Some GOATs

I’ve started playing The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim on the Nintendo Switch. As this is Skyrim‘s first appearance on a Nintendo platform, this is my first time playing Skyrim. I don’t know if you guys have heard, but Skyrim is an amazing game. Holy shnikes.

I’m going to be writing a lot more about Skyrim in future posts. I’m only twenty hours into my first-ever playthrough (maybe more; time moves differently in Skyrim) and I’m already planning for not just my NEXT playthrough, but for my next THREE playthroughs.

Playing Skyrim has gotten me thinking on the topic of Greatest Games of All-Time. Is Skyrim on the list of Greatest Games of All-Time? Is Skyrim the greatest RPG of all time? Can anyone objectively make the case one way or the other for such a claim?

No. No they cannot. So I’m going to do it subjectively, instead, across a bunch of different genres and platforms. A note: this is not a definitive list of games. Mostly these are games I’ve played, so lots of Nintendo games appear on this list… though I’ll willingly put a game I never played on this list if I think it’s the definitively the greatest game in its genre. I should point out, though, that this is also not a definitive list of genres. In fact, I’m more than admitting to making up some of my own genres. And finally: if a genre seems to be missing, I either didn’t think of it or, more likely, don’t have a strong feeling on any one specific game being the GOAT in that particular genre. And finally finally: I’m painting with a very broad brush.

So don’t take this too seriously. Lord knows I didn’t. (Also: this may not be serious, BUT IT’S RIGHT. <– don’t take that seriously, either.)

The Obvious GOATs

Simulation: The Sims – I’ve never played The Sims. I was always afraid that if I started, I’d never stop. Still: it’s the only choice in this category, obviously.

MMORPG: World of Warcraft – I’ve never played World of Warcraft. I was always afraid that if I started, I’d never stop. Still: it’s the only choice in this category, obviously.

2D Puzzle: Tetris – How many puzzle games since the Russian industry-buster are just riffs on Tetris, anyway?

Sandbox: Minecraft – There doesn’t even need to be a conversation here. There is no competition. Next question.

Fighting: Street Fighter 2 – I was going to do two separate fighting game categories, 2D and 3D. But Street Fighter 2, in all of its forms, is the single greatest fighting game of all time. This pains me to say as one who personally prefers Smash Bros. as a franchise. But it’s the truth. In the fighting genre, there’s Street Fighter 2, and then there’s everything else.

The Not-As-Obvious GOATs

3D Platforming Game: Super Mario Odyssey – Yes, I know it’s brand new. It doesn’t meant that it’s NOT the greatest 3D platformer of all time. I’m of the mind that 3D Mario platformers stand alone as the nominees in this category, and the broadly applicable “Cap”-ture mechanic of Super Mario Odyssey (which results in dozens of platforming styles being included in one game), not to mention the giant playground of each level and the 999 hidden moons to find, puts SMO above Galaxy and 64.

2D Action-Adventure: The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the PastZelda games set the standard for the action-adventuring genre, and A Link to the Past set the Zelda template that would be followed for twenty years, both in 2D and in 3D. Some revisionist historians will tell you Link’s Awakening or Minish Cap are superior games, but those people would be wrong. Shout-out to Super Metroid, which almost took this spot instead.

3D Action-Adventure: The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild – Is it the size of the world? Is it the gorgeous art design? Is it the mobility of this game’s version of Link? Is it the dirt bike? Well, yes. All of these things help… but what truly places Breath of the Wild in this spot over, say, Horizon: Zero Dawn or Uncharted or Assassin’s Creed or Tomb Raider or any number of amazing games, is the physics system. Stop time and power up environmental objects with kinetic energy, or swing metallic objects with magnetic powers and use them to conduct electricity, or pay attention to the curvature of the hill you’re on to suss out which direction your bomb will roll in, or use ice blocks to change the path of a falling boulder or lift up a rusted old gate. Breath of the Wild asks you to think about and then manipulate the amazing world around you in ways heretofore unseen in the action-adventure genre, and if the way YOU’VE chosen to interact with your environment is not the way Nintendo’s developers meant for you to interact with the environment? Well, that’s okay, because the game is DESIGNED that way. The developers created puzzles with specific solutions, while at the same time handing players the environment manipulating abilities they’d need to shortcut those solutions. People have been saying Breath of the Wild forever changes how we’ll play open world games, but it seems more likely that it will forever change how we interact with puzzles and obstacles in open world games, closed world games, and every game world in between.

3D Puzzle: Portal 2 – Name a true 3D puzzle game that’s better than Portal 2. I’ll wait. Fine, yes, specifically, this is probably an action-puzzle game, or a puzzle-platformer. But it would top those categories, too, so I’m just going to roll them all together under the “3D puzzle” label and crown Portal 2 the champ.

JRPG: Final Fantasy VI – There’ll be a lot of 16 bit SNES bias in this list. The SNES is still probably my favorite console of all time. But the quintessential JRPG series is Final Fantasy, and the most JRPG-y of the Final Fantasy games are the 16 bit SNES games: IV, V, and VI. IV gives you set characters with set jobs. Cecil is a Dark Knight who becomes a Paladin; Rosa is a White Mage who becomes a White Wizard; Rydia is a Black Mage/Summoner, and that’s that. I enjoy that approach. V implemented the best version of the famed FF Job System, which allowed you to assign jobs to your four template characters as you saw fit. FF VI managed to do both at once: your characters had job specific actions and abilities, but could also learn skills across the spectrum of FF jobs via magicite equip. Sabin, for example, is a martial artist… but if equipped with the right magicite shards, he can also become a White Mage. It’s an extra level of JRPG-y planning (do you grant your 14 playable characters abilities that match their innate abilities, or do you try and turn them into jack-of-all-trade characters) that FFVI does better than any JRPG before or since.

Western RPG: The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim – Here’s something that happened in my first ten hours playing Skyrim: I returned to Riverwood, the first small town I’d encountered in the game as an escaped prisoner, to do some smithing and shopping. I stepped out of the trader’s shop only to hear a familiar roar and screech: the town was being attacked by a dragon. After heroically slaying the dragon, I realized that the two NPC’s who had given me shelter back when I’d first come to town, the blacksmith and his wife, had been killed in the battle; their daughter, a little girl, another NPC, was fully aware that she was now an orphan. It then became one of my in-game goals to save up enough money to buy a house and adopt this little girl whose parents had died because I wasn’t clean enough in my kill.

