Weekly Roundup 09/30/2012

I got plenty of good, quality gaming time in this week, which hasn’t been the case for a few weeks now. It felt good to really get my teeth into some games, and it helps that there’s been some awesome ones out recently, with Borderlands 2 remaining my primary focus (here's last week's initial thoughts). The more I play it the more I remember why the first game sucked me in like it did, and the more I appreciate the fact that the sequel exists. It’s good stuff.

There's a ton of gun variety, but I don't care for a lot of the goofy stuff.

Anyway, my commando is currently level 30, which means I’ve gotten enough skill points now to make my turret pretty powerful. It was the skill that attached rockets to it that did it, and it makes the turret a DPS machine. I’m not sure I necessarily like it better than the one from the first game yet though. That turret still did a ton of damage, could be modified to deal elemental damage on top of that, and also kept everyone’s ammo full. I’ve actually run out of ammo a few times in this game, and every time I do I miss my old turret. Another minor annoyance is that pretty much all the good guns we find are SMGs and revolvers for whatever reason, which is kind of a bummer. Also, while there’s a ton of gun variety in this game I don’t enjoy using a lot of the weapon types. For example, the ones that start out horribly inaccurate but get better as you fire don’t seem great to me, and I also don’t like the ones that you throw when you reload; my compulsive reloading nature means I waste a lot of ammo with those. I've been especially frustrated with the assault rifles, as there haven’t been that many all around solid ones. They all do something weird, like take a while to start firing fast or shoot awkward explosives that are hard to hit with. I tend to prefer the straight shooters, which means I’ve been sticking to a lot of Jakobs revolvers. Those tend to deal a lot of damage, fire fast and are pretty accurate, which is all I really want. The goofy stuff can be amusing at times, but I generally just want to kill stuff efficiently.

Some quests can feel a little protracted, but on the whole they're totally fine.

I’ve heard and seen a lot of chatter about how Borderlands 2 is objectively “better” than its predecessor. To be honest, I’m not seeing that at all. I don’t think it’s any worse either, I simply think it’s more Borderlands. There are certainly minor differences, but nothing that amounts to any sort of quality disparity between the two games to me. In fact, if I do want to go down that super nit picky road I probably dislike the majority of the changes for Borderlands 2. I miss gun proficiencies, or otherwise some incentive to stick to a particular gun type. The side quests are more spread out in such a way that requires you to spend more time traversing the same areas multiple times; the first game seemed to have a slightly smoother side quest progression in that regard. There also seem to be more spots where enemies keep pouring out for way too long, which combined with the side quest progression makes the game feel artificially longer. It’s like they’ve tried to stretch things out a bit where they could without changing too much of the established structure. Again, this is all very nit picky, so take it with a grain of salt.

What really matters is that I’m having a blast with Borderlands 2, and for all the same reasons that I loved the first game. It’s just a fun world to spend time in, with crazy weapons, solid FPS combat and great character progression. Borderlands remains the only “loot lust” franchise I’ve ever gotten super into, and Borderlands 2 has only driven that fact home even more. I might speculate on that a little more next week, and will probably wrap up my thoughts on the game then (there's still more to say!), but I think that’s enough Borderlands 2 talk for today. The game’s pretty awesome. The other game I played during the week was Mark of the Ninja, which I only played when I couldn’t get the Borderlands crew together. I’m traditionally not a fan of stealth games, and I never enjoyed things like Metal Gear Solid or Splinter Cell. That said, I loved the stealth mechanics in Batman: Arkham Asylum. That game wasn’t primarily a stealth game, but it still had a lot of stealth in it, and embodied a lot of what I want from the genre.

One of my favorite "stealth" games.

The thing that made Arkham Asylum’s stealth so fun to me is that it didn’t make you feel weak and fragile like most stealth games do. To be honest, you kind of were; a few bullets would mess you up pretty fast. But the game realized that power in stealth games comes from knowledge, and things like detective vision gave you a lot of information to always give you the upper hand. Basically, you always had more info than anyone else in the room, and that made it feel like you were the predator hunting them down. There was no stumbling around in the dark, only knowing where a guard was by clunkily running into them. You could plan your attacks ahead of time (which is what most stealth games lack until you’ve done the trial and error part), and the game gave you plenty of fun gadgets and abilities that opened up plenty of options. Batman was also super agile, which made navigating all the nooks and crannies to get into ideal positions a delight.

You're on the hunt in Mark of the Ninja.

