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What I’ve Been Doing 5 Aug 2013 [FB/IB/F/BT/GO]
Aug 5th, 2013 by Dan

o-ORANGE-IS-THE-NEW-BLACK-facebook

The awesome cast of Orange is the New Black (Photo by missmegsblogcontent)

Lots of talk on the internets about how Orange is the New Black was a fantastic show not worth missing. After checking it out, I’ve got to say everyone’s really right.

Movies

Nope, but probably this week!

TV

The Bridge – Demian Bichir is doing fine, fine work on this show, but the serial killer stuff seems fairly fantastical and he’s almost omnipotent in his power.

Orange is the New Black – Netflix seems to have finally found its killer show. Extremely high quality and an intriguing watch. Definitely check it out.

Music

I’m not sure I actually like Regina Spektor’s new(ish) single (too much rock, not enough piano), but it’s worth hearing

Books

Not this week.

Video Games

Shin Megami Tensei IV – Got a bunch more time in this weekend while rendering episodes for my channel. Getting better. The battles are, without a doubt, rather tough, and the story’s gotten intriguing as I’ve left the first area. Not sure if it’ll continue to be awesome, but we’ll see.

EarthBound – Finally booted up Shigesato Itoi’s SNES epic to play the intro while Min watched this weekend and it still totally holds up. Just super sharp dialogue and an endearing level of charm.

Rayman Legends – Super quick challenge levels this week. Min and I need to unlock Awesomeness lvl 2.

Spelunky – Played the XBLA version one last time before I signed off forever thanks to the release of the PC version. Didn’t get past the jungle due to some dumb play. It’s really easy to fall out of practice with Spelunky.

Animal Crossing: New Leaf – I really thought I’d be able to bring fruit home with me from the dream suite. Kind of lame that you can’t.

The Last of Us – They try and pretend all the time that you can pick how you want to approach encounters. Stealth or fighting, etc. It sounds good in theory, but instead they have all these required confrontations. The latest one involved two bloaters, two clickers, and two runners and it was just a pain. Kind of disappointing…

Pikmin 3 – These games are so charming and SO fun. I love Pikmin games. Clever writing/localization and a fun combat mechanic makes for the first real reason to turn on my Wii U in a long time.

Video Games of 2012 [GO]
Jan 4th, 2013 by Dan

Miami Marlins at Pittsburgh Pirates - PNC Park 21 Jul 2012

Even the Pittsburgh Pirates played video games this year.

Knock on wood, you guys, but I managed to get through 2012 without having all my video games stolen from my house while I was sleeping [EDITOR’S NOTE: It’s 2013 now, you dummy. You don’t need to knock on wood]. Should that even be an achievement?

2012 seems to be a shift in the status quo. Perhaps it’s because the new console generation hasn’t yet kicked off, but I feel like fewer and fewer AAA, big budget titles have been grabbing my attention lately. Of the 56 games on this list I feel like very few (about 12) were big, huge landmark games. Maybe that’s not all that different, but it feels different…

Also, like last year I do count games on this list that did not launch in 2012, but that I played, started, or beat in 2012.

JANUARY

Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective – The weirdest thing about my time with this game was that I chose to play it in Spanish. It was fine practice and, off the top of my head, it taught me two Spanish words I had no use for before playing it (sotano and cachorro, meaning basement and puppy/cub/kitten, respectively), but it also featured very funny writing by Phoenix Wright’s creator and a bizarrely complicated story for such a slight-looking game. In fact, 2012 was kind of a year of interactive fiction, as you’ll see, so it’s appropriate to see GT get top billing. It’s also worth mentioning that the animation in this game is spectacular.

Rayman: Origins – Also known as the game where Min and I attained Super Saiyan level for the first time. No lie, guys, the treasure chest levels and the final Level of the Dead or whatever it was called was a zen-like achievement for the pair of us. If New Super Mario Bros. isn’t your bag, but you think you might still love platformers then you absolutely need to try this game out.

Chrono Trigger DS – Yeah, I played this in the 90s. Yep, it was my first RPG. The DS port added some marginal sections, including an epilogue that sets up for Chrono Cross in the most depressing way possible, but it also came with a new translation that I thought was interesting and brought some freshness to an otherwise “solved” game for me.

Earthbound – I wish I’d spent more time trying to replay Earthbound, but I just didn’t. Heck, I don’t think I got too far past meeting Buzz Buzz…Still love this game.

Cave Story + – How I long for dynamic difficulty level changing! Cave Story + is a fantastic Metroidvania-style pixel shooter, but my hubris determined I would play on the hardest difficulty, which means I’m stuck on Monster X until I can get my skills down pat.

FEBRUARY

Final Fantasy XIII-2 – Remember how everyone’s favorite character in FF XIII was Lightning’s sister and some guy no one ever saw in FF XIII? Wait…those weren’t your favorite characters? You don’t want to play another 40 hours as those chuckleheads and watch Snow, Hope, and Sazh from afar while playing a nearly incomprehensible story? Too bad!

Saints Row: The Third – I feel bad for you if you’ve never played Saints Row: The Third. I felt bad for myself for not having played it sooner than I did. For maximum awesomeness be sure to give your boss the Latina voice. It’s priceless. Seriously though, this game is the best open world game I have ever played. Period. It’s absurd, ridiculous, and nonsensical, but it’s winking every step of the way and I’m right there with it.

Rhythm Heaven Fever – When I first started writing this list I forgot that this little gem came out in 2012. Can you believe it?! Min, I know you don’t understand the appeal here, but this is honestly among my favorite game of this year. Did I spend $80 importing the soundtrack from Japan? You betcha. Goddammit this game is so good. It’s a must play for anyone with a Wii (or a Wii U). Seriously, go buy it. It’s incredible.

