New Year, Same Old Video Games

It's 2015. A new year, a new start, a chance to cast off the shackles of the previous year and embrace new possibilities and opportunities. It's an invitation to try and make changes in our lives for the better, that we might make this new year better than the last one.

Never was a 10/10 less deserved

It's apparently also the perfect time to play bad video games.

I'm not sure what possessed me to kick off the New Year by playing through Tomb Raider: Chronicles. It's almost universally regarded as the worst of Lara Croft's first five outings and my own personal least-favourite (with good reason, as I've come to learn first-hand over the last week or so). Admittedly, I'd never beaten it up to now, but the same is true of every other game currently sitting on my Pile of Shame - a backlog so large I've had to split it across two separate Giant Bomb lists, lest I lose the ability to effectively alter it. Why this game over the other one hundred and sixty-seven contenders? Other than "why not?", I cannot think of a single argument that makes sense.

I've covered my history with the Tomb Raider franchise several times in old blog entries, so I'll spare you another rebranding of the finer details here. Suffice it to say I grew up playing the CORE-developed games on the original PlayStation and have a pretty strong affinity for them as a result, even with the benefit of hindsight revealing that they're not as great as I once believed. There's something to be said for the way the games awaken latent muscle memory within my fingers, nailing every precarious jump as if I never stopped playing. It's why, fifteen years on from their release, I can comfortably return to old Tomb Raider games. I can even enjoy them (my time spent with The Last Revelation in 2011 is a testament to that).

I did not enjoy Tomb Raider: Chronicles.

This looks like the Tomb Raider I've come to know and love

It's hard to know where to start explaining why. Under any other circumstances, I would cite its length as a problem. Chronicles clocked in at seven hours for me. That's according to the in-game clock, mind, which doesn't factor in any of the time I spent dying due to electrified floors or poorly-judged leaps of faith over bottomless chasms. Include those frustrating additions and my time with the game probably gets closer to between ten and twelve hours. Speaking entirely from personal experience, that's pretty damn slight for a Tomb Raider game. Ordinarily I'd call the game out for its brevity, but if anything, Chronicles is mercifully short - its abridged running time serves as a welcome release for some of its more glaring issues.

Issues like severe tonal schizophrenia. Chronicles is made up of four distinct scenarios, each consisting of a handful of levels, and the game's tone shifts so wildly between these scenarios that the whole thing ends up feeling like a disjointed mess. Of these scenarios, the first and third have some merit. The first sees Lara gallivanting around Rome in search of the Philosopher's Stone. It's easily the most Tomb Raider-ish of the scenarios, with old villains making cameos and a healthy mix of combat, exploration and puzzle-solving making up the bulk of the action. The third puts the player in the shoes of a younger Lara, and it plays rather differently - because Lara doesn't have her trademark dual pistols, there's no combat to be had in this scenario, making parts of it play more like a survival horror game than a traditional Tomb Raider title. Thankfully, it complements this novel approach with the best environmental puzzles in the game, making it more of a success than a failure.

This, on the other hand, looks almost nothing like a Tomb Raider game

That leaves scenarios two and four. The second takes place on a Russian submarine, which severely limits the potential for puzzles, reducing most of the levels to finding keys to open locked doors in order to keep moving through the sub. This is frustrating, but it's the fourth and final scenario that takes the cake. It sees Lara infiltrating a New York skyscraper to steal an artefact, using a combination of stealth and high-tech gadgetry. Thinking about it, I can kind of see why the developers might have thought this would be a good idea. Chronicles came out in 2000, when Metal Gear Solid was the game to beat and everyone was after a slice of the stealth action pie. Never mind the fact it's completely out of the series' comfort zone. Never mind that stealth mechanics are almost completely unworkable in our game engine. Never mind that it's completely out of character for Lara to break into a corporate headquarters to steal treasure because of a personal vendetta. Nope, let's get as many goons in mech armour dual-wielding laser guns as we can in here, and we'll worry about the consequences later.

The consequences, as it turns out, aren't just detrimental to the narrative. They're also fundamentally game-breaking. I don't know if it's because the Tomb Raider game engine wasn't built to handle so much bastardisation of its usual coding, but for whatever reason, Chronicles' final level is glitched to fuck. I saved my game about ten minutes from the end, and died shortly thereafter. When I reloaded the game, it put me right back to the start of the level, and to add insult to injury, rendered Lara completely invisible. Thankfully I was playing on a PS3 with a dedicated internal memory card, and I had a back-up save that I could fall back on. Back in 2000, when memory card space was severely limited and a lot of games were starting to take up multiple blocks on a card, people didn't have the luxury of keeping several saves. This bug genuinely could have fucked up a player's entire progress through the game ten minutes from its end. Hell, it probably did. How the fuck does something like that get marked as 'known shippable'?

The lazy holdovers from The Last Revelation include the title screen camera-pan

Even if I could overlook these problems, being the long-time fan of the series that I am, I'd find it difficult to get past the sheer laziness and lack of heart with which the whole package was put together. Things like the inventory screen being ripped straight out of the previous game, with nothing being done to tone down its 'Egyptian' feel, making it feel ridiculously out of place. Or the fact that the villain models in the first scenario seem to have been lifted directly from the first Tomb Raider game without being smartened up. It's even harder to believe this game was preceded by The Last Revelation, a game notable for its level of care and attention to detail. Quite how the development team at CORE could go from that to this in the space of a year is almost mystifying.

Tomb Raider: Chronicles is the unnecessary sequel to your favourite film. It is the last album by your favourite band before they cut ties with their old record label. It is the bastard child of contractual obligation and series annualization, a husk of its much-loved predecessors with no discernible heart or soul. To experience it is almost wholly joyless, because the rare flickers of greatness only serve to remind you of what might have been, amplifying the impact of the formulaic remainder in the process.

...but hey, at least it's better than Angel of Darkness, right?

Thanks for reading guys. I'll try to play something a bit better next (suggestions based on the aforementioned Pile of Shame are always welcome). A Happy New Year to y'all. I'll see you around.

Dan

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Currently playing - Pokémon Omega Ruby (3DS)

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Dan's End of 2014 Awards - Part Five

So here we are, at the dénouement of my End of 2014 Awards. Today’s fifth and final part sees me hand out my last two awards to games that defined this past year for me. If you’ve missed any of the preceding eight awards, you can find them by following these helpful, handy-dandy links to Part One, Part Two, Part Three, and Part Four.

Before I give out these last two gongs, I’d like to take a moment to honourably mention some Honourable Mentions that didn’t quite make the cut for various reasons.

Forza Motorsport 4 – There’s no denying that Forza 4 is a fantastic racing game. It’s got a ton of cars to collect and a ton of events to race through, to the point where completing the game’s ten-season World Tour mode left me with only 6% overall completion of the game’s event list. Unfortunately I put the game down at that point and haven’t been back to it since, due to its pitifully small roster of tracks. Note to Turn 10 – if you’re going to populate your game with hundreds of cars and over a thousand races, it might be worth including more than two-dozen locations to race in. Y’know, for diversity’s sake.

Assassin’s Creed: Revelations – Oh man, this game. On paper, it should be my favourite game in the whole damn series. Mechanically it’s got the most fluid and responsive exploration and combat I’ve seen in the franchise to date. It also tells a much more introspective story about Ezio (one of my favourite protagonists of the 360/PS3/Wii generation), revisiting the characters and world of the original Assassin’s Creed while also giving you a whole new city to explore in Constantinople. Yet in spite of all this, Revelations fell pretty flat for me. I think it’s a combination of really disliking the present-day portion of the game, and just being burned out on the franchise as a whole. I’ll definitely be taking a reasonably lengthy break before I come back to check out Assassin’s Creed III.

Heavy Rain – Now this is a weird one. I remember really liking the majority of Heavy Rain, in spite of its obvious flaws. By all accounts, it probably should have been honoured in these awards for its entertaining story and the way the whole experience is driven by player choice. Yet, when the time came to sit down and actually think about these awards, I found myself brushing it to one side almost immediately. What kept me from presenting it with a proper award, you ask? Honestly, it’s probably the way Jayden (far and away my favourite character throughout my playthrough) died abruptly and without any kind of fanfare or acknowledgement in the game’s closing moments. That left such a sour taste in my mouth that, although I remember the game fondly as a whole, I came away from it having enjoyed it significantly less than I might have done otherwise.

Nothing as It Seems Award for Subverting Player Expectations

Papers, Please (PC – Lucas Pope – 2013)

I went into Papers, Please knowing that it was an 8-bit border control simulator and not much else. That lack of preparatory knowledge meant I went into the game without any real expectations. Now, I know what you’re thinking – how can a game I started playing with no expectations win an award for subverting my expectations? The answer is simple – almost the entire time I was playing Papers, Please, it kept throwing expectations at me, only to knock them down a couple of in-game days later.

In my first Papers, Please ‘session’ (for lack of a better word to describe the bevy of prematurely-ended playthroughs I experienced), I became acquainted with the order of EZIC, an anti-establishment organisation trying to bring down Arstotzka from within. “Aha!” I thought, “This must be what the game wants me to do – to get involved with these rebels and bring down the corrupt, evil Arstotzkan government.” So I let their agents through the border and received a big bundle of cash in return. I fed and clothed my cold, malnourished family, and bought a bigger apartment in another sector. What I hadn’t counted on was the omniscient vigilance of the government I was helping to bring down. They clocked I was spending a lot more than I was earning, and arrested me. Game over.

