General Gaming

Mercurial Tastes

Things move in trends, right? Stocks, movies, music… they all follow popular trends. A “trend” should not be an indicator of “quality”. Popularity doesn’t equal artistic achievement. It CAN, but not by nature.

I’m trending in certain ways these days in regards to my tastes in games. There’s gaming elements I’m not feeling at the moment that will turn me off to games that I KNOW are objectively great… I’m just not in the mood for what they have to offer.

So how am I trending right now? For example, things I have no patience for at the moment include…

  • Inventory Management: It first hit me when I attempted to dive back into Skyrim after a long time away. As I guided my Red Mage character (half warrior, half sorceress) back into her home in Solitude, I realized that I had ten or so barrels scattered around the place full of groupings of potions and foodstuffs and armor and weapons. Skyrim is so full of collectibles that famously one of the running gags perpetrated by longtime players is the keeping of a room full of all the cheese they’ve found in the world. Right now, cheese hoarding seems way more appealing to me than trying to figure out which potions to carry with me and which to store in my basement. This is one of the reasons why I don’t see myself going back to Minecraft anytime soon, and I think this is where I should point out: I believe Skyrim and Minecraft to be two of the greatest games ever made. I just can’t bear the thought of organizing one more chest full of items at any point in my near future. (This is also what’s kept me away from Pokemon my whole life: Pokemon is a franchise that is designed almost completely around the concept of inventory management.)
  • Button-Mashing: Hyrule Warriors was one of my absolute favorite games on the Wii U, so I happily plunked down another $60 for Hyrule Warriors: Definitive Edition on the Switch. I have played it only in fits and spurts. While my Wii U play-through of HW was a cathartic romp against the forces of darkness, annihilating enemies by the thousands while playing through a fan-fic story based on the entire Legend of Zelda franchise, my time with the Switch version of the game has been defined by one constant mantra marching through my head as I play: “What am I doing with my life?” There’s no finesse or strategy involved in Hyrule Warriors. It’s just balls-to-the-wall stylish and cinematic obliteration of your enemies. That’s what I loved about it during the Wii U era. That’s what I hate about it now. (Bonus grievances: Hyrule Warriors also contains a surprising amount of inventory management, and the Adventure Maps through which you unlock most of the game’s bonus content are tedious time-sucks.) BTW: “button-mashing” is not simply relegated to rapid-fire combat games. The mindless button-mashing and inventory management of most JRPG combat is what’s keeping me on the fence about finally sinking time into Octopath Traveler and Xenoblade Chronicles 2, two games I should historically love but which I’m viewing right now as the gaming equivalent of plates full of Brussels sprouts.
  • Stiff Controls, Jerky Combat, Object Clipping: Yeah, that seems like three things, I know, but they’re all part of the same problem to me. They all speak to gaming mechanics that lack fluidity. I tried out the Dark Souls demo; it was my first time playing Dark Souls, ever. The difficulty of the game doesn’t scare me, but when in the course of the demo a skeleton killed me when his sword passed right through the stone column I had placed between it and my character, I knew I had played Dark Souls for the last time. This is one of the reasons I’m not feeling Skyrim at the moment. Like Breath of the Wild, Skyrim takes place in a captivating and beautiful (if less colorful and more foreboding) open world. That, though, is the end of the comparisons between the two games. Breath of the Wild is firmly an action-adventure game, and Skyrim is firmly an RPG. For the former, timing and skill take precedence over all else; it is legitimately possible to make your way to Hyrule Castle with three hearts and a pot lid for a shield if you’ve perfected the timing needed to deflect Guardian lasers. Skyrim is an RPG grinder with flailing combat that depends far more on your pre-fight preparations than your in-the-moment combat skills. Again: THIS IS NOT A COMMENTARY ON THE QUALITY OF THIS GAME. Look at older posts on this blog; I LOVE Skyrim. I just don’t want to play it right now. (Well, maybe as a sneaky archer, which is the build everyone keeps telling me I should be playing as, anyway.)

Let’s keep it positive for a second: conversely, here’s some gameplay styles I’m VERY into at the moment.

