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5-10-15-20 [GO]
Jun 2nd, 2011 by Dan

Dan helps Tony with Pokemon

I got this idea from Kill Screen (who got this idea from Pitchfork) to talk about my gaming life in five year increments. Pitchfork does it with music and really it can be done with any media, but I’m doing games.

AGE 5 (1991)

One of my first video game memories is sitting in my parents’ living room in Hialeah watching them play a Bowser level in Super Mario Bros. I remember being scared of the creepy black castle level. This was the launch year for the SNES, but I’m sure we didn’t get it until 1992 or 1993. Instead we mostly amused ourselves with Contra, Mega Man 2, and Bubble Bobble.

AGE 10 (1996)

I’m pretty sure my brothers and I discovered the JRPG in 1995 or 1996. We would have played Chrono Trigger, Final Fantasy VI, and Super Mario RPG over those two years and changed our gaming landscape forever.

Of course 1996 also marks the genesis of 3D gaming for me. The N64 came out that September, but we didn’t open it until Christmas. Super Mario 64 would be the first of many great games I had for that system.

AGE 15 (2001)

Big things were happening in the gaming landscape on the PS2, but I knew nothing of that. A $400 system was way out of my price range, so I missed the launches of GTA3 and MGS2.

It was freshman year of high school and we learned partway through that we were going to be moving to Tampa. My dad got a new laptop from his job that I used to finally play the PC version of FF VII on road trips to and from Tampa. I remember breeding a Golden Chocobo and thinking that it wasn’t really all that hard. Don’t think I ever beat FF VIII. I think I also played a lot of Final Fantasy VIII that way too. More importantly, that year I got Civilization 3 and tons of Lucasarts adventure games including the Monkey Island series, Grim Fandango, and Day of the Tentacle.

We also got a Gamecube that year for Christmas and Super Smash Bros. Melee along with Pikmin, I think.

What a banner year for gaming, wow.

AGE 20 (2006)

By now I’m a sophomore/junior at university and I’ve got a job to help me pay for my video game habit. I picked up a PS2 in 2004 and started working through the back catalog of games I’d missed. Early in the year I remember playing two RPGs, Kingdom Hearts 2 and Shadow Hearts: From the New World.

They’re fun, but 2006 is a year of PC gaming for me. I spend WAY too much time playing World of Warcraft in 2006. I started the summer of 2005 and I end up quitting around Christmas of that same year, but I come back to it over the summer and it consumes a lot of my days and weekends as I try to power level my Horde character to join a raid guild with my friend Chris. It’s funny, I couldn’t remember why it was that I didn’t play so many console games this year until I remembered that my WoW habit started in force during 2006.

I also grew into the PC shooter this year with a lot of Counterstrike: Source with my roommate, Simon. We played that to fill a lot of our spare time and I also pushed through Half-Life 2: Episode 1 way too quickly.

Unfortunately I’m only 25 now, so I can’t really continue the feature until next year. I keep much better track of what I play nowadays, so it’ll be even easier.

IBNttT in 2010! [U]
Jan 2nd, 2011 by Dan

pachart

About a week into January of 2010 Eric found and installed one of the best wordpress plugins I’ve ever seen, WordPress.com Stats. Thanks to that, I’ve got some performance numbers for the site to share.

Top Posts

Remixed Objection, No Yakuza 3?, L4D2 (Again), and Pokémon Cosplay [Game Overview] (1,182)

I know precisely why this link is top of the list. It features a stunning picture of Jessica Nigri very liberally cosplaying a Pikachu. It seems sex sells. Surprise!

Great Dwarf Fortress Stories [PC] (412)

There’s a rather large gap between #1 and #2, but it’s thanks to Dwarf Fortress’ niche status that anything Eric or I post on the topic gets consistent hits. It seems not many other sites cover it, but people regularly look for info.

The Villains of Final Fantasy Week 11 [Game Overview] (404)

My most popular villain feature isn’t FF VII it’s an MMO that I never played and did a rather half-hearted job writing about? Weird.

The Villains of Final Fantasy Week 10 [Game Overview] (355)

Considering how popular FF X is, I’m not that surprised.

Mother 3 Review [Big N] (313)

This is my proudest part of the top five. I spent a lot of time on this review and I’m glad so many are finding it.

Runners Up:

Otakon 2010
Scott Pilgrim

Otakon gets high on the list thanks to its cosplay pictures (some of which also feature hotties) while Scott Pilgrim benefits from internet popularity.

Now for the big announcement:

2010 Hit Totals By Month

Jan: 1,733
Feb: 2,015
Mar: 2,284
Apr: 2,353
May: 2,015
Jun: 2,137
Jul: 3,058
Aug: 3,629
Sep: 3,461
Oct: 3,806
Nov: 3,077
Dec: 2,844
Total: 32,412

I honestly never expected so many people to see my random ramblings and I’m quite proud. I think October stands out as hit leader thanks to all of the cosplay pictures being used for costume ideas. Wow, 32k hits. The gauntlet has been thrown, 2011. Can you beat this?

Otakon 2010 [Photographic Memory]
Aug 3rd, 2010 by Dan

Street Fighters

Most impressive ensemble goes to the gaggle of Doctor Whos, but this was definitely my favorite Otakon cosplay ensemble.

The USA’s second largest anime convention came and went and I took pictures of it. Yes, Otakon 2010 happened, but, no, I didn’t want to actually pay admission to go in since I don’t watch as much anime anymore and I didn’t know any of the artists that were appearing, so I freeloaded along with my brother and took pictures of the cosplayers who were coming into or leaving the convention center on Saturday.

