Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Playing with (Tablet) Power!!

(I wrote this shortly after E3 2012, and although I'm less enthusiastic about this idea today, I still think this is a strategy that Nintendo should have - and still could - consider.)

For the last few years, there's been no end to the talk about Nintendo floundering position in the handheld gaming space. Smartphones and apps stores have been gobbling up the market for casual portable games - a market that Nintendo helped create with the DS - and now we're left to wonder how they can reclaim their dominance. "Build a phone!" some have cried. "Put games in the app stores!" others say. But I've realized in the last couple months that they are both wrong, and so was Nintendo when they released the 3DS.

They should have made a tablet!

You may think I'm crazy, but hear me out. Nintendo knows how to make incredible, touch-only games, and they've been doing so years on the DS. The Legend of Zelda games "Phantom Hourglass" and "Spirit Tracks" are not only great video games, but neither requires a physical button to play. I'm sure they could just as easily adapt games like Mario, Metroid, and Pokemon in a similar manner, so the lack of physical controls is a non-issue.

But why a tablet? Simple: parents are looking for a cheap tablet for their kids to play on. I've had several coworkers in the last year ask me about tablets, and their reason is always their kids. They don't want to give up their phone or personal iPad, and the 3DS just isn't what kids today want. They want something that can play Angry Birds, Cut the Rope, Fruit Ninja, and all the other casual games that are so popular these days. More often than not, I recommend something like the Kindle Fire or the Nook, but imagine if Nintendo had a tablet in the same vein. They could OWN this market.

It may be too late to capitalize on this opening, but then again, who knows. The Nintendo brand is still strong with consumers, and if they move quickly (released in time for Holiday 2013?) there just might be a chance to reclaim the portable gaming throne.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Save the Colossi: Same Name, New Meaning

Wow! I almost forgot I had this thing lying around. Look at all the dust that's collected!

When I started this blog oh so many years ago, I chose the name "Save the Colossi" for a couple a reasons. Primarily, I wanted to pay tribute to the Playstation 2 game "Shadow of the Colossus", which was not only a landmark and influential title for the system, but easily one of the best videogames I'd played for any platform. Perhaps more importantly though, the name was catchy and available. At the time, I was inspired by writers like Jeremy Parish, Leigh Alexander, and Michael Abbott over at The Brainy Gamer, and I hoped to contribute to their always insightful conversations.

But as you can see from my archive, I never quite lived up to those grand ambitions.

The last few years have seen me playing far fewer games than I did in my high school years and even on into my early 20s. With the exception of the Wii, I basically sat out of this generation of videogame consoles, spending more time on iPhone games or classics on the Wii's Virtual Console than anything else. And here we are on the brink of a new generation of systems - and one short week after E3, the biggest gaming event of the year - and yet I remain relatively ambivalent about the whole prospect. I'll probably purchase Nintendo's latest console and handheld at some point in the next six months, but even they have failed to inspire me in the last couple years.

Which brings us back to names and their meaning. At this point in time, the "Big 3" videogame console makers  - Microsoft, Nintendo, and Sony - all feel like they're becoming the lumbering colossi of the Playstation 2 game. They're institutions, almost too big to fail, but a little upstart could easily take any one of them down (or, life forbid, all three!) which tenacity and a few precisely targeted attacks. What's more, these threats are already banging on the gates. Any day, Apple could unveil some Trojan horse living room device and swiftly conquer the console space with a legion of iOS games and rabid fans. Similarly, Android-based consoles like the OUYA or the Gamestick could have similar success, thanks to cheaper games and a far more affordable console; you could buy five OUYAs for the price of an XBOX One. And let's not forget that Valve, who created the PC game platform of choice among gamers, are planning to release "Steam Boxes" in the not to distant future.

