Gaming Memories: Oblivion

Welcome to “Gaming Memories,” a blog series where I reminisce about my favorite video games. I will slowly but surely get to every game on the list, and speak to why each holds a special place in my heart. That not only means I’ll talk about why I think each is a great game that speaks to my tastes, but also where and how it affected me in a larger context. I hope you enjoy, and thanks for reading.

In the spring semester of 2006, I was studying abroad, far from home. For five months my gaming time was limited to handhelds, and while I used that time to play many wonderful handheld games, I couldn’t help but see footage of then “next gen” games for the newly released Xbox 360, and get excited about the chance to experience them. My interest in the new console slowly but surely turned from indifference to awe, and when I returned home for the summer, I made the plunge. And there was one game that drove the purchase drastically more than any other: The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion.

Cyrodiil was a beautiful world to explore in its day.
Cyrodiil was a beautiful world to explore in its day.

Oblivion started with the standard Bethesda opening: you went through a brief tutorial in a closed, linear environment -- in this case a jailbreak through the sewers -- to emerge out into its vast, beautiful, and open world. From there, you could go wherever your curiosity took you. It’s a powerful and effective moment in a lot of their games, but experiencing that moment on a console in HD for the first time remains one of the most visually resonant gaming moments I’ve had. Cyrodiil was a bright and diverse land that was immediately appealing, and its visual splendor enticed me to explore right away. I especially appreciated said diversity, which was one of Oblivion’s biggest strengths. While you first emerged into rolling green hills, your adventures could take you to all sorts of varied locals: dense forests, pristine lakes, radiant coastlines, frigid mountains, murky swamps, and so on. Situated in the center of Tamriel, Cyrodiil inherited the geography of its surrounding provinces around its own periphery, which proved to be a welcome boon. It made my exploration consistently enjoyable and often surprising, and combined with how gorgeous the game was, I didn’t stop exploring until I had seen everything I could. All of Bethesda’s open worlds are a treat to explore, and Cyrodiil is one I remember more fondly than most.

Oblivion was also a more polished game than its predecessors, which made the process of exploring and engaging with the world much smoother. While plenty have argued that Oblivion “dumbed down” the franchise to some extent, I personally appreciated its more streamlined approach. Combat in particular received a welcome boost with Oblivion: it was much more responsive and visceral, and thus more engaging and less tedious for me. The menus and UI were also cleaner, which made keeping track of quests and my character’s stats and gear much simpler. As such, Oblivion made it easier than ever to remain focused on The Elder Scrolls’ core strengths of freeform exploration and intricate character-building, strengths which were still very much intact here. Exploration, in addition to the natural beauty of Cyrodiil I described above, could also reveal countless likable characters and fun quests. The core questlines were worthwhile in their own right (shout-out to The Dark Brotherhood), but you could also stumble into surprisingly interesting one-off quests in all corners of the world. Character-building leveraged The Elder Scrolls’ iconic open-ended system once again, which allowed players a lot of control in crafting highly unique and personal characters. Oblivion carried on these traditions splendidly.

It might have been broken, but it sure was fun to create my own super character.
It might have been broken, but it sure was fun to create my own super character.

Yet for all its polish, one aspect of Oblivion remained rough: its skill and leveling systems were convoluted and easily breakable, which had results both good and bad. On the one hand, levelling up could potentially be a negative, which is counterintuitive and nonsensical. Since enemies in the world gained levels when you did, depending on exactly how you leveled, it was possible to fall behind the curve. On the other hand, if you understood how it all worked, you could easily manipulate Oblivion’s systems to become an unstoppable god. It was totally wild, and once I wrapped my head around it, I went on to have one of my most memorable experiences building a video game character. I planned, I busted out the spreadsheets, and I carefully abused the system to create a character with the maximum possible stats and skills at the lowest possible character level, thus keeping enemies at their lowest possible level as well. In addition to being incredibly overpowered, it was also a blast to have a character who was good at everything: sword and shield, giant hammer, bow and arrow, stealth, charisma, any flavor of magic you could want. The joy of character-building in The Elder Scrolls is in how malleable it is, how you are never constrained to character archetypes and can dabble in everything all at once. In Oblivion, this was true to the point of being completely busted. Yet I loved every minute of it; nothing was off-limits for my super character. It was the ultimate power fantasy, and the personal effort I put into the process made the payoff that much more satisfying.

The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion took the freeform exploration and intricate character-building the series was known for, streamlined it without losing much depth, and took advantage of more powerful console hardware to make a stunning leap in audiovisual presentation. It felt like the perfect storm for the series at large, and while there was certainly a “right time, right place” effect for me personally, it was undoubtedly the perfect storm for my enjoyment of it. After getting a Xbox 360 and The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, I spent most of the summer of 2006 exploring Cyrodiil and all it had to offer. It was a magical time I’ll never forget.

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2020: Ranking the Rest

OK, now for the bigger list: after making my top 10 list for 2020, it's time to rank the rest of the games I played from the year. It's a tradition I've stuck to for a few years now, and it gives me a chance to briefly speak to all the new games I played over the year. It's fun, and hopefully paints a more holistic picture of my gaming year; though I should say that it's a fairly loose ranking, so don't put too much stock in the exact order. I also managed to hit pretty much everything I wanted to in 2020; obviously I can't play everything, and I'm sure in a few months I'll discover something important I missed and think "if only I had played that last year!" But for the time being, I'm pretty content with where I'm at, and the number of games I managed to hit. If anything, I touched more games than usual in 2020, but there's a very good reason for that: between Game Pass, PlayStation Plus, and straight up free games in many places, there are so many games I can play nowadays without having to pay anything extra. That makes it easy to just jump in and try a lot of different games that I would have likely not tried otherwise. That probably inflates the sheer number of games on this list, but it's also kind of neat to have that ability. Anyway, on with the list, and thanks for reading!

1-10. See my GOTY 2020 list.

#nostalgia
#nostalgia

11. Astro's Playroom. Ah, 2020’s tough cut, the game I liked a lot but barely missed my top 10. This is a super charming platformer, and a great showpiece for the new DualSense controller; it’s more or less the PlayStation 5’s Wii Sports equivalent. It helps that it’s a free pack-in too, and I enjoyed most of my brief time with it. My main gripes are, first, other than the controller gimmicks it’s a fairly basic platformer. And second, some of the more gimmicky levels that leaned harder into motion controls could be pretty annoying/frustrating. But otherwise Astro’s Playroom is just a cute, endearing, well-playing platformer that anyone with a PS5 should absolutely play.

12. Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon 2. I don’t think I like this sequel quite as much as its predecessor. That’s perhaps mostly due to a loss of novelty; throwback games can work great the first time for me, but not as much the second time without something new. But I also think the levels themselves are a bit more tedious, and while Hachi is cool, his invincibility kind of broke the game for me, as I was able to cheese my way through so many scenarios that way. Those gripes aside, this is a still a great 2D action game, with cool characters, engaging scenarios, and a totally rad audiovisual presentation. The first Curse of the Moon was an awesome game, and even if the sequel doesn’t reach the same heights for me, it’s still pretty cool.

13. Doom Eternal. This is not a bad game, but as a follow-up to the excellent 2016 Doom, it’s pretty disappointing for me. I feel like they didn’t quite grasp what made that game so much fun for so many people, but instead doubled down on the more tiresome aspects of its combat, lore, and tone. It carries too many layers of systems to juggle during combat, which makes it feel like you have to follow a pre-prescribed list of actions to be successful. If you do that, combat can still be thrilling: the guns are awesome, the enemies are exciting (well, not all of them…), the music is rippin’, and the movement is as fluid as ever. So I did have plenty of fun during those moments where everything clicked, and the highs of Doom are still as high as ever. But Doom Eternal simply did not land those moments consistently enough, which is a bummer.

Such a beautiful game.
Such a beautiful game.

14. Ghost of Tsushima. It’s been a few years since I’ve played an open world game in this particular mold, and this one mostly reminds me why I do so as infrequently as I do: it’s too big, too messy, and too repetitive for the fairly basic mechanics it has on offer. It’s real easy for me to get burnt out well before it’s over, and that happened here as well. However, Ghost of Tsushima does have some things going for it that makes it stand out among similar games. Mainly that its world is downright gorgeous, but also the combat and stealth control pretty well. There are a lot of nits I could pick about it (screw that yellow bird), but if you want a lizard brain checklist to follow, Ghost of Tsushima is probably as good as any open world game for that.

