Saturday Summaries 2018-12-08: Century Edition

Welcome, all, to my 100th episode of Saturday Summaries! Technically, it's only the 100th if you add together this year's Saturday Summaries and 2017's Sunday Summaries, which I am doing because they're the same feature that I just shifted a day. The big one-double-oh is a significant number for me in 2018: The Indie Game of the Week series is about to celebrate its own 100th episode, I'm on track for completing 100 games this year (and I have a special contigency plan in place if Dec 31st is looming and I'm not quite there), and watching all the eSports segments on The Game Awards last Thursday night made me feel 100 years old.

Since I'm out here blowing smoke up my own ass with various milestones, I remembered that I composed a GOTY list for 2008 - ten years ago - and never posted it anywhere. I have a few "GOTY (Adjusted)" lists elsewhere on the site, but the earliest is still something like 2013 and, really, it gets harder to review most of those games in clear detail with the gulf of time between now and when I last played them. Here's the top thirty:

I think this being #1 was a given, though it had some stiff competition.
I think this being #1 was a given, though it had some stiff competition.
  1. Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4
  2. Saints Row 2
  3. Tales of Vesperia
  4. Yakuza 2
  5. Lost Odyssey
  6. Disaster: Day of Crisis
  7. Valkyria Chronicles
  8. Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII
  9. Dead Space
  10. No More Heroes
  11. Super Smash Bros. Brawl
  12. Fallout 3
  13. The Last Remnant
  14. Mirror's Edge
  15. Condemned 2: Bloodshot
  16. Burnout Paradise
  17. Barkley Shut Up & Jam Gaiden
  18. Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia
  19. Braid
  20. Mount & Blade
  21. Banjo Kazooie: Nuts and Bolts
  22. Professor Layton and the Curious Village
  23. Mana Khemia: Alchemists of Al-Revis
  24. Infinite Undiscovery
  25. Grand Theft Auto IV
  26. Dragon Quest Swords: The Masked Queen and the Tower of Mirrors
  27. Tomb Raider: Underworld
  28. Viking: Battle for Asgard
  29. Opoona
  30. Mercenaries 2: World in Flames

Some notable tidbits about this list:

  • Tales of Vesperia, The Last Remnant, and Burnout Paradise all received remasters recently after hitting their 10 year anniversaries. Happily recommend them all.
  • Super Smash Bros., Fallout, Tomb Raider, and Valkyria Chronicles all saw new entries this year, proving you can't keep a good franchise down (unless you're EA and you decide to kill Dead Space just because).
  • Persona 4's long-awaited sequel Persona 5 only came out last year. Similarly Mirror's Edge Catalyst was a 2016 release, eight years after its predecessor. Better late than never I suppose (though Catalyst's reviews might disagree).
  • We're also getting sequels to Mount & Blade and No More Heroes in the very near future. Final Fantasy VII still has that upcoming remake too, which may or may not incorporate some Zack stuff, but I'll believe that game's out when I see it.
  • Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia was the last "real" Castlevania game, though I have renewed hope for the future of the franchise thanks to Warren Ellis/Adi Shankar's decent Netflix anime adaptation.
  • Yo, we're still waiting on that Barkley Shut Up & Jam Gaiden sequel. Kinda wonder what happened to it.
  • How stoked was I that Raymond Bryce popped up in the new Smash as a spirit? That is, according to the QL that Giant Bomb put up. (How did none of the staff recognize him? Oh right, because Disaster: Day of Crisis never came out in the US. Womp-womp.)
  • Finally, there's a few 2008 games I'm still meaning to play even ten years after the fact. The World Ends With You, for example, which also had a tenth anniversary remaster this year. Also some Japan-only games where I'm still holding out for localized rereleases: Yakuza Kenzan, Aquanaut's Holiday: Hidden Memories, Fatal Frame IV, and Captain Rainbow.

Anyway, enough living in the past. We still have this year to see out, and that means a few blogs about the hottest (?) 2018 games:

  • The Indie Game of the Week this time was Minit, as I feverishly play enough games from this year to put a top ten together. Minit has one hook to hang its modest game length on - a Majora's Mask/Half-Minute Hero style time-looping gimmick, where you have exactly one minute before you die and respawn at your last checkpoint with some progress saved - and its aesthetic has fully embraced its status as a little game with a big idea: it's graphically minimalist with a sharp monotone look, and its small world doesn't take too long to explore but is filled with little puzzles and quirky NPCs and secrets. Might take a while to find all those collectibles, but even with the ever-present strict time-limit it doesn't feel like a game that ought to be hurried. Take your time, slowly make a mental map of where you can go and where you'll need to come later with the right items, and poke around this cute little world Vlambeer has made.
  • The alternate Tuesday slot means another double-bill of Jazztronauts fun. I'm going to wrap this feature up once 2018 is done, I suspect, but for the time being I can't get enough of exploring the wild and wacky frontier of Gmod custom maps in the best context imaginable: as part of an inter-dimensional crew of cat thieves who Time Bandits their way into new maps to steal anything of value before am-scraying on their magical trolley. Part Four and Part Five, which contain six "heists" and one "interlude" apiece, have a new bulletpoint format that I'll be sustaining for the rest of this feature. It cuts to the chase info-wise, while still leaving me space to crack jokes at these maps' expense. I'm hoping to get a few more of the cat-specific side-quests done before the year is out, but it really all depends on what the game's map randomizer throws my way.

Addenda

Movie: Yes, Madam (1985)

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It's been a hot minute since I enjoyed some well-choreographed if cheesily-scripted Hong Kong action cinema, having exhausted almost the entire oeuvres of Jackie Chan and Jet Li in my younger, DVD-impulse-buying days. This type of movie doesn't seem to show up on streaming services much - I suppose it might be an awkward thing to negotiate the licenses for - but I did manage to find Yes, Madam (known over here as Police Assassins, curiously) somewhere. The starring debuts of both the inimitable Michelle Yeoh and the formidable Cynthia Rothrock, Yes, Madam is a classic Jackie Chan crime caper movie (albeit without Chan himself, though his frequent collaborator Sammo Hung briefly appears) with sympathetic characters on both sides of the law and a ridiculous concluding fight and an equally strange bathetic finale. Highly entertaining, in other words.

To condense the plot, a detective from Scotland Yard is assassinated in his hotel room by a hitman employed by the tycoon Mr. Tin. The detective had proof of Tin's shady business dealings by way of a microfilm, which becomes the movie's elusive McGuffin after it is stolen by a buffoonish gang of thieves named after painkiller medication just moments before the hitman could find it. The movie becomes this cat and mouse and cat game between the bad guys, the thieves (who are only sorta bad, since they're stealing to support their elderly mentor), and the cops played by Yeoh and Rothrock, the latter flying in as a second agent of Scotland Yard. It then follows all these little plot-lines - Yeoh and Rothrock don't initially get along but learn to mutually respect one another's methods, the thieves keep disagreeing with each other over money and the extent of the danger they're in, there's a pool hustler involved at some point for whatever reason - before it all culminates in a big melee at Mr. Tin's mansion with someone who resembles Che Guevara by way of Groucho Marx. Lots of ostentatious yet sharp glass furniture, very painful-looking stuff.

I'll admit to only checking out this movie because of a recent viral tweet (the account has since got private, sadly) that juxtaposed, with a surprising degree of synchronization, that aforementioned final fight with a typically earwormy track from one Carly Rae Jepsen. Jepsen's been producing a lot of music that wouldn't feel out of place in the 1980s, when Yes, Madam was made, though that's hardly meant as a pejorative; more that she's managed to tap into the infectious fun of pop from that era without the concomitant fashion disasters.

Yes, Madam feels so much like the Chan movies from that time that it wouldn't surprise me that all these movies followed some similar blueprints handed down by the studio. It was directed and choreographed by Corey Yuen, who also worked on a huge number of 70s and 80s Hong Kong action movies along with most of Jet Li's American output (and, uh, the similarly distaff DOA movie, which is probably one of the few to do right by its source material at least). Yes, Madam was one of his earliest directorial affairs, but it turned out well enough to spawn a number of sequels, only the first of which involved Yeoh. Honestly, the whole genre is so huge and so variable in quality it's a miracle I made any headway into it at all back then, though it helps that the UK DVD companies had a lot of smart minds curating the best from that particular part of the world's busy movie industry.

Game: Valkyria Chronicles 4 (2018)

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Oh boy, I was excited about jumping back into Anime World War II after ten years since playing the first (I didn't much care to try a weaker portable version with VCII, and Sega chose not to localize the third). However, because this is the fourth game in the series and you're now playing as the elite Ranger Corps Squad E, the game doesn't pull any punches right from the jump. I managed to get a few A-ranks early on without much trouble, as the game was still reintroducing the gameplay and new units like grenadiers (which I hate, but only because the enemy is so effective with them) and APCs. About a few chapters in, though, it started getting ridiculously tough keeping everyone alive and hitting the mission objective within the number of turns required for the best grade.

You really need to make full use of the game's new systems, like using leaders to take small groups into battle with them via a special command point currency, but more so than that knowing the actual battles and their maps back to front: so much can change in the middle of a skirmish, and you have no initial clue as to the enemy's numbers and where they've been deployed and who might show up after a certain number of turns, so you do tend to run into a lot of trial and error situations where you can be easily mowed down by the unexpected. Fortunately, the game still keeps its "save anywhere and anywhen" mentality, letting you happily save-scum after every unit's move if that's your desire. I'm trying not to abuse it too much, but I do frequently take "safety" saves at the start of my side's turn. Even if you're constantly making saves though, depending on the progress you're making each turn you might still have to start over if you want that elusive A-Rank (the XP and cash rewards are better for one thing, which can make a real difference in the tougher maps to come).

Despite the challenge level I'm still enjoying the game a lot. Though I'm usually pretty bad at strategy games for the most part - I'm not one for "plans" and "tactics" or any of that kind of fancy business - VC4 is really pushing me to take advantage of every tool at my disposal and consider carefully the soldiers I want to bring with me and those I want to hold back as reinforcements. As you take enemy bases you can deploy new soldiers to those locations: this is crucial for units like snipers and grenadiers who can't move far, but need to be in specific locations to be useful. You only need lancers if there are tanks around, but they're invaluable if tanks are present because of their specialization. Engineers are weaker combatants but are necessary for keeping both vehicles and units alive, and can prove to be vital in very specific circumstances like when bridges need to be fixed or there are mines everywhere. I mostly rely on scouts because of their movement range and decent damage, but they'll fall almost immediately to a heavy enemy encampment without shocktroopers to back them up. It's a much more sophisticated situational affair than the simple rock-paper-scissors troop management of, say, Fire Emblem or last month's Ni no Kuni II, and while you can never be fully prepared for what's to come without a few "practice" runs and reloads, when everything clicks likes it's supposed to it can be very satisfying.

