Metroid and Me, Part 4: Lone Star

Welcome to part four of “Metroid and Me!” This marks the midpoint of this seven part blog series where I explore why the Metroid franchise has been so resonant and influential for me. If you’re joining for the first time, I recommend beginning with part one and reading these in order. That will get you acquainted with what this series is about, and also get you caught up on the material I’ve covered thus far; links to the previous parts can be found below. Now that you’re up to speed, let’s plow ahead! I’ve spent the previous two parts talking about why I enjoy exploring Metroid’s worlds, but those conversations were more on the aesthetic side of what makes that exploration so meaningful to me. Today I’m going to continue talking about why I love these worlds, but it’s time to shift over to the more mechanical groundwork that props up all that adventure and atmosphere: excellent world design.

Metroid and Me, Part 1: In the BeginningMetroid and Me, Part 2: Into the Green World
Metroid and Me, Part 3: Frozen UtopiaMetroid and Me, Part 4: Lone Star
Metroid and Me, Part 5: In Your PrimeMetroid and Me, Part 6: Torvus Chips
Metroid and Me, Part 7: SolitudeMetroid and Me, Bonus: Series Ranking
Remix Title: Lone StarOriginal Song: Title (Metroid Prime, 2002, GameCube)
Remixer(s): Pyro Paper PlanesOriginal Composer(s): Kenji Yamamoto and Kyoichi Kyuma

Lone Star

You’ve worked your way deep below the surface. You’ve fought many dangerous creatures, and discovered many powerful new abilities, but you have yet to find your ultimate goal. You head down a new corridor and find what appears to be a dead end for now. You turn another corner, and find a gap you can cross with your newfound grapple beam. Once across you head through a door, and find yourself back in an area you traversed hours earlier. You’ve circled through a path you previously couldn’t reach, and in doing so created a new connection. Better yet, seeing this room again, with more abilities at your disposal, highlights many new possibilities. You set out once more, eager to discover where these new paths may take you.

Super Metroid's world design remains among gaming's best.
Super Metroid's world design remains among gaming's best.

This is but a brief glimpse into the intricate webs spun by the worlds of Metroid. Each one is a carefully constructed network of hallways and corridors, locks and keys, shortcuts and dead ends, all built in service of methodically exploring unknown territory. I’ve already spent a lot of time talking about why I love exploring Metroid’s worlds, with the focus so far being on adventure and atmosphere. If you haven’t picked up on the trend yet, those are two necessary but insufficient reasons for my professed love of these worlds. Simply put, if the actual brick and mortar world built underneath all of that other stuff wasn’t well-designed and fun to explore, the whole thing would come crumbling down. Yet that world design just may be the single best aspect of a good Metroid game, and is also the primary reason Metroid stands atop this style of exploration-focused game. There’s a delicate balance in every corner, with well-considered paths put in place to encourage exploration and curiosity without wasting the player’s time. At their best, these worlds lead to a non-stop chain of poking, prodding, and discovering at a timely, satisfying clip.

The primary way Metroid handles this progression is through a very simple, yet very effective series of locks and keys, commonly called “ability gating.” Whether you need missiles to open a red door, a grappling hook to cross a gap, or the spider ball to crawl across a cavern’s roof, there are many obstacles that can only be passed with certain abilities. This works in the Metroid formula because it allows the game to very clearly and directly communicate to the player where they currently can and cannot go. See a red door? If you have missiles, you’re ready to go here. Otherwise, come back later. Early on this is deftly used to direct the player towards those initial, important items, all without wasting too much time as they’re getting their feet wet. These gates are rarely too far from the main path at this stage, so it quickly becomes apparent when you’re going the wrong way. This also serves to set up the game’s language; Metroid communicates with the player through environmental cues. Ability gates, along with fundamentally good level construction that frequently provide subtle direction, are the most prominent example of this. By setting them up early the game establishes a clear line of communication with the player, all without uttering so much as a word. It may seem overly simple at first, but I’d argue that the best video games communicate with the player in simple, effective ways that don’t interrupt the player’s flow.

Ability gates form a clear, effective means of communication.
Ability gates form a clear, effective means of communication.

As a Metroid game goes on, it continues to expand on the ways it implements these ability gates. Slowly but surely the paths to new gates become longer and more winding, appear farther off the beaten path, or start looping back in on themselves entirely. The different types of gates become more numerous too, and can even begin combining, and keeping track of it all becomes more involved. While the game starts out as a fairly linear path that quickly leads you to some important new abilities, by the end it is a sprawling, interconnected network that has no single, obvious route to your goal. This may sound a bit overwhelming, but Metroid has a well-measured pace to it that expands the world around you in a perfectly manageable way. Just as important, in addition to opening up new areas, each new ability also opens up useful shortcuts back to previous ones. These shortcuts are vital, as they make traversing the map snappier as the game goes on. As I previously mentioned, Metroid is the rare game that does backtracking well; not only does backtracking through each area become easier over time, it also feeds the game’s sense of exploration immeasurably. I previously labored the point that you have to become intimately familiar with every corner of Metroid’s worlds. Structurally, this happens as you acquire new abilities, and wind back and forth between new and old areas. The gaps surrounding the initial trails you blazed are slowly but surely filled in over time, and the result is a fully realized, holistic space. Backtracking is rarely looked at positively in video games, but when it’s used well, it can make exploring a world a much more intimate and complete experience. You get to see every area multiple times from different angles, and you are stronger each time you return. You truly learn and conquer these worlds, and I find that process highly satisfying.

This gets to the heart of what makes Metroid’s world design speak so strongly to me. The large, interconnected nature of these worlds, and the methodical pace you go about opening up every corner of them, embodies a balance of game design that sits in a personal sweet spot. These worlds are neither “linear” nor “open;” they tread a more carefully considered middle ground that avoids the gripes I have with each extreme. If Metroid simply presented you with a linear series of set pieces, puzzles, and encounters, it would be virtually impossible to become invested in these worlds at large. There would be no room for your own self-guided exploration, and if you’ve learned anything by now, you know that exploration is very important to me. Yet Metroid doesn’t open itself up in the way of true “open world” games either. There’s still a highly structured design to its worlds, which lends meaning to its exploration. When you can truly go anywhere and do anything without restriction, none of it is going to feel that important on its own. Metroid’s exploration is thoughtful and purposeful by comparison, without the wasted space or frivolous playgrounds of many open world games. I’ll have more to say on why I want that sense of purpose in future parts, but for now know that it is just as important to me as having room to explore (a desire I’ve already covered in detail).

Neither too linear, nor too open.
Neither too linear, nor too open.

In other words, Metroid’s worlds allow for more freedom than a linear world would, but they also have more focus than an open one. Your fairly freeform exploration is still guided by more specific challenges and goals, which flow seamlessly from one to the next. In a way, these worlds are big environmental puzzles more than anything else, and ones I love solving. I’ve talked a lot about “ability gates,” but such gates are merely the rules and language for Metroid’s large, exploratory puzzles. They govern how far you can push both forward and back, and allow the game to communicate such limits clearly. It’s a process of analyzing where you’ve been, what you have, and where you can go, which is right up my alley. I’m primarily a logical thinker who likes diving into the thick of things, absorbing details and learning the ins and outs of robust, complex systems. It’s why I chose to study subjects like mathematics, computer science, and analytics in school, and Metroid’s world design holds a similar appeal; it’s all about applying logical rules to complex systems. And yet, while Metroid’s worlds certainly qualify as such systems, they never feel purely mechanical either. Not only can new abilities often be fun and exciting in surprising ways, but there are also plenty of aesthetic pleasures to Metroid’s worlds, which I’ve discussed at length in previous parts. These worlds are not composed solely of raw design and machinery; they feel alive and organic in a way that makes them worth exploring, which is extremely important. Today I’ve discussed the strong mechanical underpinnings needed to sustain it all, which has hopefully brought us full circle in our dissection of what makes these worlds tick. And more importantly to this series, why they connect with me as much as they do.

The worlds of Metroid are large and complex in their layout, but simple and consistent in their rules and language. This design creates a strong foundation, which is built upon with a strong sense of adventure and wonderful atmosphere to create fascinatingly fleshed out worlds that are equally compelling on multiple fronts. There’s room out there for all kinds of video game worlds, and I’ve certainly enjoyed a number of games whose worlds span that spectrum. But Metroid, by combining a variety of traits that speak very strongly to me and my personality, has created my favorite worlds in video games. I firmly believe that the quality of Metroid’s worlds, from the aesthetic to the mechanical, is the single biggest reason for my love of the series, and that’s why I’ve spent these last three parts covering them in their various aspects. I’m sure I’ll have more to say about Metroid’s worlds moving forward, but generally speaking, it’s time to move on to Metroid’s other virtues. Believe it or not, there are indeed other things about Metroid that I love past its worlds, and they too contribute greatly to this series’ personal appeal. So starting next week, I begin discussing Metroid’s broader gameplay design.

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Metroid and Me, Part 3: Frozen Utopia

Welcome back for part three of “Metroid and Me!” This is my seven part blog series where I take a long, hard look at why the Metroid franchise has connected with me so strongly over the years. If you haven’t read the first two installments, I highly recommend doing so before tackling part three; you can find links to them below. Not only do they explain everything this series is about, but there’s a lot of overlap between each part, and I’m writing them in such a way that’s better digested in order. The transition between parts two and three is perhaps the perfect example of this. Last week I talked about Metroid’s sense of adventure being a substantial driving force of the experience, but that adventure only works if the space you’re exploring is adequately enticing. Thankfully, the worlds of Metroid are very much worth the trek, and one of the primary reasons for that is the topic of today’s entry: their thick atmosphere.

Metroid and Me, Part 1: In the BeginningMetroid and Me, Part 2: Into the Green World
Metroid and Me, Part 3: Frozen UtopiaMetroid and Me, Part 4: Lone Star
Metroid and Me, Part 5: In Your PrimeMetroid and Me, Part 6: Torvus Chips
Metroid and Me, Part 7: SolitudeMetroid and Me: Bonus: Series Ranking
Remix Title: Frozen UtopiaOriginal Song: Ice Valley (Metroid Prime, 2002, GameCube)
Remixer(s): MesmoniumOriginal Composer(s): Kenji Yamamoto and Kyoichi Kyuma

Frozen Utopia

You’ve just traversed a lengthy series of fiery underground caverns. Your suit managed to keep the oppressive heat at bay, but avoiding deadly lava and fending off the ferocious creatures that make such caverns their home has been trying. These caverns were merely a thoroughfare to your true destination, however, to which you’ve now arrived. You punch the elevator button to ride to higher ground, and to cooler temperatures. When you arrive, those temperatures may be cooler than expected; you are immediately blinded by bright white snow, and chilled by freezing winds. It’s equal parts beautiful and dangerous, and it’s the next step in your scenic yet perilous adventure.

Phendrana Drifts manages to be cold in every way possible.
Phendrana Drifts manages to be cold in every way possible.

