May 312012
 

The Guardian Legend sticker imagesFor this, the inaugural edition of our revived Games of Yore feature, I picked one of my favorite NES games, 1988’s The Guardian Legend, published by a company known for games that can stand the test of time, Brøderbund. This is the North American port of a Japanese Famicom game developed by Compile known as Legend of Guardic. While I can understand changing the name of the game to The Guardian Legend, I remain puzzled, all these years later, why they chose a cover that not only has nothing to do with the game but shamelessly rips off the 1985 sci-fi film Creature (a not uncommon act, as the covers for Navy Moves, Metal Gear and Contra, among others, demonstrate.)

Cover choice aside, The Guardian Legend instantly captivated me in my youth and can easily still do so today. One reason for this is how the game starts. You can wait at the title screen if desired, and you’ll gladly be presented with a token one-screen rundown on how you have to save the Earth from a planet hurtling toward it, but actually starting the game, you get nothing but white-knuckle action, as your ship propels through space at insane scrolling speeds which I didn’t even know were possible on an NES at the time. Just because this is the first stage of the game doesn’t mean things will be easy, either. Meteors and enemies zoom in from off-screen, pelting your ship as they go. In most shooters, the instant death suffered as a result would be frustrating in the extreme; because The Guardian Legend operates on an energy meter, here it simply forces you into an adrenalized state of survival. Survive the initial blistering-speed corridor and things slow down as you approach the first boss. That’s right; you have to fight a boss before you’re allowed to get into the game proper. You must earn the right to fully enjoy The Guardian Legend.

After the first boss–consisting of a dozen cannons simultaneously firing on you–is defeated, you’re taken into the actual game, where you’re given a mysterious message beseeching you to explore the ten corridors of the planet Naju and shut down the failsafe in each of them in order to trigger a self-destruct sequence that will stop Naju from colliding with and infecting any other worlds. You’ve now entered into the other part of the game: top-down exploration similar to The Legend of Zelda, only with space-age weapons, alien life forms, and, admittedly, less secrets to uncover. You scour the planet Naju, locating and clearing the ten corridors. While exploring the overworld of the planet, you’ll find and purchase weapons, and encounter mini-bosses, who also provide permanent power-ups when defeated. Each corridor contains two different shooting stages, which you play through when your robot character transforms into a spaceship. Each of these shooting segments is a few minutes long and punctuated with a boss fight. While the bosses do repeat with different colors and attack patterns in different corridors, there’s plenty of variety between them.

The Guardian Legend, Corridor 3

An open corridor, just waiting for you step forth, become a spaceship, and save the world.

To help you defeat the many enemies in your way, you can acquire up to 11 special weapons that can be switched through at will through a sub-menu, and each of these can be powered up to three levels. There’s a massive amount of variety, with lasers, fireballs, enemy-seeking orbs, and even lightsabers that attach to your ship, damaging anything that comes within reach. Fueling these weapons uses up “chips” which serve as a weapon energy supply separate from your main energy; your maximum chips can be increased along the way, which not only increases the power of your primary, unlimited-ammunition weapon, but allows you to use special weapons longer. The lower your chips fall, however, the weaker your primary weapon becomes, so it’s important to balance the use of them.

From start to finish, The Guardian Legend is a quality product. The graphics, especially in the shooting stages, are colorful and varied, and demonstrate the personalities of each zone, from underwater areas where you’ll encounter giant crabs and cosmic anemone, to icy terrains with active volcanoes erupting with ship-seeking  alien debris. Musically, the game squeezes a lot out of the NES’s four-channel processing. While the game lacks the length and depth of dedicated overworld explorers like Zelda or Crystalis, what it has works really well, especially when you consider that it also includes 21 shooting stages (including the opening.) And in the end, it’s this fusion of styles in a smooth package that makes The Guardian Legend an experience that each gamer should try.

The Guardian Legend, Area 11

You're a spaceship flying underwater, fighting giant piranha and space-sea rays. This is totally normal.

For those who love the sound of the shooting stages, but hate exploration to get to them, Compile has you covered. Completing the game or flipping through the most recent Nintendo Power checking the internet will reveal that putting in “TGL” as a password will take you through a version of the game with only shooting stages in immediate succession, with the power-ups you would have found while exploring instead awarded based on your gameplay performance. This turns the game into a monster difficulty challenge, so consider yourself duly warned.

