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On Tim Schafer, Apotheosis, and Video Game Rockstars: A Brütal Legend Review [Game Overview]
Nov 20th, 2009 by Dan

Apotheosis
1. The fact or action of becoming a god; deification
2. Glorification, exaltation; crediting someone with extraordinary power or status.

Do you know who Tim Schafer is?

When I still lived at home, my dad used to ask me, “When are you gonna grow up and stop playing video games?” He tells my mother that he’s sure I’m addicted to the medium. It’s true that I spend the vast majority of my free time playing games. I can name developers, producers, writers, designers, and even composers for games from my favorite series of games. This vast information age enables me to know everything about a game, down to its minutia, just by checking an online database. If there’s not enough information there, I can almost guarantee there are five or six fansites devoted to uncovering every last detail. It must be daunting for developers nowadays to produce in this environment.

My dad says these things, but I’m not sure he understands that this is just the nature of hobbies nowadays. Not too long ago we could almost justifiably claim an unhealthy obsession with the works of Deepak Chopra and transcendental meditation. Eric’s life revolves around photography nowadays almost as much as mine involves interactive entertainment. This is what hobbies are like now. Think of an obscure hobby, like stamp collecting, and I’ll guarantee you that someone out there spends a couple of hours a week producing a podcast for tons of people to listen to.

The point is, there’s a growing number of people who actually know just who is behind the games they play, a huge contrast to the early Famicom days.

It’s not exactly the fault of the developers that we had no idea who was behind our games back in the day. Standard process for Famicom-era games was to credit oneself via a pseudonym to prevent talent poaching. How would you be able to tell that seeing Gondamin credited as a composer meant you were listening to Junko Tamiya’s music? Famed Mega Man creator, Keiji Inafune still goes by INAFKING in some games.

Now that games are actually credited properly, it’s not uncommon for people to know that Bioshock was the brainchild of Ken Levine or that the wackiness of Metal Gear comes from Hideo Kojima. Nintendo actually keeps Shigeru Miyamoto’s hobbies on the down low because they don’t want people to speculate on what ideas his brilliant mind will come up with next. We’re talking a complete 180° shift here.

Eddie Riggs: “Ever feel like you were born in the wrong time – like you should have been born earlier, when the music was… real?”
Roadie: “Like the seventies?”
Eddie: “No. Earlier… like the early seventies.”

Embedded within all enthusiast cultures is the cachet that comes with either “being there first” or experiencing a unique experience that the ignorant masses overlooked. Go to Brooklyn, grab the first guy with crazy hair and skinny jeans you can find (protip: you won’t have a hard time finding one), and ask him what his favorite bands are. Chances are, unless you’re from the Brooklyn scene too, you won’t have heard of any of the groups he’s mentions. He will consider you a barbarian for liking commercial music and you will consider punching him in the face.

I think it’s clear where I’m going here, so I won’t belabor the point.

Have you ever played Grim Fandango?

We arrive at the natural conclusion: these developers, thanks to the power of the Internet and rabid fans like myself, are now legends in their own right. When Miyamoto talks, everyone listens and when Tim Schafer makes a game, I buy it (we’ll ignore the fact that I don’t own Psychonauts or Full Throttle). All this devotion and dedication to one man is based on the strength of four games: The Secret of Monkey Island, Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge, Maniac Mansion: Day of the Tentacle, and Grim Fandango, the last of which is the only one solely under Schafer’s artistic control (the true Monkey Island games were made by the holy trinity of Gilbert, Grossman, and Schafer while DotT was a Grossman/Schafer collaboration). When I played Grim Fandango for the first time in 2002, it was on the strength of Schafer’s Monkey Island reputation, but I wouldn’t have been able to tell you his name until 2007 when I started listening to video game podcasts.

The press gushed and gushed about how good Schafer’s games were and how Psychonauts was criminally under appreciated and created the image of a brilliant game designer whose games featured great comedy writing and stories, but mediocre gameplay. Think about this for a second: Tim Schafer is famous for being a commercial underdog whose games are only hampered by mediocre controls. Before Psychonauts, Schafer’s only games were adventure games. Controls are irrelevant in that context, so Schafer has a reputation based on one game.

What’s worse is that I totally bought into the hype. I found myself thinking, I hope poor Tim Schafer isn’t underappreciated yet again. Really? After one game? This is the industry. This is modern, enthusiast society. This is madness.

Did you buy Psychonauts?

I can’t say that it started there, but the first time I ever saw an editorial campaign intended to raise a game’s sales was back around 2003 at IGN. Matt Casamassina, a fellow fan of Eternal Darkness, was bummed about the lackluster sales of what was actually a really great game, but its downsides were twofold: it was a new IP and it was a dark, mature game launching on the Gamecube, clearly the wrong platform for the game. The point of the campaign was that mature games would not continue to launch on the Gamecube if no one bought it, so everyone should take one for the good of the team and play this game. As you might expect, the plan failed and, for all I know, Casamassina still does his best to drum up sales of mature games on Nintendo platforms (he was back in 2008 when I still listened to IGN podcasts) with the same results. The Internet’s a tricky place. Everyone will agree that these games are criminally underrated by their sales numbers, but no one is willing to actually open up their pocketbooks.