15. Spider-Man: Miles Morales. I liked 2018’s Spider-Man well enough, but also got worn down by its open world bloat around halfway through. Miles Morales does better by being a tighter, more focused experience, and I really like all the characters and the story. But I think my fatigue from the previous game carried over to this one, as I was pretty bored with the combat and other challenges almost from the start. Which maybe just means I don’t like the basic gameplay of Spider-Man all that much? It has me questioning whether I will play any more Spider-Man games… but I was still happy to see the campaign of Miles Morales through.

16. Murder by Numbers. I like picross, I like Phoenix Wright, and this loose mashup of both concepts works well enough. I think both the picross puzzles and the narrative take a little bit to really get going, and the individual cases lack the same level of buildup and excitement you’d get from a Phoenix Wright style courtroom showdown. But picross is still fun, the puzzles here are (eventually) good, and the story and characters endeared themselves to me by the end. Scout’s a real one.

A straightforward but fun beat-em-up.
A straightforward but fun beat-em-up.

17. Streets of Rage 4. I don’t know that there’s a ton to say about this one other than it’s a generally very well-made beat-em-up across the board. It certainly doesn’t reinvent the wheel, and beat-em-ups probably only carry so much weight nowadays. But if you enjoy a “good one of those” and have a buddy to play it with, I found Streets of Rage 4 to be worth it; especially if you have Game Pass. Also, that soundtrack is legit.

18. Star Renegades. Talk about “kitchen sink” design; this game’s mechanics have mechanics, and it pulls them from a wide array of influences spanning multiple genres. In some ways it doesn’t come together all that well, and can feel like a bit of a scattered mess. But when it clicks, there’s some really cool stuff here. I especially like the tactical battles, and the way character abilities interact with enemies as well as the timeline to pull off some cool stunts. And, as a roguelike of sorts, if it wasn’t as long and as grindy as it is, I would be willing to play more runs to try out more characters. But as it stands, while I appreciate and genuinely enjoyed the time I put into Star Renegades, I doubt I will dig through the bloat to come back for more.

It's a silly game, but the art is striking.
It's a silly game, but the art is striking.

19. 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim. I’m still in the middle of this, so it could move up or down this list by the time I finish. Its art is gorgeous, and it has a lot of interesting storytelling ideas in the way it allows you to bounce between each characters’ story, and see how they all interconnect from different angles. As for the story itself… it’s a lot of sci-fi anime nonsense, and in a way I’m not sure it earns yet. It can be heavy-handed or self-important in moments that mostly feel silly to me, and the battles themselves are too rote to be engaging. So the jury is still out on this for me, and given that like 90% of this game is its (barely interactive) story, how the story unfolds is going to dictate my final impressions one way or another. It certainly has potential, but needs to step it up from here.

20. Lithium City. This is a short but fun romp that has a lot of great style, both in its visuals and its soundtrack. It feels pretty good to play too, though a couple late-game stages were more frustrating to me than I feel they needed to be. The main thing holding it back is that it’s a pretty slight experience, and doesn’t always feel as varied or as inventive as it could be. It’s all stuff we’ve seen before, but Lithium City still does it pretty well.

21. Spiritfarer. Man, this game could be so much better than it is. I love the art, animation and music, I love what it’s doing narratively, and I love how your actions propel said narrative. Sadly, it’s all brought down drastically by terrible pacing that unnecessarily stretches everything out way too long. I spent more time growing carrots and brewing coffee than anything else in Spiritfarer, and those rote management tasks ultimately overshadowed the other enjoyment I was getting. There are some truly touching moments in Spiritfarer, but this is a textbook example of an otherwise great game being all but ruined by being too long.

Four-in-a-row anyone?
Four-in-a-row anyone?

22. Clubhouse Games: 51 Worldwide Classics. What a cool package. None of its individual games are all that noteworthy on their own, and I admittedly didn’t play a ton of it. But by collecting 51 classic games together, adding in excellent tutorials and some challenges to chase, it’s a good bet that anyone could find something they like here. I enjoyed the little time I’ve spent with it, and could easily see myself picking it back up down the road, especially for multiplayer.

23. Resident Evil 3. This is nowhere near as good as 2019’s Resident Evil 2 remake, a game I truly loved. RE3 has less interesting environment and encounter design, less variety, worse progression, and somehow, an even dumber story and cheesier acting. Yet, taken as a campy, lighthearted romp, I had fun with this short campaign. The shooting still feels solid, the guns have that kick to them, and I could laugh at all the stupid shit going on. It’s your quintessential “popcorn flick” type of game, and on those grounds I had a solid time with it.

24. Wide Ocean Big Jacket. This is a great story that is also paced well and ends in a timely fashion: the writing is great, the characters are great, and the length is perfect. But, at the risk of sounding like an ass, it didn’t do much for me as a game. It’s a good story that I enjoyed seeing, but its story is the entire game itself, and I think said story could have worked in another format just as well, if not better.

Gross.
Gross.

25. Carrion. This is a great concept, and I was happy to check it out via Game Pass. I’m not sure the monster controls worked for me as much as I would have liked; it often felt chaotic and imprecise, which was annoying in the moments when it required precision. Its world design was also sometimes uninspired, and I got a little tired of it before it was over. But in the moments it worked, Carrion proved to be one of the more interesting and unique games I played this year. And something about playing as the monster terrorizing the bad scientists is just fun.

26. Star Wars: Squadrons. I feel like they played it too safe with this one. Its production values are incredible, with a look and sound that should make any Star Wars fan happy. And the feel of flying these iconic ships -- even with a controller as I experienced it -- is totally solid. So while I did derive some enjoyment on those fronts, both the story and the mission design are just too bland, straightforward, and repetitive to have any real impact. I would guess the lasting appeal of Squadrons will be in its multiplayer (if anything), but as someone who only played the campaign, I found it lackluster.

27. Umurangi Generation. I love the vibe and the music, and I respect everything it’s trying to do narratively. But, as with many games in the lower half of this list, I simply didn’t enjoy the act of playing Umurangi Generation all that much. Taking pictures was a pretty rote affair, and the game’s levels were all pretty short and simple, meaning I was unfortunately somewhat bored during my play. Still, I respect this one quite a bit.

What a neat thing.
What a neat thing.

28. Microsoft Flight Simulator. I’m still not a flight sim guy, and I don’t know that I really enjoyed anything about the process of actually playing this game. But man, I think it’s one of the coolest games this year. Just the way they rendered the entire world and let you fly anywhere is super rad, and the most enjoyment I got in my short time with it was just picking some locations -- both personal and exotic -- that I wanted to briefly fly over and look at in awe. It’s a magical thing that, if I liked flight sims, would probably become one of my favorite games. As it stands, it’s something I marvel at more than I enjoy playing.

29. Paper Mario: The Origami King. I like a number of things about this one, including the art, the writing, and parts of its adventure game aspects. Unfortunately I did not like the combat at all, nor the minimal character progression they implemented, both of which are meaningless at best and frustratingly tedious at worst. And ultimately, the sheer amount of combat overwhelmed The Origami King’s better aspects for me, leading to me abandoning the grind about halfway through. If only they could make worthwhile combat in Paper Mario again...

30. XCOM: Chimera Squad. Man, I had a time with this one. I love XCOM in the broad sense, and the idea of a smaller spinoff sounds appealing. And while it certainly doesn’t have the depth of a full XCOM game, the characters and unique mechanics it introduced seemed like they could be engaging for a short while… until it all came crashing down at once. After slogging through a lengthy (hour+ long) boss mission, and tediously save-scumming my way through the actual boss -- which was a difficulty spike orders of magnitudes higher than anything the game had trained me for at that point -- the game bugged in a way that I could not complete the mission after defeating the boss. My only recourse would have been to restart and replay the entire mission again, and at that point, I was over it. I moved on, never to return. Why did you have to do me dirty like that, Chimera Squad?

In another life, this is my favorite game of all time.
In another life, this is my favorite game of all time.

31. Crusader Kings III. I want to like this game more than I do, and I love hearing stories about it. But every attempt I’ve had at getting into a Paradox game has fallen flat, and Crusader Kings III is no exception. I think for how my brain works I need more explicit goals to work towards, or some form of timely endgame, as the open-ended nature of Crusader Kings always leaves me unsure of what to do. The level of complexity on display doesn’t help; I’m not going to spend dozens (hundreds?) of hours learning all the ins and outs needed to fully enjoy this game. I’m truly glad it exists, and am thrilled so many people seem to be loving it. Just not one for me.

