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How do you define a favorite video game? Is it the one that filled you with the most inspiration? If that's the case, then the clear winner would be Skies of Arcadia, a JRPG for the Dreamcast that presented a bright world full of wonder and possibility. Even now, when I take a step back from my writing and look at it critically, I see the influence that game has had on me.
Or, is your favorite game the one that had the greatest emotional connection to you? If that's the case, then the clear winner is Persona 4. Kanji's struggle with his sexuality mirrored my own in a number of ways, and years later, I can recall specific plot points from the game with clarity. It's stuck with me for years, and will continue to do so.
Or, is your favorite game the one that always brings a smile to your face? The one that you boot up when you're feeling down, the one that was a constant companion for more years than you care to admit? The one that you swear you could play with your eyes closed? If that's the case, and I believe it is, then my favorite video game is Sonic 3 and Knuckles.
Yes, I know I'm cheating a little bit here because that's technically two games combined together. But the experience they create feels so singular, so united, that I very rarely played them separate from each other. And they were originally designed to be one game, so I'm gonna say that it counts. I'll leave it to the commenters to decide if they agree.
Sonic 3 and Knuckles uses the admittedly-still-cool feature of cartridge locking. Basically, Sonic and Knuckles has a slot on top of the cartridge for you to put other games on top. When you put Sonic 3 on there, the two games combine together into an almost “mega-game.” The stories combine, more levels are added together, and everything fits perfectly into place. It's like this was how the game was made to be played.
Funny how that works out.
The plot of the game is fairly simple, but complicated by platformer standards. Out in the ocean, Angel Island rests. Angel Island is home to the Master Emerald, a crystal with tons of power. Dr. Robotnik needs the Master Emerald for his world domination plans, but he finds that the Emerald is protected by a red echidna named Knuckles. Rather than roboticize Knuckles, Robotnik convinces him that Sonic and Tails (who recently arrived at the island), are out to steal the Emerald. Thus, the blue hedgehog finds himself with a new foe. And so the game begins.
Level design is at its most creative here. There are still loops and rings, and a clear focus on speed. But there is also a focus on exploration, as the special stages are accessed by finding Golden Rings in the levels. If you want the best ending, you need to seek out these stages. Levels are layered, with alternate paths branching off everywhere. While I have my preferred routes to travel, it does feel that every time I go through the game, I get to the end a different way. It's fast, and it's challenging at times, but it's always fun. Even in the water levels.
Unlike past Sonic games, there is a boss at the end of every level. Often, there is even some interaction with the bosses before their actual encounter. The first level has a robot that burns the forest, for example. You start the game in a sunny green area, but about halfway through, the robot drops bombs every and burns it all down. The rest of the level is then on fire. It's a little touch, but it goes a long way.
My favorite boss is that of Marble Garden zone. Sonic finds Dr. Robotnik with a drill on his ship, and it looks like a typical boss fight. That is, until Robotnik drills straight down, destroying the garden in one fell swoop! The first time I saw this, I gasped. How was I supposed to win that, with no ground? But Tails, who is normally regulated to “guy who gets in the way” saves the day here. He picks up Sonic in his arms, and together they are able stop Robotnik.
There is a strong focus here on the cinematic nature and the story. Whereas other Sonic games kept story light with a seemingly random set of levels strung together, here everything is connected. Act 2 of a world begins right where Act 1 ended, with no fade to black. There are little transitions from each level. They aren't much, but seeing Sonic fire himself out of a cannon and then land in the next world goes a long way to making this game feel connected.
There are even some brief cutscenes, though they are usually kept playable. Towards the end of the game, Sonic and Knuckles have their fight. Dr. Robotnik, seeing the chance, steals the Master Emerald. Knuckles, of course, sees this, and tries to get it back. He grabs the emerald, but Robotnik has other plans. Bits of wire come out of his ship, and electrocute Knuckles, wounding him, and giving Robotnik time to escape. Knuckles, seeing this, uses the last of his strength to help Sonic pursue his foe. It's not much, but for the time, this was really big. It stuck with me, you know? Even know, the once-bad-now-good trope is one of my favorites.
That's ignoring the other details, like how the Death Egg can be seen in the background of some stages, how Knuckles goes through every level differently than Sonic and Tails, with some different bosses, the quality of the music, the dizzying special stages that require more skill than in the past, the bonus level you get when you complete all special stages, and so on and so on. There is so much content and memorable moments packed into what is basically a two hour game, that I cannot describe them all in this one blog post.
I can only recommend that you play the game if you haven't already. You won't be disappointed.
So, I'll admit with no small amount of shame, I didn't get around to playing Fire Emblem: Awakening until I saw the Lucina reveal trailer for Super Smash Bros. My more recent posts acknowledged my far-too-big video game backlog, and Fire Emblem: Awakening was just another game on that ever-increasing list. It wasn't because I wasn't looking forward to it (I love Fire Emblem!), but more that I was hesitant to start another long JRPG.