Well, there is at least one. At some point I got it into my mind that if I wanted to keep seeing good games, I should support the ones that are trying to innovate in the field, regardless of whether I want them or not. It’s why I own Zack and Wiki and Little King’s Story, despite having no real interest in either. I just wanted to support good, non-minigame collections on the Wii. Lucky for me, nine times out of ten the stance that I want to support means that I’m supporting a game or series that I do truly love. Paying for the Day 1 DLC in Dragon Age: Origins is a hot issue for many who are morally opposed to content appearing on Day 1, despite the fact that this stuff probably wasn’t ready for a Day 1 launch. Regardless, I own both packs because I love Bioware as a developer and I want to see them continue to make good games. Likewise, it might have been a few parts my completist nature, but I used to buy every bit of DLC offered by Harmonix for the Rock Band series because I wanted to support their philosophy on music gaming over Activision’s (I also don’t buy used games for a similar reason).

It’s an attitude not limited to games either, I no longer pirate anything and actually buy CDs, .mp3s, and DVDs to support the artists that I treasure. It’s kind of foolish and I get burned sometimes with mediocre stuff, but I think it’s still worth it.

The take home message here is that my purchase of Brütal Legend comes from a complicated place. Tim Schafer, a man elevated to game-god status, a rock star, if you will, being the primary catalyst while the rest of my logic amounted to a combination of wanting Double Fine to find success in their game releases for once and rewarding EA for picking up this title after Activision so unceremoniously dropped it.

Was that a good idea?

It may not be the truth, but it’s the better story.

Brütal Legend is the worst kind of lie. It’s singing love songs with the girl of your dreams on a road trip, but you’re the only one who means it, while your best friend is sleeping in the backseat, blissfully unaware of the metaphor. That’s not to say it’s an evil, insidious lie, it’s just pretending to be one thing while slowly guiding you toward another. Boot up the game, watch Jack Black, go to the Land of Metal, and you’re expecting a 3rd person action brawler. Not too long into it it’s become an open-world brawler, complete with vehicle sections. An hour or two after that and you’re partaking in a hybrid RTS/3rd person action brawler/open-world driving game. It’s bait-and-switch executed marvelously. You might hate the RTS portions, but you’re already hooked on the story and you’ve got to begrudgingly see the rest of it through.

I’ll guarantee that most players didn’t even know that their game had RTS elements before purchasing it. How would they have when all the advertising campaigns featured only the 3rd person combat? Was this an evil move on EA’s part?

As a supporter of Tim Schafer, I say no. It’s a lie, no doubt, but it serves a greater purpose. This game cannot be distilled into its distinct parts in a 30 second action reel. Why not bring in the sales on the game on this promise? It’s not like it’s a total lie, it’s more like a half-truth. You will be fighting in the 3rd person for majority of the game, you’ve just also got to manage your troops well or you will lose. Then again, I have a hard time defending deception to the consumer on such a grand scale. Did Brütal Legend lie to all of us? No one went out and outright said it was one thing, but gave you another. There was even a demo out there. Is it really “Buyer Beware” to give the impression of one thing in your advertisements and deliver a slightly different thing? This isn’t like giving top billing to an actor who only appears for three minutes of a movie, is it?

“We say, over and over again, that the default player actions in a single-player game should be compelling enough to make you believe with all your soul that a two-player deathmatch situation using two player character clones and said default player actions would be at least as compelling as the actual game.”

– tim rogers in his Bionic Commando: Rearmed Review

tim rogers makes a point in countless reviews that a game’s core mechanic should be good enough that you can play it in multiplayer ad infinitum and have just as much fun with it. Brütal Legend takes that just a touch too literally. Double Fine so desperately wants you to love their multiplayer that the entire singe-player campaign is a training mission to prepare you for multiplayer. The final units and mechanics are all finally nailed down for the player in the penultimate battle. I’m not kidding, you can’t do everything until right before you fight the final boss. It goes against everything that “we,” the player, knows about games. When you play the campaign in StarCraft, haven’t you gained access to the entire tech tree after maybe four of the ten missions in the campaign? Maybe I’m wrong and this isn’t true, but it’s certainly not right before the final boss.

I see what the intention is. Strong multiplayer drives down the resale of games. Pre-owned game purchases are money lost to the developer. We’ve seen this trick already, EA, it’s why Dragon Quest made you grind for ages and why DLC and special pack-in unlocks are so prevalent in the games of today.

Back on message, the problem with this structure is that I didn’t want to play multiplayer once I finished. I’ve yet to boot it up once. That’s not to say that the game is terrible, it’s just not mechanically sound (and, lo, we now have a pattern that we can apply to Schafer).

“The road is fuckin’ hard,
The road is fuckin’ tough-ah”

-Tenacious D – “The Road”

Before I dive even further into the mechanics, perhaps a look into the raison d’être for Brütal Legend, its story, is in order. I should start by saying that the most surprising thing about this game is that the player is controlling Eddie Riggs, not Jack Black. Despite his tendency to be Jack Black in almost every role he plays, credit has to be given to Tim Schafer and Double Fine for writing him as someone completely different. There’s not one “skedoosh” uttered by Riggs in the whole game and even the part where Jack Black is Jack Black is decidedly restrained and non-Jack Black-like.