There remains little else to say. By this point, you know if you’re going to try this game or not, but if you’ve ever enjoyed shoot-em-ups, you owe it to yourself to do so. There simply isn’t another overland/shoot-em-up fusion like it out there. Relive the glory of 1988 today.

Dec 172011
 

Note: This started out earlier today as a post with a definite focus and as the day went on and my mental faculties drained it devolved into me talking up my two favorite pinball games. I could apologize, but hey, it’s my blog…

Those who talk with me for any length of time about games will know that not only do I have deep unconditional love for the traditional “video game” but also for pinball. Indeed, when Ground Kontrol hosts their $5 Free Play Night and I occasionally attend (but not nearly often enough!) I usually spend half or more of my time at the pinball area and, specifically, in front of one (now two) tables: Lord of the Rings and, more recently, Twilight Zone.

Unlike most (especially modern) video games, pinball is something that, with an infinite amount of skill, could be played forever. The table doesn’t keep on tilting to make the ball fall faster as the game progresses, nor do the flippers move apart, essentially analogs to the concept of enemies moving faster, shooting more, hitting harder and being more difficult to defeat as occurs in most games as they proceed–if they don’t outright end after a certain number of stages. This alone sets pinball apart from its video game brethren in very significant ways.

Why all the love for these two games in particular, though? Because, more than other tables that I’ve tried, they envision the things necessary for a pinball game to be successful: flash and depth or, if you will, style and substance. When you combine those in a pinball table, it’s a win-win–the visual and aural flair of things happening, the exhilarating feel as you complete objectives, and the plethora of possibilities–it’s hard to go wrong. These games capture the sort of feel necessary for the pinball industry (which now consists of just one company, Stern) to continue surviving.

Take for instance my long-time favorite, Twilight Zone. From top to bottom it’s apparent the game is a labor of love. Almost every inch of the table is crammed with references to the fabled television show, and so are the various graphics and sounds inside the game itself. (Ironically, three of the table’s most remarkable features, the “Powerfield” pyramid, the non-magnetic ceramic “Powerball” and the Gumball Machine, don’t correspond to anything in TZ.) There more than a dozen different gameplay modes or award panels to be lit, and several of those, like The Camera, have a variety of sub-awards that they can give. Playing the game, you really get the feeling that the designer simply ran out of room to put more features and references in there, unlike other licensed games such as, Star Trek: The Next Generation where, despite seven seasons to draw from, there are still many generic-sounding missions, such as exploring asteroids. In that game it’s cool when you encounter Q and fight the Borg, sure, but instances like that feel more like the exception to me than the rule when I play.

Although it was released almost 19 years ago and still runs on old Yamaha sound chips, Twilight Zone’s dot matrix graphics and sound stand up even today, and the design of the table itself feels organic and smooth–targets and ramps are laid out in a logical manner and they’re not placed too close to the drain-holes as obvious traps. Twilight Zone’s “wizard mode,” activated by getting all 14 door panels/awards, is rumored to be a particularly magnificent rush, with unlimited respawning multiball, bunches of special modes active and a timer for that extra special sense of urgency. I say “rumored” because I have never achieved it, coming at best two panels away. But I’ll keep trying because the game is simply great. Unrelated to the actual gameplay, Twilight Zone has one of the best translite art pieces for a cabinet ever: classy, colorful and overflowing with episode references (even more than appearing within the game itself.)

The Lord of the Rings pinball (based on the movie trilogy) came out ten years after Twilight Zone, in 2003 and is a worthy contender for the title of best licensed pinball game. This table shares the same feeling of “how many references can we put into the game?” that TZ did. It features more modes of play (and more complicated modes) than even TZ did before it. There are six different event modes (two from each movie), each consisting of multiple goals and stages to advance through. It has no less than six different ways to activate a multiball and each of those also have their own goals, stages and rules. Peppered throughout all of these scenarios are digitally-drawn renditions of characters and scenes from the movies, along with audio clips.

