Friday, October 29, 2010

Fifteen Games

Oy, it's been a crazy couple months, it has. Lots of fantastic projects that I'll eventually be able to talk about, but at the moment really can't. That said, I figure I might as well put something up here in the interim, so I'll add a nice little Facebook meme I did on here that was supposed to be a simple note, but turned into something far greater. Fifteen video games of any quality that will always "stick with me".

These aren't in any particular order:

1.) Out of this World/Another World: Yeah, folks who know my gaming habits know that this game is always at the top of my list. I've probably played the game more times than all QA testers for all versions released on every system ever. I like this game so much I was actually quoted in a Gamasutra article where I went on and on about how it's illogical for me to keep playing this game, even though I know every pixel on every screen by heart, but though some magic combination of nostalgia, style, and just enough randomness in the combat to avoid feeling broken, I keep coming back to this game. "Hey, I've got 30 minutes to kill, I could beat Out of this World again..."

2.) Quest for Glory IV: Shadows of Darkness: Before Morrowind, there was Quest for Glory. And as much as I love the Elder Scrolls games (see further down this list), Quest for Glory IV has a dark sense of humor that just can't be beat. This game combines a great many things that I love: a unique story with a real air of foreboding, HP Lovecraft, a non-linear world, great writing, great music, great voice acting, and a puzzle that requires you to give a dapper hat to a talking skull so it will let you past other skulls that shoot laser beams out of their eyes. Also, it managed to make buying and eating food to survive NOT a pain in the neck.

3.) Shadow of the Colossus: How many games in this list with some variation on the word "Shadow"? Well, Shadows of the Empire would've made it on this list fifteen years ago, but not now. Anyway, what can be said about SotC that hasn't been said? Despite being painfully short (mostly because the gameplay structure tantalizes you with hints about the next encounter so you don't want to save and quit), the game is filled with "moments" that simply can't be beat. Everyone who's played the game knows what I'm talking about when I say that jumping off a galloping horse in real-time onto a 400 foot long flying serpent ranks as a defining moment of the medium right up there with "dog jumps through window."

4.) Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time: It was a toss-up between this and the original-but-not-really Prince of Persia for SNES, but in the end this game has held up better for me, despite its age and the fact that other games have come out in the interim that build upon its core mechanics (specifically other Prince of Persia games). Despite its linear gameplay and aging graphics, it's the game's tone and narrative that keep me coming back. The whole "Farah/Prince" duo thing was done better here than anywhere else because there was actual development to the characters over the course of the game's events. Also, even though combat was pretty shallow, it felt fast enough and was simple enough to grasp that I honestly wish the series would go back to it and lay off the combo-based stuff from the later games. I've yet to play Forgotten Sands, but I've heard good things.

5.) Chrono Trigger: Getting this on the SNES was an experience that simply can't be replicated in today's gaming world. At an age where I pretty much had to rely on my parents for games, and they were tempted to hold them until Christmas, getting a hold of this game before its ultra-hyped storyline could be spoiled by my classmates and friends was a challenge. Somehow I got a hold of it, and I was completely entranced. It's like an oasis of brilliance even TODAY. It bucks all sorts of silly JRPG trends by getting rid of random battles, losing EXP grinding, ditching obscure hints you need to decipher in order to find the next dungeon, and characters actually not taking themselves or the game story SO SERIOUSLY all the time. Despite having a crazy huge cast of characters, most were rendered with such loving detail it's hard to forget them. Also, why the hell hasn't anybody expanded on this game's combat system? It was speedy, just deep enough to prevent getting lost in it, and was balanced perfectly. Not even the game's "sequel" bothered bringing it back! It's almost like this game traveled from the future and people are still trying to figure out what it took to develop it.

6.) Lost Odyssey: I hate random battles and emo main characters. Seriously, I just despise them. I also hate JRPG cliches that have persisted for the last 20-some-odd years despite the fact that any objective designer would look at them and wrinkle their nose at their obsolescence. So imagine my pure, unmitigated hatred when I saw Lost Odyssey - like Death riding his pale horse at the front of an oncoming apocalypse, I saw it as everything that was wrong with the aging Japanese developer culture. I railed on the game for quite some time - then I rented it. That was a mistake, because it turns out Lost Odyssey isn't a representation of everything wrong with Japanese development - it's actually an honest and well-produced look at the things we liked most about it, repackaged and made JUST fresh enough to make us forget there are random battles, an emo main character, a spunky heroine with an attitude, two annoying magic-using kids, etc. The turn-based (and timing-based!) combat really kept the battles interesting, while the narrative - one of the best I've ever seen - kept me interested all through the game's immense play-time. The 1,000 Years of Dreams segments, all displayed in text with appropriate music throughout, weren't just good, they were GREAT. Add this on top of what I consider to be one of the greatest game music scores ever and you've got a game that really stuck with me.