This was not a planned event. It is not part of an in-game quest. It is just a thing that happened.

That’s Skyrim.

Beat ‘Em Up: TMNT: Turtles in Time – I’m disproportionately fond of mindless beat ’em ups, but I’ve got some standards: 1.) They need to be fun. 2.) They can’t be impossible. 3.) They need dope moves. 4.) The soundtrack needs to wail. 5.) They’ve got to move quickly. River City Ransom is great, but has too many RPG elements and asks you to think too much. Double Dragon is a classic, but chugs along a little bit too slowly. Lots of the mid-90’s arcade brawlers are awesome, (The Simpsons, X-Men, etc.) but are designed to suck down quarters at a ridiculous pace. Turtles in Time is a 90’s arcade brawler designed for home consoles. It’s fun, it’s fast, it isn’t overly difficult, and the soundtrack is the TMNT theme remixed over and over (which might sound tedious, but is actually amazing.)

Level Builder: Super Mario Maker – The competition here isn’t stiff, save for one other game. Lots of level-builders are overcomplicated and hold a high barrier to entrance; Disney Infinity, for example, and though I’ve not played it I’ve heard the same about LittleBigPlanet. Super Mario Maker has the benefit of existing on the Wii U, crazily enough: an HD console with a stylus + touchscreen interface, perfect for a level builder. Mario Maker is built around a drag-and-drop graphical interface that speaks the language of the most popular gaming series of all time. It’s a near-universally appealing combination that lowers the barrier of entry to practically non-existent. And though the Wii U is far less ubiquitous than the Nintendo 3DS, the Wii U version of Mario Maker is obviously the superior version. Nintendo’s decision to leave online sharing out of the 3DS version of the game is one of the most terrible ideas they’ve ever had. It’s, like, Virtual Boy-bad. So why isn’t this in the “obvious” list? Because of one game that almost tops Mario Maker, and that game… is Lode Runner. Anyone who played it and built levels for it on IBM-compatible PC’s back in the early 80’s understands why.

Point-and-Click/Graphical Adventure: Sam & Max Hit the Road – There are lots of more famous LucasArts graphical adventure games. Day of the Tentacle, Fate of Atlantis, and Grim Fandango might all be better known, but Sam & Max Hit the Road holds the distinction of being a beautifully illustrated, brilliantly written, and legitimately great point-and-click adventure game… that is fully aware of how ridiculous point-and-click adventure games are. Besides: King’s Quest is the runner up in this category before any of those other aforementioned titles.

Star Wars: Star Wars Rogue Squadron 2: Rogue Leader – This is the only IP to get its own category, and rightfully so. There’ve been so many Star Wars game of such varying quality. Knights of the Old Republic could have taken this spot, of course, as could have Super Return of the Jedi or X-Wing. But few games drop you into the Star Wars saga quite like the arcade action of this early GameCube title, and it’s the game that initially sold me on the GameCube, to boot.

First-Person Action-Adventure: Metroid Prime – I’m cheating a little by including this on a list that already includes 3D Action-Adventure, but I wanted to give the perfection that is Metroid Prime its due, and yes, Metroid Prime IS better than either of its sequels.

Classic Arcade: Ms. Pac-Man – Are you a Pac-Man person, or a Space Invader person? The correct answer is, “a Pac-Man person”, and Ms. Pac-Man and its multiple maze styles is far-and-away the best game of the entire Pac-Man franchise.

Arena Shooter: Splatoon 2 – Shut up, yes it is.

Strategy: Codename S.T.E.A.M. – #SorryNotSorry

The Too-Close-To-Call GOATs

2D Platforming: Super Mario World or New Super Mario Bros. 2Super Mario World is the obvious overall better experience… BUT New Super Mario Bros. 2 is the quintessential classic Super Mario experience: a 2D platformer that speaks the clearly established rules of the Super Mario universe (Mario World riffed on those rules quite a bit) that includes the key extra elements that have since defined the franchise, including fireballs, raccoon flight, Star Coin collection, and wall-jumping. Mario World is a unique, exciting experience, but New Super Mario Bros. 2 is a perfect distillation of everything that makes the franchise work. It’s not groundbreaking in the least (and therefore sometimes comes across as slightly boring) but it’s the Super Mario formula polished to an immaculate shine.

Racing: Mario Kart 8 or FORZA – I suppose I could have done two categories: arcade racing and sim racing. But I’m splitting the difference because although I don’t have a lot of experience with FORZA, the little bit I’ve played has been revelatory: it’s easily the best simulation franchise out there, as far as I’m concerned. Mario Kart 8, on the other hand, is the greatest game in the greatest arcade racing franchise of all time. Essentially, I don’t know enough about sim racing to do a whole separate category for it, but I wanted to acknowledge FORZA‘s greatness.

2D Action Platformer: Mega Man 2 0r Mega Man X or Ducktales or The Magical Quest Starring Micky Mouse or Aladdin (SNES) or… – Such a huge library of great games exist in this genre, and Capcom was the undisputed master of the form back in its heyday, as illustrated that my entire “can’t decide” list is made up of Capcom titles.

First-Person Shooter – See, my favorite FPS ever is the original Star Wars: Dark Forces, but even the guy who keeps insisting Codename S.T.E.A.M. is a top-ten all-time game isn’t silly enough to think Dark Forces is the best FPS of all-time.

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Please Slow Down

The common wisdom on the Interwebs tells us there’s a Nintendo Direct incoming any day now. It makes sense; 2017 is over, and we know next to nothing about Nintendo’s first-party offerings for 2018. We have one confirmed game with an actual title (Kirby: Star Allies) and a bunch of rumors and vague confirmations. (Yoshi and a bunch of Bayonetta games should be coming in 2018, as well as Wolfenstein, Fire Emblem, and Mega Man, and Project Octopath Traveler, and perchance to dream, Metroid and Pokemon.) We don’t yet know what A-list Nintendo franchise will tentpole 2018, but Mario, Zelda, Splatoon, and probably Mario Kart are all off the table.

