Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Top 50 Games - 2. Metal Gear Solid

"That's it, Snake. Hurt me more!" No, this isn't hardcore fetishistic porno-masochism on the level of "Venus In Furs", but rather a line from my second favorite video game of all time. Starring the unfortunately named Solid Snake, Metal Gear Solid tells a riveting tale of spies, nukes, cyborg ninjas, otakus, sadists, mind-readers, cigarettes, keycards, exclamation points, cardboard boxes, and other such miscellany. It may no longer be gaming's strongest artistic argument, but Hideo Kojima's definitive masterwork remains the second-most affecting game I've ever played. And, as if this list weren't proof enough, I've played a lot of affecting games. *Deep breath* Here we go.
It's rare for one game to invent a genre. In the early days of the Atari 2600 and even the NES, many games practically were their own genre, sometimes with names to match (Adventure, anyone?). As is the case in many burgeoning developments, innovation was often the product of things simply having not been invented yet. The mid-90's saw the advent of 3D gaming, and with this new dimension came an incredible opportunity to invent. While Hideo Kojima and Konami had already made Metal Gear and Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake for the Japanese MSX2 computer in 1987 and 1990, respectively, their stealth elements were novel rather than revolutionary. It wasn't until 1998, the year of Metal Gear Solid's release on the Sony Playstation, that "tactical espionage action" would truly be born. Metal Gear Solid did not take complete advantage of its three dimensions; the camera still hung overhead and the game itself almost resembled a next-gen update of Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake. Nevertheless, it was the ambition that arrived with 3D gaming, along with superior production values, that turned an obscure Japanese series into a nearly unprecedented blockbuster, introducing these new players to stealth-action in the process (Tenchu and Thief were milestones in the stealth movement to be sure, but MGS was the eye-opener).
So how does Metal Gear Solid go about making us reconsider our approach to action games? In many, many ways. The basics are unsurprisingly taught in the game's first areas. Snake enters the facility on Shadow Moses island by water, at the end of an underground canal that a few sentries are patrolling. He must reach a nearby elevator to get to the surface, but is outnumbered and weaponless. You must observe the patrol patterns of the guards with your naked eye, the radar screen, and binoculars. Sound can be a a friend or foe here, as accidentally splashing through a puddle can alert the enemy, but choosing to knock on a wall can distract him. Alternatively, you could simply speed through the area, flipping over and snapping the necks of guards along the way like a madman. After Snake reaches the surface of the snowy Alaskan base, additional wrinkles in the formula must be considered. You can leave traceable footprints in the snow, can be discovered by cameras or disable them with chaff grenades, can be caught in a searchlight, can pick up a laser-sighted pistol in the back of a parked truck, can crawl through ventilation ducts, etc. These additions to the gameplay and their tactical implications never stop coming. Every single area on Shadow Moses lends itself to new methods of playing. A room piled with nuclear warheads prevents Snake from using ballistic weapons, a snow-covered minefield asks the grizzled agent to get on his belly, one particularly harrowing scene forces Snake to run up the staircase of a large tower while being chased by an army of heavily-outfitted soldiers, at a certain point Snake must pay attention to the way the guards strut their stuff in order to find Meryl, and the scenario following a torture sequence has Snake play dead with a bottle of ketchup. Authored direction and restriction (as in the last five examples) is balanced perfectly with sandbox-style freedom (sticking C4 explosives to the backs of urinating guards in the men's bathroom, tossing them into a pit of lava, etc.) While having to avoid the attention of enemies (else Snake collapse in a hail of gunfire) certainly adds tension, it rarely leads to any unpleasant anxiousness; from start to finish, Metal Gear Solid is fun and ridiculously clever. Very few games since have boasted as many fantastic playable ideas.
Along with housing new genres such as stealth and survival-horror, the Playstation was the first console to bear the cinematic video game. Final Fantasy VII's high production values and glossy CG custscenes did a lot to introduce players to the new school of gaming, but Metal Gear Solid (mostly because its custscenes were in-engine) could be seen as the successor to Super Mario Bros. when it comes to prophesying the path that video games would take in the next ten years. Metal Gear Solid was the first game with such sophisticated presentation that it could be called an interactive movie. Although today's detesters would call MGS such a name as an insult, back in 1998 it was high praise indeed. Empty praise it was not though, as Metal Gear Solid's cinematic ambition was put to good use; it's hard to remember that cutscenes are a storytelling crutch when you're wrapped up in this game's movie-like grandeur. We all know that Kojima is a masturbatory director who could use some restraint or, even better, an editor. But before MGS came out, video games didn't need restraint. They were crude and simple, with sprite-based pantomimes (or worse: empty, muddy 3D spaces) and bleep-y bloop-y soundtracks. Video games needed to prove their storytelling worth to those who couldn't see past the pixels. They needed spectacle. Metal Gear Solid provided this showy magnetism, as well as a story that, although flawed, is actually worth giving a damn about.
The back of the box for Metal Gear Solid promises "A taut, gripping story." If anybody tells you that it's perfect, they don't know what they're talking about. Neither does anyone who thinks it a sloppy throwaway spy tale that doesn't have any power to emotionally affect the player. Kojima is a guy with a lot of ideas, and although that's admirable, sometimes it gets to be too much when it comes to the story. MGS is stuffed to the brim with ruminations on genetics, fate, love, nuclear war, and existential doubt. It's heavy stuff, and not all of it is approached with grace. Nevertheless, the combination of high-quality machinima, a memorable script, and unprecedented professional voice acting turns what could have been a headache-inducing anime plot into a supremely powerful narrative. Solid Snake travels along a believable character arc; his cold heart is slowly thawed by the friendship of Otacon and the love of Meryl. I was sad to see Meryl absent from MGS2 (yes, I know she's in 4, but still); I thought she was a great character. In fact, all of the characters are great. The plot of the Metal Gear series may appear to be nothing more than an impossible jumble of techno-babble and amateur philosophy, but its mythology is undeniably rich and packed with unforgettable faces.