Environments like these are common within the Metroid universe, and their atmospheres set the tone for the entire adventure. Take the arctic area described above, which is Metroid Prime’s chilly, mountainous Phendrana Drifts. When you enter this area for the first time, it’s immediately apparent how cold it is. Everything is either covered in perfect white snow, or enshrined in rock solid ice. You can both see and hear sharp, swirling winds, and the snow crunches under your feet with each step you take. The ice beetles and baby sheegoth that inhabit the area are practically made of ice; anything less is not likely to survive such harsh conditions. And when you disturb them, they’ll use that ice against you. You discover ancient Chozo ruins covered in ice, remnants of the once mighty race buried by the raw power of the elements. The music that plays also sounds cold. It contains high-pitched, staccato notes that are suggestive of clanging ice, and it moves with a cadence that seems slowed by the conditions, despite its clear determination. All of these audiovisual cues meld together to help Phendrana Drifts punch through the safe barrier of your television screen to make you feel how cold and dangerous it is. It’s a powerful example of the effect a strong atmosphere can have on an game, and how it can add a lot of flavor and context to areas that would otherwise have none. And that’s only a single area, in a single Metroid game.

By packing in so much detail, history, and life into each of its environments, Metroid makes traversing them much more than a collection of video game rules, physics, and other machinery. The thick atmosphere generated by these majestic settings leverages the audiovisual potential within the medium to trigger your senses and guide your emotions, all without interrupting your expedition. It’s always there as you traverse the series’ many different areas, coloring every step of your journey. Brinstar’s expansive caverns, lively wildlife, and bombastic melodies fill me with determination, and encourage me to explore with gusto. Maridia’s underwater grave and creepy tones create a foreboding mood I can’t shake. Lower Norfair’s fiery construction and militant beats have me sweating and ready for war. Witnessing the Space Pirates’ experiments in the Phazon Mines gives me a glimpse of the horrors that exist beneath the surface. Torvus Bog’s sticky and poisonous swamps, aggressive creatures, and dirty music have me carefully and nervously checking every step I take. I could go on and on with such examples; the environments of Metroid run the gamut, and each one creates its own unique atmosphere. Better yet, these seemingly disparate areas connect and flow together wonderfully to paint a much larger picture. The atmospheres of each environment combine to form a holistic setting that’s never jarring, and equally thematic as it transitions between its many exciting locales.

Metroid's art is detailed , lively, and informative.
Metroid's art is detailed , lively, and informative.

Such thick atmosphere begins, first and foremost, with stunning art direction. Metroid’s technology has always been proficient, but it’s how it uses that tech to power its wonderful art that makes it pop. Lush natural environments, dirty space stations, and grotesque monsters paint a universe that is very much alive and full of interesting things to see. But more than simply being lovely to look at (which it very much is), Metroid has always conveyed a lot of information through its artwork, which works for both the physical objects it depicts, as well as the tone it sets. There’s an unfathomable amount of visual detail applied to every inch of these vast worlds, and that detail can be used for any number of purposes. It can help elaborate on the nature of said environment, such as what plants or creatures live there, and how life is sustained. It can contain all sorts of historical tidbits, revealing lore or recent events through dead bodies, ancient ruins, or accessible data terminals. It can provide useful landmarks that help you find your way as you explore. Or it can simply add to the mood; rain can make a planet seem more dour, an abandoned space station reeks of mystery and dread, and a deadly swamp can appear prickly and combative. This list goes on and on, but at some point it’s difficult to fully convey with words how atmospheric the art of Metroid can be. Experiencing these environments in motion, where you can look around and soak in the details yourself, can be stunning at times.

Just as important to Metroid’s atmosphere is its music. It’s no secret that I’m a huge proponent of great video game music, and the tunes of Metroid showcase precisely why I believe it can be so powerful. As I alluded to in some of my earlier examples, each area is accompanied by a highly thematic song that sets the tone for said area. The contemplative, explorative chords of Tallon IV’s overworld do a great job at piquing my curiosity, and leave me eager to set out on an adventure. Lower Norfair’s deathmarch makes an already intense, dangerous, and lava-filled area feel even more suffocating. The dirty beats of Torvus Bog feel organic in a strangely unnerving way, much like the swamp itself. Again, I could go on and on with examples, or even direct you to more music samples. But Metroid’s music works best in the context of its areas, and remains one of the prime examples of music’s ability to enhance our gaming experiences; it’s hard to convey just how much life they add to each and every environment with words alone. Furthermore, the variety in the music is every bit as dynamic as the variety of the areas themselves. When you transition from hot underground caverns to icy mountains, the music smoothly transitions with you. It goes a long way towards ensuring that these worlds feel cohesive and real, and it all comes together to make these atmospheres seamless and consistently effective. Metroid establishes mood through music about as well as any game out there.

I want to feel every part of Metroid's environments.
I want to feel every part of Metroid's environments.

Put more bluntly, Metroid looks and sounds incredible, as it creates atmospheres that get me invested in the worlds I’m exploring. Being invested in said worlds is extremely important to me; as I mentioned before, Metroid’s strong sense of adventure would be for naught if these places weren’t sufficiently exciting. It’s the side of the Metroid formula that appeals to my less mechanical side too. While I tend to be a more mechanics-focused person in general, particularly when it comes to games, it’s the ones where strong mechanics are bolstered by an equally enticing presentation that leave the biggest mark. And for me and my personality, Metroid’s presentation connects very strongly. I’m someone who takes in vast amounts of information through my senses; I see, hear, and smell the world around me to a high degree. I notice and feel the physical space I’m in greatly, and value my presence within it. I put a lot of stock in the details that define such spaces, and interacting with them is primarily how I interact with the world at large. Everyone does this differently; some may take more philosophical or social or emotional approaches to interacting with the world, and as such different atmospheres affect us all differently. But I’ve always been driven externally by my senses. I like the physicality of the natural world, the information it quietly conveys, and the raw power of the elements. There’s simultaneously a directness and a richness there that grabs me, and that’s precisely what Metroid’s atmospheres capture. They wrap the series’ well-oiled mechanics within layers of wonderful sights and sounds, which enhances my experience immeasurably.

Metroid conveys plenty of narrative without direct exposition.
Metroid conveys plenty of narrative without direct exposition.

Finally, Metroid’s strong atmosphere also wins me over in how it conveys its narrative. Last week I mentioned how Metroid communicates its happenings subtly through environmental clues, as well as the player's own actions. This storytelling philosophy is firmly ingrained within the games’ atmospheres themselves; in a way, atmosphere is Metroid’s primary storytelling device. The only way you know what happens is through what you, the player, see, hear, and do. I already suggested how that type of storytelling can be more resonant for me, and it works precisely because Metroid’s atmospheres are so capable at conveying information. When I’m playing a game, I primarily want to be playing; that comes from the more action-oriented side of my personality, the closet thrill-seeker I previously mentioned. I understand that there is a time and place for direct exposition, and I will indulge it when needed. But I have a lot more appreciation and respect (and ultimately enjoyment) for a game that can convey information without ripping the player out of their natural form of play. Imagine if, as you were exploring Metroid’s lush settings, you had to stop and listen to a villain monologue. It would instantly ruin all of the immersive atmosphere the game worked so hard to create. Not every Metroid game is perfect here, but the best ones know that their environments are so strong that they can perform the storytelling all by themselves. They tell you everything you need to know through sights and sounds alone, and confidently guide your actions and your exploration without the slightest interruption. That’s the power of strong atmosphere, and Metroid’s have sucked me in time and again.

There’s a great, somewhat famous moment that can happen while playing Metroid Prime. At any point when you’re underwater, if you fire a charged beam shot you will briefly see Samus Aran’s reflection on the inside of your visor. It’s a seemingly minor visual detail, but it also serves as a poignant example of the lengths Metroid goes to to pull you into its worlds. You’re a person in a suit, behind a visor, who is in dangerous territory armed with powerful weaponry. It’s all there, conveyed through nothing more than audiovisual information, in a way that makes you feel it in your very core. Metroid brings its worlds to incredible life through its atmosphere, which goes a long way towards making exploring these worlds a nonstop thrill for me. But while atmosphere is a necessary piece that makes these worlds so fun to explore, it’s not the only one. Next week I’ll continue to talk about what makes these worlds so great, but shift from the aesthetic to the mechanical: their excellent world design.

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Metroid and Me, Part 2: Into the Green World

Welcome to part two of “Metroid and Me,” my lengthy, introspective blog series exploring why the Metroid franchise is such a resonant one for me. If you haven’t read it, I highly suggest starting with part one (link below). Not only does it explain what this blog series is, it also covers my personal history with Metroid, which I think provides useful context for what’s to come. Because now it’s time to really dive into the “red meat” of this series, and start looking at precisely what it is about Metroid that has connected with me so strongly. Each part will have its own overarching topic, but also bear in mind that there is some overlap between them; it’s the delicate synergy between its many characteristics that makes Metroid so special after all. So while each part focuses on one topic, my goal is that by the end they will all combine to form a larger, holistic view of what the series means to me. To kick things off, we’re going to look at one of the broader and more obvious appeals of Metroid: its sense of adventure.

Metroid and Me, Part 1: In the BeginningMetroid and Me, Part 2: Into the Green World
Metroid and Me, Part 3: Frozen UtopiaMetroid and Me, Part 4: Lone Star
Metroid and Me, Part 5: In Your PrimeMetroid and Me, Part 6: Torvus Chips
Metroid and Me, Part 7: SolitudeMetroid and Me, Bonus: Series Ranking
Remix Title: Into the Green WorldOriginal Song: Brinstar - Plant Overgrowth Area (Super Metroid, 1994, SNES)
Remixer(s): Sam DillardOriginal Composer(s): Kenji Yamamoto and Minako Hamano

Into the Green World

You’ve just landed on an unfamiliar alien planet. You have no idea what dangerous creatures or hostile environments lie before you. You have no clue where to begin your search, no way to know which direction your mission lies. In fact, you’re not 100% sure what your mission even is, but you know without a doubt that evil is lurking beneath the surface, and that you will need all your wits and courage if you’re going to stop it. You gather yourself, open the door leading away from the safety of your ship, and descend into the great unknown.

In Metroid's very first room, you're already exploring.
In Metroid's very first room, you're already exploring.

This simple yet daunting gambit is the one presented to you at the start of a Metroid game, and sets the tone for a thrilling adventure. “Adventure” is the key word here, and I believe that a strong sense of adventure has been one of the series’ biggest strengths from the very start; the original Metroid, released in Japan 30 years ago, was built upon such a foundation. Without so much as a hint, it started you off on a bizarre alien world, and left it up to you to dive in head first and find your own way. Players immediately found out just how little the game was willing to direct them. In a subtle yet iconic move, the very opening room of Metroid allowed you to move either left or right. The design of the room very quietly suggested moving to the right, which was also the convention of the vast majority of video games at the time (and generally still is). I’d guess that most of us moved right, but it didn’t take long to realize you weren’t going to get very far that way. That meant players were already backtracking, back to the left of the starting position, where they found an important upgrade that let them progress farther to the right. In this simple, bold, and instructive introductory moment, players had already experienced a microcosm of Metroid. You set out and explore in whatever direction you choose, poke and prod until you can’t go any farther, then regroup and try a different path. As the game goes on those paths grow longer, more numerous, and interconnect in clever ways (this complexity is a big part of the franchise’s longevity and appeal). But the underlying exploration it demands is there from, literally, the start.

