Nostalgia Vortex Starring Shining Wisdom

There’s a cedar closet in my house. Naturally, instead of storing old suits, I’ve converted it into my videogame cabinet. It’s a very slow and satisfying process pulling everything out of the plastic tubs they’ve been sitting in for a decade+ and cataloguing them. I’ve never bonsaied a tree, but I imagine it gives the same sort of OCD pleasure.

Part of the enjoyment is punching games into PriceCharting.com and seeing what has drastically appreciated in value (or, more likely, not appreciated at all). Holistically, the PS2 and PS3 games have faired poorly. The old Atlus games have been a mixed bag (the original Persona is ridiculous given how many formats it exists in, while Nocturne and Digital Devil Saga are laggards). And the Dreamcast and Saturn the notable standouts.

As I’m going through my Saturn collection, I stumbled on this little guy.

Working Designs Ultra Series – RIP

As you can see, this was once owned by a “Premier Video”, a now (obviously) defunct movie rental place in my hometown.  I remember buying a number of games from Premier: Battle Arena Toshinden, Virtua Fighter Kids, Shinging in the Darkness.

Wait. Which store?

And Shining Wisdom

I was surprised when I punched it in to see that it sells for $130 on eBay. It’s not the most valuable game I own, but I also can’t imagine ever toping it’s 40x return.

I haven’t played it yet (I’ve only had it for 20 years), but I always liked the shiny clay FMV scenes on the back (most people are probably glad we left these in the 90’s, but I appreciate how far they are from the uncanny valley).

The pinnacle of graphics for me when I was 12 was measured by how “smooth” they looked

I’m sure it’s a generic 90’s Zelda-clone, but that’s one of the best kind of clones (as long as they don’t take themselves too seriously). I’ve told myself I’ll give it a try once I finish cataloguing the rest of this stuff (in about 5 years).

Zelda BOTW – Travel Log 1

I continue to be amazed by this game. Not just from the weird little discoveries that seemingly exist throughout the world, but also by the ingenuity of the puzzles and set pieces. In completing the first Guardian Beast dungeon, I’ve been amazed at how well it came together. It’s one large, continuous, perfectly designed puzzle that is both challenging and then upon completion, obvious. Which is really the best type of puzzle.

It’s not difficult to make an easy or an incredibly obtuse puzzle. But neither of these is satisfying, and the latter is just grating. You can tell when a puzzle is obtuse, because when you learn the solution, you’re more frustrated than anything else (the old Police Quest games are seared into my brain with those moments. Who would inspect the tires before getting in a car!). And then there are challenging puzzles, where upon learning the solution, everything clicks into place, and you kick yourself for not figuring it out sooner. That sensation of how it feels after learning the solution, is how I judge puzzles, and by that measure BOTW is fantastic.

Of course, there are some Nintendo styled limitations that seem both arbitrary and antiquated (and maybe a little endearing). For example, you can only mark 100 places on your map, and with the map itself, it can be difficult to remember where you’ve been and where you haven’t. Cooking, while fun, is a grind (although I don’t know any games that have really gotten this right). And yet these are small complaints, and realizing how much detail went into this game, were probably intentional and debated thoroughly.

Zelda Breath of the Wild – First Impressions

I’m not exactly sure how I ended up playing Zelda Breath of the Wild. I haven’t particularly liked 3-D Zelda games. I bought a Switch in Germany, because I didn’t have a television and I wanted to play Super Mario Party with my six-year old daughter. And then I guess I was just bored, and it seemed like something that I “should” experience, but had been putting off, like The Godfather Part 2 or Stephen Hawking’s, A Brief History of Time.

Now, I’m about a dozen hours in and I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface of this game. Not just the geography, although that too:

A lot of the map is still either dark or unexplored.

There is just so much to this game. And yet it might be the first open world game since Fallout 3 that doesn’t ramp up some annoying OCD tendencies. I don’t have a checklist of things I need to remember to do, like in Dark Souls 2 or 3. I’m not trying to keep track of my morality and angle towards a particular ending, like in The Witcher 3. I’m just playing the game. No guides, no trophies, no cascading objective trees. It’s leisurely and relaxing. It’s so big, that I’ve given up trying to see it all. Which means I’m enjoying whatever weird version the game it is that I’m experiencing.

I can’t say yet if BOTW will end up being in my personal top 5 favorite games (which are Dragon Warrior 4, SNK vs. Capcom Card Fighters Clash (SNK edition), Demon’s Souls, Tactics Ogre, and The Last of Us. With Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne coming off the bench). But so far I do think you can make a meaningful argument for it being the best game of all time.

Even the mini-bosses are pretty cool

Dead Cells Review

Platform: PS4

Symphony Souls: Return of Samus

Dead Cells feels like a really good game made by what you assume is a small team that is actually a much bigger team (the credits went on forever). We’re at that inevitable point of nostalgia saturation where even large companies won’t ignore the potential for retro style games to move large amounts of units. And so that’s why the first description anyone gives about Dead Cells is that it’s a Metroidvania. For a game that’s as good as Dead Cells is, it sucks that the best descriptor is a combination of two games that haven’t had a 2D system release for twenty years (handhelds, remakes and multiplayer aside).

