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Last year, I replayed EarthBound for the first time in many years. I always find something new when I play this game, but the big difference this time around is that I was playing it on the Wii U. One of the greatest features to this system is the Miiverse, which allows one to post screenshots and comments as they play. I used the Miiverse as a journal for my journey through EarthBound, and was able to record my thoughts during this wonderful game like never before.
The following is my EarthBound 2014 journal.
Though touted as one of the greater evolutions in gaming, I’ve never been a huge proponent of online gaming. Indulging in a game’s world and story is a personal experience for me. The voices and actions of other players, particularly when set against scripted plot devices, tends to dissolve the illusion of immersion. That said, I love hearing about the experiences of others, sharing my own, and helping others achieve their goals. In other words, I love playing games online, just not with other people.
I was once a dedicated World of Warcraft player. This is the only instance in the MMoRPG genre where I felt as though I could truly quest on my own (well, there are some MUDs that qualify as well but WoW is more relatable). I only worked with others when I desperately wanted some instanced dungeon reward and was otherwise content to explore at my own pace. But I loved wandering about and seeing other people doing things, or striding into a capitol city bustling with other players. Though I was a loner, the presence of other players made the world feel alive.
I was actually in a WoW guild, though we hardly ever interacted with one another and loved every moment. It was much like Ron Swanson's best friend.
Much as I loved the possibilities of WoW’s solo-yet-online gameplay, I’ve found something that seems almost custom-tailored to my style: the Miiverse. The first time a friend brought over his Wii U, I sat in awe of its Mii-filled breadth. I had read about this feature and dismissed it as pointless social media shoehorning, but when I watched all the Miis scurrying about to share their little slices of gaming experience, I felt an undeniable sense of kinship.
Since buying my own Wii U, the Miiverse has become my beloved little porthole into the gaming universe. There’s something invigorating about reading the message-in-a-bottle type thoughts from other players. Of high importance is the fact that the Wii U never harasses the player about these posts, such as popping up notifications or forcing a visit. There’s no agendas, no politics, trolling (aside from the occasional cock), or egotism. Truly this is the purest incarnation of gaming’s lifestream.
Though by far, my favorite use of this feature doesn’t involve direct interaction. So often in the past I wish I would have kept a journal of my thoughts as I experienced memorable and standout moments. Keeping a pen and paper nearby was generally too much of a hassle – not to mention I’m left handed and can’t handwrite for shit. Any time something amazing happens now, I can flip to the Miiverse and record my thoughts along with a screenshot. Nowhere is this advent more appreciated than with a game like Earthbound.
A common criticism of Nintendo tends to be the family-friendly approach (and therefore irrevocably anti-gamer), and this extends to the heavily moderated posts of the Miiverse. While I’d agree that the Wii era found the company catering to a new demographic, I’ll argue that the Miiverse is indicative of Nintendo understanding the essence of gaming better than any other company on the market today. A memorable experience to me will always outweigh a false sense of importance derived from arbitrary numbers and virtual trinkets, and that is why I am so very thankful for the Miiverse and the new dimension it has added to the way I play games.
I’m an insatiable magnet for fright. I was in my twenties when I saw The Grudge at a midnight showing, and slept with the closet light on for longer than I care to admit. The last time I went to a haunted house the ghastly actors had zeroed in on me within minutes, calling out “let’s get goldilocks!” as I screamed at their every jump scare. There’s a litany of videogames that have scared the daylights out of me (most notably the original Silent Hill), but one of the more surprising titles in that bunch happens to be Secret of Mana.
Though a jump scare or gory moment will never fail to hook me, they are largely fleeting and leave little more than an anecdotal impact akin to the prior paragraph. Context plays a huge part of how deeply a scary moment will cut into my consciousness. For instance, when I played Resident Evil, I knew I was in for something frightening as much as I was aware when I walked into that haunted house. It’s kind of like how you can’t tickle yourself – my brain prepares me for the scare which diminishes the effect.