The next time I played the game, I figured that it would be best not to get involved with EZIC. I dismissed their agents and ignored their kick-backs for fear of being implicated in some terrorist action in the future. About ten days into my new job, an inspector arrived enquiring about EZIC, and whether anyone had tried to pass through the checkpoint. Being the good Arstotzkan citizen that I was, I obediently handed over all the EZIC paraphernalia that their informant had given to me a few days previously. For my loyal actions, I was arrested and implicated in EZIC’s activities due to possessing those items. Game over.

It was only after a few of these sessions of the game setting up my expectations only to knock them back down that I realised what it was the game actually wanted me to do. In my next (and most recent) session with Papers, Please, I opted to simply do my job. No getting involved with organisations, no deals with corrupt guards or overbearing superiors, I just focused on reading those immigration documents. I let through those who met the criteria, and turned away those who didn’t. I sacrificed my personal stake in the events that were unfolding and became the soulless archetype of the model border control officer. And do you know what? As soon as I started doing that, I managed to see through my thirty days of service and beat the game with comparative ease.

And the craziest thing is, Papers, Please probably still hasn’t finished subverting my expectations. The game has twenty endings, of which I’ve only seen four. Should I ever return to it (and I suspect I might, at some point in the future), there’s still a wealth of content left unexplored. Content that I’m once again going to have to go against what I think the game expects of me in order to find and experience. Not bad for a game I didn’t expect anything from, eh?

Sweet Morphine Award for Most Addictive Game

Pokémon. All of them. (Various – Game Freak – Various)

Let’s be honest here. You all knew that Pokémon was going to feature on this list somewhere in some form. The only element of doubt in anybody’s mind was probably regarding which game I’d choose to honour above the others. Would I recognise Pokémon Y’s incredible longevity now that my in-game clock has passed the 800-hour mark? Would I praise Pokémon Colosseum for delivering a 3D Pokémon adventure that deviates from the series’ standards in some really interesting ways? Would I acknowledge Pokémon White 2 for finally delivering on the promise shown by its underwhelming predecessor? Ultimately it was impossible for me to choose between them. That’s why I’m jointly presenting this award to all of the Pokémon games I’ve played this year, for keeping me thoroughly captivated and invested in a world that, by all rights, I should have lost interest in a long time ago.

So how has the Pokémon franchise maintained its iron-fist grip on me throughout 2014? I have a couple of theories. First up, I became interested in competitive battling at the start of this year. Playing through the entire series in 2013 left me with a much greater appreciation of the games’ mechanics and the nuances of the battle system, to the point where I wanted to explore that side of the game in greater detail. I started to learn about EVs and IVs, about Natures and the competitive value of some moves that I’d previously considered useless. All this culminated in me starting to train and build my own competitive Pokémon team, which I put through its paces in a league devised my myself and my friends, coming second in the league tournament and winning the knockout cup. Even now this aspect of the series has a firm hold on me, and I’ve just finished training an all-Dark-type team to participate in the next season of the friendly league we set up. It kicks off on January 2nd, and I cannot wait for it to begin.

The other big thing that has kept Pokémon at the forefront of my gaming habits this year is my discovery of the Nuzlocke format. For the uninitiated, a Nuzlocke is a playthrough of a Pokemon game under a self-imposed set of rules intended to make the game more challenging. The only two core rules are that you can only try to catch the first Pokémon you meet in each area, and that if a Pokémon faints, it is dead and can no longer be used. I first tried out this combination of limiting captures and permadeath with Pokémon FireRed, an adventure that I documented in blog form right here on Giant Bomb throughout the spring of 2014. While I didn’t win the Nuzlocke, I had an absolute blast with the game, and resolved to take part in more Nuzlockes and Nuzlocke variants in the future. Thus far my experience with the format has grown to include an ‘Egglocke’ of Pokémon X (in which every caught Pokémon was swapped for an unhatched egg donated by my league-buddies) and a currently-in-progress ‘Randomizer Nuzlocke’ of the original Pokémon Red (in which Pokémon locations are randomized to create a much less predictable playthrough). The Nuzlocke format has certainly breathed new life into old adventures, and I suspect that the Red Randomizer won’t be my last.

2015 is now just a few days away, and with it comes the promise of yet more time spent in the wonderful world of Pokémon. I’m slowly working my way through my copy of the series’ latest release, Pokémon Omega Ruby, in which I’ve just earned the fifth gym badge, and the Red Randomizer is still ongoing at the time of writing. My plan is to try and turn down my Pokémon activity once those two things are complete, and redirect my focus back onto my Pile of Shame (which has recently reached an embarrassing height of 170 titles). But when I’m dealing with a series as addictive as Pokémon, I can’t make any promises.

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So that’s it for this year. Ten awards, ten games (sort of), and the conclusion of a fun look back on the year that was. I hope that 2015 is a great year for all of you, both in front of your consoles and away from them. I’ve been Dan Kempster, and these have been my End of 2014 Awards. Thanks for reading, take care, and I’ll see you around.

Dan

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Currently playing - Pokémon Omega Ruby (3DS)

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Dan's End of 2014 Awards - Part Four

It’s the fourth day of my End of 2014 Awards, a five-part blog series wherein I honour the most memorable games I’ve played this year by presenting them with awards whose names rival their very concepts in terms of ridiculousness and stupidity. Just in case you missed them, here are some helpful handy links to Part One, Part Two and Part Three. In this penultimate instalment I’ll be handing out another pair of awards to a couple of great games that I played at some point in the last twelve months. Read on to find out what they are, and what I’m praising them for.

Come Together Award for Best Multiplayer Experience

Halo: Reach (X360 – Bungie – 2010)

I’ve never been one for multiplayer in first-person shooters. Team Deathmatch and Capture the Flag don’t really scratch my competitive itch, and I’ve always been much more drawn to the single-player campaigns in games like the Halo series. So when my friend Duncan suggested we play some Halo: Reach together earlier this year, you can probably understand why I was quick to try and make my excuses in an attempt to get out of it. Those excuses quickly turned to acceptance, though, when I realised it wasn’t competitive multiplayer he was proposing, but co-operative multiplayer – a shared journey through Halo: Reach’s campaign, where we’d be working together to survive, rather than against each other in some point-scoring exercise.

It took us about half a dozen sessions of play across two weeks to see the credits roll on Reach, a campaign so blisteringly good that revisiting it has cemented it as one of my favourite first-person shooters ever. During that time I noticed my play-style shift from selfish and reckless to being much more considered and aware of my team-mate’s situation. We learned how to play to each other’s strengths and compensate for each other’s weaknesses. When we became stuck we’d talk tactics, after which we’d invariably come out on the other side of whatever skirmish had been holding us back. What makes it even more special is that we didn’t do this sitting on the same sofa, but with a distance of hundreds of miles between us, our camaraderie transcending the obstacle of distance as well as the in-game challenges before us. It was a phenomenal gaming experience - one that I can’t believe it’s taken me this long to partake in, and one that I won’t soon forget.

Since wrapping up our tenure on Reach, we’ve played through Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary (a much less fun experience due to persistent technical gremlins delaying our journey) and at the time of writing we have made it a fair way through the original Borderlands (which I’m sure would be earning this award if we’d been able to finish it before the year was out). In 2015 we plan to postpone our adventures on Pandora, sidelining Borderlands 2 in order to return to the Halo universe for co-op run-throughs of ODST, 3 and 4. That should keep us pretty busy through until the summer. I’m just stoked to have a good friend that I can play these games co-operatively with, and I hope we’ll be teaming up for a long time to come.

Bridge Burning Award for Best Next-Generation Game on a Current Generation Console

Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes (PS3 – Kojima Productions – 2014)

(I’m fully aware that my use of ‘next-generation’ and ‘current generation’ for this award isn’t in line with that of most people. To put it simply, I’ve decided to refer to the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 as ‘current generation’ consoles here because I own them, and to call the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 ‘next-generation’ hardware because I don’t own either of them yet. I hope that clears up any confusion.)

2014 saw a lot of games straddling the inter-generational gap, with versions coming out on both old and new hardware. Being one of those people yet to make the brave leap forward onto a new console, this strange state of affairs has left me in two minds about whether to pick up a lot of games this year. There’s a niggling worry at the back of my mind that by picking up the Xbox 360 or PS3 version of these games, I’m somehow buying into a vastly inferior product, and that I should be holding out to experience them on the newer hardware when I finally make the jump to an Xbox One or PS4. Consequently, I’ve held off from picking up a lot of this year’s biggest releases in favour of waiting until I can experience them as the developers intended on a next-generation machine.

The one game that I did buy and play on less powerful hardware this year was the PlayStation 3 version of Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes. I didn’t intend to initially, for the reasons outlined above, but I found the urge too great to ignore after seeing it heavily discounted on the PlayStation Store back in August and snapped up a digital copy of Hideo Kojima’s latest. And do you know what? I’m really glad I did. Sure, the textures aren’t as high-fidelity as its next-gen counterparts. The frame rate gets pretty choppy in spots, particularly during the in-engine cut-scenes. But once I took control of Big Boss and started exploring the island facility in front of me, none of that mattered. Not a bit.