If any of these ridiculously cool characters aren't your friends, then they're most likely your enemies. And since they aren't generic balaclava-wearing Genome Soldiers, that means they're FOX-HOUND. Let's not mince words here; Metal Gear Solid has the best boss battles ever. There are some fantastic encounters in MGS3 (The End is, as I claimed earlier, the best of all time) and in games outside of the series (Sephiroth, Ganon, Krauser, the Hydra, GLaDOS, Giygas, the Colossi, etc.), but in the breadth and brilliance of Metal Gear Solid's most salient battles, nothing else can compare (okay, Shadow of the Colossus comes kind of close). Things start off simple, requiring Snake to throw the one-two punch of chaff grenade and frag grenade into the opening of a tank. Next, he must deal with the ricocheting bullets from Revolver Ocelot's Colt Single Action Army ("The greatest gun ever created"). But soon enough Snake must outsmart and out-martial-art an invisible, super-agile undead cyborg ninja named Gray Fox. Later, something terrible happens. In a long, tall, narrow hallway, the eerie red dot of a laser sight flashes on Meryl's stomach. Sniper Wolf, FOX-HOUND's resident femme fatale, takes two shots. To make a long story short, Snake runs away to obtain a sniper rifle, comes back, unexpected things happen, and finally he confronts her. This time, however, it's outside and in the middle of a raging snowstorm. To further add to the confusion, Snake's friend Otacon is in love with Wolf. So yeah, it's a pretty emotional affair. After beating your opponent at her own game, the crippled assassin exhales a long, heartbreaking monologue interspersed with bloody coughing fits before Snake solemnly puts her out of her misery, as Otacon kneels at her side, weeping uncontrollably. Never before has a video game treated its antagonists with such respect, turning them from mere "bosses" into genuine approximations of human beings.
This tense sniper duel is certainly a standout moment, but we're all aware of what may be Metal Gear Solid's most ingenious moment. I personally prefer The End, but many, many people will tell you that Psycho Mantis is the greatest boss of all time. They aren't lying. Before the encounter, mysterious chanting music can be heard reverberating on the wooden walls that surround Snake and Meryl. Pressing triangle normally allows Snake to look around in first-person, but if you try it within the hallway that leads to Mantis' office, the screen turns a sickly green as you stare at Snake from just behind and above Meryl. Upon entering, Meryl starts acting weird, pleading for Snake to make love to her while aiming her Desert Eagle at his confounded face. After knocking Meryl unconscious, Psycho Mantis reveals himself to Snake and proceeds to show off a variety of fancy parlor tricks: moving your DualShock controller across the floor and reading your memory card, commenting on both the games you play ("You like Castlevania, don't you?") and the number of times you save. After this freaky introduction, the real battle begins, but the trickery persists. Psycho Mantis will use telekineses to hurl a chair at you, and just before you dodge out of the way, he'll pretend to turn off the TV screen (with HIDEO in green running across the upper-right corner of the blackness). Mantis, a skilled mind reader, can anticipate nearly every one of Snake's attacks and appropriately evade them. After many minutes of confusion teetering on the verge of frustration, you call Colonel Campbell again, hoping to receive some help. Suddenly, the "retired old warhorse" has a eureka moment, determining that Psycho Mantis won't be able to read your movements if you switch your controller to Port 2. It works, and Mantis is defeated (I've actually managed to proudly defeat him without resorting to this method). Talk about a mindfuck; the fight with Psycho Mantis takes the 4th wall and tears it to subatomic shreds.
Everywhere you look in Metal Gear Solid, there's genius. More than a competent stealth-action game with a compelling plot, MGS is as dense with creative and humorous details as diamond is with particles of carbon. In another 4th wall-defying example, the only way to contact Meryl at a certain point is to discover her Codec frequency in a screenshot on the back of the actual game's CD case. There are dogs that fall in love with Snake, there's a tuxedo that he can wear just like one well known agent of the British Empire, there's Johnny, who gets his uniform stolen as well as a bad case of diarrhea, and much more. The story's weighty subject matter never hangs too gloomily over the experience, as Kojima's special brand of humor infiltrates Shadow Moses as effectively as Solid Snake. A big reason for the number 2 at the left of this game's title is simply because every goddamn moment, every subtle touch of care, is fixed permanently in my memory.
Metal Gear Solid is important. It was paramount in the invention of both the stealth genre and the cinematic gaming experience. Metal Gear Solid is fun. I still enjoy avoiding a guard's line of sight while setting up a Claymore mine for him to foolishly waltz onto. Metal Gear Solid is riveting. Rarely have I encountered such a bombastic, engrossing story in a video game. Metal Gear Solid is visionary and awesome and funny and wonderful. It's my second favorite game of all time.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Top 50 Games - 3. The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker

I could explain the reasoning behind this game's position on my list in three words: my first Zelda. But The Wind Waker deserves much more than that. It deserves recognition as not just the Gamecube entry in the console-spanning series or the one with the controversial 'Toon Link.' It deserves to be recognized as the ideal game: charming, fun, exciting, big, beautiful, emotional. It never bores me, never angers me, never does less than provide the most wonderful imaginary world I've ever gotten lost in.
The biggest and most noticeable change Wind Waker brought to Zelda, while temporary, was in its visuals. The 8-bit original did its admirable best to convey a medieval fantasy world, A Link To The Past portrayed a whimsical 16-bit kingdom, and Ocarina of Time stood out in the 3D gaming scene by attempting pseudo-realism without looking god-awful. The Wind Waker adopts the style known as "toon-shading," similar to cel-shading (colors applied to objects instead of textures) but without the black outlines. Toon Link is stout and childlike, with tiny swaying arms, a disproportionately large head, and moon-sized eyes. Fans who grew up with Ocarina of Time's "realistic" adult Link were furious. For some inexplicable reason (probably the corrupting idiocy of adolescence), they wanted The Legend of Zelda to become a dark, "mature" fantasy epic starring a fully grown, battle-hardened Link. What they got was a Disney movie. For this I have to thank Shigeru Miyamoto and Eiji Anouma, as they know what makes a great game much better than fans do. It was a bold move, but it all worked out in the end because The Wind Waker is fucking beautiful. The animation is lively and, though comically exaggerated, convincing. The nautical world holds unforgettable detail: curly white lines flowing in the wind's direction, sprite-based explosion and smoke effects, bright blue waves lapping calmly upon exotic shores. Seven years later and the visuals are still jaw-dropping, still unrivaled by today's graphical elite. It's rare for a 3D game's graphics to be considered timeless, but the artistic choices that Nintendo made regarding those on display in The Wind Waker point towards a beauty that in ten years will not have faded.