Cell

As long as there are anime conventions there will be Dragonball Z and Sailor Moon cosplay.

I’d only ever been to one similar convention before, MegaCon in Orlando, but I was thoroughly impressed by the degree of cosplay on display. Maybe it’s because it’s an anime convention and not a general comics convention, but it seemed like the majority of the attendees were in costume rather than just shlubbing it like I did back in the day.

Phoenix Wright!

I refused to leave until I saw some Phoneix Wright cosplay.

We spent two hours or so just hanging around the front and side doors (we weren’t allowed inside without badges) snapping pictures of cosplayers who didn’t mind the attention, marveling at all the costumes. I don’t have much more to say beyond that, so here’s a gallery of my favorite costumes from Otakon 2010 (sorry dialup users!).

Faye Valentine

Good to see such faithful Bebop cosplay is still going strong

Louis

PILLS HERE!

No Clue, but Cute

I have no idea what anime this is from, but this girl is quite good looking, so I snapped a shot. For bonus points, check out the old man behind her looking at her ass. EDIT: It appears to be a Disgaea 3 Gunner costume.

Zoey!

"I can't get over how FAST they all are, it's not even fair. I'm calling zombie bullshit on that, you know? They're not...ALLOWED to be so fast." Plenty of L4D cosplay, which makes me a very happy Dan.

Doctors Who

The Tenant Doctor Who on the right was actually a fairly good looking lady. Great costume, too.

Ash and Pikachu

Anyone who visits this blog knows I love Pikachu cosplay.

Servbot Crew

A crew of servbots! Not super complicated, but it works. Makes me want to play Dead Rising...

Ashitaka

One of the most impressive costumes of the show. This is an amazing Ashitaka from Princess Mononoke.

Servbot

A MUCH more elaborate servbot cosplay.

Sazh

All he was missing was a chocobo in his 'fro, but he had the L'Cie brand on his chest and an accurate magicite thing (I forgot what they were called!)

Yoko from Gurren Lagann

Very accurate gun and costume for Gurren Lagann.

Edgeworth

I love all Ace Attorney cosplay! We need to see more Apollo Justice too!

Depp Mad Hatter

Fantastic Burton Alice in Wonderland Mad Hatter

Cloud

It's a shame this girl had the huge Buster Sword with her becasue this shot is so far away from her elaborate costume and ridiculously blue eyes (HAD to be contacts)

Shanks

Great Red-Haired Shanks cosplay.

Bayonetta Cosplay

Bayonetta. Her heels aren't guns, but still a good costume.

L4D2 Nick

Nick's got a bile jar!

Buggy the Clown

The most fearsome pirate on the seven seas, Buggy the Clown

Otakon 071

Mihawk cosplay. Nice sword and costume!

One Piece Cosplay

A great cast shot of One Piece. I took this one mostly because I noticed Water 7 Nami in there.

Rockman X

I could never pass up Rockman X cosplay.

Super Saiyan

SUPER SAIYAN! I love the level of dedication to make blond eyebrows too

Luffy

Mugiwara (Straw Hat) no Luffy. He asked me if I wanted him to pose. I said "Of course!"

Code Geass

The heroes of Code Geass

Sora and Namine

I was wondering why she didn't move out of the shot until I realized she was Namine. Great cosplay pair.

Doctor Who Crew

Doctors Who throughout the ages.

Scouts

BONK! Great Scout costumes!

Scouts

Better Scout Cosplay

Soldier and Engineer

I love that she's even got herself a turret!

Yuffie

Another convention staple, Yuffie the ninja.

Hunter

"I think I hear a hunter!"

Lucario

A fantastic Lucario costume that is crazy detailed. Too bad the Internet ruined such things for me by making me immediately think furry.

Team Fortress 2 Spy

I also photographed a sniper. Wait a second! It's a spy disguised as a sniper!

Dark Sora?

Dark Sora? Elaborate and awesome all the same.

Snow

Amazing attention to detail with the full L'Cie brand there too. Wow.

Wolverines!

Growing out those sideburns takes real dedication.

SUPER CUTE DOG!

Not cosplay, but my favorite part of the convention. So cute!

Dragon Questing V: Conclusion [Game Overview]
Jun 4th, 2010 by Dan

Dragon Quest Slime

Dragon Quest is inexorably tied to the Japanese video game space. The series was the first big hit RPG and its core qualities, simplicity, relative ease, and lightheartedness touched that first generation and continue to bring the same degree of fondness with each installment. It is unquestionably the premiere mega-franchise of Japan. Somehow it just never caught on in the states. In the states we play Final Fantasy.

Until Chrono Trigger, I’d never played an RPG with Enix’s stamp on it. The difference is unmistakable. Final Fantasy’s most iconic figure is an angsty blond teen with a huge sword. Dragon Quest’s most famous character is a smiling ball of slime. The difference speaks volumes. I think the most hilarious part about it is that Dragon Quest V, for all its puns and lighthearted humor, feels way more mature than any self-serious Final Fantasy I’ve ever played.

There was a period of time shortly after I left home for university that I had a somewhat contentious relationship with my family. Like many 18-year-old kids, I needed my independence and I went about grabbing it in the most contentious, painful way possible. I’m not proud of it, but it happened and it left a hole in my relationship with my parents that needed patching. The inflection point came, not coincidentally, as I started to mature and grow as an adult. Over the course of the four years I was at school and the few after I started to realize that I needed my family more than I cared to admit and I did my best to begin repairing the damage I had done.

