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Big N, M$, Sony: Mega Man 9
Jul 12th, 2008 by Dan

If you read my 8-bit All-Stars feature you know I love me some Mega Man 2. There was just something sublimely perfect about that game with its polished level design and great boss battles.

It’s been a long time since we’ve seen a real sequel to a Mega Man game. The last canonical MM game was MM 8 for the PSX in 1997, with the X series taking over with about eight installments that have also stopped coming out.

Imagine the world’s surprise when Mega Man 9 all of a sudden showed up on an ESRB classification website. Could the beloved franchise be making a return in all of the splendor of the current generation’s technological advances? And then we saw the first screenshots and trailer…

Cue some controversy. I’d say that a large number of dedicated MM fanatics were happy with this new direction, but many were perplexed by Capcom’s choice to go way old school with this new installment. Personally, I’m a fan of the new direction. When you look at the disappointments that have been the more recent MM games, it seems clear that a conscious effort to get back to the roots is just what the series NEEDS. Not to mention the fact that old school, 8-bit Mega Man music is great.

It’s not exactly a straight NES-style game though, it does have some technological advances. If you look closely you’ll see that the game does have some fancy-pants effects that weren’t possible on the NES. Personally, I’ll be happy if the game manages to not drop framerate when a bunch of enemies appear onscreen.

Another neat little change in the Mega Man conventions is that MM 9 will feature the first female robot. Splash Woman is the first non Man robot in series history. Some purists are very anti-Splash Woman, but I’m pro-female evil robot rights.

If I’m not mistaken, Mega Man 9 is slated for a Fall release on WiiWare, Xbox Live, and PSN.

Game Overview: Current Gen All-Stars
Jun 27th, 2008 by Dan

Insert another credit, because it’s time for your weekly video game news and you’ve just hit the Game Overview screen.

Due to some poor life decisions, I find myself stranded for five weeks without any video games. What’s a guy to do, right? Well, rather than just giving you some of the headlines from the week’s video game news in lieu of what I was planning to be gameplay impressions, reviews, and the like, I’ve instead started a five week “All-Stars” feature. Each week we’re going to look at a video game era and spotlight my top three games from that era. Each of these games will also receive a place setting at the prestigious “Table of Honor” feature that I’m working on. Here’s the weekly plan:

Week 1: 8-bit Console Era
Week 2: 16-bit Console Era
Week 3: Post-16-bit Console Era, Pre-Current Generation
Week 4: Pre-Current Generation PC Games
Week 5: Current Generation

Yeah, the categories are broad, particularly weeks three and four, but it’s how I want to do them, so get off my back!

Wow, we’ve finally made it to the last week of my all-stars feature! Beginning back in November of 2005 with the launch of the Xbox 360, this generation has seen some of the biggest shifts and changes that the industry has ever seen. Again, starting with the 360, consoles finally began to be a match for the PC market with online matchmaking services rivaling the best on the PC drawing gamers to the consoles in droves, depleting the once very robust leader in innovation and technology’s user base. Not a group to sit on its haunches, Valve re-invigorated the PC market with its Steam platform, a release and matchmaking mechanism that has recently started to rival Xbox Live in terms of functionality.

The PS3 launched about a year after the 360, promising much, but struggling to deliver any worthwhile software for a full year after launch. Its online service also leaves much to be desired, with no cross-game integration to help it out, it pales in comparison to XBL, even though it is free.

The greatest shift in gaming has come from the revolutionary Nintendo Wii and the Big N’s “Blue Ocean” strategy. Nintendo, understandably weary of being in last place for the last two generations, decided to take their console in a totally different direction, emphasizing the casual through an accessible control mechanism, affordable system, and lighter gameplay fare. While their strategy has succeeded, selling out systems each and every month and given them a greater install base than the Xbox 360, even with a full year’s delay in launch dates, many a “hardcore” gamer feels like Nintendo has forgotten about them with their new strategy.

The brilliance of this strategy has caused many a developer shift as both Microsoft and Sony attempt to develop motion sensitive controls to mimic the Wii and the huge blockbuster game releases of last gen start to tone down some of their production values in favor of appealing to the mass market. Minigame compilations flood the market as countless companies try to tap into the previously unreachable markets. Most find failure as Nintendo continues to milk dollars out of the Nintendo DS and Wii, causing concern for third party developers on both systems.

While the music gaming phenomenon technically began last generation, both Harmonix and Activision have enjoyed unprecedented success with their Rock Band and Guitar Hero franchises. It seems that music gaming is one of the next big things, with Activision basically saturating the market with GH products and Harmonix releasing track packs every week to expand the already robust playlist of the party-friendly Rock Band.

Yes, the new generation has advanced gaming by leaps and bounds, with the 2007 holiday season being one of the best gaming history has seen in a long time, but the new generation has also drawn new lines; created new schisms. All of a sudden the terms “hardcore” and “casual” have divided a once unified user base. Nintendo’s radical decision to eschew high definition graphics in exchange for cost-effectiveness has split third party developers who now have to choose to develop for the HD systems or the system with the highest rate of ownership, but smallest attach rate (average number of games owned). Many claim that this will be a long one, unlike last generation, since Nintendo has proven that low-tech can still bring innovation and sales. All I know is that it’s still early and it’s still anyone’s ball game. The slow start of the PS3 is turning out to have been a slow boil while the 360 is looking like a flash in the pan as it peters out. Nintendo’s massive onslaught of sales still hasn’t even shown signs of slowing down, baffling everyone who said it was just a fad. I can’t wait to see how it all turns out when the dust settles, but until then, I’ve been enjoying some great games. Let’s take a look:

This first game revolutionized the gaming world last year by proving that a cohesive, well-thought out, well-written, but incredibly short game can top a robust 20 hour experience simply through the power of brilliant game-design, hilarious dialog, and a little bit of cake. Yeah, it’s Portal.

#3 Portal

Many of you know the story of how Portal came to be developed at Valve, but for those of you who don’t, here goes:

Up in Washington there exists a game design school called DigiPen. Since Valve is a Washington-based company as well, they tend to send people to check out the work done by students to find potential new hires and ideas. Cue Narbacular Drop, a project by students that featured the portal jumping gameplay we know and love in Portal. The story goes that someone from Valve saw the brilliant idea, brought them over to Valve headquarters to show Gabe Newell, and Newell hired them all on the spot, which was a brilliant move on his part.

Portal is a shining beacon of game design because it does everything that it sets out to do perfectly. It’s just the right length, has just the right amount of humor, has just the right difficulty curve, etc. Valve takes forever to produce games, we all know this, but Portal proves that our patience is definitely worth something.

There’s not really much else to say about this brilliant game, it has to truly be experienced to be understood as the masterpiece that it really is. Go out and buy it, seriously…it’s only like $20 on Steam

Here’s the ending credits, complete with the super-famous “Still Alive.” DO NOT WATCH IF YOU HAVEN’T BEATEN THE GAME!

International “Still Alive”!:

My #2 game would actually make a better Indiana Jones movie than the abysmally stupid Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. It currently tops my most anxiously awaited sequel list based on the promise of another adventure with its hilarious and cool protagonist. Last clue: the PS3-exclusive company that produces these games seems to have an affinity for main characters sharing the same name that starts with ‘N’. These obscure hints may lead you to realize that I’m talking about Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune.

#2 Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune

I bet you didn’t realize that the best action movie of 2007 was actually a video game. Uncharted follows Nathan Drake, supposed descendant of Sir Francis Drake, as he searches for the hidden treasure of El Dorado throughout the South Pacific. Joined by his partner Sully and the requisite sassy reporter Elena (yet another example of a restrained female character design that is STILL cool despite not having huge knockers. Take that sophomoric game designers!) Drake faces off against a plethora of pirates and puzzles as he discovers the dastardly secret of Drake’s fortune.

It sounds pulp-y, but that’s the point. Uncharted is the first time I’ve ever played a video game and thought “Well, this could actually be a movie without very much changing about it at all.” Play it and you’ll get the same impression. Voice acting is superb, the story is pretty cool, there is very real chemistry between characters, and the game just looks beautiful. Along with MGS4, this is one to show off your HDTVs to your friends. (Quick MGS note: I haven’t beaten MGS4, so it’s not eligible for this list).

Gameplay is pretty simple and mostly revolves around third-person shooting coupled with a cover system a la Gears of War. This part does get a little old sometimes as enemies continue to spawn at some points, but it’s well-done enough to not be too tiring. There’s also some platforming tossed in as you explore ruins that feels very satisfying. In fact, a great deal about what makes Drake such a cool protagonist stems from the fluidity of his movements both in combat and exploration. The way that he jumps from ledge to ledge, stumbling as he lands gives you that all important “Yeah, I think I could do that” feeling that makes up a successful everyman protagonist.

If you’ve never even seen Uncharted before, go rent it or buy it or come over my house. I’ll let you try it out.