Devil Survivor 2 – Man, the Megrez fight is so stupid and I’m not properly equipped, demon-wise, to tackle it, which is why I never beat this game. It’s better than DS1, mechanically, but I just need to sit down and grind my way out of this and I really don’t want to have to do that…Bonus points for also pretty much being Evangelion

MARCH

Mass Effect 3 – Hoo boy…What a shitshow this game’s release was…I wish I’d beaten it faster than I had because by the time I reached the ending, well, the internet had practically exploded with criticism. I spent more time wading in comments sections and forums defending the artistic integrity of a game that I honestly didn’t find that impressive compared to the rest of the year’s releases, but it just rubbed me the wrong way to see the fanboys demand changes from Bioware. I mean, whine all you want, but so long as Bioware doesn’t cave– What’s that? You say they did cave? They did change the ending as a response to fan whining? My respect for Bioware and this game flew out the window the second that happened. As far as I’m concerned, I played the real Mass Effect 3, but I never got the chance to enjoy it. Now that the doctors are gone from Bioware and the company is soliciting advice on what direction to take Dragon Age III, I find myself thinking, “Man, what happened to Bioware?” It’s a real shame because Mass Effect 3 was actually quite good.

APRIL

Shadow Complex – Way late to the party on this one, but I was feeling that Metroidvania itch and, well, this game kind of scratches it. I hate the third dimension they added to the gun because it makes aiming a pain. Other than that it’s fine. Serviceable, really, but it also gets credit for being the first “autolog” type game that I can think of.

Jamestown – I don’t play a lot of vertical/horizontal shooters. Jamestown just happened to be out in a lull and I owned it from a Humble Bundle. It’s enjoyable enough and I dig playing it with multiple people, but it’s not going to set the world on fire. Playing the story in “funny” mode is fun too because the alternative is almost obnoxiously self-serious.

Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP – Cool music and a cool aesthetic, but it controls weird on the PC. I wish I had an iPad for stuff like this and that I put more time into this game.

The Walking Dead – I thought about separating this out into episodes across the series, but it seems cleaner to talk about this game in one fell swoop even though I started it in April and finished it in November. I know I said that Rhythm Heaven Fever was the best game of this year, but The Walking Dead is actually the best thing to have come out this year. I’ll grant you that it’s more interactive fiction than game, but even that’s not that important, really. I mean, would putting more puzzles in this adventure game make it any better? Of course not! The Walking Dead is the success it is because it’s a character-driven story of the likes we haven’t seen before. Lee Everett may not be making the galaxy-defining choices that Commander Shepard makes on a daily basis, but the stakes always seem higher as he does his best to shepherd young Clementine through a world that only gets worse and worse for everyone. That last scene in the jewelry store as Lee coaches Clem to safety…It touched me (and I’m sure most anyone who played it) in a way that nothing else this year could. I’m not being hyperbolic when I say that everyone should play this game. It’s brilliant.

Fez – Speaking of brilliant, Fez has that in spades. We’re talking about a game where every detail feels deliberate and mysterious. That’s not an exaggeration either. With maybe one exception, there’s not a single puzzle in Fez that you couldn’t necessarily figure out in some way from clues in the world. They might be obscure, difficult to interpret clues, but they’re there. Add in a soundtrack that is hauntingly beautiful and a rotating mechanic that is as fun as anything else you’ve ever done and you’ve got the most interesting experience of 2012. I can still pull up intense memories of the empty solitude of some of the screens and the fitting music that made me feel isolated, alone, a little scared, and a little excited to discover a cube or an anticube. Fez was awesome, guys.

MAY

Diablo 3 – I’ve had this talk with Min so many times, but maybe I didn’t understand what Diablo was before I played D3. I’d only ever played D2 with my brother or a few friends. It was a small-scale endeavor and Torchlight, its closest analogue for me, was a single-player affair. There was no Auction House there to circumvent loot drops or other players to set up trades with on forums. There was the purity of the RNG and the thrill of the hunt. Diablo 3 awakened that feeling inside me that activates when I feel like I’ve been cheated. It was like I took the red pill and I saw the Matrix of the game for the first time when I realized what I’d have to do to beat the game on Inferno. I’ve never felt like a game’s systems were so transparently evil before (I don’t play Facebook games) and Diablo 3 soured me on Blizzard as a developer. Maybe next year you’ll see an entry about Heart of the Swarm, but as of right now, thanks to Diablo 3, I plan on never spending another cent on a Blizzard game (unless a new Warcraft RTS comes out. I actually like those).

Tropico 4 – Min likes to tease me about being an evil dictator when I play this game, but it’s much more complicated for me. When I play Tropico I don’t exercise my ability to rig elections or execute citizens at will. I do my best to be a benevolent leader and resist the control/interference of the US or USSR. I do my best to make the tropical paradise that I feel my people have been denied. It’s a deeply (and weirdly) personal experience for me. Plus the music is pretty sweet.

JUNE

The Binding of Isaac: Wrath of the Lamb – Yeah, yeah, expansion pack for a game that I played relentlessly last year. I don’t care, guys, it was almost a new game with how much it added. If you read my blog and you tried/enjoyed FTL, you really should check this out.

No More Heroes: Paradise – I think I’m at assassin #7 or #6? It’s got its purposefully tedious parts in it and it’s so stylized that it’s hilarious, but it lost some steam with me and I never finished it. Whoops.

JULY

Spelunky – Forget what that other guy said about the best game of this year because Spelunky is awesome. It’s so sharp in the way that it plays. Die and it’s almost 100% your fault. Brutally difficult, endearingly fun and funny, and tightly controlled. I only wish I had more friends to play local multiplayer with.

Penny Arcade 2 – Not as funny as PA1 and not as fun as PA3

Penny Arcade 3 – PA goes 16-bit RPG. The combat is frighteningly difficult, but the game is tons of fun because of it. These new classes are super neat. It’s like they figured out all the boundaries to RPG combat and sharpened them to a knife’s edge. Really interesting, but easy to bone yourself with bad class selection.

Sins of a Solar Empire: Rebellion – Each game takes forever, but playing a few matches with Min was tons of fun.

Greed Corp – Did not like. Sorry, Eric.

Puzzle Agent – Tried this before I went down the Professor Layton rabbit’s hole. Surprisingly funny and surprisingly well-written. I’m fairly certain that these didn’t sell well enough to keep making them, but I really enjoyed the setting and the story. Very cute.

Max Payne 3 – I’m the guy who’s never played a Max Payne game before so when I play this grimy, glitzy, greasy shooter I’m unburdened by Payne’s history. There’s no comparison to the way it used to be or the way I wanted a sequel to be. It’s just an awesome shooter with a dumb, but neat story. Brazil is here to stay as a setting and even though Rockstar characters are all deplorable assholes who I hate, I had a soft spot for Max and Giovanna. Pretty solid shooter.