I grew up in a family that valued family. It’s not out of the ordinary for a movie or game to awaken the memories of my upbringing and cause me to get emotional. Both Secondhand Lions and Mother 3 made me want to call my brothers. Dragon Quest V made me call my dad and tell him how much he meant to me. Sure, it feels a little silly to say that playing a video game caused me to feel guilt about my stupid actions as a kid, but that’s exactly the point. What I’d done was stupid and immature. This game, with its smiling slimes and stupid puns, recognizes the truth about family. It knows that there is nothing more important than the bonds we make with each other. It knows that life is beautiful and fun. It also knows that life is cruel, random, and unfair.

The angsty, loner teens with huge swords may learn by the end of the game that they need their friends, but the Hero knows that he needs his family from the moment the game is turned on. Everything about Dragon Quest’s systems point to family building. There’s more maturity in this one game than the entire Final Fantasy series combined (save one or two of the thirteen). I don’t mean to bash Final Fantasy here; I just want to emphasize that Yuji Horii is doing something different here.

Shigesato Itoi started the Mother series because of Dragon Quest. Mother games carry the unmistakable sign of Itoi’s authorship. The games are highly personal to him and every detail, from the dialog to the art, is a reflection of one man’s vision. I would be seriously shocked if Itoi ever consulted a focus group to help him design even one character in his games. I have a strong belief that Yuji Horii has similar creative control over his Dragon Quest games (or at least over V). Recent Final Fantasy games reek of audience pandering. Everyone loved Cloud, so Nomura has been designing endless rehashes of the same idea since then. Squall, Tidus, and Lightning are all iterations on the same theme. Every other cast member is expressly designed to cover some kind of anime trope. It seems like their designs are festooned with endless amounts of nonsense for the express purpose of selling replica jewelry.

Maybe I’m getting a little too conspiracy theory here, but it feels too purposeful. It feels like they are trying too hard. It feels like they are creating sequels to make sales rather than to tell new stories. I sound like a hippie artist and I realize that. Square Enix’s job is to make money, not write the next Homeric epic. For some reason, Dragon Quest just feels beyond that. I need more experience with the series, but I wonder if the merger will bring a tonal shift in the series.

It’s hard to not talk about Final Fantasy when I talk about Dragon Quest, especially since I just beat XIII last night, but I’m going to do my best for the rest of this post. Dragon Quest V did more than I ever expected an 18-year-old game to do. It was equal parts touching, funny, and gut-wrenchingly depressing and I enjoyed every minute of it that I played. I’m looking forward to experiencing more games in the series.

Morality, Maturity, Treading Water, and Missed Opportunities: A Mass Effect 2 Review [Game Overview]
Feb 23rd, 2010 by Dan

It's not this bad, but we've still got a long way to go.

…like many mechanisms of this kind your choices tend to come down to being an omnibenevolent supercherub or the Goddamned devil.

-Jerry “Tycho” Holkins

WARNING: SPOILERS

A member of your crew was double-crossed before he joined you. Eleven of his friends died as a result of that treachery and he wants revenge on the killer. Do you: A) Indulge his obsession and allow him to murder in cold blood when his target least expects it or, B) Convince him that his obsessive revenge will not bring him the closure he desires by obstructing his revenge attempt.

Why don't you just William Tell the shot?

Here's another question: if you weren't gonna let him go through with it, why would you wait until he's got crosshairs on the both of you to confront him on it?

Later on a member of your crew who has been hunting a serial killer for hundreds of years asks you to help her bring said criminal to justice. The killer is a genetic aberration in her species who kills everyone she mates with (her species can mate with any species) and derives both power and an almost narcotic effect from her murders. There’s also the extra angle that this killer is the daughter of your party member, a woman who birthed three such monsters and had the other two locked away in isolation for the simple crime of their genes. Do you A) side with your crew and murder this killer to end her spree or B) side with the killer and kill your crewmate, ultimately gaining this serial killer as a party member and allowing her to escape free after your mission.

Before I decide, Samara, if I were an ice cream flavor, what flavor would I be?

Kind of reminds me of Dragonball

One of these two represents an actual moral choice worth thinking about while the other is noticeably less complex and, consequently, far less interesting. It may not be as obvious a choice as mass murder a crowd or buy them all ice cream, but it’s still pretty basic when you look at it. Will revenge really give Garrus closure? Does letting Sidonis live with his guilt represent a greater punishment? These are things we’ve confronted plenty of times before in these games. “Murder or mercy” is the bread and butter of the morality system, but it’s been seven years since Knights of the Old Republic and we need to up the ante here a little (Yes, I’m aware that morality systems have existed long before KoTOR. Giant Bomb lists 168 of them). In fact, Dragon Age: Origins, another Bioware game that came out in 2009, featured a system that puts this game’s choices to shame.

Perhaps it’s because DA:O was in development since 2004 (that’s five years to its release in 2009) while Mass Effect 2 has only a scant three years under its belt, but almost everything about the “morality system” in Dragon Age far exceeds what’s available to the player in ME2. To start with, Dragon Age dispenses with the notion of good/evil points. Your actions don’t move a light side/dark side meter up or down, they simply have consequences. More importantly, those consequences are pretty brutal no matter which outcome you select. Not to digress too far, but my character in DA:O was a Casteless Dwarf, something akin to the burakumin of Japan, and her sister was a concubine for one of the noble families elevated in status because she produced a son (dwarves in this universe inherit caste from the same-sex parent). When I returned to the dwarf homeland, there was a bitter power struggle going on and it was up to me to choose to help who I thought should continue the disputed royal line. The obvious heir was a brutal man rumored to be the one who poisoned the his brother (and rightful heir to the throne) in the first place, but he was in favor of reform of the caste system and contact with the outside world. He was also my sister’s husband. The other candidate was in favor of a strong assembly (the legislative body) and, while he was a traditionalist, he was well-respected and, more importantly, not rumored to be a murderer. It then became a question of supporting a despotic butcher who would work to improve equality at the expense of representation (and also keep my family at a higher status) or a more traditional ruler who would rule without bloodshed, but keep my caste down and stay isolationist (not to mention assure that my sister’s place in society would be compromised). In the end I chose to side with my family, but I almost immediately regretted it when the man I chose ordered the execution of his rival immediately following his appointment. Not long after, the assembly was also dissolved. I made a hard choice that had no real good results for everyone and that’s ultimately what real life is about: grey areas.