While the visuals are certainly a treat, The Wind Waker's greatest achievement is its wide and captivating world. In another alteration to the formula, this game takes place not in the typical confines of Hyrule, but on a vast, uncharted ocean aptly dubbed the Great Sea. Stretching across the horizon farther than the eye can see is an overwhelmingly grand expanse of blue, dotted with countless islands, all containing their own secrets to be uncovered. With the aid of his trusty talking boat, the King of Red Lions, Link spends a good deal of the game sailing the high seas, charting the lands he ventures upon, pulling up sunken treasures, engaging in cannon battles with enemy ships, and even directing the wind itself. Similar to Ocarina of Time's eponymous clay flute, the key item Link receives in The Wind Waker is, you guessed it, the Wind Waker, a legendary conductor's baton that allows Link to change the direction of the wind (an invaluable time-saver when sailing), assume control of allies, turn day to night, warp around the Great Sea, and more. It's a convenient tool that plays heavily into the story and removes any frustration that could have accompanied the game's central sailing mechanic. While the endless blue itself is full of character, the islands that Link visits are all undeniably charming and varied. From Link's hometown on Outset Island to the Forbidden Fortress, each location is imbued with a strong dose of personality and clever design, leading to a rare sense of giddy excitement whenever a new destination is in sight. Sailing to the edges of the map leads the King of Red Lions to warn you of the danger present in doing so, and he promptly turns himself around. For some reason, I have a memory of glimpsing that cold, empty nighttime horizon that never fails to instill a dreamy feeling of melancholic mystery. Cruising the Great Sea and taking in its nautical magic will never, I repeat never get old. Exploration like this is what I look to video games for.
Poking around the overworld is all well and good, but many gamers find the juiciest sections of a Zelda game underground. I must admit, Wind Waker's assortment of dungeons is not the best in the series. Although they were new to me, any Ocarina of Time veteran could tell you that he'd already bested them at least once before. There are the obligatory fire and forest temples, sure, and the the total number of them is less than in OoT or A Link To The Past, but they are all elegantly designed. Just before and halfway through each dungeon crawl, Link obtains a new item to help him in his quest. Each of these tools, from the traditional Hookshot to the new Deku Leaf, is fun to use and smartly implemented. While Wind Waker's colorful combat (complete with musical cues!) is quite easy, the numerous puzzles can lead to some serious head-scratching, and both aspects of the gameplay incorporate Link's arsenal to great effect. While the most noticeable addition to dungeon design appears late-game in the form of allies, my favorite interior excursion in a Zelda game occurs about halfway through, in the Tower of the Gods. Jutting confidently out of the Great Sea, the Tower of the Gods is a magnificent work of architecture that positively beckons you to to conquer its challenges and ascend its height. The only dungeon that the King of Red Lions can enter, the tower's lower level is flooded with a fluctuating water level. This curious design leads to some interesting puzzles, and the surprises (bridges made of light, Darknuts, unexpected allies, etc.) never stop coming until Link rings the big bell at the very top. The Tower of the Gods is so good that I've had dreams about it.
Wind Waker has the best story of the Zelda series. There, I said it. Initially about Link rescuing his sister Aryll from Ganondorf's clutches, the tale soon shows its true depth. The fate of Hyrule is revealed, as is the voice behind the King of Red Lions and the lineage of the rascally pirate Tetra. It's a very well-constructed plot, and I remember on my first playthrough marveling at its surprising intricacy. Everything that Link does in the main quest, from collecting the pearls of the Goddesses to ringing that bell atop the Tower of the Gods, serves at least one purpose. Upon receiving Din's Pearl, the first of the three, you are thanked by the shy prince of the Rito tribe. I'm not going to lie; that "Thanks!" was truly touching. The story of The Wind Waker, however, would not be nearly as great without its memorable cast of characters. Link himself is the most gorgeous, expressive, and fun to control Hylian that's ever swung a Master Sword. His wide eyes and big black pupils clue players in to nearby points of interest, and his modest frame only makes it that much more satisfying when Ganon's evil forces are vanquished. The duck-billed Medli, the knee-high wood sprite Makar, the disturbing wannabe fairy Tingle, the pot-bellied dragon Valoo, the jolly wind god Zephos and his mischievous brother Cyclos... The list of fantastic characters never ends. Every single one is special. I believe that the most brilliant characterization in The Wind Waker, however, is that of someone who has traditionally been illustrated as little more than a pig-man. Yes, I'm talking about Ganondorf. This entry's dark-skinned ginger is better designed and more fleshed out than he has been in any other Zelda title. With small hints of a tragic backstory and a haunting final monologue (not to mention a ridiculously cool death animation), Ganondorf is the true heart of The Wind Waker's moving tale.
Speaking of moving, I would be remiss not to mention this game's music. But what can I say? It's my second favorite video game soundtrack. With a Celtic-influenced assortment of fiddles and flutes, the music feels appropriately windy and downright enchanting. These impossibly perfect melodies, some of the most inspiring and adventurous I've ever heard, will never leave me. At the end of the closing credits, the main Wind Waker theme becomes Zelda's Lullaby. The last note, ringing with warmth, is one of the most perfect musical moments I know. It almost makes me cry.
Does nostalgia have something to do with my love for The Wind Waker? Of course. Who can forget their first Zelda game? Do the graphics have something to do with it? Yes, they represent a timeless display of virtual artistry. Does the music have something to do with it? Abso-fucking-lutely. It all has "something to do with it." The only thing that I don't appreciate about this game is the absence of Zephos in the last scene. That's it. I love The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, and although I'm hopeful, I can't help but doubt that I'll ever have as magical an experience with a video game again.  

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Top 50 Games - 4. Resident Evil 4

Resident Evil 4 is the greatest survival-horror game of all time. Or is it? The genre of survival-horror is a rare case in the video game world; rather than being named after its most salient gameplay mechanics, it is based on aesthetics. Regardless, in the years since the debut of the original Resident Evil, many have assumed that a survival-horror game is beholden to certain traditional tropes and stylings: scarce ammunition, atmospheric though uncooperative camera angles, etc. In other words, where action games are designed to make players feel like unstoppable badasses, horror games are intended to do the opposite: to make them scared. And then came along Resident Evil 4, which is able to accomplish both. Some have taken to calling it an action-horror game or a scary action game, or even just an action game. I believe that the horror moniker suits the title just fine as its polished gameplay does nothing to neuter any sense of creeping dread and dizzying tension. Fuck genre; Resident Evil 4 is a masterpiece.