E3 2007 Trailer;

Gametrailers Review:

And now, the moment you’ve all been waiting for, my #1 game of the current generation. My choice may surprise you, but I think that at the end of the day, it has to be number one based on how much time I’ve put into it compared to any other game in my entire library. There’s no good way to hint at it, so I’ll come out and say that my top game of this current generation (so far) is Rock Band.

#1 Rock Band

Rock Band and I had a strangely hostile relationship when I first learned of it. Not being as well-versed in video game news as I am nowadays, back then I had no idea that the original developers of Guitar Hero II were behind RB, I just saw that someone else was trying to make a music game and that it was really, really expensive. As a fake-guitar player, I also didn’t quite see the allure of drums or vocals.

That all changed when I started to see footage of both games and learn about the pedigree of both series. Concerns began to crop up in my mind as GH3 coverage showed the game design to be stagnant, note charts a bit asinine and arbitrarily hard, and art style to be ridiculously ugly. This was also about the same time that I learned of the very ugly breakup between Harmonix and Red Octane and EA/MTV’s partnership with Harmonix. There was an immediate shift at that point where I realized that I was siding with the wrong company and antiquated game design. The music game future lied with Rock Band, its new digital distribution system, and four instruments.

As a quick aside, I actually actively hate Activision and the GH franchise over stupid stunts like this one. There’s no reason why they should have screwed over PS3 GH3 owners who just wanted to be able to use the same guitar peripherals over both games. No one needs as many plastic instruments as Activision is going to force upon us very soon…

Back to Rock Band: it’s yet another one of those casual games meant to open up the market. How does it do this? There’s the simple four-player multiplayer aspect that makes the most sense in this context. Gathering up four friends to play music on fake instruments has turned out to be a tremendously appealing concept. I can honestly only think of one or two of my friends who doesn’t enjoy Rock Band at all. Friends of mine who live thousands of miles away are excited to get some Rock Band in next month when they come to visit. It has that much draw, especially to people who typically don’t game at all, including older gamers (NOT my parents) and women. While being able to shred on expert isn’t about to impress any of the ladyfolk, it’s still a good game to bridge the gap between the gamer and game-hater, since most people who have never played video games can understand music within a few minutes.

The other real innovation in casual gaming is that Rock Band is not as ridiculously hard as Guitar Hero 3. Activision went the totally opposite direction, attempting to create a hardcore experience with note charts that made no sense, but were harder to play. Rock Band’s more intuitive note charts seem way easier by comparison, but they still provide tons of fun and, most importantly, they generally won’t fail an appropriately skilled player during multiplayer play, the main draw of the game. Yeah, Rock Band is a lot less fun solo than with friends (still way fun though), but it’s meant to be played with friends, not alone. I’ve spent countless hours with large groups of friends handing off the guitars, drum sticks, or microphone as we shredded the night away (and probably made our dormmates hate us…bwahaha).

Rock Band is, by and large, the only reason I turn on my Xbox anymore and it gets playtime at least once a week from me as they launch new tracks each and every week. As it introduces me to new, sweet music (Boston being my favorite discovery so far), it’s impossible for me to not rate this as the best thing to happen for me since I started gaming. I’ve always loved music and had some aptitude for it, but never really learned to play anything. RB gives me the freedom to love that music using a medium that is friendlier than actually picking up a guitar (although I do aspire to actually start playing at some point in the near future). Detractors will say, “Why don’t you just play real music?” I will say, “Because I love music, but don’t have the time or money to devote to learning a real instrument right now. Besides, this is fun for me and my friends, so stop being a jerk.”

At the end of the day, isn’t that what really matters with a video game? Aren’t we just supposed to be having fun?

“Margaritaville” Guitar and Drums:

“Rock and Roll Band” (one of my favorites!)

Another funny Rock Band-related PA comic.

And with that, I officially close out the Game Overview All-Stars feature on this blog. I’m sure you readers have pretty different opinions from me, so feel free to let me know what you think. I’m not planning on doing any runner-ups for this generation, but keep an eye out for game reviews in the future receiving the prestigious all-star award.

Remember guys, video games are all about fun. I spend a lot of time gaming, so it’s good to know that there are such fine specimens of gaming to make deep, lasting impressions on me. Keep it up game devs and I’ll keep picking up that controller.

Game Overview: Pre-Current Gen PC All-Star Runner-Up
Jun 26th, 2008 by Dan

Yeah, I know I told you that this would be posted last weekend, but things got a little hectic with my travel plans, so I decided to hold off until the day before the big finale for this one. I know you’re all on the edge of your seats waiting for the announcement, so let’s get right to it.

The final game of this category comes from a dying genre whose brief golden age drove the development of narrative, graphics, and voice acting. Here are some more clues:

1. The recently VERY troubled studio that produced this game used to put out tons of games in this genre, but has since abandoned the genre to produce games based on the very lucrative movie licenses it owns. If you’re sharp, you already know the company and genre I’m referring to at this point.

2. The protagonist of this game has the unique ability to hold his breath for 10 minutes at a time. Astute readers already know the series, but now need better clues to narrow down the game.

3. This picture will help the less savvy readers figure out the series.

4. Final clue: This game essentially retcons the previous games because the original series creator was not at the helm. Hence, the actual secret is still unknown to this day.

Our one and only runner-up in this category is the incredible Lucasarts classic, The Curse of Monkey Island

Runner-up The Curse of Monkey Island

I should clarify a few points before I get into the CMI love, namely regarding the series creator, Ron Gilbert, and the last great Lucasarts adventure game, Grim Fandango. Ron left Lucasarts after Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge along with the other writers of the series, Tim Schafer and Dave Grossman. So, as mentioned before, the remaining team members were more or less forced to retcon and/or disregard story put forth by Gilbert, Schafer, and Grossman to further the plot of their own game. I will openly admit that, despite the awesomeness of CMI, MI2 is actually the best in the series, story and scenario-wise, but that doesn’t mean it should beat CMI on this list, in my opinion.

Also important to mention, to me, is the superb Grim Fandango. Written by the brilliant Tim Schafer, GF is one of the best adventure games I’ve ever played with an epic, funny story, great characters, and an amazing setting but it just doesn’t meet the intangible bar that CMI set, mainly due to the fact that it left less of an impression on me.

CMI just has something about it that will instantly make you love Guybrush Threepwood, so even though it can be beaten in individual categories like the story of MI2 or the setting and plot of GF, CMI is just more fun to play.

No doubt feeling some pressure from the shift in graphical style of the King’s Quest series with their seventh installment, CMI shifted to a cartoony, almost Disney look with its portrayal of Guybrush and the world around him. Gone were pixelated sprites, in were scenes and animations geared toward making you think you were playing a cartoon. If you really think about it, we’ve had cutscenes since the early days of video gaming, but most of those were rendered in-engine (nowadays some series do still render cutscenes in-engine (Half-Life, Metal Gear Solid) as a stylistic choice). CMI featured fully animated cutscenes in a seamlessly integrated art style to the in-engine graphics. Needless to say, it was and, to a degree, still is a beautiful game that makes the player feel like he’s controlling a cartoon, ages before cel-shading would start to become mainstream.

More important to the in-game immersion was the choice of Dominic Armato to voice Guybrush Threepwood. The prior two games were still a little early in the computer game timeline to feature voice acting, but I honestly believe that Gilbert, Schafer, and Grossman would be hard-pressed to find a voice actor better than Dominic Armato to voice the lovable pirate. Say what you will about the direction the series has headed since the loss of the original brains behind the series, but Armato was the best man for the job. His voice just jives with the goofy, inept, clueless, and sarcastic nature of Guybrush so well that it’s hard to skip dialog even the nth time through the game just cause you want to hear him say the same goofy lines the umpteenth time. The rest of the cast is also well-voiced, but Guybrush is the standout role, as he should be.

Plot idiocy aside, the writers for CMI definitely didn’t slack in the humor department, with snappy one-liners filling the game from opening to closing coupled with sight gags, brilliantly written insult swordfights (complete with rhyming!), and the only in-game song that could possibly give “Still Alive” a run for its money. CMI had it all in the days when the adventure game was fresh, fun, and, most importantly, still considered a viable genre. Aside from Telltale games, it seems that no one is interested in adventure games any more. That being said, it’s not like today’s gamers aren’t being tricked into playing them nowadays, between the Phoenix Wright games, Professor Layton and the Curious Village, and Hotel Dusk: Room 215 at least plenty of Nintendo DS gamers are still able to get a small adventure game fix. With Ron Gilbert getting Hothead games to publish DeathSpank, hopefully we’ll see a bit of an increase in other adventure games. Sure would be nice, I miss the genre.

Here’s one of the best in-game songs you will ever see, complete with some Insult Swordfighting:

A little fun at the expense of the KQ series:

There you have it, another era summed up in a few games. I’m not saying that these are the only good games, just that they represent some of the best. Be sure to tune in tomorrow to see my favorite games of the current generation.

