Sunday, December 27, 2009

My Top Ten Games of the Decade, Part Three

8. Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (PS2 - 2003)

Normally, I'm adamantly against remakes. Any time a movie, game, or insert-media-category-here gets the dreaded “re” treatment – remade, rebooted, reimagined, etc. – disaster follows. Though it's often a case of impossible expectations, there's also a fair degree of loss of identity involved; in other words, the qualities that made the original great are discarded or altered beyond recognition. I had to make an exception in the case of Prince of Persia, however. Its franchise reboot (well, the first one of the decade, at least) stands as perhaps the greatest example of how to mix the classic elements of a game franchise with fresh ideas to create not a hideous Frankenstein's monster of a game, but rather a new classic.

Prince of Persia is at its core a game about exploration and acrobatics, and The Sands of Time takes that concept to heart. The eponymous Prince (nameless, of course) routinely performs Matrix-like feats of agility with the slightest of ease: running up walls, jumping across high perches, and so on. The control is fluid and easy to master, yet encourages (perhaps even demands) tinkering and experimentation on the part of the player thanks to the oft-mentioned and innovative “do over” mechanic (the Dagger of Time, which allows the player to rewind time) . Apart from a hazy black-and-white vision before each new section, the player has no guidance as to where to go or what to do, yet thanks to the ability to reverse mistakes, it never feels impossible, only intuitive and ultimately satisfying.

The Sands of Time
also manages to integrate some of the best elements from an innovative contemporary: Ico. In the original Prince of Persia, the goal was to rescue the princess from the evil Vizier. In The Sands of Time, however, the princess – the lovely, red-clad Farah – is along for the ride. In an interesting twist on the escort mechanics from Ico, the Prince and Farah actually help each other out; save for the occasional arrow in the back, Farah is quite useful in combat, and absolutely essential for solving some of the puzzles. Such puzzles are directly drawn from Ico, as the player's actions in one area can affect the environment in others. Though the core premise of “escape from the large and dangerous castle with your companion” is preserved in The Sands of Time, it is given sufficient window dressing to make it seem fresh.

In fact, that “window dressing” is what makes The Sands of Time so appealing in the first place. The presentation is bursting with verisimilitude, from water fountains replenishing health to the whole story being a fantastical Persian tale. It's sad that subsequent entries in the franchise seemed to lose sight of this presentational style, which ultimately required another franchise reboot. The Sands of Time, however, stands as both a testament to the power of the rare remake done right and one of the best games of the decade.

7. Ico (PS2 - 2001)

I'm not going to get into the whole “games as art” debate, but it seems that it's impossible to talk about Ico without someone bringing it up. I concede that it's definitely worth mentioning that Ico is one of the most emotional and provocative experiences the gaming medium has to offer – all with a minimal amount of dialogue, no heads-up display, and little more than a boy with horns leading an ethereal princess through an enormous and foreboding castle. Sure, it definitely sounds like some kind of weird work of art, but again, I'm not getting into that. Instead, let's focus on its standing as one of the best examples of holistic game design ever.

Ico is very minimalistic in its design, at least from an interface perspective. There is a jump button and an action button, and most of the familiar trappings of video game language are missing: health bar, points, etc. What is there is more than enough, however: the boy with horns, the princess, and a vast number of manipulable environments. There is a great deal of room for experimentation and exploration, which simultaneously manages to be frustrating and liberating for the player. Everything needed for the experience is on the screen, and increasingly complex despite its minimalistic simplicity.

In this regard, Ico is very important in establishing the language of video games, and in many ways represents the maturation of the medium. It cuts down on the pillaging of staples of other media (specifically film) interspersed with “dangling carrot” gameplay segments. Yes, Ico does utlize a scant few cutscenes, but the overall theme of the work – that of escape, protection, and human connection – is conveyed perfectly well without them. The cutscenes become periphery, icing on the cake so to speak. In short, the player is forced to ponder the game on its own merits, and to determine some sort of meaning from their interaction with it.

