Monday, May 31, 2010
The Legend of Zelda deserves about 30,000 metric tons of gratitude for birthing the greatest franchise in the history of video games. But Miyamoto's original fantasy adventure is great for more than being the ancestor of masterpieces like A Link to the Past and Ocarina of Time. While not everyone appreciates this particular game's intrinsic merits, I find the first NES LoZ to be barrels of swashbuckling fun. The Legend of Zelda was an ambitious, forward-thinking product of a bygone era. It featured the option to save one's progress without the need for a password and presented gamers with a huge world with loads of secrets, but it also threw them into this environment with hardly any guidance except for this eternal nugget of wisdom: "It's dangerous to go alone!" The game also forced players to rely on their imaginations to immerse themselves in its 8-bit model of Hyrule. This is what makes The Legend of Zelda both a peculiar artifact and a timelessly enjoyable adventure. Back in 1986, Nintendo wasn't afraid to sit back and let its precious customers struggle with a real challenge. Nintendo has certainly changed its tactics over the years, but the human imagination has remained fertile, and so journeying through the first conceived version of Hyrule has not become obsolete. My mind's eye superimposes extra detail onto the screens, filling them with a liveliness and beauty that I'm convinced is there hidden within those charming pixels. The relative lack of context in The Legend of Zelda also makes the adventure seem much more adaptable to a player's individual fantasies, whether it's sailing on the high seas, traversing an unforgiving dessert, trudging through a dungeon, or stumbling upon forgotten treasure. The Legend of Zelda provided the perfect template for the action/adventure genre, introduced nonlinear gaming to millions, established a consistently wonderful series, and most importantly housed the Overworld Theme. Bum bum, b-b-b-b-buuummm!...
Wednesday, May 26, 2010
I don't really have much to say about this game. It's really fun and pretty much the only sports game I've ever loved. It almost plays like a perfect 3D platformer, but on a plank with wheels. Popping ollies, grinding huge rail lines, keeping your combo going with the manual, opening up new areas, collecting the SKATE letters, building your own parks, bobbing your head to Public Enemy and Rage Against the Machine. Good times. Yeah, so in conclusion, Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 2 was and is really fun.
Monday, May 24, 2010
Guitar Hero II is an important game. Some say the original Guitar Hero sparked the music game craze of the latter aughts, and they may be right, but I feel that its excellent sequel is the one that really wrote the genre into the pages of video game history. However, Guitar Hero II is important for more than just providing Activision with another cash cow. It served as my official introduction to the wonders of rock & roll. Of course I had listened to rock before, but never passionately; never of my own voracious accord. Picking up Guitar Hero's goofy plastic axe was a new challenge for me. I hopped into Practice Mode, selected Surrender by Cheap Trick on Easy (the game's first song in order of difficulty and one that now holds near-nostalgic value), and tried my best to hit the strum bar with the correct fret buttons held down as the colored gems dropped to the bottom of the note highway. It wasn't pretty. But that's part of what was so great about the early GH games that is lost forever; they presented gamers something new to learn and master. And learn it they did, as many Youtube videos can attest. In a world of big guns and bigger monsters, a game that let you live out your rock star fantasies was a breath of fresh air. As well-crafted and enjoyable as the gameplay is, the music is what makes this game, surprisingly, a keystone in my evolution as a cultural appreciator. While now I'm embarrassed of my "classic rock" phase, I'm extremely thankful that I was able to be so turned on to (usually) good music. In terms of music games, we may never have another 2007, but thank God we did, or else it might have taken even longer for the glory of rock & roll to have been revealed to me.
