danielkempster

With so many awesome new games coming out and on the horizon, what am I doing with my game time? Playing Gen 1 Pokémon, apparently.

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The Very Best, Like No One Ever Was - Phase Three

Hello and welcome to another instalment of The Very Best, Like No One Ever Was - a serial blog project chronicling my efforts to complete an "ultimate playthrough" of the first generation of Pokémon games. If you're interested in what I mean by "ultimate playthrough", I'd advise you to turn your attention to this introductory post which lays out the criteria for each of my three playthroughs and what I hope to achieve. This blog will cover my efforts to obtain the third gym badge in Red, Yellow and Blue Versions - if you haven't been keeping up with the journey so far, you can read about my quests for the first badges here, and the second badges here. When you're fully up to speed, or if you just feel like being reckless and jumping into a ten-part blog series in its third entry, then read on to find out how the third phase of each of my playthroughs unfolded.

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Phase Three - Purgin' Surge

So far my questing through the Kanto region has seen me leave my home in Pallet Town, head north to take on Brock in Pewter City, and then east through Mt Moon to Cerulean City to battle Misty. This instalment of The Very Best, Like No One Ever Was will document my journeys south from Cerulean to the port city of Vermilion, where I'll be challenging the Electric-type gym leader Lt. Surge in pursuit of a trio of Thunderbadges. How will I fare? You can find out by reading on...

Red Version - A Quick Dig to Victory

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I pick up my Nuzlocke playthrough of Red Version precisely where I left off - just outside the Cerulean City Pokémon Center after beating Misty and earning the Cascadebadge. My first order of play is to fish my other prize from the gym - TM11 - out of my bag and toss it to Torpedo the Wartortle, allowing it to replace its puny Bubble attack with the much stronger Bubblebeam. It's by no means the best Water-type move in the game, but it's the best one at my disposal right now, and should see me through a good chunk of the Kanto region until I'm able to acquire the HM for Surf later on. Since I cleared the routes north of Cerulean in Phase Two of this playthrough and already have the S.S. Ticket from Bill, I'm free to leave Cerulean via the house in the northeast of the city, which the police are no longer guarding. I'm able to cut through the building, battling a Team Rocket grunt in the back garden who relinquishes TM28 upon defeat. This TM contains Dig, a Ground-type move which is going to be incredibly useful in the upcoming battle against Surge. Tempting fate and flying in the face of the Nuzlocke gods, I teach the move to Incisor the Rattata now instead of saving it for nearer the time.

Swing King
Swing King

From here I can circumnavigate Cerulean City on its eastern side, eventually reaching Route 5 to the south. Here I'm able to catch a Mankey which I nickname Swing King. It always strikes me as odd that Mankey was exclusive to Red Version and absent from Blue Version, likely because I end up misremembering the encounter tables with those of FireRed and LeafGreen, where Mankey is available in both games. It may prove useful later, but for now I don't desperately need Fighting-type coverage and opt to leave it in the PC. I'm unable to proceed directly south to Saffron City, since the guard on duty at the checkpoint won't allow anyone to pass on account of his thirst for a refreshing beverage. Instead I need to back out onto Route 5 and navigate an underground tunnel which connects Routes 5 and 6, bypassing Saffron entirely. Route 6 unfortunately bestows no new members upon the party, since its encounter tables are identical to those on Route 5 and I already have one of every evolutionary line available in these areas. What Route 6 does have, though, is a handful of trainers itching to do battle as I follow the path south to Vermilion City. Most of these don't pose any problems, but one specific Bug Catcher has a lv20 Butterfree which comes very close to demolishing Grand Horn the Nidoking after I foolishly left it in on a super-effective Confusion. Thankfully this is our only blip in this area, and I'm able to make it all the way to Vermilion without suffering my first death.

Morpheus
Morpheus

After healing up at the local Pokémon Center, it's time to pick up a couple more new encounters. On Route 11, due east of Vermilion, I catch a Drowzee which I nickname Morpheus. This Psychic-type has often been a feature in my Gen 1 playthroughs, since Kadabra's trade-only evolution method means I've never been able to obtain an Alakazam in these games, prompting me to fall back on Hypno instead. While Psychic is an incredibly useful type in the first generation, I don't have any immediate need for it and decide to leave it in the PC for now. Far more important is the potential encounter in Diglett's Cave, a tunnel between Vermilion City and Route 11 which tracks back all the way to Route 2 and Pewter City. As you might surmise from the location's moniker, my encounter here is a Diglett, which I snag and nickname Excavator. I then head back to the Pokémon Center and add Excavator to the team, returning Needlebeak the Spearow to the PC for now given its weakness to the Electric-types I'll soon be facing.

Excavator
Excavator

The next story destination is the S.S. Anne cruise ship, but before I head there I decide to return to Route 11 and battle the local trainers and wild Pokémon to raise my team's levels a little. I set a target of lv20 for everyone and hit it in just under an hour of dedicated battling. This milestone is significant because it means Incisor can evolve into Raticate, a much more viable option than Rattata for the upcoming gym thanks to its higher base stats. It also means that Howard, my perenially useless Beedrill, finally learns a move worth using - the Bug-type attack Twineedle. While it probably won't see much use against Psychic types due to Howard's frail defences, it will make it much easier to deal with Team Rocket's Poison-type Pokémon going forward. I have no idea if Bug is supposed to be super-effective against Poison in the first generation, or if this is simply one of its many coding quirks, but I'm definitely going to take advantage of it if I can.

Anther
Anther

With a full team of lv20 Pokémon I return to Vermilion City, heal once more, and then make my way to the S.S. Anne, ticket in hand. Unfortunately it looks like the party Bill was invited to has long since ended, as there doesn't seem to be anything especially festive occurring on board. Instead the boat is packed with restless trainers itching to battle since the captain refuses to set sail. The S.S. Anne is essentially a pseudo-dungeon, its cabins filled with trainers guarding various items that can either be fought for or skipped entirely. Naturally, hungry for all the experience I can get, I opt to battle everyone on board, focusing predominantly on training Incisor and Excavator while swapping to other team members for super-effective damage when necessary. As I plunder the ship's riches Anther the Oddish reaches lv21 and evolves into Gloom, a useful development since Grass's resistance to Electric-type attacks makes it a potential candidate for the upcoming gym battle.

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Just outside the captain's quarters I run into my rival Blue once more, and as always he's itching for a scrap. I happily oblige, proceeding to tear into his team with little resistance. Incisor, currently at the head of the party, takes down his Pidgeotto with a couple of Hyper Fangs, before Grand Horn switches in and proceeds to eviscerate the rest of his squad with Horn Attack, the victory never looking in doubt. With Blue out of the way I pay the captain a visit, and in return for curing his sea-sickness with a little back rub, I'm given HM01, Cut. This move doesn't have much utility in battle, but can be used on the overworld to chop down small trees, and will allow me to gain access to the Vermilion City gym in pursuit of our next badge. Given I can't really make its moveset any worse, I opt to teach Cut to Howard. Then I heal up my team once more at the Pokémon Center, pick up a couple of Super Potions from the Poké Mart, and make my way into the gym.

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My strategy for taking on Lt. Surge's Electric-type Pokémon is to lead with Excavator, who is now lv23, and use Dig exclusively. This Ground-type move is super-effective against all three of Surge's Pokémon, and Diglett's high base speed will hopefully ensure that Excavator moves first, avoiding any potential incoming hits that could shatter its poor defences and minuscule HP. It's a proper glass cannon strategy. Should anything go wrong and Excavator bite the dust, I have Incisor waiting in the wings also ready to Dig, and if worst comes to worst Grand Horn and Anther can negate and resist Electric-type attacks respectively. I also have a strategy for getting to Surge himself, since the Vermilion City gym is infamous among Pokémon players for having perhaps the worst gym puzzle in the franchise's history - tasking the player with finding two switches hidden across a grid of fifteen trash cans in order to power down the electric fence blocking the path to the gym leader. In a move that may not exactly be in the Nuzlocke spirit, I elect to save my game when I find the first switch, meaning if I pick the wrong trash can and the puzzle resets, I can simply reload my save and try another trash can. It's a bit scummy, but it sure beats having to wrestle with excessive amounts of RNG.

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I make it to Surge in almost no time at all and send out Excavator to do battle. My expectation is that the little Diglett will make short work of the Lightning American's Pikachu and Voltorb, but may come unstuck against his ace, a lv24 Raichu. Should that happen, I have Incisor and Grand Horn waiting in the wings ready to finish it off. As predicted, Surge's first two Pokémon go down to a single Dig, landing no retaliatory damage on Excavator in the process. Ready for Raichu to unleash hell, I set Excavator up for another Dig, only for Surge to use an X Speed on his Pokémon, giving me a free turn to burrow underground and evade his next attack. Excavator then emerges from his burrow to land a critical hit on the suped-up Raichu, knocking it out in a single hit and earning me the first of my three Thunderbadges, as well as a TM24 containing the move Thunderbolt. Thanking the RNG gods for their kindness, I accept my spoils and high-tail it out of the gym back to the Pokémon Center where I rest up before saving the game and shutting down my copy of Red Version for now.

Yellow Version - Creative Thinking and Sequence Breaking

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This phase of the project marks my longest excursion into the Pokémon anime so far, with seven episodes covering the gap between Ash Ketchum's second and third badges. The first two of these episodes are essentially filler episodes which contribute nothing substantial to the overall progression of the series' narrative - in The Path to the Pokémon League, Ash takes on an unlicensed Pokémon gym in the middle of nowhere, and in The School of Hard Knocks, he stumbles across a Pokémon academy for a quick run-through of the "you can't learn everything from books" trope. At no point in either of these episodes does Ash catch a new Pokémon, or evolve an existing Pokémon, or visit any locations with a direct in-game equivalent. Perhaps most interestingly, these two episodes do debut a couple of the series' most memorable character traits - specifically Brock's persistent falling for every attractive female character he meets, and the start of James' shift from suave and charismatic to whiny and bumbling (accompanied by a change in voice actor, no less). But, as nothing in these two episodes really relates to the experience of playing through Yellow Version, I shan't dwell on them any further.

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Where things start getting really interesting is in the next three episodes. Across these episodes, Ash adds three new Pokémon to his team - specifically none other than the trio of Kanto starters, Bulbasaur, Charmander and Squirtle. After booting my copy of Yellow Version back up, I decide to make obtaining these three Pokémon my next in-game goal. First up is Bulbasaur, which in the anime is encountered by Ash and his friends when they stumble across a Pokémon sanctuary in the episode Bulbasaur and the Hidden Village. There's no such forest in Yellow Version, but the developers have added an analogous event to one of the buildings in Cerulean City. There, a woman offers to let you raise her Bulbasaur if you can demonstrate a close bond with your Pokémon. This means raising the starter Pikachu's hidden affection stat above a certain threshold, something I apparently haven't done yet. Thankfully, it only takes a handful of battles on Route 4 to raise Pikachu's level and tick its affection up over the required target. With her criteria met, the woman releases Bulbasaur into my care where it joins Pikachu, Butterfree and Pidgeotto as my fourth team member.

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Next up is Charmander, encountered by Ash in one of the anime's most memorable episodes (Charmander - the Stray Pokémon) where he saves the abandoned Pokémon from certain death in a terrible storm, earning its trust and recruiting it to his team. The in-game event isn't quite as memorable, unfortunately, as it just involves speaking to an NPC on Route 25 who simply hands his Charmander over with no questions asked. In order to reach this location the player must first do battle with their rival and cross Nugget Bridge, something I'm yet to do in this playthrough. So I head north from Cerulean to engage Gary in battle once more. His team differs slightly in Yellow, with a Spearow replacing his Pidgeotto and a Sandshrew instead of his useless Abra. Spearow is no match for Pikachu, while my newly-acquired Bulbasaur's Vine Whip makes short work of the Sandshrew. Pidgeotto then takes care of both his Rattata and his starter Pokémon Eevee with a series of Quick Attacks. Gary heads into town to lick his wounds, leaving me free to advance across Nugget Bridge, defeat its trainers, and retrieve my new Charmander from the careless trainer on its other side.

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The third new acquisition is Squirtle, and this one forced me to get creative. In the anime, the Squirtle that joins Ash is the leader of the Squirtle Squad, a Pokémon gang causing havoc in an unnamed town. In Yellow Version, that town is substituted with Vermilion City, where a police officer now stands in the middle of town waiting to offer Squirtle to a worthy trainer. Unfortunately it's currently impossible for me to reach Vermilion City as I haven't yet met Bill and engaged the event that unlocks the path south of Cerulean City (more on that in just a bit). So, I decide to bend the rules a bit. Using my friend Matt's 3DS which is still thankfully on hand, I trade my newly-acquired Charmander from Yellow Version into my Red Version's Nuzlocke playthrough and teach it HM01 Cut before trading it back. Since Cut can be used in the field any time after beating Misty, I'm able to get Charmander to Cut through a small tree on the south side of Cerulean, granting me access to Route 5, the underground tunnel, Route 6, and eventually Vermilion City. I feel intensely proud of my lateral thinking and problem-solving as I approach the police officer in the centre of town, but that pride rapidly dissipates when I learn that the prerequisite for receiving Squirtle from the officer is beating Lt. Surge and acquiring the Thunderbadge. Feeling foolish, I'm forced to backtrack north all the way to Cerulean City empty-handed. It looks like we won't be able to stick to the anime's developments 100% faithfully after all.

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The next episode of the anime, Mystery at the Lighthouse, poses another problem, in that it opens with Ash catching a Krabby. Krabby is, unfortunately, totally inaccessible to me right now, as it can only be caught either on the Seafoam Islands or by using a Super Rod, which is all the way out on Route 12 and will require a lot of dancing around the game's critical path to obtain. Mercifully this doesn't cause us any immediate problems as Ash's Krabby is sent straight to Professor Oak, destined not to appear on his active team for some time, meaning I can make a mental note to acquire a Krabby at the earliest possible convenience and move on with the playthrough. In this instance, moving on means finally heading to the Seaside Cottage on Route 25 and meeting Bill. Bill's appearance in this episode is a little incongruous with the games, as this rendition lives in a lighthouse instead of a cottage, and obsesses over meeting a mysterious Pokémon that apparently nobody can tell is a Dragonite even though it's very clearly a Dragonite. Instead, Yellow Version's encounter with Bill goes much the same way as it does in Red and Blue, albeit with a couple of extra reaction animations courtesy of the partner Pikachu. I unscramble his DNA, receive the S.S. Ticket as thanks, and head off on my way.

Electric Shock Showdown, the seventh and final episode of this phase, chronicles Ash's arrival in Vermilion City and gym battle against Lt. Surge and his monstrously powerful Raichu. This means returning to Vermilion in-game, taking the expected path through the burgled house this time and travelling down Routes 5 and 6 via the underground tunnel. A neat touch I notice on this pass through is that two of the trainers on Route 6 have been given a Weepinbell and a Cubone in this version of the game, seemingly directly referencing the Pokémon used by Joe and Giselle in the School of Hard Knocks episode. That's a neat little Easter egg that I don't think I would have picked up on had I not been playing the game and watching the show simultaneously. Sticking to the path laid out by the anime also forces me to start engaging with one of the franchise's mechanics for the first time across this project - the evolution cancel. By pressing B during the evolution animation, it's possible to prevent a Pokémon from evolving. Since both Bulbasaur and Charmander both reach their minimum level requirement for evolving while making the trip back to Vermilion, I have to start using the evolution cancel to ensure my team remains in line with Ash's.

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When I finally reach Vermilion City, I'm able to perform another sequence break in order to adhere more closely to the events of the anime. Since I've already taught Cut to Charmander, I don't need to visit the S.S. Anne before taking on the Vermilion City gym. This means I can follow the timeline of the anime, as Ash and his pals don't visit the S.S. Anne (dubbed the St. Anne in the show) until after taking on Lt. Surge. Charmander chops down the tree blocking access to the Vermilion gym and I make my way inside. Before tackling the trash can puzzle in the same ingenious way I did in Red Version, I take a moment to formulate my battle strategy. In the anime, Ash takes on Surge twice. In the first battle, Surge wins because his Raichu outstrips Ash's Pikachu in terms of pure power. The episode has some genuine second-act drama where Ash considers using a Thunderstone to evolve Pikachu and meet Surge on even terms, only for Pikachu to Tail Whip the stone out of its trainer's hand and insist on doing things its own way. The episode then ends with an excellent rematch in which Pikachu takes advantage of its smaller frame and higher agility to wear out Raichu and score the win. In case you couldn't tell, this is probably my favourite episode of the anime so far. It really embodies the spirit of Pokémon, the idea that building a bond between monster and trainer and knowing each other's strengths and weaknesses is more important than raw numbers and brute strength. And so, I resolve to follow in Ash's footsteps and take on Surge's lv28 Raichu with my own starter Pikachu.

This was a bad idea.

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I'll hold my hands up and admit that at lv24, my Pikachu was underlevelled for this fight. That's a misjudgement on my part, since Surge's Raichu is lv24 in Red and Blue Versions, but gets a boost in Yellow due to it being his only Pokémon. But even so, I wasn't banking on his Raichu outspeeding me and flooring my Pikachu with a single well-placed Mega Punch. See, contrary to what the anime would have you believe (but logically when you stop to think about it), it turns out that Raichu's base speed stat is actually higher than Pikachu's. Raichu is therefore both stronger and faster than Pikachu, meaning there is no trade-off between power and speed in its evolution, and Ash's strategy is completely unviable in the context of these games. Thank goodness this isn't the Nuzlocke playthrough, eh? I end up bringing in Bulbasaur, setting up Leech Seed and Poisonpowder, and whittling down its health with supplementary Vine Whips while occasionally breaking out the Super Potions to heal. Raichu eventually goes down and Surge gifts me my second Thunderbadge and another TM24. On the way back to the Pokémon Center to revive my fallen Pikachu, I chat to the police officer in the middle of town who agrees to let me take the delinquent Squirtle into my care. Not entirely sure how sending my Pikachu to the slaughter convinced her I was a worthy trainer, but there you go. I now have a full team of six Pokémon, and while I still need to catch a Krabby at some point, I'm keeping pretty good pace with Ash's journey, even if I am nought for three on mimicking his gym battle strategies. That's enough Yellow Version for now, time to move back over to Blue.