32. Valorant. This seems like a very good game that I won’t play much of, as someone who simply doesn’t spend a lot of time with competitive multiplayer games. But as far as free multiplayer shooters go, based on the few rounds of it I tried, Valorant seems pretty solid.

33. Ghostrunner. I love the idea of this game, and some things about it are really strong: it has cool powers, looks great, and performs well, which is a must given how fast-paced and precise the action needs to be. Yet something about the feel of the game never clicked with me. After plenty of experimenting and practice, I would still miss seemingly simple platforming jumps regularly, and the bullet-time dodges felt similarly finicky. I don’t know that I can pinpoint exactly why it felt so off to me, but as someone who has enjoyed plenty of challenging 1-hit death games before, Ghostrunner’s basic, core actions just never felt as good as I needed them to.

34. Risk of Rain 2. I enjoyed parts of the first Risk of Rain, but I ultimately ended up feeling similar about it as I do a lot of roguelikes. In 2020, after the genre has expanded and found ways to appeal to more people -- myself included -- it has become more apparent that a lot of "older" roguelike design doesn't do much for me. Risk of Rain 2 rebuilt itself in 3D, and has some of the same interesting quirks as the original, but overall it succumbs to the same tired roguelike pitfalls to me. I have barely played it, and might play more in co-op at some point. But otherwise I have no desire to touch it again.

I didn't think it was possible to make Superhot boring...
I didn't think it was possible to make Superhot boring...

35. Superhot: Mind Control Delete. I really liked the original Superhot, but where that game knew how to take its admittedly simple idea, pace it appropriately, and end before it got old, Mind Control Delete spends way too long repeating and watering down those same core ideas. Those ideas are still fun in spurts mind you, but after a few hours of rinse and repeat with Mind Control Delete, it managed to make Superhot boring to the point where I didn’t want to finish it. That feels like some form of gaming sin.

36. Super Mario Bros. 35. Another freebie that also didn’t do much for me. The idea of a Mario “battle royale” is amusing, and playing Super Mario Bros. is still fun. But Mario 35 takes too long to ramp up, and then when it finally does, I don’t particularly enjoy the type of play the late game incentivizes. I’m admittedly not a big battle royale person, but the balance on this one just felt off to me, and I ended up not spending much time with it as a result.

37. Perfect Vermin. It’s free and like 20 minutes long, so I hold no legitimate ill will towards this game. But I appreciate the metaphor it’s trying to convey more than I appreciate its actual execution, which I don’t feel enhanced its message in any meaningful or satisfying way. This game didn’t do much for me as a result.

I wanted to like KRZ, but alas.
I wanted to like KRZ, but alas.

38. Kentucky Route Zero. I really wanted to like this given the positive reception for every episode along the way, and I waited nearly a decade for all five episodes to release before diving in. Yet what I found was nothing but profound boredom. Yes, there are worthwhile themes and some effective imagery here. But the writing and narration style didn’t do it for me the vast majority of the time, and navigating the world was more obtuse than I could bear. My lasting memory of Kentucky Route Zero is that it put me to sleep almost every time I tried to play it, which makes it one of my biggest disappointments of the year.

39. Jump Rope Challenge. Is this a game? Does this count? I don’t know, but it was free and I downloaded it and did my reps for a few days. As a free thing intended to get you moving, it’s perfectly fine. As a legit workout tool, it’s pretty bad; it never accurately counted my jumps, often either double counting, or not counting them at all. Motion controls continue to be fickle at best, and there are countless better video game exercise tools than this, including better options on the Switch itself.

40. Fall Guys: Ultimate Knockout. I only tried this because it was all the rage for a month or so in the summer, and it came free with PlayStation Plus… but it took me all of three minutes to realize I hate how this game feels. The controls are (perhaps deliberately) imprecise in a way that made the rote platforming more frustrating than I could stomach, and after three games I decided that was enough. I get that this game isn’t supposed to be serious, and a “fun time party game” type of thing. But I don’t consider that an excuse: poor controls are poor controls, and I’ve played plenty of better “fun time party games” than this. This may sound harsh, but I did not enjoy any of my (admittedly limited) time with Fall Guys.

Bonus: Some (but not all) non-2020 games I played and enjoyed this year:

BRONZE RANK
BRONZE RANK

Sayonara Wild Hearts. This "playable pop album" is an excellent take on what a music video game can be. I played through it twice, and found it to be a memorable and somewhat moving experience; not to mention its soundtrack is incredible. This would have made my 2019 top 10 had I played it in time.

Final Fantasy VII. I replayed the original this year before the remake came out, and honestly, dated visuals aside, I think it holds up. Maybe that's just my nostalgia talking, but I liked seeing the story again after so many years, and the materia system is still cool.

Kind Words. This is a really neat idea, executed well. I had some pretty touching interactions in the short time I spent with it. I'm glad it exists.

Tetris Effect. I replayed the campaign once it hit Game Pass, and Tetris Effect is still kind of magical.

Dandara. This is a neat exploration focused game, and while I didn't outright love the movement, I enjoyed seeing some new ideas in this space. Combined with cool art and good music, and it was a short and fun campaign.

Super Metroid and Ocarina of Time. I replayed these two all-time favorites this year. It has been at least a decade since I've played either, and it was nice to revisit both during a very stressful year. Both hold up well, and it was very nice to revisit some classics.

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My Favorite Video Game Music of 2020

Oh, hey, it’s December again. Which means it’s time for one of my favorite annual traditions, where I look back at my favorite video game music of the year. And regardless of everything else 2020 threw at us, allow me to make a bold claim: there was a lot of great video game music in 2020. Not just high quality, enjoyable music, but also music spanning all sorts of styles, genres, and game types. That diversity is one of my favorite things about video game music, and while I limit my list to 10(ish) soundtracks, it’s worth noting there are well more than 10 noteworthy soundtracks every year, 2020 included. The medium continues to be strong, and our games are all the better for it.

The usual disclaimers: I only considered soundtracks from games I actually played, I picked a single representative song from each soundtrack to feature (where possible), and these games are ordered by their original US release date; not by preference. Thanks for reading and listening, and please share your own favorites!

Ori and the Will of the Wisps

Featured Track: Escaping a Foul Presence (by Gareth Coker)

The first Ori had a wonderful, emotional, sweeping orchestral score, and the sequel’s is every bit as good. It runs the gamut of emotions too, as it can be adventurous, playful, somber, or even downright terrifying as the situation demands. Ori and the Will of the Wisps is a great playing game that’s also an artistically resonant one, and its soundtrack is critical to its appeal.

Doom Eternal

Featured Track: The Only Thing They Fear Is You (by Mick Gordon)

I’m tempted to say “Doom Eternal is another Doom soundtrack by Mick Gordon” and leave it at that, but that’s probably too flippant. Yes, this is another Doom soundtrack by Mick Gordon, but it’s worth stressing how totally rad that is. He has once again captured the heavy metal, demonic fury of Doom with a new face-melting score, and it remains one of the many delights of playing a Doom game. Put another way, I don’t take my Doom soundtracks by Mick Gordon for granted.

Animal Crossing: New Horizons

Featured Track: 5am (by Kazumi Totaka)

Animal Crossing’s quirk where each hour of the day has its own dedicated song is both one of its frustrations and one of its charms. On the one hand, it means I never get to hear certain songs -- such as the excellent one I’m showcasing here -- because the hours I play games don’t vary that much. On the other hand, it does mean that I’ve come to identify the hours I do play with their respective songs, and those songs manage to capture the vibe of those hours surprisingly well. It’s a tangible, playful, and endearing way to make music a more prominent part of the game experience, and it’s also just good, catchy music.

Final Fantasy VII Remake

Featured Track: Main Theme (by Nobuo Uematsu, Masashi Hamauzu and Mitsuto Suzuki)

(Side note: It’s hard to find music from this game on YouTube; it seems Square-Enix is aggressive about taking it down. I did what I could.)

There are many reasons why Final Fantasy VII Remake’s soundtrack is as downright incredible as it is. First, the sound quality, instrumentation, and arrangements are just fantastic. Second, its “adaptive soundtrack” does a magnificent job at shifting between the many variations of each theme to fit the situation; it’s such a smart way to handle music in an interactive medium. Third, Remake draws from some of the most iconic and beloved music in video game history, and effortlessly leverages their nostalgic appeal while also rearranging them into something new and modern. That’s a tough balancing act for any remake, but Final Fantasy VII’s absolutely nails it.

