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About
Long-time gamer, aspiring writer, and frequent bearer of an afro. As an eternal optimist, I like to both look on the bright side of things and see the better parts of games; as a result, I love a game with a good story and awesome characters...and anything that lets me punch the heresy out of my enemies.

I'm a big fan of Atlus' games, and I've enjoyed my fair share of fighters and RPGs. Just...please, keep Final Fantasy XIII out of my sight. It never ends well for anyone involved.

You can check out some of my game musinga/stories/random stuff at my other blog, Cross-Up. I've also got a TV Tropes thingamajig, and I'm trying to get some freelance work going. Among other things. Like a web serial novel. And getting books published. If ever there was a time for the world to learn the joys of ghost-punching, this is it.

Be a hero. Check 'em out.


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I’m pretty sure that at some point, I promised to do an in-depth look at this game -- which a couple of people apparently wanted, for some reason.  (Masochism, perhaps?)  I didn’t forget, of course; to make a mostly-stupid story short, let’s just say “blame Watch Dogs” and strike the record.  And let’s not delay any longer.  Ready for a long-ass post on Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze

I sure hope so.  I can’t think of a better way to close out the year -- if only to fulfill self-ordained informal contracts. Well, that, and to erase the lingering, pus-soaked taste of this year's worst games from my mind.  The best of them heal all wounds.

So here’s the setup.  DK and pals -- Diddy, Dixie, and Cranky -- are all about ready to get their party in full swing (ha) complete with a banana cake-type thing.  But before DK can dig in, their island is invaded by the Snowmads -- a bunch of Viking-style baddies out to seize the island for themselves.  And before DK can even take the first swing, that’s exactly what they do; their boss uses his giant horn to plunge the island into a new ice age, and exile the Kongs from the Snowmads’ new home.  Now DK and the gang have to take back what’s theirs -- one jump, roll, and barrel toss at a time.

You’d be forgiven for thinking that Tropical Freeze is the same game as the Wii’s DKC Returns, because they’re pretty much the same.  They didn’t even bother with the GamePad, so unless you do some off-TV play, the screen will go dark.  And even if the game looks better than its predecessor, it still follows the guideline spread out -- i.e. be pretty much the old DKC games, only with better graphics.  Progress, right?

As is usually the case, the object of each level is to head from the start to the goal -- in this case a floating barrel -- with as many lives intact as your skills will allow.  So if you want to be a little salty, you can pare Tropical Freeze right down to the basics and leave it at that.  But even if I made it sound like an issue at the start, it really isn’t when you get down to it. 

In the same sense that (Ultra) Street Fighter 4 isn’t the same game as (any given version of) Street Fighter 2, TF is not JUST DKC with better graphics.  So really, it’s hard to heap hate on a genre as long as it’s creating a sense of progression; it’s either that, or each individual game’s execution is so high that it doesn’t make you think about the nitty-gritty.  See: Guilty Gear Xrd -- because it’s poetry in motion after Hugh Jackman’s training regimen. 

What I like about TF is just how involved the levels are in the experience.  It’s pretty much a given that most of the dangers you’ll face come from bottomless pits, so making your jumps count is more than a little important.  But the game is constantly tossing in these variations on the formula, so you have to adapt.  Thunderstorms, factory machines, massive persimmons, fires, and even giant octopi are threats you’ll have to deal with along the way, complicating each leap over a bottomless pit.

But the thing about the levels is that it makes better use of spectacle than most spectacle-driven games.  Example: I played a bit of The Evil Within a while back, and there was a sequence where you had to run down a hallway to escape blades of doom.  The music swelled, the camera shook, the scenery was all kinds of uninviting, and…I barely felt the fear the game wanted me to.  Why?  It’s because all I had to do was walk down a hallway.  Hardly engaging stuff.  Comparatively, TF has you engaging in the platforming -- interacting with a level changing before your eyes -- while the sequence-based threat approaches you.  So basically, you’re facing certain death as you face certain death.

It’s stuff like that -- and more, all things considered -- that makes the classic platformer still have worth in the modern gaming world.  I’ve had more scares and heart-stopping moments in TF than in The Evil Within, The Last of Us, and Resident Evil 5 and 6 put together.  I’m involved in what’s going on!  I can actually die because of my lack of skill!  Cool stuff is actually happening besides “run from point A to point B”!  And the levels look so freakin’ good!  And the music is just so NGHNNNGFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFF --

Ahem.

It’s probably best to learn your movement options before the end of the first world.  You’ve got your basic run and jump, but learning how to roll into a run -- and by extension long jump -- will seriously help you out in a pinch.  Or ensure your doom, potentially.  But the interesting thing about TF (and something that feeds into its fear-inspiring ability) is that DK’s movement is structured in such a way that sometimes you just barely feel like you made it onto a ledge.  All things considered, it kind of makes sense; I don’t know much about gorillas, but I don’t imagine them being the most agile of creatures.

The core conceit -- the reason for DK’s less-than-mobile nature -- is because the player is supposed to make use of the other Kongs to bolster his movement, via letting one ride on his back.  Think of it as a sort of Kong-gattai.  Join with Diddy, and you can use his jetpack to go farther.  Join with Dixie, and you can use her ponytail to go higher.  Join with Cranky, and you can bounce off obstacles and enemies.  Having a gattai partner certainly makes things easier on you -- because you also get a screen-clearing super move -- but the tradeoff is that if you’re not careful, you lose your extra Kong and the extra mobility it affords.

If you can hold onto a Kong, you’ve proven that you’re good enough to handle the game -- and because of it, get to progress more easily and quickly.  If you can’t hold onto a Kong, then you can still make it through the game, but you’ll have to learn how to make it through levels without a crutch.  The only advantage I can possibly think of that DK might have over the others is that his roll maybe goes farther.  So basically, you run the risk of having one player “crippled” -- and by extension, one player constantly yammering about how DK is so bad.

But maybe that’s the point. 

Far be it from me to promote antisocial behavior, but hear me out on this.  Yes, TF is 100% playable and beatable with two players, so you don’t have to worry about some unfair advantage -- just the usual concerns about who’s pulling the team and who isn’t.  But for a while now I’ve been thinking that there’s a disadvantage to playing every game with friends, and by extension making every game based on/around multiplayer. 

Admit it: you experience things differently with friends than you do on your own.  Watching Twilight by yourself?  A miserable, headache-inducing experience.  Watching Twilight with friends?  Guaranteed to bring on the laughs.  But that doesn’t make Twilight good (and by extension doesn’t make multiplayer games -- hello, Destiny -- inherently fun).

What I’m getting at here is that sometimes you need to experience certain things on your own -- without anyone or anything to color your perceptions.  Think about it -- don’t you think there’s a reason why movie theaters put you in the dark, promote relative silence from the audience, and are extremely against cell phone use during the movie? 

It’s because even if you are with friends/family, the setup is such that you get to engage with the movie on a solo, personal level.  You get to observe its subtleties in a way you might not with a bunch of jokers.  Granted, that means that the product in question has to hold up to scrutiny.  And you know what?  TF does.

The draw of TF comes from its levels -- the visuals, aesthetics, layout, music, what have you.  (Especially the music, in a lot of cases; some of the music from the Africa-themed world will practically staple a smile to your face.)  I don’t think there’s a single line of dialogue spoken outright in this game, and outside of the opening and ending cutscenes there’s little in the way of a straight narrative.  If you’re looking for weight, you’ll have to fill in the story for yourself.  You’ll have to make use of what the game DOES provide in order to get more out of TF than just “this is a fun game”.  And I’m wholly convinced you can do that.

The thing separates TF from Super Mario 3D World is that Mario’s latest adventure pretty much requires exploration in order to advance through the game -- but paradoxically, it can feel like you’re punished for doing so.  Don’t get me wrong; I’m not devaluing 3D World just because DK’s latest is in our midst.  I’m just saying that the two games are out to accomplish different things, and I prefer one approach over the other.  3D World runs the risk of trivializing its worlds because the players are only looking through it to find Green Stars; couple that with a persistent timer, and you can’t digest each level -- and the world at large -- as much as you’d hope. 

When you’re not being chased by an incoming threat, you get to take in TF at a more leisurely pace.  You actually do get to digest it -- enjoy its elements as deeply or as superficially as you wish.  Okay, sure, you’re incentivized to have a look around to find puzzle pieces, but A) that’s for unlockable art, and B) it’s not required.  The KONG letters are there too, but they’re less about scouring every inch of the level and more about testing your abilities -- asking if you’ve got the skills (and the guts) to grab them in the middle of your run.  There’s a difference.  The line blurs at times, yes, but there is a line; TF wants you to feel the world, not just conquer it.  The question is, why?

