By Make_Me_Mad 24 Comments
I decided to write up this Games of the Generation thing without stopping and realizing what that actually entails; there are games from when I was still in High School. That's insane! I can't even remember half of the people I knew in those days, much less recall all of the games I've played since then... but I don't need to, of course. These are supposed to be Games of the Generation, the kind that leave a lasting impression. The ones that to this day I still pick up and play, because they're the best!
Of course, that also means that this is a deeply personal list. I don't particularly care if a game was technically important for some reason or another, or if it somehow advanced the medium. If I didn't love it, it didn't make the cut, simple as that. For the same reason, you shouldn't get offended if something you liked doesn't make an appearance here.*
Also, be forewarned that spoilers are just going to happen.
There was a time when the name Platinum Games didn't mean a thing to me; I wasn't aware that they used to be Clover Studio, that they'd been putting out fantastic games like Okami and God Hand for years. I probably wouldn't have recognized the names of Atsushi Inaba, Hideki Kamiya or Shinji Mikami. I knew nothing about any of that, but I'd seen a trailer and said to myself "That game looks like fun." I was so right.
I could ramble about this for hours, so instead I'll try to hit just the key points here: It's probably the best playing game I've ever played. The combat starts fast and only gets faster, demanding your full attention from the word go; both Bayonetta and her enemies are quick and lethal, and even in the prologue most battles are a frenzied melee. You're given plenty of defensive options to keep yourself alive, and that's where the real beauty of the game's design shines; the pace would be unsustainable without contrast, and nearly all of your defensive maneuvers serve a dual role in that they activate Witch Time. With your opponents and surroundings slowed to a crawl it's obviously a great time to dish out some major damage, but it also provides you with a brief moment of calm in the middle of the action. It gives every fight a distinct, calculated rhythm, further emphasized by the Dodge Offset mechanic; picking up a combo after a successful dodge, right where you left off, allowing you to finish long attack chains even in the midst of a swarm of attacking enemies. The action builds incessantly, and defense is never just that.
There's no slouching visually, either, and from marble-coated angelic monstrosities to Bayonetta and her substantial array of alternate outfits, there's an unmistakable style. Even the nameless NPCs who appear for single scenes are dressed in their very best, and the graphics hold up their half of the deal nicely; everything on screen is as awe-inspiring or grotesque (and more often than not, both simultaneously) as it should be. No matter how many screen-filling special effects are going off or how much blood and gore is spraying across the battlefield, the game looks absolutely stunning. The game's excellent visual design is coupled with a strange penchant for incredibly strange arenas, and fights break out absolutely everywhere; a crashing aircraft (on two separate occasions), the decapitated head of a massive statue that's currently flying through the air because of a tornado, and at one point even several different missiles in flight. What you end up with is a bizarre, exciting adventure through a number of stunning locales; be it the action or the looks, there's never a dull moment. The audio doesn't let the game down either, complementing the action perfectly no matter how drastic or sudden of a change it has to make. While there are a lot of smooth, almost jazzy** tunes, you'll just as often hear full-on heavenly choirs and blaring orchestras while one of the Cardinal Virtues does his best to put you in your place. There are remixes of classic Sega tracks, a fantastic, exciting mid-battle rendition of Fly Me to the Moon, and at no point do any of these feel out of place.
The story can get a bit convoluted, sure, but the characters hold up exceptionally well; Rodin, Enzo and Luka provide a more down-to-earth backdrop for Bayonetta and Jeanne's rivalry and reconciliation; while they're both pretty damned cool, I ended up finding Jeanne to be the more compelling character of the two, with her secret identity as a history teacher and Viewtiful Joe inspired super heroine persona. That worked out, because not only did I unlock the ability to play as Jeanne, I got a full suite of alternate costumes once I beat the game as her- Cutie J outfit included. One of the running themes with Bayonetta was that it kept throwing more unlockables and secrets my way; there's an achievement for beating the game in under three hours, but I easily put in more than twenty times that and still haven't seen everything the game has to offer.