Not to talk too much about Arkham Asylum here, but I feel like there’s a lot of parallels to be drawn between it and Mark of the Ninja (Batman’s pretty much a ninja after all). Knowledge is everything in Mark of the Ninja, and it’s super fun to approach a room and be able to see everything that’s going on in it. The game does a great job at outlining everything you’d need to know very clearly: you know what exactly what every guard’s vision range is, you know exactly how far the sound you make travels, and you know exactly how you can interact with everything in the environment. Your character is also extremely nimble, and the traversal mechanics work incredibly well, and make getting around each room as painless as possible. All of this makes you feel very powerful (even though you still die very fast once you’re spotted), and making your way through each room is a ton of fun. The levels are also designed very well to allow you to tackle them in multiple ways, and the whole process of planning your attack is highly rewarding. It’s almost more of a puzzle game than anything, which I think works well for stealth.

I would estimate I’m roughly halfway through Mark of the Ninja, and I’m sure I’ll have more to say as I get closer to the end, but those are my first impressions of the base mechanics. I will say that there have been a few annoying things so far. One time I got checkpointed into an almost inescapable position (I basically cheesed my way out of it), and I find any kind of time pressure to be very annoying, which the game has done a few times. Those gripes aside I’m really liking the game, and I really appreciate its take on the genre. Anyway, this has gone on pretty long again, so I should wrap this thing up. The coming week will likely be a lot more Borderlands 2 and Mark of the Ninja; keep the good times rolling. And that’s going to do it for now, until next time!

Currently playing: Borderlands 2, Mark of the Ninja

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Weekly Roundup 09/23/2012

The last leg of my personal Zelda journey came to a close this week, though perhaps not in the way I would have expected. The final game I had to play was Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, and to cut straight to the point I didn’t enjoy the few hours I spent with it at all. I debated with myself if it was worth stubbornly pushing my way through a game that I actively hated playing solely for the sake of saying I had beaten every Zelda game (or at least all the “main” ones). I ultimately decided that it wasn’t, and feel surprisingly comfortable with that choice. Perhaps it’s because Zelda II is so drastically different from the other Zeldas that it doesn’t feel as essential to me. Or maybe I just hated it that much.

Bleh

I’m sure Zelda II seemed ambitious in its day, but by modern standards it comes off as kind of a mess. The controls feel very unresponsive and frustrating to me, and even worse are the level designs. The dungeons are filled with long corridors where you fight the same enemies over and over, and the ensuing combat is super repetitive and tedious. Maybe later in the game you get some better spells and/or abilities, but between the finicky controls and the way enemies zip around the screen I found every encounter to be extremely annoying. I also didn’t find them to be very satisfying; getting through a room never led to a sense of accomplishment or pride, only a small sense of relief in the fact that I would never have to do that again. I also never encountered anything else to break up the tedium of combat, and the overworld was just a chore to navigate. One particular cave tasked me with jumping over a pit of lava as an enemy stood waiting on the other side and a bat flew down towards me as I jumped. It induced bad memories of the original NES Ninja Gaiden, and was more or less the last straw.

Zelda II is definitely a hard and demanding game, but not in the way I like my hard and demanding games to be. It primarily asks you to execute boring, tedious combat routines over and over, and punishes you fast and hard for failing. I also don’t find the base mechanics that interesting to begin with (including the surface level, out of place RPG mechanics), all of which culminates into a game I simply did not enjoy playing at all. It’s kind of a sour way to end my Zelda journey, but I won’t let it bother me too much. I can handle one dark spot on a franchise I’ve otherwise thoroughly enjoyed over the years, and I am really glad that I went back and filled in the gaps. There’s a nice sense of closure to that process.

Conquest is a solid Pokemon spin-off.

Anyway, after finally putting Zelda behind me for the foreseeable future I then finished Pokemon Conquest. I don’t have a lot to add to what I said about it last week; it’s a pretty simple game that didn’t add much to the experience in the last few hours. I still really enjoyed the game overall though, and think it’s easily among the best Pokemon spin-offs out there (maybe the best). It successfully takes a lot of what makes Pokemon such a fun franchise, such as the fantastical world and creatures, and embeds them within an entirely different genre. I also happen to really like strategy RPGs, so Conquests should be a win-win for me, and it pretty much is. In fact, the only gripes I have are pretty minor. I think a few of the battlefield layouts are kind of annoying, some of the link mechanics aren’t explained very well, and most importantly the game is pretty simple and easy. There’s certainly room for the game to grow, but it’s still a solid first step that I definitely enjoyed playing. Collecting new Pokemon and building a team remains addictive, and the battles require just enough battlefield strategy to make them interesting. In short, I would recommend it to both fans of Pokemon and strategy RPGs alike.

It's likely impossible that Borderlands 2 can have the impact on me that the original did.

