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The Incident

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KHAN Games
2015
Genre:
Puzzle
Theme:
Science Fiction
Language:
English
Licence:
Commercial
System:
NES
Views:
1554

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BootSector:
4/6
Overall:
4/6
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Local Reviews

BootSector (2017-06-16) [hide]

Avatar The Incident is a 2015, sci-fi themed, sliding-puzzle game by independent NES developer KHAN Games. This game can be considered "homebrew" being self-published by the developer and distributed directly to customers on new cartridges compatible with original Nintendo hardware (NTSC at least; not sure about PAL) as well as certain NES clone systems. The player assumes the identity of a box-pushing robot that is reactivated 400 years after the unspecified "incident" and resumes its original purpose of moving boxes. This provides the premises for the Sokoban style game play and for the storyline which unfolds as the player completes puzzles.

Overview

This style of game is a type of sliding puzzle played on a grid where each cell of the grid is either open space or a wall. Also arranged somewhere within the open spaces are two or more movable objects ("boxes") that start at predetermined locations in the puzzle. The player character is present in the grid as well and is capable of moving to adjacent open cells (excluding diagonals) or can push any of the boxes between cells as long as the cell being pushed into is open space. Certain open cells in the grid are designated as goal cells by each puzzle where the number of goal cells always equals the number of boxes and so the object is to move the boxes so that each goal cell is occupied by a movable box (it doesn't matter which box is paired with which goal).

The puzzle mechanic is the same as Sokoban and so The Incident can be considered a Sokoban clone in terms of game play. Generally, the player probably solves each puzzle using a combination of reasoning, intuition, and trail-and-error. Solving an individual puzzle involves not only finding the correct moves but also the correct sequence and so reasoning through this can be rewarding but it can also be really tricky especially when a box ultimately needs to be moved multiple times but those moves can't always be done all at once. Obviously, certain players will enjoy working through this type of problem and others will not and this is probably the single largest factor that would determine whether you like or dislike the title.

Puzzles

While easily considered a clone, all 120 individual puzzles in the game are original and created specifically for The Incident and so if nothing else provides never-before-seen content for any Sokoban fans/junkies out there. This is actually the first and only Sokoban style game that I've played but I found that the majority of the puzzles in the game struck a good balance between being too easy and too hard. The difficultly of each puzzle fluctuates somewhat when advancing from one puzzle to the next but the game mostly tries to arrange them in order of increasing difficulty in a very broad sense although the difficultly does seem to peak before the last twenty or thirty puzzles.

Overall, the number of possible moves is kept manageable even on the more difficult puzzles which keeps the game from becoming overwhelmingly difficult. Perhaps this is intentional or perhaps it's a result of the limited screen space provided by the NES but the vast majority of the stages keep the number of possible permutations of moves within a reasonable limit so that you don't go crazy trying to work through them and remembering what you've previously tried. A very small handful of the levels do break with this convention though and you can see the depth of the search tree right from the start and know that the puzzle will be absolutely no fun the try and solve.

This type of quagmire could easily prove fatal to anyone's interest in the game causing it to be quickly abandoned but the developer obviously anticipated this and didn't want a single disagreeable puzzle to ruin anyone's fun. To deal with this, The Incident implements a kind of neat feature where the player is awarded an unlock point for every three puzzles solved. The points can then be used at any time on any future puzzles to see a pre-recorded solution played back and then advance automatically to next stage.

This pretty much guarantees that anyone can just skip past those few pesky stages you just don't feel like trying to solve. The game manual suggests banking these points until late in the game when the difficulty is harder although I think the every-three-stage award policy is quite generous and provides more points than anyone should ever really need. Either way, once you've got more points saved then there are levels remaining you can continue to solve the puzzles manually or just burn through the points and ride them all the way to the end of the game. The pre-recorded solutions can also be viewed for free at any time when revisiting any previous stage that had already been passed using either method.