Just in case you forgot it was an anime with all the bombs and tanks and warfare going on.
Just in case you forgot it was an anime with all the bombs and tanks and warfare going on.

I'm around chapter 5 right now, so I have no idea how far in I am. Considering the lengthy research trees for my gear and armaments, I'd say I'm barely a third the way through, and that makes me a little apprehensive about how much tougher the game is about to get (there is an Easy mode and optional skirmishes if I really need the boost, and I only just upgraded my scouts to scout elites - if I do the same with other classes, I'll give myself a substantial advantage). At the same time, I'm excited to see what other precarious scenarios the game has to offer. (Oh, and I guess the story's fun too. Mostly.)

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Indie Game of the Week 99: Minit

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In my experience with these games, Indies tend to start one of two ways: working from something big, like the many AAA genres that have since fallen out of vogue, and shrinking it down to something bite-sized and manageable for a small team; or the opposite, where you have the smallest kernel of an idea - usually borne from game jams or a proof-of-concept demo after futzing around with game maker software - and are capable of extending it outwards just enough to make it a commercially viable product. Minit definitely feels like the latter: a game in which the player only has a minute to live, but their progress is always saved after each "death".

Minit feels inspired primarily by The Legend of Zelda - graphically it resembles the original NES game, albeit with monochrome graphics, and Majora's Mask in the sense of its time-looping mechanic - but its structure is more akin to an adventure-puzzle game. You can wander around the map with your limited time, making mental notes of puzzles to be solved either with the objects at hand or some other item you yet lack, and while each demise restarts you at your house, you can eventually find other homes and restart further afield. The world is small enough that you won't waste your entire minute getting to any one corner of it and shortcuts are plentiful, so a lot of how far you get depends on the mental map you're forming in your head and where new item discoveries can be applied to progress in any number of areas. There's a specific main quest objective in mind - this minute-long existence is due to a cursed sword you're eager to be rid of - but lots of smaller ones pop up along the way, like finding the wayward guests of a remote hotel or solving the mystery behind a hyper-convenient teleporter system that links most of your homes-away-from-home together.

A typical cycle in Minit could start with you at your home, choosing to wander north a few screens, observing a puzzle that involves pushing boxes around to reach an item, realizing that the item you just found could be used south of your starting location to make progress, and then either heading down there for a preliminary look or hitting the restart button to kill yourself and begin over in your home with a full minute on the timer. You acquire a lot of Zelda-style traversal-enabling items like flippers and a means to chop down trees, and as soon as they're in your possession you start thinking back to where you saw a river you couldn't cross or a copse blocking your path.

This guy talks v e r y s l o w l y so you have to decide whether it's worth spending your limited time hearing what he has to say.
This guy talks v e r y s l o w l y so you have to decide whether it's worth spending your limited time hearing what he has to say.

To explain much more than that would be to take away some of Minit's strengths as a puzzle game, including what you can find and where it eventually goes. The minimalist two-tone look - which I think is also meant to invoke Atari's Adventure a little bit, especially given the duck-billed protagonist - is still fairly striking, and despite the lo-fi nature does some neat things with dithering lighting effects and incidental environmental animations. The music's catchy in that chiptune way - the local bar has a jukebox that cycles through a lot of tracks I don't think I heard elsewhere in the game - and the occasional bits of dialogue, though they might slow you down to read them, can be sharp and witty. Beyond all that, I think what can best be said about Minit is that it takes a concept with just enough legs to support a whole game and the developers do the maximum they could with it. It's a compact, cute, and clever game that's worth the couple of hours it asks from you.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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A Jazztronomical Score: Part Five

What up, cat accomplices? It's an odd week, so that means two Jazztronauts updates for the price of one! Yeah! We're still here at the Bar Samsara, sipping gin & tonics while reviewing the contents of our enormous sacks with dollar signs on them. However, you don't have to have an enormous sack to try out this game for yourself: just have a copy of Garry's Mod and download the free Jazztronauts mod. And if my endorsement isn't enough, it's Jeff Gerstmann approved (sorta)!

Anydangway, we're still on the hunt for the following: rainbow shards, evil red cubes, toy dolls, watermelons, headcrabs, and the bald guy from Half-Life. Despite my explicitly-stated intent last time to only focus on Half-Life maps, I fell victim once again to the game's map-selection randomizer and my own poor impulse control. I blame Cellist; he's a bad influence.

I mean, just look at this asshole. How'd he get up there? Maybe he got so lit up he thinks he's a halogen.
I mean, just look at this asshole. How'd he get up there? Maybe he got so lit up he thinks he's a halogen.

Before we begin - are we on genius.com because I've got a rap sheet full of flagrant errors just over here: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4.

Heist the Eighteenth

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  • Map Name: "lowlife_apartments"
  • Purpose for Visiting: Still looking for dolls and watermelons, the former more likely to appear in bedrooms and the latter in kitchens/pantries. Best case scenario for both are homes and apartments. Even lowlife ones.
  • Shards Available: 0.
  • Shards Acquired: 0.
  • Red Cube: Nonexistent.
  • Desired Props: Nope.
  • Haul: $25,336.
  • Post-Heist Report: I've noticed something about the "end-game" of NG+. You activate enough of those red cubes and it ties you into the bad ending - sort of required for reasons I won't go into - and by that point the rainbow shards stop appearing. The single "shard" the map tells you about is the red cube itself: it wants you to reach the ten required to complete the game from then on. However, they don't always appear, especially on a tiny map like this with nothing but garbage. At least small maps are lucrative.

Heist the Nineteenth

Imagine spending hours building this perfectly recreated sign and not seeing the typo.
Imagine spending hours building this perfectly recreated sign and not seeing the typo.
  • Map Name: "RE2_RPD_Station"
  • Purpose for Visiting: Ah, this must be the Resident Evil 2 remake I've heard so much about. Maybe the map maker got creative with the zombies and put headcrabs in there too...?
  • Shards Available: 0.
  • Shards Acquired: 0.
  • Red Cube: Not activated.
  • Desired Props: Nope.
  • Haul: $6,029.
  • Post-Heist Report: The creator evidently wanted this map to feel true to the original, including the music and some of the triggers. It also meant it was a giant maze full of weird barriers that I couldn't overcome without finding talismans shaped like donuts to insert into a fresco of cops beating up minorities, or whatever would be apropos for a police station designed by a madman. I bailed tout de suite once I realized there were no shards or enemies involved. No more silly pop culture gimmick maps for a while.

Heist the Twentieth (Century Fox)

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  • Map Name: "the_simpsons_map"
  • Purpose for Visiting: "Homer, you don't have to load up a low-poly Simpsons map just because it came up on the randomizer." "You know, Marge, in some ways you and I are very different people."
  • Shards Available: 0.
  • Shards Acquired: 0.
  • Red Cube: Activated. Like this place isn't threatened by nuclear annihilation every other week.
  • Desired Props: Nope.
  • Haul: $30,000.
  • Post-Heist Report: D'oh. Though I did make one interesting discovery: the allocated total (on NG+ at least) for a map's static props is exactly $30k. I know this because I stole the only prop on the map: a statue of a horse where Jebediah Springfield should be. Sometimes you learn a few things while walking around an empty, flat recreation of the hometown of America's favorite family. (Commendable work with those textures though.)

Heist the Twenty-First

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  • Map Name: ph_toth_forgotten
  • Purpose for Visiting: Prop Hunt maps have given me the best returns in the past, and this one looked like another rundown shopping galleria.
  • Shards Available: 0.
  • Shards Acquired: 0.
  • Red Cube: Activated.
  • Desired Props: Nope.
  • Haul: $4,035.
  • Post-Heist Report: This place was just too annoying to navigate, and I was starting to get bummed out by the lack of shards to find. At this point, I was looking for the remaining red cubes just so I could hurry to the finale...

Interlude: ?ͣ͋?̦̟̫͇̅ͥ̃̽ͬ͜?̾̓̌?̶̪̲̩̠̞̉͋̽ͭ̄?̇̓̈̐?̢͇̣̠͔̏ͭ̋?̫͇̳̹͒̆ͥ͌?͐̾ͥ͐ͥ

After ten cubes, this button appeared at Bar Samsara. I'm sure it'll be fine if I press it. Buttons are usually chill.
After ten cubes, this button appeared at Bar Samsara. I'm sure it'll be fine if I press it. Buttons are usually chill.
I've destroyed the bar! Again! Dammit, why do all my actions have to have consequences!
I've destroyed the bar! Again! Dammit, why do all my actions have to have consequences!

.

.....

........

...................... NG++ anyone? (Turns out that in order to earn the "best ending", I have to complete all the side-quests first. So be it. It's not like I have anything better to do (I really don't).)

Heist the Twenty-Second

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  • Map Name: "ph_bunker2"
  • Purpose for Visiting: My theory that Prop Hunt maps are the best source for a varied amount of props is about to pay off. This tiny underground bunker map proved especially fruitful, so to speak.
  • Shards Available: 3.
  • Shards Acquired: 3.
  • Red Cube: N/A.
  • Desired Props: Yes! Two more dolls and five more watermelons.
  • Haul: $28,637.
  • Post-Heist Report: I'm in NG++ now, which puts me at 300% earnings. While I do have to buy everything again, it won't take long at all with the skrill I'm making. In the absence of any Half-Life maps, Prop Hunt (or "ph_") maps seem to remain my best bet if I actually want to make any headway in these side-quests, rather than picking the stupidest or most picturesque options that pop up. A few more maps like this and I'll be done with Singer's and Bartender's quests faster than a cat lapping chain lightning, which is apparently a thing people say out loud sometimes.

Heist the Twenty-Third

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  • Map Name: "ph_mansion_draw2"
  • Purpose for Visiting: See above. Sometimes I want to steal stuff and play Jazztronauts how it was meant to be played, rather than follow my morbid curiosity and be left trying to work out why someone spent fifty hours in Gmod lovingly recreating the inside of Shrek's ass.
  • Shards Available: 2.
  • Shards Acquired: 3.
  • Red Cube: N/A.
  • Desired Props: Yes! The remaining watermelons.
  • Haul: $41,920.
  • Post-Heist Report: I'm raking in the cash hand over fist at this juncture, and this eerie place proved very generous with the watermelons. I'm so glad I didn't have to visit any Gallagher-themed maps to fill out the rest of my quota.

