My Favorite Video Games, Pt. 9

The end is near. Only two more weeks, and my list of the greatest video games of all time will be complete. Last week I mentioned that Final Fantasy VII, although it is the third greatest video game of all time, is not the greatest JRPG of all time. There is one JRPG  that is better than Final Fantasy VII, and that game is The World Ends with You.

I think that most people would agree that The World Ends with You is a JRPG, but calling it that does require a very broad definition of the term “JRPG”. One might even refer to it as a post-JRPG. TWEWY came out in 2008 in North America for the Nintendo DS, and it was a massive breath of fresh air for a genre that had been stagnant for almost 10 years. JRPGs were – and are – stuck in a massive rut, with developers rehashing the same tired plots and gameplay mechanics with every new game. Arguably Chrono Cross, which came out in 2000 for the Sony Playstation, was the last really innovative and unique JRPG until TWEWY.

What makes TWEWY such a breath of fresh air is that it takes every generic and cliched element of traditional JRPGs and either throws it out or turns it on its head. Instead of taking place in a medieval/fantasy setting, TWEWY takes place in modern-day Shibuya (a district in Tokyo). Instead of playing as a band of rag-tag adventurers who have to confront an ancient evil that is dead-set on destroying the world, you play as a misanthropic teenager named Neku Sakuraba who is thrust into a mysterious contest called the Reapers’ Game. Instead of fighting random battles where you select commands from a menu that your party then executes, you scan the area you’re in for enemies (known as Noise) and then fight them with a wide variety of different attacks that are used by manipulating the DS touchscreen in a multitude of ways. Instead of weapons and armor, you fight with hundreds of different kinds of pins, all of which have different capabilities, and you power up your characters by feeding them hamburgers, salads and french fries.

Unless you’ve played the game, that last paragraph probably has you scratching your head, but it’s okay. All you really need to know is that TWEWY is totally unique, and utterly fantastic. I actually resisted playing this game for a long time after I bought it, because it seemed so incredibly complicated. And it is incredibly complicated. So much so that I won’t terrify/bore you by going into the details here. But one of the great things about this game is that it does a great job of easing you into it. New elements are introduced at a relatively leisurely pace, and you are given plenty of opportunity to acclimate yourself to a new element before the next element is introduced.

The game also is incredibly adaptable. Two examples of this. First of all, as in typical JRPGs, after every battle you get a certain number of experience points, and when you get enough experience points, your level goes up, and you get more powerful. What TWEWY does differently is let you adjust your level on the fly. In other words, you can go into battle with a lower level than your actual level, and this increases the quantity and quality of the items dropped by your enemies. So if you want lots of good items, lower your level. If the game is too hard and complicated for you, then you can raise your level and the game will be easier.

The other example has to do with the “buddy system” that the game employs. In order to survive the Reapers’ Game, Neku needs a partner. This partner helps you fight the Noise. The battle system of TWEWY utilizes the dual-screen nature of the DS. Neku fights on the bottom screen, and Neku’s partner fights on the top screen. You can control either person, using the touchscreen to control Neku and the buttons to control Neku’s partner. Doing this allows you to build up power and unleash more devastating attacks. However, it’s also more complicated, because you have to manage two different characters. Fortunately, there is an option to let the computer control your partner. This allows you to just focus on Neku, and let Neku’s partner do his or her own thing. This works out great for me, because I don’t have multitasking chops to be able to manage both characters at the same time.

The incredible flexibility of TWEWY’s gameplay systems is only part of why the game is so great. The other part is its fantastic story. As I stated earlier, the story of TWEWY throws away all of the usual cliches that plague JRPGs. I don’t want to go into details, because I don’t want to spoil it for anybody who is interested in playing this game and hasn’t yet, but suffice it to say that it is one of the best stories that I’ve ever experienced in a video game. The dialogue is well-written, the characters are complex and believable, the setting is rich and detailed, and the plot twists and turns in unexpected ways while remaining consistent and logical. Oh, it’s great. If it was a movie, it would probably win an Oscar. Okay I’m exaggerating, but still, you get my point.