In the early 90's, Alone In The Dark arrived, and with it survival-horror. However, gamers weren't properly introduced to the burgeoning genre until they played Resident Evil on the Playstation. A creepy mansion viewed from a cinematic camera and populated with the ravenous undead deeply frightened gamers and introduced them to a new digital thrill. Resident Evil's tank-like controls and B-movie vibe were acceptable in the face of such startling novelty, but as the series shuffled into the new generation of consoles, its flaws became less tolerable and its scares turned stale. Konami challenged Capcom in the late 90's with the cerebral Silent Hill, whose aesthetics were much more mature and disturbing. To chase the psychological sophistication of its competitor would be to abandon Resident Evil's zombie-flick essence in exchange for pale imitation; needless to say, Shinji Mikami and his team were facing a serious challenge. After years of development, Mikami boldly restarted the Resident Evil 4 project with a new vision: behind-the-shoulder camera, manual aiming, Spanish village setting, no zombies. Fans were nearly as scared of the change-up as they were when receiving their first zombie hickey, but once they began playing in 2005, the angels sang. Resident Evil 4 was a rapturous breath of fresh air for the series, the genre, and action gaming in general. Its balance of innovation and tradition revitalized horror video games while somehow still feeling like it was fit to bear the Resident Evil name.
In the first Resident Evil, pushing up moves your character in the direction he is facing. Left and right rotate him in those respective directions while down walks him backwards. This has not changed in RE 4. What has changed is the camera, which is now located behind protagonist Leon's right shoulder instead of at a constantly shifting, awkward, threat-obscuring angle. This makes a world of difference, and I'm honestly astonished at long it took before the designers came to their senses and realized what a head-slappingly elegant (read: simple) solution it is. Coupled with the updated view is a fluid targeting system. Most of Leon's weapons are generously equipped with a laser sight. By depressing the right trigger and aiming manually with the left stick, players trade mobility for deadly precision. Targeting in RE4 is practically a game unto itself, as a careful aim can incapacitate and decapitate enemies as well as blast thrown weapons like axes and dynamite out of the air. It's great fun, and if you choose to call Resident Evil 4 a third-person shooter, it's the best I've yet played.
We're all tired of QTEs by this point, but if you will, let's hop in the time machine and travel back to 2005. Dreamcast darling Shenmue was one of the first games (excepting Dragon's Lair, if that counts) to really push quick-time events, which are button prompts that flash on the screen and allow players to perform feats not possible within the game's usual mechanical confines. 2005 saw the QTE make a comeback in God of War and Resident Evil 4. Kratos would spam the circle button after beating on an opponent long enough (by spamming square) to engage in some particularly brutal dismemberment, e.g. ripping the head off a Gorgon, etc. It was an exciting and rewarding way to finish fights, but RE4 practically turned the QTE into an art form, in a way that has yet to be surpassed (probably a good thing, admittedly). That big, beautiful Gamecube A button is used for contextual actions such as pulling the claws of a bear trap off your leg, roundhouse kicking stunned enemies, knocking down and raising ladders, and much more. These A-button abilities are typical of RE4's gameplay, but contextual prompts even bleed into the cutscenes, where failing to press a certain button combination will result in a gruesome and untimely death for Leon. Resident Evil 4 dares you to put the controller down, and whether you accept or despise quick-time events, that's pretty cool.
While most fans were probably fine with the new controls, many were predictably upset at the absence of the living dead, Resident Evil's trademark. Some ardent old-schoolers are still bitter about the decision, but I for one believe that it was an evolutionary step for the series. You see, RE4 is, at least according to yours truly, a horror game. Zombies are slow and dim-witted and predictable, and features like those do little to instill genuine fear. Their replacements, Los Ganados and Los Illuminados, respectively parasite-infected peasant farmers and hooded cult zealots, are much more effectively frightening and surprising than the undead ever could be. These SOBs dash, dodge, duck, strangle, stab, swing, and surround. There are the common pitchfork-wielding grunts, the suspender-wearing axe-tossers that just beg to be knocked off the roof they're standing on with a well-placed 9mm, the burlap-headed chainsaw bastards, the red-robed priests wearing deer skull masks, the blind and bondaged Wolverine impersonators called Garradors, and "Iron Maidens"... I'll just leave that last one to your imagination. There's a brilliant opening scenario in which Leon is surrounded by a village full of hostile Ganados and has to hold them off for a certain amount of time. He can enter buildings, push dressers in front of doors, toss grenades out the windows, and pick off assailants from a tower. However, if you stay in said tower for more than maybe 30 seconds, the townsfolk will start tossing molotov cocktails into your comfy little sniper's nest. The blood-soaked intensity of this first major centerpiece never dulls; thank RE4's intelligent and wonderfully designed shotgun fodder for that. While the normal enemies are delightfully evil, the game's bosses are even more impressive. El Gigante is a giant ogre straight out of the Lord of the Rings. In your first encounter with the hulking brute, there are a few small cottages that Leon can enter to pick up some healing items. Foolish players may believe that they're safe with a wooden roof over their heads, but just like in the tower, stay too long and El Gigante will tear that roof right off. To go into the details of other bosses would spoil a good deal of the game's surprises, but I feel the need to touch on the late-game duel with Krauser; at one point it came close to dethroning The End as my favorite boss fight. Leon is chased around desert ruins by the machine gun-toting Krauser, searching for stone engravings that will help him unlock a door to the next area. All but one of these artifacts can be found by navigating the environment and fending off Krauser's attacks. You guessed it: the German mercenary is holding the last of them. What follows is a cinematic stand-off atop a tower that has been rigged with explosives. You have but a few minutes to take down the brutal warrior Krauser before it all goes kablooey, and let me tell you, it is intense. Although in my numerous playthroughs I've developed a successful rhythm in combat and what was once surprising is now expected, there are still few games out there that get my blood pumping like Resident Evil 4, zombies be damned.
A small European village tucked away in the woods may not seem like your usual video game location, and thankfully it isn't. I'm not sure how Shinji Mikami ended up with the setting for Resident Evil 4, but it was a fantastic choice. The murky, desaturated browns of the rural Autumn environment lend a sense of realism and melancholy to the possessed hamlet, leading the player to contemplate its downward spiral into madness. Perhaps more striking is the medieval Spanish castle, full of deadly traps and ancient horrors, that is explored in the second half of the game. Abandoning the cheesy George A. Romero aesthetics of the previous three Resident Evil entries, the art direction in RE4 is stunningly cohesive and eerily beautiful (the graphics positively blew my mind 5 years ago). The creepy environs play host to some much-improved level design as well, featuring claustrophobic dungeons along with wide-open graveyards, and just the right amount of backtracking.