Interlude: Bartender 2

Bartender takes her cocktails very seriously. I was advised to take a step back during this process.
Bartender takes her cocktails very seriously. I was advised to take a step back during this process.
Now that she's well-stocked for bulging gourds, we all sit down for movie night. Good to know my avatar is a proponent of the classics.
Now that she's well-stocked for bulging gourds, we all sit down for movie night. Good to know my avatar is a proponent of the classics.
You and me, Cellist. We're in this together. As long as you stop hiding in high-up places where I can't reach you.
You and me, Cellist. We're in this together. As long as you stop hiding in high-up places where I can't reach you.
Dammit Cellist I retract everything. Propane tanks are damn near everywhere, but I suspect they might suddenly dry up now that I need them. Well, I found a Simpsons map this time, so maybe I can luck out with King of the Hill next week?
Dammit Cellist I retract everything. Propane tanks are damn near everywhere, but I suspect they might suddenly dry up now that I need them. Well, I found a Simpsons map this time, so maybe I can luck out with King of the Hill next week?

Now that I understand how NG+ works and not to press everything connected to ominous floating red cubes, I suspect I might make a lot more progress (not to mention more money) on subsequent outings. Who knew this game had so many layers? I thought I was just stealing shit by waving a baton at it. Shows what I know.

Tune in next Monday same cat time, same cat channel. (P.S. watch Lifeforce.)

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A Jazztronomical Score: Part Four

Greetings! I am your host, Hugh Jazztronauts, and welcome to a blog. Now that I've demonstrated every facet of this wonderful game-slash-guided tour of half-baked Gmod maps in my previous updates, I've decided to truncate the heist journalizing process down to a handy set of bulletpoints. While I'm still aiming to complete a few fetch quests that my kitty hosts have provided me - namely: cars, dolls, headcrabs, or the eminent theoretical physicist Dr. Isaac Kleiner - I'm going to be bouncing from world to world with only the briefest pauses to smell the roses (and steal them), marvelling at the ingenuity or lack thereof of their construction.

Be sure to revisit some of the greatest crimes in my past (unless you're a cop): Part 1, Part 2, Part 3.

Heist the Twelfth

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  • Map Name: "Valve Museum"
  • Purpose for Visiting: Curiosity, mostly. I also figured that I needed some very "Valve game specific" resources, in particular Dr. Kleiner and the Headcrabs (my favorite '00s alt-rock band), and a museum was likely to have "exhibits" of Half-Life props among others.
  • Shards Available: 7
  • Shards Acquired: 1
  • Red Cube: Unactivated.
  • Desired Props: Cars! We got the final two cars required for Bartender.
  • Haul: $4,085.
  • Post-Heist Report: As you can see from the accompanying screenshot, there were a few issues with the map. It was a nightmare to navigate with purple walls and no floor, so I bailed pretty quick. I still consider it a success though, given that I grabbed those cars from the parking lot outside the main building before leaving.

Interlude: Bartender

After collecting enough automobiles for Bartender, she got the gang together for a friendly game of
After collecting enough automobiles for Bartender, she got the gang together for a friendly game of "flavor-blasted Blackjack", which was essentially Blackjack but with a bunch of additional rules that led me to lose more money.
Cellist is deliberately getting military history wrong to wind up Pianist, or so he says. I'm starting to suspect whoever wrote this game was a little on the overeducated side. I'm down either way: last time I enjoyed the company of cats this erudite it was with Achewood, and that's been defunct since 2016.
Cellist is deliberately getting military history wrong to wind up Pianist, or so he says. I'm starting to suspect whoever wrote this game was a little on the overeducated side. I'm down either way: last time I enjoyed the company of cats this erudite it was with Achewood, and that's been defunct since 2016.
Bartender's next job for us is finding ten watermelons. It's a common enough prop in Source maps for some reason and I've found many prior to being given this task, so I'm hoping I just come across them anywhere. Man, a watermelon!
Bartender's next job for us is finding ten watermelons. It's a common enough prop in Source maps for some reason and I've found many prior to being given this task, so I'm hoping I just come across them anywhere. Man, a watermelon!

Heist the Thirteenth (really should've picked a horror map for this one)

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  • Map Name: "Shrek Swamp Murder Map"
  • Purpose for Visiting: Definitely curiosity. Nobody had requested the butchered corpse of DONKAY but I still wanted to know what the deal was with this map. Shrek memes are a dime a dozen (they have layers, I'm told) but sometimes a master thief just has to know.
  • Shards Available: 3.
  • Shards Acquired: 3.
  • Red Cube: Activated. Shrek's gonna have to live somewhere else now.
  • Desired Props: None.
  • Haul: $29,940.
  • Post-Heist Report: Somebody once told me that Gmod was going to roll me, but I didn't expect to be rolled this hard. This map was a complete bust: about 20' square all told in size and no fairytale murders or anything of the sort to witness. Just a tree trunk with some furniture and foliage. At least the benefit of a tiny map is that all the props are worth more, since they calculate their value based on rarity (or they spread out a specific total across all of a map's props, which makes those with small prop numbers worth more apiece. Ah, the enigmata of prop hunting).

Heist the Fourteenth

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  • Map Name: "ph_VillaHouse_2017"
  • Purpose for Visiting: It's a prop hunt map! I don't think it was intended to be used with this game, probably more likely a standalone thing, but I figured if you can count on a prop hunt map for anything it's a large number and variance of props. Stands to reason, right?
  • Shards Available: 5.
  • Shards Acquired: 5.
  • Red Cube: Activated.
  • Desired Props: None.
  • Haul: $21,629.
  • Post-Heist Report: Well, there certainly were a lot of props. Nothing I needed, but I had a grand old time burglarising this million-dollar villa all the same. There wasn't quite the prop variance I expected though; I might have got the wrong impression as to what a prop hunt map actually is. Sounds like the idea is that you either hide a prop, or disguise yourself as one, and have the opposite team try to find it/you. I wonder if scavenger hunt maps are a different thing?

Heist the Fifteenth

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  • Map Name: "slender_infirmary"
  • Purpose for Visiting: I still maintain an ever-diminishing belief that my best hope for creepy dolls are on horror maps. A spooky hospital might have spooky kids' wards, maybe with sinister nursery rhymes being piped in over the tannoy. Besides, I heard Slenderman likes children, though he couldn't eat a whole one.
  • Shards Available: 4.
  • Shards Acquired: 4.
  • Red Cube: Activated. There are fates worse than Slenderman out there.
  • Desired Props: None.
  • Haul: $15,086.
  • Post-Heist Report: Well, so much for my hoping to capture a Slenderman (he's my generation's Bigfoot!) or much of anything else. Like a few other horror maps I've visited in Jazztronauts, some of the map's flags were still intact: in particular, there was one that caused all the lights to go off with a creepy laugh, which I didn't enjoy a whole lot. Good thing a flashlight comes standard as part of the Jazztronauts Thievery Kit. I did find some bloody corpses (one-upping that Shrek map), but Pianist hasn't asked me for any of those yet.

Heist the Sixteenth

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  • Map Name: "gm_abandonment"
  • Purpose for Visiting: OK, this might be a stretch of logic, but when I saw this map and determined some idea of its theme from the screenshot on the right, I had in mind a "baby's shoes; never worn" sentiment, except maybe with worn dolls? Kind of a long shot, I realize, but my urban explorer senses were tingling (though if you "urban explore" a lot that tingling sensation is probably tetanus).
  • Shards Available: 0.
  • Shards Acquired: 0.
  • Red Cube: Nonexistent.
  • Desired Props: None.
  • Haul: $26,858.
  • Post-Heist Report: This one was just depressing. Though it wasn't the smallest map I'd visited, it had zero shards and no red cube. What props it had were garbage (literally garbage strewn about the floors of its abandoned tenement building) and the only sound effects were the buzzing of cheap lights and a distant cough of an old hobo. Curious thing was, all those rundown lamps and empty cans were worth a mint: maybe the sheer bleak sadness associated with them generated some kind of value-add in the weird metaphysical rules that govern the Jazztronauts universe.

Heist the Seventeenth

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  • Map Name: "Kakariko Prop Hunt Map"
  • Purpose for Visiting: Sometimes I just pick out a place because it looks cool as hell. A fully 3D A Link to the Past Kakariko Village to explore? Sign me up. Doesn't even matter that no-one back at Bar Samsara will ever ask me for rupees or SNES-era shrubbery.
  • Shards Available: 0.
  • Shards Acquired: 0.
  • Red Cube: Activated. If anyone asks, Ganon came by.
  • Desired Props: None.
  • Haul: $21,791.
  • Post-Heist Report: Again, little surprised at the lack of shards. It wasn't a tiny map - the original Kakariko was like nine screens taped together - but I still couldn't find anything. Oddly, it does say there were shards to be found, but not in Jazztronauts's usual font. It looked like something built into the area itself, presumably because it's also a prop hunt map. The "shard" vanished as soon as I hit the red cube though, so that mystery died with everything else on the map once the cube performed its evil work. Even if I didn't get a whole lot out of it, it was worth checking this map out for the incredible work involved in its creation.

I'd better call it here for now. My vast swag income this time allowed me to purchase the Gmod Item Spawner, though as might be expected the game doesn't count props generated with this tool towards the side-quest totals. I mean, that would be cheating. Maybe I'll figure out some other use for creating random trash later on, but for the time being I'm going to keep trying to find these props legit. I might have to give up on the horror maps for a while though (that hospital jumpscare did me a frighten) and just see if anyone on Gmod has made a Half-Life level in the last 10 years for all my headcrab/Kleiner needs. See you when I see you, cats and kittens.

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Saturday Summaries 2018-12-01: Back to the Feature Edition

Now that Giant Bomb is finishing up for the year - we might have one more week of regular features in early December depending on when GOTY recording wraps up and when it rolls out, but I don't see them starting anything new until January - I wanted to take the time to see how their ongoing features have been getting on and what they might look like when they come back.