What my mind can’t prepare for are those scary things which are entirely contrary in spirit to nearly everything else in the video game. This is a certain pedigree in horror that, as far as I know, has no official nomenclature. I like to call this phenomena ‘terror by contrast’. Think about the ReDeads in Ocarina of Time: here you have a heroic adventure full of magic and wonder…then all of sudden there’s screaming corpses that slowly creep in to devour your flesh as you shudder from their sonic sneak-attack.
And don't forget about ol' Dead Hand!
Secret of Mana is a bright and colorful game with a beautifully whimsical soundtrack. It’s hardly the kind of place one would expect to find themselves with shaky hands and an overwhelming sense of dread, and that’s why the sequence involving the Ruins of Pandora is so effective. The strange happenings in the town of Pandora are introduced early in-game, where some townspeople have gone mute and are said to have lost the will to live; all that aimless wandering RPG NPC’s do is so much more bizarre when they have nothing to say.
At the south end of town, there are ruins where the affected citizens are gathering, but the entrance is barred by two guards wearing strange cyclopean masks. Instead of venturing immediately into the ruins, the party is sent on other tasks, periodically returning to Pandora as the mystery grows. With each visit, more citizens are stripped of their souls and the accompanying music becomes more poignant.
Even before setting foot in the ruins, this concept of people becoming empty shells had me on edge. At a young age, I experienced a series of recurring nightmares wherein my mind was lost through varying circumstances, such as everyone else in the world copying my identity or an invisible monster eating my mind. The dreams themselves were pants-wetting enough, and waking up in the twilight hours feeling like I was dead inside was worse. While this portion of the game didn’t start those nightmares, it absolutely gave them an amplified resurgence.
When one of the party members spots her friend going into the ancient and decrepit structure, she pushes the guards aside (apparently no one else had thought of that brilliant stratagem – videogames). This is where that whole context thing comes into play. There were typically ‘dark’ locations presented before this dungeon, including caves, forests, and a witch’s castle. But those locales were still very much fantastical and arguably alluring in their design, especially given the musical selections. The ruins are a complete stylistic shift.
Just take a listen as to what greets the player when stepping into the ruins of Pandora. I believe this is what a music box slowly committing suicide sounds like.
To date, I’ve never heard a piece of gaming music so utterly discordant. Coupled with the contextual shock, my first playthrough of this area involved several instances of setting the controller down, calming my shaking hands, and gathering up the courage to press onward. The game never fully divulges what happened in the ruins. We see grotesque monsters, some mask-wearing victims standing in front of an altar and Thanatos, the leader behind the cult, attempts to kill the party by dropping them into a room with a wall-demon. This lack of details actually made for a scarier experience overall.
It would be nigh-impossible for a 16-bit game to illustrate a disturbing ritual, so why not let the player’s imagination do the legwork? My mental picture of what happened to people when they were brought back into the ruins and given those masks to cover what I assumed were brutalized and eyeless faces was much scarier than anything the game designers could have come up with. I pictured unholy séances summoning fecund demons to devour the souls of the townspeople. When it comes to horror, the unseen is so much worse than a vivid depiction, and whoever designed this sequence did an extraordinary job using that tactic to create something I won’t ever forget.
On a final note, Thanatos shows his final form towards the end of the game as a giant skeleton. He’s not intimidating on his own but his theme music – a version of the ruins music on acid - is brick-shitting bliss.
Since my first days of laying hands on a Commodore 64, there’s been something I adore about video games that I’ve never been able to articulate. For a time I thought my enjoyment of video games was derived from living vicariously through story, art, and music. As it turns out this is only a slice of the delicious mental pie. I had a revelation while playing through Earthbound recently. The “Your Sanctuary” locations in the game are a typical trope – you collect x number of mystical things to become the hero and complete the final quest.