And the game makers aren't helping matters either. Budgets for gamers during the PS3/XBOX 360 generation skyrocketed, and the coming generation only looks to exacerbate this issue. Game studios are spending the same kind of money movie studios throw around to create Summer blockbusters like the Avengers, and the budgets just aren't sustainable. The stakes are just getting too high. Every "AAA" videogame has to be a success, and those that aren't risk bankrupting even the largest developers. The "hardcore" videogame market is already diminishing, and this upward budgetary trend threatens to topple the entire house of cards.

Videogame journalist Ben Kuchera wrote a few months ago "people asking if ... we're going to have another crash ... [is] like standing in the wreckage and wondering if the plane will be okay." As a fan of videogames, I really hope this is not the case, and that we aren't headed for another 80s-style crash, but I have to admit that the signs may be around us. Maybe it won't be a drastic implosion, a la the Atari era, but I can definitely see the market steadily decreasing in significance. Perhaps this is the start of a new Renaissance, or it could be that the worst happens and the industry never quite recovers.  Whatever happens, my heart is back in the game, so to speak, and my goal moving forward is to observe and to write.

I am but one person, but I also know that I am not alone. Together, perhaps we can stop our favored past time from stepping over the precipice.

Perhaps we can save the Colossi... from themselves.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Gaming Novellas

In case you don't follow my other blog, I'm currently between jobs at the moment. As a result though, I've been able to finally start weeding through my backlog of videogames, or my "pile of shame" as I affectionately call it. These games run the gamut from DS to Playstation 2, from RPG to platformer, and unfortunately, there are a lot of them.

Playing all these games however is showing me that the medium is really at its finest in a shorter form.

When I was still a student in high school and community college (i.e. when I had lots of free time), I devoured huge RPGs like Final Fantasy X, Tales of Symphonia, and Kingdom Hearts like they were M&Ms. Spending $50 on a game that was going to keep me entertained for 40+ hours was a deal. But although you're receiving a lot of entertainment for your money, longer games carry certain disadvantages that actually hurt their long-term value.

The biggest issue is replayability. I'm sure all of us have a few games that we rank among our all-time favorites, much like we do with movies and books. And because they're so treasured, I sometimes like to experience them over again and remember why I love them. With a movie, it takes a few hours; with a movie, it might take a few days. Videogames though can take anywhere from an afternoon or a few days to weeks or even months to finish, depending on how long they are. For a long game like Tales of Symphonia - which took me over 80 hours to finish - this just isn't conducive to a second or third play though. Although I've attempted to restart this game multiple times, I never get more than a few hours in.

Ocarina of Time is probably one of the few longer games
I've replayed multiple times

It's not just the length, however, that keeps me from replaying these longer titles; it's the pacing. An epic RPG like Tales of Symphonia or Kingdom Hearts often takes hours just to get out of the tutorial or introductory phase of the plot. By the time the game as a whole gets really good, ten hours might have been spent. In that same amount of time, I could be halfway through an RPG like Chrono Trigger or Dragon Quest V, and I could have played Portal, Mechinarium, or Shadow of the Colossus from start to finish. It's not just that these games are shorter in length, they have better pacing: they get the story and gameplay moving sooner and quicker. This is true in movies and books as well: for years I simply skipped the first chapter of Harry Potter because it was so slow. Chapter two is when the story takes off.

 The storyline is part of the thread that pulls us  into and through the game. Without occasional progress in the story, we don't feel like our actions are making any progress in the game. And the best games for this, I'm finding, are shorter in length. The Mario & Luigi RPGs, for example, have excellent pacing and tend to only be 10-20 hours in length. Their storylines moves along at a nice clip, and even visually I feel like I'm making progress. Bowser's Inside Story, despite being only about 18 hours long, suffers from poor pacing at the end. The final dungeon felt like it was a quarter of the overall game; both narratively and visually, my feeling of progress slowed down almost to a halt, and I had to stop playing several times purely because of fatigue. The first game in the series, Superstar Saga, only took me about 12 hours to complete, and didn't leave me with any such fatigue.

Portal is the perfect "pleasure game." It takes 2-3 hours to finish,
and it's always a satisfying experience.