Sonic Generations – Modern Sonic games suck. All of them. Everyone who thinks Generations is “not that bad” or “good” is wrong. You’re wrong.

BIT.TRIP.RUNNER – A rhythm game! I didn’t realize it before I tried it. The first boss fight sucks and I stopped playing after it. I hear that was a mistake.

AUGUST

Persona 4 Arena – I got a little bogged down by being forced to play other perspectives before finishing the main narrative, but the continuation of the Persona story was solid enough to make me interested in the game, even if I didn’t really care for the fighting mechanic. Guys, who knew a fighting game could have a sweet story?

Driver: San Francisco – Didn’t get enough in to say anything definitive, but I don’t really like the car mechanics.

Trine 2 – I don’t think either of these Trine games are for me, but I’ve only ever played 5 hours of a Trine game ever. It’s the physics model. I don’t like the imprecision in a platformer. I had the same issue with Little Big Planet.

Iron Brigade – The most frustrating networking experience of 2012. It’s a shame too because Min, Lee, and I should have loved playing this.

Counter-Strike: Global Offensive – Goddammit I love me some Counter-Strike. I didn’t put that many hours into this, but playing it with Simon and some of the old War Cry guys was awesome. If you have any interest in shooters, but you don’t play this…well I don’t understand you.

Orcs Must Die 2 – Not the best tower defense game, but I think I’m under 10 hrs with it so maybe it picks up?

The Last Story – Got so bogged down writing about this with David (remember that feature?) that I never continued it. Lots of promise there with characters that seem deeper than your usual anime bullshit, but I need to give it another 20 hours to be sure.

SEPTEMBER

Mark of the Ninja – The tightest stealth game (mechanics-wise) you will ever play. Seriously, man. It’s pretty boss. The story is fairly dumb, but playing it is so much fun that you can’t help but smile. A solid win in my book.

FTL: Faster Than Light – I’ve recorded 31.5 hours of me playing this game as of when I write this sentence. A game that has such tight mechanics that you can’t help but love it. This was the year of roguelikes for me. FTL plays like the space sim you always wish you had. I don’t see myself getting bored of this game until I unlock all the ships. That won’t be for a while because I’m somewhat terrible with some of the ships, but I do love me this game.

New Super Mario Bros. 2
– More Mario platforming. Not the most inspired Mario game, but it has its moments. Not gonna set the world on fire and, like the first one, not my favorite Mario game.

Torchlight 2 – I can’t really claim to have played this game since the first day was a clusterfuck and I didn’t get past the menu screen. Had tons of fun chatting with Min and his cousin though.

Borderlands 2 – Until the very end of December I was the only one of my close video gaming friends who had this game. As a solo affair (and even as a group affair), the early parts of this game are pretty terrible/boring/tedious. In a group I’ve enjoyed playing this tons more. It’s just fun to have three friends rolling around Pandora with you. I hope we keep playing.

Theatrhythm: Final Fantasy – I love rhythm games. I love Final Fantasy music. This game is beautiful and perfect and could only be made better with more FF VI music.

Kirby’s Dream Collection – Picked it up to own Kirby Super Star. Played a bit of that with Min. Lots of fun, but not gonna set the world on fire.

OCTOBER

Professor Layton and the Last Specter – Played it for a few minutes because it was the only sequel I could find in the store. Based on those few minutes I bought the rest of the franchise.

Pokemon White Version 2 – I wish I hadn’t pushed Min and David to get Black and White because the Version 2s are so much better. There has never been a better put together Pokemon game. I’ve sunk over a hundred hours into this game playing it Nuzlocke style and I still have yet to defeat the Elite Four or Team Plasma. I’m not kidding, guys, this is the closest you can come to a perfect Pokemon game.

XCOM: Enemy Unknown – Ok, for realsies now, guys. This is the best game of the year. Just so much fun to play in Classic Ironman mode where every mistake is locked in place and humanity hangs in the balance. Tactical, turn-based combat has never been better implemented and every system works well. My only gripe is that you “can’t fail” the final mission in the sense that losing it sends you to the start. Losing an Ironman run in the final mission would be brilliant (and sadistic), wouldn’t it?

Professor Layton and the Curious Village – It has a fairly ridiculous plot twist that almost makes zero sense and doesn’t hit with any oomph, but you’re supposed to be here for the puzzles anyway. They’re fun and the characters are charming enough that I’m more than happy to spend hours upon hours just completing brain teasers.

Need for Speed: Most Wanted – I wish this was more Burnout Paradise instead. I don’t like the way the “campaign” is laid out with the unlocks for all the cars. I hate how I have to earn nitro every time I swap cars. It’s just not as good as the Burnout stuff. I’m sorry. That said, it’s so much fun to race at top speed in real-world automobiles. Super fun.

Professor Layton and the Miracle Mask – The 365 puzzles (one a day) and the fact that I bought it digitally are what keeps me coming back to this game over and over again since I haven’t yet beaten the previous iterations. Solid puzzle work and a great 3DS package, but I can’t wait to actually see the narrative.

Professor Layton and the Diabolical Box – More Layton, but on a train!

To the Moon – The Walking Dead kind of ruined this game for me. Everyone was lauding it as this grand, mature narrative, but then The Walking Dead goes and does something truly spectacular while To the Moon failed to really hit with me. The twist was neat and I dug the story, but I didn’t find it to be as amazing as I’d heard. It’s solid storytelling in a mediocre engine package, but it’s worth checking out for sure.

NOVEMBER

Hotline Miami – Certainly the game that’s inspired the most cackling laughter in me. Just brutal, ugly, sleazy, and weird. Hotline Miami has a kickass soundtrack and relentless gameplay. The bosses are kind of obnoxious, but it plays fairly sharply and I’d recommend it to almost anyone.

Nintendo Land – Fantastic in group settings, but somewhat lacking as a solo endeavor. I’m happy to own it and I think asynchronous information/capabilities makes for way more interesting games than the same old stuff we’re used to, but without a group to play this it can get a little boring.