Streets of Rage 4

Featured Track: Rising Up (by Olivier Deriviere)

Despite having a Sega Genesis in the house in the 90s, I was never that much of a “Sega kid.” I didn’t even hear about, much less play, a Streets or Rage game until decades later, but once I did I immediately recognized their soundtracks as legitimately rad. So if a new Streets of Rage game needed to get one thing right in 2020, it was the music. And thankfully, from my vantage point, it did. It’s just fun music from start to finish.

Lithium City

Featured Track: All I could find was the entire soundtrack (by John Camara)

Lithium City’s soundtrack is one that’s just fun to jam to, and it also contains more variety than it initially appears. While a lot of it is (very good) techno-murder beats, my most memorable music moments in Lithium City came from unique set pieces, where the music changed tone to acknowledge the larger setting and happenings. It takes good music, and leverages it in simple but effective ways to better the game itself.

Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon 2

Featured Track: Chains of Fire (by Ippo Yamada)

I’m not sure I like Curse of the Moon 2’s soundtrack as much as its predecessor, but even if it doesn’t reach that incredibly high bar, this sequel’s soundtrack is another awesome one that captures the spirit of the NES Castlevania games through and through. It’s a rockin’ score that’s fun to jam to, and wonderfully suits That Man, Zangetsu, and his companions as they venture forth on their demon-slaying quest.

Spiritfarer

Featured Track: Main Theme (by Max LL)

Spiritfarer’s best moments are the emotional sendoffs you periodically give your animal companions, and those moments wouldn’t hit nearly as hard if the music accompanying them wasn’t as touching as it is. Spiritfarer’s soundtrack can be as playful or as caring as the situation demands, and I’m not sure the game would have worked that well without it.

Paradise Killer

Featured Track: Paradise (Stay Forever) (by Barry Topping)

With character names like “Doctor Doom Jazz” and “Lady Love Dies,” and a striking art style to match, it’s pretty clear up front that Paradise Killer has its own unique vibe. And that’s as apparent as anywhere in its soundtrack: this thing is a friggin’ groove. Its funky mix of jazzy vaporware tunes set the perfect backdrop for wacky and the surreal setting of Paradise Island, and had me nodding my head to the beat the entire way through. I love when a soundtrack so expertly enhances a game’s vibe, and that’s exactly what this one does so well. It also, as the kids say, slaps.

Hades

Featured Track: In the Blood (by Darren Korb and Ashley Barrett)

Look, I don’t think I have to convince anyone that Darren Korb, Ashley Barrett, and the folks at Supergiant Games can make a great video game soundtrack. And with Hades hitting version 1.0 this year, it adds more new music that meets their incredibly high standards once again. I especially like how they incorporate many of their lyrical songs into the game itself, represented and sung by in-game characters who are in fact musicians. It’s one of the countless endearing details that make Supergiant’s games so good, and of course, it wouldn’t work if the quality wasn’t there. But it absolutely is for these songs, which are all absolute bangers.

Bonus: Sayonara Wild Hearts

Featured Track: Begin Again (by Daniel Olsen and Jonathan Eng)

I didn’t get around to playing 2019’s Sayonara Wild Hearts until 2020, so it missed my music list last year. But to everyone who said this game’s soundtrack is incredible: you were right. I couldn’t stop listening to it all year, and even if it’s a year late, allow me to give it its due now. Just killer music from top to bottom, and with the music all but being the game itself, Sayonara Wild Hearts is a wonderful new take on what a music video game can be.

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Gaming Memories: Ocarina of Time

Welcome to “Gaming Memories,” a blog series where I reminisce about my favorite video games. I will slowly but surely get to every game on the list, and speak to why each holds a special place in my heart. That not only means I’ll talk about why I think each is a great game that speaks to my tastes, but also where and how it affected me in a larger context. I hope you enjoy, and thanks for reading.

SPOILER WARNING: This blog contains spoilers for The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time.

I’m not sure I’ve ever anticipated a video game release more than The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. I was 12 years old, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past was already one of my favorite and most defining video game experiences, so the thought of playing Zelda in 3D on the Nintendo 64 was pretty much the most incredible thing I could imagine. In my young mind it was poised to be the ultimate video game, the medium’s defining triumph, and one that would set the standard for years and years to come. Sound unreasonable? My expectations almost certainly were.

And yet somehow, they were largely met.

Check this out: Z-targeting
Check this out: Z-targeting

It’s hard to fully capture now, over two decades later, just how impressive Ocarina of Time was in 1998. Plenty of classic video game franchises of the 1980s and early 1990s failed to make the jump to 3D successfully, and it’s not that hard to imagine a world where Zelda failed as well. But Nintendo, as they do at their best, walked that thin line between pushing forward while still crafting a quality, polished game. First and perhaps most importantly, Ocarina of Time set the standard for not only the franchise going forward, but also 3D action-adventure games at large with its intuitive controls, context-sensitive actions, and lock-on targeting; you know, “Z-targeting.” Second, it made use of its extra dimension in gameplay-relevant ways, frequently demanding the player interact with objects and enemies on all three planes. Third, it was one of the largest, most sprawling video game worlds to date (especially on consoles), and exploring it all in 3D was surreal. It may sound like hyperbole now, but Ocarina of Time formed much of the template that 3D action-adventure games would use for years and years to come: it showed the world how 3D games could control, what kind of worlds they could have, and how the player could interact with those worlds in meaningful ways. It was among the biggest technological and creative leaps I had experienced in a game at that point, and in my 12-year-old eyes, it was nothing short of magic.

While being one of the first great 3D action-adventure games is hugely important to Ocarina of Time’s legacy, it’s just as important to recognize that it was also a great Zelda game, with all that entails. The Legend of Zelda was already one of the most celebrated video game franchises, and all of the series’ beloved qualities made the transition to 3D fully intact. The sense of adventure and discovery, which permeated every corner of its large and wondrous world. The intricate and demanding puzzle box dungeons, full of clever environments that tested your spatial awareness and ingenuity. The evocative art style and visuals that stood out in its day, and the varied and iconic soundtrack that still stands out today. The progression of fun and inventive items and tools, the endearing and sometimes silly cast of characters, and the devious enemies and bosses. Ocarina of Time was not Zelda in name only: it executed the Zelda fundamentals well, fundamentals regularly placed among gaming’s best. Had any of this been lost in the transition to 3D, it may not have been worth it. But Ocarina of Time made the transition appear effortless -- even though it was likely anything but -- and for existing Zelda fans like me it was a dream come true.

Ocarina of Time had some powerful, cinematic moments.
Ocarina of Time had some powerful, cinematic moments.

Yet while Ocarina of Time can, in some ways, be viewed primarily as a successful 3D version of A Link to the Past, it had a lot of other little touches that further gave it its own identity. A few examples: it introduced a day and night cycle to the series, made musical instruments an important staple, as well as introduced everyone’s favorite horse, Epona. But for me, it was Ocarina of Time’s bigger narrative touches that distinguished it from its predecessors the most. It fleshed out the Zelda universe with new races, new characters, and new historical lore, and told an epic tale that spanned seven years. That larger scope allowed for real shifts in both the characters who had seven years to grow, as well as the world itself, which fell dramatically into ruin under Ganon’s rule. And it was all punctuated with numerous moments that remain as memorable to me as any. Stepping out of the Temple of Time as an adult, only to witness firsthand how far the world had fallen. The surprise reveal that Sheik is Zelda, and how much she had taken matters into her own hands during Link’s absence. Even the bittersweet ending, and the realization that Link could never truly have his childhood back despite stopping Ganon and saving the day. Ocarina of Time did not have the most complicated story ever told, but it was effectively told, and it was the game that made story a substantially more prominent part of Zelda going forward.

It can be a little difficult to have a measured conversation about Ocarina of Time today, in 2020. On the one hand, while it mostly holds up, it can also feel a little dated: the overworld can feel barren, the controls can be clunky, and like most games from that early 3D era, the visuals can be rough. On the other hand, for those of us who played it in 1998, it lingers in our memories as one of the most significant landmarks in the medium’s history; there’s a reason it’s still widely considered among the best, most influential video games ever made. It’s one that still resonates with me as well, and when I think back on Ocarina of Time, I can’t help but be in awe of what they pulled off. Nintendo caught lightning in a bottle, and I'm not sure I'll ever witness a leap quite like it again.

