Jan 162011

Welcome to 2011. It’s a new year. This could be the year the world ends. That’s a morbid thought and I apologize for springing it on you just like that. Maybe I should have prefaced it with a joke, like so:

Person A: Knock-knock.
Person B: Who’s there?
Person A: The End of the World…MAYBE.

Either way, with such maybe-kinda-imminent doom upon us, it’s more important now than ever that you play certain games. Sure, you could be stocking up food for Armageddon, or making amends with the religious entity of your choice, but when the time comes, is any of that really going to compare to knowing that you experienced all that gaming has to offer? Yeah, that’s what I thought.

With that in mind, here are some games you need to play this year. These are not new–they are games that, unlike my knock-knock joke above. stand the test of time. These are some of my favorite games as well, but there’s more to it than that. I have favorite games, such as Final Fantasy VI or Fallout 3, which, although great games, are simply fantastic representations of their genre. I chose these games because they have great design, greater execution and offer you experiences you’ll rarely find anywhere else. Playing these enriches you as a gamer. Unless you happen to own the systems in question and are fortunate enough to find reasonably-priced copies of these treasures, you’ll likely have to resort to emulation to pull this off. So be it, I say!

Valkyrie Profile – Enix (Tri-Ace), 1999 (Playstation)

In this game, you'll learn just how greedy Odin is with anything he thinks he owns, even if you need it to, you know, save the world.

Back at a time when Enix was pretty much known for Dragon Warrior and maybe Star Ocean, they came out with this gem, which casts you as a Valkyrie gathering the souls of the dead to fight as Einherjar in the end-of-the-world scenario of Ragnarok. While based on Norse legends, the game takes a lot of liberties with the overall roles and fates of the gods, so mythology buffs may have to grit their teeth a little.

The gameplay of Valkyrie Profile is split up between recruiting fallen heroes through cutscenes and town exploration, and traversing dungeons in order to acquire equipment and build up those heroes before sending them to Valhalla. Unlike the standard overhead RPG mechanic, dungeons are handled like side-scrolling platformers, with running, climbing, jumping and puzzles to solve. Every town or dungeon you visit consumes time, which counts inexorably toward the final showdown between the Gods.

Graphics and sound for the game are excellent, setting moods perfectly, but it’s the unique storytelling method and gameplay elements that make this game shine. Unfortunately, the game was undermarketed and underproduced in the U.S., with less than a hundred thousand copies sold, so it can be pricey to get your hands on. If you have a PSP, you can play a reasonable port of it in Valkyrie Profile: Lenneth, but the original is definitely best.

The Guardian Legend – Broderbund (Compile), 1989 (NES)

The first boss--not actually an advertisement for Visene, but an incredible simulation.

The Guardian Legend is one-half space shoot-em-up, one half exploration ala the original Legend of Zelda, and all awesome. You play a robotic female who can also transform into a spaceship. In the former role, you’ll move throughout the inside of a cybernetic-star-type-thing called “Naju” which is heading for Earth. In order to stop it, you’ll have to shut down 20 (maybe more, I can’t remember exactly) corridors within Naju.

The corridors comprise the outer space shoot-em-up aspect of the game, as you fly through them (sometimes at amazing speeds) en route to tackle a boss at the end of each. To get to the corridors, you have to traverse 10 different zones within Naju; these are similar to Zelda in that you explore them from an isometric overhead perspective and screens “scroll” when you move to their edges. The zones have lots of enemies, including bosses of their own, and items to find, including those that might be sold to you. Your character can amass something like 20 weapons, and each of those can be enhanced twice to make them more effective.

As the description might make you think, this is a pretty long game. Not long like the Legend of Zelda or other action-RPGs, but far, far longer than standard shooters, with more than 20 “shooting” stages interspersed with the overworld areas. The graphics and sound are obviously dated by today’s standards, but the game did an impressive job on the NES of delivering many enemies to fight and providing a good sense of speed–the opening stage has you zooming toward Naju at hundreds of miles an hour and you feel that sense of motion. Shooter-phobics will want to avoid, of course, but anyone else should check out this unusual game mesh.

