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3:02 PM on 10.06.2012

Aural Emotions

There's many reasons why I adore the music of video games, from those that extract ridiculous potential from short loops, to those which are unbelievably catchy, binding themselves forever into one's memory. But by far, my favorite pieces of video game music are those that evoke an emotional response. While I've come across plenty of moving songs in the world of music, finding one within a video game is a rare pleasure. What follows are the most evocative tracks I've heard. Some have been companions through tough times, others became memorable solely for the content they accompanied in-game, but all carry immense musical potency.

Though many of these games are older, I'll still warn in advance that nearly every entry contains spoilers. In most cases, I found it necessary to speak to the context of the music.

Super Mario RPG - Sad Song (Yoko Shimomura)

This gem in the Super NES library certainly isnít known for an emotionally charged story, but it does slip in a handful of tear-jerking moments, mostly found within Mallowís story. One particular sequence has been forever cemented in my memory. Near the end of the game, the party encounters Boomer, a katana-wielding warrior who resembles a Shogun, and a fight ensues atop two chandeliers. Upon being defeated, Boomer doesnít simply vanish into coins as other bosses. Instead, he has what appears to be an asthma attack, wondering aloud how he could have been defeated. Mario offers Boomer a reprieve, which he staunchly refuses, stating with pride that he is prepared to go out like a warrior.

Öand he proceeds to cut the chandelierís chain, plummeting presumably to his death. The Shy Guy holding the chain then openly weeps for his fallen companion, assuring himself that a little fall won't hurt Boomer. How freaking sad is that? The context of being within a Mario game makes it even worse, as the series is generally a safe haven from Pixar-style emotional sucker-punches. I think this moment passes by most players without making an impact, but for whatever reason, I canít play Super Mario RPG or hear this song without feeling my eyes well up a little for poor Boomer.

Listen to Sad Song
Watch the scene from the game

Xenoblade - Imperial Capital Agniratha / Night (Ace+)

In one of the more interesting game worlds of late, Xenoblade takes place on the bodies of two dead gods known as the Bionis and Mechonis, which house biological and mechanical life respectively. Much of Xenoblade is spent on a quest for vengeance against the denizens of Mechonis, who have been waging war on the residents of Bionis. When Shulk and his party finally reach the enemy's homeworld, they find it to be a massive factory designed to produce the Mechon. Their goal is to reach the capital city of Mechonis Ė Agniratha.

From the moment they step off the elevator to the city, what is presented before them in Agniratha is not a battle-hardened military capital, but an actual sprawling city, abandoned and in decay. A somber atmosphere seeps from the piano melody, exposing sensations of misplaced anger and sudden empathy. The brutal moment for me was reaching the security system, which distributes most of the quests for the area. The cityís security assures your party that collecting certain plant life and destroying some malfunctioning Mechon will restore balance to the capital and make it safe for the residents, despite the fact that the city is irrevocably ruined, and its citizens long gone. Like a bully who lashes out because of an abusive home life, it's hard not to feel sympathy; moments like this are what make the world seem so tragic.

Listen to Imperial Capital Agniratha / Night

World of Goo - Are You Coming Home, Love MOM (Kyle Gabler)

I adore the storytelling style of this game, where the player isn't so much performing a role in the game as they are facilitating the plot and bearing silent witness to its events. If one takes the time to learn exactly what is going on with the goo balls, it almost becomes unbearable to advance the game further. In Act 4, they reach the supercomputer MOM. Purported as an all-knowing superbeing, MOM turns out to be a spambot, and the questions she makes available merely exist to harvest more information from the user.

The child-like naÔvetť of the goo balls is what gets me, and it comes to a head during this sequence. Are You Coming Home, Love MOM absolutely nails that sympathetic edge with the understated chorus. The emotions evoked by this music are like helplessly watching a displaced animal struggle to grasp the world of humanity around them.

Listen to Are You Coming Home, Love MOM

Chrono Cross - People Imprisoned by Destiny (Yasunori Mitsuda)

A persistent challenge in life seems to be that one will be faced with decisions that have no positive outcome, where all involved will be hurt. The slow swell of this track, with its brief pauses for effect and its crushing climax, is an eloquent companion for a struggle against the fates. Though it only plays twice in the game, it is among the more memorable in the OST, as in both instances, the song accompanies the need to raise weapons against a friend. Whether it's delivering bad news, ending a relationship, or trying in vain to help, I've known this feeling all too well, and People Imprisoned by Destiny always coerces a reappearance of those memories.

Listen to People Imprisoned by Destiny

Silent Hill - Not Tomorrow (Akira Yamaoka)

Akira Yamaoka captured a realization of hopelessness in such a poignant way with this piece. Played in-game when Lisa begins to understand that she is actually dead, this song not only punctuates her awakening, but Harry's reaction to her transformation and pleas for help. Whenever I encounter an account of the world's horrendous denizens - murderers, rapists, dictators and all in between - I'm reminded of Not Tomorrow, and can't help but feel sorrowful.

Listen to Not Tomorrow
A great piano arrangement by Verdegrand

Fragile Dreams - Tsuki no nukumori (Riei Saito)

Those who persevered through the many flaws of Fragile Dreams were rewarded with an incredibly moving story. Seto's journey is relatively simple - he's looking for a girl encountered early in the game because he doesn't want to be alone anymore in the post-apocalyptic city. The stark atmosphere is wonderfully accentuated by the graceful soundtrack, which primarily employs the piano, and never fails to ignite each moment. After a bittersweet ending sequence where Seto finally unites with Ren, the credits roll with Tsuki No Nukumori playing.

Fittingly, the song has a precious frailty about it, with soft and soothing vocals over a beautiful melody. After accompanying Seto through the seemingly endless night, seeing him at long last achieve his desire to no longer be alone is overwhelming, and Tsuki No Nukumori is what pushed it over the edge for me. A journey often is in itself a reward rather than the actual destination, and this song properly reflects such a notion. While it is hard to recommend this game to all but the most patient players, it is without a doubt worth every broken weapon and camp by the fire waiting for the chicken-headed merchant.

Listen to a cover of Tsuki no nukumori
(The original isn't available on youtube due to copyright claims, but this is a very good version nonetheless)

Super Mario Galaxy - Stardust Road (Mahito Yokota)

Stepping out into the Space Junk Galaxy for the first time, I felt as though I had tumbled back into childhood, struck by a long-dormant sense of wonderment. Super Mario Galaxy, and this level in particular, represents how I envisioned outer space before my blissful ignorance was shattered by that all-spoiling bastard called knowledge. The soothing instrumentation evoke a magnificent serenity, as Mario bounds through a brilliantly illuminated backdrop. In the face of such unfettered beauty, it's nigh-impossible not to be overcome. Which is why this is always the game I reach for when I've had a lousy day.

Screw you, adulthood.

Listen to Stardust Road

Final Fantasy VII - Aeris's Theme (Nobuo Uematsu)

Yeah, you knew it was coming. Usually, this song is associated with Aeris's death, and we're all quite familiar with it, so I wonít elaborate on that scene. In actuality, I am often reminded more of the first time it plays in the game, when Aeris is taken away by Shinra, and the party visits Elmyra. Through a series of flashbacks, we see how Elmyra came to be Aeris's guardian, and how Aeris helped her through the loss of her husband.

Nobuo's excellent theme perfectly captures the fragility of life, particularly with its porcelain-like opening; it is a testament to finding beauty even in the darkest of times. While a superior eye-roll may be appropriate when Aerisís death is referred to as ďthe moment gamers learned to cryĒ, there is a reason why everyone remembers it, and I largely attribute that memorability to this song.

Listen to Aeris's Theme
Reunion tracks - orchestral arrangement
Piano arrangement
The aforementioned scene

Mother 3 - Sunflowers and Illusions / Name These Children / Mother?! (Shōgo Sakai)

Like the Lumine Mines and Magicant segments from Earthbound, my favorite moment in Mother 3 is when the narrative turns to the silent protagonist. In Chapter 6, Lucas has a sort of out of body experience, and the player is given a direct look into what has been going on his mind. What we see is a field of sunflowers, his deceased mother's favorite.

Three pieces of music play during this chapter, starting with the dreamy Sunflower Field. This gives way to Name These Children, as a flashback of Flint and Hinawa naming their children is presented. Lastly, Mother?! starts when Lucas witnesses the appearance of Hinawa's apparition. The scene and music together are an absolutely heart-wrenching reminder that, despite fighting the evils of the world and going on an epic quest, Lucas is still a kid, who misses his mother dearly.

