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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.

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

Great Mother 3 art

Wallpaper courtesy Pet-Shop on DeviantArt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jordan Mechner

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

BOING!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Super Ichiban Travel Blog Part III: Play Ball! [II]
Sep 6th, 2009 by Dan

Jet lag is always a bit difficult to overcome, but when you’ve flown to the other side of the world, the body really doesn’t know what to do with itself. So it came to pass that I wrote the whole second half of Part II of this travelogue at 0600 after a half hour of tossing and turning, despite being on almost no sleep. This third part comes straight from my exhausted fingers to you, starting before the first Giants game and continuing after getting back to the hotel.

Our bright morning begins at 0830 for a quick pre-trip briefing. Dave and I quickly learn that we are most definitely the youngest members of the group. There are maybe four or five people on the tour younger than 30 and certainly none in their early twenties like us. Bob thankfully runs a rather loose ship, allowing us to mostly do what we want throughout the day instead of being forced to do one thing at all times. We meet up for trains and ballgames and that’s about it. Once the main tour departs, I won’t even have that, since Bob and Mayumi plan to head off on their own.

Mayumi offered to head to Sensō-ji Temple, the oldest temple in Tokyo, and Dave and I decided to go along. Our hotel is near private railway lines and the Tokyo Metro, so we hopped aboard, allowing me to experience the metro firsthand. It most resembles the DC Metro, since it requires you to pay a fare based on how far you travel, which is rather unfortunate, but the trains arrive almost 800 times faster and more regularly, so the comparison clearly only goes so far.

Sensō-ji’s main features are the iconic giant lanterns that adorn the center of each of the gates of the temple. In between the two gates, the area is packed to the gills with vendors and stalls selling food, typical Japanese souvenirs, toys, clothes, and video games. The temple itself is a rather loose compound with shops flanking it on all sides along with a Shinto shrine. Dave and I explored the area a bit, but decided not to get souvenirs right away since it was still early in the trip. The temple was also fully populated with hordes of schoolchildren, all in uniform visiting the shrine on class trips. Even very small children were on trips to the temple, carried by hilarious carts like children on hand-pushed buses. Apparently they do this in other big cities in America, but I’d never seen it before so Dave and I quickly took to accusing the cart pushers of kidnapping all the kids in the carts.

The outer gate has a huge lantern

The outer gate has a huge lantern

After our temple visit, we had free time until the game, so Dave and I decided to go eat lunch and hit up Akihabara again. Since CoCo Curry is on the way to Akihabara and it’s so good, Dave and I had yet another lunch there that I thoroughly enjoyed. Since we were visiting in the daytime, Akihabara looked a lot more like it should complete with alleys bursting with electronic components. In the distance I spotted Pac-Man ghosts chasing an 8-bit Mario and assumed that it had to be some sort of retro-game store. Since I was looking for a copy of Mother 3 to validate a translated ROM, Dave and I headed toward it to check it out.

If this doesn't scream retro game shop, I don't know what does.

If this doesn't scream retro game shop, I don't know what does.

Once we got closer, it became immediately obvious that we were standing at the door of a Super Potato, Japan’s most famous video game collectors store. The interior is divided up loosely chronologically, with early systems like the Famicom, MSX, and PC Engine situated on the first floor of the shop, Super Famicom and Mega Drive on the second floor of the shop, and Playstation, Nintendo 64, Sega Saturn, GB and GBA at the top of the games sections (game soundtracks also lived on this floor). The topmost floor was a retro-game arcade that had some seriously old arcade cabinets and some seriously awesome decorations and all of the floors had collectibles and toys from famous franchises.

BIG BOSS!

BIG BOSS!

My hunt for Mother 3 did not go so well at first, mostly because it seemed that there were no used copies sitting around the shelves. I walked up to the counter on that floor, said “Mother 3” in the most inquisitive way possible, and just looked confused. At first I didn’t think they understood what I meant, but they helped me look a bit and didn’t find it. Before I could get too dejected, the other guy behind the counter pulled out a new cartridge in the Japanese-style GBA box. My wallet was lightened by about ¥3600, but I was now the owner of a brand new Mother 3 cart. Mission Complete! S-Rank!

I was able to find a new copy of Mother 3 at the Super Potato

I was able to find a new copy of Mother 3 at the Super Potato

I can’t forget to mention that we also found a pretty sweet capsule machine that sold keychains that made noises from the Mario series. I got a coin keychain for ¥200. Dave became less enthused by my antics by the end of the day, but that coin sound is just spot on and super fun. BONUS FACT: I believe they use one of these during the 4-Minute Warning section of Listen Up! on 1up.com.

