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.”

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