What the PS3 version of Ground Zeroes does is make good on its promise of delivering a next-generation gameplay experience on current generation hardware. In fairness, a great deal of that is probably down to the enhancements inherent in Ground Zeroes’ core gameplay, which is a huge leap forward from everything the Metal Gear series has done before. The refined stealth mechanics and the introduction of an open world encourage a more emergent and organic approach to the series’ hallmark tactical espionage action. Because of this, it felt like I was playing something that was a marked step up from what I was used to, without needing any physical hardware upgrade to make it possible. Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain is due next year, and while I’m hoping to have a PlayStation 4 to play it on by then, it’s good to know that I won’t be getting a majorly stripped-down version should I opt to play it on PS3 instead.

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Eight awards have been presented, and only two remain. Which games will earn this last pair of coveted gongs? Come back tomorrow to find out. Thanks for reading folks, take care, and I’ll see you around.

Dan

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Currently playing - Pokémon Omega Ruby (3DS)

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Dan's End of 2014 Awards - Part Three

It’s Boxing Day, which means it’s time for Part Three of my End of 2014 Awards. If you missed Part One and/or Part Two, you can find them by clicking through on their respective links. Today sees us reach the halfway point of this little awards ceremony, with two more awards going out to games that managed to define the last twelve months for me. Here they are.

Second Chance Award for Being Better with the Benefit of Hindsight

Spyro 2: Gateway to Glimmer (PS1 – Insomniac Games – 1999)

The second of these awards to be won by an Insomniac-developed game, I’d long considered Spyro 2 (subtitled ‘Ripto’s Rage’ in the States) to be the weak link in the scaly purple chain of PlayStation platformers. I had fond memories of the original Spyro the Dragon because it was one of my first platforming experiences on the old PlayStation, and even more fond memories of the third Spyro game (subtitled ‘Year of the Dragon’) because it such a huge game with a great deal of variety thanks to its various mini-games and the introduction of new playable characters. Somewhere between those two lay Gateway to Glimmer, all but forgotten because I believe it lacked the impact of its predecessor and the size of its successor.

Until now.

After playing through all three PS1 Spyro games earlier this year, I’ve been forced to reassess my stance on Spyro 2, and the result is a much more positive outlook. With hindsight to improve my judgement, I’m able to recognise Gateway to Glimmer as the game that pretty much completely rewrote the Spyro rulebook. It took the core collect-a-thon platforming gameplay of the original Spyro the Dragon and applied it to a mission-based structure, turning the collecting into something measured and purposeful, a means to an end rather than the sole purpose it had been before. The decision to gate player progress by locking away certain items and areas behind new abilities and Moneybags’ insatiable gem-lust was inspired too, making the game feel larger by sealing off earlier portions of the game until you were able to return later and access new areas.

It wasn’t just gameplay improvements, either. Gateway to Glimmer boasts a charming story full of great characters and driven by a much more likeable incarnation of Spyro, who’s nowhere near as much of a cocky, jumped-up little purple shit this time around. The level design is a huge step up from the first game too, both in terms of variety and playability. While Year of the Dragon does a fine job of building on Gateway to Glimmer’s foundations with a greater number and greater variety of challenges, I honestly think that game feels a little bloated and over-long by comparison as a result. There’s something about Spyro 2’s concise cohesiveness that just feels right. That’s why from here on out, I’ll be defending Gateway to Glimmer as the best of the original Spyro games. If anybody disagrees, I’ll meet them outside in five.

White Blank Page Award for Best Literary Adaptation

Alice: Madness Returns (PC – Spicy Horse – 2011)

As triggers of inspiration go, the one that got me to finally boot up the copy of Alice: Madness Returns that’s been sitting in my Steam library for the last two years is fittingly bizarre. I went to watch an amateur dramatics production of Alice in Wonderland, adapted and directed by a good friend of mine. Witnessing his own interpretation of Lewis Carroll’s wonderfully weird narrative unfold on stage was enough to renew my curiosity in American McGee’s adaptation of the same source material. So I downloaded the game, hooked up my 360 controller to my laptop, and leapt down the rabbit hole.

What greeted me at the end of my descent was a brilliant twist on the traditional perception of Wonderland, and one that has probably satisfied more than any other that I’ve seen to date. My friend’s stage adaptation reminded me that there’s definitely something incredibly dark and sinister about Wonderland - a mark that Tim Burton’s recent interpretation didn’t quite hit for me, and something that the famous Disney cartoon didn’t even try to capture. Alice: Madness Returns lands square in the bullseye by comparison, framing Wonderland and its inhabitants as a manifestation of Alice’s own traumatised mental state. The Gothic and Victorian motifs applied to Carroll’s world and characters result in something that’s at once strikingly unique to McGee and instantly recognisable as Wonderland.

Of course, all this would be for naught if the gameplay wasn’t up to scratch. Thankfully it was, combining a traditional style of exploration and platforming with a more contemporary approach to combat and character development. The fact the game wasn’t a chore to play meant I could focus on drinking in the aesthetic experience without getting hung up on minor niggles. When the credits rolled on Madness Returns I was still hungry for more of that wondrous incarnation of Wonderland, and although a sequel looks unlikely at this stage, inwardly I hope that this won’t be American McGee’s final trip through the mind and words of Lewis Carroll.

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Three days through and six awards down, with just four left to go. The next two will be coming some time tomorrow, and the final two on Sunday. As always, thanks very much for reading, and I’ll see you around.

Dan

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Currently playing - Pokémon Omega Ruby (3DS)

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Dan's End of 2014 Awards - Part Two

Welcome back to the second part of my End of 2014 Awards. If you missed the first part of my own take on the traditional Game of the Year format, you can find it here – it outlines the motives behind these awards and also justifies the format, so if you’re a bit perplexed as to why games from the late nineties are appearing on this list, you’ll find the answers there.

Today I’ll be presenting another pair of games with awards in commemoration of the lasting memories they’ve left with me this year. What with it being Christmas Day and all, I’ve spent most of my time with family and haven’t left myself with much of a window in which to write up today’s entry. For that reason, it’s probably going to be a little bit shorter than yesterday’s. Here goes.

Ten Years Gone Award for Game I Should Have Finished a Decade Ago

Final Fantasy VIII (PS1 – Squaresoft – 1999)

I can vividly remember the day on which I received my copy of Final Fantasy VIII. It was February 28th 2001. Two months previously I’d spent some of my Christmas money on a second-hand copy of Final Fantasy VII, starting a love affair with the franchise that’s lasted almost a decade and a half at this point. My mother, seeing how much I was enjoying my first foray into the world of Squaresoft RPGs, surprised me with a copy of the series’ eighth instalment for my eleventh birthday, further fuelling my passion for all things Final Fantasy.

In retrospect, Final Fantasy VIII was probably the game that kick-started my incredible ‘Pile of Shame’. When I received it, I’d just reached the start of the second disc in Final Fantasy VII. Not long after that came the European release of Final Fantasy IX, which I snapped up with my birthday money just a few days later. In the space of just over two months, I’d gone from owning no lengthy games to owning three, and not being anywhere near finishing any of them. The Pile of Shame was thus born, and it seems to have done nothing but steadily grow ever since.

Under such circumstances, it’s understandable that one game might fall by the wayside, and Final Fantasy VIII was unfortunate enough to be that game. For whatever reason, its more realistic presentation and cumbersome Junction system didn’t grab me in the same way that VII’s Materia or IX’s throw-back mechanics did. What isn’t understandable is that it would take me almost fifteen years to see Final Fantasy VIII through to its ending cinematic. That’s right – up until this year, I’d never made it beyond the start of the game’s third disc. For someone who considers themselves a bona fide Final Fantasy fan, that’s just downright unforgivable.

Completing Final Fantasy VIII back in March of this year has definitely laid some personal demons to rest. In some ways I’m glad I waited this long, because I think I was able to appreciate it more as a result. While a lot of the interpersonal drama didn’t move me very much, I loved the main story arc (even If it did jump right off the deep end in its final act), and there’s no denying that Rinoa is a pretty fantastic character. The Junction system felt a lot more intuitive to my adult mind than it ever did to twelve-year-old Dan, meaning I was able to get a lot more out of it from a gameplay standpoint too. It’s still the black sheep of the PS1 FF family in my eyes, but it would be unfair to expect it to live up to my nostalgic love of VII, or the sheer brilliance of IX. I’m just glad I’ve finally seen the game through to its conclusion and experienced everything it has to offer. It was an experience that was definitely worth the wait.

Oh Beautiful! Award for Best HD Remaster

Ratchet & Clank (PS3 – Insomniac Games – 2002/2012)

Here’s an award I very nearly gave to God of War II yesterday. There’s no denying that the God of War HD collection looks great, thanks to its detailed character models, slick animation and epic sense of scale, all up-res’d and prettified to take advantage of the PlayStation 3’s extra horsepower. Having said that, it’s still somewhat held back by virtue of being a game with a realistic art style originally developed for the PlayStation 2. The limitations of the original hardware are still visible underneath the improved textures and stable frame rate, meaning that while the God of War HD collection looks great, it's still recognisable as a PS2 game.