Now, I’m not one to speculate… but just about everyone else who has access to the Internet, is. (Also: I speculate all the time, just not NOW.) Today a “leak” happened, if you believe such things, and according to this leak, some of the games forthcoming for the Switch also include Grand Theft Auto V, a new Animal Crossing, Red Dead Redemption Remastered, Ace Attorney, Injustice 2, Dark Souls, and I guess every game ever made. Rumors are fun, no?

Again: I’m not going to speculate. I have no insider knowledge and I’d be “speculating” based on pure whimsy. I AM going to say: hey. Nintendo. What’ s up, girl? I know you want to keep the games coming. I know you want Switch’s momentum to keep on rolling. But maybe you can just slow down a bit, cuz I’m still buried under an avalanche of 2017 games. For example:

  • Breath of the Wild: I’m pretty much done with this after 350+ hours. However: I still have 300 some odd Korok seeds to find, a motorcycle to find them with, and a Master Mode I haven’t even touched.
  • Skyrim: I’m barely 10 hours in and I already love this game and planning my next playthrough. This should keep me busy for quite some time, like forever.
  • Super Mario Odyssey: I’m somewhere in the 600 Moon range, but I’ve put it down for now. It’s good to know I can come back to it when the mood strikes and still have stuff to do.
  • Mario + Rabbids: I’m three-quarters of the way through the main game, but there’s a ton of challenges I haven’t gotten to yet.
  • Splatoon 2: I’ll never be done with Splatoon 2, and you’re going to keep updating it for two years.
  • ARMS: I haven’t touched it since Splatoon 2 launched… and this is a game I like a lot.
  • Minecraft: In Survival Mode I’m working towards the Ender Dragon. In Creative Mode I’m building all the LEGO kits I was never able to afford.
  • Stardew Valley: I’m somewhere in winter of the first year.
  • Steamworld Dig 2: Haven’t even started yet.
  • Rocket League: I love it. I’m very bad at it.
  • Xenoblade Chronicles 2, Doom, Telltale’s Batman: I don’t even have these yet.

So please, Nintendo: you’ve proved your point. You can keep the games coming with the best of them. Now for God’s sake, can you take a breath?

I mean… Grand Theft Auto V? Just how much time and money do you think we all have, anyway?

Stupidly Obvious

Coming off the years of failure and irrelevance that defined the end of the Wii era and the entirety of the Wii U era, it was fair to wonder (and often was, loudly) if Nintendo was in a crisis. Some pundits insisted that it was time for “the Big N” to pull a Sega and abandon the hardware market in favor of publishing for other platforms, playing the role of third party developer. Some had speculated that the announcement of Nintendo mobile games could be a sign that Nintendo would eventually get phased out of the console market completely.

To be clear: these were not crazy takes. The Wii U era was bad. To this day, most of the general public does not know what the Wii U actually was. Coming into 2017, Nintendo had one directive: the NX, or Switch, absolutely had to be at least a moderate success.

As we leave 2017, what has happened instead is, Nintendo hit a grand-freakin’-slam. Lots of virtual ink will be spent asking, “How? How did Nintendo do it? How did they come back from the precipice of irrelevance to craft the comeback story of 2017?” The answer to that question is, if you haven’t already guessed, stupidly obvious. It is a story told in three parts:

1. Form Over Function

The Nintendo Switch made a big bet, and in a way the Wii U is probably to thank for it. When Nintendo first introduced the Wii U they showed off a lot of different ways one might use the tablet-like Wii U Gamepad. At the end, there was only one usage that Wii U owners unanimously loved: playing console games on a small handheld screen. The Gamepad, of course, wasn’t a portable; you couldn’t travel more than 15 feet or so away from the system’s base unit before losing the connection.

So for the Switch, Nintendo put the console in the handheld screen, and made the base unit the empty shell.

In a world of high engine, high power gaming, another popular suggestion by fans and by industry analysts was that the failure of the Wii U had made it necessary for Nintendo to build a PS4-style power box. By instead developing the Switch, still underpowered when compared to its souped-up marketplace brethren (especially when you consider the PS4 Pro and the Xbox One X), Nintendo placed their big bet: they bet that a console that was both a home console and a portable, which also allowed for portable local multiplayer, was going to appeal to gamers as well as the public at large, even if it was “weaker” than its market competition. A console that fits YOUR life, that lets you play however YOU prefer. It’s almost too perfect a system for the millennial age gamers, the ones who grew up on portable Pokemon games, a generation of YouTubers and social media gurus for whom personal branding and individuality is second nature. And the “kids” who grew up on the NES are now, well, bigger kids with children of their own. A console for the backseat of the car that nobody’s going to fight over because everyone can play at once? Yes, please.

2. It’s the Games, Stupid

Of course, hybrid portability and on-the-go local multiplayer doesn’t count for a hill of beans if there aren’t games worth playing on the device. Lots of people looked at the Switch’s launch line-up and scoffed: only TEN games? That’s it? #LOL #SameOldNintendo.

As it turns out, ten games is plenty, when one of those games is The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.

And although Zelda was enough to keep early Switch adopters happy for months, what the “only ten games” crowd also believed was that the steady stream of first-year first party games Nintendo was promising would inevitably be delayed. There’s basis for that; the Wii U, for instance, launched in November of 2012. Here’s the list of Nintendo-published first party software that debuted on the Wii U in its first year and a half of existence, November 2012 through the end of 2013:

  1. New Super Mario Bros. U
  2. New Super Luigi U
  3. The Wonderful 101
  4. Pikmin 3
  5. Nintendo Land
  6. The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker HD
  7. Wii Fit U
  8. NES Remix
  9. Game & Wario
  10. Sing Party
  11. Wii Sports Club
  12. Wii Party U
  13. Dr. Luigi
  14. Super Mario 3D World

That is a heinous list. The highlights include a 2D Mario game, a 2D remix of that game starring Luigi, a 3D Mario game, an HD refurbishing of an old Zelda, and Pikmin. Then there’s three Wii-branded games, two collections of microgames, multiple games starring Mii avatars, a re-branded two decade old puzzle game, a very niche superhero action game, and something called Sing Party. Did Nintendo FORGET they were releasing a console?

