2016: Ranking the Rest

The dust is settling on another year in games, one which I thought to be a pretty good one for our favorite pastime here on Giant Bomb. I, like many others, propped up my own list of my 10 favorite games of the year, which turned out to be a pretty tough exercise this go-around. I ultimately feel very good about that list though, and am confident those are the 10 games I got the most out of in 2016. However, it’s years like that that drive home the fact that there’s well more than 10 games that matter in any given 12 month span. There’s simply a lot of good games out there right now.

Given that fact, along with the fact that I didn’t really do much writing about the other games I played in 2016, I thought I’d have some fun and shake things up with a supplementary list: ranking every single game released in 2016 that I played during the year. I didn’t put quite as much thought into this as my top 10, so I consider it a “rough” ranking. I also touched a whole lot of games from 2016--seriously, way more than I ever expected--and there are still plenty of 2016 games I have yet to get to. So this turned out to be another tough exercise, but I did the best I can with this list as of the time of writing, which is January 5, 2017. I had fun doing it too :) Thanks for reading!

1-10: See my GOTY 2016 list

The toughest of cuts.
The toughest of cuts.

11. Shin Megami Tensei IV: Apocalypse. Every year has the “tough” cut. You know, the one game I really want to showcase on my top 10 list, but just can’t fit in. In 2016 that game was SMT4 Apocalypse. This was my first dive into a non-Persona SMT game, and I now see why the series has the clout it does. It’s a very solid dungeon-crawler, my favorite part being the highly tactical (and often tough) battles that demand you consider all your options; this is a JRPG where you can’t blindly mash your way through any encounter, which I appreciate. I also still really like the demon-fusing system, which continues to allow for tons of great customization. The game falls down in two spots for me. First, it’s kind of dry, and the story never grabbed me. Second, it’s simply too long for my tastes, and became a real grind once I passed 40 or 50 hours. Otherwise, I really got into this one.

12. Firewatch. This was also a tough cut for me; Firewatch turned out to have my favorite narrative among every game I played in 2016. Its various themes resonated with me on a personal level substantially more than most games, and the strong writing and voice-work made Henry and Delilah two of my favorite characters of the year. The music is great stuff too. If only there was more to engage with as a game, this would have easily cracked the top 10.

13. Hitman. I’m projecting a little bit here, as I haven’t played but a few measly hours of Hitman so far. But I’m already struck by just how fun it makes engaging with these large, well-crafted clockwork levels. It’s also supremely silly in all the right ways. I’ve never been a fan of stealth games, but I appreciate the way Hitman encourages you to just experiment and play with coming up with your own crazy schemes for taking out your targets. And it also provides enough nudges to get you started if you feel lost. It strikes that smart balance of giving feedback while allowing for creativity, which is something that’s not only critical to a good stealth game, but a useful lesson for games at large. I'm looking forward to playing more.

14. Salt and Sanctuary. Dark Souls is one of my favorite series. It turns out I still like the formula when translated to 2D as well. That’s how Ska Studios described their own Salt and Sanctuary, and that’s more or less what the game is--a positive in my book. I don’t think the level design or combat are always on par with the games that inspired it, and I have my personal gripes with the skill tree and secondary currency. But for the most part, Salt and Sanctuary effectively scratches the same itch as one of my personal favorites, and I had a ton of fun with it.

This is only the tip of the iceberg.
This is only the tip of the iceberg.

15. Inside. What a supremely well-crafted game, and holy cow that final segment is one of the most insane things I’ve seen in a video game in a while. Inside is a game you kind of get sucked into, thanks to some truly amazing atmosphere and pacing. I just wished I liked the puzzles more. As someone who generally likes “puzzle platformers,” the ones in Inside turned out to be very straightforward, and rarely grabbed me. Play this one primarily for the presentation.

16. AM2R. This one may or may not technically “count,” but this is a really impressive fan remake of Metroid II. AM2R gets closer to matching the quality of a Nintendo-made 2D Metroid game than it reasonably should, and it doesn’t hurt that Metroid II is the Metroid game that most needed a remake. Nintendo also hasn’t made a proper Metroid game in a long, long time, meaning AM2R fills a big gap for me. There’s nothing particularly profound about it past being a fan project that turned out very well, but if you like 2D Metroid games, this one is worth it.

17. The Banner Saga 2. When it comes to sequels, they doesn’t get any more “sequel” than The Banner Saga 2. Picking up exactly where the first game left off, including carrying over all your choices, character levels, and items, this one keeps running with everything I liked about part one. Stunning art, effective music, a bleak atmosphere, and interesting tactical battles. There’s nothing new or novel here to speak of, but I’m still invested in this cast of characters, and their fight for survival in this oppressive world.

18. Uncharted 4: A Thief's End. After Uncharted 3 presumably sent the series off with a lackluster sense of closure, it was a real nice surprise for me to get a follow-up that did give us a wonderful ending to Nathan Drake’s story. Uncharted 4 is, in most ways, “another Uncharted game.” But it also told the best story the series has told yet, with an ending that stuck (mad props to the game’s writers and actors). That makes it probably the best Uncharted game? Even if the otherwise functional gameplay has kind of run its course.

Rhythm Heaven! (!)
Rhythm Heaven! (!)

19. Rhythm Heaven Megamix. You know what? Rhythm Heaven is rad. Even if half of Megamix’s minigames came from ones previously released in the US, I still had a blast seeing all the new ones I had never seen before. And playing the old ones again too. I like rhythm games a lot, and this series remains a super charming one I pretty much always enjoy.

20. Overwatch. I’ve never been a fan of class-based shooters, or really competitive shooters in general, but Overwatch surprised me with how easy it is to get into and just have a good time. Perhaps that’s no real surprise given Blizzard’s track record of taking existing genres and polishing the hell out of them. While I’m never going to actually play a ton of Overwatch or take it seriously, I had more fun that I thought I would messing with its diverse and entertaining cast of characters.

21. Thumper. Rhythm games don’t get much more violent than this, and I got pretty entranced by Thumper, all things considered. I think it could use a little more variety somewhere, be it in the mechanics, level design, or perhaps just music. Not entirely sure. I would also prefer the beats to match the actual rhythm of the “music” more often than they do. But it has an amazing audiovisual presentation, and there were a handful of times where it all clicked and I got into that “flow” that the best rhythm games are able to induce. I just wish it could have done it for me more consistently.

22. Picross 3D: Round 2. I mean… it’s more Picross. And Picross is awesome. What more do you want? Actually, 3D Round 2 gains bonus points for being only the second 3D game in the series, and adding a neat new wrinkle with a second color. But really, it’s more Picross done well!

23. Fru. What is this you ask? A good Xbox Kinect game in 2016!? Fru turned out to be one of the biggest surprises of the year for me, and I’m lucky to have a brother who owns a Kinect (because I sure don’t plan on buying one). This is just a really inventive platformer that makes perhaps the best use of Kinect to date, and was a total riot to play. And, uh, it’s a good Xbox Kinect game in 2016!

Obligatory
Obligatory "Aww, come on!"

24. Gears of War 4. It's totally “more Gears.” Take or leave that statement as you will, but it turns out I like Gears enough in the grand scheme of things that I enjoyed this return plenty. The campaign is a fun co-op romp, and the horde mode has some interesting ideas with the different classes. If only it wasn’t so grindy, and full of cards, blind boxes, and microtransactions…

25. Severed. This was a nice little treat on my Vita in 2016. Severed may not be a particularly deep, or a particularly novel game. But it’s a fun dungeon-crawler (a genre I haven’t dabbled in much) that has some good style and interesting touchscreen combat. It kept me happy during some travels over the summer.

26. Owlboy. I didn’t fall in love with Owlboy as much as I had hoped, but this still proved to be a charming and effective tale, one that both looks and sounds great (easily one of my favorite soundtracks of the year). If only the combat and exploration hadn’t been as rote and/or clunky as it often was, this may have even been top 10 material.

27. Stephen's Sausage Roll. I generally consider myself a fan of puzzle games, and Stephen’s Sausage Roll has a lot of extremely well-designed puzzles. They’re also extremely difficult. It doesn’t offer much past its series of puzzles either, which meant I kind of burnt out slamming my head against the wall before I got too far in it. You’ll have to like difficult puzzles to make it in this one, but if you do, it’s a winner. Great name too.

28. Abzu. It may be reductive to call Abzu an “underwater Journey,” but… well, the description works. I enjoyed this melancholy exploration of the ocean, and there’s some wonderful audiovisual splendor on tap here. By following so closely in Journey’s footsteps, it doesn’t feel as impressive or novel as it could, but it's still a neat experience.

Mario Party minigame of the year?
Mario Party minigame of the year?

29. Overcooked. What a silly but entertaining co-op game. Overcooked was a frantic mess every time I played it, and that’s a big part of its charm. It can be a little too chaotic at times, and it end up being fairly one-note. But man, when the mayhem works, it’s some of the best mayhem you can experience with a friend.

30. Quadrilateral Cowboy. I didn’t like Thirty Flights of Loving at all, but I’m glad I still gave Quadrilateral Cowboy a shot. This is a much more engaging game, with some cool programming themed puzzle ideas. Tossing down your laptop wherever you want to hack into things is pretty rad, and the game puts it to decent use. It doesn’t always take it as far as it could, and the back half lost some steam for me, but I enjoyed it overall.

31. Pokemon Moon. I consider myself a Pokemon guy, but for whatever reason, generation 7 isn’t doing it for me so far. Granted, I’m still in the middle of Moon’s campaign, but it feels a bit… dull so far. Maybe I’ve just played too many Pokemon games at this point, or maybe it will pick up in the post-game. But this one feels like going through the motions more than most, and has left me feeling pretty indifferent.

32. Oxenfree. This one has some neat ideas; or rather, a neat idea. Its attempt at a fluid dialogue system is very interesting, even when it kind of broke for me at times. Otherwise this is an OK tale with some decent story beats, if a bit standard in most other ways. So, yeah, Oxenfree managed to be neat without really standing out much for me.

33. Total War: Warhammer. OK, bear with me on this one, as it’s very personal. Total War: Warhammer may be the best Total War game yet. But it’s also the one that made me realize that maybe I just don't like Total War that much. It’s the third one I’ve played (after Rome and Shogun 2), and where I burnt out on the previous ones before reaching the end of their lengthy campaigns, I thought this would be the one to tie it all together. I played Warhammer growing up after all, and consider myself a fan of strategy games. But after finishing a full campaign in this installment, I think I can safely say the series is not for me. The reasons why are probably too nuanced and complicated to try and dissect right now, but it left me feeling kind of bummed.