Finally, the game I actually spent the most time playing this week is the same game everyone's been playing: Borderlands 2. I’m about as big of a fan of the original Borderlands you’re likely to ever find (I would estimate I clocked 200+ hours in that gem, across all four classes and all the DLC), so it’s no secret that I was excited about the sequel. That said, I’m always hesitant to get too excited about sequels to games I love as much as Borderlands. One thing I’ve learned is that expecting a follow-up to a game that's close to my heart to strike the same chord and be just as memorable and impactful as the original almost never works. Even if it ends up being a better “game”, you simply can’t replicate that first experience again. A perfect example for me personally is the Elder Scrolls series. Oblivion was the first one I played seriously, and I loved it. Then when I played Skyrim I felt that it was a better “game”, but it just didn’t have that same magic that Oblivion did for me. That’s no fault of Skyrim’s, but it's still never going to measure up to my first time.

So far Borderlands 2 is the Skyrim to Borderlands' Oblivion for me. Perhaps in some ways Borderlands 2 is a better "game", but when you get down to it it’s extremely similar to the original, and thus never going to make the same impression by the simple fact that I'm not seeing it for the first time. Now that I’ve hopefully clarified that incredibly important point, I’m still really, really liking Borderlands 2 so far. I played a lot of every class in the first game, but my favorite was pretty easily the soldier (though the siren was very rad too). I felt like he had a wider range of interesting abilities, and more stuff to do on the battlefield. As such I’m playing the commando in the sequel, and to put it bluntly the turret is still freaking awesome. They’ve done some interesting ability tweaking for the classes that’s making it fun to experiment with these familiar classes again as well. For me the big change is that I can’t rely on my turret as much; it’s not as powerful, and there aren’t as many skills that directly buff it. So I have to get in the thick of things more often, and figuring out how I want to go about picking skills for that is great. Side note: it seems that the siren is now the “medic” class. The “shoot people to heal them” skill apparently got moved from the soldier to the siren while nobody was looking.

Borderlands 2 is still all about the guns.

There also aren’t clear weapon focuses for each class anymore. In the original game soldiers were clearly geared towards assault rifles and shotguns. The weapon proficiency system in that game further encouraged you to stick to one or two weapon types, but that’s all been removed for Borderlands 2. There are still a few skill and class mods that might give you a relatively minor bonus for one weapon type, but for the most part all classes can use all guns just as effectively. This has led to me using anything I pick up that seems good, and I can safely say that the gun design is much more varied here than it was before. At the same time, I haven’t really found any “all purpose” guns that I like. It’s probably a conscious design decision, but most every gun seems to have at least one substantial drawback or limitation. It might be wildly inaccurate, have a tiny clip, kick way too much, not deal a lot of damage, or simply take forever to reload (that’s the one I hate the most). So on the one hand it’s kind of frustrating to never find that “perfect” gun for my style, but on the other hand it’s fun in a different way to try so many different guns all the time.

There’s a whole lot more to say about Borderlands 2, but I’ll save it for now. I didn’t play as much this week as I would have liked, but you can bet I’ll keep going, and should have plenty more to say next week. As for my current status, right now I’m level 17, and have been playing with two friends who area siren and a gunzerker. Oh, I also downloaded Mark of the Ninja today, and really want to play as I find time for it (probably whenever I can't get the Borderlands 2 crew together); it looks great. So that’s going to do it for now, until next time!

Currently playing: Borderlands 2, Mark of the Ninja

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Weekly Roundup 09/16/2012

I started off this week by finishing The Last Story. That game’s certainly not terrible, and it does have its moments every now and then. As I felt last week, my favorite parts of the game ended up being the characters and dialogue. There were a select few moments that were done surprisingly well, and Mistwalker almost makes pulling off a strong narrative look effortless on a few occassions. The overarching story is pretty cliche though; it’s more the execution that’s done well, and even that’s mostly relegated to a handful of climactic moments. The rest of the time everything's kind of mundane.

Likable characters and well written dialogue can't always overcome boring gameplay.

Overall I didn’t get into The Last Story very much, which is primarily due to the passive nature of the gameplay that I talked about last week. It just feels like you need something else to do in combat. Full party controls, move moves and abilities, more enemy variety, or just flat out more interesting gameplay systems; these things could have gone a long way towards making the game infinitely more engaging. It’s weird too, because there actually are a number of systems in place, but they’re all so brainless and require little to no strategy. It creates this weird scenario where battles can feel kind of chaotic, but when you really break it down I beat 95% of them by simply mashing A. It’s like the game was trying to be really ambitious while making it super accessible, and it comes off as just kind of goofy and mashy. I also found the movement in combat to be extremely clunky, and the camera was even worse. I had other more technical issues from time to time too, mainly with regards to framerate. Fairly regularly the framerate would slow to a crawl, which was just baffling. The game looks decent, but I’ve seen plenty of Wii games (and even some PS2/Cube/Xbox games) that look just as good and are just as ambitious with how much is on the screen, yet run just fine. I really don’t know why The Last Story has that issue.

