (1 and 2) as sources of inspiration. Only Unbridled’s programmer, Amon Ahmad, comes from outside the world of horses and horse games, and had to watch “a lot of gameplays from different horse games” to get up to speed.

Between the old and new games, “I noticed that nothing has actually ever changed, apart from the graphics or the style,” Ahmad said. “New functions, new gameplays, new ideas in general are missing.” The team aims to avoid those trappings with Unbridled, which is being built meticulously using the Unreal Engine.

A rider and horse stand in a field under a full moon
Mindev Games

Horse games have a tendency toward tedious and repetitive tasks or mini-games, which can be detrimental “no matter how much detail and love was put into it,” Östergren said. They don’t want to go down that road. And Unbridled will have unique systems for dressage and jumping to give players a challenge, without predetermined points that will guarantee a well-executed jump, according to Ahmad. Instead, players will have to train their horses and develop a feel for the timing.

But making a game of this scope that is fun, engaging and realistic can be a slow process, not to mention an expensive one. The team’s recent Kickstarter campaign failed to reach its funding goal, and it’s relying on avenues like Patreon for financial support to see the project through. An update posted in February noted that half of the team has picked up part-time jobs to bring in additional income.

The animation alone is a huge undertaking. The complexity of horses’ bone structure, all the bending points, plus “getting the gaits right and all those little details of movement is very difficult [to do] by hand,” Blazeuski said. But, “we will take our time to perfect everything.”

Unbridled: That Horse Game has been in a closed beta since November, allowing the developers to get direct feedback from the community, but the team estimates it’ll be a few years yet before the full release.

Astride, another horse game being developed by a small team with big ambitions, is setting itself apart with its focus on Nordic horse breeds, like the Norwegian Fjord Horse and the Norwegian Dole, as well as gaited breeds like the Icelandic Horse. The studio behind it, Raidho Games, was formed in 2021 after Maja Nygjelten (CEO and concept artist) and Mathilde Kvernland (Community Manager and 3D artist) decided to get serious about their idea to create the horse game they’d always been in search of.

A rider and horse jump over a log in a field next to a training area
Raidho Games

They put word out on a Norwegian Facebook group for gamers and ultimately expanded the team to five people, including fellow equestrian Tirna Kristine Mellum, who joined as a 3D artist and Project Manager. Using their combined experience with horses in real life to guide the process, Mellum said, “We are hoping to have a horse game where the horses feel like horses.”

“We know what to look for in references” to provide their animator, Marius Mobæk Strømmevold, so the horses’ gaits and other movements look true to life, Nygjelten said. “I think that's very important, to [not] take a random animation from YouTube” but instead provide him with references that they’re confident show the proper result.

The main focus of the game at launch, which is somewhat scaled down from the original vision, will be on breeding horses in the fictional Scandinavian town of Eldheim and training them to compete. “Most [horse games] have show jumping as the first feature, including us… [but] I think we will stand out a lot with the breeding and everything,” Nygjelten says. “We have very realistic horse genetics,” according to Mellum, and that will initially be what the game leans into most.

The early gameplay is centered around the stable and interactions in the Eldheim community rather than grand adventures. It’s being designed to be an online multiplayer game, so players will also be able to meet up with friends. Down the line, the plan is to implement more complex storylines and quests to keep building out the experience.

The project has had some successful funding efforts, including a Kickstarter campaign in spring 2022, but it’s also suffered delays. An Early Access version of the game was released behind schedule last June to very mixed reviews. But, the team emphasizes, it’s still a work in progress.

Astride still has some years left of development,” says Nygjelten, “The game will continue to grow every single day, and it will probably be very different in a year.”

This article originally appeared on Engadget at https://www.engadget.com/indie-developers-are-trying-to-make-horse-games-that-dont-suck-its-not-easy-140008337.html?src=rss

The next Call of Duty will reportedly hit Game Pass on its release day

Recent reports suggested that Microsoft executives had been debating for some time whether to put new Call of Duty games onto Game Pass on day one (i.e. on their release day). That seems like something it should have figured out before spending $68.7 billion on CoD publisher Activision Blizzard, but it seems that Microsoft has finally reached a decision. According to the Wall Street Journal, the company will indeed bring the next Call of Duty title directly to Game Pass when it arrives later this year.

Doing so may mean that Microsoft will leave hundreds of millions of dollars in game sales on the table given that each annual Call of Duty release is one of the top-selling titles of its respective year. However, the company has struggled to significantly increase the number of Game Pass subscriptions in recent times. 