I love RPGs. There's a certain feeling you get when a new sword is bought, a new skill is learned, or a new level is upped. It's addictive, it's rewarding, and it plays into the power fantasy that video games are oh so good at supplying. Resident Evil 4 has taken a few ideas from the role-playing game, and it's better for it. While some don't appreciate the lack of a quick and easy weapon wheel, I am personally a big fan of RE4's inventory system. Leon carries an invisible "attache case," which can be viewed and managed at the press of a button. He has limited space with which to hold all of the healing herbs, incendiary grenades, ammo boxes, and chicken eggs that he finds, requiring the player to either make room by moving things around, trading one item for another, or upgrading to a larger suitcase. This, as well as buying, selling, and customizing, can be done with the help of RE4's mysterious traveling merchant ("Got a selection of good things on sale, stranger!"). The merchant is a welcome addition to the series, a vibrant character and useful mechanic all rolled into one. Selling precious treasures in exchange for the Broken Butterfly revolver just makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside, and helps to improve Resident Evil 4's most perfect aspect: it's pacing.
Resident Evil 4 is The Godfather of video games when it comes to pacing. I've never played a game in which the timing and sequencing of events felt so unbelievably right, and in which every one of those events was unforgettable. As a piece of interactive entertainment, RE4 requires that you not only witness these ridiculously tense, nightmarish scenarios, but that you survive them. It's definitely exhausting, but the game also has the decency to let up and allow for some breathing room; the flow from challenge to reward is unsurpassed.
I've spent years trying to convince my friends to play Resident Evil 4. They complain about the bad controls and the slow crawl of survival-horror games. I do my best to explain that RE4 is and isn't one of those. Call Resident Evil 4 whatever you want. I call it perfection.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Top 50 Games - 5. Half-Life 2

Everything that the original Half-Life contributed to the first person shooter can be summed up in one word: context. Ammunition was found in ammo lockers, rooms and corridors were real spaces within the architecture of the Black Mesa facility, "levels" bled into one another, the story wasn't an afterthought. The significance of its sequel, however, is harder to fit into such a compact phrase. I can say this: Half-Life 2 is perfect. It remains the greatest shooter of all time, a paragon of thoughtful design and empathetic power. Gordon Freeman's tour through City 17 and environs is easily one the most timeless and unforgettable experiences gaming has to offer, one that entirely elevates the art of the video game and should under no circumstances be missed.
Perhaps Half-Life 2's influence can be neatly encapsulated. The word I propose to do this is immersion. Yes, the concept has in the days since HL2's release become a buzzword robbed of meaning by constant abuse. But think about how many developers have looked and continue to look to Half-Life 2 for inspiration. It is the standard-bearer for video game storytelling, because it tells its story through video game, not through movies or text or audio diaries. Half-Life 2 is the world's greatest first-person game in large part because it embraces the perspective and uses it to narrate the events in such a way as to make it nigh impossible to imagine the experience from a different point of view. Gordon Freeman is a theoretical physicist who, at the time of the first Half-Life, had just earned his PhD. After accidentally bringing about the Resonance Cascade (which tears open a portal to the alien borderworld Xen) and subsequently escaping from the Black Mesa Research Facility, Gordon is put into a 10-20-year stasis. He is the least likely candidate for savior of Earth, a glasses-wearing scientist who, as Dr. Breen (more on him later) mentions "is not some agent provocateur or highly-trained assassin..." and "was in a state that precluded further development of covert skills." He's a ridiculous warrior hero, and I mean that literally. Gordon's role as protagonist of the combat-heavy Half-Life series ridicules the entire concept of the video game hero. Even a "highly-trained assassin" wouldn't be able to do what Gordon is capable of doing. Valve realized that Gordon's feats of strength and survival are downright impossible by any means, so why the hell not make him a theoretical physicist? When Dr. Breen isn't venting and Eli isn't reminiscing, it's easy to forget about who Gordon is at all. This is not a failure on Valve's part; Gordon Freeman is a cipher, an HEV suit and pair of eyes that players adopt from the first train ride to the final explosion. More than in any other game, you become the main character. He never talks, never loses control (except when visited by the omniscient G-Man), and isn't graced with fancy animations. He's all yours, and this tight connection serves to heighten the believability that the game fosters.
Starting with the perspective, this believability works its way into nearly every facet of the game. Its presence does much to cement Half-Life 2's art direction as my personal favorite. Describing HL2's plot and setting is not impressive: aliens take over the world, you lead the resistance in an old industrial Russian city that has been repurposed as their embassy on Earth, making your way through tenements, canals, mines, highways, beaches, prisons, etc. It's the how, the approach taken to put you in this world, that's astonishing. The Combine is a militaristic coalition of extraterrestrial species that moves through cross-dimensional portals and subdues entire civilizations. There are the gas-masked Civil Protection, the white-uniformed cyclops Elites, the semi-organic sentient gunships, the lumbering multiple-story Striders, and more. City 17 is a lived-in, Soviet-styled urban prison. Even its walls, some bare brick, some painted yellow, some of Combine origin (cold blue steel monstrosities that slowly inch forward and crush whatever lies in their path), all look right. The surrounding environments are just as absorbing: the canals balance clear water and opaque toxic sludge, Black Mesa East is stuffed with surprising details (such as a jar of formaldehyde that holds the head of a Cremator, an enemy cut from the game), humble human outposts can be visited along the coast, the Citadel boasts some truly frightening alien architecture... As eerie and beautiful as the scenery is, at the same time it all feels absolutely real. By fusing reality with the otherworldly influence of the Combine and retaining a strong sense of authenticity, Valve was able to craft the best display of visual artistry I've ever seen in a video game.
Somehow, the game is nearly as memorable aurally as it is graphically. The blinking of a scanner, the mechanical whirring and whining of Dog, the compressed walkie-talkie squeal of a dying Metro Cop, the satisfying thwack and crunch of a crowbar swing, every sound makes a lasting impression and colors the experience.