Watch this scene

Bit.Trip Flux - Catharsis (Gaijin Games)

While many of the games in the Bit.Trip series move me to tears by way of frustration, they all nonetheless contain an incredibly affective story and soundtrack within all the daunting challenges. Following the events of Bit.Trip Fate, wherein the protagonist, Commander Video, has died, he finds himself returning back to the nether from whence he came. Flux is unlike any other game I've played; its entire breadth is one elongated death sequence. There is no way to fail a level, as Commander Video's death is an eventuality.

Catharsis is both the name of the third level and the title of the music which accompanies it. The stage begins with a cut scene showing him coming to terms with the events of his life, reaching a state of complete understanding. The song starts with a driving rhythm, building slowly as Commander Video begins to embrace the end. About six minutes in, the wall finally bursts, revealing a melody from Bit.Trip Runner's Impetus. Hearing this celebratory song return is as though Commander Video's mind is focusing on his most triumphant moment, a final bout of unrestrained joy before passing away.

I've never felt more connected to a character in a video game than in this moment. I've had to cope with two deaths in 2012; one was an agonizingly gradual passing of an elderly relative, the other a sudden decline in health of a formerly healthy co-worker. Both were emotionally devastating, and I found myself replaying Bit.Trip Flux almost daily and listening to Catharsis endlessly as I struggled to comprehend and cope with death's inevitability. In those moments where I was alone, severed from immediate contact and support, I truly believe the only thing that kept me from the brink was this music.

Listen to Catharsis   read

2:45 PM on 12.02.2011

RetroforceGO! Perfect Best

RetroforceGO! was what brought me to Destructoid, and more importantly, what brought me back into gaming. To say the least, it was the only gaming podcast I had come across that was just about hanging out and talking games, rather than stressing whatever the latest news is or clobbering the listener with gamer cred. For years I assumed there was nothing left in gaming for me, and was content to keep my head down and stick with older systems. RFGO! eased me back into the world of gaming, and provided hours of entertainment.

A few months ago, I started listening to some of my favorite episodes on the commute to and from work. at first, I was merely leaving each episode set at the best moments so that they could easily be queued up whenever I needed a laugh at work. Then I started noting all of my favorite moments as a guide. Not long after, I began extracting said moments into clips, and before long I was making a collection, and knew the end result would be too great not to share with anyone who enjoyed the show.

After pulling about 72 clips, nearly 40 minutes total, I called it quits. There's still plenty more classic moments, so there may be more installments in the future. But for now, I present RetroforceGO! Perfect Best parts 1-3:

RetroforceGO! Perfect Best Part 1

RetroforceGO! Perfect Best Part 2

RetroforceGO! Perfect Best Part 3   read

8:27 AM on 11.19.2011

Zelda Week: Upon the Isle of Dreams

Even before the idea that Link's Awakening is the definitive series experience was broached in the original post, I immediately knew this would be my contribution to Zelda week. To date, Iíve played through every entry in the series except for Spirit Tracks and three titles that I wonít besmirch the glory of Zelda week by mentioning any further other than this obtuse reference. While I enjoy every game, Linkís Awakening has always stood far above the rest. Iíll get to the argument soon enough, but first I want to share my initial experience with this title.

I bought my first Game Boy as a Linkís Awakening bundle. For my birthday that year I was given a gift of cash from my grandparents: $50. I had never been given a cash gift up to that point, and nearly lost my mind when my dad clued me in that I could buy a whole new game system with it along with some allowance money I had been saving (with a little help from dad when my feeble ten year old mind didnít calculate the sales tax right). Playing as Link on the go that summer was engrossing, to say the least.

So much so that when the family spent a day at a Lake Erie beach, I suffered horrendous sunburns from sitting hunched over my game boy all day in the heat, never bothering to put on sunscreen: the fact of the matter was, I HAD to finish Bottle Grotto that day. Never before had any Zelda game, or any game at all caused me to sustain personal injury because I was so hopelessly enraptured. In preparation for Skyward Sword, I pulled out the old cartridge along with the Game Boy Pocket and revisited Koholint Island. Following this playthrough, I can say with absolute certainty that there is no finer game in the series, and hereís why.

The Music
Might as well start with a big one; the Zelda series had already established a strong aural component at this point, but Linkís Awakening brought it to a new level. Aside from a portion of the main Zelda theme, this title is packed with original music that maximizes the melodious purity afforded by the Game Boyís sound chip. Every dungeon has a unique theme that plays off of the atmosphere of each beautifully; from the looming sense of terror woven into Catfishís Maw to the understated eeriness emanating throughout the Face Shrine, the dungeon music alone is a masterwork of video game music.

But thereís so much more. While the main theme covers most of the outdoor locations, the mountainous areas are blessed with a gem of a tune that is still one of the more driving tunes of the series. By far though, my favorite entries are the variations on the Ballad of the Wind Fish theme. The melody shows up throughout the game, often at pivotal moments, and ties the story together. With so many outstanding tracks, the only thing left to do is wonder why the hell this game still has yet to receive any sort of OST release!

The youtube BBCode isn't working for me, so here's some links:
Tal Tal Heights
Face Shrine
Key Cavern
Ghost's House
Sword Search

The Humor
While fourth wall jokes and quirky humor have become a standard in many of the games, Linkís Awakening did it first, and still did it best. The children in Mabe Village offer gameplay advice then acknowledge that they really donít know what that means. A villager bluntly tells Link heís going to be lost later in the game in a rather subtle self-deprecating jab.

When Marin is following Link around sheíll criticize his Ocarina skills, terrorize the crane game operator, scold Link for looking inside dressers, and land on his head when the two jump down the village well. You can actually shoplift in Link's Awakening, resulting in everyone from that point on calling you THIEF instead of your chosen name. They even manage to squeeze in some slapstick when Tarin tries to knock down a beehive with a stick, resulting in a sort of Yakety Sax scene. The DX Version adds even more, with the photographer snapping pictures on the game's quirkier moments.

Sidescrolling in a Zelda game
The original Zelda used side scrolling segments, but they were little more than connecting passages. Linkís Awakening turned this mechanic into actual platforming segments, requiring the player to use acquired items to traverse hazardous terrain in a two dimensional perspective. These challenges range from jumps to dashes and melting a path through ice cubes. Best of all, two of the dungeon bosses actually occur in this view, adding even more variety to the already diverse boss lineup.

The Combat System
Zelda games arenít known for overly complex battle systems. However, this game has one simple distinction that sets it apart from the rest of the pack: your item buttons are fully customizable. While that does equate to two whole buttons, it was amazing at the time to be able to not always be holding your sword. Hell, you canít even do that now.

This not only afforded total freedom, it allowed for what I still consider the best two weapons in any Zelda game Ė bomb arrows, and the endless boomerang. The former should be self explanatory, but for those who arenít familiar with the latter, you can throw the boomerang, pick up the flying rooster with the power bracelet, then hover around as the weapon follows your path, annihilating everything below. Which brings me to my next point:

The Boomerang is an Unstoppable Killing Machine
Generally this item is used to stun enemies, retrieve far items, and activate switches. In Linkís Awakening, the boomerang demolishes almost every enemy in one toss. Of course, you have to earn it by doing a rather extensive side quest that canít be completed until well after the halfway point. And you canít even get it until you trade a greedy moblin one of your key items. But good god is it worth having.

The Best Glitch Ever
This one only applies for those who have an earlier version of the cartridge. Before it was corrected, one could warp across a given screen by applying the select button just as the screen began to scroll to the next area. While this may not seem like much, it could be used to bypass obstacles, dungeon sections, and warp randomly across the island, sometimes ending up in entirely glitched zones. When I first discovered this trick (thanks to Nintendo Power), I completed the dungeons out of order, and often had the key items even before entering them.

Of course, the gaming karma got me good when I warped into Eagleís Tower, then tried to exit and found myself lodged in a stone wall, as you have to unlock the tower from the outside before the stairs and entrance actually appear. In a brilliant maneuver, I then saved and quit, failing to realize that I would start in the exact same place when I loaded up the file later. Sure, it ruined my saved game, but I had a ton of fun and still experimented with it on a separate file on this most recent outing.