I still have a love for longer games - Dragon Quest IX did, after all, consume two months and 100 hours of my life this summer - but I love when I can whimsically decide to play a game like Portal and finish it within a few hours or days. That's what I think of as "pleasure gaming."

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

All's Fair in Love and Mario Bros.

This last weekend was Valentine's Day, and like most other people in relationships, I was celebrating the day in the usual fashion. My girlfriend and I exchanged cards, small gifts, had a romantic dinner at home, and even watched a fun romantic-comedy ("Hitch," at my suggestion). But while our Valentine's day likely mimicked many others around the country, there was one thing that made our evening unique:

We faced-off against Bowser.

We knew we would have to face him eventually. Well, at least I did. My girlfriend, never having seen a Mario game before this one, was less familiar with the typical tropes. The two of us enter Bowser's lair, well-stocked with extra lives and power-ups. They'll do us no good in the end, as this final dungeon would challenge us more than any other before it. We die again and again: sometimes lasting longer than before, but more often not.

Eventually, through our sheer determination, we reach New Super Mario Bros. equivalent to an oasis in the desert: a checkpoint. Behind a pair of ominous doors awaits our final challenge. We've beaten his minions, his dungeons, and even his children, but now it's time to face Big Daddy himself. It's been a long road for the two of us, but the end is finally in sight.

My girlfriend and I have spent our last few visits together plugging away at New Super Mario Bros. Wii. Appropriately, it was a game I received from her this Christmas: an almost last minute gift idea chosen because the two of us could play together. My girlfriend, although not much of a gamer herself, has often watched me while I'm playing videogames. Although this has made many of my single-player games into multiplayer experiences, I could see that she desperately wanted to play and share these experiences with me. If she could, my girlfriend would much rather be running through Hyrule at my side, cutting down plants and hording rupees, than sitting on the couch giving me orders like a general. We needed cooperative multiplayer, and NSMBW delivered it to us in spades. This is the reason the game went from completely off my radar to being my favorite game of 2009.

The reason New Super Mario Bros. has been such a standout game though isn't simply because it has a good multiplayer mode; it's because playing with another person feels so fundamental to the enjoyment of the game. When it was first announced as a four player cooperative game, I and many others assumed the worse: that the multiplayer was simply a feature tacked on to appeal to the "expanded" audience Nintendo has had so much success with. What's more, expectations were low concerning complexity of design. If this was indeed a game for the casual audience, it would make sense that the level design would be significantly simplified so as not to overwhelm less experienced gamers. Neither of these ended up being true, and in some ways, I almost feel like the game is more accessible - nay, easier - with the extra players.

With King Koopa in pursuit, my girlfriend makes a critical decision: she "bubbles" her character. This temporarily takes her out of the game, allowing me to move forward without worrying about her. Bowser is gaining on us, and perhaps she suspects that she's slowing us down. Whatever her reasons, I sit back and let my experience take over.

Having played through most of the Mario platformers growing, I can safely say that this is one of the most difficult Mario games in the series. Surprisingly so! Despite my experience with previous Mario titles, both my girlfriend and I were struggling in the beginning as we came to grips with the game's mechanics: she with the general physics as well as techniques for running and jumping, and I with the subtleties of wall-jumping, among others. And the design of the levels themselves are anything but simple. For instance, three collectible Star Coins are hidden in each level, and finding them all - not to mention collecting them - can often be a matter of observation, perseverance, and even blind luck.

Coordination is also key in New Super Mario Bros. As a game built with multiplayer in mind, it goads the players to talk with each other. Very rarely were my girlfriend and I not conversing about the game, with the possible exception being during certain difficult sections that required heavy concentration. More often than not, however, we were interacting. Sometimes it took the form of suggestions or even orders concerning what to do in a level. Sometimes it was encouragement when one or both of us hit a rough patch. Sometimes it even took the form of scolding, when one of us - usually me - had inadvertently caused the other person's death. And although it may be frustrating at times, the conversations were always in the lightest of spirits. The two of us were having fun, so what did it matter why we died. We'll just play through the level again.