Thursday, May 20, 2010
E3 2006 was the coolest video game trade show I've ever seen second-hand via the internet and magazines. One of, if not the most impressive showing was the epic 15-minute trailer for Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots. Purportedly the last game in the Solid series, that E3 video, with its beautifully bloomy Middle East setting, its rambling but intriguing talk of mercenary armies and proxy wars, its nostalgic reunion of characters, and its striking image of an old, mustachioed Snake literally biting the bullet, was awe-inspiring. I remember thinking, upon peeling off my headphones and blinking myself back into reality, "How cool would it be if this actually turned out to be like the best game ever?" 2 years later, the publications from which I had first absorbed the E3 hype gave MGS4 perfect 10's, and I, astounded, wondered if my question was prophecy. Later that summer, I played the game on my new PS3 and found out for myself. It turns out, if you go by this list, that it's only my 30th favorite game of all time. So what? It still kicks ass. The graphics are jaw-dropping; in 2008, they really clued me in to the difference between the visuals of this generation and the last. Look at Old Snake's stealth suit: never before had I seen more convincing cloth, rubber, and plastic textures outside of Pixar. The surprising variety in environments, from South America to Eastern Europe to Alaska, shows off the blinding fidelity and polish in the game's graphics. From Snake's slow ground-humping crawl to him scratching his back, the animations are full of personality and detail. In fact, one of the Metal Gear Solid series' most redeeming values is its ridiculous attention to detail; it's hard to find other games so rife with easter eggs, self-aware gags, and surreal, utterly surprising instances of creativity. One facet on par with the graphics is the audio. MGS4 was the first showpiece for my new surround sound and headphones, and it might still be the best. The sound in this game, whether you're listening to the in-game iPod or to the nerve-wracking rattle of war, is heavenly. The mixing is divine, the variety is suburb, the music is full of memories, the effects are pristine and effective. Don't think that the A/V aspect is all that's without fault in MGS4, though. The controls in past Metal Gear Solid games were praised by some as in-depth and full of options while derided by others as convoluted and unintuitive. MGS4 reconciles the two: the layout is clean and logical while retaining its sophistication. For all of its technical perfection and artistic ambition, Metal Gear Solid 4 somehow isn't "the best game ever" or even one of my top 10. Why? To be honest, I don't really know. Part of it, I think, is that the Metal Gear series is better played at a younger age, when its occasional stupidity goes unnoticed. Part of it is that, being the last chapter in the saga of Solid Snake, Hideo Kojima tried to tie up nearly every single loose thread, which encumbered the experience and in many cases (but not all) took away the supernatural aspects that make Metal Gear so much more than just James Bond meets Rambo. Regardless of my hard-to-pinpoint faint disappointment, Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots is absolutely brimming, overflowing even, with Kojima's distinct genius. Lying on my stomach in the middle of a warzone, flipping through a Playboy while listening to a relaxing instrumental blues. Staring at the amazing menu screen, which depicts Snake in a flowery graveyard, pistol in hand. Transitioning from the unexpected pre-intro commercials to the haunting cellos in "Theme of Love." Mech battles. Crawling through a giant microwave in split-screen. You're such a goddamn mastermind, Hideo, that I may just forgive you for pretending to turn off my TV.
Tuesday, May 18, 2010
You know how I know that my life is good? One of my biggest regrets concerns a video game. Specifically, the tear-jerking fact that I never got into Final Fantasy VI when I was at that perfect age. I was captivated by FFVII, and I bought Final Fantasy Anthology, which contains VI, for relatively cheap. I booted it up on my Playstation, trudged through the snowy coal city of Narshe, got to Figaro Castle, and then I got stuck. I didn't know where to go next and I was not at this point in my life using the internet. Frustrated and bored, I hastily sold Anthology back to my nearest EB Games. Only recently have I realized the error of my ways. Honestly, if I had persevered and been able to have sunk my teeth into this meaty RPG, it's likely that it would be among my top 5 favorite games ever. Playing this game now is intensely bittersweet; I hear those brilliant Uematsu melodies and imagine humming them on the playground at 11 years old. I breeze through a boss fight now and picture myself struggling against a seemingly insurmountable foe. I gain access to the airship and think of the freedom I would have felt coursing through me as I navigate the Mode 7 world map. Take away my personal feelings toward FFVI though, and you're left with what may be the greatest RPG of all time. The combat system, while surprisingly easy, bellies a lot of varied options, and is approached elegantly. Features like magicite and relics make more sense than most series additions since, and contribute to the title's addictive depth. The steampunk art style and its slightly muted color works very well to establish a compelling universe. The Star Wars-like story is interesting and entertaining without being too complex or too