Final verdict to be determined.
Final verdict to be determined.

34. Final Fantasy XV. The jury’s still mostly out on this one. I’m about 10 hours into Final Fantasy XV at the moment, and so far I’m not sold on it. The world itself is very pretty, and there’s some decent (if generic) music in there, but the rest is a hodgepodge of rote fetch quests, a bare bones plot, and mashy combat that has yet to click with me. I hope it turns around, and of all the games on this list, this is the one where my opinion is most likely to change over the coming weeks/months. I’m just not convinced that it will change for the better...

35. Amplitude. I never played the original Amplitude (or Frequency for that matter), but this reboot seems alright. For whatever reason though, it just didn’t grab me. I think ultimately I may be starting to realize that Harmonix’s brand of rhythm game is not my favorite; I consider myself a fan of rhythm games, but none of theirs rank among my favorites (dissecting why would be a longer tangent). Amplitude joins that tradition.

36. Pocket Card Jockey. Simple, but goofy and kind of fun. You play a version of solitaire while managing your horse-racing career. And… that’s kind of all I have to say about it? Checks the box of a mostly mindless but inoffensive time-filler.

37. Devil Daggers. I’ve never been a “score-chasing” guy, so I didn’t really get into Devil Daggers. But I think it hits what it’s going for pretty well, for those into this sort of thing, and the price tag is on point.

38. That Dragon, Cancer. I really, really appreciate anyone who puts themselves out there, and is willing to share a story as sad and as personal as the one in That Dragon, Cancer. But if I’m being brutally honest, I don't think it's as well-executed as a lot of other story-driven games out there. And seeing as it’s a very short game with virtually nothing to interact with, those story beats need to be completely on point. I’m glad this game exists, but I think it could be much better.

So much potential...
So much potential...

39. Darkest Dungeon. This is easily the game that bummed me out the most in 2016, and that’s not due to its depressing tone and atmosphere; I liked that stuff a lot. It’s because I think there is truly an amazing game hiding in here, but it gets buried under dozens and dozens of hours of repetitive grind. I was initially way into Darkest Dungeon's interesting mechanics, from the cool character classes to the dungeon-crawling to the combat. But after trudging through the meat grinder for 20 hours, only to realize the game was simply going to repeat itself two more times? I couldn't do it. This is one of the best examples I've ever seen of a game wasting its potential through poor structure and pacing. Again, there's an amazing game hiding in here. I just wish it had been realized properly.

40. Furi. I won’t say Furi is a bad game. In fact, I don’t feel like I played a single “bad” game all year if I’m being honest (seriously, it was a strong year). But Furi was one of the very few games I played in 2016 that I did not like, and it was the worst of them. I like the idea of a challenging “boss rush” game as much as anyone, but I also think Furi has some sizable issues. I think the long walking segments in-between boss fights are too dull, and contain poor dialogue, writing, and story beats. I don’t like the structure of the boss fights, in that they require you to play the easy parts over and over when you die to keep trying the hard parts. And I think the control layout (mainly regarding dodging) is problematic. Don’t get me wrong: the soundtrack is great and I had fun with a few boss fights. But the cons far outweighed the pros for me.

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My Favorite Video Game Music of 2016

Has it really been a full year already? It feels like just last week I was listening to 2015’s best in effort to assemble a list of my favorite video game music from last year. And yet here I am, doing the same for 2016. Fortunately for me, as a big fan of video game music, it’s a process I greatly enjoy; I don’t need much of an excuse to go re-listen to a lot of video game music. In some ways, I may enjoy making this list more than my actual GOTY list (still working on that one, which is very competitive this year). Not only do I enjoy listening to this music again, but it’s also a chance to highlight an aspect of games that doesn’t always receive proper recognition. Music is an incredibly important part of video games, and can contribute greatly to a game’s overall quality, tone, and impact. This list, then, is my own small way of giving props to some of the wonderful music in games each year.

As for 2016 in video game music, it’s made me realize more than ever how spoiled we’ve been in that department recently. When I first started pondering 2016’s selection of music, I thought it might be a step down compared to the past few years. But now I realize that’s in no way an indictment of 2016’s musical quality, as I first thought it might be. 2016 has seen tons of great video game music, covering an impressive variety of styles, and any step down would only be because the past few years have been truly incredible. We remain in a golden age of sorts for the medium; there’s never been a better time to listen to video game music.

So here are the 10 video game soundtracks that stood out to me most among the games I played in 2016 (keeping in mind that I can’t play everything; Final Fantasy XV is probably the biggest omission in that respect). I picked a representative song from each game, and they are ordered by original US release date, not by preference. Thanks for listening, and share any favorites of yours I overlooked!

Oxenfree

Featured Track: Beacon Beach (by scntfc)

Firewatch

Featured Track: Prologue (by Chris Remo)

Hyper Light Drifter

Featured Track: Panacea (by Disasterpiece)

Dark Souls III

Featured Track: Soul of Cinder (by Yuka Kitamura)

The Banner Saga 2

Featured Track: Our Steps, To the Night (by Austin Wintory)

Doom

Featured Track: BFG Division (by Mick Gordon)

Furi

Featured Track: Make This Right (by The Toxic Avenger)

Abzu

Featured Track: Delphinus Delphis (by Austin Wintory)

Shin Megami Tensei IV: Apocalypse

Featured Track: Main Theme (by Ryota Kozuka)

Owlboy

Featured Track: Tropos (Day) (by Jonathan Geer)

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Truth and Love

Despite playing Persona 4 Golden over three years ago, I’ve found myself thinking about it a lot over the course of 2016. This has proven to be a introspective year for me in general; after a handful of ups and downs, and big life shake-ups, I’m at noticeably more stable place in life. That stability provides me with time to reflect and consider where I want my life to go next, what kind of person I want to be, and who I want to share it all with. Not simple stuff mind you, but worth tackling nonetheless.

So what does my personal soul-searching have to do with Persona 4? In a lot of ways, Persona 4 manages to be more “human” and “real” than most JRPGs, if not most video games in general. By couching its setting and narrative in familiar, real world terms, its themes of being true to yourself and of being a good friend, come across more naturally. Sure, there are fantastical elements: the bizarre nature of the TV world, the mystical powers you inherit while inside, and the outlandish creatures you battle there. But in its most important moments, Persona 4 is about going to school. It’s about studying and doing your homework. It’s about the friends you meet along the way, and nurturing those friendships through various ups and downs. It’s about learning who you are, and how you fit into this thing called life. Given that, perhaps it’s no wonder my mind has gone back to Persona 4 during these introspective times. And since my mind has been going there anyway, I thought it would be worth taking a deeper look at just how Persona 4 manages to be so relevant to my current position.

Kanji's struggle in one of many present in Persona 4
Kanji's struggle in one of many present in Persona 4

It begins with the game’s very human characters. Every single character in Persona 4’s large, varied cast has some issue or insecurity they deal with. Yosuke has a need to be liked by a lot of people, and feels limited by living in a small, country town. Rise feels like she’s always forced to wear a “mask” due to her fame, and doesn’t know what her “true” self even is. Kanji struggles with his sexuality throughout the entire game. One of the most interesting dynamics to me is the one between Chie and Yukiko. These two best friends have known each other forever, and yet they are both jealous of what the other one has. Chie is the easy-going tomboy who works out a lot to stay strong, while Yukiko comes from a wealthy, respected family, and is so attractive she can’t keep the boys away. In spending so much time together, Chie feels like she is unattractive and destined to go nowhere, and secretly wants some of Yukiko’s classic good looks and family ties. At the same time, Yukiko feels a lot of pressure, as if her entire life is already laid out before her, and she secretly wishes she could be as carefree and as strong as Chie.

There’s a reason I spent a paragraph quickly describing the insecurities of a small fraction of the game’s characters: these are real issues. How many of us have either had issues comparable to these ourselves, or know someone who does? This isn’t “end of the world” stuff, per the traditional JRPG, but instead speaks very clearly to things we struggle with every single day. These characters struggle with them too, and seeing them all unfold throughout the course of the game is one of Persona 4’s biggest strengths. You see these characters face their fears, admit what scares the crap out of them, and grow closer as they come to understand each other better. For example, as Chie and Yukiko reveal their jealousies of each other, they both realize that they actually do have some things going for them, and their friendship becomes even stronger as a result. Opening up and being honest reveals that they both have great traits that also complement one another. They can stop wishing they had it all, and instead accept and make the most of what they do have, with the knowledge that they have a great friend who has their back the rest of the time.

Persona 4 is about self-improvement in all sorts of ways
Persona 4 is about self-improvement in all sorts of ways

Persona 4 is one of the most socially conscious games I’ve played, and these thematic elements are only the start. What’s even more important is how these social themes are woven into the very fabric of the game’s mechanics, and influence how you play. When I first played Persona 3, the most striking part of it was how you spend maybe half of your time dungeon-crawling, in the traditional JRPG sense, and the rest of your time on seemingly mundane tasks. You play as high school students, and that means you spend a lot of time in school, and all that entails. This forms the simulation side of the game: you have guide your character as he studies, goes to class, and takes tests. The simulation isn’t limited to academia though, even if that is a big part of the game’s grounded, “real world” appeal. The simulation focuses even more on the social side of school. You can join clubs and sports teams, make study buddies, go on dates, or even have lengthy chats after class with the old widow who hangs out by the river. As weird as it may sound, this is the rare video game franchise that puts a lot of focus on simply hanging out with people. And that same basic structure is perhaps even more effective in Persona 4, thanks to its more grounded writing, characters, and setting.