Putting a new Call of Duty title on there will certainly bring in new members. Microsoft will still make boatloads of money from in-game purchases, sales on other platforms (it agreed to release CoD games on PlayStation, Nintendo and elsewhere for at least a decade after the Activision deal closed) and those who prefer to buy games outright on Xbox. Xbox-owned games are selling well on PlayStation in general. There's always the possibility that Microsoft will increase the price of Game Pass to offset some of the revenue it's likely to lose from lower sales of the next Call of Duty entry on Xbox and PC.

Before Microsoft bought it, Activision had largely eschewed the idea of putting its games on subscription services. While Call of Duty titles have been made available on the likes of PlayStation Plus in the past, that usually happens years after the games were originally released.

After Microsoft's acquisition of Activision Blizzard closed late last year, it said that it would take some time for the publisher's games to start showing up on Game Pass. To date, only Diablo IV has joined the service.

Having a brand new Call of Duty game on a subscription service on day one marks a major change in strategy, though it's one that lines up with recent comments from Microsoft Gaming CEO Phil Spencer. “Our intent is the full portfolio of games from ZeniMax, Activision Blizzard and XGS — Xbox Game Studios — will be on Game Pass, day one," Spencer told Game File in February. Xbox fans will also be pleased to know that the long-standing approach of putting all first-party Microsoft releases on Game Pass on day one is likely sticking around.

We'll likely find out more about Microsoft's plans for Call of Duty and other Activision games when it comes to Game Pass at its annual showcase on June 9. The core showcase will be followed by one focusing on a "beloved franchise," which is widely expected to be CoD.

This article originally appeared on Engadget at https://www.engadget.com/the-next-call-of-duty-will-reportedly-hit-game-pass-on-its-release-day-142332534.html?src=rss

The next Call of Duty will reportedly hit Game Pass on its release day

Recent reports suggested that Microsoft executives had been debating for some time whether to put new Call of Duty games onto Game Pass on day one (i.e. on their release day). That seems like something it should have figured out before spending $68.7 billion on CoD publisher Activision Blizzard, but it seems that Microsoft has finally reached a decision. According to the Wall Street Journal, the company will indeed bring the next Call of Duty title directly to Game Pass when it arrives later this year.

Doing so may mean that Microsoft will leave hundreds of millions of dollars in game sales on the table given that each annual Call of Duty release is one of the top-selling titles of its respective year. However, the company has struggled to significantly increase the number of Game Pass subscriptions in recent times. 

Putting a new Call of Duty title on there will certainly bring in new members. Microsoft will still make boatloads of money from in-game purchases, sales on other platforms (it agreed to release CoD games on PlayStation, Nintendo and elsewhere for at least a decade after the Activision deal closed) and those who prefer to buy games outright on Xbox. Xbox-owned games are selling well on PlayStation in general. There's always the possibility that Microsoft will increase the price of Game Pass to offset some of the revenue it's likely to lose from lower sales of the next Call of Duty entry on Xbox and PC.

Before Microsoft bought it, Activision had largely eschewed the idea of putting its games on subscription services. While Call of Duty titles have been made available on the likes of PlayStation Plus in the past, that usually happens years after the games were originally released.

After Microsoft's acquisition of Activision Blizzard closed late last year, it said that it would take some time for the publisher's games to start showing up on Game Pass. To date, only Diablo IV has joined the service.

Having a brand new Call of Duty game on a subscription service on day one marks a major change in strategy, though it's one that lines up with recent comments from Microsoft Gaming CEO Phil Spencer. “Our intent is the full portfolio of games from ZeniMax, Activision Blizzard and XGS — Xbox Game Studios — will be on Game Pass, day one," Spencer told Game File in February. Xbox fans will also be pleased to know that the long-standing approach of putting all first-party Microsoft releases on Game Pass on day one is likely sticking around.

We'll likely find out more about Microsoft's plans for Call of Duty and other Activision games when it comes to Game Pass at its annual showcase on June 9. The core showcase will be followed by one focusing on a "beloved franchise," which is widely expected to be CoD.