simple. There are two areas of the game that shine most brightly, however: the characters and the soundtrack. While it's a bit hard for me, at my age and without a very extensive background in 2D gaming, to get into the heads of the 16-bit sprites and empathize strongly with them, I can, even at a passing glance, like almost all of them. From "treasure hunter" Locke to noble warrior Cyan to maternal and pure Terra to my favorite (and most others'), the slightly ethereal but strong-willed Celes; every character in Final Fantasy VI is adorable without being cutesy, cool without being (too) gimmicky, and each one is given the time and care needed to really get fleshed out via flashbacks, etc. The first time that Final Fantasy VI really moved me was during a scene in which Cyan watches, helpless, as his murdered wife and child board the Phantom Train and depart for the other side. Cyan runs down the platform after the ghostly locomotive as his son says goodbye and assures the proud knight that everything will be okay. It's fair to call the large main cast, of which there are pretty much no duds, the best in the series (before Tetsuya Nomura got his greasy Tokyopop paws all over the character designs and went batshit for zippers). Probably more impressive, however, is the game's music. Arguably Nobuo Uematsu's finest hour, the soundtrack for Final Fantasy VI is a work of breathtaking scope, majesty, lushness, melody, and emotional weight. The use of leitmotif for the characters is brilliant, infusing every one of them with musically represented personality and style. The overworld theme, Terra, with its melancholic beauty, is the best in the series. The real gem, though, is the Aria di Mezzo Carattere, which plays during the game's most memorable scene, at the opera house, and has now become one of my all-time favorite video game songs. Its unbelievably perfect melody, its surprisingly rich midi orchestration, its at-first funny but later disarmingly gorgeous synthesized voice, and its unforgettably emotional context all serve to greatly enhance the song itself, the scene in which it plays, the character (Celes) who sings it, and even the wonderful video game that houses it. The epic, enchanting, and heartfelt product of Square's RPG wizards operating at the height of their powers, Final Fantasy VI is truly one for the ages. Oh, and lest I forget to mention him, Kefka is pretty evil. In a good way, of course.
Sunday, May 16, 2010
Super Metroid is one of the greatest games of all time. And by "one of the greatest games of all time," I mean one of the top 10 greatest games of all time. And by "one of the top 10 greatest games of all time," I mean like one of the top 8. Possibly the greatest game ever to grace the greatest console ever (the Super Nintendo, obvz), Super Metroid is a monumental, ageless, bewilderingly deep masterwork whose intricate game world blows almost every other one out of the water. Full of twisting passageways, tight spaces, and carefully concealed secrets, the cavernous network of distinct rooms that is Zebes is a mind-blowing creation. And yet it often doesn't feel like it was created by a team of Japanese geniuses: it feels real and frighteningly organic. From the dark skies of Crateria to the alien flora of Brinstar to the haunting music and watery isolation of Maridia, Super Metroid absolutely nails atmosphere. This is a 2D game from 1994, and its moodiness is only matched by a few games released in the last 15 years. Zebes is home to a fascinatingly foreign ecosystem, one that does its best to drain protagonist Samus of her precious energy tanks. To deal with the planet's native hazards, along with those of its invaders, Samus gains access to a variety of weapons, gadgets, and upgrades. One of the most ingenious aspects of Metroid is that each new item is necessary and serves both exploratory and combat purposes. Using these tools to progress is one of gaming's trickiest and most fascinating challenges. Whether you're using the Ice Beam to freeze enemies into floating platforms so as to ascend a vertical shaft, deliberately being pulled into quicksand as a shortcut to another area, or revealing cracks in the floor with the X-Ray visor, Super Metroid is constantly presenting the player with opportunities to apply their investigative skills and ability to solve problems. And when these problems are solved, all through the player's own ingenuity, the rewards are more than sufficient. They aren't cutscenes, though; no, they're new mechanical additions that change gameplay and yet are grounded in context. None of this context is trite or spoon-fed, either; it is gleaned from the environment and the player's deduction. The mythology is awesome, by the way: an ancient race of galaxy-conquering bird philosopher-scientists named the Chozo, whose statues silently offer you technological prizes. Insect-like marauders that have made this planet, once a Chozo sanctuary, into their home base. Saber-toothed, life-draining jellyfish called Metroids. Mother Brain. Metroid Prime, in case you were wondering, would have been #51 on my list and my feelings toward it are similar to those I have for Super Metroid. However, I feel as though Metroid's world design makes more sense in 2D, and I think this SNES installment better captures the essence of the series and its artistic style, even though Prime is graced with a modern level of convenience. If you can get over the fact that it contains backtracking, Super Metroid will present you with one of the most magical, mysterious, and sophisticated game experiences out there.
