Month: January 2018

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.