But more than the interaction the game sparks, I love that Nintendo created a game that players of all skill levels can play and enjoy, and the multiplayer is a huge reason for that. Some of the level in NSMBW are so difficult that I can imagine a less-experienced gamer like my girlfriend becoming too frustrated and giving up. But because she has me playing with her, she can simply let me take over during a hard section and then pop back into the game when it's over. Similarly, death has less impact when multiple people are playing, becoming more akin to FPS spawning than the traditional death state typical of Mario games. Rather than have that hard death-state, as long as another player stay alive in the level, it's only a matter of seconds before the dead player re-spawns and can continue playing. So even if she's dying a lot, my girlfriend still has an opportunity to improve her abilities without waiting for me to die or finish the level.

I'm quickly learning why multiplayer is such a selling point for a lot of games. For many years, I undervalued it because my limited experience hadn't been too compelling. In the last couple of years though, I've had many opportunities to experience what multiplayer games have to offer, be they Team Fortress 2 or Marvel vs. Capcom. The ability to share gaming experiences, which can often be very individual, with not only friends and other gamers, but family and loved ones is not something I can put a price on. I might not recommend it for couple counseling, but it certainly has brought me and my girlfriend closer together.

In the end, we defeated Bowser together. And as I saw Mario once again get the girl (with Luigi, as my girlfriend pointed out - getting totally shafted), I couldn't help but see some parallels with my life. After all, I got the girl too; I just didn't need to save her from a gang of spiky turtles.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Looking Back on 2009

I often feel like I'm in an odd position when it comes to writing about videogames. Primarily, this has to do with my lack of Xbox 360 or PS3 (or even a decent gaming PC) to play some of the higher profile game releases. When everyone on the net is weighing in on the merits of a game like Uncharted 2, for instance, I am forced to sit out on the discussion. My personal talking points are frustratingly limited to games available on the Wii, DS, iPhone/iPod Touch, a little PC, and the Playstation 2 if I feel like revisiting an older game. Nowhere is this limitation more frustrating than when discussing the "best" games of the past year.

But despite my inability to play the Assassin's Creeds of the world, 2009 still felt like a very full year for my personal gaming. Although my gaming was limited by my final year in college, when I was gaming it seemed like there were a wealth of quality titles to choose from.

Portable games in particular had a good year, with the iPhone maturing into a decent gaming platform. Hookchamp by far is my favorite game released on the iPhone this year, and each update has delivered more characters, upgrades, levels, and miscellaneous extras that keep the experience fresh and engaging. It's still one of the few games that I'll play just for fun during my downtime, as the main gameplay mechanic - grappling - is perfectly executed and just plain fun. Additionally, games like Rolando 2, Flight Control, Space Invaders: Infinity Gene, and particularly Spider all round out my favorite iPhone games of the year, and I'm excited to see where iPhone gaming goes in 2010.

Similarly, the DS had a string of great releases, many of which I neglected to play last year (GTA: Chinatown Wars tops this list). Retro Game Challenge, for instance, is a truly inspired game that distills the best elements from many classic NES and Famicom titles (Dragon Quest, Ninja Gaiden, etc.) into a collection of fake retro games, creating a package that gamers of all ages - but particularly the older set - can enjoy. Best of all, the "retro" games in this collection aren't the tough-as-nails style of 8-bit games you remember from your youth. My favorite DS game this year though was Rhythm Heaven. I know my enjoyment of Rhythm Heaven is in large part due to my inherent talent with rhythm games (I all but completed Elite Beat Agents on its highest difficulty setting within a matter of weeks); but more than that, the game has a style and - pardon the pun - a rhythm all its own. The simplicity and short length of each level encourages that "one more time" mentality, which in turn give Rhythm Heaven amazing pacing. Unless a stage really stumps you, you'll be progressing through the game at a nice clip. And although I haven't finished these games, Dragon Quest V, Devil Survivor, The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks all deserve mention as some of the best on the DS in 2009.