There are many franchises represented on this list that I would not call myself a 'fan' of. Super Smash Bros. is one of those. To be honest, I find the fanboys that get all worked up over these games to be pretty amusing, if not lol-worthy. But just because I'm a smug high-nosed asshole doesn't mean that I can't have a blast beating up three of my friends as the Ice Climbers. Super Smash Bros. Melee is the essential entry in the series and a testament to simple multiplayer fun. It's my favorite fighting game for three reasons. One: the character roster consists of nearly every notable Nintendo character (and a few nearly forgotten ones). These characters are much more enjoyable to play as than the goofy-looking brawlers of other fighting games. Two: it's made for 4-player free-for-alls, which are obviously better than 2-player matches. Three: you don't need to know shit to play. Just bash the A and B buttons and jump a lot with the analog stick. This aspect is paramount; I don't want to study complex combos, movement speeds, and enemy behaviors to take part in the game's battles. I just want to boot the Gamecube up, select Samus and the Hylian Temple map, and start whacking my buddies with a hammer. In other words, I want to have fun while playing a multiplayer game. That's what Super Smash Bros. Melee is for.
You know how I called The Legend of Zelda: A Link To The Past timeless? That applies to Chrono Trigger as well, but I'd add another adjective: rare. How the hell did this game ever come to such fruitful fruition? It's the love child of Square and Enix circa the mid-90's, before their merger. It's an Aryan product of only the best RPG genes, like Jesus but with Hironobu Sakaguchi and Akira Toriyama's DNA instead of God's. With an utterly merciful lack of random battles, an epic plot that doesn't succumb to its melodrama, a fast and efficient battle system, sweeping music, and adorable un-emo characters, Chrono Trigger is everything good about JRPGs with almost none of the bad. Somehow, miraculously, the design philosophies of Square and Enix didn't conflict; rather, they balanced each other out and produced one of the leanest, most endearing RPGs ever made. Like I said, I was not of the SNES generation (a truth that has me crying myself to sleep every night), but I did play Trigger on Final Fantasy Chronicles for the Playstation. Thankfully, this lets me taste a bit of that sweet nostalgia which fans return to this time-traveling masterpiece for. And unlike many games of its era, Chrono Trigger doesn't disappoint you when you come back to it. That, my friends, is rare.
Now THIS game is a masterpiece. I should probably be subject to every medieval method of torture for putting this game so "low" on my list. Remember, though, that I was born the year that A Link To The Past was released, and so traversing the Dark World as a pink bunny in a green tunic is not permanently impressed in my brain from childhood. Nevertheless, I, as an appreciator of the medium, can fully understand that this item positively embodies the meaning of the word 'timeless.' It's hard to say whether or not this is the greatest Zelda installment, but anyone who argues so probably can't be in the wrong. The music, the world layout, the novel dual-universe concept, the slick and colorful graphics, the polished controls, the variety of weapons and items, the dungeons, their devious puzzles and looming boss monsters, the interesting mythology... If I had to name 10 perfect games, A Link To The Past would be one of them. This is truly Nintendo at the peak of their creative powers, like the Beatles during the recording of Revolver. God I wish I were Chris Houlihan...
Thursday, May 13, 2010
Kingdom Hearts is the 21st century's greatest testament to the magic of Disney. Then again, it's also a testament to the magic of Square. So despite its initial reputation as an unholy abomination, it's really got a lot going for it. While the Square-Disney partnership at one point seemed like a joke, its fruit, Kingdom Hearts, proves that it was actually somewhat logical and Square's best cooperative idea since Chrono Trigger. The game wraps you up in childish sweetness from the start on Destiny Island, and continues to do so as you relive the good ol' days in Wonderland, Neverland, and other fantastical lands. KH focuses on the ever-cheesy, always affecting theme of friendship, with goofy-looking protagonist Sora searching for his buddies Kairi and Riku across distant worlds, away from his tropical home. If you let go of pretensions and get invested in the game's events and emotions, a richly empathetic experience awaits you. The mechanics (save for that damnable gummi ship) work fine, balancing RPG depth, accessible action, and platforming rather successfully, but the nuts and bolts fall to the wayside when you find yourself really, surprisingly, caring about the characters on screen. Also, this game makes Mickey Mouse a certifiable badass. Now that's the power of video games.
