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Discography Odyssey: Pixies Part One, Come on Pilgrim/Purple Tape

This is a series of blogs that I wrote/was writing about two years back on 1Up, before that community kinda went sideways with the whole we-just-fired-most-of-the-good-talent-we-had-left debacle. Have recently thought about doing it again, so here I am...doing it again, though starting with the already written entries so that I can prepare and write for the future ones. In short, this is a thrice weekly series of reviews/criticisms where I chronologically go through the discography of a popular band, offering my reflections on each of their albums. I started the whole thing with a series on one of the most influential bands of the back half of the 80s: Pixies.  

No Caption Provided
 A quick bit of clarification: Come on Pilgrim and Surfer Rosa should not be considered as companion pieces. Despite many of the songs on Pilgrim later appearing in variant form on Rosa, the common grouping primarily arose from an unfortunate decision on Rough Cut's part to issue both albums in a single attractive package when the CD re-releases came around. To make matters worse, they sequenced Pilgrim after Surfer Rosa within the collection, giving the impression that Come On Pilgrim was a later group of sessions. This is really baffling to me, and  the only explanation for this I can think of is that (historically speaking) Surfer Rosa stands as a more seminal body of work than Pilgrim. Thus it became the main attraction, whereas they saw Pilgrim as a side attraction, for the collectors and enthusiats.

The problem of course is that Pilgrim has a lot going for it, including songs that don't appear on Surfer Rosa and a more stripped down (thus enlightening) production than Surfer Rosa's alienating but enchanting sense of space. Thus, to only consider Pilgrim as the "the Surfer Rosa practice sessions" is horribly misguided and sells the album short. 

The second half of this blog will center around what fans typically refer to as "the Purple Tape", which constitutes the rest of the material recorded during the Come On Pilgrim  sessions but was considered not ready for wide release at the time. More on that later.

First and foremost, consider the earliest Pixies material released, Come On Pilgrim. The essential elements of the Pixies' sound are all there, especially early Pixies which can be termed as "Space Country": a sparse, noisy selection of songs that offer an off-kilter reflection of the singer-songwriter lexicon of the best of 50s and 60s country-western music. The twist comes into two places: the musicians have been weened on the adrenaline of punk rock, and the singer in question is possibly insane. Attempting to dissect (Frank) Black Francis' lyrics can lead to some seriously unsettling conclusions. It is odd for any band to have two songs dedicated to the subject of Biblical incest on one album ("Holiday Song" and "Nimrod's Son"), much less stack them directly on top of each other as if forcing the point.  
Still, even more disturbing is how Black hardly ever obscures his subject matter lyrically, but rather gleefully seems to shriek them as twisted gospel, backed up appropriately enough by the angelic vocals of Kim Deal and her grooving bass lines. Cornered in by David Lovering's pounding drums and Joey Santiago's surrealistic guitar sounds, the band presents itself with as much energy and yearning as their contemporaries in a sound that seems completely left field. Structurally it is Country-Western gospel, but the tone of both the lead guitar and a loose drumming pattern makes it swim in trippy atmosphere and float away. There is very little production to get in the way of performance, offering a fairly close idea of what a Pixies live show at this point in their career would have sounded like. Overall, Come On Pilgrim serves as both a bold debut for a band with clearly a lot of ideas floating around, as well as a sampling of things to come in the near future. By the time the jangling "Levitate Me" finishes its childishly simple and nonsensical dark dance, Black and his co-conspirators have left those lucky enough to hear demanding more.

Interestingly enough, the Purple Tape material (eventually released official-like in the post-Fight Club resurgence of Pixies popularity under an eponymous title, despite circulating in bootleg circles for years) actually suggests a far deeper and wider set of influences than the material that appeared on Come on Pilgrim, yet none of it sounds nearly as exciting. Besides the early recording of "Broken Face" (which feels like it could belong on Pilgrim,) the rest of the throw away material feels like songs in the making, recorded in an embarrassing infancy. Nearly all will be fleshed out to perfection in their final variant, especially "Here Comes Your Man", which has all the pop sensibilities the final version will have but with an over emphasis on being too twangy and sweet rather than the desperate pleading it eventually earns. Still, the album is an interesting compare-and-contrast hodge-podge for later recordings, picking out certain riffs and ideas that appear in completely different songs than their original home. Also included is the live classic and David Lynch send-up "In Heaven", as well as "Rock A My Soul", the only thing coming close to a lost treasure as it was never given a full treatment, but rather scavenged for ideas in later releases.