The Wii had another fairly good year, with many of the games I played not produced by the House of Mario. Madworld was a pure indulgence for me. As a fan of action movies like 300 and Sin City, I enjoyed playing a game that emulated these movies and comic books in both style and content. Although I wouldn't say that Madworld had much depth in terms of story or gameplay, the entire package is what makes the game great. In particular, the ongoing color-commentary from announcers Howard and Kreese had me rolling at times. It's often said that games have a hard time making people laugh, but Madworld is certainly an exception to this maxim. Muramasa: The Demon Blade was another Wii game that captured my interest this year, although I would have liked a bit more in terms of depth when it came to character growth and combat.

But honestly, when it came down to deciding what my favorite game from 2009 was, I had a hard time making a decision. And then I received a videogame for Christmas from my girlfriend: a little game for the Wii titled New Super Mario Bros. Wii. I intend to write more intensively on it soon, but needless to say this game is meant to be played with multiple people, and I suspect would not be even 1/10th as fun solo.

Thursday, December 31, 2009

Because This One Goes to 11

So here we are at the end of another decade. For my personal gaming life, the "aughts" have been particularly significant, as I spent most of the 90s forced to play videogames at the houses of friends and relatives until I got a Nintendo 64 in 1998. Even then though, I bought a total of ten games during my entire time with the system (which in retrospect isn't that bad considering how small the 64's library was compared to the Playstation). It wasn't until 2001, with the release of the Game Boy Advance, that videogames began to infect my very existence (a la Akira).

And it's been a good decade for games. 3D graphics have come into their own and story-telling in games is becoming increasing sophisticated. We have, for the most part, moved beyond the simple "save the princess from the bad guy" scenario. We've also seen a diverging philosophy for game design, with some games trying to do everything and others stripping gameplay down to a single mechanic. Bleeding-edge technology is still in vogue, but gamer nostalgia for times long past has given rise to retro-styled games that simulate old technology.

It's hard to say what the next decade will hold for videogames, but it's worth looking back at eleven games that help get us here.

Katamari Damacy

I can remember reading about Katamari Damacy in EGM back when it was freshly-released in Japan. At the time, I just assumed it was just another silly Japanese game like Cho Aniki destined to remain overseas. I mean, look at the Japanese TV commercial: it's bizarre! You can imagine my shock when Katamari was not only released stateside, but started selling pretty well (so well, in fact, that there have been four sequels on various systems). It's a strange success story, but one not without its merits. Katamari Damacy is simple, quirky, and above all incredibly fun. It's one of the few games that doesn't involve special peripherals that almost anyone can pick-up and play and enjoy themselves. It has a satisfying sense of progression, as the more objects you accumulate in your katamari, the larger the objects that can be rolled up.

And although I prefer its sequel, We Love Katamari, to the original, I can't deny the how enjoyable or how important Katamari Damacy is to the current state of videogames, especially the indie game scene. The Onion A.V. Club might have put it best, stating that "there’s a good argument for pegging Katamari Damacy as the catalyst that helped usher in the new wave of low-fi, handmade games."

Half-Life 2

I came late to the Half-Life party, never being much of a PC gamer or really having a PC capable of playing any of the Half-Life games when they were originally released. It wasn't until the Orange Box that I got my first taste of Valve's dystopian action game, and what a taste it was! While perhaps not as revolutionary as its predecessor was, Half-Life 2 delivers an interesting story, told with excellent pacing, and delivers enough gameplay variety to fill two or three games. And then, of course, there's Ravenholm. While somewhat out of place compared to the rest of the game, the Ravenholm section delivers genuine scares and tension akin to the best survival horror games. The characteristic rattle of a poison headcrab is enough to send chills down the spines of many a gamer, making Ravenhom perhaps the most memorable area in the entire game.