The point here is that Bayonetta is a goddamn incredible game in nearly every category, and to me, it's easily one of the best ever made. Years ago, I didn't know who the hell Platinum Games was; now I consider them to be a guarantee of quality. They're recognized experts at the Character Action genre, and Bayonetta is their masterpiece. In my opinion, it's the best game they've ever made to this day, and after years of playing and re-playing this game, I know I could pick it up any day and still have just as good a time with it as ever.
Persona 4 is my favorite game of all time. Persona 4 Golden is an updated, much-improved version of my favorite game of all time (which technically makes it the favorite now?). Neither of those are technically in this generation, so it'd be easy to throw Persona 4 Arena in here just to give some proxy-praise to the world's best RPG; and truth be told, were Persona 4 not the wonder that it is, this game wouldn't be here. That does not, in any way, diminish the fact that Persona 4 Arena is my favorite fighting game of all time. Sure it drew me in with characters and a setting that were near and dear to my heart, but I wouldn't have stuck around and actually gotten good- legitimately good- at a fighter for the first time in my life if it wasn't a great game.
It's an Arc System Works game, so I vaguely knew what I was in for. I put in my time with Guilty Gear XX #Reload years ago, so I figured I was ready for whatever the game could throw at me. What I hadn't anticipated was that there'd be a surprisingly good story mode, and yes, I know some people absolutely loathe it. Personally, I'm way into that sort of thing, and enjoyed seeing how the different characters from Persona 4 handled having to be the hero of the day. Plus, Labrys is a great addition to the cast, and is an eerie reminder that people in the Persona universe are still up to some shady stuff behind the scenes. Sure, it can get a bit long winded, and there were bound to be some spots where the writing felt a bit weak, but for the most part it was a blast. Also, if you need that little extra nudge, the music is about as fantastic as you'd expect when you put Arc System Works and Atlus together.
More importantly, as a fighting game, it's excellent. I've had my problems with fighters in the past, and there was even a long stretch where I cursed any and all 'high-level' play. I didn't see what the hell was supposed to be fun or exciting about one person spamming so many screen-filling attacks in MvC2 that their opponent spent 90 percent of the match taking chip damage. Skullgirls' excellent tutorial mode planted the seed, and Persona 4 Arena drew me in and made me, for the first time, actually buckle down and learn a fighting game. I know frame data for the different versions of Kanji's command grabs. That's absurd... and fantastic.
But really, no matter how great a game it is and no matter how much I loved the setting and cast, I'd never have gotten into it as much as I did without the community. I've made some awesome friends as a direct result of both this game and Giant Bomb's tournaments, and I can't be thankful enough for that. Most of my favorite memories of the last year have been had talking to duders in the IRC or playing the game with them, and there's a lot to be said for a game that has a positive impact on your life.
I really love Advance Wars, you guys. I admit, I never finished the first game, but I was young and stupid back then. The second game made me love the series, and Dual Strike pretty much defined large parts of my time in High School. I had a classic DS, the giant silver brick, and Advance Wars DS was one of the only games I had. Luckily, it was also pretty much the only game I needed. I played the hell out of this game, and it constantly destroyed what I had assumed were sound military strategies. While my geometry homework was passed around the cafeteria for other people to copy I was directing hordes of bloodthirsty, adorable troops on the front lines of a seemingly never ending battle. Ambushes and the fog of war cost the lives of what must have been thousands of brave men in bright orange uniforms... which explains a lot now that I think about it.
There's just something inherently joyful about Advance Wars DS. It's war, and people are gunning each other down, bombers are raining fire onto your cities, there's wreckage strewn across once idyllic landscapes... but the characters are colorful and quirky, and everything is so damn fun! Sure, a Megatank just rolled up and turned a poorly placed squad of infantry into a fine mist, but you're too busy enjoying the idea of the MEGATANK to feel too broken up about it.