Wednesday, May 12, 2010
Final Fantasy VIII is definitely not the most popular game in the series. But when it comes to Square's flagship franchise, it's hard to win. The truly hardcore seem to deride nearly every entry save for VI. It makes sense, of course, that many an RPG fan was disappointed with the followup to VII. Regardless, VIII is a wonderful, if flawed game. One of the most prominent complaints hurled at VIII over the years is Squall and how he's a selfish, moronic, unadorable prick. Yeah, I guess that's kind of true, but in 1999, getting a hero that was a bit more layered and difficult than Mario was rather refreshing. Mind you, this was before the days when starring an 'antihero' became a joke (one that developers still aren't aware of). Despite your probable disdain for Squall, FFVIII can charm you in other areas, like its mature, sophisticated Neo-European aesthetic. It can also befuddle you with its mind-bending Junction system and time-compressing story. I believe that it was this entry that truly elevated the series into the realm of graphical dominance it occupies today; that is, if you consider proportional characters to be important. Whether it's good or great, its placement on this list reaffirms that it's my personal list, and not an objective one. That opening CG cutscene was un-freaking-believable, though. I'll be waiting here... for you... So cool.
A chubby Italian plumber with surprising acrobatic ability who traverses colorful dreamscapes while wearing a Bumblebee suit... in space! This kind of conceptualization is part of what makes Nintendo the world's most treasured video game company. More than ever, we need games like Super Mario Galaxy to counteract the gray steel corridors and bloody war-torn battlefields of nearly every other commercially viable game released. When you're being launched through the glittering tapestries of space, swimming next to a tropical shore inhabited by arctic penguins, or just sitting back and absorbing the myriad symphonic delights of Galaxy's orchestrated soundtrack, you forget all about normal mapping, showers of gore, and Hollywood-level voice acting. Suddenly it's 1990 again, and none of the progress made in the last 20 years matters except for the advances in technology necessary to facilitate the Wii (or, really the Gamecube) and the disc that's inside it. To make all the doubters true believers again, Nintendo gave us the grandest, most innovative 3D platformer since it invented the genre in 1996. In Mario we trust.
Tuesday, May 11, 2010
Pajama Sam is the man. This is one of the first games I played and I'm glad I played it. Most things from childhood are already imbued with a dreamlike air, but if these items already concern dreams, then their attempts at surrealism are greatly amplified, as one could imagine. I really can't believe how bad kids have it now. In my day, we had Spongebob and Pajama Sam, deviously clever explorations of the kinds of imaginations only children could possess. The imagery and atmosphere (and this is a game for 6-year olds, mind you) is freaking awesome. The black central tree dressed with multiple levels of houses. That boat guy. The heroic, if somewhat arrogant, carrot with the green soul patch. The traffic light in the mine whose colors correspond with condiments (red-ketchup, yellow-mustard, green-relish), the pretentious monocle-wearing tree... The point-and-click puzzles were rad too. God. This shit was great. While those poor stupid youngsters watch their painfully unfunny Nick Jr. Spanish lessons, I'll sit back and remember the days when the providers of children's entertainment didn't consider their audience to be made up of humorless, brainless sacks of poop.
Are you familiar with the word 'content'? If not, let me equip you with a suitable definition. *Ahem* The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. Seriously, this game is massive. I'm genuinely amazed that it hasn't imploded in a giant blinding supernova. For this 2006 RPG, Bethesda honed their craft, namely taking a tried-and-true fantasy archetype and making it fresh through something called player immersion. There's a caveat of course, in that you're only truly immersed roughly three fourths of the time due to unfortunate quirks such as shoddy animation, overused voice actors, and omnipresent lawmen. The times in which you are wholly absorbed in the game, however, practically define next-gen role-playing. While Oblivion might be a bit encumbered (smiley face) by its ambition, the game world's logic is mostly consistent and stunningly complex. The Radiant AI system provides NPCs who drink, eat, paint, sit, walk, run, chat, fight, and steal. In one sidequest, after informing a man of his long-lost brother's whereabouts, he thanked me, opened the door, ran out, and proceeded to travel across the vast countryside towards the city I named as I followed a few paces behind until I witnessed the heartwarming reunion. I could've gone on to another quest after talking to the man, but instead I chose to marvel at his continued existence and purposeful logic. If you don't tire of the mechanics, Oblivion could fill up years of your life with unique content, unlike other time-wasters like Tetris. There's alchemy, caves, tombs, cities, country, hamlets, forests, an arena, guilds, inns, alcohol, spells, books, animals, food, vampires, and more. Much more. It's just ridiculous. Ludicrous, even. Seriously.