But I'm glad I took the plunge.
I found out about Fire Emblem, like I suspect a lot of people did, through Marth and Roy in Super Smash Bros. Melee. Intrigued by these very anime-styled protagonists (and having a soft spot for blue hair), I asked for the Game Boy Advance game, simply called Fire Emblem, for Christmas and was very pleased to have gotten it. I played through the game obsessively, learning about all the characters, creating my army, and getting wholly invested in the storyline. I was sad to see that game come to an end, and was eager for more.
I mean, what could be more compelling than this?
But the other Fire Emblem games seemed to lack a certain something. I played Sacred Stones, and remember thinking it was only decent. I tried several times to play the Gamecube Path of Radiance, but grew bored before long with the bland animations and overlong cutscenes. None of the games seemed to capture the excitement of the original, and for a long time, I just stopped seeking them out.
Fire Emblem: Awakening is the latest in the series, and it finally has that certain Je-Ne-Sais-Quoi that the other games lacked. I can't exactly tell you what that is, but I can say that this game has it in spades.
The game starts with you creating a kind of Avater to represent yourself in the game's world. I made a pretty red-head named Athena. The customization objects are surprisingly robust, and I feel that I created a unique character that stood out in the game's world. You have lots of hair styles, a few faces, and default poses to choose from. It works well
Athena and Chrom having a moment.
The game begins with your character waking up to meet Chrom, a leader of a band of soldiers and future ruler of the land of Ylisse. Quickly, he realizes that your character is a good tactician, and invites you to join his merry band of misfits. It isn't long before wars start, zombies appear, time-travel becomes a reality, and many many turn-based battles spring up over the world. And you right in the thick of it. Together with Chrom, you must lead your team to glorious victory, and save the world in the process.
It sounds like a fairly typical JRPG storyline, and in a lot of ways, it is. But it's also a pretty well-written one. Dialogue tends to feel natural, peppered with some old medieval English. The game, for the most part, finds natural reasons for battles to occur. And for a dark storyline, there's a surprising amount of levity throughout, keeping the game from being too angsty. It's a good ride. What problems there are tend to be minor (the time travel is never fully explored), and it does a good job keeping your interest until the end.
What really sets this game apart from other Fire Emblem games is the characters. Like other games in the series, you meet and recruit people on your journey to fight with you. These characters tend to be one-note in past games, with one trait that seems to define them. This seems to be case in this game, as characters all seem to have their one trait (Sumia trips, Stahl likes to eat, Sully wants to be treated like a man, etc.). But, there is a stronger focus on support conversations now between characters, and that's where more depth to each character comes in. They are all well-written, often funny, sometimes dark, and always make the characters feel more like real people. In past games, I remember myself creating personalities for the characters in my mind, but here, I don't need to. For once, it's right in front of me.
I do love Yarne.
Characters can now get married too, and this becomes a big part of gameplay. Two characters marry, and their stats can be passed down to their children. I chose who to marry purely based on the pairings I decided I liked most, but if the internet is any indication, there are some ideal pairings to make beastly children.
This Fire Emblem game gives you a world map to explore, with the chance for random battles to appear. I have mixed feelings on this concept as a whole. On the one hand, it's great if you want to grind and make your perfect team (I did do that), but on the other, it takes away from the difficulty. Past Fire Emblem games were stressful, because leveling up characters was challenging. You had only the story battles to do it, so you took great effort to make them all get a piece of the action. It works here, because there's a greater focus on class customization, but I think I prefer the difficulty of past installments.
You can also switch permanent death on and off. One of Fire Emblem's trademarks to set it apart from other games was that if a character died in battle, they were gone for good. This forced you to be extra careful in your strategy. If you messed up, you had to choose whether you could live with yourself with that character gone. I kept this feature on for my playthrough, and I played on Hard difficulty. I didn't lose a soul. :)
Graphics are nice too!
The last new feature is the concept of pairing up, which replaces the “Rescue” feature in the past. In past games, if a character was in trouble, you could have another character “Rescue” them, or take them off the map and move them to safety. Here, you can have characters pair up. One character leads, while the other supports. Not only is this great for building relationships, but the support character also lends stats to the lead! There is never a reason not to do this, and while it means you'll have fewer units to move, each will be considerably more powerful. It's great for leveling, and for getting through tough battles.
Whew! That's a lot of stuff. I could go into more, but I think I'll leave it at that. Suffice to say, this game is great. It has a lot of new features that refine the Fire Emblem experience, while keeping it familiar enough to fans like me. In a lot of ways, it feels like a Best Of game, as it takes all the good of past games, expands on it, and removes the bad. If the series continues in this direction, the future is very bright indeed.
So, when are we going to hear about Shin Megami Tensei X Fire Emblem, huh?
EDIT: Anyone know why there's so much extra spacing here? I have no idea how to get rid of it.