Well, let’s step back a bit.  See, the thing that I can’t help but come back to again and again is the Kong-gattai mechanic.  That was put in there for a reason, as antithetical it may seem to modern-day sensibilities.  You have to play as DK.  You aren’t guaranteed to have a buddy Kong with you to make things easier.  You can -- and likely should -- take control away from Player Two so that Player One can have a slightly better time.  Why?  Those are some very specific design choices; they can’t possibly be an accident.

Because they aren’t. 

It should come as no surprise to anyone that DK is the star of the game.  Setting aside the fact that his name is in the title, he’s also the largest of the Kongs by a wide margin.  The apes may have clothes, shelter, and some of the fixings of modern society (and beyond, considering that Diddy has a working jetpack), but it’s safe to assume they still operate under basic rules.  The chief rule?  The biggest and strongest ape gets to lead the pack.  So all things considered, that means either Funky Kong is in charge, or DK is.  Three guesses as to who’s the one true King of Swing.

The alternative theory I have -- absurd as it may be -- is that DK rules because he’s inherited the power from his ancestral Kong kings.  To be more specific, he rules because he can’t die in a conventional sense.  Sure, if he falls down a pit in the game he’ll lose a life, but what does that mean contextually?  You lose a balloon and go back a few paces, and get to do it again and again until you get it right.  DK may die, but he’ll just be reborn so that he can learn from his past mistakes and rectify them.  In other words, being the king means being trapped in a cycle of death and rebirth -- a cruel fate, but one that bestows great knowledge to a rightful ruler.  And as the saying goes…

I wouldn’t blame you if you didn’t buy into my theory of DK being trapped in some metaphysical ouroboros, because even I think I’m reaching farther than Mr. Fantastic playing a game of pin the tail on the donkey.  But even if there’s no direct cycle of rebirth, I’d still argue there’s a symbolic one -- or more precisely, a cycle of injustice and justice.  Redemption of crimes through crimes, and justifying past crimes.  In simplest terms, the rules of nature weave their way through the game, ensuring a never-ending conflict between the Kongs and any other takers in their universe.

Consider the Snowmads.  At first glance, they’re just a bunch of bullies eager to muscle in on Kong territory.  And while that’s more or less true, when viewed with a broader scope they’re only doing what they need to for their survival.  They need food.  They need shelter.  They need a place to call home.  And what better place to set up shop than an island brimming with resources?  They have to do a little remodeling, sure, but the tradeoff is that it’s almost as simple as tooting a horn.

Jeez, is there any instrument more hilarious than the trombone?

Anyway, what’s consistently bothered me about TF -- and I suppose the other DKC games, by extension -- is this: where the hell did all the machines and vehicles come from?  Seriously, there are pirate ships all over the place (and not all of them from the Snowmads, I’d bet), fruit processing plants, miles’ worth of mine cart tracks, and at least one full-on, fully-functional factory.  And let’s not forget Funky sets up shop in a series of downed airplanes.  So did the Kongs make all of this stuff?  I’d like to say yes, but that just begs the question of why they live the way they do -- in treehouses and such -- instead of in towering, industrialized cities of their own creation. 

My theory on the subject is this: the Kongs aren’t the first ones to inhabit that island, or the islands (i.e. most of the levels in TF) surrounding the main one.  Rather, the chain of them collectively represents a territory fought over for generations, and occupied by different creatures/cultures.  The wars of old simply left the islands mostly uninhabited, with all the machines and mechanisms left to decay, and the land itself forcibly uncultivated.  Only pockets of resistance remain -- a porcupine here, a bird there -- and the Snowmads are trying to capitalize on that.  They’re trying to systematically occupy all of those islands to harvest the remnants of the past -- the things that DK has forgotten are of incredible importance.

Remember how I said earlier how the only one who could have been king was either DK or Funky?  Well, my theory is that Funky willingly stepped away from the throne so he could devote himself to archaeological pursuits.  He’s an ape devoted to uncovering the mysteries of the past, even if that means putting him at odds with DK.  (That’d probably help explain why he charges you for supplies; behind that smile lays a wellspring of resentment.)  The King of Swing lives for the moment, with only the slightest care for the future.  Content with a life of banana-themed cakes and eternal summer weather, he’s more than willing to let his brethren Kongs live as they see fit.

The Snowmads change all of that.  The exiled king and his closest friends have to fight their way back to their stolen peak, with the fate of the other Kongs up in the air.  (It’s true that there’s not enough evidence to say anything conclusive about their state of affairs; on the other hand, there’s at least one level featuring a raging avalanche, so draw your own conclusions.)  They know about the resources left practically untouched by the Kongs, and are more than willing to use it in their stead; because of that, you tend to see penguins, walruses, and other wintry foes making their rounds through each level.  Of course, they’re after more than just a few whirring gizmos.

It’s worth noting that there are secret exits in some of the game’s levels, marked not by a floating barrel but instead by a swirling portal of light.  On top of that, there are special trinkets you can find and collect to unlock a bonus world, just in case you aren’t satisfied with the beating the game gives you on a regular basis.  The important thing is that the history of these islands is multi-layered -- and below the technological layer that we can obviously spot, and below the evidence of travelers who set up shop, there’s a layer that implies some sort of precursor race. 

That is, there was an ancient civilization that used a magic variant of technology to construct ruins, temples, and more.  I’d bet that that’s what Funky is after, even if you never see him leave his shop(s); by extension, the Snowmads might be eager to harvest those secrets for themselves, if only for the sake of saying “Ha ha, it’s mine now!”

DK may be strong and (ostensibly) kind, but he’s still something of a slothful leader.  He’s grown lax on his throne, and the Snowmad invasion has forced him to remember what it means to be a King of Swing.  There’s no doubt that he’s got the power to face the future, but he doesn’t have the wisdom gained from observing the past -- from the ancient, bloody struggles of his forebears.  He may have secured the island from threats past (there’s probably a reason why the recent games have to keep making new enemies, and for more than legal issues), but he has yet to learn firsthand what it means to know true hardship.  That is, until the events of this game.

Even if you don’t believe in (or care about) the worldly struggles of the Kongs, there’s still plenty of weight in the implied personal struggle.  Consider this: Diddy, Dixie, and Cranky have to rely on DK to see them through plenty of struggles, up to and including riding on his back.  He gives them power -- via their screen-clearing attack -- and they in turn give their liege increased mobility.  So on a practical level the Kongs draw strength from one another so that they can one day make it back home.

But it goes beyond that.  DK is their leader, and there’s pressure on him that can’t be applied to anyone else.  It’s fortunate that the four Kongs managed to stick together despite the Snowmads’ sneak attack, but they’re still an absurd distance away from home.  Forced to say goodbye to everything they know and love, while contending with both the sins of the past and the threats of the present, they have no choice but to press on through dangerous territory.  And you could argue that the journey’s not even worth it; the final world has the Kongs returning to a frozen DK Island, rendered nigh-unrecognizable by enough snow to fill South Dakota.  

Human or ape, that doesn’t strike me as the sort of thing you just shrug off.  It’d probably help my case if the Kongs didn’t universally cheer and shout “WOO-HOO!” at every opportunity, but in exchange, some of the music in the game -- in the later levels most of all -- really helps paint the direness of the situation.  Still, imagine what it would be like if there was just one more cutscene in the game -- one sequence designed to establish rapport.  For example, imagine the Kongs find a frozen banana after a level overflowing with traps.  Think of how they might react. 

Diddy tries to play it all off as a laughing matter, but you can hear how rattled he is as he tries to pal around with DK.  Dixie’s more visibly shaken, and says out loud (relatively speaking) what no one else is willing to: “Do we have a home to go back to?”  Cranky stays quiet and contemplative, as does DK -- the latter of the two saying that it’s time to start pressing forward, albeit curtly.

But while DK puts up a front when he’s around Diddy and Dixie, he’ll confide in Cranky between levels, or when the night sets in.  I can just imagine him admitting that he’s worried, and shocked by the world of the past the group is travelling through, and (naturally) voicing his concerns about his worthiness as a king.  The Snowmads’ assault has left his confidence shaken, and he’s become wary of the consequences of his actions -- or lack thereof.  And Cranky, wise as he is, supports DK by telling him tales of kings past -- that merely by doubting himself and by caring about his closest friends, he’s proven himself worthy of the throne. 

DK acknowledges that, and chooses to move forward even if his friends’ high hopes weigh down on him.  Both he and Cranky understand that the Snowmads, and the countless other enemies out there, are eager to destroy the Kongs’ way of life -- to destroy their culture (by smashing bananas, for example) simply because they can.  Because of that, DK fights on with renewed vigor to reclaim his homeland, with the potential of the past, present, and future setting his simian heart ablaze.

