Shovel Knight Pocket Dungeon is 2021’s Best Puzzle Game

The most important game on any device is the one you can keep coming back to when you’re out of things to play. For me, that’s a good puzzle game. Dr. Mario: Miracle Cure, of all things, was one of my most-played Nintendo 3DS games. Whenever I had some downtime between games, I always knew I could pop it open and bust some pills for hours on end.

Despite a wealth of options, I’ve struggled to find kind of that game on Nintendo Switch … until now. Shovel Knight: Pocket Dungeon, a new spinoff game for the Shovel Knight series, is exactly what I’ve been craving. It’s a fast, addictive puzzle game that has me saying “just one more round” for hours on end.

Dig it

Shovel Knight Pocket Dungeon puts a new spin on a familiar concept. In its story mode, players control Shovel Knight, who gets sucked into a puzzle dungeon. The indie icon is thrown into a series of grids that fill up with enemies, breakable blocks, and health-restoring potions. You can guess where this is going: Clear the board by chaining matching icons together.

But there’s a lot more going on than in your average “Match 3” game. It’s essentially a dungeon crawler in the middle of a traditional puzzle game. Rather than tapping icons, players actually control Shovel Knight, who appears on the grid. He needs to physically navigate around and bash things with his shovel to break them. All that happens while more stuff continually falls from the top of the screen (if the screen fills up, it’s game over). That creates a fast-paced flow where players need to constantly carve a path through the board by jabbing obstacles. Spatial awareness is key.

On top of that, Shovel Knight has health points. Every time he hits an enemy, they hit him back for a few points. Grabbing a potion restores some health, so players need to figure out when to attack and when to heal. Items, like bombs or temporary weapons, populate the board from time to time as well, which can change the tide of battle if used at the right time. It isn’t about mindlessly tapping icons, but figuring out the right order of operations in a constantly evolving puzzle board.

A versus battle in Shovel Knight Pocket Dungeon.

It’s a high-speed juggling act that earned my full attention. I quickly found myself in a sort of rhythmic trance thanks to the excellent soundtrack featuring remixes of classic Shovel Knight tracks. Without realizing it, I was moving on beat as if I was playing Crypt of the NecroDancer or Tetris Beat. Every time I hit an enemy, I get a satisfying “thwack” that sounds like a snare drum or handclap. It feels like I’m working in concert with the music, which pushes my brain to keep up with the tempo.

Staying hooked

There are additional gameplay twists that freshen up the core puzzle hook. The game has a roguelite structure where players need to clear a series of boards and fight classic Shovel Knight bosses. Lose and you’ll start from the top. During a run, players can buy relics that have different effects, like increasing the number of bombs that spawn or adding +1 damage on every initial enemy hit. While there aren’t tons to choose from, there are enough that I was able to put together some pretty wild builds that made me feel invincible.

Shovel Knight hangs out in a campsite in Shovel Knight: Pocket Dungeon.

What really keeps me coming back, though, is the game’s cast of playable characters. Anytime a boss is defeated, players can use them in the adventure. Each one has its own special mechanic that completely changes the game. Plague Knight has reduced HP, but poisons enemies on contact. Specter Knight, on the other hand, regains health from killing enemies, but takes damage from potions. Each character has me rethinking how I tackle each board and carefully choosing relics that best match their playing style.

Shovel Knight Pocket Dungeon does everything a good puzzle game is supposed to do and more. It’s easy to pick up and play, but I feel myself itching to master all 13 of its characters. I get the sense that there are some secrets to its story that I haven’t discovered, which has me pushing on long after completing a run. A daily challenge, versus mode, and leaderboards round out the package, giving me all the ingredients I need for a puzzle game that’s going to ride its way to the top of my Nintendo Switch activity log.

Shovel Knight: Pocket Dungeon launches on December 13 for Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, and PC.

Editors’ Choice

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2021’s Most Common Passwords Are Utterly Ridiculous

The most common passwords used in 2021 have been revealed, and to call them an embarrassment would be an understatement to say the least.

According to a new report from NordPass, a service that provides a password manager program, a worrying amount of users still rely on extremely weak passwords.

The top 200 most common passwords of 2021 study, covering 50 countries, reveals that “123456” remains as the most popular password for the second year running. More than 103 million people use it for log-in purposes, even though it’d take less than a single second to crack it.

Other frequently used passwords within the top 10 list largely consist of number-based passes like “123456789,” which is utilized by 46 million individuals. The only two that don’t contain a numerical form are “qwerty,” and of course, “password.” They’re applied by 22.3 million and 20.9 million users, respectively. 