It takes an adventurous spirit, a certain kind of “go with the flow” attitude to get over this initial hump. And even then you have to be willing to keep throwing yourself into the wilderness as it continues to, slowly but surely, become ever more convoluted. There’s that moment in almost every Metroid game where I’ve been making good progress, gaining new abilities and opening up the world substantially, only to find myself somewhat stumped. I pull up the map and think “There’s nowhere left to go.” But there always is, and to find it I have to dive back in and fully wrap myself in this untamed world. Somewhere there is a newly accessible nook that went overlooked, or a path that can be accessed in an unexpected way. Even after playing a Metroid game multiple times it can still catch me. I frequently overlook the Wrecked Ship in Super Metroid, or just how many places you can use the Grapple Beam in Metroid Prime. Part of this is purely attention to detail; in theory, if you notice and remember every little thing on the map you’ll never get lost. More realistically, it’s the willingness to explore and re-explore as necessary. Most people, myself included, can’t memorize these large worlds in their entirety. At least not without spending dozens, if not hundreds, of hours in them. Instead, you must keep diving back in to resurvey the land and map a new route. As time goes on you become more and more intimately familiar with the world around you, but the sense of discovery is always present. There’s always something new to uncover, even in seemingly well-worn territory.

Tourist? Or traveler?
Tourist? Or traveler?

The desire to keep your explorer’s hat on for hours is the driving force behind any Metroid experience. That kind of mindset is not for everyone, as it demands a certain level of curiosity and self-motivation on the part of the player that’s rarely needed (or even encouraged) in a lot of games. The simple idea of backtracking itself is often seen as wasting time, and regularly shunned in favor of more clear, tangible progress. That’s a perfectly valid preference, and there are also plenty of games that implement backtracking poorly, or don’t have worlds worth retreading. In those cases it can be frustrating, but I also believe there’s merit to becoming so invested in a well-crafted video game world that you genuinely want to discover all the little nooks and crannies. Think about the difference between a tourist and a traveler. The tourist is there to see the highlight attractions in the most direct, efficient method possible. They follow the guidebook, go down the checklist, and see the “big stuff” without straying too far off the main path. The traveler is there to become a part of this new place, and experience all that comes with it. They want to see a place how a native would see it, to understand what makes it tick, or what it’s like to live there. They want to be a part of a new environment, rather than simply pass through it. Metroid, as much as any game, frustrates the tourist and rewards the traveler. It presents highly detailed and complex worlds, and demands the player pay attention and embrace every part of it as they search for their goal. There’s no surface level sightseeing here; you’re going to need to become just as familiar with those back alleys and local conventions as you are the famous landmarks if you want to complete your mission.

Deep down, I’ve always been more of a “traveler,” which for our purposes might as well mean “adventurer.” When I visit a different location, be it a new park, city, or foreign country, I generally don’t care that much about the “big” sights. Sure, I saw the Colosseum when I went to Rome, but I was far more interested to venture down the side streets, to walk where the locals walked and eat what they ate. I wanted to feel, in some small way, like I was a part of the city, rather than just passing through. One of my personal favorite trips was a weekend trip that I took by myself to Split, Croatia. To my knowledge Split is not known as a traditional tourist hotspot with world famous attractions, but I had a great time meandering about the city, exploring its various corners, alleys, and parks. I’m always excited to see what’s around the next corner, and I enjoy the process of mapping out and learning a new area. Along the same lines, I love to hike because I enjoy the sense of self-guided exploration, of being subjugated to the rules of a foreign space and learning to adapt on the fly. There’s something pure and thrilling about stripping yourself from the comforts of daily life, and focusing on unfamiliar challenges directly in front of you. That thrill is a defining part of the adventure, and I’ve always been a closet thrill-seeker in that respect.

Metroid has essentially “gamified” this type of adventuring, which fits my tastes perfectly. You’re encouraged, and often required, to go off and explore every corner of a foreign world. Doing so leads to more items and power-ups, which will enable you to access new areas and grow stronger. It takes fairly traditional video game mechanics, and embeds them within expansive worlds worth exploring, which is precisely what makes it all work so well. The idea of “exploration” in video games is a noble one, but it falls flat on its face if the virtual space in question isn’t exciting. That’s one of the areas where Metroid truly shines; few video games worlds are so lovingly handcrafted, detailed, and lively (as we’ll see in future parts). Simply being in these worlds feels adventurous.

Metroid's adventure results from your own discoveries.
Metroid's adventure results from your own discoveries.

I’ve focused a lot on the idea of “exploration” here, and while I consider that a substantial part of what I mean by “adventuring,” it’s certainly not the only part. The adventure of Metroid also lends itself to plenty of action and surprises, if in its own, subtle way. There are rarely blockbuster set pieces or grand plot twists here, but the happenings in a Metroid adventure are extremely resonant nonetheless. Metroid Prime’s tagline states that before evil can be destroyed, it must be found. While exploring Tallon IV, you end up fighting Space Pirates and reading about their experiments. As you inevitably fight their creations yourself, you’re slowly exposed to this “evil,” which builds up to a poignant encounter with their freshly engineered Metroid variants. That’s about as dramatic as Metroid gets, and while it may sound dull on paper, the way such moments play out feel important. Seeing and understanding the game’s events doesn’t happen in a flashy cutscene or through melodramatic exposition; these moments happen naturally as you explore and fight your way through historic ruins and fiery caverns. This adventure that forms naturally through your own actions can lead to all sorts of implicit revelations, and I’d argue that they can be even more effective as a result. I’ll continue to cover Metroid’s narrative structure and its impact next week, but it does meaningfully add to the series’ sense of high adventure in a way that I strongly appreciate.

Plenty of games have a strong sense of adventure, including more than a few of my favorites. But Metroid, by keeping the focus so heavily on the adventure itself, is as pure as any in that regard. There’s no elaborate or obtuse goals, no long-winded monologues, no side quests or distractions, no markers littering the screen, and no gimmicks. It’s just you, out there on your own, exploring an untamed world that somehow needs to be tamed. It’s about embracing the unknown, discovering as you go, and becoming familiar with a world that initially seemed anything but. That’s the adventure of Metroid, and it’s an adventure that has resonated with me very strongly time and again. Setting foot onto an alien planet has rarely been this exciting, and a lot of that has to do with the quality of such worlds. That leads us directly into next week’s topic, where I will dive head first into one of Metroid’s more defining characteristics: its thick atmosphere.

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Metroid and Me, Part 1: In the Beginning

Welcome to the first part of what will ultimately be a seven part blog series! I've had the idea for this series in my head for a long time, and I’m excited to finally get it out there. So what exactly is it? Titled "Metroid and Me," this blog is a lengthy, introspective look at why the Metroid franchise has connected with me so strongly on a personal level. It's long been among my favorite video game franchises, and I've found myself thinking about it a lot lately. Different games connect with different people in different ways, and I feel it would be an interesting and worthwhile exercise to thoroughly explore why Metroid has done that for me. What is it about Metroid specifically that clicks with me so much? What is it about my personality and preferences that draw me to this franchise? Why haven't other seemingly similar games grabbed me the same way? These are the kinds of questions I'm looking to answer here.

There will be seven parts to this series, including this one, and I will post one a week for seven weeks. Each part will focus on one substantial aspect of Metroid that I feel is important to my affection for the series. Topics such as atmosphere, world design, and isolation are among those on the docket, and my goal is that by the end I will have thoroughly and holistically covered everything that's critical to my connection with Metroid. Hopefully this structure accomplishes what I want it to, and proves to be an entertaining and engaging form of expression. And now that you have a rough idea of what this blog series is about, let’s get started! Today's topic is an introductory one: my personal history with Metroid.

Metroid and Me, Part 1: In the BeginningMetroid and Me, Part 2: Into the Green World
Metroid and Me, Part 3: Frozen UtopiaMetroid and Me, Part 4: Lone Star
Metroid and Me, Part 5: In Your PrimeMetroid and Me, Part 6: Torvus Chips
Metroid and Me, Part 7: SolitudeMetroid and Me, Bonus: Series Ranking
Remix Title: In the Beginning...Original Song: Title (Metroid, 1986, NES)
Remixer(s): Mercury AdeptOriginal Composer(s): Hirokazu Tanaka

In the Beginning

Where did it all begin? What was my first encounter with Metroid? Ironically enough, I don't think I can pinpoint the precise moment that I first played a Metroid game. If I had to guess, first contact came from briefly playing Metroid II: Return of Samus at a friend's house when I was very young. I barely remember anything about it; all I remember is loading up an existing save file and not knowing what to do or where to go, and I doubt I tried it for more than an hour. Feeling lost may be a natural reaction for people playing Metroid for the first time, especially if you're very young and diving into an existing save file. But the experience didn't leave a lasting impression either way.

It took me too long to get there, but I'm glad I eventually did.
It took me too long to get there, but I'm glad I eventually did.

Regardless of what my official first encounter with Metroid may have been, I do in fact know when I first experienced the series in earnest. I wasn't old enough to start actually following video games until the turn of the century (I was born in 1986 for reference). Until then, what games I played were determined almost entirely by what box art looked cool at the local rental store, or perhaps by what friends at school talked about. Super Metroid managed to elude both of these, and seeing as Metroid went into hibernation from 1994 to 2002, I was unlikely to get any further exposure to the series during that time. Once I was old enough to pay attention and follow games on my own, however, I became aware of Super Metroid and its legacy. Furthermore, the double whammy of Metroid Fusion and Metroid Prime were coming in 2002. Thus, I quickly went from barely knowing about Metroid's existence to curiously eyeing a trio of fresh Metroid games. It was time to dive in and find out what Metroid was for myself, so I found a copy of Super Metroid, and was off to the races.

I won't say it was love at first sight, because I'm sure there was a learning period to understanding what Super Metroid was. It was very different from the kinds of games I had played at that point in my life, and it required a particular attention to detail that I wasn't used to needing. But it didn't take long for me to "get it;" I was on board pretty quick. Exactly what I "got" is the exhaustive subject of future parts, so for now just know that I enjoyed every moment of my first true Metroid experience. It was also perhaps the perfect game to formally introduce me to the series, as Super Metroid is in many ways the best and purest representation of the series to date. After that initial playthrough, I immediately wanted to jump back in and find items I had missed, discover new paths, and try for a better time. I played through Super Metroid a few times in quick succession, exploring as much of this captivating game as I could.

The perfect way to transition Metroid to 3D.
The perfect way to transition Metroid to 3D.

I did want to move on, however, because two new Metroid games were coming in hot. As mentioned, I didn't get around to playing Super Metroid until Metroid Fusion and Metroid Prime were both almost out. Between those I started with Metroid Prime, and I was immediately blown away by it. The game sucked me in with its stunning audiovisual presentation, and I felt that the first person perspective and 3D world brought a new sense of wonder to proceedings. Things felt more intimate, more "in your face" this time around, and yet it never lost what made Super Metroid such a special thing in the first place. Despite all the hubbub about Metroid becoming a first person shooter, playing Metroid Prime made it clear that it was still very much a Metroid game above all else; adventuring and exploration remained the focus. In short, I absolutely loved Metroid Prime, and afterwards I moved on to Metroid Fusion. I enjoyed Fusion for sure, but I also didn’t feel it was as strong as either Super or Prime. I didn't feel its world was as intricate or as sprawling as those two, and the mediocre dialogue didn't do much for me either. Still, it remained a Metroid game at its core, with many of the series’ trademarks intact, and one I very much liked.