Alexy QuestThis is, bar none, my favorite of 2018's new features. The "Vinny plus Guest" road trip LPs have been some of my favorites in the past, especially Vinny's "help" with Brad's Demon's Souls run, and Alex makes for a great sardonic neophyte to the galaxy of one of my favorite RPG(ish) franchises. Best of all, the few downsides to this feature - piss-poor inventory management, levelling, and infrequent vendor visits - are streamlined to the point of obsolescence in the sequels, so Alex can just enjoy the story and characters and us vicariously along with him.
GolDanEyeI'd be curious to see how this feature pans out in the future. There were concerns early on with the Facility level that Dan wouldn't have the chops or the game would be too outmoded for a 00 Agent run to be feasible, but he then disproved the doubters with the next episode and the huge amount of progress he made (though there were a few lucky breaks, very entertaining in their own right). I have full faith now that Dan will pull it off, and can't wait to see how it all transpires.
Blue Bombin'While I doubt Alex will delve into the various sub-series of Mega Man - though I'd give anything to see him take on Mega Man Legends - I think Mega Man 7 is at least in the cards. Having played through it myself semi-recently, I'm curious to see how he gets on with the game's strange difficulty swings: it's hard to begin with, gets way easier when you have access to the shop and its cheap E-Tanks, then gets ridiculously hard again for the final boss. Something to look forward to, at any rate.
Beast in the EastI suspect GBEast might never come back to Yakuza for another feature, given how many of them have been playing Kiwami 1 and 2 (and Yakuza 6) in their own time. I hold out some hope that they return to Kamurocho in some fashion eventually, but I've always got the Yakuza 0 playthrough to watch once I've played the game myself sometime next year.
Steal My SunshineIt might need a new name, but I badly want 2017's best feature to return with a different Mario game. While I like the pass n' play with the gambling side-line format for Super Mario Galaxy or even SM64, my hope is that they figure out an equally compelling "antagonistic co-op" equivalent for one of the series's many four-player games, like New Super Mario Bros. U or Super Mario 3D World. It's my number one wishlist item for Giant Bomb East in 2019.
This Is The RunThere's a number of Contra games left that Vinny and Dan could take on, but I liked the change of pace that Soulcalibur offered and I'm wondering if there are other avenues for this feature. Like having four-player games that include Abby and Alex such as Left 4 Dead, or more genteel offerings like Overcooked. I do love seeing GB play together, and it seems like playing cooperatively towards the same goal generates more entertaining arguments than competitive multiplayer ever could.
Fuzion Frenzy FrenzyDid Giant Bomb East conveniently forget there was a sequel? Chop chop, duders.
Ranking of FightersGBWest's major feature will continue on in the same fashion it always has, I suspect. I had some silly ideas about highlighting the best characters last time I did one of these "state of the union" rundowns of the site's features, but my new suggestion is to start breaking up the list into tiers, while still maintaining the numbered entries format. So, for instance, games #1-#15 in the table right now might be "A-tier", and the next batch as "B-tier" and so on. This would be more in line with how fighter games and their characters are generally ranked by the FGC, and will also create a handy short-hand for whenever they need to add something. "This feels B-tier" lets them start in that particular section of their ever-growing list, at which point they can then hum-and-haw about where exactly in that tier it falls. Jan could also have some fun re-rendering the list to have more ostentatious calligraphy fonts for the higher tiers and 8-point Comic Sans for those languishing at the bottom.
Breaking BradI wonder if Celeste's B-sides will be enough to finally break Shoemaker? I couldn't make a dent in any of them after the first world's, and having seen what the later B-sides look like it feels like a single screen might take a whole episode.
The Real PlayStation ClassicFinally, I'd like for GBWest to take a leaf from my own playbook by coming up with a hypothetical "better" list of games for the disappointing PlayStation Classic. Each episode could feature two (or more) PS1 games from Ben, Jeff, Brad, Jason, or Jan's backgrounds - the "hosts" changing each week - and they have to make a valid case while demonstrating the game for why it deserves to be on Sony's mini-console more than, say, Rainbow Six or Battle Arena Toshinden 1. GBWest's biggest strength is in its coverage of older games, between Demo Derby, Game Tapes, The Old Games Show, and Jeff's own expansive retro-gaming streams - and I think a feature like this could draw out the best of that without going back so far to exclude the millennials on staff.

Talking about some returning features, I've been working on new entries for a few of my own:

  • The Indie Game of the Week was Celeste, which is another inauspicious case of me playing a game I was fairly sure I wasn't going to like too much just because it has such a glowing reputation (though I don't think that policy will ever extend to anything above $10). Honestly, Celeste is great. Great look, great music, great controls, great story. It's just when it decides to get rough with you that the good times suddenly come to an end, as they always must in "masocore" platformers. Per contra (and per Contra), there are people who like to get their nuts (or equivalents) bashed in by absurdly hard video games, and to them I wish all the joy in the world.
  • The alternating Tuesday slot had us check out our penultimate pair of games for SNES Classic Mk. II in Episode XXIV: Quintet-sential. As the name might suggest, I processed the remaining two non-sequel Quintet games for the SNES, and perhaps the two overall best: Terranigma and Illusion of Gaia. Both belong to the Soul Blazer trilogy, both offer stories with immense scopes as the hero works to piece back together a broken world, both have some fantastic action-RPG gameplay that's light in complexity but never too easy, and both have visuals and music to die for. It's no surprise that both ended up with seriously high ratings from the P.O.G.S. system (and that's calculated via pure objective science, so you know it's legit).
  • We also have the third part of my Jazztronauts journal, starting with Heist the Ninth. I'm workshopping some alternative blogging structures for this feature going forward now that I've adequately explained how the rules work. Something more akin to a data rundown for each map - number of shards, types of props, and so on - with a section for sarcastic notes on anything weird and wonderful I find. I still love the game's aesthetic, writing, and scavenger hunt gameplay, but discovering bizarre Gmod maps and trying to work my backwards to figure out why they were made remains the highlight. Hopefully I'm passing on some of that joy of discovery with this feature.

Addenda

TV: American Gods (Season 1)

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I have tremendous respect for Neil Gaiman, and I'm glad that TV has finally reached that point where his truly bizarre properties can have their time in the adaptation sun thanks to intelligent showrunners who know where the heart and soul of their source material lies. American Gods, Gaiman's 2001 deified road trip novel that gives itself over to frequent non-sequitur vignettes about ancient gods surviving in America with most of their old powers stripped away due to a lack of belief, seemed like such a hard nut for either the TV and movie industry to crack. It took Hannibal's Bryan Fuller and Logan's Michael Green to really do right by the text, taking the Benioff/Weiss course of smartly emphasing and de-emphasizing the arcs and characters that work best for a show format while ensuring that the original creator - Gaiman - was always nearby and happy to sign off on the changes.

The plot of season one, which I hear covers about a quarter of the novel, concerns the taciturn ex-convict Shadow Moon and his impulsive decision to join forces with the enigmatic Mr. Wednesday. Shadow at first believes Wednesday to be a veteran con artist in the market for a bodyguard/partner, but the longer he spends time with him the more he realizes that the world he knew is not quite the reality. Wednesday's prepping for a war, you see, and his enemies are the new gods that have supplanted the old in the mass public: media, the internet, and ongoing globalization. The show also spends a good while, sometimes the entire episode, on developing side-characters that may have greater significance later: those like Bilquis, the Biblical Queen of Sheba, who has a bad habit of devouring her worshippers mid-coitus; or Czernobog, the Czech "black god" made most famous by the Night on Bald Mountain segment of Fantasia, who is fond of killing anything living with his hammer and played with snarling glee by Swedish national treasure Peter Stormare.

It's worth noting that every cast member in this show is phenomenal and perfectly cast. Half manage to inject their divine characters with the gravitas and mystique they deserve, while the more human members of the story are adroitly discombobulated by the new way of things and are learning to adjust on the fly. Shadow's wife Laura Moon, the sudden death of whom prompts him to jump in with Wednesday's schemes now that he has nothing left to lose, is this perpetually-bored, not particularly faithful, and suicidally-inclined walking corpse even before her violent demise, and is played with an insouciant charm by the wonderful Emily Browning. She's just one actor in a stellar ensemble, many of whom I'd never seen in anything before. Ian McShane will always be Lovejoy to the British public, but this is another star turn for him as the disguised Odin (which I think the reveal of which was meant to be a surprise, but not to anyone who knows who "Wednesday" is named after and certainly not after his ravens show up).

Anyway, there was some bad news concerning cast and crew changes for the second season - I'll be sad to see Gillian Anderson leave, as the chameleonic new goddess Media - but I have faith (so to speak) that the new season will be every bit as good as the first with the foundations already set. The big question for me is whether or not I'll fold and buy the novel and read ahead. I did it with Game of Thrones and have been sorely tempted to do the same for The Expanse. I guess I'll see whether my curiosity or my apathy for reading wins out.

Movie: Tron: Legacy (2010)

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I remembered the other day that I never saw the Tron follow-up. Tron has always been something I gave (perhaps undue) reverence towards. It was slow and mostly uneventful, but it felt significant too, you know? Like the next big step in digital effects. I feel like a lot of kids my age were wowed by the neon visual style and in love with the idea that there was a big budget Disney Hollywood movie dedicated to nerdy pursuits like computer programming and video games. It's not a movie I rewatched a lot as I got older, but certain imagery like the UFO catcher claw-shaped Recognizer ships or the lightcycles always stuck with me.

Tron: Legacy attempts to do the same for a new generation, I suspect, though to them it probably rings more like a 1980s nostalgic throwback. An idea of the future from the perspective of someone living in the past; sort of like how the Marvel Cinematic Universe has been dabbling with sci-fi and space as envisioned by Steve Ditko and Jack Kirby in the 1960s and 70s. It picks up from the original about two decades later, with Jeff Bridges's Kevin Flynn having vanished soon after the first movie ended and his company Encom turning into a penny-pinching Apple type. Flynn's son, Sam, has no interest in following his estranged father's work, beyond popping in to play pranks on the company, but is intrigued when Alan Bradley - Flynn's friend, Sam's foster father of sorts, and the likeness for the eponymous program Tron - tells him that he received a page from Flynn's old office in his downtown arcade. Sam gets beamed into the grid the same way his old man did, and then we're off to the lightcycle races.

The cast is uniformly fine, especially Bridges invoking Flynn's Zen-like cool in what feels like a The Dude nod, though there were some weird choices made with ancillary characters. Like Michael Sheen camping it up with a flamboyant night club owner slash underworld informant who is performing some kind of one-man Blocky Horror Pixel Show with his brief screentime. Then there's the nightmare-face antagonist Clu: a program created in the likeness of Kevin Flynn who, having not aged unlike his user doppelganger, was created by digitally de-aging Jeff Bridges with special effects that Hollywood would need to work on for several more years before it would look anything close to natural. Unfortunately, Clu is a significant character with a lot of screentime, so there's no getting past the uncanny valley he sits in every time he pops up to yell about perfection in the system or de-rez some incompetent flunky. Beyond that one sticking point, the visual effects are striking - combining modern CGI with the stark visuals and designs of the old movie, all the while maintaining the blue/orange color scheme - and the Daft Punk soundtrack is a lot of fun.