It might be surprising that I say this but, the puzzles actually provide pretty good replay value. It could be easy to think that once you've completed the puzzles you know how to solve them and so running through them again wouldn't be much fun. It might be that I just have a lousy memory but I find on replay that I don't really remember the solutions from the last time I played so I have to solve them all over again. I must remember something though or maybe my solving skills are just better developed since I find the solutions do tend to come easier the second time through and it's actually more fun since I spent less time being stuck.

Interface

The player character is controlled with the directional pad on the NES controller in the expected fashion allowing it to move freely in four directions. Although the game board is actually a grid, the movement of the character is at the pixel level and so the character is rarely perfectly aligned within a given row or column of the board. Pushing boxes is accomplished by just moving into the cell the box occupies in the direction of the desired movement and the move is valid as long as the space on the opposite side is open.

The collision algorithm used by the game though causes the robot to be considered to be touching the box even if only a single line of pixels is aligned with the box along the side. This makes it really easy to accidentally push a block when just trying to move around it which can become really frustrating not only because the game counts the number of moves but also because these accidental moves could put the puzzle into a state where it becomes impossible to solve or to reverse the move requiring the entire stage be started over from the beginning (by pressing start). Many times I've hit this while trying to complete the last move and then had to redo basically the entire stage. Aside from just adjusting the collision algorithm, an undo-the-last-move function would have been really helpful with this problem but it's not a feature the game has.

Story

"Imagine a world where mankind no longer has to deal with the manual labor of pushing boxes. That dream is fiction no more. May I introduce model KSS-084, or as we like to call him, 'Sam.'"

--Dr. Christopher Davis, TED Talks Conference, December 19, 2015

One of the more charming features of The Incident is its storyline which is based on the tongue-in-cheek premise that the creation of robots that moved boxes around was a momentous accomplishment with enormous benefits but then something went horribly wrong. The game takes place in or shortly after the year 2415; some four hundred years after the incident. The back of the game's box poses the question "What happened 400 years ago?" but even after completing the game you are still only left with a vague sense that some massive accident occurred perhaps similar in scale and impact to the real-world Chernobyl and that it somehow involved a box and a box pushing robot.

It maybe that the developer had more details in mind that were left unrevealed or that it was always intended to be left unclear since it's really just a fun plot device and so those details are not really important; I don't know. Either way, this is both unique and imaginative and it helps The Incident stand apart from other titles within this genre.

The story is primarily revealed by a recurring screen with a blue window which displays a quote from various people at different points in time before and after the incident occurs. The game splits the 120 different puzzles into 12 different "floors" containing 10 puzzles each and the screen appears once before each floor revealing a new quote each time. This is followed by a separate green and black screen at the end of the game (after completing all puzzles) which concludes the story.

The game begins with the box pushing robot KSS-084 waking up in the basement of the doomed facility 400 years later for some unclear reason. From there the excuse for solving the puzzles is that KSS-084 is doing it because that what it's programmed to do. You play your way up a full ten floors (100 puzzles) as this robot and then after that you play one floor as KSS-085 and then another as KSS-086; the other two turn out to be important in resolving the story at the very end.

There's not much different in these last twenty levels from the first hundred other than each floor has its own robot sprite, different tile set and different color palette. In fact, I think the last twenty puzzles aren't even the most difficult and I'm a little confused by this configuration. Maybe these second two robots are considered 'bonus' characters or maybe the developer originally intended to create even more than 120 stages? In any case, it seems like KSS-084 ends up doing a disproportionate amount of the work and I would have expected the levels to be more evenly distributed between the three characters.

Sound & Graphics

This is a real NES game that runs on real 1980s hardware and so any discussion of the sound and graphics in the game must be understood within the technical limitations of the system. That said, I think the graphics are quite good. The KSS-084 sprite is ably drawn, sleek, and makes good use of the three color limit. The main tile set used for the first 100 puzzles is also very cleanly drawn and fits the sci-fi theme very well. The graphic sets for the other two robots are more exotic looking and I didn't enjoy them as much. Overall, the graphics have a polished, professional quality to them and they avoid that amateurish look that even some of the licensed NES games had.