It's called legal emancipation. You're probably also a legal adult after a few hundred years in Asari space.

Nothing like a little matricide/filicide to get the crew loyal to you

Back to the question of whether or not to kill Morinth or Samara, here is another interesting moral decision. Samara made irresponsible choices and had not one Ardat-Yakshi (that’s what it’s called) offspring, but three. Morinth’s crimes, at this point, were many, but her only choices in life were to live as a prisoner or to run and live as a hunted criminal. Even then, if you’re like me you’re thinking that this really isn’t that much of a decision. It amounts to supporting a serial killer or supporting an irresponsible mother looking to bring her daughter to justice. No matter how bad I feel for Morinth’s predicament, I, personally, couldn’t support her because she’s a sociopath and a murderer. That’s the real rub with the Mass Effect universe. Despite how good it is, despite how great the narrative is, and despite how much I love the games, its decisions are a constant disappointment boiling down to, in most cases, “murder or mercy”. Dragon Age constantly forced me to choose between “murder and murder”. Kill one person who had good and bad qualities or kill another with the same qualities. I’m not saying that all real decisions in games have to revolve around murder, there were some legitimately tough choices to make in the first Mass Effect (that still ultimately boiled down to “m or m” on a grand scale), like whether or not to kill a terrorist or let him walk free (his hostages will die if you kill him) or whether or not to spare the Racchni or commit xenocide, but even they skirted around the much more important decision of whether or not to utilize the cure for the Krogan genophage. Your only option is to destroy it. (SIDEBAR: The Krogan people were forcibly infected with a genetic rewrite that causes 0.999 of all Krogran pregnancies to end in stillbirth (SIDEBAR: The Krogan reproduce very rapidly and are quite aggressive)).

This is a tremendous missed opportunity. Sure, the genophage is addressed in ME2 since it’s a central part of the Krogan species’ identity, but even then the decisions you make are irrelevant. If you destroy the work done to correct the genophage (again), the scientist in your team claims that it doesn’t matter anyway, since he could easily duplicate all of the results if he had to. Saving it or destroying it seems to have no real impact on the world of the game. Granted, I don’t need to control my destiny to such a fine level in the games I play, but when Bioware goes out of its way to explicitly claim that my decisions have a large, direct impact on the world, I begin to expect my decisions to make a difference. Even the major choices I made in the first game seem to only have cosmetic effects on the second. I might get a non-story-relevant message from a character stunned to learn that I was still alive or thanking me for saving them back then, but then there’s this one side quest that played out the exact same way no matter what I decided in Mass Effect, except that the character model talking to me and the spoken dialog were slightly different.

Yes, I realize that decisions having a real effect make the world exponentially more complicated, but you shouldn’t promise what you can’t deliver.

“[Mature] really has two meanings when we apply it to media. One is ‘not appropriate for children’ and the other is ‘exploring subject matter in a sophisticated fashion. Ironically, the word mature when applied to games tends to have a very childish connotation.”

In late September of 2009 a Mass Effect 2 trailer highlighting Subject Zero was put out as part of the ME2 hype machine.

Needless to say, I became very concerned. It definitely did not fit in with the Bioware aesthetic and it felt like it was trying too hard to be edgy. This was the “maturity” that I’m always up in arms about and I was pretty worried that Bioware was going to take a serious misstep with their “dark second chapter”. After playing the whole game through, I’m confident in saying that Subject Zero and the characters in this “edgy” game were more or less about what you’d expect from Bioware in that they are decidedly not two-dimensional and are actually interesting. That’s not to say that Bioware didn’t make a few mistakes with its decision to go darker for this second game (they even redid their logo in blood red…it’s almost funny).

She likes to throw around plenty of hardcore language too.

Nothing screams combat-ready like minimal chest support.

Subject Zero (AKA Jack) may have a “seriously abused child” story that fleshes her out and makes her character actually make sense, but that doesn’t mean that they made no mistakes with Jack. Her outfit, if you could even call it that, is absolutely ridiculous. It feels like a grab for the adolescent attention span by making her dress in what amounts to a pair of pants, some belts, and tattoos (if it wasn’t so blatantly sexual, it could be a Nomura design). When will game designers learn that dressing women in this way is not cool or interesting? All they’re doing is enforcing the stereotype and furthering the divide between gamer and non-gamer. Who could possibly see the way that Jack is dressed and think it was designed for anyone older than a 13-year-old male?

The dress code is pretty informal

Actually, yes...Cerberus has a pretty liberal dress code.

The other Bioware attempts at making the game more dark, serious, and mature seem to have been carried out much better than Subject Zero. Every planet or space station that is explored is appropriately seedy and grimy. Gone are the sterile, clean blues of the Mass Effect Citadel. In its place we have reds-orange slums, planets so dominated by commerce that slavery is legal, prison ships, and war-torn wastelands. Running into the formerly naïve and innocent Liara T’Soni from the first game is jarring and depressing when you see how she has become ruthless, cold, and calculated in her efforts to bring down the Shadow Broker. Even Shepard has changed in the eyes of the galactic community thanks to his involvement with the shady Cerberus terrorist organization.