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Gaming Memories: Knights of the Old Republic

Welcome to “Gaming Memories,” a blog series where I reminisce about my favorite video games. I will slowly but surely get to every game on the list, and speak to why each holds a special place in my heart. That not only means I’ll talk about why I think each is a great game that speaks to my tastes, but also where and how it affected me in a larger context. I hope you enjoy, and thanks for reading.

I played Dungeons & Dragons for the first time in 2003, when I was in high school. It was also my first exposure to a traditional “pen and paper” RPG, and it immediately captivated my imagination. The possibilities seemed endless, limited only by the stories our group could tell together, and the options for creating my own unique character were equally exciting. So I rolled my halfling rogue named Milo, mounted my riding dog, and we rode off on all sorts of grand adventures (presumably to save the world). It was a brand new type of game, and I was hooked.

Then that same year, BioWare released a Star Wars video game based on Dungeons & Dragons rules.

KOTOR tapped into the best parts of Star Wars.
KOTOR tapped into the best parts of Star Wars.

Of course, there had already been plenty of video games based on the D&D license, including BioWare hits such as Baldur’s Gate and Neverwinter Nights. And of course, a video game adaptation can never be as open-ended and imaginative as a true pen and paper RPG. But Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic’s release could not have been more timely for me. As someone who still primarily played console games at the time, who had just been introduced to D&D, and who considered Star Wars among my favorite fictional universes, playing Knights of the Old Republic (affectionately referred to as KOTOR) on the Xbox in 2003 was a revelation. It brought a classic type of PC RPG to a console, with a smooth interface engineered to effectively command multiple party members at once with a controller. It translated the D&D framework well to a video game, which it was able to leverage on both mechanical and storytelling fronts. And all of it worked surprisingly well in the context of the Star Wars universe. In fact, KOTOR remains my favorite Star Wars video game to date, and quite possibly my favorite piece of Star Wars media of any kind; a claim I don’t make lightly.

The ways in which KOTOR leveraged its D&D framework stood out to me in particular, as someone who grew up on the Japanese RPGs of the 1990s, and had virtually no exposure to Western RPGs as of 2003. In a game like KOTOR, you create your own character from scratch, and then constantly guide their growth. While the Japanese RPGs of my youth certainly had character customization in their own ways, KOTOR had it baked in from the start, and gave the player a lot of explicit control over who your character was and who they would become. Your class, stats, skills, and even how you looked were all common decision points, and critically, those decisions clearly impacted how your character played. Were you going to focus more on melee lightsaber combat, or devastating force powers? Were you going to be fast and nimble, or built like a tank? Were you going to be more skilled with computers, stealth, or persuasion? These decisions added up over time to allow for personal, nuanced player characters, and while you couldn’t create your party members from scratch in the same way, you did get to choose how they grew as they leveled up. This led to an intricate web of skills and roles that I found satisfying to balance, especially when the entire party worked together as a single cohesive unit. KOTOR was by no means the first Western RPG to successfully implement these ideas. But it was among the first I played that executed them well, and it made quite an impression.

KOTOR's dialogue choices were often impactful.
KOTOR's dialogue choices were often impactful.

Perhaps even more impactful for me than D&D’s influence on KOTOR’s character customization and combat, was its influence on KOTOR’s narrative structure. It was one of the first games I played that empowered me with dialogue choices, and thus one of the first games I played where I felt like an active participant in its narrative; it was the clear precursor to Mass Effect’s vaunted interactive narrative. And while KOTOR’s choices could regularly boil down to stereotypical “good vs. evil” dichotomies, they still felt meaningful, especially within the context of its Star Wars setting. It explored the philosophies of both the Jedi and the Sith, let you make your own judgments about each, and then made you walk the path that your choices led you down. It’s the rare game I played through multiple times, not only to try out different character builds, but also to experience different story paths. It’s worth stressing that KOTOR’s story was great by traditional metrics too; it had excellent writing, a large cast of well-realized and endearing characters (shout out to that lovable murder robot, HK-47), and the overarching plot was gripping and paced extremely well; KOTOR’s climactic plot twist was particularly memorable, and remains among my all-time favorite video game story moments. Toss in superb visuals, strong art, and a great Star Wars soundtrack, and KOTOR used its license effectively to produce a wonderfully cinematic experience.

My introduction to Dungeons & Dragons in 2003 sparked an affection for traditional pen and paper RPGs, and Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic expanded that affection to video game RPGs based on D&D. It was one of the first Western RPGs I played -- on a console no less -- and its approaches to both character customization and interactive storytelling were eye-opening. It offered more freeform ways to participate in a video game RPG than I was used to, and that it was all set within a stellar portrayal of the Star Wars universe only sealed the deal. Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic remains one of the most compelling RPGs I’ve played, and it came at just the right time to solidify itself as one of my most cherished gaming memories.

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Gaming Memories: XCOM Enemy Unknown

Welcome to “Gaming Memories,” a blog series where I reminisce about my favorite video games. I will slowly but surely get to every game on the list, and speak to why each holds a special place in my heart. That not only means I’ll talk about why I think each is a great game that speaks to my tastes, but also where and how it affected me in a larger context. I hope you enjoy, and thanks for reading.

About halfway through my “ironman classic” run of XCOM: Enemy Unknown, I flirted with defeat. During a mission to save civilians from a chryssalid attack, as part of a calculated risk, one of my best soldiers ended up in enemy range. While the enemy attacked as expected, the critical hit my soldier suffered was unexpected, and it cost them their life. Also unexpected to me, the zombie that rose from my late soldier got to move and attack immediately, and downed a second soldier with another critical hit. The mission, which was already tense before these setbacks, now seemed doomed. Being an ironman run, however, I had no choice but to pick up the pieces and make the best of it. The rest of the mission was long, scrappy, and my soldiers took a lot of hits. But those four remaining heroes survived, and my run continued.

Every moment counts in XCOM.
Every moment counts in XCOM.

XCOM is a game that can be largely described through memorable moments such as this. In the big picture, it’s a fairly generic tale of a fight to stave off an alien invasion and save the world. But in its details, XCOM builds uniquely personal stories for every player, and the events of your story can be surprisingly resonant as a result. Your sniper who started slowly, but became nigh unstoppable by the final mission. The loss of your favorite assault after a heroic sprint to save civilians from a chryssalid swarm. A well-timed grenade that completed the mission just in time. Abandoning Europe after too many of its countries fell to the invasion, or lending South America a lifeline after a desperate Hail Mary mission. Its unscripted, emergent structure promotes such moments, which come together to spin unique, personal narratives for every run. XCOM embraces the interactivity inherent to the medium, and allows its story to form naturally around whatever happens: big or small, good or bad, every moment gets compiled into your tale of triumph and disaster. The result is that every move you make is full of exciting tension as it becomes a part of your story, which further lends extra weight and meaning to your play.

That’s one of my favorite aspects of XCOM: it’s about your personal story as you fight off the alien threat, and every facet of the game’s design supports this goal. At its core, said story is in large part about the soldiers under your command; you train them, command them on the battlefield, and strive to keep them alive as you push them to complete important missions. The fact that soldiers can permanently die, however, affects both mechanical and emotional angles of your story. These soldiers grow and become dramatically more powerful as you use them, and given the demanding nature of the game, it’s easy (and eventually necessary) to rely on your more experienced soldiers as your campaign unfolds. That introduces risk, as the death of a high level soldier can be a substantial mechanical setback. It can also be an emotional sting; I for one got attached to my soldiers as I saw them grow, and as their own stories became a part of mine. There’s a reason so many people name their soldiers themselves, be it after friends or other people they know (or in the case of my brother, after American presidents). But I also enjoy the game’s default, generated names, in particular the nicknames; 'Wolverine,' 'Zulu,' and 'Road Block' did good work in my campaign. No matter how you name them, these soldiers all play vital, memorable roles in your story. Seeing them grow into their own is gratifying. Seeing them die is heartbreaking.

Good luck, Commander.
Good luck, Commander.