Blue Version - Nidoking of the Ring

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As with the other two games, I resume my nostalgia-inspired run through Blue Version outside the Pokémon Center in Cerulean City, with a team full of freshly-healed Pokémon and an area to the north just waiting to be explored. Before I move towards Routes 24 and 25 though, there's something I need to take care of. Readers of the previous blog may recall that my Charmander and Squirtle in Blue Version have been lagging behind the rest of the team, since they're technically traded Pokémon and therefore stopped obeying me when they reached lv10 all the way back in phase one. One of the perks of obtaining Misty's Cascadebadge, though, is that unruly Pokémon will become obedient until they reach lv30. This means I can start training Charmander and Squirtle again! I make a quick diversion to Route 4, west of Cerulean, and spend a little bit of time raising both Pokémon to lv16, hitting their evolution threshold and transforming them into Charmeleon and Wartortle respectively. Not only are they now competitive with the rest of my team, but they've added two more entries to my Pokédex as well!

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Now my team is a little more well-rounded, it's time to head north and take on my rival, Scott. As in Red Version, he's rocking a Pidgeotto, an Abra, a Rattata and his starter, in this case a Charmander. I open with Pikachu, which makes short work of the Pidgeotto with its super-effective Thundershock. I then switch to Charmeleon who takes down the ineffective Abra with a couple of Scratches. The Fire-type hits Rattata with Ember next, causing a lucky burn that halves the damage of its incoming Hyper Fang attack before a second Ember puts it down for good. Finally, his Charmander is no match for my newly-evolved Wartortle, especially with the newly-learned Bubblebeam in its moveset. Scott heads south licking his wounds, leaving me free to continue north across Nugget Bridge and towards the Seaside Cottage.

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There's not much to document about this part of the playthrough. The crossing of Nugget Bridge is smooth and without incident, as is the excursion east along Route 25 towards Bill's home. The main development here is that I manage to pick up two new Pokémon that will contribute towards my eventual pursuit of a completed Pokédex - Abra, which as in Red Version I manage to catch with a first-throw Great Ball; and Bellsprout, the Blue-exclusive equivalent to Red's Oddish. Both of these go straight to the PC, since they don't make up part of my already-assembled nostalgia squad, but they will re-emerge eventually. After these two new acquisitions I continue to the Seaside Cottage, speak to Bill, unjumble his DNA and nab the S.S. Ticket before returning to Cerulean. From there it's the familiar route through the "Dig House" to battle the Rocket grunt for TM28, then south to Route 5 where I catch another Blue-exclusive Pokémon (Meowth) and add it to my computerised roster, through the underground tunnel to Route 6, and past the gauntlet of trainers to Vermilion City.

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Vermilion is the first location where the Pokémon Master Guide that has been accompanying this specific playthrough really comes into its own. It highlights a number of events and opportunities available to the player in this port town, at least one of which I'd completely forgotten about in both Red and Yellow Versions. It first points me to the Fishing Guru living in the northwest corner of town, who grants me the first of three fishing rods, the underwhelming Old Rod, which can be used to exclusively catch Magikarp in pretty much any body of water in Kanto. A little further south is the Pokémon Fan Club, whose chairman will gift the player a Bike Voucher to redeem at the store in Cerulean provided they first listen to his slightly disconcerting ramblings about his favourite Rapidash. Over to the east is a trainer looking to trade their one-of-a-kind Farfetch'd in exchange for an easily-sourced Spearow. All this makes Vermilion City feel like the first location in the game where I'm tangibly rewarded for speaking to everyone, rather than being bombarded with thinly-veiled tutorials on the game's mechanics.

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The Master Guide doesn't cover Route 11 and Diglett's Cave until after the Lt. Surge fight, so I'll be leaving those areas for the next phase (although I do break sequence with a quick jaunt to Route 11 to pick up a spare Spearow to trade for the aforementioned Farfetch'd). One area it does state is mandatory before taking on the gym, though, is the S.S. Anne, due to the requirement of obtaining HM01 from the seasick captain. There's not a great deal I can say here that diverges from my experience in Red Version, since the gauntlet through the cruise liner is identical. Even the rival battle against Scott here isn't particularly noteworthy, playing out pretty much identically to the battle at the base of Nugget Bridge only an hour or so previously. One thing I do decide to do here is use a Moon Stone on my Nidorino, evolving it into a Nidoking. I'd been toying with leaving it unevolved for a while to let it learn more of Nidorino's moves, but a bit of advance research in the Master Guide reveals there isn't anything worth learning that trumps Nidoking's access to the powerful Thrash at lv23, and I feel like the evolutionary stat boost is going to come in handy in the next gym. One frustrating thing I do learn at this stage is that apparently the Nidoran line can't learn Dig in the first generation games. I try to use TM28 both before and after the Moon Stone, only to be told it's not compatible. This puts a minor spanner in the works, since I was hoping to use Nidoking in Surge's gym and this means I won't have access to any super-effective damaging moves if I do.

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After curing the captain's seasickness and watching the S.S. Anne depart, I use my newly-acquired HM01 to teach Cut to Ivysaur, overwriting Tackle in the process. I've never really been one for using HM slaves in Pokémon games, even bearing in mind how inconvenient it is to be stuck with useless low-base power moves on my final team. Since this is intended to mimic my original playthrough of Blue Version, that means that by the end of this project I'll have a Venusaur with Cut, a Charizard with Strength, a Blastoise with Surf, a Pidgeot with Fly, and a Raichu with Flash. And speaking of Raichu, it's time to head over to the Vermilion gym and give Lt. Surge a taste of my nostalgia team. Once again I manage to game the trash can puzzle with innovative use of the save system, and it's not long before I'm squaring up against Surge for the third and final time in this phase. My strategy this time is to blitz through his team using Nidoking, which will be immune to any incoming Electric-type attacks while dealing decent damage with Horn Attack and, should the situation call for it, Thrash. Ivysaur is in reserve with its electrical resistance, while Wartortle and Pidgeotto will be kept well clear of the front lines on this one.

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As in Red Version, Surge is back to a team of three this time around - Pikachu, Voltorb, and a lv24 Raichu as his ace. Nidoking proves to be a great choice for this fight, negating Pikachu's Thundershock and putting it down with a single Horn Attack. Voltorb is next and while it doesn't manage to deal any damage, its higher speed means it does land a worrying Screech to lower Nidoking's defences before it too falls to Horn Attack. in comes the Raichu and since Nidoking is staring down two defence drops, I decide to go all-in and use the high-powered Thrash to try and wrap things up quickly. It turns out that Surge's Raichu only knows Mega Punch in Yellow Version, though - in Red and Blue, both of its damaging moves are Electric-type, meaning it can't do a thing to Nidoking as it thrashes into it and secures the victory. For the third time this phase, Lt. Surge is defeated and bestows upon me the Thunderbadge and a TM24. I toss this to Pikachu immediately, teaching it the powerful Thunderbolt move in place of its puny Thundershock. With victory sealed, all that remains is to return to the Pokémon Center, heal up, and save the game before powering down the 3DS on this phase of the project.

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And with that, I'm another step closer to finishing this ludicrous undertaking. This phase ended up being pretty interesting, with the "every possible encounter" mentality of the Nuzlocke format making Red Version a much more exploratory experience than either Yellow or Blue so far. It was fun being able to manipulate some factors across playthroughs to essentially sequence-break Yellow Version in service of keeping it as close to the anime as possible, and it's also great to finally have a full team of six to fall back on in that game, albeit slightly disappointing to discover that there's a significant amount of overlap between my teams in both Yellow and Blue Versions. It's neat to see the trend of beating the gym leaders with different strategies continuing, too, with an all-out "glass cannon" approach using the speedy Diglett in Red, the much more stall-oriented tactics of Bulbasaur after Pikachu's untimely demise in Yellow, and leaning on the bulk, muscle and type resistance of the recently-evolved Nidoking in Blue.

The next phase will mark the start of a significant separation in the critical paths of all three of these games. While Red and Blue Versions will continue towards Celadon City and target Erika as the next gym leader, Yellow is going to go pretty spectacularly off the rails in an effort to emulate Ash's journey and make Sabrina the opponent for my fourth badge. It is something that is definitely possible, since in theory everything between Misty and Blaine can be approached in a variety of non-linear ways, although I've never attempted it personally before. One thing's for certain - it's definitely going to make for some interesting reading. Speaking of which, thanks very much to those of you who've been reading this series so far. Whether you've been heeding my advice and reading from the beginning, or have flown in the face of convention and skipped straight to this specific sentence, your readership is appreciated. I'll be back in a few weeks with phase four of The Very Best, Like No One Ever Was. Until then, take care, and I'll see you around.

Daniel

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The Very Best, Like No One Ever Was - Phase Two

Hello and welcome back to another instalment of The Very Best, Like No One Ever Was, a series of blogs chronicling my efforts to complete an "ultimate playthrough" of the first generation of Pokémon games. If you're curious about what that entails, I'd recommend reading the introductory blog for this series, which outlines the different ways I'll be playing each of the three games in order to achieve this ludicrous feat. I'd also advise reading the first phase of the project before moving on any further, since it covers the opening hours of each playthrough. For those who are all caught up, read on to find out how I fared against the trials of Mt Moon and the Cerulean City Gym.

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Phase Two - Twistin' with Misty

My main take-away from the first phase of this project was just how much the three playthroughs were already starting to diverge, with Red, Yellow and Blue Versions all featuring different teams and therefore demanding different tactics to make it past Brock. I'm particularly excited to see how much that divergence continues in this phase, as I move through Mt Moon and towards Cerulean City. There's also a choice on the horizon which I'll need to be mindful of in terms of making sure I'm able to acquire that coveted completed Pokédex. Let's begin by returning to the Nuzlocke playthrough of Red Version.

Red Version - Birds, Bats, Plants and Stars

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Picking Red Version back up, I find myself sitting outside the Pokémon Center in Pewter City with a freshly-healed team of Pokémon. I do a quick bit of menu navigation to get my bearings, checking on the current team and the items in my bag. I make a quick stop at the Poké Mart and spend some of the winnings from beating Brock on a few more Poké Balls, ready for the potential captures en route to the next destination - Cerulean City. The first step on that journey is to head east along Route 3, a mountain path dotted with several trainers. Most of these are Youngsters, Lasses and Bug Catchers, but while the types of Pokémon they use aren't anything too worrying, their levels do cause me concern - particularly the Lass near the end of the route with a lv14 Jigglypuff. Thankfully I'm able to negotiate these battles without any major upsets, and make it to a patch of long grass where I pick up our next encounter - a Spearow, which I catch and name Needlebeak. At the first opportunity, I sub Needlebeak into the team in place of our Pidgey, Avion. There's a good reason for this - Spearow knows the Flying-type move Peck, which gives it a distinct advantage over Pidgey and its exclusively Normal-type current moveset. It will also evolve into Fearow much sooner than Avion will become a Pidgeot, giving us a bit more raw power to work with in the earlier stages of the game.

Needlebeak
Needlebeak

At the far end of Route 3 is the entrance to Mt Moon, next to which is a conveniently-placed Pokémon Center. I rest up, make the necessary team changes, and then do something which may prove a little controversial. While the "one capture per route" rule of the Nuzlocke format is pretty clear, the topic of gift Pokémon, event Pokémon and static encounters is more of a grey area. As I'm tracking my Nuzlocke progress through an app which lists these as viable encounters, I've decided to treat them as such. This means I can chat with the guy in this Pokémon Center who's selling Magikarp and buy one from him for ₽500. I name it Leviathan and stick it straight in the PC - I already have a Water-type on the team in my starter, Torpedo the Squirtle, but knowing there's a potential Gyarados in reserve is reassuring. It also means I don't need to sacrifice any future fishing encounters on using the Old Rod to fish up a Magikarp, and can instead use the Good and Super Rods to snag a wider variety of 'mons.

Leviathan
Leviathan

With the team rested and refreshed, it's time to head into Mt Moon. This is the game's first proper dungeon, where every step taken is a potential encounter - some might argue Viridian Forest fills that role, but given encounters are still restricted to long grass, I consider it more of a fancy route than a legitimate dungeon. Speaking of encounters, I don't have to search for long to find one in the cavernous heart of this mountain, and as expected, it ends up being one of the myriad Zubat that are ubiquitous here. While a Geodude or Paras would have been preferable, I can't look a gift horse in the mouth and snaffle up the Zubat, naming it Radar. It goes straight to the PC, since Grand Horn the Nidoran ♂ and Needlebeak have the Poison and Flying types already covered on the team.

Radar
Radar

While Zubat make up the majority of the encounters in Mt Moon, there is just enough variety in both the trainers and the wild Pokémon here to ensure that all members of the team get a decent chunk of experience on the way through. On the lowest floor of the cave, I start running into a new trainer class - members of Team Rocket. I've long thought it a little odd that the evil team show their hand for the first time here, since there isn't anything going on in Mt Moon for them to disrupt. Bulbapedia claims that they're present to try and steal fossils to sell, but none of their dialogue states this as far as I can recall. Nonetheless, their teams of Poison-types make for excellent training fodder, particularly for Grand Horn who ends up hitting lv16 and evolves into Nidorino. Towards the end of the path through the dungeon I locate a hidden Moon Stone, an evolution stone which just so happens to trigger Nidorino's evolution into Nidoking. I decide to use it on Grand Horn straight away - none of the remaining moves he'll learn as Nidorino are particularly worthwhile, and having the extra power at this early stage should be incredibly useful.

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At Mt Moon's exit I run into a Super Nerd who has excavated two fossils and says I can choose to take one if I beat him in battle. I oblige, and when given the choice, opt for the Dome Fossil which can be resurrected into a Kabuto much later in the game. I admittedly make this choice without any real consideration for its implications further down the line, I just really like Kabutops' design and would prefer to use one over Omastar. With the Dome Fossil pocketed, I make my way out of Mt Moon, emerging into the fresh air and daylight of Route 4. Cerulean City lies just a short way east and down a ledge that marks a point of no return, but before I make my way there, there's one more thing to take care of - an encounter for the route. I run into an Ekans, which I catch and name Redda. As with Radar the Zubat, Redda will be taking up storage space in the PC for now since, while I do really like Arbok's design, I already have an abundance of Poison types.

Redda
Redda

On arriving in Cerulean City I make my usual stops at the Pokémon Center and Poké Mart to heal my team and restock my bag respectively. Misty's gym is right next to the Pokémon Center, its door inviting me in to battle, but I decide to postpone the inevitable just a little bit longer in favour of some more exploration. My main worry at this point is that we have nothing that can hit Misty's Water-types super-effective damage. Thankfully there are a couple of routes north of Cerulean City that are home to the Grass-type Pokémon Oddish, which would be an ideal acquisition at this point in the run. I head north, forgetting that in order to reach those routes, I first have to do battle against my rival, Blue. This is a pretty tough battle for this stage in the game, and I've just wandered into it with no preparation. Blue leads with a lv18 Pidgeotto that's scary on account of its STAB priority Quick Attack and annoying thanks to its tendency to spam the accuracy-lowering Sand Attack. I decide to brute force my way through it with Grand Horn and although one of his Horn Attacks misses on account of a Sand Attack, it doesn't take long for Pidgeotto to go down. His lv15 Abra only knows Teleport, a move that is useless in trainer battles, making it a sitting duck for Incisor the Rattata. Incisor then stays in for an honour battle against Blue's Rattata, taking it down with a combination of Hyper Fang and Quick Attack. That just leaves his Bulbasaur, and thankfully I now have a means of dealing super-effective damage against it with Needlebeak's Peck. It's by no means a damageless victory, but I make it through without any casualties.

Anther
Anther

The other blockade on Route 24 (which I didn't forget about) is Nugget Bridge, a gauntlet of five trainers that must be beaten in order to reach the northern half of the route and claim the victory prize of a Nugget. As a kid I had no idea that Nuggets were intended to be sold, and would hoard them just in case they had some kind of special use later in the game. As an adult who now knows better, I'm already mentally spending the ₽5000 I know it's worth before I've even won it. The Nugget Bridge battles thankfully pose no notable threats to my team, but they do push Torpedo up to lv18, allowing it to evolve into Wartortle. When I'm finally past all the trainers on the bridge, I make my way to the patch of grass to the west, and almost immediately find what I'm looking for - an Oddish, which I catch and nickname Anther. A little further north in the long grass on Route 25, I encounter the famously difficult-to-catch Abra, which loves to flee from battle with Teleport. Since I have no moves to put it to sleep, all I can do is throw the only Great Ball in my possession at it and hope for the best. By some stroke of luck, it stays in the ball and becomes the newest addition to the team. I name it Acorah, and send it straight to the PC.

Anther
Anther

After a quick return trip to Cerulean City to heal and shuffle the team about so Anther is in the roster, I return to Route 25 and make my way east to the Seaside Cottage, battling trainers and collecting items along the way. I've picked up a number of TMs at this point, but none of them contain moves which strike me as particularly useful right now, so most of my acquired items end up sitting in storage in the PC. At the Seaside Cottage I meet Bill, inventor of the Pokémon PC storage system, who has somehow managed to turn himself into a Pokémon in an experiment that sounds like something straight out of The Fly. I offer my help in reverting him back to his human state, for which he thanks me by gifting me a ticket to attend a party on the S.S. Anne, a luxury cruise liner currently docked in Vermilion City to the south. Having exhausted all I can do in this part of the world, I return south to Cerulean City, training my team on the way to ensure everyone is lv18.

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The final step for this phase of the Red Version Nuzlocke is to battle Misty at the Cerulean City gym for our second badge. I feel much more confident about this fight with Anther in the party, and position it at the head of the team. My strategy is to inflict either Poison or Paralysis on Misty's Staryu and Starmie to disrupt them, then use Absorb to deal super-effective damage while healing any damage she manages to do to me. There are two gym trainers prior to the battle with Misty, and while the male Swimmer with a Horsea and Shellder doesn't pose any problems, I do end up having to switch my strategy somewhat for the female Jr Trainer whose Goldeen knows the Flying-type move Peck. I do feel a little bit apprehensive squaring up to Misty, knowing that one of her Pokémon is part-Psychic type, but as with using Butterfree in Brock's gym in phase one of the Yellow Version playthrough, I subsequently learn that apprehension is misplaced since her Starmie doesn't actually know any Psychic-type moves. The battle goes off without a hitch, and my strategy plays out exactly as intended. Anther even hits lv19 partway through the fight and learns Sleep Powder, giving me an even more potent status-inducing move to subdue Starmie while slowly Absorbing all of its HP. Misty doesn't really know what to do, throwing a pair of pointless X-Defend items that have no bearing on my Special Grass-type attacks. It takes a few turns, but eventually both of Misty's star-shaped Water Pokémon fall and she has no choice but to bestow the Cascadebadge upon me, bringing the second phase of this Nuzlocke playthrough to an end.

Yellow Version - Short and Sweet

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As I prepare to jump back across to Yellow Version and the playthrough inspired by Ash's actions during the anime, I realise that this may well be the shortest phase of the entire project. Between Ash earning his first and second gym badges, there are only two episodes of the anime to watch - Clefairy and the Moon Stone, which covers his journey through Mt Moon, and The Water Flowers of Cerulean City, which documents his second gym battle. Over the course of these two episodes, Ash acquires no new Pokémon, meaning I'll be facing off against Misty in Yellow Version with an unchanged team of Pikachu, Pidgeotto and Butterfree. All this points to phase two of Yellow Version being the least eventful part of this entire project.

