Sunday, December 26, 2021

My Game of the Year Awards: 2021

Dating back to my days as a kid, one of my favorite hobbies is computer and console gaming. Following the Gamers With Jobs rules -- only games that I played for the first time in 2021 are eligible to make the list -- here are my top 10 favorite new-to-me games of 2021 (along with the platform on which I played each game), in descending order:

1. Metroid Dread (Nintendo Switch)

After nearly 20 years, we finally got a new 2D Metroid sequel. And it does so many things right! Gameplay that deeply respects prior games in the series, yet smartly blazes new territory. Beautiful and finely-detailed graphics. Good map/level design. Tough but fair boss battles. It's probably impossible for the greatness of Super Metroid (SNES) to ever be matched again, but Dread is an excellent modern take on the formula.

2. Bravely Default 2 (Nintendo Switch)

Bravely Default 2 takes the raw materials of JRPGs going all the way back to the first Final Fantasy games, iterates and folds them back on themselves many times, and ends up with this pretty nice piece of gaming origami. The most important thing I look for in a JRPG is combat that is fun, well-balanced, and (ideally) rewards smarts/creativity on the part of the player, and Bravely Default 2 delivers.

3. Final Fantasy Pixel Remaster (iPhone)

Speaking of the first Final Fantasy games: It was a treat this year having in my pocket this update to the very first Final Fantasy featuring a wonderful soundtrack, sharp graphics, and modernized and rebalanced gameplay -- while still remaining faithful to the original. I don't often blog about individual games, but I did do a compare-and-contrast between Final Fantasy Pixel Remaster and the NES original.

4. Monster Train (Windows)

With my primary computer these days being a Mac, I don't do a lot of gaming on Windows, but I made an exception for Monster Train. It's a fun and smart iteration on the Slay the Spire deck-builder-battler genre. (I was initially put off somewhat by the protagonists being the forces of Hell, but it's fine; in Monster Train, the angels are a bunch of jerks, and your team is fighting for self-preservation.)

5. Xenoblade Chronicles (Nintendo Switch)

I'm still midway through this expansive classic, and it might end up higher on a hypothetical 2021-2022 combined list, but for now, here we are! I had originally passed on this game, but the combination of my teenage son recommending it to me as having "single-player MMO" combat, plus wanting to learn more about Shulk from Smash Ultimate convinced me to give Xenoblade Chronicles a fair shake, and I'm glad I did. And I really like the soundtrack!

6. Etrian Odyssey 5 (Nintendo 3DS)

I dusted off my 3DS again during a period where the aforementioned teenage son was monopolizing the household Switch, and discovered that he'd purchased a digital copy of Etrian Odyssey 5 (2017) at some point. I'm only midway through, but the tough combat and old-school DIY mapping using the 3DS's stylus are just as engaging as I remember from earlier series entries.

7. New Pokemon Snap (Nintendo Switch)

I had low expectations for New Pokemon Snap, but they were wildly exceeded when I had a couple of weeks to give it a try on a check-out from my local library. I think the thing I like most is the fact that when you manage to get a great photograph, it's 100% due to your own timing and skill -- not due in part to some huge passive buff from a piece of equipped gear, or a lucky roll on some behind-the-scenes RNG. I'm planning to purchase a copy of New Pokemon Snap for myself when it goes on sale.

8. Steamworld Quest (iPhone)

This deck-builder-battler that's not a roguelike, but is instead a party-based RPG, played really well on the iPhone platform, even though it was originally designed for larger screens. The unique battle system kept me engaged all the way through to the end of the game.

9. Roguebook (Mac)

Another fun riff on the deck-builder-battler-roguelike genre, adding a map exploration mechanic that ends up working a bit like FTL, where you need to do all you can in a given area to power yourself up, before taking on the area boss and advancing. A few remaining rough edges in both minor UI bugs and gameplay balance issues don't hold Roguebook back from being fun to play.

10. Sorcery! 4-game series (Mac)

Also available on iPhone, this isn't just a remaster of the original 1980s gamebook series, but a full remake, taking advantage of the digital platform. A combat system that incorporates a bit of skill, and isn't simply dice-rolling -- and smartly, gives the player the option to immediately replay battles that didn't go so well -- adds to the fun.

Honorable mention

Best new DLC: Fighters Pass 2 for Super Smash Bros Ultimate (Switch). I find it crazy how well this mashup of 82 or so distinct playable characters from dozens of different series actually works in practice. My favorite gaming experience of 2021, eclipsing any of the new games mentioned above, is playing 2v2 local-vs-online matches with the teenage son. (The characters I mainly play are Samus and Ludwig von Koopa!)