So the player controls this guy, Eddie Riggs, who is a roadie for a fictional metal band, Kabbage Boy, that’s all kinds of terrible in the modern, faux-metal, emo kind of way. The intro has this great part where the band starts off with an appropriately epic power cord, only to have a DJ break in with some scratches while the song devolves into a pop-nonsense song about the lead singer’s girlfriend. After saving one of the band member’s lives due to some reckless climbing (all while staying out of the spotlight), Eddie is crushed by some of the stage and his blood lands on his belt buckle, summoning the Metal god Ormagöden, who kills the members of Kabbage Boy and transports Eddie to a mystical world of METAL (if I could make flames burst out of this review, I would). For a guy like Riggs, this is a dream come true since the entire landscape looks something like the album cover to the metal records of old. Demons rule this world and enslave humans, but there is a small resistance group led by a man named Lars that Eddie joins to get closer to Ophelia, a woman he meets when he first teleports in.

The beauty of Schafer’s tale comes from the heavily enforced role of the roadie. Eddie Riggs is not out for glory and, despite the fact that he is the resistance and the main character throughout the entire game, he is not the hero. Maybe it’s Eddie’s personality, but he is firmly devoted to being a roadie and unused to the spotlight. It’s so ingrained in his character, that the narrative only addresses the discrepancy between what Eddie does and what he gets credit for maybe twice and both times he quickly brushes off. The story isn’t about Riggs becoming a hero in a world in which he belongs, which is strange, because it clearly features him uniting humanity and freeing mankind. Instead it’s a (METAL!) love story between Eddie and Ophelia and a damn good one at that.

Both the characters of Eddie and Ophelia are believable and both the dialog and voice acting between Eddie and everyone else is among the best I’ve seen in any game (top marks also go to the Uncharted series, the second of which I played right before Brütal Legend). The metal legends chosen to make cameos (Ozzy Osbourne, Ian “Lemmy” Kilmister among others) do fantastic jobs of being both themselves and (especially in Ozzy’s case) fucking metal. Even the professionals like Jack Black and Tim Curry do some of their best work while industry veterans Jennifer Hale continues to prove that she’s one of the best in the business (don’t believe me? Check out her gameography).

At the end of it all, it’s clear what Schafer’s true strength is: world-building. Grim Fandango takes place in a wholly unique, single-serving world inspired completely by the Day of the Dead celebrations in Mexico with a dash of hell, demons, and the 1920s mafia. Psychonauts takes place within the brains of its cast of characters, with each mindscape inspired by psychology featuring wildly different neuroses, themes, and ideas. Brütal Legend, as you know, is inspired by heavy metal and creates a world where bass notes can heal, guitar strings are crafted by metal spiders, and guitar solos have the power to literally melt faces off. In each case his brilliance and creativity shines through and the player never wants to leave. He is unparalleled in this respect.

Brutal Legend draws itself up proudly. “I am a bastard child of the schizophrenic postmodern age. Know only that I am metal, and that I was forged from the raw materials of innumerable genres. No single acronym can contain my all. I am pure hybrid.”
-Chris Clemens. “At the Gates of Genre

Should Tim Schafer give up on games? I refuse to go on the record as saying that Brütal Legend is a bad game. Trust me, it’s not. On the other hand, it’s also not very good. It’s wild hybridization of multiple game styles and mechanics don’t combine for the better and the game winds up a jack of all trades, but, well, you know the rest. No one aspect of the actual game mechanics make me want to boot the game up again. Melee fighting is shallow because only two buttons can be allotted (you need to be able to control your troops and play guitar with the others). Driving is just a faster way of getting from point A to B and feels unsatisfying.

Quick Aside Time

I understand that this is hard and that resources are better spent elsewhere (not to mention that invisible walls serve to keep the player within them), but we, as gamers, need to take a stand against the goddamn trees in video games. How many fucking metal :throws up horns: nitro boosts did I waste because a thin, pathetic looking tree turned out to be The Epic Tree of Arrested Momentum. Seriously, if you’ve got small logs that I can drive through at low speeds, then why can’t I drive through a thin bit of underbrush? Then again, my car can fall thousands of feet and take no damage, so maybe my car and the trees are made of the same mystical, physics-distorting material.

Back to the review…

I can go on ad infinitum about every system in the game: the guitar solos are shallow, the RTS-style mechanics are frustratingly imprecise, the quest structure is repetitive, and the collectibles are annoyingly difficult to track and collect. Tell me Schafer, if I’ve got a map that automatically draws itself as I discover new parts of the world, why can’t it have a toggle switch to show me which collectibles I’ve already found? Ask my friend Ian how many hours I spent searching for the last (of 120) Bound Serpent in the game. It’s MADDENING.

At the end of the game, when evil has been vanquished and all the credit and accompanying hero worship has fallen on Lars and his sister, Lita, we see Eddie drive away, content to be a mere footnote in history, despite being the only reason that the history of that world continues. I return to the question, should Schafer stop making games himself? Wouldn’t he be a much better world designer for other projects? Isn’t Tim Schafer a better Eddie Riggs than a Lars? On one hand, I want him to continue to have the freedom to make his own full, artistic visions come true, but with two consecutive commercial failures under his belt (Brütal Legend has reportedly sold only 200,000 or so copies in Rocktober, but we’ll see what Christmas brings), will the industry keep giving him a chance?