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As in Red Version, I pick up the action back in Pewter City and start heading east towards Mt Moon, defeating the trainers along Route 3 as I go and resisting the temptation to hunt down new team members in the long grass. The journey through Mt Moon itself is largely the same as it was in Red Version, with two notable differences. First, after the battle against the Super Nerd, I lay claim to the Helix Fossil instead of the Dome Fossil. This is an important choice, since picking different fossils in Yellow and Blue Versions is necessary to ensure I have access to both lines of Fossil Pokémon for Pokédex completion purposes. The second difference is that as I exit Mt Moon in Yellow Version, I have my first fight with Team Rocket's Jessie and James. These characters were retro-fitted into Yellow Version to bring it more in line with the anime, punctuating the experience with occasional battles similar to the rival. True to their anime counterparts, their team consists of Ekans, Koffing and Meowth, although since double battles didn't become a thing until the third generation, I'm limited to fighting them one at a time. Challenge-wise they don't really offer anything notably different to any other member of Team Rocket, all of whom use teams made up of Poison and Normal types, but their inclusion as a nod to the anime is still appreciated.

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After leaving Mt Moon I make my way straight to Cerulean City, not stopping to catch anything in the interest of staying faithful to the anime. This commitment to faithfulness means I also won't be heading north of Cerulean to Routes 24 and 25, since Ash doesn't experience the events associated with these places until after his second gym battle. That means no rival battle, no Nugget Bridge, and no meeting with Bill until Yellow Version reaches phase three. In fact, all that really remains to be done is to challenge Misty for the Cascadebadge. Before we do, though, I'm keen to get a little bit more experience for the team, and so I head west back to Route 4 and grind out some levels on the wild Pokémon there, bringing all three of my Pokémon to lv18. Once Pikachu, Pidgeotto and Butterfree have all reached that threshold, I return to Cerulean City, heal up at the Pokémon Center, and make my way into Misty's gym.

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One of the main goals of this playthrough is to try and earn the gym badges using strategies borrowed from Ash in the anime. In Pewter City I wasn't able to do this, since Ash ends up besting Brock by supercharging Pikachu and activating the sprinkler system to weaken his Onix - strategies that aren't viable in the games since Onix is completely immune to Electric-type attacks. Here, though, I think I have a chance to follow in Ash's footsteps. In the anime, Pikachu refuses to battle against Misty due to the friendship it's cultivated with her while on the road, leaving Ash to battle with Pidgeotto and Butterfree instead. Bearing this in mind, I decide to lead with Butterfree and use it to put Misty's Pokémon to sleep with Sleep Powder, then wail on them with Confusion. This works well for Staryu, but completely falls apart against Starmie - while it falls asleep easily enough, Confusion does practically no damage on account of its resistance to Psychic-type attacks and very high Special stat. I switch out to Pidgeotto, hoping to subdue it with some STAB Quick Attacks, but Misty decides to throw out one of her X-Defends, all but negating Pidgeotto's damage output as well. When Starmie wakes up and starts dealing big chunks of damage with Bubblebeam, I decide it's time to abandon Ash's strategies and bring out my own Pikachu to land some super-effective damage with Thundershock. Doing so brings the fight to a much quicker conclusion. I may be 0 for 2 on aping Ash's strategies in this series, but I'm 2 for 2 on badges, and that's the most important thing.

Blue Version - ???

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With phase two of the Yellow Version playthrough wrapped up, I dig out my copy of the Pokémon Master Guide and jump back into Blue Version to continue my childhood-inspired playthrough. From loading back up in Pewter City I follow the same path east along Route 3, through Mt Moon and into Cerulean City. Since Blue Version is where I'll be aiming to complete my Pokédex, the journey is punctuated with captures of newly-encountered Pokémon. On Route 3, that means exploring the long grass for a while in search of a rare Jigglypuff. Mt Moon has four new encounters - the unavoidable Zubat and the Rock-type Geodude, along with two slightly rarer Pokémon in the form of Paras and Clefairy. I also make a point of picking up the Dome Fossil again in this playthrough, to ensure I can get a Kabuto to go alongside the Omanyte I'll end up reviving in Yellow Version. Finally, while Ekans can't be encountered on Route 4 in Blue Version, I am able to catch its version-exclusive counterpart, Sandshrew. All of these new captures put our Pokédex total at 17 different types of Pokémon caught so far.

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As I progress on this journey, I try to distribute experience evenly between four of our six team members - Bulbasaur, Pidgey, Pikachu and Nidoran ♂ - while simultaneously making sure that Charmander and Squirtle never see any combat for the duration of this phase. The reason for this is that they're traded Pokémon, which means if they level up any higher than lv10, they will become disobedient. Thankfully there aren't any situations that desperately call out for any Fire- or Water-type coverage through this leg of the game. It also shouldn't take too long to get them back up to par with the rest of the team, since a perk of using traded Pokémon is that they earn an additional 50% experience in every battle. For now though, these guys will have to serve as placeholders on the team.

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On reaching Cerulean City I heal up at the Pokémon Center, replenish my stores at the Poké Mart, and check in with the Pokémon Master Guide to see how it recommends I tackle this part of the game. Interestingly, it recommends tackling Misty with Electric- and Grass-type Pokémon, name-checking both Pikachu and Bulbasaur/Ivysaur as viable options. Players who don't have any Pokémon of these types are advised to skip ahead to Routes 24 and 25 to pick up an Oddish in Red Version or a Bellsprout in Blue Version, but since both of the suggested 'mons are already on my team, I decide to stick with the guide and prioritise the Cerulean gym battle over further exploration. As with Yellow Version, this means no rival battle, no Nugget Bridge, and no encounter with Bill until we reach phase three of this playthrough. Instead I take the team out to Route 4 and do a spot of grinding to bring everyone but Charmander and Squirtle up to the target level of lv18. This brings a host of evolutions, as Bulbasaur becomes Ivysaur, Pidgey becomes Pidgeotto, and Nidoran ♂ becomes Nidorino. While I do have a

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My strategy in this version of the game is to use Ivysaur and Pikachu, as per the recommendations in the Master Guide. I decide to lead with Ivysaur and set up a Leech Seed on Staryu for recovery, then get stuck in with Vine Whip as a damaging move, and it goes down in a couple of turns. Starmie proves to be a slightly tougher cookie though. I follow the same strategy of leading with Leech Seed and intend to follow it up with Vine Whip, but Starmie lands a critical hit Swift before the Leech Seed lands that does a big chunk of damage to Ivysaur. I decide to switch to Pikachu and use Thunder Wave to try and slow it down, a move that almost gets the electric mouse knocked out, but which has the desired effect. I'm able to switch Ivysaur back in on a fully paralysed Starmie and now outspeed to land the necessary Vine Whips to take it out. Victory earns me the third Cascadebadge of this phase, a crucial element for the upcoming phases since it will allow us to battle with Charmander and Squirtle, without having to worry about disobedience again until they reach lv30. That's something to worry about next time, though. For now I return to the Pokémon Center, heal up and save my game to bring phase two of The Very Best, Like No One Ever Was to a close.

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And so another phase of this project comes to an end. Admittedly I didn't have quite as much scope to get creative with my strategies in this instalment, but since the Water type only has two weaknesses in Grass and Electric, my options were always going to be a bit more limited this time around. What I did find interesting about this segment is how it begins to demonstrate the relative non-linearity and scope for exploration inherent in these first generation Pokémon games, most obviously demonstrated by the ability to explore Routes 24 and 25 and obtain the S.S. Ticket from Bill either before or after taking on the gym in Cerulean City. This isn't even the furthest I could have theoretically taken it, since speaking to Bill opens up the pathway to Vermilion City to the south and makes even more of the region explorable. Phase three should see all the games reach relative parity with each other again as we move towards Vermilion City and take on Lt. Surge, before things start getting really interesting from phase four onward.

I'm sorry for the delay in getting this blog up and out there. Things have been fairly busy in recent weeks - I got married two weeks ago, and was then on honeymoon for a bit, and then came back to an incredibly busy week at work in the run-up to the Easter weekend. I also lost a nearly-complete first draft of this blog earlier this week when my laptop decided to spontaneously restart, and since I'm the kind of fool who likes to type directly into the Giant Bomb text editor, everything I'd been working on disappeared. I'm cautiously optimistic that the next instalment in this series won't take me a whole month to put together - I'm tentatively going to tell you to expect it somewhere towards the end of this month. Until then, thanks very much for reading. Take care folks, and I'll see you around.

Daniel

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Picking the Right Romance Option

Hey folks. Sorry things have been a little quiet around here recently. For the handful of you waiting for the next instalment of The Very Best, Like No One Ever Was, I can confirm that I've started working on it and will hopefully get it finished and posted at some point over the long Easter weekend. I'm also sorry for not being able to take part in this year's Community Endurance Run, but I've been a bit preoccupied these past couple of weeks.

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Last weekend, six years to the day since we got together and exactly one year since we proposed to each other, I married my fiancée Alice. It was a beautiful ceremony, held at a local pub and with about thirty-five family and friends in attendance. Unfortunately my parents were unable to attend, as they tested positive for Covid the week before the wedding day, but thankfully we were able to set up a video link so they could watch the ceremony live and be present in some capacity. Besides that one issue though, I wouldn't have changed a thing. We've just returned from a five-night honeymoon on the beautiful south coast of England. Tomorrow, we return to the reality of our jobs and other responsibilities. But for a few more precious hours, the magic of that moment lingers on, and I feel compelled to share it with my other family - the Giant Bomb community.

Looking back over my old blog posts, it's funny seeing just how much of my life I've documented on this website over the last fourteen years. From leaving my family home and heading off to university at age eighteen, to the trials and tribulations of student life and my first serious adult relationship, to the difficulties of leaving education and entering the workforce as an overstretched and underpaid member of the NHS, to welcoming new family members and mourning the loss of old ones, right up to this very moment. While I've always tried to keep my entries focused on the games first and foremost, it's often been impossible to divorce what I've been playing at any given time from the circumstances in which those games were played. Almost half my life has unfolded between the four-hundred and thirty blog posts that make up this little corner of the internet, and a lot has changed in that time, especially myself. Who knows what other changes are yet to come? Whatever unfolds, you can be sure it'll be documented here, somewhere between the video game experiences that punctuate this little thing called life. Take care folks, and I'll see you around.

Daniel

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The Very Best, Like No One Ever Was - Phase One

Hello, and welcome back to The Very Best, Like No One Ever Was, a new serial blog project documenting my efforts to complete a comprehensive playthrough of all three first-generation Pokémon games. For more information about this project, including details on the different approaches I'm bringing to each game, I'd recommend reading this introductory blog before scrolling down any further. For those already initiated, let's get started with a breakdown of the first phase of this project.

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Phase One - Rockin' with Brock

Something I maybe didn't do a great job of explaining in the introductory post of this series is how the "phases" of this project are going to work. The project as a whole will be split into nine phases - one for each of the Kanto region's eight gym leaders, and a final phase covering the Elite Four and Champion fights. Each blog will cover a phase's worth of content for all three games. For some phases, that'll mean some big differences, since I'll be battling the gym leaders in different orders depending on the game - the fifth phase, for example, will see me battling Koga in Red Version, Erika in Yellow Version, and Sabrina in Blue Version. The first phase of my first generation playthroughs is pretty uniform across Red, Yellow and Blue Versions, though. I start out in Pallet Town, acquire a starter Pokémon from Professor Oak, do battle with my rival and receive a Pokédex, then press on north through Viridian City and the bug-filled Viridian Forest to Pewter City, the location of the first Pokémon Gym in Kanto. It's a fairly short segment of the game with not much scope to travel off the intended path, but even so, it's interesting just how different all three playthroughs end up feeling even at this very early stage...

Red Version - The Tale of Torpedo

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As I stated last time, I've elected to make my Nuzlocke playthrough of Red Version the first of my three simultaneous journeys through Kanto. Playing it before Yellow and Blue will keep my prior knowledge of what's to come in each phase to a relative minimum, which I'm hoping will make managing the self-imposed ruleset a little more challenging. I boot up my 3DS, launch Red Version from the Home screen, and feel a wave of nostalgia wash over me as the introductory chiptune music starts to play. Before launching into the game proper, I open the Options menu and change the text speed to Fast and the battle style to Set. While the former is a personal preference, the latter is a crucial component of the Nuzlocke playthrough's challenge - this means I won't get a free switch any time I knock out an opposing trainer's Pokémon, bringing the battle mechanics one baby step closer to competitive play.

Torpedo
Torpedo

After hitting New Game and listening to Professor Oak's opening monologue, I have to set the names of my trainer and rival. Keeping things in line with the games' official canon, I name them Red and Blue respectively. A few seconds later, I'm plopped into my bedroom in Pallet Town and given full control for the first time. I withdraw the Potion from my PC and make my way out towards Route 1. Oak stops me as I hit the long grass, warns me it's not safe to wander around without a Pokémon of my own, and takes me back to his lab where I'm given three potential partners to choose from, but I have to save the game before picking one of them. See, the Nuzlocke rules stipulate that my starter is determined by the final number in my five-digit trainer ID (1, 2 and 3 for Bulbasaur; 4, 5 and 6 for Charmander; 7, 8 and 9 for Squirtle; and a free choice if it's 0), but there's no way to find out your trainer ID until you're already in possession of your starter, since the only place the ID appears in these games is on the Pokémon stats screen. Since I was planning on picking Squirtle if I had a free choice, I pick up the Poké Ball containing the squirting turtle and nickname it Torpedo. As luck would have it, my trainer ID ends in a 9, so there's no need to pull a soft reset this time around.

Avion
Avion

Blue picks Bulbasaur and challenges me to my first Pokémon battle. While I personally don't consider the Nuzlocke rules to take effect until I'm able to acquire Poké Balls, I'm still keen to win this fight for the experience it'll provide. Thankfully Bulbasaur gets very hung up on using Growl, and with the help of a couple of well-timed critical hit Tackles I manage to take it down without needing to use the Potion I withdrew earlier. Torpedo gains a level, Blue gives me his pocket money, and I'm free to start exploring the Kanto region. Or at least, I'm free to head north on Route 1 to Viridian City, where a drunk old man is blocking the road and preventing me from going any farther. A visit to the Poké Mart to buy some Poké Balls and actually get this run underway instead turns into a courier mission as the store clerk hands me a parcel to take back to Professor Oak in Pallet Town. It feels a little early in this adventure to start backtracking, but I do as he asks and return to my hometown where I hand Oak his parcel and receive a Pokédex in return. With this digital encyclopaedia in my possession I return to Viridian City, where the drunk guy has sobered up and the Poké Mart has started stocking Poké Balls. Finally, we can get this Nuzlocke properly underway!

Grand Horn
Grand Horn

I have just over ₽3000 in my wallet, so I spend a decent chunk of it picking up six Poké Balls, plus some Antidotes in preparation for the upcoming trip through Viridian Forest. First, though, we have some potential captures to encounter! Making Viridian City my temporary hub, I first head south to Route 1 and capture a Pidgey which I nickname Avion. Then I head west to Route 22 and pick up a Nidoran ♂ which gets named Grand Horn. Finally I head north to Route 2, where I encounter a Rattata - I capture it and name it Incisor. I spend some time training this quartet of beasties up to lv8 in the long grass on Route 22, then head a little bit further west to take on Blue in a second battle. While this is an optional encounter, I can't pass up the opportunity for more experience and cash. Blue leads with a lv9 Pidgey so I counter with Incisor, who does well to get around the accuracy drop of Sand Attack and takes down the bird with a defence-lowering Tail Whip and a couple of Quick Attacks. Next up is his Bulbasaur who's now lv8 and knows Leech Seed, so I switch into Avion with the intention of hitting it with a super-effective Gust. Unfortunately, I've forgotten that Gust is a Normal-type move in the first generation games, meaning Avion gets hit with a Leech Seed on the switch and then does underwhelming damage the next turn. I end up pivoting back into Incisor to shake off the seeds and then repeat the Tail Whip/Quick Attack combo to put down Bulbasaur and finish the fight.

Incisor
Incisor

After healing the team back up at the Pokémon Center in Viridian City, I continue my journey north along Route 2 and into Viridian Forest. This place is full of Weedle in Red Version, hence my decision to stock up on Antidotes in anticipation of its Poison Sting attack. I'm actually looking forward to the prospect of picking up a Weedle as my encounter here. It may not look like much in its base form, but it evolves early, and Beedrill is likely to be a useful member of the team for a decent amount of time before it starts getting outclassed by other fully-evolved Pokémon in the late game. Imagine my frustration, then, when my first encounter in Viridian Forest is not a Weedle, but a lv4 Kakuna. An ostensibly useless Pokémon that only knows Harden. But an encounter is still an encounter, and so I add it to the team and nickname it Howard - an in-joke that is destined to determine the name of every Weedle, Kakuna and Beedrill I catch from now until the end of days. Because Howard doesn't know any offensive moves, I have to switch-train it all the way from lv4 to lv10, at which point it evolves into Beedrill, and now I have a Beedrill that only knows Harden. I could have sworn that Beedrill learned something like Fury Attack as soon as it evolved, but I'm probably getting mixed up with one of the later generation games.

Howard
Howard

Now even more frustrated than I was before, I turn my attention to training the rest of the team up to lv10, and emerge from the north end of Viridian Forest into Pewter City. First stop is the Pokémon Center to heal up the team, followed by a trip to the Poké Mart to buy a couple more Potions in preparation for the upcoming challenge. Pewter City is home to the first Pokémon Gym in the Kanto region. Its leader Brock and his Rock-type Pokemon are all that stand between us and the end of this phase of the Nuzlocke. I spend some time thinking about potential tactics for the Gym battle, but ultimately there's only one sensible strategy - lead with Torpedo and spam its Water-type Bubble attack (learned at lv8) until victory is achieved. I briefly consider returning to Viridian Forest to gain another couple of levels before battling Brock, but I decide against it. Squirtle is the bulkiest of the three starter Pokémon, so hopefully its natural defences will see me through the fight even at its current level.

