Fellow members of the Destructoid community, I welcome you the first, but probably not the last, Destroyedtoid.
Let's get right down to business, shall we?
As of the date of this post, there is a huge uproar over a couple of posts by a well-known paid writer for Destructoid.com, Jonathan Holmes. You can find those posts here and here.
You may be wondering why everyone is so upset. What could Holmes have said to enrage the community so much? Is it just because his opinion is different from the majority of Smash's fanbase, and therefore rage-inducing?
Oh, no, good reader. It's much more than that. Much, much more.
Allow me to begin by saying that I am a firm believer in Hanlon's Razor. The short version of it is that I believe that incompetence is much more vast than malice, and that, until proven otherwise, I don't think Holmes, and especially not Mr. Dixon, who I will address in the latter half of this blog, are guilty of malice. I will argue that Mr. Holmes is simply incompetent, and that Mr. Dixon simply made a move that was in poor taste and bad timing.
I will also mention that, while I'm a big Smash Bros player (Lucas, Luigi, Wolf, and Toon Link FTW), I am nowhere near a competitive level. I'm a local champ (for whatever that's worth in Indianapolis), but I don't play that heavily anymore. (My new favorite fighter is King of Fighters EX UM+, which you can find here.) Hell, I never did get the hang of L-Canceling, though I tried my best. I also don't have a real preference between the two games, but I do love playing as some of the Brawl characters. Not that it matters.
Point is, no matter how little you know about the competitive scene in Smash, it's not hard to appreciate the sheer effort and passion that goes into learning the intricate details that will give tournament players an edge.
Of course, if Jonathan Holmes' actions are any indication, it's a lot easier to dismiss them as obsessive control freaks and compare artificially induced randomness in an e-sport to uncontrollable factors in physical sports like UFC and football.
Join me as we examine each of the articles and ride the magnificent downward spiral of Jonathan Holmes' descent into madness.
Round 1. FIGHT!
“There's a Smash Bros. tournament going on tonight at a local comic book store. The creator of Catlateral Damage and I were planning on attending, but they changed the game from Brawl to Melee at the last minute. We both backed out, resigned to the reality of the situation, but still disappointed. It's totally understandable that the majority of competitive Smash players prefer the increased level of fast and precise character control that Melee offers over Brawl, but as diehard Lucas, Olimar, and Squirtle fans, Melee isn't worth the $15 entry fee.
I figured I'd get over it by watching some Melee at EVO, and I quickly found myself feeling frowny. It seems like the longer the game is played, the less high level competitors try new
things. Most of the matches were just a high-speed poke and fake contest. The only times things got really interesting was when a character is in the clutch, trying to recover from being knocked off the edge, but those mechanics are just as fun to watch in Brawl or even the original N64 Smash Bros.
Things start off innocently enough here. We've all got our preferences, right? And what Jonathan Holmes enjoys about Smash Bros should be respected as an opinion, as the matter is subjective.
Remember this attitude for later, though.
“I wondered how much more interesting it would be to watch some aggressive play in Brawl. Yes, even though it has tripping. Especially because it has tripping. "
Alright, Mr. Holmes. It's cool to have an opinion that differs from other people's. Let's see what you have to say in defense of tripping. As you are a paid journalist, I certainly hope it's well-informed and researched, because that's why I read Destructoid.com and not a 4-year-old's random napkin doodles.
“Tripping (also know as prat falling) was a new aspect of the Smash Bros. gameplay system added with Brawl, the third game in the series. When playing on solid ground (meaning not on ice or wet ground) you have a 1/100 chance of falling every time you go from a still position to a dash or a roll. Chances of tripping increase on ice and wetness. There are also attacks specifically designed to make others trip. After tripping, you'll remain vulnerable to attack for half a second. “
Accurate so far. What's next?
“This was enough to enrage many Smash Bros. fans. They took the inclusion of this mechanic as a personal attack -- as an intentional move to get them to enjoy Brawl less than other games.”
Aaaaaand this is where it all goes to crap. This is pretty much the statement that begins a landslide of dumb ideas and unbelievable condescension. They took the inclusion of the mechanic as a personal attack? What? Who have you ever spoken to that feels personally offended by the inclusion of this mechanic, or any mechanic? I guarantee that whoever that is, they don't represent the whole of the community.