Compare this with the cartoonish Ratchet & Clank series, and it’s easy to see which games have better stood the test of time from an artistic standpoint. Ratchet & Clank looked great when it first debuted on the PlayStation 2 back in 2002 thanks to its vibrant colour palette and distinctive art style. Because it works within the constraints of the console rather than striving to push the boundaries with a limited attempt at realism, I think Insomniac Games’ PS2 debut has visually aged much better than SCE Santa Monica’s masterpiece. The remastered HD version from 2012’s Ratchet & Clank Trilogy for the PS3 takes that already timeless source material and applies just the right amount of make-up. The textures are sharper, the frame rate is silky smooth, and the colours seem to pop even more than they did in the original game. It’s ultimately this which led to Ratchet snatching the award out from under Kratos’ angry Spartan nose.

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That’s going to do it for today’s awards. Be sure to come back tomorrow when I’ll be dishing out another pair of gongs to games that defined my 2014 in the third part of this series. I hope you’ve all had a wonderful Christmas Day. Take care, and I’ll see you around.

Dan

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Currently playing - Pokémon Omega Ruby (3DS)

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Dan's End of 2014 Awards - Part One

I don’t normally go in for Game of the Year awards. While I’ve always enjoyed the coverage from Giant Bomb at this time of year, I tend not to get involved in the discussions myself. There are two main reasons for this. First, I tend not to play many games at their time of release. Thanks to the combination of a pretty small gaming budget and a ridiculously large backlog, I usually gravitate towards older games when selecting something to play. As a result, most of the things being discussed by the staff in their end-of-year deliberations end up soaring over my head, because I haven’t played the games they’re talking about. Second, I’m not a fan of the numbered list format that all the major games news outlets tend to roll with. While I might be able to single out three or four games that were definitely head-and-shoulders above the rest I played in any given year, it’s a damn sight more difficult to apply some form of arbitrary ranking to ten of them.

That’s not to say I don’t partake in the Game of the Year festivities at all. I just tend to do my own thing rather than conform to the structures and rules laid out by the powers that be. Typically my End of Year Awards incorporate everything I’ve played in a given year, prescribing a unique award to each game in acknowledgement of what I thought it did well (or perhaps not so well, in some cases). It’s a fun way of looking back over the year as a whole, and saves me from having to go to the trouble of singling out ten specific titles and putting them into some kind of hierarchical order. It worked nicely in 2010, 2011 and 2012 (2013 not so much, but I’ve learned my lesson and am writing all of this in a word processor before I copy it into the Giant Bomb text editor).

This year I’ll be doing something a little bit different, a sort of combination of the two formats. The framing of my awards will remain the same, with games being rewarded for their strengths, but this year I’ll be attempting to limit the awards I’m giving to just ten. I’m not going to lie, the main reason I’ve decided to concede and impose this restriction on myself is because I really haven’t played a lot of games this year (just twenty-seven at the time of writing, compared with last year’s thirty-five). Also, a lot of those have been multiple games from the same franchise (and one franchise in particular), and giving every single game within a franchise its own unique award would probably be pretty dull to follow.

So that’s ten awards for ten games. How will I be distributing them? I’m thinking two awards per day for five days, running from today (Christmas Eve) to Sunday (December 28th). Now that I’m off work until Monday and don’t have much to do besides this whole Christmas thing, this seems like as good a time as any.

Before I get started, I just want to clarify two things – things that should probably be self-evident from the preamble above, but it’s probably best I lay it out in black and white here. First off, a lot of the games I’m giving these awards to won’t be games that came out in 2014. As I said above, I don’t play very many games the year they come out. In fact, I’m pretty sure my grand total of new releases beaten in 2014 stands at just one, and I don't have high hopes of bumping that up to two before the year ends. Consequently, anything I’ve played to completion in the last twelve months will be eligible, whether it was released this year or not. Second, these awards are not ranked, numerically or otherwise. As I’ve said above, I find it difficult and largely pointless trying to boil these lists down to a ranked order – is there really that much difference between what I'd choose to put in the eighth and ninth slots? Instead, I’ll be handing out the awards based on the order in which I completed the games through the year, with the first beaten at the start and the most recently beaten at the end. With those little disclaimers out of the way, let’s hand out some awards, shall we?

An End Has a Start Award for Best Ending

The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening DX (3DS – Nintendo – 1999)

By way of its Virtual Console, my 3DS has opened up a window into a piece of the Zelda series’ history that I’d missed out on up until this year. While I’m still yet to dig into either of the Oracle games, I spent a big chunk of my January getting acquainted with Link’s Awakening DX. In a lot of ways I actually preferred Link’s 2D top-down adventure to its more recent home console brethren – the rudimentary graphical design and mechanical limitations of the old Game Boy were easily offset by the incredible world and dungeon design, not to mention the game’s rather brave decision to turn its back on the kingdom of Hyrule for the fantastically weird Koholint Island. While the game played like a conventional Zelda title, its vibrant setting, its crazy cast of characters, and the scant lore surrounding the mysterious island and the Wind Fish that lives there helped it to carve out its own identity and make it one of the most memorable of Link’s adventures in the entire series.

That’s probably the main reason why the finale ended up hitting as hard as it did for me – the game’s setting and characters are so distinctly unique and memorable that it hits you like a gut-punch when they’re erased from existence in the closing scenes. It’s not what you’d call a surprising reveal, either – as Link gathers the instruments he needs to wake the Wind Fish, it’s made pretty clear to him that doing so will cause Koholint Island and everyone living on it to disappear forever. As the player you’re put in a very conflicting position, because the game requires you to explore this wonderful island and meet all these interesting characters, all the while reminding you that should you succeed, it will all cease to exist. Even as the game’s closing cut-scene unfolded I found myself willing it not to be true, but knowing deep down in my heart that it was. Link’s Awakening is a rare example of the tired ‘…and it was all a dream’ trope done exceptionally well, and I applaud it heartily for that. I’ll never forget you, Marin

You Better You Bet Award for Most Improved Sequel

God of War II (PS3 – SCE Santa Monica – 2007)

I struggled long and hard over this award. For quite a while I was on the verge of giving it to Assassin’s Creed: Revelations, but ultimately decided not to because I’m much more in love with that game on paper than I am in practice. My eyes then fell back upon God of War II, a game I knew to be a vast improvement on its predecessor due to the fact I played them back-to-back at the start of this year.

The original God of War is a fantastic action/adventure game with a couple of noticeable shortcomings. For a start, it clocks in pretty short for a game of its kind. Also, while it features its fair share of puzzles and a little bit of platforming, it doesn’t really do enough to break up the combat that makes up its core, which led to it feeling a little repetitive at times, even in spite of its brevity. God of War II addressed those issues, as well as a couple more that I wasn’t even aware of, and then tied it all up into a package that somehow managed to look and play even better than the game that came before it. It clocks in at almost double the length of the original (my playthrough of GoW took me eight hours; my playthrough of GoWII took me fifteen), and throws a ton of new mechanics into play to spice things up and break up the combat. Flying sequences with winged horses? Check. Icarus wings that let you glide across long distances? You bet. Time-rewinding mechanics straight out of Prince of Persia to mix up the puzzles? Gotcha covered. All these little iterations are supported by presentation values that are even more epic than the first game, resulting in a game that feels like a warranted sequel and not just a new adventure rendered with the same old assets.

God of War II isn’t an improvement in every respect though, and the most telling area where it fell short for me was in its story. In the first game Kratos’ anger is both well-justified and more sparingly used, resulting in a character whose motives and actions feel at least somewhat believable. In God of War II though, it feels like someone cranked Kratos’ anger gauge up to eleven before snapping off the dial for good measure. This permanent rage makes Kratos a lot less likeable as a character, and somewhat detracts from all the leaps forward made by the gameplay. It’s a shame, and I’m kind of wary about jumping into God of War III as a result.

…but still, at least it doesn’t have any fucking ridiculous tower defence mechanics, right?

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And with that, the first day of this five-part awards extravaganza comes to an end. Be sure to check back tomorrow, when I’ll be revealing the third and fourth games to earn recognition as part of my End of 2014 Awards. Thanks for reading guys. A very Merry Christmas to all of you. Take care, and I’ll see you around.

Dan

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Currently playing - Pokémon Omega Ruby (3DS)

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Hey Guys...

So I've been a little quiet on Giant Bomb recently (and by 'recently', I mean the last three months). There are a multitude of reasons for my inactivity, and I'll do my best to explain what they are in due course. Before I do, I want to stress this is not an "I'm back!"-style blog. I framed my last blog entry as one of those back in August, and look where that got us. Nope, this is just me touching base with you guys, to let you know I'm still here and still playing those video game thing-a-ma-bobbins from time to time.

