The Long Goodbye

Ever since I got my Nintendo 3DS a few months ago, I’ve been thinking a lot about the original Nintendo DS, its legacy and what it’s meant to me personally. After realizing that’s it’s pretty easily among my favorite systems I’ve ever owned, I decided to write this article as a tribute to a great system that’s on its way out. So here’s to you, Nintendo DS. It’s been fun.

When the Nintendo DS came out in late 2004 I was among the early skeptics who weren’t quite sold on the dual and touch screen ideas. My Game Boy Advance worked fine with just one screen and buttons after all, and with titles like The Legend of Zelda: The Minish Cap and Fire Emblem: The Sacred Stones coming out in 2005 (after the DS was already out) there still seemed to be plenty of life left in the old guard. My curiosity got the better of me later that year, however, and a strong Fall 2005 push from the DS led to me picking the system up.

Advance Wars: Dual Strike was one of the great early DS games.

My initial skepticism was quickly proven to be completely unfounded. Looking back, the Nintendo DS had a highly impressive lineup of games during its first full year on the market. Games released for the DS in 2005 include (though are certainly not limited to) Kirby: Canvas Curse, Meteos, Advance Wars: Dual Strike, Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow, Trauma Center: Under the Knife, Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney and Mario Kart DS. I played and really liked each of these games, and even better was that they offered a wide variety of experiences that were all perfectly suited for the DS’ portable nature and unique characteristics. Games like Advance Wars: Dual Strike, Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow and Mario Kart DS showed that classic franchises could work just as well on the DS as they ever have on any other platform. In fact, it could be argued that these three games in particular were among the best in their respective franchises. They certainly played just as well as ever, and looked and sounded as good too. They also made simple but welcome uses of the system’s second screen; I don’t think anyone would complain about having a second screen dedicated to your map in Castlevania for example.

Perhaps more intriguing were the less traditional games among this group, such as Kirby: Canvas Curse, Meteos and Trauma Center: Under the Knife. All of these games relied heavily on the Nintendo DS’ other big introduction, the touch screen, and the results were fantastic. All three games played surprisingly well, showing how precise the touch screen could be as well as how it could allow for drastically different play experiences. The touch screen could clearly allow for more freeform, precision based gameplay than traditional controls could ever offer, and this turned out to be a big part of the DS’ success. Finally, games like Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney gave us a glimpse as how varied the DS library would ultimately become. It kicked off the great adventure game rebirth that only widened the DS’ appeal, and the genre hasn’t been done nearly as well anywhere else in quite some time. Plenty of other niche genres found similarly cozy homes on the DS, and the variety of the system’s library is easily one of its best traits.

Elite Beat Agents, a personal favorite, showcases what the DS is all about.

That was all a whopping seven to eight years ago, but that initial batch of games turned out to be a surprisingly strong indicator of just what kind of a system the Nintendo DS would become. Since then the DS has seen dozens of fantastic games that run the gamut: New Super Mario Bros., Elite Beat Agents, a pair of Picross games, The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass, numerous Professor Layton games, The World Ends With You, Rhythm Heaven, Mario & Luigi: Bowser’s Inside Story, 999: Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors, and two full generations of Pokemon. These are only among the many highlights (and also exclude important games like Nintendogs and Brain Age, which don’t interest me personally), showcasing the absolute best that the system has to offer in terms of both pure quality and sheer variety. Every system has their stalwarts though, and what’s equally impressive to me is how the DS has a large, deep library of “mid-tier” games that are entirely worth playing on their own merits. Games like Lunar Knights, Radiant Historia and Aliens: Infestation probably wouldn’t be given the time of day on most platforms, but they shine bright on the DS. I even had a lot of fun playing Dragon Quest Heroes: Rocket Slime; that’s a guilty pleasure game if there ever was one.

What makes a great video game system is something that’s always up for debate, but I’d be willing to bet that almost everyone includes “great games” among their criteria. That in itself can be a subjective process, but I don’t think anyone would argue that the Nintendo DS hasn’t had a fantastic library of games, one that serves just about every corner of the market too. By this measure alone the DS is a great system; among the roughly 15 systems I’ve owned to date I place the DS right near the top. But there’s another trait that’s recently become apparent about the DS, one that might be the purest indicator of a system’s greatness: a refusal to go away. The Nintendo 3DS has been out for over a year, and the DS keeps on going strong in spite of this fact. Games like Okamiden, Pokemon Conquest, and the aforementioned Radiant Historia and Aliens: Infestation all came out around or after the 3DS’ release, and Pokemon Black and White 2 are still on the way. And where Pokemon goes says a lot about a Nintendo handheld’s current status.

The DS is still hanging on with games like Aliens: Infestation.

Many other great systems have produced the same phenomenon, with the Playstation 2 (notable as the only system in video game history to outsell the Nintendo DS) being perhaps the best example. God of War II and Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4, a pair of highly successful and wildly popular games, came out after the Playstation 3 was already on shelves. What’s impressive is that these late comers can often be extremely good, and can rival the best from other, newer systems. A small but telling example: The other week I was playing a pair of games simultaneously, Darksiders II and Aliens: Infestation. The former represents a hot new release on current, dominant platforms, and is one of the summer’s biggest titles. The latter is a year old game on a nearly eight year old handheld, but it’s the one I enjoyed substantially more between the two. Since then I’ve picked up and started playing Pokemon Conquest, and have been enjoying that more than I reasonably should as well. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but there remains a certain charm to the DS that’s comforting. It’s kind of like catching up with an old friend, one that you’ve had countless good times with over the years.

The Nintendo 3DS may be out and gathering steam, and popular consoles like the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 are building up for another big Fall push, but for the time being I still find myself attracted to the original Nintendo DS just as strongly as ever. Whether I’m booting up an old favorite or digging into a gem I missed along the way, the DS is taking its sweet time leaving the spotlight. I’m totally okay with that too; sometimes it can be hard to say goodbye, especially to the great ones.

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Weekly Roundup 09/02/2012

This week was a little erratic, but I started it off by finishing Darksiders II. I was pretty close to the end at this time last week, so everything I said a week ago still holds; if anything it’s even more true now. The endgame, to me, petered out with a whimper, punctuated emphatically by a sad excuse for a final boss. Even worse was a horrible late game shooting section that was as baffling as it was just plain bad. I have no idea why Vigil Games would decide to turn their game into a boring third person shooter for an hour or two right near the end. It almost feels like they ran out of ideas, and desperately wanted to put something in there to add “variety” and otherwise extend the game.

Maybe if I was 13 I'd think the characters were rad.

I also found the story and characters pretty “meh” on the whole. The general structure sees you, one of the four horsemen of the apocalypse, essentially playing errand boy for the majority of the game. It’s not a huge deal, as a lot of video games do that, but it did come off as kind of silly. The way the characters act and speak is also generally adolescent and bland. There’s a lot of turgid, boastful banter as the characters talk a lot without spouting much more than simple decrees and challenges. Again, not terrible by video game standards, just kind of dumb. Overall, that’s probably my biggest takeaway from Darksiders II; almost everything about it felt off in kind of a dumb way. And while none of it was aggressively bad (outside of that aforementioned shooting sequence), it was a bit disappointing to me personally. Coming into this game, and more generally this franchise, I felt like there was a lot of potential for something really cool. It wasn’t realized (for me at least), and if there’s a third game I highly doubt I’ll bother with it.