Half-Life 2 typifies the kind of linear story-telling that videogames have thus far excelled at, particularly in the JRPG genre. But whereas Japanese role-playing games are like epic fantasy or sci-fi novels, Half-Life 2 is like an action film (and a thoughtful one at that). It's a roller coaster ride: you strap yourself in, shoot some aliens, get fed some exposition, and ultimately emerge victorious. Your actions don't affect the ultimate outcome of the game; there are no Bioware-style dialogue trees. This may be a problem for those who prefer "non-linear" games like Dragon Age and Mass Effect, but for gamers like myself it makes for one thrilling experience.

And besides, the Gravity Gun is REALLY fun!

Grand Theft Auto: Vice City

It's hard to deny how important the Grand Theft Auto 3 is to the heritage of videogames during the last decade. Sandbox games were the "it" thing for awhile, with everyone from Spiderman to Tony Hawk getting in on the action. I also suspect the popularity of GTA3 is the reason Shadow the Hedgehog was got a handgun when he was given his own game (thankfully Mario will "never start shooting hookers"). But the games with the GTA3 lineage are definitely unlike any other. When I play a game, I want to finish it: I want to see how the story plays out; I want to know about the characters; I want to empathize with the protagonist. But that's not how I play Grand Theft Auto games. I jump into that sandbox, I create some mayhem, and then I turn off the game. I don't care about missions; I care about cheat codes. I've never even bought a GTA game because my entire enjoyment can be gained from 20 minutes of play at someone else's house. It's an aberration in my gaming behavior.

But for me, Vice City is where the series really came together. Where Liberty City was drab and boring, Vice City was bright and seemingly bustling with activity. Setting the game in the 1980s was the real masterstroke though, capitalizing and a resurgence of interest in 80s music and pop culture.

Resident Evil 4

The sniping section inside the castle sucks, but that's about the only bad thing I can say about Resident Evil 4. Having dipped my toe into the Resident Evil waters with the Gamecube remake of the original game, I knew how busted the old control setup had become and how stale the game mechanics were. The simple act of turning around was a fight in and of itself (more challenging than most of the zombie encounters) and vital puzzle solving keys were spread across the entirety of the map. Resident Evil 4 not only fixed most of the problems with the series, but it's use of the over-the-shoulder camera angle has been an inspiration for many games since, such as Infamous.

The definitive experience is on the Wii, where the improved aiming mechanic transformed this game from one I liked to one that I loved.

World of Goo

World of Goo was my favorite game of 2008, and my love for it has yet to wane. To be honest, it was a tough fight between this game and PopCap's ever-addictive Peggle franchise, but in the end, I had to give recognition to the two-man team over at 2D Boy. Whether on the Wii or PC, the physics-based, structure-building puzzle gameplay is incredibly challenging, but simultaneously it allows gamers the freedom to try out different strategies in a way that other puzzle games seem to lack. This is complimented by Burton-esque aesthetics and storytelling. All these elements come together to form a package that, for my money, is much more enjoyable than the other indie darling, Braid.

Shadow of the Colossus

Sixteen colossi. One dead girl. A boy and his horse. An expansive world to explore. These are the elements that comprise Shadow of the Colossus, the game that is this blog's namesake. But Shadow of the Colossus is more than just the sum of its parts.

The game tells a story that is largely left up to the player to interpret, but the basics are that a young man enters into a forbidden land with nothing but his horse, a sword, and the body of a dead girl. He is tasked by a disembodied voice to slay the colossi that roam the land, with the promise that the girl would be revived. The rest is open to interpretation. Questions concerning the identity of the dead girl and the nature of the colossi are just a couple a the questions that players have asked themselves during the course of the game. And the minimalist narrative is even evocative of "Princess Mononoke" at times, with the titular colossi seeming more like a part of nature than stone beasts.