The biggest reason for my lack of presence on Giant Bomb through the autumn has been real-world developments. Work continues to be a drain on both my energy and what should be my free time. Between mid-July and mid-October I clocked up almost 150 hours of overtime. That's 150 hours of un-contracted work, time that would otherwise have been mine to spend however I wished, covering for staff who were either sick or on annual leave. I wouldn't mind so much if that figure wasn't so much hideously higher than those of everyone else I work with, but that is a different story that should probably be told on a different platform. I've also been enrolled in a pretty intense course which should make me a qualified dispenser by the end of March 2015, but I get no study time during work hours, which means I need to use a hefty chunk of my already drastically depleted free time to study and complete coursework.

Alongside all these responsibilities, I decided back in September that my bedroom could do with sprucing up. I was pretty non-committal to begin with, taking delight in stripping off the old wallpaper without much regard for the mammoth task I was setting up for myself. As a newcomer to DIY and decorating, it's certainly been an eye-opener, as each apparently complete job has revealed another unexpected obstacle to overcome. As I write this blog near the end of November, I've managed to finish the ceiling and walls and will hopefully soon be laying new flooring to replace the tired old carpet. It's been pretty disruptive, particularly to my sleeping patterns (I'm currently having to sleep on a mattress on my bedroom floor, having long since dismantled all my bedroom furniture to make enough space to do the decorating). Hopefully it will all be worth it when it's finished.

It's played a minor part, but I also think that the whole 'GamerGate' debacle has influenced me to keep my distance from games media in general over the last couple of months. A lot of shitty things spiralled out of that movement, and I guess I felt reluctant to weigh in on anything video game related while that shit-storm was still raging for fear of getting caught up in it all. Now it seems to have largely blown over, I feel a little more comfortable coming back to Giant Bomb and taking up my blogger's mantle again.

I'm still playing games, although right now I'm in a bit of a weird place when it comes to what I'm playing. The 'one game at a time' philosophy that has served me well for so long has been cast aside in recent months, in favour of the slap-dash, haphazard approach of playing several games at once. It's not been a conscious choice, more just a lack of discipline that's managed to creep into my gaming habits. To be honest, I'm happy for things to stay that way for a little while - if it keeps my tendency to deviate from schedule away from the more important things like the aforementioned coursework and decorating, then I'm happy to finish a few less games in the back end of 2014 than I might have done otherwise.

Lately I've been playing bits and pieces of all sorts of games:

  • I started playing The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword back at the start of October. I made it just past the first dungeon, and was really enjoying it, but then the decorating situation demanded that I disconnect my Wii and I haven't got around to setting it back up yet. As a result, Link is now hanging in suspended animation until I finish my decorating and get everything re-connected. I'll probably start a new game when I do, so I can experience the whole of Link's latest journey uninterrupted.
  • I'm playing the HD remaster of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas on Xbox 360, in celebration of its tenth anniversary. The original plan was to dig out my PS2 and play it the same way as I originally did ten years ago, but the lure of a better framerate, crisper textures and Achievements managed to sway me in the end. I haven't put much time into it and I'm still in Los Santos, but it's been great to revisit one of the video games that played an integral role in shaping my tastes.
  • Also on the 360, I'm replaying the original Borderlands. Up until this month, I'd only ever played the Borderlands games solo, but this playthrough is a co-op effort between me and my good friend Duncan. We decided to take a break from our co-op run-through of the Halo series to get our shoot-and-loot on, and so far it's been an absolute blast. We're both lv19 and should be moving out of the Arid Badlands soon.
  • I've been dabbling with a bunch of sports games over the last couple of months. I picked up FIFA 15 on the PS3 at the start of October, and that plays pretty much exactly how you'd expect it to. I've also found myself getting caught up in Don Bradman Cricket 14 on the 360, which offers pretty much everything I've wanted from a cricket game with the exception of licensed teams and players (I really wish EA would stop sitting on those licences and either make a game or let somebody else snap them up). After the real-world team I used to play for folded this year, its compelling Career mode has been the closest I've come to replicating that feeling of playing an actual game of cricket.
  • Pokémon continues to maintain a vice-like grip on my gaming habits. In the run-up to the release of Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire (which don't launch here in the UK until Friday), I've kept myself occupied with a couple of Nuzlocke challenges. The first was an Egglocke of Pokémon X, for which several of my friends donated eggs to the cause. Despite a lot of losses along the way, we managed to beat the Elite Four and Champion, making it my first victorious Nuzlocke. Currently I'm running a Randomizer Nuzlocke through the original Pokémon Red. It's another variant on the conventional Nuzlocke format which randomizes all Pokémon encounters, turning every battle into an unknown quantity and throwing up some really interesting scenarios. I'm documenting it by way of a YouTube series, which I've embedded below:

So that's what's up with me. I'm not sure if I'll have much of a blogging schedule for the remainder of 2014, but I'll try and get something sorted out before the end of December. At the very least, I'd like to throw together some kind of End of Year Awards blog to celebrate some of the fun games I played this year. Until then, thanks for reading, and I'll see you around.

Dan

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Blog Revival: A Bunch Of Stuff From July Edition (WARNING: May Include Video Games)

It's been around six weeks since I last posted a blog here on Giant Bomb. There are a handful of reasons for that. I think some of them happen to be pretty good, but don't just take my word for it. I'm going to outline them in this blog post, so you can be the judge.

July was a very busy month...

...with most of my time divided between working and attending 'the Tringe'. For the uninitiated, allow me to explain - the Tringe Festival is an annual comedy festival held in my hometown of Tring. Now five years strong, it basically consists of a bunch of comedians (some very well-known, some fairly obscure) coming here to perform previews of their shows before taking them up to the Edinburgh Fringe in August. It runs for the first three weeks of July, and is probably the single best opportunity to experience great comedy in this country without high-tailing it down to London or up to Edinburgh. We're incredibly lucky to have it on our doorstep, and I hope it continues for many years to come.

In previous years I've attended a handful of gigs at the Tringe, predominantly those featuring acts I'm already an established fan of including Richard Herring and Peacock & Gamble. This year, I decided to do something a little different - I bought a Tringe passport, essentially a season ticket granting me access to every show of the festival. I then proceeded to use that passport to attend as many shows as possible. The result of this was that I had no free time whatsoever - a typical day in July meant getting up around 7am, getting into work for 8:30, staying there 'til 6:30pm, then walking the forty-minute journey to our local theatre and watching two hour-long comedy shows back-to-back, before finally walking the forty-minute journey back home, fixing myself some supper, and going to bed to try and get some sleep before having to do it all again the next day.

The Tringe was a fucking draining experience, but also an incredibly rewarding one. I saw a lot of great comedians I probably would never have even heard of if I hadn't gone, and some of them have become firm favourites - including the hilarious sketch troupe Late Night Gimp Fight, to name but one. I was also fortunate enough to see some huge names in incredibly intimate venues, including Shappi Khorsandi, Milton Jones, Mark Watson, Josh Widdicombe - names that probably won't mean anything to American readers of this blog, but should elicit some response from any Brit who's ever watched a BBC panel show. Only one act disappointed, namely Jim Davidson, who stuck out like a sore thumb on the festival's billing and delivered a tired hour of borderline racist, sexist, homophobic "comedy" that only managed to draw a single laugh out of me. The fact he then proceeded to attack one of my friends on Twitter after the show (after actively seeking out criticism he wasn't even tagged in) simply cemented my low opinion of him.

I say I attended 'as many shows as possible', because other commitments meant I did miss a handful of nights. My band Sudden Gunfire opened a local carnival on the second Saturday of the month, a reasonably successful gig from my perspective as a performer, even considering I very nearly fucked it up by forgetting the outro to Metallica's 'Enter Sandman'. Thankfully very few people were there to witness it, because the start time on the printed tickets for the event was a whole hour after we took to the stage (yeah, I'm still a little bitter about that). Perhaps the most frustrating missed show was on the final night of the festival, when I missed Jon RIchardson, one of my all-time favourite comedians, because I was nearly two-hundred miles away in the Peak District (more on that in a bit). I did catch his show back in April, but that was in a thousand-seater theatre, and it would have been amazing to see him in a much smaller, more intimate space. Even in spite of missing some shows, I wound up being one of the festival's top forty attendees, and was rewarded for my dedication with a poster signed by all the performing comedians (pictured right). It's an awesome memento of the month, and I plan to get it framed and up on my wall in the near future.

No sooner had my commitment to the Tringe finished than I found myself being whisked away to another part of the country, for a week's holiday with some friends in the Peak District. Again, for the uninitiated, the Peak District is a national park here in England that sits snugly between the Midlands and the North. It's full of great big hills (hence the name), cliffs, reservoirs, underground caverns and quaint rural villages and towns. It's a beautiful, inspiring part of the country, and I wish I'd been there for more than just a week so I could have taken in a little more of everything. I'll probably end up writing something a little more detailed on my other blog (again, more about that in a while), but for now here's a handful of photos from the trip, all taken by my friend Dean, that say more about the place than I ever could in words:

So that covers pretty much everything that I've been up to in the last six weeks. Except, of course, for the thing that's most relevant to this here website - the video games I've been playing. Yep, that's right - even between work, the comedy and the holiday, I've managed to find a little bit of down-time to play some video games. Which video games, you ask? Let me tell you...