After finishing Darksiders II I also played a little Diablo III for the first time in months, perhaps against my better judgement. A recent patch changed a lot of stuff in the game, and my brother and I dipped our toes in to see if we wanted to try and finish the game on Inferno difficulty. I won’t bother with the details here, but I will say that the game is easier in a number of ways now. We ended up making pretty decent progress, and are almost done with Act III on Inferno. I don’t claim to know what exactly will come of this, but it would be kind of nice to finish the game on Inferno, so we’ll keep fiddling with it as we see fit.

Some cool fluid interactions in Pixeljunk Shooter.

I also played through Pixeljunk Shooter this week. That might seem a little bit random, but when Sound Shapes came out I found myself wanting to go back and take a look at some PSN games I had missed and see if any of them looked cool. Pixeljunk Shooter was the only one that really stood out to me right now, and I ended up really enjoying it. It’s not about shooting all that much though; it’s more about interacting with different fluids, primarily water, lava and some weird magnetic mix. They all have different properties, and the game’s cleverly designed levels do a great job at showcasing their wide variety of interesting interactions. It’s probably as much a puzzle game as anything else, and it was fun to experiment with that stuff. The game’s also paced pretty well, and is constantly introducing new ideas all the way until the ending (which clearly sets up for the sequel). I won’t say that the game blew me away or anything, but I think it’s a neat, well made game that was well worth playing. Would easily recommend.

A lot of characters come and go in Episode 3.

Last but not least, I played through Episode 3 of The Walking Dead yesterday. And man, shit’s really starting to hit the fan with that thing. All of the decisions I’ve been making and all the relationships I’ve been forming over the first two episodes finally came to a head; this was the first time in the series that I really felt the outcome of my choices. It makes me curious how differently the episode can play out for different people. Multiple times I wondered what difference a single dialogue option might make, much less three episodes worth of choices. I even resisted the urge to reload a few times to make different selections. I’m committed to letting my story play out however it does though, even when things don’t go quite how I would want them to in an ideal world. I did the same thing in Heavy Rain, and think it makes for a more pure, personal experience. Character X may be alive in my perfect world, for example, but their death ends up having a much greater impact than anything I would plan myself; it becomes a defining moment I’ll never forget. Reloading would sabotage that, and by the end of the episode Lee’s story finally felt like my story for the first time in the series.

I’m still not convinced that I like the game’s episodic format, but I am now convinced that The Walking Dead could end up being something pretty special. It’s starting to take the foundation of things like Mass Effect and Heavy Rain to even further extremes, and it’s something I’d love to see them push even further going forward. Anyway, next up is a pair of games that I’ve already started playing, Sound Shapes and The Last Story. Sound Shapes seems neat so far, and I don’t know what to think about The Last Story. I should by next week though, and will write about both games then. And that’s going to do it for now, until next time!

Currently playing: Sound Shapes, The Last Story

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Weekly Roundup 08/26/2012

I’ve spent the past week playing a pair of games, the first of which is Aliens: Infestation. I’ve had my eye on it since it came out last year, and I’m glad I finally got around to playing through it. Even better is that I really liked it. I sometimes get tired of the “Metroidvania” label getting thrown around as much as it does (often inappropriately), but I think in this case it works well. Aliens certainly has that kind of world design, and while it’s never as devious as it is in a proper Metroid game the spirit is still there. You’re constantly winding your way back and forth through the Sulaco, opening up large, previously inaccessible areas of the ship, and finding shortcuts and upgrades. There’s also a strong sense of atmosphere and tension, which helps make the ship feel more like a tangible place in addition to being a series of connected hallways for gameplay purposes. It feels like a good fit for the game.

Aliens knows how to build tension.

Aliens derives that atmosphere and tension from a numbers of places too. First is the presentation, which is appropriately moody. The ship both looks and sounds dreary, and can be a little unsettling. Then there’s the way the game paces itself, which is pretty methodical. It knows how to let the tension build, and rather than throw a bunch of enemies at you all the time it doles them out more slowly, making each encounter more impactful as a result. It also helps that one-on-one fights with most of the game’s enemies can’t be taken lightly. Aliens is not a particularly easy game, and it certainly doesn’t allow you to run through guns blazing. You can never take a lot of hits, so you’re always better served taking things slow and steady. I find that only adds to the tension, and is pretty refreshing compared to the way a lot of games just hurl fodder at you. Finally, and by far the most interesting thing that Aliens does, is the way it handles your characters. You have a squad of up to four marines at all times. You only control one of them at a time, but if you die the marine you were controlling is dead for good. You can then switch to another marine, but you’re never getting that one back.

Each character has their own personality, which is pretty great.

I really like that permanence; it’s always a welcome sight to me when a game treats player death as more than a minor inconvenience. That kind of permanent character death is something I’ve always loved about the Fire Emblem series, and it’s a similar thing here. You can find replacement marines scattered about the ship that you can recruit as replacements, but I assume there’s a finite number of them. If you’re not careful, you could potentially be boned. That may sound off putting to some, but I think it’s really neat. Each character also has some amount of unique personality, so I could see people getting attached to some favorites, which is further incentive to keep them alive. Anyway, it’s a really cool idea, and something I’d like to see more often.

If there’s anything to complain about in Aliens it’s that sometimes the action doesn’t feel that great. The controls aren’t always as responsive as they could be, and switching items around and having to reload via the touch screen is kind of annoying. That’s all pretty minor though. For the most part the action felt fine, and the way the encounters are designed don’t put as much of a premium on quick button presses as they could. There is one late game zero gravity section that was really frustrating though; that I could have done without. Otherwise, I really enjoyed Aliens, and if you like sidescrolling action games it’s easily worth a playthrough. Parallel to Aliens I’ve been playing Darksiders II this week, and I’m going to play it pretty straight: I don’t think Darksiders II is a very good game. It’s not offensively bad so to speak, but it gets dangerously close on one too many occasions, and the moments where I’ve genuinely had fun with it have been all too rare.

I find the combat to be pretty unsatisfying.

I was a mild fan of the original Darksiders; I thought it had some interesting ideas, but the execution was pretty boilerplate. The dungeons, puzzles, combat, etc. were all fairly rote, but they got the job done. Put another way, it was competent without being very noteworthy. I’m not entirely sure I would call Darksiders II competent (and if it is, just barely). For me it starts with the combat, which simply doesn’t feel very good. It’s sluggish and unresponsive, especially when it comes to dodging. There seems to be a lot of animation priority that hinders your ability to pull moves off with the proper timing, and leads to it all feeling more mashy than an action game should. Furthermore, even when it works right it’s pretty boring. I’ve been playing on apocalyptic difficulty (aka hard), and it’s still been very simple and easy. Given the unresponsiveness of the controls, I basically feel like I’m fumbling my way through each fight, and yet I’m doing so handily. It’s all very unsatisfying. Also, the camera is quite bad.