That’s pretty much all my headcanon -- the validity of which is pretty debatable.  But even so, that’s hardly the important thing about TF.  No, the important thing about it -- about any game, arguably -- is its ability to inspire that headcanon.  To transcend the limits of pixels and platforms, and become something that provokes thought.  Provokes discussion.  Provokes theorizing.  You can do that with a million worlds, a thousand, one, or even zero; what matters is that it IS possible.

It reminds me of what Sun Tzu once said: “It is best to win without fighting.”  The game’s straight narrative is so bare you’d be forgiven for thinking that there’s no story at all -- but if you pay even a shred of attention to what’s going on around you, then you can make your own.  You can turn off the console and walk away with something meaningful gained each time.  Every time.  And if games are going to get better -- if they’re going to reach their full potential as a medium -- then maybe that’s what they should be doing on a regular basis.

Maybe.  Just maybe.

But seriously, those rocket barrel levels are bullshit.

Photo Photo Photo








So my brother picked up a copy of Assassin’s Creed: Unity on day one, because of course he did.  And he asked me to play through it from start to finish, because of course he did.  And I played it for no more than an hour the night of release before getting bored and frustrated and going to bed, because of course I did.

Okay, I know that’s not exactly fair to the game.  I’ll give it another swing somewhere down the line, because I want to give it -- and the series at large -- a chance.  But Unity hasn’t made that easy for me so far.  I’ve been lucky enough to avoid some of the now-infamous glitches so far (barring getting glued to a chair for a few seconds during a chase), but so far it’s been kind of scattershot.  By which I mean pretty scattershot.  And, you know, not great

The game starts with some guy using a lightning sword (huh?), and then cuts to Arno as a kid so players can putz around, and then cuts again to him as a hyper-smug Aladdin wannabe who walks around with a sword in broad daylight and can naturally do the standard parkour because…uh…is he already an assassin?  Or is he just that good already?  Well, whatever.  I guess it’ll be explained.  But what’s happened so far hasn’t clicked for me.  I can say it’s not as aggressively awful as Watch Dogs, but the tradeoff is that it’s aggressively boring.

Weirdly, Unity made me think back to The Wind Waker.  You start off as a sleepyhead hero in a lobster shirt, but you’re given an objective -- get a present from Grandma -- to advance the plot.  You have all the time you need to do that, but until then you’re free to explore Outset Island.  You can jump on rocks to get Rupees, chat it up with locals who’ll chat back (and teach you gameplay mechanics, like crawling and carrying pots), swordfight with Orca, and just plain enjoy the sights.  Humble beginnings, for sure, but stronger because of it.

Compare that to Unity.  You’re playing as some guy in red and white who’s suddenly tasked with chasing some other guy while there’s a big fight happening all around you.  So you follow that guy and beat him, but you get stabbed by cutscene’s end.  Then you flash forward to kid Arno, and you have to follow some girl and steal an apple (so a guard who I swear wasn’t there before can spot you and teach you some of the stealth mechanics).  Then you get another cutscene where Arno’s dad is found dead, which would be a bit more impactful if we’d spent more than three minutes with the guy.  Just a bit, though.

And then you’re adult Arno (who looks eerily similar to Jake Gyllenhaal for some reason) and have to escape from some smithy brutes.  And then you have to go follow a carriage.  And then you have to sneak into a manor or whatever because there’s a letter that has to be delivered right now.  And then those same brutes catch up to you somehow -- setting aside the fact that they had to sneak in too, albeit through an open door -- and they fight you.  And then I lament having to go through a combat sequence in an AC game while hot off the heels of Bayonetta 2.  And then you escape again.  And then you have to sneak into a ball.

Don’t worry.  It’s about 5% more riveting than I make it out to be.

What really gets to me about Unity is that despite popping up on these spiffy new consoles, I don’t feel like the game is even trying to sell itself.  Okay, sure, I’ll concede that virtua-France looks good, with all the awe-inspiring architecture and attention to detail you’d hope for, but it all rings hollow.  Unless there’s a mission to be dished out, you can’t have any meaningful interaction with NPCs other than bumping into them.  In all fairness you can watch them interact with each other -- a couple being lovey-dovey, for instance -- but you’re an observer and nothing more.  You’re invisible to the world before you even put on the hood.

I understand that adding in Zelda-style interactions for everything and everybody would be impossible.  And on top of that, I understand that games -- AC or otherwise -- are all about creating illusions, and giving the feeling of depth without actually providing it.  But the illusion in Unity wore thin from the get-go.  It’s a feeling I share with AC3; I broke off from following some dude to chase after a thief who stole an apple, and followed him into an alley.  But when I finally made my approach, the thief stopped cold, dropped the apple, and went straight back to walking aimlessly -- just like the hundreds of NPCs lining the streets.

I just don’t get it.  I can’t get a handle on the design philosophy here.  Okay, I’ll give the franchise the benefit of the doubt and assume that I’m just the square peg getting mashed into its round hole.  But even so, am I being crazy here?  Am I really so wrong to wonder what the appeal for this franchise is?  Am I really, considering how much dissent there is and how many comments express concern at best?  I have issues just with that philosophy; it feels like for all the effort put into rendering these worlds, it’s all for naught because the core of the game is largely “go here and kill this guy”.  And if Unity’s start is anything to go by, you could charitably add “follow this guy” or “avoid those guys”.

It seems like Unity is the straw that broke the camel’s back, but if you ask me that camel was already a shambling corpse.  I mean, didn’t AC3 pretty much flay everyone’s expectations and become a black spot on a franchise noted for issues notable since AC1?  I know there’s some kind of blind faith in the franchise that keeps the zombie camel trucking along, but at this stage in its life can we at large keep pardoning it?  Should we?  If Ubisoft is content with doling out stories of varying quality and gameplay with long-noted faults, why is it that a bug-riddled, microtransaction-pushing, embargo-abusing game is some perceived “last straw” for a franchise that saw fit to push three incrementally-changed editions of a sequel?

And so I have to ask: do we need Assassin’s Creed anymore?  Because the way things are now, I say no.

I want to like this franchise.  I really do.  I like history, like my father before me -- and the idea of exploring fully-realized worlds leaves me chomping at the bit.  But that’s the clincher; I want fully-realized worlds, not just facsimiles of them.  Maybe that’s why I like the Zelda games; they’re exponentially smaller, sure, but even the decade-and-a-half-old, single-town Majora’s Mask managed to infuse a level of character into its world that you’d never expect, or even ask for. 

The impending doom affected them, and they in turn affected you, while you --the hero -- went on to affect both by resolving the conflict.  There was weight to be had there, even if you spent a day talking with the apologetic Anju, or a night with the postman.  (Don’t think too hard about the sexual implications of that line; I know I didn’t.)

But as much as I praise Zelda, I recognize that modern games -- AC well among them -- have the potential to go WAY farther.  You get to be a part of history, conceptually speaking; you get to experience life in that world, learning and understanding what it was like to be in colonial America, or revolutionary France, or whatever comes our way next.  And I don’t mean having an assassin forcibly inserted into the midnight ride of Paul Revere, or being there for the signing of the Declaration of Independence; I mean making them a part of the setting.  An active participant, rather than an observer.

It’s to the point where I find myself thinking, “Hey, maybe we don’t need Assassins, or Templars, or Animus, or Abstergo, or any of that.  Just have the setting and be done with it.”  I’m not even joking.  Historical fiction is an established, viable genre, and it has been for years.  It’s true that the games would lose their overarching plot and connective tissue, but sometimes I wonder if that’s really such a bad thing.  Do you need assassins and ancient rivalries and conspiracy plots in history, which has more than enough exciting clashes in its own right?  I say no.  Cool stuff has happened in the past; you don’t need lords of stabbing and future VR to embellish what’s already interesting.  If you did, then we’d all be hailing 47 Ronin as a cinematic masterpiece…which it is certainly not.

I’ll concede that (ideally) the appeal of Assassin’s Creed is the ability to chart out and execute the assassination plots of your design.  I’ll also concede that combat and murder aren’t immediate failure-states in games -- because if I didn’t, I’d have to hate Bayonetta 2.  And of course, I don’t have a clear-cut answer on how I’d handle conflict in a hypothetical, hyper-historical AC game of my own.  I have ideas, but they’d probably only appeal to S-tier nerds (“Press X to Improve Your Social Standing”).  So if you like that -- and the franchise in general -- then you’re not wrong for it.  There is merit to the franchise.

That all said, I thought that the appeal of Black Flag was its ability to turn you into a pure pirate, and minimized the franchise’s conventions (the assassin storyline well among them) for the sake of making you a scourge of the seas.  Likewise, I thought that Black Flag was one of the best-received games yet, if only because it eased the sting of AC3 while also being NOT about Ezio again.  So what does it say about the franchise when one of the most well-received of the franchise is also one of the biggest departures from the franchise?  And where do you go from there when you can’t rely on naval adventures without playing fast and loose with geography?