People weren't personally offended by the inclusion of tripping; it just didn't make any bleedin' sense. Tripping is bad because being forced to fail by sheer chance is irrelevant to the skill of the player, and thus is irrelevant to the contest. More on this later.
“It wasn't the only reason they were upset with the game. Compared to Melee, the characters in Brawl generally move a little slower and have longer hang times after jumping. Throw tripping on top of all that, and it was just too much. This is despite the fact that most human beings wouldn't be able to see the difference in how the games play unless presented with a head to head comparison. Even then they may not be able to see it. Unless you're accustomed to the lightning fast pace of competitive Melee play, the differences may be undetectable. “
Is this what we're doing now? Trivializing the complaints of people who know better just because the ignorant DON'T know any better? Yeah, no duh, ignorant people are ignorant. What's new?
(To clarify, I'm not calling people who don't know much about Smash Bros' deeper mechanics stupid; I just mean that they're ignorant about this specific subject.)
Speaking of ignorance...
“So if the differences are minor, and tripping is a rarity, why did Brawl cause Melee devotees to feel so robbed? It's because contrary to what many may think, the core appeal of the series isn't watching a bunch of Nintendo characters hit each other into space and then explode. The thing that really makes playing Smash Bros, particularly Melee, feel different than other fighting games is the absurd level of control that it allows you to take over your character. “
...what? I guess so, if baseball's main appeal is being able to swing a bat or basketball's main appeal is being able to dribble a basketball. Or if any hobby's main appeal is having total control over your own actions while you're doing it. What level of control is “absurd”?
Do you really think any game is better off for having WORSE controls? Maybe if it's QWOP or Double Hitler, etc, but I doubt anyone's going to organize contests based on those. (I mean, they might. Who knows.)
Obviously, Mr. Holmes, people want to have control over their tools (or, in E-Sports' case, their avatar) in a contest. Unless it's a drinking contest.
How have you been a gaming journalist this long and not realized this incredibly elementary fact about gaming, or just any sort of contest in general? It seems he tries to address this in the next couple of paragraphs.
“Smash Bros. was created by Masahiro Sakurai. He also created Kirby, a series that was designed to be the philosophical opposite of Super Mario Bros. when it it comes to control and empowerment. Where Mario has to constantly weigh the rewards of running (increased jump distance and speed towards the end of the course) with the risks that come with it (decreased character control and potential to speed into a deathtrap), Kirby allows the player to move their character almost anywhere they want at all times, and at little cost. Kirby doesn't have to worry about getting a running start and jumping over the giant pit at the very last second. He'll just fly over the thing, with the spirit of "whatever" firmly planted on his face as he floats on by. Go up against an enemy that has an ability greater than yours? No need to cautiously approach and wait for just the right time to attack. Just swallow them whole and you're done. Just don't forget to make that "whatever" face. It's so alpha.
Smash Bros takes that "go anywhere, do anything anytime" edict and applies it to the fighting game genre. Every character has at least two jumps, can block in the air, and advance with invincibility while rolling. Almost all fighters have projectiles, attacks that strike in two or more directions at once, or help them to travel vertically to help them recover after a jump (or two). In Melee, there are even unintended abuses of the system (like L-canceling) that allow for even greater levels of power and safety. This is all without the prerequisite complex stick and button combinations that most fighting games require you perform before you do anything "special." Like in Kirby, Smash Bros. allows you to do the most amazing things without really trying. “
Now, before I get to the meat of the problem with this paragraph, let me be fair and say that Holmes did, indeed, address the L-Canceling part of his article with an update. The following is that update.
“Also, there is some dispute over if "L-canceling" is an "unintended abuse" of the game's system, or something intended by the developers. My guess is that it's both - that "L-canceling" was intended by the developers, but players learned to exploit it to a degree that Sakurai and the gang didn't intend, which could be why it was removed from Brawl entirely. It's hard to say for sure though, as Sakurai hasn't made any comment on the subject that I know of. Either way, you should know that "L-canceling" may be an intended mechanic in Melee and Smash Bros on the N64. Hope that helps, and if you find any other mistakes, you can let me know on twitter- @tronknotts. Thanks everybody!] “
He did a few other updates in this manner, but I'll bring them up as they become relevant.