Key to Half-Life 2's brilliance are its characters, which competitors could never hope to parallel, much less surpass. In the early days (2003), much was made of Half-Life 2's faces. In an age of dead eyes, plastered expressions, and mouths that would do no more than open and close, here was facial animation of such high fidelity and realism that passing spectators could honestly mistake it for the real thing. The "uncanny valley" is a concept invented in the 70's that pondered the point at which robots would come too close to resembling humans, making them overly creepy. As our technology has improved past the primitive 3D of the mid-90's, this question has been posed to video games. How long will it be before video game characters fall into this uncanny valley? Are we already able to reach it? And if so, how do we avoid it? Whether they stop just before or sail right past I don't know, but the characters depicted in Half-Life 2 look like real people without looking wrong. The faces, body language, costumes, and voiceovers for Alyx, Eli, Dr. Kleiner, Barney, Colonel Cubbage, Dr. Breen, and the oppressed citizenry all work together to breathe life into these digital ragdolls. Half-Life 2's script is intelligent and economical, imbuing everyone with just enough personality and throwing them all at least one savory line ("I still have nightmares about that cat..." "What cat?"). While there is not a single lackluster personality, Alyx stands out as one of the most developed and likable in interactive entertainment. She appears to be your typical ass-kicking sci-fi heroine/companion, (and she is) but she's so much more. With a respectable and charming design, a perfect voiceover from Merle Dandridge, and highly capable AI, I don't think I'm alone in saying that it's a treat to have Alyx around. Half-Life 2, thank God, is more focused on character than plot (remember, it is sci-fi), and because of this, the player is able to invest in the story and its participants; it may be the only FPS in the world that makes me care.
The most noticeable innovation and biggest bullet point for Half-Life 2 in 2004 was its physics engine. In the 3D video games of yore, physics were either all but absent or thrown in occasionally purely for visual splendor. Half-Life 2 redefined physical gameplay, taking what could have been a gimmick and sewing it so meticulously into the very fabric of the experience that without its presence, the game would fall apart. Objects have appropriate physical qualities, some of which are for detail (how far a leather boot can be thrown) and some of which are gameplay-essential (being able to break a wooden crate). The heightened interactivity that real physics produce even allows for new approaches to atmosphere and storytelling. In the starting train station, a Metro Cop stands in front of a gate, with a garbage bin to his right. When you near the gate, he uses his stun baton to knock off an empty can that was standing on the edge of the bin. "Pick up the can," he says. You press the action button to lift the light aluminum object. "Now, put it in the trash." A couple of options are available to you at this point. You can obey his orders, which will lead him to chuckle and let you pass. Alternatively, you can throw the can at his face, causing him to chase you around and beat you with the baton, but allowing you to pass through the gate nonetheless. I enjoyed Half-Life 2 immensely even before a certain point is reached, but afterwards, it's almost hard to imagine how. I am of course talking about the acquisition of the Zero-Point Energy Field Manipulator, or Gravity Gun for short. Able to pick up and launch any object of reasonable mass with the press of two buttons, the Gravity Gun is gaming's greatest toy. Employed equally in combat (returning grenades, using barrels as shields) and puzzles/navigation (removing obstacles, feeding barnacles), the technology is so awesome that it practically gets its own level: none of us can forget Ravenholm.
The zombie-infested wonderland of dismemberment that is Ravenholm is certainly special, but it's not the game's only memorable area. Half-Life 2 is graced with some of the best linear level design ever. In Gears of War, Marcus Fenix will move to a courtyard, hold off a wave of Locusts, and advance from cover to cover. In Call of Duty, soldier #8,954 will muster up the courage to mow through his army of assailants before their infinite respawn checkpoint is breached and the attack ceases. In Half-Life 2, Gordon Freeman uses every skill at his disposal to navigate thoughtfully-constructed environments, whose challenges never appear artificial, while taking out any Combine imperialists or headcrab zombies who get in his way. HL2 might be the only game I can play the whole way through in my head, based entirely on its unforgettable "levels" and flawless pacing (I was originally going to devote a whole paragraph to the pacing, but I'll just say that it adds a lot to the game's quality, as if that was needed).
Half-Life 2 would still be in my top 5 if it were simply a masterpiece of storytelling and game design. But, on reflection, it's more than that. There are deeply ingrained, though subtle, themes here that are continuing to be explored in the episodic sequels. Dr. Breen's televised propaganda poses some interesting questions. Would we give up reproduction for immortality? Is it better to befriend the empire or to resist it? Are messianic figures and "magical thinking" harmful or necessary? He's a well-written, very intelligent (although misguided), almost sympathetic villain, but his space-age philosophizing doesn't represent the entirety of HL2's thematic content. I interpret the work thusly: Gordon represents the player, confined to the scope of the levels, unable to do much more than whack, shoot, and pick up things. The game goes out of its way to make fun of this; in one scene, after Gordon plugs in a cable and throws a switch, Barney comments, "I can see your MIT education really pays for itself." The mysterious G-Man, according to my interpretation, is the video game/designer: all-powerful, governing your actions totally with no option to resist save for outright failure (i.e. dying). Their relationship is an intriguing metaphor for the natural tension between game and gamer, and I can't wait to see how Valve resolves this tale of free will (Freeman, get it?) and the survival of humanity (the species and the spirit) in the face of impossible odds.
Half-Life 2 creates an incredible bond between the game and the player who moves through it. That movement, that process of learning and mastering the mechanics that are so cleverly wrapped in aesthetics and narrative, is special. More than a shooter, Half-Life 2 is a perfect synthesis of science and art. It's a tough act to follow, but I have a lot of faith in Valve. Keep it up.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Top 50 Games - 6. Shadow of the Colossus

Shadow of the Colossus is the argument for video games as art. I don't much care which side of the fence you fall on, but there's no way in hell you'll convince me that this game is anything less than a visionary masterpiece, one capable of provoking just as much thought and emotion as any authored work out there. Shadow receives much end-of-decade hoopla today, but it wasn't always like this. I played it back when it came out five years ago based on a stirring trailer, some pretty screenshots, and a few glowing reviews. These five years have seen its stature rise from that of an intriguing action/adventure experiment to a study in artistic expression through video games. There are only a select handful of games that deliberately employ every resource available to them in service of a few worthy goals. In other words, games without mistakes. Shadow of the Colossus is such a game, and if you're still wondering why, I hope I can be of some assistance.