  • Platforming Finesse: I mean, this is a constant for me. I will go to my grave insisting that the SNES Aladdin is superior to the Genesis Aladdin because, even though the latter is gorgeously animated in the style of the film, the former is a parkour adventure through Agrabah and I’m all about that in my games. This is why my favorite Super Mario brand is the New Super Mario series; the non-powered up platforming of that series gives you the widest traversal toolset of the entire franchise . It is ALSO what puts Breath of the Wild and the later 2D Metroids at the top of those franchise heaps for me: I want traversal that is smooth and reflexive, always. Along these lines, I can’t recommend Shovel Knight: Specter of Torment enough. I also can’t recommend every game in the Shovel Knight franchise enough, though.
  • Stealth Mechanics: Mark of the Ninja is one of those games on the short list of titles that, as a Nintendo-exclusive gamer, I had always regretted missing out on. Well, like everything else ever apparently, it is now on Switch. I’m slowly dipping my toe in, and trying to savor it like a fine wine, but between its fantastic stealth mechanics (always give me options to get through levels beyond hacking-and-slashing everything, devs!) and its like-butter traversal mechanics, I am in heaven.
  • Strategy: I’m in the mood for different variations on video game chess. Perhaps, given my current aversion to mindless button mashing and irritating list management, I’m just at a point in my gaming life where I’d prefer to use my brain than my thumbs. Maybe NOW is when I’ll finally manage to get into Fire Emblem?
  • PvP: I’ve long been an offline gamer, but over recent years my time has been devoted more and more to online gaming, mostly in the form of Splatoon and Fortnite. Given my current predilection towards character fluidity and player-v-player? This is the perfect time, for me, for a new Smash Bros. to come into my life.

So what are my takeaways here? I dunno. Mostly that tastes change, and then change back, and that there’s a lot of games out there, man. Don’t force yourself to play anything you’re not in the mood to play just cuz you think you should. Games should be fun. Play what you like, and play what you like right now. Excelsior! #RIPStanTheMan

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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?”

NES, Wii U, & Everything In-Between: Ranking Nintendo’s Consoles

* Originally published on 8bitchimp.com.

A couple of ground rules:

  1. I’m only ranking consoles from the NES to the Wii U on. Yes, Nintendo is a 125 year-old company, and yes, they made the Game & Watch systems prior to the NES (or Famicom, for you Japanese readers), but for all intents and purposes the NES is the console they rose to fame with and the console that jump-started the modern video game industry. But more on that later. And I’m stopping at Wii U because… that’s the last thing they put out.
  1. Nintendo is very good at what they do, and (almost) every console they’ve ever released has had for it at least a handful of great games. So if your favorite system is ranked lower than you’d like, it’s not that it’s a bad system. It’s that it’s not as good as the ones above it.
  1. I’m not counting iterations, of which Nintendo’s portable consoles in particular had plenty. Example: for our purposes today, the Nintendo 3DS encompasses the 3DS XL, the 2DS, and the New 3DS. The exception to this rule is the Game Boy Color, which was not necessarily just a fresh coat of paint on the Game Boy, but a brand new system complete with exclusive-for-it software.
  1. I’ve owned most of these systems and I’ve played all of them, in their day and not as after-the-fact as museum pieces. Yes, I’ve even got hands-on experience with our first entry:

12.) Virtual Boy

Year of Release: 1995 – Best Games: Not Applicable

The Virtual Boy is the one absolute bona-fide disaster Nintendo has ever released. A pair of VR goggles attached to a tripod that demanded the user hunch over and cramp their back to play, displaying games in eyeball-splitting blood red and black. Why this ever made it out the door as a commercial product, nobody will ever know. So complete was Virtual Boy’s failure, that it anecdotally forced the retirement from Nintendo of creator Gunpei Yokoi, the producer of such legendary Nintendo titles as Donkey Kong, Mario Bros., Metroid, and Kid Icarus, not to mention the mind behind their aforementioned Game & Watch handheld devices. Years later it was suggested that Virtual Boy was pushed too quickly out the door so that Nintendo could devote more resources to the development of the N64, but rather they had canned the product than rushed it to market. The Virtual Boy is the type of device that sinks companies; fortunately, Nintendo quickly realized what they had done and quietly swept the Virtual Boy under the carpet just a few months after its release.