New Super Mario Bros. U – Haven’t put a lot of time in it, but the course design is definitely superior to the DS version. Can’t wait to beat this with Min, but I’m not breaking down any doors to play it.

Donkey Kong Country Returns – I’m only two worlds in, but it feels slighter/weaker than the old DKCs. We’ll see how it pans out, I guess.

DECEMBER

Sleeping Dogs – I’m getting open world fatigue pretty early in this one. Unlike Saints Row: The Third, this is more serious and I feel like not being ridiculous is to its detriment. Sleeping Dogs’ dating system is ridiculous and the cop story is fairly predictable, but I’m in love with the Hong Kong setting and the fact that this is a game not taking place in LA, NY, or Miami. Also really nice to see non-white protagonists. The Batman fighting style is neat, but, like I said, already hitting open world fatigue.

999: Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors – I’m glad I played and finished this before the end of the year because it’s absolutely brilliant. Any game that uses the mechanics of the system its on is an instant plus for me and the final puzzle/revelation is brilliant. How many games make you think about morphic resonance and information transfer like this one? Just the fact that I found myself thinking about philosophical questions like Locke’s Socks/The Ship of Theseus and that it ALL MADE SENSE was really brilliant. Look, visual novels are divisive, but you shouldn’t let that get in your way. 999 has one of the neatest stories of the year (2010) and it’s easily one of my favorite games this year.

What I’ve Been Doing 30 Jan 2012 [FB/IB/F/BT/GO]
Jan 30th, 2012 by Dan

Balrog

Here's a suggestion: If you're playing Cave Story for the first time, don't pick hard mode (Photo courtesy escaped.monkey)

Busy weekend with lots of media consumed. That kind of thing happens when I hang out with Min.

Movies

The Descendants – Shailene Woodley was a revelation as Alex in this movie. Excellent acting. George Clooney was also quite good. Pretty chill movie and worth seeing, even if the land ownership subplot is kind of tacked on and not as interesting.

Evangelion 2.22 – I thought I’d seen this…but I hadn’t. I really missed seeing some of the fun/interesting battles of the old tv show. I mean, cutting Israfel in favor of a school drama plot about making Shinji lunch and a dinner party? I’d rather have that sequence instead. I also get that the movie doesn’t allow for the ponderous and deliberate psycho-analytic battle against Leliel, but it’s one of my faves so I was bummed about losing it too. Did not care for the new pilot, Mari, at all, and I didn’t love the business with mixing up who’s who in the battle against Bardiel, but, whatever, right? Some things are different. 2.22 makes me want to watch Neon Genesis Evangelion instead. The more relaxed pace allows for much greater character development and interesting concepts. We’ll see what happens with the rest of the movies and the new ending.

Tangled – Min hadn’t seen this, it was on instant, and we were bored. It’s pretty great, but I hate the video quality of the Starz movies.

Haywire – Went to see this on Sunday and it cut out 40 minutes in. We could have either stayed to watch it from the beginning or taken a voucher for a new movie. As interested in seeing this as I was, I couldn’t stomach watching the slow opening 40 minutes again. I’ll either try again or wait for Netflix.

TV

Childrens Hospital – Ward 8 and the children stabbing Nick Offerman with pencils was great. So was the Bob Seger joke to find out how old he was. Fantastic show. Can’t wait for a new season.

Up All Night – Megan Mullally and Shayna. So great. The bit about cheating on watching a TV show with your spouse was great. Super awkward.

Glee – Pretty interesting “Summer Nights” recreation, complete with the overlay in the climactic final note. I like songs like “Wedding Bell Blues”, but the processed voices sound a lot like they don’t belong in the show. I guess it was a dream sequence Wow, making Artie move/act like Mick Jagger is surprisingly effective even though he’s in a wheelchair. Whoa…what?! The thing about Finn’s dad came out of NOWHERE.

Justified – I’m cool with case of the week stuff when it’s this good. Sometimes it’s ok for Raylan not to be the absolute center. I hope they get Carla Gugino on the show more. The other new villain is appropriately scary.

Archer – “Cyril?” “No breakfast for you!” Another great episode of Archer this week. I miss Ray as a field agent, but I guess this has a lot of comic potential.

Parks and Recreation – The bit about Tom bowling like a grandma (and Ron begging him to have some decency as a man) was amazing. April being nice is unusual, but she’s been softening up a lot anyway. Still one of the greatest shows out there.

Scrubs – Just put it on for a few minutes to pass some time. Always a good show.

Sherlock – The middle episode about the Chinese smugglers is kind of boring, but the Moriarty episode is fantastic. I love how crazy Jim Moriarty is. So great.

John Oliver’s New York Stand Up Show – Popped this on during dinner for something to laugh to. Pretty good stuff.

Music

The Gregory Brothers – You know they put up a new Auto-Tune (Songify?) the News segment, so that got me listening to all of them again. I even dipped into their non-ATtN music because I love Sarah Gregory’s voice.

Books

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo – Slow and steady. Bloomqvist sure gets around with the ladies, doesn’t he?

Video Games

The Old Republic – The guild’s got Eternity Vault Normal on farm status so now it’s time to start working on Karagga’s Palace.

Ghost Trick – Making a lot of progress in this game. The mystery continues to deepen as my Spanish continues to improve. I love playing games in Spanish!

Earthbound (Mother 2) – Started up a new save file to play in between bosses in a raid. Fun times. Still very early in the game (haven’t explored the meteor yet)

Rayman: Origins – Min and I beat the game and started going for the prestige levels. Holy god the last one, Land of the Livid Dead, is about as punishing as the game can get. Platforming gets frustrating, but it’s also got a super satisfying feel once you conquer it.

Cave Story + – Thought I’d boot up something different while Min was napping. This game is pretty fun and pretty solid, but deciding I should play it on hard mode may have been a mistake. I’m stuck on Monster X because he’s a beast. Every one of his purple projectiles kills me in one hit, so I’ve got to be perfect. On the good side of the spectrum, the machine gun mechanics are amazing. Love that gun and the ability to float with it.

May: You’ve Been Cheated [Fukubukuro 2010]
Jan 6th, 2011 by Dan

In their last show as a band, the Sex Pistols played one song and left the stage. Before leaving the stage, Johnny Rotten quipped, “Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?”