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There's no gimmick to the Pewter City Gym. It's a straight line from the entrance to Brock, with a single optional trainer positioned halfway along the path. Naturally I decide to take him on for the additional experience and money. His Pokémon are Diglett and Sandshrew, both lv11 and both unusual picks for a Rock-type Gym since they're both pure Ground types. They're still weak to Water-type attacks though, and each of them goes down to two Bubbles, Diglett managing to land a fairly weak Scratch and Sandshrew wasting its only turn on an ineffective Sand Attack. I pop a Potion to heal Torpedo back to full health and approach Brock to start the Gym battle. He leads with his lv12 Geodude. Torpedo launches an opening salvo of Bubble to drop its HP to a critical level and it responds with a Tackle, knocking off around a third of the Squirtle's health. A second Bubble finishes the Geodude off, forcing Brock to recall it and send in his ace, a lv14 Onix. This thing is scary, because it is faster than Torpedo and it knows Screech, a status move that drops the opponent's Defence by two stages. It opens with a Screech, dropping Torpedo's guard as it lets off a Bubble to bring its HP down by just over half. Another Bubble will secure us victory, but I'm scared of Onix going first and landing a deadly Tackle while my defences are down. I decide to switch into Grand Horn, a play that turns out to be completely unnecessary as Onix goes for Bide, a multi-turn move that keeps track of damage taken and then dishes out twice as much hurt in return. With Onix storing energy, I'm free to switch back into Torpedo without suffering any consequences. At the start of the next turn Onix unleashes its stored energy, doing absolutely no damage, and leaving itself wide open to another Bubble from Torpedo. The rock snake falls, and Brock awards me the Boulderbadge - my first badge of the Red Version Nuzlocke playthrough. I graciously accept the badge and the accompanying TM for Bide. Then I leave the Gym, return to the Pokémon Center, and heal up the team.

Yellow Version - Birds and Bugs

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With Torpedo and the rest of the team now in temporary stasis in Red Version, it's time to jump over to Yellow Version and begin my anime-inspired playthrough. Yellow has a different opening cinematic and a different piece of chiptune music from Red and Blue, so I don't get the same nostalgic impact from its first moments. As with Red Version, my first port of call is the Options menu to change the text speed to Fast and the battle style to Set. Ash doesn't get free switches in the anime, so I won't be getting any here either. I hit New Game and go through the same introduction with Professor Oak, naming my player character Ash and my rival Gary to stay consistent with the anime. When the game begins and I assume control of the protagonist, I open the menu straight away and save my game. I'm not taking a single step in Yellow Version until I've watched the first few episodes of the Kanto arc of the Pokémon anime.

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I put down my 3DS and instead pick up my Switch, where I've downloaded the Pokémon TV app for this specific purpose. Between the first two seasons of the show, Pokémon TV has all seventy-eight episodes that I'll need to watch alongside this playthrough, starting in Ash's bedroom in Pallet Town and finishing up at the Pokémon League on the Indigo Plateau. My initial viewing session comprises the first three episodes of the show, during which Ash receives his starter Pikachu from Professor Oak, sets off on his Pokémon journey, encounters the evil Team Rocket for the first time, and catches his first Pokémon in Viridian Forest. And in spite of my pretty low expectations, I enjoyed it a lot more than I was expecting. Some of that is undoubtedly down to nostalgia, something that I admit not being completely impervious to - but even twenty years later, there's no denying that opening theme is still an absolute banger. There are definitely some inconsistencies with animation and character as the show goes through that teething process of working out what it wants to be, and the dub is very much a product of its era, often descending into irrelevant rambling seemingly just to try and match all the characters' lip flaps. The show also ramps up incredibly rapidly, putting Ash's and Pikachu's lives in danger in the third act of the very first damn episode and leaving the next two episodes with comparatively minor stakes since there's nowhere to go from there but down. Personally I think the Pokémon themselves are the stars of the show at this early stage, particularly Ash's Pikachu which gets to show off tons of personality with all its screen time.

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With my 3DS back in hand, I set about following in Ash's footsteps. As in Red Version, I withdraw a Potion from the PC and try to leave town to trigger the encounter with Professor Oak. Instead of being given a choice of three different starters, Yellow Version forces the mascot Pikachu on me and grants my rival an Eevee. A rival battle ensues, and although it may not be easier than the one in Red Version, it at least moves faster thanks to both Pikachu and Eevee's starting moves benefiting from same-type attack bonus, or STAB. Once again, my rival is overly preoccupied with status moves, spamming Tail Whip and leaving his Eevee wide open to Pikachu's relentless Thundershocks. After securing the win, I follow the same steps as Red Version - north to Viridian City, pick up Oak's Parcel from the Poké Mart, exchange it for the Pokédex, and head back to Viridian City to buy some Poké Balls. Now that I have the means to catch more Pokémon, this playthrough can start to deviate from the critical path and become its own thing.

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In the third episode of the anime, Ash's team of Pokémon grows from one to three, as he captures both a Caterpie and a Pidgeotto in Viridian Forest. Later in that same episode, Caterpie wins a battle against Team Rocket and evolves into a Metapod. Bearing this in mind, I bypass Route 22 altogether, heading north to Route 2 and straight into Viridian Forest with only Pikachu to rely on. It doesn't take long for me to find a lv4 Caterpie and add it to my roster, and some time spent switch-training means it soon reaches lv7 and evolves into Metapod. What takes far longer is tracking down that Pidgeotto. Yellow Version's encounter tables for Viridian Forest have been changed from Red and Blue, allowing the player to encounter both Pidgey and its evolved form in this location. The catch is that Pidgeotto's encounter rate is a pitiful 1%, meaning it takes a long time to get it to show up. As I search, Pikachu reaches lv13 and Metapod grows to lv9. After about forty-five minutes of hunting, I finally locate a lv9 Pidgeotto. I paralyse it with Thunder Wave and chip away at its health with Quick Attack, managing to catch it in my second thrown Poké Ball. With my team now on par with Ash's, it's time to put the 3DS down and return to Pokémon TV for another two episodes of the anime.

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The fourth episode, Challenge of the Samurai, doesn't move the overall plot forward much but does feature the iconic scene of two Metapod having a "Harden-off", and depicts Ash's Metapod evolving into a Butterfree at its dénouement. It's also the episode where I notice that Team Rocket's James seems like a very different character from how I remember him. In these early episodes he's depicted as very mysterious and smooth talking, similar to Jessie, but I'd always remembered him as quite camp and bumbling, hamming up all his monologues and invariably getting his head stuck in his Victreebel. This is early days though, so perhaps they were still figuring the character out. The fifth episode, Showdown in Pewter City, is a big one. It features Ash's first Gym battles and the acquisition of his first badge, meaning I now have licence to return to Yellow Version and play to the end of this phase.

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My first job is to evolve my Metapod into Butterfree. Since I was already actively holding off from doing this to keep parity with the anime, this is as simple as putting Metapod through a single battle so it hits lv10. It learns Confusion as soon as it evolves, a move that is going to prove very important in the upcoming Gym battle. I battle with Butterfree a little more to raise it to lv12, then press on to Pewter City and heal up at the Pokémon Center before heading to the gym to take on Brock. My strategy here is going to be very different to Ash's, since there's no way for me to physically power up Pikachu to the point where it can circumvent Onix's resistance to Electric-type attacks, and no way for me to activate the Gym's sprinkler system either. I also can't borrow my tactics from my Nuzlocke playthrough of Red Version, since we only have three Pokémon and none of them have any attacks that can hit Rock-type Pokémon for super-effective damage. My only viable option is to hit Brock's team with Special attacks, bypassing their high Defence and taking advantage of their pitiful Special stats. Since both Geodude and Onix are also part Ground type, Pikachu's Thundershock is completely ineffective for this purpose, and the only other Special attack I have available is Butterfree's newly-learned Confusion. I believed this strategy also came with associated risks, since Butterfree is doubly weak to Rock-type moves, but as it happens, neither of Brock's Pokémon actually know any Rock-type moves in the first generation games.

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As in Red Version, the first step is to cut through the Junior Trainer's Diglett and Sandshrew, both of which are lv9 in this game. It's here that I notice that Yellow Version has been taking a lot of steps to try and mitigate the early game grind from Red and Blue Versions, first by making higher-level wild Pokémon available in Viridian Forest to speed up training, and now by reducing the levels in this first gym. Brock has also been nerfed slightly, his Geodude and Onix being dropped to lv10 and lv12 respectively. Even with the lower level cap though, this fight is a more protracted affair than it was in the Nuzlocke playthrough. Confusion may be my best attacking option, but it still takes three hits to knock out Geodude, leaving Butterfree open to two Tackles and costing it a decent chunk of its HP. After defeating the Geodude, Butterfree reaches lv13 and learns Poisonpowder, a status move that (unsurprisingly) inflicts Poison on its target. Thinking this might help to whittle down Onix's HP, I use it as Brock brings his ace into battle. It's here that I discover that Brock apparently carries Full Heals in this battle. After successfully poisoning the Onix and watching Brock toss a Full Heal at it three times, I decide to give up on this tactic and return to spamming Confusion. It's a slow process, and at one point I have to use a Potion when Butterfree drops below half health, but eventually the Onix falls and I earn my second instance of the Boulderbadge. I thank Brock, help myself to the Bide TM, and head back to the Pokémon Center to heal up before putting this adventure on ice.

Blue Version - Laying the Foundations

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Last in the rotation, but by no means least, is my nostalgia playthrough of Blue Version. Before I can get this run properly underway, though, I need to do a little bit of advance preparation. One of the main aims of this playthrough is to recreate the team I used to become Champion in my very first completed playthrough of Blue Version back in 2000 - Venusaur, Charizard, Blastoise, Pidgeot, Raichu, and Nidoking. The main obstacle around building this team is that it features the final evolutions of all three starter Pokémon, but in a playthrough of Red or Blue it's only possible to obtain one of these three Pokémon at the very start of the adventure. In order to get all three starters into a single game file, I'm going to need to do some manipulation by trading my starter to a separate game on a different 3DS, then reset my game to pick a different starter and trade that away, before finally starting a third game file and trading the two starters I'd previously handed off back into my copy of Blue Version so that I can move ahead with all three starters. This is something that I remember doing with a few of my friends back when we used to get together and play Pokémon after school and at weekends, starting new games and trading away the starters until we eventually all had a Bulbasaur, a Charmander and a Squirtle. Setting this up brought back a lot of those memories, making it the perfect way to start this nostalgia playthrough.

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I boot up Blue Version and bypass the intro sequence, opening the Options menu to set the text speed to Fast and turn off battle animations to ensure this process goes as quickly as possible. At the point where I have to choose a starter, I pick Charmander, and then deliberately lose the battle to ensure it doesn't earn any experience until it's traded back into the final save file. I go through the usual steps of heading to Viridian City, picking up Oak's parcel, swapping it for a Pokédex, and buying some Poké Balls. Then I head back out onto Route 1 and catch the first Pokémon I find, since the game won't let you trade if you only have one Pokémon in your possession. I nab a Rattata, then return to the Pokémon Center and speak to the staff member on the right-hand side of the building to access the Cable Club. Thankfully, the Virtual Console releases of Red, Blue and Yellow Versions all feature local wireless support for trading and battling. This means I'm able to trade Charmander over to a second 3DS, kindly loaned to me for the cause by my buddy Matt. Once Charmander has successfully been traded, I reset my own 3DS and start the whole process again, except this time picking Squirtle, and move it over to Matt's 3DS as well. Now that both the Fire and Water starters are waiting in the wings, it's time to start over for the third and final time and get this playthrough properly underway.

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I change the text speed to Fast, but leave battle animations on and also leave the battle style in Shift mode. This isn't how I typically play Pokémon these days, but it was how I played twenty years ago. I name the player character Daniel (after myself), and the rival Scott (after my cousin, who contributed his name to the rival in my childhood playthroughs of Blue). While I ostensibly start this playthrough in the same way I did in Red and Yellow Versions, hitting all the same beats, the pace this time around is much more methodical. I take the time to fully explore Pallet Town and talk to all of its residents before attempting to leave. This doesn't yield any items or particularly useful advice, but it definitely adds some flavour to the world. I especially like the chap near Professor Oak's lab who waxes lyrical on the astounding powers of science, a variation of whom has been in the starting town of every main-line Pokémon game ever since. Once I've exhausted my dialogue options, it's time to move things on and step into Route 1 to trigger the start of the story.

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This time around, I pick Bulbasaur, skipping the nickname option since I never used to give my Pokémon nicknames when I was a kid. I stomp on Scott's Charmander (with a little healing help from my PC Potion), then go through what are the usual motions at this point -Viridian City, Oak's parcel, Pokédex, Poké Balls, the adventure begins. Since Blue Version is where I intend to ultimately pursue a completed Pokédex, I'll be attempting to catch as many different critters as possible on this specific journey through Kanto, using the Pokémon Master Guide to help me. That process starts on Route 1, where I pick up a Pidgey and a Rattata (both Common encounters according to the guide), plus two additional Pidgey to use as trade fodder, before returning to the Pokémon Center in Viridian City. At the Cable Club, I link my game to Matt's 3DS for the last time this episode and trade my two surplus Pidgey in exchange for Charmander and Squirtle. The remaining Pidgey will become a mainstay of my team, while Rattata will be chilling in the PC box for now. With these captures and trades, I already have four of my six final team members for this playthrough.

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I'm not done yet, though. From here I head to Route 22 where the guide informs me I can add three more Pokémon to my 'dex - Spearow, Nidoran ♀, and Nidoran ♂, the last of which will be sticking around as our fifth team member. I decide to stay here for a bit and train up all of my team to level 8, then take on Scott in the optional rival battle on this route. His Sand Attack-spamming lv9 Pidgey goes down to Charmander, while his own lv8 Charmander clearly wasn't banking on me having a Squirtle with Bubble on my squad. After healing up back at the Viridian City Pokémon Center, it's time to head north and cut through Viridian Forest. Once again, I have a few potential captures to pick up here, one of which is destined to become my sixth and final team member. First up is a Caterpie, which are plentiful in Blue Version, and so takes no time to add to the collection. After a bit more searching, and stumbling across more Caterpie as well as a few Metapod and Kakuna, I find a lv5 Pikachu. I wear it down with Nidoran, snag it with a Poké Ball, and then back out of the forest to Viridian City to swap it into the squad. With that, the foundations of my nostalgia team are complete.

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The next story beat is to press on to Pewter City and take on Brock, but before I can do that, there's one more potential encounter in Viridian Forest that I need to find - Weedle. The Pokémon Master Guide lists Weedle as a Rare encounter in Blue Version, while Bulbapedia puts its encounter rate at 5%, the same as Pikachu. Despite this, though, it takes me longer to encounter a Weedle in Blue than it did for me to find the 1% Pidgeotto encounter in Yellow. To make matters even worse, when I do finally encounter a Weedle after almost an hour of searching, I try to catch it, only to find I've run out of Poké Balls. This means I'm forced to KO the bug I've spent an hour searching for so that I can return to Viridian City and buy more Poké Balls, then come back to the forest and start the search all over again. Thankfully the second Weedle shows up after a mere twenty minutes, and it takes next to no time to trap it and add it to the collection in the PC. While I'm in Viridian Forest I make a point of training all of my team members to lv10, as I start to make preparations for the upcoming Gym battle.

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My first thought is to copy my strategy from Red Version and take my Bubble-blowing Squirtle into the Gym to wreck house. However, this plan has a downside that I initially fail to foresee, thanks to the mechanic of Pokemon obedience. See, I'd overlooked the fact that Charmander and Squirtle, while caught by me, technically aren't my Pokémon, as they were caught in different save files with different Trainer IDs. This means that as soon as they level up past lv10, getting either of them to do anything I want becomes a dice roll, so I can't rely on Squirtle to follow my orders for the duration of the battle, since there's a good chance it will slack off and get KO'd by Onix. Out of the four obedient Pokémon I have at my disposal, Pidgey, Pikachu and Nidoran are all completely ineffective against Brock's Rock types. That just leaves Bulbasaur, who doesn't currently have any super-effective damage dealing potential. So I set my Poké Balls back into my belt and trudge back into Viridian Forest one more time with the goal of pushing Bulbasaur up to lv13 so it can learn Vine Whip. This is a much more arduous process than the training in Yellow Version, since the average level of wild Pokémon here is much lower in Blue Version. It still takes less time than it took to find a Weedle though, and it's not too long before I have a Bulbasaur ready to Vine Whip Brock into submission.

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What follows is an even more comprehensive sweep of the Pewter Gym than I pulled off with Torpedo in Red Version. Bulbasaur tears through the preliminary trainer's Pokémon, taking minimal damage that only requires a single Potion to heal. Brock himself is without a doubt the easiest he's been across all three games, no doubt because of Bulbasaur's three-level advantage on Torpedo and higher innate Special stat. Geodude goes down to a single Vine Whip, not even getting a chance to land an attack of its own. Onix is a little scarier, prompting me to open with a Leech Seed for the chip damage and recovery it'll cause. Onix goes for a Tackle, taking off about a quarter of Bulbasaur's health, before it succumbs to a follow up Vine Whip. With this performance, Bulbasaur earns me my third Boulderbadge of the project and brings its first phase to an incredibly satisfying end.

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And with that, phase one of The Very Best, Like No One Ever Was is complete. Three badges down, twenty-one to go. Even in this relatively short opening segment of the first generation games, I've been a little bit blindsided by just how different my teams and approaches have been from game to game, with each journey from Pallet Town to Pewter City taking on a distinct flavour and each battle with Brock requiring a different thought process and strategy to come out on top. That diversity between the three experiences is sure to get even greater as I progress further through this project. The next phase will cover everything from Pewter City through Mt Moon and into Cerulean City, where I'll be taking on the Water-type Gym leader Misty for a trio of Cascadebadges. And if you can't wait until then and are hungry for more Pokémon-related blogging, you should check out Daavpuke's recent blog chronicling their time recently spent revisiting the first generation in a Pokémon Yellow Version playthrough, on original hardware no less. Until then, thanks very much for reading, and I'll see you around.

Daniel

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The Very Best, Like No One Ever Was - Introduction

Gen 9 is coming, baby!
Gen 9 is coming, baby!

There's been a lot of buzz around the Pokémon franchise in recent months. After last year's remakes of Diamond and Pearl turned out to be a little less Brilliant and Shining than people were hoping for, public opinion seems to have U-turned with the release of Legends: Arceus in January and the announcement of the ninth generation of games, Scarlet and Violet, on Pokémon Day a couple of weeks ago. As someone whose interest in Pokémon goes a little bit beyond casual enjoyment but doesn't quite reach super-fandom levels, it's definitely an interesting time to be following the series. The last time I felt this invested in what was going on in the world of Pokémon was when X and Y were released on the 3DS all the way back in 2013 (boy, does that make me feel old).