11.) Game Boy Color

Year of Release: 1998 – Best Games: Zelda: The Oracle Duology; Shantae; Pokemon Silver & Gold

Game Boy Color was the follow-up to the wildly successful Game Boy and an attempt to compete with other color consoles of the day, but it was in retrospect a strange little device with a very short lifespan. (Though technically it was on the market until 2003, the Game Boy Advance shipped in 2001, effectively making the era of GBC only 3 years long.) The GBC library is falsely inflated, as the device was able to play the entirety of the massive Game Boy library. Games made specifically to take advantage of the GBC hardware, though, were few and far between, and while it features a pair of secondary Zelda games as well as a pair of Pokemon titles, there arguably isn’t a true classic in the system’s entire exclusive repertoire.

10.) Wii

Year of Release: 2006 – Best Games: Wii Sports; Super Mario Galaxy; Zelda: Skyward Sword

The Wii, though a staggering commercial success, arguably did more harm than good to the Nintendo brand by the end of its lifespan. (Side note: Nintendo still sells the Wii Mini in stores. It still moves units.) The Wii was a fascinating thing, tall and thin and pristine white, with a weird remote control motion controller. Families gathered to marvel at the simple, undeniable fun of Wii Sports, not then realizing that this pack-in game-slash-tech demo would arguably be the pinnacle of the console’s achievements. Woefully underpowered hardware as compared to the competing Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 platforms put the final nail in the coffin of Nintendo’s relationship with 3rd party developers, whose games just couldn’t chug along on the antiquated Wii framework. The much-vaunted waggle controls proved to be virtually useless for anything but the most casual of mini-games, which led to an avalanche of awful shovel-ware as well the sort of game that no longer lives on consoles but in the mobile space, and the biggest sin of all was that the Wii offered lackluster versions of many of Nintendo’s major franchises. Super Smash Bros. Brawl, Mario Kart Wii, Metroid: Other M, Zeldas: Twilight Princess (really a GameCube title ported to the Wii) and Skyward Sword… these titles are often considered among the weakest of their respective franchises. The only escapee was Mario, whose New Super Mario Bros. Wii and especially Super Mario Galaxy were bright spots in what ended up being a very dark time for Nintendo fans.

9.) Nintendo 64 – Year of Release: 1996

Best Games: Super Mario 64; Zelda: Ocarina of Time; GoldenEye 007

Now, hold on a second: I know. The N64 had a collection of genre-busting, industry-redefining, amazing games. Super Mario 64, Ocarina of Time, and GoldenEye 007 are some of the best games ever, and Zelda: Majora’s Mask, Star Fox 64, and Mario Kart 64 were all great second-tier games for the system. So while the N64 featured more great games than the Wii, like that console the N64 was a long-term nightmare that the company is still feeling today. So what’d they do wrong? First of all, the N64 was designed to play one game: Super Mario 64. Anybody who owned it knows that arguably half of its line-up was composed of Mario 64 knock-offs that were nowhere near as good as that masterpiece, and the difficulty of programming any other sort of game for it was the first wedge driven between exterior developers and Nintendo. Secondly, Nintendo made N64 a cartridge-based system, ignoring the CD-ROM that was becoming the industry standard. The miniscule memory offered by carts led many developers to jump ship, most notably Square (now Square-Enix). How different would today’s gaming landscape be if Square’s Final Fantasy 7 had been a Nintendo-platform exclusive instead of a PS1 game? Sony may never have gotten a foot in the console door, and the PlayStation brand may have been one-and-done. Instead, the PS1 sold three times more units than the N64, Nintendo lost its place on top of the games industry, and Sony dominates today’s marketplace while Nintendo is struggling to play catch-up.

