With Sincere Apologies To Charles Dickens, And The Readers
First Stave – The Editor’s Ghost
Let me tell you the story of Shaun Musgrave. Though they say he used to be different, it’s hard to imagine it. There was never such a staunch defender of free-to-play social RPGs as he, with a stubborn streak in him about paying even a cent for an app. The cold within his heart froze his features, made him walk stiffly, and spoke out shrewdly in his grating voice. Nobody ever sent him a tweet to ask how he was doing or when he would like to play Clash Of Clans together. No Facebook friends asked him for a life in Candy Crush, no children even asked him for a promo code. But Shaun didn’t care, because he didn’t care much for people. He wished only to be left alone to grind enough premium currency for his next Town Hall upgrade.
Once upon a time, on Christmas Eve, Shaun sat in his office in TouchArcade Towers. He spent the day as any other day, preparing news stories for the most popular free-to-play hits and editorials championing their cause. He had the door open to keep a sharp eye on his clerk, one Eric Ford, who was busy scrawling out guides for how to win games without spending real money. Shaun’s desire to avoid spending real money extended even to the heat. While Shaun had a small stove to keep warm with, the clerk had to make do without much more than a candle or two. Suddenly, a shout came from the lobby.
“A merry Christmas, uncle!" cried a cheerful voice. It was Nathan, Shaun’s nephew, with eyes sparkling and cheeks flush from walking briskly through the cold.
“Bah!" said Shaun, “Wibbly-bibbly!"
“Christmas? Wibbly-bibbly? You can’t mean that, uncle, I’m sure." said Nathan.
“I do! Merry Christmas! And what have you got to be merry about? You’re poor enough from all of those App Store sales." said Shaun.
“Well, what have you got to be miserable about? You’re rich enough from holiday premium currency giveaways." said his nephew.
“Bah! Wibbly-bibbly!"said the uncle, angrily.
“You mad?" said Nathan, shuffling the bags he was carrying.
“What else can I be," replied Shaun, “when I live in such a world of fools as this Merry Christmas! Paying hard-earned money for piles and piles of games you’ll never play and will probably be broken when you do, finding yourself a year older but no richer for it, celebrating a time where you wait with dread for the January credit card bill to come so you can see exactly how much you spent saving money on sales? If I had my way, all of the Merry Christmas idiots would be boiled with their own gourmet coffee, and buried with an Apple Pencil through their heart! Nephew, keep Christmas in your own way, and let me keep it in mine!"
“Don’t be angry, uncle. Why don’t you come and dine with us tomorrow?"
“I’d rather dine with the dogs, my dear nephew." Shaun curtly replied.
“I’m sorry you feel that way, uncle. I’ve never started any trouble with you, as far as I can remember. But I came here with Christmas in my heart, and I’ll keep it to the last. So, Merry Christmas to you, uncle! And a Happy New Year!"
“Bah! Wibbly-bibbly!" said Shaun as he nephew took leave of the Towers. Nathan stopped on the way out to give a greeting to the clerk Eric, who returned them in kind.
“Eric Ford." muttered Shaun, who overheard the exchange. “My clerk, who I pay in nothing more than exposure that will help him put a foot in the door of the game industry, with a wife and child, prattling about Merry Christmases. I feel like I’m taking crazy pills!"
At last, it was time to close up TouchArcade Towers for the day. He informed Eric Ford of this, who snuffed out his candle and put on his hat.
“I suppose you’ll want the whole day off tomorrow, yes?" said Shaun.
“If that’s okay with you, sir."
“It’s not, and it’s not fair. But if I didn’t agree to it, you’d probably complain on social media, I’m sure. And yet you don’t see me firing off sub-tweets when I pay a day’s exposure for no work. A poor excuse for picking a man’s pocket every year, I declare! But you can have your day off tomorrow. I expect to see you here early the next morning to start working on New Year’s think pieces!"
Ford promised he would, and Shaun and Eric locked up and went their separate ways, the clerk running in the direction of his house on the west side of town, and Shaun to his home in the far east. Shaun’s home was a dark, rickety old structure, and the thick fog and frost were not making it any easier to navigate its blackened front path.