Game Overview: Pre-Current Gen PC All-Stars
Jun 20th, 2008 by Dan

Insert another credit, because it’s time for your weekly video game news and you’ve just hit the Game Overview screen.

Due to some poor life decisions, I find myself stranded for five weeks without any video games. What’s a guy to do, right? Well, rather than just giving you some of the headlines from the week’s video game news in lieu of what I was planning to be gameplay impressions, reviews, and the like, I’ve instead started a five week “All-Stars” feature. Each week we’re going to look at a video game era and spotlight my top three games from that era. Each of these games will also receive a place setting at the prestigious “Table of Honor” feature that I’m working on. Here’s the weekly plan:

Week 1: 8-bit Console Era
Week 2: 16-bit Console Era
Week 3: Post-16-bit Console Era, Pre-Current Generation
Week 4: Pre-Current Generation PC Games
Week 5: Current Generation

Yeah, the categories are broad, particularly weeks three and four, but it’s how I want to do them, so get off my back!

Constant through all these years of transitioning video game consoles has been and always will be the PC games market. Despite all those cries of “The PC market is dead!” I’ll tell you one golden rule about the PC market: It will always exist for as long as people use PCs, which seems like it would be indefinitely, the way that technology is going. I will concede that the PC gaming market is not in its golden years like it once was. The reasons for this are many, including more powerful home consoles whose games look comparable to PC games, the advent of the laptop, and the general weakness of any non-gaming rig due to lame motherboard graphics processing power.

However, despite these issues, the PC has always managed to produce great games and it will always continue to do so for the foreseeable future, simply because the markets have not converged enough yet. In fact, the four PC games that I will be talking about in this generation are all mostly games that either just plain don’t work well on consoles or just plain control better on the PC.

One final note before we begin, X-COM: UFO Defense will not be appearing on my list, even though it’s a staple of top PC lists everywhere. The simple reason: I’ve never played it. Maybe one of these days it’ll be on Steam or something and I’ll get a chance, but for now I have no idea how it plays. Also on the never played list: Fallout and Baldur’s Gate. These games might be so awesome they replace what’s on my list, but I don’t know any better at this point.

The first game we’ll be looking at today is one of the most popular games in the entire world. This game is so popular that an entire country more or less enjoys it as a national past time, complete with comedy routines that revolve completely around mimicking in-game sounds. It’s the game that’s sweeping Seoul and supposedly getting a sequel this year, StarCraft.

#3 StarCraft

I still remember the first time I tried to play StarCraft. Note that I said tried…

We ran a pretty pathetic rig back in those days. I’m sure it was decent at some point, but our 90 MHz (seriously!) junker couldn’t quite run anything! StarCraft installed and I even managed to get it to boot, but playing it…well it ran at a snail’s pace. I even remember trying to play it with my friend Tony over the Internet on our 14.4 modem (I know…). Needless to say, I never quite got around to beating StarCraft back then, but once we updated to a 1 GHz computer (holy cow! an order of magnitude better than our “100 MHz” machine!) I was finally able to experience Blizzard’s masterpiece.

Blizzard may have started their RTS days making Warcraft games, refining mechanics and storytelling ability with their Tolkien rip-off world, but they really came into their element once they took it into outer space. The single-player campaign tells the brilliant story of the Protoss, Terran, and Zerg as they all jockeyed for control of the known galaxy. Whether you were controlling Jim Raynor for the Terrans, working with the heretic Zeratul of the Protoss, or the converted Queen of Blades, Sarah Kerrigan, for the Zerg, you always felt like things were plenty cinematic (even though briefings were just talking heads) as the plot twisted and turned. As far as I’m concerned, StarCraft was really the only real original story that Blizzard was able to tell. Warcraft III borrows heavily from SC (come on…Arthas becoming Undead totally mirrors Kerrigan! Don’t even get me started on how the Protoss and Night Elves are nearly identical…), as it well should, since the betrayals and battles make for a very compelling storyline. Trust me when I say that the game that launched ten years ago was a masterpiece whose continuation I cannot wait to see later this year (hopefully!).

As far as gameplay goes, SC goes far beyond what most other RTS designers were doing at the time. Sure, most RTS games, Warcraft included, had multiple factions that the player could control, but rarely did these factions vary in essential gameplay concepts. They all had comparable infantry units or heavy units that had more or less identical firepower to each other. In fact, a lot of the time, the faction choices basically just represented which art style you preferred most and had little to no impact on gameplay. The three races in StarCraft absolutely bucked this trend. If you played as the Terrans you were required to play a fundamentally different game than the Protoss or Zerg were playing. The magic that made SC so special was that you basically had three games packed into one neat little package.

Even with these great innovations, everyone knows that SC has survived this long for one reason alone: competitive online play. Blizzard was wising up to Internet gaming not too long before SC’s launch, so it was no surprise that StarCraft launched fully capable of online competition via the awesomely free Battle.net matchmaking service. Sure, people had direct connected through phone lines to play RTS games before, but this was unprecedented. Now you could just log on and see who else in the country was on and just go up against their army. It took great study and care to actually be competitive in the online SC community, but B.net was a great idea by a company devoted to high quality releases.

I think the only thing I have to say to really make this sink in is that you can make a living in S. Korea just by being a professional StarCraft player. I rest my case.

Blizzard was also really great with cinematics, even way back in the day. Check out the opening to SC: Brood War:

The next game on the list has been a favorite of mine since I was in grade school. Granted, the version I will be featuring today is the latest iteration (beat the release of the current generation by about a month), but that’s only because the latest version has come back and shown us how truly amazing the series is. There’s nothing like a game that will have you awake at 0500 with the sun streaming through your windows as you tell yourself, “Damn, I gotta go to sleep…I’ll get on that after this next turn…” That’s right, I’m talking about Civilization IV.

#2 Sid Meier’s Civilization IV

If you’ve never played a game in the Civilization series, then you don’t know the meaning of gameplay addiction. I’ve played many games until ungodly hours of the morning, but the game series that has made for the most red-eyed, bleary mornings has got to be Civ. If it weren’t for Civilization IV, the best of the series would have been the sophomore outing, Civilization II. Not that III was no good, but it just kept too much the same while not making enough different and new, which is, I believe, why IV succeeded so well in the series. It took everything that was bogging down the Civilization series, gave it a quick boot to the head, and came at it from a new, amazing angle.

I have to give great credit to Soren Johnson for reinvigorating what some may have felt to be a stagnant series. Civilization IV benefits from the direction he took it, making multiplayer a focus, getting rid of corruption and civil disobedience, adding great people, removing infinite city sprawl (ICS!), and attempting to diversify combat. Sure, sometimes the game is still slow, you still see unit stacks of doom, despite siege weapon deterrence, and the occasional phalanx might do serious damage to a battleship, but once you start going in and messing around with your own custom governments, you’ll see what an improvement Civ IV is to its predecessors.

A relative rarity for these lists, Civ lacks any story whatsoever other than whatever narrative you happen to create as you play. At the end of the day, you’re fully in control of your empire and more or less in control of how the AI treats you. For example, I know for a fact that Gandhi is secretly a war-mongering bastard. I have experienced his nuclear fury (granted…it was in retaliation for nuking him first, but still…). I’ve also seen the great Julius Caesar reduced to groveling at my feet as my armies marched into Rome (always satisfying) and I cannot emphasize how much of an aggressive, back-stabbing asshole Montezuma is, but these things do not make a game story. Plenty of the games don’t even feature any of these leaders, if you choose them not to. It’s a testament to this game’s character that I am able to have such fond memories of battling AI for world dominance without anyone but my own computer controlling them.

I would tell you to go out right now and buy Civilization IV to experience utterly refined game design and fun, but I don’t want to be held liable for the drastic decline of the rest of your life as you sink countless hours into building up the mighty Persian empire. Just remember that I warned you about this when it’s now 0723 and you’re still saying “Once construction on this wonder completes I’ll save and go to bed.”

Here’s some video of diplomacy gone bad:

A GREAT trailer compilation:

My absolute favorite PC game in pre-current gen era is actually a bit of a surprise to me. If you would have told me before I ever booted up that wonderful piece of software that I would love a first-person shooter. It’s like someone opened the faucet of creativity and poured it on this wonderful game. If this game is still as awesome when it’s 50% depleted, it will still kick more ass than most games on the market today. My favorite PC game (really up to the current gen) of the generations preceding this one is Half-Life 2.

#1 Half-Life 2

Valve is used to revolutionizing the medium. Gordon Freeman’s first quest was game of the year when it launched and Half-Life 2 received similar acclaim. There’s just so much about the game that it just exudes perfection. From the moment the game opens and the G-Man deposits you on the train into City 17, Half-Life 2 just never stops. Every character has inherent life and realism in their actions, the voice acting is superb, and the story just flows so well.