There are minimal sound effects given the nature of the game but I would say they are used effectively and appropriately and convey the meaning that they intend but the music I kind of have mixed feelings for. Each floor has its own track, a track for the ending, and an annoying collection of high pitched sounds that plays on the title screen which obviously wasn't intended as 'music' but still must be implemented as a 'track' in the sound system. A couple of the tracks I really enjoyed, especially the second floor (puzzles 11 thru 20) but, a lot of the tracks could be described as "robot music" or just loose collections of techno-sounds that don't really form a coherent melody.

Level Editor

A really neat but I fear universally unused feature is the built-in level editor. This feature is exactly what it sounds like; it lets you create your own puzzles using all the same tiles and other elements that the built-in puzzles use. You can then play your puzzle or export it using a password system. The passwords could be traded and then your friend could import your puzzle on their own copy of the game using the password and solve it (or fail to).

This has real appeal in principle, and the password system is just pure old-school awesomeness, but in practice I doubt anyone is doing this. I have no real personal interest in creating the puzzles and even if I did, I don't think I'd be any good at it. I think this is probably true of most folks and since I imagine this game doesn't have a terribly large install base to begin with there are probably just not enough people out there to really form a community of puzzle designers around this title. In addition, the passwords are fairly hefty in length and complexity (since they carry a lot of data) so I imagine transcribing them from the screen for export and then entering them would be a cumbersome process.

Packaging & Distribution

This is an NES game and it's sold and distributed the way NES games are intended to be: on a cartridge! Not just any cartridge but a brand new cartridge, apparently manufactured using all new and modern components by a small manufacturer known as "Membler Industries" which supports homebrew developers. The cartridge appears to have been well designed and manufactured but it has a curious feature of two LED lights—one green and one red—on the circuit board which apparently the game software can control. I think this was probably supposed to be some kind of debugging feature for developers but for whatever reason The Incident chooses to leave the red light turned on all the time. I'd think this was annoying except for the fact that I just close the lid on the console.

The cartridge shell is composed of a dark gray and semi-transparent plastic (but otherwise is the same shape as a standard NES cartridge) which looks really good and stands out among the standard light gray of most NES games. There is, of course, a label sticker affixed to the cart like any other game and this is all very polished and professional looking.

You can buy just the cartridge but if you splurge and spend the extra $10 US (which I highly recommend) you get the complete-in-box version including a box and printed color manual. If I'm honest then I'd probably say this mostly just feeds your sense of nostalgia since the box and manual aren't really necessary in today's world but they are again both really polished and provide a nice collector's piece. Great care was obviously taken to emulate the packaging conventions used for the commercial NES games of yore and if you could reach into the past and put this on store shelf circa 1985 then it would easily hold its own against any other game.

While think it's quite cool to be able to purchase a new game on a brand-new cartridge for a system that is more than 30 years old at this point, the fact that the game can only be played on an NES console at this point is disappointing. As of this writing, there is an active entry on Steam Greenlight but this also misses the point. This type of contemplative game with its many bite-sized stages is perfect for the mobile space since I'd love to be able to attack one of these puzzles while I'm out and got a couple of minutes to kill; better than only being able to do it my living room. Rather than the PC port on Steam, it would be better ported to Android, iOS, etc. or even just sold as a ROM image for download to play on an emulator like Nostalgia.NES Pro.

Moreover, this review has been a long time coming since the cartridge format proved quite an impediment. It's been a good while since both I first played The Incident and when I made my first contribution to The Good Old Days. For all that time I've wanted to write this review but only recently did I find a practical method of creating the screen shots that accompany it. Had the game been available in another format this might have been much easier.

Conclusion

The Incident occupies a double niche, one in a specific sub-genre of sliding puzzle, and two being a classic console indie title. Despite that, it's got a lot going for it including engrossing game play, replay value, and even a cute sci-fi theme right down to the level numbers being displayed in binary code. It's a game for a classic console, yes, but don't go looking for ROM image to download (although there is a demo available on the NintendoAge forums; registration is required) since it's still for sale on a real-life cartridge. I believe the developer actually personally flashes and assembles each copy by hand. So, I'll just close by saying that you should consider supporting an indie developer and the wider NES homebrew community plus you'd be helping to give a great title the attention that it deserves.

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