The game also has a lot of replayability. Once you finish the game, you can go back and play any chapter in any order, and if you fulfill certain conditions in each chapter, you’ll unlock a page of a report written by a certain character that reveals more of the backstory of the game. Unfortunately, I haven’t had a chance to do this myself yet, but one of these days I plan to.

So there you have it. The second best video game of all time is The World Ends With You. Lovely. Next week is the final installment of this wonderful series. The best video game of all time! I have a feeling that you will be surprised.

My Favorite Video Games, Pt. 8

Here we go. We’ve reached the Top 3. The three best video games that have ever been made. The absolute cream of the crop. The best of the best. And without any further ado, allow me to reveal that the third greatest video game of all time is Final Fantasy VII.

I know that for many, putting Final Fantasy VII ahead of Final Fantasy VI is akin to blasphemy, but there is no doubt in my mind that Final Fantasy VII is the superior game. Final Fantasy VI is clearly fantastic, but every time I’ve ever played it, I tend to get bogged down in the second half of the game. I just find it to be kind of boring. As for VII, it is the only FF that I have mastered, not once, but twice. (By mastered, I mean that I leveled up all of my characters to level 99, got all of the ultimate weapons, all of the ultimate Limit Breaks, two of every Master materia, and I beat the Emerald Weapons and the Ruby Weapon. You know, in case you’re a nerd and you’re wondering about that sort of thing.) This game just never gets boring, and it never gets old.

The funny thing about my love for this game is that I never wanted to play it. When I was a kid, I was a hardcore Nintendo fanboy. I was also a hardcore Square fanboy. Up until about 1996, these two things went hand-in-hand. For the first ten years or so of its history, Square developed games exclusively for Nintendo’s systems. As a kid, I wholeheartedly believed that these two companies were in love with each other. To my naive kid brain, there was no reason why Square would ever develop a game for any system other than Nintendo’s. So when I came across an issue of GamePro magazine that had a preview of Final Fantasy VII for the SONY Playstation, my mind was blown.

At this point, I was super jazzed for the Nintendo 64. One of the things that made me super jazzed for the Nintendo 64 was the prospect of a next-generation Final Fantasy game running on this thing. Square had already shown off a tech demo featuring characters from Final Fantasy VI that they had built using the same Silicon Graphics workstations that the Nintendo 64 was based on, and it looked AMAZING. So I was incredibly stoked about the prospect about Final Fantasy on the Nintendo 64. And then came that fateful issue of GamePro.

When I first laid eyes on Final Fantasy VII for the Playstation, I was simultaneously excited and mortified. Excited because it looked even more amazing than the N64 demo, but mortified because it wasn’t for the Nintendo 64. I felt like I had been stabbed in the back. Square had BETRAYED Nintendo and all of Nintendo’s fans! I decided right then and there that there was no way I was ever going to play this blasphemous game, no matter how incredible it was.

Of course, I did end up playing Final Fantasy VII. Part of the reason was that the more I learned about the game, the more awesome it seemed, and the more irresistible it was. The other part of the reason was that I bought a Nintendo 64 soon after it came out, and it turned out to be a rather disappointing console. I quickly realized that I wasn’t so much a Nintendo fanboy as I was a Square fanboy. So I broke down and bought a Playstation, and of course the first game I got was Final Fantasy VII.

Final Fantasy VII deviates from the typical fantasy setting that had characterized most previous Final Fantasies. It instead takes place in a rather modern/futuristic world with cars and cell phones and so forth. The game starts off with a rebel group known as AVALANCHE planting a bomb in a Mako reactor owned by the Shinra Corporation. Shinra is a massive organization that has somehow managed to take over the whole world, and they use their reactors to drain Mako energy from the planet and turn it into electricity. Unfortunately, this Mako energy is the lifeblood of the planet, and if Shinra continues to drain it all, the planet will eventually die. AVALANCHE has dedicated itself to keeping that from happening.