The thing is, I don’t feel this way for the reasons everyone else might think I might. I suppose we’ll go after the biggest point of contention first.

Linearity

“Final Fantasy XIII is The Worst Final Fantasy Ever (TM) because all the dungeons are straight lines and there are no towns.” Guess what. The non-linearity of those Final Fantasy games you all hold so dear is an illusion. Final Fantasy XIII draws so much ire because it has the gall to tell you what you already know.

I mean, really, you might be able to wander around the world man, but that doesn’t mean you get to pick what you do. The plot only advances when you go to specific places in a particular sequence (also known as a linear progression) and locations on the map are artificially locked from transit by story gates.

In fact, non-linearity is a joke across almost every video game. The main fun of any GTA game may not stem from following the story, but when you do decide to start on it, you will never be able to sequence break or do anything but follow it linearly to its conclusion. You might be able to pick which order you complete mission paths, but, with the exception of GTA IV, every event has a pre-determined outcome. If that’s not linearity, I don’t know what is.

I applaud a game that doesn’t try to conceal its story behind a veneer of faux choice. Final Fantasy games have only ever allowed choices once: The World of Ruin in FF VI. There are countless story details and sidequests to experience, but once you get Setzer, Edgar, and Sabin, you don’t have to see any of them. You’re free to grind and face Kefka at any point.

Bonus points really should be awarded to FF XIII for having the guts to let its story carry the momentum, but they are immediately lost on their failed attempt to make anything remotely interesting happen.

Foremost in my annoyance with the game is Hope’s subplot. In the first hour or so of gameplay, Snow, a big, earnest, stupid guy in the tradition of anime big, earnest, stupid guys, manages to get most of his ragtag squad killed, including Hope’s mother, standing up against the world’s government. Naturally, this infuriates Hope, who now desires revenge.

Hypothetical: A man seems directly responsible for the death of your mother. Do you:

1. Stutter and stammer every time you see him
2. Stew silently while enjoying revenge fantasies every time you see him
3. Figure out some way to confront him (in rage or otherwise) the first chance you get.

Maybe I’m being presumptuous here, but unless you’ve got some sort of emotional disorder, option three seems like the healthiest and most logical choice. Hope is all about the first two options because he is a gigantic pain in the ass.

I don’t think this is the result of some kind of cultural difference. I mean, hey, I’m not the most emotionally open person. I don’t really go around sharing my feelings with everyone I know, but I’m pretty sure that if a man were responsible for killing my mom, he’d know about it ASAP. It’s got to be a contrivance (and an annoying one). Why are characters in media so unable to just open their mouths and talk? If writers think this is an effective way to build narrative tension, then I’ve got news for them. As a rule, if your characters are forced to behave like they’ve never interacted with another human being for your plot devices to work, said devices are cripplingly contrived.

Honestly, it’s just lazy writing and it removes me from the narrative. Maybe Hope has a Deep Dark Secret that makes him act so stupidly, but we never learn about it. The game goes out of its way to say that Hope has father issues to hand-wave away his social idiocy, but when we meet Papa Hope, we’re confronted with a loving father who seems to care very deeply about his son. Did I miss something somewhere? Someone seems to have dropped the ball.

You know what, I think I know why this happened. Somewhere along the way the story gurus at Square Enix decided that many young men, their prime and target demographic, seem to have issues with their domineering fathers. Some of them wrote this detail on his character sheet. Somewhere else the scenario writers were coming up with how half of the player characters would unite and escape. They decided they’d meet at Hope’s mansion and Hope’s awesome dad would help them out. When you’ve got a game this massive and important, you’d think that these two teams would discuss these idiosyncrasies, right? How does such a glaring contradiction make it into the final build?

One of my other big “WTF?” moments comes at the end of a sequence at an amusement park. Sazh struggles with whether or not to kill the traveling companion who has betrayed him. Pretty soon after that starts, the physical manifestation of his emotional conflict attacks him. For most characters, fighting their eidolons, as they are called, brings them emotional peace allowing them to understand their path. In this case in results in Sazh deciding to commit suicide. What. The. Fuck.

Repeating this same emotional pattern six times (one for each main character!) seems like it would get old fast. It does. Suicide does not freshen the experience. It makes no sense. We all know he’s not really dead because we just unlocked his summon!

It’s a shame to see so many missteps in such a promising premise. Roll with me here. In the world of FF XIII there are two primary sentient beings: Humans and Fal’Cie (ignore the stupid name of the second species (typical Squeenix pretentious nonsense)). The FC, as I will now call them, are magical creatures specializing in producing food, power, or other more advanced functions. Unfortunately, the FC are split into two warring factions, Cocoon and Pulse. FC also have the terrifying ability to brand humans, saddling them with cryptic quests. Failing to complete these quests turns the human into a mindless monster cursed to wander the earth slowly solidifying until he finally petrifies and can no longer move. If they magage to succeed in their quest, they are transformed into crystals for eternity. Those in “crystal sleep” are not dead, but they are also not alive.

It’s the perfect deconstruction of video game protagonists. Each character has a singular purpose. Failing will result in a fate worse than death and succeeding will result in the end of the narrative, dooming the characters to non-existence. The much maligned linear nature of the game represents their inability to turn away, especially when you learn that the antagonists have been helping you the whole time. The big bad wants the characters to kill him. For once the game realizes that its point is to be defeated by the player.

If Squeenix hadn’t gone and relied on a deus ex machina ending like they had, the world would have ended with mankind and the FC extinct. It would have been brilliant.

Here’s another idea for the writers out there. If we have no idea (and no hint) a character can do something until you dramatically reveal it in the penultimate cutscene, it will feel cheap when you make the ending rely on that skill. Not to mention, of course, that the physics of arresting the momentum of a giant biome falling thousands of feet through the atmosphere would probably result in the deaths of nearly every inhabitant.

This is all stacked upon the naive and bullheaded solution that our heroes come up with to counter the manipulative FC. Get this, their plan is to just keep going along the path hoping that something will save them from dooming themselves (ok, so it does, but that’s because of narrative bullshit). It makes my brain hurt in ways I cannot fathom. It’s idiotic.

Now we’re going to take a moment for a quick aside into my personal life that will invariably lead back into the game.