Honestly, it's starting to sound somewhat artistic to me. Maybe that's why it's so nearly impossible to discuss Ico without mentioning the “a” word: not because it is art per se, but rather because it is an indication of the language of the medium itself. Though the game itself has been outdone in this regard (by none other than its younger brother, Shadow of the Colossus), Ico was akin to the first word uttered in a new language of media. Sure, it was more of a whisper that went relatively unheard, and was only regarded much later after its praises had been repeated to others, but it was still an important statement in video games.

And oh yeah, it's a pretty darned good game, too.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

My Top Ten Games of the Decade, Part Two

10. Mother 3 (GBA - 2006)

Considering all of the red flags of its development, it's a bit surprising to see a game like Mother 3 on a top games list. After all, it had the deadly combination of being a highly anticipated sequel that took forever to see release – the equivalent of a death sentence in the video game world. It was the follow-up to one of the most beloved (not to mention my personal favorite) games of all time: EarthBound. Its development spanned over ten years, two consoles, and one cancellation, leading one of the more fervent fanbases in all of gaming to become increasingly impatient and/or desperate. As if to pile on to the frustration of that fanbase, when the game was finally released, it turned out not to be much of a sequel at all, but rather a spin-off of its classic forebear – much like Chrono Cross – sharing a single common character in a completely different setting. By all accounts, it should have been a disaster; a long wait for such an anticipated follow-up places impossible expectations upon a game – again, like Chrono Cross.

Even worse, at least for the non-Japanese gamers of the world, Nintendo decided that the short-term commercial failure of EarthBound – despite its horrible marketing campaign – in the United States meant that Mother 3 should never be released outside of the Land of the Rising Sun. As such, despite the game's release in early 2006 for the Game Boy Advance, the English-speaking EarthBound fans waited in limbo until November 2006, when the largest EarthBound fan community announced their own unofficial translation project. This, of course, took another two years, which meant that a full thirteen years passed between my playing EarthBound and playing its “sequel,” Mother 3. Needless to say, I had extremely high expectations, which often spells doom.

Mother 3, however, proved that a spin-off not only could be good, but that it could in many ways equal its beloved predecessor. The game has a certain something, a peculiar panache that only Mother series creator Shigesato Itoi seems able to deliver. Many of the central mechanics of EarthBound – itself a distinct parody of the almighty Japanese juggernaut Dragon Quest – were expanded and refined in Mother 3. Battles involved an interesting rhythm combo system, in which tapping the A button along with the beat of the battle music would result in critical hits and extra damage. The whimsical tone of EarthBound was still present, but channeled into a multi-chaptered tale of sorrow, loss, and industrialization – a metaphor for the good and bad of life that demonstrates both a distinct awareness of self and of genre. In other words, the game points out the flaws of the genre's stalwarts – in this case the overblown philosophizing bred of Final Fantasy VII and its ilk – and also one-ups them at their own game in refreshing, succinct simplicity. Such parody is, of course, the most important element of the series – a series of which Mother 3 is a worthy and solid member.

9. Brütal Legend (360 - 2009)

Every so often, a game comes along that not only lives up to my expectations, but actually exceeds them. Even rarer still, however, are the games that manage to exceed my expectations despite the fact that, upon closer inspection, no single aspect of the game is exceptional – or indeed above mediocre. For whatever baffling reasons, these are the games that achieve heights much greater than the sum of their individual parts. Brütal Legend is just such a game, transcending the seeming limits of its components to become an epic testament to the power of rock – and good core game design, as difficult as it might be for me to admit it.

You see, the game borrows heavily from two games that I feel are two of the most overrated and undeservedly critically acclaimed of the past five years: God of War and Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. The game is at its heart an open world sandbox, albeit a much more linearly structured one. Protagonist Eddie Riggs has a vehicle – in keeping with the game’s theme, a tricked out heavy metal mobile dubbed “The Deuce” – in which he explores the game world and finds missions. Such missions often involve heavy action, complete with God of War-style combat. The bad part is, though, that such segments actually manage to be worse mechanically than the games from which they draw their inspiration – definitely not a good thing in this case.