I don’t want to get too much into the story though. Instead, I want to give a small example of the game’s scale. The game starts off in the city of Midgar, which is Shinra’s base of operations. It stays there for several hours of gameplay time, and for a while, you actually get the impression that the entire game will take place in Midgar. So when you finally do end up leaving Midgar, and you realize that Midgar is just one of many locations on a huge world map, it’s a bit of a shock, and rather exciting as well.

Final Fantasy VII is the best-selling Final Fantasy to this day, and its popularity is attested to by the large number of spin-offs and sequels that it has spawned. The best of these is probably Advent Children. Advent Children is a movie that takes place a couple of years after the events of Final Fantasy VII. It’s basically a 90 minute long action scene from the Matrix on steroids. Which is awesome if you like that sort of thing. Unfortunately the plot doesn’t really make any sense, and it doesn’t really add anything to the original game. There is also Crisis Core, which is a PSP game that takes place before Final Fantasy VII. Unlike Advent Children, this game has a pretty decent plot, but the gameplay is stunningly boring, so I haven’t actually finished it. There’s a couple of other games that are part of what’s known as the “Compliation of Final Fantasy VII”, but I’ve never really had any interest in playing any of them.

But the relatively poor quality of these spin-offs might simply be due to the fantastic quality of the original that they must be compared with. Final Fantasy VII is an amazing game, and easily the best Final Fantasy game ever made. But it is not the best JRPG ever made. If you want to know what is, you’ll have to come back next week!

My Favorite Video Games, Pt. 7

Well, we’re hitting the home stretch here. Only four more weeks to go, and then I’ll go back to writing about random tech news or whatever. I’ve actually alluded to this week’s game a couple of times so far. Last week I mentioned that Half-Life 2 was the best pure first-person shooter ever made, but that there were a couple of games ranked higher that are first-person games where you shoot things that aren’t technically first-person shooters. In addition, several weeks ago I talked about Super Metroid, and I mentioned that only one other game has executed the Super Metroid style of gameplay better than Super Metroid. If you know anything about video games, you’ve probably already figured out that the game I’m talking about this week is Metroid Prime.

Like a lot of the games on this list, Metroid Prime has a pretty fascinating history. After Super Metroid came out in 1994, the Metroid franchise went dormant for several years. There were rumors about a new Metroid game for the Nintendo 64, but those rumors never came to anything. Whether Nintendo even considered making a Nintendo 64 Metroid game, I have no idea. But in 1998, a new development studio was formed in Austin, TX called Retro Studios. This studio (which is now owned by Nintendo, although I don’t think it originally was) eventually began working on the first new Metroid game since Super Metroid. This game was first shown off at Space World in 2000 (Space World being a trade show that Nintendo used to put on). In November of 2000, Retro accidentally revealed that they were working on this game by posting a job ad on their website asking people to apply to help make the next Metroid game.

The game got its official unveiling at E3 in 2001. (E3 is the Electronic Entertainment Expo, the premier video game trade show in North America.) Previous Metroid games had all been 2D side-scrolling games, but it was already apparent before the game was officially released that the new game would be in 3D. What hadn’t been known before then was that Metroid Prime would be a first-person game. This move caused a great deal of controversy. A lot of hardcore Metroid fans were skeptical that a first-person game could ever actually “feel” like Metroid. Considering that Metroid Prime is the best Metroid game of them all, I think it’s pretty safe to say that Retro nailed it.

It was another year and half before Metroid Prime was finally released. It came out in November of 2002 for the Nintendo Gamecube. In a rather brilliant marketing move, another Metroid game, Metroid Fusion for the Game Boy Advance, was released on the same day. (Personal side note: I bought Metroid Prime the day it came out, and I still have that same copy today. It’s the only game I bought before I got married that I still own.) In a way, it was almost too much. Eight years without a single Metroid game, and then two on the same day. Fortunately, both games were fantastic, although obviously Metroid Prime was by far the superior game.