I don’t know what university was like for non-math-type majors, but for my ECE degree I was forced to read and watch tons of mathematical proofs. Invariably (math pun! (so lonely)) we’d reach a point where the professor would skip to the end of the proof and tell us students “I’ll leave the rest of this proof as an academic exercise for you students”. When you’re the professor, you don’t have to waste your time doing the grunt work.

That was quick, back to the game:

Why are we forced to load the battle engine against enemies who are drastically weaker than the player’s party? What’s the point of that? The only time I’ve ever seen this problem intelligently avoided was when I played Earthbound. Once Ness is sufficiently more powerful than a given enemy, enemy encounters result in an instant KO. The battle engine isn’t loaded and XP and items are awarded as appropriate. The game surrenders a battle whose result is a foregone conclusion, saving you from wasting unnecessary time.

Shouldn’t more games do this? Why do I have to load up the battle engine to complete a fight that lasts five to ten seconds? What does the game gain by forcing me to sit through this? It’s not like we’re strategically managing resources in this game (unlike, say, a Persona or Shin Megami Tensei game); the entire party is fully healed after every battle. So why not? Does Squeenix think that if we don’t sit through a five second battle while pushing ‘X’ once we will be livid that the game is playing itself?

Of course, this makes even less sense when you think about the way the battle system works in FF XIII. There are two ways that you can fight: Auto-Attack and Abilities. If you select Auto, the AI will select a series of commands faster than you could based on the knowledge it has about the enemy you are facing. All you have to do is set the roles (Tank, DPS, Healer, Buffer/Debuffer) and the game will pick the most prudent course of action. It’s also streamlined to such a degree that if you die, all you’ve got to do is pick retry and you are respawned just outside the battle you just lost. It’s that easy.

Final Fantasy XIII wants so badly to be a well-oiled machine, like a Disney ride pushing you toward the goal, that these time sinks become way more pronounced. Fighting with auto, like almost every player does, with your only responsibility being character roles can still be strategic and fun, but at a certain point I start to think, “Why do I have to select auto every single round? Why can’t I just toggle it off when I need to change my tactics?” It’s like the game asks me every turn if I still want it to play the game for me.

Don’t get me wrong here, XIII is not a bad game…or maybe it is. Perhaps FF XIII is a better experience than it is a game. You’ve got stunning cutscenes and top-notch voice acting combined with a game that mostly plays itself along a straight line. Almost sounds like a movie to me.

Lightning cosplay at Otakon 2010

Mother 3 Review [Big N]
Jan 12th, 2010 by Dan

Great Mother 3 art

Wallpaper courtesy Pet-Shop on DeviantArt

Ruminations on video games as an art form – this could very well become a Mother 3 review. There will be spoilers here. Seriously, don’t read it if you want to play Mother 3 and not have the plot spoiled.

There’s a trite comparison that floats around the internet almost every month that always gets my eyes rolling. Inevitably, someone will call such-and-such the Citizen Kane of video games or ask what the Citizen Kane is or claim that the medium is immature because we’ve yet to hit our Citizen Kane. It’s exhausting and, quite frankly, futile and stupid. To begin with, Citizen Kane opened with good reviews and was generally well-received, but it didn’t start to gain notoriety for ten years. It didn’t even make #1 on a top movies list until twenty years had passed. When the Citizen Kane of gaming hits (god I hate that phrase), we probably won’t know it for quite some time. The more important point is that movies and games are apples and oranges.

The day that we stop worrying about whether books or movies are better than games at expressing a particular artist’s point of view is probably the day that we’ll realize that we’ve already got fine examples of games that are reflections of authorial control already. Brütal Legend was not a great game, but Tim Schafer’s hands are clearly evident all over it. Anyone who’s ever played one of Fumito Ueda’s games knows precisely how a game can effectively be used to bring out your emotions through simple mechanics. Goichi Suda (AKA Suda 51) has been making games that show clear, artistic direction through his use of bizarre symbols and incomprehensible plots for years. My point is, we’ve been here for a while.

You may have heard of Shigesato Itoi, but chances are, you have no clue that he’s one of the most famous and respected men in Japan to such a degree that his dog was probably the most recognizable animal in the entire country for a few years. In America, we know him as a video game designer, specifically the man behind Earthbound, but not much else. Interestingly enough, Itoi is actually more famous for being an essayist, interviewer, and slogan generator than his work for Nintendo. His association with Hayao Miyazaki is well known enough that he’s famous for the Kiki’s Delivery Service slogan (“Ochikondari mo shita kedo, watashi wa genki desu” — “I was a little depressed for a bit; I’m okay now”) and he even voiced Mei’s father in My Neighbor Totoro (a role that went to Phil Hartman (rest in peace) when the movie was dubbed in English).

In his younger days, Itoi found himself sick and unable to do much but play Nintendo as he recovered. It was in this state that he discovered Dragon Quest, which set the wheels turning in his head. This experience was the impetus behind the Mother series and led to Itoi’s long, fruitful relationship with Nintendo. In case you were wondering (protip: you probably weren’t), Shigesato Itoi is the guy who came up with the name for the Game Boy. True fact.

It’s not surprising to me that most of the names I’ve mentioned were not always video game designers. The most bizarre of the bunch, Suda, was an undertaker before he tried his luck in the video game industry while Ueda was an artist and the aforementioned Itoi was a…well there’s no easy word to describe someone like Itoi. He was (and is) a cultural personality.

“If you immerse yourself too single-mindedly in your chosen art form, whether it’s video games, movies, comics or whatever,” he continues, “your work can easily become just a reflection of what others are doing in that field, rather than breaking new ground.”

-Jordan Mechner

Now, Schafer is, himself, a product of the industry, having held no other jobs, but he’s the exception, a true creative mind that is not crippled by his feedback loop of doom. Monkey Island, Day of the Tentacle, Psychonauts, and Brütal Legend could not be more different from each other, but just think of how rare this is. For every Schafer or Ken Levine out there trying to bring new influences into the industry, there are tons of Star Wars- and Lord of the Rings-inspired games produced each year retreading on the same, tired stories game in and game out. How many World War II games do we really need?

BOING!