8.) Game Boy Advance

Year of Release: 2001 – Best Games: Metroid Fusion; Zelda: The Minish Cap; Advance Wars

The Game Boy Advance represents the last great hurrah of sprite-based gaming, and truth told it’s lower on this list than I’d personally like. Two great 2D Metroid titles, the first Amerian Fire Emblem games, Advance Wars, a revitalized Castlevania franchise, well-received entries in the Mario Kart and Zelda series, the required Pokemon games… the GBA moreso than the Game Boy Color was a worthy successor to the original Game Boy. The GBA was also the console where Nintendo really grabbed hold of the “let’s repackage our past for profit” idea, a gimmick that the company arguably grew to over-rely on as the console’s lifespan grew. The GBA’s library is riddled with remakes and rereleases, many of which were in fact sub-par to the original games being remade. In fact, the GBA is the only major Nintendo console to not feature an original Super Mario game, only re-packaged versions of older ones. In hindsight, how is that even possible?

7.) Nintendo DS

Year of Release: 2004 – Best Games: New Super Mario Bros.; Brain Age; Pokemon Diamond & Pearl

The Nintendo DS was the company’s top selling console of all time, and the second-highest selling console ever, beaten out by the PlayStation 2 by the slimmest of margins. Why was it such a hit? The DS signified the moment when Nintendo began to transition to the company they are today, a company willing to think outside the box and market some very non-game-y things to demographics beyond the usual young males (who had begun flocking to Sony and Microsoft). It gave us the Brain Age franchise, the Professor Layton franchise, WarioWare, Nintendogs, a new Animal Crossing, scads of strategy games that made great use of the stylus controls, a potpourri of JRPGs, and Picross. The device also was a haven for rediscovering old-style games in new franchise entries: a brand-new 2D Super Mario Bros., a fresh spin on Tetris, an old-school top-down Grand Theft Auto, a continuation of the excellent Castlevania side-scrollers that debuted on the GBA, top-down stylus-controlled Zelda games, some of the best Pokemon titles in that franchise’s history, and the list goes on with something for everyone. Still, the DS era was, in a way, a tech demo for what would become the 3DS era, and the still-raw polygons of a lot of DS games have not aged well. Additionally, a lot of those quirky, everyone-can-play titles ended up not having the franchise staying power to make them perennial favorites. In the moment, though, nobody cared. All that mattered was that the Nintendo DS was fun, and it certainly was that.

6.) Game Boy

Year of Release: 1989 – Best Games: Tetris; Pokemon Red & Blue; Donkey Kong; did we mention Tetris?

Yes, it had a puke-green and grey screen. Yes, too much of its library was poor ports of NES titles. Yes, the thing was an awkward-to-hold grey brick. But the Game Boy moved almost 120 million units in a day when numbers like that for a video game console were unheard of, and the-little-LCD-screen-that-could is immortalized for a handful of monumental achievements. First, it essentially made portable gaming a thing, showing the industry that cheap plastic Tiger Electronic toys were no longer acceptable gaming platforms. It featured as one of its best games the only true sequel to the original Donkey Kong. It’s lifespan saw surprisingly deep entries into the Super Mario, Zelda, Metroid, and Final Fantasy series, games that largely still hold up today. And last but not least, the Game Boy is responsible for unleashing two of gaming’s largest-ever phenomenons upon the world: Tetris, the brick-twisting sensation of a pack-in game that drove device sales through the stratosphere, and then, of course, Pokemon Red and Pokemon Blue, games that launched an international craze and gave the Game Boy its second wind.

5.) Wii U

Year of Release: 2012 – Best Games: Super Mario 3D World; Mario Kart 8; Super Smash Bros. for Wii U; Splatoon; Super Mario Maker; Zeldas: Wind Waker and Twilight Princess HD Remakes