I could ramble on and on about how awesome HL2 is, but instead I’m gonna focus on something that only a few other games in the ENTIRE history of gaming have ever done (Ico’s the only one I can think of, but be sure to add more if I forgot some), add a sidekick that you not only genuinely care about, but is also totally useful, lifelike, and, most importantly, not annoying.

Alyx Vance is, bar none, the greatest character ever created for a video game. Game designers create tons of NPCs, especially female ones. It is so easy to go the cheap route: plenty of T, plenty of A, but, from the get-go, Valve knew they were gonna do something else. Alyx is a pretty girl, mind you, but in a much more restrained, realistic way. She wears normal jeans and has no cleavage, which is, quite frankly, pretty rare in this business (see Naomi Hunter in MGS4 for a blatant example of the opposite). Even so, if you were to go to a Valve message board, you’d most definitely find tons of posters stating how much they love Alyx. How did Valve do that? Quite simply by paying attention to real human emotion and interaction and by hiring amazing voice talent.

Voiced by Merle Dandridge, Alyx is given more than enough life by her voice acting, the way she reacts to situations, the way she urges you forward, and the way she interacts with the other expertly characterized NPCs. When Alyx is scared, you can not only see it in her amazingly animated face, you hear it in her voice. It’s present in abundance, yet it’s also understated. It’s perfect, really. She truly is your companion on your journey (even more so in Episode One).

Half-Life 2 brought life back to PC gaming and the FPS genre for me in such a big way. Never in my wildest dreams as an RPG player would I have imagined that an epic, fun, and good story could be told in that context. It just goes to show you that a masterful game can exist in just about any genre, it just takes talent and like ten years of time and devotion.

Enjoy the haunting opening to HL2 that drew me in right from the get-go:

And that, my devoted readers, is that. Be sure to tune in later this weekend (it may be Sunday instead of Saturday) to see the runner-up for the PC category!

Game Overview: Post 16-Bit, Pre-Current Gen Runner-Up Part 2
Jun 19th, 2008 by Dan

This final runner-up was the smash success sequel to a radical idea from Nintendo that, surprisingly, almost didn’t even see the light of day on US soil. Today we examine the best-selling game on the Gamecube, Super Smash Bros. Melee.

Runner-up: Super Smash Bros. Melee

The idea was so brilliant, I’m surprised no one came up with it earlier. Take the most famous, recognizable characters from Nintendo’s varied franchises and toss them all together in a game where they can pummel the crap out of each other. Melee refines the concepts first introduced in the N64 classic by adding in dodges, another special move, more dynamic stages, and way more characters.

If you don’t quite get why this game belongs on this list, consider the following. Super Smash Bros. Melee was a launch title for the Gamecube, launching on 3 December 2001. The sequel, Super Smash Bros. Brawl, launched 9 March 2008. Over the six and a fourth years that SSBM was out, I can honestly tell you that I played Melee for a significant percent of my multiplayer game time over that span. That’s a game with legs! The game itself was something that I enjoyed playing even beyond the life of the Gamecube.

There are gamers out there who have never played Smash Bros. and there’s also a large number of gamers out there who actually find the series unplayable or don’t believe it to be a legitimate fighter. They may have some sort of a point on the fighter status, but, in my book, I think this is a rather good thing. Take your typical fighter: Virtua Fighter or Soulcalibur. You could spend ages trying to learn all of the moves and intricate engine of the game. Even once you know all these moves, as Yahtzee has said, you’re still prone to losing on a bad day to a button mashing monkey.

OR you can have a relatively simple fighting system like Smash Bros. with four special moves coupled with attacks in all directions on the ground and on the air. That’s the entire moveset for every character. Sure, some moves have slight intricacies to them that take a while to master, but Smash Bros. is a wholly accessible fighting game that totally rocks.

The last thing worth mentioning is the intricate statistics tracking system upgraded from the N64 game (but, sadly, downgraded for Brawl…WHY!!!). Anyone who’s spent any degree of time with me knows that I LOVE gameplay statistics and being able to keep track of all the intricacies of your game time is way cool. My dream, one of these days, is for these statistics to start including vital weights so that when your buddy starts playing on your system, but only has half the gametime you’ve logged, you can actually compare stats in a meaningful way.

The original Smash Bros. had the best commercial, so here it is:

SSBM in 8-Bit:

And that’s that for Post 16, Pre-Current. Tune in tomorrow for the best of the PC (pre-current gen) and the rest of the week for the runner-ups. Don’t forget that next week we’ll finally have the tops of the current gen!

Game Overview: Post 16-Bit, Pre-Current Gen Runner-Up: RPG Edition
Jun 17th, 2008 by Dan

Our continuing examination of the best games of the post 16-bit, pre-current gen, we will be looking at two PS2 RPGs that I particularly enjoyed.

Our first game was a groundbreaking collaboration between two entirely unrelated, gigantic companies that were leaders in their industry. What resulted was a great game that wasn’t quite simple or clean, but was surprisingly interesting and fun despite its flaws. That’s right, the game is the multi-million-selling Squaresoft and Disney collaboration, Kingdom Hearts.

Runner-Up: Kingdom Hearts

Let’s get the cons out of the way right off the bat. Kingdom Hearts has a flawed camera system, the Disney planets and story sections are particularly uninteresting, and the Gummi Ship missions are pretty lame. Two of the three of these issues were addressed in the sequel (I’ll let you guess which ones), but the sequel just lacked the charm and appeal of the first release.

So what was good about Kingdom Hearts? Surprisingly enough, the formula works really well. Who could have EVER imagined that teaming up a Nomura-designed character with Donald Duck and Goofy would result in a game worth playing? The game is essentially constructed to make fanboys squeal with delight, with cameos from Final Fantasy VII, VIII, and X, moogles, and a bevy of popular Disney characters. Again, for some odd reason, the fact that these characters interact with each other like nothing was strange about meeting each other just works.

Gameplay revolves around solving, more or less, the plots of several Disney movies as you visit each planet. In many cases, the planet you visit will have a Disney protagonist like Aladdin or Beast to join your party. These guys are usually pretty strong, but using them is kind of a waste since Goofy and Donald are part of your party for more of the game, so leveling them up should take precedence. Battle is handled in real-time, with Goofy and Donald being controlled by the game’s AI, while Sora’s attacks and magic are handled by you.

The story is actually somewhat basic. Great evil is consuming the worlds that each of the characters are from. The Heartless (beings who have no heart, makes sense, no?) are the planet destroyers and they manage to reach Sora’s world. Sora’s girlfriend of sorts, Kairi, is kidnapped by this evil and Riku seems to join the Heartless.

At the end of the day, Sora’s story is way more interesting than the Disney stories and it left one of those “Wow, that was cool” impressions on me back four years ago when I first played it.

If you’ve never gotten around to beating Kingdom Hearts, get to it!

Here are the intros to the first and second game in the languages I prefer them in:

The last game we will be examining today actually had characters in Kingdom Hearts. If you’ve been paying any attention to which Final Fantasy games I like and dislike, then you already know, by process of elimination, that we’re about to talk about Final Fantasy X.

Runner-Up: Final Fantasy X

A lot of firsts hit when Final Fantasy X landed on US shores. It was the first Final Fantasy on the PS2, first Final Fantasy without a world map to traverse, and, most importantly, the first voice-acted Final Fantasy game. I don’t think anyone’s gonna argue with me that the voice they chose for Tidus does kind of wear on you a little bit. Some of the acting is a little wooden too (See the “laughing” scene…that one hurts to this day. Also see “I hate you” at the end. There was supposed to be emotion there, but I just found myself laughing my ass off.), but, overall, the voice actors they chose were top notch and quite good. My favorite of the bunch was Wakka, but that might be because he’s essentially a water polo player…

A lot of what I particularly like about FFX comes from the small things they did to revitalize the series. Squaresoft eschewed the active time battle system in this iteration in favor of a pure, turn-based system that, awesomely, allowed you to swap in party members on the fly during any turn of battle with no turn penalty. Since every party member who completed at least one action in battle received experience points for the battle, this little system allowed me to swap in a whole party in each battle, prolonging the battle, to be sure, but also ensuring that my party remained balanced and usable in any situation where a swap was required.

Coupled in with the radical new way to earn XP was a radical new way to level, the Sphere Grid. Each party member started on a particular spot of an epic, sprawling array of stat bonuses, new moves, and locked paths. While each path initially shoehorned your character into a set “class” of the olden Final Fantasy days, you were able to use those locked paths to branch your characters out and increase the variety present in each of the characters. In fact, a devoted enough player could have a full cast of characters with all of the Sphere Grid slots unlocked with the only real differences between characters being Overdrive attacks (like Limit Breaks or Desperation Moves).

The Sphere Grid far trumps the License Board of Final Fantasy XII, IMHO, solely because it forced more differences among your party, at least at the start of the game, instead of the homogeneous party of adventurers that I ended up with in FF XII. Turn-based battles are also strategically more fun than ATB battles, but can sometimes be more boring since there is no pressing need to complete an action.