These elevated levels of interest have, unsurprisingly, pushed me towards playing more Pokémon. In January I returned to Pokémon Sword on the Switch for my second full playthrough, but to spice things up I decided to play through the Galar region with a Nuzlocke ruleset, and found it to be a pretty enjoyable experience (if still a little on the easy side even by Nuzlocke standards). From there I pivoted into Brilliant Diamond. It is, by and large, a perfectly serviceable remake, but like a lot of the community, I was left underwhelmed by the fact that it focused on deliberately being a faithful throwback, rather than an attempt to modernise an older generation with contemporary visuals and mechanics in the vein of other remakes like HeartGold/SoulSilver and Omega Ruby/Alpha Sapphire. Then there's Legends: Arceus, a game that I really like, but am having problems losing myself in on account of the pace of story progression feeling at odds with the more freeform mechanics and emergent style of gameplay. I've just reached the third explorable open area, and kind of want to ignore the story and go off and explore, but I know that if I do I'll be delaying my access to the other remaining biomes.

What a Christmas present that Game Boy Pocket turned out to be
What a Christmas present that Game Boy Pocket turned out to be

But underneath all these playthroughs of recent games, something else has been stirring. A latent desire to go back and revisit the games that made me fall in love with the franchise in the first place. I originally thought this might take the form of a nostalgic retreat of Pokémon Y. But while X and Y may have got me into Pokémon in a big way, they weren't my first rodeo. To really return to where my love affair with Pokémon started, I'd need to turn the clock back even further, to 1999, when I was nine years old and the first waves of Pokémania broke upon the shores of the UK. I'm fairly certain my first exposure to the franchise was actually through the anime, which started airing on TV here before the games were even released. Swept up in the craze, I pestered my parents for a Game Boy for Christmas that year, and they delivered, placing a yellow Game Boy Pocket under the tree along with copies of Super Mario Land 2 and Pokémon Blue Version. I played that thing non-stop, burning through so many batteries that one of my tenth birthday presents in February 2000 was a rechargeable battery pack, presumably so I'd stop asking for advances on my pocket money just to buy more batteries and play more Pokémon.

A few of my friends had copies of the game too, and we would meet up at each other's houses after school and at weekends to trade, battle, and just work through the story together. I remember offering to wipe my late-game save file one day so that all of my friends could get all three starter Pokémon, a process that took a couple of hours but was worth it when we all had a Bulbasaur, Charmander and Squirtle to call our own. I remember the first time I beat the Elite Four and my rival to become the Indigo League champion, with my childhood dream team of Venusaur, Charizard, Blastoise, Pidgeot, Raichu and Nidoking. I even remember a kid from another class turning up on my doorstep one evening with his Game Boy, his copy of Red Version and a link cable, because he just needed a Magmar to fully complete his Pokédex and had heard I was one of the few kids at school with Blue Version who might have one to trade to him. Those games were a playground revolution and a social phenomenon, and despite them being re-released on the 3DS's Virtual Console back in 2016, I haven't played them to completion for over twenty years at this point.

That is, until now.

As part of my (initially unintentional, but now seemingly conscious) effort to turn 2022 into a full blown "Year of Pokémon", I've decided to revisit the games that started it all and play through the first generation of Pokémon. Yep, that's right, not just one game, but the entire generation - Red Version, Blue Version, and Yellow Version. I'll be playing them simultaneously, implementing slightly different rules and limitations for each game in an effort to make each playthrough distinct, and trying to have the most comprehensive experience possible with the first generation of games in 2022. Unfortunately the one aspect of playing the originals that I won't be able to recapture this time around is the social aspect, since most of my old Poké-buddies have either moved out of town or moved on from the franchise altogether. That means I need to recreate this social side of playing Pokémon in a different way, and true to form, I've decided to do so by documenting the entire project in a serial blog format, which I'm calling:

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Introduction - Welcome to the World of Pokémon!

This inaugural instalment of the series is mainly intended to explain what this comprehensive revisit of the Kanto region is going to entail. As previously stated, I'll be playing all three of the main-line first generation Pokémon games, but approaching each one in a slightly different way to ensure that the playthroughs hopefully remain distinct from each other. I'll be splitting the playthroughs into "phases", with each phase consisting of the path to, and the battle against, the next gym leader. So to give an example, I'll be starting with Red Version, and playing from the beginning until I earn the first gym badge from Brock in Pewter City. Then I'll switch to Yellow Version and play the same portion of the game, before finally moving on to Blue Version and playing through the same section there. From there I'll revert back to Red and start pursuing the second gym badge, and so on. Just in case anyone is interested, I'll be playing all three games on the 3DS via their Virtual Console releases, because while attempting to do so on original hardware would be extremely nostalgic, it would also be prohibitively expensive. This also means that I'll be able to transfer all my Pokémon up through Pokémon Bank and into Pokémon Home at the end of the project if I want, preserving my battling buddies for use in future titles as well.

So how exactly are these three playthroughs of three near-identical video games going to differ from each other? Well, dear reader, allow me to explain...

Red Version - The Nuzlocke Playthrough

Change that tagline to
Change that tagline to "Gotta catch the first encounter on each route!"

My playthrough of Pokémon Red Version will be in the Nuzlocke format. It seemed fitting to pick Red Version as the game to Nuzlocke, since it mirrors my first ever Nuzlocke attempt - a failed playthrough of FireRed Version that I chronicled on this very blog almost exactly eight years ago. I'll be playing Red Version as the first game in rotation, since that means I'll be going into each phase of the game with the least amount of prior knowledge possible (although given the amount of time I spent with these games as a kid, it's likely I'm still going to remember a good chunk of what I'll be coming up against). For the uninitiated, a Nuzlocke is a self-imposed challenge run of a Pokémon game that seeks to increase the difficulty by imposing a number of restrictions. Nuzlocke rules state that the player can only capture the first Pokémon they encounter in each area, and if any Pokémon faint they are considered dead and must be either released or permanently boxed in the PC for the rest of the run. All caught Pokémon must also be nicknamed for the sake of forming stronger emotional bonds with them, so that anyone meeting their untimely demise hurts all the more.

In addition to these core tenets, I'll be adding a couple of other stipulations for my run through Red Version. I'll be playing with "species clause", an additional rule meaning that if I encounter a Pokémon from an evolutionary line that I've already caught, I can re-roll that encounter in search of something new. This is to ensure my team is as diverse as possible and doesn't end up consisting only of Pidgey and Rattata. To further enhance the difficulty of the run, I'll be changing the battle style to Set, so similarly to competitive play, I won't get a free switch-in when I KO an enemy's Pokémon. I'll also be trying to keep my team's average level below that of the next gym leader's ace Pokémon, to prevent myself from steamrolling through challenges with an over-levelled party. For those interested, here are some other facts about this specific playthrough:

  • Sticking with the canon of the games, my trainer's name will be Red, and my rival's name will be Blue
  • My starter choice will be determined by the last digit of my Trainer ID - 1, 2 or 3 for Bulbasaur; 4, 5 or 6 for Charmander; 7, 8 or 9 for Squirtle. If it's a 0 then I get to pick my personal preference
  • If I fail the Nuzlocke by running out of usable Pokémon and whiting out, then I will consider the challenge lost, but will continue and complete the playthrough without the Nuzlocke rules in place
  • I'll be tackling the region's gyms in the "canonical" order in this playthrough - Pewter, Cerulean, Vermilion, Celadon, Fuchsia, Saffron, Cinnabar and Viridian

Yellow Version - The Anime Playthrough

Yellow's colour graphics will make a nice change of pace from the black and white of Red and Blue
Yellow's colour graphics will make a nice change of pace from the black and white of Red and Blue

Released a year after Red and Blue Versions as the franchise's first "enhanced third version", Pokémon Yellow Version (subtitled "Special Pikachu Edition") featured a number of minor alterations to bring the game experience a little bit closer to that of the wildly popular anime. Players started with a Pikachu instead of having to choose between Bulbasaur, Charmander and Squirtle, and several of the battles with generic Team Rocket grunts were altered to feature the show's villains Jessie and James. Given these changes, Yellow Version is the perfect candidate to attempt a playthrough that imitates the events of the show as closely as possible. For this playthrough I'll be watching all the episodes of the original Kanto arc of the Pokémon anime, a show I haven't watched in over twenty years. Alongside this marathon I'll be playing Yellow Version in a way that follows Ash's actions, trying to capture the same Pokémon and use the same strategies against the challenges we face along the way.

Of the three playthroughs, this one might be the one I'm most excited about. It'll be interesting going back to the anime, which I'm almost certain won't hold up in 2022, but will nonetheless provide me with a huge dose of nostalgia. Given Ash's often limited pool of available Pokémon to choose from and his often questionable battle strategies, I could also see this potentially being even more challenging than the Nuzlocke in spots. Here are a couple more bonus facts about this playthrough:

  • To mirror the canon of the anime, my trainer's name will be Ash and my rival's name will be Gary
  • I won't be nicknaming my Pokémon as I don't believe Ash ever nicknamed any of his teammates, but I will be flipping the battle style over to Set, since I don't recall characters ever getting free switch-ins in the anime
  • Given the slightly screwy way The Pokémon Company defines the seasons of the anime, the Kanto arc actually spans two seasons, so I'll be watching all of season one and about half of season two - basically everything from 'Pokémon - I Choose You!' through to 'Friends to the End'.
  • Seeing as I'll be following Ash's route through Kanto, I'll be taking on the gyms in this rather unorthodox order - Pewter, Cerulean, Vermilion, Saffron, Celadon, Fuchsia, Cinnabar and Viridian

Blue Version - The Nostalgia Playthrough

The game that started it all for me
The game that started it all for me

Arguably saving the best for last, Blue Version will play host to what I'm dubbing my "nostalgia playthrough" of the first generation. I'll be playing through the game at my own pace, with my own strategies, and will be using the same team that I had the first time I became Indigo League champion more than two decades ago - Venusaur, Charizard, Blastoise, Pidgeot, Raichu and Nidoking. In an attempt to emulate the experience of playing through the game the same way I did as a kid, I'll also be following the advice laid out in the Pokémon Master Guide, a strategy guide published by the UK's Official Nintendo Magazine that I persuaded my mum to buy for me from the local newsagent when I was having problems navigating the Silph Co. building. Unfortunately I no longer own my physical copy of this guide and buying a new one would set me back a fair bit on eBay, but I've managed to find a PDF version online that'll do the job just as well.

Since Blue Version was the game that I owned and played on my Game Boy Pocket back in the day, it made sense to do the nostalgia playthrough in this version of the game. It would have been nice to be able to dig out my original console and cartridge for a truly authentic experience, but while I still own my copy of Pokémon Blue Version, I no longer have the yellow Game Boy Pocket I used to play it on. Plus, then I wouldn't be able to transfer my Pokémon up through Bank and Home, or pursue the final goal of this project (more on that in a second). For anyone wanting to know a little bit more, here are a few additional facts about this prospective playthrough:

  • True to the way I played Blue Version all those years ago, I'll be naming my trainer Daniel (after myself) and my rival Scott (after my cousin)
  • While these days I typically always play Pokémon games with the Set battle style, I'll be sticking with the classic Shift style for this playthrough, since that's how I played as a kid
  • I also won't be nicknaming Pokémon in this playthrough, since nine-year-old me thought that was dumb when they already had such cute and clever names
  • My journey through Kanto will emulate the one I took through the game as a child, tackling the gyms in this order - Pewter, Cerulean, Vermilion, Celadon, Saffron, Fuchsia, Cinnabar and Viridian

The Ultimate Goal - Completing the Pokédex

It's time to get the closure I've waited over twenty years for
It's time to get the closure I've waited over twenty years for

While each of these three playthroughs is intended to be its own unique way of experiencing the first generation of Pokémon, there is also another reason behind my decision to play all three games simultaneously - it gives me the opportunity to do something I never managed when I was a kid, and complete the Kanto Pokédex. The closest I recall getting in my childhood playthroughs of Blue Version was having 138 Pokémon seen and 111 Pokémon caught, figures that I still think are pretty impressive in hindsight, but nowhere near that desirable total of 150*. Many years later I was able to complete a living Pokédex for the sixth generation of Pokémon (a process which I documented in another series of blogs on this very site), and I've managed to maintain it through the seventh and eighth generations too (barring the new 'mons in Legends: Arceus, which I'll have to catch and add when that game gets Pokémon Home support somewhere down the line). However, that doesn't hold quite the same simple allure as completing the Kanto Pokédex in the first generation games. Subsequent games introduced features including online trading and Pokémon breeding, both of which made it much easier to fill up gaps in the Pokédex. The first generation, by contrast, requires a lot of planning and manipulation to achieve the same goal, due to multiple situations over the course of each playthrough where the player has to pick one Pokémon at the expense of another.

Running three playthroughs side-by-side means that I can account for these situations, plan accordingly, and ensure that every possible Pokémon is available to me. Once all three runs are complete, I'll be making use of a second 3DS and the games' trade features to move all those difficult-to-obtain Pokémon into a single game. That game will be Blue Version - not only will it be easier to achieve, since there's no limitations on what I can catch over the course of the main playthrough in that game, but there will be something extra poetic about completing the Pokédex in the same version of the game that I first played as a kid. When the Pokédex total hits 150 types both seen and caught, and I've got that sweet diploma from Professor Oak, then and only then will I consider this project complete.

* I'm aware that there are, in fact, 151 Pokémon in the first generation. I'm also aware that it's possible to encounter and catch #151, Mew, with a clever bit of data storage manipulation. However, since there has never been any way to *officially* obtain Mew in the UK 3DS Virtual Console releases of Red, Blue and Yellow outside of a one-off invite-only launch event for Sun and Moon held in London in November 2016, and since it isn't required for Professor Oak to evaluate your Pokédex as complete, I won't be picking it up in any of my three playthroughs.

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So there you have it, a rough outline of my intentions to throw myself down the rabbit hole once more and descend into the wonderland that is Pokémon. I'm not sure how long this project will take, so I don't intend to construct any kind of release schedule for these posts. Instead they'll be coming out on a "when it's done" basis. That being said, I anticipate the entire project taking somewhere between three and six months, depending on how much of my attention I give to these playthroughs (right now I'm considering them very much "side games" as I truck on through Legends: Arceus). As things currently stand I have completed the first phase in all three games, making it from the title screen to the gym battle with Brock in Pewter City, meaning I have all the material I need to write the next entry, so hopefully that'll be up fairly soon. I hope you'll consider joining me on this journey to be The Very Best, Like No One Ever Was. Until next time, thanks for reading, and I'll see you around.

Daniel

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My End of 2021 Awards

Even though I haven't lived with my parents for over two years now, I still miss these guys like crazy
Even though I haven't lived with my parents for over two years now, I still miss these guys like crazy

We made it, folks. Another year is almost over, and with its dénouement comes an opportunity to reflect on the experiences of the past twelve months. Unfortunately (for myself, at least), 2021 has felt much like an extension of 2020. My job as a frontline worker delivering non-clinical services in the NHS has continued to be a challenge, demanding more of my time and energy than ever before as the Covid-19 pandemic raged on. I was passed over for promotion to a managerial position last month, something that has disappointed me pretty heavily given I've been working the same job for almost a decade at this point. In late February I found out that one of my colleagues, who'd been in remission from breast cancer for eighteen months, had been diagnosed with untreatable metastatic recurrence of the disease, with a prognosis of six to twelve months. She passed away at the start of June, just over three months later. My parents have had to say goodbye to both of their dogs this year - Alaskan malamute Kookie back in April, and malamute-cross-border collie Mya just a few weeks ago. It hasn't all been bad - in April I proposed to my girlfriend Alice, who thankfully said yes, and we're scheduled to get married next spring. However, it's going to be very hard to look back on 2021 as anything other than a downer of a year punctuated by some pretty major personal tragedies and low points.

As in other hard years, video games have proven to be a reliable source of comfort and solace over the last twelve months. Over the course of 2021 I saw credits roll on twenty-six games, a slight increase on last year's final total of twenty-three titles and comfortably within the bracket of twenty-five to thirty that I set as a target all the way back in January. It's been a year characterised by returning to a lot of old favourites that transported me back to happier, simpler times and managed to lift my spirits when I was at my lowest. That's not to say I haven't played anything new this year - fifteen of those twenty-six games were entirely new experiences, and some of those left enough of an impression to make their way into the ranks of my all-time favourites. What follows is a list of ten games that came to define this year for me, either through the quality of the experiences that they offered or through the life events that they have become inextricably linked with. As in previous years, this list consists of games I have played this year rather than games released this year, and is presented in alphabetical order, with no attempts made to rank the games in any kind of hierarchy.

When putting together this year's top ten, I found myself thinking a lot about the criteria that I use to determine what is and isn't eligible for a spot on the list. In the past, I've typically avoided giving honours to games that I've played before, instead choosing to focus on the novel experiences provided by games that I've never played before. This year, however, I began to ask myself whether that's the right approach to take. This is, after all, supposed to be a list reflecting the experiences that I've had with games over the last twelve months. If a game has left a notable impression on me in that timeframe, then doesn't it deserve to be featured in my end-of-year run-down, even if I've already played it once before? Ultimately this point is moot, since this is my list to curate and it's up to me to decide what criteria I use to do so. Nonetheless, I'd like to shout out a new notable mentions before progressing into the top ten proper.

  • In January, I finally saw the credits roll on a playthrough of Fallout 4. It is by far the least enjoyable experience I've had with a Bethesda game to date, but I still feel it's worth acknowledging the time I spent with it in some capacity, especially given at one point I didn't think I would ever see the story through to one of its four possible conclusions.
  • I completed a comprehensive playthrough of Final Fantasy VII in the spring of this year with a view to producing a new long-form analysis of it in the style of my old Enduring Final Fantasy VII blog series. While that project is yet to come to fruition, I feel I should acknowledge the absolute blast I had going back to what is almost certainly my favourite game of all time.
  • Not long after finishing up Final Fantasy VII, I played through Crash Bandicoot 4: It's About Time. I found the core of the experience to be satisfying, but I don't think I will ever return to it in pursuit of 100+% completion. Not least because the recent revelations surrounding the work culture at Activision-Blizzard have led me to re-evaluate my relationship with their recent nostalgia-pandering PS1-era remakes.
  • To mark Halloween, this year's spooky October game took the form of Alan Wake Remastered. I have long considered it one of my favourite games from the Xbox 360 era, and this year's updated re-release coming to the PS4 provides me with one less reason to lament my decision to leave the Xbox ecosystem two years ago.
  • For the last two months of 2021, I've found myself constantly coming back to Ratchet & Clank: Tools of Destruction on the PS3. While it's a pretty unremarkable Ratchet game that doesn't hit the highs of its PS2 predecessors, it's been incredibly therapeutic to come back to it a couple of times a week and just grind out weapon experience on the enemy mobs in its levels. If I hadn't already played it back in 2018, it would be on this list.