I think it's the hexagons that really get me goin...

Male gaze does not equal maturity

Mass Effect 2 also benefits from the complex social situations set up by the lore itself. Credit is definitely well deserved for those responsible for the universe’s depth and background. Alien cultures are fleshed out and the interaction between them, humanity, and themselves feels genuine and interesting. In fact, aside from the fact that humanity seems like a brilliant race able to work wonders that others cannot (no doubt an extension of that same “white is might” mentality that is subconsciously behind Avatar, Pocahontas, Dances With Wolves, etc.), I find that we’re treated appropriately for an up-and-coming species that is rapidly stepping on so many toes. Actually, let’s take my parenthetical a little further: why is humanity a special species here? Why are we the only ones to accurately see the threat of Saren and The Collectors? in a galactic community featuring multiple sentient species, it hardly seems probable that the only one that is like the current Western world is humanity. Then again, why would aliens be anything like us, culturally? Why would future humanity continue to be so dominated by white men? These questions are kind of wandering around, so let me just say that having a token non-western cast that ensured inclusiveness might have seemed pander-y anyway. Next paragraph!

While we’re talking about tropes, I also find myself wondering about the impact that the trilogy structure on the story of ME2. The first game had a story that revolved around mind control, domination, and indoctrination that culminated in a plot twist about the real enemy and the insidious nature of the greatest scientific technologies that sentient life depended on. It had weight and purpose and things happened. ME2 seems to drag along, treading water the whole way. Your crew’s various backgrounds and backstories take center stage, but at the expense of anything that legitimately moves the plot forward save for two things: 1. You learn that The Collectors are genetically modified Protheans being manipulated by the Reapers and 2. You learn that a human-inspired Reaper is in the works (and you destroy it). All that says is that the Reapers have decided that humanity is its only legitimate threat and worthy of being adopted into their strange genetic-mechanical history, but that ultimately means nothing. Not one thing that happens in this chapter of the trilogy can compare to the Reaper bombshell of the first game. In terms of story, ME2 is just ME1.5 (or ME1.125).

Mechanics is where ME2 takes major strides away from ME1, but in a direction that is both welcome and distressing. Mass Effect was a serviceable third-person shooter with a super-clunky inventory and interface and unfun vehicle sections. It sounds harsh, but it really wasn’t all that bad for a freshman effort by an RPG company to make a shooter (notice the caveats!) and it was helped along by its strong narrative and much stronger conversation systems. ME2 brings what some might call a pretty good shooter to the table along with all the baggage that such a thing merits. Gone are many of the RPG elements of the first game (weapon skill, a glut of powers and passive skills, statistic-determined shot accuracy, and ammo types) and in are oversimplified options and a streamlined story structure to go with it. In a sense, Bioware did something right by avoiding pairing the slow, deliberate pace of the first game with the new, frenetic shooter engine, but at the cost of the weight of the narrative.

As I said before, the story is nothing to write home about and I attribute that mostly to the new mission structure that the game is hampered with. Each little action section takes place in an instanced area outside of the normal exploratory zones, lasts 20-30 minutes, finishes up whatever relevant story points are specific to that mission only, and then dumps the player out to a Mission Complete summary of their exploits as presented to the Illusive Man. I’m not sure what it is about the clear separation of action spaces and non-action spaces that peeves me so much, but I imagine it has everything to do with the way that the story parts were just as integrated with the action throughout most of Mass Effect. One sidequest in the original had me engaged in a firefight in the same exact place I’d just bought armor from half an hour ago. ME2 has rooms that the player can only access to start up their missions when said mission is available. There were very few locked doors in the first game. If I see one in ME2, I know a sidequest will take me there later. The zones in ME2 are merely hubs with shops and non-combat quests.

I do like the sun in the background...

Jarring and non-immersive.

Combat quests are bizarrely chosen as the main mode of exposition in the game, which I’d normally be ok with, except that their focus is so laser-focused on whichever crew member’s backstory it is revealing that the third member of your party is often ignored. I couldn’t help but wonder why the game didn’t take advantage of my entire three-man squad in these story interaction moments since it’s always been my favorite part of Bioware games. For example, on Samara’s conversation-heavy loyalty quest, your third companion might as well not be there and he/she/it actually seems to disappear once it begins with no real explanation. He/she/it was there before we went into the apartment to investigate the murder, but then I didn’t see him/her/it again until after the mission. The lack of companion interaction is simply inexcusable after the shining examples set forth in the first game and Dragon Age: Origins. At any given quiet moment in DA:O, two of the companions following the Grey Warden can spontaneously burst into conversation about something. These talks are multi-topic connected affairs that have a complete arc to them throughout your travels. Mass Effect relegated these mostly to elevator rides around different places where they were there to help deal with the dead time in their concealed loading screens. Aside from one moment that I had to trigger in the Citadel by having two specific party members with me, there was not one bit of witty banter or conversation between my companions. I know this is supposed to be the “dark, serious second chapter”, but lighten up guys. We don’t have to spend our entire mission in steely, concentrated silence. A quip here or there would be more than welcome.