As Shaun approached his front door, for a moment the knocker looked like a beefy arm. He closed his eyes and shook his head, then looked again. Just a regular knocker. Shuffling into his dark house, he ascended the stairs to his room. After nervously taking a second look around him, he entered the room.
After checking under all of the furniture, Shaun closed his door and locked himself in, drawing the second bolt across for extra safety. He changed into his pajamas and started playing Candy Crush Soda Saga when the images began to haunt him again.
“Wibbly-bibbly!" said Shaun, and walked across the room.
Suddenly, Shaun could hear the sound of a cable being dragged across the floor down in the basement. The door to the basement flew open with the sound of dub-step, and Shaun heard the scraping noise much louder, first on the floor below, then on the stairs, then just outside his door.
“It’s wibbly-bibbly still!" said Shaun. “I won’t believe it."
His face turned pale when it came through his locked door and passed into the room. The same massive biceps: the very same. His old editor in his usual tight short-sleeved shirt, long sideburns, and soul patch. The cable he pulled was tied around his waist. It was long, and wrapped around him like a tail, and it was made of free t-shirts with game logos, stickers, and cases for old iPhones. Shaun couldn’t believe it, and fought hard against his senses.
“How now!" said Shaun, caustic and cold as ever. “What do you want with me?"
“Much, bro!" — his voice, no doubt about it.
“Who are you?"
“Ask me who I was, man."
“Who were you then." said Shaun, raising his voice. “You’re particular, for a shade."
“In life, I was your editor, Bra- "
“Enough, sit down."
“You’re not super believing in me, are you? Why do you doubt your senses, man?"
“Because for all I know you might be an undigested bit of beef jerky, a crumb of Cheeto, a fragment of an underdone potato chip. There’s more of gravy than of grave about you. Wibbly-bibbly, I say!"
The muscular spirit raised a frightful cry and shook its lightning cable with such an appalling sound that Shaun held on tight to his chair to prevent from fainting. But how much greater was his horror, when the phantom unstrapped its chinguard and its lower jaw fell down upon its pecs.
Shaun fell upon his knees and begged the ghost. “Mercy! Dreadful apparition with a spectacularly low BMI, why do you trouble me? How did you get like this?"
“I wear the cable I forged in life," replied the ghost. “I built it up of my own free will, and of my own free will, I wore it. Would you like to know the weight of your lightning cable, man? It was super big three years ago when I left. You’ve worked hard on it since then. It’s huge now."
Shaun was dismayed to hear this, and began to shake like an iPhone with notifications from King games turned on.
“Hear me, bro!" cried the buff ghost. “My time is nearly gone. I am hear tonight to warn you, that you have a chance of escaping my fate. You will be haunted by Three Spirits, the first arriving at the stroke of one o’clock. Without their rad visits, you can’t hope to shun the path I briskly jog. Look to see me no more, and for your own sake, make sure to cut out carbs in your diet!"
At that moment, the spectre fastened the chinguard on its headgear, putting its jaw back in place. It opened the window, and after doing two sets of squats, floated out upon the bleak, dark night.
Shaun closed the window and checked the locks on the door. They were as he left them, double-locked by his own hands. “Wibbly-bibbly!" he said, and went straight to bed, falling asleep immediately.
Second Stave – The First Of The Three Spirits
Shaun woke up at midnight, and watched the clock intently as it moved from a quarter past, to half past, to a quarter to, until it finally hit one o’clock with a “ding, dong".
“The hour itself," said Shaun, hastily checking Twitter, “and nothing else!"
No sooner had Shaun spoken, a flash of light appeared, and a figure came in through the window. It was a strange figure – like a child, yet not so like a child as like a skinny hipster, viewed through some supernatural medium.
“Are you the Spirit, sir, whose coming was foretold to me?" asked Shaun.
“I am! I am the Ghost Of Christmas Past. Rise, and walk with me!"
As the words were spoken, the two disappeared from the room, and stood upon a country road, surrounded by pine trees. “Good heaven!" said Shaun, as he looked around. “I was born here! This is where I grew up!"
“These are but shadows of the things that have been," said the Ghost. “They can’t see or hear us."
They left the road and came upon a house sitting surrounded by trees. As they approached the window, the Spirit touched Shaun on the arm and pointed inside.
“Why, it’s me! When I returned home several years ago, back when I was writing that RPG Reload column and had a full head of hair!" Shaun exclaimed.