Friday, December 10, 2021

Kotlin: My first impressions, via days 1-3 of Advent of Code 2021

While working on Ruby solutions to this year's Advent of Code programming challenges, my attention was caught by one of the sponsored messages running in the site's sidebar, from JetBrains:

Get ready to jingle with Advent of Code in Kotlin! Have fun, learn new things, and win prizes. Believe in magic with Kotlin. Happy holidays!

That link redirected to a post on the JetBrains / Kotlin blog inviting developers to try out the Kotlin language via the Advent of Code (AoC) problems, and providing a nice Kotlin AoC GitHub template as a starting point.

I'd never worked with Kotlin before, but I have used AoC to try out new programming languages before. Serendipitously, I had some time available today, and so I decided to give it a go!

In the time I had, I wound up solving the first 3 days of AoC 2021 in Kotlin.  Here's a quick write-up of my very first impressions of Kotlin!

What I liked!

Good out of the box support in the IntelliJ IDE (which I downloaded for the first time today), including suggestions for more idiomatic Kotlin syntax. (Which makes sense, as JetBrains provides both the IntelliJ IDE and the Kotlin language itself!)  I was saved from some instances of typical "trying to write language X as if it were language Y" newbie mistakes by warnings/suggestions in the IDE.

IntelliJ displays, inline in loop declarations, whether the lower and upper bounds are inclusive of exclusive. This made it easy for me to understand whether, in a Kotlin until loop over an array, I needed to use myArray.length or myArray.length - 1 as the upper bound of the loop. (The former!)

I found the data class syntax to be a nice succinct and readable way for a method to return some related values. In a method in one of my Ruby AoC solutions where I was returning two values just wrapped together in an array, it was easy in the Kotlin equivalent to declare a one-liner data class, and then have my method return an instance of that class, to make what was being returned much more obvious to readers.

If ... else in Kotlin is an expression, not a statement. While looking up an equivalent for the typical ? : ternary expression syntax, I actually enjoyed discovering that ? : is actually not supported in Kotlin, and an inline if ... else should be used instead.

Support for ".."-syntax ranges like in Ruby (e.g. (5..15) to represent the set of integers 5 through 15, inclusive) was fun to see in a C-like language.

The variable-declaration keywords val and var, similar to let and const in JavaScript ES6, to respectively declare immutable and immutable variables.

The ability to pass a function "pointer" as a parameter to a function -- something both the Ruby and Kotlin variations of my Day 3 solution actually made use of.


What I maybe didn't like so much

I actually wasn't aware of this ahead of time, but Kotlin is built on top of Java. (Or perhaps it's more accurate to say that Kotlin, like Java, is a language that runs on the JVM?) The first time I became aware of this was when my program threw an exception... and there was a mix of Java and Kotlin code in the call stack. I have no idea to what extent aspects of Java poke their heads up while working in Kotlin... but it's something that I'd want to understand more about before committing to using Kotlin for a real project, versus other available languages where that kind of thing is much more of a non-issue.

JetBrains' Kotlin template for AoC helpfully included a check call to test each problem's provided sample answer against the corresponding sample input. What wasn't so helpful was that a failure of the test just resulted in a generic java.lang.IllegalStateException : Check failed -- with no accompanying mention of the check's expected or actual values. I had to manually add a print statement to find out what the failure was. Maybe I was just missing something?

I ran into some trouble using the built-in pow to raise 2 to the power of a particular variable:

  • It took me a little while to figure out why I was getting an Unresolved reference: pow.  I ended up googling for that exact phrase, while led me to discover that an import kotlin.math.* is needed. Not surprising in retrospect, but it would have been nice to a a prompt in Kotlin's error message about an import/reference possibly being needed. (I believe C# does this, probably among others.)
  • The pow method (as of the current version, 1.6) can't be used on integers. After a little more confusion, I figured out that I had to use the literal 2.0 (instead of just 2), and then manually convert the result back to an Int after getting my result. Why make developers do that?



Verdict? It's much too early for a verdict! I only worked with Kotlin for a few hours, on some toy problems, on my own! 

It was fun, though, to get to play with a new language! Kudos to the Kotlin team at JetBrains for their combination of the Advent of Code sponsored message, their blog post, and the Kotlin Advent of Code GitHub template, which taken together, were enough to get me to take a look at Kotlin!

And if you're a developer but have never taken a look at Advent of Code before, I strongly recommend checking it out! The event is extremely well crafted and executed each year. It's worth your time!