The Story

The primary plot arc is relatively simple, and all but spelled out for the player early on: Link needs to wake the Wind Fish in order to leave Koholint Island, which is the creature's dream. Waking the Wind Fish is achieved by gathering eight mystical instruments, hidden in each dungeon. It's a slight variation on the standard Zelda mechanic. On the surface, it seems straightforward enough. Looking deeper, however, opens a plethora of thought-provoking realizations. You are on a quest to destroy this intricate world - everything except for you and the Wind Fish will disappear at the end.

It's a plot device that grants a pensive portal into the realm of dreams. Is Marin a manifestation of the dreamer's longing and hope, with her desire of becoming a seagull and flying away to sing for far-away lands? Or is she simply a memory fragment of someone in the real world? Because we're never given any information on the Wind Fish, it's all a manner of interpretation. And if you just want to play a Zelda game, Link's Awakening delivers there too.

The Dream Shrine and the Ghost
Lastly, I'm bringing up two specific moments in the game that have always stuck with me. The first is the Dream Shrine. In Mabe Village, there is a small building blocked by boulders that can only be accessed after obtaining the Power Bracelet. The Dream Shrine is nothing more than an altar and a bed, an obvious nod to Zelda II. When Link hops on the bed, he enters a micro dream world, populated by bizarre creatures that mimic his movements and guard the Ocarina. While it's a short mini-dungeon, the mere idea of a dream within a dream blew my mind.

The last portion of this wonderful game I want to talk about is among my favorite moments in any video game. At one point between dungeons, a ghost begins following Link. He is unnamed in the game, but later given the name of Nakura in the Manga. He floats far behind our protagonist, and has a creepy little musical sting that plays every time you enter a new screen with it in tow. Nakura prevents Link from entering dungeons, and cryptically insists that he be taken home. Home, as it turns out, is an abandoned house by the island's south bay. Once inside (and joined by another fantastic piece of soundtrack), the ghost simply says,

As a kid, this was my introduction to the word nostalgia, and gaining a grasp on the concept was moving, to say the least. This little diversion stitches a seam between happiness and remorse that moves me every time, especially when the ghost then requests to be taken back to his grave. I've found this little episode particularly affective. The ghost clearly didn't need Link for transport - he was looking for an escort, a companion through the ghost's memories of another world, and someone to accompany him to the final resting place. And when one considers the ghost's role in the dream world, this whole side quest becomes as provoking as the main plot.

So that's my worship of Link's Awakening - the most Zelda Zelda game ever. Even if Skyward Sword surpasses it in every way, this game will always have a special place in my collection.


10:41 AM on 05.16.2011

Mega Man 3 is a dirty, dirty game

Apologies in advance to anyone who can't look at Mega Man 3 the same way after this.

In the original Mega Man, the robots are designed to perform industrial tasks, and conveniently double as a world domination task force for Dr. Wily. For the second attempt, Dr. Wily takes things a little more seriously and designs 8 robots who are all basically walking weapons (unless youíd like to argue that Quick Man has a nonviolent purpose). For me, the first two titles are the only stories where Dr. Wily takes himself seriously.

Formerly, I would lump Mega Man 3 with its predecessors. On my most recent play through, courtesy of the Anniversary Collection, I started to notice some peculiar characteristics on the third title. Initially, I wrote them off as products of an overactive (and Internet-tainted) imagination, and longed for the days when Dr. Wily turning into an alien at the end of Mega Man 2 still scared the shit out of me. But as I finished the game, there was no question: sure as Mega Man 6 is full of racial stereotypes, the robot masters of Mega Man 3 are part of Wily's new perverse scheme, bent on luring Mega Man into some bizarre trysts.

Rather than make an overarching argument, Iím going to go through each boss and share exactly what Iíve found when I took a closer look at the functionality of each one. But first, let's take a look at the stage select screen. In all other games, the center piece is either a static Mega Man or a sigil of the boss. Here, Mega Man's eyes follow the cursor wearily between each robot master. And upon closer look, their twisted intents are blatant: just look at how hungrily Hard Man is eyeing our protagonist!

Top Man

He clued me in, so Iíll start with him. At a young age, my friend and I would snicker about how Top Man liked to be on Top. And that really says it all. Look at that smirk on the stage select screen, thatís the smarmy little smile of mechanized rapist. His strategy is to dazzle the eye with spinning tops, and then whips himself into a spinning sexual frenzy at poor Mega Man, no doubt intending to buffet the blue bomber with a whirling steel shaft. He even grasps his crotch MJ style and throws out a fisting salute. Thatís a pose that will strike fear into robot virgins for generations to come.

Magnet Man

Atop his head is a giant U, as in ďTonight. You.Ē Like his depraved buddy Top Man, Magnet Man opts to distract and lead his prey by launching three magnets, no doubt designed to intimidate and confuse. The loud noise emitted with each launch serves to further distract so that he can deploy the trap Ė a magnetic field that drags Mega Man helplessly towards his captor. The double M can barely contain his excitement when the blue guy shows up, so much that his knees quiver in anticipation.

Hard Man

Obese and bound in leather, Hard Man is clearly a Bear in the robotic community, and he wants Mega Man as his cub. Upon entering his lair, Hard Manís animalistic urges take over, growling and thrusting his arms in the air. As his name implies, this robot master likes it rough Ė he starts by literally fisting our hero, then loses control and simply pounces, crushing Mega Man in rolls of robotic fat.

Snake Man

Green penis cannon. It's pretty obvious what those trouser snakes are searching for.

Spark Man

A younger version of myself might be skeptical at this point Ė how could a walking power plant possibly be a meant for dirty activities? Well, thanks to the Internet and an insatiable curiosity, itís quite obvious that Spark Man is all about erotic electrostimulation (hey don't look at me like that, I learned about it from Wikipedia!). He doesnít just want to put his angular dong into M squared Ė the Sparkster wants pain with his pleasure. Spark Man can be seen shocking himself through the freaking head, building his pleasure, before launching his flashy discharge. And once his helpless victim has been subdued, he leaps with reckless abandon, ready with his evil rods.

Shadow Man

Shadow Manís game is obviously bloodplay, with all his vats of the crimson liquid, brought forth by his endless supply of throwing stars. The only way to halt this vile ingress is to completely dominate Shadow Man, utilizing Top Manís trademark robot crotch-y whirlwind to beat the bastard into submission. But this clearly plays right into his desire to be a switch. Thatís why his life bar goes down so fast. Just look at how eager he is to accept it in the above screen shot.

Gemini Man

Also known as Mťnage ŗ trois man. He is only defeated when overloaded with the green penis cannon. Need I say more?

Needle Man

Wrapping up our list of cybernetic perverts is the robotic gimp. Heís sealed up in a vinyl suit, complete with a big red ball gag. Clearly turned on by piercings and injections, Needle Man flings his needles endlessly, pummeling Mega Man so that he can get close enough to launch his spiky tri-penis apparatus, allowing for maximum penetration. More than likely, Needle Man was Hard Manís cub until a scrawnier, sexier robot came on the scene. Desperate for the suffocating embrace of his lumberjack bear, Needleman is a scorned lover out for vengeance.

Proto Man
He shows up occasionally, and serves as the interlude between Dr. Wily's bodysuits and the castle stages. His pattern of attack is simple and laughable. He's obviously trying to help Mega Man from the other side, as if to say to the other robots "hey, look I'm gonna get him! Yeah look at me hop suggestively!"

Dr. Wily
Of course, we all know Dr. Wily was quick to cover his tracks, playing the whole attempt off as renewed world domination attempt once Mega Man showed up at his doorstop. So aside from the attempted Mega gang bang at the end of stage 3, the rest of the game is relatively innocuous. At least until, Wily shows up in this wide-eyed robot spewing white bursts from a flexible tube-like appendage, which just happens to be located in the nether quarters - luckily, some well placed hard knuckles can render his nefarious yogurt hose flaccid.

People refer to this as the fake Gamma, but I'm thinking once again that Dr. Wily had a quick backup plan to obscure his dirty secret. Look at what is purported to be the actual "ultimate weapon":

Yeah, it's a big mouth and some other robot's head awkwardly grafted on top who just chatters mindlessly, probably asking to be released from its awful existence of being half torso, half Julia Roberts-sized mouth with what looks like a white bra draped on top. While Mega Man dispatches this sin against nature, Dr. Wily quickly threw together a cockpit (which apparently draws eyes on the mouth-boob abomination). Then when the Doc finally shows up, it's a classic case of him declaring that if he can't have the Blue Bomber, no one can.