Why Bungievision Makes Sense

I first learned about the Bungie/Activision deal about five hours ago now, during my lunch break. And like most people, my first reaction was a mixture of disbelief, shock and (perhaps strangely) sadness. It looked like a the early portents of another ugly relationship, especially in the midst of the Infinity Ward/Respawn ugliness still unfolding. However, given time to digest and consider, I've come to the final conclusion that Bungie's deal is not only a logical move for the company, but is probably the best possible outcome for them as a company.
Let's make one thing very clear up front: Activision did not buy Bungie. I'll repeat that for emphasis: ACTIVISION DID NOT BUY BUNGIE. If they had, this would be a much shadier proposition for Bungie to be walking into, and one that didn't make much sense given their current dissatisifaction with their relationship with Microsoft Game Studios; they effectively would have been moving  from being the servant of one master to another, and the second master has a reputation for being kind of a dick. So it is important to understand that, for Bungie, their identity is still fully autonomous. They aren't the new Infinity Ward, because Infinity Ward was/were complete employees of Activision-Blizzard, and as such were ultimately victims of Activisions management. To put it more succinctly, Bobby Kotick can't fire Harold Ryan. The worst that Activision can do is to withhold money, which isn't in their own best interest as I'll explain in a moment. Bungie has essentially landed themselves in the enviable position of being held responsible to no one, but having a very rich big brother to help pimp their game when the time comes.
Something else to keep in mind is the options that Bungie had. As far as I can tell, there were really only five people who have the actual funds to reasonably enter into relationship with Bungie: Microsoft, Sony, EA, Ubisoft and Activision. More middle-sized publishers like 2K and Warner Brothers may have been interested, but their coffers just don't compare to those other companies and ultimately they were going to have to wash their hands. Microsoft may have at one time been keenly interested in keeping their relationship with Bungie in-tact, but seeing how they have their own studio to keep making Halo games and a pretty chummy relationship with Epic, they have all the shooter houses they need. Same for EA, with both DICE and whatever Respawn becomes. For Ubisoft, a major powerhouse FPS in their pocket might be attractive, but it also really isn't meshing with their current corporate culture and would cost more than they are really set up to gamble. 
That leaves Sony and Activision as the only two companies that have a real option in having an active partnership with Bungie, and Sony isn't going to want to play the 2nd Party developer game with someone as big as that; they'll want to own anyone who's making a title that they could conceivably make into a marquee name.  From Activision perspective, this was a more necessary move: they just lost the biggest FPS dev house in the world ostensibly, and while most people are completely clueless to the people who make their shooty games, the Call of Duty brand can only last so much longer. So invest in the guys what made Halo, piggy-back on that and have to compromise that you aren't going to own the IP, but have exclusive rights for it over the next decade. And to be honest, what franchises last much longer than a decade these days anyway? If they can create the magic that happened around Modern Warfare 2 and Halo 3, turning the game into an event, they can continue to fund themselves over and into the next big IP they can run into the ground.
So yeah, this really is an everyone wins scenario. Bungie has a safe and interested cash line for the next ten years as well as fully autonomy from the sort of corporate overlords that caused the Infinity Ward fallout, Activision gets their response to whatever Respawn has cooking and hopefully we gamers benefit from a great dev house having the financial backing of a very invested publisher who quite likes putting out the games that you want to buy. I understand the gut reaction of "Well there goes the neighborhood," but from the perspective of business, it is in Activision best interest that Bungie makes a kick-ass game, but they don't have the power to whip them across the back and demand it yesterday. And I, for one, am still very interested to see what Bungie has been wanting to do ever since they started to consider life after Halo.


Games of the Year, Part 6: 2009

 Ganking Fools Something Harsh  
 Ganking Fools Something Harsh  
A quick anecdote: near the end of Assassin's Creed II, I was collecting stray  codex pages in Venice. As I approached a goal while leaping across rooftops, I encountered an archer on the roof. Not wanting to alert him, I creeped up behind and shoved a hidden blade into his back before he could cry out for help. His body dropped to the ground, lifeless as I started to look for possible tools to gain entrance to the guarded room containing the codex page. Thankfully, the fact that the city had started raining archers attracted a small crowd, which gathered around the poor corpse, including the guards assigned for that very same location. I sneaked over to the entrance, dropped down and lifted the codex. Unfortunately, by the time I was fleeing, one guard was on his way back to his post, only catch me attempting to exit. Alerted, he called out for help from the crowd of crowds to take care of the intruder. Begin chase sequence, ending in my running up the side of one building and diving into a nearby canal, swimming away to safety. 
Keep in mind that was a random encounter. Nothing was specifically scripted to happen, but it occurred within the certain magic that permeates any well made open world game. The actual scripted moments of AC II are that much better. Running through the streets of 15th century Italy is a such a thrilling delight, it is almost a pity that the game's occasionally frantic pace can make soaking in the atmosphere difficult. Of course, there is plenty of time to explore and admire the sprawling cities, learning every nook and cranny of each of the three unique cities. Unlike it predecessor, padded out time to disguise its limited bag of tricks, Assassin's Creed II is constantly bursting with new thrills and experiences. The frustration is that some of the more memorable moments only occur one time before moving on to its next stunning set piece. But that is the best kind of problem to have.
Everything has been improved from the original game. The combat offers an often fluid combination of cautious defense, blunt offense and fatal counters. The story is a two-pronged attack of Dan Brownesque political thriller set against the Italian Renaissance and near future sci-fi head trip. (When these two narrative converge is when the game's true brilliance shines.) Ezio's traversal of his environment feels kinetic and physical, especially during the Prince of Persia inspired Assassin's Tomb sequences that make up the most enjoyable challenges of the game. You feel both empowered by the ease that he has with killing fragile human beings, and overwhelmed by the vast conspiracy he's stumbled into. 
Ultimately, Assassin's Creed II is that rare gem of an open-world game with a purposeful hand behind it. The sense of discovery and variety provides a constantly entertaining experience, while it gently leads you towards its mind-blowing conclusion. It scratches that addicting "Just one more mission" itch, constantly pushing you forward. As the credits end, the Assassin's Creed franchise has redeemed itself from an unfortunate after thought to a series that I eagerly await the next installment in. It is the realization of all of the failed promise of its well-meaning older brother. Maybe I should blame lowered expectations, but no game left as strong an impression on me this past year as Assassin's Creed II. It was consistently the most intriguing, most exciting and most pure fun gaming experience I've had in the last 12 months. And if that doesn't qualify as a GOTY,  I don't know what does.

Games of the Year: Part 5, 2004-2008

And then there were five. This process of covering all the best games year by year has been enlightening, as its forced me to really get a fuller view picture of how far gaming has come, and where it still falls short. Of course, it also made for some tough choices, as great years in gaming seem to cluster, while some years...well, just don't really measure up. 
This last list was especially interesting because it is the only set of time I might consider myself a "serious" gamer, interested in game design and various aspects of the so-called "industry." I started listening to 1Up Yours during E3 in 2006, and have been an avid listener to various gaming podcasts ever since. All of which is to say, this is the only list of games I really fully remember learning about far before their release. They are games I heard of, then saw, then played, then formed an opinion on. Thus, I feel that these opinions might be the most fully evolved and certainly the most fresh.
But lets get on with the list.