Alice: Madness Returns

I leapt into Alice: Madness Returns after watching an amateur dramatics performance of Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland back in June. While the play didn't quite live up to all of its promises, it did leave me eager to spend more time in the weird and wonderful realm of Wonderland, and I chose to do so through the medium of video games. I played the PC version, and even on this humbly-specced laptop, the game ran smoothly and looked great. The lack of free time meant it took me around three weeks to make my way through its fifteen-hour campaign, but although it was a fragmented journey through American McGee's interpretation of Wonderland, it was still an enjoyable one. The gameplay left me satisfied throughout, combining floaty pure platforming sequences with simple puzzle-solving and Zelda-esque combat so successfully that I didn't tire of it at all during my time with the game.

Pokémon Trading Card Game

I spotted this had been put on sale on the 3DS eShop the day before I went away on holiday, and rapidly downloaded it with a view to spending some of my holiday down-time playing through it. I ended up doing just that, beating most of the game's 'club masters' (its equivalent of gym leaders) during the week, then polishing off the 'grand masters' (read: Elite Four) upon my return. It's a surprisingly solid conversion of the actual card game, and despite being fifteen years old it holds up really well. Structurally it's similar to a regular Pokémon game (collect 'em all, beat the eight leaders, get their badges, and take on the Elite Four to prove you're the very best like no one ever was), and It's got a pretty good learning curve that doesn't spoon-feed you every nuance and rule, but doesn't throw you in kicking and screaming at the deep end, either. Card battles are pacy, exciting affairs that fuel a 'just-one-more' mentality in the player that isn't easy to ignore. Sure, it may not look great, but the visuals are functional and do their job well. More than anything, it's got me really secretly hoping that the folks at Nintendo might be testing the waters for a new handheld incarnation of the Pokémon TCG. Throw together a new game like this one with an up-to-date card roster and online play, and I'd be all over that shit.

So only two games beaten in July. A pretty meagre total, but not too bad when you consider the vast amount of other stuff happening at the time. Thankfully August is looking like a much calmer month, with less overtime, less out-of-work commitments, and no three-week, energy-draining, insanity-depleting comedy festival to attend. Under those circumstances, two games in a month looks like a pretty easy number to beat.

I'll be back to writing much more frequently about my gaming time from here on out, mainly because I'm writing more in general. In a bid to re-kickstart my creativity and actually finish my first damn novel, I've committed myself to a programme of daily writing and weekly blogging. That doesn't necessarily mean I'll be blogging weekly here on Giant Bomb, as I've also started maintaining a personal, non-video-game-related blog over on my website, but it does mean that I shouldn't be going through any more six-week stretches without updating you all on what I've been playing. You can expect to hear more from me later in the month, when I'll hopefully have some interesting things to say about Pokémon Colosseum, Fable III and Halo: Reach. Until then, I'd like to thank you very much for reading (especially if you persevered through the first half of this blog, considering it doesn't really have any business being on this website). Take care, and I'll see you around.

Dan

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Currently playing - Pokémon Colosseum (GCN)

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The Pokémon Center

Good day, ladies and gentlemen, and welcome to The Pokémon Center, a 'hub blog' of sorts that I'm putting together to centralise my Pokémon FireRed Nuzlocke Challenge blog series. Much like the Compilation of Enduring Final Fantasy VII and Looking Back on My Month in Skyrim did for my previous serial blogs, it collates all the episodes of the series in one place, making it easier to both find and navigate for prospective readers. Its fairly neutral title means I can also use the blog to centralise any future Pokémon-themed blog series I decide to embark upon - a situation that's looking increasingly likely as I begin to itch for another Nuzlocke challenge...

Pokémon FireRed Nuzlocke Challenge

27th February 2014 - 2nd June 2014
The FireRed Nuzlocke Challenge tells the story of Dan and Judi Drench as they journey across Kanto in search of gym badges

In February of 2014 I picked up a copy of Pokémon FireRed Version and began a new playthrough. However, this wasn't a conventional story run of a Pokémon game, as I'd done with more or less the entire series the previous year. Truth be told I'd grown a little tired of the formula and wanted to experience it in a different way. The result was the Pokémon FireRed Nuzlocke Challenge - a much harder run-through governed by self-imposed rules incorporating concepts like perma-death and limitations on catchable Pokémon into the series' established mechanics. The hope was that it would turn my newest Pokémon journey into something other than a simple badge-hunt, and put a new spin on how I view a series that, for better or worse, has become a big part of who I am as a player of video games.

I chose to chronicle the playthrough in a series of blog posts, published at a rate of around one a week, which would hopefully give readers a bit of an insight into how I would choose to play the game, as well as any effect the different format might have on me. The results were... Well, I won't say too much here for the sake of avoiding spoilers. The entire series is linked below as an indexed list of numbered chapters, or 'parts', for easy reading and navigation. Just click on a chapter's title and you'll automagically be taken to it by the mysterious power of the internet.

Part Zero - Laying Down The Laws

Part Zero is perhaps the most important chapter in the whole series, and essential reading for anybody who isn't already familiar with the concept of a Nuzlocke challenge. It's devoid of any actual gameplay, but explains at length the rule-set by which the series is governed, from the basic foundations of every Nuzlocke, to the specific caveats I've chosen to apply to this particular playthrough. If you've never encountered the word 'Nuzlocke' before (or even if you have), this is without a doubt the best place to start the series.

Part One - It's A Team-Building Exercise

The first true instalment in the series picks up right from the start of the game, following the rookie trainer Dan through his first steps in the Kanto region. Along the way Dan meets Judi Drench the Squirtle, his first Pokémon of many, and begins to assemble a team of confrontational critters on his way to and through Viridian City.

Part Two - Rockin' With Brock

The next leg of Dan and Judi's journey takes them through the poisonous perils of Viridian Forest and on to Pewter City, where they take on resident gym leader Brock in pursuit of their first gym badge.

Part Three - The Clownbat Under The Mountain

With the Boulderbadge safely in their possession, Team Judi Drench moves onwards into Mount Moon, where they encounter the nefarious Team Rocket for the first time. Emerging on the other side of the mountain, the crew heads for Cerulean City to take stock of their situation and prepare for the challenges ahead.

Part Four - Two Badges, Three Fallen Comrades

After visiting Bill and getting some more training done, the team prepares to battle Cerulean City's gym leader Misty for their second badge. Misty has some tricks up her sleeve though, and not all of Dan and Judi's newfound friends will survive this dangerous encounter.

Part Five - Grounded Lightning

Now two badges to the good, Team Judi Drench says goodbye to its departed comrades and presses on south to Vermilion City, where the S.S. Anne is docked, and Lt. Surge's Electric-type gym is just waiting to be challenged for the coveted Thunderbadge.

Part Six - Tunnels Of Death

Equipped with three badges, the Flash HM and a team full of strong-looking Pokémon, Dan moves on to the next challenge - Rock Tunnel. Unknown terrors await in its gloomy caverns, and not all six of our current roster of heroes will survive to see the light on the other side.

Part Seven - The End Of The Road...?

After a month-long hiatus to recover from the stresses of Rock Tunnel, Dan and Judi return to take care of business in Lavender Town before moving on west to Celadon City. A new gym awaits there, and with it a new badge, but Team Rocket are once again meddling in local affairs, and the Nuzlocke threatens to end prematurely in the absence of a Pokémon capable of using Cut.

Part Eight - The Search For A Cutter

Team Judi Drench needs to find a Pokémon able to use Cut - their journey through Kanto depends on it. Dan sets off along Kanto's eastern coast, hoping to find a new Cutter. However, with such heavy limitations imposed on potential captures, and only a handful of locations left to search, will the team be able to find the Cutter they need before their luck runs out?

Part Nine - Back To The Badges

With a new Cutter finally in their possession, our band of Poké-brothers can finally take care of the trees that have blocked their path, and the challenges that lie beyond them. Koga and Erika lie in waiting in the Fuchsia City and Celadon City gyms respectively, and our rejuvenated team is itching to test its new-found luck in two more gym badge challenges.

Part Ten - Keep Calm And Don't Carry On

With five badges on Dan's belt, the team roll into Saffron City eager to get things done. After tussling with Team Rocket once again at Silph Co. and putting the Fighting Dojo trainers back in their places, Team Judi Drench enters the Saffron City gym looking for their sixth badge. However, Sabrina is a powerful adversary, and her Alakazam is not to be underestimated.

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Future Projects

Even though the Pokémon FireRed Nuzlocke Challenge came to an end only recently, I feel pretty confident saying this probably won't be my last Nuzlocke. If I do decide to embark upon another new journey through one of the old Pokémon games, it will most likely be in this interesting format, and I'll most likely want to share the adventure with readers in another series of blogs. If I do end up doing this, then the Pokémon Center will serve as a hub for the next adventure as well.

But until then, we're done here. All that remains for me to say is thanks for taking the time to read this series, whether in whole or in part. I hope you've enjoyed what you've read, and that you'll stick around for whatever the future decides to bring. Until then, thanks very much for reading, and I'll see you around.