One thing that LOTR does even better than TZ is in how its play feels like a re-enactment of the source material. While TZ has targets such as the Camera, Piano or Slot Machine which are references and can be hit for awards, LOTR has targets that are hit in ways which preserve the “feel” of the movies. Take for instance, the easiest multiball mode to activate, the Fellowship of the Ring, available after you pick up all nine members of the Fellowship through shots to locations on the board. The meat of this mode, after (optionally depending on settings) fighting the Cave Troll from the first movie, is the Balrog stage. Here, a plastic “balrog” target is swiveled onto the field and your goal during the multiball is to alternate hitting the balrog with one of the balls and then sending a ball up one of two ramps; each ball that goes up a ramp after a balrog hit represents one of the Fellowship escaping the balrog (the screen actually tells you which member escaped.) Proceed far enough with at least two balls in play and you’ll find that only eight members can cross–just like in the stories, Gandalf doesn’t do so and on the balrog hit right before he would, you get his epic shout at the balrog instead. This sort of connection between the gameplay and events is extremely captivating.

Lord of the Rings is also known for having (arguably) the hardest “wizard mode” to activate in any pinball game, requiring you to successfully complete all the goals for all six special modes, activate the multiball for all three movies and complete their goals, destroy the One Ring (a set of actions in itself) and some other things — all within the space of one game. It’s a goal I’ll likely never achieve, but it demonstrates how the game has enough in it for casual players and the hardest of the hardcore.

These two tables are radically different than what the genre was popularized with back in the 70s and 80s, with their digital score counters showing against translite screens and their often-simpler (but no less easy) gameplay. Now we have dot matrix screens with graphics, elaborate multi-stage goals and complete soundtracks to dazzle you with. The technology behind pinball has evolved, but the gameplay must keep up if the genre is to remain relevant in decades to come.

If you’ve never tried pinball, I can’t recommend enough finding a local arcade which sports a few tables and giving it a shot. If you want to take a stab at the games without leaving home, there are a number of decent options available, such as Pinball FX2, which is an extremely accurate representation, but nothing can replicate the tactile experience of a true pinball table.

“You open this door with the key of imagination…”

Mar 172011
 

As any modern video gamer with a connection to the internet (which, I guess, would be just about all of them) can tell you, digital distribution is here to stay. A great deal of them would even say that it is inevitably the way of the future. But should it be? Today we’ll explore that in another installment of our award-winning series 64 Bits Good, 8 Bits Better.

Note: This post refers solely to pure digital distribution of games and game-modifying material; physically distributed games can still suffer from things such as digital rights management, which I’m not overlooking, but’s a post for another day.

The benefits of digital distribution [DD] are pretty apparent: easy access to games, demos, add-ons, patches and the like. Your disc can’t break or scratch because there’s no disc to break (also good for the environment.) Forgot to bring the game with you? You might be able to re-download it elsewhere. Stuff your computer to the gills with whatever your relevant gaming interest is and you might not even need to get up to change out whatever’s in the drive. When you take all these into consideration, it’s no wonder DD has become such a widely-adopted medium. It makes one wonder how we ever got along with floppy disks, cartridges and CDs.

But we did get by, and quite handily as a matter of fact, for more than two decades before DD achieved mainstream popularity. I’m not talking about shareware in the mid-90s that you could download and then activate fully for $10 or $15. I’m talking about what we see now: downloadable full-priced games (at least up to $40, which is the most I’ve seen but wouldn’t be surprised to find higher costs out there) and downloadable add-ons that in their totality can meet or exceed the cost of a $50 store-bought game. The gaming industry and we as gamers got by without these we had to. The quality of games had to be more robust as a result. In the days before you could patch games, they had to actually work as intended; you couldn’t afford to ship something that had critical, game-breaking (and sometimes system-breaking) bugs just knowing that you would push out a patch on release day. Mind you, some games did still release that way, but they were far fewer than what we see today. One can claim that the complexity of today’s games demand bugs and that may be true, but it’s also apparent that the ability to patch games is a de facto standard and crutch of the modern developer.

DD can also rob you of value in many cases. There have been multiple cases of companies who shipped a game  with extra content already included on the disc and just waiting to be activated with the purchase or application of a special code. This obviously would not have flown in the days where you couldn’t download a 50KB file that magically unlocks megabytes of gameplay. I totally disagree with this practice, myself; thankfully, I have yet to be burned by it. Likewise, it is not at all unusual now for companies to create a portion of the game during development and simply omit it from the final game, with the intention of putting it out as downloadable content [DLC] afterwards. To my way of thinking, if you make it in the course of developing the game, it should go with the game; only items created after the game’s development cycle go in an add-on or the sequel. That’s not to say I haven’t bought DLC that might have been made during a game’s development. I own all the expansion DLCs for Fallout 3, for instance, and there’s every possibility that one of them was completed during the game’s original development cycle. DLC can add a lot of value to games, but it’s also easily abused to squeeze a little more out of the consumer. True, games are certainly underpriced considering the nature of inflation, but if you’re going to set a price for games, set a price and be done with it, don’t try to surreptitiously eke out more from people.