In 1989 Shigesato Itoi looked at the video game industry and said “How many sword and sorcery RPGs do we really need?” 2009 just passed us by and I’d say we’re still mostly mired in these medieval locales in 95% of all RPGs. Mother, Itoi’s freshman attempt at a video game, was set in “modern day” America. Earthbound (Mother 2) wasn’t exactly breaking with Itoi’s norm by being set in America yet again (in 1994), but it’s still a light among the sameness that pervaded the industry. Mother 3 is ambiguous about its timeline, but it feels like a scaled back modern day. In any case, like in the other games of the series, the weapons aren’t swords and bows, but sticks, yo-yos, and baseball bats. It’s really only a cosmetic and tonal shift, but it makes all the difference.

That’s exactly what makes Shigesato Itoi so great as a game designer. Perhaps it’s his outside status or maybe it’s just his brilliance, but Itoi understands video games to a scary degree for a man who only undertook them on a whim. I applaud him most for understanding that a game is an interactive piece of art and reflecting that with his systems. To wit, every Mother game revolves around music. The first game had the character searching for the Eight Melodies while the second repeated that idea with Eight Sanctuaries (each with a musical theme associated with it). Earthbound’s instruction manual (in Japanese) contained a little song that Itoi wrote for the player to sing as the main melody played on the overworld. Every line of text in the Mother series is written in kana (katakana or hiragana), so that the person has to vocalize Itoi’s often lyrical writing style. Mother 3’s focus on musical themes and leifmotifs (from the Masked Man to the Magypsies) is also emphasized through every character’s attacks in the battle system.

From Lucas to Salsa the Monkey, every character has a musical instrument associated with his attacks. So does every enemy. Each enemy also has a musical theme that plays in the background. Once you attack, you can continue to press the ‘A’ button to extend your combo to 16 hits if you can keep time with the (sometimes fiendishly difficult) beat. Just like that, something Itoi has always wanted the player to do (become musically involved with his world) becomes integrated into the activity the player does most in the game, battling.

Itoi also loves to toy with player perception to a hilarious degree. In an early sequence in the first chapter of the game, Flint becomes covered with soot after saving a friend’s kid from a fire. Why? Because that’s what would happen if you were running around in a fire. As he makes his way back out of the woods, you can bet that every person you talk to will question why you are covered from head to toe in black soot. Even better, if you hop into a hot spring to recover, the soot will wash off of your character from the neck down, since the Mother 3 hot spring animation always leaves the head exposed. It’s not until much later when it starts to rain that the soot washes off Flint’s face, this time to emphasize that we’re not joking around anymore, Flint’s family was still missing after the fire and they were almost certainly in danger.

An even more brilliant sequence comes much later in the game when the player is washed upon a tropical island with 1 HP and no equipment. The only way to progress through the jungle without dying is to eat one of the psychotropic mushrooms growing on the island. A bizarre sequence of events follows as you make your way to the next Magypsy with your perceptions completely torn asunder. Replicas of your family and friends attack you, which isn’t that unique for an RPG, but the way the narrative is presented and the visuals are warped, it becomes seriously unsettling. The one moment of calm comes when you arrive at another hot spring and recover, only to continue back into the horrors of the jungle.

Once you get to the Magypsy’s house, you’re constantly bombarded with insults about how bad you smell. It makes no sense though, because the player has done nothing different that would cause such a foul smell. Still, when your perception is returned to normal, there is a visible stench rising from Lucas and his compatriots. A quick dip in the bath follows and you’re no longer “smelly”, but, as a curious player, I wondered what had happened in the first place. Instead of continuing forward, I dove right back into the jungle to get to the bottom of it. halfway through, I was feeling a bit fatigued, so I popped on over to the hot springs and it all made sense. In my hallucinogenic state, I was unable to recognize that the pond I dove into for recovery was a festering, toxic-looking garbage dump of a pond. Off to the side, where no conceivable player would ever go, was a door into the real hot spring.

I couldn’t believe that some players would never find out the mystery behind why they were so smelly. Returning to that hot spring is hardly mandatory. Maybe that’s why it felt so amazing to see these little narrative games played with my perception of what was going on in the Mother 3 world at the time. It’s also interesting to look at from a player trust perspective, because when I saw that disgusting pond, rendered in all its GBA, low-fi glory, I felt nauseous and I know it was partly due to a feeling of betrayal. I have a feeling that this was exactly how Itoi wanted me to feel at that point.

Shigesato Itoi admits that the original draft for Mother 3 was way darker than it already is. It was written shortly after his divorce was finalized, which I think has a lot to do with the emotional betrayals of even the finalized version of this game. However this game was very nearly vaporware that was never released. Its development started for the SNES in 1994, but was quickly shifted to the N64 and the ill-fated 64DD not long after. Anyone familiar with the 64DD peripheral knows that this was going to prove troublesome for Itoi and his team. The game was even canceled at one point, but it was eventually decided to put it on the Gameboy Advance and announced around the re-release of Mother 1 + 2, no doubt to help drum up sales.

No one but the team knows just how dark the original narrative was, but Itoi claims that the story that eventually made it to print was the result of him finally becoming a good person. It boggles the mind to realize that it could have been any more dramatic, especially for a game that looks as friendly and cute as this one. In fact, this is the reason why Nintendo of America claims it will not localize the game. They claim the narrative is too mature and depressing for the way it looks and, really, the tone and the subject matter are alternatively irrelevant and deathly serious, so I kind of get what they mean. At one point you have a guy telling Flint that he’s got good news and bad news. The good news is something irrelevant and stupid while the bad news is that Flint’s wife, Hinawa, is dead. What follows is a scene that is so emotionally gripping that my little brother was affected even without hearing the music and sound associated with the scene. Flint completely flips out and starts beating on the guy who gave him bad news and even starts lashing out at the townspeople who are trying to calm him down. He is knocked out by a friend and put in a jail cell that has never before been used in the town’s existence.

It’s this weird juxtaposition of the inane and the deathly serious that creates the dissonant feelings I mentioned before with the hot tub scene and makes the player feel uneasy about what’s going on. When Hinawa’s father, Alec, is trying to tell stupid jokes to help Flint not be so tense about the certain danger his son is in. I wanted to tell him to shut up and let him focus, but I could also see that Flint was obsessing to a dangerous degree and that Alec was right in trying to calm him down. You also have the lighthearted love story of Salsa and Samba being ruined by the brutal and sadistic torturer Yokuba (Fassad in the fan-translation). It’s like Itoi is trying to say that the world is a screwed up place, but you can’t let it get you down.