At this point I had been introduced to the franchise, and played three wonderful Metroid games in a very short time. And in doing so, I had quickly become enraptured in what it had to offer. Seeking as much Metroid as I could, I next decided to go back and play the two games I had missed: the original Metroid, and Metroid II: Return of Samus. While I technically had played a small amount of Metroid II many years prior, I didn’t remember any of it. So as far as I was concerned, these were both brand new Metroid experiences for me, despite both being over a decade old at that point. Their age showed too, and while I certainly enjoyed seeing the series’ first two installments for myself, they clearly weren’t as polished or refined as the games that followed. Super Metroid in particular simply seemed like a bigger, better version of the original, but those first two games were by no means bad, even that long after the fact. The core essence of Metroid was there from the start, amidst the rough edges, and was still good enough for me to enjoy exploring their expansive worlds. Ironically, Metroid: Zero Mission came out around this time as well, and I followed up my history lesson of the series by playing through this remake. I thought it did a wonderful job at giving the original a fresh, modern coating, and I found it to be yet another awesome Metroid game.

What a great way to modernize a classic.
What a great way to modernize a classic.

Metroid felt like it was on a roll at that point. I was in some kind of golden Metroid bubble, and there was yet another big new Metroid game right around the corner: Metroid Prime 2: Echoes. I immediately plunged into this sequel upon its release, and enjoyed it nearly as much as its predecessor. While I do think Metroid Prime remains the better game overall, Echoes had some interesting design elements that I found very endearing, and the core Metroid tenets remained present and strong. I know Echoes was not as widely loved as the original, which in some ways made sense; this felt like the Metroid game made for die-hard Metroid fans more than a wider audience (which was somewhat ironic given this was the one with multiplayer). But as a fan, I liked Echoes’ campaign a hell of a lot. Yet it’s also the turning point for the series in my mind, and it’s where my personal Metroid bubble “burst,” so to speak. Until then I had more great Metroid games to play than I knew what to do with. Following Echoes, however, I feel like they started trying to reach a wider audience more aggressively. While I’m all for trying new things, and don’t think any company is wrong to pursue a new strategy, that doesn’t change the fact that the subtle changes they made did not resonate as much with me personally. This led to a handful of games that, while not always bad, I didn’t exactly love.

This shift began two years after Echoes with Metroid Prime Hunters (I skipped Metroid Prime Pinball because it’s, well, a pinball game). While not a terrible game, it was pretty clear that Hunters was where the focus tipped more towards shooting, rather than adventuring. Whether it was meant as a technical experiment, or as an attempt to widen the series’ appeal, I will never know (I would guess some of both). Either way, too much of the Metroid fundamentals were lost in the transition, and what replaced them simply wasn’t as interesting. It felt more like an offshoot to me, and that feeling persisted into a much more high-profile game in Metroid Prime 3: Corruption. While I liked Corruption much better than Hunters (Retro Studios’ standard of quality certainly helped), it still felt like it was missing something, that je ne sais quoi that defined previous Metroid games. Travelling between multiple disjointed worlds didn’t have the same scale or sense of discovery, the puzzles, bosses, and collectibles weren’t as devious or memorable, and the poor dialogue and stilted NPCs took away from what life and atmosphere still existed in the worlds themselves. Don’t get me wrong; I enjoyed Corruption a fair amount, and do not consider it a bad game by any stretch. But it was clear to me that this was a different thing from previous games in the series, and one that didn’t resonate with me quite as strongly.

The last Metroid game released as of this writing.
The last Metroid game released as of this writing.

Finally, the only Metroid game to come out since Corruption was the infamous Metroid: Other M. I still think there is room in the world for a more action heavy Metroid game, but Other M was clearly not it, and missed the mark in numerous ways. The control and design weren’t there, the environments and enemies were not interesting or atmospheric enough, and the game’s narrative and tone were just a mess. Chalk it up to a failed experiment if you want, but either way Other M did nothing positive for me, and I’m totally content to ignore it in the grand scheme of things. That game came out six years ago, in 2010, and there’s been no news of a proper Metroid game since (only of the upcoming spin-off, Metroid Prime: Federation Force). That means it’s been over a decade since the last Metroid game I truly loved came out. I don’t bemoan that fact; whatever happens going forward doesn’t take away from the joy the series has already given me. I do wonder about the future of Metroid, but only time will answer that. In the meantime, I can always revisit the classics, which I’ve done numerous times in the past decade. Super Metroid and Metroid Prime are the main ones, as I believe they are easily the series’ pinnacles. They are the two games that best embody what the series is all about to me, and I’ve played both numerous times from start to finish. I’ve also replayed many other games in the series at least once, and I don’t feel like I’ve exhausted the well yet either. The good Metroid games are timeless in their design, and hold up exceedingly well today.

I had two goals with today's introductory part. First, I wanted to give a brief overview of what this blog series is, and what's happening with it going forward. Second, I wanted to cover my history with the Metroid franchise in more detail. The latter was today's main topic, and I think that context is important to cover before diving into the real meat of this series; it establishes a baseline for my perspective that I will build upon. Hopefully today’s entry has provided that, and was a worthwhile and enjoyable (if abridged) trip down memory lane. Keep an eye out for part two next week, where I will really begin diving into the heart of this blog series, beginning with one of Metroid’s biggest strengths: its sense of adventure!

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Laying Thine Souls To Rest

SPOILER WARNING: Very mild spoilers for Dark Souls III ahead, mainly regarding its references to previous games in the series. I personally don't consider anything here spoiler-tag worthy, but some people are picky about this stuff. So here's your friendly warning!

There's a moment near the end of Dark Souls III where it all came together. I stepped out onto a bridge in the final non-optional area, and took pause for a second. I've seen this bridge before, or something very reminiscent of it. This giant stone bridge, with an equally giant iron gate at the other end. These wooden barricades erected before me, and the undead soldiers scattered about. I bet even more enemies are hiding behind these barriers, aren't they? Yes, I've seen this bridge before, if not in exacting detail, then in spirit. I saw this bridge seven years ago, at the very beginning of a little game called Demon's Souls. It all seemed so unassuming then, but little did we know what was to follow. My, how much has happened since.

I remember this place, too.
I remember this place, too.

Dark Souls III contains a lot of such references to From Software's previous Souls games, which in my mind includes both Demon's Souls and Bloodborne in addition to Dark Souls proper. Yet most of them didn't work that well for me personally. Yes, I remember Firelink Shrine. I remember Andre the Blacksmith. I remember the archers (those fuckers). And this one area sure looks a hell of a lot like Yharnam. But those mostly felt like cheap, easy reminders of times past, simple callbacks meant to placate long-time fans. It left me wondering, what is Dark Souls III's identity? It gleefully displayed its ability to pay homage to the past, but what is it able to do for the present?

Dark Souls III, other than being a reference machine, is for better and for worse another Dark Souls game. For better, this is still one of gaming's grandest adventures. This is a quest that's easy to lose yourself in, reveling in details and scope all at once. This is a game full of secrets and things to explore. This is a game containing countless tough foes, and exciting bosses. This is a game that places incredible confidence in its players' ability to find their own way. And in its execution, it's easily the best-playing Souls game yet. Combat feels faster and tighter, taking some of the lessons learned from Bloodborne to produce action nearly as good as its adventuring. Mechanical and customization elements are more clearly explained, and feel more balanced than before without losing any of the depth. Levels are also both larger and denser, containing winding paths that diverge and reconnect in exciting ways. Exploring is at the heart of this series, and Dark Souls III has some of the most elaborate levels of them all. The bosses too, while perhaps not the hardest to date (I don't think the game on the whole is the hardest either), are extremely varied and clever. No two boss fights are the same, which keeps things engaging throughout this lengthy adventure. Previous games could lose steam in the back half, but Dark Souls III remains steady from start to finish.

Who could have foreseen where this game would take us?
Who could have foreseen where this game would take us?

For worse, it has lost its novelty and mystery. Demon's Souls is one of the most memorable games I've ever played due to how bold and inventive it was; it took modern gaming design, turned it on its head, and tossed the player into a new, unforgettable adventure. Dark Souls III, by virtue of being the fifth such game, never had close to that kind of an impact on me. Even for all its sublime execution, and for its ability to produce an adventure more compelling than 99% of games out there, I never could shake that feeling of "been there, done that". This double-edged sword defined my entire playthrough of Dark Souls III. I consistently enjoyed the game, but it also felt like going through the motions too regularly. By playing safe within its own established conventions, it loses one of the defining traits those very conventions established in the first place. Dark Souls III was no longer mysterious or surprising in the way the series once was; it was no longer bucking the trends, instead succumbing to its own, now wide-spread trends. These are still good trends mind you, but I've done this all before, multiple times now. Some of the magic is naturally lost, and the edge dulled.

But if this truly is to be the last game of this type, as From Software claims, then Dark Souls III's place becomes more discernible. Instead of being the game to push the boundaries of what a video game adventure can be, Dark Souls III is more reflective, looking back and saying "Hey, look how far we've come!" It's a reminder of all the great memories it's created, and tying a bow on one of gaming's most important and beloved series over the past seven years. This realization finally hit when I stepped out onto that Demon's Souls-esque bridge. I remembered that bridge, and immediately remembered everything associated with it. I remember being utterly confused and delighted as I explored the seemingly impenetrable Boletaria, and the satisfaction that came when I finally unraveled its mystique. And I remembered all the games that followed, and how they built on that legacy. That bridge kicked off one of the most influential gaming franchises of the modern era, and seeing it now at the end of Dark Souls III brought it full circle.

Dark Souls III is a fitting end to multiple journeys.
Dark Souls III is a fitting end to multiple journeys.

It brought a personal journey of mine full circle as well. When I crossed that iconic bridge in 2009, I was unemployed, living with my parents. I had just graduated with my bachelor's degree, but after wasting a year in graduate school and deciding that wasn't right for me, I was frustrated and directionless. I've gone through a lot of life changes over the past seven years, and this series, one of my favorites, has punctuated every step of my growth. When Dark Souls came out in 2011, I had been working a comfortable if unexciting job for roughly a year and a half. When Dark Souls II released in 2014, I was preparing to move and go back to graduate school, this time for a substantially different degree. When I got around to Bloodborne a little over a year later, I was graduating with my master's degree, punctuating one of the most intense and life-changing years of my life. And now, in 2016, I have a job I love, living in the place I want to be. In that way, Dark Souls III is not only a retrospective send-off to a series that has defined an era of video games, but also a period of great change in my life.

I hope From Software makes good on their word, and that Dark Souls III is their last such game. It's a fitting end to the series, and to make another one would only undo the bow this game ties. Yes, this series has created many great memories, and Dark Souls III is happy to remind us of that. But I'm not convinced it can reach those heights again, and I think it's best to leave it there and turn now to the future. At some point, you have to move on, and I'm doing the same in my own life. I've experienced great memories, both high and low, since I first set foot on that bridge seven years ago, and I want to remember and cherish them. But now it's time to look forward. The future is full of possibilities, and there are new memories to make, for both From Software and myself. I won't forget the Souls of the past, but it's time to lay them to rest.