An eagle soars across the moonlit night air. The camera lowers to find a dark gray steed trotting along the narrow side of a mountain, a young boy on its back. The boy and his horse travel far across the land before coming upon a narrow passageway through ancient ruins. On the other side is a magnificent stone bridge, unparalleled in length. Upon crossing the bridge, the two enter into a large temple of unknown design. The boy, Wander, dismounts before lifting a limp body from the back of his saddle. He carries it solemnly up to an altar, then puts it down and pulls off the black cloak it has been wrapped in. It's a girl. Suddenly, a disembodied voice (two actually: one male and one female) speaks to the boy from an intensely bright hole in the ceiling. He cryptically informs Wander that to bring his late love back to life, he must destroy sixteen idols that line the halls of the temple. To do this, he must travel the Forbidden Land in search of their sixteen representative colossi and defeat them. The voice, named Dormin, warns however that the cost of breaking the rules of mortality may be dire indeed. The boy accepts. This intriguing introductory sequence sets up the story for Shadow of the Colossus, and there are no other cutscenes of its kind until the game's conclusion. Traditionally, the princess is alive and needs to be rescued. In Shadow, the hero already lost her, but he hasn't yet given up hope. With his magical sword and the power that dwells within the Forbidden Land, perhaps she can still be saved. This quiet desperation, amplified by the acknowledgment that there may be serious consequences, drives a good deal of the game and provides for a remarkably interesting story, stark as it may be. The dramatic conclusion is intensely bittersweet; at once rewarding and unbearably tragic.

Fumito Ueda and Team Ico embrace a tenet rarely seen today: economy. Ueda calls his approach "design by subtraction." Where most games are either missing intended components or are padded with bloat, Team Ico's games are purposefully minimalist. Sure, this style helps conserve resources, but it also allows those resources to be used with great care and precision. Ueda's directing debut Ico was, at least  according to him, too minimal. Shadow of the Colossus takes design by subtraction and somehow makes it epic. Arguably no game in history has done so much with so little. SotC is roughly ten hours of riding your horse around a barren expanse of terrain, slaying sixteen gargantuan beasts, and that's about it. By taking such a risky approach to game design, Fumito Ueda was able to imbue his labor of love with a sense of originality severely lacking in today's gaming landscape.

Art direction is very, very important to me. I feel as if graphics are merely a vehicle for art direction or immersion or visual communication; they should exist to serve another, more worthy master. Shadow of the Colossus has a limited supply of polygons, somewhat low-res textures, and relatively rough geometry. So what? It has probably the best art direction of any game ever (personally, only my #5 pick beats it out), and PS2-era graphics cannot hide that fact. The stunning scenery, the artful bloom lighting, the washed-out, slightly desaturated color, the brilliant character and enemy design... Each visual item coheres beautifully with the next to form an unmistakably distinct world. Fumito Ueda's background is in art (he painted the Giogio de Chirico-inspired Japanese and European cover for Ico), and his dedication to the discipline shines through clearly.
Not to be outdone, Kow Otani has produced an epic soundtrack uncannily able to translate the player's current feelings into beautiful symphonies. From the fluttering flutes and string plucks of the game's first seconds to the overwhelmingly gothic organ tune in the Temple of Worship to the exciting melody of heated battle, the music never disappoints.
Team Ico's flair for the minimal is glaringly apparent in the game's controls. A typical dual-analogue third-person setup is used, with the left stick controlling Wander's movement and the right swivelling the camera. L1 works as a sort of lock-on, pulling the camera towards the colossus, and R2 zooms in. This involved but unimposing degree of camera control allows players to direct the on-screen action as they wish, even during cutscenes. Wander is equipped with a small handful of abilities: he can jump, grab, stab, shoot arrows, and direct light to his sword. That's it. You start the game with one sword and one bow, and you end the game with just that. Hell, arrows aren't even useful for much more than attracting the attention of the colossi. Zelda and Metroid convince the player that they've become more capable by outfitting them with more and better equipment. The player in Shadow of the Colossus understands his growth by acknowledging that he has received no gifts, that all he has gained is skill and thoughtfulness. It's an amazing feat of design that there are new strategies to master in every encounter, and proof that less really can be more.
The titular colossi are positively breathtaking. The true meat of the game, each and every colossus battle is treated as a platforming level, a boss fight, and a head-scratching puzzle all bundled in one. There are no secondary enemies, no sidequests, nothing but sixteen lumbering beasts for you to find and topple. Their designs are guided by a consistent aesthetic: each appears to be an amalgamation of human, animal, god, and machine components made up of stone, grassy fur, and dirt. Most sport round stone eyes that glow blue when calm and orange when agitated. At first imposing, maybe even frightening, the sad expressions of the colossi soon betray a disarming innocence, making them appear almost cute. This surprising notion is augmented by fantastic animation; each colossus behaves differently from the next, with their unique and unquestionably believable movements revealing tons of personality (one, for example, backs away from fire). Some are slow and weary, some are nimble and fierce. All are unforgettable; more than boss battles or puzzle-platform challenges, they are some of the greatest characters in gaming.
Speaking of the greatest characters in gaming, I have determined who deserves to be named my favorite personality in video games... Agro, the horse. Yes, the horse. Animated even more convincingly than the colossi, she guides Wander through the Forbidden Land with courage, intelligence, and grace. Because of her unflinching loyalty, she is the centerpiece of one of the most heartrending scenes in gaming. It may sound crazy to be so enamored with a digital horse, but trust me, Agro is special.
I love exploring in video games. That sense of discovery and freedom appeals to me, and I feel that video games are wonderful opportunities for people to live out their inner explorer. The world in Shadow of the Colossus is large and relatively empty. The varied terrain blends so seamlessly that it's easy not to realize you just emerged from a dense forest into a wind-swept desert. One reviewer comment I'm particularly fond of said that (to paraphrase) "In Shadow of the Colossus, a waterfall is just a waterfall. It's not a place to hide from pursuing helicopters or the entrance to the final dungeon. It's just water meeting gravity in one of the world's most beautiful natural phenomena." Instead of robbing the environment of meaning, this realistic simplicity imbues every location with a sense of beauty and magic. Look around enough and there are even some things to find in Shadow's desolate wasteland. It's possible to climb up the side of the Temple of Worship and reach the secret garden at the top, and there are certain ponds where you can ride on the tail of a large fish! This may sound like nothing to you, but to SotC veterans, any form of interaction within the world is a pleasant surprise.