Fumito Ueda is my kind of guy. A resolute perfectionist with a wholly original vision and a deftly artistic yet restrained touch rarely seen in video games. I can't tell you how much I wish I made this game before he did. When I see the horned boy and the ethereal princess running through an empty castle hand in hand, as soft sunlight moves through mist... Well, I get jealous. "Gameplay is king" is the motto that governs almost all game design, and for good reason, but when done right, presentation greatly enhances what truly matters: the experience. Ico's gameplay is sparse and rather unremarkable; not bad by any means, but not the game's main ingredient. No, to see the staggering artwork on display here, all you have to do is look at the game in motion. Ico's near-miss leaps of faith, Yorda's endearing lack of initiative, the two of them falling asleep on a glowing save-point couch, windmills turning lazily in the breeze. All of these images are but brushstrokes in one of the 21st century's most surreal paintings, rhymes in a fairy tale that's read to you right before you head off to the Land of Nod. All expressed through a TV and Dualshock controller, of course.
Monday, May 10, 2010
The Assassin's Creed series is a funny case for me. The more I think about the games, the less I like them. I could certainly do without the sci-fi conspiracy babble, but I don't think it ruins the experience. The first Assassin's Creed was a strange beast. The early coverage did a lot to hype me up; "Finally, a medieval game that isn't high fantasy!" I thought. And while it isn't swords and sorcery, AC certainly has its share of fantasy. I also thought that Assassin's Creed was going to be nearly perfect, and it turns out that it was riddled with flaws and repetitive design. Needless to say, I was disappointed. I never bought the game, but I borrowed it from my friend for a week, and (here's the important part) played it while eating my way through a stack of Hershey's Chocolate with Almonds. Somehow, despite the game's tedium and ridiculous artificiality (excused with the 'Animus' context), I found myself having a really good time. I got sucked up in the wild conspiracy theory story (hint: Templars), got used to the unusual marionette control scheme, admired the details in the costumes of the guards and their holy cities. The folks at Ubisoft listened to everyone's complaints and addressed them head on for the sequel. What's funny is that by alleviating the frustrating quirks of the first game, Assassin's Creed 2 ended up abandoning many of the series' signatures and was more like Grand Theft Auto: Renaissance Italy. That was fine by me though. While Assassin's Creed has its own minimalist charm, AC2 feels like a fully featured game able to compete with the big dogs. The plots of both are stupidly compelling, and by the end of the second game things truly get laughable, but what really matter are the game worlds. Damascus, Acre, Jerusalem, Florence, Tuscany, Venice... These, ironically grounded in real life, are some of the most fascinating spaces I've ever occupied in a video game, and such beautiful virtual tourism is the true legacy of the franchise.
Now I'm no WW2 buff, but I'll be damned if this game doesn't feel authentic. It's experiences like these that prove why video games are such a superior medium; it's much cooler to storm the beaches of Normandy yourself than to watch Tom Hanks do it. When one of your comrades tumbles down off the same cliff you're scaling as MGs sing their battle tunes and artillery whistles its distinctly sharp note, you're convinced of the power that new Xbox 360 holds. One of the most amazing early showcases of HD gaming, Call of Duty 2, with its refined controls, silky animations, acoustic bombast, and jaw-dropping smoke effects, actually managed to reinvigorate World War II games. Well, maybe that's not true, because almost all subsequent Nazi shooting galleries felt utterly unnecessary. That's not so much a reminder of how yawningly prevalent those games are as it is a testament to Call of Duty 2's immersive power.
Remember the days of point-and-click adventure games? I think I've heard something about these kinds of PC games making a bit of a comeback, this time employing episodic formats. However, I'm content to simply recall The Curse of Monkey Island and get swept up in the warm comforts of nostalgia. Here are this game's merits, in convenient list form:
1. It's hysterically funny.
2. The characters are impossible not to love. Guybrush Threepwood (brilliant name by the way), LeChuck, Murray, etc. etc.
3. The hand-drawn/painted visuals are a real aesthetic treat, with whimsical spinning clouds, vibrant seaports, ominous swamps, and highly decorated interiors.
4. The puzzles are well-crafted and quirky, requiring just the right amount of contemplation and a careful examination of your inventory.
I don't have a fifth bullet point to satisfy our obsession with multiples of the number, but it matters not. When those four areas of praise are bound so tightly together as in The Curse of Monkey Island, the result is one of the most flat-out charming games ever made.