The Spirit cleared his throat.
“Well, almost a full head of hair. What am I playing on that old, non-Retina iPhone?" Shaun said, looking intently. “No, wait! I remember – it’s Song Summoner!"
Song Summoner: The Unsung Heroes
Square Enix has a large presence on the App Store, but every journey begins with a first step, and theirs was Song Summoner, which is such an early release that it nearly predates the App Store. Initially released in July 2008 for iPod Touch, it received a special re-release called Song Summoner: The Unsung Heroes – Encore ($8.99) in December of 2009. The newer version added more characters and fleshed out the story a little, while offering the same meat-and-potatoes strategy RPG combat as the original release.
The gameplay and story are of pretty good quality, but what makes the game stand out is its clever gimmick of generating troops from your personal music library. Simply choose a song and a character will be created in one of five different job classes, with stats all their own. It’s a lot of fun to see what you’ll get for the tunes in your library, a process made even more enjoyable by the game’s shameless references to famous musicians in both text and illustrations. The connection to your library doesn’t end there, though. You can actually make your troops stronger by listening to the songs you generated them from when you’re not playing the game. Weird, innovative, and very cool.
Sadly, Song Summoner stopped working a couple of years ago, and it seems unlikely at this point that Square Enix will fix it. It’s still in the App Store for now, so anything could happen, and I sincerely hope Square does take care of it. It’s a fun game, but more than that, it’s historically significant.
“Oh, good Spirit, I loved that game and was happy to pay good money for it," said Shaun. “But like all paid games eventually do, it broke and was never fixed. I had always hoped to do an RPG Reload for it."
The Ghost smiled thoughtfully, and waved its hand, saying as it did so, “Let us see another Christmas!"
Shaun’s former self grew larger around the waist and thinner of hair at the words, and the room became a little more shabby. The iPhone in his hands was now clearly one with a Retina display, and he was playing it with just as much focus as he had in the previous vision. Shaun grew excited once more upon seeing what his former self was playing.
“Why, it’s Drakerider! You know, sir Spirit, that was the first big RPG I reviewed for TouchArcade." Shaun said earnestly as he watched himself play.
Released in July 2012, Drakerider (Free) is a mostly-traditional JRPG-style game that has you taking control of a dragon-riding hero who gets wrapped up in an incredibly twisted plot. The unique element of the gameplay comes in the form of the dragon’s chains. You have to swipe to keep the dragon under control in combat, but there are certain advantages involved in letting him have some slack now and then. The storyline isn’t quite as good as those found in the Chaos Rings series, and the gameplay doesn’t fan out quite as well as the gene system in those games, but it’s quite a good effort on the whole. Drakerider was initially released as a free game with IAP to unlock the remaining chapters, but Square Enix did an all-in-one release called Chains Transcendent ($11.99) that also included a few features that probably should have been included in an update to the original.
Like Song Summoner, Drakerider and Chains Transcendent both stopped working with the arrival of iOS 8. If anything, I would say it’s even less likely to see a fix than Song Summoner, as it’s not nearly as prestigious or well-liked. I wouldn’t be surprised if Square Enix removed this game from the App Store sooner or later and left it forgotten to the mists of time.
“Another paid game that broke and saw no fixes, and perhaps never will since nobody seemed to care much about it. I wish," Shaun muttered, putting his hand in his pocket, and looking about him, after drying his eyes with his cuff. “But it’s too late now."
“What is the matter?" asked the Spirit.
“Nothing," said Shaun. “Nothing. I should liked to have written an RPG Reload about this game, too, that’s all."
Then, Shaun grabbed the Ghost’s Gunnar Gaming Glasses and said, “Spirit, leave me! Take me back. Haunt me no longer!"
Suddenly, he was back in his room, where he fell upon his bed and went into a deep sleep.
Stave Three – The Second Of The Three Spirits
Shaun watched the windows intently as the next hour approached. This time, he wouldn’t be surprised when the Ghost arrived. It was the least he could do. When time came, there wasn’t a sign of anything at the window. It was then Shaun spotted the light coming from under his door. He went over the locks and listened.