7.) Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars: I don't know how Square did it (especially after creating the bizarre and barely-cohesive Kingdom Hearts/Disney crossover universes) - they took a Mario game and gave it an excellent narrative, a cohesive world, and interesting characters. They also used Chrono Trigger's not-random battles, a spectacular timing-based combat system, and fun worlds to explore with silly mini-games peppered throughout. The only thing I hate about this game is that it hasn't come out on the DS yet, and with the Mario and Luigi RPG's maintaining a presence on the system already, it seems highly unlikely it will ever happen. Ah, Square Enix, why did you have to be so awesome in the 90's?

8.) Super Mario 64: Playing this now, it's pretty hard to get back into it. It's an entertaining game and all, but unlike "Out of this World", it's hard to really blast through it just for fun's sake. It's stuck with me though for a number of reasons, and the one that sticks with me the most is a really vivid memory: Fall 1996, Holyoke Mall, at the Electronics Boutique, they had a kiosk set up with Mario 64. This was my first glimpse at any system beyond the SNES, and when Mario's head popped up for that opening menu screen and shouted "Hello!" I nearly wet my pants. Back in '96, to me, this was the future of gaming. No game since have I pined for so desperately, and no gaming experience past Mario 64 has ever felt quite so cathartic. Now I play it and all I see are flat colors on chunky characters, 2D billboarded trees and the cheap plastic of the N64 controller (and the now-loosened and difficult-to-use analog stick that binds the whole experience together) - but 14 years ago this was the pinnacle of entertainment for me, and that's hard to forget.

9.) System Shock 2: Is it that time of year again? That time of year when I re-install System Shock 2 and play through it again? Not yet, not - but there are two games that I make a habit of playing through start-to-finish every year, and this is one of them. System Shock 2 was the first game I played that actually made me feel like I was physically exploring a location. I wasn't controlling an avatar, I was controlling my own view - and that made the incredibly scary audio and convincing (yet admittedly old-looking) environments and enemies all the more terrifying. The level design was also incredibly brilliant - after years of exploring environments that looked interesting but didn't feel logical or real, I was suddenly finding myself exploring abandoned apartments, lounges with overturned sofas, places that felt like ACTUAL PLACES, and not just a series of interconnected hallways. Also, walking through the robot storage facility was one of the scariest moments in my entire gaming career. Where the HELL is my System Shock 3?

10.) Headhunter: I was looking forward to Metal Gear Solid 2 at the time and then I read EGM's review of Headhunter - they described it as a kind of action-themed Metal Gear Solid clone, only with motorcycles and a badass main character named Jack Wade. "Well," I thought, "It can't be that bad, then." The game itself had some pretty standard mechanics: Take cover, aim at baddies and shoot them. There are different weapons, stealth kills, all that jazz. But around this mediocre shell I found some very cool things - an amazingly-realized version of the near future, where society has descended to a point where the air is so bad and our dietary habits so poor that organ transplants are a common, everyday thing. It sounds weird, but through a combination of gameplay mechanics (all guns are non-lethal, causing brain death but not damaging other "vital organs") and load-screen advertisements, they create a believable world where that kind of crap happens. Also, it had some extremely clever boss fights and what I consider one of the greatest musical scores in any action movie/game/show/etc ever by the inimitable Richard Jacques.

11.) Final Fantasy IV: This isn't the "best" Final Fantasy game out there - for me that's a tie between FF6 and FF12 (you heard me!), but FF4 was the very first JRPG I ever played, back when it was called Final Fantasy II on the Super Nintendo. The reason I ever played a JRPG so early in my gaming career was because my dad had stepped into a Babbages (yes, when they were still around) and somehow managed to pick this game up and read the back of the box. The only reason I played a JRPG at the age of 7 was because I shared a surname with one of the game's leads characters. Yes, Dragoon Kain is the reason I got into Final Fantasy originally. The following days after receiving this bizarre game consisted of poring over the instruction manual (which was not particularly helpful) and experimenting with various systems in the game. This was the first game I played where the good guys and bad guys lined themselves up on either side of the screen to fight in turn, where everything was based on stats, and where the storyline played a large role in my enjoyment of the title.

12.) Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past: It was a toss-up between this and Ocarina of Time, but after some careful thought, I concluded that all the things I liked about Ocarina of time were just updated feelings I had felt earlier while playing the SNES iteration of the series. That said, I do love Ocarina of Time even to this day - but Link to the Past made that first impression on me, so it makes it on the list. I had experienced open-world games before (the Quest for Glory games, specifically), but Link to the Past doesn't get points for that - it gets points for its expansive dungeons and excellent puzzles. The classic "secret discovered!" sting always made me feel like I was the best gamer in the universe. Also, the size of the game world was large enough that I could get an objective in some faraway location (like the top of Death Mountain) and get that soon-to-be-usurped-by-Elder-Scrolls feeling of epicness as I prepared for my journey and ventured forth across the expansive landscape. Also, the 1/3-point where you think you've defeated the final boss and then discover that THE GAME IS JUST BEGINNING was really awesome and evoked a feeling I didn't feel until Far Cry 2 - a game that ALMOST made this list specifically for that reason. 