Lars: “What do you do with a bunch of kids that just wanna bang their heads all the time?”
Eddie Riggs: *tears in eyes* “You start a revolution Lars…”

Tim Schafer is a rock star. There are few people in the industry who get what it means to craft a world, but the staff at Double Fine, Schafer-included, need to sit down and think about game design a little more. It’s got to be hard to reign in Schafer’s monstrous creative energy, but it would be a good idea to try to focus on getting fewer things perfect in their next game. The sad truth is that they haven’t got many more chances. Most of them could probably find jobs elsewhere, but the only member of their team with absolute job security is Tim Schafer. He will always be a Lars in the industry. Developers would be nuts not to give him top billing of some kind (note that the boxart for Brütal Legend explicitly states “A Tim Schafer game” above the title) and he deserves that kind of praise. So, to answer my previous question, Tim Schafer should absolutely make games, but perhaps he needs to narrow his sights a little bit and focus more on his core mechanics. Less can be more when you have to sacrifice quality.

Furthermore, have I learned anything about hero-worship in the industry? If anything, I think that writing this review has caused me to reevaluate the stances I take for granted on game companies and the artists I love, in general. I still think that the most effective way to lobby for anything in this industry is with consumer dollars, but I’m finding myself increasingly disenchanted with how little the sales from a small, dedicated fanbase amounts to. I mean, look at what my money did for the MLB Power Pros series in America? Given the decision again today, I would still go out and buy Brütal Legend. I like it that much, game mechanics aside, but with only 200,000 in sales, I’m pretty sure it will be a while before Double Fine is able to round up as much capital as I’m sure they did for this game (which may be to their benefit). On the other, Dan-has-learned-something hand, I’m pretty sure that I’m no longer giving everyone a carte blanche license to earn money from me. Metal Gear Solid 4 was such a disappointment to me that it will take some prodding for me to really trust Kojima again. Nintendo has flip-flopped around so much with Mario that I’m unsure where I stand. Mario Galaxy was not the breath of fresh air I thought it would be, but New Super Mario Bros. Wii is a masterpiece of sharp, 2-D game design combined with the brilliant addition of 4-player co-op. I no longer buy mature titles for the Wii. DVD box sets of shows that I casually want to remain on the air no longer get bought. Some things have been learned.

Take Home Review Message:
Brütal Legend is a definite rental, but I don’t feel comfortable recommending that you buy it until you’ve tried out the multiplayer.

You Can Quote Me On That: Tim Rogers
Aug 23rd, 2008 by Dan

If you know me or read this site regularly, you know that I’m a huge fan of Tim Rogers of ActionButton.net. I don’t universally agree with him, but I do universally love how the things he says about game design and video games in general make me think critically about games both as entertainment, as examples of good design, and even as an art form. Today’s quote isn’t really all that thought-provoking, but it does bring up a rather good point:

It’s a lot like the iron boots in modern 3D Zelda games: you have these 200kg boots in your inventory; you’re swimming in water; you open the menu and choose to put the boots “on”; you sink to the bottom of the water. Are the boots only heavy when they’re on your feet? (Maybe they’re magical.) It’s not a puzzle; it’s not “thinking”. It’s just “there”.

-Tim Rogers in his Ikaruga review.

Sure, video games do require immense suspension of disbelief and Rogers does harp a lot on modern Zelda and Nintendo design in general, but it’s true when you think about it and pretty funny.

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

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

Runner-up: Super Smash Bros. Melee

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

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

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

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

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

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

SSBM in 8-Bit:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Runner-up: Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#3 Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-HK-47

Yeah, he’s that awesome.

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker

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

#2 The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SPOILERS

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

/SPOILERS

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

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

I remember seeing this sucker in the movie theaters:

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

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

#1 Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater

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

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

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

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

Yet another parody movie regarding the end of the game:

Oh man, what a great Japanese commercial:

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

Embedded Reporter: Courage is Solid
Jun 9th, 2008 by Dan

Deep from the trenches, it’s time for your Monday video feature: Embedded Reporter.

So in just three short days the world will see a simultaneous release of Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots! Here’s an interesting bit of trivia: MGS2, MGS2: Substance, MG Portable Ops, MGS: The Twin Snakes and MGS3 were all released in North America before they saw release in the Land of the Rising Sun. Another little bit of trivia is that Hideo Kojima prefers the English voice acting over the Japanese voice track.

Below is the MGS4 trailer that was actually shown in theaters. It’s pretty slick, but I’m so mad that I’m gonna have to wait until the end of the month to even pop this sucker into my PS3…

Remember everyone: Courage is Solid

Game Overview: 16-Bit All-Stars
Jun 6th, 2008 by Dan

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

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

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

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

I like to think of the 16-bit era as the age when video games truly began to blossom into the glorious medium we enjoy consuming today. I suppose if i were to fully apply that metaphor, it would make the first and second generations the ugly infancy and childhood of gaming and the third generation rather like the puberty of gaming, also encompassing those difficult growing pains of the teen years. This, naturally, places the fourth generation in the sexy 18-24 demographic that, ironically, most video games are marketed to today.

Now that we’ve wrapped our minds around that rather interesting image, let’s talk about what was happening around this time in the industry. The big systems that I care about, the Super Nintendo and the Sega Genesis, were launched, along with their hand held counterparts, the Game Boy and the Game Gear. Although we reaped the massive benefits of the competition, we were unfortunately subjected a whole slew of marketing buzzword crap about “blast processing” on the Sega Genesis, not to mention those obnoxious “Genesis does what Nintendon’t” commercials (sensing a bias?).