The only way to stop the maniacal old deviant is to give him all the robo wood he can handle. It's up to the Top Spin or Search Snakes to bring this perverted chapter in the series to a close, leaving Mega Man to wander along a grassy field, tracing Dr. Light's journals trying to figure out what went so very wrong, wondering if he'll ever sleep comfortably again.

On a serious note, what exactly is that thing floating on top of the tree?   read

3:45 PM on 03.29.2011

Technical Difficulties: Upon the Threshold

When it comes to challenge, the general thought drifts to terms such as the number of player lives/continues, enemy health, enemy AI, ease of control, whether or not the game has cheap shots, and the presence of broken gameplay (bad cameras, mechanics). Ultimately, challenge itself is in the eye of the player. All of the above are basically deterrents Ė a common argument against newer titles is that if you have enough time, youíll get through it regardless of skill. But either way, you put in time, and how much a game succeeds in slowing you down is determined by your frustration threshold. I was only recently able to properly articulate the presence of such a thing by a couple of games Ė Iíll get to them later.

In the shortest terms, the threshold is the period of time a player stays with a game before declaring ďfuck it!Ē and hurling the controller across the room. So what determines this breaking point? As stated prior, everyone has a different tolerance, but these tend to be the common factors:

Death Screens Ė with many games, the player doesnít simply die and reappear. You are smacked in the face with a death screen, such as the flashing colors in Zelda II, Deathís piercing gaze as in Shadowgate, and probably the most discouraging, The Silver Surfer weeping in defeat. Itís basically the game pulling you aside and chiding you for dying. You already knew you had failed, and probably knew it a moment before death even occurred, but the game just has to get its say in the most jarring way possible. I always liken them to a comment once left on my old geocities website, which simply stated ďYOU MIGHT DO IT BETTER DUDEĒ.

Those effing jetpack guys are made so much worse by hearing the musical equivalent of "OOPS YOU FELL DOWN!"

Death Rattles Ė More common than the debilitating death screen is the little tune that plays when you die, the best example of course being Super Mario Brothers. Ninja Gaidenís is particularly long and caustic, as is Castlevaniaís. Again, the cue is entirely unnecessary; you know you messed up, and hearing that little sequence every single time is akin to some irritating spectator. Weíve all had an annoying onlooker who just canít help but add commentary to your gameplay, with exclamations like ďoh that sucksĒ, ďso closeĒ, ďit was a pitÖĒ Or in other terms, itís like hearing the horns from The Price is Right.

Both of these elements expedite the process of a player quitting, because thereís only so many times one can withstand hearing and/or seeing them before they crack. Some games even combine the two for maximum frustration. Goldeneye is a prime example Ė you get the long drawn out death song as the blood covers your view, then youíre shown a long death screen where your failure replays three times. Sure, you can skip the second sequence, but it always manages to squeeze in a second just to make sure you saw it.

What really made these elements stand out to me were the games that completely side-step them, and in exchange, present challenges that border on absurdity. Super Meat Boy, VVVVVV, and Tower of Heaven are perfect examples of this phenomenon. When you die in these games, there is no death chime, no death screen, and most important of all, the music does not stop. Streamlining the music through the death process was a stroke of genius. For me, music is a massive factor in gaming Ė I highly doubt I would have put up with all the times the Dragon killed me (or to be more accurate, all the times the auto-scroll killed me) in Mega Man II were it not for the rocking Dr. Wily theme.

The worst part of the aforementioned components is that they were so disturbing; they rip the player out of their concentration, forcing them to recollect or give up entirely. Itís like trying to see a Magic Eye poster, and some bastard kids come up and ruin it for you. Leaving it all behind allows these games to get away with such cruelty as Doing Things the Hard Way in VVVVVV or taking away the ability to walk left as in Tower of Heaven. Had any of these titles been equipped with even just a death theme, chances are good not nearly as many would complete them. Of course, it doesn't hurt that the games all have incredible soundtracks.

Look at this. LOOK AT THIS.

I experimented while writing this entry to test my theory. While playing Super Meat Boy, I had my iPod queued up with the death theme from Ninja Gaiden. When I would die, I played the theme, then exited back to the stage select screen. On an ordinary day, Iím liable to shout curses at Super Meat Boy, but still press onward. With this style of play, I gave up after a few attempts. Try it out sometime Ė if youíre anything like me, chances are good youíll go insane with rage.

When I see this, I know it's all over.

Of course, some games have done the exact opposite. Iíve never beaten a bit.trip game, and can only finish the first level of Beat. The reason being is that you not only have to endure a death throe and a death screen, but the music breaks up whenever you make a mistake. For me, thatís the perfect combination to set my threshold unbearably low. I can complete Battletoads, Iíve finished Ikaruga (though not with one credit!), but toss a game at me where itís designed to constantly poke and prod me whenever I do wrong, capped off with your paddle shrieking and a neon flashing death screen, and I crumble.

So, what builds your threshold?   read

2:34 PM on 09.02.2010

More than just noise: Encapsulating a Character

One of the more potent aspects of music is the innate ability to attach itself to memories. Times and people long past are often associated with songs; even non-visual facets of oneís memory may be affected. For instance, whenever I hear Johnny Cash, I can smell my grandparentís study (where I was introduced to his fantastic music) - the scent of musty books, old furniture and their many cats wafts in from the past through some mental trickery. Music affixed to a visual interactive medium is naturally even more cohesive in that same way. Any gamer could probably hear one second of the Level 1-1 theme from Mario Bros. and immediately know what it is with an instant visual picture and the sensation of holding a controller. Thatís how powerful a game soundtrack can be.

Let me get it out of the way, I love video game music more than I probably have the right. As a child, I held my tape recorder to the TV to make soundtracks, and still play them on occasion. My main cell ringtone is Pokey Means Business! My text message notification is the Legend of Zelda secret chime. When my wife calls, I hear FFIVís Theme of Love. Most of my friends are set to a segment of I MAED A S0NG W1TH Z0MB1ES 1N IT! And when my brother calls, the Dr. Wilyís castle theme from Megaman II starts playing. When I play a game and like the soundtrack, I do whatever it takes to obtain a copy. If I canít buy the album, Iíll spend hours tracking it down online. If I canít find a downloadable version, I will extract it from youtube or wherever it may be available in some form (The Secret of Evermore OST was the most recent acquisition through that method).

With the requisite fapping off the tableÖIíd like to use this entry to discuss my absolute favorite aspect of video game soundtracks: character themes. The typical memorable theme will remind one of a certain level or an obstacle. With the advent of storytelling in video games, the themes began to expand to allow certain characters to have an aural sting. Ostensibly, it began with boss themes, not unlike villainous scores such as the Imperial March. Around the 16-bit era, we were graced with character songs that became more than just a cue for the player to know this guy or girl is the enemy. They became a summation of a character, taking their most identifiable aspects and translating them into music, and were played at key points of the story. Rather than expound on this concept generically, Iím going to use the remainder of this entry to focus on my favorite character-based songs.

Iíd apologize in advance for the heavy use of Nobuo Uematsu and Yasunori Mitsuda penned songs, but they are the masters of the craft.

Chrono Trigger (Cronoís Theme) ~ Yasunori Mitsuda

Might as well start off the list with a piece that is the quintessential ďfuck yeah, letís go!Ē theme. Crono never utters a word through the game (sans that one ending), yet emotes so much throughout. His devotion to his friends and their quest to save the future never falters for a moment. Crono serves as a perfectly written avatar for the player, who also wants to do whatever it takes to rid the world of Lavos. Played at key points throughout the game, Chrono Trigger is the perfect blend of bravery and compassion for our favorite time traveling, spiky-headed hero.


Cidís Theme ~ Nobuo Uematsu

When it comes to Final Fantasy VII, Aerithís theme and One Winged Angel are usually the two everyone remembers. And not to take anything away from those pieces, as they are excellent by their own right, but Iíve always found Cidís theme just as moving. Here was a pilot who lived his life with a dream, to reach the stars. His seemingly one and only opportunity was taken from him when he sacrificed the mission to save his friend, who then became the focus of his anger in the following years. Cidís theme perfectly evokes imagery of a grizzled old man, worn out and strung along by his failing dreams. The song begins in sad form, yet betrays a glimmer of hope as it builds, a notion that the dream may not be as lost as all those years past. It makes the climax of Cidís story all the more powerful.