Anyway, I talked a lot about The Last Story last week, and think I’ve pretty much covered everything at this point. It’s an okay game, and not the worst way to spend 20-25 hours or so (which I think is a good length for a JRPG personally), but I didn’t find it to be that engaging on the whole. After that I decided to resume my personal quest to play all of the Zelda games, and I finally played through the original The Legend of Zelda. I finished it last night (it’s pretty short), and if I’m being 100% honest I looked up a handful of things in the back half of the game to keep it moving. I got a good feel for the game’s pacing in the first half, and there are some late game things that I would have never figured out on my own in a timely manner. Still, I really enjoyed the game, and am really glad that I’ve finally played this classic.

Zelda holds up surprisingly well 25 years later.

My big takeaway from Zelda is that I think it still holds up pretty well today. There’s definitely some really obtuse moments in there that certainly wouldn’t fly anymore; simply gaining entrance to some of the dungeons can feel like a complete stab in the dark for example. Starting with only three hearts after dying also seems like an unnecessary inconvenience, but there’s not much more than that that really feels that dated. It’s a testament to the game’s design that I still enjoyed it 25 years later, and in many ways I think it remains more ambitious and bold than a lot of today’s games. It certainly never holds your hand, and yet I rarely found the game that frustrating. I enjoyed exploring and figuring things out on my own (excluding those excessively obtuse moments that I did look up), and I can only imagine what it might have been like playing this game when it first came out. How did people figure some of these things out before the age of the Internet? I bet you’d feel like either the smartest or the most doggedly determined person on the planet if you did the entire game on your own.

I‘ve talked about and played a lot of Zelda in general this summer, and after experiencing the original I feel like it’s kind of come full circle and reinforced what the franchise means to me, and what it’s meant to gaming in a greater context over the years. So that’s pretty cool. I don’t feel the need to say much more about Zelda though, as it is a 25 year old game that’s been talked about to death by now, but I am super happy that I’ve been able to experience the starting point for one of my favorite franchises. Even better is that it holds up as well as it does. Now there’s only one Zelda game left that I haven't played: Zelda II: The Adventure of Link. I haven’t decided exactly how I want to tackle that one yet, as my understanding is that it’s kind of the “black sheep” of the franchise and might not have aged that well. But I’ll figure it out.

It's Pokemon! They're fighting on a grid! They take turns doing it! There's strategy involved!

Finally, I’ve been playing Pokemon Conquest here and there the past week or two. I’ve been playing it at a fairly slow pace, roughly 30-60 minutes before bed each night, and am finding it to be a surprisingly enjoyable game. It’s basically a strategy RPG (think Final Fantasy Tactics or Fire Emblem) adapted to the Pokemon universe, and the combination works pretty well. The battles play it pretty straight, where you take turns moving your Pokemon around a grid fighting enemy Pokemon. It’s certainly never as deep or intricate as the genre stalwarts, but it’s enjoyable enough. It helps that it has Pokemon specific hooks too, especially with regards to catching new Pokemon and building your team. All of the Pokemon moves and types are present and accounted for, and you have plenty of opportunities to catch new ones and train the ones you have, all to try and take out the other trainers around the world. So in a way it’s just as much like normal Pokemon as it is a strategy RPG, and I think it’s that unique combination that makes it appealing to me (I like both Pokemon and strategy RPGs a lot).

I’ve made pretty good progress in Pokemon Conquest, and will likely finish it relatively soon. Otherwise it’s Zelda II and Borderlands 2 for me in the near future, the latter of which comes out on Tuesday and I couldn't be more excited for it (the original Borderlands is very dear to me). And that’s going to do it for now, until next time!

Currently playing: Pokemon Conquest, Zelda II: The Adventure of Link

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Weekly Roundup 09/09/2012

The main games I played this past week were Sound Shapes and The Last Story. Sound Shapes is pretty short, and I was easily able to finish it early in the week. The best word I can think of to describe it is “neat”. I personally didn’t get all that into it though; the campaign is super short, and while it does a good job at showing off what the game is about, the bulk of its focus is on the level editing tools and community features. It’s similar to LittleBigPlanet in that way, and you’re not going to get a ton out of the game if all you do is play the campaign (which is all I did). But for those that really want to dive deep into the level editor and play community levels, there’s a lot of cool hooks here.

