Now Loading is a weekly column focused on the games I'm currently engaged with, enraged at or totally perplexed by.
I like to commit. Once I pick up a game and decide to stick with it, I go all the way and become fervently monogamous. I might play one or two arcade style games on the side but for the most part I remain 100% loyal and dedicated to the game I've chosen, absolutely unwilling to devote time to anything else. I do this even if I just put down some hard earned money on the latest AAA release.
Most of the time this works out to my benefit. I find myself much more absorbed and engaged when I stick to just one demanding game (as most AAA titles tend to be,) then when I try to juggle two or three at once. The mindless arcade games I play on the side are nice palette cleansers that beg only the most minimal devotion. In short I play games the way some people watch movies, from beginning to end in order to absorb it and appreciate it as completely as possible. By contrast the arcade-style games that I play in short intense bursts are sort of the equivalent of TV shows I watch on the side.
However, there is an exception to this odd quirk. There is a time when I transform into the most decadent, free-spirited, rambunctious type of gamer; freely jumping from one game to another, unable - no, unwilling to settle down or commit to anything. It's that special period of time when I'm in between games, when I have just completed the latest AAA title and find myself floating in the ether of independence.
I undergo a metamorphosis, no longer that loyal committed reliable dude, I find myself transformed into a truly promiscuous and philandering whore. I dip casually from game to game, sampling them in small morsels, relishing them momentarily and then irreverently kicking them to the curb. I jump sporadically from partner to partner, until I once again find that one special partner I choose to stick with.
This entry of Now Loading is focused on one of these exuberant yet self indulgent time periods.
After finally completingFFXIII I decided to delve into the opening segments of various games.
I made the acquaintance of several war buddies in Valkyria Chronicles and fought alongside them in a few brisk battles. I took on the opening segment of Demon's Souls and found myself slaughtered thoroughly, practically diced to pieces - and strangely I found the beatings enjoyable. I messed around with the character editor in 3-D Dot Heroes and infiltrated and overwhelmingly PWND the first dungeon. I revisited one of my old flames, Symphony of the Night, loaded up an old save file and re-experienced the archetype of a perfect old-school platformer.
During these quick samplings I never felt confined by attachment, it was easy to put one game down and move on. I played them all with the intention of restarting from scratch when I would eventually get around to committing to a serious play-through.
No, now was not the time for solemn analysis or meticulous, find every secret you can gaming. My critic hat was discarded and stepped on - now was the time to relax, and enjoy these games on the most superficial level possible. To enjoy them the same way I did when I was 10.
Perhaps the biggest incentive for me to participate in this lighthearted and shallow style of gaming was the purchase of Sonic's Ultimate Genesis Collection. During this week's mandatory grocery shopping at Wal-Mart I saw it sitting on a discount shelf for $19.99 and couldn't resist.
I had a blast revisiting some of my favorite childhood memories. My girlfriend even joined in the fun for some of the two player titles.
Altered Beasts: "Rise from your graves!!" This game is constantly maligned nowadays for its simplicity, amusingly bad voice samples and questionable controls. However, at the time of release, Altered Beasts was a milestone. In the arcades its graphics were top notch and the transformation gimmick was a pretty cool concept. I remember dumping dozens of quarters into this sucker back then and even being satisfied with the much inferior Genesis port. (Luckily the Genesis collection has an unlockable version of the Arcade version.)
And you know what, despite the fact that it's become a laughing stock nowadays, I think it still holds up as a fun game. Sure, it may seem kind of trite when compared to modern games, where you are expected to play for hours at a time. But Altered Beasts isn't that type of game. Grab a friend play the game for 30 minutes - kick some demon ass, transform into a pixelized dragon, die a bit, throw your controller, beat the boss, high-five your co-op partner and then... move on. Played in this way the game is sure to entertain.
Phantasy Star I, II, III and IV: Anyone who knows me at all, knows that Phantasy Star is my favorite RPG series of all time. Of course I had to briefly revisit the beginning segments of all four games as soon as I got this compilation. The games have held up pretty well, though I imagine the heavy grinding, lack of voice acting and intricate cut scenes would turn off a lot of newer gamers. Still, the opening 20 minutes of IV, despite lacking modern ingredients, managed to be more compelling in its plot and provide more charming character moments than the entirety of FFXIII.
Streets of Rage: My girlfriend and I had a blast with this one. I don't know what it is about Streets of Rage but it has some indescribable element that exudes pure fun. The repetitive beat em' up action with the same ol' enemies should be boring as hell. The ease at which we accidentally hit or grab each other should be extremely frustrating. But somehow all of these seemingly shitty elements added to the fun. That girl with the whip that gave us a hard time? My girl couldn't wait to see her again so she could utterly beat her ass (God forbid I tried to help or join in, nope this female opponent was claimed solely to be hers.) The accidental punches led to epic bouts of revenge fights and trash talking that turned out to be incredibly amusing . So was working together to get off that move where one player grabs the other so he can do a super kick. Of course, it never worked for us, we usually ended getting our asses kicked for even trying that dumb move but the spectacle of it was just pure entertainment.
Of course one drawback is that Streets of Rage requires two players for it to be this fun, I couldn't even imagine playing this game solo.