Your story in XCOM is not only limited to the stories of the soldiers under your command, however. While much of your time is indeed spent directing them against aliens on the battlefield in XCOM’s excellent tactical skirmishes, nearly as much time is spent outside of those battles in its more abstract strategic layer. This is where the game’s real sense of urgency comes from, and where players’ stories can diverge even more. As you construct your base, and make crucial decisions on what buildings and research to prioritize, what countries to back, and what missions to take, everyone’s path to stopping the alien threat can look wildly different. Yet it all emerges naturally, the result of a series of challenging, in-the-moment decisions made in response to the particular semi-randomized threats you face (not to mention your own playstyle). XCOM does a great job at making the situation regularly feel desperate, which pushes you to make all sorts of interesting trade-offs. And critically, those trade-offs feed right back into the tactical layer, as the choices you make in your base have a clear impact on the battlefield, and vice versa; how well things go on the battlefield has a clear impact on your focus back at base. It’s an incredibly effective loop that makes it easy to become invested in every aspect of the game’s design as your story unfolds.

While I was too young to play the original X-COM, tactics games have always been a personal favorite of mine; I enjoy the particular brand of logic involved in making the most of my units’ abilities turn after turn. The magic of XCOM: Enemy Unknown, then, is how it combines those strong tactics with an equally strong strategic layer, and how both sides feed into each other in meaningful ways. It’s a mesmerizing concoction that feels fine-tuned for my gamer brain, yet it doesn’t feel dry and robotic either. Instead, XCOM leverages its smart blend of tactics and strategy for creating countless memorable moments, which come together to write unforgettable and personal stories. It’s a game that gripped me like few have, and remains a powerful example of what this medium is capable of.

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Facing Destiny: On Final Fantasy VII Remake’s Ending

SPOILER WARNING: This blog assumes you are familiar with everything that happens in both Final Fantasy VII Remake as well as the original Final Fantasy VII. As such, there are massive spoilers below for both games (and this blog may not even make sense if you are not familiar with their plots anyway). Additionally, I give brief spoilers for the endings of the first Mass Effect, Star Wars: A New Hope, and The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. Enter at your own risk :)

Final Fantasy VII Remake contains all of the hallmark moments of the opening hours of Final Fantasy VII. You go on the famous bombing mission to blow up Mako Reactor 1. You fall through the roof of the church and into Aerith’s flower bed in the sector 5 slums. You cross-dress to infiltrate Don Corneo’s hideout and interrogate him. You witness in horror as Shinra drops the sector 7 plate, mercilessly claiming countless innocent lives. You infiltrate the Shinra headquarters, save the girl, and make a daring escape from Midgar.

Yet as the credits roll, none of that seems to matter.

It was great to see more of characters and places that were only hinted at in the original.
It was great to see more of characters and places that were only hinted at in the original.

But let’s back up for a moment. When it was revealed that Final Fantasy VII Remake would only cover the Midgar portion of Final Fantasy VII, I was both skeptical and hopeful. On the one hand, it felt like a cheap ploy to needlessly extend a beloved classic into multiple, full priced parts, almost certainly by way of a lot of filler. On the other hand, if done well, it was a chance to flesh out the complicated world, characters, and story of Final Fantasy VII in fascinating ways; there was potential here to craft one of gaming’s grandest opuses. For most of Remake, we see both the bad and the good of this approach. There is indeed substantially more filler than I would like: Remake stretches a 5 hour portion of Final Fantasy VII across 40+ hours, thanks in large part to excessively lengthy and grindy dungeons, and rote side quests that have you perform the most banal of RPG jobs. But Remake also adds in welcome depth to the Final Fantasy VII lore in effective ways. I loved getting to know characters like Biggs, Wedge, and Jessie better, who were minor side characters in the original but get a lot of spotlight here. I loved the additional exploration of the way Shinra uses propaganda to influence its citizens, especially as it expands upon the war with Wutai that took place before the game. I loved getting to spend extra time with Aerith, and getting a much better study of her character; not to mention her new buddy routine with Tifa. I loved most of the new characters as well, and how much more we get to see what life in Midgar is like for the average person living there. It’s one of gaming’s most iconic cities, and that we get to see this city in ways that were only hinted at in the original is wonderful.

Most of all, I loved the way Remake positions the fight between AVALANCHE and Shinra as its core throughline plot. It not only makes sense as a plot with an extremely well-defined arc: you start out making inroads blowing up reactors, hit a strong moment of crisis when the plate is dropped, climax with the infiltration of the Shinra tower, and set up the next game with the dramatic revelations you have there. But it also serves as a great way to give the spotlight to one of Final Fantasy VII’s core themes that, in the original game, quickly becomes overshadowed by other concerns (read: Sephiroth). Final Fantasy VII is, at its core, a game about saving the planet. For the first 5 hours of the original, you attempt to save the planet from an evil megacorporation that is literally bleeding the planet dry so that it can profit off of cheap energy, and you take the fight to them in their home base of Midgar. But once Sephiroth is introduced at the end of those 5 hours, Shinra takes a back seat while the main characters chase Sephiroth around the world. Remake, however, had the chance to dig deeper into Shinra and their evil ways. They are a huge threat to the planet -- certainly a big enough threat to pose as Remake’s primary antagonist -- and Barret and his team of AVALANCHE members serve as clear protagonists to root for in that fight, as they directly oppose everything Shinra stands for.

Some of my favorite moments in Remake were between Barret and Tifa.
Some of my favorite moments in Remake were between Barret and Tifa.

My favorite moments of Remake are the ones that dig deeper into that fight. We get more insight into Barret’s dedication to the cause, and just how extreme he is willing to be. We get more insight into Tifa’s concerns, and how she acts as a more moderate balance to Barret’s radical nature. I especially appreciate the dialogue between the two, as they both clearly share the same end goal (to stop Shinra), but differ on the best way to get there. Barret, the radical, wants to blow up Shinra at all costs, even if it means innocents die in the process. Tifa, the moderate, doubts if it’s worth sacrificing lives for change, and questions if there is a better way more than once. When those lives are inevitably lost, you can see their different philosophies come out in who they blame: Barret blames Shinra, Tifa blames herself and AVALANCHE. It’s a poignant and relevant moral dilemma worth discussing, and I’m happy to see Remake explore it further. Even past those two leads, we also get to see more about why their supporting characters are in this fight. In one of Remake’s best new chapters, we get Jessie’s backstory and learn why she fights. It turns out it’s not just the poor people of the slums that Shinra exploits, but also their own workers up top. These added stories and details are my favorite additions to Remake, and go a long way to flesh out the primary conflict of the Midgar portion of Final Fantasy VII, a portion that serves as the entirety of Remake's narrative arc.

That brings us to Remake’s ending, which has nothing to do with Shinra, AVALANCHE, Midgar, or really anything else that Remake focused on for the vast majority of its runtime. For its last few hours, Remake shatters the proverbial fourth wall to become a story about, well, changing the story of Final Fantasy VII. You learn that the whispers that hounded you throughout the game exist solely to preserve the original Final Fantasy VII timeline, and Aerith opens a portal to another dimension where you fight the “boss” whisper, which Aerith more or less describes as Destiny itself. (Oh, and you fight Sephiroth there too, just ‘cause.) Now with this literal manifestation of destiny defeated, the characters of Final Fantasy VII are not bound to what happened in the original. We see that Biggs and Wedge survived the collapse of the sector 7 pillar after all, and we see that Zack also lives, a character who originally died even before the start of Final Fantasy VII. This is a clear statement of intent from the developers of Remake: they can and will change things about Final Fantasy VII’s story going forward (not to mention that there’s a good chance multiple timelines are in play, and some characters like Aerith and Sephiroth clearly know more than they are letting on). Hell, even as you defeat the whispers, you see “flash forwards” of important events such as Aerith’s iconic death, and Red XIII running through the fields years after Meteor destroyed Midgar (the ending scene of the original game). The implication is that these events are no longer set in stone. The future is now open to any number of possibilities, and the game closes with that as a tease for ensuing installments of the Final Fantasy VII remake project.

You literally fight
You literally fight "Destiny" at the end of this game.