Dan

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Currently playing - Alice: Madness Returns (PC)

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Pokémon FireRed Nuzlocke Challenge - Part Ten

<< Part Nine - Back To The BadgesBack to the Pokémon Center

Hey guys. After a week off, I'm back and ready to deliver more of the adventures of Team Judi Drench in my Pokémon FireRed Nuzlocke Challenge blog series. As always, if you're not familiar with what a Nuzlocke is or how it relates to this series of blogs, I suggest you stop reading this blog and substitute it with Part Zero. It covers everything you need to know in order to make sense of what's going on in these blogs. If you missed our last entry, or any of the previous instalments, they can all be accessed using the handy-dandy navigation links at the top and bottom of this post. To the rest of you, let's return to where we last left off, in Celadon City, having just obtained our fifth gym badge...

Part Ten - Keep Calm And Don't Carry On

Team Judi Drench is on one hell of a good run. Having picked up a new, much-needed Cutter in Barney the male Nidoran (now a Nidoking), the team ran re-invigorated into two back-to-back gym battles. Emerging victorious against both the Poison-type master Koga and the Grass-type leader Erika, our team of combative critters has been steeling itself for the next big challenge - the Saffron City gym, and its resident Psychic-type leader, Sabrina.

Despite us knocking Team Rocket's collective nose out of joint back in Celadon City and at the Pokémon Tower in Lavender Town, it appears they're still very much in control of Saffron. Chatting to the residents makes the reason for this apparent - the Rockets have infiltrated the Silph Co. building, and are holding the company's president hostage. Because the Saffron City gym is one of the places Team Rocket currently has on lockdown, it looks like we can't make any more progress with our gym badge challenge until we've rescued Silph Co. and forced the evil team out of the city for good.

Now that is one tall building

Silph Co. is essentially the Team Rocket Hideout Mk II - a large building full of fiendish floor traps and guarded by Rocket Grunts just itching for a fight, where progress is impeded by locked doors, and which culminates in a showdown with the Team Rocket head honcho, Giovanni. There are two key differences that set Silph Co. apart, though. First, it's a hell of a lot bigger - eleven floors as opposed to the Rocket Hideout's four. Second, the puzzles involve warp tiles, so rather than being able to follow the arrows on the ground to see where you'll end up, you just have to step on a diamond-shaped tile, cross your fingers and hope for the best. There are also electronic doors sealed by a Card Key, which is hidden somewhere in the building for the player to find.

I've never been a huge fan of 'dungeon' design in Pokémon games, and Silph Co. is a perfect example of why

So how is one supposed to navigate this seemingly impenetrable maze of warp zones? Well to start with, all of the floor tiles are 'paired' with another tile somewhere else in the building - step on one of a pair and it will take you to the other, and vice versa. This means that while it's still essentially a process of trial and error, there's at least an element of consistency to it. It all devolves into something resembling an old-school computer RPG scenario, where you have to keep a notepad full of handwritten reminders nearby to help keep you on course and save you from getting trapped in a repetitious loop...

...or you could just rely on ingrained childhood memories to guide you through the puzzles in the shortest possible time. Pretty sure I reached this point within ninety seconds of entering the building

'Solving' Silph Co. has become one of those gaming scenarios I could probably pull off blindfolded at this point. I spent so many hours of my childhood lost in this building in Pokémon Blue, and subsequently poring over the game's official guide book for the solution, that the fastest route through this maze-like building is probably physically ingrained into my brain. Tempting as it is just to grab the Card Key and make for the president's office, I decide to explore the building more thoroughly than I usually do. There are a ton of items to be recovered behind the complex's locked doors, and several members of Team Rocket to battle - the treasure and experience is sure to come in handy for what lies ahead. The extra battle time is enough to push Clownbat into evolution territory:

Oh boy, I've never had a Crobat before! All that speed and power, contained in one small Pokémon, is sure to make my team even stronger! I wonder if--

Oh shit, yeah. Because FireRed is deeply concerned with being a faithful recreation of the original Pokémon games, it actually prohibits Pokémon like Golbat and Chansey from evolving through Happiness until after you beat the Elite Four and get the National Pokédex. So it looks like Clownbat will be stuck in her original form for some time to come. And every time she levels up between now and then, we'll be rewarded with this pointless little sequence. Yay.

With the Card Key in our possession pretty much from the get-go, gutting Silph Co. of its treasure and defeating the Rocket Grunts incompetently guarding the place doesn't take long at all. When I'm certain I've picked up everything that isn't bolted down and beaten everyone who wants to fight, I head back down to the third floor and begin to follow the sequence of warp tiles to reach the president's office. En route, we bump into our rival Duncan, who's once again itching to have his ass whooped and handed back to him. I'm sure Team Judi Drench will be only too happy to oblige.

Duncan's team is started to get both pretty strong and nicely rounded out type-wise. I start off struggling a little against his Pidgeot, due to a lack of Electric- and Rock-type moves on my team, but Judi Drench manages to withstand its Wing Attack and drag it down to earth with Surf. Next up is Venusaur, which suffers a swift demise at the claws of our own Pidgeot, Bird Jesus. Duncan follows it with a Gyarados, which could well be a threat were it not for the incredible bulk of our Snorlax, PDT. A few Strengths are enough to get rid of it. Fourth in is a Growlithe, which stands no chance against Aunt Sue, our Flareon - it swallows up an Ember thanks to its Flash Fire ability, before one-hitting the helpless pup with Dig. Duncan's final Pokémon is an Alakazam, but although it's powerful it can't break through Snorlax's robust special defences, and it only takes one Strength to put an end to its Psychic onslaught. Dan 5, Duncan 0.

Nearby is a Silph Co. employee who thanks us for our attempts to save his workplace by way of gifting us a Lapras:

Thanks to Duncan (my actual friend who the rival's named after) for providing the name for Nessie the Lapras here

I accept the Lapras, which gets sent to Bill via PC, but its arrival within our ranks raises a potential dilemma. See, Lapras is one of two 'event' Pokémon I plan to encounter in this episode (the other being the choice between Hitmonlee and Hitmonchan in the Fighting Dojo). However, according to the rules of the Nuzlocke, we're only allowed to take a single encounter from each location. Which raises the question - do Silph Co. and the Fighting Dojo both come under the Saffron City umbrella? Or is Silph Co., due to its theoretical 'dungeon' status, a separate location in its own right? To settle the quandary, I pop open my bag and pull out an Escape Rope:

The fact that this works in Silph Co. means I'm personally content to consider it an area in its own right, much like the Pokémon Mansion on Cinnabar Island would be its own area. On the down side, this means I now have to re-ascend the Silph Co. tower. Damn it.

Having navigated our way out of this moral maze, we climb back up through Silph Co., this time making it all the way to the president's office on the eleventh floor. The president has some company in the form of - you guessed it - Team Rocket boss Giovanni. It seems he's been trying to strong-arm Silph Co. into giving up the technology for the Master Ball, a special type of Poké Ball that can catch any Pokémon without fail. Giovanni isn't too happy to see us, and engages us in another battle:

Giovanni is stronger than the last time we faced him, but he doesn't really have any new tricks up his sleeve. His biggest threat is an extremely defensive Kangaskhan, which causes all sorts of problems that even PDT's Brick Break has difficulty getting through. His other Pokémon are easy to deal with by comparison, quickly succumbing to either Aunt Sue's Dig and Judi Drench's Surf. Outraged at having lost to a kid once again, Giovanni makes his exit from Silph Co.. The president is grateful for our efforts, and rewards us with a very special item indeed:

Master Balls are habitually saved for legendary Pokémon, but in the context of a Nuzlocke, it's nice to know we have a means of guaranteed capture if we run into something we REALLY want.

With the Master Ball safely in our bag and the Silph Co. president's words of thanks still ringing in our ears, I pull out another Escape Rope and whizz out of the office quicker than you can say 'Aerodactyl'. After healing up at the Pokémon Center, our next stop is the city's Fighting Dojo, for a little more training and another free Pokémon to add to the roster.

Apparently the Fighting Dojo used to be a Fighting-type gym, but it lost its league status after Sabrina's Psychic-types trounced them in a face-off. Not exactly a fair contest, eh?

The trainers inside are all packing powerful Fighting-type Pokémon on their teams, a scenario that would probably be pretty terrifying were it not for our party's prominent Flying-type presence. Clownbat and Bird Jesus tear through everything the resident Black Belts throw at us, and the Dojo's leader doesn't fare any better. To reward us for our comprehensive victory, he presents us with a choice of two powerful Fighting-type Pokémon - the speedy Hitmonlee, or the slightly more defensive Hitmonchan. After a bit of deliberation, this is the guy I opt for:

He's named Eubank after Chris Eubank, the British boxer. Not because he's theriouth and from Thaffron Thity. That's just a beautiful cointhidenth.

I went for Hitmonchan over Hitmonlee for two reasons - his slightly more defensive stat distribution would serve us better in a Nuzlocke, and so would the type coverage he gets due to his access to the elemental punches. As with Nessie the Lapras, he's boxed up and sent to Bill's PC right away. He's sure to be a useful potential addition to our team, if anything should happen to any of our established attackers.