Our quest for games satisfied, we decided to go into a music store next. My goal was to find the one Sambomaster CD I couldn’t import into the states. Unfortunately, the Japanese system of organization eluded me. We thought that maybe they adopted a Roman ordering based on sounds because we seemed to see bands with English names clustered around each other if they had the same letters, but our theory was quickly dashed and we were left wandering the store confused. My next idea was to walk up to a sales clerk, show her the entry for Sambomaster on my iPod (it’s written in kanji or katakana, I don’t know which), and pray that she could lead us to it. It turned out that the Sambomaster section was literally right behind us on the shelf and they also had the album I was looking for. Another successful mission.

Dave and I decided to try to head into a Sofmap again and climbed our way to the top floor to check out some video games. The selection was pretty enormous, complete with Xbox 360, PS2 and PS3, PSP, Wii, and DS games. Some of the DS games had way cooler boxart than the ones we’re used to. The worst part about the music store was seeing the games I most want to come out in the states, the Powapuro series, sitting in the store mocking me. Both the NPB edition and MLB Power Pros 2009 were sitting right there. I will be investigating ways to play Japanese games at home while I’m out here, since I know I can manage to play a Japanese baseball game with no knowledge of the language.

Please come to the states!

Please come to the states!

Our walk back to the hotel passed by a Shinto shrine, which housed a much smaller, single shop just outside. At this shrine I did not drink any water, but I did wash my hands and I took a picture of the board with all the ema. On our way out we noticed a tanuki statue. Not sure if you readers are aware, but tanuki in folklore have famously large testicles in Japan. It’s insane.

Hes got large...tracts of land?

He's got large...tracts of land?

We got back to the hotel room and noticed that the “Do not clean” sign we put up was gone and the room was clean. I wonder why we even bothered…

It was in and out time for our first baseball game. The matchup was the Yomiuri Giants vs. the Yakult Swallows in the Tokyo Dome. The Dome itself is located in a giant entertainment complex in Tokyo with an amusement park and a mall right across the street. Bob took us to the top of a nearby building to get a good view of the surroundings and then set us loose until game time. We had about an hour to kill and Dave and I noticed that there was a roller coaster that spiraled through and around the buildings that composed the amusement park. We decided to investigate, along with our new travel buddy Susan.

You can see the coaster crossing through the ferris wheel here. Great thrill or accident waiting to happen? You decide!

You can see the coaster crossing through the ferris wheel here. Great thrill or accident waiting to happen? You decide!

When we got to the coaster, heretofore known as Thunder Dolphin, we saw that it cost ¥1000 (~$10) to ride, but we weren’t going to let that discourage us. Susan opted not to ride, but we barreled up the steps, hoped we bought admission (the machine was in Japanese), and queued up. The coaster had lockers on the other side for passengers to pack their belongings in, so we headed over and emptied out and got on the coaster. If you check Dave’s pictures, you know by now that this coaster was built with extreme in mind. The first drop is at a 72° angle, for heaven’s sake, and everything is very tight and compressed since it’s in the city. It’s an intense roller coaster that was tons of fun! I just wish we could have gone on it again for free.

What is a Thunder Dolphin anyway?

What is a Thunder Dolphin anyway?

The coaster put us at just the right time to enter the Dome, which, unlike other ballparks in the states, had restaurants and shops on the outside. We queued at our gate, got to the rotating glass doors, and awaited the attendant-allowed opportunity to walk through the doors. Turns out, they keep the dome tightly sealed, because our ears all popped upon entering the dome, which is also kept at a Tokyo-warm 77-80°F, but there we were, within the Tokyo Dome, home of the most famous baseball team in Japan.

The outside of the dome is Giants-themed.

The outside of the dome is Giants-themed.

It’s said that the Giants are rather like the Yankees of Japan and I can kind of see that. The ballpark has a stateliness to it and their team has a low-frills, dignified approach that does away with too much craziness. Their mascots, for some odd reason, are rabbits from space, but we’ll let that slide. Even before the game, a steady stream of concession stand girls were wandering all the aisles, offering coke to the fans. Once the game started, they were joined by the famous beer girls. I once confused the tanks they carried on their backs for hot water for noodles, but the reality is that they’re tasked with roaming their sections all game with a heavy tank of beer strapped to their backs. As they empty out, they head back to their HQ and refill the tanks to go at it again. It’s impressive, considering the size of these girls.