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My Favorite Video Game Music of 2015

The “top 10 games” list is a time-honored tradition here on good old Giant Bomb, and I’m deep in the throes of trying to nail down my own personal list for 2015; I have two more games to squeeze in before making my final decisions. It’s a fun (if sometimes difficult) process, and it always inspires me to make another equally fun “top 10” list to go along with it: my favorite video game music. I’m a long-standing fan of video game music, and every year there’s plenty of fantastic new soundtracks to go around. In some ways we’re more spoiled on that front than ever, as the variety of 2015’s music covers just about anything you can think of, and is often very high quality. I’ve managed to narrow that broad selection down to these 10 soundtracks, and have chosen a representative song from each. Needless to say, this is all my personal preference, but the music from these 10 games stood out to me more than any other I played this year. These are the soundtracks that added that little something extra to the games they accompanied, showing once again how great music can make an otherwise solid game even better. I hope you enjoy listening, and feel free to share some of your own favorites!

Finally, these games are ordered by release date, not by preference.

Gravity Ghost

Featured Track: Flower Girl (by Ben Prunty)

Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number

Featured Track: Divide (by Magna)

Ori and the Blind Forest

Featured track: Main Menu (by Gareth Coker)

Pillars of Eternity

Featured track: Combat D (by Justin Bell)

Axiom Verge

Featured track: The Dream (by Thomas Happ)

Titan Souls

Featured track: Souls (by David Fenn)

Crypt of the NecroDancer

Featured track: Disco Descent (by Danny Baranowsky)

N++

Featured track: Odyssey (by Yser C)

Lovers in a Dangerous Spacetime

Featured track: Orion (by Ryan Henwood)

Undertale

Featured track: Undertale (by Toby Fox)

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The Troubled Class of 2012

Note: Any release dates I cite are North American ones.

It’s been roughly two years since the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One came onto the market, in the fall of 2013, which means we are firmly entrenched in this “generation” of video game hardware. These two consoles weren’t the beginning of the transition though; in fact, they remain the newest, and seemingly final additions to the current batch of platforms (notwithstanding supplements like VR headsets and Steam Machines). The transition saw its modest beginnings two and a half years earlier, when the Nintendo 3DS came out in the spring of 2011. The 3DS got off to a slow start, but later picked up the pace thanks to an aggressive price drop and some killer games. In fact, the 3DS is the current leader this generation with around 50 million units out in the wild (according to Wikipedia at least). And while neither the PlayStation 4 or Xbox One have, to my knowledge, passed half of that mark yet (no big surprise given the 3DS’ substantial lead time), all signs suggest they are holding their own just fine. Sony and Microsoft appear pleased with their progress, developers are showing both boxes plenty of support, and fans seem to be enjoying their offerings. All in all, this “generation” is shaping up nicely.

Contestant number 1.
Contestant number 1.

Or is it? Those three machines are finding success, but what about this generation’s other members? In between the Nintendo 3DS’ March 2011 launch, and the twin launch of the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One in November 2013, two other pieces of hardware joined the family in 2012: the PlayStation Vita released in February, with the Nintendo Wii U following in November. And to put it bluntly, both systems have struggled mightily to gain any kind of traction. I’m not privy to exact sales numbers, but all signs indicate they are bad for both. An audience has been hard to find in such a competitive market, which makes publishers hesitant to lend any additional support. It’s easy to look at both the Vita and Wii U and say “Of course they’re struggling, they have no games!” And while you’d not be completely wrong, it’s just as likely that they have no games because they struggled right out of the gate, struggles that may or may not have anything to do with the quality of the systems themselves, or the software on them. It’s a frustrating “chicken and egg” problem for all involved, and has left both platforms in a grim state.

Contestant number 2.
Contestant number 2.

I’m not interested in trying to pinpoint where things turned south for the Vita or Wii U, which is likely a futile effort with too many subtle factors to consider (that won’t stop armchair analysts from trying though). I give the brief recap simply to illustrate where things currently stand, and highlight that this generation’s pair of 2012 entrants have been troubled from the start. What I’m more interested in, is what those systems have turned into, and what they are offering the few people who actually bought them. Being the kind of sucker who inevitably buys every platform I can, I am one of those people. As of now I own all five major consoles and handhelds (along with a decent PC), and while the Vita and Wii U are by no means the strongest of the bunch, they’re not a wash either. Both have particular quirks and features that I find interesting, or even endearing, and I’m genuinely satisfied with owning both. Perhaps not many would be, but I have broad tastes, and also enjoy being in the know and along for the ride. Chalk it up to my somewhat academic interest in the medium if you want, but I find something compelling about these troubled platforms. So think of this as me taking stock of this generation’s underachievers three years in, and looking at what I’ve gotten out of them so far.

I’ll start with the PlayStation Vita, which I picked up following a price drop in the summer of 2013, a little over a year after it launched. The only “big” game I got with it was Persona 4 Golden, which is probably still its best game to date. That in itself is a little odd, given that was a remake of a four year old PlayStation 2 game at the time. But the timing was right for me to finally play this gem, and I was also immediately able to load up on PlayStation Portable games I had missed; those PSP games were actually the biggest driver for me wanting a Vita in the first place. I never owned a PSP (poor college student and all), despite there being a handful of games I wanted to play on it, from Patapon to Crush to Jeanne d’Arc. The Vita, then, was a “two-in-one” system for me, as virtually all digitally available PSP games are playable on a Vita. Taken from that viewpoint, the system was immediately justified for me. Add in a healthy dose of PlayStation Plus freebies I had accrued, and access to a surprisingly large suite of PSone Classics, and the sheer number of games available on the Vita was pretty profound.

Luftrausers is one of the many neat games perfectly suited for the Vita.
Luftrausers is one of the many neat games perfectly suited for the Vita.

That gets to the real appeal of the Vita. It doesn’t have many worthwhile exclusives, and many of the good ones end up on other platforms eventually (prime example: Tearaway). But it is a great place to play a huge variety of games pulled from other sources. Between downloadable PSP games, smaller/indie PS4 games that generally support “cross-buy” and/or “cross-save,” and all PSone Classics, there are a ton of games a Vita can play. And playing them on a Vita is, in some ways, more appealing to me than playing them on the other platforms they appear on. I don’t have a PSP of course, and I’m certainly not dragging out my PlayStation in 2015 (unless I’m getting real serious about it). I also simply enjoy playing a good number of games on a handheld. Playing Persona 4 Golden in constant short bursts, with easy access to a slick sleep mode, made it a much more enjoyable experience for me than trying to slog through longer sessions in front of a TV. Even better are the even smaller quick-burst games, such as Luftrausers, Pix the Cat, or Velocity 2X, many of which come down the PS+ pipe. I would probably never bother playing those if I had to boot up a console for them, but they make for quick, fun diversions on a handheld. The same can be said for PSone Classics, most of which aren’t available on the PS4 anyway (for some weird reason). I played plenty of great PlayStation games back in the day, but missed just as many, such as Klonoa: Door to Phantomile, Alundra, and Suikoden II (along with countless other revered JRPGs). And the Vita is perhaps the best place to catch up on these classics today. All of this is intensified by the fact that the Vita is a nice piece of hardware to interact with. Everything runs smoothly, and I find the UI intuitive and easy to navigate. The Vita is a slick thing that’s fun to use, plain and simple, and a great place to play the many games playable on it.

Moving on, I picked up Nintendo's latest a few months after it launched. As someone who genuinely likes a number of Nintendo franchises, there was never any doubt I would get a Nintendo Wii U eventually; all it took was a decent bundle and a few game announcements to get me to pull the trigger. That said, this purchase was not justified as immediately as the PlayStation Vita was for me. I have a much richer history of playing Nintendo games than I do Sony games, so there was no equivalent here to the PSP games or PSone Classics for me to dig back into. I’ve played the big Nintendo games already, but even then the Wii U’s legacy digital offerings are not nearly as deep as the Vita’s; ironically, the Vita has access to a larger “Virtual Console” than the Wii U does, and by a good margin. Also contrary to the Vita, the Wii U is… not a nice piece of hardware. It’s extremely slow (even by console standards) and the touch screen isn't the best one around, but even worse is Nintendo’s continued reluctance to adopt modern online sensibilities. While they’re slowly making steps in the right direction (I give them credit for the Miiverse, which is a neat thing), online play is still not reliable for a lot of games, and the lack of a sensible unified profile is astounding. The way digital purchases are tied to a machine, rather than a profile, is not only archaic, it’s a potential nightmare for anyone whose Wii U craps out.

Nintendo consoles always rely on first party exclusives, and the Wii U is no different.
Nintendo consoles always rely on first party exclusives, and the Wii U is no different.

All of those gripes aside, the main detractor from the Wii U is the same as the Vita’s: a lack of games. Yet the way in which they lack games is completely contrary to one another. The Vita has access to tons of games, but almost no good exclusives; the games playable there are playable elsewhere. The Wii U, on the other hand, does not have access to a lot of games period. Yet among the few games it does have, a relatively high number of them are exclusive. This is especially true when looking at “big” retail games for the system in comparison to other current consoles. That’s the appeal of the Wii U; it has games you can’t get anywhere else, and more of them than its most direct competitors. That “quality over quantity” mantra can be a tough row to hoe, however, as it demands those exclusives be very good. And while the likes of Pikmin 3, Super Mario 3D World, and Super Smash Bros. 4 aren’t going to set the world on fire, they’re solid installments in storied Nintendo franchises. That does underline one key fact about the Wii U’s exclusives: you have to like multiple Nintendo franchises to be on board. But if you do, there are enough good ones at this point to justify the system, especially as a supplement to another platform.

The Wii U has finally found its groove.
The Wii U has finally found its groove.

If there was another big bummer to the Wii U, it was that, until last month, I didn’t feel it had a true “system seller” quality first party title. Almost three years in, despite having plenty of perfectly good games, the Wii U was still lacking its Ocarina of Time, its Metroid Prime, or its Super Mario Galaxy; you know, the kind of games that have kept Nintendo’s consoles relevant ever since third parties abandoned the company following the SNES days. Enter the recent Super Mario Maker, hands down the best Wii U game to date in my mind, and likely to be the console's defining gem. Super Mario Maker is something special, and emits the charm, polish, and creativity that people love about Nintendo. I’ve had as much fun with it as I have any game, on any platform, in a long time, and one can’t help but wonder how it would have changed the Wii U’s fortunes had it come out two years earlier. Either way, it makes the Wii U an intriguing and relevant console (for me) in 2015. I personally like enough of Nintendo’s franchises to provide a strong supporting cast to Super Mario Maker’s magic, which leads to a healthy selection of games that have finally made the system stand out.

Both the PlayStation Vita and Nintendo Wii U continue to have plenty of caveats, and I wouldn’t recommended anyone choose them as their primary gaming platform over their contemporaries. But for those who already own another, more robust platform, and have the right interests, there can be a certain appeal to what this pair of troubled systems can offer. Whether I’m digging into the Vita’s deep, robust selection of digital offerings on the go, or the Wii U’s small but strong lineup of first party games, they make for surprisingly competent supplemental devices in 2015. It's taken them three years to get here, but I’m happy to own both, and will continue to curiously partake in everything they have to offer; even if it only leads to me going down with the ship. It should be an intriguing ride while it lasts.