Yet that tease for the future left me wanting for the present. Remake spent most of its time focused on the conflict between Shinra and AVALANCHE, and portrayed that conflict so well, and had me so invested, that its abrupt change in focus was disheartening; when it never went back to give the Shinra-AVALANCHE story arc any kind of closure, I wondered what it was all for in the first place. It all felt meaningless. When I think about my favorite first installments of larger franchises, I think of things like the original Mass Effect, Star Wars: A New Hope, or The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. In each of those cases, they were part of a larger work that did not wrap up everything in a tidy bow; there was clearly more to do in their respective fights after their first parts. But they did provide excellent closure for the smaller arcs contained within those first parts that stood well on their own: Saren was defeated, the Death Star was destroyed, and the fellowship was dissolved in favor of Frodo travelling to Mordor with only Sam. Remake, however, does not. Instead, it breaks the fourth wall right at the end, which completely disrupts the story arc it had been expertly telling for dozens of hours. It’s a whiplash inducing shift, and I think this first part of the story suffers without some sense of closure to (or at least a smoother transition from) the Shinra-AVALANCHE arc that dominated so much of its runtime. The most frustrating part is that I think Remake could have had it both ways. I think it could have both provided a meaningful closure to the Shinra-AVALANCHE arc as the series transitions to Sephiroth, while also indicating that future parts will break further from the original Final Fantasy VII canon. Those are not mutually exclusive goals, and the fact that future parts will change aspects of the original is, to me, a very exciting idea. Teasing that is a great way to keep people like myself hooked for the future. But in its execution, I think Remake dropped the ball for the present. And that’s a real bummer.

Back in the Xbox 360 days (and probably still today, but I’m no longer in the Xbox ecosystem), you could look at your friends list and not only see what game they were playing, but also a short status message about what they were actively doing in their game. Usually it was something generic like “Mission 2” or “Going on a raid” or “Team deathmatch on Strike.” But there was one game whose status message always made me chuckle: Final Fantasy XIII simply stated, at all times no matter where you were in the game, “Facing destiny.” My friends and I poked fun at how overly dramatic and silly it was, but Final Fantasy VII Remake takes the idea of facing destiny to another level. By making Destiny itself the final boss, Remake confronts and defeats its own 23 year old legacy, which sets up tantalizing possibilities for the future. I’m as excited as anyone to see where this journey goes, and when all is said and done this remake project could still be something special. But I can’t help but feel that in its execution, it came at the expense of telling a complete and satisfying story arc for this first installment. That it got so close, and told such a good story for so long, only makes that lack of closure even more disappointing. Final Fantasy VII Remake has prioritized confronting its own legacy over telling a complete story today, and until it delivers on its promises for the future, the events of the present ring hollow.

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Gaming Memories: GoldenEye 007

Welcome to “Gaming Memories,” a blog series where I reminisce about my favorite video games. I will slowly but surely get to every game on the list, and speak to why each holds a special place in my heart. That not only means I’ll talk about why I think each is a great game that speaks to my tastes, but also where and how it affected me in a larger context. I hope you enjoy, and thanks for reading.

As a kid, we visited our relatives (who lived two states and an eight hour car ride away) a couple times a year. At first, this was exciting because they had a NES and we did not. Once we had a SNES at our own house though, we didn't have any use for their lowly NES; that was old stuff. But when they one-upped us again with a Nintendo 64? Now that was exciting. We got to see Mario and crew in full 3D, and we got to run and jump and race in ways that we never had before. It was a paradigm shift, and playing games like Super Mario 64 and Mario Kart 64 on our cousins’ Nintendo 64 was magical.

Even more magical, they had GoldenEye 007.

I think I could still map out the Facility from memory.
I think I could still map out the Facility from memory.

GoldenEye may not have been a better game than Super Mario 64, but as a boy who had minimal exposure to PC games in the 1990s, and who had never played a first-person shooter before, it was revelatory. I knew what Mario was (along with other platformers) by that point, so as amazing as his transition to 3D was, it was still familiar ground. GoldenEye, on the other hand, was completely new. And I liked it. There’s not much more magical to me than discovering something new I like, and the fact that I only had limited access to it via our cousins (at least at first) made those rare moments where I got to play it even more special. As such, those early memories of playing GoldenEye at my cousins’ house are among my most distinct ones. We’d take turns trying our hand at the campaign, and spend hours battling it out in multiplayer with all sorts of different settings and house rules. Every visit to our cousins' house was a chance to see and experience something new; a new interaction, a new campaign level, a new set of multiplayer rules. I took it all in with the wide-eyed curiosity of youth, and remember those early days fondly.

Once we had our own Nintendo 64, however, the memories didn’t stop. If anything, having the time to explore GoldenEye on my own terms revealed how clever and rewarding it really was. I got to play the campaign from start to finish myself, and thoroughly enjoyed its arcade structure that offered a ton of varied, stand-alone levels. Some levels were short, hectic shootouts where you barely had time to breath. Some levels were sprawling environments that you had to bounce around as you completed various objectives. Some levels demanded you take a slower, stealthier approach to avoid being overwhelmed by guards. By offering different layouts, weapons, and objectives, each of the game’s 20 levels felt unique. Then once I finished the campaign on the standard difficulty I started it again on a higher one, only to find one of GoldenEye’s smartest features: levels gained additional objectives as you ramped up the difficulty. Even now, in 2020, most video games adjust their difficulty by simply changing health and damage numbers. GoldenEye was a step ahead 23 years ago, as the way it layered in new objectives made each new difficulty setting feel almost like a new game. The way you moved through a level on Agent didn’t work the same way on Secret Agent, and re-learning the game for each run was a real treat. Throw in other fun challenges which led to unlockables such as cheat codes and bonus levels, and GoldenEye’s campaign had a ton of legs that kept me playing for months.

Being able to play a FPS' multiplayer in the living room was special.
Being able to play a FPS' multiplayer in the living room was special.

If its campaign kept me engaged for months, then GoldenEye’s multiplayer extended that to years, as I spent likely hundreds of hours battling with family and friends alike. It was one of the first multiplayer games I got into, and it remains the only one that I’ve ever pulled an all-nighter to play with friends. While in some ways it was your standard deathmatch, GoldenEye’s multiplayer had plenty going for it. First, its maps were extremely well-designed, and provided ample space to flank and jockey for a better position. Second, it offered a ton of customizable game settings, and I had a lot of fun experimenting with all sorts of different weapon configurations; “remote mines only” was always a personal favorite. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, in addition to being my first first-person shooter, it was also among the first successful ones on consoles. It’s hard to overstate how important that was at the time, as you no longer needed a slew of capable PCs to get a game session going. GoldenEye brought the first-person shooter to the living room, and its multiplayer thrived for it. I don’t know that I would have gotten into the genre any other way.

Today, decades later, it’s easy to look back on GoldenEye 007 and see how dated it is: its controls are clunky, some objectives are obtuse, and the escort missions suck (sorry, Natalya). But not only was it a really fun game in its day, it also had a lot of smart, positive qualities that I still remember it for above everything else. It had a varied campaign with dynamic objectives across difficulty levels, a robust multiplayer mode with lots of options to promote seemingly endless play, and even fun little touches like the way enemies reacted appropriately to where you shot them. Yet perhaps most importantly, it was a huge step for first-person shooters on consoles, and introduced me to the genre with panache. GoldenEye will always have a special place in my heart for that, and I can’t think of a better game to fill it.

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Gaming Memories: Super Metroid

Welcome to “Gaming Memories,” a blog series where I reminisce about my favorite video games. I will slowly but surely get to every game on the list, and speak to why each holds a special place in my heart. That not only means I’ll talk about why I think each is a great game that speaks to my tastes, but also where and how it affected me in a larger context. I hope you enjoy, and thanks for reading.

SPOILER WARNING: This blog contains spoilers for Super Metroid.

Super Metroid opens with you, as Samus Aran, investigating a distress signal aboard the Ceres space station. Its halls are eerily quiet, their metallic blue emanating a cold lifelessness as you search for clues, and it doesn't take long to find out just how lifeless the station really is. The primary lab is littered with dead scientists, and a shattered containment tube sits where the last Metroid in the galaxy had been held. It’s clear that someone (or something) has stolen both the lives of these scientists, as well as the precious Metroid. In the next room? Your nemesis, Ridley, who has the Metroid. After a brief duel, and a desperate escape from the self-destructing Ceres station, you chase Ridley to the nearby planet Zebes. Thus begins your adventure to stop Ridley and find the Metroid.

Super Metroid both starts and finishes strong.
Super Metroid both starts and finishes strong.