The problem isn't that he corrected himself; it's that what he initially posted was childishly under-researched, and his ignorance shines throughout the entire rest of the article. As will become patently obvious, you shouldn't post about something you know nothing about and then update it later.
It's like Early Access journalism.
I, as well as many other Destructoid readers, come to Destructoid because we think that people with long gaming backgrounds will have the journalistic integrity and passion needed to research something enough to understand it.
What we don't come for is half-baked “opinions” and thoroughly unresearched claims that could come straight from the Daily Mail.
Now, onto the center of the problem; the huge contradiction that he makes here. How can you have the ability to do the most amazing things without really trying...and also have such an advanced, hard-to-implement move like L-Canceling at the same time?
“When every character in a fighter has this many abilities, the game becomes not so much what strategies you choose, but how fast and efficient you are in implementing them. This eventually turned most high level Smash Bros. Melee play into a race to get in there then start a poke and fake routine until your opponent makes a mistake. Any sort of long distance game, alternating between closing in and backing off, or anything but fast, short range normal attacks has been mostly thrown out the window. The most statistically successful and commonly used characters (Fox, Sheik, Captain Falcon) all are all about speed and risk reduction, making the game a contest of reflexes and dexterity more than anything else. To put it bluntly, competitive Melee has become a game that attracts impatient control freaks who want full authority over their player character and their opponent at all times, leaving nothing to chance and no time to wait and see how a situation will unfold.”
This is where the stupidity and condescension gets cranked up to 11, as well as where the vast majority of complaints come from.
I'm going to put this as bluntly as possible; being good at something, anything, doesn't make you any kind of a freak.
It makes you a human being who desires mastery over an activity you deeply enjoy, and someone who has the intense dedication necessary to learn the smallest details that will take you the distance.
What troubles me most of all, out of all of this, is that Mr. Holmes seems to have completely lost any notion of what it means to be passionate about something. One of the things that made his articles and shows so appealing is that he clearly understood the wide-eyed joy of gaming, the possibilities it presented, and the love that gamers have for their hobby. He made Constructoid, a show I still consider to be one of the finest creations in all of gaming journalism, because of his understanding for that sheer agape.
The Johnathan Holmes I see reflected here is a bitter, jaded man who doesn't even think twice about marginalizing an enthusiastic group that he simply isn't a part of.
If you remember nothing else from this blog, just remember that.
Let's move on to his mechanical arguments.
Other fighters aren't even so complicated in their moveset as to make it all about who can pull off what moves, not even SNK or Aksys fighters, which are notorious for somewhat complex movesets. The only difference is a swipe of the fingers, whereas Smash is just one direction. What he has to say here applies to every fighting game at high level.
In fact, more than Smash Bros, his argument applies to one of Holmes' favorite fighting games EVER, Divekick. I mean, when it's so easy to pull off the ultimate power, the one-hit-kill divekick, then it's just about reflexes and dexterity more than anything else, right? Is that a problem with that game? Does it mean that it appeals solely to impatient control freaks?
What a sad, downright macabre joke from someone who's supposed to be the resident fighting game “expert”. (Not to mention the “site mascot”, which is becoming an increasingly inadvisable title to award Mr. Holmes.)
“This is why the inclusion of tripping in Smash Bros Brawl felt like a slap in the face to them. The idea of having a 1/100 chance of being vulnerable and out of control for even a split second is the exact opposite of what they wanted. In part due to fear of tripping, play-style culture in Brawl quickly became geared towards the static and defensive. Chatter in competitive circles told of horror story loses due to tripping. Videos of comically tragic trip fails spread across Youtube. The consensus began to preach that if you wanted to maximize your chances of winning at Brawl, you has to minimize your chance of tripping by dashing as little as possible. This lead the most dedicated Brawl players to master the art of playing defensively, while the majority of Smash Bros die-hard community just played Melee.
This return to the familiar happens in fighting games a lot. Time spent learning new characters and mechanics means time spent losing to less adventurous players who stick with the standbys. WhenStreet Fighter 3: The New Challengers (another game shunned for not rewarding aggressive players enough) was first released, it had replaced the entire cast of Street Fighter 2 with (you guessed it) new challengers, except for series mainstays Ken and Ryu. What Capcom and the fighting game community discovered is that most players cared more about winning than experiencing something new. Most Street Fighter 3 players played it safe and stuck with Ken or Ryu, robbing themselves of most of the new content that Capcom had dished up for them. The same is true today. Even on home consoles, where you don't have to worry about losing a quarter or two when you lose, Ken and Ryu are still the most played characters in the Street Fighter series across the board. “
Allow me to link you to a video from a group of people who actually know about game design, and don't just half-ass their research before posting something.