Compare that to what we’ve gotten, first party, from Nintendo over the Switch’s first nine months:

  1. 1-2 Switch
  2. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild
  3. Snipperclips (and Snipperclips Plus)
  4. Mario Kart 8 Deluxe
  5. Arms
  6. Splatoon 2
  7. Flip Wars
  8. Fire Emblem Warriors
  9. Super Mario Odyssey
  10. Xenoblade Chronicles 2

Also: although Nintendo didn’t publish it, they sure helped shepherd the surprisingly good Mario + Rabbids to the Switch this year, and they’ve already told us we’re going to be getting Bayonetta, Bayonetta 2, Bayonetta 3, Kirby Star Allies, a new Yoshi, a new Fire Emblem, a core Pokemon, and freaking Metroid Prime 4.

The third party and indie story is much the same. Here’s a sampling off of that plate: Doom, Shovel Knight, Overcooked, Steamworld Dig 2, Skyrim, Rocket League, Stardew Valley, Golf Story, Minecraft, FIFA, NBA2K… I can go on. Not only did Nintendo create in the Switch a versatile piece of gaming hardware that’s cool to the touch, but they have released for it more great software than Wii U arguably saw in its entire lifetime.

3. Marketing & Branding

I’ve said it over and over again, and I’ll say it for the last time right now: there are still people who have no idea what a Wii U is. It was a confusing system (It’s a tablet that I need to keep near my TV? What’s the tablet for, anyway?) with an awful name (So this is just a new Wii? I already have a Wii. Is this just a tablet that connects to the Wii I already have?) I mean, just LOOK at this trailer:

What is this telling us? It’s telling us that there’s a new controller with a screen. Is it for the Wii or for a new system? No idea. You can play Super Mario Bros. on it while your dad watches awful baseball, you can draw on it, you can play Reversi on it, you can wave it in front of Wii Sports, you can see your golf ball on it… in Wii Sports, you can measure your BMI with it, you can snipe Miyamoto’s Mii with it, you can flick throwing stars of off it, you can FaceTime on it, you can do… something with the Internet on it, you can flick a video of a parrot off of it and onto your TV to thrill and amaze your easily amused friends, you can play a Zelda game that will never exist on it…

… what the hell is it?! Who is this even FOR?! Is it a video game system or a… I don’t even know what. Look: the Wii U ended up with a respectable library of great, if off-kilter, Nintendo-developed games. The problem was, its marketing was so poor, its reveal so botched, that the whole thing was essentially DOA.

Compare the Wii U’s reveal to the Switch’s initial reveal:

What is THIS telling us? It’s telling us the Nintendo Switch is a multi-form video game console that can be played at home on your TV, on the go as a handheld, and anywhere else as a multiplayer standing tablet with two detachable controllers on either side of it. Oh, and that we’ll be able to play The Legend of Zelda, Skyrim, Mario Kart, NBA2K, a new Mario game, and Splatoon on it. (As it would turn out, we’d get to play all of the games in that reveal within nine months of the Switch’s release.) One of the best things you can say about the Wii U era is how much it taught Nintendo about what NOT to do when marketing a home console in the 2010’s, a truth that is best exemplified by their system’s chosen names: “Wii U” tells you nothing that you need to know, while the name “Switch” tells you everything you need to know.

In Conclusion…

So to go back to our initial question… how did Nintendo do it? How did they make the Switch into such a winner?

Well, they 1. made a great piece of video game hardware that 2. plays lots of great software, and then they 3. did a great job telling people exactly what that hardware is and what software is available for it.

See? Stupidly obvious.

So stupidly obvious, they probably should have done it sooner.

The Second Person

As a fiction writer, I spend far too much time thinking and talking about stories and how they’re constructed. A lot of people do this, of course; the Internet has fostered an entire culture, barely even a subculture anymore, of armchair storyboard analysts. I’m old enough to remember when Cracked.com actually published articles aside from “5 Ways I’d Have Written This Movie Better.”

The best education a writer can ever have, bar none, is to teach literature, which I’ve done on the middle school, high school, and collegiate level. When you’re the one up in front of the classroom expected to have all the answers, it really forces you to pay attention to the boring class-assigned book you’re reading (particularly since you’re the boring teacher who assigned it). It really hammers home the foundational layers of what makes storytelling work, and how similar most stories are at their core.

Being a quote-unquote gamer as well as a writer, I’ve used the language of video games more than once to illustrate my point. (FUN FACT: the portal onto the factory floor of Magrathea in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is best explained to a room full of 8th graders as a Warp Pipe from Super Mario Bros.) If you know anything about literary form, you’ll know that one of the most elementary elements discussed in the beginner classroom is “point-of-view”. First person point-of-view is when the narration of a story refers to the main character as “I”, and third person point-of-view is when the narration of a story refers to the main character as “he” or “she”, or some form of such. As I happily and effectively described in both junior high and high school literatures courses, video games are also described in terms of being in either first or third person. A first person game puts you directly into the head of the avatar, and you see the world through their eyes. A third person game puts you outside of the avatar you’re controlling, often directly over their shoulder. It is a model I have used to illustrate point of view on many occasions.

And I’ve recently realized just how terribly inaccurate it is.

Lesser known, and even lesser used in literature, is SECOND person point-of-view. A story told in second person is one where the narration refers to the main character as “you”. Now, you see where that could be confusing or limited in its use. It is the ultimate example of the author turning the mirror on the reader. There really is only so much one can do with the form. The most famous application of second person POV, for my money, is in old school Choose Your Own Adventure stories. You know, the ones that start with a passage like, “You wake up in an abandoned mine shaft. After dusting off dirt, debris, and spiders, you look around. To your left, the shaft heads towards a light. To you right: darkness. Which way will you go?” The text then offers the reader an option: “To go left, turn to page 28. To go right, turn to page 33,” and the rest of the story unfolds in this manner, inviting the reader to go back and re-read the book many times over, experiencing a different story each time. The virtual world in the pages of the books is laid out by the author, and you, the reader, get to decide how you experience that world.

I’m wondering if you’re starting to see the connection.

It is a connection that clicked for me when I was playing a non-Nintendo game that 1.) I’ve been playing recently, 3.) I’m way too late to the party on, and D.) is awesome. The game in question: Portal 2. Valve’s greatest game, IMO (never-minding that the only other Valve game I’ve ever played is Portal), Portal 2 features the greatest video game character every created. No, not the player avatar. The player avatar is a silent protagonist named Chell, about whom very little is actually revealed or known. She’s importantly unimportant, though, so we’ll come back to her in just a bit. I’m speaking, of course, of GLaDOS, the wickedly scripted and voiced AI character who runs the dead lab where Chell is imprisoned. GLaDOS is deliciously insane, and her history and past (and yes, no spoilers, but “her” is an applicable descriptor) are really at the heart of the world of Portal.