“Shaun!" cried a voice. Shaun unfastened the locks and slowly pulled the door open. What he saw was not his hallway, but a mirror image of his own room, festively decorated and lit brightly. And in the corner of it sat a jovial-looking fellow with a bushy beard. Cats surrounded him, creating a veritable kitty corner, as he laughed and feasted on the foods that lay in front of him.
“Come in!" exclaimed the Ghost. “Come in, and know me better! I am the Ghost Of Christmas Present – look upon me!"
“Spirit," Shaun said quietly, “take me where you will. I went with your companion earlier, and I think I’ve started to learn something of a lesson. If you have something to teach me, I’m willing to hear it."
“Then touch my bathrobes!"
Shaun did as the Spirit asked, gripping his robes tightly. Suddenly, he found himself on the street outside the home of his clerk, Eric Ford. As he and the Spirit entered, Shaun could not help but notice how shabby it was, yet the Ghost blessed it just the same. Apparently, exposure doesn’t pay the bills as well as some might lead you to believe. As before Shaun and the Spirit were invisible, so they found themselves a good place to watch events play out from.
There was Mrs. Ford, and four Ford children, preparing the table for a feast. Just as things were ready and people got to wondering where the rest of the family was, Eric Ford, looking as presentable as he could, marched in the door, with Tiny Andy slung over his shoulder, holding a little crutch. Shaun could not help but notice Tiny Andy was in a rough state, his limbs supported by an iron frame and his scraggly beard unkempt. The whole family took their places at the table, and dug into the feast. At last dinner was finished, at which point Mrs. Ford prepared a hot drink and cups for everyone. Then Eric proposed a toast.
“A Merry Christmas to us all, my dears. May commenters bless us!"
Which the whole family agreed to eagerly.
“Commenters bless us, every one!" said Tiny Andy, the last of all. As the older children and the parents discussed matters, the younger children played a game together. It was one of the finest games a group of a children could play, Monster Hunter Freedom Unite. Tiny Andy took the lead, guiding the other children with his wisdom beyond years.
Monster Hunter Freedom Unite
Released by Capcom in 2014, Monster Hunter Freedom Unite is an enhanced port of the best-selling PSP game of all-time. Up to four players can team up to try to take down monsters big and small. The parts and loot earned from such ventures can be used to create better gear, giving the game a great hook. The loads of quests and content help keep the player interested beyond the basic joy of hunting. The learning curve is steep, and you’re just as likely to find it disagreeable as to fall in love with it, but if it clicks, you’ll have found a new obsession. The best thing about this port is that it makes it possible to play over the internet with other players, something that required a bit of trickery with the PSP version. Of course, it’s been superseded by sequels that you can get on the 3DS, but Freedom Unite is plenty of fun on its own.
This game stopped working as of iOS 8.4 on 64-bit devices, and for a while, it seemed that Capcom’s official stance was that they had no plans of updating it. Indeed, the game was pulled from the App Store, and that seemed to be that. Recently, however, the Japanese branch of Capcom has made an announcement that they plan to fix the game. Perhaps Monster Hunter will ride again one day.
“Tell me, Spirit," said Shaun, “tell me if Tiny Andy will live."
“I see a vacant seat," replied the Ghost. “in the poor chimney-corner, and a crutch without an owner, carefully preserved. If these shadows remain unaltered by the future, the child will die."
“No, no," said Shaun. “Oh, no, kind Spirit! Say he will be spared." His eyes looked downward, as a deep sadness overcame him.
In that moment, the voice of Eric Ford could be heard again.
“Mr. Musgrave!" said Eric, “Let’s hear it for Mr. Musgrave, whose helpful multi-year internship paid for this feast via exposure!"
Hearing the groans of the family, he continued on.
“My dears, it is Christmas Day," said Eric.
“That’s the only day anyone would drink to the health of a stingy, odious fellow as Mr. Musgrave. He won’t even watch incentivized ads, for fear of the developer seeing a penny by his efforts! You know he’s like that, Eric, nobody knows better than you do! But I’ll drink to his health, for your sake and for Christmas, but not for his." said Mrs. Ford.
The family drank, and with that unpleasant business taken care of, the mood once again lifted. Some of the children danced, while Tiny Andy sang in his sweet, angelic voice. They didn’t have much, but this family was happy.
Now, without any warning from the Ghost, they found themselves at the home of Shaun’s nephew, Nathan. There he was gathered, with his wife and his friends, and they were laughing heartily.