What's going on here isn't a reach for the familiar; it's a stagnation caused by close balance, as this video will explain.
Side Note: Street Fighter 3 also had Akuma, but that hardly matters.
“Tripping doesn't fit in a culture that values winning and being in control over experiencing new things and overcoming new problems. This is why I love it. Tripping forces the players and the spectators to remain on the edge of their seats all the time, watching and wondering if something "unfair" is about to happen, and what that will lead to. Tripping just means you can't just follow a series of recipes from the "How to win at Smash Bros" cookbook. It means you have to be ready for anything. “
Ouch. That facepalm freakin' HURT.
First of all, a culture built around a kind of skill contest has every right to be about being in control of themselves during said contest. But where on Earth does Mr. Holmes get the idea that being in control has to be diametrically opposed to discovering new things? When you are in control of your character, and are playing at ANY level, you're always discovering new things. “Wow, I didn't know my opponent could anticipate that move!” “Oh, man, I shouldn't have used that against that player, he can see that coming from a mile away!”
In fact, as you should know, the whole way that you win at fighting games is to NOT get locked into a predictable pattern. You have to have the mental agility to quickly change your tactics on the fly. That applies to Smash as much as any other fighting game on the market.
Tripping, by the way, doesn't at all introduce anything new to any given combat scenario. All it does is trivialize the results of the contest by introducing a completely random element into the mix.
“In Brawl, every dash is a test of character, a display of willingness to play the odds. That kind of acceptance of random elements is what elevates a game to a sport. When a pitcher stands on the mound, or the batter steps up to the plate, they aren't going to back down because there is a chance that wind, rain, or other random environmental variables may cause an "unfair" loss of control. If a fighter in the UFC accidentally slips on his or his opponents spit/sweat/blood, he or she wont demand that the rules of the game be changed so that "tripping is taken out". They're willing to face the fact that in sports and in real life, some amount of chaos and discomfort is inevitable. It's their love of the game and their passion for self improvement that pushes them to face their fear of the unknown. “
Actually, Holmes, what elevates E-Sports into sports is that they do have a level playing ground. In some ways, it elevates itself ABOVE other sports because it's more fair. If it was possible, and many times it is, physical sports do their best to mitigate randomness (like indoor stadiums, etc) because a higher caliber of control translates into a higher caliber of sport. There is far less to blame than yourself.
See, randomness is what degenerates a game away from a sport and closer to gambling. The more randomness there is, the closer it gets to just being nonsensical. The chaos that arises from sport is, ideally, purely the result of competition.
Dashing is “a test of character”? Damn, man, you might want to step on your tiptoes, because that is some serious reaching. Taking a risk isn't a test of character...but more on this “reaching” subject shortly.
Obviously, a UFC fighter can't ask for “tripping” to be removed. What he can ask for is a mat that absorbs the blood in such a way as to not cause tripping again. And you know what? I've never seen a UFC fighter slip and fall on his own sweat or blood. Even if they did,
I'd be willing to bet the ref would step in, because the ref is another element that tries to mitigate the randomness of reality in the name of the fairness of sport. Less to blame on the outside, more to blame on yourself and your opponent's skill.
Let me clarify something else here. There are many kinds of random variables in games; two of them are control variables and environment variables.
Environment variables, such as those seen in a wide variety of roguelikes and games such as L4D, add to the gameplay because they keep everything around you exciting, fresh, and unexpected.
Control variables, like tripping, are just plain old agency-rippers that force you to fail...just because! They take out any sense of control you had over your own character and strategy, because of a dice roll.
Don't you think environment variables would be more important than control variables? Doesn't that seem like a more viable option to mix things up? Even then, it should be at the behest of the community, right? Right?
See, this is why it's increasingly apparent that these sorts of articles are just contrarian clickbait bullshit. It's obvious for all to see; Holmes looks for a popular opinion on a popular game, then makes a contradictory opinion and does his best to stretch whatever he has to work with to fill the article. (Hence why you can still have phenomenally lazy research and copious misinformation in such a long article; of course what you see here is going to be the result of that process.)