Maybe the guys at Penny Arcade had it right.  Maybe this franchise is rudderless.

I’m not so cold as to say that Unity should be the last AC game ever.  I agree with the common opinion: Ubisoft needs to stop with these yearly releases -- and yikesy mikesy, this year has two of them -- and spend time figuring out how to take the franchise to the next level.  From what I can gather, Unity isn’t it; if anything, it’s a symbol of non-progression.  It tells me that Ubisoft isn’t just content with staying in a rut, but letting the cement pool around its neck.  That’s not a good place to be in, especially when the same company once implied that new hardware would promote innovation. 

But I have to go back and ask the same question as before: do we need Assassin’s Creed anymore?  Think about it: a lot of the mechanics it paved the way for, like stealth and parkour, have been co-opted by other games.  Its combat can’t compete with games that have a stronger emphasis on it (the Arkham series) and/or style in spades (insert any given Platinum title here). 

If you’re looking for a meaningful story with meaningful characters, you can get that from a handful of BioWare titles, at a bare minimum.  Any given triple-A release is downright guaranteed to have big setpiece moments, and that cinematic appeal so often spoken so highly of.  And if you’re hungry for innovation -- as we all are -- then, well, you can look virtually anywhere else.  Anywhere.

The nicest thing I can say about Unity is that it looks good.  And that it lets me visit Paris.  And that I get to meet Napoleon at some point, I guess.  But if I can replicate two of those three (maybe all three, ostensibly) just by cracking open a book or running a Google search, then maybe -- just maybe -- something has gone wrong.

Now then.  Let’s see how Far Cry 4 turns out.

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So everyone here knows what “serendipity” means, right? 

Pared down to basics, you can think of it as a synonym for “coincidence”.  In my case, though?  It tends to mean that somebody beat me to the punch in making posts that steal my thunder so thoroughly that saying even a single word would make me look like a copycat -- that, or some sycophant.  I know, I know, it’s probably not as bad as I’m making it out to be; still, I absolutely hate it when I match up with someone.  I just have to be the premiere pretty little snowflake.

I want to put out as much content as I can, but sometimes it feels like I’m fighting against time itself.  How much can I really talk about a game if its relevance falls to the wayside?  I mean, I’ve wanted to toss up a post on The Last of Us here for a while, but does anyone care for something well over a year old?  Alternatively, if I tossed out a post on something semi-recent like The Evil Within, what is it that would set it apart from someone who did another post on it -- and much earlier than I did?  I’d be redundant, arguably.  And I don’t want to be in that situation, so I try to consider my moves as carefully as possible.  Think before you act, so to speak.

But this time my brother thought for me.  One night he said, “You should do a series called ‘Why Do People Love Monster Hunter?’.”  So I figured, why not?

Part of the reason why I do posts is to get feedback from others.  I want knowledge, and ideas, and experiences, and opinions however I can get them.  That’s going to help me in the long run, no doubt.  After all, I’m just one person; I’ve had a finite number of run-ins with games, and there are HUGE gaps in my knowledge of titles past and present.  So I need to learn more, and evolve more as a result.

I need perspectives -- the ability to understand others’ lines of reasoning.  I mean, it’s one thing to say “People like Call of Duty”, but at this stage that’s not enough.  Not for me.  I can learn plenty from playing the game for myself and drawing my own conclusions (at the cost of suffering through the game, natch), but I need more than that.  I need to ask questions as to why people like Call of Duty, or any given game, as a guideline of how to proceed.  And who knows?  Maybe if I ask others to explain why they like what they do, they’ll be able to better intuit the strengths and weaknesses of the games they digest.  Maybe they’ll gain even more than I do.

But let’s not talk about CoD.  Let’s talk about Monster Hunter -- as per my brother’s dear wishes.

Full disclosure: I’ve only played Monster Hunter for myself three times in my life.  The first was a demo my brother grabbed on my presumably-melted PSP.  The second was the release of Tri on the Wii.  The third, and most recent, was the Ultimate version on the Wii U.  As you can guess, it’s my brother who’s gotten the most mileage out of the franchise so far, to the point where (prior to the release of Mario Kart 8) it was the one Wii U game you could count on him to consistently play without complaint.  He’s an ex-WoW player, after all, and as I type this I can hear him playing Final Fantasy 14; MMOs are right up his alley, for a number of reasons.  But let’s assume the worst of him -- for the moment -- and say he’s just in it to get new pants.

My experience with MH was…not quite as pleasant.  I started up a file in the Wii U game to try and see what the noise was all about.  See the world, explore the systems, check out those monsters -- the standard stuff.  Unfortunately, I didn’t get nearly as far as I wanted to -- or very far at all -- because in the tutorial section I went out and killed some baby dinosaurs instead of the parent.  Then I figured I was some horrible monster taking advantage of innocent creatures and haven’t played the game since.  The fact that (according to testimonies) you actually harvest the tears of monsters by beating on them doesn’t exactly leave me at ease.

Don’t get me wrong, though.  Emotional trauma aside (i.e. the confirmation that I’m not the pure-hearted maiden I strive to be), I actually get the premise of MH -- and in a lot of ways, support it.  I didn’t even have to play for an hour to feel the affect; it felt as if the game practically demanded me to get in touch with nature, even if it started me off in some bustling town.  Okay, it’s true that plenty of games will have you go to the usual suite of “forest level, snow level, lava level”, but with MH I could feel the prospect of exploring these areas and interacting with the world on a level I haven’t gotten in a while.  Barring Pikmin 3, but that’s a topic for another day.

Obviously, that’s a good thing; some of the strongest stories out there (games or otherwise) are those that can flesh out their worlds.  They remember that the settings are characters in their own right -- and proceed to characterize them as best they can.  I’d think that games like WoW accomplish that as well, but I can still appreciate MH’s ability to make me leave my world behind in place of its own.  Untamed wilds.  Frontiers aplenty.  Traversing sprawling landscapes on my own two (virtual) feet.  Being a part of something bigger than yourself.  What’s not to love?

My guess with the franchise is that the people in it are heavily dependent on the materials gained from monsters to live their daily lives.  It makes sense, really; if this is a world that takes us back to the past (or some facsimile of it), then it’s likely a society heavily dependent on natural resources on every level -- food, obviously, but clothing, shelter, craftsmanship, and more.  The societal implications are staggering, and lends to a scope that’s ripe for telling plenty of potent stories.

Or maybe it really is just about getting some new pants.

I have issues with such narrow-minded thinking; it’s as if the game implies that the only thing that matters is getting loot and killing monsters -- and pushes you head-first into the hamster wheel.  On the other hand, maybe that’s not so bad.  It lends itself to a sense of ownership over a story…or to be more precise, it lets you make your story.  It’s your adventure, allowing you to someday tell your stories of triumph as you crush down towering beasts.  Or, heaven forbid, you can learn firsthand what it’s like to get ground into paste under a dragon’s heel.   Either way, there’s potential there; you can have a new adventure and a new experience each time you play.

But that’s all based on my conjecture.  Like I said, I don’t have a lot of experience with MH -- and given that I’m the self-proclaimed “Eternal Optimist”, I’ve probably painted the rosiest view possible of the franchise.  How does it play?  How’s the combat?  Does it deliver on the scale, and the potential?  Is there a point to making dragons cry, and unsuspecting fauna into orphans? 

Uh…I’m gonna go ahead and say “probably”. 

I suppose that’s where you all come in, then.  What do you think of MH?  If there are any diehard fans or experts reading this, what sort of nuances keep you coming back for more?  Why is it, like, one of Capcom’s only breadwinners right now?  And is it rightfully so?  Go ahead and weigh in.  Give me all your love, as the song goes.

If I didn’t know any better, I’d say that song was vaguely sexual.  Just vaguely, though.

Whatever the case, feel free to give suggestions on what other games I can do these quick little posts on.  I wouldn’t mind thinking critically -- however briefly -- on games I wouldn’t have considered otherwise.  Plus, I’d like to try something different for once.  Maybe find something new and different that works in terms of tossing out content.  Could this be a thing?  We’ll see.

In the meantime, please accept this collection of JoJo rush sounds.

Heh ha.  Next you’re going to say “Man, they sure can talk fast.”

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Have you ever woken up one morning and thought to yourself, “Wow!  I’ve been a fan of this ongoing franchise for the majority of my life!  Spectacular!”  Yeah.  That was me not too long ago.  I can’t say I hate the feeling.

So, Smash 4, huh?  You know, it’s funny; if I remember right, the original Smash was pretty much a low-budget, throw-it-out-there title with little in the way of expectations.  Fast-forward to the present, and not only is it THE most high-profile release for the Wii U, but it’s also the one game that could convince people to even buy Wii Us.  Even though The Wonderful 101 has long since made a strong case for the console, but whatever.  I’m not salty at all.