This article originally appeared on Engadget at https://www.engadget.com/the-next-call-of-duty-will-reportedly-hit-game-pass-on-its-release-day-142332534.html?src=rss

Sony PSP emulator PPSSPP hits the iOS App Store

PPSSPP, an app that's capable of emulating PSP games, has joined the growing number of retro game emulators on the iOS App Store. The program has been around for almost 12 years, but prior to this, you could only install it on your device through workarounds. "Thanks to Apple for relaxing their policies, allowing retro games console emulators on the store," its developer Henrik Rydgård wrote in his announcement. If you'll recall, Apple updated its developer guidelines in early April, and since then, the company has approved an app that can emulate Game Boy and DS games and another that can play PS1 titles

Rydgård's app is free to download, but as he told The Verge, there's $5 gold version coming, as well. While the paid version of PPSSPP for Android does have some extra features, it's mostly available so that you can support his work. At the moment, the emulator you can download from the App Store doesn't support Magic Keyboard for the iPad, because he originally enabled compatibility using an undocumented API. Retro Achievements is also currently unavailable. Rydgård said they'll be re-added in future updates.

The emulator's other versions support the Just-in-time (JIT) compiler, which optimizes code to make it run more smoothly on a particular platform. However, the one on the App Store doesn't and will not ever support it unless Apple changes its rules. Rydgård says iOS devices are "generally fast enough" to run almost all PSP games at full speed, though, so you may not notice much of a difference. Of course, the PPSSPP program only contains the emulator itself — you're responsible for finding games you can play on the app, since Apple will not allow developers to upload games they don't own the rights to. 

This article originally appeared on Engadget at https://www.engadget.com/sony-psp-emulator-ppsspp-hits-the-ios-app-store-052506248.html?src=rss

Sony PSP emulator PPSSPP hits the iOS App Store

PPSSPP, an app that's capable of emulating PSP games, has joined the growing number of retro game emulators on the iOS App Store. The program has been around for almost 12 years, but prior to this, you could only install it on your device through workarounds. "Thanks to Apple for relaxing their policies, allowing retro games console emulators on the store," its developer Henrik Rydgård wrote in his announcement. If you'll recall, Apple updated its developer guidelines in early April, and since then, the company has approved an app that can emulate Game Boy and DS games and another that can play PS1 titles

Rydgård's app is free to download, but as he told The Verge, there's $5 gold version coming, as well. While the paid version of PPSSPP for Android does have some extra features, it's mostly available so that you can support his work. At the moment, the emulator you can download from the App Store doesn't support Magic Keyboard for the iPad, because he originally enabled compatibility using an undocumented API. Retro Achievements is also currently unavailable. Rydgård said they'll be re-added in future updates.

The emulator's other versions support the Just-in-time (JIT) compiler, which optimizes code to make it run more smoothly on a particular platform. However, the one on the App Store doesn't and will not ever support it unless Apple changes its rules. Rydgård says iOS devices are "generally fast enough" to run almost all PSP games at full speed, though, so you may not notice much of a difference. Of course, the PPSSPP program only contains the emulator itself — you're responsible for finding games you can play on the app, since Apple will not allow developers to upload games they don't own the rights to. 

This article originally appeared on Engadget at https://www.engadget.com/sony-psp-emulator-ppsspp-hits-the-ios-app-store-052506248.html?src=rss

Ubisoft’s planned free-to-play Division game is dead

Just over three years ago, Ubisoft announced The Division Heartland, a free-to-play entry in its survival-action shooter series. At the time, it suggested that Heartland would arrive later in 2021 or in 2022, but that never happened. In fact, Heartland isn't coming out at all.

In its quarterly earnings report, Ubisoft said it ended development of the game, which Red Storm Entertainment, a studio that author Tom Clancy co-founded, was working on. Ubisoft is shifting resources to what it calls "bigger opportunities," including other aspects of the Clancyverse in XDefiant and the Rainbow Six series.

Ubisoft canceled a number of games over the last couple of years to try and streamline its pipeline and reduce costs. It noted that it had reduced its headcount by more than 1,700 workers over 18 months to have 19,011 employees at the end of March.

The company also provided an update on its overarching strategy. It plans to focus on two core pillars: open=world titles (like Assassin's Creed Shadows and Star Wars Outlaws) and ongoing live-service games (XDefiant and Rainbow Six Siege). That's where Ubisoft sees room for growth, so expect more Far Cry and Ghost Recon titles in the coming years.

As for the more immediate future, we'll find out the latest about the likes of AC Shadows, Star Wars Outlaws, Rainbow Six Mobile (which should finally arrive in September), The Division Resurgence and XDefiant at Ubisoft Forward on June 10.

This article originally appeared on Engadget at https://www.engadget.com/ubisofts-planned-free-to-play-division-game-is-dead-200334383.html?src=rss