Ultimately, I think the movie is about as good as the original, which wasn't great but certainly had an aesthetic for the ages. It plods along in some stretches, but has some excellent data disk battles (why people are throwing around what are essentially their ID cards is anyone's guess), a game cast with no real weak links, and an affirmation that Tron and that whole digital world is still cool as hell. You know, in a nerdy computer programmer kind of way.

Game: Ni no Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom

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Busy week, so I didn't have too much time for Ni no Kuni II. I am, however, close to the end if the story-related trophies are anything to go by. That doesn't mean I'll be done with the game for a while yet, of course: there's a lot of content to see and do, not least of which is building up my kingdom to its maximum and working my way through an enormous list of side-quests and other objectives like recruiting all the Higgledies, defeating all the tainted monsters, and taking on the Dreamer's Doors procgen dungeons. I get so entranced by side-content in games I don't want to end, even though I've got more 2018 games I want to look into before GOTY season starts in late December (of course, there's no reason I have to commit to completing GOTY before the year's even over, unlike the site).

Ni no Kuni II is this generation's Dark Cloud 2. Effusive praise for sure, but I mean specifically in how it took an excellent and imaginative yet flawed game and produced a sequel that not only addressed those flaws, but somehow improved on the original's vision and innovation. Often, a video game sequel will remedy the flaws of the previous game(s) but feel uninspired, as it's essentially retreading the same material but in a slightly improved fashion. Or, it'll take a wildly divergent route for the sake of remaining fresh and end up seeing plenty of replacement issues with the new format. Ni no Kuni II is the rare case of taking a different route while retaining the core appeal of the first game, adding lots of new content types and a whole new battle system, and all of it works and is amazing. This is Level-5 at their best: nothing too meandering, side-content so varied and multitudinous that it's almost deleterious in its power to distract, and an incredible high-budget presentation that spares no expense between its Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra score and Studio Ghibli animation. If it wasn't unfortunate enough to land in the same year as the next mainline Dragon Quest, it'd easily be the most significant RPG of 2018 in Japan, or anywhere else.

I'll be moving onto a different game this time next week, so my Ni no Kuni II coverage will have been a little less intensive than my frequent Tales of Berseria drop-ins. I feel like I covered all the bases last week and my overall impressions this time, so I'll reiterate: this is easily one of the best games of this year, especially for long-time JRPG fans, and I'm so glad I managed to get around to it before 2018 was through. I've got plenty more JRPGs from 2018 to explore in the years to come - DQXI not least of all, but also Octopath Traveller, Labyrinth of Refrain, Lost Sphear, that Xenoblade Chronicles 2 expansion, and the Switch remaster of The World Ends With You - but they have a high bar to pass.

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Indie Game of the Week 98: Celeste

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I went into Celeste with ambivalent feelings. It's one of the highest regarded games of this year, Indie or otherwise, but it's also one that proudly waves its masocore flag and wears its Super Meat Boy aspirations on its sleeves. I tend to lose my patience very quickly with difficult-for-the-sake-of-difficult games, in part due to the frustration-related "git gud" reasons you might expect, but also in how I've yet to see a game of this specific type really pull off the annoyance-assuaging balance of high difficulty and quick turnover for their whole game length, including Super Meat Boy itself. As these games go on, they lose the careful equilibrium of presenting very short instances of incredibly precise gameplay where a death is but a momentary blip (or several hundred) in your progress. Unfortunately, Celeste also runs into this same apparently inescapable issue.

But let's not start on a sour note. Celeste is magnificent in many ways that a 2D throwback platformer can be. Its controls are fluid, it has no shortage of ideas - each of the game's seven levels (well, eight, but that last one's currently blocked off for me) has its own "gimmick" that it creates enough instances around - it has a surprisingly poignant personal story about depression and having to live with oneself, its pixel art pulls all it can out of an 8-bit (but not really) palette, and it cleverly tweaks the collectible risk vs. reward system where it's not enough to grab the floating shiny (in this case, strawberries) but you have to make it back to stable land before it'll "confirm" the pick-up - a lot of the time, making it back to terra firma is most of the struggle.

There's definitely a lot to like about Celeste. It wasn't long until I was under its spell and into its flow, climbing and wall-jumping and air-dashing my way through multiple screens of obstacles and hazards like it was as natural as breathing. All the while, though, I was dreading the point at which it would eventually get too much for me - that never happened in the core game, but I've yet to attempt the notorious "B-side" variants of these levels - or when I'd start seeing the game go to a dark, dark place to maintain its rising difficulty curve. It eventually did just that in the game's third world: a run-down hotel haunted by malevolence, the last part of which requires running from a deranged concierge. This sequence started introducing very long stretches where you'd need to complete many jumps in a row perfectly before hitting a new checkpoint: an antithesis of the game's prior approach to having one screen with a handful of tough jumps per save. There are other parts of the game where it just went on too long (the game's only "boss fight", for one), or instances where you'd be trying to get a collectible and hit the next checkpoint thinking it would be a closer respawn, only to find that the collectible is now out of reach and you have no way of getting to it without either restarting the chapter over or coming back post-game when you have a limited version of a chapter select. The latter felt particularly vindictive, and more in line with what I'd expect from a masocore game that isn't interested in giving its player a good time. Cruel streaks that inevitably find their way into these types of games and takes them over like a malignant tumor.

Fellow climber and avid blogger Theo is a dork, but he's a nice dork with some deeper characterization further into the game.
Fellow climber and avid blogger Theo is a dork, but he's a nice dork with some deeper characterization further into the game.

That last point factors into what I dislike most about masocore games as a former game designer: I'm always of the inclination that you want to give the audience what they want. With Celeste, that's a challenging experience that is fun to master and mitigates the frustration with frequent checkpointing and minimal downtime between the moment you perish and the moment you respawn close nearby. And yet, because a reputation for stark difficulty must be upheld, you run into the occasional bouts of design cruelty just because. The next checkpoint will arbitrarily block you out of a nearby collectible, and we won't let you revert to the previous. This climactic encounter will have much longer screens without checkpoints because we want it to be more epic and challenging. We'll eventually introduce collectibles that you can't collect unless you beat the whole stage without dying. Eventually, you lose sight of your goal to give the player the best possible time and instead become more fixated on how your game will be perceived, and its reputation among masocore enthusiasts who might decry it for being too soft and accommodating. Celeste doesn't do that often, to its credit, but it does it just enough that I still want very little to do with the subgenre it belongs to. Otherwise, it's a fine game with a lot of heart and imagination that's worthy of its approbations. Just maybe not for me.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

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The SNES Classic Mk. II: Episode XXIV: Quintet-sential

The SNES Classic had a sterling assortment of games from Nintendo's 16-bit star console, but it's hardly all that system has to offer a modern audience. In each installment of this fortnightly feature, I judge two games for their suitability for a Classic successor based on four criteria, with the ultimate goal of assembling another collection of 25 SNES games that not only shine as brightly as those in the first SNES Classic, but have equally stood the test of time. The rules, list of games considered so far, and links to previous episodes can all be found at The SNES Classic Mk II Intro and Contents.

Episode XXIV: Quintet-sential

The Candidate: Quintet's Terranigma

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This episode's kind of a special one for me, which is why I saved it for the penultimate entry. I've spoken a few times about my love for the overlooked Quintet, who developed half a dozen of the best SNES games ever made and then more or less vanished when the PlayStation era came around. While ActRaiser has been a long-time favorite and the Robotrek playthrough was more of a burning curiosity I felt I had to slake, Terranigma has been one of the most imposing white whales for the system and is, bar none, the game on my shortlist for this feature that I wanted to tackle the most.

Terranigma is the third of the thematically-linked Soul Blazer trilogy, after Soul Blazer (reviewed here) and Illusion of Gaia (which is reviewed just below), and like those games concerns the resurrection of the planet and its many flora and fauna. However, it's a much more narratively disjointed and contemplative tale compared to its peers, and far more ambitious to boot. While the lofty environmental, societal, and spiritual themes of these games have been their primary connective tissue, there's a certain other throughline that ably demonstrates the evolution this series has seen: the way it plays.

Each game in the Soul Blazer trilogy is loosely built on the structure of The Legend of Zelda with its real-time, top-down combination of action, combat and puzzle-solving. However, the first game was limited in this regard: you had the standard attack swing and a few spells to fall back on. Illusion of Gaia, as we'll speak more on in a moment, added different forms for your character to take which expanded their repertoire to include fireballs, sliding tackles, and a powerful leap attack. Terranigma's hero Ark has even more moves at his disposal depending on the combination of attack, jump, and run you happen to be holding. What's more, these attacks are more effective against specific types of enemies, ensuring that you don't always make a beeline for the most elaborate maneuver in your arsenal and instead mix it up to find the right tools for the job. The game feels far more fluid as a result, and the extra mobility of the leaping and running protagonist also expanded the number of directions that the dungeon design could take.

There's no reason for this room to exist beyond looking cool.
There's no reason for this room to exist beyond looking cool.

Whereas Soul Blazer was built like a dungeon-crawler, and Illusion of Gaia like a linear novel, Terranigma defies any easy categorization. There's an inclination early on, in which Ark is travelling to a number of towers full of traps and monsters on every floor, that the rest of the game will be structured the same way. To an extent that's true, but the dungeons and towns and other locations take on many forms as Ark's journey progresses, moving from the straightforward work of resurrecting the continents to fulfilling the requirements to revive the birds, beasts, and people. Once our complicated species are on the scene, the game transforms again, adopting story threads with more in the way of human intrigue, elaborate folklore, and before-their-time mechanics like a town-building sim (it's a strange coincidence that I took a break from building my kingdom in Ni no Kuni II to witness Terranigma's much more inchoate version of the idea). The amorphous nature of the game's narrative means that, while you don't get much of a sense of an overarching narrative beyond Ark's journey to resurrect the Earth, you're never quite sure where the game will go or throw at you next. I started the game wandering an inverted planet and fighting my way through ominous but relatively generic tower dungeons, only to find myself a few hours later in Colorado trying to fill the skies with birds again. At the point I had to pause the game to write this piece, I'm about to enter a haunted castle in Spain to solve the mystery of Christopher Columbus's disappearance. Illusion of Gaia had something of this vignette-nature to its story too, but nothing quite like the shifts in scope and purpose.