Ceremony / The Oracle (Thanatosís Themes) ~ Hiroki Kikuta.

The Seiken Densetsu series is loaded with brilliant music, but doesnít offer much in the way of character themes. However, Secret of Mana held a pair of themes for the villainous Thanatos that have stuck out in my mind ever since I first heard them. These two are hands down the most bizarre and unsettling pieces of music Iíve ever heard in a game. The dissonant bells of Ceremony and the pummeling trip-hop beat of The Oracle clash heavily with the rest of the soundtrack, as well as the vibrant art style, a contrast that is simply ingenious.

Moving from the bright landscapes to the misty drear ruins with this music playing is an example in oppressive unsettlement. You never know exactly what heís doing to the townpeople there, or why they wear those hideous masks, and it just adds to the tension. When you finally face him at the end of the game, he turns into a giant skeleton with a pink and purple robe. Sure, the colors are a bit frightening, but the music is insanity. The tolling bells of Ceremony now swirl around, driven by an infernal beat, and just when you get used to it, the song goes batshit crazy at the 1:24 mark. Mysterious, unnerving, and clinically insane, these two themes will haunt my dreams for years to come.


Celes's Theme ~ Nobuo Uematsu

I had two goals in mind with this list Ė keep the Final Fantasy to a minimum of two entries, and make one of them from FFIV. But I couldnít do it, because Celesís theme is undeniably gorgeous. Throughout the story, she promotes a tough faÁade, though often shows cracks in her emotional armor.

Side Story: In my first draft, I didn't use the word "cracks" there, I used another word that apparently sets off the filter here. I spent 15 minutes combing my draft and saving with certain paragraphs cut out, until I narrowed it to this one. It was until I had to the exact sentence that I realized this word was also a racial slur. This is why we can't have nice words.

This theme is one of fragility, of a conflicted woman who has found herself between two worlds, torn by her emotions and duties. Her longing for Locke grows as the story progresses, and is arguably at its most beautiful during the opera scene. Hearing Celes sing her actual theme is heart wrenching every time I hear it. It taps a self-referential moment visible only to the player, who canít help but be swept into this love story.


Simonís Theme ~ Konami Kukeiha Club

The Castlevania series is another known for great music, but not necessarily great character themes. The fourth entry brought along the definitive theme for Simon Belmont, who is typically the flagship character for both the series and the Belmont family. Itís a perfect aural match to Simonís quest. TheÖquest, not the game subtitled Simonís Quest, oh nevermind. It begins with a slow ominous creep: fitting for Draculaís castle, with a buildup that insists more of the same is to followÖuntil that darkness gets its face whipped off by Simon. Itís classic video game heroism at its finest. And the best part is that when you finally reach Dracula, and wear down his health, it doesnít play some harrowing boss theme, the game plays Simonís theme! Itís the ultimate form of musical badassery in video games. Simon doesnít give the Count one fucking inch; he beats that bloodsucking bastard down on Simon's terms.

And I always do the air drums at the 0:49 mark.


Schalaís Theme ~ Yasunori Mitsuda

Chrono Trigger brims with wonderful themes. I could have made this list entirely devoted them, as they all perfectly exemplify the idea of compiling a character into a song. Schalaís has always stood out to me, even more so than the others. She is a latecomer to the story, and only has a few lines of dialog, yet she is a key component to both the overall plot and Magusís backstory. Her theme manages to say more than any visual cues, painting a kind, loving girl who, despite all the trouble sheís been put through, and faces a tragic destiny she canít avoid, still does all she can to help others, particularly her brother. The song retains that dreamy, magical feel that is prevalent in the Zeal theme, giving it an ethereal elegance that perfectly captures Schalaís story.


The Opened Way (Gaius) ~ Kow Otani

I know itís a stretch since this is more a boss theme, and wasnít solely devoted to Gaius, but I couldnít make this list and not include this incredible piece of music. Everyone probably knows exactly when, while playing Shadow of the Colossus, he or she was hit with pangs of guilt. For me, it was this battle, and this theme that did it. At first, the Opened Way seemed to be portraying the struggle the player was going through, but as I caught a glimpse of Gaiusís eyes Ė that look of confusion and anger Ė the music took on a new form. It was reminiscent of reading Frankenstein, when the Monster talked of trying to understand and live in the world of man and was shunned and attacked.

And that is the brilliance of this track. It plants a seed of remorse in the player that may sprout at any moment, whether itís during battle or in conjunction with the end of battle theme. For me, The Opened Way compacts all of what the player goes through into one piece. So it actually makes it more a theme for the player than any character in the game. Itís epic, tragic, and above all, beautiful.


Overworld BGM (Linkís Theme) ~ Koji Kondo

Ah yes, how could there ever be a list about memorable character themes or even memorable game music without this piece. Itís a fine place to end because like the Mario theme, I donít even need to talk about this one. If youíve played Zelda, you already have the song in your head. You can already see Link from the first Zelda game that comes to your mind. Itís a classic character theme by every definition of the word: a summation of a heroís journey, the exploration, the danger, the triumph, and it revolves on a perfect loop.


So thatís about it. I know thereís a million other character themes, and at least a few of them not in a Squaresoft game, but these are the ones that have always stood out to me. Each piece is a masterwork that bridges the player to an intangible character and ensconces itself in their memories. Often taken for granted, a working character theme is something unique to video games. Movies and TV shows come close, but never nail it. There isnít much better than when you can listen to a few minutes of music and the whole of a character and their story floods your mind.   read

11:36 AM on 08.03.2010

Teh Bias: STFU!

When I watch a movie that was based on a book, there is usually a smarmy bastard or two who canít help but incessantly remark at the differences in this adaptation. They always arrive at the conclusion that the book was better, and that anyone who hasnít read the book is inferior and probably touches their tacos inappropriately. For all the analysis these smug nitpickers pride themselves on, they never seem to arrive at the obvious conclusion, which is that the book is almost always better (the only exception I can recall at the moment would be The Shawshank Redemption).

The book is better because the reader utilizes their imagination instead of watching what equates to a summary of someone elseís interpretations. My favorite video games tread a similar path, providing basic imagery, accompanying music, and succinct character outlines/development rather than pure text over elongated descriptions and dialog. But one characteristic will curdle my demeanor like the aforementioned smarmy bastards, and that is voices in videogames.

To preempt any knee-jerking for the sake of Kratos, Iíll preface myself by stating that not all voice acting in video games is awful or unnecessary - just a majority of it. Hearing some stilted, monotone voice spit out dialog sours a good script and makes a questionable translation unbearable. Iíve suffered through enough embarrassingly horrible death throes, attempts at drama, and wooden narration to give me an aversion to any game where voices are prevalent. The most recent example is Arc Rise Fantasia. I was interested in the game until I watched gameplay footage and heard the voices: the awkward dialog, the irritating endless chatter in battle. Luckily the game does have an option to silence the pitiful woes of the under skilled (and likely underpaid) actors, but increasingly few games offer this reprieve.

These scenes would have been ruined by voice acting.

Whatís the point? To continue this semblance of bridging two mediums, making interactive movies? Are games with actual voices more credible or mature because they are blessed with bad acting like so many piles of fetid shit shoved into theaters every year? I could argue that there needs to be a better sense of quality control if this standard is to continue, but Iíd rather it discontinue altogether. Iíd gladly trade the few and far between for pristine silence, or even just minimal voices in the vein of Ocarina of Time or Okami. Playing through a game and giving the characters voices has long been part of the experience for me, as is filling out back stories. Any good story telling medium allots the viewer/reader/listener a certain degree of imaginative freedom Ė why should we besmirch an inherit strength in video games that cultivates this freedom?

This one too.

The novelty of voices wore off for me fairly quick, somewhere after Resident Evil. Itís always seemed entirely unnecessary, an afterthought to make the game ďnext-genĒ at worst, a misguided attempt to propel the medium forward at best. Sure, adding actual voices does advance gaming from a technical standpoint, but itís in the wrong direction. Itís too often that a potentially emotional scene is shattered by hammy acting. I loved Lost Odyssey, but felt many scenes lost much potency due to the acting. Worse, piss-poor writing can be glossed over by overacting the same way so many glam bands glossed over their shitty ballads with an overdone guitar solo Ė Heavy Rainís Ethan Mars comes to mind as a prime example.

I'll concede that some good comes out of bad acting
(or I would, if the embed would work).