Nintendo’s current-gen console, the Wii U, gets a bad rap, and in some ways it deserves it. In terms of computing power it, like its predecessor the Wii, lags behind the field. It has is virtually zero AAA 3rd party support in its software library, a few notable exceptions aside. Its primary feature, the Wii U Gamepad, in spite of finally proving necessary for a hit game (the 2D level-builder Super Mario Maker), is still best utilized for off-screen play and Netflix. But… the games. The best Mario Kart ever, the best Smash Bros. ever, the best 3D Super Mario ever, the best Pikmin ever, definitive HD versions of Zelda: Wind Waker and Zelda: Twilight Princess, surprise hits Hyrule Warriors and Captain Toad, an exciting new IP in the ink-splattered Splatoon, adorable Yoshi and Kirby games, a hit 2D Super Mario game alongside a 2D DLC spin-off starring Luigi, a best-in-show exclusive action title in Bayonetta 2, the LEGO exclusive Lego City Undercover, two Arkham games, two Assassin’s Creed games, indie darlings Shovel Knight and Guacamelee… the list goes on. There have been missteps, to be sure; Star Fox Zero certainly has its major detractors, and the overall Wii U experience has had its flaws, particularly in the realm of marketing and branding. Those flaws, though, do not change the facts, and the fact is this: Wii U may feature the most consistently excellent line-up in Nintendo’s console history.

4.) GameCube

Year of Release: 2001 – Best Games: Zelda: Wind Waker; Metroid Prime; Super Smash Bros. MeleeRogue Squadron 2: Rogue Leader

It’s easy to look at the modest-selling GameCube as a bit of a failure, as it went head-to-head with (and made barely a dent against) the best-selling video game console of all time: the Playstation 2. But what GameCube had were games, and masterpiece after masterpiece found its way onto the console. Even in a generation where the Mario game was weird (Super Mario Sunshine) and the Star Fox game was weirder (Star Fox Adventures), the GameCube still featured an embarrassment of riches in incredible software. Zelda: Wind Waker is arguably the best game in the entire franchise. Super Smash Bros. Melee the same, and it still is the game of choice for serious Smashers. Star Wars: Rogue Leader is in the conversation for the best Star Wars game of all time; Resident Evil 4 is considered by many to be the high point in that storied franchise’s entire run. The Pikmin series debuted on the GameCube, as did Animal Crossing. And lest we forget Metroid Prime, possibly the best 2D to 3D franchise conversion ever, even in a universe were Super Mario 64 and Zelda: The Ocarina of Time exist. GameCube was the underrated purple box with the library of must-play games that, if you haven’t, you still must play today.

3.) Nintendo 3DS

Year of Release: 2011 – Best Games: Fire Emblem: Awakening; Super Mario 3D Land; Zelda: A Link Between Worlds

For the quintessential Nintendo experience, it’s hard to do better than 3DS, which is home to great 2D and 3D titles in both the Mario and Zelda franchises, a port of the best of the Star Fox franchise, a this-shouldn’t-be-real entry in the Smash Bros. franchise, four 3D Pokemon titles, the quintessential Fire Emblem game, three more Fire Emblem games, a great Final Fantasy game that isn’t a Final Fantasy game (Bravely Default), Mario Kart greatness, the first new Kid Icarus in forever, backwards compatibility with the massive Nintendo DS line-up, old-school homage Shovel Knight, and then there’s best game available on the device: Luigi’s Mansion 2. (Okay, maybe that’s just my opinion.) As icing on the cake, all the company’s greatest hits from the NES, Game Boy, and Game Boy Color era are available for the system’s Virtual Console, and the SNES era is also well-represented on the “New” model. The Nintendo 3DS feels very much like a culmination of everything the company has been working towards for thirty years, folded together into one neat little package that is the must-buy current-market Nintendo system for any and all fans of gaming.

2.) Nintendo Entertainment System

Year of Release: 1986 – Best Games: Too numerous to mention.

Without the NES, video games as we know them wouldn’t have happened. Let’s be clear about that. The industry was dead as a doornail when Nintendo’s premier gaming box hit living rooms, killed by the excesses of Atari and by the dismissal of the art form as just another dumb kid’s fad. Then the NES arrived, and re-wrote history. Oh, sure, it’s possible some other company would have been able to succeed in the same way in the same time in the same space, given the opportunity. Others, though, tried and failed, and it was up to Nintendo to dig gaming up out of its grave and drag it down the road. Besides, can you possibly imagine anyone else launching hit franchise after hit franchise at the rate Nintendo and its licensees did during the NES heyday? Super Mario Bros., The Legend of Zelda, Metroid, Castlevania, Mega Man, Metal Gear, Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest, Punch-Out!!, Contra, Kid Icarus, Fire Emblem and Mother (well, in Japan, anyway)… all of these classic gaming franchises began on the NES. Many, though, would not be perfected until…

1.) Super Nintendo Entertainment System

Year of Release: 1991 – Best Games: … almost all of them?