Relationships are encouraged through the mechanics themselves
Relationships are encouraged through the mechanics themselves

Sharpening this focus, Persona 4 uses its “social links” to heavily incentivize social interaction. You form different links with different characters or groups, and as you spend time with them and get to know them better, those links level up. Each link is tied to a set of “personas,” which are the entities you use in battle, and leveling up each social link then enhances the related personas. Therefore, by putting effort into things like studying and making friends, you are directly strengthening your dungeon-crawling prowess. It’s an extremely elegant way to weave the game’s excellent writing and characters into the very core of the play experience. Connecting with people in Persona 4 is, quite literally by the game's language, the way to be healthier and stronger. This is most true with respect to your party members, many of whom I mentioned above, and who become your best and closest friends throughout the game. You not only get to know them intimately as you maintain social links with them, but they simultaneously become more capable in battle, and you’ll learn to rely on them to have your back in those tough boss encounters late in the game. It’s all a way for Persona to highlight its narrative elements through raw gameplay mechanics; that's good video game design.

But there’s a big catch when it comes to managing your social links in Persona 4: you can’t do it all. (At least, not without advanced, manipulative knowledge of the game’s inner workings.) Persona 4 understands that time is a very limited thing in our lives, and that we can’t always be perfect friends to everyone. Put another way, contrary to generally accepted video game tropes, you can’t simply grind your way to a perfect social life. Persona operates on a literal calendar, and every day is broken up into a handful of time chunks such as morning, afternoon, and evening. When not in a dungeon (meaning, when you’re in the simulation side of things), you can do precisely one activity per time chunk. So when Yosuke, Rise, the basketball team, and that weird girl who always wants you to skip classes with her all ask you to hang out at the exact same time? You have to choose one, and say “no” to everyone else. It’s a sobering and real manifestation of time management, and goes a long way towards highlighting just how hard it can be to manage all those relationships. It makes you work for those social links, and by doing so, it makes you think about what’s most important to you. I certainly struggle with trying to do everything I want to do in my life, and Persona 4 simulates this surprisingly well through its core gameplay structure. In fact, it’s so good at it, that it makes me realize how much better of a friend I could be in my own day-to-day.

Your friends' shadows make for some of your biggest foes
Your friends' shadows make for some of your biggest foes

Last but not least, there’s Persona 4’s central dungeon itself. “The TV world,” or perhaps more appropriately, “the shadow world,” is where all of your traditional turn-based JRPG dungeon-crawling happens. The enemies you fight within the TV are called "shadows," and these shadows are, to quote a Persona wiki, “born from humans, and carry with them human emotions, which are mostly negative.” Put another way, shadows represent all the fears, insecurities, and other baggage we all carry around, and in this universe they manifest into grotesque monsters. The more negative and more damaging those emotions are, the bigger and more fearsome these shadows become. You’re not fighting to save the world in Persona 4; you’re fighting to defeat your own personal demons. In fact, the game’s pinnacle boss fights are the shadows of your various party members. As you face down the shadows stemming from Yosuke, Chie, Yukiko, and the rest of the gang, they constantly berate and ridicule the person they come from. These shadows say some pretty mean things, and know how to push the right buttons to really cripple each and every member of your party, based solely on the negative emotions they have. But these shadows are also part of that person, which means they can’t just be ignored. Everyone has to face their shadows directly, and while this plays out in the form of boss fights in Persona 4, the message is clear: you have to acknowledge the presence of your shadows before you can overcome them. It will almost certainly be messy, but there’s no shortcuts here. Only once you accept who you are, warts and all, can you get to work on solving your issues, and ultimately become the best “you” you can be.

That’s a profound message, and it’s uncommon to see a video game adhere to it in every aspect of its construction. It’s also precisely why I keep thinking about Persona 4 in 2016. As I’ve been more introspective, looking within myself to try and figure out the truth of who I really am and what I want my life to be, I’ve become more and more aware of the shadows that lurk there. I’m not perfect, and I’m starting to understand just how much work lies ahead of me. But as the gang in Persona 4 shows, those shadows can be defeated. And perhaps most importantly, strong, close friends who know both you and your shadows can provide the love and support that's instrumental in that effort; everyone needs help. That’s one of the first lessons I’m learning on my introspective journey, and as a staunchly independent and introverted person, it may be one of the tougher ones for me to overcome. We often try to hide our shadows from both ourselves and the rest of the world, but you can’t get help with something nobody else sees. Persona 4 understands this, and as I've attempted to examine and dissect in this essay, it's the core on which the entire game is built. The shadow world is a rough place, and we all inevitably have to face it. But maybe with a little bit of truth and love, we can come out of it as stronger, better versions of ourselves.

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Ranking of Zeldas

Editor’s note 1: Believe it or not, my friends and I had plans to do this, with this exact title, well before there was a Giant Bombcast of the same name. The timing of that Bombcast was pure irony for us ;) Anyway, just throwing it out there that this is not a response to the Bombcast (and our first ranking, titled Ranking of Marios, occurred before then).

The TV show was not under consideration for these rankings...
The TV show was not under consideration for these rankings...

Speaking of, after ranking all the Super Mario games a few months ago, we have now moved on to The Legend of Zelda! Our panel was the same as last time, plus one: Justin (aka me, @majormitch), Nathan (@wess), Ryan (@turgar), Paul (@paulusvictor), and Garrison (not a Giant Bomb user, for shame). We assembled a list of what we considered the “core” Zelda games (15 in all), and “ranked” them from best to worst. Or more accurately, we argued and came up with some rough consensus ordering of favorite to least favorite. We read off the 15 games in contention at the beginning of our discussion, and also touched on why we did not include some other potential candidates.

We recorded the whole thing in a podcast that ended up being just over 4 hours long. If you’re crazy enough to want to listen to that monstrosity, you can download the mp3 from my Dropbox by clicking here (download in the top right of the page). Let me know if there are any technical issues. Also, I'm sure I didn't do the best job, but I tried my hand at some very light editing this time by slipping in 20-30 second music clips at various points (intro/outro and breaks). All music comes from various Zelda OC Remix songs, and I’d be remiss to not give them their due:

Intro: “A Link to Zelda” by T1lTED (source: Overworld, A Link to the Past)

Restroom breaks: “Hawaii Shoppi’n” by NoppZ (source: Shop, Ocarina of Time)

Lunch Break: “Cluck, Old Cucco!” by worldsbestgrandpa (source: Kakariko Village, A Link to the Past)

Outro: “Full Mast” by Jake Kaufman, Preenus, SnappleMan (source: multiple Wind Waker tracks)

Editor's note 2: In our discussion, I mistakenly attributed the terrible pan flute to Phantom Hourglass. I have since learned that that unfortunate item occurred in Spirit Tracks, not Phantom Hourglass (the two games somewhat run together for me...). Apologies for the error, especially to Phantom Hourglass. Regardless, the rest of the arguments still hold, and I would have still pushed for the position it got.

If you (understandably) do not want to listen to our 4+ hours of arguing, here is the final ordered list behind a spoiler tag. However, the list will of course make a lot more sense if you listen to all the arguments. Many of these games proved to be very divisive, with impassioned attackers and defenders all around. If one thing became clear while ranking Zelda games in comparison to Mario games, it’s that we all felt much more strongly about Zelda. This created some noticeable points of contention, and it was impossible to create a list that fully pleased everyone. But that’s part of the fun, which we all had. At any rate, the list!

  1. The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time
  2. The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past
  3. The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker
  4. The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds
  5. The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening
  6. The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess
  7. The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask
  8. The Legend of Zelda
  9. The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword
  10. The Legend of Zelda: The Minish Cap
  11. The Legend of Zelda: Oracle of Ages
  12. The Legend of Zelda: Oracle of Seasons
  13. The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass
  14. Zelda II: The Adventure of Link
  15. The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks

I think that covers it! We had a lot of fun with this once again, even when it got heated, and I think there was some good discussion in there. And we may be doing more rankings in the future too (after a break)! Thanks for reading/listening, and maybe someone else will get a kick out of it :)

8 Comments

Backlog Weekend, 9/17/2016

This is an experiment I’ve wanted to try for a while now. Like many of us, I have an overwhelming backlog of games that I want to play, but will likely never find time for. I manage my backlog via a spreadsheet off-site, and over the past few years the number of games on it has hovered around 200. While it’s good that it hasn’t drastically grown over that time (and I periodically cull some games from it without playing them), it hasn’t gone down either. That doesn’t bother me in the grand scheme of things, but I have always wondered if there would be a good way to survey a bunch of these games (many of which I already own) in a timely fashion.

Hence, the idea for “Backlog Weekends” was born. The idea is simple: take a chunk of games from my backlog that I already own but have never played, and survey as many as I can in a weekend. The goal is to play an hour or so of a game, just enough to get a good feel for it, and then move on to the next game. I’ll get to as many as I can, and after the weekend is over I’ll take stock of what I played, what I did and didn’t like, and what I may want to play more of in the future. The real impetus here is to quickly sift through the noise to find the good stuff buried in this giant pile of games. Most of the games on my backlog are curiosities as much as anything; games that seem potentially neat, but I won’t know for sure until I try them. If a game doesn’t grab me up front, I’ll drop it entirely. If it does, I’ll make a point to come back to it later. That’s the process here, plain and simple.

I doubt these weekends will happen too often, but when I squeeze one in I’ll record the results in a quick-fire blog like this one. This is the first time I’ve done this, and I’m finding my footing a bit, but I’d say it was a successful first attempt. I tried out nine games over two days, and was able to quickly rule out most of them. And I found at least one hidden gem that I may not have tried without doing something like this. That’s the ideal payoff of this experiment, and I was lucky that my first run bore some delicious fruit; I'm already looking forward to the next one. But first, this weekend's results (games are listed in the order I played them):

Battlefield 4

Da-dum, dum, da-dum dum.
Da-dum, dum, da-dum dum.

What I played: PC version on Origin, acquired in a sale. Had most DLC installed as well. Played two and a half full games of conquest, which took almost two hours.

What I thought: I’ve always enjoyed a good Battlefield game here and there, and seeing as EA has basically been giving this one away lately (the main game has been on sale for $5 multiple times, and a lot of the DLC has been free too), Battlefield 4 seemed worth grabbing. I decided to start my weekend off with it, and I had a good time. I was low level, and didn’t have a posse to roll with, but the Battlefield charm/mayhem still functions as advertised. I captured points, blew up tanks, crashed a helicopter, had helicopters crash in front of me, and got shot a lot by people I didn’t see. If you want your multiplayer FPS to be big, loud, and chaotic, this is still where it’s at. Also, it looks fantastic.

The verdict: Battlefield remains fun at large, yet I remain unlikely to ever dedicate too much time on it. Doubtful I’ll play more.