This is as opposed to what someone does when they actually perceive a problem with a scene; discuss the problem DIRECTLY (in this case the perceived stagnation in the higher-tier Smash scene), and then discuss possible solutions, like environment variables or game design changes that don't involve something as insanely idiotic as a control variable.
You know, kind of like how Constructoid would do it.
Of course, this time Holmes hit something of a snag. This time, popular opinion was actually on the side of logic, and so he had to contradict logic itself to make the article, therefore giving us a perfect example of his thought process.
For those who read this, I ask of you one thing; the next time one of these sorts of articles shows up on Dtoid, don't click on it. I'll be there to tear it apart in a Destroyedtoid C-Blog, so you can read all about it without encouraging this sort of scamming behavior from so-called “professionals”.
“Truly passionate athletes are playing more against themselves and less against their physical opponents. They know that losing is just an idea. The real game is in their own minds. Winning is maintaining optimism no matter the hardship, and achieving by your own standards, not just by the standards of a scoreboard. Losing "unfairly" just drives them to try harder, to plan their next game where they'll set the record straight. Real athletes don't quit a game just because they might trip.“
This, more than anything else, is why people are saying that you've lost touch with reality, Jonathan Holmes. Are you seriously saying that athletes aren't held to the standard of a scoreboard? Of course they're held to the standard of a scoreboard, and no “inner struggle” is ever going to change that.
I mean, if that was true, coaches would exist more as therapists and shrinks than physical trainers and strategists.
I've said it before, and I'll say it again; Mr. Holmes needs to stop basing his view of competitive sports on Mighty Ducks, and get a grip on reality.
By the way, truly passionate athletes know that the battle is against their opponent. Which is why they have to predict their moves.
They have to have a solid grasp of reality in order to succeed, you see.
“That's part of why I'm sad that tripping has been reportedly removed from Smash Bros for the Wii U and the 3DS. While I respect that decision, I feel it would have been better to give players the decision to turn it on or off, or better yet, have the option to make the frequency of tripping even more likely. A game where 1/50, or even 1/5 dashes lead to a trip would be an exciting, hilarious decent into barbarism.
Even better than that would be a mode that punishes players for attacking an opponent after they've taken a random fall. We instituted a system like this back at my local arcade when Street Fighter 2 was new. Everyone who played in our town knew each other, and we all agreed that throws were against our rules, as they were "too cheap". If you accidentally threw your opponent, you would willingly agree to take your hands off the stick and the buttons and count to "three Mississippi" as a penalty. It may be hard to imagine that kind of sportsmanship in today's world of online rage quitting and near constant anonymous trash talk, but that's the way it was. “
“To have those kinds of rules built into the next Smash Bros could make for an extremely interesting dynamic. If you take a "cheap" hit on an opponent and a red or yellow card is thrown in, you're going to have to face consequences. Maybe the player who was fouled on would get a free Smash Ball attack in compensation, or worse, the offending player may be removed from the game. In Ice Hockey (both in real life and on the NES), those kinds of risks are taken regularly, sometimes as part of a larger strategy. It may be smarter to take out a particularly opposing player with a cheap shot, even if it means being taking out of the game with them. That kind of thing is a lot grosser in real life, as it's real people getting physically assaulted, but in Smash Bros, it's just a relatively harmless foray into calculated crime and punishment. “
Wow, way to elevate arbitrary bullshit to the status of “sportsmanship”. I'm just going to repost one of my previous comments here.
Video games are a thing of automation. Automation is something that lessens the burden on human responsibility and "fairness", because the fairness is automatically generated.
Adding additional rules outside of the game is obsolete, when you can just design around the unfairness in-game.
For example, what is the point of speed limit signs on a road when you have cars that drive themselves? They would detect the designated speed limit for the area and act accordingly. Or, better yet, we would have a transportation system that had no need for speed limits.
This is getting crazy-long, so I'm just going to end this round with one more quote from Holmes.
“I'd argue that valuing "fairness" too much only works to make games feel fake.”
….Holmes. Holmes. Let's take a step back and think about what you're saying here.
Valuing fairness...makes video games feel fake.