Anyone familiar with previous Tim Schafer games, however, knows that this phenomenon is not altogether out of the ordinary, as most of his games do have a generic foundation in terms of their gameplay. Psychonauts, for example, is at its core little more than a basic 3D platformer typical of its generation. The Secret of Monkey Island, likewise, didn’t do too much in terms of mechanics beyond the standard SCUMM engine games of the day. The games have a solid, if not particularly exciting or innovative, core design. What anyone familiar with previous Tim Schafer games also knows is that it’s not the core design that is important, but rather what is done with it – and it is in this respect that Brütal Legend is such a screaming success. As Eddie’s voiceover in the game’s opening sequence so eloquently states, a good roadie stays out of the spotlight, and helps someone else shine. So too do the game’s core gameplay mechanics combine to allow the game’s true potential to be realized, serving as a means through which to explore the game’s unique world.

In no small way, it’s the world itself that makes the game so incredible to behold. Schafer reportedly wanted every single still shot of the game to look like a potential heavy metal album cover -- and it shows. Chrome, leather, and horns are plentiful, along with some of the weirdest and most epically awesome landscapes this side of Psychonauts. In short, it’s metal culture taken literally. In this world, metal is all-powerful, and the music really can change the world, inspiring an oppressed people to start a revolution. Amazing guitar solos – known in the metal culture as “facemelters” – can quite literally burn the faces off of the enemies of metal: hair bands, emo/Goths, and wicked demons.

It’s all quite satisfying. If nothing else, there's nothing quite as gratifying as dismembering über­-depressed, zombified emo kids with an axe dubbed “The Separator.”

Thursday, December 17, 2009

My Top Ten Games of the Decade, Part One

As I've been feeling a bit reflective as of late, I felt that it would be appropriate to take a look back at some of the best gaming experiences I've had during the past ten years. As such, I've narrowed down my top ten choices for what I consider to be the best games of the decade. Yes, I am aware that it's quite cliché to create a list like this (and even more cliché to assume that the decade will be over this year; it's not a new decade until 2011, folks). I am confident, however, that there's quite a bit there.

You see, this decade saw my interest in gaming pass turbulently through several peaks and valleys. There were a few times when (gasp) I was about to throw in the towel for good. “Gaming's just not worth it anymore,” I'd say.

And then one of these games would come along, drawing me back into the hobby that I've enjoyed for so long. This list, then, is less of a “best of” list and more of a collection of my favorite games of the decade – games that for whatever reason left a lasting impression on me.

So, without further adieu, here are my personal choices for best games of the 2000s.

Honorable Mentions

Okay, so a bit more babble before getting to the “good stuff” – though don't make the mistake of assuming that the following games are not good. These are just a few of the games that, though quite influential to me, didn't quite make the final cut. Nevertheless, they deserve mention here, so here they are (in alphabetical order).

Batman: Arkham Asylum (360 - 2009)

Pretty much every single Batman game I've ever played has ranked somewhere between mediocre and godawful. To be fair, I haven't played a whole lot of Batman games – I never played the highly regarded NES installment, for example. To be even more fair, however, I've tended to avoid the franchise's video game outings altogether due to negative word of mouth. For whatever reason, it's just been a commonly accepted fact that Batman games suck.

Batman: Arkham Asylum changed that, and now, as Heath Ledger's Joker so poignantly stated, “There's no going back.”

Rocksteady Studios deserves a lot of credit for crafting what might well be the truest Batman experience ever created. Players can be stealthy and swing from lofty pedestals and rooftops, yet still have the sense of might and mystique that the Dark Knight holds over his enemies. Even the villains are true to form, with the entire lineup of baddies – from Poison Ivy to Killer Croc – providing at the very least interesting cameos. The Joker, voiced brilliantly (yet again) by Mark Hamill, is as unpredictable and dangerous as ever.

Granted, the game has a few major sticking points, such as repetitive and uninspired boss battles. On the whole, however, Arkham Asylum stands as the finest example of Batman done right this side of The Dark Knight.

NCAA Football 07 (PS2 - 2006)

I'm a college football maniac, so it's little surprise that I've been an advocate of EA Sports' NCAA Football series since the mid-90s. Throughout that time, I've purchased the game on a yearly basis on four different systems (PS1, PS2, Xbox 360, and even PC), but one installment stands head and shoulders above the rest: NCAA 07.