Consider, then, the sort of storytelling that GLaDOS and Chell represent. GLaDOS is decidedly NOT the player character. In the first game, she is the clear-cut antagonist; in the second, she could still be called such (although more shades of grey certainly exist in that story as it unfolds.) As you, the player, in the person of Chell, puzzles your way through Aperture Labs, GLaDOS taunts you and leads you astray, all the time referring to you, as “you”.

That alone doesn’t mean, “Hey! Video games are all told in the second person!” Just because the antagonist refers to you as “you” isn’t enough to determine that, but it was enough to turn on a light bulb for me. While Portal games aren’t necessarily Choose Your Own Adventure books, and are actually pretty linear in their progression, they present a story told through the characters in front of you and the world around you. The main character, Chell, is a cipher. Her character appearance is set, but she’s a blank slate for you to write on, a vessel through which you experience the game’s adventure. She is a, and it couldn’t be more obvious in retrospect, a literal shell. That’s right. Chell is a shell. Valve isn’t being subtle here, but we all kind of missed it, didn’t we? Just like Half-Life‘s Gordan Freeman is a free man.

Another great example is this that new game that just came out on Switch. It’s called The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. Perhaps you’ve heard of it?

Ha ha, I’m funny, Skyrim is one of the biggest games of all time, though I’m just now beginning it because, as I’ve made clear many times on these pages, I’m a Nintendo-only gamer… more or less. In Skyrim you choose your race, your gender, your facial features, the literal and figurative paths you take, the disciplines you learn, the factions in the in-game world you’re going to team up with, which ones you’ll oppose, and which ones you’ll avoid altogether… everything. And you do it all without your avatar ever saying a word. Everything is a variable, and the world responds to and is shaped by your choices and actions. The game tends to get janky for that very reason (it needs to be a remarkably malleably piece of programming to try and predict for everything the player may choose to do), but that’s the price developer Bethesda Softworks was willing to  pay for developing an open-everything game. Spoiler warning: it totally worked out for them.

I have to get back to Nintendo here because of the nature of my blog (I’ve just started Skyrim but could already talk about it all day; some games obviously deserve their “all-time classic” label right from the word “go”), but environmental storytelling, storytelling that presents you, the player, with a world and then steps back to allow you to react to it… that’s a storytelling style Nintendo has embraced for a long time. Two big examples jump out at me. The first is, of course, The Legend of Zelda and series protagonist Link. Just as Chell is an empty shell that the player is invited to inhabit in order to experience the story, Link is the graphical avatar standing in as the link between the player and the world. Both Chell and Link are silent and seemingly emotionless, and this is so for a very particular reason: both Valve and Nintendo are asking you to react to the game worlds around these avatars with your OWN thoughts, feelings, and responses, not with pre-scripted ones voice-acted for you in cut scenes.

This is where the future of storytelling in video games lies, I think. Fully voiced cinematic cut-scenes are an awfully poor fit for a medium that is built around direct audience interaction, when you think about it. Why would you want to play a video game that takes control AWAY from you when the best stuff in the narrative is happening? It doesn’t make sense.

Consider, then, Portal and Breath of the Wild. Both are games with silent protagonists and incredibly deep and well-designed words. When I’m playing Portal and I stumble across some cryptic graffiti left behind in a cranny warning me not to trust GLaDOS, it’s far more effective for the game to sit back and let me respond emotionally and intellectually to this narrative turn, as opposed to cutting away to a scene that rips me out of Chell’s head and shows me a character I’ve been role-playing as reacting to the scenario in a way I never would. Same goes for Breath of the Wild. There’s two forms of storytelling in Breath of the Wild. There are traditional cut scenes that have been criticized and discussed and which sometimes feel awkward and out-of-character and out of place… and then there’s the atmospheric storytelling that unfolds over the course of hundreds of hours of gameplay. I don’t know about you, but I find exploring a field full of petrified Guardians in front of a rotting barricade to be a far more compelling narrative experience than a cut scene where Falco-lite makes snide comments at me.

(That’s not to say cinematic storytelling NEVER works. The four Divine Champions are given some much-needed fleshing out in Breath of the Wild’s DLC Champion’s Ballad, and all are given good time in new much-needed cinematics that show them interacting in the past with Princess Zelda.)

The best example of this all, though, might be in the Metroid franchise. Super Metroid and Metroid Prime tell amazing stories through atmosphere and environments, without series protagonist Samus Aran (or anyone else) saying a word. Metroid: Other M, though, turns a chatty Samus into a damaged little girl with daddy issues, and that whole game can just go and die in a fire for all I care.

I think, then, that the case is clear. The ideal storytelling in an interactive medium is interactive, not cinematic; in hindsight, this couldn’t be more obvious. So that’s the golden rule of storytelling in a video game, I think: flesh out your world, developers, as richly as you can… but when you drop me into, don’t signpost me to death. Don’t dictate to me how your game should make me think, feel, and react. Just let me run loose and tell me, “You can go left or you can go right. Which way will you go?”

Switch List ’18

As we barrel towards Thanksgiving, we come to the start of what should be an extraordinary holiday season at the close of a remarkable calendar year for Nintendo. Zelda, Mario, Splatoon, Fire Emblem, Pokemon, and Xenoblade all made (or will make) an appearance on the Switch in 2017, as well as Skyrim, Minecraft, Doom, Rocket League, FIFA, NBA2K, and more indie games than you could waggle a Wiimote at.

What’s very interesting, though, is that Nintendo has remained tight-lipped on their plans for what’s coming in 2018 and beyond. This is normal for modern Nintendo; for years now they’ve preferred to focus more on what’s going to be playable in the near future than what’s coming down the pipeline in a year or two or three.

With such a robust 2017 line-up, though, could 2018 end up a bust for the Switch? Well, anything’s possible. In terms of big news, here’s what we know: Nintendo is definitely giving us a new Kirby game and a new Yoshi game, Bethesda is bringing Wolfenstein 2 to the Switch, Project Octopath Traveler (YES THAT’S BIG NEWS) should be here in 2018, and probably a new entry in the Fire Emblem franchise, as Nintendo sort of seems to poop those out like greasy diner food. (Hashtag: #DinerPoops.) Maybe we’ll see that new Pokemon in 2018, maybe we’ll even see Metroid Prime 4… although I’d bet more on the former than I would on the latter.