Yeah, there’s a wee bit of a chip on my shoulder. You see, as a kid, I remember wanting the Super Nintendo for Christmas a lot. I don’t even know how I knew about it or anything, but I knew I wanted one. Instead, my aunt gave us a Sega Genesis, which my older brother wanted. It was indeed a bitter pill to swallow that Christmas, but we did have a breakthrough the next year when I got Super Mario Kart on Christmas Eve, but no SNES, signaling that I just might be getting a Super Nintendo from my parents the next morning on Christmas Day. Nintendo fanboyism aside, I did give a fair shake to both Sega and Nintendo games, but no Sega games made my top three.

In keeping with past conventions, you’ve just received your hint as to what my number three game is: The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past.

(If you didn’t get it, past was bolded and there was a link to a past post…yeah, I’m that clever)

#3 The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past

I’ll tell you what, I didn’t play the number three game nor did I play the game that lost (by a tiny sliver) to LttP during the lifetime of the SNES. I played the #4 game (to be revealed soon!) on a ROM once the Gamecube was already released and I played Zelda on a Player’s Choice (I think that’s what it was called?) cart I bought from the store once the N64 was already Nintendo’s dominant platform. I’m super saddened by the fact that I lost the cart (damn you Evan…you “already returned” it, did you?), but it truly was Shigeru Miyamoto’s masterpiece on the console.

Link to the Past did a few things right of the bat to re-endear Zelda fans to the update with its return to the overhead view and abandonment of the more RPG-centric gameplay that was central to Zelda II. The new overworld was beautiful with vibrant colors and amazingly detailed sprites. It seemed like Link could travel forever through the maps and that secrets were hidden at every corner. The quest was also an epic affair as Link collected three pendants to prove his worthiness to wield the Master Sword to confront the evil wizard Agahnim and save Zelda. Once I’d finally done all this and confronted Agahnim, I thought, surely this is the final boss, this game is almost over, that stinks. Then the most surprising thing happened, I was sucked into the Dark World. My goal was now to save the seven maidens descended from the seven sages. Holy crap! I had seven more plot coupons to collect, which meant seven more dungeons, and a whole new world to explore before I would be able to confront the real bad guy, Ganon.

It’s pretty old hat nowadays for Nintendo to have two worlds in a Zelda game. Ocarina of Time had present and future Hyrule, The Minish Cap had the normal-sized and minish worlds, and Twilight Princess had twilight and normal worlds. Back then though, this was a completely new concept to me that I had only seen done once before (see #2 on my list) and it just totally blew my mind. The puzzles that dealt with this gameplay mechanic were also superb, with changes in the dark world affecting the light world somehow. I remember feeling like I was totally at a loss for what to do to uncover the many secrets that would require me to cleverly swap between dark and light worlds.

Link’s expanded inventory was also pretty sweet. There were all sorts of little Easter eggs within the different enemy types dependent on what equipment you used to attack them with. I distinctly remember that some of the buggers could be completely emasculated with a dash of magic powder, for example. While boss fights still weren’t that challenging (an issue I’ve been having with Nintendo for quite some time now), I thought it was innovative back then how you had to figure out how to use the new equipment you found in the dungeon to attack the boss monster.

A Link to the Past was just a well put together game. The story was way more epic than any Zelda game that preceded it, there were countless secrets lying in wait for the diligent explorer (remember the guy who “curses” your magic bar?), and you had not just one, but two giant worlds to wander around, vanquishing evil. Some don’t think the game has aged very well, but I’d still recommend LttP for a Virtual Console purchase, it’s one of the best games from the era.

In keeping with the funny commercial kick I’m feeling, check out this Japanese Link to the Past commercial:

Makes me laugh how girls always make the best live-action Links

The next game on the list actually was just edged out of the #1 spot, but I’m gonna blame number confusion during localization for that one. That’s a pretty obscure hint, so I’m just gonna come out and say it. #2 on my list of 16-bit All-Stars is Final Fantasy III…erm…Final Fantasy VI!

#2 Final Fantasy VI

I don’t remember precisely where I heard or read this, but very recently I digested some media regarding one guy’s initial reaction to playing Final Fantasy VI. What he said was “I remember renting this game and being about an hour or so in thinking ‘There’s no way I’m gonna be able to finish this in three days…'” The reason I put that quote in there is because the very same thing happened to my brothers and I. After re-renting the game a few times and finding our save files deleted each time, we decided that we would bite the bullet and just hold on to the game until we were done, effectively renting it multiple, consecutive times. At the end of the first three days, we were about halfway done. At the end of the second, we had reached 3/4 completion. Finally, in the third rental period, after about a days worth of grinding, we completed the greatest Final Fantasy game that has ever been made and, with the departure of Sakaguchi to form Mistwalker in 2001, possibly the greatest they will ever make.

I can already feel the FF VII fanboys chomping at the bit to tell me how wrong I am, but it is they who are wrong. You see, right before Final Fantasy was about androgynous emo-kids with big swords whose dialog consists of “…” more often than not, it was about an epic cast of characters fighting against an evil empire in what was, admittedly, a rip-off of the Star Wars story. Yet, it does just about EVERYTHING right and I the closest I’ve seen a Final Fantasy game come since would be a bastard child of the characters from XII and the superb storytelling elements of X.

