The Top Shelf: Case Files 021-025: "The World Needs Laughter"

Welcome to The Top Shelf, a weekly feature wherein I sort through my extensive PS2 collection for the diamonds in the rough. My goal here is to narrow down a library of 185 games to a svelte 44: the number of spaces on my bookshelf set aside for my PS2 collection. That means a whole lot of vetting and a whole lot of science that needs to be done, five games at a time. Be sure to check out the Case File Repository for more details and a full list of games/links!

Case File 021: Koei/iNiS's Gitaroo Man

No Caption Provided
  • Original Release (JP): 21/06/2001
  • PS2 Exclusive!

There are two cult PS2 games that everyone seems to love but towards which I'm fairly indifferent. One is a game that rhymes with "Mod Banned" (which is what I'll be if it gets out that I don't care for God Hand) and the other is this game, a typically off-beat-except-you-have-to-stay-on-beat rhythm game from eventual Ouendan/Lips creators iNiS. The player is a fixed blue dot in the center of the screen, and has to follow notes coming in via a circuitous track with the analog stick, except for when they're avoiding enemy attacks in which point it resembles the standard hitting buttons as they fly in from all sides. This part essentially takes the four (or more) parallel vertical bars from something like DDR or Guitar Hero and shifts them into a more panic-inducing configuration. It's a familiar enough set-up for a rhythm game, so it's more the surreal visuals and narrative madness going on around it that has helped the game's legacy endure, along with its catchy Beatmania-style EDM and J-Pop tracks. For whatever reason, though, the game didn't grab me like Parappa did. Maybe because it's a little more challenging to keep up with. I feel like I should give it one more spin for old time's sake. (Also, I guess the game is kinda rare these days? Maybe I should consider displaying it for prestige value...) Considered.

Case File 022: Syscom's City Crisis

No Caption Provided
  • Original Release (JP): 06/28/2001
  • PS2 Exclusive!

My decision to purchase City Crisis was influenced by two things: its incredibly low price and its superficial similarity to EA's Strike series of multifaceted tactical chopper shooters. City Crisis is a lot more single-minded than the stage-specific variable tasks approach any given Strike game will present, instead focusing more on a traditional Choplifter style "find dudes, bring dudes back to HQ, find more dudes" cycle of gameplay that also incorporates some aerial firefighting. It's an unusually straightforward older style of gameplay in an era where games were becoming more complex, and while it isn't particularly terrible it didn't really do a whole lot for me either. Visually, the game straddles the PS1 and PS2 eras, suggesting someone flipped a coin at some point during its development, and the presentation is full-on Sega Arcade game tier complete with punchy menu noises and a robotic female announcer. All it needed was some Offspring music and you they could've ship[ed it as "Craaaazy Search and Rescue Chopper". I can't really be mad at a game this earnest about what it is, where the order of the day is earning high scores by winching up trapped people (and pets) and firing water missiles at burning buildings for hours straight. What I can and will do, however, is cut it from this list. Eliminated.

Case File 023: Squaresoft's Final Fantasy X

No Caption Provided
  • Original Release (JP): 19/07/2001
  • Not PS2 Exclusive (saw a recent HD remake for multiple systems)

The debut of Final Fantasy X, one of the PlayStation 2's finest RPGs, is where the PS2 started to turn around for me in a big way. I'd been waiting months for some justification for buying into the PS2 generation early, and while Dark Cloud was a fine enough stopgap it was the sheer production values of Final Fantasy X and its smart distillation of what worked from the PS1 trilogy of critically-acclaimed Final Fantasy games that solidified my appreciation for the platform. You couldn't make Final Fantasy X on anything less than the PS2 platform back in 2001. I feel like every new console needs a case like that before you can say they've arrived, though only a handful are ever fortunate enough to have one at launch. It was, and continues to be, within my top three favorite entries in the Final Fantasy series alongside VI and Tactics for its slick variant of the Active Turn Battle system and the overwhelming customization and micromanagement options to be found in its "Sphere Grid" character development tools. I like its story too, of course, though there are aspects of it I could leave behind; in particular its flawed, obnoxious protagonist and that dub though. I will also say that my most enduring memories are less than positive ones, though that's only because I spent so much time dodging lightning bolts, racing chocobos, fighting superbosses and playing the incomprehensible numbers game of Drownball to earn all those ultimate weapons. This is going to hurt because I consider FFX to be one of the definitive and most formative PlayStation 2 JRPGs, important both historically as well as personally, but I simply can't get past the existence of that improved HD version of the game. If you were to try to convince anyone to play Final Fantasy X today, you'd do so with that HD collection, either out of convenience or for the sake of preserving some of the impact of witnessing its incredible presentation for the first time in 2001. What I'm going to do is forward it to the "Considered" list, knowing full well my heart won't be in any argument I could make to favor it over some PS2 exclusive RPGs out there of a similar caliber. It's this feature's equivalent of "don't call us, we'll call you". Hey, who knows, maybe when @zombiepie starts blogging about it I might revise my stance. Considered.