I feel like the platforming suffers from the same animation priority and general unresponsiveness as the combat does too. If you try and perform one action right after another Death will almost never do what you just told him to do. It’s like the game has to wait for it to catch up with itself before letting you go on. Perhaps all the sluggishness is somehow tied to how buggy the game is, and it should be a well known fact by now that Darksiders II is pretty darn buggy. Clipping, frame rate drops and game lockups are abundant (I’m playing the Xbox 360 version for what it’s worth), and I’ve also had the fast travel stop working multiple times (reloading seems to fix it). The worst so far though has been some broken scripting that made me wonder if I was even going to be able to finish the game. Basically, a guy I needed to talk to for the main quest wasn’t where the marker said he was. After about 10 minutes of random wandering he finally loaded in, which is ridiculous. I don’t really know why the game is so buggy either, it’s not like this is a Skyrim sized world or anything.

Who put loot in my action game? Are they trying to be Kingdoms of Amalur or something?

All of this is very technical, execution style stuff, but it makes the game feel sloppy, and makes the act of playing it more trying than I would like. I don’t really have a problem with what the game is trying to do, I just don’t think it does much of it very well. If I do switch over to more design type issues, I personally don’t care for the loot system; it feels totally unnecessary to me. Also, inventory management is a mess (made even worse by the sluggish menus), and the side quests are extremely bland. I have no desire to do any of them, especially since the game is so easy already, and I find perfectly fine equipment and more money than I could ever spend as it is. It all makes this otherwise action heavy game feel more bloated than it should. I also think the pacing is off in a weird way. You get surprisingly few abilities in the game, but there are a ton of dungeons (this is a long game). So you end up spending a lot of time solving each set of environmental puzzles and fighting each set of enemies over and over, which gets old. It’s a shame too, because some of the puzzles are actually quite good. It’s one of the few things I think the game does really well, but it gets somewhat diluted by all the other stuff going on that’s bogging the game down and stretching it out.

Whew, I apologize, this has gone on longer than I expected. Anyway, I’m near the end of Darksiders II, and should easily finish it this week and wrap up my thoughts next week (I have yet to talk about any narrative business). I’ll probably dive into an assortment of smaller games this week too, such as Sound Shapes. But that’s going to do it for now, until next time!

Currently playing: Darksiders II

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Weekly Roundup 08/19/2012

This past week was a week of two halves. The first half was spent playing Vanquish, a Platinum Games joint that looked pretty cool when it came out that I simply never got around to. I really like Platinum and the way they go about things; they seem to be one of the few Japanese developers who really gets it. They’re able to find that balance between offering the kind of complete insanity that only Japan can offer while still making it appealing enough for western audiences to actually buy. Put another way, they seem to be able to reach the west without giving up what’s made Japan such a force in the video game industry.

BOOST!

Vanquish definitely fits that mold too, even if it isn’t my favorite Platinum game (that would be Bayonetta). Vanquish for the most part plays like your everyday third person cover based shooter. You know, Gears of War type stuff. In fact, I almost wonder if Platinum looked at games like Gears of War and said “Hey, this is popular in the west, so what if we do that and make it a little crazier?” Vanquish takes those tried and true methods and adds in ridiculous characters, a totally rad boost ability, and bullet time. The game is also thematically and tonally absurd and over-the-top in ways you might expect from the makers of Bayonetta, though it never goes quite as far as that game did. It kind of bums me out to see them reign it in a little, as a lot of what I liked about Bayonetta was how stupid and insane it was. Vanquish never reaches those heights, but it still has its moments. One of my favorites is during a semi-stealth section where you have to snipe some security cameras, and your character (Sam Gideon) complements himself after you make a shot: “Great shot Sam!” Nobody else is around, but he just has to let himself know how great that shot was.

The gameplay is similarly reigned in, but still has its moments too. For the most part it’s standard “stop-and-pop” shooting, but if you’re feeling daring (or are playing on easy) you can boost around the battlefield. I think all the action feels super snappy, especially the boosting, though I didn’t always get to use it to its full advantage. I played on hard, which meant I had to spend most of my time sitting behind cover to stay alive. That’s the basic mantra of cover based shooters these days: the higher the difficulty the more time you spend behind cover. Still, the basic action is really solid (probably as good as any such shooter), and the bullet time is a nice touch; it makes managing particularly gnarly fights less tedious. And with that, I don’t really know what else to say about Vanquish. I found it to be a well made, quick, fun action game that, other than a few glimpses of Japanese craziness here and there, didn’t do a whole lot out of the norm. Basically, I enjoyed playing it, but doubt it will stick with me for very long.

Dust is a simple yet fun adventure.

I ended up finishing Vanquish just in time for this week’s deluge of new releases, and the one I was the most immediately interested in was Dust: An Elysian Tail. So I picked that up, and have spent the latter half of the week playing it through from start to finish. I think that game is super cool. It’s kind of a mishmash of a bunch of different stuff, but the most common term thrown around when describing it seems to be “Metroidvania”. I can see what people are getting at with that comparison, but I find it to be a tenuous one at best. At a glance the map looks like a Metroidvania style map, and there is some small amount of ability gating here and there, but it’s all pretty minor. The game is very linear, leaving little room for exploration, and there are maybe four or five abilities in the game total. More than that, those abilities are generally used to restrict story progress, with their only other use being to hide a few treasure chests here and there. Furthermore, the world map is broken up into a dozen or so smaller maps, which makes it feel less cohesive than I tend to expect from the genre. It also means you’re never finding shortcuts or alternate routes, which is further enhanced by its linear nature and limited abilities.

Combat is fast and flashy without being very intricate.

Despite what it may sound like, none of this is meant as a slight against Dust; it’s not like I hate anything that’s not full on Metroidvania. It just means I don’t make that same comparison. At the same time, that somewhat flawed comparison goes a long ways towards describing Dust as a whole. It takes ideas from a lot of different genres, including Metroidvania style games, and mashes them all together. Yet none of these ideas are as fully realized as their sources. The combat is fast and somewhat technical, but there’s not a lot of moves or enemy variety. There’s some light customization via leveling up and assigning stat points, as well as crafting and equiping different items and gear. None of it is very involved, however, and I get the impression that most everyone probably ends up with more or less the same build. There are also side quests and loot, which are again very simple and straightforward. Even the story is standard fare, though it tries to be more dramatic than it really is. All of that said, the way all of these different aspects combine makes for a fun game. None of these ideas are terribly impressive on their own, but by having so many different ideas from wildly different genres come together like this, there’s enough different stuff going on to be engaging. I never got bored playing Dust, which is fairly impressive given how surprisingly long it is. Granted, I did literally everything there is to do in the game (S-rank get!), but my final time clocked in around 15 hours. That’s sizable for any game, much less a downloadable game largely made by a single person.