We can’t talk about things removed from the game without mentioning the Single Worst Thing About Mass Effect 1, the Mako tank. It handled poorly, was used for boring exploration, and was completely out of place with the rest of the game. It was like it was the 90s again and every game needed a vehicle section (game designer protip: we REALLY don’t need vehicle sections shoehorned into our games). Worst of all, it was associated with planetary exploration, a boring slog through the terrain of each planet to look for mineral resources and other artifacts that existed to provide money and experience. One correct lesson was learned and the Mako was excised from the game. The designers didn’t quite understand that a lot of the Mako hatred stemmed from planet resource mining, so they retained mineral mining in a different form. If you were the commander of an interplanetary space ship and you needed to mine resources from a planet, would you want to manually scan the planets yourself before sending down a probe to retrieve the resources? No, of course not. You’d have your engineering and mining teams handle all of that busy work while you managed other parts of the ship. As the player, I’m ostensibly Commander Shepard. There’s no reason why I have to tell the probes whrere to go. I don’t want to and it bores the hell out of me. If one aspect of your game (upgrades) is inexorably tied to a cripplingly boring aspect of your game (planetary scanning), then I think you need to reevaluate the way that you’re handling that first aspect

For my final nitpick of the game, I’d like to say that a PC version of a game should always have scroll wheel functionality if your interface allows for scrolling. Why do I have to click on a down button to scroll text? When are we living, the stone age?

By now I’ve realized that it looks like I really don’t like this game. I’ve got a lot of negative things to say about it precisely because I feel like it missed so many opportunities to be really great instead of just great. I wasn’t kidding when I said that the shooter mechanics were a leap forward. Everything from shooting enemies to throwing around biotic powers just feels crunchier. There’s no sweeter feeling than launching a ball of biotic push energy at a curve and watching it impact with a target and launch him off a platform. No. Sweeter. Feeling.

The game also offers just enough variety in its loyalty missions to keep them from becoming too stale. Most of them are combat affairs, but some, like Thane and Samara’s, feature no combat at all while others, like Jack or Tali, have combat interrupted by long conversations of narrative sequences which connect the player with the characters a bit more. Even Grunt’s straight arena setting is punctuated by a battle with a thresher maw whose mechanics are not seen again anywhere else in the game.

Despite the lack of real story, the game does also feature the best characterization I’ve seen in a while for a “dirty dozen”-style narrative structure. Team member depth varies widely (Zaeed has no dialog tree associated with him at all while Jack, Miranda, and Thane all feature long backstories and conversation trees), but each member does have a defined arc that is sometimes unique, funny, or tragic (or all three). Even non-party member crewmates have dialog allotted to them in more meaningful ways that the prior crew of the Normandy. This is all in the service of motivating the player to save them, which is another great narrative choice by Bioware.

SHORT DIGRESSION WHOSE PURPOSE WILL BE APPARENT SOON…

Whenever we want to talk about ludonarrative dissonance, Final Fantasy VII will inevitably come up. In the late game there is a meteor set to strike the earth after a fixed time period…except it isn’t. The player can spend millions of hours racing and breeding chocobos while staying in inns (which should technically be advancing time by a full day) instead of progressing the story. There is no point where the meteor strikes because Cloud was too busy hanging out at the Golden Saucer playing a stupid snowboarding game. The narrative is at the player’s mercy.

Every person who plays Mass Effect 2 will have his crew (minus combat party members) abducted by The Collectors in the endgame. Most players probably think they can continue to fool around and expect to save the crew before they are killed. I completed all the sidequests expecting that I wouldn’t be able to return to them and in the interest of boosting my level higher. When I finally reached my crew in the endgame, all but one (or two…it’s not many) had been murdered. Granted, that one will always survive no matter how long you take breeding chocobos (aka: scanning minerals), but the rest of your crew is permadead, leaving your ship empty in the open-ended postgame.

There’s not enough of this in video games. If you’re telling me to hurry and do something, I’d better damn well have to hurry, because otherwise I feel cheated when I see the man behind the curtain. JRPGs may be the biggest offender in this dissonance, but it’s not alone. Consider the heavily scripted shooter where I can spot the “actors” up ahead standing stationary until I get close enough to trigger the event that kills them. I can stand for an eternity watching my comrades stand in an exposed corridor with shooters at the end, but they’ll never die until I get close. Counter that with Dead Rising and its brutal time system. If you wait until 1600 on Day 2 to save this one person, guess what? He won’t be there. The zombies killed him. If you don’t complete the next story objective before the timer runs out, the rest of the game is closed off to you. Events will no longer transpire in that way and you’d better reload your save. That makes perfect sense for a game where haste and time management are issues. When someone tells you to do something quickly, they mean it. I don’t like to be blatantly lied to. Mass Effect 2 is honest in that respect.

I guess that’s really all I have to say about Mass Effect 2. It’s a fine game that you should own, but it also brings up a lot of issues about game design that I hope Bioware confronts for the concluding chapter of the saga.

Evil Shepard can look pretty rough by the end of the game...

Evil Shepard will put the screws to you too if you don't play ME2

Dragon Questing V Part III [GO]
Jul 7th, 2009 by Dan

When we last left Dan and Pankraz, they had just showed up in Coburg to be bodyguards for Prince Henry. It seems there’s some strife within the castle, as the king has two heirs and the queen clearly favors one son over the other. It’s some serious Jacob and Esau-type stuff and an example of a family gone horribly wrong. The princes are either apathetic (Wilbur) or total jerkfaces (Harry), but it doesn’t really matter anyway, we’ve gotta guard Harry after all.

While “playing” with Harry (he just acts like a jerk and tricks Dan), Harry gets kidnapped from his secret passageway, forcing Dan and Pankraz to chase after him in a panic. Well, to be fair, Pankraz tells Dan to stay put and goes searching for Harry, but at this point Dan isn’t about to just sit idly on the wayside. He’s got Leo in his party, after all, and he can fight too.