However, despite these statements, my biggest problem with DD comes not from add-ons or decreased game-testing quality; it’s the matter of control. If you purchase a DD game, then it’s an automatic given that you have internet access; and companies can not only require you to keep that access, but they can use it against your games. Take this, one of many examples where Steam users’ entire accounts have been disabled over a single failed payment on the purchase of a new game. Let that sink in for a moment: an account full of legitimately purchased games (in this case, $500 worth, but I’ve seen up to $1000 claimed) can be disabled, cutting off access to all of those games, if you try to purchase a single new game and, say, a problem with PayPal causes a payment to reject. And it’s a common occurrence. Try a Google search for disabled steam account to see how common. Clearly it’s not enough of a headache to stop people from using Steam, but that doesn’t make it right.

In this well-publicized case, a user who made the disparaging remark of “Have you sold your souls to the EA devil?” on a Bioware forum got reported by someone. Bioware, acting under Electronic Arts’ terms of service, banned his forum/social account. This not only cut him off from DLC purchased legitimately in the past (which can, in turn, prevent games like the original Dragon Age from even playing), but it prevented him from installing and playing a brand new purchased copy of Dragon Age II.

In the interests of disclosure and avoiding sensationalism, this matter did ultimately get resolved according to EA and the person’s account has been reinstated, but just the ability to disable access to existing games over a forum infraction is control at some of its worst, and EA’s terms, which indicate they can rescind your license to play their games at any time for any reason are not unheard of elsewhere. Could you imagine if iTunes required you to log in every day before you could listen to music and they could use that connection time to revoke your right to listen to songs? That would be considered crazy behavior, and those songs cost only 99 cents, not upwards of $50. If Amazon could suddenly take books off of your Kindle, without a refund, just because, what do you think the reaction would be? (Hint: not good, even when the book’s cost is refunded.)

In addition, DD games are typically not transferrable. DLC that I buy on my 360 is tied to that console and my gamer ID; anyone can play it on that console or I can redownload it and play it elsewhere (as long as I’m online), but nothing more–and that’s pretty lenient terms in the industry. I often loan games to our friends Steve and Steph when they would otherwise be gathering dust on a shelf and this works out well. That won’t happen with digital games.

Part of non-transferrability is that you can’t re-sell DD games, either. That part doesn’t affect me because I don’t get rid of any games, ever, even terrible ones like Stretch Panic or games I’ll never play again like Final Fantasy XI Online, but there’s an entire used game industry out there for those who would like to get something back monetarily from their game purchases, as well as people who try to do it on the side. Your ability (I won’t go so far as to call it a right) to trade or sell them is annihilated. Don’t expect this to change, because eliminating used game sales is something that game developers have wanted to do for decades. Disabling basic features (such as online play) that can only be activated with new copies, but can be purchased for additional costs if your copy of a game is used, is one such method that makes their desire to see this through clear.

Finally, remember that any game which requires connection to a company for verification has a limited lifespan. It’s unlikely that Steam, a multi-billion-dollar company, is going away anytime soon. But if it did, so might your games. If you have to be authenticated on an Electronic Arts server to play a game, and that server gets disconnected, then your game isn’t playable; this is one way of ensuring you buy the next game they want sell instead of suffering a Starcraft-ism where one game gets played for a decade or more. It’s already done on a regular basis to discontinue the servers that support online play, rendering the most popular features of many games obsolete. I can pop in my cartridge of River City Ransom and do some team-up brawling any time, but you won’t be able to play Team Fortress 2 forever.

To be fair, DD isn’t evil–it’s a method of delivery and the restrictions and actions taken around it by companies are what can be unpalatable. For an example of how DD can be done well, check out GOG (Good Old Games), a site offering over 240 past games for download at a reasonable price without DRM or other arbitrary restrictions, and often with extras such as maps and soundtracks thrown in. Would that kind of treatment work for new games? Possibly not — certainly the lack of protection would make it easier to pirate games, but history has proven that anyone who really wants to pirate games is going to do so. Heck, I did it back in the day with Fast Hack’em on my Commodore, and that was before the internet told anyone how to get anything they wanted for free. But GOG shows that if you treat your customers with respect, you’ll get respect, and it shows that DD doesn’t have to stand for Draconian Downloading.