The one thing about Dust that does really stand out is it presentation. I think the art style is awesome, and the soundtrack is fantastic. The voice acting can be hit or miss though. Also, apparently people have a thing against “furries” (which I didn’t even know was a word)? I don’t know what that’s all about; I thought the game looked great, and not once did I find it off putting. Anyway, I thought Dust was really fun, and I enjoyed playing it a lot. It’s not a particularly deep or inventive game, but it’s made well enough in just about every department to be a good time. I would easily recommend it to anyone looking for a good, lengthy downloadable adventure. After finishing up Dust I checked my mailbox to find Darksiders II sitting in there, which was pretty darn good timing. So that’s the next game for me, and I’ll probably start it sometime today. I’ve also been (very) slowly poking at Aliens: Infestation here and there, and will continue along with that (and actually comment on it some next week). But that’s going to do it for now, until next time!

Currently playing: Darksiders II, Aliens: Infestation

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Weekly Roundup 08/12/2012

It’s been all Zelda all the time for me recently. After finishing Oracle of Ages the other week, I immediately dived into Link’s Awakening DX, blitzed through that pretty quickly, and then did the same with Oracle of Seasons. The Zelda train only moves forward! It’s all become a bit of a blur, which is only enhanced by the fact that all three of these games are very similar in a lot of ways. Same perspective, same graphical style, same overworld theme, same annoying two button limitation on items, same controls, many of the same items and enemies (and even bosses; I feel like I’ve beaten some bosses about five times by now), and so on. So forgive me if they run together and I get some details mixed up between them.

This guy's pretty tubular.

Anyway, I really enjoyed all three games. I wrote about Oracle of Ages last week and more or less everything I said there applies to both Link’s Awakening and Oracle of Seasons as well, so there’s not much point in repeating it at length. The short version: the dungeons remain amazing, and most of the between dungeon stuff remains tiresome. If I compare and contrast, I think Ages has the most devious and exciting dungeons of the three. The other two are certainly no slouch in this area, but I think Ages has just a little bit more to each dungeon, and they ramp up in intensity sooner. Link’s Awakening and Seasons give you a few “intro” style dungeons to get the ball rolling, but Ages pretty much hits the ground running. Or maybe it was just because Ages was the first one I played of the three, and thus not as wise to its tricks. Who knows? Outside of the dungeons, I think Link’s Awakening has the most memorable and fantastical world. It’s certainly the one I’ll remember the most, if for no other reason than it’s super weird. Looking back Zelda games on the whole can be pretty darn weird, but even in that context I think Link’s Awakening takes the cake. You’re collecting instruments to wake a giant hippy whale asleep in an egg on top of a mountain. That’s hard to top. Also, you fight what are basically Kirbies in the game. Case closed.

More could have been done with the season changing mechanic.

I like the weirdness though, as it does well to give Link’s Awakening its own unique charm. The world on both both Ages and Seasons came off as fairly standard to me as far as Zelda games go, with not much of note either way. The time and season altering mechanics, for Ages and Seasons respectively, are fine, but for the most part don’t play as big of a role as they could have. Still, exploring the world in all three games was fun. Except for all the fetch questing, but I rambled enough about that last week. Link’s Awakening was probably the worst of the three about that. Do people really enjoy having to trade ribbons, dog food and bananas just to gain access to the next area, which itself is an item hunt? I guess I prefer it when the overworld action is focused more on traversal than fetch quests, but oh well. I also got a little annoyed with some of the later stages of Seasons, especially a few bosses, but that was probably just me getting tired of Zelda in general by that point. I’ve certainly played a lot of it recently.

Overall I really enjoyed all three games, and think they still hold up pretty well in 2012. I think they're worth checking out for Zelda fans who, like myself, missed them back in the day. As for me it’s time for a Zelda break; it’s been kind of nonstop for the past two weeks. The only two “core” Zelda games I have yet to play are the two NES ones, which I’ll try to get to in a few weeks or so after my Zelda batteries are properly recharged. From what I understand about those two games I’ll need to be ready to rumble.

An interesting mechanic buried in an otherwise boring platformer.

In between all the Zelda playing I took short breaks here and there trying And Yet It Moves. I really like platformers, and I like it when they do something offbeat and creative, but I can’t get into this one at all. Its unique trick of being able to rotate the world is interesting in theory, but I don’t think the game does enough with it to be enjoyable for long. Clever uses of the idea are pretty sparse, and in between each new idea is a lot of rote, boring platforming. Even then, the different uses of the mechanic aren’t really all that functionally different from each other. Simply put, rotating is rotating no matter what the end goal is. Otherwise it simply feels like the basics are missing; the pacing and variety that define the very best platformers are just not here. It’s too slow, and the simple platforming that fills the numerous, lengthy gaps doesn’t feel good to me at all; the actual jumping and level design left me wanting. So I’m kind of sour on And Yet It Moves right now, and I’m not sure whether I’ll decide to play more of it or not.

Anyway, this coming week is more or less the end of the summer lull for me (kind of a shame too, as my backlog is still enormous). In addition to Sound Shapes, which just came out and looks pretty rad, the trio of Darksiders II, The Last Story and Dust: An Elysian Tail all come out this week. I’m interested in all four games to varying degrees, and I’m sure I’ll check one or more of them out soon. For now I’m going to start on Vanquish, which I’ve wanted to play for a while and should be something good to squeeze in before picking up one those aforementioned new releases. That’s going to do it for now though, until next time!

Currently playing: Vanquish

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Will the Real Zelda Please Stand Up?

When Darksiders came out in January 2010, the general consensus was that it was the gritty, mature Zelda game everyone had been wanting Nintendo to make for years. Nintendo themselves was never going to abide, so it was left to someone else (like Vigil Games) to carry the torch. Darksiders II comes out next week, and while I’m sure there will be some changes from the first game, I’d be willing to bet that people will still talk about it referentially in regards to The Legend of Zelda. The Darksiders series is carving out its own space alongside one of gaming’s most revered franchises, and is finding its own fan base defined by those who want Zelda games not called Zelda.

It takes more than boomerangs to make a Zelda game.

Perhaps I’m in the minority, but I never bought the Darksiders-Zelda comparison. Yes, you got a boomerang, a hookshot and a horse. Yes, there were dungeons where you solved puzzles and fought bosses. Yes, the game played a jingle when you solved a puzzle. And yes, there were what amounted to heart pieces. But in many ways those are surface level comparisons. It’s like saying any 2D game where you run and jump is like Super Mario Bros., or that any game where you shoot a gun from the first person perspective is like Doom. It may be true to some extent, but it also kind of misses the point. You can run down the checklist and tick all the boxes, but Darksiders never really felt like Zelda to me when I played it. The dungeons and puzzles never felt as devious or as intricate, and the overworld never felt as grand or as majestic. There was a certain soul or spirit missing to everything the game did, something that made it feel like a rudimentary collection of mechanics that are often associated with The Legend of Zelda, but have long since become fairly standard in the bigger picture of video game design. Don’t get me wrong; I liked Darksiders just fine for what it was. I simply didn’t see grounds to draw such a strong, direct comparison to Zelda.