Dragon Force – Sega, 1996 (Saturn)

Don't be fooled by this crappy screenshot; the real game is awesome, especially with 200 soldiers duking it out. Here, the classic battle of ninja vs. samurai ensues.

The premise behind Dragon Force is not terribly ground-breaking: raise an army, unify various nations, save the world. But the subtle, insidious complexity involved in doing so is something that hadn’t been seen on a console before (or since.) You play the ruler of one of eight kingdoms and must subdue the others under one banner in order to stop a demon god from taking over. Every leader has their own story and motivation and starts with their own unique retinue of followers.

You’ll accomplish your mission through managing your generals (of which there is a fixed, unique number in the game) and their armies. Each general’s force consists of a single type of unit (with ten different kinds possible); each unit has strengths and weaknesses, such as the mage, which is weak against melee types such as soldiers or cavalry, but excels versus zombies or harpies. You can promote generals or gift them in order to increase their loyalty, lest they desert under stress.

As the game progresses, you conquer more and more of the overworld map, come across storyline encounters and cut-scenes and edge closer to saving the world. And when you finish, you’ll select another kingdom and do it again to see how their game unfolds, because whether it’s the charming ambiance, the gameplay strategies, or something else, this game is horribly addictive. The PC may have real-time simulations to match it, but as console games go, Dragon Force is incomparable.

Terranigma – Enix (Quintet), 1995 (SNES)

Okay, so "Someone help me" isn't the most original line in gaming history. That doesn't make this less great.

Terranigma is an action role-playing game, similar in some respects to, say, the Secret of Mana. Your lone character moves and attacks enemies in real-time as he, piece by piece, seeks to restore the entire world from having been frozen in time. He brings back the five ancient continents and then proceeds to bring back life one order (birds, mammals, plants) at a time.

The game has excellent production values, with bright, detailed graphics and an atmospheric soundtrack, with a story that goes beyond the standard of the genre, dealing with some deeper subjects, such as reincarnation and human spirit. Unfortunately, although the Japanese version was translated for Europe, Nintendo of America never saw fit to release it in the states, so, short of a PAL system, you’ll have to emulate and use a translation ROM, but the effort is worth it.

Archon I – Electronic Arts (Free Fall Games), 1983 (Computer)

It doesn't matter that you have no idea what's happening here. Just trust me.

Okay, so this is an arguable must-play if you only play games alone. Archon sports a decent AI for solo games, but where it shines is in head-to-head multiplayer. It combines a layout similar to chess (featuring creatures from the fantasy realm) with quick-reflexes combat and extra strategy in the form of magic, “power points” on the board, and even a light/dark cycle that ebbs and flows, strengthening one side or the other. All of these come together to form a sublimely balanced game where it’s never too late to turn around victory (although get too far behind and it will take a miracle to pull it off.)

There’s no music apart from a couple of primitive jingles heard at the title screen and when the game is over and, being from 1983, the game’s graphics are primitive by today’s standards (yet still managing to depict the minuscule creatures with character, such as the lumbering gait of golems.) With each piece capture being settled by combat, games often last more than half an hour and come down to desperate one-on-one battles to win. Archon may not be your cup of tea, but you should definitely try it to find out.

Katamari Damacy – Namco, 2004 (Playstation 2)

What other game allows you to combine acorns, majhongg pieces and later on, a sumo wrestler? That's right: NONE.

Few games can say they are unlike anything else out there, but the original Katamari Damacy can. As with the best games, it takes only moments to learn but can never be perfected. The goal is simple: roll around a sort of cosmically-magnetized ball called a “katamari” and attach as many things as possible to it, so that it may be converted into one of the many stars needed to rebuild the galaxy after it was destroyed by your father, the King of the Cosmos. The rest of the game is just about as crazy. Although the game has had sequels (on the PS2, PS3 and 360) the original is still the best and can be found for a reasonable price–heck, it debuted at an astonishing $20 price tag.