Half-Life 2 (PC)

 Well Hey There
 Well Hey There
The narrative of Half-Life 2 is never fully explained in torturous exposition, which is naturally why it is so compelling.  The story of Gordon Freeman waking up in a dystopian future with little understanding of his surroundings creates a perfect backdrop for Valve's effortless shooter masterpiece. The pacing of Half-Life 2, with its puzzles followed by combat followed by puzzles that lead to more combat, continually pushes you forward. The characters you meet are well-defined without feeling like creations. The world is one of horror and wonder, with Gordon constantly uncovering more broken segments of the Combine's manipulations. The game is essentially one unbroken shot, a trademark of Valve's games, that briskly moves along. One of the greatest testaments to Valve's design is that it proves that linear game design is not a fault, but a skill, offering a game that is the creation of master auters at the height of their craft.



Psychonauts (Multi-Platform)

 Don't Mess With Raz
 Don't Mess With Raz
It is a bit (okay, really) difficult to make out, but my avatar is actually a screenshot from a fictional demake of Psychonauts for the Game Boy.  The Milkman Conspiracy level to be precise, which is just one example of one of the games highlights. While many better 3D platformers have been made from a purely mechanical standpoint, none have a core concept quite so fascinating: every level is the psyche of a game's character. This includes the portion of their personality that they want you to see, and the pain and torment they have locked away. Supported by the genius writing of Tim Schafer and Eric Wolpaw, the game offers surprisingly rich portraits of complex human beings within the guise of Tim Burton inspired grotequeries. The resulting experience is amusing and thought provoking, and is in turns moving and disturbing.  



Guitar Hero 2 (Multi-Platform)

 Getting the Band Together
 Getting the Band Together
Yes, it is hard to remember when the whole  peripheral  guided rhthym game genre was still novel. And yes, 2006 wasn't exactly a watermark year for gaming. But Guitar Hero 2 is still a high mark for the series, mostly because it introduced the concept of playing together, either in co-op or in competition. It provided the first hint of what it felt like playing in a group, and offered a soundtrack of fairly shredtastic tunes. Most importantly, with its new outrageous characters and bloated venues, the game fully utilized the rock-star-simulator aspect of the original game to the umpth degree. While the ongoing Rock Band/Guitar Hero war becomes more and more grating as days go by, this second entry in the then-unknown battle is most likely the zenith of the Hero series. It built upon the excitement and promise of the original, and offered a basic blueprint for where Harmonix would grow next.



Portal (Multi-Platform)

 Try Not to Vomit
 Try Not to Vomit
If Half-Life 2 is a bold, inspiring attempt at reimagine the FPS genre, then Portal is the clear heir to its throne. Short, sparse and effortlessly streamlined, the game constantly surprises and urges the player along. And while much can be made of the narrative (I still hold that the whole game functions as a meta-commentary on the structure of video games, with the player as Chell, GLaDOS as Valve and cake served up glorious by Jonathan Coulton), the game wouldn't be any good if not for the expertly designed puzzle dynamics. The majority of the games head play is made up of sorting out how to get across spaces using carefully designed portals, then implementing occasionally tricky timing to actually execute. Chell nevers act offensively, purely in defense, but the amount of empowerment towards the end is rather amazing. The tug and pull between feeling like you're breaking free, only to realize that you're following the very path you're designed to go along, is not only a masterful bit of game design, but something that will help inspire years of indie game philosophy.



Dead Space (Multi-Platform)

 Someone Should Clean This Up
 Someone Should Clean This Up
After doing 25 of these, it probably is becoming clear that setting is very important to my opinions on games. From the husk of planet Zebes, to the bright neon of Vice City, to the quirky  Whispering Rock Psychic Summer Camp, few things will cause me to love a game more than an imaginative locale within which to play. Perhaps that is why exploring the husk of the USG IShimura left such a strong impression with me. Or perhaps it was the clever use of mining tools to solve puzzles and hack off limbs from raging necromorphs. It could be the unbelievable sound design, only fully appreciated in full 5.1 surround. Or how Dead Space doesn't limit itself to the stock standard rules of survival horror, and offer a setting at once familiar and alien (no pun intended). While it certainly borrows a lot from other games  (including games on this very list, namely System Shock and Half-Life 2,) the precision and detail that went into every second of Dead Space created a memorable and truly frightening experience that served as the highlight of the last year of gaming.
And that's it. Every game for every year, from the bleak 1984 to the impressive 2008. Again, the leaps and bounds gaming have gone through in a relatively short amount of time is pretty awe-inspiring, and makes me very excited about the future. If interested, check back here in two weeks to see my write-up for what I consider the best game of 2009.

Games of the Year: Part 4, 1999-2003

I would have sworn I already wrote this, but apparently I just put my list together. Anyway, better late than never.  
For those late to the party: I'm naming the best game to come out every year since I was born. (Those keeping score, that was 1984...hey, that rhyme!) You can read all previous sections hither, yonder and thither.


System Shock 2 (PC)

 Great Video Game Villain? Or Greatest?
 Great Video Game Villain? Or Greatest?
Cliff Bleszisnki semi-recently commented that RPG was the future of FPS. While the actual parsing of that sentence is headache inducing, it isn't hard to see that he's one to something.  Of course, if he had been paying attention, he would have known that Ken Levine and Waren Specter already figured that out, more than a decade earlier. With System Shock 2, Levine and his team at Irrational created possibly the most rare of gaming experiences, something both frightening and cerebral. While the game falls much more heavily on the RPG side of the hybrid formula, it shows a vision for games to cross borders much more boldly than any game before it. By using audio logs and ghostly projected images as narrative tools rather than rote cut scenes, Irrational is challenging traditional storytelling devices while also submerging the player into System Shocks dire, opressive world. By the time the game reaches its predicatably sequel-hinting end, the player has been given a glimpse into the future of first-person gaming, even if we're only starting to see the full influence.