NCAA 07 was the game that finally managed to bring everything together in a solid package. The gameplay was smooth and tactical, with all the speed and pageantry of the college game. Playbooks were diverse and accurate, finally incorporating the crazy motions and versatility of the spread option offense. The dynasty mode was robust and intriguing, with fairly accurate simulated statistics (unlike its immediate predecessor, NCAA 06), the ability to accept transfer players, and in-season recruiting. Furthermore, the recruiting did not become needlessly cumbersome as it did with the move to the current gen consoles.

About the only thing missing from 07 was the Bowl Playoff option from the PS1's NCAA 01, a marvelous addition that allowed players to determine their champion the way the sport should: by using BCS standings to seed a playoff using the bowl games. Regardless of that omission, NCAA 07 stands both as the crowning achievement of its generation and the best college football game of the decade.

Portal (360 - 2007)

Yes, I played Portal on the Xbox 360. So what? It's one further trend of the decade: PC gaming is slowly but surely dying out.

Besides, Portal is one game that is outstanding no matter what system it's played on. I'm still impressed by just how much was able to be done with such a simple idea: a gun that creates doors. While seemingly the most boring concept of the decade, it is presented in a manner that's unforgettable. A shooter with no killing? Intriguing puzzles? A story that's not only present but presented well? Portal caused me to reevaluate my opinion of FPS games – and then feel sad, because its lessons have yet to be heeded.

The interactions of GlaDOS in particular left me feeling great about the experience. Cold, calculating, and with a distinctly inhuman sense of humor, the main antagonist evoked within me a sense of both purpose and sympathy. I wanted to kill her for what she'd put me through, but at the same time I couldn't help but wonder whether she was simply a product of her programming. Of course, numerous other musings of a philosophical nature resulted, all from the depths of a simple two-to-three-hour puzzle FPS. It's all a bit hard for me to believe, even after experiencing it for myself.

The cake is a lie – or is it?

Sly 2: Band of Thieves (PS2 - 2004)

Don't let its kiddie exterior fool you – the Sly Cooper series is the best platforming series released in a long while, and Sly 2 is the best of the bunch. It's better than Jak, better than Ratchet and Clank, and better than “insert your favorite platformer here.” It's got all the basic ingredients for a 3d platformer: solid controls, varied mission types, and a fair mix of challenge and accessibility.

What it has that the others don't, though, is a heaping dose of character... or is that characters? The cast of Sly is incredibly endearing, with the charm of the best written animated shows – think of the love-child of Darkwing Duck and Gargoyles. The lineup of villains is twisted and hilariously appealing. The heroes are no slouch either, forming a noble thief trio that works incredibly effectively together: Sly, the skilled thief; Bentley, the tech wizard and logician; and Murray, the slow but big-hearted muscle. Combine that with top notch writing, a simple yet effective core game design – a central chapter hub with various missions that build toward a final climactic heist – and a presentation that rivals the best animated productions, and every ounce of Sly 2 screams of quality fun.

Xenosaga (PS2 - 2003)

A lot of my regard for Xenosaga comes from my admiration for its predecessor. Xenosaga's first episode not only lived up to its pedigree, but even surpassed it. Its gameplay, though fairly standard for the genre, is varied enough to maintain interest. Its cast of characters, though heavily influenced by sci-fi anime stereotypes, is endearing and easy to relate to. Its story... well, it's the story that makes the game, and that's both a boon and a major drawback.

The game's epic saga of a spacebound human race searching for their planet of origin is the yarn from which the greatest sci-fi is spun. This first episode (of a planned six) laid the groundwork for what most likely would have been a masterful tale. Unfortunately, several problems at developer Namco – including the firing of the series' creator and its lead writer – led to the severe truncation and eventual destruction of the series' potential. The two other chapters that were released exploited and ruined the strong foundation laid by the first, with the story devolving into utter nonsense with some religious symbolism arbitrarily thrown in.

Since the first chapter's approach depends largely upon its successors for legitimacy, it must be taken as part of an ambitious yet horribly flawed trilogy instead of the highly promising beginning to one. It's unfortunate, though, because what a beginning it was.