Still, a boy can dream. What I have here are some of things I have on my wishlist for 2018 for the Nintendo Switch… my Switch List, if you will. (You shouldn’t.) This is my list of pipe dreams and speculative guesses, FYI. Things that have been confirmed to be on their way will not make the list. I am a patient fellow, after all; as long as I know something will be here eventually, I can wait.

Old Super Mario Bros. – After the smash hit success of Super Mario Maker, it was wondered in more than a few places if Nintendo could ever return to their 2D Super Mario Bros. franchise after they had placed the ultimate Mario creation suite in gamer’s hands. Then, of course, Nintendo made us all look silly for asking that question by completely re-inventing the wheel on 8-bit Mario platforming in the brilliant 2D sections of Super Mario Odyssey. Much like Super Mario 3D World spawned a spin-off in the form of Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker, I think we’re going to see Nintendo take the idea behind the 2D areas in Mario Odyssey and spin them into their own game. I’m even hedging on Old Super Mario Bros. as being the actual name. Chance of Happening: 85%, in honor of the year the original Super Mario Bros. was released.

The Legend of Zelda: Something of Something – Nintendo has demonstrated over the last decade that they don’t like their three major franchises (Mario, Zelda, and Pokemon) to go a year without some sort of game branded with their name. In the case of Zelda, sometimes we get a Hyrule Warriors, sometimes we get Triforce Heroes… and sometimes we get Link’s Crossbow Training. So while we shouldn’t expect the next all-new 3D Zelda game to launch for at least 5 or 6 years, I think it would be foolhardy to think 2018 is going to go by without Zelda appearing in some new form or another on the Switch. Chance of Happening: 900%, in honor of the total number of Korok Seeds to be found in Breath of the Wild.

Super Smash Bros. Melee DX – I do not think that Smash 4 Wii U is coming to the Switch. In fact, I’d be willing to wager some of the money I don’t have that Switch ports of Nintendo-developed Wii U games are done. I think Nintendo wants to separate themselves from the Wii branding as much as they possibly can. No denying, though: the Switch is massively popular, and people desperately want a Smash Bros. on it. Super Smash Bros. Melee from the GameCube days is still a very popular game on the professional Smash tournament circuit, and arguably the best game in the franchise to date. Updating Melee with current-gen HD graphics, a new fighter or two or three, and adding popular features such as Final Smashes makes almost too much sense for a Smash-starved public… assuming Smash 5 isn’t just around the corner. Chance of Happening: 26%, in honor of the total number of characters on Melee’s roster.

Ubisoft’s South Park games – Nintendo has a reputation, mostly earned, for cultivating poor relationships with 3rd party developers, but their relationship with Ubisoft is the one obvious exception to that rule. Ubisoft was the first company to announce a Switch game, including Nintendo (they announced Just Dance would be coming to NX before Nintendo had revealed the NX to be the Switch), and their Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle was the first major 3rd party new release for Switch. During a recent earnings meeting, Ubisoft CEO Yves Guillemot confirmed that more Switch games would be coming from the developer in 2018. The South Park games are easily my most-wanted 3rd party titles, so I’m probably more bullish on The Stick of Truth and The Fractured But Whole coming to Switch than I should be. Chance of Happening: 146%, or the same number of f-bombs that were dropped in South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut.

Donkey Kong + Minions: Banana Brawl – Following up on the whole Mario + Rabbids
crossover success, DK’s crew and the Minions finally meet up for an adventure of epic proportions! Tell me this isn’t a perfect pairing. Make it a rhythm game or a strategy game or a platformer or maybe just this GIF on a loop with DK photoshopped in. Chance of Happening: BANANA!

WarioWare: Switched Off – If SnipperClips proved anything, it’s that playing bite-sized co-op micro-games in Tabletop mode with split JoyCons is one of the things that the Switch does best. It’s time for Mario’s creepy-ass clone to make his Switch debut, and his strangest franchise is the platform on which he should take his bow. Chance of Happening: 6%, for Wario’s debut in Super Mario Land 2: Six Golden Coins.

Batman: Arkham Adventures – This is just flat-out, 100% a pipe dream. Wouldn’t you love to play an Arkham style game, but done up in the art style and tone of Batman: The Animated Series? If you are a living, breathing human being with even the barest whisper of a pulse, the answer is: yes. Yes, of course you would. Chance of Happening: -0%, in honor of the temperature at which Mr. Freeze is forced to live his life.

Paper Mario: The 2-Thousand Year Door – The Paper Mario franchise was at its best, most fans would agree, in the original N64 game and its sequel for GCN, the remarkably charming Thousand Year Door. Early returns on the Switch suggest that it’s going to be a great platform for RPGs (and who wouldn’t want to curl up on the sofa with a handheld device to play RPGs in 60 hour chunks? Now THAT’S a weekend.) So a direct sequel to one of the most beloved GameCube games ever would be an out-of-nowhere surprise for the franchise’s long-time fans, and an easy lay-up for Nintendo. Chance of Happening: 2,000%, in honor of… I mean, do I really have to spell it out?

Portal 3 and Portal HD Collection – I MEAN, C’MON! WOULDN’T THAT BE AWESOME?! Chance of Happening: The Stranger Things theme song, as in, it won’t, but stranger things have happened.

Cover Story (1 of 2)

Ah, the music of our youth. Does anything stoke the fires of nostalgia quite like the melodies that charmed and blessed our younger, carefree days? You know, like the theme from Super Mario Bros. and stuff.

If you’re like me, and if you’re reading this you probably are, the music of your youth was as much Zelda as Madonna, as much Star Fox as Starship, as much Earthbound as Nirvana (think about it.) So now, with access to unlimited music thanks to my brand-spanking new Spotify account, I’ve continued on with one of my longest-running musical obsessions: finding dope-ass cover tunes of my favorite Nintendo theme songs.

I’ve recently put together a new Spotify playlist, which is perhaps the single most boring thing anyone could ever tell another human being. I don’t care, though. It’s my blog and I’m going to write about it.

… it’s a playlist of essential Nintendo franchise themes arranged chronologically in the order of each individual series’ debut, each represented by as representative a cover track as I could find in Spotify’s archives.