Dishonored: Definitive Edition

Arkane / 2015 (2012) / PlayStation 4

No Caption Provided

I am a sucker for a well-realised fantasy world. It's one of the main things that really draws me into games and their stories, and often a deciding factor in cementing a title as one of my all-time favourites. It's impossible for me to divorce games like Final Fantasy VII, BioShock and Dead Space from the incredible backdrops provided by Midgar, Rapture, and the USG Ishimura. After playing Dishonored earlier this year, I feel confident saying that not only does Dunwall make its way onto that list, but it sits pretty damn close to the top of it. For the entire duration of my playthrough I was entranced by everything about the place. I loved its steampunk, pseudo-Victorian England aesthetic, from the red-brick facade of the Hound Pits pub to the menacing steel curtains erected in an effort to combat the rapidly-spreading rat plague. I actively sought out in-game literature and audio-logs to learn more about its meticulously-considered history as a city dependent on the whale oil industry, and how that industry contributes to every aspect of its society, economy and politics. Dishonored boasts one of the most visually striking and conceptually interesting virtual worlds I have ever inhabited, and that fact alone would be enough to earn it a spot on this list.

Thankfully the game that takes place in this world is no slouch either. Each of Dishonored's campaign missions takes place in a brilliantly designed sandbox that provides the player with multiple paths to take and multiple ways of dealing with each obstacle encountered on those paths. Corvo can go in loud and direct in a flurry of bullets and blade; he can stick to shadows and rooftops to avoid unnecessary confrontations; he can employ various gadgets to hack and confound his way past each enemy checkpoint; he can use mystical powers bestowed upon him by the ethereal Outsider; or he can combine all of these different approaches to varying degrees depending on the current situation. Because all of these approaches are equally viable, players are encouraged to play in the way they find most enjoyable, rather than the way that is perceived to be most optimal. Underpinning this freedom is a morality system governed not by dialogue trees or passive decisions, but by the active choices the player makes during moment-to-moment gameplay. By combining this freedom in gameplay with a world that I actively wanted to see every last part of, Dishonored ended up being not only one of the best games I played this year, but easily one of the best games I've played in the last ten years.

Dragon Quest V: Hand of the Heavenly Bride

ArtePiazza (Chunsoft) / 2015 (1992) / Android

No Caption Provided

There seems to be a widely held belief that the "golden age" of the Japanese RPG coincided with the glory days of the Super Nintendo Entertainment System in the early 1990s. Many who hold this viewpoint will reel off the same handful of classic titles as evidence of this - Final Fantasies IV, V and VI; Chrono Trigger; Secret of Mana; Earthbound; Super Mario RPG; Breath of Fires I and II; the list should be familiar to anyone who's engaged in this conversation over the years. One game that doesn't get mentioned very often, though, is Dragon Quest V. That's perhaps understandable given the original Super Famicom version of the game never made it out of Japan, an unfortunate casualty of Enix's decision to withdraw from the western games market after the poor performance of Dragon Warrior IV. The game eventually made its way to the west by way of a DS remake in 2009, which was subsequently ported to mobile devices in 2015. But even with this retroactive availability taken into consideration, there don't seem to be many people going to bat for Dragon Quest V as an example of the genre's finest hour.

Ladies and gentlemen, permit me to step up to the plate.

At first glance, Dragon Quest V may not seem all that different from its predecessors. It's a Japanese RPG with an overworld to explore, towns to shop and rest in, and dungeons full of monsters that you encounter randomly and fight in strategic turn-based combat. Where Dragon Quest V surpasses its brethren is in its innovative approach to storytelling. Its story unfolds over the course of twenty years, following the protagonist from an inquisitive six-year-old boy in the care of his father, through adolescence and into adulthood. Along the way he suffers loss, falls in love, and raises children of his own. As a result, Dragon Quest V feels like a far more intimate adventure than other games in the series, with the stakes often feeling deeply personal to the protagonist (and by extension the player) as opposed to just world-threatening. This approach also allows for Dragon Quest V to subvert player expectations in some really interesting ways, most notably by not putting the protagonist at the centre of a "chosen one" narrative. The plot is further enhanced by some excellent storytelling through gameplay, using combat mechanics and equipped items to convey certain plot points in a way that would be impossible in any other medium and helping them hit all the harder. All this is to say nothing of the game's monster-taming mechanic, which was years ahead of its time and allows for an incredible amount of party customisation. Dragon Quest V is an innovative, subversive and emotionally resonant experience, and one that definitely deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as Final Fantasy VI, Chrono Trigger, and the rest of its early-90s SNES brethren.

Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas

Rockstar North / 2015 (2004) / PlayStation 4

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At a time when Rockstar Games seem to be getting nothing but bad publicity, it was comforting to return to one of their older titles and receive assurance that my belief they were once one of the industry's greatest names was not misplaced. This PS4 port of the PlayStation 2 classic, now delisted to make way for the controversial Definitive Edition remaster, took me all the way back to the late autumn of 2004 and bathed me in a wave of nostalgia I wasn't quite prepared for. At the same time, I was able to approach San Andreas with a more mature and critical eye, and I came away from it with a far greater appreciation of what it accomplishes on a technical level. From the staggering feat of presenting a huge, seamless open world comprising three distinctly different cities across an entire state, right down to minor gameplay improvements like the improved third-person shooting. There's the unparalleled sense of scope, with more of everything from vehicles and weapons to clothing options and collectibles, paired with an insane level attention to detail, right down to the radio having a different preset equaliser depending on the type of vehicle the player is driving. There's the near-prescient feel of some of its gameplay features, like the incorporation of RPG-like stats governing CJ's driving and shooting skills, or the weight and exercise mechanics that (to my knowledge) no other game has sought to replicate in the seventeen years since its release. There were genuinely moments when, outside of its visual presentation and dated control scheme, I could have been convinced I was playing a contemporary video game release, and not an uprezzed port of a PS2 game ripped from an old-fashioned DVD.

I've long considered San Andreas to be my least favourite of the PS2 trilogy of Grand Theft Auto games. GTA III has my undying respect for essentially birthing an entire genre with its 3D open world design and mission-oriented gameplay. Vice City has long been my favourite of the three thanks to its flawless conjuration of 80s atmosphere through its neon-drenched aesthetics and killer licensed soundtrack. San Andreas, on the other hand, has lived in my memory as a game that tried to do too much and suffered under the weight of its own scope and ambition. Having now replayed it for the first time in fifteen years, I feel comfortable saying I was wrong. San Andreas is the product of a talented development studio at the top of their game, wringing every last iota of processing power out of ageing hardware to produce one of the most feature-complete open world video games ever made. It is a game that is years, perhaps even decades ahead of its time in multiple respects. And it is, without a doubt, the best GTA game on PS2.

Vice City still has a better soundtrack, though.

Hyper Light Drifter

Heart Machine / 2016 / PlayStation 4

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You only need to take a cursory glance back at the first paragraph at the top of this page to realise that 2021 was a year punctuated by significant losses for me. Consequently, I think I've contemplated my own mortality more in these last twelve months than at any other time in my life. It has, at times, been difficult to know how to muster the strength to carry on in the face of such profound absences. In those situations, more often than not, I have found myself thinking back to the time I spent playing Hyper Light Drifter. Thinking about how the eponymous Drifter, even in the face of the undefined illness that consumes him, presses on to the next challenge he must face. Thinking about how the possibility, the eventuality of death, much like the spectral jackal that lingers near the Drifter throughout his journey, is ever-present. Thinking about how it is not the end of our life, but what we do with the time leading up to it, that matters. To that end, I have endeavoured to celebrate the lives of those I lost this year. Most notably, I arranged for myself and several workmates to take part in a Race for Life in memory of our lost colleague. I'm not sure I would have had the fortitude to even suggest that, had it not been for the time I spent with Hyper Light Drifter.

I admired Hyper Light Drifter for a lot of reasons. I admired its stylish aesthetics and its commitment to telling its story wordlessly through its visual presentation and sound design. I admired the retro mentality it brought to its 2D action gameplay, often demanding nothing less than perfection from the player against its most challenging opponents. But more than anything else, I admired its ability to make me reflect on the time I spent with others that are no longer with me, and truly value that time and those experiences. It has reminded me that death is something that comes to all of us, but it needn't be what defines us. And it has helped me come to terms with the losses I have faced this year in a way that I'm not sure any other piece of media could have done. I am intensely grateful to Hyper Light Drifter, and by extension everyone working at Heart Machine, for helping me through this downer of a year.

Oddworld: Soulstorm

Oddworld Inhabitants / 2021 / PlayStation 4

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You might be forgiven for believing that I'm now obligated to fulfil an annual quota of at least one ground-up remake of a childhood favourite on these lists, with a game fitting that bill appearing in every one of my end-of-year round-ups since the Crash Bandicoot N. Sane Trilogy released in 2017. Oddworld: Soulstorm is this year's candidate, a complete reimagining of 1998's Oddworld: Abe's Exoddus. Lorne Lanning has made no secret about the fact that Exoddus wasn't the story he wanted to tell, with publisher pressure to provide a sequel to Abe's Oddysee in just under a year of development time forcing him to make compromises on his vision. By contrast, Soulstorm was in development for around seven years, and the additional time spent is more than apparent in the finished product. Far from being a slavishly faithful remake, Soulstorm uses Abe's Exoddus as a jumping-off point from which to bring Lanning's original vision to life, expanding the original story to include new locations, characters and plot developments that further flesh out Abe's efforts to save his people and cease production of the addictive Soulstorm brew.

The enhancements don't stop there, either. Alongside its expanded narrative, Soulstorm updates the Oddworld aesthetic to bring it in line with contemporary graphical standards. Characters that share a common race are no longer palette swaps of each other, but individuals with their own distinct features. The gameplay has also undergone some meaningful modern overhauls, maintaining its classic 2.5D perspective while adding some pretty cool crafting mechanics and a bevy of interconnected emergent gameplay systems that turn each scenario Abe faces into a sandbox-style puzzle to solve. All of these additions and enhancements serve to make Soulstorm the best-playing classic-style Oddworld game to date, and have me incredibly excited about what's coming next from Lanning and the rest of Oddworld Inhabitants.

Overcooked! 2

Team17 / 2018 / PlayStation 4

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It's not very often that a co-op game makes one of these end-of-year lists. My game time is usually spent playing single-player campaigns, with competitive multiplayer reserved for when Super Smash Bros. or Mario Kart come out during friendly gatherings. I don't really play online multiplayer either, a stance that has only solidified as the industry moves more towards "live services" as the de-facto business model for games with online components. I may be more surprised than anyone, then, to find Overcooked! 2 taking a spot in this year's top ten. To understand why, we need to turn the clock back to the start of this year, when the UK was deep into its third Covid lockdown. My buddy Matt suggested that we find some way to stay in regular contact online while we were unable to meet in person. We started out with a couple of weekend sessions of Super Smash Bros. Ultimate and Rocket League, but quickly tired of the competitive aspect and started seeking out something more cooperative in nature. He'd been gifted the Overcooked! collection on PS4 for Christmas, and while the first game lacked online co-op play, the sequel was a prime candidate. I picked up my own copy of the game from the PlayStation Store, he subscribed to PlayStation Plus, and we tentatively stepped into the Onion Kingdom together.

What followed was nine months of some of the most fun I've ever had in a co-op game. Beginning in March, roughly every other weekend we would get on a WhatsApp voice call, boot up our PS4s and play Overcooked! 2 for an hour or two. First we made our way through the entire story campaign, chopping, frying and boiling our way across the game's levels leaving only a trail of dirty dishes (and occasionally flaming kitchens) in our wake. When we'd exhausted the content that came with the base game we jumped into its many DLC campaigns, each one providing new recipes to learn, new kitchens to navigate and new challenges to overcome. It was fun trying to direct each other on the fly, coming up with new strategies to tackle each kitchen that stumped us, and working out how best to maximise our efficiency in pursuit of those three-star ratings. Arguably just as important, though, were those moments between levels, when we were kicked back out onto the world map and given a moment's respite to chat about things outside the game - about our work, about our home lives, or even just about the various different limited edition flavours of Jaffa Cakes we'd seen on the shelves in our local supermarkets. Overcooked! 2 wasn't just a fun game, it was a medium for communication with one of my best friends when we weren't able to see each other in person. That is why it more than earns its spot on this list.

Primal

SCE Cambridge / 2016 (2003) / PlayStation 4

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Primal ticks off another square on the "My End of Year List" bingo card, specifically the one referencing a game that was finally beaten after being in my backlog for way too long. I'd previously tried and failed to get into Primal on two separate occasions, both of which I've actually documented on this blog in past entries - my first attempt was stalled by an unreadable disc, and my second was hampered by the game's inability to get interesting within the first hour. Even so, I couldn't quite bring myself to sever my ties with the game completely, and after picking up the PS2 Classic version digitally on PS4, I finally saw Jen and Scree's adventure through to its conclusion at the end of the summer. On reflection, I think I judged it a little too harshly a decade ago. Primal definitely isn't perfect, but it still has a lot to offer to those willing to persevere through its slow opening.

Critical to Primal's success, in my opinion, is its assured sense of place. Each of the four demonic realms that Jen and Scree must pass through in their quest to restore balance to the forces of order and chaos feels distinct and believable, in a way that evokes the likes of Legacy of Kain's Nosgoth. This makes each realm interesting to explore and compels the player to learn more about its inhabitants and their current predicament. It was this aspect of Primal, along with the immense likeability of the dual protagonists, that convinced me to see it through to the end. Jen's different demonic transformations, while suitably distinct from one another in terms of gameplay, feel like they would benefit from some kind of contemporary skill tree system to flesh them out a little more. I also lament the fact that the laboured animations and unresponsive controls make the exploration and combat feel disappointingly sluggish, and that's likely to be a deal-breaker for so many players that I can't in good conscience recommend Primal to just anybody. For those looking for an interesting story with charming characters and captivating worldbuilding, though, I feel that the frustrations are worth putting up with. I'm certainly glad I finally made it through this one.

Super Metroid

Nintendo / 2019 (1994) / Switch

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At the start of this year, I don't think I would have ever entertained playing a Metroid game. I grew up with a Mega Drive and later a PlayStation, so I was a latecomer to a lot of Nintendo franchises - my first Zelda was Wind Waker on the GameCube, and I didn't play a 3D Mario game until I downloaded the Wii Virtual Console version of Super Mario 64 back in 2015. Metroid, as one of Nintendo's more "fringe" IPs, simply never appeared on my radar. 2021 changed that, big time. Seeing the announcement trailer for Metroid Dread at E3 ignited a curiosity within me that only seemed to grow with the collective hype for Samus' fifth canonical 2D adventure. Unfortunately, my options for getting acquainted with the besuited bounty hunter were severely limited by my current console options. General consensus was to steer clear of the NES original and its Game Boy sequel, while no GBA meant I couldn't check out the acclaimed Zero Mission or Fusion, and the prohibitive pricing deterred me from starting with Samus Returns on the 3DS. That left me with one option - the most accessible 2D Metroid game, and (thankfully) supposedly the best.

Justifying my signing up to Nintendo Switch Online beyond access to Pokémon HOME and the occasional online bout of Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, Super Metroid became the first game I've played via the subscription service's library of NES and SNES classics. And boy, did I play the shit out of it. I made my way through Super Metroid in just three sittings across two days, ensnared by its item-based progression and driven to explore every reachable inch of the planet Zebes. Each newly discovered power-up doubled as a key unlocking even more of the map, encouraging me to return to previously explored areas in search of new pathways and secrets. Gradually, as the map opened up, parts of the alien terrain started to feel more familiar, almost homely, with each subsequent revisit. The only thing stopping me from jumping straight back in when the credits rolled was the fact that using the game's final save room soft-locked me into the end sequence and made it impossible to keep exploring. Super Metroid is perfectly paced, exquisitely balanced, and it's easy to see why it's considered one of the greatest games of all time. I'll definitely be returning to the series in 2022, just as soon as I can afford to pick up a copy of Dread for myself...

Uncharted 4: A Thief's End

Naughty Dog / 2016 / PlayStation 4

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I fell in love with Uncharted 4 a lot earlier than I suspect most other players did. I was in the game's pocket by the fourth chapter, when Nathan Drake picks up a toy pistol and lets the player fire foam bullets at various targets around his attic. In that moment I realised I had more in common with Nate than I ever thought possible. Uncharted 4 portrays its protagonist as a guy stuck in a rut, caught working a mundane job and navigating the pitfalls of ordinary civilian life, all the while longing for the excitement of a life left behind. As a guy in his thirties with a mortgage to pay, a wedding to plan, and progressively less time to indulge in his passions, I found this sequence so relatable it almost hurt to play. It was this unspoken understanding between myself as the player, and Nate as the avatar, that ensured I was firmly on board for the rest of the game's fifteen hour run-time.

It would be easy for me to dismiss Uncharted 4 as simply being "more Uncharted", especially playing it less than twelve months after revisiting the Nathan Drake Collection and playing the first three games back-to-back. To do that wouldn't even be wrong, per se - Uncharted 4 is most definitely another one of those games where Nathan Drake jumps the jumps and shoots the bad guys and looks and sounds cool doing it. To speak about it in such reductive terms is doing it a massive disservice, though. Uncharted 4 is more fittingly described as "better Uncharted", taking the tried-and-tested template of Uncharteds 2 and 3 and building on it with the best story, the best characters, the best gameplay, and the best set-pieces in the entire series.

I do kinda wish I hadn't played it on Crushing for my first go around, though. God damn, Chapter 20 almost broke me.

The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings Enhanced Edition

CD Projekt Red / 2012 (2011) / PC

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I will remember The Witcher 2 as a reminder why I don't often play games on PC. Getting it running in an acceptable, playable state proved to be quite the headache, taking almost as long as actually playing the first act of the game itself. I'll concede my laptop is hardly a gaming powerhouse, but its specifications suggested I should have been able to run the game on its lowest default settings at a fairly consistent framerate. Unfortunately that proved not to be the case, with frames dropping into the single digits even with every possible graphical bell and whistle turned off. This set in motion a series of diagnostic tests, YouTube tutorials, downloading a separate program to modify the .ini file with a series of trial-and-error adjustments, and finally installing a mod to increase the size of the in-game text after dropping the resolution to a size that rendered it illegible. This process took almost a dozen hours if the 'Hours Played' count in Steam is an accurate indication, and the end result was an experience that remained pretty consistently around 25-30fps, at the cost of exceedingly blurry textures, a laughably short draw distance on all foliage, and hard-to-parse text in the menu screens.