Despite somehow bouncing off the game an untold number of times in the past, this time it managed to stick and I'm so glad it did. Terranigma is definitely the magnum opus of Quintet's ludography: a culmination of all the strange narrative choices and strong gameplay and level design that went into all their previous works, and a remarkable paragon of innovation and idiosyncrasy even among the SNES's varied and well-considered RPG library.

That said, a game isn't anything unless the P.O.G.S. have taken a shine to it. Don't look at me: they make the rules now. Please, send whatever help you c- Oh no they're outside! They're slamming down the door somehow!

  • Preservation: Though it's never too bad due to the episodic nature of short vignettes, Terranigma does occasionally suffer that old game problem of a lack of clear direction. Some places give you hints via a fortune teller, but they tend to be vague and provide only general goals. Not that the alternative of an ever-present big blinking indicator on the map is necessarily preferable, but the game can screech to a halt at times. Besides that, the controls, pixel art, sound, and the deeply strange story could all find easy purchase in the Steam store today should that ever be an option, and the action gameplay and lack of menu micromanagement means it doesn't drag at all like other SNES JRPGs might. 4.
  • Originality: In many regards, Terranigma is building from the foundations set by Soul Blazer and Illusion of Gaia (and ActRaiser, for that matter), but the bizarre goal of completing dungeons to resurrect major elements of the Earth's ecosystem - from nations to animal kingdoms to entire continents - is quite the hook to stick your game's progression on. The acrobatic gameplay is closer to a Castlevania or Mega Man rather than Zelda or any of the system's other action-RPGs. Despite Terrangima's lofty aspirations, there's still a bedrock of smart quality-of-life-enriched game design, from frequent save points to a lack of fail states (beyond starting over the dungeon from the start) to a magic system that has you burn "magirock" at a store to make spells which then revert back to magirock upon use, meaning you always have a decent supply of magic but not in a fixed state where you can abuse it. Terranigma is definitely out there happily being its own weird little thing. 5.
  • Gameplay: I don't think I've played a better action-RPG for the SNES. Ys V was a lot of fun, but its trial-and-error magic system left a lot to be desired. Secret of Mana had those weird delays between you hit something and when it registered the damage, and waiting for the attack gauge to refresh made combat more methodical and slow than fluid. Secret of Evermore improved on that, but only very slightly. Zelda's was naturally great and fluid, but it didn't have the level of nuance regarding adjusting for monster types and elements that Terranigma does. Tales of Phantasia came closest, though even that was slowed by the genre-standard battle screen transitions. Terranigma builds from what was already a great top-down combat system in Illusion of Gaia and stands at the top of the heap, as far as I'm concerned. 5.
  • Style: Chrono Trigger is rightly heralded as one of the most attractive SNES games ever made, frequently going ham on certain backdrops - the court in Guardia Castle, or the panning shot of Magus's Castle - and adding so much detail to even mundane environments like the kitchens of regular homes. While Terrangima's dungeons are a little less impressive, it still goes for those amazing vistas on occasion, sporting pixel graphics that occasionally look like digitized photos. The Underworld, which also has the best music in an overall fantastic soundtrack, has this amazing inverted Mode 7 effect while moving. The game has some excellent character animations also, especially for its energetic protagonist and his various attacks. While the localization for the European version of the game is a bit stiff in areas, the story still has a compelling nature due to its unpredictability. 5.

Total: 19.

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The Nominee: Quintet's Illusion of Gaia

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It might seem a bit cruel to follow Terranigma with its less polished but still hardworking older brother. The chips just happened to fall this way due to how I structure these blogs to go with the newly discovered game first. Illusion of Gaia, or Illusion of Time as I know it, is the second in the Soul Blazer trilogy, falling directly between Soul Blazer and Terranigma. However, beyond sharing themes of transforming the world (our world, no less) to its original state, all three have some significant differences.

Illusion of Gaia begins with Will in the town of South Cape. He has designs on a life of adventure, chasing after the specter of his missing explorer father, but a chance meeting with the soul of the very planet puts him on a different but parallel course. Though Will is the only playable character, others filter in and out of the narrative, most notably the local crown princess Kara and her porcine protector Hamlet. Will's friends refuse to let him carry his burden alone either, finding themselves along for the ride. As a group, the game travels across the globe from the Nazca Plains to the Great Wall of China to Cambodia's Angkor Wat temple. Sometimes there's monsters to kill and dungeons to explore, but there's the occasional interlude where you have to solve a mystery, break up a slavery ring, or fulfill a dying man's dream. Illusion of Gaia's big ace in the hole is that it was penned by a genuine sci-fi novel writer, Mariko Ohara, so it doesn't generally conform to a typical RPG story arc.

As with the other two games in the trilogy, Illusion of Gaia's gameplay models itself on The Legend of Zelda series but adds a few RPG mechanics in for flavor - nothing much more than automatic stat boosts earned from eliminating all the monsters in each area, though it makes an appreciable difference in the long-run and is a useful way to ensure you're in fighting condition for the boss (any stat boosts you miss in a dungeon are handed to you after its boss fight, conveniently). Will uses a purple flute as his primary weapon, and eventually learns to use a sliding tackle to damage enemies and get through smaller spaces. He is eventually capable of transforming into two other characters, but only in action areas like dungeons: the warrior Freedan, who has an imposing array of dark magic abilities; and the enigmatic Shadow, a formless entity capable of melting through the ground to the floors below. Though Shadow comes very late into the game, both Will and Freedan learn new skills as the game progresses that expands not only their combat potential but their traversal abilities also, which might lend the game a certain spacewhipper/Zelda feel but for the fact that the game is wholly linear and rarely allows you to return to previous areas (which also handily means that everything in a dungeon is accessible the first time you visit). A particular highlight are the game's boss battles, which can be quite challenging if you don't have the mechanics down pat.

There have been weirder looking save room/hubs, but not many.
There have been weirder looking save room/hubs, but not many.

As much as I love Terranigma's soundtrack, I might have to give the "best music" kudos to Illusion of Gaia. In fact, I adore its soundtrack so much I wrote a huge piece on it years ago, going through the songs one by one and describing their effect on my lasting memories of the game, chiefly due to just how atmospheric it all is. Between the story and the affecting soundtrack, Illusion of Time really works itself to the bone to make you care about its central characters, the plights of oppressed peoples around the globe, the cycle of birth and death that governs all life, the underlying and unexplained mysteries of planet Earth and its most famous landmarks, and though the story goes in some insane directions there's a certain transparent purity to the characters and their motivations to help carry you through the more left-field twists. It's sort of like how any Persona game can throw the weirdest, most metaphysical nonsense at you in its final act, but you can weather it because the characters - who you've spent so long with and can relate to - react to these big changes like you'd expect.

It would take more than a 16-bit JRPG with a typically iffy translation before it could reach that point as a medium, perhaps, but Illusion of Gaia was the first game I ever played that convinced me that I could care about little pixellated video game people to the same degree I might about the heroes of a comic book or a movie. Prior to that, all I'd played were western RPGs - the type that usually has you build tabula rasa parties from scratch, which you certainly grow attached to but not in a empathetic sense - and action games that had nary a plot beyond an opening crawl regarding the criminal empire of Mr. Big or an invasion by the evil alien Vectroids. Illusion of Gaia had a genuine story, with genuine emotional moments and a cast you could care about, and that was a revelation to my much younger self.

Illusion of Gaia still means a great deal to me, but if P.O.G.S. should tell me it's awful then who am I to disagree? What is my subjective reality in the face of unflappable (but definitely flippable if you hit the stack just right) science?

  • Preservation: It could use a new localization, but what has helped Illusion of Gaia age well are its elaborate character designs (created by a pro mangaka, Moto Hagio), its aforementioned novel-like story, its linear if atypical progression, its thoroughly accessible light action-RPG gameplay, and music which hasn't lost any of its shine even after the game industry moved to CD audio and beyond. I could happily play Illusion of Gaia again right now and have a grand old time. 5.
  • Originality: You know what's odd? And this only came to me again after reading the SoundTreks blog I linked to earlier, but there's a lot of Illusion of Time's DNA that found itself in Ocarina of Time, not least of which are puzzle mechanics built around melodies with special meaning, the reversal of a corrupted world, and at least one aquatic dungeon where you have to raise and lower the water levels to proceed. I'm not saying Illusion of Gaia's wholly unique itself - it was based on Soul Blazer to some extent, and Link's own earlier adventures - but it's a curious missing link in The Legend of Zelda's own evolution. 4.
  • Gameplay: I enjoy playing Illusion of Gaia, but there's no getting around the truth that its gameplay is frequently its weakest aspect. The top-down combat is fine enough, when everything lines up right, but Will and co. don't have a whole lot of tools in their belt to deal with enemies, and combat frequently relies on you exploiting a special follow-up jump attack that does more damage. The RPG mechanics are so slight that they're practically diaphanous. Of course, all of this is to serve how the game was meant to be this breakthrough hit for those who don't play video games but do read a lot of light novels and manga. In that context, it's easier to comprehend, but it's still a bit on the simple side (though not always easy: some of those boss fights could be real beasts.) 4.
  • Style: The game has a visual language all of its own, including some of the largest and most detailed sprites in any top-down game I've seen, excepting perhaps Konami's Suikoden franchise. The environments could be a little simplistic, but it has a healthy dose of imaginative dungeon settings - the Sky Garden and Mushroom Forest look spectacular, even now. The scenario writing also elevates Illusion of Gaia above its JRPG brethren, benefitted as it is by a professional fiction author. But even if all that wasn't the case, this is yet another automatic 5 for the music. I'm kind of an easy mark when it comes to a fantastic soundtrack. 5.

Total: 18.

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A Jazztronomical Score: Part Three

Greetings, fellow kleptomcats, to another episode of A Jazztronomical Score. If you're just joining us on our merry interdimensional crime spree soirée, this is a semi-regular feature of mine in which I detail my various heists in the Garry's Mod "prop hunter" game mode Jazztronauts. I have the first and second parts lying somewhere around here, so just click anything that looks like a link.

To get you caught up from the end of the last update: I beat the game! That is, I found the milestone requirement of rainbow shards accumulated across all my travels, which triggered the "end of game state". I didn't want to show off the ending for obvious spoiler reasons - I recommend seeing it for yourself if you have a copy of Garry's Mod handy, as the Jazztronauts mod itself is free - but suffice it to say we're now in New Game Plus mode and things are... taking a turn for the sinister. More so, I suppose.

All that said, we're still on the hunt for some cat-specific fetch quest goals - namely some dolls, cars, headcrabs and paintcans - so let's see what the map generator computer can barf up.

