Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Top 50 Games - 23. Halo: Combat Evolved

Like Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 2, I don't have a whole lot to say about Halo. Of course it sold the original Xbox and truly validated the console FPS. Those are historical facts in the video game universe. It was more than just important, though: it was really really fun. In fact, because it was so enjoyable, it was allowed the success that led to its vaunted place in history. Halo provided a beautiful template for the console FPS. It focused intently on the holy trifecta: guns, grenades, and melee. These elements were polished to a blinding sheen and given a highly elegant control scheme for their implementation. But then Bungie, in a move of staggering, forehead-slapping genius, added a fourth tenet. Vehicles. Yes, Halo's run-and-gun basics are very fun and serviceable, what with Master Chief's silky analogue movement, that incredibly overpowered scoped magnum, and individual buttons for fragging and pistol-whipping. But the sleepless nights, the LAN marathons, the memorable campaign moments... They were all thanks to those wonderful vehicles. The Warthog, the Ghost, the Scorpion, the Banshee... Not only were Halo's vehicles relatively easy to control and outfitted with useful weapons, but they had personality. Nobody's forgotten what that purple hovercraft thing with the plasma guns was called. I remember one of the first times I played Halo (split-screen Slayer at my friend's house), I was on foot, walking over a hill in Blood Gulch. Right when I reached the top, my so-called-friend's Scorpion tank rolled right over my insect-like ass. I learned my lesson that day: get in a vehicle. Now I'm the asshole who runs over chumps, and it's still a blast, nearly ten years later. Okay, so I wrote a little more than I did for THPS2. Sue me.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Top 50 Games - 24. Okami

Lots of games strive for "realism." We have sufficient technology these days; attempting to replicate the real world visually is not a pie-in-the-sky concept like it used to be. But what about striving for beauty? What about putting aside pretensions of realistic representation and instead opting for visuals that astonish, entrance, and actually withstand the cruelty of time? Okami is a beauty. Inspired by traditional Japanese wood-block watercolors, Okami uses the power of the PS2 to transport gamers to Nippon as represented in old paintings and fairy tales. As the white wolf god Amaterasu, the player explores a large variety of imaginative lands as flowers spring to life under her paws and her inky outline bleeds into the environment. The colors, animations, and details found in Okami are really awe-inspiring. Distant mountains are composed of snaky calligraphic lines drawn on a starchy paper backdrop. Put down the controller for a minute and Amaterasu (or "Ammy") yawns before lying down to take a nap. Autumn leaves pop out of the ether when a double-jump is performed. Truly, I could go on and on regarding the game's art direction. The enemy designs (which include big dead fish in kimonos, alcoholic dragons, and kite-riding monkeys) are fascinating, the locales (one of which is a giant tower reaching into the heavens that is exclusively home to meowing cats) are full of variety and freshness, and the game's major "gimmick" even ties into the visuals: the player wields the Celestial Brush, which allows you to paint godly powers into the world (i.e. drawing a circle in the sky turns night into day, etc.). Speaking of the gameplay, and lest you think that the graphics are all there is to Okami, well, the gameplay is very good. The model is reminiscent of Zelda, with items becoming brush powers. Naturally, this formula works just fine, as do the smooth and logical controls. Even better than the graphics and gameplay though, at least (and maybe only) for me, is the music. Maybe I'm just a sucker for traditional Japanese music, but the compositions here are gorgeous, appropriate, and there's a lot of them. When all of these high-quality parts come together, you get something greater than their sum. Okami is a lengthy, more-than-satisfying adventure through an exciting world full of ancient oriental wonders. Now if Issun would just shut up and let me enjoy the scenery.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Top 50 Games - 25. Portal