When it comes to other bad password choices, a “stunning” number of people opted to make their own names as their preferred password. Elsewhere, Ferrari and Porsche are the most popular car brands in regard to weak passwords.

Unfortunately, passwords keep getting weaker, and people still don’t maintain proper password hygiene.

While the vast majority of the top 200 most common passwords can be cracked in less than a second — or a few seconds in some cases — there are some that would take considerably longer to gain access to. “1g2w3e4r” and “gwerty123,” both used by a million people, would take three hours to crack. Interestingly, removing the “123” from “gwerty” makes it a much easier target, as it’ll only take five seconds to crack.

Rounding out the passwords in the list that’ll take between 1-3 hours to penetrate are “michelle,” “jennifer,” “myspace1,” and “zag12wsx.”

NordPass’s methodology for forming its research involved working with independent researchers who specialize in the cybersecurity incident research field. The most common password list was compiled via an evaluation of a 4TB database containing leaked passes.

“Unfortunately, passwords keep getting weaker, and people still don’t maintain proper password hygiene,” Jonas Karklys, CEO of NordPass told Lifewire. “It’s important to understand that passwords are the gateway to our digital lives, and with us spending more and more time online, it’s becoming enormously important to take better care of our cybersecurity.”

Fixing the problem

So, how does one go about adding additional layers of security that will better protect their passwords? It goes without saying that no one should use “123456” as their entry point for any account — or any of the passwords in the aforementioned report for that matter. Password managers have become commonplace and are usually a reliable resort, while two-factor authentication should also be considered as another safety measure.

When factoring in their security deficiencies, passwords, in general, are naturally the most common target for hackers. In fact, 81% of hacking-related breaches are achieved through weak or stolen passwords.

“The single most common security vulnerability today is still bad passwords.”

“Weak passwords are the entry point for the majority of attacks across enterprise and consumer accounts. There are a whopping 579 password attacks every second — that’s 18 billion every year,” Microsoft detailed in September.

Apple, meanwhile, has integrated a newer form of tech into its devices through iCloud Passkey, which effectively gets rid of passwords and offers a more secure process via Public Key Cryptography.

Apple joins both Microsoft and Google in envisioning a future for passwordless authentication. Software giant Microsoft, for one, has already seen more than 200 million users enabling passwordless login for its services.

“The single most common security vulnerability today is still bad passwords,” Jen Fitzpatrick, senior vice president of core systems at Google, stated in May. “Ultimately, we’re on a mission to create a password-free future.”

Editors’ Choice

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Tech News

How China could win 2021’s space race and take Mars as its prize

Looking at its achievements over the past decade, nobody would doubt China is aiming to win the new space race. Not only has it been the only country to land on the Moon in about 40 years, and the first to soft-land on its far side, it has also planted a flag on lunar soil and brought samples back to Earth.

The race between several nations and private companies, however, is far from over. China is now approaching Mars with its Tianwen-1 mission, due to arrive on February 10. A successful insertion into orbit – the rover won’t land until May — will mark another crucial milestone for more than one reason.

Mars may be close to Earth, but it is a challenging target. Nothing demonstrates this better than the figures. Out of 49 missions up to December 2020, only about 20 have been successful. Not all these failures were attempts by newbies or early endeavors. In 2016, The European Space Agency’s Schiaparelli Mars Explorer crashed on the surface. Also, ongoing technical issues have forced ESA and its Russian partner Roscosmos to postpone its next mission, ExoMars, until 2022.

China is not the only country nearing Mars. On February 9, a UAE probe, Hope, will attempt the same insertion maneuver. It is not a direct competitor to the Chinese mission (the probe will just orbit the planet to study the martian weather), but (NASA’s Perseverance rover), set to arrive a week later, definitively is.

To further raise the stakes for China, among the handful of countries that have managed the notoriously tricky insertion maneuver into orbit, there is one Asian country there already: India, China’s direct competitor in space but on Earth as well.

Tech News

ARM just showed 2021’s smartphone CPUs, led by the powerful Cortex-X1

ARM has announced the next generation of smartphone processors, set to deliver up to 20 percent or greater performance than the prior generation. It includes something special: a new Cortex-X1 design, an optimized version designed for “ultimate performance.”

In the smartphone industry, ARM designs its Cortex CPUs, Mali GPUs, and Ethos machine-learning processors, then licenses them to companies like Qualcomm. (This differs from the PC chip business, where AMD and Intel keep their designs proprietary—and Intel manufactures its own CPUs as well.) Those chip designers, in turn, are permitted to customize and enhance them, depending upon their license terms.