I don’t know why I would be.  Smash Bros. 4, y’all! 

It’s safe to say that Nintendo’s got a lot riding on the game, and thankfully, they couldn’t have bet on a better title.  If the reaction and love for the 3DS version is anything to go by, we’re looking at a fourth batch of lightning in a bottle.

But I think it goes further than that.  In fact, I’d say that Smash 4 is one of this generation’s most important releases yet -- if not one of gaming’s most important releases, period.

Why?  Well, here’s a hint.  And by “hint” I mean “blatant answer”:

For those who don’t know (and why wouldn’t you, unless you actively avoid good things?), Kamen Rider Wizard tells the tale of Haruto, a man fighting to protect the people from the Phantoms -- magical monsters out to wreak havoc and spread despair.  I mean that quite literally; see, the Phantoms are born when a Gate -- a normal human who awakens to magic potential -- reach their lowest emotional points.  The human dies, and in his/her place emerges a Phantom (even though said Phantom can assume that human form at will…and yes, they DO exploit the hell out of that ability). 

The trick is that if a Gate doesn’t fall prey to despair, they become a wizard.  As such, it’s up to Haruto -- as “the ring-bearing wizard” -- to preserve, and in a lot of cases restore, the hope of people in need of a helping hand.  And so begin his donut-eating, monster-kicking, henshin-filled adventures with his partner Koyomi and the allies he meets along the way -- a mayonnaise-loving archaeologist well among them -- as he pledges himself to others as, ultimately, “the final hope”.

It’s that kind of show.  But if nothing else there’s a reason why he’s got a hand for a belt buckle.  Why it sings?  Not so much.

What I find baffling -- and a little distressing -- is that for one reason or another, a lot of people absolutely HATE Wizard.  And unless I secretly have terrible taste, I don’t see the reason for the hate.  Like, people realize that the story is pretty much one giant allegory for suicide prevention, right?  So you can’t exactly say it’s not complex.  Given that the Phantoms are pretty much trolls and miscreants that thrive on finding out your personal information and using it to harass you, I’d say there’s something eerily relevant about the theming there, especially nowadays. 

Haruto’s development isn’t so much about him becoming a better person, but about him losing control of the situation he once had a handle on -- and the desperation that guides his actions from then on.  He may start out as a Cool Guy, but it’s hard to be cool when you start getting your shit kicked in on a regular basis and your little lady friend is constantly  minutes away from death.  And on the action front?  This is a character that does his best God Hand impression and kicks a Phantom into the sun.  Also, not to spoil anything, but one of the baddies is literally a serial killer -- as in, a serial killer who arguably killed less people after he turned into a monster.

I guess I see a little bit of Wizard in Nintendo.  Right now, it seems like the Big N’s got a thankless job right now, and takes plenty of heat just for being around.  In all fairness, some of that heat is understandable.  Nintendo’s in a bad spot, but some of that comes from their missteps, assumptions, and inflexibility.  There are things that they can do, and should have done long before this point (get more third party support, revive established franchises, and FOR GOD’s SAKE, PROMOTE YOUR WARES!).  They’re not exactly the innocent victims here.  Much like Wizard, it’s far from perfect -- but to its credit, at least the Big N doesn’t have a second Rider who’s only there as a jobber.

That all said, if there’s any company -- and console, by extension -- I’d stay loyal to in this eighth generation, it’s Nintendo.  It feels like they’ve got gamers’ interests at heart.  Or to be more precise, it feels like they’re one of the only ones out to make genuine, quality games -- a far cry from others trying to sell us on “experiences” that are memorable for all the wrong reasons.  This past E3 proved that for all its missteps, Nintendo hasn’t quite lost its handle on what (and who) matters most.  I’d sooner count on that than promises -- and delusions -- of grandeur.

Speaking personally, Nintendo’s becoming one of my heroes of the game industry -- to the point where I’m about ready to shout “Nintendo, hallelujah!”

I don’t think I’m THAT far off the mark, my biases aside.  Just look at Smash 4.  Just -- just look at it, will you?  Sure, there’s an argument to be made that it’s just another Smash game, i.e. the Big N banking on another established name to turn a profit.  And that’s true, in a lot of ways.  On the other hand, it’s not as if we get a Smash game every year, or even every two years.  Unless the rumors of “Smash Bros. 6” amount to anything, chances are high that we’ll have to sate ourselves with this new release for a good half-decade.

But even setting that aside -- and setting aside the fact that this praise is coming from someone who JUST proposed that games can be more than shallow entertainment -- I can’t help but feel like in this day and age, Smash 4 is something special.  It should go without saying at this point, but I have to appreciate the abject refusal to abandon a decent color palette.  Moreover, plenty of the screenshots on the main site haven’t just highlighted the updated graphics; they’ve highlighted what can be done with them.  Time, and time, and time again Sakurai and company have offered up pictures of those faces, and their reaction to oft-insane goings-on. 

I’m sincerely hoping that in the full game, you can take pictures just as delightful -- if only so my brother can have something to stock on the console besides pictures of Captain Falcon.  (You’re better off not asking.)

But really, though?  Smash 4 is like a digital ambassador of goodwill, offering up plenty to gamers of all kinds.  Let us count the many ways.

1) The triumphant return of Mega Man to gaming.  (FIGHTING TO SAVE THE WORLD!)

2) The good humor shown by the devs in virtually every trailer, highlighting the fun instead of trying to be “epic”.  Well, barring the Reggie/Iwata fight.

3) The sheer amount of content right out of the box -- up to and including a cast that numbers roughly fifty strong.  Those are some MAHVEL numbers right there.

4) Almost as if trying to take a dump all over Ubisoft, there are nine playable female characters -- eleven if you count the alternate versions of Villager and Robin (again, taking that steaming dump), and twelve if you assume that Jigglypuff is female.  Thirteen, if you refuse to accept Marth.

5) A marriage of simple gameplay and complex nuances to please every audience without catering to or dumbing down for any of them -- accented, of course, by a slew of customizable options.

6) A genuine celebration of gaming’s history, bringing in faces old and new to honor our beloved medium -- so that even if it IS a product out for your money, it’s a product full of meaning.  That shouldn’t be anything worth getting excited about, but in this day and age, it is.

7) The ability to generate excitement by its own merits (through improvements, additions, and tweaks to the formula) through a steady drip of unfiltered information, instead of cheap hype-mongering and resignation.  No “You will buy this because it’s the next big thing” or “You will buy this because you will buy this” here.

8) Seriously, DID YOU LOOK AT IT?  THE COLORS!

9) Palutena.

A lot of people here on Destructoid have been claiming “dibs” on certain characters, and I respect that.  Speaking from experience, I refuse to touch anyone my brother mains, plays, or has played because “they have his stink on them”.  Beyond that, there’s the principle; when you choose a main in a fighting game, or even someone you’re willing to add to your stable of fighters, you’re making a commitment.  You’re forming a bond between you and your avatar -- someone who, however temporarily, harbors your soul.

The thing worth remembering, though, is that in a lot of cases you can’t choose someone exactly to your tastes -- that is, you can find someone who suits you in Street Fighter, but you can’t create your own world warrior (yet).  You have to adapt to preset characters.  Because of that, you end up seeing things their way.  In their eyes.  In ways you never would have thought of before.  It goes beyond just being a boxer or a wrestler; whether you know it or not, you’re considering every last one of their nuances.  You take away something from them, even beyond their strongest combos.

It’s the same with pretty much every character in Smash -- but for me, it’s with Palutena most of all.  It’s one thing to be able to play as a female character -- and make no mistake, I’m thankful this new game has effectively quadrupled its representation -- but it takes more than just adding in ladies. 

It’s about the quality of those ladies, as it is with any character.  What gives them that spark?  What kind of characters are they, in a fight and out of it?  What can you take away from a character from a world so separate from yours?  Games are capable of showing that, even without a dense narrative built into their code.  And while I’ve seen plenty of titles fail to offer up anything, I’m pretty confident that Smash 4 will offer up everything I could need and more.

Playing as Peach in the other games opened my eyes to some new possibilities, no question.  And while I don’t intend to drop her in the new game, I’m eager to see things from Palutena’s perspective.  I haven’t played as a goddess since Okami, so I want to see -- and feel -- what it’s like to have that potential at my fingertips. 

Even if there’s no dedicated story mode, I’d wager that I don’t need one.  Her animations, move set, and general appearance can tell me plenty.  I know enough about her from Kid Icarus (and even her announcement trailer) to think, “Yeah, this is a cool character.”  She’s got style, airs, and elegance -- and even some sass -- that you don’t see all that often.  Damned if I’m going to miss out on it now.  And thus, I call the greatest of dibs…at least I would if someone hadn’t beaten me to the punch.  So I’ll act on my contingency plan and call auxiliary dibs on Peach.