13.) The Elder Scrolls: Morrowind: Sadly, I can't really play this game anymore now that Oblivion has come and streamlined its less-than-savory elements, like slow movement speed, simple combat, and freakishly irritating Cliff Racers. But when this came out on Xbox (my PC was not powerful enough to play it at the time), it was an experience unrivaled by anything up to that point. There are moments in games where the pure joy of the immersive experience hits me - from getting the air ship in FFIV ("Holy crap, I can go wherever I want!") to standing in front of the Princess' castle in Mario 64 ("Holy crap, I can go wherever I want!") to exiting the Census and Excise Office in Morrowind and getting that trademark Bethesda pop-up that basically states "Okay, we won't bother you anymore. Go and do whatever you want." To which my response was "Holy crap, now I can go wherever I want and DO whatever I want!" The second part of that exclamation made Morrowind stand out more than any game previously, even games with moral choices I could make like the Quest for Glory games (obvious forebears of the Elder Scrolls formula). Wandering Morrowind's expansive and alien landscape, I felt like I should - a stranger in a strange land, free to make my mark in any way I so chose. Oblivion, I felt, screwed this up a bit ("How come nobody knows who I am if I've lived my whole life in this landlocked kingdom?"), but improved on almost everything I liked in Morrowind. I may play Oblivion now, but Morrowind hooked me in the first place, so it goes on the list.

14.) Space Quest IV: Roger Wilco and the Time Rippers: Lots of "4's" here in this list, I realize. Final Fantasy IV, Quest for Glory 4, even Prince of Persia: SoT was Prince of Persia 4, technically (after PoP 1 and 2, and then 3-D). So here we are with Space Quest 4, an adventure game that, upon playing now, I realize has some of the weirdest and most nonsensical puzzle solutions in the history of the medium. How the hell did I ever figure out that I was supposed to take a rope, hide behind THAT SPECIFIC PILLAR, and use it as a snare to grab the Energizer Bunny? And that was the first big puzzle in the game! There were so many other stupid puzzles here that I'm surprised I was ever able to get through it - but with the help of my good friend, Ned, we were able to take down the evil Sludge Vohaul and save the Space Quest series. This game sticks with me for a few reasons - first and foremost, cooperative adventure gaming is something that should be experienced more often - it makes solving puzzles that much quicker and makes the normally slow moments of wandering around collecting items much more interesting. Also, Space Quest 4 had some incredibly funny writing. Instead of traveling to different years or eras, you traveled to different Space Quest games - even Space Quest games that didn't exist at the time. Also, traveling back to Space Quest 1 meant getting taunted by low-detail characters in such ways as "Look at Mr. 256 colors over there!"

15.) Trespasser: Jurassic Park: Wow, bet you thought I'd actually put a GOOD game here, didn't you? Well, the thing is, Trespasser is a good idea buried under a veritable mountain range of terrible physics, broken gameplay, poor level design, lame puzzle design, busted AI, and dreadful graphics. That idea, which has been built around other, better games since (particularly the recently-released and most-excellent Amnesia: Dark Descent), is that you are stranded and alone, and the key to your survival is to make good use of everything you can scrounge up, be it a half-spent machine gun or a metal pipe. Despite everything that was broken with this game, it did a few things right. Trespasser was the first game to use the "only two weapons at a time" mechanic, and also pioneered the recharging health mechanic. You'll noticed that those two mechanics were then modified for use in Halo: Combat Evolved, and from there, every major FPS and action game into the foreseeable future. It also introduced the concept of needing to manually manipulate objects in the environment, which Penumbra and later Amnesia: DD did to great effect. Unfortunately, in Trespasser, this required players to manually aim guns using the actual iron sights of the in-game model, so shooting things wasn't always accurate. Also, as bad as the game is, it consistently produces some of the most amusing bugs ever, like getting your arm caught in a door and being able to walk backwards and see your arm stretch out like Stretch Armstrong. And since the AI and enemy animation system was busted, watching raptors stumble around like drunks never got old.

- Super Castlevania IV (If there had been a number 16, this would've gone there)
- Super Mario Bros. (Because it's Super Mario Bros.)
- Silent Hill 1 and 2
- Goldeneye (N64 - One friend, two Dark Sims, one-hit kills, fly-by-wire rockets)
- Metroid Prime (First-person adventure game. Made exploration and found narrative a beautiful thing)
- Flying Dragon (First game to use QTE's, despite what people say about Dragon's Lair)
- Starfox 64 (Rumble pack. 'Nuff said.)
- Jet Grind Radio
- Shenmue
- Jurassic Park (Genesis version)
- Disaster Report

It occurs to me that this was written up before I even went to NYCC, but I never posted it. Well, enough of that hogwash, it's time to get back into this blogging business.