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Monthly Roundup, July 2015

I had to be somewhat of an opportunist with my gaming this month. I attended three weddings back to back to back, which ate up a lot of my weekend time. I was more than happy to support my friends of course, but it did leave me tired and in need of some genuine downtime more than once. I found that downtime in odd places when I could, and did get through some cool games during this hot, sticky, and nuptial July. So let's get to them!

Pillars of Eternity

Pillars of Eternity is a winner in my book.
Pillars of Eternity is a winner in my book.

I wrapped up Pillars of Eternity this month, and while I unloaded most of my thoughts about it last month, it’s worth a few more closing ones. It was once again the game I spent the most time on this month after all; RPGs are long, and Pillars is no exception. Yet Pillars didn’t feel needlessly long. Unlike many RPGs I play, it didn’t drag down the stretch, and I thought it wrapped up the final hours nicely. There was only one part of the game that felt really bogged down to me, and that was around the middle of the game, when you spend hours and hours in a single large city (Defiance Bay for those who’ve played it). I was ready to leave this city a few hours in, but it just kept going. Otherwise I think Pillars paced itself well, and it did a better job than most 50+ hour games at making me remain attached during the back half. Often times I end up just wanting to be done with a long game well before it’s over, but that feeling never came with Pillars. I think that’s primarily due to the balance it has between combat and storytelling; the moment I got tired of one, the other came to the rescue. And as I described last month, both of those aspects are very strong, and remained so throughout. I enjoyed playing with the new abilities I acquired all the way up to the level cap, and I was genuinely interested in how the story wrapped up. I was pretty invested in this world and its tale by the end, and thought Obsidian did a good job of tying it all together.

Another thing I realized as the game neared its end, was that I also enjoyed most of Pillars of Eternity’s side content. I didn’t do everything, but I did the vast majority of it, and most of what I did was very good. Only a few side quests boiled down to trite fetch quests; more often they involved either an interesting side plot, or a challenging dungeon and/or boss. It felt like Obsidian flexed their creativity a little more here, both in terms of storytelling and dungeon design. I enjoyed spending the extra time doing that stuff, and if I didn’t have so many other games I’m eager to move on to, I would likely dive back in to clean up anything left that I haven’t done. But I do feel the need to move on, and give a fond farewell to Pillars of Eternity. As I mentioned last month, this was my first legitimate dive into a “true” CRPG, and I really liked what I found. It makes me want to go back and check out the Infinity Engine classics, but that’s a bigger time investment that will have to wait. For now, PIllars of Eternity is a great game in 2015, and one I feel is totally worth it for any fan of such RPGs.

Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number

I wasn’t necessarily the biggest fan of the original Hotline Miami, but I did enjoy its frantic, miss-and-you’re-dead style combat. It was tense and thrilling in that tightrope kind of way, and the game’s audiovisual style added a lot of flavor. What I liked most about the game, however, was the almost puzzly nature of the combat. I enjoyed scouting each room, looking for the most appropriate angle of attack, and then trying to execute said plan. This was engaging because of the melee vs. gun dynamic; guns were certainly more powerful, but they also drew attention. It was easy to get overwhelmed if you used them in a poor spot, and using melee weapons efficiently is something that took some engineering. The levels and enemy placement seemed well measured to take advantage of this dynamic, and the result was an exciting and clever romp.

gunsgunsguns
gunsgunsguns

While Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number retains the original’s basic structure, I also feel like it has lost some of that critical dynamic that made combat in the original so fun. Almost every single level seems to demand the use of guns, as indicated by the fact that the vast majority of enemies wield guns, and they are generally scattered haphazardly in open spaces. It simply doesn’t feel as meticulously crafted as before, and rewards raw aiming and reflexes more than strategy, which is inherently less exciting to me (though it may be what others are looking for). In addition, it makes the combat feel decidedly more one-note. There generally aren’t that many angles to approach any given situation, and while I’ve died a lot in both Hotline Miami games, my deaths in the sequel feel more like bashing my head against the wall until I manage to land a precise shot. Trying to execute a simple act like that over and over can get old quick, and that’s been my experience with Hotline Miami 2 thus far... especially since it’s a much longer game than its predecessor. I think I’m near the end (just finished Act 22), and I’ve already clocked a few more hours than I did on the original. That would be fine if the game had more variety or tighter levels, but it doesn’t, which has lead to me getting tired of the game relatively early. And while it still looks and sounds great, I don’t think it’s stylistically any better than the original. In fact, I care about the story even less than before, and the soundtrack isn’t grabbing me as much either. There just don’t seem to be any standout tracks that will implant themselves in my psyche like they did in the first game. Anyway, that’s my mini-rant about Hotline Miami 2. It retains most of the basics, which still work well enough for anyone looking for more of that. But I also think it’s a few small, but noticeable steps backwards in terms of pacing, variety, and combat design, and the presentation isn’t able to make up for such regressions. It’s just not as tight, but I do plan to go ahead and finish it; I feel I’m close, and doing a level or so a day is fine enough. Just don’t sign me up for more Hotline Miami anytime soon.

Her Story

Viva is excellent as Her Story's sole performer.
Viva is excellent as Her Story's sole performer.

Her Story is fascinating. That’s the word I keep circling back to when trying to describe this oddly compelling game. The basic premise is simple, and seemingly non-interactive: all you do is scrape through a video library consisting of police interview tapes. These interviews are of a single woman, and concern the death (presumably murder) of her husband. In other words, the primary thing you do in the game is watch videos. These videos are live action, however, and the game’s sole performer (Viva Seifert) does a fantastic job. Given how focused the game is on these videos, along with the fact that every single video shows her and only her, a high quality performance from Viva is mandatory for Her Story to work. A daunting task, but I think she does a wonderful job, and really brings the game to life. It helps that the writing is strong as well, and I also really enjoy the underlying story. A lot of it is shrouded in mystery, and not all of the questions are definitively answered by the end. The game does a great job at giving you enough clues to satisfy the general thread, while also leaving many minor, at least one significant detail open to interpretation. It’s the kind of thing that has (and will continue to have) message boards buzzing about what’s really going on. That could have been annoying, but I think it’s cleverly done here, and leaves just enough room to apply your own interpretation in a satisfying way.

But what makes it all so fascinating, past the quality of the acting and writing, is how you go about accessing and viewing these videos. You interface with an intentionally dated UI, and enter search terms to parse the archive of all the videos. Every time you submit a query, the game lets you know how many videos the given term was spoken in. The catch is that you can only watch the earliest five videos that contain that term (each video is time-stamped). This means you have to eventually get creative with your searches to access the later videos, and the writers have clearly paid a lot of attention to the wording in each video. In fact, by the end I was starting to pick up on subtle hints in Viva's speech about terms to search. There are a few ways to “game” the system if you want, but if used as intended, this method of exploring the game’s story is a surprisingly mesmerizing exercise. Everyone should uncover the videos in different orders, based on their searches, and thus piece together the events slightly differently. I have to imagine this has an effect on how different people interpret the game’s main unanswered question, and I’d love to know if that was their intention. Either way, it’s fascinating, and I think Her Story is totally worth a shot from anyone who enjoys mucking around with experimental video game stories.

The Other Stuff

It's not much to look at, but Tennis Elbow is a serious tennis sim.
It's not much to look at, but Tennis Elbow is a serious tennis sim.
  • I finally got around to trying Mount Your Friends, which is just as hilarious and ridiculous as it always seemed when the GB crew played it. I only played it with one other person, and while I’m sure it’s better with a few more people in the mix, I still had a lot of fun (and laughs). The controls and movement are just precise and robust enough that you can develop some real skill, and pull of some cool maneuvers with practice. But they’re also just frantic enough to encourage a lot of general flailing, and provoke horrible missteps. It’s controlled chaos at its best, and it also has a wonderfully stupid tone. Just a rad game for a local get-together.
  • It’s no secret that I’m a bit of a tennis nut, but Tennis Elbow 2013 had somehow eluded my eye until it recently came out on Steam. Billed as a tennis simulator made by and for hardcore fans, I finally picked it up and tried playing for a bit. It’s certainly an interesting game if nothing else, and has a lot of intricate mechanics that are clearly trying to simulate professional tennis as accurately as they can. There’s a lot that goes into each and every shot you hit; it’s a technical game that has a steep learning curve for sure. And while it can be uneven at times, I’ve also had a few incredibly rewarding moments when it all clicks. I’m not sure that it comes together as a simulation any better than what the Top Spin series has done, and it's certainly not as accessible, but there is something there. If they could iron out a few kinks (and polish up that awful interface), they could have a special tennis game on their hands.

Looking Ahead to… the Future!

As far as August is concerned, there’s a few interesting games coming out that have caught my interest; more than I’d expect for the final month of the traditional summer gaming drought anyway. It begins with Galak-Z: the Dimensional, which looks potentially fantastic, and is followed up by Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture and Volume. I’ll almost certainly play at least one of those in August. I also have some other high priority items, such as Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc and N++ (both of which I've already started), and Massive Chalice. Hopefully I can make good progress on those in August.

I'll still be playing games, including finally getting to this crazy thing.
I'll still be playing games, including finally getting to this crazy thing.

Whatever games I play in August though, I currently don’t plan to write about them. At least, not in this format that I started almost exactly two years ago. It’s a format that I still think suits me extremely well, and is something I’ve genuinely enjoyed all along, which doesn’t make it something I drop lightly. But as I do every so often, I’ve been re-evaluating how I spend my time, and what I could be doing with it. Now that I’ve gone through a big move, a hectic and tumultuous year in grad school, and have begun settling back into something resembling a normal and stable life, I have ideas. Lots of ideas, big and small, related to video games and otherwise. Some of which I’ve wanted to do for a long time, but just simply haven’t been in a comfortable position to follow through on. Now is my chance to start doing stuff, to put it bluntly, and I need time for that. I know that all sounds incredibly nebulous, and even still it will be slow going. But as much as I enjoy these regular monthly ramblings, they do take up a good chunk of time consistently (more than you may think). I’ve decided that, at least for now, that time can be used better elsewhere.

That’s by no means to say I’m going to disappear, or even that I won’t be doing any more writing here on Giant Bomb. In fact, some of those aforementioned ideas are writing ones, including a relatively lengthy blog series that I’ve wanted to write for over two years, but haven’t been afforded the time (and it will take some time for me to put together still). So you will see posts from me here and there, but it will be less overall, and not on any schedule; I’ll write when I have the proper inspiration. Otherwise, just know that I’m out there still playing video games, checking Giant Bomb, and living the life. And to anyone who’s read any of my writing over the years (which stretches back to Giant Bomb’s founding (and beyond) in one form or another), I appreciate it. Ya’ll have been great.

Anyway, that's the update! Like I said, I’m not going away, and don’t plan to be a stranger. I’m just not going to be doing this specific thing for the foreseeable future. See you around! :)

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Monthly Roundup, June 2015

In a sense, June was a reboot for me; after a year of being back in school, followed by a needed month off, I’m back to the working world. I’ve settled into my new job nicely though, and am slowly getting back into a solid gaming rhythm. Still, I managed to sink a good chunk of time into a big ass CRPG, a handful of multiplayer games, and a few other oddities to boot. Not a bad month for games!