Chronologically, Metroid Prime takes place between the original Metroid and its sequel, Metroid II: The Return of Samus. In the original Metroid, famed bounty hunter Samus Aran has to go to the Space Pirate base world of Zebes and destroy the Space Pirates before they can unleash their army of Metroids on the galaxy. After the destruction of Zebes, Samus picks up a distress call from a ship orbiting the planet of Tallon IV. She goes to investigate, and discovers that the distress call is coming from a Space Pirate vessel, the Orpheon. On board the Orpheon, Samus finds that the Space Pirates have been experimenting with a mysterious substance called Phazon, which they found on the nearby planet. They had been using Phazon to genetically alter various creatures, making them faster, stronger, smarter, more vicious, etc. Unfortunately for the Space Pirates, these creations had turned against their creators and had destroyed the ship’s crew.

While exploring the ship, Samus comes across her old nemesis Ridley, whom she thought she had destroyed on Zebes. Before she can fight him, he escapes to Tallon IV, and she gets back in her ship and follows him down to the planet’s surface. She loses track of him in the planet’s atmosphere, so she is forced to explore the planet in order to find her enemy and shut down the Space Pirate operations on Tallon IV.

Once you really get to exploring Tallon IV, the care and craftsmanship that the team at Retro Studios poured into this game really shines through. I once heard it said that Metroid Prime felt like Retro had taken Super Metroid, dismantled it, added a third dimension, and then put it back together perfectly. That is a perfect description. Metroid Prime takes the exploration and collecting elements of Super Metroid and mixes them into a wonderfully immersive and richly detailed 3D polygonal world. Tallon IV is masterfully constructed, with little surprises tucked into its various nooks and crannies.

There are many delightful elements to a game like this, but I’ll highlight one in particular. When you first start the game, you will come across areas or items that you can’t reach right away. For example, in one early room in the Chozo Ruins of Tallon IV, you can see an energy tank on a high ledge, but there’s no way to get there. As you move through the game, you eventually figure out how to get these items. There’s a certain joy, a certain excitement, to figuring out how to get an item that you couldn’t reach before.

Sometimes a development studio has to make several games before they hit their stride and deliver a masterpiece. But sometimes everything just comes together in an almost magical way and a studio hits a home run on their very first at-bat. Retro Studios is a fantastic studio that has done some amazing work in the past decade, but they have yet to surpass their very first game. Metroid Prime is a masterpiece in every sense of the word.

Next week is number three! Yay!

My Favorite Video Games, Pt. 6

If you’ve been following along with my series on the best video games ever, you might be under the mistaken impression that I only like games made by Nintendo, or games made by Square and released on a Nintendo system. Well, you couldn’t possibly be more wrong, and allow me to prove it to you by revealing that the fifth best video game of all time is Half-Life 2.

Again, you wouldn’t know it by looking at my favorite video games so far, but I LOVE first-person shooters. Ever since I played Doom back in the mid-90s, I’ve had a massive attachment to this genre, and Half-Life 2 is easily the best pure first-person shooter ever made. (I qualify that because there are a couple of games that I have ranked higher than Half-Life 2 that are first person games that involve shooting, but most people wouldn’t consider them true first-person shooters. That’s called a tease, people.) These games just impart such a great feeling of being right in the thick of the action. I love it.

The weird thing about my attachment to Half-Life 2 is that I can’t stand the original Half-Life. Back when Half-Life came out in 1998, I heard a lot about how wonderful it was, but I didn’t have a PC that was capable of running it, so I didn’t get a chance to play it at the time. Instead, I played the Playstation 2 version when it came out in 2001. Like I said, I’d heard a lot about how amazing Half-Life was, and the PS2 version got good reviews, so I decided to go ahead and buy it.

What an utterly TERRIBLE game. The level design feels like it was just thrown together, there is almost NO story, the controls are floaty and it’s very difficult to get your character to do what you want him to do. Many was was the time that I fell victim to random acid or spikes or whatever just because I was fighting the controls and lost. I wondered if maybe the PS2 version was just a bad port (and the good reviews I’d read were paid for by Valve, the makers of the game), but a few years later I finally played the PC version, and found that it was just as bad.