Then something funny happened. Almost two years after Darksiders came out the first full blown console Zelda title since 2006 landed on the Wii, and in many ways was a wake up call. The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword kind of felt like, well, Darksiders. It had the hookshot and the heart pieces, and played the fancy jingle. What’s more, and what really sparked the comparison, is that Skyward Sword felt like the same straight shooting implementation of those mechanics that Darksiders was. That same defining Zelda spirit that Darksiders missed was also conspicuously absent from Skyward Sword. It was among the least Zelda of all the Zeldas, and while it was a fine game in its own way it left me questioning what it really meant to be a Zelda game.

Little game, big adventure.

In my mind The Legend of Zelda is not defined by boomerangs and heart pieces and jingles. It’s defined by something less tangible, a vision at once more abstract and more grand. The first Zelda game I ever played was The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, and my strongest memory of that game is how big it felt; how epic the adventure was, how exciting it felt to be a young, everyday boy going on this enormous quest to save the princess and the kingdom. As cliche as that idea has always been, A Link to the Past imparted a certain gravitas to the journey that made it feel like something more. This is all the more poignant because A Link to the Past wasn’t even that long of a game; certainly not as long as Skyward Sword. And yet it felt bigger somehow. The scope and variety of the world, the freeform way in which you could navigate its intricacies, the way you were invited and sometimes forced to explore and find your own way, the ability to tackle some dungeons in any order you chose. You were thrust into a wild and wondrous world full of seemingly endless possibilities, left to your own wit and resourcefulness to conquer its challenges. This was an adventure in the purest sense of the word, and in some ways video games have never done it better.

That sense of adventure has always been Zelda’s defining trait to me. A Link to the Past had it. Ocarina of Time had it. The Wind Waker had it. I recently played Link’s Awakening for the first time, and almost 20 years after its initial release it still has it. I have yet to play the original The Legend of Zelda, but from talking to those who have, it might have it more than any of them. That very sense of adventure is exactly what I felt both Darksiders and Skyward Sword lacked. There was an adventure of sorts happening on the screen in those games, but I never truly felt a part of it. I never felt like I was in the thick of things in quite the same way, getting my hands dirty trying to survive and save the world at the same time. They were a more passive, guided tour of gameplay mechanics that tend to be associated with Zelda games, rather than exploring what it means to be a Zelda game at heart. Again, that’s not altogether a bad thing. It’s just different.

The adventure of a lifetime awaits in Dark Souls.

Then, in an irony of ironies, mere weeks before Skyward Sword hit shelves another game was released that had seemingly nothing to do with The Legend of Zelda. From Software’s Dark Souls took the world by storm, but there was no immediate comparison to Zelda. After all, Dark Souls had no boomerang, no hookshot, no horse, no jingle and no heart pieces. You didn’t go from one dungeon to the next collecting items that you used to solve puzzles and beat bosses, all for the sake of collecting some odd number of ancient trinkets that will save the world. And yet, Dark Souls still managed to feel like a mature, modern day incarnation of the Zelda spirit. This was the big, epic journey that you could easily lose yourself to. This was the intricate and fantastical world that contained countless mysteries and surprises. This was the quest that demanded you be on your toes every step of the way, making use of every resource available. That same feeling I got when I first played A Link to the Past so many years ago was very much present and accounted for in Dark Souls. It represented the notion of a grand adventure as well as any game could hope to do, and I think it’s the best Zelda game to come out in quite some time.

There was a time when The Legend of Zelda name commanded respect as one of the leading forces in gaming, and as one of the leading adventures of our medium. I’m not convinced that’s the case anymore. Zelda has been going through an identity crisis of sorts, and there’s no shortage of pretenders out there. Darksiders and Skyward Sword may lay claim to the Zelda name, but the real Zelda has finally stood up. It’s called Dark Souls.

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Weekly Roundup 08/05/2012

I tend to really enjoy lulls in the gaming calendar, so this summer has been a boon for me. Good games simply come out faster than I can play them, and I always have a giant pile of older games I’d like to play but never have time for. I’ve been able to chip away at a precious few of those games this summer, and the trend continued this week. To start things off I beat The Legend of Zelda: Oracle of Ages, which is the first leg in my quest to beat all the Zelda games I’ve never played before. Despite the game being about 11 years old, I think it holds up extremely well. There are certainly some aged mechanics floating around, most of which are interface issues that originally spawned from the Game Boy Color’s lack of buttons. The worst is the inability to equip more than two items at a time (including your sword and shield). Annoying, yes, but pretty minor in the grand scheme of things.

Oracle of Ages has some brilliant dungeons.

Oracle of Ages’ dungeons in particular remain incredible, and I actually think they’re better than many of the franchise’s newer entries in ways. Some of them are downright devious, and really push the game’s mechanics to their limits (and sometimes me as well). They make extremely clever use of your entire arsenal, and some of the bosses can get pretty challenging. Unfortunately I didn’t feel the same about the time spent between dungeons, and to me this has become a real weakness of Zelda games in general over the years. After reaching the heights provided by the game’s sublime dungeons, it’s so disappointing to spend the time in between them performing the most dull, menial tasks possible; the franchise has become flooded with painfully boring fetch quests and other equally drab filler. You would think they could either find more interesting things to do between dungeons, or simply cut all that crap out (perhaps in favor of more dungeons). Still, even that sizable caveat can’t hold these dungeons down. I really enjoyed Oracle of Ages, and think it stands toe to toe with most of the games in this revered franchise.

I originally hadn’t planned to play Oracle of Seasons, as I assumed they were a pair in the same way that Pokemon Red and Pokemon Blue are a pair; I figured that I didn’t really need to play both. But further investigation has me believing that’s not the case, and that they’re totally different games. So I ended up ordering Oracle of Seasons, which should get here soon. For now, next in the Zelda queue is Link’s Awakening DX. I’ve already made some progress in that, but I’ll update more next week after I’ve finished it.

What you can't see doesn't exist.

Otherwise I also played through Closure this week, which I missed earlier this year. That game is freaking awesome. In some ways you could write it off as another indie puzzle-platformer, and you wouldn’t be totally unjustified in doing so. But it’s so well done from top to bottom, and the puzzles are so expertly crafted that you’d be doing the game a disservice. Despite the minimalist black and white color palette evoking memories of Limbo, the game’s closest reference to me is Braid. What Braid did with time manipulation, Closure does with light manipulation. It uses light in all sorts of incredibly clever ways, creating some mind-boggling scenarios out of functionally simple mechanics. The levels are all pitch black, and you can only stand on or interact with things that are in the light. This includes floors, walls, items, etc. What makes it even crazier is that what you can’t see doesn’t exist. Say there’s light shining on a wall, but then you direct the light elsewhere. Not only can you not see the wall, but for all intents and purposes it doesn’t exist anymore. You can jump right through what your brain tells you should be a wall. It’s incredibly trippy.

Closure gets a ton of mileage out of its clever mechanics.