The new cores—the Cortex-A78, the Mali-G78, and the Ethos-N78—will debut in smartphones shipping in 2021, ARM executives said. The company is promising that the Cortex-A78 will deliver 20 percent greater sustained performance over the prior generation; the Mali-G78, 25 percent better overall performance; and the Ethos-N78, 25 percent more performance efficiency. 

arm a78 overview perf slide ARM

Then there’s the ARM Cortex-X1, which ARM is promising will deliver 30 percent peak performance over the prior Cortex-A generation. This, according to ARM, represents a new category of “off roadmap” performance, requiring specific engineering collaboration with partners. It sounds like we’ll be hearing more about the first fruits of the Cortex-X1 partnership within the coming weeks.

“It answers the question of how much performance can be pushed for this generation when you’re not so constrained by the usual power area constraints,” Paul Williamson, vice president and general manager of ARM’s client line of business, said of the Cortex-X1. “It’s really targeting flagship smartphones and larger-screen devices. And given the silicon area and dissipated power, it’s not really something we expect to see in every device.”

Smartphone makers have a choice between using the new ARM cores to maximize performance, or to deliver better battery life with the same performance as the prior generation. This is actually the angle Williamson took when explaining the new cores, as the three deliver “more out of the same power budget as last year,” he said.

More on the Cortex-A78

Williamson said the A78 was specifically designed for the demands of 5G, with use cases that included how fast applications launch, and how responsive webpages are when scrolling. “Sustained performance in a device with limited power will avoid power throttling in really high-performance applications,” Williamson said. “So you’ll get less lag and less framerate drops.”

arm cortex a78 peformance ARM

A summary of the ARM Cortex-A78’s performance.

Like the prior Cortex-A77, the Cortex-A78 will consist of what ARM calls its big.LITTLE octacore architecture, with four high-performance A78 cores and four A55 cores optimized for long battery life. ARM said that a Cortex-A78 core running at 3GHz would deliver 20 percent more sustained, single-core performance than the Cortex-A77 core running at 2.6GHz, assuming 1 watt per core. The performance is based on simulated estimates.

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2021’s first big Xbox exclusive is just OK

Puzzles in The Medium mainly consist of finding missing levers and navigating between Marianne’s dual realities to read pieces of paper and postcards. Just one puzzle sticks out in my memory for involving observation and deduction, while the remaining ones are distinctly surface-level. Usually, when I found myself stuck in a scene, it was because I had missed interacting with one of the small white dots denoting an object of interest, and I simply had to run around in circles for a while, holding LB to light up Marianne’s sixth sense.

Overall, the story unravels in a way that is both predictable and confusing, with a rotating cast of faceless villains and, eventually, the addition of a second playable character with abilities similar to Marianne’s.

The Medium introduces Thomas as a playable character in the second half of the game, and this is where things really fall apart for me. Thomas is able to transform emotion and memory into psychic power, much like Marianne, though he also has an ability called Spirit Force, which he uses to move large objects. Otherwise, they’re pretty much the same character. 

The Medium

Bloober Team

The scenes with Thomas at the helm feel like filler. They’re unthreatening and tedious (ah, the tedium of The Medium), and don’t add a necessary perspective to the narrative. Most importantly, they’re not scary. Take the height of Thomas’ playtime for example: He’s running through a distorted, red-soaked landscape composed of towering filing cabinets, while a giant, demonic dog hunts him from below. Multiple times, he has to cross a single plank stretching over a gap big enough for the beast to run through. On approach, Thomas slows down, raises his arms for balance, and slowly walks across the beam. The demon dog runs past below him. 

It’s a tense scene visually, but in my playthrough, I never felt Thomas was in danger of actually falling. I tried to knock him off of a plank at one point, just when the monster was barreling past, and while he swayed precariously, his feet stuck fast to the wood. Despite the nightmarish landscape, there’s no danger in these (and many other) scenes.

The Medium

Bloober Team

The Medium wasn’t supposed to be the first game to launch exclusively on Xbox Series X and S, but after the delays of Halo Infinite and CrossfireX, it ended up in the top spot. That’s a significant amount of pressure for any studio, let alone an indie team whose résumé is stacked solely with mind-bending horror games, and The Medium handles this responsibility elegantly. For the most part, it performs smoothly even on this generation’s baseline hardware, the Series S, and the game’s trippy split-screen mechanics do a fantastic job of demonstrating the power of Microsoft’s new consoles. 

Hopefully, with its next game, Bloober Team can remind us how well it does horror, too.

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