The game is also hard as hell sometimes, but I didn't mind because it was fun and challenging and intense, for a strategy game. When those super power meters filled up any given turn could be the one that decided the outcome of the entire battle, and it was exactly the kind of pressure I needed to take me away from all the trials and tribulations of daily life. I could flip open the DS whenever I wanted and get back to what really mattered- picking Lash and abusing her absolutely broken CO power, enjoying some great music, and smiling like a madman as tiny, adorable armies fought tooth and nail for every tile in sight. It's my favorite kind of game, and to this day I still break out that giant, clunky monster of a DS and power it up for a little good-old-fashioned warfare.
If there's one thing that this generation will be remembered for, it's games that claim the player's choices will be taken into account and matter. What that actually means varies wildly from game to game. Sometimes the illusion of choice is fine, and even if all your options take you down the same road the player is at least comforted by the knowledge that they influenced the way things progressed. Other games branch out and offer different paths towards the same destination, but give the player a definite impact on the experience. Alpha Protocol is maybe the only game I can think of that delivers a truly malleable story, and it definitely does it best.
From the beginning, you know where you'll eventually end up; in the hands of the enemy, being interrogated. The story is told through a series of flashbacks as your adventures are recounted, but everything can change depending on how those flashbacks play out... including your situation in the game's 'present'. Captured? Maybe you made the right friends and a certain covert organization is about to provide backup. Maybe you made more enemies than friends, and you conveniently told them where they could find you if they wanted revenge; the guys holding you prisoner are in for a rude awakening, then. Maybe you even have some partners on the inside, and your situation's not nearly as dire as the villain thinks.
Or maybe you're tired of being the lone, outgunned hero and decided it'd be way smarter to switch sides. You're not captured, you turned yourself in for a job interview. That's a totally valid option! Equally valid, way more difficult and much cooler is backstabbing the villain shortly after you sign up, replacing his network with your own carefully constructed organization of spies, arms dealers, triad leaders and allies from throughout your globe-spanning adventure. There's a crazy amount of variation that can happen over the course of the game, and sometimes it's as simple as the tone you use when you talk to people that makes all the difference. Collecting and reading intel dossiers on your targets, knowing how to deal with clashing personalities between your teammates, and even knowing who to kill and who'll be more useful running around terrified of you; the experiences you have in Alpha Protocol can change over the smallest details.
I should address the most common complaint about this game, I suppose, and that's the gameplay itself. A lot of people seemed to expect this to be a standard third-person shooter, i.e. if a guy is in your crosshairs you're gonna hit him. The problem is that the game is an RPG, and if you want that kind of accuracy you have to level up and put points into that weapon's skill tree. I didn't have a problem with it because I'm way into leveling up, but for a lot of people that was a deal breaker and the game was widely derided. It's a shame, because in all honesty it's the best example I can think of for a game that takes the player's choices and actions into account and gives them have a unique version of the story.
That's right, the first one. Most people probably think that I'm crazy for thinking that Mass Effect 1 is better than the sequels, but I know for a fact there are at least a few people in my corner on this one. Even if there weren't it'd still be my opinion, because ME1 is the game in the trilogy that I enjoyed the most. There are a number of reasons why, but I think the thing that matters most in this case is atmosphere; Mass Effect 1 goes full out on the ridiculous space fantasy and it's an absolute blast! You make your Commander Shepard and get tossed into the middle of a universe spanning plot involving a race of sentient AI, a rogue secret agent, ancient technology and mysterious impending doom. There are bizarre aliens, ridiculous technology, and by the time you hear that the Asari can reproduce with any species you just laugh and wonder when the Enterprise is going to steal your parking space.
Sure, the game has issues. The elevator rides can be excrutiating, even with your teammates and news reports doing their best to entertain you. The Inventory can quickly become a cluttered nightmare, as well, despite your best efforts to keep junk from accumulating, and the Mako is at times your greatest enemy in the middle of a pitched firefight or a Thresher Maw chase. On the other hand, there's something hilarious and humbling about the rag-tag team of galaxy-saving badasses making idle chatter in slow moving elevators. That pile of stuff in your inventory gives you a ton of customization options; my space gun shot fiery explosions and lightning. And there's nothing quite like ramping the Mako off of a Geth armature once you had the hang of the controls! Mass Effect 1 had problems, for sure, but I'd rather have those problems than settle with the stripped down version of things in Mass Effect 2. (And that's not the only thing Mass Effect 2 stripped down... I miss the days when people in an alien environment would take the time to wear a goddamn space suit.)