Valuing fairness...makes a VIDEO GAME feel fake.
Holmes. You are supposed to be a video game journalist. I would assume that would mean that you understand the very basic concept of escapism, right? You get why we like to play video games, don't you? That's why you're a paid video game journalist and not just some random whackadoo flipping burgers for a living.
So that's my response to his first article. Thankfully, the second one is MUCH shorter and I can quickly summarize why it's disingenuous and wrong.
First of all, the obvious faux-apology.
“Yesterday I wrote an article about why I'd like to have the option to turn on tripping in Smash Bros for the Wii U and 3DS. It upset a lot of people. Sorry, guys.”
You know that literally translates into, “Sorry you were offended.”, right? Like, I looked and looked again to see if I could find even the smallest hint of sincerity, even the tiniest notion that he really didn't mean to say that.
There is none.
“Still, doesn't the fact that these two amazing players are put off by a slight delay in how long it takes to get back into the action after landing make them sound... a little obsessive? Obsessed with being in control of their characters, impatient during even a split second before they can move again, and always hungry for more tension? “
Again, I fail to see how you don't understand the importance of being in control of your own character. Would you rather that everyone ingested brain-eating parasites that took everyone's control away from them during the match?
That's my thoughts on his response article. Half-assed apologies for a half-assed article, followed by passive-aggressive snipes at his readership.
Now, as promised, I'm moving on to Andy Dixon. Let me clarify that I think he's mostly innocent, but made a major faux-pas as a community manager.
Let's imagine the following scenario; you're a kid in a preschool class, and all of a sudden, out of nowhere, a teacher from another class without any pants on runs through the class laughing, and then leaves. All of the kids are scared, confused, and angry. So what does the teacher do?
“Hey, kids! Let's, uh, fill out this fun worksheet about what you like to do when you're naked! It'll be a funsheet!” Most of the kids are easily distracted, and so happily take the worksheet and fill it out, while a few are still hanging back and asking themselves, “WTF?!”.
What I described here is pretty much what happened with Andy Dixon. After Holmes stirred all that shit up, Dixon just walks in and says, “Hey guys! I've got a community assignment for you! What do you love that everyone else hates?”, and most of the community just ate that shit up.
I don't really have anything against Andy Dixon, but I really hate the idea of being talked down to and distracted from a legitimate issue. You guys don't like that either, right?
There are better times for such things, and they are waaaaaaaaay after an issue has actually been addressed.
So with that being said, I've got a “Community Assignment” for you, Mr. Dixon, as well as the rest of the Destructoid staff.
1) Stop writing blatantly obvious contrarian clickbait articles, and actually try to solve problems in the community with reason, logic, and evidence, instead of just posting whatever your market research says will get you the most clicks.
2) Post this as a promoted C-Blog, because it would be a damn classy move on Destructoid's part after all the shit you just dragged your readership through. (To specify, I mean that posting this as a counterweight would give the site a much greater legitimacy than it's seeing now.
3) Fix your typos before posting it to the site proper. Do you have any idea how many of those suckers I see on the daily? If it's one, it's one too many. Where is your head editor?
4) Maybe next time when I send you a tip about the Smash Bros new fighter countdown via email@example.com, you'll post that instead of a lengthy, unresearched opinion that enrages and estranges your community.
This has been BobPalindrome. If you want to see more Destroyedtoid blogs in the future, please let me know that you enjoyed this one, and for convenience sake, follow me on C-Blogs.
(This is an entry for the SMT IV Contest posted here. I'm expanding upon a previous post. If time allows, I may also post a recording of a poem about Shin Megami Tensei that I wrote, making it a more thorough entry.)
(It's about to get real.)
Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne was a landmark achievement for role playing games, placing players in a situation that was simultaneously horrifying, uncomfortable, and deeply empowering. As you stand next to your teacher, who had been your guide and friend in your previous life, you watch it all disintegrate in an apocalyptic event that leaves only Tokyo standing. You are made to watch as the world becomes vastly smaller and vastly stranger; your life is irreversibly changed, and you are totally stunned as to what to do next...when a strange child drops a worm in your mouth, and you are changed forever as well.
(OH GROSS NOOOO-did he just give me demon powers? Sweet!)