The Sanctuaries have a bit more behind them than say, pieces of the Triforce. They evoke a nostalgic link from Ness’s childhood and help him better understand himself as a person. He’s not getting some magical power or artifact. The sanctuaries are inspiration, often housed in nondescript locations. I’ve come to realize that I have countless sanctuaries of my own buried within all the games I’ve played over the years. Until now, I have so often paused at various locales never fully comprehending why they were so special. They are what attracts me to the world of video games, and why gaming remains a pure outlet for me despite all the changes it has undergone over the years.
This was the one of the inspirational moments. On a side note, I love Miiverse so hard. It's basically like a video game journal. I just wish more people got my Simpsons reference instead of assuming I'm a promiscuous thrill seeker.
The Final Fantasy series is a fine example of this phenomena. Of course there is some dopamine association with seeing stats go up as the party gets stronger. And there is a draw to the story line. These are but ancillary elements; when I recall Final Fantasy IV, my mind immediately goes to Mt. Ordeals. Not because Cecil becomes a Paladin there or the epic battle against Scarmillione. It’s because I first climbed that mountain after recently starting middle school. To give a short description in my time in middle school, I ate most of my lunches in the bathroom – climbing a mountain and seeing that glorious 16-bit vista made me feel like I actually was able to accomplish something in those dismal years.
When I’ve replayed Final Fantasy IV, the in-game events at Mt. Ordeals always take a sort of backseat to that sense of wonder. The same goes for Super Mario Galaxy’s Space Junk Galaxy, explored in a chaotic period during a new career step where I felt there was no room left in my life to just wander in a state of awe. Or there’s stage 2 of Metal Mech, a pretty awful NES game with a maddening second stage. But I still put in the cart from time to time and get annoyed anew because my stubborn attempts to beat the level paralleled that of my stepdad, who gave me the game and wouldn’t give up trying to forge a relationship. I see visions of myself as a child, trying so hard in vain to understand my budding emotions.
It's like Blaster Master, but terrible!
World of Warcraft was an amazing world for me, not because I could interact with other players and collaborate, but because I had the choice not to. No other world felt so alive and thriving. I loved wandering the countryside and seeing people run off to fight in the Deadmines while I took a stroll along the Westfall beach. People always talk about Shadow of the Colossus’s amazing journey and all I think about is how I spent weeks riding around on my horse and exploring before ever bothering to start the story. There are so many special little places I'd rather visit in that game than replay any of the battles.
The way I process video games is exemplified in a title such as Fez. There is a vague story, and there are mildly challenging components, but the world largely exists to be a series of sanctuaries. On my first outing with Fez, I must have sat outside the lighthouse watching the cat play for a half hour. At the time I had been suffering the consequences of a horrendous mistake in my life, and a moment of clarity on how to recover dawned in that pensive moment. I truly believe it wouldn't have happened had I not been spending that cold winter morning playing Fez.
Video games are a shelter for its players. I’ll listen to the story and enjoy a tune, but I’m really there to find a little place to call my own and reflect on the affairs I’m currently wanting to jettison. That said, the world of videogames has become dangerously similar to the one it was designed to escape from. It is an industry rife with political strife, rampant egotism, and social identity. Companies leverage greater profits through all means of underhanded tactics. People fight with those inside and outside of the industry to posture some sort proper way to be a gamer (which is as laughable as those who incessantly argue about what constitutes true black metal).
In short, it’s a fucking mess and I want nothing to do with it.
The great thing about video games is that indulging in all that noise isn’t a requisite lap. Outside of this little blog I don’t really trumpet my love of playing games to the world and I wouldn’t bother arguing any of the controversies that have sprung up over the years even if someone was screaming in my face – I’d more than likely laugh and offer ActRaiser as a therapeutic release. My recent time with Earthbound has revealed that I have a rather unorthodox use of the medium. And that’s just fine, because games are what you make them.
In closing, a lovely song that so elegantly describes the pursuit of one's own sanctuaries.