Insert Coin: Beam me to my happy place

Will Podlewski, Columnist

Video gaming isn’t cheap. With a torrent of online passes, downloadable content and system peripherals taking a huge bite out of gamers’ wallets, it’s harder than ever to get a decent value when you plunk down your hard-earned cash for the next big thing. But in an industry that seems to care only about “Call of Duty” and “Assassin’s Creed,” it’s easy to forget some of the best games out there cost little to nothing to enjoy. That’s why every two weeks, I’ll be showing you a great new way to get your video gaming fix for less than $20. So get your quarters ready and game on!

It’s really no secret that mainstream games nowadays are pretty darn easy. Today’s triple-A titles are made to appeal to a wide variety of players, including the ones who are bad at video games and as such are designed to be completed by everyone. It makes sense, though — games aren’t solely found in arcades anymore, and their difficulty there was just to suck coins out of your pocket. But still, with the simplicity of games in this current generation, it’s the experiences that make me crush my controller in frustration that really stick with me because the victories are so much sweeter. These are games like “QWOP” and “Super Meat Boy,” but even those are far outclassed by the hardest game I have ever had the joy — and sorrow — of playing: “FTL: Faster than Light.”

Having debuted last September, “FTL” is a game I can only describe in groans of frustration or (much rarer) cries of celebration. The setup is pretty simple: You are the captain of a starship trying to escape from a rebel fleet in a series of top-down, 16-bit space battles. The Star Trekian strategy runs deep, as you manage shields, cloaking devices, oxygen levels and all manner of weapons and crew members to navigate through everything from dense nebulae to solar flares (which are officially the worst things ever). Special encounters can net you new ships for subsequent playthroughs, and believe me, you will be making subsequent playthroughs.

As simple as the premise seems, there’s one important detail I left out: Anything can kill you. Literally anything. Hostile pirates beaming over and destroying your oxygen supply, getting caught by the encroaching rebel fleet, slavers stealing half your crew, the absurdly difficult final boss — they will destroy your ship. And once it’s gone, it’s game over. You start from the beginning with a new one. All the weapons and crew members you gathered? Gone.

The typical “FTL” game only lasts about an hour, depending on how far you make through the game’s eight sectors. I’ve put 16 hours into this game on Steam thus far and have yet to beat it. On easy. I’ve only unlocked three additional ships and no alternate layouts. And yet I can’t stay away.

This is a gambler’s game; you never know what’s behind the next asteroid belt or if you’ll have enough fuel to jump away to the next sector. More often than not, you’ll lose big, but nothing can beat the feeling when everything does go right. And at $10, it’s a whole lot cheaper than real gambling.