In preparing for Uncharted 2, which was garnering a great deal of praise, I decided to buy and play through the first Uncharted. It turns out I kind of hated it. Or at least it was a chore to play through, so naturally I was a bit skeptical of its 2-years removed sequel. I shouldn't have been. Uncharted 2: Among Thieves is a real showcase for that unmistakable kind of big-budget next-gen super-polished holiday video game. Its graphics are mind-blowing in their attention to detail, their cinematic scope and framing, their representations of varied locales painted in stunning colors. The gunplay is much improved, if subtly, from the first one and the game in general is now a joy to play rather than an exercise in boredom. But there are a lot of games labeled "cinematic", with good graphics and smooth controls. What makes this one special? Well, it's got it where it counts, and where its competition so often neglects to include something: its heart. Sure Nathan Drake is a bit of a tool and his voice actor Nolan North is horrifyingly prolific, but the characters, cliched as they are, really are lovable and entertaining. Elena is a phenomenal character, and the best representation of a female in the medium since Alyx Vance. The tension between her and femme fatale Chloe is well executed, as is the charming lechery of cigar-chomping, mustachioed Sully. One of my biggest gripes with the first Uncharted was the feeling of derivation and creative water-treading that it radiated. And while I certainly wouldn't call Uncharted 2 innovative, it carries with it a sense of identity, and contains many moments (cough train level) that couldn't easily exist in lesser games. A popcorn game with ridiculous production values and even a heart. Sounds good to me.
I replayed Final Fantasy IV recently. Not such a great idea. As with many things in life, especially old JRPGs, sometimes it's best to leave experiences to one's memory, where nostalgia ferments. And so I'll regard FFIV favorably, from the perspective of a younger me, one who found nuggets of storytelling brilliance in places where now I'd only see 16-bit pantomimes. Regardless of which lens I'm equipped with, the facts remain: FFIV showcases Uematsu's budding compositional genius, it's chock full of adorable characters meeting their untimely ends, and it was one of the first console video games to really truly take its story seriously. When Rosa visits Cecil in his room, when the twins turn themselves to stone to save the rest of your party, when Kain returns to his senses and begins fighting by your side again. Its luster may have faded over time, but for assuring me of my love for RPGs and for establishing the video game story as something that shouldn't be scoffed at, Final Fantasy IV's relevance hasn't diminished in the slightest.
Well isn't this ironic? Super Mario Bros. is the game I would, without hesitation, nominate for the position of Greatest Game of All Time, and here it is at #48 on my silly list. The cold, hard fact is that I didn't grow up in the 80's and so I'm a generation removed from the bright-eyed kids who popped this masterpiece into their new NES machines that fateful Christmas morning. And that does truly make me sad. However, playing this game decades later is consolation enough. In fact, I feel like jumping on a Goomba's head while listening to that inescapable World 1-1 theme could convince any disillusioned cubicle-dweller to step down from the edge. Super Mario Bros. is joy incarnate, the defining work of an eternal child, and the game we should thank daily for turning a technological novelty into a timeless source of happiness. For gracing us with your magic and defining my life's path, passion, and purpose, I thank you Miyamoto-san, from the bottom of my heart.
Everyone who hears about Demon's Souls, whether from a paid professional or an inarticulate acquaintance, hears in tandem about its brutality. And it's true: Demon's Souls is a scathingly difficult game, full of lowly archers that snipe you to death from atop a faraway castle turret, ravenous dogs that patrol dark subterranean tunnels, armored spiders that immobilize you with their webs, and a stamina bar that's never quite large enough. But I'm not the kind of gamer that thrives on punishment, so why did I spend $60 on this nightmare? The answer is simple: quality. The levels, initially nerve-racking, end up becoming second nature due to their memorable layouts. The art direction is deceiving, appearing at first to be generic dark fantasy, but soon you realize that it was developed in Japan and not Canada, and the visuals become that much more compelling. While Demon's Souls does get me to take breaks from it so as to relieve the tension, when away I tend to daydream of kingdoms wrapped in malevolent fog, of praying at the bare feet of the Maiden In Black, and of that somber, endless cycle of life and death that will draw me back in.
I've compiled an ordered list of my 50 favorite games, which is admittedly more games than I thought I would want to include on such a list. However, at its completion I found myself leaving off a few gems, much to my surprise. For each entry, from the bottom up, I will provide an explanation as to why I am enamored with a game that you consider the pinnacle of shitty design.