It's hard to really place a finger on why Shadow of the Colossus is so captivating to play. There's almost no dialogue to speak of, and yet we can't help but empathize with the hero or feel an equal sense of companionship with his horse, Agro. Videogames are slowly evolving in terms of story-telling, and the minimalist style of Shadow of the Colossus seems pivotal in this ongoing process.

Super Mario Galaxy

Super Mario Galaxy is one of those games that just fills me with an almost child-like wonder. It's not only an absolutely gorgeous games (especially for the Wii), but there's a profound sense of pure joy every time I play the game that it's hard not to smile. Maybe it's all the planets that fill each galaxy, acting as mini-stages and really allowing the designers to be imaginative with the level design. Some of these areas are so surreal, even for a Mario game, that they have an almost dream-like quality to them. Running along the surface of an apple and moving to the next one via a bridge that is actually a worm: what other game has images like this?

Maybe it's because you don't need a hat to feel like your flying anymore. Mario is constantly flung across the galaxy, spreading his arms as if they were wings prolonging his flight. Flying is the ultimate videogame wish-fulfillment, and Super Mario Galaxy delivers it in spades. Even the gravity mechanics of each planet can create that sense of flying, as you can literally fling yourself into orbit around a planet with a well-placed jump.

It could be the fact that Mario games (real Mario games, not just sports and racing spin-offs) are a rarity, with a new one appearing once a console cycle these days. Unlike other platformers like Ratchet or Jak, we often wait years for the next Mario platform game, and this scarcity makes each one feel special.

But really, I think the reason Super Mario Galaxy feels so special is because it is special.

Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater

I've already written at length about MGS3 before, but let me summarize: the game made me cry and seriously think about eating birds. Do I really need to say any more?


It's not just a game, it's a pop-culture phenomena. "The cake is a lie" and the companion cube are cemented into the gamer lexicon. Portal got so popular that it even had a backlash of people claiming that it wasn't as good as everyone made it out to be.

But I'm here to tell you they're wrong.

Portal is a very short game, maybe 3-5 hours long at best, but that's hardly a detriment to its quality. The game's simple mechanics (create portals to solve puzzles) is made increasing complex thanks to a robust physics engine. But the second half of the game is where things really get interesting, featuring puzzles that make the entire first half of the game feel like a glorified tutorial. And GLaDOS, the ever-present and always chatty antagonist, is easily one of the most memorable videogame characters ever created. If nothing else, the game is remarkable for one of the best ending credit sequences ever.


For many years, I had considered The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time to be my absolute favorite game, and indeed, the game is widely considered a classic. However, the existence of Okami forces me again and again to question this appraisal.

Okami is a work of art, and I don't just say that because of its water-color aesthetic. The talented minds at the now-defunct Clover Studios (who also created the awesome Viewtiful Joe series) delivered a true labor of love with Okami. The world is not only beautifully rendered, but it's filled to the brim with interesting characters and enemies, many of which have their roots in Japanese and Shinto mythology. It also takes the Zelda formula and gives it a unique spin, courtesy of the celestial brush mechanic the serves as the main tool for solving puzzles and often factors in to enemy and boss encounters. The music, which uses traditional Japanese instruments, creates a soundtrack unlike anything I've heard before or since, and one that I gladly went out and purchased. Finally, the storyline is as robust and sentimental as some of the best Japanese RPGs, which for some might be a mark against Okami, but I for one loved every moment. Okami truly feels unique, and I'm almost disappointed that it's receiving a sequel on the Nintendo DS.
Metroid Prime

They say you always remember your first. Well, when I finally bought my Gamecube, the first game I bought for the console was Metroid Prime. I also neglected to buy a memory card right away (I had been playing cartridge-based games up to that point), so I always had to start over from the beginning whenever I wanted to play it. By the time I had bought myself a memory card, I had pretty much perfected my run through the derelict space station that opens the game.