So boring.

1.) Tina Guo, “Super Mario Bros.”, Game On –

Tina Guo is a Chinese-American cellist. Classically trained, internationally known, and currently signed to the SONY Classical label, she is one of the more traditional recording artists represented on this list… and she’s going to come back a couple of times, as the arrangements on her tracks, by composer and frequent Hans Zimmer arranger Steve Mazzaro, are second-to-none, to say nothing of Ms. Guo’s exquisite artistry with a bow in her hands. Koji Kondo’s legendary tracks for Super Mario Bros. are notoriously difficult to cover: they don’t really lend themselves to rock interpretation, nor to full orchestral accompaniment. While I’ve always felt the SMB music is best covered by jazz quartet, Ms. Guo’s medley finds a happy marriage between classical and rock, not surprising given her proficiency with the electric cello. The medley covers the original game’s “Ground Theme”, “Underground Theme”, and “Game Over” theme, with “Bob-Omb Battlefield” from Mario 64 thrown in for good measure. Many Super Mario medleys leave much to be desired. This one is easily one of the best ones out there.

2.) Tina Guo, “The Legend of Zelda”, Game On

It may seem sacrilege to include a Zelda representative track that ISN’T from Symphony of the Goddesses, but in looking for a single radio-length track that really encompasses the core of the franchise, Ms. Guo’s Zelda medley is, again, my preferred choice. Perfectly blending the classical and rock aesthetic, this track covers the Legend of Zelda “Main Theme”, the first game’s “Underworld Theme”, “Fairy Fountain”, and “Gerudo Desert”. Truthfully, I may have personally chosen “Dragon Roost Island” or “Ballad of the Goddess” instead of “Gerudo Desert” in orchestration, but “Gerudo” is a fantastic track and it’s tough to criticize its inclusion here.

3.) VomitroN, “Metroid: (1 of 2)”, NESessary Evil

This is where we start to tread into more familiar video game cover music territory: hard metal covers. VomitroN is, to quote, “an experimental heavy metal band hailing from Nebulon V, specializing in kicking faces and melting asses.” So, you know… they’re a metal band. Amongst their offerings are two CDs-worth of long-form video game cover tracks, orchestrations that capture each featured game’s entire sonic footprint in one or two fully-realized suites. My choice of “Metroid: (1 of 2)” as my Metroid representative on this playlist is controversial inasmuch as it includes covers of music ONLY from the original Metroid, and NOT anything from the acclaimed Super Metroid or Metroid Prime scores. That original game’s soundtrack, though, with its one action cue of “Brinstar” surrounded by discordant musical desolation, is what best captures the aural essence of the franchise’s identity, IMHO, and the best and most polished medley of tracks from Metroid are present in this first half of VomitroN’s Metroid suite.

4.) Nestalgica, “Punch Out!!: Match Theme”, Feed. Play. Sleep. Repeat.

One of the most prolific artists of the “video game cover tunes” genre, Nestalgica is legit just, like, one dude from Sweden… but he’s been actively covering Nintendo tracks since 2006. He’s a granddaddy of the art form and a must-listen Nintendo rock guitarist (in a world just chock full of Nintendo rock guitarists; was that sarcasm? Not even I can tell.) The Punch Out!! music, sparse though it is, is fantastic, and surprisingly not covered as often as one might think. Nestalgica’s arrangement touches all the essentials required in a cover of the Punch-Out!! fight music: the pre-match fanfare, the match music itself, the knock-down danger music, and the victory flourish. No training music, but hey… nothing’s perfect. (Of course he covered the training music in a separate track. Are you kidding? The man’s a legend.)

5.) Tina Guo, “Tetris”, Game On

Look: Nintendo at least PUBLISHED Tetris. Going through Nintendo’s musical history, I’d feel something was amiss if I omitted the game synonymous with the Game Boy… or at least, the game that WAS synonymous with the Game Boy until another soon-to-be-mentioned franchise began. This is a reimagining of the track referred to as “A-Type” in the game, which itself is actually an adaptation of the 19th century Russian folk song “Korobeiniki“, which tells the story of the love affair between a young peddler and a peasant girl. Ms. Guo’s reinterpretation of “Korobeinki” gives the tune, in its brief four minutes plus of running time, the narrative heft of the original story upon which it was based, turning the soundtrack to the greatest selling video game of all time into a symphonic movement that would feel at home as a cut from the landmark Russian symphony, Sergei Prokofiev’s Peter & the Wolf.

6.) Kirby’s Dream Band, “Fever (From Dr. Mario)”, Singles

Hailing from San Diego, CA, Kirby’s Dream Band’s “About” section on all of their social media pages simply reads, “Pink Rock”. Unsurprisingly, they cover a lot of Kirby tracks. Surprisingly, they cover a lot of other games, too. “Fever” is a neat little bop with a dope bassline and electronic accents, and the Kirby’s Dream Band spin on it carries all that through while throwing a driving percussion and rock guitars into the mix. It is irrepressibly hummable.

7.) Mariachi Gallos de Mexico, “Fire Emblem”, Mi Lindo Son je Jalisco

I was all set to use a version of “Together We Ride” for the Fire Emblem entry, until I stumbled upon this. The Mariachi Serenaders of Mexico (my best translation attempt) have, for some reason, included on their eighth studio album of traditional Mexican mariachi music… this amazing cover of the main Fire Emblem theme, mariachi style, right down to the throaty brass and the delicate plucking of guitar strings. It is bizarre and random; not in that the fine people of Mexico can’t enjoy Fire Emblem as much as anyone else, but inasmuch as this is the ONLY video game track the Mariachi Gallos have covered over 50+ recorded songs, and the ONLY track listing in English on any of their 8 albums. Why is it here? Did someone lose a bet? Who cares? Mariachi music is magnificent, and so is this cover.

(You thought I was kidding?)

8.) Nestalgica, “Mute City”, … and Nostalgia For All

There are a lot of “Mute City” tracks floating around out there on the Internet, so for F-Zero‘s entry we turn to the tried-and-true guitar licks of Netsalgica. There’s nothing fancy going on here; “Mute City” as it appears on the Super Nintendo is a rock track done via midi file, anyway, so Nestalgica’s cover of it has only to bring this wooden boy to life. Mission accomplished.