Pillars of Eternity

By some odd twist of fate, I had not played a true “CRPG” before 2015. The closest I’d gotten were a handful of BioWare games during the 2000s, such as Neverwinter Nights, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, Mass Effect, and Dragon Age: Origins. To varying degrees, those all could potentially be likened to traditional CRPGs; some like Neverwinter Nights and KOTOR even used Dungeons and Dragons rules. However, per my understanding, they still diverged from the Baldur’s Gates and Icewind Dales of the world in various ways. I missed those games back in the day, by some combination of not playing a lot of 90s PC games and simply not being “in the know”, but I’ve always felt I would enjoy them. I like me some regular old D&D after all (in fact, I’m currently participating in a 5E campaign), and see no reason why I wouldn’t like it in video game form. I’ve had it in the back of my mind to revisit those classics someday, but a recent surge of throwback CRPGs got me to wonder if I’d be better off easing into something a bit more modern. After rolling it around in my head for a bit, along with asking some helpful Giant Bombers, I finally settled on jumping into Pillars of Eternity. I spent a good chunk of time on the game this June, and would estimate I’m just past the halfway mark.

Combat can be intense and engaging.
Combat can be intense and engaging.

So far, it’s been a very positive experience. While it doesn’t use official D&D rules, it’s very comparable, and much of the same logic, structure, and even terminology still apply. Hell, eight of the game’s eleven classes are straight up in D&D 5E, and one of the remaining three is pretty analogous. That actually prompted me to try one of the other two classes, and I ultimately settled on a cipher. It seems like a nice mix of using martial weapons and magic, and I think it’s a neat addition to the class roster that I’ve enjoyed playing. Really though, it’s not one class that makes the combat in such games, but the interaction among a group of characters from different classes. Pillars of Eternity lets you roll with a sizable party of six, and while it was a somewhat slow build to reach that full size (and I felt vulnerable until I had four or five characters), coordinating a group like that can be intense and exciting. Sure, there are some mundane encounters where you just spam basic attacks and “per encounter” moves without fear of dying. But the game regularly throws you into situations that require you to constantly pause and line up a series of carefully planned attacks if you want to make it through. I’ve had to reload to try different strategies on a handful of particularly tough encounters, which can be very satisfying when you finally get it right. Especially as you learn your characters and what they can do, coordinating their many abilities can be a real treat.

While I find combat to be fun overall, there is some amount of “bloat” to it, along with most other aspects of the game (as in most big RPGs). How many unthreatening skeletons do I have to demolish to clear this dungeon floor? How many spell options do I really need, and how many of them are that useful anyway? How much vendor trash do I need to sift through and manage? How many side quests to solve personal problems am I going to get sucked into? Pillars of Eternity is a big game in pretty much every capacity, sometimes unnecessarily so. This was at its worst near the beginning of act two, where I spent hours and hours just running around a giant city talking to people, collecting fairly mundane fetch quests. That section felt pretty bogged down for me, but otherwise I feel I’ve been moving at a decent clip. Pillars of Eternity is certainly a chunky game, and there is some filler here and there, but I’ve also seen much worse. That’s not necessarily an excuse, but it’s to say that this game doesn’t cross that line into being a worthless and tedious slog. I’ve avoided plenty of games the past few years for fear of wasting my time, but this game is not one of them (so far). It manages itself well enough.

The writing is consistently sharp, and really carries the game.
The writing is consistently sharp, and really carries the game.

The interesting nature of the combat likely saves Pillars of Eternity from feeling too grindy or repetitive, but I think what really helps the game hold up over the long haul, and is also its strongest aspect at large, is the quality of the writing and storytelling on display. If Obsidian is known for anything, it’s for making buggy games with great writing. Thus far I haven’t encountered much in the way of bugs here (I’ve had it crash on a load screen twice, and a character got stuck in a wall once, forcing me to reload), but their patented writing is pervasive. They’ve created a rich world, and you have plenty of chances to learn about it from talking to all sorts of people and reading all sorts of books. I’ll be honest; I don’t read all of it. In fact, I generally don’t read the books, unless they pertain to a quest. I even click past dialogue if it seems long in the tooth. Pillars of Eternity is a long game already, and you could probably double your time if you read every single thing, which I don’t care to do. If that is your style, however, you’ll likely eat it all up, as everything I have read has been excellent. The highlights for me are the souls you peer into (an ability your character acquires near the beginning), and the varied personal histories you get from them. You find citizens from all walks of life, with all sorts of histories, and that little glimpse you get into them can be fascinating. In fact, I think Pillars of Eternity does a great job in general of focusing on the personal, rather than the grand. I’m sure at some point there will be a larger world-threatening crises, but thus far a lot of my goals have been smaller in scope. They’ve focused on how various injustices or otherwise unfortunate situations have put a strain on individual people, and the game is able to impart a gravitas on such situations without being showy. Everything feels important in the moment, regardless of whether or not it is built up to be important in the long run, which has made for a fascinatingly realist adventure thus far.

Pillars of Eternity has some other nice touches as well. I’ve particularly appreciated its more modern concessions, such as easy access to your (presumably infinite) stash, and a really clever balance of regenerating health versus long-term health. They impressively get around making you micromanage health after every fight, while also putting emphasis on not taking more damage than necessary over the long haul. There’s also a potentially interesting system where you build up your own stronghold, and there’s an optional fifteen floor mega dungeon that could end up being a lot of fun. Ultimately though, the strong combat and great writing are the things that really stand out to me about Pillars of Eternity, and are undoubtedly its primary strengths. It can be slow at times, but I also feel like there’s often an exciting encounter or interesting story beat around the next corner. That’s rarely the case for 50+ hour RPGs, but I think Pillars of Eternity is going to have the legs to carry me through. I plan to keep going with it, and hope its second half is as good as its first. I’d like to finish it next month if possible (fingers crossed), and will report back on my progress.

Heroes of the Storm

It's definitely a MOBA, but one I can get into.
It's definitely a MOBA, but one I can get into.

The only MOBA I’ve tried before is Dota 2, and I was immediately pushed away by its archaic, exclusionary design. Dota 2 very deliberately enforces nonsensical rules that seem to exist to serve its long-standing, weirdly devoted community, all of which signaled that it was not a game for me. This month I decided to dip my toes back in the MOBA waters, spending a decent amount of time on Heroes of the Storm. Right up front, it was apparent that HotS (using that acronym for something other than Heart of the Swarm still feels wrong) could not be more philosophically different from Dota 2 while still being essentially the same type of game. HotS is incredibly welcoming, and gets rid of a lot of the tedium that plagues games like Dota 2. There’s no “last hits” rule for doling out experience, and as far as I can tell you can’t attack your own minions to “deny” kills. All of that stuff in Dota just felt weird to me, almost like it was an overlooked design quirk that was somehow embraced by the community because it added a higher “skill ceiling”. I just found it to be another thing to micromanage that was tedious and annoying. Furthermore, everyone on the team shares the same experience and level in HotS, which feels like a more straight-forward and logical way to support teamwork. There’s also no item shop to manage during battle, or items period. Instead, as your character levels up you get to periodically choose among a variety of talents that augment your existing abilities or provide new passive bonuses. These talents add a lot of flavor and customization to how you play your character, and they may even provide just as much variety as the items in other MOBAs. By being character specific, talents may provide even more variety, and they’ve allowed Blizzard to get really creative.

In fact, the characters in HotS seem more varied and creative on the whole than I would expect from a MOBA. Take Abathur for example: he’s basically worthless when fighting on his own, but he can provide any ally with some powerful new abilities that he actively controls from a safe distance. Or take Murky, who can put an egg anywhere on the map, which provides a new instantaneous spawn point after death. There’s some fun stuff in here, and yet it all feels a lot more streamlined than I would have expected. I suppose that’s Blizzard’s MO -- making streamlined games that nevertheless have a ton of depth -- and that’s certainly the case with HotS. Any given game can be pretty intense, and definitely requires focus and teamwork to come out on top, but the basics can be learned quickly. Blizzard continues to bring a high level of polish to games that are both accessible and rewarding, and they have also been treating the free-to-play model with care (HotS is handled similarly to Hearthstone in that regard). Anyway, I’ve quite enjoyed what I’ve played of HotS thus far, and while I don’t expect to dive too deep down the rabbit hole, I’m sure I’ll continue to dip my toes in here and there.

The Other Stuff

  • I’ve continued to play Evolve with some friends, which I’ve enjoyed more as I’ve opened up some different characters for some classes. The game’s strength (to me) continues to be the delicate interdependence between the four hunter roles. I've come to appreciate what each one brings to the table, and you really feel it when someone doesn’t pull their weight. Like Left 4 Dead before it, Evolve is a game that makes you work together, which can be cool. I haven’t particularly enjoyed the few times I’ve played as the monster, there’s some frustrating knockback in the game that I’ve seen people abuse, and I do have some questions about balance. But otherwise, Evolve remains a pretty neat game.

Teamwork makes the dream work?
Teamwork makes the dream work?
  • My brother and I have been playing through Ibb & Obb, a co-op puzzle game that came through PlayStation Plus a while ago. I’ve been really enjoying it, and think it does what most good puzzle games do: it takes very simple mechanics and pushes them to their limit, continually creating new and different scenarios that are fun to solve. Ibb & Obb manages to do all of that in a way that works in co-op too; you feel like you need both players to advance. It’s also got a cool look to it. It's a good time.
  • I’m not much of a fighting game guy, but I had always wanted to try out the 2011 Mortal Kombat for whatever reason. I finally got around to it this month, and spent a few hours dabbling in its various modes, as well as playing some matches against my brother. All in all I enjoyed it, and found it to be pretty accessible for a genre that’s always felt over my head. I was quickly able to pull off the moves I wanted to, and while I’m never going to execute never-ending juggles, I felt solid with the basics. That goes a long way for me in a fighting game.
  • Continuing my fighting game exploration, I also tried Super Street Fighter IV: Arcade Edition this month, which I’ve never found to be as accessible as MK. I played some Street Fighter II back in the day, yet even after spending a few more hours with SFIV I still can’t reliably perform a shoryuken or a sonic boom. While I know I’m no fighting game maverick, I’m a pretty competent game player in general, so not being able to pull off the game’s more basic moves after a few hours of practice seems pretty ridiculous. In some ways I feel like this should be the fighting game for me, but experience suggests it most definitely is not. Oh well.

Looking Ahead to July

Ah, July. The slowest month for new game releases every year, almost without fail (every now and then December bests it). 2015 is looking no different, as I don’t see a single game scheduled to come out this July that catches my interest. That’s perfectly fine with me, however, as I never have any shortage of games to play; no new games could come out for well over a year and I’d be fine. On top of that, by some bizarre coincidence I’m attending three weddings this July. So my weekends, where most of my gaming tends to happen, aren’t going to be very fruitful on that front. When I do have gaming time this July, however, I will be venturing forth with Pillars of Eternity, along with some ongoing multiplayer games. I will try to pluck a few other games off my backlog as well; one game I’ve had for a while and not started yet is Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc. That’s at the top of my list at the moment, along with some recent Steam sale acquisitions. We’ll see where all that takes me!