The fact that even after all these headaches, and even in such a compromised state, I still found The Witcher 2 to be an unforgettable experience, is hopefully a sufficient testament to its quality. Picking up shortly after the end of the first game, it chronicles Geralt's search for the murderer of the Temerian king Foltest in an effort to both clear his name and regain his lost memories. Structurally it feels similar to the first game, with each of its numbered acts taking place in a different centralised "hub" location populated by quest-givers and shopkeepers, and surrounded by monster-infested wilderness. But where questing in the original Witcher could at times feel bloated and aimless, The Witcher 2 instead feels focused and polished. Nowhere is this more evident than in its story, which once again places Geralt between the entitled, power-drunk humans and the marginalised, militant Scoia'tael and forces him to take a side. This time the choice feels significantly more meaningful than the first adventure's somewhat incidental morality checks, with Geralt's allegiances determining which of the game's two very different second acts the player gets to experience (I sided with Iorveth and the Scoia'tael for my playthrough). An overhauled combat system rounds out the package, eschewing the first game's rhythmic click-based combo system in favour of a more action-oriented approach. While I ultimately think I prefer the first game by the narrowest of margins, there is no denying that The Witcher 2 is a fantastic role-playing game, and I can't wait to check out the third game in the series at some point in the future - something I'll thankfully be able to do on PS4!

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There you have it, folks. Those are the ten games which, above all others, defined this year for me. It's been fun to look back on all the positive experiences I've had with video games over the past twelve months, and it's made me just a little bit more excited to think about what 2022 may hold in store in both the digital world and the real world. I'd be really interested to hear what games other folks have played in 2021, and what games you're looking forward to playing in the new year, so please drop a comment underneath this wall of text and I'll be sure to read and reply to it as soon as I can. As for me, I'm currently wrapping up a playthrough of Final Fantasy XIII-2, but I don't anticipate finishing that until we're firmly into 2022. Beyond that, I have some tentative plans for what I'll be playing in the new year, but I think I'll save those for another blog a little further on down the line. Until next time, thanks very much for reading. Take care, stay safe, and I'll see you around.

Daniel

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Some Thoughts on Grand Theft Auto: Liberty City Stories

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It's little wonder that I've found myself hankering after a classic Grand Theft Auto experience recently. News on the release of (and subsequent negative reaction to) the remastered "Definitive Edition" of the trilogy has been ubiquitous in the games press, reigniting a desire within me to return to the games that caused me to fall in love with the franchise almost two decades ago. They are ostensibly the video game equivalent of comfort food to me at this point. Selecting a game to play proved difficult, however. I've played all three games in the core "3D Universe" canon in recent years, most recently earning 100% completion and the Platinum Trophy in the now-delisted PS2 Classics version of San Andreas back in the summer. My solution was to boot up my PS Vita and hop into 2005's Liberty City Stories, allowing me to return to the familiar streets of Rockstar's first three-dimensional approximation of America through the slightly less familiar eyes of a different playable character.

I say slightly less familiar because where I've played Grand Theft Auto III to completion at least half a dozen times in the last twenty years and can recall pretty much every one of its main characters and pivotal story missions, I've only ever played Liberty City Stories once, all the way back in 2006 when the PlayStation 2 port was released. Consequently, of the fifteen or so hours I've played of it thus far, very little of it has rung bells in the deep recesses of my memory. I don't remember dealing with characters like J.D. O'Toole or Leon McAffrey, and pretty much every single mission has failed to trigger any sense of déjà-vu, the only exception so far being the very unique set-up of The Portland Chainsaw Masquerade. I'm not sure how much of this can be attributed to the fact I played through this game just once over fifteen years ago, and how much of it boils down to most of these missions being short in length and wholly unremarkable in their design, likely due to the game being developed for short play sessions on a handheld console.

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And yet, there is an almost unsettling sense of familiarity I get when playing Liberty City Stories. Some of that is certainly down to the game's open world. LCS uses the same rendition of Liberty City that debuted in GTA III, a game that I have spent a cumulative total of hundreds of hours with over the past twenty years. I know the road layouts of Portland, Staunton Island and Shoreside Vale almost as well as I know my own hometown. Consequently, while the missions themselves feel unfamiliar to me, the locations in which they take place are practically home at this point. Another aspect of that familiarity may come from the game's handful of returning characters, like mob boss Salvatore Leone and media mogul Donald Love. I don't remember most of the specific interactions I've had with them in this game, but their roles in GTA III and the wider "3D Universe" canon make them feel like old friends nonetheless. Even LCS's protagonist Toni Cipriani was himself a mission-giver in GTA III, and while he may not be voiced by Michael Madsen this time around, his interactions with those around him (particularly his perpetually disappointed mother) make him feel consistent with his original rendition.

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What makes the familiarity unsettling, though, is the game's radio stations. Where pretty much the entirety of LCS's original content triggers no deeply buried memories whatsoever, the radio chatter is another matter entirely. From the first moment I hopped into a vehicle with the radio tuned to talk station LCFR, something awoke deep in my mind. I found myself remembering several of the segments almost verbatim The talk-show parody of Heartland Values with Nurse Bob, the forward-thinking technology magazine format of The Electron Zone, the violently gruesome cooking show Coq au Vin - skits that I haven't heard for almost half my life all came back to me as clear as if I'd last heard it only yesterday.

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So how can it be that a game I barely remember playing has left such a deep-rooted impact on my unconscious brain? My guess comes down to Liberty City Stories being the last Grand Theft Auto game that I played to 100% completion. This theory is corroborated by my other clear memory of playing LCS being the time I spent thumbing through its official Brady Games strategy guide in pursuit of every last hidden package and unique stunt jump. Consequently, I don't have experience of repeatedly playing its missions to the point where I could play out several of them in my mind step-by-step, like I could with the missions of GTA III, Vice City or San Andreas. What I do have, though, is several dozens of hours' worth of gameplay time sitting in long-dormant receptors at the back of my brain - hours spent cruising streets that I already knew like the back of my hand, searching for collectibles, and listening to fictional self-help gurus, tech buffs and murderous chefs making jokes that have arguably aged even more terribly than the gameplay itself. Liberty City Stories may not be the most familiar game in the GTA series to me, but it feels like coming home nonetheless. In that respect, it's serving its purpose as video game comfort food perfectly.

I'm not entirely sure what prompted me to write this. There are tons of games I've played in between my previous blog and this one that would probably have been better suited to a think-piece of this nature. I could have written about finally making it through PS2 adventure game Primal and how it was ultimately worth slogging through its slow start. I could have written about Dragon Quest V and how I think it deserves to be held in the same high regard as its SNES contemporaries Final Fantasy VI and Chrono Trigger as one of the best Japanese RPGs of its era. I could have written about Super Metroid and how its incredible world design and compelling mechanics saw me through the entire adventure in just three sittings across a single weekend. I could have written about Alan Wake and how my decision to revisit the remastered version as this year's "Halloween game" has vindicated my decision to rank it as one of my all-time favourites. I have, indeed, tried to write every single one of those blogs at various points over the last two months, but none of them have quite stuck the landing. This one did, and I feel it's important to put it out there as a result. Hopefully more attempts will stick the landing and make it to publication in the future.

All that remains to be said at this stage is to thank you for reading and making it this far. Part of sharing these experiences is that I'm interested in finding out if others feel similarly about other games, so if you have a video game equivalent of comfort food, or a game that you've found yourself remembering for very specific reasons years after playing it, please sound off with a comment below as I'd love to hear about it. Until next time, take care and I'll see you around.

Daniel

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Some Thoughts on Oddworld: Soulstorm

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Oddworld has been one of my low-key favourite video game franchises for over twenty years. My first exposure to the series was all the way back in the year 2000, when I spotted a copy of Oddworld: Abe's Exoddus in a local newsagent for the very reasonable price of £9.99 and managed to convince my mother to give me an advance on my pocket money so I could purchase it there and then. Its 2D presentation and deliberately-paced, grid-based platforming were a marked departure from Crash Bandicoot and Spyro the Dragon, but the weirdly fascinating aesthetic of Oddworld and the unique GameSpeak mechanics drew me in and kept me hooked. It's been two decades since then, and while Stranger's Wrath went on to succeed it as my favourite game in the franchise, Abe's Exoddus has always held a special place in my heart as the game that introduced me to Abe, his enslaved Mudokon brethren, and their struggle against the corporate Glukkon overlords and their armies of Sligs.

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It should therefore come as no surprise that I've been awaiting Oddworld: Soulstorm with bated breath ever since playing through the Abe's Oddysee remake, New 'n' Tasty!, back in the summer of 2019. Billed as a ground-up reimagining of Abe's Exoddus, Soulstorm promised to be the game that Oddworld Inhabitants wanted to make twenty years prior, had their original vision not been compromised by publisher deadlines and hardware limitations. I've now had the privilege of playing through Soulstorm pretty much twice (one continuous playthrough of each level resulting in the "bad ending", followed by revisits to several of its levels in pursuit of the canonical "good ending"), and while that "original vision" promise does feel a bit like romanticised PR-spinning on Lorne Lanning's part, it's hard for me to deny that this is the best executed example of the original Oddworld formula to date.

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Whereas New 'n' Tasty! strived to be a faithful remake of Oddysee to an almost slavish degree, Soulstorm eschews this approach by playing fast and loose with the game it's drawing inspiration from. Instead of lifting its level design wholesale from Exoddus, Soulstorm reimagines old locales like Necrum Mines and the FeeCo Depot, while introducing a handful of new ones such as Phat Station and the Old Trellis. Taking this approach allows Soulstorm to be exceedingly creative with its level design, trading the two-dimensional planes of its forebears for paths that cross and intersect in beautiful and impressive ways. I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that Soulstorm is the most visually impressive game built with the Unity engine that I've ever seen, and the scale and spectacle of many of its levels plays a major role in that. These levels are complemented by an overhaul of the control scheme which makes actions feel a little more immediate than Oddysee and Exoddus, while still retaining the sense of weight and purpose to each of Abe's actions that the series is famous for. The inclusion of a double jump gives Abe a little more aerial manoeuvrability too, providing a safety net in some of the game's more demanding platforming sequences.

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It's not just the levels and controls that have been overhauled, either. While New 'n' Tasty! used the same character renders that have been with the series since its inception, Soulstorm's cast of Mudokons and Glukkons have been redesigned for the HD era. Abe and his brethren now have unique facial features, rather than simply being palette swaps of one another, and the same goes for the quartet of Glukkons that make up the game's panel of antagonists. While the new models are undeniably excellent, they do have the unfortunate side effect of lacking parity with Soulstorm's direct predecessor. It just seems strange to me that the redesigns weren't considered at the start of the rebooted Oddworld Quintology, but instead instigated partway through it.

Another thing about Soulstorm that struck me as "odd" (if you'll pardon the pun) was how its new crafting system served primarily to empower Abe, and by extension the player. Throughout the game, Abe will pick up various bits of trash that can be cobbled together into makeshift weapons, such as soda pop grenades and IED stun mines. This feels contradictory to the design philosophy of the original versions of Oddysee and Exoddus, which deliberately sought to render Abe and his fellow Mudokons helpless and heighten the threat posed by enemies. I've watched a number of interviews with Lorne Lanning over the years (my personal favourite being this three-hour extended cut on Ars Technica's YouTube channel), and one of the common points raised by Lanning is how adamant he was about not arming Abe with weapons in the original games, because doing so would encourage players to try and solve every puzzle in the game with violence. Out of this insistence, the possession mechanic was born. Debuted in Oddysee and expanded in Exoddus, possession allowed Abe to assume temporary control of enemy Sligs (extending to Glukkons and wild Scrabs and Paramites in Exoddus) and manipulate them to clear rooms and create paths through obstacles. Being able to craft makeshift projectiles, grenades, and (in some later levels) even a bona fide flamethrower, seems to fly directly in the face of this philosophy. GameSpeak has also been streamlined, leaving Abe with just four options to address his fellow Mudokons - a greeting, a wait command, and the ability to set followers to either an "aggro" or a "passive" state. Overcoming Soulstorm's challenges is no longer about using a creative combination of GameSpeak and possession to advance through seemingly insurmountable odds, but instead using a creative combination of Abe's hand-crafted arsenal to lay waste to Molluck's army of Sligs and carve a route through each level.

This move away from GameSpeak and towards crafting mechanics may have dampened the impact of Soulstorm's puzzles, but its payoff in gameplay terms is tremendous. Making the transition from New 'n' Tasty! to Soulstorm is comparable to the leap between the original Metal Gear Solid and MGSV: The Phantom Pain. Instead of each set of screens presenting a puzzle requiring execution of a specific strategy to progress, Soulstorm provides its players with a toybox full of craftable gadgets and gizmos and encourages them to experiment in pursuit of a solution. This approach is further augmented by the inclusion of new systemic gameplay elements - wood can be burned, fire can be dowsed with bottled water or accelerated with flammable Soulstorm brew, Slig patrols' vision can be obscured with smoke grenades, and flares can be used to keep light-fearing Sleeches at bay in dark areas. Each of these systems adds a layer of complexity to dealing with the problems Soulstorm presents, and finding emergent solutions to those problems using the tools at Abe's disposal is invariably rewarding. Some of my favourite moments were born from returning to old levels with access to new gear, and using it to find more efficient solutions to the predicaments I found myself in.

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The impact of these new mechanics and the impressive sense of scale and spectacle intersect in some of Soulstorm's best moments. Periodically the game will place several hundred Mudokons in Abe's care and tasks the player to protect them from waves of attacking Sligs as they make a break for freedom. These sections resemble tower defence games in their structure, and force the player to make effective use of every last gadget and ability in Abe's repertoire to keep his buddies safe. In Oddysee and Exoddus, it was rare for Abe to be in command of more than half a dozen Mudokons at a time, so this huge increase in scale will likely inspire both awe and dread in long-time Oddworld fans. Soulstorm also demands a much higher prerequisite for its good ending than any previous Oddworld game, asking the player to save at least 80% of the Mudokons in a given level to finish with good Quarma. My first time through the game I found these segments exceedingly challenging, looking on in horror as unmarked Sligs broke through my defences and laid waste to dozens of escaping Mudokons. Forewarned is definitely forearmed, though, and on my return visits to these areas I was able to formulate strategies that saw almost all of my little green buddies make it through unscathed.

Perhaps the biggest caveat I need to address with my praise of Soulstorm is that I suspect my enjoyment would have been severely hampered if I had played it at launch. Soulstorm released in April with an extensive list of bugs and glitches, including collision detection issues that affected the platforming and combat, buggy AI routines that made it impossible to bypass certain enemies, performance issues that caused the frame rate to tank, and unforeseen situations that could soft-lock the game not being accounted for. The developers, to their credit, have worked tirelessly since release and have issued a number of patches addressing almost all of these complaints, resulting in the game now working almost exactly as intended. I say "almost" because even I was unable to make it through the game in its entirety without suffering a handful of technical setbacks, the most egregious being a failure for the final cutscene to trigger when pursuing the "good ending", resulting in the final battle leading straight into the game's credits and forcing me to look up the ending on YouTube instead.

Oddworld: Soulstorm is, at least by my reckoning, the best 2D puzzle-platformer instalment of the series to date. While it's difficult for me to say for certain at this early stage, it may even pip Stranger's Wrath to the post for the title of my favourite game in the franchise. Its heightened production values and meaningful additions to the series' tried and tested gameplay formula are worthy of praise, although I do question some of the design choices made such as the oversimplification of GameSpeak and the state in which the game was launched. Ultimately, it has me feeling very positive about whatever comes next for this revitalised iteration of Lorne Lanning's Oddworld Quintology. I just hope we don't have to wait another seven years for the next step in Abe's journey to freedom.

Daniel

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Some Thoughts on Final Fantasy

Hey folks, Daniel here with some timely (and some not-so-timely) musings on a few things Final Fantasy.

The Final Fantasy franchise has once again become a dominant force in my entertainment consumption this year, arguably for the first time since I put a bow on Enduring Final Fantasy VII all the way back in 2013 (and as a side-note, how the heck was that almost eight years ago?). Since the beginning of 2021 I've played through both Final Fantasy VII and Final Fantasy XIII, not to mention a sizeable chunk of Final Fantasy X on the PS Vita before putting it down in favour of other stuff. A few months back I discovered the dansg08 YouTube channel and have taken to watching episodes of their commentary playthrough series of various Final Fantasy titles before bed most evenings. Last week the channel began a Final Fantasy V blind playthrough, which has got me tempted to revisit that game myself and try out some different Job combinations - a temptation I have thus far managed to resist, if only because I'm still dedicated to the post-game content of FFXIII. And, of course, there have been a number of FF-related announcements recently, including the Pixel Remaster series and the... "chaotic" Stranger of Paradise: Final Fantasy Origin. Given this running theme, I thought it might be an idea to get some of my recent FF-centric thoughts down in blog form.

Final Fantasy VII

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My personal history with Final Fantasy VII spans over twenty years at this point, and has been regurgitated so many times on this blog that I feel it no longer bears repeating to those kind enough to still be reading my ramblings. Suffice it to say, it holds a very special place in my heart as the first story-driven video game I played to completion, and the first video game I fell in love with. Depending on the day you asked me, I'd more often than not tell you that it's my favourite game of all time. In 2010 I embarked on a playthrough and accompanying blog series in an effort to determine whether the game still had anything to offer a contemporary audience. That series ended up spanning thirty-five entries across nearly four years, and the process of writing those blogs taught me a lot about why I love Final Fantasy VII and video games in general. To this day, it's one of my proudest achievements as a writer, even if I do feel that aspects of it haven't aged very well - a sentiment that, fittingly enough, mirrors my feelings about the game that inspired it.

While Final Fantasy VII is never far from my mind when it comes to discussing video games, recent events such as last year's release of Final Fantasy VII Remake have brought it back to the forefront of my thoughts. Earlier this year, almost eleven years to the day since the start of that blog series, I began a new playthrough of Final Fantasy VII - my seventh overall, and my most comprehensive exploration of the game to date. I went deeper down the FFVII rabbit hole than I've ever been before in a single playthrough - I bred gold Chocobos, mastered every available kind of Materia, acquired every Ultimate Weapon and final Limit Break, and even put paid to those pesky superbosses Ruby and Emerald WEAPON for the very first time.

I chose the PlayStation 4 version of Final Fantasy VII for this latest playthrough - partly for convenience, partly for the HD presentation, and partly for the Trophy support (the Platinum Trophy serving as a target to aim for in my completionist approach). But while it ticks all of those boxes, I remain reluctant to name it the definitive way to play FFVII in 2021 - partly because I haven't played every available version of FFVII, but primarily due to persistent technical issues. Throughout my playthrough I experienced noticeable instances of freezing, usually (but not exclusively) in battle as a precursor to magic and summon animations, sometimes for almost imperceptible periods of time and others for up to two seconds. While this was never game-breaking given the battle system's turn-based nature, it did have a frustrating impact on the game's immersion factor, to the point where I would probably opt to return to the PS1 Classic version on either PS3 or PS Vita for a prospective next playthrough.