Wipeout 2048

What I played: PlayStation Plus freebie that I (obviously) played on the Vita. I played half a dozen races in the campaign. Took somewhere in the 30-60 minute range.

What I thought: I’ve never played a Wipeout game before (hence why I wanted to try it), but it didn’t take me long to realize this was not my jam. I have no idea if that’s indicative of Wipeout 2048 specifically, or the franchise as a whole, but I just found it boring. The races/tracks were bland, the control and sense of speed weren’t impressive, and the arcadey weapons and power-ups were so light they might as well not be there. If I’m going to play a racing game, nothing here suggested this is the one for me.

The verdict: A big nope. Already uninstalled and off my plate.

Echochrome

What I played: PlayStation Portable version, on my Vita. Can’t remember if it was a PS+ game or if it came from a sale. Played a handful of puzzles for roughly half an hour.

What I thought: File Echochrome under the “like in theory, not in execution” pile of games for me. Generally speaking, I like a good puzzle game as much as anyone, and this one certainly has some good ideas. But the act of playing Echochrome was way more cumbersome than I felt it should have been. Once I figured out the solution to a puzzle, the process of slowly rotating things around, trying to line it all up pixel-perfect was maddening. And if you missed it by even the smallest margin, it could take a surprisingly long time to re-engineer the entire thing. Puzzle games are at their worst when implementing the solution you’ve already figured out is a hassle. That’s Echochrome. The music was nice though.

The verdict: It’s a small puzzle game on a portable system, so never say never. But allow me to say I’m 99% sure I’m done with this one.

The Unfinished Swan

Great initial idea, but loses steam as it goes.
Great initial idea, but loses steam as it goes.

What I played: The PlayStation 4 version, acquired via PS+ or a sale (can’t remember). Played through most of the game in an hour or two.

What I thought: The Unfinished Swan is a really neat game, though one that starts off at its best before dragging down the stretch. The initial idea of using paint to splat the walls and floors of an all-white world to color a path forward was intriguing. But it’s also thin (and plodding), and as the game tried to branch out and do other things it began to wilt. Especially rote was lengthy the vine segment. Regardless, I’m glad games like this exist, as it takes some worthwhile liberations creating different kinds of games, and different ideas for conveying narrative.

The verdict: Neat little game, but I’ve gotten what I want out of it.

Hohokum

What I played: The Vita version courtesy of PS+. I spent maybe 20 minutes wandering aimlessly.

What I thought: Hohokum is also a game I’m glad exists… but that’s about the only thing I’m glad for here. This is certainly a different game that marches to the beat of its own drum, and provides a carefree and unstructured “playground” to just mess around in. I can respect that, but this particular case is one that didn’t do anything for me personally. I need more structure, or at least interesting mechanics and/or story to stay hooked. I’ve simply never been someone to enjoy games this “open”. Take that for what you will.

The verdict: Already uninstalled, so long Hohokum!

DuckTales: Remastered

What I played: The PlayStation 3 version, also courtesy of PS+. Played through about half of the levels, which took an hour or two.

What I thought: I have never played the original NES DuckTales, but this Remastered version seemed alright. It’s of course a bit simple and straightforward by modern standards, but as far as old school 2D platformers go you could do much worse. I had an OK time with what I played, but I also don’t have an urge to go back… and that’s about all I got on this one. It felt very middle-of-the-road. Though the dialogue was terrible (and slow), and the music was pretty good. The moon theme still rocks.

The verdict: Not a bad game, but not good enough to spend more time on either.

The Order: 1886

Visually stunning, but perhaps too cinematic for its own good.
Visually stunning, but perhaps too cinematic for its own good.

What I played: Picked up for real cheap in a sale, obviously played on PS4. Played the first three chapters (past the prologue) in about two hours or so.

What I thought: Whew, The Order: 1886 is a piece of work. It boasts production values that are through the roof, an interesting premise, and shooting/controls that are plenty solid. And then it embeds it all in one of the least interactive games I’ve played. People pejoratively call things like Gone Home a “walking simulator”, but you have way more agency there than you do in The Order. On the rare occasion when you’re not slowly plodding down a tight corridor or performing a quick-time event, you engage in small-scale shootouts that might as well be quick-time events. This game wears its cinematic aspirations on its sleeve, and is perhaps one of the best examples why chasing movies is not the best way for games to go. I would rather watch The Order than play it, which means I don’t have much respect for it as a game. And I didn’t have much fun with it either.

The verdict: There are good things in here, and part of me wants to see some of the spectacle I’m sure it has later on. But the act of “playing” it is too dull and plodding for me to continue.

Volgarr the Viking

What I played: PC version on Steam, acquired in a sale. Beat the first level and poked my head into the second. Spent maybe an hour on it.

What I thought: Volgarr the Viking is very much chasing the punishing action games of yore, and seems to replicate it very successfully. It has a few modern concessions as well, but the bottom line is that it’s a game that requires persistence and dedication to make it through. It also requires a lot of memorization, which is generally not my favorite kind of challenge, and why I’ve rarely liked these kinds of “hard” games before. Still, for what it’s going for I think Volgarr pulls it off, and I’ve probably liked it as much as any comparable game. It’s got some good style too.

The verdict: It’s not inherently my kind of game, but certainly not bad. I may even try and beat another level or two before moving on.

Flywrench

Winner!
Winner!

What I played: PC version on Steam, acquired in a sale. My initial play session was about an hour. I couldn’t resist and got in another hour on Monday, and at this point have played through most of the planets.

What I thought: Here we are, the payoff. The last game I tried this weekend was also my favorite, and by a good margin. It probably took me all of 10 seconds to realize how smooth Flywrench's controls are, and I only became more and more impressed with it as it slowly increased the complexity of the levels. There’s a real craft to the curve here, and it’s all supported by sound mechanics that are smart in their simplicity. The best games often get a lot of mileage out of simple ideas. That’s exactly what Flywrench does, and it controls like a dream every step of the way. It’s a short and challenging game, which means it won’t be for everyone. But if you appreciate this kind of arcade style action game, it comes with a big recommendation. Also, the soundtrack is amazing.

The verdict: This is the kind of hidden gem this entire experiment was made for. I may not have given Flywrench the time of day otherwise, but once I tried it I was hooked. I already returned to it yesterday, and will definitely play more. How far I get depends on how hard it gets, but I’m eager to find out.

7 Comments

Ranking of Marios

A few friends and I recently got in our heads that it would be fun to get together and rank our favorite (and least favorite) video games within a single franchise. And by rank I mean argue and jockey and ultimately "agree" upon some rough consensus ordering of said video games. Our first franchise to rank? Super Mario.

Dude's been in a lot of games. Some better than others
Dude's been in a lot of games. Some better than others

Thus we compiled a list of Super Mario platformers to rank, found a time to get together, and proceeded to hash it out for nearly 3 hours. To top it off, we recorded the whole thing. I don't know that anyone has it in them to listen to an almost 3 hour podcast of random people debating Super Mario games, but just in case, I thought it would be fun to post the results here :)

Some logistics: We compiled the list of games beforehand, and I read them off at the beginning of the podcast. It's 17 games in total, and it's virtually every platformer with "Super Mario" in the title (and no remakes). The only notable exclusions are Wario Land: Super Mario Land 3, Super Mario World 2: Yoshi's Island, and Super Mario Maker. The first 2 of those feel like spinoffs that became their own series, and Mario Maker is a very different thing by virtue of being primarily a level creator. That was our reasoning at least. We maintained this list via a shared Google doc that we edited as we went, so if you hear us referencing a list during the podcast, we're probably messing with that.

Our panel includes 4 people: Justin (that's me, @majormitch), Nathan (my brother and @wess on the site), Ryan (@turgar on the site), and Paul (@paulusvictor on the site).

Anyway, click here for the mp3 that I have saved in my Dropbox. As far as I know, anyone with that link can view and download it (top right of the page). Let me know if there are any technical difficulties, and it's worth noting that's the raw recording. I'm lazy and did no editing. I'll also go ahead and paste our final list here as well, under a spoiler tag. Completely understandable to not want to listen to a podcast that long (in fact, it's probably crazier if you do), though the list might make more sense after listening to the arguments :)

  1. Super Mario 64
  2. Super Mario World
  3. Super Mario Galaxy
  4. Super Mario Bros. 3
  5. Super Mario Galaxy 2
  6. Super Mario Bros.
  7. Super Mario 3D Land
  8. New Super Mario Bros.
  9. Super Mario Bros. 2
  10. Super Mario Land 2: 6 Golden Coins
  11. Super Mario Land
  12. New Super Mario Bros. Wii
  13. Super Mario Sunshine
  14. Super Mario 3D World
  15. New Super Mario Bros. 2
  16. New Super Mario Bros. U
  17. Super Mario Bros.: The Lost Levels

I think that about covers it! We had a lot of fun with this, and even when things get "heated" it was all lighthearted and in good fun. Maybe someone else will find this entertaining, and someday we'll be ranking other things too. For science!

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Metroid and Me, Bonus: Series Ranking

Welcome to the final, final part of “Metroid and Me!” The actual blog series wrapped up last week with part seven, but I figured why not have a little fun and write one more “bonus” entry? This part only tangentially relates to what came before it; it’s certainly about Metroid and how it relates to my personal tastes, but we’re done diving deep into all the details about why Metroid connects so strongly with me. This time, we’re going to loosen up a bit and do an old-fashioned ranking of the Metroid games. Not all Metroid games are created equal after all, and this gives me a chance to explain which games I feel best encapsulate all of the traits I’ve been talking about over the past seven weeks. On the flip side, I can also clarify which Metroid games perhaps don’t execute on all these ideas as much as I‘d like. We’ve talked a lot about Metroid’s design in the scope of the entire series, and this is me evaluating how it all pans out in the individual games. Otherwise, I intend for this part to be a little more lighthearted, and hopefully it’s an entertaining read. Thanks again for reading, and away we go!

Metroid and Me, Part 1: In the BeginningMetroid and Me, Part 2: Into the Green World
Metroid and Me, Part 3: Frozen UtopiaMetroid and Me, Part 4: Lone Star
Metroid and Me, Part 5: In Your PrimeMetroid and Me, Part 6: Torvus Chips
Metroid and Me, Part 7: SolitudeMetroid and Me, Bonus: Series Ranking
Remix Title: BrinstarOriginal Song: Brinstar (Metroid, 1986, NES)
Remixer(s): Metroid MetalOriginal Composer(s): Hirokazu Tanaka

Series Ranking

Note: The only Metroid game absent from this list is Metroid Prime Pinball, as it is the only one I haven’t played. Plus, it’s a pinball game, so it doesn’t really fit anyway.