Golden Axe: I still have a warm place in my heart for the arcade version of Golden Axe. But the Genesis port left a lot to be desired. The graphics of the port are horrendous in comparison, and the fighting controls don't feel nearly as graceful. We had an ok time playing it co-op but it didn't grab us the same way Streets of Rage did.
Dr. Robotniks M.B.M.: One of the few games on the compilation I never even heard of before. We played a few competitive rounds of this odd puzzle game that was sort of a cross between Dr. Mario and Puzzle Bobble. Maybe we didn't play it enough to really 'get' how it's supposed to work but we found it was just meh. Also, and maybe this is because we didn't check out the single player scenario, we couldn't figure out what the hell Dr. Robotnik had to do with this game. The least he could do is show up and laugh at you when you lose or something. As far as we could tell his appearance was only in name.
Perhaps the biggest lesson to draw from this experience is how much games and the way we play them have changed with the times. The Genesis collection reminded me that at one point the majority of games were created for the state of mind and style of play I'm describing in this blog. We can probably all remember a time when friends would come visit us and we would constantly switch cartridges in and out of the console. Playing a game only for as long as it kept us entertained, moving from mindlessly punching enemies in the face in Double Dragon to playing a competitive puzzle game and when bored with that throwing on a racing game.
Sure there were games like Phantasy Star, Final Fantasy and Zelda which encouraged us to devote hours at a time to them but back then these games were the few exceptions that proved the rule. It's funny how things have completely shifted in the other direction nowadays. Arcade style games that were as easy to put down as they were to pick up, that provided a few refined ideas and encouraged you to enjoy them for a short period of time are now out of vogue.
I love the fact that games have progressed to the point where the majority of them are expected to be engrossing, mechanically complex and narratively ambitious but sometimes I yearn for simpler times. That's why I also played:
Hydorah: If you fondly remember playing old school shoot 'em up games like R-Type, Gradius and Lifeforce then you will absolutely love this Indy tribute from Locomalito. All the classic shooter elements they draw from are spot on and they also manage to include some pretty unique touches of their own to keep things interesting. Also, the soundtrack is incredible and it alone makes the game worth checking out. I wholeheartedly recommend it. You can grab a copy at http://www.locomalito.com/juegos_hydorah.php
Afterburner Climax: I never get tired of Afterburner Climax. I've been a fan of the action-packed series since way back in the arcade days. Despite beating the game I still keep playing, it's not the striving for a higher score that keeps me coming back, though there is certainly some of that going on. It's actually just the zone the game puts me in when playing it. Getting the player to fall into this zone where he plays more by gut instinct is an inherent part of a lot of these seemingly simple arcade-style games. Thank god for downloadable content, as it has inspired a resurgence of these type of titles.
In the end, despite thoroughly enjoying most of these games, I felt sort of empty. Like that bachelor who no longer finds the myriad casual encounters he has with women fulfilling, I began to question the single life. Finally after some consideration I decided it was time to end my flirtations and once again settle on just one title.
The title I chose was Red Dead Redemption. My early impressions have convinced me that it is not only the best Western game ever made but perhaps the most refined open-world/sandbox game produced. The amount of polish and detail present within RDR is unbelievable. I know I said I would focus on RDR last week but as you can see I got sort of sidetracked. Look for my complete impressions next week.
* - I was blown away by some of the old Sega music. Is it me, or is Sega (despite the shitty soundchip in the Genesis) responsible for what are hands down some of the best video-game soundtracks of all time? Oddly enough it seemed like lot of those old songs from share a distinct style. Listening to some of the tunes in the various games, I was instantly reminded of songs in Outrun and Afterburner, which weren't even in the compilation. Disclosure: I left the title screen of Phantasy Star II cycling in the background during chores just so I can hear that kick-ass opening theme. Yes, I know I'm a nerd.
* Digital voice samples in old Sega games are the best things ever. Besides the already famous lines such as, "Welcome to your doom!," the sound a character made when dying in most games was just priceless. I never got tired of hearing the sweet distorted sound of that digital "ARGGGGHHHH" in games like Golden Axe and Streets of Fury. Especially the female shriek that sounds more like a seagull in its death throes than any sound a human being is even capable of making.
* Demon's Souls is so damn good I actually considered choosing that as my main game. There were a couple of factors regarding why I chose Red Dead Redemption. First, I wanted to play something other than an RPG since I just finished one. I also wanted something to provide me with a lot of those odd unexpected open world moments. I'm especially in a mood for something where I could just ignore the main quest and run around and do my own thing (something I had trouble doing with FFXIII.) The fact that it's a game a lot of other people are playing, talking and writing about atm also had a lot to do with it.
* Seriously SEGA!? I have to unlock games in the compilation? Seriously? Come on that's just silly. What a bad move on Sega's part.
* Hydorah has some hilariously awesome Spanish-accented voice acting.
* I spend way too much time playing poker in Red Dead Redemption.
* I'm also still playing Nethack on my iPhone but didn't mention it here since I just started up a new series called 'Nethack Adventures.' You can check out the first entry here. Look for another entry sometime this week.
Lazaro Cruz is still wearing his red Thriller style jacket from the 1980s but has long since cut his Jheri Curls. In his free time he enjoys overdosing on trashy B-movies, siccing his dog on Mormon proselytizers that visit him at home and founding a new religion based on the principles espoused within Kung Fu movies. You can email him at Lazaro.firstname.lastname@example.org or check out his twitter feed at http://twitter.com/LazaroCruz.