The Super Nintendo took the formula established by the NES made it… well, super: bigger, brighter, more colorful, faster, and better designed. Almost all of the major franchises that started life on the NES found a similar home on the SNES, and it would be one of the last times in Nintendo console history could that be said. The holy trilogy of Nintendo gaming was represented with a triumvirate of all time great games; Super Mario World, Zelda: A Link to the Past, and Super Metroid are still considered three of the greatest games of all time, and may by themselves represent the quintessential Nintendo experience. Add to the mix new high-polished entries into such great series as Castlevania, Contra, Mega Man, Punch Out!!, and Final Fantasy, throw in the dueling fighting phenomenons Street Fighter 2 and Mortal Kombat, and then factor in the debut titles of even more fantastic Nintendo franchises (Star Fox, F-Zero, Donkey Kong Country, and Mario Kart spring immediately to mind), and what you have is the console of Nintendo’s golden era, the symbol of a time when they dominated the marketplace creatively, technologically, and economically. The Super Nintendo and its library of games are must-play for any fan of the medium, games that perfected the NES properties that saved an industry, and games that still hold up today, twenty-plus years later.

Final Fantasy Disease: A Modern-Day Plague

In a recent interview with 4Gamer, Hajime Tabata, director of the upcoming Final Fantasy XV for PlayStation 4, introduced the concept of what he refers to as “Final Fantasy disease.” He says, “It refers to people… who can’t imagine anything other than their own view of Final Fantasy.”

He was, largely, talking to those within Square-Enix, the company that produces the (Final Fantasy series) who can’t imagine a Final Fantasy game that isn’t what they personally imagine a Final Fantasy game should be. It’s a term, though, that can be readily applied to series fans, as well. (It can be applied to fans of anything, really, but let’s stick to Final Fantasy.) And reading Tabata-san’s definition of the disease, it’s easy for me to self-diagnosis: I have it.

Final Fantasy, Final Fantasy II and III (U.S. numbering), Final Fantasy Adventure, Final Fantasy Mystic Quest, The Final Fantasy Legend… I was a huge fan of the Final Fantasy series on the NES, Game Boy, and SNES, back when I actually had the time and patience to sink into an epic RPG. What I imagine Final Fantasy to be (super-deformed sword and sorcery characters performing specific skills within a job system, in a story that usually has something to do with crystals and lets you ride around on the ostrich-chickens called chocobos and an airship) has led me to often refer to Final Fantasy IX, considered a series throwback game at the time of its release for the original PlayStation, as the last TRUE Final Fantasy game… at least until the Bravely Default series began on the 3DS.

Reading Tabata-san’s interview and quotes, though, I may have to rethink my stance: series do have to modernize, after all, and the original Final Fantasy formula probably isn’t in-depth enough to appeal to today’s RPG player. So, with no preparation of any sort, I’m going to watch some YouTube videos of gameplay from the Final Fantasy series proper beyond IX and decide, based on just that footage and without playing any of the games at all for even a little bit, if each of these games truly IS a true Final Fantasy game, using a True Final Fantasy Rating scale of 1-5, where 5 is “Super True and 1 is “What the FF is this?”

I might also read some Wikipedia entries.

Final Fantasy X – An extreme sports star is summoned to the future to throw basketballs at monsters. Experience points are replace by something called “sphere grids”, there’s no world map or job system, and the game progresses in a largely linear fashion. Still, there’s chocobos and airships and summons, a menu-based swords-and-sorcery combat system, not to mention awkwardly localized dialogue. True Final Fantasy rating: 4

Final Fantasy XI – An MMORPG that focuses more on individual missions than an overarching story. Players all prep themselves with dozens of spells before running up to and hacking at a monster en-masse, creating a disorganized scrum of chaos where it’s nearly impossible to tell what’s going on. Sure, it includes chocobos, airships, and has a job system, but why Final Fantasy decided to become World of Warcraft is anyone’s guess. True Final Fantasy Rating: 2