With Silph Co. saved and the members of the Fighting Dojo licking their wounds, there's only one loose end left to tie up before we can move on from Saffron City - the small matter of a new gym badge. Saffron is home to the Psychic-type trainer Sabrina, who rewards victorious trainers with the Marshbadge. Sabrina also happens to be my biggest curse when it comes to the Pokémon games, as historically she's managed to shut down my progress through both the original Red and Blue and their third-generation remakes time and again with her powerful Psychic attacks.

Before entering the gym, I heal up my team at the Pokémon Center and try to develop some kind of strategy for the upcoming battle with Sabrina. After a bit of deliberation, I settle on leading with PDT - Psychic is a special attack type in this generation, and most Psychic-types are renowned for being physically frail, so I'm hoping that the Snorlax's combination of high HP, Attack and Special Defence will put us at a statistical advantage, if not a type advantage. Second in command will be Judi Drench, who also boasts impressive defensive stats and a type advantage in the move Bite, and third will be Aunt Sue the Flareon for similar reasons. Bird Jesus will bring up the rear as a last resort, while Clownbat and Barney will be kept well clear of the front line due to their disadvantageous Poison-typing. With that rough plan in place, we enter the gym.

The fact she says this and doesn't give us the badge right away probably doesn't bode well

Like the Silph Co. building, Sabrina's gym is also full of warp tiles, although these ones are nowhere near as frustrating. It takes about ten minutes of trial and error interspersed with trainer battles to actually reach the gym leader - unlike Silph Co., I never took the time to memorise the warp tile sequence for the Saffron City gym. Sabrina greets us calmly, and initiates battle.

She opens with her Kadabra, which uses its first turn of the battle to set up a Calm Mind, boosting its Special Attack and Special Defence. Thankfully that transpires to be its only turn, as the mighty PDT renders it pointless with a one-hit KO from Strength. It's followed by an unusually bulky Mr. Mime, causing PDT some problems. I switch out to Judi Drench and manage to subdue it with a couple of super-effective Bites. Next up is a Venomoth, an interesting addition to this Psychic-type team being a Poison/Bug type. Its presence is immediately justified, however, by a Psybeam attack that manages to confuse Judi. Thinking on my feet, I swap in Bird Jesus and hit it with a crippling Wing Attack, ending its threatening promise in a single blow. Sabrina is three Pokémon down, with one team member left to go.

And this is where it happens.

Sabrina's final Pokémon is a level 43 Alakazam, a Pokémon arguably second only to Mewtwo as first-generation Psychic attackers go. Knowing Bird Jesus won't stand much of a chance against it, I swap out to my planned mainstay for this battle, PDT the Snorlax.

Alakazam uses Calm Mind.

In a move that may well dictate the flow of the battle to come, I use the turn to restore PDT's PP on Strength, ready to hit the Alakazam hard next turn.

Alakazam uses a second Calm Mind.

This is the turn. I lock in Strength as my move, confident that PDT will eat up anything the Alakazam can throw at him and retaliate with a victorious one-hit KO.

Alakazam uses Psychic.

As impressive as PDT's HP and Special Defence stats were, they simply weren't high enough to eat up a Psychic from an Alakazam with two boosts to its Special Attack. PDT's vast HP reserves whittle away to nothing in the blink of an eye, and the rock I was relying on to carry us through this battle is no more. Suddenly I've been plunged into a terrifying scenario - if our most specially defensive Pokémon couldn't stand up to Alakazam, what chance do the rest of our team have?

Second in command, Judi Drench, is next to be sent out.

Alakazam uses a third Calm Mind.

Undeterred, Judi throws a powerful Bite Alakazam's way, but even with the boost from the Blackglasses he's holding, it barely makes a dent in Alakazam's armour - the three Special Defence boosts from all those Calm Minds have seen to that. I line up another Bite ready to go, hoping we'll be able to chip away slowly at its HP, but before the move is even executed,

Alakazam uses Psychic.

Shit. Two Pokémon down - my two most specially defensive Pokémon, at that - and this Alakazam is throwing Psychics at me with three boosts to its Special Attack. This is a nightmare scenario. Sticking to the plan, I throw Aunt Sue into the ring. She also has Bite in her moveset, but I instead opt for the physical attack Dig, knowing it's better than the super-effective option under these circumstances. Unfortunately, Aunt Sue doesn't even get a chance to start digging, because

Alakazam uses Psychic.

We're now three Pokémon down, and whereas before I was merely plagued by the idea of the situation we're in, I'm now hit like a gut punch by the grim reality of it. This Alakazam has boosted itself to the point where it can one-hit KO anything I send out against it, resist any super-effective move I can throw at it, and outspeed any Pokémon that tries to hit it first.

Next out, like a lamb to the slaughter, is Bird Jesus. With hindsight, I realise I could have at least guaranteed some damage on this turn with the priority of Quick Attack. Upon even greater reflection, I could have done the same thing with Aunt Sue. Perhaps then, the Alakazam might have been weakened enough to fall to Bird Jesus's priority move, sparing it the same fate as its preceding three team mates. But whereas hindsight is 20:20, in the moment I might as well have been wearing the Blackglasses Judi Drench was holding. I select Steel Wing, but before Bird Jesus can use it,

Alakazam uses Psychic.

Well, fuck. At this point, we're down to two Pokémon - Clownbat and Barney - both of which have weaknesses to the Psychic type and neither of which boasts a single move that could hit Alakazam before it hits them. I choose Barney next over Clownbat, for one reason only - he's holding a Quick Claw, which means there's a chance he could strike first. Having covered a lot of ground levelling up in Silph Co., there is a chance his Cut could be prioritised and strike Alakazam. I queue up the move...

Alakazam uses Psychic.

The Quick Claw doesn't pop, and Barney becomes another sitting duck in the Alakazam's relentless sweeping of my entire team. I have only Clownbat left, and at this point I know the battle (and the Nuzlocke) are all but over. However, there is still a chance - a chance the Alakazam might be foolish enough to alter its move choice, to try and stack up a fourth Calm Mind boost, or foresee an attack with Future Sight, to give us a much-needed opening to hit with a physical move. There is still a chance. Knowing my best bet is the never-miss Aerial Ace, I select the move. The split-second delay between hitting the A button and watching the action start to unfold seems to last an eternity, but in my heart I already know the words that will grace the screen before they appear, before I've even locked in my move.

Alakazam uses Psychic.

What? No... I don't... I can't... how did...?
This can't be happening... We were so close... So god damned close...
Judi... Jesus... Clownbat... Sue... PDT... Barney... Please forgive me...

Defeated, I slump to the floor. The bodies of my beloved Pokémon litter the gym's battle arena. They will not see the Graveyard, at least not by my hand. Tears are in my eyes, but I fight them back, wipe them away with clenched fists, and look up. Behind the Alakazam that has dismantled us, Sabrina is smiling. She clicks her fingers, and in obedient response, her Pokémon raises the spoons in its hands. I close my eyes, tighten my balled fists even harder, and wait for the impact.

Alakazam uses Psychic...

Progress Report:

Location: Saffron City Gym --- Deaths: 16
The Graveyard

So here ends the Pokémon FireRed Nuzlocke Challenge. It lasted longer than I expected, but not quite as long as I would have liked. I have to admit that I'm disappointed I didn't at least make it to the Elite Four, but I'm not surprised that Sabrina brought it to this premature end - she's always been the Kanto gym leader I've struggled against the most, and once her Alakazam got its third Calm Mind up and tore through PDT's defences I knew there was pretty much no chance of getting out of that battle alive. Still, it's been a fun project on several levels - it's been fun to write blogs in a slightly different way to my usual style, and playing through FireRed with this set of self-imposed, difficulty-enhancing rules has made for an enjoyable, challenging experience that's managed to set itself apart from all the Pokémon playthroughs I completed last year.

"So, in the absence of regular Nuzlocke updates, what's next for dankempster's blog?" I hear absolutely no one cry. Worry not, those of you thinking it but too ashamed to ask out loud - I shall answer anyway. I've got a couple of back-dated entries all planned out that I intend to write and post over the next couple of weeks, after which I shall probably just return to my (ir)regular schedule of blogging about whatever I've recently been playing, whenever I feel inspired to do so. I've played a lot of fun stuff recently, and have some great games on the go right now as well, so there's no shortage of inspiration. To be honest, it'll be nice to blog about something other than Pokémon again.

As for Nuzlocke Challenges, I definitely don't think this will be my last. As a matter of fact, I've already started my second Nuzlocke - a playthrough of Pokémon X, under a variant of the conventional Nuzlocke rules dubbed a 'Wonderlocke' (it plays more or less identically, except you have to Wonder Trade away every Pokémon you catch and use what you receive in return). I won't be documenting that in quite as much detail, but I plan to write a blog summarising the experience at the end of the playthrough. After that I plan to take a break from the format for a while, but I am keen to attempt another Nuzlocke Challenge blog series, most likely involving Pokémon HeartGold, towards the end of the year.

I'd like to close this blog by thanking everybody who's taken the time to read and leave feedback on this series. As I said, it's been a lot of fun putting it together, but the most rewarding part of the whole process has been seeing your reactions as you followed along with the adventures of Team Judi Drench. So to all of you who've read this series, whether in part or in its entirety, thank you. Take care guys, and I'll see you around.

Dan

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Currently playing - Pokémon FireRed Version (GBA)

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