It also leads to numerous exciting “Wow!” moments, where something crazy happens that you didn’t know could happen. I’m constantly surprised every time I find a new interaction, and I enjoy having to retrain my brain for each new level; it’s super impressive how much variety there is to the game’s seemingly simple mechanics. I love it when a game can get a ton of mileage out of a small set of strong mechanics, and that’s exactly what Closure does. The game also looks and sounds great. The aforementioned Limbo-esque visuals create a ton of atmosphere, and the soundtrack is appropriately moody and catchy at all the right times. There’s a lot of personality to the package that makes it memorable past the puzzles. If there’s one minor gripe I could level against Closure it’s that every now and then the logic jump required by a puzzle can be a tad bit steep. It’s very rare, and not that big of a deal overall, but it was frustrating on a few occassions.

So yeah, Closure is great. I highly recommend it. Anyway, I’ll keep playing Link’s Awakening DX, which will then roll into Oracle of Seasons at some point. In other words, it’s the summer of Zelda. I have a handful of other games I’d like to play soon too, but getting to them this week is looking doubtful. And that’s going to do it for now, until next time!

Currently playing: The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening DX

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Timmy, Johnny, and Spike

You gotta love Timmy.

I used to play a lot of Magic: The Gathering, and while I don’t play that much anymore (I try to keep up with it to some degree) I still think it’s a fantastic game. During the height of my Magic fever I regularly read the design columns on Wizards of the Coast’s website, and one article in particular always fascinated me. Titled Timmy, Johnny, and Spike Revisited (itself a more comprehensive follow-up to the original Timmy, Johnny, and Spike article) and written by Mark Rosewater, one of Magic’s lead designers, this article goes into great detail about the three primary “psychographic profiles” used to identify what players want out of Magic. Mark expands more on the idea in the article (which I highly recommend reading in full), but the gist of it is that different players play Magic for different reasons. Needless to say, it’s extremely useful for a designer to know what those reasons are. These profiles define the basic motivations of Magic players, and knowing those motivations can go a long way in helping you to design a game that satisfies its players.

I talk about this on a video game website because I’ve always felt that different people play video games for drastically different reasons as well, a point that has only seemed more and more obvious over time as the medium has grown. That got me wondering how well Mark’s three psychographics profiles could be applied to video games. Is it reasonable apply the same three profiles to video game players? Are people motivated to play video games for the same reasons they might be motivated to play Magic? I thought it might be an interesting exercise to try and break down each profile in relation to video games and see what happens. I’ll go through each profile in turn, briefly describing the basics of each profile as well as how video games can satisfy them. Keep in mind that I won’t spend much time repeating Mark’s descriptions of each profile; please read his article for the detailed rundown (he explains it all much better than I could anyway). I’m going to try and focus more on how they specifically apply to video games.

Timmy

Mark has a short sentence to explain each profile’s basic motivation, and Timmy’s is simple: He wants to experience something. This is the profile that sees the inherent joy in the act of playing video games. Timmy plays to see cool moments, to hang out with friends, to feel the excitement of pressing buttons on a controller (or wave your hand through the air like a maniac if that’s your thing) and see it translated into actions on the screen. Timmy simply wants to have fun in whatever way he can. Timmy seems to make a smooth, easy transition to video games, as I hear people claim all the time that they play games for the sole purpose of relaxing, having fun and/or hanging out with friends.

Timmy just loves dragons.

Video games appeal to our inner Timmy in many ways, some more than others. Timmy enjoys the bombastic set pieces of an Uncharted or a Call of Duty, or the epic scope and scale of a God of War or an Elder Scrolls. These types of games appeal to Timmy’s visceral pleasure sensors; no explosion is too big for for the true Timmies of the world, and they will certainly never say no to gods or dragons. Timmy often enjoys playing the hero too, and will always be the first person to readily accept the quest to save kingdom or the world. Games like The Legend of Zelda and Final Fantasy directly service this motivation, and Timmy loves every moment of it. Timmy also really enjoys the social aspect of many games. He enjoys the camaraderie of a Gears of War or a Borderlands, and the intricate society of a World of Warcraft. Timmy can even be drawn to competitive games for similar reasons, so long as the focus of the group remains on having fun. Timmy pretty much always plays well with others.

Perhaps most importantly, Timmy loves the way it feels to play a video game. Timmy loves Super Mario because of the plumber’s smooth, responsive movement. Timmy loves Burnout because of the superb car handling (the sense of speed and extravagant crashes certainly help too). Timmy loves Call of Duty because of how good it makes it feel to shoot someone with a gun. Timmy has no interest in playing a game if the actual process of playing is frustrating or cumbersome. After all, he wants to experience something, and in video games the experience begins with picking up the controller and playing the game. If that part isn’t fun at the most basic level, Timmy wants nothing to do with it.

Johnny

Where Timmy wants to experience something, Johnny wants to express something. This is the profile that sees video games as a creative and expressive medium. This is perhaps a little more vague than Timmy’s motivation, but Johnny forms a connection with the games he plays; in a sense he sees his favorite games as extensions of himself. By playing those games Johnny is showing the world what he’s into and what he’s all about. I think Johnny’s motivations translate very well to video games, and has only become more applicable over the years. Video games have only become more diverse over time, providing more varied avenues for players to express themselves, and thus satiate their inner Johnny.

Games like Deus Ex let Johnny express himself in how they choose to play.

One of the most direct ways that a video game can appeal to Johnny is by allowing him to customize his play experience. Games with heavy RPG customization such as Elder Scrolls, Diablo and Deus Ex are all classic examples. These games focus on giving the player the ability to play however they want, thus letting Johnny express himself through his own playstyle. Johnny loves finding that build that best represents him, and he loves showing it off to the world. In fact, Johnny gets a special satisfaction from creating a build that nobody else thought of, or finding a way to do what others say can’t be done. Telling Johnny a skill or a weapon is bad is often a direct invitation for him to try it; succeeding with such a restriction shows how clever and inventive he really is. Competitive games such as Call of Duty or Street Fighter are among the best examples of this. No weapon or character is off limits to Johnny, and he derives a particular pleasure from proving that he can succeed by doing things his own way. Expressing those qualities is what Johnny lives for, and video games provide plenty of ways for him to do so.

Johnny also expresses himself through what video games he chooses to play. In some ways this may be his strongest form of self-expression, as Johnny will often identify strongly with the games he plays; they can be seen as extensions of himself. Johnny plays BioShock to express his love of engaging stories, he plays Shadow of the Colossus to express his appreciation for strong artistic direction, he plays Metroid to express his inner explorer. Conversely, Johnny generally refuses to play a game that doesn’t accurately express himself. For example, if he doesn’t like general fantasy settings, he won’t play fantasy games. Doing so would be a misrepresentation of himself to the world; Johnny plays video games as a form of self-expression as much as anything, and he’s not going to do so inaccurately.

Spike

Finally we come to Spike. Spike wants to prove something. This is the profile that sees video games as a challenge. Spike is drawn to video games because he wants to test his ability to overcome obstacles, and video games provide all sorts of measuring sticks to gauge performance. In fact, in many ways video games are built entirely around challenges. They can require a lot of dexterity and hand-eye coordination, demand you learn complex systems, and often let you compete against other equally determined players. Video games constantly evaluate the player, and Spike wouldn’t have it any other way. He’s out to prove what he can do, and video games are as good an arena as any for it.

Games like Street Fighter allow Spike to continually test himself.