I mentioned this in my entry on Ico, but I feel it needs to be reiterated: I am really, really jealous of Fumito Ueda. Two games into this young man's career and he's already more venerated than designers who have had decades to cement their legacies. He adheres to exact personal philosophies, designing his games according to a singular vision from the ground up, without compromise. Shadow of the Colossus, his greatest creation, is able to communicate with players through a unique, beautiful language. It is not a work of art because it has pretty visuals and nice music. It represents a bright, artistic future for video games because every facet of its composition, inside and out, was deliberately placed there to enhance the experience and drive its themes foreword. Upon defeating a colossus, fountains of oily black blood spew from its glyph-marked weak spot as a long shot captures its fall and sad music plays. Upon regaining control, Wander is chased by shadowy black tentacles emerging from the body of the fallen colossus (now nothing but a large mound of dirt), though he cannot escape them. Upon returning to the Temple, another idol crumbles. Over the course of the game, Wander's appearance deteriorates; first his hair color darkens, and then small horns can be seen protruding from his head. Once signalling triumph, the defeat of a colossus soon fills the player with dreadful remorse; a rarity in video games. By the time the credits roll, the consequences of Wander's actions have been revealed and the player has given serious thought to what he's done. The barren world contributes heavily to the game's loneliness, though it is successfully counterbalanced by the companionship of Agro. The mystery of the lifeless girl Mono only adds to the desire to revive her, which is the motivation provided for the game's entirety. Again, every detail was taken into account to ensure that the all the right emotional strings would be pulled.
If you're going to play one video game before shrugging them off as a juvenile waste of time, make sure it's Shadow of the Colossus.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Top 50 Games - 7. Super Mario World

What are video games for? What's the point of playing one? To get absorbed in a faraway virtual realm? To embrace the novelty of player agency in narrative? To commit arson and murder and other heinous crimes without real-world punishment? If you were to ask Shigeru Miyamoto or any of his disciples, they would tell you that people play video games to have fun. When it comes to Mario, that pure and simple Nintendo methodology goes a step further: to instill joy. Fun is being entertained by what's in front of you; joy is having what's in front of you work in such a precise way as to create a pleasure high. Super Mario World is and forever will be a source of pure, distilled joy.
The eternal children at Nintendo have a different interpretation of "cool" than the rest of the world. Super Mario World, like its grandpa Super Mario Bros., was a pack-in launch title that had to almost single-handedly sell the new system on release. To show off the power of the 16-bit Super Nintendo, SMW did not feature explosions or fast cars or cutscenes. It featured a pudgy mustachioed plumber hopping around colorful side-scrolling levels, mounting a pet dinosaur named Yoshi, and soaring through the skies with a brand new cape. Less than a year later, Sega introduced the world to Sonic the Hedgehog on the Genesis. Where Mario represented the old guard of childish silliness, Sonic quickly became the 'tude-sporting mascot for "cool" in the early 90's. His legacy may have turned to sand in the last ten years, but back in 1991, the speedy blue rodent was a force to be reckoned with. Generation X was growing into its adolescence, and for some, Mario just didn't cut it anymore. That's a shame, because Super Mario World is two-dimensional perfection, timeless in a way that a trendy Sonic never could be. Although it wasn't much removed fundamentally from the stellar Super Mario Bros. 3, World managed to do a lot in terms of proving to kids and their parents that the SNES was worth shelling out for. To this day it remains technically flawless, impressive, and cool.
I'm hopelessly fixed in the belief that game designers are some of the most creative people in the world and there is no doubt in my mind that today's developers are just as imaginative and boundary-pushing as yesteryear's. Video games, however, are fast becoming much more sophisticated, grounded, and contextual than those of the 80's and 90's. Oftentimes, this is good: who still yearns for pointless collect-a-thons? Sometimes, however, this push towards believability is lamentable. Case in point: Super Mario World. In a series noted for its inexplicable weirdness, SMW stands out. The generational leap in graphical power allows World to show off its colorful, endearingly out-there design with more confidence and ability. The game is a universal time capsule of childhood, transporting any cynical player back to a point in life when every little thing in the world became something else, something magical. It's a stewpot of craziness filled with dinosaurs, Donut Plains, Bullet Bills, football players, evil hammer-tossing cloud-riding turtles, and more. The enemies, stages (most named after food), power-ups, and challenges are almost dizzyingly light-hearted and random. By not sticking to a cohesive context, SMW is able to constantly wow and delight with blissful platforming locales and activities that couldn't be approached through any other design philosophy. It's downright refreshing.
I feel that one of the most efficient ways to describe Super Mario, or at least the 2D iterations, is to call it an obstacle course. Yes, it's superficially about saving Princess Peach and defeating Bowser and all that, but the games really are tightly composed tests of agility. Some have criticized Super Mario 64 for one of the same reasons it was lauded upon release: it's extra-dimensional freedom. Rather than being a series of stages in which scrolling to the right is the only option, it was a spacious non-linear romp in which Mario could run around a Goomba instead of jumping on its head. Super Mario Galaxy struck the perfect balance between freedom and defined sequence, but Super Mario World was arguably the game that really introduced exploration and alternate approaches to the series. Many stages have secret exits and routes that can be uncovered through poking around and trying out different moves. Star Road was an awesomely surreal alternative to the game's normal sequence of levels, and the general feeling of "secrets galore" is supremely enticing to minds young and old alike.
Super Mario World speaks video game fluently. There's next to no dialogue, cutscenes, or tutorials. With its most salient assets (namely visuals, sound, and control) and little else, Super Mario World is able to communicate with its audience as effectively as any other game ever made. It fosters a subtle synesthesia in which the mechanical timing, observed height, and springing sound of Mario's jump come together to teach players how to play through play. Super Mario World is an expertly-crafted thesis on good game design. Look Play and learn, industry.
I claimed before that Baldur's Gate got me into gaming, but Super Mario World is almost as accountable for spawning my undying obsession. In kindergarten through third grade, I went to an afterschool daycare program called the Children's Center. When I was in the first grade, we got a Super Nintendo console and a few games. One of them was Super Mario World. Sitting in our uncomfortable metal folding chairs, we would take turns playing on an old CRT. The game was like crack to my 7-year-old self, and I soon became infatuated with every aspect of it. I met two good friends at the Children's Center in part through my drawn depictions of the game. Super Mario World was the first game I ever beat, the second game I ever fell in love with, and needless to say one of the most ridiculously nostalgic artifacts in the world for me.
There's really not a whole lot one can say about Super Mario World. It's classic Mario perfected. It's adorable. It's got a still-impressive audiovisual package. It's fun. Most of all, though, it's a portal to another world; not to City 17 or Hyrule or Rapture, but rather to childhood. It forms a beautiful bond with its player and reminds him that joy, true joy, never ages.