Neither of them have a shot at being mai waifu, though.  My heart’s already taken.

A lot of people these days are sour over the state of games and the industry at large -- and I’m one of them.  I know what games can be, but too often these days it feels like they’re refusing to even try to reach that potential because they -- and the minds behind them -- act as if they’ve got no more merit than the average bag of chips.  But even before it hits store shelves, Smash 4 has proven that games can be more.  They can offer more.  You can have that simplicity, but you can offer up what matters most of all: a bond that goes beyond the limits of a simple disc.

It’s a game primed and ready to dispel all the cynicism and negativity swirling around us gamers -- the proof that there are games in the present and future worth believing in.  It’s a willing bringer of hope, maybe even more than simple fun.  And if that doesn’t make it a hero, then I don’t know what does.

And that’ll do it for now.  So let’s end on a high note, shall we?

I can’t listen to that song without thinking of Christmas.  Probably because Haruto saved Christmas for a bunch of orphans in one episode.  It was the second greatest thing he did in the series, besides imagining himself in his Rider suit playing the piano while wearing a bow tie and top hat.

In summation, Kamen Rider -- much like Smash Bros. -- is too damn stronk.  Because who else will push a secret Rider propagandist agenda, if not me?

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Voltech
8:18 PM on 09.25.2014

Alternate post title: DURRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRp.

All right, let’s be real here.  I’m pretty sure that by this point, I’ve made no shortage of my opinions known.  Some of them are easy to agree with, I hope.  Others, not so much.  But that’s to be expected.  People are allowed to disagree with me, because they’re coming from different places.  Different perspectives, experiences, and whatnot.  That’s part of the reason why I do these posts -- because those differences in opinion mean something to me.

So I’ll do it once more.  Let’s gab about video games for a second.

Obviously, they mean something to me.  If you’re reading this, then chances are high that they mean something to you.  And they mean something to a lot of other people, across no shortage of generations -- console or otherwise.  It’s a young medium, sure, but it’s left its mark on peoples and cultures across the world.  That ain’t bad for something that isn’t even as old as some grandparents.

The definition of a game has come into question plenty of times before, recently as well as years ago.  There have been questions about whether or not it qualifies as art, whether or not it’s harmful to players, and even if it has hidden benefits (like making us better doctors, for one).  There are a lot of unknowns, and even more opinions on the medium.  That’s the way it should be, at least for now.  Questions beget answers -- and with them, strides to try and conform to those answers.

Still, there’s one subject that’s been on my mind recently.  I’m the kind of guy who can (and often does) see things as they should be, and not always as they are.  That’s problematic at times, but the tradeoff is that I have ideas as well as ideals.  And that extends to something as seemingly-unimportant as video games.  I know what they have been in the past, and because of that, I know what they can be.  And that’s what I want them to be, from here on.

Each generation should be better than the last.  I hope we can agree on that, at least.

There’s a current of thought among some gamers that suggests that “games are here just for fun”.  And in some ways, I agree with that.  It’s a section of the entertainment industry, so that’s only natural.  And besides, it’s not all that different from any other medium.  We watch movies for fun.  We read books for fun.  Even something as simple as looking at a pretty picture can be fun.  So if there are any outsiders looking in reading this, I’ll be the first to confirm that pressing buttons and spinning sticks is a lot more exciting than you’d expect.

But if you’ll let me speak personally (as if you have a choice), I think there’s something important to keep in mind.  Yes, games are here to entertain us; the question that follows is HOW do they entertain us?  In the past, games could largely only accomplish that through its mechanics -- gameplay, and the difficulty that followed, and the layouts of levels, and so on.  But once you get a taste of what they can do, it’s hard to go back to just a black-and-white picture of the medium.

So I’ll be frank.  I think video games are for more than just “having fun”.  Sure, they can do that, and quite well -- oh my God the wait for Smash Bros. 4 is unbearable -- but they can offer more.  Think of it this way: why is reading a book fun?  All you’re doing is sitting down and flipping through pages, right?  It’s more like work than anything else to get through it.  But what’s important is the content.  The ideas.  There’s stuff in there designed to engage you, and get you thinking in a way that a good piece of art should.  As you’d expect.

Now, am I saying that every video game needs a compelling story to be good?  No.  It certainly wouldn’t hurt (and WOULD help matters, in a lot of cases), but it’s not a requirement.  You don’t think about turning the pages of a book; you think about the content, and get engaged in it as you process its particulars.  It’s the same thing with games.  You don’t think about doing DPs or powerslides; you engage with the game because your input directly determines the output.  If the mechanics are working as they should, then they can make a case for a game in the absence of some riveting tale.

That in mind, video games are trying -- however desperately -- to be more than just a chance to get high scores and top honors.  (Well, some of them, at least.)  The Tomb Raider reboot could have just dumped Lara Croft in the wilderness without a story to go by, but it did its best to give a reason to care about its leading heroine -- a narrative from start to finish.  Given what’s come out before and after it, I’d say that games are trying to be more.  Developers recognize that they can do more than just make arenas and stages.

But that’s the keyword.  They can.

The medium’s taken some real strides, but it needs to take more.  It needs to get out of this rut -- this perception that games are just murder simulators and power fantasies and whatnot.  As others have argued, it can do that by taking on bigger themes.  Bigger ideas.  It can work those elements into the story and gameplay alike, with a decent level of subtlety or as overtly as reason will allow.  If a game can, then it just becomes that much more engaging, and thus higher-quality.  If it can’t, then it offers fleeting, surface-level thrills at best -- and sometimes not even that.

So on top of being an incredible racing game, Mario Kart 8 -- continuing the theoretical groundwork laid by Mario 3D World -- is arguably a story about the continuing industrialization of the Mushroom Kingdom, given a shot in the arm by Rosalina’s descent and subsequent offering of new technology; alternatively, it’s a metacommentary about the evolution of Nintendo and its struggle to evolve in (and even keep up with) an increasingly-mercantile industry.

And Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze can be enjoyed as either a top-notch platformer, or as the harrowing tale of a leader forced to bear the sins of his ancestors as he leads his family home, or as a means to take basic gameplay conventions and make statements on karmic retribution and rebirth.  Xenoblade Chronicles might as well be renamed The Arms Race That Heads to its Not-Quite Logical Conclusion.  

Those in-depth readings -- or reaching -- aren’t necessary to enjoy the games.  But they do enhance them.   And they -- the gameplay, above all else -- enhance us in kind.  As it should.

So basically, I’d say that video games are for three different things, each one on different levels of thought.  The first and shallowest is that they’re here to entertain us -- to give a chance to be someone else, and do something incredible.  Fair enough.  But after that, they’re here to engage us -- to draw us in with their myriad factors, and make us hang on every pixel.  And last, they’re here to enrich us.  Once we process the information, we come to our own conclusions, and walk away with something gained each time we set the pad down.  That’s my theory, at least.  And unreasonable as it may be, I hope that’s what games do from here on out.

But that’s just my opinion.  And in the end, this is about you.  So feel free to weigh in.  Offer me some perspective -- and offer it for yourself in kind.  Just give the best answer you can to the question at hand: what are video games for?  What do you expect from them each time you sit down and play?  Are they the best they can be right now?  If so, why?  If not, then why not?  What should they do from here on out?  What do you want most of all?

You know what’s next, right?  Get those fingers nice and limber.  Ready?  Set…comment!

And that’s my cue to get out of here.  I need to try and come up with some cockamamie theories about Pac-Man.

Oh GOD I NEED SOME WII U SMASH IN MY BODY RIGHT NOW.  Palutena confirmed for sick goddess combos.  (By which I mean my usual stable of sneaky survivalist tactics.)

 

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It’s been a while since I’ve tossed a post up on Destructoid.  Let’s change that…with yet another ill-advised discussion on gender politics in video games!  Rejoice, sort of!  Or, alternatively, despair!
 
There was an article on The Escapist a little while ago that discussed the controversy surrounding a recent cover for a Spider-Woman comic.  Put simply, the art is what you’d call “buttnomenal”.  With the emphasis on the butt.  It’s not exactly what I’d call the greatest art I’ve ever seen, but then again my comic book collection couldn’t even fill a shoebox.  All I know is that I can respect the apparently-famous artist, but the art itself isn’t exactly something I can get behind.  Apologies for the pun.
 
In any case, the article got me thinking.  It actually mirrored a sentiment brought up by (the great) Jim Sterling once upon a time: the portrayal of both genders kind of sucks in video games.  But the key idea is that there’s a difference: men in games -- and fiction in general, a lot of times -- tend to be idealized.  And of course, women (sometimes literally) tend to be objectified.  There’s a difference.