Set on a journey to discover your place in this vast dystopia, you will discover that you tread a land that embodies the very cycle of life and death, and that you will be the deciding factor in what the new world becomes...or if it is even reborn at all.
Aside from the epic setup, eerie world, amazing plot twists, and grand conflict, Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne had great pacing, blistering difficulty, and a customization system that is rarely, if ever, rivaled. Imagine, if you will, a cross between Final Fantasy V's job system and SMT's usual deep demon system (given a boost this time around thanks to the Amala Labyrinth and the four tempers which you can resurrect and re-fuse to boost stats). It combines everything great about taking power from the world around you (the demon system) and developing one's own inner strength (the magatama).
The pacing is also simply incredible. At first, you will feel highly restricted, and the game will be relentless in attacking you. But develop some strategy and make it to level 30, and the demon system begins to really, really, really open up. From here on in, there is always another power to pursue, another demon to fuse, and another quest to finish. In a twist of genius, when one has hit the final level (99) you can begin to make 2nd generation demons, resetting their levels and building them back up again so they can have skills like the omnipotent Pierce, which entirely ignores enemy defenses. The magatama also make for difficult, irreversible changes to your character, causing you to tread lightly and weigh the pros and cons of each decision you make about the development of the Demi-Fiend.
I've spoken of it briefly before, but there's just nothing QUITE like the world of Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne. Digital Devil Saga and Ico have a similar sort of aesthetic, but the characters, in their muted expressions amidst a dying world that has suffered a fatal blow, really drives the point home about the tragedy that has occurred The visual designs of each of your friends after they (SPOILER STARTS HERE) transform into avatars for various demons and ideals (Spoiler end) is amazing visual shorthand for showing how people change and twist to become champions of the world that they fight to realize. The art style, by the marvelously talented Kazuma Kaneko, is one of the series' best, showcasing stylized versions of religious icons from religions all around the world, including Judeo-Christian, Hindu, Greek, Roman, and Japanese mythological pantheons.
All in all, Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne isn't just one of the best in the SMT series, or just one of the crown jewels in the PS2 library. It's one of the best games of all time, and an exemplar for video games as some of the greatest art mankind has ever conceived.
Oh, and it has Dante in it.
Now, with that being said, let's look at one of the slightly lesser known titles in the series, Shin Megami Tensei: Digital Devil Saga. What I'll be discussing here mostly relates to Digital Devil Saga 1, since speaking too much about 2 will really spoil most, if not all, of the amazing story. I will simply say that much of what can be said about Digital Devil Saga 1 can be said about 2 and leave it at that. My passion for the series is such that I would not want to spoil more than I absolutely have to.
(It's about to get unreal.)
Digital Devil Saga is yet another shining exemplar of why Shin Megami Tensei is the best around when it comes to weaving together a narrative that is twisted in it's presentation, engaging in it's storytelling, wicked in it's deception, monumental in it's theme, and utterly engrossing in it's journey, with gameplay that is strategic, addictive, and mechanically wedlocked with the story.
Yet, perhaps more intriguing is it's ability to thematically summarize the very core of EXP-growth-based RPGs.
Let me explain what I mean. In Digital Devil Saga, you have the ability to actually consume your enemies as opposed to simply eating them with a variety of physical "eating" skills. Consuming an enemy grants you bonus experience for your current mantra, which is similar to a magatama from Nocturne in that it grants you skills. (Unlike Nocturne, however, you can always re-select old skills to add to your repertoire.)
What this particular mechanic made me realize is that, interestingly enough, RPGs that incorporate some sort of experience mechanic are really all about the slow, tactical consumption of your enemies in order to get stronger.
How many times have I thought to myself, even before playing Digital Devil Saga, "I'll just use this spell in this area with enemies weak to it to eat some XP so I can power up before the next boss!"? Like when I take a grass or electric Pokemon with me when surfing vast distances across Kanto, Johto, Hoenn, Sinnoh, or Unova?
(Couldn't agree more.)
It's not simply about grinding, either. When you're in a fight for your life against a tremendously difficult boss, it's eat or be eaten. So much about the mechanic of experience points has more in common with actually eating your opponents than merely learning from the battle you faced against them.
The other interesting thing about the eating mechanic is that you can use the enemies' weaknesses against them (either an elemental attack that strikes their vulnerabilities or a void/repel/absorb spell) in order to give them the status effect "Fear". Enemies with this effect are more susceptible to eating skills, which will often (but not always) kill them instantly.