The most obvious way that video games let Spike prove himself is through direct competition. Even the very first video games such as Pong were built around competition, and the idea remains as strong as ever. Games like Street Fighter, StarCraft and most shooters have fostered competitive atmospheres, spawning communities dedicated to achieving better play. Spike is the guy who counts frames in Street Fighter, or studies build orders obsessively in StarCraft. He’s also interested in the ever-evolving metagame, which is a key part of success in any competitive venue. For Spike, it’s all about being as good as you can, proving to either the world or yourself just how far you can go. This is by no means limited to multiplayer games though. Spike is just as eager to prove he has the dexterity to master games such as Ninja Gaiden or Super Meat Boy, or that he has the patience and mental fortitude to make it through a Souls game. No challenge is too tough for Spike to tackle. He wants to prove he can do it all.

Spike isn’t confined to only playing ridiculously hard games either. He has just as much to prove in games that aren’t considered difficult to beat. Spike loves to do number crunching and min/maxing in games like Elder Scrolls, or try and find new ways to break Metroid games in hopes of setting new speedrun records. Spike enjoys learning complex systems in games like Civilization, as he knows the key to success lies in understanding every little detail. Spike’s the guy who loves digging into the nuts and bolts of video games, and wants to dissect every mechanic and use that knowledge to make himself better; he’s all about fine tuning his game in whatever way he can. Spike’s always looking to improve his play, and video games are riddled with all sorts of challenges that let him prove that he’s up to the task.

Conclusion

Metroid Prime appeals heavily to my Johnny/Spike tendencies.

I think Mark’s psychographics profiles of Timmy, Johnny and Spike are very applicable to video games. Their basic desires to experience, express and prove something are well satisfied within the medium, and more often than not a single game can appeal to all three sensibilities. There’s a reason I used games such as Call of Duty and Elder Scrolls as examples in multiple profiles. These are some of the most popular games out there, and I’d argue that they service Timmy, Johnny and Spike all at once, albeit in different ways and to varying degrees. Most successful games do, which I think shows that such profiling is very much a part of video game design.

Unless you’re a game designer, however, that doesn’t mean much for you. For our purposes I think it’s an interesting way to view different gamers and their motivations. We all certainly have at least a little bit of all three profiles in us, but I’d argue we all lean towards one or two more heavily. For my part, when Mark’s article had a working test that would determine your profile based on Magic card preferences, I came out as a Johnny/Spike (meaning I have a lot of both Johnny and Spike in me, but slightly more Johnny as it’s listed first). I think that’s very accurate, and represents a lot of my gaming tastes well. Can you see these three profiles in yourself, and if so does one or two of them stand out as being stronger than the others?

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Weekly Roundup 07/29/2012

RTS? Tower defense? Or proof that genre labels don't really work?

I started off this week by wrapping up a game of Civilization V: Gods & Kings, and then decided to take a break on Civ V for a bit and move on to some other games. That included, somewhat randomly, Swords & Soldiers. I was browsing through WiiWare games that have gotten good reviews over the years, since I’ve largely ignored the service and wanted to see what I’ve missed, and Swords & Soldiers stood out. It’s been dubbed a RTS, but I don’t know that that’s the best descriptor for it. In fact, I don’t really know of any conventional genre that the game fits into, but maybe describing it as some weird RTS/Tower Defense hybrid is kind of accurate? Like a RTS you collect resources (or in this case, a resource), there is a tech tree containing various units and spells, and use a point-and-click interface to control the battle. Unlike a RTS, however, the view is that of a side scroller, and you can’t actually control any of your units directly. As you build them they just walk across the battlefield in a straight line towards your opponent, who’s doing the same thing on the other end of the screen.

Anyway, I didn’t really enjoy the game that much, unfortunately. I think the idea is neat in theory, but in practice it never clicked with me. And even that is hard to explain; I can’t tell if it’s the game’s doing or mine. The tech tree for each faction is pretty limited, and the way you clash with your opponent near the middle of the map with limited ability to micro led to a bunch of stalemate situations where I felt like neither of us was advancing. I’d continue to try every option available with no perceived change one way or the other, and eventually just stopped. All the missions I beat (which was most of them) took about 5 minutes each. So it’s weird to me that I could sit there for 20 minutes and make literally no progress on the later missions, yet was also never in fear of losing. Like I said though, I don’t know if that was me or the game. There’s either something I’m missing that’s making it unnecessarily difficult, or the game is poorly designed in some way that I can’t quite place. That lack of feedback is pretty annoying, and I don’t want to finish the few missions I have left.

Spelunky is as devious as it is thrilling.

Otherwise the main item of the week was Spelunky. I took the plunge into that madhouse, and have been really enjoying it. I’ve never thought of myself a fan of roguelike style games, but between the Souls games and Spelunky I may be becoming one. Where the Souls games are slow and meticulous though, Spelunky is fast and furious. I generally find myself dying within 5 or so minutes of starting, and while I’m sure a lot of people feel like that’s simply wasted time, I feel like I’m always making some progress. Even when I die I’m learning enemy patterns, new environment interactions, what risks are worth taking and which ones aren’t, and most importantly, new ways that I can die. I play tennis, and a mantra I’ve frequently heard applied to the sport is “You have to learn all the ways you can lose before you can win”. I feel like a similar approach holds true for games like Spelunky, and I tend to find that process pretty exciting.

FOR THE LOVE OF GOD DO NOT ATTACK THIS MAN!

And boy, are there a lot of ways to die in Spelunky. I’m constantly caught off guard by any number of things that I had no idea could even happen, and those moments can be simultaneously thrilling and soul crushing. In a lot of games such interactions can feel like arbitrary progress inhibitors; simple “Gotcha!” moments existing outside the normal realm of gameplay that become trivial once you memorize the trick. With Spelunky, however, that is the core gameplay, and it’s used in a way that makes sense. The entire design of Spelunky forces you to learn every single interaction, and learn how to cope with them in order to survive. Then, and this is perhaps Spelunky’s real genius, it makes the game short and randomizes the dungeon layouts to the point where you’re constantly jumping into new variations of the same mechanics. This makes it more than simple memorization. You have to really learn every single piece of the game’s core tenets to get through, and you’re only going to learn them by experiencing them. Make no mistake: Spelunky is totally crazy, and ridiculously tough to penetrate in some ways. But it’s also a kind of crazy that I appreciate, and I’m enjoying throwing myself into the fire. Now if I can just finish that damn temple shortcut...

Finally, I also started my long standing quest to play the core Zelda games that I’ve never played before. I did this with Metroid and Final Fantasy once upon a time, and now it’s Zelda’s turn. First up is The Legend of Zelda: Oracle of Ages, which I started this weekend, and have made some decent progress in. I’m not trying to rock the boat here... but that’s a Zelda game. You probably have a good idea what to expect. It’s likely I won’t have much more to say about that, but I will save any thoughts on it for next week, after I finish it. So that’s going to do it for now, until next time!

Currently playing: Spelunky, The Legend of Zelda: Oracle of Ages

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Weekly Roundup 07/22/2012

I don't care too much for the RPG part of this otherwise awesome game.