10. Metroid: Other M

No thanks!
No thanks!

The game at the bottom of this list should come as no surprise. In a number of ways, Metroid: Other M is a Metroid game in name only, as it eschews many of the series’ defining traits. While I’m by no means opposed to trying something different, Other M simply doesn’t pull it off. First, the world is not fun to explore at all. The game’s heavier focus on combat funnels you through more sterile and linear environments, with rote collectibles barely off the main path. Second, I did not find the combat fun, and the controls could be frustrating at times. Playing with a sideways Wii remote means eight-way movement in a 3D space, which is clunky already. But even worse is pointing the remote at the screen to switch from third to first person when you need to shoot missiles, which is a jarring, unintuitive mess. Finally, the game’s tone is… pretty awful. Even past a lack of worthwhile atmosphere, the constant anime-style exposition dumps are full of atrocious writing and acting, pulling the player out of the experience for no good reason. This game has way more characters and dialogue than any other Metroid game (maybe more than all of them combined), and is the biggest example why Metroid is better off without that stuff. From top to bottom, Other M is easily my least favorite game in the series. In fact, it contains so little of what I love about the series that part of me doesn’t even want to call it a Metroid game. The best I can do though is put it at the bottom of this list, where it belongs.

9. Metroid Prime Hunters

Honestly, I don’t remember much about Metroid Prime Hunters. While I remember it being a somewhat impressive technical achievement, by virtue of adapting mostly functional first person shooting onto a handheld in 2006, the fact that the underlying game is such an unmemorable entry to this franchise is why it sits so low on this list. Nothing about the campaign, from the world to the items to the bosses, stands out in my mind as anything noteworthy. My general recollection is it being a pretty bland experience meant to showcase the aforementioned shooting more than anything. I think the multiplayer might have been alright? Regardless, while I don’t remember it as a bad game by any stretch, it certainly doesn’t stand out enough to endear itself to me. Especially not when compared to other Metroid games.

8. Metroid II: Return of Samus

From here on I like all of the remaining Metroid games, if to varying degrees. Each one contains at least some of the positive traits I’ve discussed about the series, and as we go we’ll see that the ones near the top of the list simply execute more of them better. For Metroid II: Return of Samus’ part, the main thing I like about it is the sheer scope of the world. There’s a lot to dive in and explore here, and for the most part it’s a good Metroid adventure. Story and lore-wise, it also tells one of the most pivotal chapters of the entire series. Where it falters for me is primarily in the atmosphere department. The world looks pretty similar throughout, defined by bland looking caverns, and the enemies and music don’t have the punch or variety that I really want either. It also doesn’t help that some of the exploration here is among the most thoughtless and tedious in the series. You have to bomb seemingly random, nondescript walls to find a number of items, and the fact that the spider-ball allows you to crawl every single inch of this world makes that a herculean task. But as long as you aren’t obsessed with getting 100%, Metroid II remains a perfectly fine Metroid game.

7. Metroid Prime 3: Corruption

Solid shooting, subpar world design.
Solid shooting, subpar world design.

Of all the Metroid games, Metroid Prime 3: Corruption feels like Nintendo’s biggest push to broaden the series’ appeal to a larger market. Aside from Hunters, this is the most shooting-focused Metroid game. And aside from Other M, it’s the one with the most action set pieces. It also simultaneously has more dialogue and exposition, and tamer puzzles and exploration than most. In other words, it’s meant to be a breezier, more direct experience by comparison. The two primary casualties of this are the world design and the sense of isolation: travelling between multiple disjoint worlds doesn’t have the same scale or sense of discovery as a single large ones does, and the poor dialogue and stilted NPCs break any immersion the atmosphere tries to create. But past that, there’s still some good stuff in here. The game looks and sounds amazing, the shooting does feel pretty good, and the individual areas manage to capture that quintessential Metroid feel in bursts. I simply wish it did so more consistently, and dropped some of the unnecessary distractions (bad dialogue, traveling between worlds, etc.). Targeting a broader audience means Corruption doesn’t hit a “fan” like myself quite as hard, but it’s a very good game nonetheless.

6. Metroid Fusion

In some ways, Metroid Fusion occupies a similar place in my brain as Corruption. First, it presents its world as multiple disjoint levels, and as I stated above, bouncing between them doesn’t hold the same appeal as a single interconnected world. That said, Fusion’s world is a little more connected than Corruption’s; its different sectors exist on the same space station, and do occasionally connect to each other. That’s the chief reason I place Fusion above Corruption, but I still ultimately prefer a more fluid world. Second, Fusion has more dialogue and exposition than a lot of Metroid games, roughly on par with Corruption. Existing solely as a conversation between Samus and a computer, it’s not as intrusive as it could be. But I still don’t think it’s good writing, and I’d prefer to just leave it out and avoid the distraction altogether. Those relatively minor gripes asides, Fusion is a very solid Metroid game. There’s good exploration, upgrades, bosses, and even very effective style and atmosphere, despite taking place on a cold, metallic space station. I don’t know that it does anything extraordinary within the pantheon of Metroid games, but Fusion executes on enough Metroid tenets to be a very worthy entry to the franchise.

5. Metroid

I was at least a decade and a half late to playing the original Metroid, but I think it holds up admirably, despite some dated design quirks. Most of the series’ defining attributes were there from the start, and in some ways it still represents those fundamental traits as well as any in the series. The exploration, the atmosphere, the items, the design, the isolation; pretty much everything is here, and combines to form a rich adventure that’s worth going on. It’s even more impressive when you consider when this game was made, and that most of this had rarely been done before, at least not to this extent. Metroid’s not perfect though, with some hangups coming from classic 80s design trends that don’t play so well today. Death comes swiftly and is highly punitive, sending you back to an unfavorable place on the map with almost no health. That makes it tedious to get back to where you were, especially if you need to grind out a lot of health and travel a large distance. Along the same lines, there are a number of lengthy passages that simply contain the same enemies and platforms repeated for way too long, and a lot of the combat can be pretty rote. This kind of stuff makes Metroid not quite as fun to play as the newer, more polished entries to the series, but the original has a purity of vision that’s still impressive and effective. That divide made this game the only difficult one to place on this list, but I feel comfortable saying that, for me, its pros outweigh its cons enough to earn this placement.

4. Metroid: Zero Mission

Not just a great remake, but a fantastic game on its own.
Not just a great remake, but a fantastic game on its own.

I briefly debated whether I should include both the original Metroid and its remake on this list, but Metroid: Zero Mission makes such comprehensively positive changes to every aspect of its source material that it feels like a completely different game. This is what you get if you fix all of the frustratingly dated quirks I mentioned above to get the original Metroid working in a modern context. The result is a game that offers the best of both worlds: it’s a fun game to play today, and showcases the excellent vision of the original. It’s a remake done right in every sense, and a fantastic Metroid game. I could personally do without the extra chapter tacked on at the end, as I felt it was a bit weaker than the core game. But that core game is so good it’s barely a blemish. A brilliant world to explore, refined control and pacing (now with save points), cool atmosphere, and even some additional touches like new (and good) boss fights take a great game and elevate it to new heights. This is Metroid in top form, firing on all cylinders, and a strong example of what makes the series great.

3. Metroid Prime 2: Echoes

Metroid Prime 2: Echoes doesn’t get enough credit. No, it’s not as good as its predecessor, and no, the multiplayer isn’t worth much of anything. But its campaign is more than good enough to stand on its own, outside of the shadow cast by its predecessor, as one of my favorites in the series. In some ways, Echoes feels like the Metroid game made for Metroid fans; it’s the counterweight to Corruption’s mass market goals. It’s confident enough with the fundamentals to experiment around the periphery, and also confident enough in its players to challenge them. Some of the series’ most ambitious and inventive puzzles and bosses can be found in Echoes, it’s the most hands-off of the entire Metroid Prime trilogy, and probably the longest Metroid game period. Exploring Aether in both its light and dark flavors is a lot of fun, as it’s a well-designed, varied, and highly atmospheric world that comes with cool items, power-ups, and a stark sense of isolation that in many ways rival the series’ best efforts. My two gripes against Echoes, and perhaps the only reasons it falls short of the very top tier, involve a pair of tedious management aspects. I’m not too fond of having to stay within the light bubbles during your early expeditions into the dark world, and Echoes is one of the few Metroid games where you have to worry about ammunition for some weapons. Those two (very) minor gripes aside, however, Echoes stands tall as a wonderful Metroid experience, and an easy personal favorite.

2. Super Metroid

Here we are, the cream of the crop. While I’m listing Super Metroid as second best, the honest truth is that I consider my top two picks equally good, and they are far and away the two Metroid games that best showcase what this series means to me. As I was writing the previous seven parts of this blog, these were the two games I kept at the forefront of my mind. As such, describing why I like Super Metroid so much, and why I feel it’s one of the best, most representative Metroid games, boils down to reiterating all of those topics I’ve already discussed. The previous games on this list are great (well, almost all of them), but each one has some aspect that falls a little short, or they simply don’t push the Metroid ideals far enough to stand out. Super Metroid has neither of these issues. This is Metroid in full flight, executing on every single aspect I consider important to the Metroid experience to the highest degree. The exploration and adventure is phenomenal. It’s one of the most atmospheric games I’ve ever played. It might actually have the best world design of any game I’ve ever played. Every aspect of its gameplay feels fine-tuned to perfection, and keeps the player fully in the moment. And the sense of isolation is intensely powerful. Super Metroid is everything I’ve talked about in this blog, and in a lot of ways I consider it the best, purest representation of what the series is all about. If you want to experience the best of what Metroid has to offer, and get a sense of what it means to me, you can’t go wrong with Super Metroid.

1. Metroid Prime

What a special game.
What a special game.