Diablo II (PC)

 Demonic Granduer
In the last entry, I mentioned that all of Blizzard's first run of genre-defining titles were skipped over, mostly because the level of content coming out in that era was unprecedented. And that same level of quality could be argued for this batch of years, but I would be remiss to not give the nod to Diablo II.  The amount of time I've sunk into this game is near criminal. And I'm not alone; Diablo II still is frequently patched and rebalanced. It is timeless in its refinement and balance, as well as the compulsion to collect more loot. No wonder Blizzard would go on to master the MMO genre; they already proved they understand the compulsion of going over just that next hill. Even each class plays like its own experience, with differing strategies and approaches. Add the variations possible in 8-player coop, and you have a game that is endlessly replayable and enjoyable. While a good argument can be made that WoW is Blizzard's shining achievement as far as player base, it is hard to argue that they have ever made a game quite as brilliant as Diablo II.  



Silent Hill 2 (PS2)

 Is This My Special Place?
 Is This My Special Place?
Excuse me to be dismissive for a moment, but the first Silent Hill always felt like Konami's attempt to cash in on the whole survival horror boom that was going on in the late 90s, with the added "twist" of combat being completely worthless rather just mostly worthless. Which is why its such a shock that the first sequel is among the most ambitious examples of storytelling ever attempted. The story of James Sunderland at first seems quite horror 101: he recieves communication from his dead wife, and understandably travels to the mentioned town of Silent Hill to figure out why exactly. However, it quickly becomes quite clear that nothing is quite as rote as it initially seems. Everything that James experiences is thrown into question as it becomes very clear that he himself is not fully sane. So the question becomes if the monsters James encounters are real, or merely projections of his broken psyche. The game never answers these fully, and offers multiple outcomes of various tragedy. But Silent Hill 2 is more about questions than answers anyway, and challenges the player to come to their own conclusions. By respecting the gamer's intelligence, the game rises above its "Me Too" legacy and becomes one of the true masterpieces of a crowded genre.



Grand Theft Auto: Vice City (PS2)

 Feeling Like the Shit
 Feeling Like the Shit
Few games have defined the last ten years of gaming quite as much as what direction Rockstar decided to move into with the third installment of the Grand Theft Auto series. But it wasn't until Vice City that the games hit their sadistic stride. By shifting away from a nameless protagonist into the shoes of Tommy Verceti, who very quickly learns that there is not such thing as loyalty in the criminal underworld. Thus begins an ambitious journey for power and revenge in Vice City, which is really the star of the game. While Liberty City was a comedic pastiche of urban America (most specifically New York City,) Vice City was set in a specific time and place. The time machine approach of using the Miami Vice environment allowed the game to operate within understood archetypes. By adding meat to the glorious bones of GTAIII, Vice City created a living, breathing world that demands to be explored. It proved that the key to making lasting sandbox games is to create a sandbox well worth living into.
A quick note before rounding out this list: All of the previous games are sequels. Specifically, all but one are the first sequel, and Vice City is the second 3D GTA game, so it also counts. This might come off as a bit soapboxey, but I think that it deserves to be said that gaming is one of the few artforms where the product of the sequel can (and quite often does) far outstrip that which has come before. This is due to the experimentation of the original allowing for greater refinement in the follow ups. Of course, sometimes there can be a misstep, but overall I think sequels can be a healthy and positive thing for most games. Of course, that is not to be mistaken to games being sequeled into death. That, as with anything, is never good.  On with the list!



Beyond Good and Evil (Multi-Platform)

 Gaming's Greatest Heroine
 Gaming's Greatest Heroine
And while Beyond Good and Evil is not a sequel, it does form something of a collage of great 3D-era games. It uses the stealth of Metal Gear Solid, the puzzle-platforming of Zelda and the high-speed, low-impact racing of Mario Kart. Even rail photography sim Pokemon Snap has a influence with the photography aspects of the game. The whole sum is a love letter to classic game design, offering a well balanced mix bag of some of the highlights of the previous seven years of gaming. But all of this would simply be novel repurposing if not for the fact that the game is wrapped around one of the most subtlely subversive game narratives released. The political message of never trusting anything on face value, mixed with the game's cartoon sensibility, is instantly memorable for being both mature enough to carry weight while also never becoming heavy handed. The journey for Jade, gaming's undeniable greatest female hero, provides a fitting background for gamers to be given a meaningful, mature experience without resulting in sometimes juvenile wish-fulfillment.
Alright, we have one more week of yesteryear, covering the years that can be described best as the current generation. And then, in two weeks, I finally decide what game is going to be my favorite of 2009. Stay tuned.

Games of the Year: Part 3, 1994-1998

Hey there game fans! Welcome to another sparsely read collection of the best video game for every year from 1984 to 2009. Refresh on parts one and two if you'd like. Today, we look at the mid-90s.
Before I get started with the official list, I feel it is important to point out that this is the hardest five I've done so far. This time period seems to be a really halcyon moment for gaming, with the twilight of the 16-bit era creating final masterpieces and the dawn of 3D offering a bold new vision and direction for the future. It is a time of transition, both from the old and into the new. Thus there are quite a few games that aren't on this list that are crucial to the development of gaming: Half-Life, Warcraft 1 and 2, Starcraft, Diablo, Final Fantasy VI and VII, Tomb Raider, Baldur's Gate, Ocarina of Time and several more that I just don't have time to mention. 97 and 98 in particular were especially hard, as they were the years that the Playstation came into its own and redefined the landscape of games. But as the rules clearly state, there can be only one winner for every year. So here we go. 