You’ll go through level after level reconstructing stars, planets and constellations, striving ever-so-hard to meet your eccentric father’s approval. The game culminates in–well, I won’t spoil it, but rest assured it’s suitably epic, and not just in the overused-nowadays-sense-of-the-word. Throughout the game you’ll be treated to an astonishing soundtrack featuring a bevy of styles–jazz, rock, orchestral and even a ballad sung by kids (all vocals being in Japanese.) The game utilizes very simple, even jagged, polygons in order to squeeze as many items as possible on the screen with fast, fluid motion. Entertaining and sporting hopelessly addictive gameplay, Katamari Damacy is the sort of game that everyone in the family can appreciate–although they might not get its humor.

Devil’s Crush – NEC (Compile), 1990 (Turbografx-16)

You know when there's a giant demon-woman-head on the table surrounded by skeleton things, it's going to be good.

I’m a big fan of pinball, and a bigger fan of video games. For years I lamented that, unlike chocolate and peanut butter, these two great tastes just didn’t seem to taste great together. Sure there was David’s Midnight Magic on the C64 or Epic Pinball on the computer. But as good as they were, those were just digital simulations of real pinball tables. Devil’s Crush says, “screw that” and brings a pinball experience you could never have in real-life, at least not without unethically subjecting living creatures to a nightmare. You play pinball on a table filled with living, moving targets, all of an evil bent, and your objective is to score points (of course) and work your way up to taking out the lord of evil.

Walls crumble, enemies transform (including the female face in the center of the board who starts out asleep, then awakens and with each hit slowly changes into a serpent) and the board itself changes, teleporting your ball into a half dozen bonus stages when certain goals are accomplished–another feature not possible in the real-world. Don’t be put off by the 16-bit graphics and tinny (but well-composed) music; I’d wager you’ll find this more fun than just about any modern home pinball game option. Devil’s Crush was preceded by Alien Crush and followed by Jaki Crush, both with similar concepts, but it remains the best of the three.

Suspended – Infocom, 1983 (home computers)

"Is a screenshot of a text adventure really necessary?" you ask. On MY blog, yes.

This might seem like an odd choice given that Infocom’s last true text adventure was released more than 20 years ago and, apart from a few exceptions, their dissolution signaled the end of the genre, but the lack of those games being released doesn’t negate what was released in the past. If you’ve never tried a text adventure, Suspended probably isn’t where you should start: it’s difficulty rating among Infocom games was “Expert” and justifiably so, for the very thing that sets it apart from most text adventures is what makes it difficult: you don’t control yourself and your actions.

You play the role of a person placed in suspended animation with control over a number of robots needed to solve puzzles in order to save a planet from the brink of destruction and in the process save yourself from being deactivated/killed by its inhabitants. Each robot in your control possesses only one sense that it can use (sight, sound, sonar, magnetics, etc.) and you use to utilize these senses in order to save the planet. This is no small feat for even an accomplished text adventurer, so the novice may wish to consider alternatives such as Zork I (the first game in Infocom’s most famous series), Trinity or Wishbringer (a true entry-level text adventure game.)

Those brave enough to forge ahead will find a game that tests the very way you think about senses and how to use them, and forces you to juggle resources in ways you likely haven’t before. There are different difficulty settings that allow you more time before you’re killed, including a unique “impossible” difficulty where the entire universe is destroyed shortly after you begin playing.

So there you have it: eight games you need to play this year. If by next January the world isn’t obliterated by some megalomaniac who’s unearthed an ancient artifact, I’ll see about telling you what you need to play then, too.

Jan 022011

Could we see another video game crash like the Great One of 1983? With dozens of successful game franchises established and a hobby pulling in billions of dollars a year, it seems unlikely. Certainly, the factors which led to the original crash–conceptions of poor software quality, overcrowding of the market and the like–will not be a problem. And, like before, any such crash will likely only be a temporary issue and not something that permanently destroys the industry. But the threat, the posssibility exists of at least a mild economic meltdown within the video game business. And unlike a business akin to video rentals where the basic model is slowly being rendered obsolete, the threat comes from within video games themselves.