It’s called Metroid Prime, the prime Metroid, that means it’s number one, right? No? That’s not how this works? Oh well, Metroid Prime earns this top billing regardless of its name; this is an amazing game, and more importantly, an unsurpassed Metroid experience in my eyes. I mentioned above that I feel Super Metroid and Metroid Prime stand as equals atop the Metroid pantheon. This is absolutely true, and trying to pick between them is an academic exercise as much as anything. Depending on what day you ask, and whether I’m in a 2D or 3D mood, I may go either way. I had to pick a number one, however, and on average I lean ever so slightly towards Metroid Prime. I won’t regale you, yet again, with the details that make Metroid Prime such a fantastic game, as they are the exact same things that make Super Metroid a fantastic game… which are the exact same things I’ve discussed in the past seven parts of this blog. All of these topics I’ve expounded on so thoroughly are here, from adventure to atmosphere to isolation, executed to perfection and pushed to their limits. If I have to try and identify distinguishing factors, it’s the first person perspective and gorgeously detailed art that nudge Metroid Prime just past Super Metroid for me personally. It’s so easy to become immersed while exploring Tallon IV, and I think seeing the world through Samus’ eyes, as well as the sheer visual detail in every corner, bring it to life to a degree 2D could never quite accomplish. Metroid Prime has sucked me in as much as any game ever has, and while Super Metroid is darn close, that’s what I keep circling back to when placing Metroid Prime on top. It’s a magical game that captures everything I love about Metroid to the highest degree, and by extension represents the qualities I love about video games the most. Metroid Prime is the best embodiment of my personality packaged into a video game I’ve found to date, and seeing as that’s what this blog series has been all about, it’s fitting that it remains the last one standing.

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Metroid and Me, Part 7: Solitude

Welcome to the seventh and final part of “Metroid and Me,” and the end of my personal examination of what makes Metroid such a special franchise for me. A big thanks to anyone who’s made it this far, and if you’re new I urge you to head on back to part one and start from there; you can find links to previous parts below. Before wrapping up, however, there is one final topic to discuss. We’ve covered a lot of ground when it comes to Metroid’s worlds, atmosphere, and gameplay, but there’s still one more very important topic that manages to exist slightly tangential to everything else. Metroid has always succeeded in creating a strong sense of isolation, and while that may sound like a strange thing to praise, it’s also the cherry on top of my love for this franchise. Today we’re going to explore why, and hopefully it brings the idea of this blog full circle as well. This has been all about me and my connection with Metroid after all, so it’s fitting that we end with perhaps the most personal topic of this series: isolation.

Metroid and Me, Part 1: In the BeginningMetroid and Me, Part 2: Into the Green World
Metroid and Me, Part 3: Frozen UtopiaMetroid and Me, Part 4: Lone Star
Metroid and Me, Part 5: In Your PrimeMetroid and Me, Part 6: Torvus Chips
Metroid and Me, Part 7: SolitudeMetroid and Me, Bonus: Series Ranking
Remix Title: SolitudeOriginal Song: Tallon Overworld (Metroid Prime, 2002, GameCube)
Remixer(s): zircon and C-GPOOriginal Composer(s): Kenji Yamamoto and Kyoichi Kyuma

Solitude

As you stand there surveying the path before you, ready to step foot into the final gauntlet, you reminisce on your journey to this point. You remember getting turned around numerous times, yet you always managed to find the way eventually. You remember all the tough foes you fought, the scars from which still linger. You remember all of the little triumphs and failures along the way, and how you’ve learned and grown at every step. You gather up that experience and use it as fuel for the next push; your mind is sharp, and your determination strong. You may be out here alone, and nobody else may ever hear of this journey you’ve undertaken. But you know how far you’ve come. That’s all that matters.

Metroid's journey can be a lonely one, but also a positive one.
Metroid's journey can be a lonely one, but also a positive one.

In many ways, the journey of Metroid can be a lonely one. You spend hours and hours on an alien planet with no other human characters in sight, much less interact with actual human beings. There are plenty of single player games out there, but how many of them go so far as to be single human games? Metroid is one of the rare examples, and it lends the game a distinct and identifying sense of isolation. There’s no one to share your struggles and victories with, no one to pull you up when you fall, and no one to pat you on the back when you succeed. You’re out there on your own with nothing to rely on but your wit and perseverance, and that has the potential to make the journey more personally resonant as a result. Solitude is often seen as a pejorative in the larger societal view, and for some it’s a scary thing to consider. But at its best, it can offer those who embrace it a safe space to live, explore, and express themselves to the fullest. It’s a way to focus without distraction, to form your own thoughts about the world around you, and to act in a way that feels most natural and true to who you are without judgement. That’s exactly the kind of space Metroid provides, and it’s a space I greatly enjoy being in.

Metroid takes the idea of isolation about as far as any game does too. As I mentioned, there are rarely any other human characters in a Metroid game (at least in the best ones), and I believe going to this extreme makes it even easier to become immersed in the game’s worlds. Video games can do a lot of things extremely well, and have improved their capabilities by leaps and bounds over the years as technology and design have advanced. But one important thing that’s yet to be fully solved are NPCs, especially human ones. Whether they move stiffly, repeat the same lines of dialogue, or simply act in a fully predictable or robotic manner that’s not indicative of actual human behavior, there’s always something “off” about them. Games that swing hard in a more artistic direction can get around some of these issues, but not all of them. As such, constant interaction with awkward NPCs is a pretty quick way to remind me that, yes, I am playing a video game. That’s not necessarily a bad thing on its own, but it makes getting swept up in a captivating video game world a tough sell. Seeing as Metroid trades primarily on its worlds and your exploration of them, it would only become more difficult (if not impossible) to truly immerse yourself if you were constantly watching and listening to human characters that aren’t believable as humans. Metroid acknowledges this limitation, and embraces it.

Metroid's creatures are unlike anything you know.
Metroid's creatures are unlike anything you know.

It’s for this very reason that Metroid’s heavier focus on natural environments makes a lot of sense. I personally enjoy natural environments over human ones anyway (that goes back to my preference for external sensing), and in video games such a focus can provide engaging locales without the awkwardness of human NPCs. To push it even further, Metroid’s places and creatures are all alien. We have a good idea how a wolf might look and move in a forest, for example, and it would quickly stand out if that scenario wasn’t portrayed realistically. But what about fighting Ing in a poisonous swamp on the planet Aether? That’s something we’ve only seen in Metroid, which leaves no room for any sort of dissonance or inconsistency. Metroid gets to define its own look and feel at every turn, which means you’re not just isolated from other human players and other human characters; you are isolated from anything remotely resembling the “real world” at all. Everything you come across is new and unfamiliar, and the game’s stellar atmosphere does a great job at bringing it all to life in an effective way. You’re out there on your own in every possible way, with none of your existing knowledge or experience from outside the game to aid you.

For me, this extreme level of isolation is comforting. I’m an introvert, and a big one at that; every official personality test I’ve ever taken has said “100% Introvert” in bold somewhere in the results. And while being an introvert does not mean that I don’t value the company of other people (far from it in fact), you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who finds merit and comfort in solitude more than me. Without getting too deep into the psychology of it all, being an introvert primarily means two things. First, I’m overstimulated easily, and have a harder time focusing with a lot of people around. Second, being around a lot of people is draining, while being by myself is energizing. Put these together, and it’s no surprise that the moments I feel the most dialed in and alive are primarily solitary ones. These are the moments where I feel like I’m able to apply myself fully, where I’m free to use all of my facilities to tackle the challenges before me without distraction. Metroid revels in these moments, and pushes them as far as it can by avoiding anything that would be familiar. When I dive into a Metroid game, I get to completely leave everything I know behind. I get to start from scratch, with no prior knowledge or expectations, and can be myself and find my own way. Being the strong introvert I am, this makes for a highly satisfying experience, and it’s one that Metroid has created time and again.

It's easy to identify with Samus and her adventure.
It's easy to identify with Samus and her adventure.

Finally, a word about Metroid’s (mostly) silent protagonist, Samus Aran. She is certainly not the only silent protagonist in video games, but I think that choice is particularly poignant here. On a surface level it makes clear sense; there’s no one else for her to talk to anyway. But more to the point, having Samus talk would again provide awkward, immersion-breaking dialogue (similar to the NPC issue). This has extra ramifications coming from the player character, as it would highlight the fact that the character you are playing is not you. The silent protagonist allows the player to project themselves onto their character, and feel as though they are playing “themselves” to some degree. I may be a pasty, skinny white dude instead of a 6’ 3” tall Amazonian woman in a power suit, but I’ve never had any problem identifying with Samus while playing Metroid. Her adventure is my adventure, and her goals are mine; there’s nothing she does to make me think otherwise, which makes it even easier to get sucked in. In addition to being more immersive, this also contributes to the sense of isolation. Speaking protagonists, with a fleshed out personality, can often feel like a buddy even when you are controlling them. Metroid avoids even this level of companionship. You are the player character, which further enforces how isolating a Metroid game really is.

Video games have stereotypically been seen as a loner’s hobby, frequently associated with socially awkward people sitting alone in a dark and messy basement, staring at a screen into the wee hours of the morning. However, I’d argue that a majority of video games rely on some sort of social appeal to be successful. Whether it’s through multiplayer, online communities, or simply telling human stories that exist in a social context, video games do a number of great things to foster and encourage human interaction. Metroid, then, stands as a fairly unique experience for the lengths it goes to isolate the player. More importantly, Metroid illustrates how powerful isolation can be, and how it can be a positive force for the right people. I happen to be one of those people, and Metroid has spoken to me very strongly as one of the few games to support solitude that well. It provides a wonderful space for me to explore and be myself, and that’s another significant reason why this series holds such a special appeal for me.

Conclusion

I titled this final part “Solitude,” which is fitting for multiple reasons (in addition to being the name of the excellent remix showcased above). Primarily, it hints at today’s theme of isolation, a very prominent theme in Metroid games, and an important one for me as we’ve now discussed. But there’s another reason that makes it fitting for this final part specifically. Through the seven parts of this blog series, I’ve discussed in detail numerous aspects of Metroid, and why they are so important to my affection for the series. A sense of adventure, strong atmosphere, stellar world design, numerous facets of gameplay design, and a feeling of isolation are all critical pieces of the Metroid experience for me. None of those individual pieces are unique to Metroid, however. I alluded to it a few times along the way, but any one of those aspects by themselves are shared with plenty of other games I greatly enjoy. Metroid is only one of hundreds of video games I like, and it should be no surprise that most of those games do things that sit well with me and my personality. In other words, things I’ve discussed in this blog series.