One of the features of Final Fantasy VI I’ve most enjoyed is the mostly non-central character in the game. You start as Terra, but, halfway through the game, you’re mostly controlling Celes and Terra even refuses to join your party again until maybe halfway through the second half (that’s 3/4 of the way through the game for the math incapable). While some of the 14 (!) characters in the cast are mostly tangential and unrelated to the story or other characters (I’m looking at you Mog, Gogo, Umaro), only two really have no real emotional connection to the story (Mog and Umaro) with every other character getting a chance in the spotlight either directly or indirectly (Gogo is Daryll, I won’t accept any other conclusion). Most every character has touching and revealing sidequests that go beyond the typical “dodge lightning” or “chocobo racing” nonsense that modern-day Final Fantasy games have us do to get ultimate weapons or techniques. Some of the back stories are even so cleverly hidden that you can play the game through multiple times and never see the details (by cleverly, I mean annoyingly…why did I have to learn Shadow’s backstory through fanfics?), but when you learn about the characters, find out how they’re interrelated, find out what makes them tick, these guys all find a place in that warm, fuzzy little part of your brain. I can still feel Locke’s anguish as he tries and fails to revive Rachel, still understand Terra’s feelings of alienation, fear, and confusion as she learns what it is to be human from the first people to treat her like one, and I can still tear up a bit as I learn about Gau’s insane father throwing him out into the wild and rejecting his son as he comes back in a more “civilized” manner.

All of those memorable scenes and characters and I still haven’t even mentioned the masterful opera scene that I’m sure you’ve heard about. There are some things that get me positively salivating at the thought of a 3D remake of Final Fantasy VI like the remakes of III and IV, but few add up to how much I’d love to see and hear the opera scene unpixelated and processed with better sound tech.

I haven’t even gotten to the gameplay yet either. 14 characters, all with unique technique systems (something we wouldn’t really see again until FF IX), my favorite magic system, Espers, and a general non-reliance on summons that was negated with FF VII and ended, fortunately, with FF X (XI doesn’t count). Armor was still lovingly complex, with multiple equipment options beyond the oversimplified “Weapon, Armor, Accessory” systems of future Final Fantasy games and we had two “Accessory” slots with the awesome “Relic” system, which was used to not only give characters neat abilities, but accentuate their inborn character abilities.

I can’t believe I’ve gone this long without even mentioning the most evil and incredibly awesome antagonist in a Final Fantasy game, heck in just about any game: Kefka. Tapping into everyone’s already morbid fear of clowns (or is it just me who finds them vaguely unsettling?) Kefka brings a whole new level of insane to the job of final boss. The man starts off as comic relief. He’s got that funny processed laugh that the SNES chip throws out at you, he looks ridiculous, and he’s hilariously mean to his underlings. Any fight you ever get into with him, he runs away from or uses illiusions. How evil could he be? That’s when the shit starts to hit the fan. The first act of defiance that the player knows of against Kefka by an ally to the Emperor leads to an attempt to burn the entire castle down and destroy the monarchy. Another rebel nation has its entire water supply poisoned by the psychopath. At the insane encounter (that I thought to be the end of the game when I initially played it) on the Floating Continent, Kefka not only murders the Emperor and throws him off the continent, he shuffles around the statues that hold the world in balance, effectively ending the world as we all know it. With new godly powers at his command taken from murdering Espers and the statues, Kefka reshapes the world, smiting any town that refuses to obey him with the “Light of Judgement.” The mad clown even has a cult of followers devoted to his cause and is an absolute nihilist, claiming that life is meaningless and aiming to destroy everything. All this from a man who looks like a clown. It’s chilling and he’s never been matched since (don’t even mention Sephiroth in the same sentence, he’s an absolute tool compared to Kefka).

Let’s just end it with this, and this is a major spoiler, but how many other games have you ever played where halfway through the game, the world ends, you’re potentially the only survivor in the drastically modified desolate wasteland of the world map, and you’ve got the choice to either save or kill a man who looks like a hot dog before you leave the island? I thought so.

Since we’ve got a good thing going with these ridiculous commercials, let’s keep it up with a US FF III (IV) commercial that I actually never saw on TV:

The Japanese commercial was a lot more epic, I think:

Wow, that FF VI blurb was really long, I might be running out of time to tell you about the #1 game. If you still need another hint, according to the game, the world “ended” in September of 1999 at 1324. That’s right, the best game of the 16-bit era is the Squaresoft/Enix collaboration: Chrono Trigger

#1 Chrono Trigger

There’s a long, storied history between Chrono Trigger and myself. I’m pretty sure the year was 1996 or 1997. My family was living out in Oregon and our electronics store of choice was Incredible Universe. IU, as we liked to call it, had a nifty little area where you could leave the kids to play video games while you shopped for consumer electronics. My older brother was too old for it and I was just hitting the cusp, but my parents were still able to leave my younger brother and I in there to hang out. IU provided many a video gaming experience that we didn’t have at home, since we couldn’t just be out buying everything, plus we didn’t know about all the systems. It was at IU that I played the Sega Saturn the only two or three times I ever have in my life and the only place I’ve ever even seen a Philips CD-I and Mario Hotel (so awful…). It’s also the place that introduced me to the console RPG, forever changing my life.

