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.

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