Now, I'd like to talk about the central themes of Digital Devil Saga's fantastic narrative.
I'd say more than just a story about a strange world and the strange things people do in that strange world, and more than just about cannibalism, Digital Devil Saga is a game about war, and the evolution of a solider's view on the subject as the war carries on.
In fact, I think that sums up the story so well that the game could just as well be called Shin Megami Tensei: PTSD Saga. (No offense to those actually suffering PTSD or friends/family of PTSD victims!) I will go so far as to say that this game is the RPG equivalent and predecessor of Spec Ops: The Line.
In the beginning of the story, you (Serph) are a member of a faction called the Embryon, fighting for survival and territory in a strange metal-filled wasteland called The Junkyard. You don't know why the war started or why you're fighting it, other than the strange instructions given to you by the GlaDOS-before-GlaDOS computer goddess known only as Angel. "Claim all the territory in The Junkyard and ascend the tower into Nirvana!". It is your only goal and desire, and for many years you fight this war unquestioningly.
One day, however, a strange flower appears on the battlefield. Suspecting the rival faction, the Vanguards, of placing it as some sort of trap, you and your cohorts (Heat, Argilla, Cielo, and Gale) have a standoff with them on either side of the bizarre metal flora.
What you find is that it has a surprise in store for both of you, as well as the entirety of the junkyard. Lasers start shooting out of the steel plant every which way, penetrating you and every warrior of purgatory in the junkyard with a pulse of light straight through the heart. Soon, you find yourself and your companions turning into blood-crazed demons, and just before you black out, you notice the leader of the rival gang (Harley) feasting on the corpses of his own dead soldiers.
(Oh yeah, it's also flashy as all hell.)
As the story unfolds, the gang find themselves increasingly terrified by things they never even had the capacity to question before, as the new-found cannibalism element confronts them directly with the sheer, unabated horror of war. After all, to claim your enemies' territory by violence is very much symbolically akin to actually eating them.
I won't spoil too much more, but suffice it to say that the narrative really completes Serph's journey from unquestioning solider who hates only his enemies to someone who fights against the very puppeteer of war itself, who feels the tug of the puppeteer that plays solider and tugs back.
As the aesthetics go, they are very much similar to Nocturne's overall design, but I will say that it uses a lot more grey and green to give the feel of a war-torn cyberworld as opposed to Nocturne's reds and blacks. It certainly suits the game's tone and gives a very moody feeling to the overall atmosphere of the game. Other than that, everything I had said about Nocturne's visual design applies here, and it's as gorgeous as ever.
Overall, Digital Devil Saga is a game that perfects the medium even as it transcends it, sending the player into a rhythmic trance of growth, suspense, surprise, horror, strategy, deep thought, and wonder. It is a luminous emerald in the PS2 SMT library, next to the glittering ruby that is Nocturne, the shining sapphire of Persona 3 FES, the tantalizing topez of Persona 4, and the prismatic glory of the Devil Summoner: Raidou Kuzunoha series.
I think I'll wrap this up by talking about why I, personally, LOVE the Shin Megami Tensei series. I must say that my passion for it is two-fold; I love the games as playable RPG powerhouses whose systems and worlds engross me like no other experience. Playing any other game, I would be thinking about a million other things at once. I would be using it as a form of mere abnagation. Whenever I pick up an SMT game, though, I can't help but be completely absorbed by it's uniqueness and total fine-tuning.
What I also love, however, is the series as a schematic. Shin Megami Tensei always takes it's themes and it's gameplay deep into it's dark, twisted heart, and produces an unholy (in a good way) marriage of concepts. From Digital Devil Saga's eating mechanics, to Nocturne's sense of rising power and control, to Persona's social link system, every game is an utter master class in game design, pacing, control, challenge, atmosphere, suspense, story, and real player choice.
It's a game that I, as an aspiring game designer, can really learn from.
For these reasons, the Shin Megami Tensei series, Nocturne and Digital Devil Saga in particular, are my Citizen Kane.
Atlus, you are true masters of the craft.
Don't go dying on us.
Edit: Added Soundcloud reading here! Sorry for the crappy quality and blunders, I had only a little bit of time left and a crappy webcam microphone.