I apologize in advance: this week’s entry is going to be a little long. There just happens to be a lot of games to talk about, starting with Theatrhythm Final Fantasy. I’ve more or less finished what I want to do in it, which primarily was getting an S rank on every song on every difficulty. It wasn’t quite as hard as I was expecting, though a handful of songs did take some extra effort on Ultimate (here’s looking at you, Battle With the Four Fiends). I don’t really have the urge to go back and perfect every song like I did in Elite Beat Agents either, which is probably simply because there are so many of them (43 compared to EBA’s 19). They’re also harder to perfect in some ways. Otherwise, the only thing left to do in Theatrhythm would be to look into the DLC (not interested right now) or play more of the Chaos Shrine, which is the game’s big side mode. I played a decent chunk of it this weekend, and from what I gather the main point of it is to unlock additional characters and/or special items. In other words, this is kind of the “RPG” part of the package. I played most of the main game without using any abilities, as you ironically get bonus points for turning off the RPG stuff (which is what you want when going for S ranks).

Thus, I didn’t fiddle much with the RPG side of things until going into the Chaos Shrine, but once there I fiddled with it quite a bit. Some of it is neat, but it’s pretty shallow overall. What’s worse is that I don’t think it gets put to great use in the Chaos Shrine, as playing the Dark Notes to unlock characters is a very grindy, repetitive task. Even worse is that not even all of the game’s many songs get used in the Dark Notes; it pulls from a pool of only about 20 songs, which seems absurd to me. And seeing how much you’d have to play to unlock everything, you’d hear those same 20 or so songs a lot. I’m not sure there’s really any point in unlocking more characters either. I’ve already beaten all the core songs, so I’d essentially be unlocking characters for its own sake. I guess that’s fine as a mode for those who just want any reason to play more Theatrhythm, which isn’t a terrible sentiment to be honest; I could easily go for more Theatrhythm given the right venue. I just don’t think the Chaos Shrine is it. Still, I absolutely loved what I played of the game (my playtime was just shy of 20 hours when I finished up the main songs, which feels good), and right now it stands as one of my favorite games of the year. Just make sure you come for the rhythm and music, not the RPG.

Everyone's gonna follow Zoroastrianism if I have anything to say about it!

I’ve also been playing Civilization V: Gods & Kings. I’m in the middle of my second game with the expansion, and I have to say that I really like all the changes and additions I’ve seen. The most prominent one is easily the reintroduction of religion as a mechanic, and while it’s very different from Civilization IV’s religion I think this method fits expertly within Civilization V’s various systems. In many ways it’s treated a lot like the game’s other “resources”, such as culture and science. You can gather “faith” (usually via buildings) to spend on various bonuses, ones that range from relatively minor to potentially powerful. Unless you go all in with it it can seem very subtle, but religion adds a nice extra wrinkle to the game that doesn’t severely offset what was there before. In other words, you could completely ignore religion if you wanted; it’s simply another avenue that provides another way to play. A fun way at that; I don’t think bullying other players to follow your religion will ever get old.

The other big addition is espionage. From what I can tell it’s much less involved than religion, and is mainly used as a mid to late game option to obtain some predominantly minor (but some major) effects. The big difference I see with espionage, however, is that you don’t have to cultivate it. You simply get spies as you move through the tech tree, and everyone obtains them more or less equally. This seems to create a lot of back and forth, and makes me think that espionage is a lot about trying to be in the right place at the right time (kind of like real espionage?). Past these two big additions, Gods & Kings has a lot of other more basic changes. New civilizations, new technologies, new units and buildings, and so on all make expected appearances, and I’ve noticed tons of numbers and abilities everywhere have been tweaked to make the game feel smoother. I’m not sure if this is the expansion’s doing or if there have been patches since I last played it, but I’d argue that Civ V is currently better than it’s ever been. I for one am digging it, and definitely plan to play more of it.

Third person cover based shooter reporting for duty, sir!

Finally, I played through Spec Ops: The Line this week. Like Asura’s Wrath earlier this year, this was one of those short games that I simply wanted to see without any desire to pay $60 for my own copy. Fortunately I was able to rent it, and ended up playing through the entire game in one day. Spec Ops shares more than being short with Asura’s Wrath too; it’s a game you play for the story, not for gameplay that’s mediocre at best. At its core Spec Ops is an incredibly generic third person cover based shooter (you know the drill) that never feels as crisp or as fluid as the genre stalwarts. The “roadie run” in particular annoyed me, as cancelling out of it is incredibly cumbersome (and this after the loading screen boasts about how you don’t have to hold A to run. Joke’s on you this time Spec Ops!). Otherwise nothing about the gameplay is interesting at all. I found myself frequently bored with having to do the same mindless routine I’ve done hundreds of other times this generation, and often wanted the game to just get on with it. This sometimes makes the mundane gameplay feel intrusive and/or pointless, especially given the game’s strong focus on story.

Fortunately, Spec Ops’ story is indeed excellent. Bucking the extreme power fantasy, Michael Bay style spectacle that defines Call of Duty and its wannabes (something it seems to mock in a way), Spec Ops takes a more subtle approach to war and the atrocities that come with it. This isn’t that unique in the grand scheme of things (see: Apocalypse Now), but it is fairly unique among video games. In some ways it’s also more impactful in a video game than it is in a movie, as you’re the one pulling the trigger on a lot of the game’s big moments, rather than passively witnessing someone else do it. For the most part there’s no real choice in the matter; this is a linear story designed to tell a specific sequence of events after all. But by forcing the player down that road themselves it encouraged me to more actively engage in the plot’s themes and questions in key moments in a way that I probably wouldn’t have as a passive observer.

Spec Ops' grim story is very much worth seeing.

It doesn’t hurt that the story is just plain well told either. The writing is super sharp for the entire game; it trades cliched video game tropes for solid dialogue that contributes to some great character development. Your character’s descent into madness (and maybe your own) is fully believable, and I especially appreciated the little touches surrounding that. A small example: When you kill an enemy early in the game your character might say “Target Eliminated” in that precise military way that we’re so used to hearing by now. By the end of the game, however, he might scream hysterically, “Target fucking eliminated!”. Things like that make the game feel more organic than most, and it all builds up to a surprisingly strong ending. It has a real sense of closure to it that I highly appreciate, and also helps the story feel well paced and cohesive from start to finish.

If Asura’s Wrath was video games’ Dragon Ball Z then Spec Ops: The Line is the medium’s Apocalypse Now. It’s a short, roughly 5 hour game that’s not a great “game” in some ways. But it has a powerful and memorable story that I feel is worth seeing, one that benefits in some small ways by being a video game. I enjoyed it at least, though the $60 price tag is a bit questionable. Anyway, in the coming week I’ll keep playing Gods & Kings, and have also just started Swords & Soldiers, which I’ve had my eye on since it first came out. I also think it’s time to tackle Spelunky; wish me luck! That’s going to do it for this extra lengthy roundup though, until next time!

Currently Playing: Civilization V: Gods & Kings, Swords & Soldiers, Spelunky

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