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Monthly Roundup, May 2015

Well, I am a working man once more. After having a welcome month off (I would welcome more time off if I could) I started my new job this week. I am excited about it though (and lucky to have it), so no complaints here! Before work gets into full swing, I do want to wrap up what I played during my month off. Unsurprisingly, I did get to a lot of games in May, and ended up breaking my roundup into two parts as a result. The first part, which covers the first half of the month, can be found here. This is the second part, covering the other games I played over May’s latter two weeks. And with that preamble out of the way, let’s get to the games!

Sega Genesis

Despite having one of these, I never fell in love with it.
Despite having one of these, I never fell in love with it.

Bear with me here, as this one is a little different. Earlier in the year I got it in my head that I should try a lot of the Sega Genesis “classics” that I never played. We actually had a Genesis in the house growing up, but I spent way more time with our Super Nintendo. In my mind, there was never a real rivalry there; the SNES simply had substantially more, better games. At some point it dawned on me, however, that I never played most of the games people loved the Genesis for. I did play the Sonic games back in the day, but otherwise my Genesis experience in the 90s primarily consisted of Disney games (Aladdin, The Lion King, etc.), other licensed games (Jurassic Park, Batman, etc.), the Strike games, and a few other oddballs here and there (Zombies Ate My Neighbors, Pitfall: The Mayan Adventure, etc.). I did play a few other well-loved games, such as Ecco the Dolphin and Earthworm Jim, but to be honest none of those ever grabbed me. I remember liking Sonic the Hedgehog 2 and Aladdin just fine, and enjoying a few other games in spurts, but the Genesis seemed like a big step down compared to the great library of the SNES.

Fast forward to 2015, and I found myself wanting to go back and give the Genesis its due. This was more of an academic exercise than anything; I never expected playing a bunch of Genesis games 20 years later to make me love the system. Rather, I wanted to get a good sense of what endeared the system to so many others, and what I had missed. So I did my research and compiled a list of highly regarded Genesis games that I had never played, yet looked like games I would have played had I been more informed at the time. This resulted in a nice pile, and I’ve tried out almost all of them over the past two months (mostly in the past few weeks). I didn’t finish any of them (which was never the goal, as most are rather hard), but I played enough of each to feel like I understood them. With all of that in mind, here’s a quick rundown of what I tried (in the order I tried them in), and my brief impressions. Side note: my brother joined me for all co-op beat ‘em ups, as I felt those would be better with a buddy.

Altered Beast is a special game.
Altered Beast is a special game.
  • Altered Beast: This game is preeetty hilarious. Imagine knowing nothing about this game in 2015, and then seeing your character transform with those late 80s animations. It’s a trip. The game plays pretty terribly by today’s standards, but it’s a sight to behold if nothing else. I got a kick out of it.
  • Golden Axe: We tried all three Golden Axe games, and I did not get them at all. They all feel equally sluggish, and the way you get stun locked from every single attack is infuriating. I know it’s old, but I can think of plenty of its contemporaries that did similar stuff, yet felt infinitely better; even older NES beat ‘em ups like Double Dragon and River City Ransom seemed heads and shoulders above this. Despite this series having such a storied legacy, I have a hard time understanding the appeal for it, and had nothing but a bad time with it.
  • Streets of Rage: Contrary to Golden Axe, this trio of beat ‘em ups seems pretty cool. The original feels fairly dated, but the leap from the first game to the second is immediately apparent. I had a pretty good time with what we played of Streets of Rage 2 and 3, and see why they have the reputation they do; they look, sound, and play pretty well. In fact, they’re probably on par with the best such games on the SNES, and we may go back and try and beat one of them sometime.
  • Strider: I had never played any version of Strider before, so why not start with the Genesis one? I won’t say I got super into Strider, but it wasn’t a bad time either. I even gritted through a few continues to try and push further, which is a good sign. It doesn’t always control great, and can be frustrating as a result, but there’s some cool stuff there.
  • Alex Kidd in the Enchanted Castle: Jeff is right; Alex Kidd is total garbage top to bottom. No idea why anyone would enjoy this game...
  • Comix Zone: This game seems to have some really neat ideas, but man is it tedious. It was a huge effort for me to beat the first stage, and while I understand that’s actually a third of the game, that stage is still pretty frustrating. It’s a very long stage where damage taken at the beginning can doom you later, and there are a number of spots where it’s easy to take damage if you don’t know the trick. This resulted in edging ahead a little further with each attempt, until I had memorized every little detail. That’s not my prefered style of play, even if it was somewhat common in those day. Either way, I didn’t come away that impressed.
  • Columns: This seemed alright, but it’s not really my kind of thing. It didn’t take long for me to get bored, but it’s neat that Sega had a well regarded game of this type.

Ristar is a pretty swell little game.
Ristar is a pretty swell little game.
  • Ristar: Now here’s the good stuff. I genuinely enjoyed what I played of Ristar, and it’s probably the game I played the most of this bunch, and got the farthest in. It just seems like a solid platformer; it looks good, sounds great, and controls pretty well for the most part, despite a few dated/frustrating kinks here and there. All you do is grab things, but the way that grab is translated into so many actions is pretty cool. I think this is a game I would have really liked had I played it as a kid.
  • Gunstar Heroes: I had actually played Gunstar Super Heroes on the GBA before (along with other Treasure favorites), so I more or less knew what to expect from this. And that’s pretty much what I got; a totally ridiculous side-scrolling shooter with more explosions than you could ever need. Like Treasure’s other games, it can be a bit too frantic at times, to the point where I don’t feel I have much room for finesse or accuracy. But there’s still a certain appeal to such madness, and I had an alright time with this. That board game style level is pretty annoying though.
  • Shinobi: I tried two Shinobi games, The Revenge of Shinobi and Shinobi III: Return of the Ninja Master. While I had heard a lot more positive things about the former, it was the latter that I enjoyed more, and by a good margin. It just feels a lot smoother to play, which makes sense being the newer of the two. Regardless, both games can feel kind of clunky in spots, but I did get some enjoyment out of Shinobi III. There’s something neat there.
  • Vectorman: I tried both Vectorman 1 and 2, and of all the Genesis games I tried, these perhaps feel the most modern. That makes sense, given they were released at the tail end of the system’s life, but it still makes for a more pleasantly playing game than most. In other words, I enjoyed both of the Vectorman games (which are extremely similar). I don’t know that they strike me as anything super special, but they are solid games that I probably would have liked as a kid.

That’s a (very) brief look at the selection of Sega Genesis games I played these past two months. While most of them were noticeably dated, it was still interesting that my enjoyment of them ran the gamut. And while it’s really hard to compare them to other Genesis and SNES games that I played back in the 90s, I do think I came out of this exercise with a better understanding of what the Genesis had to offer. There’s some good stuff there that I think I would have gotten into, and I no longer think people who genuinely love the Genesis are delusional :P I still have two more games I want to check out for the system as well. They are a pair of RPGs that were too long to lump in with the pile of short action games: Phantasy Star IV: The End of the Millennium and Shining Force II. I’ll get to them when I can, and cover them appropriately. Who knows, they may even help the Genesis’ cause even more!

The Evil Within

This should probably be said up front: Resident Evil 4 is easily one of my favorite games I’ve ever played. At the same time, I’ve never considered myself a Resident Evil fan at large, nor have I ever considered myself a fan of “survival horror”. The only other Resident Evil I’ve liked is Resident Evil 5, and I never got into anything like Silent Hill or similar survival horror games. I think it comes down to the fact that RE4 and RE5 (and also Dead Space) were fun action games and/or shooters above all else. They may have had creepy atmosphere here and there, and some gross monster designs. But the things I really appreciated about those games was the feel of the gunplay, the way the enemies reacted to your shots, the weapons and their upgrades, and how that all came together to create some intense and varied encounters against mobs of exciting enemies. In other words, it was the action and combat scenarios I liked about those games. The “survival” and/or “horror” aspects of them, if they even existed at all, I could take or leave. They made no difference to me.

The Evil Within is at its best when forcing you to manage a large horde of foes at once.
The Evil Within is at its best when forcing you to manage a large horde of foes at once.

Enter The Evil Within, a game spearheaded by Shinji Mikami and co., and thus shares some DNA with RE4. Needless to say, I was curious. I unfortunately missed this game when it came out (thanks to school), and despite its mixed reaction I still wanted to give the game a shot. It seemed like a “love it or hate it” type of game, and I could only know where I stood if I played it for myself, which I have now done. The result, weirdly enough, is that I both love and hate things about The Evil Within. For starters, the strong combat that defined RE4 is mostly present and accounted for; moving through an environment and using everything at your disposal to take out the enemies in your way can be thrilling in The Evil Within. There’s a scenario early on that shows off this strength in a way eerily similar to RE4, and the movement and feel of the guns, if occasionally a little clunky, still feel very satisfying in general. I highly enjoyed these combat scenarios, and scurrying to pick up ammo and health as enemies lumber towards you, only to turn around and blast their heads off in the knick of time is as fun as ever. The Evil Within also adds some new wrinkles to the formula, in the way of stealth mechanics and traps. The stealth is pretty simple, and aside from a terrible opening chapter, mostly optional. It fits in well enough with the existing action though, and I relied on it regularly. The traps can be hit or miss, though I don’t feel like they're a big enough part of the game to have much impact one way or another.

Unfortunately, I feel like The Evil Within doesn’t hit its strengths frequently or reliably enough. The aforementioned early scenario is one of the game’s high points, and counting that one there are maybe four or five similarly strong sections in the entire game. Each one is probably under 30 minutes, which leaves a lot of time to fill for a game that easily took me over 15 hours. The rest of that chunky playtime consists of slowly slinking through creepy environments picking up supplies, fighting small groups of non-threatening enemies, or participating in some form of set piece, the quality of which can be all over the place. Some are totally fine, but the game’s worst moments come from set pieces that have you navigate an obstacle or avoid an enemy that kills you in one hit, or some other QTE style variant. Otherwise, crawling through corridors and fighting a few easy enemies here and there is rarely that exciting. I feel like the game tries to rely heavily on its decent, but not amazing atmosphere in these situations, which is backed up by its weirdly paced, nonsensical, and generally underwhelming story. Put all of that together, and I simply don’t think the game taps into its strengths nearly enough. The Evil Within has some very high highs, and between that and its pedigree I expected to like the game a lot more. But while I certainly never hated it, its other sections never clicked for me either. There very well may be survival horror “purists” that like those moments, but I would have gotten more out of it had it focused on those large action scenarios much more frequently.

Looking Ahead to June

I’ve only been out of work for just over a year, but it will probably still take me a bit to get into a rhythm with it again. June is a reboot in that sense, which may lead to some weird gaming patterns, but I would be willing to bet I’ll get my fair share of gaming in. As for what I’ll actually play, that’s a bit up in the air right now. I’m currently poking away at some final Pokemon team-building tasks, and after that I have a handful of ideas that I’m not fully willing to commit to just yet. Rest assured, something will be played. There are some potentially interesting June releases as well. Massive Chalice officially just came out (finally), and Batman: Arkham Knight is the month’s big release. I may or may not dabble in one of those, but I have plenty of other options either way.

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