Super Metroid (SNES)

 Excuse Me If I Get Choked Up
 Excuse Me If I Get Choked Up
In the name of full disclosure, I will admit up front that Super Metroid is my favorite game of all time. It isn't because of some sense of nostalgia for playing the game when I was in my whipper-snapper years; I only got around to playing the game my senior year in college, 2007.  Rather, it is out of amazement of how the game has remained engaging and beautiful all these years later. The core gameplay of Samus' 16-bit journey is the standard as every other Metroid game: discovering power-ups to reveal new sections of the game-map and uncovering more powerful enemies to defeat. But the atmosphere and experience of playing Super Metroid draws you in immediately. The gigantic sprawling world is sparse but intricately imagined. Discovering artifacts and enemies of a long dead planet raped by space pirates is a harrowing and sometimes emotionally draining experience, borrowing heavily from the isolated horror if its spiritual mother, Alien. When Samus eventually finds the larva that she comes to save, only for it to attack her in adolescent confusion and frustration breaks my heart. While Thomson's claim that the Metroid Prime Trilogy is "our Citizen Kane" is laughable, the truth is that few games have excited, thrilled, scared and genuinely touched me quite like Super Metroid. 



Chrono Trigger (SNES)

Mapcap Adventures Through Time
Mapcap Adventures Through Time
A co-worker of mine is currently playing through Chrono Trigger for the first time on his DS. Through him, I am reliving how many moments of that game are so expertly crafted and realized. The game is constantly watching and reacting to your actions, allowing you to feel as if your every decision has an ultimate price and purpose. The refinement of the active battle system allows a streamlineed and constantly entertaining JRPG battle experience, enhanced even more by the Techs systems. But it was the use of time travel that set Chrono Trigger's experience apart, offering differing worlds to explore from familiar but tweaked environments. Add the fact that these worlds looked fantastic, pushing the SNES to its outer limits. With branching storylines and the NewGame+ feature, Chrono Trigger was a loving gift from Squaresoft for long-time 16-bit RPG fans.



Super Mario 64 (Nintendo 64)

 The Plumber  King Returns
 The Plumber  King Returns
The core concept of Mario 64 is radical enough for its day and time to leave it head and shoulders above just about everyone else. The idea of moving Mario around and through a 3D environment seems too wild to really work. And yet the the initial impression is one of unparalleled jaw-dropping wonder, an experience repeted throughout playing. Sailing through the air is especially gratifying, adding an extra context and tactile excitement to the soaring Mario had done since his third platformer. Add the precise controls and imaginative world design that defined the series from the beginning, and you have a game that truly excels even beyond its mad ambition. The variety of activities in large, open worlds that the player constantly explores and uncover add thrills and variety up to the final conflict. It bears mentioning that 64 was the last Mario game to leave such an awe-inspiring impression for a very long time, but it also remains among the best in the lauded series. In some ways, it sits on top of the Mario Game Throne.



Castlevania: Symphony of the Night (Playstation)

 You Tell 'Im Richter!
 You Tell 'Im Richter!
Given my already stated love of Castlevania and near cultish worship of Super Metroid, this selection shouldn't really be a surprise. But to call Symphony of the Night merely a Metroid clone misses some of the real enjoyment of the game. Take for instance the opening moments of the game, which replay the end of Dracula: Rondo of Blood, the last side-scrolling traditional game of the series before Symphony. It serves as a reminder of the mechanics that the game had always operated within and also provides a view into the bombastic narrative the game lovingly embraces. But moments later, you discover that this isn't Richter's game, but Alucard's, Dracula's vampire son who first appeared in Castlevania III. Thus, you have no access to the Vampire Killer, and while you start with amazing powers, Death strips you pretty quickly of those as well. The sense of discovery as the game progresses only goes deeper and deeper, encouraging and rewarding exploration. Different weapons have benefits and draw-backs. Screen-filling enemy fights frighten and disgust. By the time the game literally flips everything upside down, you've learned to expect anything. While Metroid is a much tighter and more emotionally satisfying experience, the level of shock, both from the grotesque and the unexpected, in Symphony made it both a game of established traditions and a new creation for the next generation. It was at once familiar and unknown, like the archetypal monsters that wander Dracula's haven.



Metal Gear Solid (Playstation)

That Dude? Totally Boned
That Dude? Totally Boned
Metal Gear Solid is an odd duck, to put it mildly. The core of the story is an anti-war narrative, yet the primary action you take in the game is hiding in corners so you can take advantage of unwary opponents. Solid Snake constantly rattles on about how impossible his mission seems, only to prove to have inhuman resolve. And while some of the crazier plot elements are only hinted at in this first incarnation, Kojima is one of the few game auteurs to truly take full advantage of his chosen medium for maximum mythical effect. Yes, the game utilizes long cinematic cut-scenes (nothing compared to its sequels) and extended codec conversations, but those are simply one tool in his storytelling handbag (and an innovative one for the time). The core moments of Metal Gear Solid are sneaking around and solving each room more like a puzzle than a level. There are multiple ways to do it...and multiple ways NOT to do it, just as organized and planned.  The game constantly engages a unique, tactical headspace, only to turn around and violate its own rules once boss battles begin. Easily described as an extended, brilliant mind-fuck, Metal Gear Solid provides an early template for what artistic, thoughtful game design in the 3D age can achieve.
So what do you think? Did I snub Cloud? Am I a heathen for not mentioning a single Blizzard game? And why do I love Konami so much? We're done for now, but get all your seething out before we come back next week where we'll lurch ever closer to the present. We move into the new century/millennium, as well as some upstart Microsoft entering the console business.