Games are becoming too big. I don’t mean too big in the sense of literally containing too much content; such a thing probably isn’t possible and titles as far back as Ultima I have offered dozens of hours of gameplay instead of the less-than-an-hour arcade style prominent in so many games of the day. I mean that the amount of resources required to make a game has gradually become immense, with credits that have, on occasion made those of the average summer blockbuster movie look quaint by comparison. If your game is set in a 3D realm and doesn’t support an advanced ragdoll physics engine and Goraud mip-mapping (or whatever the technical equivalent is) then you’re seen as quite primitive. You might need an orchestra to record your soundtrack. A research team might be responsible for evaluating the attributes of every item in your game as they relate to real-life, or cataloging real-life locations for the sake of your senior art director and his team.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not opposed to games with great aesthetics. Indeed, it wasn’t until the original Soul Calibur blew my mind in 1999 that I had much interest in 3D as a gaming medium (I still prefer sprites.) The seemingly-inevitable trend, however, is for commercial games to require more and more staff which, as a result, demands more and more revenue to make games worthwhile. Stories like that of what happened to developer Seven45 following the release of Power Gig help to accentuate that–a classic tale of creating a game that, on its own merits (not compared to others in its genre) or a few years earlier would have flourished, but now simply didn’t make the cut and, failing to recover considerable resource costs, the worst fate imaginable befalls the developing house.

All this is one reason that more highly successful games at this point are sequels as opposed to franchise-establishing games. Of the top 10 selling games of 2010 in Japan, only arguably one (Wii Party, which could be considered an extension of the Mario Party line) was a franchise first instead of a sequel. Overall video game sales aren’t much different: of the top 20 selling games of 2010 across multiplatforms, only 3 games (Wii Sports, Just Dance and Kinect Adventures) were not sequels. The development costs demand games that will guarantee more profits; sequels to established high-selling games fulfill that. I’m not the first person to realize that sequels are a growing problem.

Can we blame companies for making what they know will sell? As consumers, are we responsible for feeding the issue by primarily buying sequels? I’m not entirely innocent. I just finished spending five days playing through Dead Rising 2. Prior to that, I spent a month delving back into Fallout 3, and I spent plenty of time on Bioshock 2 and Red Dead Redemption as well. The games I probably put more time into than any others were Rock Band 2 and 3. I also have Mass Effect 2, Assassin’s Creed 2 and Brotherhood, Final Fantasy XIII and Halo Wars, among others, waiting to be played. I played original properties where they interested me–Blur and Borderlands, for example.

But the industry is changing. Slowly, very slowly, a schism is forming between larger, established development houses and their publishers, and the indie game movement. Created by smaller houses, sometimes just a single person, these games harken back to the days when some of my childhood favorites like Archon, Space Taxi and Krakout were created by 3 or less people, and even games acknowledged as seminal classics like Metroid, the Legend of Zelda and Metal Gear (WARNING: all three links go to the game endings so as to show the credits) were put together by a dozen people or less–an insane concept for a big-box game in today’s age. Indie games have the benefits of low cost and easy distribution which could, given time, turn tables on larger companies, offering games of increasing cost (I already estimated here that games for the next generation of systems will run at least $70); but if the balance shifts to a digital distribution system with no sort of quality check in place, what do we face except potentially a repeat of what we saw in 1982-1983, when rampant overpopulation of software without a proper quality oversight led to gems such as this (which I owned and played) and, yes, even this (which I thankfully neither owned nor played.) Already, we can see some instances where, left to their own devices, indie game developers demonstrate the need for some editorial retraint. Those are just examples of games where the subjects are questionable; there are likely plenty of cases where the programming quality of the games themselves are substandard. If we move to a framework of mass-released items of potentially poor quality, how different from 1983 is that?

Of course, this could also all just be useless conjecture, but it’s certain that if digital distribution eventually becomes the new mainstream method as has been proposed by many, a responsibility will remain to make sure that just because people can release something easy to a large audience, it doesn’t mean they should. Unlike 1983, video gaming now has a 30+ year history which has helped to establish itself as an art form as well as entertainment. Let’s not set ourselves back another three decades for the sake of base indulgences.