Memorable and emotional moments prior to the advent of voices in games relied on maximizing the mediumís potential. Voice acting could be a fine accent to these established tactics, but instead itís used as a crutch. This is why I shudder when I realize a gameís dialog is exclusively delivered in voiceovers. Give me a game absent of voices over something like Heavy Rain any day. Writers and developers need to focus on making a memorable story, an atmospheric world, an evocative narrative, interesting characters, and great gameplay. Let the player take care of the voices.   read

8:46 AM on 07.12.2010

The one thing Mario Galaxy 2 did wrong

Originally, I had intended to draft an entry comparing the two Mario Galaxy games. I finally played the first game a mere seven months ago and recently finished the second, which gave me a fresh comparative perspective. However, the two are obviously similar and the only blatant differing aspect I found was the scope and design of each respective game world. The abbreviated version of the never-composed article is that the first had a more fleshed out and better crafted world while the second felt more like a series of those little side galaxies from the first title.

In gathering these thoughts, another topic bubbled and rose to the top of my mind: the boss battles. As I completed both titles, I couldnít help feeling disappointed in some of the major fights the Galaxy titles offered. Itís a stigma Mario 64 suffered from Ė repetitive boss design. Iíve never been a fan of the Nintendo 64ís flagship game, and while my list of problems in the game is crowned with the myriad of control issues, the fights with Bowser are certainly in a high position. The primary pratfall is that the player is given the same exact battle circumstances over and over again. Iíll concede that Bowser isnít likely to be the most creative of villains (though his sequel makes a fine attempt), but it should be conceivable that heíd try a different tactic when one fails.

The slow moving fist of death isnít quite as infallible as it appears.

And with that in mind, Iím accepting of Bowser spurring the same style of attack at the end of each worldÖup until the final battle. To preface the next few statements, I have never played a Mario game for an engrossing story or especially memorable ending (Super Mario RPG being the one huge exception); I wasnít one of those foolish fans who sent angry letters to Nintendo Power when Mario 64 ended with the baking of a cake. That said, the treatment given to the final battle with Bowser in the Galaxy titles is absurd, particularly in the sequel. Playing through that fight and realizing it was in fact, the last go around was akin to watching the final episode of a series and it being no different from any other episode.

Progressively building the same attack didnít work out so well back then either.

Consider Super Mario World and Mario 3. When you finally reached Bowser in those games, he hurled crazy new attacks at you never before seen in the game. Iíll never forget that moment of panic in Mario 3 when the music kicked in and Bowser began a relentless attack. In World, he had a bit more finesse, again striking fear as one had to figure out how to damage him as he floated around out of range. With Mario Galaxy 2, the moment Mario is thrown onto that same old asteroid with Bowser looming behind, you know exactly what to expect. Sure, they change the pattern his fist strike makes on impact, but everything else follows the same gambit. And after heís beaten once, it appears the game is finally dispensing a worthy final showdown, but instead itís a simplistic reprise of the previous fight.

I love this last line so hard though. It almost makes up for the letdown of the final battle.

The Galaxy titles boast arguably the best platform level design conceived this far. Each area is unique, challenging (often to a controller-tossing magnitude) and above all else, a blast to play. Capping off these games which are highly likely to become legendary landmarks in gaming history should have been equally memorable closing showdowns with Marioís nemesis. While not horrible by any stretch, these fights offer little challenge because by the end, the average player could probably trounce the giant turtle on their first attempt. All the buildup over an epic final level, and this was the best the main villain could muster? Bowser deserves better.   read

10:52 AM on 05.26.2010

How Lost ripped off Smash Bros Brawl

Hey, I know what you're thinking - oh great, another pretentious asshole spewing some diatribe about how great/lousy the Lost Finale was with some loose tie to video games in order to justify its presence here. But you may want to hold your tongue. It'll keep your fingers occupied long enough for you to read before channeling your inner YouTube commenter. First, a little housekeeping - if you haven't seen the final season or can't be arsed to read a synopsis on Lostpedia or wherever, then jog on. Second, I'll keep this incredibly brief as possible, but will still include a tl;dr at the bottom because we're all sick of Lost-related meandering soapbox posts.

So the final season dropped the format of either a flashback or flashfoward to both develop characters and to pad the overall story arc in favor of a flash sideways. From the start, it was obvious these flashes were part of an alternate timeline, as the first episode title LA X confirmed. The characters were, at their core, the same in this alternate world, exhibiting similar characteristics that we saw and grew to hate/love about them throughout the prior seasons. Each character is introduced in a manner similar to their origins, and have a mini-arc that accents both their original story and characteristics. New situations were thrown into the mix, causing characters to have new interactions and connections not seen before. For instance, that bastard Keamy had his shit wrecked by Sayid, as did the multi-lingual Mikhail. Desmond joined forces with the nefarious Widmore initially, but eventually would redeem himself. Ben Linus proved that it just takes the right situation to turn a decent guy into a manipulative, dictating jerk. All of these characters eventually work through their new situations and conflicts to unite in their cause of moving on from this alternate, twisted world.

In Brawl, the adventure mode, or The Subspace Emissary, finds the cast of characters ripped from their respective games and thrown into this new, alternate world, which contains familiar surroundings, but they aren't quite the same. Each character remains the same at their core - Wario is still a disgusting big nosed creep, Dedede remains a clumsy oaf with a good heart who is only a villain until he can find a jelly donut, and Peach still can't manage to retain any of what made her good in Super Mario RPG. Each character is introduced in a manner befitting their original game, and have a small part in the overall story that accents both their original game and character personality. New connections are forged, with villains joining together, heroes working together, and never before seen battles springing up in new locales. They all eventually triumph over the axis of villains to unite in their cause of moving on from this alternate, twisted world.

I don't care what part of either entity one interprets as a limbo or purgatory, <tl;dr> that whole flash sideways was just the The Subspace Emissary mode of Smash Brothers Lost. </tl;dr> Sadly, they never unlocked Frank Lapidus.   read

7:54 AM on 05.05.2010

Zombie Panic in Wonderland Review

As a younger lad, I was fortunate enough to experience large arcades in the local malls, not quite in their prime, but certainly a few years before their decline into the dark days of a few busted cabinets shoved into a neglected corner, one malfunctioning change machine dropped nearby as an afterthought, joysticks and buttons crippled, raped of their former glory by snot nosed punks with their hip shoes and music posters on the wall. Uh, anyway, like most future murderers, I always gravitated towards any game that featured a gun controller, and in particular any game with a gun that involved shooting zombies. I spent absurd amounts of quarters on CarnEvil and House of the Dead, and even after finally beating them, I'd always want to go another round.

There really wasn't anything quite like blasting zombies, at least until a certain gathering of mucus-infested children of a younger, hipper, generation descended upon those pristine hunks of plastic, forever tarnishing the ever-satisfying triggers with their greedy little mitts - but their hotbed of reckless destruction can only last for so long, because the purveyors of the arcade are only bound to live in obscurity for so long, and the eve of reckoning quickly approaches. So about Zombie Panic in Wonderland. I've always yearned for a replication of the arcade experience at home - sweaty palms around a controller, noises blaring all around, people gathered around to watch. But really, no game is capable of bringing all that into one's living room. The House of the Dead ports do come close, but it's just a fact of life that you can't have a true arcade experience in the home. And Zombie Panic in Wonderland may be the first game I've ever played that appears to have taken that notion to heart.

There is a backstory to this game, and it has a few memorable quirks, but it's mostly just fluff. However, it's a zombie blasting game, and story isn't a necessity beyond getting the player from point to point. You play as some standard anime-looking characters, who have just enough distinction to make them interesting to watch on screen. Initially there are only two playable characters, the others unlock as stages are beaten, with seven in total being available at the end. The basic premise is that you are in an amusement park of sorts that is infested with zombies, skeletons, and other monsters. Your goal in each regular stage is to get the clean-up meter to 100%. Clean up is achieved by killing monsters and destroying the scenery. At the start of each stage, the area is rife with props, buildings, and flora, all of which can be destroyed. There is also a timer, so if you don't hit the magic number fast enough, it's game over. Monsters appear in predefined waves, with some advancing towards the front, others just standing their ground and hurling projectiles. The player is only able to move back and forth, as they dodge and blast the enemies - it's a design akin to the Base levels of the original Contra. And just like Contra, one hit and you'll lose a life. You start with 3 lives (which includes the vaunted 'zero guy'), but have unlimited continues.