After a series of stories that I will only go so far as to call disappointing in the four preceding Final Fantasy games, Final Fantasy X made major leaps in storyline maturity. Gone were the silent, emo protagonists of VII and VIII, back was someone who wasn’t super-damn depressing to control, even if his voice actor was obnoxious. The party was pretty varied and mostly fleshed out (I’m looking at you Lulu and Kimahri…who the hell are you guys and why don’t your stories really matter?) and rather interesting all at the same time, particularly Rikku, Auron, and Wakka. The drama of the summoner’s quest and the ultimate sacrifice they must make to stop Sin, coupled with the intrigue of just how Tidus ended up in Spira really carry this story and make it really interesting. So interesting that it garnered a rather…lackluster sequel, but still a first for a Final Fantasy game.

Final Fantasy X isn’t the best of the series nor is it second best (I like VI and IV more), but something about it just clicked for me when I played it. XII, while I do believe it has a more interesting cast and even more interesting story, just doesn’t execute either well and just falls short of PS2 greatness, in my opinion. Let’s hope that XIII brings back some of that VI spirit to revive a series that has been in somewhat of a same-y slump in its more recent outings. They’re already making some efforts to differentiate with what seems to be a female protagonist, so my hopes are already higher than usual for a Final Fantasy game.

Product Placement!:

Watching some of these FF X videos I also noticed that Final Fantasy characters, at least in X, look a lot more realistic and also a lot more Asian than they used to.

Anyway, tune in Thursday for the exciting conclusion to this category’s runner-ups!

Game Overview: Post 16-Bit, Pre-Current Gen Runner-Up Part 1
Jun 14th, 2008 by Dan

There were certainly a lot of games between the 16-bit era and the current gen, but I, surprisingly, don’t have a whole lot of games on the list. It’s not that the medium entered a dark age or anything like that, it’s more that following the SNES era, I didn’t have the systems that were releasing all the AAA titles. This is why you’ll have to forgive me for missing highly-acclaimed masterpieces like Ico or Shadow of the Colossus, I just haven’t played them.

I hope you don’t think that the Nintendo 64 or the Gamecube didn’t have any good games, they just weren’t seeing too many titles outside of first- or second-party releases and, statistically, the system with the most games released on it has a higher chance of releasing good games (usually because the system getting the most releases is the most popular and the AAA devs will produce for the most popular system).

That being said, the first game we’re going to examine today was, in fact, a Gamecube game. How about some hints?

1. The main character of this game makes a cameo in Metal Gear Solid: The Twin Snakes
2. The storyline spans from the Ancient Rome to the present day (present day of release)
3. H. P. Lovecraft

Our only runner-up for today is the absolutely insane, but awesome Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem

Runner-up: Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem

With a development time that almost approached eternity itself (I know it’s cheesy, leave me alone), Eternal Darkness, originally announced for the N64 back in 1999, finally launched on the Gamecube at the end of May in 2002. Being the all-around wuss with respect to horror games or movies that I am, I was among the multitude of players that didn’t go and buy the game and contributed to its commercial failure (lucky for all of us, Denis Dyack doesn’t see this as a discouraging factor from releasing a sequel). By the time I had finally grown a pair, it was two years later during my senior year of high school. Playing through this game, which did genuinely freak me out at times, I found myself thinking, “Man, I should not have waited to play this sucker, this is a great game.”

“Flesh. Bone. Bound together with the oddest magical incantation. This wretched book is where it all began so long ago. Before time, before humanity.

I am Doctor Edward Roivas. I am a clinical psychologist. I am also dead. This is not my story, nor even the story of the Roivas family. It is the story of humanity. Like it or not, believe it or not as you will. Your perceptions will not change reality, but simply color it. Humanity has been on the edge of extinction for two millennia, ignorant of so much and dependent on so few. The Guardians grow restless. Their time once again near. Whether by fate or misfortune, my family has crossed their path, and they didn’t take kindly to it.

Their attention turns to my granddaughter, for she is the last of my line and the last hope for humanity.”

So begins Eternal Darkness. The player starts out in the shoes of Alexandra Roivas (whose likeness in contained within some of the girlie mags you can use to distract guards in MGS: TS) whose grandfather has just been brutally murdered within the confines of his mansion, located in Rhode Island. The police are clueless as to who might have committed such an atrocity, so Alex takes it upon herself to begin investigating the death of her grandfather and she starts by searching the Roivas mansion for clues.

In her quest for clues, she stumbles upon the aforementioned Tome of Darkness, a book bound of human flesh and bone, reminiscent of the Necronomicon, and begins to learn of the truth of her family’s legacy, the identity of the entities responsible for her grandfather’s death, and the fate of the rest of the humanity. Let me give you a little hint: it doesn’t look good for our species. Gameplay evolves by finding chapters of the Tome of Darkness, each detailing the exploits of different key players in the history of the Eternal Darkness.

Exploring those oh-so-cheery themes of Lovecraft, just about every one of these characters meets some sort of gruesome, grisly end once they’ve completed their chapter. Some do useful things for Alex in the future, some are fated to simply die in obscurity, their actions proving ultimately very futile. Also a factor of Lovecraftian literature, the fragile sanities of these characters play a prominent role in the overall gameplay.

On top of your more typical life and magic meters, Eternal Darkness features a sanity meter. Encountering the many unspeakably horrific beasts employed by the ancient evils you combat results in a constant drain on your fragile human sanity. This, inevitably, leads to strange occurrences within the game world itself. Walk into a room with a low sanity meter, you might find yourself spontaneously falling apart, slowly losing limbs until your head falls off. The screen will flash white, your character will say “This can’t be happening,” and you’ll find yourself at the entrance to the room, 100% in tact. I’m not gonna give away the really good ones, but there are a myriad of sanity effects to unnerve even the most steely of players mixed throughout the game, some of them fourth-wall breaking. Those are truly great sanity effects, as they immerse the player even further into the game. As your avatar loses his or her sanity, so too are you tested to see if you can keep your wits about you.

There are ways, later on in the game, to restore your sanity since an empty sanity bar results in health drains instead, but to raise your sanity meter for the sake of your own sanity really isn’t in the spirit of the game. If you’re not being freaked out by the statues that are suddenly following your character around, even though they never did before, then what’s the point?

Control and combat are a little loose for my tastes, but then again, that’s why it’s only a runner-up. This game is absolutely about the sum of its parts, as story cannot exist without gameplay, the sanity meter is just a gimmick without story and gameplay, and the loose controls are still better than most and make for a satisfying experience.

Will Eternal Darkness freak you out? Yes, at times it will. There’s nothing you can do about it. I knew about a particular freak-out moment beforehand. I knew exactly when it would trigger (it was story-based), and I was still freaked out when I encountered the event. That being said, don’t let something like being a little freaked out prevent you from playing the game. I’m about as horror-averse as they come and I still loved the game. The story is just too good to pass up.

Here’s a great US commercial for the game that I think just totally embodies the spirit of the game:

Tune in on Tuesday to see some of the best in RPGs for the last generation!

Game Overview: Post 16-Bit, Pre-Current Gen All-Stars
Jun 13th, 2008 by Dan

Insert another credit, because it’s time for your weekly video game news and you’ve just hit the Game Overview screen.

Due to some poor life decisions, I find myself stranded for five weeks without any video games. What’s a guy to do, right? Well, rather than just giving you some of the headlines from the week’s video game news in lieu of what I was planning to be gameplay impressions, reviews, and the like, I’ve instead started a five week “All-Stars” feature. Each week we’re going to look at a video game era and spotlight my top three games from that era. Each of these games will also receive a place setting at the prestigious “Table of Honor” feature that I’m working on. Here’s the weekly plan:

Week 1: 8-bit Console Era
Week 2: 16-bit Console Era
Week 3: Post-16-bit Console Era, Pre-Current Generation
Week 4: Pre-Current Generation PC Games
Week 5: Current Generation

Yeah, the categories are broad, particularly weeks three and four, but it’s how I want to do them, so get off my back!

The 16-bit era may have refined the gameplay of each generation prior to it, true modern game design didn’t officially begin until the release of the post-16-bit consoles with their 3-D capable processors. We’ll just pretend that Star Fox didn’t exist on the SNES for the sake of this point, but even if we do allow it, the 3-D effects in Star Fox, or on any system prior to the SNES, were primitive at best. The first real 3-D game with any influence on modern 3-D games was the launch title of the Nintendo 64, Super Mario 64. Everything from camera control to hub world design has been more or less ripped from this first, pioneering game to just about any other 3-D platformer and the conventions set forth by SM64 were even adopted by genres as distinctly different as RPGs.