It was pretty much inevitable that Mass Effect couldn't stay a pseudo-silly, exploratory romp through the stars, but I feel like Mass Effect 1 is the only game in the series that really had a good handle on what the tone was supposed to be. Nearly every character and all of the various problems that Shepard encounters feel somehow right and appropriate within that world, whether he's dealing with ancient mind-controlling plant monsters or having a philosophical debate with Saren in the middle of a battlefield. Your teammates (humans aside) are generally pretty cool people (if that's the appropriate term), even though they sometimes serve as exposition dispensers about their respective species. I honestly enjoy that aspect, because even when they spend a lot of time telling you about the problems their people have had, they never stop being well-defined characters of their own; that's not easy to pull off.
Don't get the wrong idea, of course; I played the other Mass Effect games, and I even enjoyed them. They've all got things that they do well, and things they don't do so well, but at the end of the trilogy looking back, I still feel that the first game is the strongest entry in the series. It's definitely the best to me, personally, and it's the one that I find myself going back to whenever I want another shot of the Mass Effect universe.
A lot of things have been said about Dark Souls, some of them probably too vile for me to repeat even at a den of iniquity like the Giant Bomb forums. I didn't really know what to expect when I jumped into this game, because I'd never played Demon's Souls and had no real frame of reference for how hard this was gonna be. For all I knew, I was buying a game that I'd play for 30 minutes and absolutely hate! I went in almost completely blind and unprepared, and the game... didn't crush me, actually. Where I had assumed brutal death would befall me in the first few minutes, I actually made it quite a while before I died for the first time (to some firebombing undead soldiers in Undead Burg). It ocurred to me later that it might be because I was kind of terrified and apprehensive going in; when the game gave me messages explaining the controls, I made sure to remember it. When I found a new weapon, I tested it out to see if I liked it. When I saw a new enemy, I kept my shield up, and I was borderline OCD about my stamina meter never going below half if I could help it. Because I was patient (read: cowardly) I ended up surviving and having a damn fun time with the game, right until I caught fire.
But then again, that was fun too. I died and wound up back at Firelink Shrine, but I didn't mind that much; after all, I knew right where my souls had landed, and now I knew to watch out for guys tossing bombs my way from the rooftops. It took a few more tries to get it right, but when I eventually came up behind those same undead and booted them to their deaths it was entirely worth the trouble. That's something that I love dearly about Dark Souls; it's rewarding, and not because you've overcome some insanely difficult challenge; in truth, I don't think the game is all that difficult. There are times when it traps and tricks you, and some of the late-game areas and bosses aren't quite as well designed as you'd like (fuck you, Bed of Chaos). For the overwhelming majority of the time, though, I was amazed at just how lenient the game could be. I made mistakes left and right, accidentally healed while a boar charged my way, fell into pits and got cursed and stabbed and generally beaten every way you could imagine, but at no point did it feel like whatever obstacle I faced was insurmountable. There was never a moment when I felt like I couldn't win if I gave it a couple more tries, and I was right.
It's not a game for everyone, and that's alright in my book. I do feel like people might be cheating themselves if they don't at least give it a shot, though, and I feel like the people who often say they aren't good at action games might in fact be the best kind of players. If you're going into the game aware that you don't know what you're doing, I think you'll fare much better than someone who marches in expecting to attack their way to victory. There's something really enjoyable about playing Dark Souls and learning how to play the game; a lot of it has to do with coming back to an area later and blasting through the enemies like paper, not because you remember the layout or leveled up but simply because you're more comfortable with playing. The last time I started a new character, I made it to Blighttown before I died. And I defeated the Capra Demon and his attack dogs by two handing a shield.