9.) Rare Candy, “Kirby’s Dreamland – Sand Canyon 2, Green Greens”, Bomber Blue/Gallant Green

What I like best about this Kirby cover from Chicago-based rockers Rare Candy is the combination of whimsy and adrenaline. Whimsy is in no short supply in the Kirby franchise, and what Rare Candy has done here is laid down a no-nonsense rock bedrock for the “Green Greens” melody line, itself hammered out on baby piano, to bounce along to. The resulting concoction is frenetically sweet and as cute as a tornado, as good a musical metaphor for Kirby himself as you’ll ever find.

10.) The OneUps, “Title Screen” (Mario Paint)”, Volume 2

The Beatles of the video game cover genre, the OneUps have been at this for a long time; since 2002, to be precise. Their discography goes 7 studio albums deep, and perusing the group’s musical evolution is well worth the time and effort for any gaming music aficionado. I know that Mario Paint isn’t really a FRANCHISE, per se, but the sparse little ditty from the game’s title screen is one that has stuck with me for years, and it’s no surprise that the one cover of it worth listening to comes from the OneUps, a band with an eclectic repertoire that includes a cover of the Mii Channel music, a sax-centric swing on “Koopa Beach” from Mario Kart, and a Super Mario Bros. 2 gangsta rap. If you’re interested in taking a sharp left turn and veering away from traditional gaming covers, the OneUps are your band.

11.) Joshua Morse, “ROYGBIV”, Arcade Attack!

It’s the music from Rainbow Road (don’t ask me which one; they all blend together to my ear.) Of COURSE it’s done up in electronica! Mr. Morse’s Arcade Attack! is published through GameChops, a publisher of EDM-inspired video game cover albums that seems the natural evolution of genre granddaddy site OCRemix. A composer and coder by day, Mr. Morse takes Mario Kart‘s most iconic track and places it pacifier-and-glow-stick-deep into a rave, right where it belongs. If ever music sounded like a multi-colored strobe light w/laser side FX, it’s this track right here.

And that is part one of our list… divided into two parts because, otherwise, it might be TL;DR for ME, and I wrote it. Tune in next time, when we’ll go on to franchises such as Pokemon, Star Fox, and… SPLATOON!

Yeah, like I was going to do a Nintendo music list and leave off Splatoon. You’re lucky I’m not adding Codename S.T.E.A.M.

(I checked. Nobody’s covered it. Sad face.)

A Hater, Hating

 

I am, at times, “accused” of loving everything Nintendo does. That is untrue. I only love MOST of anything Nintendo does. If you follow Me & Nintendo with any regularity, you’ll start to realize there’s a few franchises that never get any love from me, largely because… well… I can’t stand them.

Of the five franchises I’m going to talk about here: one of them I’ve come around to, two of them I’m on the cusp of either hating or enjoying, and two I absolutely loathe. It just so happens that those last two franchises are among the biggest Nintendo has, which means that my dearth of writing on those topics is going to deprive me of a whole lot of potential readers.

Nobody ever accused me of being a marketing genius.

Animal Crossing

I never understood the appeal of this franchise. Running around with anthropomorphized animals, collecting bugs and going fishing and digging up fossils? What was the POINT? Then something very stressful happened in my life (okay, Trump was elected), and I realized that the point of Animal Crossing was that there WAS no point, and I dumped a bunch of hours into AC: New Leaf. I haven’t gone back to my town in quite some time, so it’s probably falling into disrepair and disarray, but I’m definitely in on whatever version of Animal Crossing eventually ends up on Switch.

Xenoblade Chronicles

I’ve never played a Xenoblade game, so I can’t rightfully say I hate Xenoblade games, nor would I. In fact, they look appealing and lush and beautiful, and I remain very, very interested in Xenoblade Chronicles 2 and the vast world of exploration it promises. Then I watch videos of the combat system, and I end up nursing a massive headache. I’m 38 years old. I don’t got time for that sort of hoo-ha anymore. (I’m still going to get in on that game at some point, even if not right at release. I anticipate headaches.)

Pikmin

Even as I begin to gravitate CLOSER to Xenoblade Chronicles, I begin to spin AWAY from Pikmin. As the life of the Wii U drew to a close, Pikmin 3 was the game I hadn’t played that I needed to play before selling off my system, and I did. And I’m glad I did. And also, I realized something. Here’s how you solve every problem and fight every enemy in a Pikmin game: you run around it in circles while throwing pikmin at it. Unless Pikmin 4: The New Batch features some crazy new gameplay mechanic to go along with its gorgeously rendered world of giant knick-knacks and fruit, I’m going to pass.

Fire Emblem

Or “Nintendo chess”, as I like to call it. I’ve tried to play Fire Emblem, I really have. I’ve dived into Fire Emblem for GBA via the Wii U Virtual Console, Fire Emblem Heroes for mobile, and most notably, Fire Emblem Awakening on the 3DS. Not one of those three games compelled me to keep coming back, not even after several hours of gameplay apiece. Strategy games like X-Com, or Codename S.T.E.A.M., or Mario + Rabbids… I love those games. I think it’s the in-the-heat-of-battle element of them. Fire Emblem feels detached by comparison, a game where I’m shoving little emblems (hey, now I get it!) around a grid, trying to remember the made-up weapons triangle and position anime waifu next to each other so they’ll fall in love and have magical warrior babies.

Honestly, it makes me want to smash my 3DS. How many hours do I have to put into a Fire Emblem game until it stops being banal and repetitive?

Pokemon

Or “Nintendo cock fighting”, as I like to call it. (Don’t google that.) I used to love JRPGs, actually, and like Fire Emblem, Pokemon is a franchise that I have tried to like. I inevitably find it to be a simplified rock/paper/scissors spin on the JRPG formula, a collect-a-thon as much as an actual game… but the real trouble, honestly, is when I listen to Pokemon fans begin to discuss Pokemon games in earnest. I can listen to talk of Koopa Troopas and Hyrule and Peppy Hare and Morph Balls and other such Nintendo nonsense for hours on end, but listening in on in-depth Pokemon conversation when you’re a series neophyte is a whole other form of hell, one to which I would not subject my worst enemy. The gameplay reward is too low and the bar of entry to fandom too high at this point for me to bother.

Although I’m pretty sure the Pokemon franchise won’t be hurting much without my spending cash propping it up.