Portal is perfect and everybody loves it. These are irrefutable facts. It's also an extremely inspiring game for people like me: it started out as Narbacular Drop, the senior game design project at a tech university. Impressed, Valve hired the team right out of school and commissioned them to work on Portal, minimizing risk by keeping the team and budget small and including the final product in The Orange Box. Needless to say, it was a resounding success, one that has spawned a beloved new IP and the most overused inside jokes in the industry. This tremendously positive reception is a direct result of Portal's conceptualization, execution, and sense of humor. While nearly everyone who plays video games today loves GLaDOS (the evil computer that values science more than human life), there's more to Portal's greatness than her cold, snide quips. This game's development team truly knows how to convey information visually, and the elegance of this game-to-player feedback is apparent everywhere. Go through blue portal, come out orange portal, and vice versa. You can shoot portals onto white walls but not brown walls, etc. There is also an interesting and almost ingenious dichotomy in the game's intentions: it's part tech demo, part training program, part straight-up puzzle game, and part story-driven adventure (in that order, actually). The mind-bending spacial recognition obstacle courses are bested with only a few tools, and a lot of player ingenuity. GLaDOS offers the lab rat of a player guidance and narrative context, connecting gameplay and story together brilliantly through one of gaming's most cherished and unique villains. By employing these features, Portal's take on player progression and challenge vs. reward is incredibly effective. Similarly, pacing is a tenet that the Portal team embraced with a surprisingly mature and expert touch. Through GLaDOS and the sterile test chamber environment, the player (this time a woman named Chell, and who in the Valve tradition is a silent cipher) learns more of the horrifying truth behind the experiments that take place in Aperture's facilities as the game goes on. It doesn't go on for very long however; Portal only takes about 4 hours to beat. This is however, mostly a blessing. Swimming against today's stylistic current, Portal is short and sweet, brimming with well-implemented ideas that never outstay their welcome. Included in those hours is a wonderful, surprising escape tale told with uncanny ability, one that takes full advantage of its medium to balance humor, horror, novelty, and loads of fun. And I didn't even mention cake once. I'm so proud of myself.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Top 50 Games - 26. The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess

I know, I know. Two Zelda games back-to-back. I usually try to avoid things like this, but whatever. Anyway, video game connoisseurs tend to hate on this game, as they so often do. They complain about how it's just an updated Ocarina of Time, even though that's exactly what they wanted ever since they were revolted by Wind Waker's cartoony Link with moon-sized eyes. Moving away from the idiocy of the average Nintendo fan though, we have the actual game at hand. Twilight Princess is a stirring, whimsical, epic, intriguing, and enjoyable adventure through an admittedly familiar land of magic and wonder. In other words, it's a Zelda game through and through. The typical formula employed since A Link to the Past still provides the backbone for player progression in Twilight Princess, and this is both a blessing and a curse. The Zelda games are intended to present players with fantastical worlds to explore, with various challenges, rewards, and surprises to uncover. By sticking to tried-and-true concepts, however, Nintendo has taken some of the "surprise" element out of the equation, which is a bit of a shame, even though there are still plenty of new discoveries waiting in Twilight Princess. Yes, there is a Temple of Time, but there is also a city in the sky. There is a boomerang, but there is also a rail-riding spinning top. There's Ganondorf, but there's also Oocoo and Oocoo Jr, some of the most endearingly disturbing characters in the series. Speaking of those things, The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess has some of the best dungeons, items, and characters yet seen in the long-running franchise. The rehashes of old Zelda standbys like the forest, lava, and water temples, while unsurprising, are very well made, but my favorite is the brilliant Arbiter's Grounds, a crumbling ruin tucked far away in the desert that hides awesome treasures and is haunted by the occult. Those treasures, or if you prefer, items/weapons, are consistently great in Twilight Princess. Classics like the boomerang have been coupled with new features (in this case being imbued with the power of wind), and new devices such as the previously mentioned spinning top (not coincidentally obtained in the Arbiter's Grounds) and a scepter that controls ancient statues, are more often than not ridiculously cool. Navi is usually associated with Link's help character/mechanic in the Zelda games, but the extent of her narrative contribution was "Hey!" Midna, on the other hand, is one of the most fully developed characters Nintendo has ever crafted. Sure, she looks like she'd appeal to Hot Topic patrons, but her design is nevertheless interesting and her character arc provides player motivation. She starts out deliberately mean, softens up a little to become merely cynical, and finally morphs into your best friend. As much as Twilight Princess adheres to Zelda orthodoxy, its tale almost seems like a "gaiden" (side story) because of its focus on Midna, Zant (the secondary villain and a great character in his own right), and their world, the Twilight Realm. I personally hated playing as a wolf in the Twilight Realm collect-a-thons, but its story is one of the best that has graced the series. A testament to the timelessness of the series, full of cool ideas and a version of Hyrule that begs to be explored, the Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess belongs in any reasonable gamer's library.