Also debuting with the Nintendo 64 was analog control on the home console. Mario was able to walk or run dynamically based on how much pressure was applied to the control stick, and other companies took notice. Within a year or so, the Sony Playstation had its own dual analog stick control (two makes it better!), which initially seemed like a rip off, but was brilliant in conception as the second control stick allowed for the natural progression of the camera buttons into the camera stick. Dual analog controls led to the current incarnations of the console first-person shooter and the genre’s best attempt at mimicking the pinpoint precision of mouse and keyboard FPS control. Voice acting became prominent as developers moved away from cartridge media (some more begrudgingly than others :cough: Nintendo :cough:) onto the more spacious disc-based CDs and DVDs. In fact, games and gaming matured into the more cinematic experience we now enjoy based on the power increases this generation.

Surprisingly enough, the company that had been synonymous with the video game, Nintendo, faded into virtual obscurity with the Playstation replacing it as the industry leader. Late in this time period, we saw also saw the launch of the Microsoft Xbox and as we laughed at the bulky design, gigantic controllers, and relative lack of games available, save Halo (which I will go on record as saying I don’t really care for), Microsoft cooly and stealthy maneuvered into first place in terms of HD systems with its next console launch.

We’re getting ahead of ourselves with that last point, so let’s get back to the list. Our third place game takes place a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…you meatbag. A blast from the past in taking place a whole 4,000 years before A New Hope, it’s Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic.

#3 Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic

Lucasarts knows one thing is constant about its fanbase: they will consume just about any piece of Star Wars-related media that they throw out there and that attention to detail is commonly expressed through the many mediocre video games that the company puts out. While the series has actually enjoyed a number of stellar titles, the prequel video game blitz had been taking its toll on consumers as the property was overexposed and not with a bevy of AAA titles.

Enter BioWare, a company you wouldn’t typically associate with the sci-fi genre (back then). They were best know, at this point, for Neverwinter Nights, a D&D-based dungeon crawling RPG, and Baldur’s Gate, another D&D based fantasy RPG. These are very highly regarded titles to this date, as old as they are, but I know many of us couldn’t help but wonder about how Knights of the Old Republic would turn out.

Not being a company to stray from what they do well, KotOR’s battle system is essentially a turn-based RPG based on, what do you know?, the third edition of Dungeons & Dragons. The interesting part about the engine is that it defaults to a game that is very much not turn-based. You can input commands for the character to carry out in their next “turn”, but the turns were relatively seamlessly hidden from the player, making it appear that the non-queued actions were being carried out on the fly. Couple this interesting and actually well-orchestrated battle mechanic with the ability to wield a one-handed or two-handed lightsaber or dual-wield one-handed lightsabers, throw in a couple of force powers, including that evil lightning thing that the Emperor does, and you had fanboys frothing at the mouth to get their hands on this game.

Which brings us to the story, which was, rather unlike the Lucas-penned prequels, nothing short of amazing. As mentioned before, our story begins 4,000 before A New Hope and two mega-powerful Sith Lords, Darth Revan and Darth Malak, were wreaking havoc on the Republic, as Sith Lords are wont to do. The Republic is able to decommission Revan, thanks to the powerful Jedi Knight Bastila Shan, but Malak was still out there terrorizing systems with vast resources at his disposal of a mysterious source.

So what does this have to do with you, the Player Character? First, you have to decide on a couple of things: your name, gender, appearance, you know, the basics, then you’re plopped right onto a Republic ship of some sort that Malak is assaulting to get his hands on Bastila. You meet up with Carh Onasi, Bastila escapes on to the surface somewhere, and you and Carth head down to the planet yourselves to look for her, starting your adventure. The greatest part about this narrative though is that you can partially control its direction. Many of the quests and sidequests have multiple solutions based on decisions that will affect your alignment. What’s this alignment deal? It’s the core of the Star Wars existence, Light Side and Dark Side. Basically, your decisions will net you Light or Dark points that will determine which force abilities your character eventually has available to him/her. Helping people out generally nets you Light points. Helping someone out, getting your reward, then killing all of the parties involved and looting their corpses usually nets you Dark side points. While the game lets you officially decide on your ending in a dialog tree near the finale, these actions that your character undertakes will affect the way your avatar is displayed on screen and the way that characters interact with the player character. Someone like the hilarious and very evil droid HK-47 will applaud the taking of innocent life, guilty life, uninvolved life, etc., but a goody two shoes like Bastila or Carth will be a quite the buzz kill as they criticize the mass murders you may choose to commit.

Speaking of characters, the batch in this game are about as good an ensemble cast as you can find. Sure, Mission Vao, T3-M4, and Juhani aren’t that interesting, but the rest of the cast delivers it strong, with HK-47’s performance making him the stand-out character in the entire Star Wars Universe for me (followed by the eminent Grand Admiral Thrawn (AKA Mitth’raw’nuruodo) and the super-cool Mara Jade and Talon Karrde (can you tell I love Zahn’s Expanded Universe books?)).

“Definition: Love is making a shot to the knees of a target 120 kilometers away using an Aratech sniper rifle with a tri-light scope…Love is knowing your target, putting them in your targeting reticule, and together, achieving a singular purpose against statistically long odds.”

-HK-47

Yeah, he’s that awesome.

All of this great characterization and gameplay would be for naught if BioWare hadn’t come up with an equally awesome plot for our beloved player character to run through. The tale relies very heavily on the plot twist that SPOILER ALERTyou are Darth Revan/SPOILER ALERT and that the battle where you were supposedly killed resulted in you simply being captured and the Jedi Order reprogramming your mind. This overarching story of the Star Forge combined with the mini-sagas taking place on each planet make for an excellent narrative structure that BioWare continues to implement in its other AAA sci-fi epic Mass Effect.

KotOR is probably the best Star Wars game I’ve ever played and among the top-notch RPGs I’ve ever played (rare for a Western RPG!). If you’ve never played it, you can pick it up for either the original Xbox or just play a slightly enhanced version for the PC or Mac. What are you waiting for? Go play it or I’ll send HK-47 after you!

Here’s some great HK-47 video, but beware, they contains spoilers (also, the second is from KotOR 2)

This next game will probably be the most controversial entry among all of the games I’ve elevated to this position. I’ll give you a few hints:

1. Its unveiling followed a proof of concept video shown at a prior trade show that was considered to be much cooler than the final product

2. Regardless of your opinion on this iteration in the series, it’s generally accepted that this game blows

3. The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker

The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker VariousSee More The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker Various at IGN.com

#2 The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker

I’m sure a good chunk of the Zelda fans out there are wondering “Why Wind Waker? Doesn’t Twilight Princess qualify for this era?”

Yes, Twilight Princess does qualify for this era. Unfortunately, I think it’s uninspired and it suffers from lack of cohesive focus. When I played TP I felt like I was going through the motions to complete what was supposed to be an awesome game. It was definitely a more mature story and arguably slightly more interesting in execution, but it just felt lifeless and like Nintendo was just cranking out a mature LoZ title just to appease the fans after Wind Waker. Miyamoto genuinely thought that Wind Waker was a great game and I think he was seriously affected by the US fan backlash over what he felt was where the Zelda series should live. It kind of reminds me of Metal Gear Solid 2. Taken from a rather biased article written by Jeremy Parish of 1up.com, I found this quote:

“Kojima supposedly once said of Metal Gear Solid 2, ‘This is my Metal Gear. If it is to be destroyed, I will do it my way.'”

Parish admits directly after the statement that this quotation is probably apocryphal, but the general idea is still there. In Japan Kojima didn’t bother to hide that Raiden was the main character because he knew they wouldn’t mind him so much. In the states, Raiden does not have a very good reputation and a lot of gamers were upset about being duped.

This bait-and-switch happened to a much lesser degree with Wind Waker. Back in Spaceworld 2000, the aforementioned proof-of-concept video was shown.

This is what people began to expect from the next Zelda game. Miyamoto, perhaps remembering that Zelda was based on his childhood adventures in the countryside, seemed to want to bring Zelda back to its more innocent roots. The art style of WW is strongly reminiscent of A Link to the Past and the atmosphere is much less serious at times than that of Ocarina of Time (which is also amazing, but just doesn’t make the list, I like this one more).

The moral of the story: don’t make Miyamoto do what he doesn’t want to do. Otherwise you end up with a soulless game like TP instead of WW.

Speaking of WW, the game starts off by tying back to the Ocarina of Time, but this is definitely not the Hyrule that you once knew. In fact, it’s not even really Hyrule at all. The people of this world live on islands within the Great Sea. After your sister is kidnapped for looking too much like Zelda, you set out with some pirates to save her. Along the way you get a boat, explore dungeons, etc. Typical Zelda fare.