Metroid is the culmination of my many nuanced gaming preferences.
Metroid is the culmination of my many nuanced gaming preferences.

What makes Metroid special, then, is that it exists in solitude as the one game I’ve played that successfully executes on every one of these ideas simultaneously, and pushes them to their limits. This is the game that best captures all the nuances of my video game preferences, and comes the closest to being my own personality represented in video game form. And that’s ultimately what I wanted this blog series to be about. While I talk a lot about Metroid and its many excellent qualities, this has really been about expressing my video game tastes and preferences through the lens of the game that captures them best. As I mentioned way back at the very beginning, different games connect with different people in different ways, and I find that dynamic very interesting. In each case it speaks as much to the person as it does the game, and it’s kind of magical that video games can do that for people in the first place. Metroid is the game that does it for me, and hopefully now after seven lengthy blog entries, we’ve discovered precisely why.

Thanks again to everyone who read this blog series; you’re all heroes. And special thanks to my brother (@wess on the site) for proofreading this thing and providing feedback. I put a lot of effort into this, and I sincerely appreciate anyone who came along for the ride. It’s easily been the most extensive, personal, and rewarding video game writing I’ve done to date. Also, happy 30th anniversary to Metroid, which happens to be this very week. Nintendo’s never going to celebrate this series themselves, so somebody has to, right? Finally, I just may have one more “bonus” part for this blog. It will be slightly different and more lighthearted than the existing parts, so come back next week if you’re curious! And with that, it’s time to sign off. Take care, and thanks again for reading!

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Metroid and Me, Part 6: Torvus Chips

Welcome the the penultimate part of “Metroid and Me!” This is part six in a seven part exploration of my personal affection for this wonderful video game franchise. I’ve been taking a long, hard look at exactly why this series holds such a strong appeal for me, and if you’re stumbling across this blog for the first time I highly recommend going back and beginning with part one. You’ll find links to all the parts below, and reading them in order should flow much more naturally; that’s how I wrote them after all. Last week I discussed Metroid’s broader gameplay design, and how it works so well for me on a fundamental level. Today I’m going to continue talking about gameplay, and I’m simply going to narrow the focus. Think of this part as an extension to the previous one, and it will have a slightly different tone as a result. This will simultaneously be the most technical I’ll get in this blog (admittedly still not that technical), and the least focused on me personally (that ground was already covered last week for this topic). In short, I’m going to be looking a little closer at the specific actions you perform in a Metroid game: this part is all about puzzle solving, platforming, and combat.

Metroid and Me, Part 1: In the BeginningMetroid and Me, Part 2: Into the Green World
Metroid and Me, Part 3: Frozen UtopiaMetroid and Me, Part 4: Lone Star
Metroid and Me, Part 5: In Your PrimeMetroid and Me, Part 6: Torvus Chips
Metroid and Me, Part 7: SolitudeMetroid and Me, Bonus: Series Ranking
Remix Title: Torvus ChipsOriginal Song: Torvus Bog (Metroid Prime 2: Echoes, 2004, GameCube)
Remixer(s): MazedudeOriginal Composer(s): Kenji Yamamoto

Torvus Chips

After taking out the joints of your foe, a giant four-legged machine, you receive a short respite. The creature, clearly injured, detaches its head to send after you, but things only get trickier from here. Seeing no clear weak point, you switch visors, revealing a structural flaw that can be damaged with the right weapon. Dodging and weaving your way through a variety of attacks against you, you injure the creature once more, but it’s still not done. You need to find a way onto the top of its head to finish it off. Using its crippled body as a ramp, you ball up and launch yourself on top of its head, and plant a bomb to finish the job. Another larger-than-life foe has fallen before you, but not without a fight.

You engage in all sorts of activities as you travel from point A to B.
You engage in all sorts of activities as you travel from point A to B.

Beneath their big picture ideas and structure, video games are held together by carefully tuned nuts and bolts. There’s a layer of craft and execution that can make or break an otherwise interesting game idea, and Metroid is no exception. Last week I talked about its ability to keep the player “in the moment,” but those high level ideas only work if there is lower level machinery to support them. In Metroid’s case, most of the player’s direct actions can be boiled down to puzzle solving, platforming, and combat at the most fundamental level, at least in video game parlance. I’m not going to argue that Metroid is “best in class” in any of these areas from a purely technical standpoint, but that’s also not our concern here. I’m interested in how Metroid’s core gameplay mechanics work, and how they support the series’ goals and enhance my enjoyment of them. These mechanics form the underlying support that holds up the series’ big picture ideas I’ve been extolling, and are thus another important component that contribute to Metroid’s personal appeal. It’s not the flashiest job, but an extremely important one, and I think these mechanics are more than good enough at it. And in true Metroid fashion, it all works very simply, but there’s also some subtle quirks that go the extra mile towards really keeping the player flowing and in the moment. We’ll tackle each of the three aforementioned areas one at a time, beginning with puzzle solving.

I’ve already discussed the bulk of Metroid’s puzzle solving when talking about world design, as Metroid’s puzzles are predominantly environmental ones. They are baked directly into the world itself, where exploring is akin to solving a big puzzle. Identifying when and how to use your array of items and abilities to navigate these large, complex worlds is a methodical and logical process that requires a satisfyingly thoughtful approach. Even when you narrow the view to a single room or construct, the focus of Metroid’s puzzles almost always remain on getting from one spot to another. Maybe you need to bomb jump to a spider-ball track to cross some lava. Maybe you need to scan for a weak pile of rocks that you can blow away with a power bomb. Maybe you need to use your boost ball to get through a door before time runs out. It’s all about figuring out how to get places, and that’s exactly why they work so well within the context of Metroid; these puzzles are not disjoint brain teasers, but are part and parcel of the overall exploration. They exist to test your knowledge of your items and abilities, and train you on new ways to use them. And as you advance through the game and acquire new items and abilities, the puzzles continue to ramp up in complexity by combining all your tools together. This allows the puzzles to remain fresh and challenging throughout the game while never succumbing to frustrating leaps in logic. It’s all a smoothly constructed series of tests that keep your mind pleasantly engaged while exploring, which ties in perfectly with Metroid’s existing ethos.

Platforming is simple, but it fits.
Platforming is simple, but it fits.

Just like its puzzles, Metroid’s platforming exists to serve its exploration, and folds into the adventure seamlessly. There’s nothing fancy about it, but it provides effective obstacles to supplement your journey. Platforming is a common gameplay device in video games, and for the most part, outside of pure platformers, it’s an element that only stands out when done poorly. Plenty of non-platformers try to sprinkle in platforming that’s incongruous with the core of the game, but Metroid pulls it off in a way that feels natural. For the most part it’s a combination of physics, control, and platform placement; jumping from one platform to the next feels like a natural extension of your movement, rather than a dissonant action that requires frequent mental shifts. The same movement that works horizontally while running and fighting also works vertically while jumping. It’s easy to judge platform distances, and none of the jumps are really that hard to pull off; there’s a margin of error that’s not too punishing. This means that the player’s focus can remain on exploring, where the platforming adds extra texture to that exploration. Metroid’s movement and jumping controls are simultaneously unspecialized and polished enough such that platforming can be baked into the adventure in a positive way, without dragging anything else down. There’s a flow to it all that works, and it makes platforming a smooth action in your journey. (It’s worth a special mention that this holds true in both 2D and 3D. The Metroid Prime games are among the few first person games with smooth platforming of any kind, which is impressive.)

Metroid’s combat is also woven into the adventure in supporting fashion, yet it manifests in ways slightly more nuanced than our previous two topics. First and foremost, the enemy design in Metroid has always been top-notch. Artistically, these creatures look and sound fantastic, and always fit the thematic environments you fight them in. This feeds into the idea that you are the outsider, exploring a world that is strange to you, but very natural to its inhabitants. Mechanically, these enemies rarely boil down to mindless shootouts. Where many shooters (both 2D and 3D ones) are primarily a test of reflex and dexterity, Metroid’s combat is more, well, explorative. When you encounter a new foe, there’s almost always something to figure out about it. Perhaps they are susceptible to certain weapons or items, or they have a precise attack pattern you must learn to dodge, or they have a hidden weak point you need to discover and expose. Working through a fight in Metroid can be an adventure in and of itself, which is especially true for boss fights. These giant creatures can test everything you’ve learned all at once, bringing the breadth of your Metroid experience together into exciting moments. The scenario described at the top of this part, which is the Quadraxis fight from Metroid Prime 2: Echoes, is a great example. And in keeping with the pace of Metroid’s combat, you’re given time to explore these fights. They can be epic, memorable encounters as a result.

One of Metroid's many memorable boss encounters.
One of Metroid's many memorable boss encounters.

Furthermore, keeping in line with Metroid’s larger design, combat does its best to keep distractions and tedium at a minimum. Outside of missiles, which are almost never mandatory outside of red doors, there’s very little ammo conservation to worry about or keep track of. With rare exception, once you acquire a weapon or item, you’re free to use it to your heart’s content. This keeps the focus on weapon functionality rather than any kind of management, and this philosophy carries over to the enemies themselves. I already mentioned how most enemies are unique, and this is because they require different tactics. Where many games simply increase enemy health, damage, or numbers as the game goes on, Metroid keeps things fresh by changing up enemy functionality without necessarily making them stronger, at least not relative to you. That power beam you’ve had since the beginning of the game is still useful against the right enemies at the end, and enemies rarely, if ever, boil down to rote “bullet sponges.” The hardest enemies in the game, particularly bosses, are tougher primarily because they require more careful and calculated use of the tools at your disposal. This keeps combat interesting and challenging throughout the game, but in a more cognitive way than a reflex-intensive action game would be. The 3D games even emphasize locking on rather than free-form aiming, which is a big way to de-emphasize reflexes. It fits perfectly within Metroid’s existing exploration focused framework, and like the platforming it all controls well. It’s not the snappiest shooter ever made, but it feels good in the context of the rest of the game, and most importantly works immaculately towards serving Metroid’s adventuring goals.