Games of the Year: Part 2, 1989-1993

Sorry this is a bit late. I have had my list ready, but was busy with some holiday. 
Anyway, for those that don't know the deal: I am going through every year I have been alive and declaring my choice for GOTY. There are a few other rules, but they would be redundant. You can check them out (along with the first batch of "winners") over yonder.
So lets go on with the list, starting with a miniature revolution:



Tetris (Game Boy)

 Choose Wisely
 Choose Wisely
The importance and greatness of Tetris breaks down into three very important aspects. First, the game mastered the genre of puzzle game. While titles that tickled the brain had existed before, Tetris provided a template for all followers. Its "simple to learn, difficult to master" design concept inspired countless imitators. The beauty of Tetris then is not from the complexity, but from the obvious simplicity. The objective is fairly self-evident, and the joy of mastering it provides it own reward. The second importance of Tetris is that the game provided a platform for mobile games to thrive. While Tetris had already existed for three years before it came pre-packed with every Game Boy sold, it wasn't until this incarnation that the game "clicked" as an international sensation. Its perfected bite-sized gameplay proved a suitable companion to the on-the-go philosophy of portable gaming. Finally, Tetris reminded that video games could very well have something for everyone. Decidely light on narrative or rewards beyond high-score obsession, it is probably the most widely played and recognized game in existence, even beyond Mario. The ability for the game to be groked by nearly everyone allows it to enjoy a wide, diverse fan base. Claims that Tetris ended the Cold War are hopelessly hyperbolic, but the cultural unity of a game designed in Soviet Russia becoming a sensation in America proved a universal appeal, allowing the game ot garner a reputation outside of the usual hall of gamers.


Super Mario Bros. 3 (NES)

 Return to Charm
 Return to Charm
While (the intentionally unlisted) American Super Mario Bros. 2 provided a distinctly different take on how Mario games could play, it didn't have the charm of the original. So with the third installment of the series, Nintendo returned to basics and provided a game that excelled over its predecessors by leaps and bounds. While Mario games had always been one of the most masterfully crafted games in terms of art design, SMB3 pushed the limits of the by-now aged hardware, with colorful and inventive enemies. The three-tier power levels was shifted, to allow for the top tier to be split into several optional varieties, or "suits. Certain suits even were specifically useful only in certain levels, providing an admittedly shallow element of strategy to the precise platformer. The whole package provided a fitting swan song and book end to the dominant gaming system of the last four years; with the release of the Super Nintendo in America the year after, the landscape was about to change.



Super Castlevania IV (SNES)

 Dark Horse Victor
 Dark Horse Victor
A quick disclaimer: I know that a lot of great games came out in 1991 in America. And I could understand any list that would put any of those games over a Castlevania game that, in all reality, isn't all that different from its predecessors. In fact, the game is somewhat retrograde to the previous installments, which began introducing RPG elements that would eventually boil over into the masterpiece Symphony of the Night. The game really amounts to the little more than a gussed up reimagining of the original title. But this is ultimately my list, and the game that came out that year that had the most profound effect one me is Super Castlevania IV. The game visually alone provided incentive for upgrading to a new geneartion of consoles, as well as the amount of twisting and turning the environment was subject to. For the first time, Dracula's castle felt like a living, breathing environment that was itself an enemy; common touchstones, such as the clockwork sequence, were given new life and excitement. Super Castlevania IV was the last truly great game of the series to follow the original's template, but it recreated it so perfectly that it would be hard to imagine the series continuing on this path and ever truly getting much better. Yes, 1991 is a very important and prolific year in gaming, and yes, there are several games that probably deserve a much more historical nod for innovating and pushing the genre forward. But the most undeniable fun I had in 1991 was undeniable taken from this title. And that has to be worth something.


Street Fighter 2 (Arcade)

 An Exciting Bout
 An Exciting Bout
If imitation is indeed the sincerest form of flattery, then Street Fighter II might be the most flattered game of all time. And yet what all of the countless clones and challengers miss from the master is the balance and zen-like flow of play. Capcom's groundbreaking fighter has a very specific flow and rhythm to it, and that rhythm can change depending on who you play. According to legend, the idea of combos came as a surprise to the game's designers when it was discovered in the QA process that you could string certain attacks together for additional damage. The rock-paper-scissors quality and payback mechanics provide the game a level of depth that rewards dedicated play, and has created a long-standing competitive culture. The amount of enjoyment to be found in this game is still being explored and refined, and the DNA of the original is still very much the blueprint for almost every follower, including baby brother Street Fighter IV. 



Gunstar Heroes (Genesis)

There are few games that can be as easily summed up in one word as Gunstar can: frantic. The game constantly keeps pushing you forward, through and past waves of deadly enemies until you reach its superb boss battles. The speed of the game makes it difficult to fully enjoy the lushly created environments, the customizable weapon scheme and the twitch skills needed to traverse the trickier later levels. Of course, the real striking moments come in the multiple-stage boss battles, visually and mechanically striking and jaw-dropping. Treasures tenacity to push the Genesis hardware as hard as they did impresses, especially considering this was their first foray into game design. And while they have gone on to make fantastic (and still frantic) games, nothing has quite captured the kinetic energy of the original. 