Chasing after Harry leads Dan to some ruins that he successfully navigates as he meets back up with his dear old dad. Pankraz joins the party as you tear on through the dungeon. You encounter Harry, Pankraz goes off to clear the way, but Dan and Harry are intercepted on their way out by the Bishop Ladja, Slon the Rook, and Kon the Knight. This is yet another moment where the game uses its mechanics to express a feeling of helplessness, because Bishop Ladja is one tough son of a gun! You can only watch as the Bishop absolutely destroys Harry, Leo, and Dan’s HP and the battle inevitably ends with your destruction. That’s when the great Pankraz shows up to save the day. Except that Ladja has the kids held hostage. He will kill us if Pankraz tries to interfere. In a strange twist of honor, Ladja promises not to harm the children if Pankraz surrenders. His love for Dan is too great, so he surrenders and we’re treated to more video game storytelling.

There are a few major video game deaths that are hailed as heartbreaking or emotionally affecting. The murder of Aeris, the endings of Ico and Shadow of the Colossus, and the ending of Metal Gear Solid 3 (I was inches away from crying, it’s ridiculous) all come to mind. I think that if Dragon Quest V had come out on the SNES stateside we would have the death of Pankraz to add to that list. The helplessness of the Ladja battle was enough for one days worth of intensity, but now Horii does it again, and with the benefit of the battle screen, not as an in-game cutscene, as a Ladja orders Slon and Kon to kill Pankraz. This doesn’t end quickly, Pankraz is very strong, as you might remember. This means that you, the player, have to watch Slon and Kon slowly whittle away Pankraz’s health as he stoically takes it all. Each turn has a little something to say about Pankraz’s pain or his suffering. It’s agonizing because you can see how ridiculously easy it would be for Pankraz to just start fighting back. Eventually the Great Pankraz falls. His last words: Dan’s mother is still alive. He’s been searching for her all this time. Ladja sends a fireball at Pankraz, incinerating him and leaving charred ground where he once stood. He then turns his attention back upon the player. He’s got other plans for you.

To be continued…

Misc. Game News [Game Overview]
Apr 10th, 2009 by Dan

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

Ok, now that we’ve finished with all the villains of Final Fantasy, let’s do all the Heroes!…Just kidding, we’re gonna stick to some hard news for now and maybe come back to features sometime in the future.

That doesn’t mean we won’t be talking about Final Fantasy, though. It seems that the much better Japanese PSN store got themselves FF VII released for download for about $15. I’d say that’s a pretty cool win and hopefully it will lead into them finally creating that PS3 FF VII that everyone wishes was real, but will probably never happen.

Famitsu is teaching you how to take upskirt pictures in Monster Hunter Frontier. Instead of implying that it can be done, the Famitsu-run Monster Hunter rag printed an article called “The Way To Take The Screenshots You Want ~ What a Pantsuful world ~” to show you how to take the screenshots that you so desire.

Wanna learn about boxart design? Go to Valve’s page about Left 4 Dead’s cover to see evolution of their boxart from red with the heroes all the way to green with just a hand. A pretty neat evolution there and proof that the iterative design process that Valve is so famous for extends far beyond game design.

And last in news: Flock is out! Go try out the demo, I know I will. It’s supposed to be quite good…

UPDATE: Need the secret key in Pokemon Platinum? Here’s how to get it

The Villains of Final Fantasy Week 10-2 [Game Overview]
Mar 13th, 2009 by Dan

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

With every Final Fantasy game there exists great (and not so great) teams of heroes bent on saving the world from some sort of evil force. While we could take a look at those heroes, let’s instead take a look at the evils that motivate these heroes to do what they do.

It should be noted that this feature will be full of spoilers.

Week 1 – Garland
Week 2 – Emperor Mateus of Palamecia
Week 3 – The Cloud of Darkness
Week 4 – Zeromus
Week 5 – Exdeath
Week 6 – Kefka
Week 7 – Sephiroth
Week 8 – Ultimecia
Week 9 – Necron
Week 10 – Yu Yevon/Jecht/Sin

Last game was the first to bring voice acting to the series, but it also had another important distinction: the first direct sequel. Love it or hate it, the J-Pop fueled, girl power infused Final Fantasy X-2 will always be an important milestone in Final Fantasy history. In fact, one could claim that its success directly led to the Japanese sequel to Final Fantasy IV, creatively titled Final Fantasy IV the After: Tsuki no Kikan and other story continuing side games for Final Fantasy VII and Final Fantasy XII.

Unfortunately for gamers, FF X-2 was a strange take on Final Fantasy X, with a mission structure and an all-girl cast that just oozed fan service, especially when changing “dress spheres.” It also featured many directly recycled assets from Final Fantasy X, making the game seem like a tired retread of ground already coverred. However, the lame sounding, but fun dress sphere system along with a new Active Time Battle system made for a game that was fun to play, at the very least.

The events of X-2 are set in motion by a sphere containing video that just might be of Tidus. Yuna can’t let this go, so the game’s main questline begins. It turns out that this video is not Tidus, but a dude from the past by the name of Shuyin who Tidus was based on in that whole confusing Zanarkand dream world created by the Fayth. Shuyin had a bit of a problem, he was dating a girl who was a summoner, which wouldn’t be all that bad if his country wasn’t at war and she wasn’t called to the front lines. It gets even worse when she gets captured as a POW and he’s gotta figure out something to do to save her.

Shuyin’s brilliant idea, the Vegnagun, the even more brilliant weapon of the opposing forces designed, for some ingenious reason, to attack indiscriminately, killing friend and foe alike. Turns out this weapon has an even more intelligent weapon attached to it as well, one capable of destorying the entire world. His girlfriend, Lenne, convinces him not to destroy the world and they both get shot.