I’ve talked about puzzles, platforming, and combat individually, but Metroid’s best, most exciting moments have you thinking, jumping, and shooting in perfect harmony. These gameplay actions color an already compelling adventure, and exist primarily to support that ultimate goal. I’ve mentioned time and again today how Metroid’s puzzles, platforming, and combat aren’t that complicated. This is because they are not the primary focus, and if they took the spotlight too far away from the adventure, I believe the game would be worse for it. Metroid understands this, and integrates these aspects smoothly and intuitively, lending more nuance to your journey without letting them bog the game down with unnecessary tedium. They join the atmosphere, world design, and any number of other topics we’ve discussed that define the Metroid experience, and ultimately keep the player engaged and focused on the adventure at hand. If we’ve learned anything through these six lengthy blog posts so far, it’s that that is the Metroid way, and it’s why I hold the series so dear. And with that, we have but one more part to go, and it will be another slight gear shift. I will wrap up this series by talking about one of Metroid’s more personally appealing attributes: its sense of isolation.

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Metroid and Me, Part 5: In Your Prime

Welcome to part five of “Metroid and Me,” where we find ourselves firmly in the back half of this seven part blog series. This is a lengthy, introspective look at why the Metroid franchise has resonated so strongly with me, and I highly recommend newcomers follow the links below to get caught up on previous parts in the series; there’s an intentional structure here that’s best digested in order. So far I’ve primarily talked about the many virtues of Metroid’s wonderful worlds, and why I love exploring them so much. Today it’s time to break away from those worlds to examine Metroid’s broader gameplay design. Unfortunately, I don’t have a more succinct way of describing it than that. Today’s entry discusses a collection of design ideas that come together to define the pacing and flow of a Metroid game, your moment to moment actions in them, and why it all clicks for me so well. “Gameplay” is one of the more nebulous terms we have in video games, but hopefully by the end of this part you’ll have a better idea of what it means in regards to my affection for Metroid.

Metroid and Me, Part 1: In the BeginningMetroid and Me, Part 2: Into the Green World
Metroid and Me, Part 3: Frozen UtopiaMetroid and Me, Part 4: Lone Star
Metroid and Me, Part 5: In Your PrimeMetroid and Me, Part 6: Torvus Chips
Metroid and Me, Part 7: SolitudeMetroid and Me, Bonus: Series Ranking
Remix Title: In Your PrimeOriginal Song: Brinstar - Red Soil Wetland Area (Super Metroid, 1994, SNES)
Remixer(s): Big Giant CirclesOriginal Composer(s): Kenji Yamamoto and Minako Hamano

In Your Prime

You enter a cylindrical room, and notice a series of platforms spiraling upwards. You take a deep breath and begin climbing, shooting the dangerous creatures that crawl across your path. You eventually come to an impasse, but quickly notice a spider ball track that carefully navigates around it. This is followed by a tricky gap to jump across, after which you enter a brand new room. Scanning this room reveals structural weaknesses in the environment that you can exploit to create bridges to the other side. You switch weapons and create a path across, battling more enemies along the way. The next room presents even more hazards, but you’re dialed in, in full flow, and step forward without hesitation. Nothing can stop you now.

In a single moment in Metroid, you can find yourself engaging in any number of activities. Puzzle solving, platforming, and combat can combine seamlessly to produce an uninterrupted sequence of action-oriented tasks, each one meant to keep the player fully in the moment. For all the cognitive appeal of its environmental puzzles and world design I’ve previously discussed, Metroid remains an extremely action-focused game. “Action” is a broad term though; you’re not constantly partaking in bloody combat or raw tests of reflex and skill here, as per the usual video game parlance. But you are constantly performing actions, engaging with the game in tangible, meaningful ways. This is primarily observable through the way you interact with the game and its world, which is entirely through direct control of its protagonist, Samus Aran. Metroid is by no means novel when it comes to controlling a single character from start to finish, but it is an important first step towards keeping the player engaged and focused. You know who you are and how you participate in the world around you. This grounding instantly gives you a place in the game, which sets the stage for you to “act.”

You're always finding new items as you progress through Metroid.
You're always finding new items as you progress through Metroid.

Your specific actions largely consist of the aforementioned puzzle solving, platforming, and combat, all of which happen naturally as you explore. Mapping out a world in Metroid involves overcoming all sorts of obstacles along the way, and that variety is key to the game’s flow. Pure exploring runs the risk of becoming dull quickly without anything else to do as you run around, but Metroid keeps you regularly engaged, and each activity is executed well. There’s nothing terribly fancy about the platforming or combat, but they work, and along with the excellent environmental puzzles they keep things fresh from start to finish (more on these next week). Supplementing the great variety, Metroid has equally strong pacing. You are constantly visiting new areas, encountering new enemies, and unlocking new abilities, all of which lend the game a powerful sense of progression. Just as important, the vast majority that progression is based in functionality. Where a lot of video game progression is based in stats increasing for both you and your enemies, Metroid consistently allows you to do things you couldn’t do before, and you’ll encounter new enemies and puzzles that require different approaches. Put another way, weapons and items you get later aren’t strictly better than ones you got earlier; they just function differently. That philosophy applies to most aspects of the game, and allows for layers in complexity by combining functionality together. The late game puzzles or encounters aren’t meant to be obtuse, or demand your stats be at a certain level. Instead, they raise the stakes by asking you to consider and use everything in your robust tool set at once. It’s a highly satisfying escalation that gets a lot of mileage out of simple mechanics, and manages to be challenging without ever making giant leaps in logic or ability.

My favorite games build on simple ideas like these in smart ways to generate effective variety and pacing, all without becoming overly complicated in the process. Variety and pacing are fundamental video game traits I consider extremely important, and games don’t always treat them with the level of care I’d like. I’m someone who enjoys seeing, thinking about, and doing new things, and games that have me repeat actions or put up barriers can wear me down. Score attack modes, grinding for experience points or random drops, copy/paste quest design, and endless treadmills are quick ways to leave me disinterested in a game. But Metroid consistently presents me with new challenges and new ways to interact at a smooth pace. There’s always a new item to find, a new path to search, or a new boss to fight, each of which is impressively handcrafted and detailed. This progression always presents something new to focus on, which lends a satisfying sense of purpose to your quest. Last week I mentioned how that sense of purpose is important to me, and that’s precisely because it allows Metroid to avoid those aforementioned pitfalls and distractions. When a game is too “open,” it can be hard to fill with meaningful content, and end up being too thin, aimless, or repetitive for my tastes. While some see this as an opportunity to “make your own fun,” I’ve always seen it as a game not knowing what to do with itself. It banks on the player to construct their own goals to some extent, and searching for ways to entertain myself within a video game rarely feels like the best use of my time. I prefer something with a more identifiable and timely purpose, and Metroid delivers.

Games can be real good at overcomplicating things.
Games can be real good at overcomplicating things.

That sense of purpose also lends the game a purity of focus that serves to keep you fully in the moment, an important idea I mentioned at the beginning of this post. Video games can be surprisingly great at finding all sorts of complicated ways to pull you out of the experience, but Metroid’s tight focus allows it to avoid “gamey” distractions. It has no abstract quest logs, objective markers, or checklists to direct and reward your progress. Your mission is grounded and intuitive enough to provide clear, tangible goals without that extra overhead, and the game is confident enough to let the player form their own investment without overly gamifying it. This allows you to stay completely focused on the task at hand and the action on-screen, rather than sifting through menus to monitor your progress. In fact, Metroid takes its hand-off approach further than most. On top of not explicitly directing the player’s experience, there’s virtually no explicit story exposition to be found, and almost no management of any kind to perform. You aren’t asked to listen to lengthy monologues or story dumps, or dig through menus to juggle inventory or skills. When you're playing a Metroid game, you are playing a Metroid game. Again, it sounds simple, but I can’t stress the importance of this point enough for me and my personal preferences. Perhaps the number one thing that can push me away from a game is being ripped out of the experience too frequently. That’s why games with busy quest logs, overly forced direction, long-winded exposition, or constant metagame management can leave me feeling cold. Anything that takes away from my own interaction feels too passive, and video games are my medium of choice specifically because I like being active.

Even in defeat, I enjoy learning and finding my own way.
Even in defeat, I enjoy learning and finding my own way.

Deep down I’ve always been a “doer,” rarely prone to long-range planning, searching for deeper meaning where it may not exist, or fiddling with things that don’t have a tangible impact. That by no means implies that I don’t carefully consider my actions or think ahead, but left to my own devices I prefer to live and think in the now, engaging in interesting tasks that benefit from my full attention. I derive a certain thrill and satisfaction from taking on said tasks, and performing them to the best of my ability. I enjoy the process of learning things as I go, trying to execute on that knowledge at each step, and seeing the results that follow. Put more simply, I like to dive in, explore, and find my own way. Jumping in headfirst is not only a more enjoyable process for me, but more importantly, I always understand something much better if I discover it on my own. That’s particularly true if I make mistakes along the way, which is where many of my most poignant lessons occur. When I was in school, my teachers could explain the material as much as they wanted, and while that could provide a good starting point, I would never really "get it" until I actually sat down to work out a problem on my own. I need to engage with things firsthand for those lessons to resonate meaningfully, and that’s precisely what Metroid allows me to do every step of the way. It presents you with an intense and daring quest, one that you have to simply dive in and tackle with gusto. It’s a balance of freedom and structure that sits perfectly with me and my preferences, and it’s hard to overstate how critical that is to my affection for the series.

I’ve covered a range of design elements today, but they all come back to a single idea: every part of Metroid’s design serves to keep the player squarely in the moment. Whether that’s from sublime variety and pacing that keep up the game’s flow, the absence of distracting “gamey” elements that would dilute its focus, or a commitment to letting the player have an active role at all times, Metroid pulls together a lot of ideas that serve this purity of purpose. Yet for as simple an idea it may be, it takes a lot of very careful and deliberate execution to pull it off, which Metroid nails. More importantly for our purposes, that idea aligns perfectly with my own personality and preferences. I love diving in head first, focusing on a task, and performing it the best I can as I find my own way; I’m in my element when I’m getting my hands dirty and learning on the go. Or as I have been told by personality tests, I am “happiest when centered in action-oriented tasks which require detailed logical analysis and technical skill.” Metroid’s action-oriented focus on exploring complex worlds fits that bill to a tee, and goes a long way towards explaining my infatuation with the series. And with that, I think we’ve covered enough ground for today. Next week we’ll continue talking gameplay, but narrow in from its broader design to more granular nuts and bolts. Specifically, we’ll look closer at Metroid’s puzzles, platforming, and combat.

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