Maybe I would have understood the appeal of Half-Life a little better if I’d actually played it in 1998, but there’s no mystery about the greatness of its sequel. Half-Life 2 is the absolute pinnacle of the first-person shooter genre. It is a finely crafted and superbly designed masterpiece. It has a phenomenal story, masterful level design, graphics that are still gorgeous seven years later, and lots of variety. It is, in a word, amazing.

Half-Life 2 picks up several years after the original. In both games, you play as Gordon Freeman, who is a physicist with a Ph.D. from MIT. He was working on a top-secret research project at the Black Mesa Research Facility when there was a horrible mishap and aliens from another dimension invaded the facility. Gordon has to fight his way out of the facility, a task which is complicated when government troops arrive to shut the place down and destroy every shred of evidence about the incident – including the scientists. Eventually, Gordon makes his way into another dimension and kills the alien holding the rift between dimensions open. He then is approached by a mysterious man (known as the G-Man), who congratulates Gordon on his efforts and makes him a job offer. Gordon accepts the offer and is placed into stasis by the G-Man.

Half-Life 2 opens with Gordon emerging from stasis on a mostly empty train. At first, you know nothing about what’s going on, but you gradually figure out that after Gordon was placed into stasis, an alien force known as the Combine invaded Earth and obliterated the planet’s defenses in seven hours (hence the name for the conflict: the Seven Hour War). The Combine set up a brutal police state and now rules the human race with an iron fist. They are slowly and steadily exterminating humanity, even going so far as to set up an energy field that keeps humans from having children.

The first part of this game is probably the very best part. When you first step off the train in City 17, you have no weapons, and the oppressive and stifling nature of the Combine regime is evident from the very first moment. You can only go where the Combine tells you to go, and if you even look at them the wrong way, they’ll beat you with electrified batons. Eventually you make your way into an apartment building, where the brutality of the Combine becomes even more apparent. Many apartments don’t have doors, so there’s no privacy, furnishings are sparse, and everyone is forced to wear the exact same outfit. Overwatch (the Combine version of the Gestapo) randomly raids apartment buildings and carries people off to Nova Prospekt, a grim and forbidding prison outside the city.

It is in the midst of one of these raids that you encounter Alyx Vance. Alyx is part of a resistance movement that is working to overthrow the Combine. She takes you to one of their hideouts in the city, but there is a mishap, and you find yourself back on the streets again. Only this time you’re armed with a crowbar. This leads to one of the best moments I’ve ever experienced in all of my 20+ year of video gaming. After not being able to do anything but run and hide from the Combine, I came across an Overwatch soldier beating a defenseless man while his wife/girlfriend pleaded for him to stop. I then ran up to that soldier and beat him to death with my crowbar. It felt like, in that moment, the revolution had begun, and the tide had started to turn. Before that moment, I was a powerless cog in the Combine’s mighty machine, and that first blow in the name of freedom and justice was like, “Oh yeah. It’s ON NOW!”

The rest of the game is pretty good too. Check back next week for number four!

My Favorite Video Games, Pt. 5

And now, at long last, we move on to a more modern era of video gaming. This pick, my sixth favorite video game of all time, might seem a little blasphemous to some, at least when compared to my tenth favorite video game of all time. But frankly, there’s no doubt in my mind that number six is better than number ten. And the sixth best video game of all time is…… The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess.

Twilight Princess is the culmination of the Zelda series. Ocarina of Time is a great game, and its historical significance and influence is much greater than that of Twilight Princess. But if you want to know which of these games is more fun, and provides a better experience, the answer is clearly Twilight Princess. Twilight Princess took everything that was good about Ocarina of Time, and perfected it.