So imagine my reaction, reading that article and agreeing with the opinions there.  It should go without saying, but making the fabled and elusive “strong female character” is something that means a lot to me.  A WHOLE LOT, but I’ll explain that another day, maybe.  In any case, I have my doubts that enacting some sort of sweeping change in the game industry is going to happen just by writing one measly little post, and debating the issue at hand in WAY to many words.  But as a would-be writing hero, I would prefer to write good female characters instead of, you know, bad ones

If you’ve read some of my other stuff, you know that I actually have a pretty lax opinion when it comes to female characters and their design.  That’s not to say I don’t believe there’s a line that shouldn’t be crossed (Mu-12 from BlazBlue comes to mind, because what the hell ArcSys), but as is usually the case, CONTEXT IS IMPORTANT.  Just because a character is improbably buxom or wearing a skintight blue suit doesn’t automatically make them the worst thing ever.  The issue -- for me, at least -- is that it’s going to be my duty to come up with that context.  There has to be some thought put into the character’s particulars.  And as such, I had a thought.  “So male characters are idealized, and people tend to be okay with that -- consciously or otherwise,” I said to myself.  “So maybe there’s something to be gained by doing the opposite.”  And then I asked myself a question. 

“Wait, how the hell do you idealize a female character?”



Uhhhhhhhhhhhhh…maybe?
 
Now, let’s be real here.  The obvious answer is to not freaking try to idealize characters, male or female.  Just make a character.  Give him/her a solid personality.  Give them strengths and weaknesses, physical and mental.  Give them a chance to be more than just basic archetypes; let them do stuff, triumph, struggle, make mistakes, and more.  I’ve always been under the impression that if a character is liked, it’s because an audience naturally decides “Wow, this is a pretty cool guy.” 
 
Or to put it a different way: a “cool character”, in my opinion is someone a person would actually want to be around.  Someone you’d want to hang out with, or meet in person.  Could you do that with an idealized character?  Sure, maybe.  But (the great) Jim Sterling brought up Kratos as an idealized male -- and for all the fans he may have earned, I can’t imagine that there are too many people out there who’d want to spend more than five seconds around him.  Or, you know, even stand in the same city-state.



But let’s get back to the matter at hand.  Let’s go ahead and entertain the thought -- follow the line to its logical conclusion.  How do you idealize a female character?  That’s a question I’m hard-pressed to answer.  I’ll be counting on those of you reading this to offer up some strong arguments of your own, but in the meantime, I figure I might as well try to stumble my way towards one possible answer.  So bear with me for another few thousand words.

Like it or not, physical appearances are important -- in fiction and beyond.  So a character’s look is definitely a factor that goes into the idealization process.  But as many, many, many instances in the past have proven, it’s not enough to go MORE BOOBS, LESS CLOTHES and expect accolades.  (It’s pretty much the opposite at this point, isn’t it?)  So if creating an idealized male character -- who we’ll call IMC from here on -- is about creating a sense of power, then there has to be some sort of equivalent for an IFC, right?

It sounds reasonable enough.  So what is it, then?



Uhhhhhhhhhhhhh…double-maybe?
 
I’ve always been iffy about the concept of strength when applied to characters, because A) strength AND weakness is important to the process, and B) I’ve seen that quest to create a powerful character go awry all too many times.  Sorting out those power dynamics makes a huge difference-- trust me, I know.  But an IMC’s strength is likely different from an IFC’s.  

Strength for an IMC means power.  Domination.  Control.  They’re ideal because of their ability to stand above others in terms of ability, physical or mental.  (I’d put the emphasis on “physical”, though, because at least in terms of games, there’s usually a push to make the player feel powerful -- and there ain’t no book learnin’ that can do that.  Not as well, at least.)



It’s a slippery slope, if you ask me.  Sure, giving an IFC strength can help, but it has to be the right strength, and not at the expense of everything else.  So yes, Final Fantasy 13’s Lightning may be a no-nonsense soldier that can take on all of the bad guys, but at what cost?  To what end?  So she can get a trilogy largely reviled by the gaming masses?

I'll be the first to admit I've got a grudge, but I've yet to be convinced I'm off-base here.  There's enough evidence to suggest that she’s such a terrible character, her awfulness -- which is never, ever discussed in-universe -- ends up causing nearly all of her trilogy’s problems.  Even beyond that, what kind of statement is a reliance on strength making?  “In order to be an ideal character, you have to have the ability to hurt others.”  That doesn’t sit right with me.



I think that what’s important here isn’t just raw power (in the physical sense).  Rather, it comes down to two things: agency and legitimacy.  As gamers, we’re no strangers to the princesses, mages, and all-around girlfriends that need saving on a regular basis, and it’s a real problem that even now women are getting the shaft just so our games’ leads can have some sort of motivation.  I won’t soon forget that Watch Dogs, claimed to be a major foray into the realm of “next-gen”, gave its leading man -- and I use that term lightly -- a push into action by killing off his niece and putting his sister in danger.  Then again, I’m under the impression that Watch Dogs was made by a crack team of wombats, so that doesn’t count. 
 
So the solution to the problem, at least a little bit, is to give the IFC agency.  Make a character that doesn’t have to stand or hide behind anyone.  It’s been done before with characters like Bayonetta and Juliet Starling, and while that does come coupled with their ass-stomping potential (their ASP, if you will), there’s enough to them so that they’re more than just vessels of power.  They are people, even if they’re not exactly what you’d call realistic.



But what’s just as important -- maybe more so -- is the legitimacy of the character, in-universe and out of it.  People still point to Ivy Valentine circa Soulcalibur IV as THE example of everything wrong with the portrayal of women in video games -- and they’re right to do so.  There is absolutely no justification for that, given either by the character or the story (in SC4, Ivy wants nothing more than to die -- so why is she, a well-off aristocrat, alchemist, and maiden, running around dressed like that?). 
 
Now, there are liberties that can be taken, but there’s always a limit.  The IFC deserves to be considered as a legitimate character because of all the factors that comprise her -- words, actions, abilities, and yes, looks.  Exaggeration of attributes is allowed -- how long are Bayonetta’s legs?! -- but every factor has to have its purpose.  If we’re talking about “the ideal”, then everything has to lead to the IFC being someone that an audience member would want to be.  They have to be the apotheosis.
 
So.  Let’s beat a horse so dead, its zombified corpse is mush.



I’m going to be honest here: I actually like Zero Suit Samus’ alternate costume.  I’m even not joking.  I’ll admit that my perception at the time was altered (my dogs have a nasty habit of waking me up well before sunrise), but when I scrolled my way to her picture on the site, my first reaction -- the one that stopped every other thought cold -- was an unbridled “WHOA!”  And the more I thought about it -- i.e. when my brain actually started working -- the more I came to my own personal conclusion.  I think ZSS looks freakin’ hype.  Not enough to play her, mind (Imma play the shit outta Palutena so I can use some sick goddess combos), but for me it works a lot better than it should.
 
Admittedly the curvature of her torso looks a little off in that screenshot, but I can look past that.  (Darkstalkers and other 2D fighters mess with proportions all the time, in action or out of it; hell, Guy in Super Street Fighter 4 had his legs extended past the norm to get his look and motions right.)  When I look at that version of ZSS, I don’t think “fanservice”.  And I certainly don’t think of “betrayal” by Nintendo, or “disservice” to a legendary heroine.  No, the first thing that comes to my mind is “strength”.



As others have pointed out, she looks like she’s ready for -- or just wrapping up -- a workout session.  Coupled with a character renowned for her status as one of gaming’s greatest female icons, it’s a combination that leaves one hell of a strong impression.  Does it give added emphasis to her femininity?  Yes.  Is that a bad thing?  No.  Are Nintendo, Sakurai, and Bandai Namco skirting a thin line?  Yes (even if her costume isn't exactly dissimilar to the Wii Fit Trainer of the same game).  Are they out to devalue their character?  No. If anything, I think they’re trying to enhance her. 
 
Samus means a lot to plenty of gamers.  Even when she was just a mass of pixels, her space adventures left an impression -- as did her reveal.  Not being much in the way of Metroid, I can’t comment too much about what kind of character she might be.  But what I can say, based on my inferences, is that the separate traits -- the perceived masculine and the perceived feminine -- don’t have to exist behind walls as high as mountains.  

In the absence of a game that satisfactorily advances either the Metroid canon or Samus’ character, all we have to go by for now are visuals.  What can she tell us with her looks?  Her moves?  Her stances, her strategies, everything?  And right now, the message that I’m getting is that she’s still the badass bounty hunter everyone envisioned, no matter what she’s wearing.
 
She’s just super-proud of her body, that’s all.  Given the option, wouldn’t you be?  I know I would.
 