Graphically, this game is fantastic. Zombie Panic in Wonderland is colorful, smoothly animated, and chock-full of little destructible doodads. Both player and enemy characters are beautifully drawn and animated, full of charm, and a pleasure to watch. Think later-era PS2/Gamecube, and you'll have a good idea of the quality to expect. The best part of the graphics department is that even when the field is crowded with enemies, enemy fire, and player fire, I never once experienced a slowdown in gameplay.

Mastering your zombie smasher is a cinch, thanks to the superb control scheme, which takes full advantage of the nunchuck/wiimote setup. On the Wiimote, the B trigger is the fire button, the A button fires grenades, while aiming is accomplished as expected by pointing. The control stick on the nunchuck moves the player from left to right, while the Z trigger performs a dodge move and the C button swaps weapons. It's a simple setup, properly placed to give the player total control. My only gripe in the control department is that there is no pause/menu button, so once you start a level, it's do or die. I did give the game a try using the Wii zapper, but actually found it was more comfortable to use the standard setup, as you'll be making heavy use of the nunchuck, and mostly just holding the B trigger on the wiimote endlessly.

Weaponry comes in a few flavors: the starting gun, which fires unlimited semi-automatic bursts, a heavy machine gun that tears through any enemy with ease, the flamethrower, which is invaluable against swarms of zombies, and lastly a grenade launcher, perfect for clustered enemies. Ammo for each of these weapons drops regularly from blasting pieces of the scenery, so it's always a good idea to shoot absolutely everything. Though the weapon types are a bit limited, the mechanics of the game allow for some different strategies on the player's part. Because ammo for the flamethrower and heavy machine gun runs out quickly, using them exclusively to mow down a wave of enemies will leave you underpowered. But using the flamethrower for just a couple of seconds to ignite a horde, then using the regular gun to pick off the weakened foes is highly effective, as is firing a spray of heavy machine gun ammo to fend off the pesky birds while using standard ammunition to knock back the slower moving fat zombies.

Enemies also come in a variety of styles. There are lurching zombies, booger-flinging zombies, ninja zombies, sickle-tossing skeletons, dive-bombing ravens, skeleton archers, armored zombies, fat zombies (boulder tossing and charging types), pumpkin hurling tree monsters, and even a zombie santa claus. Each enemy type has a distinct behavior and fire pattern, so recognizing how each attacks is key to surviving. As the stages progress, waves of mixed hordes start to appear, resulting in harrowing gauntlets of varied enemy fire. Once you start getting into the skeletons that throw spinning sickles, zombies that hurl slow moving projectiles, birds that divebomb periodically, and fat zombies tossing fast moving boulders, it almost becomes like a bullet hell pattern, requiring great dexterity from the player to navigate while shooting down the enemy. Bosses are a different affair, offering multi-stage cinematic fights somewhat similar to House of the Dead. Every boss looks fantastic, and poses unique challenges to the player. The giant Tin Man was my personal favorite.

Surprisingly, this little game offers a decently varied soundtrack as well. It starts with J-pop sounding tunes in the start, and morphs to more rocked out themes in the forest and somber piano melodies in the winter areas. They aren't exactly tracks that will have players foaming at the mouth for an OST release, but they do a great job in accentuating the mood of each area. Sound effects run along the same path, doing a fine job in differentiating each weapon, each enemy, and each combination of the two. It is a little strange to hear the birds make a deep death grunt, but then again, we are talking about a game where cute anime girls massacre monsters in an amusement park.

As I mentioned at the start, this game isn't designed to exactly bring an arcade title into one's home, but it mimics several aspects while taking advantage of the home console environment. The story mode allows the player to pick up at the stage where they left off, while the arcade mode offers free play on any conquered stage. The levels are challenging, but never have those irritating quarter-sucking moments where you are destined to lose a life. The gameplay is easy to learn, takes some time to master, and is addicting as hell. It took me three sit downs of about an hour or so to finish the first time, and immediately after, I was starting the game back up with another character. The two-player option is a blast as well, especially during the crazier moments.

Zombie Panic in Wonderland isn't a genre-defining experience, a hilarious romp, or something you'll remember and discuss at every opportunity. What it is however, is an arcade-style shooter that just oozes charm - from the cute little strut that the characters do at the end of each level to the tiny dwarfs that meander about during heavy gunfire, the game is full of little touches that make it a great experience. For a mere $10, you really can't lose if you have any interest in this sort of title.   read

8:10 PM on 03.25.2010

Something about sex: It is very dark. You are likely to be laid.

The modern age of gaming has made great strides to evoke an emotional response from the player, taking cues from mediums such as film, music, literature, andÖart. While it isnít uncommon for a game to find moments of hilarity, emotional gut-punches, or haunting nostalgia (why yes, they are limited to those three categories), they still stumble when attempting to portray sex. But itís not necessarily the medium that is the limitation; movies and books are just as awkward when it comes to sex. Typically, a sex scene in a movie is either implied/off-camera, or a montage that cross-fades scenes of what sex might look like. When a movie has enough gumption to go all out, people regard it as porn. Books do a little better, but again, they tend to gloss over sex for fear of being labeled as a dimestore romance novel.

Most games are not able to do any better. A majority of them very lightly imply that sex has been had, a few go a little further and are generally blasted for it by various media outlets. Sex is an experience that cannot be imitated with camera shots or suggestive words. You can mimic the actions, even motion capture them, but youíre just making porn. You can write dialog copied directly from two people actually having sex, but youíre writing a harlequin romance. Arguably, the most important aspect of intercourse is what goes on behind the scenes: the emotional bond, so to speak, and of course, the pleasure. This is something that cannot be accomplished when the player is either a camera in the room, or in the first-person pairing up with a computer. That said, in my years of gaming, there was one title I frequented where sex was prevalent, important to character development, and most importantly, entirely believable.

If one were to take a glance at my console collection, theyíd notice a generation gap: I donít own a PS2 or Xbox, and my Gamecube library is fairly minimal. From 2000 to 2002, I barely touched my console systems. I hadnít sworn off gaming entirely. Rather, I was engrossed in what I still consider the best roleplaying game Iíve ever played. The game was a text-based MUD (multi-user dungeon) named Rogue Winds. Donít feel bad if you havenít heard of it Ė Iíd be surprised if it ever had more than 100 players. For those unfamiliar with the concept of a MUD, the image below is basically what a player is looking at. Based on text-based adventure games of old, purveyors of this obscure form of gaming had to enter in predefined commands. This meant typing things like cast Ďmagic missileí goblin, enter door, say Ďhowís it goingí, and the like. The game had a vast variety of worlds to explore, quests to complete, skills to hone (such as combat, forging, alchemy, leatherworking, etc), spells to learn, and most importantly for the purpose of this article, sex to be had. What follows are my experiences with a game where sex was not only possible, it was a staple. If I could I would include original logs, but again, an uninvolved player surveying them degenerates their original value to porn.

Before I continue, itís important to address the character barrier. Or rather, the question everyone whom Iíve described this experience to has posed: how did I know the person on the other end wasnít the guy shown above? The simple answer is that I didnít know, didnít care, and neither did most of the other players. Because we were attempting to roleplay our characters as realistically as possible, sex was a regular occurrence. In other words, if I just wanted to get off, Iíd be out on AIM vomiting ĎA/S/L?í in all directions, not crafting elaborate characters who may or may not get laid from time to time. So what did the sex entail? Well this is where it gets interesting. There were a few predefined commands (among a large collection of stored, non-consequential actions called socials) such as caress, kiss, fondle, massage, and the like. For the bold there were also a set of xcommands, such as xthigh, xkiss, and xstroke for the naughty occasions. But these were only utilized by the lamest roleplayers, and only as a lead-in by the more creative. Like all the best roleplaying moments in Rogue Winds, the sexual actions were created on the spot using the emote command; for instance, emote traces his fingers along the subtle outlines of [character]ís back, while his lips lightly make contact with the back of her neck.

That example is actually quite tame compared to what was standard. Vanilla sex, as some called it, was a bit of a rarity. You have to consider that this was a fantasy world, with heavy influences from Tolkien and Moorcock. There was a plethora of races available, troglodytes, merfolk, lizardmen, angels, werewolves, zombies, wraiths, pixies, dragons, centaurs, quicklings, slith, and many originals crafted up by the world designers (called Immortals in-game). Beyond the complications that would arise from say, an ogre and a pixie becoming romantically linked, each character might have some kinks and twists. One memorable encounter was when a character of mine, a reckless ariel pyromancer, crossed paths with a water nymph who had a touching fetish. Within this game, their bizarre sexual mishaps were stepping stones in character development; in a modern console title, this sort of behavior would never pass.