Heist the Ninth: "zs_lv426 (Zombie Survival Map)"

The
The "zs_" prefix indicates a zombie survival map, which would normally make this parenthetical redundant. However, its presence makes the title too long for this olde-timey cathode ray to display, which pushed out the "zs_" part and made the parenthetical useful again. An incredible display of two wrongs making a right.

My theory as to why zombie survival maps are usually empty regards the way these maps are structured to run on timers. Jazztronauts loads the map in their prime state and freezes any flags and such that might trigger (or triggers that might flag? Been a while since I've dabbled in Source), so the zombie waves never arrive. That's fine with me, because I imagine they draw from Left 4 Dead's colorful cadavers rather than the alien headcrab zombies Half-Life trucked with. If that's the case, they'll all be big ol' shambling "error"s because I never bought either of those games. Still, that just means more props left unattended for the stealing.

While the map itself ended up being nothing worth writing home about, I did make a few startling discoveries:

Each stage now has a spinning red cube in addition to the shards, and it produces a different - and far more ominous - sound that gets louder as you get closer to it. Activating the cube pretty much destroys every brush and prop in the level, so after this experience I've learned to only hit it once I'm ready to leave.
Each stage now has a spinning red cube in addition to the shards, and it produces a different - and far more ominous - sound that gets louder as you get closer to it. Activating the cube pretty much destroys every brush and prop in the level, so after this experience I've learned to only hit it once I'm ready to leave.
Jazztronaut's NG+ also has frequent trips to the
Jazztronaut's NG+ also has frequent trips to the "Jazz Apartments": a run-down place with this malevolent, shadowy cat. I suspect these interludes are where we're going to get the true story of Jazztronauts, so I won't be including any more for now.

Heist the Tenth: "gm_battleground"

I can only assume from the title/image discrepancy that the maker started with one battleground before adding more.
I can only assume from the title/image discrepancy that the maker started with one battleground before adding more.

Well, how could I resist? If this really is a Battlegrounds map there should be cars aplenty, unless The FOO Show's Will Smith already came by and drove them all off cliffs and into trees.

As before, the map didn't have anything I needed, but plenty of props that I USED to need. Like these explosive barrels: they're everywhere in this map. I think I got like forty of them. I will say that PUBG could probably use more explosive barrels, except I'd have no idea what would happen to the server latency if too many of them exploded at once.
As before, the map didn't have anything I needed, but plenty of props that I USED to need. Like these explosive barrels: they're everywhere in this map. I think I got like forty of them. I will say that PUBG could probably use more explosive barrels, except I'd have no idea what would happen to the server latency if too many of them exploded at once.
I managed to snap a shot of the red cube in its dormant state. Just hovering there, all baleful and such. It has a switch podium next to it with my name on it: I have no way to confirm this, but I think this to assure that the decision to blow everything up is a unanimous one while in multiplayer. After all, Jazztronauts is a game about love and thievery, not griefing.
I managed to snap a shot of the red cube in its dormant state. Just hovering there, all baleful and such. It has a switch podium next to it with my name on it: I have no way to confirm this, but I think this to assure that the decision to blow everything up is a unanimous one while in multiplayer. After all, Jazztronauts is a game about love and thievery, not griefing.
There's also a new gravestone in Bar Samsara. The barely visible indicator suggests I need to nuke ten maps before I get my next story trigger, so it looks like I need to keep on doing that for now. After I find all the shards, of course.
There's also a new gravestone in Bar Samsara. The barely visible indicator suggests I need to nuke ten maps before I get my next story trigger, so it looks like I need to keep on doing that for now. After I find all the shards, of course.

To expand a little more on the NG+ cubes system: Hitting the cube will effectively destroy the map, removing all the brushes and props from the vicinity with the area of effect slowly expanding to cover the entire map in due time. This makes the map almost impossible to navigate in the long run, as the world becomes nothing but an endless ruby-tinted expanse where hard barriers aren't apparent.

To reiterate: everything is being destroyed, not added to the haul, so the cube is best left until the end when you're certain you've had your fill of the place. Fortunately, you don't seem to suffer any ill-effects from being inside the blast radius, but I still tend to set it off and run to a safe distance before bugging out with my ol' friend the mystical cross-dimensional jazz trolley.

Heist the Eleventh: "zs_abandoned_mall"

What kind of mall would this place be without a paint shop, a doll shop, or a parking garage? Headcrabs might be too much to ask for, though, unless the food court has a
What kind of mall would this place be without a paint shop, a doll shop, or a parking garage? Headcrabs might be too much to ask for, though, unless the food court has a "Joe's Headcrab Shack".

It might be poor form to follow one zombie survival map with another so soon, but who wouldn't want to go on a burglary rampage across a mall? I can only hope this place is stacked to the rafters with 100% off bargains if you catch my drift. I could certainly use the cash to buy back all the useful tools and upgrades I lost when we went to NG+ (though the NG+ mode was kind enough to give me a permanent income doubler as recompense).

Dang, all my favorite brands are in this mall. I appreciate the verisimilitude, but that makes this map fraught with licensing issues.
Dang, all my favorite brands are in this mall. I appreciate the verisimilitude, but that makes this map fraught with licensing issues.
Putting boards over the Gap. Obvious, in retrospect. Hey Liv, don't mind me.
Putting boards over the Gap. Obvious, in retrospect. Hey Liv, don't mind me.
Man, how prophetic. They should rename this store
Man, how prophetic. They should rename this store "Dick's Portent Goods".
While I didn't find a huge amount of what I needed, at least I'm covered for paintcans.
While I didn't find a huge amount of what I needed, at least I'm covered for paintcans.
$28k+ of ill-gotten gains is nothing to sneeze at either. I've got both my Stan (pass through walls) and Run (jump real high) powers back now, and upgraded a decent amount to boot.
$28k+ of ill-gotten gains is nothing to sneeze at either. I've got both my Stan (pass through walls) and Run (jump real high) powers back now, and upgraded a decent amount to boot.

Collecting those paintcans means it's time to hang out with our addled friend the Cellist again. This guy has all the best lines, so I can totally understand why his fetch quests appear to be easier than everyone else's. Either that, or I'm just being lucky with the maps I'm choosing.

Turns out he wanted to huff the paint. Well color me surprised.
Turns out he wanted to huff the paint. Well color me surprised.
The paint fumes gets the Cellist back on his favorite subject: art history. In particular, artists with crazy mixed-up lives. Only thing I know about Caravaggio is that Sean Bean was in a biopic of his (where his character dies, naturally).
The paint fumes gets the Cellist back on his favorite subject: art history. In particular, artists with crazy mixed-up lives. Only thing I know about Caravaggio is that Sean Bean was in a biopic of his (where his character dies, naturally).
Our next objective for the Cellist is to bring back a medical professional, presumably to prescribe him anything he wants. Specifically, I am to find Dr. Kleiner somewhere. Maybe I can get him and Lamarr in the same sweep, and work on killing two birds with one stone?
Our next objective for the Cellist is to bring back a medical professional, presumably to prescribe him anything he wants. Specifically, I am to find Dr. Kleiner somewhere. Maybe I can get him and Lamarr in the same sweep, and work on killing two birds with one stone?

For as much fun as it would be to troll the Gmod library for some decent Half-Life maps to fulfill the Cellist's latest request, I should probably focus on the other cats and their demands. The cars one seems the most attainable, so next week I'm going to attempt to wring some entertaining and elucidating content out of exploring parking garages. Wish me luck!

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Saturday Summaries 2018-11-24: Game of the Yesteryear Edition

I've been a little out of it this week due to illness - my head feels like a bowling ball full of green soup where nobody bothered to plug up the holes - but that doesn't get in the way of my regular blogging. Fortunately, my writing has been carefully cultivated over time in such a way that it becomes indistinguishable from the rantings of a guy hopped up on cold medicine, so it should still be business as usual for this edition of Saturday Summaries.

With GOTY season fast approaching, I've been considering just how much my gaming tastes have changed since A) I started writing for this site, and B) since the site itself launched. To that effect, I was curious to see how much my GOTYs of previous years may have shifted in that time. For the unaware, I have a few "GOTY (Adjusted)" lists which see incremental changes around each subsequent year based on how I retroactively feel about the games on those lists and whatever games from that particular year I've only just gotten around to.

To that effect, I've made a little chart below that covers my then-GOTY for 2008 to 2017, my present-GOTY for those years, and the site's own official GOTYs for those years. (I'll hopefully also remember to go back and add 2018's when the site's GOTY content goes out sometime in late December.)

YearMy Then-GOTYMy Current GOTYGiant Bomb's GOTY
2008Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4Grand Theft Auto IV
2009Demon's SoulsDemon's SoulsUncharted 2: Among Thieves
2010Mass Effect 2Mass Effect 2Mass Effect 2
2011SkyrimDark SoulsSkyrim
2012Sleeping DogsSpelunkyXCOM: Enemy Unknown
2013The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between WorldsThe Legend of Zelda: A Link Between WorldsThe Last of Us
2014Super Smash Bros. for 3DSDragon Age: InquisitionMiddle-earth: Shadow of Mordor
2015Pillars of EternityPillars of EternitySuper Mario Maker
2016Stardew ValleyStardew ValleyHitman
2017NieR: AutomataNieR: AutomataPlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds

Now, just for fun, I've put together a second table full of GOTY trivia. This includes games I love that GB ignored, vice versa, and how much of our respective top tens overlapped. For those years with asterisks, that's back when the site didn't have top tens, so I've gone with the top ten created by the aggregation of individual top tens from the staff (which this Reddit thread helpfully curated):

YearMy Highest Ranked Game Not on GB's GOTY Top TenGiant Bomb's Highest Ranked Game I've Not Played (as of 2018)% of GOTY Top Ten in Common
2008Persona 4 (1st)Gears of War 2 (3rd)20%*
2009Demon's Souls (1st)N/A50%*
2010Just Cause 2 (2nd)Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit (2nd)20%*
2011Dark Souls (1st)Gears of War 3 (8th)40%
2012Spelunky HD (1st)Telltale's The Walking Dead (2nd)20%
2013Tales of Xillia (2nd)DOTA 2 (7th)20%
2014Dragon Age: Inquisition (1st)Bayonetta 2 (2nd)30%
2015Pillars of Eternity (1st)Rocket League (3rd)40%
2016Dark Souls III (3rd)Overwatch (3rd)40%
2017Ys VIII: Lacrimosa of Dana (3rd)PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds (1st)30%

And one more for specific Giant Bomb crewmembers, though only those with three or more lists (I made an exception for Jan, Abby and Ben, since they're current staff). Each measures how many shared games we had on our respective GOTY lists. Whose video game tastes do I identify with most at Giant Bomb?