“No joke, he said that Christmas was wibbly-bibbly!" cried Shaun’s nephew. “He believed it, too! What a comical old fellow. Not the nicest guy, but I’ve got nothing against him, really."
“I have no patience with him," said Shaun’s niece-by-marriage, and others agreed with her.
“Oh, I do," said Nathan. “I feel pity for him. I couldn’t be angry with him if I tried, because he is the only one who suffers by his choices. He misses a fine dinner like this because of his prickly nature, and for what? Right now, he’s probably grinding experience points to take on an event dungeon in Puzzle & Dragons (Free) or something. But I won’t give up on him. I’ll invite him every year, and wish him a Merry Christmas every year, and eventually, he might come around. Even if I can just get him to be a little nicer to that clerk of his, I’ll have accomplished something."
With that said, the group began to play some games together, including one of Shaun’s old favorites, Dungeon Hunter 2.
Dungeon Hunter 2
Released in December of 2010 by Gameloft, Dungeon Hunter 2 was a follow-up to the game that gave iOS gamers a reasonable facsimile of Diablo. The biggest new addition was that of online co-op multiplayer, a feature that was appreciated by many fans. Up to four players could join forces to take on the bad guys and earn some sweet loot. Sure, it’s nowhere near the level of the real thing, but we’re five years on from its release and unless things change dramatically, we probably won’t be seeing Blizzard port Diablo to mobile anytime soon. There were many sequels to Dungeon Hunter 2, of course, with the most recent being Dungeon Hunter 5 (Free), which hit at the beginning of 2015. That said, the series took a free-to-play turn after this installment that didn’t sit well with many of the fans of what the first two games had to offer.
Dungeon Hunter 2 disappeared from the App Store quite a while ago, and almost certainly doesn’t work on modern hardware. Given the new focus of the series, I can’t imagine a scenario where Gameloft goes back to fix it, so all we can really do is remember it fondly and hope that one day someone else picks up the torch where Gameloft left off, even if it’s not necessarily the profitable thing to do.
As the people at the party came back around to the topic of Nathan’s curious uncle and how he had missed out on a good dinner, Nathan stood up once more.
“He’s given us a few laughs, at least," said Nathan, “so let’s drink to his health. A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to the old guy, wherever he might be! He wouldn’t take it from me, but he can have it anyway!"
The rest of the party-goers joined in the toast, and Shaun would have liked to himself, if the Spirit had not whisked him away immediately. He found himself in his room once more, where the Ghost gave him a final farewell before disappearing. The clock then struck the next hour, and Shaun began looking around to spot the last Spirit scheduled to visit. Lifting his eyes, he soon saw a cloaked and hooded figure with an air of villainy about him.
Stave 4 – The Last Of The Spirits
The villainous phantom slowly, silently approached. It was so shrouded in its cloak that its features were completely obscured, and it almost totally blended into the darkness.
“I am in the presence of the Ghost Of Christmas Yet To Come?" said Shaun.
The Spirit had no answer, and simply pointed with its hand.
“So you are to show me the shadows of things that haven’t happened yet, but will happen, is that right?" Shaun asked.
Once again, no reply, but the Phantom seemed to nod its head from under the cloak. Though he was used to being in the presence of ghosts by now, there was something different about this one. Something that chilled him to the bone.
“Ghost of the Future!" he exclaimed, “I fear you more than any spectre I have seen. But I believe you mean me well, and I’d like to become a better person, so I’ll go with you thankfully and see what you have to show me. Lead on! The night is waning fast!"
The Phantom moved away, and Shaun followed in its shadow, which seemed to carry him as it enveloped him. He found himself at the Fords, once more, but it was not the cheery and bright place it had been before. The mother and children were gathered around the fire, and everything was silent. At last, Eric came in. There was no Tiny Andy perched on his shoulder. He sat down and began to cry.
“Oh my child, my poor little child and his unusually long beard!" wept Eric. He went upstairs to the room above, which was decorated with Christmas furnishings and bright as could be. There he saw Tiny Andy’s empty chair, and with a sigh, returned to his family downstairs. His family spoke of their memories of Tiny Andy, of his fondness for “Fretzing" the other children’s favorite toys, and son on. Eric spoke of Shaun’s nephew, who had offered condolences to him on the street, though they had only met a few times before. Though the family was sad for the loss, the tragedy seemed only to bond them together more.