SPOILERS

The story does get good though, as you eventually discover that the pirate captain you’ve been gallivanting with on occasion is actually the reincarnation of Princess Zelda, holder of the Triforce of Wisdom! You, naturally are the reincarnation of Dan (what? I always rename Link), so you’ve got the Triforce of Courage. This leaves the Triforce of Power, which, as always, is in the possession of the evil Ganondorf. You discover your true identities underwater in the game’s surprise twist. It’s unclear precisely what happened, but at some point the threat of Ganondorf was so great that the only way to defeat him was to call forth the Great Sea to submerge Hyrule and Ganondorf once and for all. The King of Hyrule, AKA the ship you’ve been sailing around in the whole game, was still alive, but sealed beneath the waves while Ganondorf had mysteriously escaped. Once you fully recover the Triforce of Courage, you confront Ganondorf, who extracts the Triforces from Zelda, Dan, and himself, and claims that whomever touches the Triforce will get a wish granted, his being the restoration of Ganondorf-controlled Hyrule. Before he can make a wish, the King of Hyrule touches it and wishes that Hyrule and Ganondorf be washed away and for Link and Zelda to escape. Link and Zelda turn Ganondorf to stone to keep him from escaping, water pours into the previously sealed-off Hyrule, and the great kingdom is erased from history.

/SPOILERS

Aside from being my favorite LoZ game story, I think that the Great Sea is my favorite LoZ overworld. Sure, it’s a little dull sometimes to sail around the map with the whole vast expanse of blue, but it’s also calming and fun at the same time. You see, you set the wind direction and you just put up your sails and move. Every little quadrant of the map features at least one, but typically more secrets and challenges and the whole island design allowed pre-Mario Galaxy development because each island could be specifically tailored to challenge different aspects of your arsenal of equipment and moves.

Sailing is fun, the story is fun, the gameplay is fun (but WAY too easy) and, at the end of the day, isn’t that what really matters?

I remember seeing this sucker in the movie theaters:

This Japanese commercial emphasizes the stark contrast between how Zelda is marketed in the East and West. Our commercial has that dark and edgy look while the Japanese one is more whimsical in presentation:

The top game on my list for this era is one that I actually finished fairly recently. While some may argue that there might be bias because it’s the most recent of these games that I’ve played, those people are wrong. What is this game? Here’s the only hint you’ll get: within this game you will experience pain, fear, end, fury, sorrow, and joy. The one that doesn’t make much sense is probably the giveaway that I’m talking about Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater (Subsistence).

#1 Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater

I’ve already waxed quite poetically about the game and story of MGS3 in my review, so if you skipped that guy to avoid spoilers, don’t bother reading it now, but that’s a good chunk of the validation for why this game sits at the #1 spot.

Still, I figure I should expand a bit about what makes this game so great. More than any other Metal Gear game to date (that I’ve played), Metal Gear Solid 3 absolutely embodies the tagline of “Tactical Stealth Action.” As you slink through the Russian jungle to achieve your mission, you really do feel like this is how it would theoretically be done. Naked Snake is also a great character. He hasn’t seen as much action as Solid at this point in his life, so he’s more naive and pure. Seeing him develop into the persona of Big Boss is truly moving as you see why both Naked and Solid end up making the decisions they later make in life after growing tired of the endless manipulations of governments.

The game succeeds on all fronts and truly deserves to stand out as the best this era ever produced.

Here’s a parody video highlighting one of the other characters as the actual protagonist:

Yet another parody movie regarding the end of the game:

Oh man, what a great Japanese commercial:

So that’s that for the Post 16-bit, Pre-Current Gen top three. Keep tuning in this week to see what didn’t quite make the list, but was still awesome!

Game Overview: 16-Bit All-Stars Runner-Ups Part 3 / Sony: MGS4 Launch
Jun 12th, 2008 by Dan

Here we are at the last of the 16-bit era’s all-stars that couldn’t quite crack the top three.

This game is distinctly famous for Shigeru Miyamoto claiming that this game “proves that players will put up with mediocre gameplay as long as the art is good,” which he later apologized for claiming that he was expressing some frustration at Nintendo pressuring him to make changes to Yoshi’s Island to make it look more like this game. Another, more obvious clue, is that I talked about this game in my instruction manual editorial. Our last runner-up is Donkey Kong Country.

Runner-up: Donkey Kong Country

This will be one of the few times that you hear me say this, but Shigeru Miyamoto is wrong. Donkey Kong Country was the much lauded return of Donkey Kong to the video game spotlight and what a job it did. They looked at the aesthetic of the original Donkey Kong and they absolutely brought most of that to this new game. The most obvious transition from original to SNES was the strong use of the barrel. Donkey Kong’s chief weapon in the first level makes a return as one of the most prolific items in the game. You save progress in them, fly around the world map in them, rocket through the levels in them, regain party members from them, and have a projectile attack a la the original game. The mortality of the player characters were even brought over from the arcade game with both Donkey and Diddy dying after one hit, much like Mario (Jumpman) did back in the day.

I love Donkey Kong Country because it took the conventions for how a platformer is done, pulled from Mario 3 and Mario World, and took it to brand new heights. Sure, it didn’t have the branching paths of SMW or the innovative power-up management system of SMB3, but it had pets done way better than Yoshi, tight, almost simultaneous two-player action, secrets hidden around every corner, and that trademark Rare humor (or should I say humour?) that’s long since left the company (probably left when the Stamper brothers left).

DKC was and still remains one of the coolest Christmas presents I ever got. I still have the t-shirt that came with the game as a pre-order bonus (thanks Mom!). If you’ve never played it, you should go back and try it out.

A great Sega-bashing commecial:

The kid in this commercial is wearing the t-shirt I got as a pre-order bonus:

One of my favorite video game intros:

Wow, what a journey the 16-bit era was. My most formative gaming years spanned this generation, setting up my future video game habits and tastes, most notably, my voracious love for RPGs. This era’s a real tough one to follow, I mean a good chunk of my top games of all time came out of this period. Tune in tomorrow to see which console games make my top three in the post-16, pre-current gen time period. I can tell you right now, regular readers of my blog won’t be surprised by the number one game, but can you even come close to guessing what else will be covered in the week to come? Go ahead and leave a comment with your guesses.

I hope you all remember that Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots launches today! Go and buy it. If you don’t have a PS3, go get an 80GB model (backwards compatibility for the win!) and a Dual Shock 3 and then buy MGS4. What are you waiting for?

Game Overview: 16-Bit Runner-Ups Part 2: RPG Edition
Jun 10th, 2008 by Dan

Back on Saturday we took a look at two excellent games that didn’t quite make the cut. Today, we examine another three, all of them the superb 16-bit RPGs.

You know the drill by now about the “Table of Honor” and whatnot, so let’s just get down to the clue and game:

This first game I want to examine jumps out at you from the world of platforming. You might doubt his ability to manage, but once he jumps, you’re filled with utmost confidence. Yeah, it’s Mario’s RPG debut, Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars.

Runner-up: Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars

For some crazy reason, nobody in the Mushroom Kingdom will believe that you are Mario. You’re probably the most famous savior of the land, but it’s not your dashing mustache or your red overalls that will prove your identity, it’s your trademark jump. This running gag is probably my absolute favorite part about SMRPG. No matter what part of the world you’re in, someone will inevitably ask if you are really the plumber. The dialog will pause, you will be unable to do anything else until you finally push the jump button and prove your identity.

The rest of the game is full of comparable humor and character that exude from every pore. Dialog makes sense and is pretty slick, the story is actually not that bad for what you’d expect it to be, and, most importantly, that trademark tight gameplay that Squaresoft has always been known for makes for a great battle system and actually meshes pretty well with Mario’s more typical platforming roots. Battle returned to the more traditional turn-based type affair, but now your special attacks were powered up by timed button presses or other similar tests of button-pressing acumen. This system was so slick and exciting that every subsequent Mario RPG (sadly none of them Squaresoft created) and even the new Penny Arcade Adventures has got timed button presses for defense and interesting special attacks.

I’m sure that many were skeptical about SMRPG’s ability to be a valid, entertaining game when it was announced. Just adding a big-name RPG developer to a franchise character does not make everyone believe it will rock (just look at Sonic Chronicles, no one thinks it will succeed). That SMRPG is able to succeed on all fronts and still be one of the better RPGs on the console is a testament to the talent of old-school Squaresoft. What a great game…

I just can’t resist throwing in yet another video game commercial for this game. This one’s quite bizarre…

This next game was published in America by a company whose motto is “Serious Fun,” but it’s not the farming sim/RPG that you might be thinking of. The main character fights very sinister beings in order to save the world in this one. This one’s a bit tougher, but it’s Lufia II: Rise of the Sinistrals.

Runner-up Lufia II: Rise of the Sinistrals

This one might fall a bit outside of most of your game radars. It’s not A-list like Final Fantasy or Dragon Quest, not even B-list like Breath of Fire or the Secret of series (you can bitch and moan all you want about this, but you’ll never convince me that the Seiken Densetsu series is anything more than B-list). Lufia is a pretty firm C-list series, with regards to RPG popularity. There were two SNES games games and one gbc game in the series canon, with another gbc gaiden. That’s it, that’s the entire series. To be fair, it was mostly concluded with the GBC game, but I feel that they did leave it slightly open-ended.