It was an unassuming day out in the Pacific Northwest when I popped Chrono Trigger into one of the SNES consoles in the play area. I was attracted by the cool seeming box art featuring a red-haired dude with a sword, a blonde girl shooting fire, and a frog man fighting some giant lizard thing. Cool, right? So I boot up the game, select New Game, and then I get to name my character. This was nothing special, I’d done the same with Link in the original Legend of Zelda, but boy was I surprised when some character was telling me to wake up. I had named the main character. The red-haired guy was me! I was told to go to the fair and I don’t remember if I went straight there or not, but once I got there I ran around, watched some races and just marveled at how much was going on in this Millennial Fair. Then I ran into a new character, the blonde from the cover, and, holy cow, I could name her too! We fought Gato (Gonzalez in the Japanese version?) in my first ever RPG battle and I’m pretty sure we lost too, but it was so cool. I had to select these attacks from a menu. I’m pretty sure I only just got sent into the past at Lucca’s exhibit before my parents showed up to pick me up, but a already a change was brewing within me. As I told my older brother about the game and piqued some of his interest, I started my evolution as a gamer.

That night I dreamed of Chrono Trigger. I was in the game then too and we wandered around fighting bad guys. Shortly thereafter, my older brother (you’ll have to clarify what about this game attracted you to it and made you buy into my propaganda. did we rent it before this event happened?) spotted it at the video game rental place for a pricey (for us) $20. The three brothers banded together to fund the purchase of the game (try to find a SNES CT cartridge for that cheap on Ebay nowadays!) with each of us paying a little less than the older sibling and we brought our prize home.

Honestly, aside from action RPGs like Zelda or, randomly, the Illusion of Gaia, I’d never played an RPG before in any form. This first exposure would motivate a good chunk of our game rentals for the SNES (like FF VI and FF IV), cause mass disappointment when Square sided with the PSX after that tantalizing N64 FF VI demo, lead to me purchasing FF VII for the PC and basically forcing it to work on our piece of junk PC, and eventually lead to me buying a refurbished PS2 so that I could enjoy the PSX and PS2 JRPGs that I’d missed in my years of owning an N64 and Gamecube instead of the premier RPG systems. The JRPG remains my absolute favorite video game genre, if you couldn’t tell from all the Persona 3: FES and Persona 4 coverage in this blog. I even picked up a PS3 more or less in preparation for the continuation of the Final Fantasy and Kingdom Hearts series. On this front alone, Chrono Trigger holds a prime spot in my all-time video game shortlist, but this doesn’t even count the amazing gameplay to be experienced.

CT is just about perfect on all fronts. This is why it barely edged out my favorite FF game for the top spot on this list. When I sat down and thought carefully about it, I couldn’t think of any reason for FF VI to top CT or for CT to not be the number one game. It’s that good. For starters, it’s got one of the more innovative Active Time Battle systems present in any of the Final Fantasy games to date. Now, on top of the monsters and characters taking turns based on a time gauge, there was the added dimension of attack range and splash damage. Some of your attacks could damage multiple monsters depending on where they were placed on the screen. Also dependent on the monster and character placement were Technique combos. Your characters all had their own techniques, but they also had set attacks that could be used in unison with other members of your party, creating interesting party composition choices depending on the battle situation. The monsters were also viewable on the screen and, in some cases, avoidable. This has always been a hallmark of a good RPG for my older brother who’s not so much a fan of the random encounter. I’m a bit more tolerant of RPG grind, so I don’t mind it so much, but it was creative for the time for you to be able to see your enemies on screen, but for the game to not be an action RPG.

The story is truly where this game shines, with its epic trips spanning throughout time as you witness how your actions change the modern world and future for the better or worse. Sure, the good ‘ol future apocalypse switcheroo seems a bit clichéd given that all three games on this list have some sort of similar plot twist, but a well-crafted plot device still gets me every time. I still remember uncovering the video of the Day of Lavos on a seemingly benign quest to recover some food for some poor survivors in Arris Dome. The shock as I saw the world as they knew it destroyed in 1999 (a mere two or three years away for me) told me, if you’ll excuse the lame expression, that I wasn’t in Kansas any more. The plot is so expertly handled in this game, it really does achieve the lofty storytelling goals that I think the medium aspires to hit, all without being campy or lame in the very slightest. The disappearance of Marle when you get to the castle in AD 600, your trial and incarceration in AD 1000, the escape to post-apocalyptic AD 2300, discovery of the fate of the world as it slowly dies and mankind goes extinct, your epic foray to fight Magus and prevent the advent of Lavos in AD 600 only to discover that he was, in fact, working against the ancient evil, the discovery that Lavos had been around as early as 65,000,000 BC, and the amazing socially-divided kingdom of 12,000 BC that Magus himself hails from. It’s all so expertly crafted.

Just like FF VI, every character has a meaningful and worthwhile backstory/sidequest to complete. You can bring about the recovery of a forest and save Lucca’s mother from being handicapped, discover the secret about Robo’s line of robots, ensure the evolution of man by defeating sentient reptiles, and you can even choose to either forgive the warlock Magus for his sins or pass judgment upon him and rid the world of his influence. That last one was of particular importance, because Magus was a powerful ally, but his life ensured that Frog would remain forever cursed to remain, well, a frog.

A particularly powerful moment in the story, for me, I believe follows your second trip to 12,000 BC and the kingdom of Zeal. The group, intent on ending the threat of Lavos right then and there, confronts the beast with killing intent. It all goes sour (“Oh crap! When did I last save? This fight is so damn unfair, it had better be one you’re supposed to lose…”), but then the unthinkable happens. Lavos kills Crono. At this point, still new to RPGs (which still don’t feature all that much permanent death) I was floored. They truly did everything right with this story, as I was there with the characters as they mourned the death of Crono and soldiered on with their burden to destroy Lavos. His revival was also particularly awesome. I can still picture the cutscene of his revival. I can see him sitting against that scraggly old, leafless tree and I can remember Marle lunging at him, her embrace full of joy at his return to life atop Death’s Peak.