The history of Twilight Princess is a little convoluted. Ocarina of Time, as I mentioned a few weeks ago, is considered by some to be the greatest video game of all time. There’s little doubt that most people would say that Zelda peaked with that game. In 2000, Nintendo followed up Ocarina of Time with Majora’s Mask, which was very similar artistically and had a similar gameplay style, but it had a much darker and rather unconventional story, at least when compared to other Zelda games. Nintendo also announced the successor to the Nintendo 64 in 2000, the Gamecube.  This console would be significantly more powerful, which got people thinking (and salivating) about the prospects for a bigger and more beautiful follow-up to Ocarina of Time. Nintendo stoked these fires by showing off a demo running on the Gamecube hardware of an epic battle between Link and Ganon, the hero and villain of the Zelda series.

Unfortunately, what we got at first was The Wind Waker, which used a graphic style known as cel shading, which produces a very “cartoony” look. The initial reveal of The Wind Waker was largely met by derision amongst the gaming community, although once the game actually came out in 2003, people quickly realized that it was a very good Zelda game in its own right. However, there were some (like me) who still wanted a bigger, better Ocarina of Time. And we finally got our wish in 2006, with the release of Twilight Princess.

The crazy thing about Twilight Princess is that, despite all of the outrage about “Cel-da”, by the time Twilight Princess actually came out in 2006, the biggest complaint about it was that it was too much like Ocarina of Time! I guess haters just gotta hate.

Actually there was more than one crazy thing about Twilight Princess. By the time that Twilight Princess was near release, the Gamecube was rapidly approaching the end of its lifespan, and Twilight Princess was originally intended to be its last hurrah before Nintendo’s next console came out. However, unlike most console transitions, the big difference between the Gamecube and its successor (the Wii) was not the technical specifications, but rather the controller. So, since these two consoles were so similar under the hood, Nintendo decided to port Twilight Princess to the Wii, and use it as the Wii’s first “killer app”. And so, the Wii became the first Nintendo console to launch with a Zelda game.

The Gamecube version did still come out, only it came out a month later. That was the version I ended up getting at first, since it was almost impossible to find a Wii in 2006, and I couldn’t afford one anyway. I ended up beating the Gamecube version twice in a row, and then I went ahead and bought the Wii version, once I finally got a Wii in the summer of 2007. I have yet to actually beat the Wii version, although I certainly intend to someday.

In any case, that’s probably enough about the crazy mixed-up history of Twilight Princess. Let’s talk more about the game itself. Like almost all Zelda games, Twilight Princess stars a young man named Link who has to rescue a princess named Zelda from an evil being named Ganon. That’s pretty much the basic plot of every Zelda game since the very first one (The Legend of Zelda, released in 1986). Twilight Princess twists this classic tale enough to keep it interesting, though. The name “Ganon” isn’t even uttered for the first time until about halfway through the game. Link starts out as a young man working on a ranch in a small town. Long story short, evil creatures attack his village, he gets turned into a wolf, captured by sinister shadow creatures, and then freed by a mysterious impish thing named Midna.

Midna toys with Link for awhile, but eventually reveals that his world is under attack by someone calling himself the Twilight King, whose real name is Zant. Link sets out to become the legendary hero who is destined to finish off Zant, but on the way to that confrontation, he discovers that Zant is just a puppet, and the real villain is, of course, Ganon. Ultimately, it is a rather cliched story, but, like with Super Metroid, it’s not the story that makes Zelda games great. It’s the experience of playing as a legendary hero and exploring a vast and diverse fantasy landscape. There’s just a certain “feeling” that comes from playing a Zelda game, and Twilight Princess captures that feeling better than any Zelda game before it.

Ultimately, I feel like Twilight Princess has gotten a bit of a raw deal. For me, it is the fulfillment of the promise that was made in Ocarina of Time. It takes everything that was good about that game, and perfects it, and adds a bunch of new stuff to boot. But it seems like most people see Twilight Princess as too derivative of Ocarina of Time, and just dismiss it as Ocarina of Time Part 2. This seems like missing the point to me. But whatever. My enjoyment of video games is not dependent on what other people think about them.

Check back next week for number five!