Gameplay isn’t that special, it’s your typical RPG with turn-based battles. There was one notable battle mechanic in the capsule monsters that you could capture and have fight on your team. These monsters were computer controlled and could be leveled up and evolved by feeding them weapons and armor. The interesting thing is that this idea came about a full year before Pok√©mon was released. Pretty cool if you ask me.

What does make this game stand out and what earns it a spot on this list was its story. As a prequel in a time before prequels were cool (this was way back in Japan in 1995), Lufia II picked up the story before the events of Lufia & the Fortress of Doom (a game I never played). You were Maxim and, like most RPGs, you are told by a mysterious figure (a woman named Iris in this case) that you are destined to save the world. You head out to solve a monster problem for your village with your childhood friend Tia (you reluctantly bring her along) and from there you bounce from town to town solving problems and adding the brutally strong Guy to your party. Iris saves your life after you learn about the Sinistrals and you go on to add another party member, the female soldier Selan, before you finally learn the identity of the first Sinistral, Gades, after he brutally destroys an entire town.

Excited yet? Your party certainly is. They set off to confront Gades and make him pay for what he’s done. He responds by soundly kicking your ass. In yet another video game “oh shit, I hope I was supposed to die” moments, you are revived by Iris who revives the party and tells everyone but Tia that they are meant to confront this evil light with Maxim. Another dude, Dekar, joins the party and Maxim, Guy, and Dekar head out to kill Gades after learning from a lieutenant of the Sinistrals, Idura, that Gades plans on sinking an entire island. This time Maxim manages to kill Gades, but he still manages to activate the machine after all. Maxim heroically gets to the machine on his own, but deactivating it mostly kills him in the process. Iris teleports in, decides to be useful, and saves Maxim.

In the aftermath of this event, we are treated to a touching cutscene where Ti– no, wait, Selan (?) confesses her love for Maxim. I still remember this plot point coming straight from left field. You mean to tell me that Tia, who’s been hitting on you this whole game, isn’t gonna end up with Maxim? As a player, I didn’t mind, since Tia was annoying and Selan was arguably hotter (in that 16-bit way), but still, it really messed with me to see the developers not take the easy road, and I respect them for it. Tia honorably realizes she’s not gonna win Maxim’s love, tells Dekar that she loves Maxim the man, not Maxim the warrior, and sets off to find a man as good as Maxim to marry. That’s seriously the last you see of a character you’ve spent hours developing. The game sort of “ends” here as Maxim and Selan are married, buy a little house, and have a kid.

If you couldn’t guess by now, I’m a fan of these drastic world- or game-changing events in a video game. Be it the loss of Naked Snake’s right eye in MGS3 and how it affects first-person view from then on or something like the World of Ruin, these huge, irreversible events never cease to amaze me (I guess, if Iabsolutely have to I’ll admit that Aeris’ death is kind of cool in that way, but it never really had the same emotional impact on me as any of these other ones). Here I am, yet again thinking that I beat the game, and then Idura kidnaps your son and you’re forced to take up arms again. Iris comes in and claims that it was Maxim’s fate to die after the battle with Gades, but her actions have changed the future. As the gamer, you don’t yet know that these are lies. Heck, you don’t even know the huge twist yet at all (maybe you might if you had played the first game, but I certainly didn’t).

You do more quest-y stuff, Dekar dies after you kill Idura, and eventually you get to the final confrontation with the Sinistrals which is, not coincidentally, precisely the way that Lufia & the Fortress of Doom opens, which means that you fight the Sinistrals and kill three of the four. While trying to escape, only Guy and the elf Artea (he joined you in the second half) make it out alive. Maxim and Selan die, but are forever remembered as the heroes who vanquished the Sinistrals. It also turns out that this whole time your “helper” Iris was the Sinistral Erim. Erim is unique in that so long as she lives, the Sinistrals can be continually reincarnated. Also unique about her is her ability to take on human form, which some fans speculate is a result of the Sinistral Daos testing humanity. The real twist here is that Iris/Erim is later reincarnated as one of the main characters in the first Lufia game. By the way, you’re probably wondering why this game is even called Lufia if there are no characters named Lufia anywhere in the game. I can see your brains connecting the dots. Lufia is Erim and she is a character who fits a similar role to Tia in the first Lufia game to one of Maxim’s descendants. She didn’t change history by allowing Maxim to continue his bloodline, for Maxim and his descendants were always meant to counter and eventually defeat the Sinistrals. Erim makes one final appearance as a party member in the third Lufia game, as she gathers up yet another of the bloodline of Maxim and a crew of strong warriors. She builds them up this final time to destroy the Sinistral menace forever. Erim had tired of life as the Sinistral of Death and wanted her life to finally end.

I should also mention that Lufia II had a pretty solid puzzle and monster mechanic. Monsters appeared on the field and got to move every time you moved. There were also some pretty neat and difficult puzzles for the player to solve as he made his way through the many dungeons. I distinctly remember some of these being so tough (this is good!) that I had to consult old issues of Nintendo Power to figure out how to progress.

There you have it, a fairly convoluted plot and a game that’s ultimately average in its battle execution. Still, I can’t help but love Lufia II for it’s creative puzzles and that zany story. Prequels were still a pretty new concept to me back then when I played it and knowing what was to happen to Maxim and Selan made for some interesting, if fatalistic gameplay as I watched the drama unfold. There’s something cool about playing a game that fits into a pre-determined timeline. It’s both futile and awesome to fill in the details of a future you know will one day occur. I’d like to see more games try this with their storylines. Have a sage/oracle-type character tell you that completing the game will lead to your death. It could be fourth-wall or even within the game itself. Watching the main character grapple with what he knows to be the greater good at the expense of the personal good leads to good drama. They did it in FF VI with Terra, but the devs didn’t have what it took to let her die and not have a happy ending. That may be a good thing anyway, since I’m one of the few people who can be satisfied with an unhappy or unfair ending.

The Japanese commercial for this game is pretty lame, so here’s something that a fan put together for the 11-year anniversary of the game:

Yeah, the video’s not that cool, but it gives you a taste of what the game looked and played like. If you ever get a chance to play this game, I do recommend it. It’s well worth your time.

Our last game of the day had a mother of a time even getting released in America. To this day, the first and third game of this series have still never seen the light of American day. If you’re a fan of the Runaway Five, you also already know that I’m talking about EarthBound.

Runner-up: EarthBound

The brilliance of EarthBound lies not in its genre, but more in the originality and character that it brings to an already tired formula. How many sword and sorcery-themed RPGs does the video game market really need? (Answer: Don’t be stupid, sword and sorcery-themed RPGs rock!) Still, it’s refreshing to see an RPG take place in a modern setting like the country of Eagleland (a not-so-veiled reference to the USA). It’s hilarious to see that your weapons consist of baseball bats, yo-yos, and bottle rockets.

The story centers around Ness, a boy of tremendous psychic power who is tasked by a bee from the future named Buzz Buzz to destroy the evil force known as Giygas. Ness sets out from his hometown, Onett, and encounters and recruits Paula, Jeff, and Poo to save the planet. Along the way, they fight cultists, zombies, dogs, ninjas, bails out the Runaway Five twice, and eventually have their souls transferred into a robotic body to enable them to travel in time to fight Giygas. It’s strange, but in a quirky way. Even the final boss isn’t your typical encounter. You defeat the mighty Giygas by repeatedly praying, eventually getting the entire planet to unite and defeat Giygas in a Dragon Ball spirit bomb-type fashion.

EarthBound makes this list (just barely) because of the character that it exudes from every pore. Destroying the Happy-Happy cult is still one of my favorite situations in a video game mainly because of how bizarre it really is. Another plus for EarthBound is that it’s really hard. The game definitely doesn’t pull any punches with its difficulty.

Unfortunately for us US EarthBound fans, the series didn’t sell all to well when it first came out for the SNES. As a result, Nintendo decided not to release the sequel, Mother 3 (EarthBound = Mother 2), stateside citing poor sales of EarthBound. No matter how many fan campaigns Starman.net tries to put together to bring Mother 3 to North America, Nintendo continuously refuses to release. Interestingly enough, the Nintendo of America guys actually love the Starman dudes, which I think is what has allowed the Starmen to still have a Mother 3 fansub in production without a cease-and-desist order being issued.

Many fans speculate that EarthBound’s upcoming release on the Virtual Console (it was rated by the ESRB => it will be coming out) will be a barometer to test the validity of releasing Mother 3 in Eagleland. You can bet that the day this game comes out anyone, and I do literally mean anyone, who is on my Wii friends list will receive a gift of EarthBound for the SNES unless they tell me they’re planning on buying it already. I just want to drum up sales because I’d love to see Mother 3 hit our shores.

Yet another Japanese commercial that doesn’t make too much sense. Enjoy!

With that, we’re almost done with our 16-bit all-stars. Just one more entry on Thursday to finish these guys off.

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