That brings us to an end for this installment. Next week, we move into the age of the polygon, but only after taking a pit-stop in my favorite game ever made. See you next Thursday morning for 1994-1998

Games of the Year: Part 1, 1984-1988

In considering the inevitable online and journalistic discussion of 2009's Game of the Year candidates, I went back and listened to one of my favorite Bombcasts: the nearly 3 hour epic discussion/battle royale between Metal Gear Solid 4 and Grand Theft Auto 4 for that honor last year. It always is interesting (at least for me) to look back and see what was the best, especially in a yearly model. Thus I started thinking to my self, "Hey, Self, you've been around for 25 of those year and three months of another. What were the best games of those respective 365-day cycles?"
So here I attempt to give my nominees for that honor: Game of the Year, for every year I've been alive, starting with 1984 and resulting in my decision for 2009. Before I begin, a few ground rules:
1. I have played any game I name as the best; I can't just assume all the good things I've heard are true
2. There can be only one. No ties, no matter how amazing a year was. I'm looking at you, 98.
3. The release dates are based on the North American release; this will become mostly important in the NES years, when there were years that seperated some of the best titles coming out in the US. I refer to Giant Bomb and Wikipedia for accurate release dates.
 4. All of these are of course my subjective (if I'd like to think informed) opinion. Feel free to discuss and disagree in comments.  That's what this is for, really.
So without further ado, lets start off with:



Marble Madness (Arcade)

Move Carefully
Move Carefully
In many ways, 1984 represents the nadir of video game history. The crash has occured and the industry was unsure where it was going to exist for another year. So it would be easy to disregard Marble Madness as simply the best of the worst. But that would undermine the simple genius of the game. The Escher-inspired surreal visuals and ambiant soundtrack create a sensory experience, but what really draws the game to a new level is the tactial marble-shaped controller. By physically moving an object in digital space, it provides a certain mind-turning physicalness to the gameplay. Add the fact that halfway through the game begins to break its own rules, with levels that move upwards, and you have a deceptively heavy, artful arcade classic.



Alternate Reality: The City (8-Bit Atari Computers)

Early Morning Turns Into Early Day...
Early Morning Turns Into Early Day...
There seem to be two sets of gamers: those that have never heard of the Alternate Reality series and those that speak of it in hushed reverance. Even by modern standards, the scope and ambition of the games are staggering, a six-game epic that would allow you to transfer character data from one game to the next. The opening scene of the City alone is worth induction into a fictional game museum, especially considering the generation and hardware it was released on. Earth's inhabitants are all abducted, along with the player character, and transported to some vaguely alien other location. It then becomes your mission to determine where you are, why everyone seems to know you and how you can get back home. The game's titular city was a defined place to wander in, with set characters and items to encounter. Allegiances and relationships could be formed and broken; in fact, a hidden alignment unknown to the player but randomly generated in character creation would effect how NPCs would react to you initially. Sadly, Philip Price's opus was left incomplete with Datasoft went belly up after only two releases. Alternate Reality is a unsung masterpiece of games and an inspiring example of ambition and innovation. To say it was ahead of its time is a disgusting understatement.



Super Mario Bros. (NES)

Like Coming Home
Like Coming Home
And thus begins the Nintendomination. Honestly, I'm having a hard time finding something to say about Super Mario Bros. that hasn't been said already a million times. While it didn't really "invent" platformers, it certain perfected the genre early on and offered a vision of what gaming was to be for the next 10 years and beyond. The amount of detailed attention that goes into level design, the varied enemies you encounter, the relative graphical detail, the responsive controls, the unforgetable digital honky tonk, the amount of devious secrets to uncover and enjoy. Every individual piece of the game is so finely crafted that it in one instant rewrote the history of games. 25 years later, the firm foundations of the game still prove valid, as Nintendo releases another 2D Mario platformer. While there is no way to guess where gaming would be today without Mario, it is undeniable that it would be decidely different.



The Legend of Zelda (NES)

Like Coming to Your Other Home
Like Coming to Your Other Home
The remarkable thing about the original Zelda isn't only that it was developed and designed simoltaniously with Super Mario Bros. Nor is it that both projects were headed by the same mind in Shigeru Miyamoto. The remarkable thing is that both games are so remarkably different, despite that similar origin. Yes, there is something about the art direction and graphical layout that give away that the same developers worked on the game, but the head space experience of the games is completely different. While Mario is about precise movement and jumping in a linear path, Link's adventure is based on exploration and puzzle solving. The opening screen, which dumps you in what looks like a vast wasteland with no clear direction of where to go next, is both daunting and exhilerating.  While Mario ultimately would have more influence over time, the first Zelda game shows an amount of sophistication both exhibited by the developers and expected of the players. For anyone who was paying attention, it could be taken as a sign that Nintendo was serious about making games for everyone.



Bionic Commando (NES)

 Capcom's First Award
 Capcom's First Award
The arcade title Bionic Commando is a competent but unremarkable shooter, pitched as a spirtual successor to Commando with a grappling hook mechanic and super deformed graphic. The Nintendo title Bionic Commando is a sci-fi shooter/RPG hybrid about a group of terrorist Nazis attempting to ressurect, "Master-D". Either way, this is clearly an improvement and was another sign that Capcom (along with Konami and of course Nintendo) was one of the big shot developers in this budding new age of video games. The swinging mechanic which replaces jumping creates both an obstacle and a sense of freedom, allowing you to jettison upward and take care of "Badds" that much more easily. The bullet collection mechanic and the ability to earn in-game clues as to what awaits ahead of you just adds layer of depth. And to be true to the name, Commando style top-down shooter levels are included to break up the pacing a bit. While the name has been somewhat tarnished with GRIN's sub-par stab at retooling the series, the original still remains among the prime NES titles, despite having a somewhat lower profile to some other Capcom brethren.
And that will do it for now. Tune in next week when I cover year 1989-1993. Here's a hint: there's more Nintendo.

1 vs. 100 Impressions

So finally got around to participating in one of the live betas for the US tonight.