Make no bones, digital distribution isn’t going anywhere, but it doesn’t have to remain as it is right now. It likely will remain as it is or even get worse until gamers say otherwise, however. Until that day, I’ll continue to weigh up each transaction to determine if I’m really getting what I want to pay for–and I recommend that as consumers you do the same.

Feb 092011
 

The past two weeks have been particularly rough on the reputation of gamers (particularly video gamers), what with the whole Dickwolves thing and all. If you don’t know about it by now, then you probably don’t care to; just Google “Dickwolves” and you’ll find out more than you ever wanted to know. But this isn’t a Dickwolves post; more like a general post to which the Dickwolves saga has acted like a catalyst. Nikki and I were discussing this a few days ago and she mentioned that it “almost makes you ashamed to be a gamer”. She noted that on Fridays, when it’s casual day at work, I often wear my gaming related shirts (including the one that just says, plainly “gamer” in Courier New font) and mused that in the wake of this Dickwolves thing it might give her pause.

It made me think about that, mostly because I never considered wearing my shirts with anything but pride. I’m a gamer; it’s what I love and it’s a huge part of my life. I understood her concern well enough: traditionally, those who play video games as a hobby have a stigma for being social outcasts, exaggerated reputations of males who have never known the touch of a woman, living in their parents’ basement. Over the years, online gaming has fostered the additional element of spoiled, childish and vocally abusive behavior. These past few weeks we can now potentially add the role of sexually abusive rape apologists.

Am I ashamed of being a gamer as a result of that? No, not even a little bit. Of course it’s shameful when people can’t control themselves in a public setting and certainly it’s unacceptable when anyone says that someone should be murdered, raped, or even better (or worse, actually), “raped to death.” But this doesn’t make me ashamed of being a gamer, because these things are not indicative of gamers in general, they are indicative of the human race, a thing which I am sometimes ashamed of being part of. These behaviors are carried on in all walks of life by a great many–too many–people. It is behavior that was even demonstrated by the very anti-rape culture that was so offended by the entire Dickwolves episode, going so far as to make joking threats to murder someone’s family. That these things seem more prevalent among gamers from time to time is, in my opinion, more a matter of the synergy between the medium of games and the nature of computers and the internet. Video gamers by their very nature tend to be attuned with technology, meaning they are more likely to participate (and oh, quite visibly) online than, say, classic literature readers or those who garden as a hobby.

Misogyny, violence, racism and other vices of their ilk — these things exist everywhere and did so before video games were ever invented, but the internet has provided an outlet for which those most likely to express these concepts can do so with anonymity, speed and at a lengthy distance. Moreover, the internet, for all its many good points, also makes it easy for these people, often the very vocal minority, to realize they are not alone, and to unite with people of a like mind. In the olden days, you usually had to put on a white robe with hood and gather at night near the old oak trees for some of the vicious things we hear. Occasionally, there were burning crosses. That’s not a requirement anymore; nowadays, within moments you can find someone who shares your viewpoints no matter how outspoken or heinous they may be.

It’s undeniable that gaming as a culture needs to “grow up.” But that’s because humanity needs to “grow up.” We don’t (hopefully) assume that all children are hoodlums because a few of them join street gangs, or that every police officer is a power-hungry racist maniac because of a limited number of  bad shootings or cases of brutality, or that all scientists are dangerous madmen because some engaged in unethical behavior. Why then assume that every game player shares the personality or problems that a select few evidence? As people, we like to generalize, especially when that includes belittling to make ourselves feel superior.

As video games become more and more mainstream, boasting almost 200 million consoles shipped this generation, a greater number of people will enter the hobby, including online. Within every population you have the unruly vocal minority, the black sheep who give others a bad name. But those people can’t change the fact that video gamers are the consumers and connoisseurs of (as far as I know) the world’s most interactive art form; we’ve saved the world and the universe innumerable times and countless stories have been played out through our actions. Games (board, pen/paper and video) as a medium have positively contributed to the skills and lives of people everywhere, and many of the world’s smartest people can be counted among  video game players. Okay, that last part is totally unsubstantiated on my part, but it wouldn’t surprise me.

So, of course I’m proud of my hobby. Why shouldn’t I be?

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.