While this most recent return to Midgar and the adventures of Cloud and co. served to once again remind me what I love about Final Fantasy VII, that wasn't its sole purpose. As I alluded to above, I've come to believe that my Enduring Final Fantasy VII blog series, while an incredible personal creative achievement, doesn't represent what I'm truly capable of as a writer. More than a decade has passed since I began that project, and in the time between then and now I've grown a lot both as a person and as a creator. That's why I'm planning to revisit the concept and produce an entirely new close reading of my all-time favourite video game, this time presented as a video retrospective. I'm currently going back through recorded footage of my playthrough as I work on a script, so the finished product is still a ways off, but I hope to have more to share in the very near future.

Final Fantasy XIII

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The second Final Fantasy game to capture my attention recently has been Final Fantasy XIII. My return to the twin worlds of Cocoon and Pulse was directly inspired by watching the playthrough on the aforementioned dansg08 YouTube channel, which served to remind me that for all its shortcomings, the series' thirteenth instalment had a pretty darn cool battle system that I ultimately never saw the full potential of due to not digging into the wealth of post-game content beyond its closing credits. Having seen those credits roll only yesterday after a little over forty hours of play, I'm just now beginning to get stuck into Cie'th Stone missions, weapon upgrades and late-game Crystarium expansions.

This also marks the first time I've played Final Fantasy XIII on the PlayStation 3, as both of my previous playthroughs were conducted on the Xbox 360 version of the game. It has been a joy witnessing the game in motion in glorious HD after all this time, and on a decent-sized screen to boot - my first playthrough was on the 14" SD TV in my university accommodation, while my second was on a 17" HD-ready TV limited to the 360 version's inferior 576p resolution. It sounds like an exaggeration, but there have genuinely been times where, were it not for the DualShock 3 nestled in my hands, I could have been fooled into thinking I was playing a PS4 game. This fact is made even more mind-blowing considering that FFXIII isn't some end-of-generation swansong, but a title that released smack bang in the middle of the PS3's lifespan. This game originally released in Japan almost twelve years ago, and it still looks incredible. That's a heck of an achievement, right there.

More than a decade removed from its original release, it's easier for me to understand why Final Fantasy XIII turned out the way it did. I've read developer interviews that point to FFVII as a major source of inspiration, and having played the two games almost back-to-back, it's even easier to see where that inspiration has bled through into the finished product. From its spectacular opening (which depicts a former soldier and her gun-toting, wise-cracking associate leaping off a train and assaulting a giant scorpion-shaped war mech), through to its conclusion (wherein the party return to the place where it all began and face off against a crack military force before descending into the final dungeon), both games hit a lot of very similar narrative beats. Much more apparent, though, is FFXIII's structural similarity to the campaigns of first-person shooters like Call of Duty and Halo. This is another comparison I remember being brought up in developer interviews around the time of release, and as time goes on, it only makes more sense to me. Much of Final Fantasy XIII is a corridor punctuated with carefully choreographed combat encounters, each featuring multiple enemy types in various configurations and requiring different strategies to overcome. If that isn't design straight out of the Halo playbook, then I don't know what is.

I still have a hefty chunk of Final Fantasy XIII's post-game to explore, so I don't anticipate being done with it any time soon. It's been a fun revisit, one that I wasn't expecting to enjoy as much as I have, and I think a lot of that has been down to accepting the game for what it is rather than feeling disappointed about what it's not. When I'm finally done exploring the wilds of Gran Pulse later this month, I'm considering hopping over to its direct sequels in a bid to play through the whole trilogy before the year is out. I've not played XIII-2 since its original release back in 2012, and I've never touched Lightning Returns at all, so my curiosity to see the rest of the trilogy play out is definitely piqued. If I do end up playing them, you can be sure I'll be sharing my thoughts on them here.

Final Fantasy Pixel Remasters

While I didn't come away from the week of E3 feeling excited about too many announcements, the one that may have caught my interest the most was nestled away in Square-Enix's presentation in the form of the Final Fantasy Pixel Remaster series. Billed as an antidote to the unpopular sprite-work of the mobile ports of FFs V and VI, the Pixel Remaster series seemingly aims to deliver more faithful recreations of the first six games in the Final Fantasy franchise. Promising redesigned sprite art from original pixel artist Kazuko Shibuya and new arrangements of the original soundtracks from none other than Nobuo Uematsu, the Pixel Remaster series is being billed as the definitive way for people to experience the franchise's origins in 2021. The first three games from the NES are set to release at the end of this month, with the SNES-era titles following at some point before the end of the year.

On the one hand, the concept of the Pixel Remaster series is something that I approve of wholeheartedly. The series' canon pre-VII has become a bit of an unwieldy mess at this point, with multiple versions of games being remade and remastered across multiple systems and very little consideration for parity between them. A recent conversation with a friend of mine on the subject of the Pixel Remasters ended up descending into a confusing exploration of the series' timeline as I navigated the WonderSwan Color remakes of FFs I and II and all the subsequent versions they inspired, the "Advance" series of ports of the three SNES games to the GBA, and the DS remakes of III and IV (to date the only games from the pre-VII era to get an upgrade to the third dimension). The result of this is that the "definitive" versions of these games currently span multiple systems and multiple console generations. In some cases there's no clear consensus on what the "definitive" version even is, due to drastic differences in both presentation and gameplay between different versions. A concerted effort to consolidate the franchise's early canon into six definitive and thematically consistent experiences all playable on the same hardware is a concept that I can definitely get behind.

On the other hand, there's a part of me that struggles to trust modern Square-Enix to give this undertaking the time and attention I believe it deserves. That part of me feels vindicated by subsequent trailers featuring gameplay footage, all of which has been meticulously scrutinised by fans, and the results of that scrutiny haven't been encouraging. There's talk of inconsistent pixel width across multiple assets, text boxes not being correctly aligned, uncertainty about the revised character sprites, and a general dislike of the font being used, all pointing to these being rush jobs with little thought or care put into the presentation. It also looks as though the Pixel Remasters won't include any bonus content from subsequent ports and remakes, such as the bonus dungeons in the PSP version of Final Fantasy, or the additional Jobs in the GBA release of Final Fantasy V (personally this isn't something I object to if the games are aiming to be faithful remakes of their respective original releases, but I can understand disappointment in the wider community over what essentially amounts to cut content). All this seems to point to the Pixel Remaster series being a quick cash-grab rather than the reverent reimaginings I'd been hoping for.

Ultimately though, the most disappointing part of this announcement was the revelation in its coda that these Pixel Remasters will be exclusive to Steam and mobile platforms, with no mention of any plans for console releases. As someone who spends the vast majority of their game time on the sofa in front of the TV with a controller in hand, this oversight really stings. I'm the sort of mug who would happily drop $60+ on a bundle of all six of these games if they were made available on the PlayStation Store or the Switch's eShop, and judging by fan reactions online, I'm far from the only one feeling this way. Some have said that these games are built on existing code for mobile and PC and it's not worth the effort to Square-Enix to port them to consoles, but I'm not sure I believe that. After all, wasn't part of the appeal of the PS4 and Xbox One the fact that their architecture was similar to that of PCs? I thought that was the reason for the greater parity across multi-platform releases than the mess that was the PS3/360 era? Not to mention that the old versions of III and IV on Steam and the Google Play Store are ports of the aforementioned 3D remakes on DS, meaning the Pixel Remaster versions of those games have presumably been rebuilt from the ground up? I've also heard speculation that Square-Enix are likely targeting mobile with these releases to coax prospective players into their free-to-play games on Android and iOS, and my inner cynic is certainly more willing to buy that explanation. I'm just hoping that the significant public outcry will be enough to persuade Square-Enix to consider a U-turn and push out console versions of the Pixel Remaster series in 2022. Otherwise, outside of possibly checking out FFIII on mobile just to see how it compares to the DS remake, I'm not sure I'll be parting with the contents of my wallet for them.

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I think that's all I've got to say on Final Fantasy-related matters at this moment in time. Despite referencing it in the opening paragraph, I don't actually have any thoughts on Stranger in Paradise: Final Fantasy Origin - the trailer didn't elicit any strong feelings from me one way or another, while a lack of PS5 has prohibited me from playing the demo. It's likely the game isn't for me, and that's something I've already made my peace with. The only other game I really have any thoughts worth sharing on at the moment is Oddworld: Soulstorm, the latest game from the Legendary Limitless Luscious Lorne Lanning and his team at Oddworld Inhabitants, and that doesn't really fit the overall theme of this blog entry. Maybe I'll put something together about that some time in the near future. Anyways, I hope everyone who reads this is doing okay. Take care, stay safe, and I'll see you around.

Daniel

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Don't Call It a Comeback

Hey there folks. It's been a while, hasn't it? I hope you're all doing well, staying safe, and getting vaccinated if and when you're able. For anyone reading this who might be interested, I am, for the most part, pretty good. While a lot of things going on in my life are much the same, there have been a few changes since my last blog post. Perhaps the biggest development is that I'm now engaged. Two months ago I proposed to my girlfriend of five years, she said yes, and we are now busily planning our wedding for next year. April also marked my ninth anniversary in my job at the local doctors' surgery, and while the ongoing effects of the pandemic continue to make my work life incredibly stressful and demanding, I thankfully haven't lost anybody close to me as a result of Covid-19 (though my heart goes out to anyone reading this who has). Unfortunately, I am currently staring down the imminent loss of one of my closest colleagues from these past nine years to breast cancer. It is therefore both a time of exciting new beginnings and bitterly cruel, heartbreaking endings.

The same could be said of the state of this site, I suppose. I've started and abandoned multiple drafts of this blog recently, but the main factor in getting me to finally break my silence has been the news of Vinny, Brad and Alex departing the site last month. I'm not going to dwell on it too much here, since others have already waxed lyrical on the subject in ways that far surpass anything I could write myself. It's no secret that I spend a lot less time on this site now than I did ten, five, or even two years ago, but the fact remains that those three guys have been responsible for some of my favourite video game-related entertainment during their tenure here. I am deeply sad to see them go, but I wish them all the very best with their future endeavours, whatever they may be.

What I will say is that nothing better engenders an assessment of one's perspective than sudden and unexpected upheaval. I'm not too proud to admit that on the announcement of those staff departures and the dissolution of Giant Bomb East, there was a part of me that worried for the future of this site. A part of me that worried enough to decide it was finally time to pull my finger out and archive all my old blog posts just in case the unthinkable ever happens and the Giant Bomb servers get switched off for good. It's taken me about three weeks of methodical cataloguing, but I now have back-ups of all four hundred and twenty-two of the blog posts I've written since this site formally launched in July 2008. And boy, has it been one heck of a journey.

Going back over all those old blog posts has been like opening a time capsule and being transported back to different points in my past. I've skimmed over some entries, and taken time to thoroughly read others. I've been reminded of opinions that I used to hold but would strongly disagree with now, I've rediscovered experiences that I'd all but forgotten I had, and remembered people who haven't crossed my mind in years. Like some bizarre out-of-body experience, I've witnessed myself grow and mature over the course of thirteen years and nearly seven hundred thousand words, one blog post and one game at a time. Rediscovering things about myself through this archiving process has been eye-opening, to say the least. These blogs aren't just about video games; they're just as much about the space between the video games. They're the closest thing I have to a journal, a window into my own past and a roadmap from my former self to the person I am today.

More acutely than ever, I feel like I'm standing at a crossroads in my life. The ongoing effects of the pandemic, the realities of planning (and paying for) a wedding, and the imminent passing of my long-term colleague and close friend all serve as reminders that life is both incredibly precious and astoundingly short. While I realise that thirty-one years of age is still a pretty young age, I'm becoming more aware that I don't have quite as much time ahead of me as my brain (which is hard-wired to the notion that I'm still seventeen) would like me to believe. I will have some big decisions to make in the not-too-distant future, ones which will have far reaching consequences in pretty much every aspect of my life. It's my hope that years from now I'll be able to look back on these blog posts and trace the ripples that those decisions make. As for whether or not they're the right decisions, that's for the future to know and for me to find out.

I realise there hasn't been any real discussion of video games here, so as a reward for those of you who've made it through to the end of my little existential crisis, here's a summary of everything I've played so far this year:

Games I Have Played In 2021 (To Date):

1. Fallout 4

I turned to Fallout 4 at the end of 2020 for some mindless open-world shoot-and-loot action, and actually ended up seeing the story all the way through to its conclusion, something I didn't manage during my first playthrough when I bounced off it about a month after release. I still consider it to be the weakest Bethesda game I've ever played (no, I haven't touched Fallout 76), and it has me worried for whatever Starfield and The Elder Scrolls VI end up becoming, but for a couple of weeks at the end of 2020 and into the start of 2021, Fallout 4 helped me to switch off my brain after long, stressful days at work just by getting lost in its gameplay loop for a couple of hours.

2. Dishonored

Hoo boy, I loved this thing. I spent about three weeks total with Dishonored, and I'm pretty sure the first week of that was spent replaying that first proper mission with the High Overseer about half a dozen times just to work out what playstyle I had the most fun with. I absolutely adored the worldbuilding in this too - the city of Dunwall is right up there with the likes of Rapture for me as far as fictional video game settings go. I'm keen to check out more of Arkane's output off the back of this, and have the sequel and 2017's Prey reboot installed and ready to go when the mood eventually takes me.

3. inFamous: Second Son

Sucker Punch's PS4 debut ended up reminding me a lot of Insomniac's Marvel's Spider-Man, not just because of the superhuman protagonist, but because of the strong case both games make for creating open-world adventures with a more limited scope. Second Son's rendition of Seattle is comparable to Spider-Man's New York in that both are smaller in scale than most open worlds, and consequently are much more densely packed with stuff to do. It doesn't hurt that the traversal in this game is a ton of fun too. Unfortunately I didn't much care for the story or its characters, but as a superhero sandbox, Second Son delivers.

4. Dark Souls

February saw me returning to Dark Souls: Remastered on PS4 for my second playthrough, having beaten the game once before on the 360 in 2018. This time I spec'd my character more towards magic than melee, and followed in Matthewmatosis' footsteps by watching his excellent commentary playthrough as I played. As a result I was able to see things I missed completely on my first playthrough, such as the Great Hollow and Ash Lake, not to mention all of the DLC content included in the Remastered version. The experience felt much more complete as a result, and cemented Dark Souls' place as one of my favourite contemporary RPGs.

5. Uncharted 4: A Thief's End

Having played through the first three Uncharted games twice over in the last three years, I'd been long overdue a sit-down with the fourth instalment. This is certainly more Uncharted, and undeniably the best Uncharted, but for some reason it didn't quite hit me in the same way as the second game did. Maybe it's a bit of series fatigue creeping in after playing through the first three games back-to-back for last year's Community Endurance Run. Or perhaps it's because I opted to play on Crushing and ended up running into some very frustrating walls in the form of late-game combat challenges.

6. Half-Life 2

Something I haven't mentioned up to this point is that the vast majority of the games I've played so far this year have been selected at random using the Backloggery website's Fortune Cookie feature. When Half-Life 2 came out of the cookie in mid-March, I was more than a decade removed from my last playthrough of it and very eager to find out whether it still holds up. Turns out the answer to that question is a resounding "yes", in spite of some dated-looking textures and the all-round inferior port job of The Orange Box's PS3 release. Half-Life 2's campaign is wonderfully varied and perfectly paced, and those are qualities that simply don't become outdated.

7. Overcooked!

One of the few games that wasn't selected by the Backloggery's Fortune Cookie, I ended up jumping into Overcooked! off the back of playing the sequel in online co-op with my friend Matt (more on that a little further down). The first game definitely feels more like a proof-of-concept than a full-on game, though it has a great deal of spit-and-sawdust indie charm in its rudimentary (and often poorly-punctuated) text-box cutscenes. Playing solo is also definitely not the way to play these games, since the absence of a second player removes a lot of the chaotic collaborative fun that defines the experience.

8. Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty

It blows my mind to look back on some of 2001's seminal video game releases and realise they came out twenty God-damn years ago. Metal Gear Solid 2 blows it more than most though, and that's down to both the incredible attention to detail in its presentation, and the batshit crazy meta-narrative that ends up getting eerily close to predicting our current dystopian reality. I found it pretty hard to play in spots, but I'm honestly not sure how much of that is attributable to its dated mechanics and how much was down to the knock-off PS3 controller I had to play it with.

9. Hyper Light Drifter

Hyper Light Drifter is comparable to Fallout 4 in that it became my "zone-out" game for the duration of my play time, but whereas Fallout 4 zoned me out with its hypnotically repetitive gameplay loop, Hyper Light Drifter felt more akin to practising transcendent meditation in pursuit of Nirvana. Aesthetically this game is incredible, from its gorgeous pixel art down to its text-free UI and menu screens. I also found it incredibly stimulating from a literary perspective, with its wordless narrative inviting players to interpret both the history of this calamitous world and the motivations of its eponymous protagonist.

10. Oddworld: Abe's Oddysee New 'n' Tasty!

Another game that wasn't picked by the Fortune Cookie, I decided to revisit Oddworld: New 'n' Tasty! in preparation for the impending launch of Soulstorm. As with Dark Souls, I opted to follow a walkthrough for my second journey through Rupture Farms, albeit only to locate all of the game's secret areas (I tackled the challenges inside those areas without assistance). I think it's hard to deny that this is the definitive way to play Abe's Oddysee in 2021, but I also can't help but feel this reimagining loses some of the original's nascent charm through its more polished presentation. I'm planning to get to Soulstorm real soon.

11. Overcooked! 2

As promised, here's where the sequel to Overcooked! comes in. My buddy Matt and I have been cooking up a cooperative storm on our journey through the Onion Kingdom. Mechanically Overcooked! 2 feels like the logical next step from its tech-demo-ish predecessor, incorporating new mechanics including the game-changing, time-saving ability to throw raw ingredients across the kitchen. Since completing the main campaign in late April, Matt and I have been working our way through the huge array of available DLC, all of which seems to meaningfully build on the base game with new recipes and mechanics to get to grips with.

12. Final Fantasy VII

Here, ladies and gentlemen, is where the last two months of my gaming life has been spent - revisiting what is undeniably my favourite video game of all time. My most recent playthrough was my most comprehensive one yet as I pursued the Platinum Trophy in the PS4 version, and with good reason - I have a new FFVII-themed creative project in the works, something akin to my old Enduring Final Fantasy VII blog series, but with more visual flair and a renewed willingness to dive as deep as possible on Squaresoft's flagship PS1 JRPG. More details will follow in the coming weeks...

I think that's going to do it for this entry. I'll be back soon, hopefully with a little less to say and a little more reason to say it. Until then, please all take care and stay safe, and I'll see you around.

Daniel

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