I’ll tell you right here, I’m a huge sucker for any story about brothers. Later on in the game, it becomes fairly obvious that Mother 3 starts to center around the struggle of twin brothers Lucas and Claus as they attempt to collect more plot coupons than the other. The game series is called Mother for a reason and this one in particular focuses on the differences between each of Hinawa’s boys and how they came to deal with her untimely death. While Lucas comes out of his shell and becomes a healthier, more assertive and confident boy despite his absentee father, Claus foolishly rushes out for vengeance and finds himself enslaved by the Pig Army in its quest to end the world. The climactic final battle reunites the family once again, but the reunion is bittersweet. Claus has almost killed Flint and Lucas must face him alone to the death, even though he’s yet to realize that the Masked Man is his brother. Once the mask is knocked off and Lucas is staring into his own face (they are twins after all), the battle becomes a masterpiece. Selecting attack will cause Lucas to intentionally pull his punches or miss his attacks completely. Sometimes he’ll even refuse to comply. Claus, having lost most of his humanity, will continue to attack until Hinawa begins pleading for him to stop. Eventually, Claus comes to his senses and realizes that Lucas is his brother and that he is no longer anything close to himself. At that point, Claus commits suicide in a peculiar way. It becomes apparent that the Courage Badge that Flint gave to Lucas (via a Mr. Saturn in another example of absentee parenting) is actually a Franklin Badge, an item that repels lightning in the Mother world.

The heartbreaking thing about this whole sequence is that there’s nothing the player can do once Claus decides that he must kill himself to save the world. Lucas may not be physically (or psychically) killing his brother, but there’s nothing he can do but watch his brother kill himself using an item that he is holding. When it’s all over and Claus is dying in Lucas’ arms with Flint nearby and Hinawa’s ghost above them, the reunion is finally completed and the family is happy for a brief second before both Claus and Hinawa depart the world leaving Lucas to pull the last plot coupon. The world literally ends and it all fades to black. Everyone (who was alive before) is still alive in the finale, but the world is darkness and it’s not made clear what the true outcome of the whole battle was. We do know that the world is safe and everyone makes it, but not much else beyond that, it’s left to the player to decide, I guess.

If you want to really see a strangely tragic, chilling ending for a character, consider the fate of Porky, the antagonist in the game. The conflict in this game is motivated by his desire to see the world end. Porky’s mind was so warped by Giygas in Earthbound that he has remained in a permanent immature, childlike state even though he is now hundreds of years old. His influence corrupts and nearly destroys everything about the idyllic and peaceful Tazmily village and he is the one responsible for sapping Claus of all of his humanity. In his final encounter with Lucas, when it becomes apparent that he will not win the battle, he encases himself in the Absolutely Safe Machine, a capsule that renders him absolutely safe from all attacks both interior and exterior. Because it was just a prototype, there was no way to escape it, meaning that the ageless Porky can never die, but he can never leave the capsule nor can he communicate with anyone on the outside. For someone like Porky, an agent of entropy like the Joker in The Dark Knight, this is truly an ending worse than death. When all is dead and gone, when the universe dies of heat death, when existence is nothingness, Porky will still exist, alone in that capsule. It gives me chills just to think about it.

There’s so much about this game that just doesn’t quite add up and leaves the player feeling strange about the relationships they are seeing. Duster, the limping thief, is very clearly verbally and probably physically abused by his father, Wess, yet they seem to be a team and there does seem to be some love there. It’s unsettling on all levels because Itoi wants to take the player from comfortable and happy to uneasy and sad throughout the whole game.

Games like this, they make me appreciate things, like my family and my life, and think about things, like the nature of society and happiness. I’m being simplistic here, but my point is this, what is art? Wikipedia calls it, “…the process or product of deliberately arranging elements in a way that appeals to the senses or emotions.”

So I say yet again, why are we questioning whether or not video games are art? Wake up and smell the sunflowers.

One of the most interesting and artistic chapters of the game.

What Next? Call to Arms [GO]
Jul 10th, 2009 by Dan

Hey loyal readers,

I need your help in deciding what game to play next. I haven’t quite gotten my polling software down, so here’s a nifty embedded poll instead.

Basically, I want to continue to write impressions about games that I’m playing, but I don’t know which one to move on to next. A little about each of the choices:

Earthbound (Mother 2)

A fantastic, Dragon Quest-inspired RPG series by Shigesato Itoi, Earthbound is fantastic, quirky, and interesting. I played this back when I was in middle school, but I think it deserves reexamining. Ideally I would be hooking up my SNES, which I still have, to get this to work, so that would be an adventure in and of itself.

Suikoden Tierkreis

I’ve never played any of Konami’s Suikoden RPG series, but this DS gaiden-type story is said to have a pretty neat narrative.

Shadow of the Colossus

Universally hailed by nearly every human being who has played it, this game is held in such high regard that it was featured in Reign Over Me because its themes of loss and regret actually coincided with those of the movie. I can only go on without playing a game by Ueda for so much longer.

Mother 3

Held in super-high regard by the likes of Tim Rogers, among many others, the third of the Mother series is chock full of the same light irreverence of Mother 2, but coupled with a somber, deep, dark, heavy story that is sure to tug at the heartstrings.

Chrono Trigger DS

The DS remake of my favorite 16-bit game, you can’t really go wrong with CT. Developed by a dream team collaboration between Square and Enix before they were Square Enix (Squeenix!), Chrono Trigger was the swan song of the 16-bit JRPG.

Final Fantasy IV DS

The Final Fantasy whose release immediately preceded (in the US) my favorite in the series, FFIV has eluded completion from me on multiple rentals. A fine game that I just haven’t had the time to ever finish.

There’s also the obvious choice that you don’t like this feature, which I won’t take personally. If no one likes it, why do it, right?

This poll will remain open until 0000 14 July whereupon I will either narrow it down further or, if one wins outright, simply play that game next.

You can get some of these games at my Amazon aStore!

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 Pokémon 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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