Super Metroid’s opening sits among my favorites in any game, as it effectively sets up what the game is all about in ten minutes. First, by having you engage with some light platforming and fight Ridley (a fight you cannot technically fail), you get to try out both the platforming and combat in a safe space. Second, through its thick atmosphere and detailed environment, it sets up the entire premise of the game’s story with minimal exposition. Third, once you land on Zebes, it’s clear you spend the rest of the game exploring its large world on your own as you search for the Metroid. Super Metroid introduces the game’s core pillars effortlessly, without the extensive tutorials or info dumps required by most games. Not only is that a smooth process that gets the player into the action quickly, it’s also a poignant indicator of Super Metroid’s ethos and artistic ambitions. It goes to great lengths to immerse the player as fully as possible, and the result is that its world feels infinitely more alive and believable than it otherwise would. It all makes exploring Zebes feel highly meaningful, and also lends Super Metroid a surprisingly strong narrative. Its environments explain the game’s happenings quietly but powerfully, which culminates in an all-time classic video game moment. When you finally reunite with the Metroid, which has grown into the titular “super Metroid,” it recognizes you as its original caretaker and sacrifices its life to save and empower you. It’s a dramatic and awesome scene, one that's executed beautifully without a single word.

In 1994, when Super Metroid first released, that kind of freewheeling exploration and atmospheric storytelling was rare. It was not the first game to focus on these things (at the very least it was the third Metroid game), but it’s regularly regarded as the game that codified the “Metroidvania” subgenre as we know it today. Super Metroid gathered up the ideas and experiments of its predecessors, and presented them in a more effective and cohesive way than ever before; in its execution, it was a big step up across the board. Much has been written about Super Metroid’s world design, and for good reason: its world is one of the most elegantly designed in video game history. Its network of hallways and doors, locks and keys, did a wonderful job of regularly nudging the player in the right direction while still leaving room for them to think and explore on their own. That’s a fine line, but Super Metroid walked it splendidly, and Zebes remains one of my favorite video game worlds to date. The strengths of its world went further than its excellent mechanical design too, as its artistic design was equally impressive. It managed to tell a compelling story through its environment alone, and the striking art and moody musical score combined to create a powerful and gripping atmosphere. Its soundtrack in particular ranks high among my personal favorites, and hearing those songs takes me right back to Zebes’ caverns all over again.

I'm not sure I'll ever get tired of exploring Zebes.
I'm not sure I'll ever get tired of exploring Zebes.

Zebes was a world crafted with substantial care and attention to detail, and every aspect of Super Metroid was smartly built around your exploration of it. It’s a holistic approach to game design that I greatly appreciate, and its execution was so strong that new “Metroidvanias” are regularly compared against Super Metroid to this day. It set the standard, and holds up remarkably well decades later. So well, in fact, that it’s almost certainly the game I’ve played from start to finish more than any other. While the nature of its construction lends itself well to speedruns and mastery -- it’s still one of the most popular games to speedrun -- it also speaks volumes to my love of Super Metroid that, as someone who rarely replays games, I manage to replay it every few years. I love the openness of the exploration, and how I always notice new details on every new run. I love the calming sense of isolation and figuring things out on my own. I love the atmosphere, the visual design of each area, and the musical score that perfectly captures the mood. I love the progression of items, thoughtful secrets, eerie boss fights, and how it all comes together for a singular experience; it’s one I’m not sure I’ll ever get tired of.

Four years ago, throughout the summer of 2016, I wrote a lengthy, multi-part blog series about the Metroid franchise and why it’s such an important series for me personally. It’s a series that has resonated with me and my personality as much as any game has; its world design, its atmosphere, its sense of exploration, and even its isolation are all qualities I hold dear. And in its execution, Super Metroid embodies these traits as well as any in the series. It takes my favorite aspects of this entire medium and pulls them together seamlessly into a cohesive whole, and to call Super Metroid one of my favorite video games almost sells it short. There is perhaps no better representative of my gaming tastes than this, and perhaps no other game I love more.

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Gaming Memories: Chrono Cross

Welcome to “Gaming Memories,” a blog series where I reminisce about my favorite video games. I will slowly but surely get to every game on the list, and speak to why each holds a special place in my heart. That not only means I’ll talk about why I think each is a great game that speaks to my tastes, but also where and how it affected me in a larger context. I hope you enjoy, and thanks for reading.

SPOILER WARNING: This blog contains spoilers for Chrono Cross.

In one world, Fargo is a proud and feared pirate captain. In the other, he is a cheater at his own casino. In one world, Gogh is a painter following his dreams but living in poverty. In the other, he is a successful trader, but neglects his son in favor of his business. In one world, the hydra marshes were pillaged for resources and destroyed. In the other, they still cling to life. In one world, various characters may be alive or dead, be dealing with profound guilt or grief, or embark on daring quests. In the other, it could all be the complete opposite.

One of my favorite things about Chrono Cross is how its two parallel dimensions present two wholly different, yet equally viable timelines for the world and those who inhabit it. And by letting you explore both of them, you get to see firsthand the many points where they diverge. These differences can range from very personal ones, such as Gogh’s life choices mentioned above, to world-spanning consequences, such as the fate of the hydra marshes, and seeing it all side by side leads to many poignant, thoughtful moments. It’s a highly effective way to present one of Chrono Cross’ central themes: any choice made, at any point in time, nudges the flow of time towards one of seemingly infinite possible futures. We often talk about choices in video games, but that usually refers to the explicit choices made by the player. Chrono Cross has those choices, but is more interested in portraying the larger web of cause and effect that results from the collective choices of everyone. It's a sobering and real meditation on our place in the world, and proves to be a fascinating narrative structure that got me to reflect on my own position in life as much as any game has. It also justifies its comically large cast of characters (45 total playable ones) better than it should. Many of them end up in different places between the two worlds, and seeing two different sides of them can be mesmerizing. Through their personal stories, Chrono Cross regularly highlights just how far our choices can ripple.

Chrono Cross had some lofty narrative ambitions, and for me it worked; I enjoyed pondering its existential ramifications, and felt it all fit with the rest of the game. And while it received some flak for being too divergent from its esteemed predecessor, Chrono Trigger, I always felt Cross’ premise of parallel dimensions was the perfect way to follow up Trigger's time-hopping adventure. Where Trigger was about exploring the flow of time along a straight line as you moved forwards and backwards through it, Cross was about exploring time as it branched into multiple parallel lines. It evolved and supplemented Trigger's themes without repeating them, which, to me, gave Cross its own identity while still showing clear connective tissue. One thing Cross clearly retained, however, was the same high bar of audiovisual quality Trigger was known for. Lush environments, a bright color palette, and smooth animations brought the world and its characters to life, and its soundtrack is regularly cited among gaming's best. It's easily one of my personal favorites too, as its simple instrumentation and soothing tones were not only exceptionally beautiful, but they captured the game's somber and contemplative nature perfectly. From sweeping cinematic movements, to mellow overworld melodies, to cultural town themes, to heartfelt story codas, Chrono Cross' soundtrack grabbed me in a way that so few have. It's one I still listen to regularly today, and I hold it as dear as any video game soundtrack.

Chrono Cross was a quirky game. But a good game.
Chrono Cross was a quirky game. But a good game.

In addition to its strong narrative, large cast of characters, and stellar audiovisual presentation, Chrono Cross was simply a fun game to play for numerous reasons. It contained a lot of flavor and personality, such as the way many characters had quirky, endearing speech patterns. It handled its large cast smartly, such as how all characters, not just the ones you used, leveled up after every boss battle. It contained many of the quality of life features fans appreciated from Chrono Trigger, such as being able to see enemies on the overworld before engaging in combat, and then added many more of its own, such as the the ability to automatically use any available magic to heal after battles. Your choices throughout the game could branch the story in cool ways that lead to different items or characters, which, along with its new game plus feature and many different endings, afforded tons of replay value. Last but not least, I enjoyed Chrono Cross’ combat. While not all that complex, the stamina system was more nuanced than the combat of many JRPGs of the time, and also a clever way to balance the use of powerful magic. I also enjoyed the contrasting effectiveness of the six magic elements, and the way those elements tied into the game’s “true” ending was surprisingly touching. It’s those subtle touches that made all the difference in Chrono Cross, and it had a lot of them.

Upon its release in 2000, Chrono Cross had a lot to live up to. It came out at a time when JRPGs were at their peak, from a company that had been on a roll for years, and was a sequel to one of the most beloved games ever made. Yet Chrono Cross carved its own path to create a memorable experience unlike any that came before it. Its thoughtful narrative, fun characters, gorgeous art, legendary soundtrack, and countless smart touches made for a game I couldn't stop thinking about, one that became a part of me in a way few games have. It's the exact kind of artistic expression I love this medium for, and I'm happy I got to experience it in this timeline.

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