Final Fantasy XII – A solo-player adventure with a very Final Fantasy story about warring kingdoms and magic-driven technology and the magical element known as magicite and airships. Gone is the franchise’s turn-based battle system, replaced by a faster in-real-time, right-in-the-overworld, AI-controls-whoever-you’re-not system… a necessity of series modernization, I suppose, but not the Final Fantasy I know and love, and which also means that the battle music and the victory anthem are no more. No job system, but you can obtain licenses to perform certain tasks. If this were a Zelda game, a fishing license would no doubt be among the most coveted. True Final Fantasy Rating: 3

Final Fantasy XIII Final Fantasy plots generally draw from one of two story templates: Global Nuclear War or Tale of Two Cities; Final Fantasy XIII‘s story draws from the latter. Enemies again appear on the world map and can be avoided, but contact with them sends you to a battle screen where an Active Time Battle plays out. Eidolons are summoned and the player draws skills from a limited version of the classic job system. The leveling up is done through some form of crystal management, and crystals are always a good look for Final Fantasy. True Final Fantasy Rating: 4

Final Fantasy XIV – Did the world really need the Final Fantasy version of EverQuest? True Final Fantasy Rating: 1

I’m not going to include Final Fantasy XV on the list as it has yet to be released, but gameplay details are already plentiful and it seems a lot more like Final Fantasy XII than it does Final Fantasy XIII. Only with a car.

So, all right, Final Fantasy IX WASN’T the last “true” Final Fantasy game. X and XIII also fit the bill, or at least come close. Although, honestly? If you want to play the last TRUE true Final Fantasy, you’re going to have to choose between Final Fantasy II and Final Fantasy III (U.S. numbering).

Final Fantasy disease: there is no cure.

 

Fantasy Smash Bros.

In fantasy sports, which has become a multi-billion dollar industry, couch potatoes divvy up the best players across a particular pro league, distributing them across a make-believe league of (usually) 8 to 12 teams, creating a league full of nothing but all-stars and almost all-stars, for the most part.

What if we applied that structure to Smash Bros.?

Consider this, if you will, an addendum or appendix to the previous post, an exercise in wish fulfillment. Taking away licensing rights and copyright protection and all that jazz, if a games company were able to publish a mascot brawler featuring only the 20 greatest characters across all of video game history, what would that roster look like

Perhaps something like this:

(Editor’s Note: Before we begin, we should explain that in this space a great gaming character is one that is A. in a great game, B. easily recognizable, and C. has personality. Personality goes a long way.)

  1. Mario – Obviously.
  2. Pac-Man – Obviously.
  3. Donkey Kong – Some may dispute his placement at 3rd. Ignore the number, though; wherever he lands, he makes the list.
  4. Pikachu – The face of a global phenomenon.
  5. Lara Croft – Her arrival announced to the world that gaming had grown up… or that it had at least hit puberty.
  6. Red – The original Angry Bird heralded in the transition of mobile into a legitimate gaming platform. (Yes, it is.)
  7. Steve – One hundred million Minecraft players can’t all be wrong.
  8. Sonic the Hedgehog – The only remaining remnant of Sega’s once mighty empire.
  9. Link – The Legend of Zelda‘s silent hero.
  10. Master Chief – Halo‘s silent hero.
  11. Scorpion – Get over here!
  12. Ryu – Hadoken!
  13. Ash Ketchum – There’s 100 other Pokemon that could be listed; instead, here’s the guy who caught them all.
  14. Cloud Strife – Final Fantasy VII‘s silent hero.
  15. Solid Snake – The template for any worthwhile Metal Gear protagonist, clone or not, is Solid Snake.
  16. Luigi – Yes, he rides in on his brother’s coattails. But what impressive coattails they are.
  17. Samus Aran – She should probably be higher than this.
  18. Q-Bert – @!#?@!
  19. Gordon Freeman – Half-Life‘s silent hero.
  20. Spyro the Dragon – His namesake game made him famous; Skylanders made him infamous.

The assumption, of course, is that you disagree.