I can’t shake the feeling that the “trap” that comes with creating a female character -- ideal or otherwise -- is that it’s a concept entangled with creating the perfect woman.  Going back to FF13, it’s a long-standing joke that the director of The Lightning Saga treats its leading lady as his waifu.  (I say joke, but it’s only funny because it’s partly true.)  That’s the sort of thing that can cause one million billion problems for a creator and his work -- but the reason I bring it up is because it highlights the disparity.

Lightning is less than ideal for me; I’ve made that clear time and time again.  And the same lack of appeal goes to others.  But at the same time, even if I’m a guy who doesn’t mind the HD-boosted ZSS, there are those who have every right to believe that her alternate costume -- or even her main one -- is a step backward.  It’s hard to come to, or even get a sense for the consensus.  

Is the IFC a warrior, or a protector?  A thinker, a fighter, or a nurturer?  Striking in appearance, or more down-to-earth?  Muscular, or waifish?  Tall?  Short?  Colorful?  Subdued?  Outgoing?  Reserved?  Brilliant?  Foolish?  Passionate?  Cold?  Exotic?  Familiar?  And maybe most important of all: shattering gender roles and expectations, conforming to them, or twisting them as needed? 



Even someone like Katniss takes heat as well as praise.  Is she good?  Is she bad?  All I know for sure is that she’s popular.  But popular or otherwise, she’s not the definitive answer to the question.
 
There may be no definitive answer, because as long as the execution of the character is on-point, they can ALL be viable answers…just not for everyone.  Because of that, I suspect that this problem -- the debates that crop up, over and over and over again -- will keep resurfacing every time there’s a new screenshot or some new art. 
 
There may be no definitive answer -- because there have been very few, if any, in the gaming canon that can or will provide one.  More often than not, you find examples of what NOT to do.



Hold your horses.  And your comments.  I’ll come back to this point in a minute.

My gut instinct is that it’s easier to settle on (and accept) an IMC because the route there is a lot more well-defined.  It’s true that Kratos in God of War 1 had some juice to him besides just being Anger McMuscles, but what’s the grand summation of the character right now, and what will it be years down the line?  That he’s a cautionary tale about the dangers of giving in to desire, ambition, and fury?  Or that he kills lots of monsters, screws plenty of ladies (guess he got over his late wife), and gets to be a god just by being the toughest guy in the room? 

Conversely, the route to being an IFC is likely much more complex; even one step down a fork in the road -- a use of one of any number of factors, like the ones I mentioned earlier -- can lead to a dead end.  Is Bayonetta as a character universally respected?  Or are there those who, justifiably, take issue with her being Sexyhair Q. Crotchsplayer?  (The less said about how a female character has to flaunt her body to star in a character action game, the better.)



Bemoaning the lack of female characters -- ideal or otherwise -- is pretty much part and parcel with being a gamer these days.  That’s a shame.  That’s not the way it should be.  But I have absolutely no problems understanding why putting them in the game is perceived as such a big risk.  No one has the perfect, one-to-one guide on creating an IFC.  No one. 
 
And as it stands, I doubt there is one.  I’d like to think that the problem could be solved if developers would ask what sort of character women might want, or at least trying to keep a pulse on the matter.  Understanding the needs of an audience is important, especially when said audience makes up a good half of the planet.  But on the other hand, I was under the impression that caving to demands and “giving the people what they want” is what gave us such memorable titles as Fuse.



Let’s get serious for a minute.  See, I’ve always thought that creators were supposed to bear the responsibility.  That is, if they’re out for true success, they can’t just “give the people what they want”.  They have to give the people something that they never even knew they wanted.  The only way to do that is by tapping into their namesake -- by using their creativity, ingenuity, skill, and wit to offer up something that can please others.  Maybe not everyone under the sun, sure, but more than enough people.  You know, give them something for them to unite under.    

Granted we live in a world where there are four -- and soon to be five -- Transformers movies by Michael Bay, so who knows at this stage.  Still, that’s no reason to refuse to put in effort.  It’s been done before, and it can be done again.  It’s all in service of the fans.  If you’re looking to entertain, then you’d damn well better do your best to entertain.  No exceptions.



Now, you remember how I said there aren’t a lot of examples of an IFC?  That’s true -- to an extent.  But there is one that I feel like I have to bring up.  No, it’s not Alyx Vance.  No, it’s not Jade.  No, it’s not Elizabeth.  No, it’s not Ellie.  No, it’s not whoever you’re thinking of right now, so please stop guessing.  They're viable answers, but I have one in mind.
 
It’s Milla.  Milla Maxwell.



The leading lady of Tales of Xillia is an interesting case -- because as it so happens, she’s idealizing herself.  Relatively speaking (it’s complicated, and full of spoilers), she’s the god of Xillia’s world; her thought processes and concepts are miles past the norm.  As it so happens, she mentions candidly in a conversation that she chose that form -- that of “a busty twenty-year-old”, as one party member puts it -- because she thought it would be appealing to men.
 
I’ll be blunt.  You have no idea how much it means to me to have a character explain their looks in-universe.  Especially when said appearance is a wild departure, and/or could raise some concerns for an audience out-of-universe.  If you compare Milla to every other character in the game, you’ll notice that her waist is tiny, even taking the anime affect into consideration.  And why?  Because that’s what she thinks looks best.  That’s her way of making herself ideal.  To say nothing of her potential tastes.



But it goes beyond looks (and that hair, which probably weighs more than the rest of her body put together).  She’s a god who lays claim to the ideal form of power, i.e. using summon spirits to guide her -- and when she loses them in the game’s opening hour, she’s left damn near winded just by walking.  She seeks the ideal knowledge by reading all the books she can get her hands on.    So in theory, she should be well-adjusted, right?

Nope.  In practice, there’s a big tradeoff.  She’s isolated herself from humans, and as a result lacking in practical applications of her knowledge.  Moreover, for a hefty swath of the game sees humans as toddlers she can laugh at, coddle, or punish as needed.  Her virtues and her very status are ideal -- but when the big reveals come and go, she’s left with everything she’s known challenged…though surprisingly, she handles everything like a pro.  Up to and including a brief sequence where she’s paralyzed from the waist down.



Milla’s a strange character -- with her voice pretty much sealing the deal on her otherworldly nature -- but I’d argue she gets pretty damn close to reaching the optimal state.  She’s an IFC in the conventional sense; de-powered or otherwise, she’s a magic swordswoman who can wallop any enemies that come her way, so physical ability isn’t an issue (once she learns how to walk and swim and eat, of course). 
 
Her looks might raise an eyebrow or two, but that’s counterbalanced by her strong personality and development; she’s a decidedly-mature character who stands firm in the face of adversity.  And while there is a romance element to both the character and the game at large, it’s done without any hand-wringing moments.  Hell, Jude’s the one who’s pining for her, and spends most of the game trying to reach her level; Milla doesn’t have to suddenly get degraded just so Jude can swoop in and catch her in his arms.  (Interestingly, Milla is taller than Jude -- officially by a couple of inches, but I swear the game and several art pieces exaggerate the difference.)  So at the basest, you can say that she’s got the agency and legitimacy bits down.



But I guess it’s worth adding a third point to the list: originality.  This one could easily be the clincher; it’s one thing to try and make an ideal character, but without that spark to call their own -- by just banking on the basic outlines and expectations -- there’s going to be a pretty big gap if you look any deeper than the surface level. 

Considering Milla, she’s in a surprisingly good place; she has a unique perspective on the world, she’s got plenty of character (humor or otherwise), she meshes well with the rest of the cast, she has struggles that no one else in the game can have, and…well, it’s not every day you get to experience a story like hers.  In a lot of ways, maybe that’s what it means to be ideal: being a character whose life you want to see unfold, however briefly.
 
…Shit, did I just answer my post’s own question?  Maybe.  Then again, you could argue I did that by making Black Widow the header image.



Well, I could be wrong on some accounts -- or maybe all of them.  I hope it doesn’t come to that by way of some intrepid commenter, but that’s a possibility I can live with.  What’s important now is that I get some insights from anyone who had the courage to see this post through to its end.  (One day I’ll learn how to write something with a reasonable length.  One day.)
 
So let’s hear it, then.  What’s your take?  How do you idealize female characters?  Is there a secret to it?  Some shining exemplar?  Is it even worth it, or just a fool’s errand?  Say whatever’s on your mind.  And don’t think too hard on the fact that I’m purposely avoiding talking about some of my female characters.  Just assume that they’re all based on fighting game archetypes, and you’ll be fine.  Ish.  Assuming you’re okay with grapplers.  
 
Also?  EVERYBODY GO PLAY SOME TALES GAMES.  THEY’RE SO GODLIKE.       

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