Metroid Prime is pretty much the Ocarina of Time of the Metroid series. The folks at Nintendo and Retro Studios really nailed bringing Metroid into the third dimension, creating an entirely new genre - First-Person Adventure - along the way. And while that alone might have been enough to secure its place in gaming history, it's the little things that truly make the original Prime stand out. The music, for instance, always feels more like atmospheric noise than actual compositions, even though many of the tunes are remixes of older Metroid themes. And seeing steam fog up Samus' visor is just one more thing that immerses you deeper into the role.

Playing Metroid Prime again on the recently released Trilogy compilation only cemented in my mind how truly flawless the game is.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Majora: Party of Two

I've been spending the last month playing The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask as part of the Brainy Gamer's Vintage Game Club. Although I have not been as big of a contributor on the forums as I would have liked, playing through this oft-neglected Nintendo 64 game has really been enlightening. This will be the first of hopefully several posts on my experiences with the game.

I originally played through The Legend of Zelda when it was originally released on the Nintendo 64 back in 2000, so my recent trip back to the land of Termina was somewhat familiar. Not only could I vaguely remember the setting, people, and tasks from the game, but my surroundings as I played were very reminiscent of those when I was 13, even if they weren't quite the same themselves. Sure, I was playing the game on the Wii instead of the Nintendo 64 and with a Gamecube controller, but overall the experience was largely the same as it was and has been for the last decade: in my room, on my bed, playing games by myself.

That all changed when my girlfriend came back from work.

She had known for a while that I was a gamer, but she had never been around when I was playing games, aside from a few casual games on my iPod Touch. I started to turn off the Wii because I didn't figure she'd be interested in watching me play, not being a gamer herself, but to my surprise she took great interest in the game.

Naturally, at first she didn't quite understand the game. I was bombarded with questions regarding what I was doing and what was going on. "What are those green bloby guys?" "Why are you following those monkeys?" "Why are you cutting all those plants?" This was only natural I suppose: she not only missed the introductory segment of the game, but she wasn't well-versed in the language of Zelda and videogames in general. I half-expected her to grow frustrated and leave me to my playing, since to someone unfamiliar with the language of videogames, watching someone play can be an exercise in tedium and torture. To mmy surprise though, she stuck around and not only watched me as I played, but began actively participating in my adventure.

It started out small, with commands like "grab that heart!" and "kill that plant!", but the longer she was around me, the more involved she got with her participation. She'd let me know when I was beginning to run low on hearts, as often in an intense battle I would ignore those icons at the top of the screen. She'd provide commentary on events in the game, such as expressing sadness when the giant Goron protecting Snowhead fell to his apparent death (a thought that would have never occurred to me otherwise). What's more, she actually helped me progress in the game several times by suggesting actions that hadn't crossed my mind. For instance, while working on the Wedding Couple side quest, I got stumped after the postman delivered his letter to Kafei. I rushed back to Anju, but she was no help. I was about ready to give up on the quest for a while until my girlfriend finally suggested that I go into the door that Kafei entered.

"I've tried that before," I said. "It's locked."

"Just try it again."

Unconvinced, I went to the door, positive that it wouldn't open. Imagine my astonishment when the door was now in fact unlocked, and I was able to progress forward in the quest.

"You give up too easy," she informed me.

And perhaps she's right, but perhaps the issue in situations like these isn't simply that we as gamers sometimes need that second pair of eyes to help analyze in-game problems. I can think of many instances in my past when I've grown so frustrated with a puzzle in a game that I simply give up for a time or resort to walkthroughs via sites like GameFAQs. Our hobby is often thought of as a solitary past time, and although there are multiplayer and co-op games out there, the majority of players - I would wager - are playing their games alone. Nintendo made an effort with Super Mario Galaxy to add multiplayer components to a largely single player game, and perhaps I'll see whether this effort was successful now that I have a dedicated co-pilot. I've found it interesting though that there are ways for non-players to actively participate in games like Majora's Mask that are only designed with one player in mind.

Not only that, but adventuring through Termina this time was infinitely more fun this time because I had a companion to travel with me.