Getting ready to pour us some bieru

Getting ready to pour us some "bieru"

Also immediately obvious were the ōendan (cheer) squads that sit in the outfield bleachers representing both teams. I learned from other members of the tour that admission into those sections is strictly limited by membership in the fan club. To gain membership, you must be willing to travel with the team on a set number of games, know every fight song, know every player-related cheer, and be spirited. They are intense. They started cheering before the game and they continued to cheer with the same intensity to the bitter end (which Dave and I missed…more on that soon).

The dome is a nice primer on Japanese baseball, but why does it have to be so hot inside?

The dome is a nice primer on Japanese baseball, but why does it have to be so hot inside?

The ballgame began and after a half-inning of awe at how the Swallows cheer section was going nuts, the Giants were set to come up. We quickly learned that the aura of “bad-assery” that most ballplayers in the states cultivate doesn’t seem to be as necessary out here in Japan, especially since some of the players were coming up to bat to bubbly J-Pop or slow, Japanese ballads. It was bizarre, especially when a foreign, Hispanic player came up to bat and it was not salsa, merengue, or reggaeton.

The game itself is played with small ball in mind a lot more than in the states. We still saw a home run that night, but most of the players were shooting for base hits. Baltimore chops were a common sight to ensure safe baserunner advancement and they bunted freely. Very rarely did they swing for the fences and if they did, it was probably an American player doing it.

The cheerleaders and the fans doing their routine.

The cheerleaders and the fans doing their routine.

In the 7th inning I learned that there is no stretch out here, just a communal rendition of the Giants fight song along with dancing mascots. The balloon thing was strangely absent, so I have no footage of that either.

It being the first full day out in Tokyo, Dave and I didn’t do so well at staying up through the game. By the 8th inning, we found ourselves sleeping through most of the at-bats and the cheers. Only the roar of the crowd at a great play would rouse us, only to return us unconscious. With the Giants down 3-1 in the top of the 9th, we went back to the hotel to sleep, but it turns out that we made a mistake there. The Giants caught up that inning and tied up the game. Two hours later, the game ended in a tie in the 12th and both teams were pooped. By the way, Japan baseball ends after 12 innings, no matter what. They allow ties.

So that was our first day of baseball. We are headed for Kyoto next and we will use the bullet train to get there and to the Orix Buffaloes game in Kobe. I’ve got to pass out now, I’m dying of exhaustion.

Left 4 Dead [Review]
Dec 6th, 2008 by Dan

There was a day, back in my youth, when I abhorred first-person shooters. Sure, I played some Goldeneye here and there with my friends, but I was never a Doom, Unreal, or Halo fan.

Then something spectacular happened: a company that I’d heard of, but avoided their games because of my fps ambivalence released one of the greatest games I’d ever played: Half-Life 2. It revolutionized my understanding of FPS games and instilled in me blind trust in Valve. I loved Counterstrike: Source, Team Fortress 2, and Portal.

It was a foregone conclusion that I would then get Left 4 Dead, which I’ve come to see as one of the greatest multiplayer experiences I’ve ever played. Here’s the basic premise, if you haven’t picked it up from my other posts: you have four survivors from the zombie apocalypse whose aim in each level is to make it from the starting point to the next safe room. At the end of each movie (the name for each of the four campaigns) you have to fight off the zombie hordes while awaiting a rescue vehicle of some sort.

The real power of the game is that it requires you to play cooperatively. With each survivor that you lose, you will find the game that much harder. Letting teammates fall behind or leaving them behind yourself will always result in trouble. You also strongly rely on your teammates if you get incapacitated or knocked off a ledge. The icing on the cake is that Valve encourages even more teamwork with their achievement system. Unfortunately, Valve also seriously hates you and proves their enmity with the AI Director.

The AI Director will sometimes have pity on you and give you a lull so that you can revive your teammates or heal up, but that pity is just the AI taking pity on our organic weakness. Just wait until the inevitable evolution of the AI Director into Skynet. I’m just saying, it hates humanity that much.

Versus mode is plenty of fun, allowing survivors and special infected to all be controlled by rival human teams. It’s almost too unbalanced though, as a moderately well-organized zombie team will always be able to destroy a mediocre survivor team. I’m curious to see how balanced expert teams of both would be, since special infected die from a few hits and it’s kind of easy to overwhelm the survivors.

In any case, expect Valve to keep on updating L4D and continue bringing us a stellar multiplayer experience. I wholeheartedly recommend L4D so long as you have a good internet connection. If you’re playing without the net or you’re expecting a deep single-player experience, avoid it for now.

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!

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.

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