YearJeffBradVinnyDrewRyanAlexScoopsDanJasonAustinBenAbbyJan
20080%10%10%N/A10%N/AN/AN/AN/AN/AN/AN/AN/A
200940%40%50%20%30%N/AN/AN/AN/AN/AN/AN/AN/A
201020%10%20%10%30%10%N/AN/AN/AN/AN/AN/AN/A
201140%20%30%20%40%40%40%N/AN/AN/AN/AN/AN/A
201210%20%30%20%20%30%20%N/AN/AN/AN/AN/AN/A
201340%30%20%20%N/A30%20%N/AN/AN/AN/AN/AN/A
201410%20%20%20%N/A30%40%40%N/A0%N/AN/AN/A
201520%40%40%20%N/A40%60%40%40%10%N/AN/AN/A
201620%40%50%30%N/A30%30%30%20%20%N/AN/AN/A
201720%30%30%30%N/A30%30%20%30%20%30%20%40%
Avg.22%26%30% 21%26%30%
34%
33%
30%13%30%20%40%

(If you want to try this at home, I recommend this resource for all your site GOTY needs. It also helps if you have all your top ten GOTY lists from the past ten years somewhere accessible, which most normal people probably don't.)

We're not quite into this year's GOTY deliberations, but I'm building up to my own. Back in the present, here's what I've been up to:

  • The Indie Game of the Week was the short but sweet investigative adventure game Subsurface Circular from Mike Bithell, a game that is counterintuitively about talking to strangers on the subway. Bithell's always had a dab hand at both creating puzzles and writing some drily amusing stories about the near-future and transhumanism, and Subsurface Circular focuses more on the latter as a narratively-focused standalone that could (along with its "sequel" Quarantine Circular) be the foundation for something far greater he has planned further down the road. As interstitial games go, however, it was still compelling to play and he managed to squeeze in a few good dialogue tree puzzles when so many adventure games have stopping playing in that space almost all together.
  • My more laid-back revolving alternate Tuesday slot went towards the excellent Jazztronauts; a game that sometimes feels built for me with its emphasis on grand larceny, highly amusing cat people, and a clear affection for the many custom maps created by owners of its host program, Garry's Mod. I put up an episode on both Monday ("Heist the First") and Tuesday ("Heist the Second", and maybe a few more). I may continue to put up mini-sodes of what I find across Gmod's user-made multiverse and in the process learn more about my kitty accomplices by completing fetch quests for them. It feels like the kind of game that will keep me entertained for a very long time, albeit in short sessions.

Addenda

Movie: Fletch (1985)

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I gotta say, even though I picked this movie because it's a broad 1980s comedy and I feel too much like death warmed over to attempt anything more cerebral, I did fear the worst. Chevy Chase's reputation was always a little iffy when it came to punching down (though in his defense, when you're 6'3 you don't have many other options) and I was worried his schtick of being a master of disguise in a movie made in the 1980s when we still believed the Chinese were clay goblins who could speak with the sand might lead to a lot of cringe-worthy ethnic humor. Thankfully, barring a comedy afro or two, that did not come to pass.

Fletch is a comedy vehicle for the erstwhile Cornelius Chase, riding high off his SNL kudos, in which he plays an undercover newsreporter hunting for the source of a nasty bit of drug trafficking on the local LA beaches. From there, he finds himself embroiled in an unrelated (though is it?) plot to assassinate a man at his behest. As he juggles both these cases with deadlines looming, he naturally finds a lot of outlets for physical comedy and deadpan one-liners. For what it is, Fletch is entertaining enough, finding the same kind of energy as Beverly Hills Cop where its protagonist is always down for goofing on the armed bad guys in his midst but is occasionally capable of taking things seriously enough when someone waves a gun in his face. It can be a little disjointed: you sort of know what Fletch is up to with his information-gathering, but each scene brings with it a different alias (a running joke is that Fletch always has the worst, least thought-out sobriquets and almost everyone buys them anyway) and a different direction for the humor to go. It makes the story a little awkward to follow at times, but at least it serves Chase's strengths as a comedic actor.

Personally, my favorite part of watching an 80s movie for the first time is seeing how many people I recognize in bit roles. The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air's James Avery as a relatively svelte crooked cop, for instance, or a pre-stardom Geena Davis as Fletch's lovelorn assistant Larry (and presumably someone who was chosen as a potential romantic interest because she can see eye-to-eye with Chevy without a soapbox). I feel like I'd probably have loved this movie if I'd watched it closer to release; my friends and I would have sleepovers where we'd eat snacks and watch comedies from the 70s and 80s all night, and yet Fletch never popped up in that rotation. This movie affirmed my aspiration to be a deadpan wiseacre, perhaps in my later years when I can get away with it. Then again, seeing how Chevy Chase alienated everyone around him when working on Community, maybe there's a limit to just how sassy an old man can afford to be.

Game: Ni no Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom

No Caption Provided

2018 GOTY season is rapidly approaching, so I was quick to dig into one of the few major releases from this year I presently have access to. Ni no Kuni II is outstanding not only as a standalone game, but in how effectively it makes up for the shortcomings of its predecessor. Whatever complaints you may have levied against the first are addressed here to some extent, and the added component of having your own kingdom to manage - which also includes going out into the world and finding new citizens to populate it - creates a side-activity that frequently monopolizes your time.

When the first Ni no Kuni came out, it had several major points going for it and a few going against it. The pros were the incredibly high production values: the animation and character models were provided by the prestigious Studio Ghibli, while the music came courtesy of composer Joe Hisaishi backed by the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra. It also sported one of the best localizations for a JRPG I've ever seen, filled with brilliant puns and wordplay and somehow recreating a manzai comedy routine with two Welsh-speaking fairies that was still hilarious. With Ghibli's deft hand, Ni no Kuni made each of its quirky territories and characters that much more memorable. All of this is still true for Ni no Kuni II, its developers clearly understanding where the franchise's core appeal was situated. Where Ni no Kuni fell apart a little was the frequent unengaging combat and Byzantine system of raising your Pokemon-esque underlings, which is why Ni no Kuni II more or less started over with a more traditional character-based combat engine where your followers - once recruitable monsters that fought on your behalf - instead provided support by way of healing and the occasional powerful one-off attack depending on the Higgeldies (elemental spirits, more or less) you brought with you.

The new combat system relies on a weapon-switching feature where normal attacks builds a "Zing" gauge, and then activating a special attack when this Zing gauge is maxed causes a much more powerful version of it to happen. Doing this causes the current weapon to revert back to zero Zing, necessitating that you swap to the next max-powered weapon for any follow-up specials. The game goes several steps beyond this new and improved combat system however, throwing boons like the Tactics Tweaker - an adjustable tool in which you can tinker with combat bonuses, say damage boosts against specific monster types or boosted resistance to specific types of elemental magic, ideally those matching the foe you're about to face - and an elaborate equipment crafting system back home. There are also Skirmishes, which are RTS battles that operate on a rock-paper-scissors troop system and requires that you use your finite amount of "military might" to its greatest advantage. The game has no shortage of objectives to follow, whether that's recruiting new citizens for your kingdom, researching new passive boosts and constructing new buildings in your kingdom, pursuing the powerful "tainted monsters" sub-bosses, acquiring new recipes for your kingdom's cook, taking on the game's randomized "dreamer's door" dungeons, attempting optional skirmishes, ducking into side-areas on the world map to see what they contain, or - heaven forfend - actually following the main story progression. Many RPGs are capable of pulling off the "Buridan's Ass" trick, but it's always both astonishing and mildly embarrassing to be so fully captivated by a game that's constantly pulling you in multiple directions.

I'll have more to say next week, but the game has already left a strong impression on me and I've scarcely stopped playing it since starting last weekend. My regular blog content next week will bogart a lot of my attention - the SNES Classic is looking at a pair of sizable RPGs, and I suspect I might struggle with the upcoming Indie Game of the Week - but I hope to find the time to keep playing Ni no Kuni II. It's making a compelling case for my #1 spot this year.

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Indie Game of the Week 97: Subsurface Circular

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It's Thanksgiving today, and what could be more festive than a group of disaffected robots discussing transhumanism? That's more or less the impetus of Mike Bithell's 2017 "short", Subsurface Circular: a largely passive adventure game in which a detective robot interviews a series of other androids on the titular underground conveyance about what they know and who they are.

I knew going into this game that I'd run into the potential issue of having very little to say. It's a story-driven game that depends a lot on learning new information and piecing together the truth behind the central mystery, neither of which are served by too much expatiation from yours truly. Likewise, the interface is a simple dialogue tree wherein you select responses to gather information or make decisions. It's not the kind of game with a lot of puzzles, though there are a few that involve bouncing between conversations, or much in the way of branching paths. If it can be said to be "replayable" at all, it's in how you can review the same discussions with the context provided by the final twist, but for the most part it's a short story made interactive.

The appeal of Subsurface Circular is, naturally enough given its genre, the witty and insightful writing. Each of Mike Bithell's games, from Thomas Was Alone to Volume, has had an entirely playable action-puzzle foundation built to support a lot of clever dialogue and incidental narration. Bithell clearly gets a lot of satisfaction from spinning his narratives and constructing puzzles alike, but it feels like the former has finally superseded the latter in this case, and in the case of the structurally similar follow-up Quarantine Circular. Even if the game is heavily text-based, the clean and well-lit look of the game's various robot models - each of whom has enough to distinguish themselves from the others, even without faces - and that of the Subsurface Circular itself lend the game a harsh, angular but compelling look. It's a continuation of Bithell's polygon-focal presentation for Volume, which is explicitly stated to exist in the same universe.

The real Subsurface Circular are the robot friends we make along the way.
The real Subsurface Circular are the robot friends we make along the way.

The game has exactly one puzzle in which I might suggest breaking out a pen and pad or a notepad file if that's more your speed - a deductive logic puzzle that took me a few tries to get right - while the rest often rely on simply gleaning a piece of information from one passenger and using that to progress your dialogue tree with another. Like many great compact Indie games, it feels like one small aspect of a much bigger RPG or adventure game taken to an extreme level of commitment; the sort of dialogue tree puzzles that might exist in a BioWare RPG if it had more development time fleshing that particular element out, rather than mech suits and colored loot or whatever else they're doing these days. If a game wholly based on those types of instances appeals to you, or you enjoy stories about robots discussing what it means to be human (or being a self-aware artificial intelligence in a human world) in a frequently droll and urbane manner, I'd recommend checking out this excellent value adventure game.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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