We get to the present and Shuyin’s possessed some modern dude and he’s trying to destroy Spira with the Vegnagun cause he’s sad. That’s pretty much it.

Evil Rating:

Emo != Evil. Never managed to kill anyone, but rather to get himself and his girlfriend killed.

1/10

Cool Rating:

He looks just like Tidus (-5). He plays Blitzball (-2). He got his girlfriend killed (-3). I can’t go negative (-0)

0/10

Images and Video:

shuyin_artwork

shuyin_and_lenne

Video Game Music [Game Overview]
Mar 12th, 2009 by Dan

Inspired by a Rebel FM podcast, I found myself seeking video game remixes and music again, starting with my absolute favorite track from the Mega Man 2 soundtrack, Flash Man. Having seen a video on Youtube before, I started my search with The Minibosses.

The Minibosses

Ever wonder what your game themes would sound like played by a rock band with real electric guitars instead of synthy squeals? The Minibosses are for you. Their catalog is not large, with only two CDs available right now, but the benefit of their music is that you can get most of it free at their website. I’ve yet to listen to their full CD, but let me be the first to say that their Mega Man 2 medley is fantastic.

Wikipedia provided me with more links from there, one of which pointed me in the direction of a site I’d already been to, OverClocked ReMix.

OverClocked ReMix

I’d been to OCR once before seeking the soundtrack to Super Street Fighter II Turbo HD Remix, a project the were commissioned for not long ago that they provide for free on their website. What I discovered was a varied catalog of game music remixes that I wasn’t quite ready to download yet. I’ve since downloaded the rest of their 12 albums and the large torrents of miscellaneous songs, but it will be a while before I’m able to say anything definitive about those. I can say that their Street Fighter album is fantastically done.

Albums:

Relics of the Chozo – Super Metroid – 2003
Kong in Concert – Donkey Kong Country – 2004
Hedgehog Heaven – Sonic the Hedgehog 2 – 2005
Rise of the Star – Kirby’s Adventure – 2005
The Dark Side of Phobos – Doom – 2005
Chrono Symphonic – Chrono Trigger – 2006
Blood on the Asphalt – Super Street Fighter II Turbo – 2006 (Inspiration for the HD Remix album)
Project Chaos – Sonic 3 & Knuckles – 2006
Voices of the Lifestream – Final Fantasy VII – 2007
Thieves of Fate – Radical Dreamers – 2008
Delta-Q-Delta – Doom II: Hell on Earth – 2008
OC ReMix: Super Street Fighter II Turbo HD Remix Official Soundtrack – Super Street Fighter II Turbo HD Remix – 2008
Summoning of Spirits – Tales series – 2009

The Rebel FM podcast and wikipedia also led me to The Megas

The Megas

What if the old Mega Man 2 songs had lyrics and a story weaved in? That’s precisely the ground that The Megas tries to cover. I’ve only heard part of their rendition of Flash Man, but I think the premise is promising and I will try to listen to more.

Which leads me to my final Wiki discovery, The OneUps

The OneUps

There are lots of metal and rock video game music bands out there, but what do you do if you’re not a fan of metal or rock? That’s where The OneUps come in. With two albums jam-packed with jazz covers of video game music, I’m sure that you’ll find a really interesting and cool arrangement of a song you’ve heard many a time before. Standouts for me include Terra from Final Fantasy VI and Chrono Trigger from…Chrono Trigger. Check them out if you get the chance.

That’s all I’ve got for now, but if I run into more cool stuff, I’ll be sure to let you guys know.

The Villains of Final Fantasy Week 8 [Game Overview]
Dec 19th, 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.

With every Final Fantasy game there exists great (and not so great) teams of heroes bent on saving the world from some sort of evil force. While we could take a look at those heroes, let’s instead take a look at the evils that motivate these heroes to do what they do.

It should be noted that this feature will be full of spoilers.

Week 1 – Garland
Week 2 – Emperor Mateus of Palamecia
Week 3 – The Cloud of Darkness
Week 4 – Zeromus
Week 5 – Exdeath
Week 6 – Kefka
Week 7 – Sephiroth

If you look up the word narrative disaster in the dictionary, guess what you’ll see a picture of? Yeah, Final Fantasy VIII.

Following the previously unrivaled success of Final Fantasy VII in the States, Square decided to keep a lot of the same quasi-futuristic and more realistic atmosphere in place for their next epic endeavor. The cartoony/anime-like character models were scrapped for more anatomically correct (hands instead of blocks!) and realistic looking character models and the storyline became a love story…or tried to become one…

If you thought I hated Cloud Strife, wait until you hear what I think of Squall. He’s a vapid, empty shell of a character whose catchphrase could arguably be “…” and whose emo-whining takes up every other opportunity he has to talk, yet, for some strange reason, Rinoa is strongly drawn to him. I’m gonna go out on a limb and compare it to the awkward, unbelievable romance portrayed in that mess of a movie, Twilight.

So we have a marionette of a main character, what should we do with the villain? Make her even less interesting and more of a motivation-less villain than Sephiroth was.

Ultimecia is some sort of time traveling witch from the future seeking to collapse time into one point. She posesses the body of the Sorceress Edea to accomplish this. Ultimecia hates SeeDs for some random reason. End of characterization.

There’s more to it than that, I think, but not much more. She’s just evil so that the good guys can have something to fight. Way to go Square, you guys really worked hard to make this one seem worth fighting…

Evil Rating:

She looks mean and hates us, but why?

2/10

Cool Rating:

Hotter than Kefka? In fact, the first female antagonist, if I’m not mistaken, so she gets brownie points for that.

6/10

Images:

Dissidia

Final Battle: Phase 1

Final Battle: Final Form

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