Catherine is my favorite puzzle game of all time. It's that particular aspect of the game that makes me put it on this list, though I did enjoy the story and characters; basically, I spent a ridiculous amount of time on this game, and I absolutely love climbing those damned towers of blocks. It's got what I feel is essential in a puzzle game, which is giving the player relatively simple controls and actions. Movement is easy, as long as you don't lose track of your position, and pushing and pulling blocks is about as basic as it can get; the complexity comes from the layouts of the stages and the curious mechanics that allow you to disassemble and stack blocks in physics-defying formations. There are obstacles aplenty, from pursuing bosses, the encroaching void that pulls the tower apart one row at a time, spikes, bombs, ice, enemies... Catherine can become insanely tense and frantic, and the more pressure it puts on you the more likely you are to forget the mechanics and screw yourself over.
I suppose that's something about Catherine that I loved; I ended up completely stalled in the Torture Chamber nightmare, unable to progress past the spike traps and faced with what seemed, at the time, like an insurmountable wall of blocks. I stayed up into the next morning and made no progress, angrily admitting defeat and crawling into bed. The next night I completely blasted through that stage, making it several worlds until I encountered my next real roadblock. It wasn't for a lack of difficulty; the game was consistently getting harder, and the entire time I was learning and practicing my moves, memorizing the quick and dirty solutions for the most common block-puzzles that I encountered. They never introduced more abilities to me, never turned down the difficulty or gave me a pass; I just got better at the game, and when I got stalled I took a break and really thought about it. Catherine made me use my brain until it was running on fumes, and when I couldn't keep up I had to come back another day and try again. That's exactly what a puzzle game should do, and Catherine is a goddamned incredible one.
Of course, it's not all puzzling action. There are things about Catherine's story that I like and dislike for a lot of personal reasons; personally I don't mind that Vincent spent a few nights trapped in terrifying, death-defying nightmares, because I don't particularly like him. It's not that he's not a good character; he's a great character, but to me he seems like a complete asshat. He and Catherine are the only characters in the game that I'm not a fan of, however, and between Katherine, Erica, Vincent's friends and the rest of the Bar patrons, I think that Catherine has one of the strongest casts of any game this generation. Any of the other patrons who get drawn into the nightmare world could probably have been the main character of this one, and Erica and Vincent's other friends give the bar the relaxed, friendly atmosphere that you need before you head home and throw yourself into another Nightmare stage.
With all that said, I still feel the need to reiterate that a lot of my problem's with Catherine's story are personal; it hits close to home. It might be interspersed with comedy and magic and weird supernatural elements, but there are some really disturbing things in this game. The game talks about suicide, survivor's guilt, child abuse of the worst sort, infidelity, shame, and even touches on transgender issues, and it does so with real, honest empathy. I imagine it'll be a hell of a long time before we get a game that even tries to touch on some of the issues that Catherine does, and longer still before we find one that can approach them with some level of class and maturity.
So... there you have it! That's a list that was much, much longer a few days ago, but I trimmed it down to just the games I felt strongly enough about to write for a little while. It's seen revision after revision, but this is the version I'm happy with. I'll still give an honorable mention to some other games: Vanquish and Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance, neither of which are as good as Bayonetta, but both of which are fucking fantastic. There's Binary Domain, which had one of my favorite sci-fi stories ever. It's like a Twilight Zone plot that's gone on for years after the episode ends, and it's incredible. Dragon's Dogma: Dark Arisen kept me occupied for hours, and the story really does get as crazy as everyone says; if you want to understand any of it, though, you should probably do your side quests. Monster Hunter Tri, Assassin's Creed Brotherhood, Nier... I played so many good games that I could keep this going forever, if I felt like it. This generation has been pretty great, you guys. Here's hoping the next one matches up, and that next year is infinitely better than this one was. See you in 2014!
*Unless you like Heavy Rain.
**I cannot describe music well, and I apologize.