Case File 024: Zoom's Mr Moskeeto (Mister Mosquito)

No Caption Provided
  • Original Release (JP): 21/07/2001
  • PS2 Exclusive!

I really like Mr Moskeeto on a conceptual level, as it spins a narrative around a dysfunctional family of increasingly irritated Japanese dorks who spend the Summer getting harassed by a bloodsucking insect, but sometimes actually playing it is more of a chore than it needs to be. In order to complete every one of its stages the player has to collect blood from a number of "weak points" on these humans, each of which resemble a titan from your perspective, and try not to get swatted in the process. As you continue to drain them, they get more angry with you and you'll often have to face them in these one-sided duels where the only way to survive is to charge-slam their chakras to calm them down. The drama as the family falls apart, the slightly sinister voiceover and the desperate depths they sink to in order to get rid of the single mosquito in their house are worth the struggle, however. Personally, I just like any game that takes a regular environment like a suburban home and Levelords it, turning the house into an entire universe with its furniture and fixtures as islands and continents. I'd often fly around the large environments looking for secrets and odd details. As much I admire this game for its bizarre choices, I can't say it has any chance of hanging on the shelf. It is making me consider clearing out a second shelf for the weirdest PS2 games in my collection, though. Hey, there's a sequel idea. Eliminated.

Case File 025: Treasure's Freak Out (Stretch Panic)

No Caption Provided
  • Original Release (EU): 27/07/2001
  • PS2 Exclusive!

Speaking of bizarre choices, the legendary Genesis developer Treasure created three games total for the PlayStation 2: two shoot 'em ups, which I don't own, and this game. Freak Out, which is also known as Stretch Panic in the US and Hippa Linda (Stretch Linda) in Japan, is a 3D platformer that doesn't really do much in the way of platforming. Rather, the player is given twelve boss fights which they can complete in mostly any order, as well as "EX" stages to allow them to practice with the game's unusual grappling mechanics. In order to effectively damage enemies, the player has to reach out with their demonic scarf and pinch part of an enemy's anatomy, then pull it back and release. Each boss has their own selection of weak points to aim for, and the game rates you based on the efficiency of causing damage to those zones rather than the chip damage caused by stretching any other part. It's all as strange as it sounds, though the practice level gives you plenty of opportunity to get to grips with it, as it were. As novel as the game is, it's so short as to be a tech demo for yet another type of game made possible by dual analog-stick controls. After you defeat the heroine's twelve sisters, each battle requiring anywhere between five to twenty minutes depending on how long it takes you to figure out how the boss ticks, the game suddenly ends. Treasure makes a lot of games where the longevity comes from mastery; you play them over and over until you're good enough to waltz through them without continues, often seeking a high score or two, but that format's a little incongruous in the context of a 3D platformer with a story. Still, there aren't a whole lot of games where you're pinching pneumatic demons with a demonic scarf, and the boss designs can be kind of cool: there's one where you can't even look at the boss without dying, so the goal is to attack her through the door, windows and walls of the house she's trapped you in. I mean, the game's still going to be eliminated, but I just wanted to give it its due as a close runner-up. Eliminated.

Results

A trio of eliminations today, but no hard feelings about any of them. City Crisis, Stretch Panic and Mr Moskeeto all have their charms, but given their relative arcade-style simplicity I suppose they don't really represent what I like most about the PlayStation 2 era. That's not to say there's no place for mechanically simple games built around brief sessions, but there's a huge number of games coming up on this list with a lot more scope and ambition. Games like the above have a design philosophy that reflects an earlier and more innocent era of gaming, for better or worse.

Also, none of them are particularly good? I'm fond of them, but I doubt I'd recommend any of them as highlights of this generation. That's probably a better reason for excluding them than waffling on about arcade-style simplicity and design philosophies.

We're now 7 for 25 for games to be considered for the shelf, and at this stringent rate we might just land on our magical number of 44 finalists without even necessitating a second round of eliminations. I'm looking at next week's assortment and while I don't think we'll be adding too many more to the list of finalists they are, like this week's batch, at least noteworthy enough to comment on. I'll see you then.

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