Overall, I'd say this was a surprisingly enjoyable experience. The "live" atmosphere was fairly well structured, with commercial breaks being cut-in by "Chris" who would talk to the crowd and call out particular players. One of the more ingenious touches was the host asked users to e-mail him their pictures. Out of context (and to be honest, in context) it sounded really creepy and I feel sorry for the producer who had to sort out the (I can only  assume endless stream) of dick pix to find the ones of players with their children and significant other. It was a neat interaction with the game that really heightened that live feel.

The other thing I was really impressed with was how recent the questions felt. There was one about the Bruno "incident" at the MTV Movie Awards. There was a high call for pop culture recall, though most of it was stuff that I was kind of ashamed that I knew. Did learn that Ashlee Simpson named her kid Mowgli, and that apparently Australian Red Bull has cocaine in it. None of the questions seemed terribly difficult, especially given the three-option multiple choice format; the above Mowgli question I got right simply by the process of elimination. Granted, I might be having too high expectations; I was horrified when some people didn't know the date Cinco de Mayo occurred on, but everyone knew MySpace existed before Facebook.

The only criticism I have (besides the difficulty of the questions) was when I participated in the second, "Extended Play" version, the theme was E3 related questions. I was excited about the chance to flex my gaming knowledge, but once I got started it became evident very quickly that the whole thing was a giant chance to advertise Microsoft's E3 offerings.  Here's an example of one of the questions:

"Which Oscar-winning director appeared at the Microsoft E3 Press Conference?"

X) Vin Diesel    A) Uwe Boll    B) Steven Spielberg."

While that is kind of amusing, it also really just serves the purpose of highlighting "WE HAD SPIELBERG AT OUR PRESS CONFERENCE," and really robs the game any fun of being a challenge. I understand that Primetime is more or less a giant opportunity to advertise, and I fully accept that as I had fun with the experience. But to be so blatant as to put the company crowing front and center in the actual gameplay, you lose the sense of momentum and fun. I just become very aware and uncomfortable with the fact that I'm pitched to. Still, that wasn't in the real live event, which I highly recommend everyone try out next Friday. Hell, let me know if you do; maybe a Bomber will get to be the One.

1 vs. 100 Live: All of the Excitement, None of Saget
1 vs. 100 Live: All of the Excitement, None of Saget


Donkey Kong, God of War, and the DNA of Games

Perhaps it is because of the incessant "DINGING" of people playing Donkey Kong constantly in the background of G4's live coverage, but this E3 has made me seriously consider the "DNA" of gaming: where we've come from, where we're going and how that growth is reflected by the basics that defined the beginning of the movement.

Of course, Donkey Kong isn't from the first video game. But it is probably near the beginning of games as a narrative device, with clearly defined characters and conflict that were lifted beyond just the abstract shapes reflected on the screen. The modeling on "Jumpman", the very name which reflects the primary action of the game, and the intricate work on Donkey Kong himself is still a marvel to watch today. For anyone who's never played the original arcade Donkey Kong, I suggest you seek it out if you can, or at the very least watch video of it being played. The balance and system of it is quite well conceived and executed, mostly because of a young Shigeru Miyamoto's obsessive need for precise gameplay. There is no sense of cheapness in the game, which doesn't exclude it from being insanely difficult. The actual gameplay is just responsive and simple: press a button to jump and avoid objects that can kill you and clear gaps. This is why people like Billy Mitchell and Steve Wiebe can really grok onto this and excel, along with some basic hand-eye coordination.

So to see this relic and grandfather of modern games held up in the same breathe as God of War III really drove home for me the maturing the genre has gone through. Not maturing in the sense of graphical fidelity or adult content (whether the actual narrative of God of War is intended for the mindset of "grown ups" is up for serious debate), but rather that while the key player action has remained the same, the amount of weight to those button presses has become more dramatic. The variety of inputs has significantly increased, allowing the player to participate in gorey cinematic moments with minimal actual effort. Kratos is a bad-ass, in a sense, as our proxy, in the same way Jumpman is our proxy in battling the maddened gorilla. The amount of finese required to truely succeed in God of War is dramatically lower, and the story acutally has an inentional end, but the same core mindset of allowing the player to participate in something exceptional with extremely simple input.

Of course the elephant in the room is the new mind-set that "You are the controller", and while it is Microsoft's catchphrase, the same philosophy runs through each of the three mainline console developer's motion-controlled strategy. The promised land seems to be one-to-one response between translating your movements and actions in real-space into the digital world. There is a certain cyber-reality hopefulness, operating under the assumption that the only thing better than offering that proxy is to allow you to actuall exist within the game world yourself, burying the "barrier" and allowing you to become the actual actor.

The issue with the one-to-one analog philosophy is that it creates the question of "Why?" Why play Tony Hawk Ride, when you can actually skateboard? Why play Wii Sports when all of those sports can be just as easily enjoyed in the real world? The element of fantasy and wish fulfillment is at risk the more you move into the territory of forcing the player to actually physically excel at what they are attempting to accomplish. And some games have answered the question of why pretty well. Yes, Guitar Hero is less satisifying than playing a real guitar, but you also get the wish fulfillment of the rock star experience. Yes, having a personal trainer would be nice, but EA Active offers you a lot of that same benefit while not coming with an additional monthyl or weekly fee.

As this new movement (no pun intended) in gaming continues to develop, the question of "Why?" will need to be at the forefront of the mind of developers, press and consumers. It can be answered, but it is an additional challenge. Meanwhile, traditional proxy gaming answers the question of "why" pretty well. It offers experiences outside of the mundane, providing a sense of escapism and excitement. By acting as the prime motivator for Kratos or Jumpman, I can accomplish something through them that I otherwise would not be able to. Robert Ashley's description of the God of War series' success sums it up nicely: "It allows you to feel like a bad-ass with the minimal actual effort on your part." And when talented game developers step into design with this as the core to their process, they create the best that games have to offer.

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