This game was not just a flimsy vessel for cybersex. There exists a different variety of MUDs that serve that purpose. Roleplaying was heavily encouraged by players and admins alike. Characters had feuds, waged wars, made friends, performed concerts, had mental breakdowns, and entered relationships. Some characters eventually married, others just trolled around for booty. Many even went as far as to have offspring, which began as custom items (there was a Change magic spell that could reshape an item into whatever the player wished) carried by the parents and eventually became full-fledged characters. And those who couldnít have sex due to physical challenges found other means. For a time I played a psychic elven huntress who fell for a wraith who had been banished to the dream world, and was unable to physically manifest. Because her talents allowed her to make a connection to the dream world (and I mean that literally, dream walking characters could not interact with the waking), they made love on the astral planes.

Unfortunately, on-rails stories cannot replicate this sort of roleplaying. Thatís the thing, a game like Final Fantasy XII or Mass Effect may have an amazing story and great gameplay to back it up, but the player is not truly roleplaying, they are following predefined paths. To the credit of the RPG game genre, it has successfully worked around many of these limitations. However, sex will always be that awkward little moment, not only because a game that involves prewritten dialog precludes any chance at meaningful intercourse, but also because sex is still a taboo. If WoW were to having something akin to say, a transgendered drow granting sexual favors to a pixie if she gives him beauty tips or two dragons flattening a forest in the midst of their destructive lovemaking, available to players, there would be a shitstorm. The other obvious hindrance is the overt lack of maturity. Given what the average Live player sounds like, itís a fair bet to assume that even if a game allowed this behavior, it would be severely trolled Ė just ask anyone who has tried any given MMoRPGís ďroleplayingĒ servers. And that is what this all comes down to: maturity. The game industry isnít matured enough to allow for a proper introduction of adult content, and the average player typically isnít mature enough to accept said content. Because of this, something about sex will always be just so generically that.   read

3:30 PM on 03.06.2010

Blaster Master Overdrive Review

Like many gamers, I have fond, albeit controller-hurling, memories of the original Blaster Master. It was classic side-scrolling action with a dual mechanic by taking the player to overhead dungeons. The music was catchy, the graphics were gorgeous for the time, and the difficulty caused me (on more than one occasion) to yell at bystander for breathing too loud. We received a couple of lackluster sequels, with only the gameboy adaptation registering just under decent, and the franchise was quietly put to rest. Whenever I pulled out the catridge, I always wondered why no other game attempted this sort of gameplay, or why Sunsoft never saw it fit to give Jason and SOPHIA another shot. I was ecstatic at the surprise announcement of Overdrive, and without any time for speculation on screenshots or video to form, I downloaded the title on day one.

So to get it out of the way right now, this isn't better than the original. But by no means is Overdrive a poor release. The tank control is as tight as the original, with the tank responding quickly to every inconceivable jump, while overhead control gives the much-needed improvement of being able to walk diagonally. Strafing in the original was accomplished by simply holding down the fire button; here it is assigned to the B button. While it is nice to have strafe as a separate button, the original setup worked fine, and wrapping a finger under the blocky wiimote while grinding a thumb on that little cross pad gets painful after an hour. This brings me to my chief complaint on the control: it's wiimote only. What the hell were they thinking?

On that note, there's the graphics. I actually like the direction they took with the tank and player, and the monster animation is nice and crisp. But the backgrounds are atrocious. The opening area has a subtle beauty, but that's the last you'll see of that style. Area 1 and Area 2 are basically interchangable, both in tank and overhead sections: bland grey caves. Areas 3 and 4 only have minor alterations to the same design. Area 5 does a little better, but it's still the same damn cave setup. In the original, Area 1 was a vibrant cave, teeming with greenery. Area 2 was a ruined castle, completely different from Area 1, and each proceeding Area continued in the same fashion. And as if the graphics couldn't get more bland, most of them suffer from blurring while the tank/player is in motion.

The flow of Overdrive is essentially unchanged: travelling from one area to another, seeking out the boss in each, and obtaining an ability that allows the player to advance to another area - it was basically the precursor to the Super Metroid style. The abilities are actually quite different this time around. Instead of a cannon upgrade to break blocks, the tank is given a drill which also makes an effective dash attack. The hover upgrade is still present, but is now used to glide over gaps instead of flying to unreachable platforms. That task is now accomplished by way of a grappling hook, which is a blast to use. The energy bar is no longer filled by hunting down rare refills, but now regenerates automatically, removing an unnecessary annoyance from the original. Another new set of powerups are HP-Up for both the player and the tank, and Energy-Up, which increase each respective maximum level. This addition makes exploration much more rewarding.

The weapons in the overhead segments were given a much-needed overhaul. Rather than relying on an upgradable cannon and a static grenade launcher, the player now has three weapon sets that all have five levels of power. A standard forward-firing rifle, energy balls that home in on enemies, and a missile launcher make up the new arsenal, and can be switched with a button press. As in the first title, taking a hit reduces your weapon's level. This adds a new layer of strategy, as a quick-fingered player will be able to switch to a lesser-used gun when a hit is inevitable. Of course, this also means taking hits is extra frustrating, as you not only lose life, but you also lose your ability to damage the enemy. While the bosses encourage different weapons and strategies, chances are you will just be firing the homing weapon nonstop in the overhead segments.

Which brings me to the biggest problem in the overhead areas. This enemies here are all about cheap shots. At first, the enemies are bearable, allotting a fair amount of reaction time. Somewhere around Area 5 the game gets a little carried away. After taking on a field of fast moving squid-like creatures that fire a barrage of revenge shots upon dying and serpents that spit a stream of fire that is nearly impossible to avoid, you'll be inching your way through every screen mashing the homing weapon, making for incredibly boring segments. Bosses better allow for strategy, and will be a high point for anyone who enjoys the classic style of always dying the first time to learn their pattern, then going back again and kicking the everloving shit out of them. It's just a shame that they got lazy and gave some bosses a second appearance with slightly altered aesthetics.

Blaster Master on the NES delivered some of the better chip tunes of the era. They were epic, catchy, and even a bit haunting. Overdrive is hit and miss at best. The water cave theme is my personal favorite, morphing the original into a graceful piano melody. The boss music made a good transition as well, but tracks such as Area 5 (which was Area 7's music in the first game) are a mess. The most unforgivable offense though was reducing the legendary burp in Area 4's music, and the game over theme, to a barely-audible blurb. Actually, the worst was having the music reset whenever you go from an overhead to a side-scrolling area. It's incredibly jarring, and completely unnecessary.

I mentioned at the start that the challenge was a big factor in the original. The same can be said about Overdrive, but not exactly in the same manner. As previously stated, the overhead segments are full of monsters that will strike from across the screen before you have a chance to dodge. This means the challenge is in trying to keep the monsters just off screen so that they can still be hit by your fire. The bosses are a genuine challenge, pitting player skill against enemy patterns. The tank segments offer a fair challenge on occasion, but outside of mastering the grappling hook and other abilities, it's rudimentary platforming. When outside of the tank, the player is especially vulnerable - your health depletes constantly, and enemies can drop you in a couple hits. Thankfully, player health also regenerates while in the tank. The addition of save points and a map system similar to Super Metroid makes the game much more bearable in terms of repetition.

It may seem like I've really torn down this title, and there are things about it that drove me crazy, but overall it isn't a bad piece of reimagined game. The biggest pratfall is the lack of polish. Everything about Overdrive screams that this title was pushed out the door too soon. Graphics that should have been placeholders, reseting music between segments, no classic controller support, and a total lack of death animation. Yeah, when you die in the tank, it flashes, then goes to the game over screen. If I screw up so bad that my tank dies, I at least deserve a satisfying explosion. In the overhead sections, your suit starts to spark as health drops, but at death, you sort of spin, then again the game over screen appears. No woo-woo-woo-woop death throe. Anyway, if you enjoyed the original, chances are you'll get a good nostalgic boost out of Overdrive. Just don't expect it to be a replacement for the classic title. If you never played the original, give it a shot, but you may be wondering what the big fuss is all about.   read

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