From then on, it was sidequest time as I truly connected with the denizens of the Chrono Trigger timeline, fixing the past, present, and future and making the world a better place. I then went on to fight Lavos himself to free the world of his taint and ensure a future for all the people of the world I had come to love. Once I had secured a future for Crono and Marle’s strongly implied inevitable progeny and I returned to the title screen, I was greeted with an interesting new feature, the New Game +. I could start the game all over again at the same levels, with the same equipment, and just have another go at the story. This was a time in my life when I didn’t have access to as many games as I do nowadays, so I had the leisure time available to beat Chrono Trigger the close to ten or so times that I did while I owned the cartridge. Admittedly, some of the later wins were due to wanting to see the multiple endings that I discovered existed. I had not known that there were thirteen whole endings, but once I did I tried to get as many as I had the patience for, including the super-difficult special ending that you can only get if you can take on Lavos 1-on-1 with Crono in the beginning of the game.

I don’t know what else there is to say about such an epic and truly amazing game. I hope that one day Square Enix finally decides to make a true sequel to what is arguably their magnum opus (I don’t count Chrono Cross). I guess it would be tough to come up with a reason for there to be a sequel in that world, but, in that case, a more loyal spiritual sequel would even suffice. So much about that game is perfect and I know that the talent isn’t totally gone from that company. Lightning can strike twice and here’s to hoping that it does some day.

By the way, if you don’t think my opinion is enough, check out Tim Rogers‘ review of this spectacular game. He does a much better job of analyzing why the story is awesome.

I can’t find a great commercial for this game, but here’s what I have found:

Here’s the opening of the PSX re-release, complete with animations by Toriyama’s studio to complement the already excellent Akira Toriyama designs in game:

“Hey Masa, I’m the wind…woosh!”

Nothing short of absolute excellence. I’m gonna have to get my hands on that soundtrack one of these days. It is incredible.

There you go, those are the top three games of the 16-bit era. Play those and you’re all set, you’ve got a taste for the best the period has to offer. Just like last week, keep on tuning in to see what other games I feel deserve mention from this era and feel free to let me know if I’ve missed something.

Game Overview Editorial: Difficulty in Video Games
May 8th, 2008 by Dan

You’re playing through an RPG. You’ve gained five levels, found some sweet equipment drops, minimized the use of your precious items, and then it happens. You come up against a behemoth of a monster. Your party is decimated, your progress lost, your controller tossed through the screen.

Does this even begin to sound familiar to anyone? It’s like modern gaming, in an effort to bring in an even broader audience, has started to dumb down our video game experience. Think back to the last four, at the very least, Final Fantasy games (not counting XI). Aside from side quest bosses who are geared to be a challenge, how often did you even find yourself remotely challenged in these games? I honestly don’t think I worried much about save points in any of these games (aside from when I was hunting the harder mobs in XII) at all. There was none of that between-save-point stress and worry that a game with any difficulty might throw at me. I just go on through the game, breezing through the fights and find myself at the final boss, sometimes taking more than one try to kill him, but, more often than not, just breezing through him too.

It’s not just RPGs either. Think back to Mario Galaxy. The only challenge in that game came from the green stars where the developers were given free range to punish players into some of the toughest, most fun challenges possible. Even The Legend of Zelda isn’t safe. The last two console installments, The Wind Waker and Twilight Princess, were among the easiest games I have ever played. Sure, their stories were epic and fun, but the bosses were jokes compared to past Zelda games. They dealt close to no heart damage, they had hyper-predictable patterns, and they were just plain not challenging. I don’t think that I’ve evolved much in skill as a gamer since about the sixth grade and I definitely remember more challenge in both Link’s Awakening and A Link to the Past when I played them (late to the game, I know).

There is hope. Mistwalker’s latest RPG for the Xbox 360, Lost Odyssey, will actually make you hope that a save point is imminent. The enemies will brutalize you if you mess up. It seems odd that I’m actually hoping for a game to punish me for screwing up or not leveling up, but I just can’t take a game that doesn’t even challenge me in the slightest. I consume games mainly for story, this is true, but I don’t want the story-telling to come so easily that I might as well be watching a movie or reading a book. It can get frustrating when a game is difficult because it’s broken or the computer cheats :cough: Mario Kart Wii :cough:, but it’s also tremendously satisfying to spend an hour bashing your head against the wall trying to defeat a boss only to finally get it down and win with just a sliver of health left.

This is why I look forward to the day when I will be able to devote more time to Persona 3: FES. The short time I spent with the game already almost beat me in a random encounter and I’m sure that an actual boss will own me several times. I fully believe that a game should punish you for making a mistake and I already know from experience that Persona will wail on me for being an idiot.

There’s certainly a market for casual games and casual gamers out there, one only needs to look to the Wii to see that fact with obvious clarity, but surely it wouldn’t be too difficult for developers to go out and actually make a game tough for players. The inclusion of difficulty levels, even with the fact that it means more work, will satisfy me. Here’s hoping that we see harder games in the future.

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