Cool music and cool art make for a cool game.

Even playing just the campaign I could still appreciate the game’s core ideas. At its heart Sound Shapes is a simple platformer. As you move through the levels you pick up these collectible items that produce notes. These notes are repeated for the rest of the level, and as you collect more and more of these items you end up making music. As such, there’s a heavy rhythm aspect to the game, if not so much in the gameplay itself then at least in the aesthetic and appeal; you’re going to have to like its music to like Sound Shapes overall. And that’s really all there is to it, jumping around and making music. I don’t think the platforming felt particularly great, as it’s pretty slow and meticulous without ever presenting much challenge. It’s more of a “stop and smell the roses” type of platformer, which only works at all because the music is indeed really good, as are the varying art styles. Sound Shapes is a treat for the senses if nothing else, and those that get the most out of it are going to be those that want to just sit back and relax, and chill to the music. Getting into the community side of things is also important if you want to get much out of the game, and fortunately that stuff seems like it’s done very well.

That about sums up the game's tone.

I’ve never been one to spend a lot of time on a game creating levels or digging through other user made content though, as great as that stuff can sometimes be. As such I’ve moved on from Sound Shapes, and have since spent a decent amount of time with The Last Story. I don’t really know where to begin with it either, as it's a pretty weird game. Being a JRPG I guess it makes sense to start with story stuff, which is probably one of the better parts of the game. I find the characters to be likable, and the writing in particular is pretty sharp. It’s not as overly wordy as the genre can often be, and the dialogue does a good job at really expressing what these characters are all about. The plot itself is very standard though, not really swaying things one way or the other. Otherwise, there's this weird, cheeky undertone to everything. The game makes these really campy jokes all the time, and usually pauses in a way that seems to be waiting for you to laugh. And sometimes I do, simply because it’s all so goofy. There’s also a lot of innuendo and making fun of different character quirks (there’s a drunk and a flirt on your team for example), and I honestly don’t know if I like the game’s tone or not.

The act of playing the game is equally weird, but for entirely different reasons. If you really break it down, you honestly don’t do all that much in The Last Story; it’s a pretty “hands off” game in many ways. A high percentage of the time is spent watching cut scenes and/or listening to dialogue, and even worse is that you don’t have a lot of input once you do gain control. This is mainly because the game has been very linear and very easy so far. This all culminates in the battles, which are incredibly simple. Battles occur in real time in a 3D space, and you can run around and swing your sword as you wish (amusing side-note: the default controls only let you attack via the auto-attack, which is triggered by literally walking into enemies). So there’s kind of an action bent to it, but I’ve basically beaten every fight so far by running at the nearest enemy and mashing A over and over. As the game goes on you slowly start getting some control over the rest of your party, and each character seems to end up with two or three total skills, but there’s never that much to manage past occasionally telling someone to cast a spell. And even that you can only do periodically on a timer.

Not really that much to do in battles.

What makes the battles weird are some of the other little things they do. You can get behind cover, you can shoot a crossbow third person style, and you have five lives in each battle. Why are there third person shooting mechanics in this JRPG? I honestly don’t know, and I rarely use them. There’s also a weird stealth component sometimes, and none of those auxiliary features feel good at all. In fact, most of them feel bad and tacked on in a “why not?” kind of way. Anyway, past the battles there’s simply not a lot else going on gameplay-wise. Equipment is extremely bare bones, there’s nothing at all in the way of skill trees or interesting customization, and the side quests are as boilerplate as they come (leading me to simply skip most of them). It all makes the game feel very “JRPG lite”, almost like it’s meant for a more action audience than the traditional JRPG crowd, and I’m not sure exactly how much it appeals to either one as a result. It’s a similar feeling I got from playing Final fantasy XIII in many ways, which is kind of disappointing, and goes a long way towards describing my biggest complaint about The Last Story: it’s pretty boring. It’s such a passive experience that I frequently find myself getting distracted, and haven’t been able to play the game for long stretches.

The one thing The Last Story has over Final fantasy XIII and Xenoblade Chronicles (that other Wii “JRPG” I didn’t care for) is that it’s supposed to be a whole lot shorter. I think I’m getting relatively close to the end, so I’ll try to see it through to get some story closure if nothing else. The game isn't altogether terrible, but it’s goofy and boring such that I’m ready to be done with it. Anyway, I’ve also been playing a little Pokemon Conquest here and there, and will have more to say about that next week. That’s going to do it for now though, until next time!

Currently playing: The Last Story, Pokemon Conquest

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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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