“Spectre," said Shaun, “something tells me our time is almost finished. I need to see what has become of me in this future."
Expecting to arrive at his house, Shaun was surprised to find them standing in a cemetary. The Phantom pointed solemnly into the graveyard. The spirit seemed to be gesturing towards two of the stones.
“Before I get closer to those stones, “said Shaun, “answer me one question, please. What you’re showing me, is this what might be, or what will be? Can any of this be changed?"
The Spirit made no indication, and spoke no word. Shaun crept towards the two stones, his eyes falling across their surfaces.
“Oh no, Spirit!"
There on the left stone, read “Premium Mobile RPGs". And on the right? He saw his own name, Shaun Musgrave, along with three and a half stars.
“No, Spirit!" he cried, grabbing its cloak, “Hear me! I am not the man I was. I will not be the man I would have been! And surely with a few updates, I’m at least worth four stars, right?"
For the first time the hand appeared to shake.
“I will honor Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. And I will stop writing guides about how to win games without spending real money and once again start championing quality mobile RPGs with the RPG Reload column! I will not shut out the lessons you have taught me. Oh, tell me I can change this terrible future!"
And suddenly, he was back once more in his bed.
Stave Five – The End Of It
Upon finding himself back in his room, Shaun was elated. Seeing the day breaking between the curtains, Shaun quickly dressed and flew to the window. He knew not how long he had been with the Spirits, but he meant to make the most of whatever day it was. He flung the curtains apart, and opened the window. Just then, a young neighborhood boy was walking past in his finest clothes.
“You there, boy!" shouted Shaun. “What day is it today?"
“Today?" asked the boy, who was scribbling notes about Hearthstone into a pad of paper. “Why, today is Christmas Day, sir!"
“Christmas Day! A Merry Christmas to you, young lad!" Shaun then spoke to himself, “So I haven’t missed it. The Spirits have worked quickly!"
“Hello, my fine fellow!" Shaun shouted down to the boy. “Do you know the Apple Store down the street? The one that sells iPad Pros? Go and buy one. I’m serious. Go and buy it, and tell them to bring it here so that I can tell them where to take it."
Shaun tossed some money down to the boy, and he returned with the Apple Genius. He requested that the clerk drop the iPad Pro by Eric Ford’s, but to not tell him who sent it. “He won’t know who sent it. Look at it! It’s twice the size of Tiny Andy. Why, it’s impossible to carry that to Eric’s house. Let me pay for a taxi, sir. Merry Christmas!"
Shaun then dressed in his best and went to his nephew’s house. Knocking on the door, a girl answered the door and showed him in.
“Nathan!" said Shaun.
“Why bless my soul!" said Nathan, “Who could that be?"
“It’s your uncle Shaun, and I have come for dinner. May I come in?"
Soon the other guests arrived, and they enjoyed a fine dinner, lots of games, and plenty of laughs. It was truly a great Christmas party. Nevertheless, Shaun wanted to get to TouchArcade Towers early the next day. It was his sincere hope that he could catch Eric coming in late. And so he did, rolling in eighteen minutes past his appointed time.
Shaun put on his old face and growled “What do you mean by coming here so late?"
“I am very sorry, sir," said Eric. “It’s only once a year, sir, and I won’t do it again."
“Now, I’ll tell you something, my friend." said Shaun, “I won’t have this kind of thing happening around here anymore, and so…" he gave Eric a little nudge. “And so, I think I will raise your salary! A Merry Christmas, Eric. I’ll increase your wages to a standard writer’s salary, and do my best to help out your family in any way I can. Now, turn on the heat, Eric, it’s cold outside today."
Shaun was better than his word. He did it all, and infinitely more. He wrote about premium games wherever he could, to try to give them a better lease on life. To Tiny Andy, he was like a second father, showering him in iTunes money and buying him a decent beard-clipper. With this extra care, Tiny Andy did not die, and indeed, the world was a happier place for all. And so, as Tiny Andy observed, commenters bless us, every one!
Well, it seemed like a good idea at the time.
Next Week’s Reload: The RPG Reload Best Of 2015