And so I enjoyed Dead Cells. A lot. My bell-weather for a good game is not if I’m willing to play it for 5 hours straight (because I’ll hate everything by that point, including myself). It’s if I choose the game over Netflix, Hulu, HBO NOW, and all the other 8 pm to 10 pm time wasters at my disposable. And in that sense Dead Cells is an objective success. I loved every hour I spent scaling that citadel.

At its core it’s built as rogue-like, which means rinse, die and repeat. And this puts the exploration into direct conflict with the impermanence of the surroundings. Add in a few questionable design choices (unlocking certain things can harm future runs), and you have an amazing early game, that eventually turns into speed running and repetition. That doesn’t take away from the early hours, when the citadel seems alive and changing, and each playthrough is different. It just meant that when I was done, I was done.  

Review: 4 stars (out of 5)

Lords of the Fallen Review

Title: Lords of the Fallen
Platform: PS4

Today’s Bubsy

Dark Souls must be to the 2010’s, what anthropomorphic mascot platformers were to the 90’s. Every game has to pitch itself as some version of Dark Souls-like, Dark Souls-lite, Dark Souls-esque. Which is really just a way to say: difficult, abstract and with a roll-dodge. Hell, even new Dark Souls games, try to sell how Dark Souls they are. Which is all sort of sad for me, because there doesn’t seem to be any love left for Demon’s Souls, which was the game that caught me like a left hook 10-years ago and made reevaluate what a videogame could be.

I really wanted to like Lords of the Fallen. I don’t have the focus right now for a Souls game, so I figured a game shamelessly ripped (I’m sorry, inspired) by the source-material would be a nice compromise. But it’s not. There are some positives: the environments are beautiful, a couple boss battles are memorable (the graveyard one comes to mind), and it’s easy to play in short bursts. But each one of these is paired with crippling flaws: the enemy models are muddy and generic, the combat consists of spamming roll-dodge, and being able to pick up and play is a result of how linear the game is. That doesn’t even begin to touch on the wooden characters, glitches and a general feeling of wasted opportunity.

There are some good things here, but it’s hard to appreciate any of them when the product feels 80% done. Which is sort of a parable for life. Enjoyment doesn’t seem to be linear (80% done doesn’t equal 80% enjoyment), but exponential (80% done is equivalent to 23% enjoyment). Look at the second season of True Detective as proof of that (which is indefensible except to say that there are glimmers of brilliance in there).

Review: 1 star (out of 5)

Grand Kingdom Review

Title: Grand Kingdom
Platform: PS Vita

For People Who Eat at Denny’s

This is another example of how biased and shitty these reviews are. But that’s the point, on a purely technical level Grand Kingdom is a much better game than I’m giving it credit for. But it still sucked away 6 hours of my life with very little to show for it, and that’s unforgivable.

Part of why Grand Kingdom is hard to critique is because it’s pretty much everything I asked for when I was young. That was back when the idea of dropping sixty hours into a game was a good thing. But now, if I’m going to do that, it has to trick me into it like Nier: Automata. Doling our little bits of dopamine like bread crumbs in the woods. Instead, this is the videogame equivalent of quantity over quality.

And the characters have to be better. I respect that much of the game is voice acted. But it’s a moot point when the dialogue is written by people who watched Mad Men, but clearly walked away with the wrong message about Mad Men. If you’re going to make your characters misogynists, it better serve a purpose. But here, it makes the endless narrative mistake of confusing misogyny with being cool, which reeks of desperation.

To highlight the positive, the battles and the board are pretty fun. And there are some incredibly creative community aspects to the game that run very deep (like I said, it’s everything I asked for when I was young). Although this is only when you’re not staring at the ceiling because of load times. And so in the end it starts to become an optimization of speed, instead of tactics, because you want to save as much of your life as possible.

And that’s how I knew I needed to turn it off.

Review: 2 stars (out of 5)

Not A Hero Review

Title: Not A Hero
Platform: PS4

A Clockwork Orange Rubik’s Cube 

Bunnylord for Mayor

Not A Hero feels good, like Hotline Miami. And when the game works best, you’re in a grotesque dance of muscle memory, puzzle solving, and luck. When it’s at its worst, you fall into a tedium where one level blends into the next. Thankfully, that’s rare.

Bunnylord, your giant pink rabbit boss talks like a Hunter S Thompson mad lib. Inserting borderline psychotic adjectives, mangled together at random, to coach you along. All and all, it’s short, addictive, and causes your controller to merge into your hand. It also knows not to outstay its welcome (which is more often the problem than a game being too short).

When I play a bit of the old ultra violence, I often wonder what kind of effect it has on my karma. And then I wonder if I believe in karma. And then I correct myself and say psyche. The effect on my psyche. Where as in the past I would mow down wave after wave of bad guys like spring loaded flopping machines, it doesn’t quite roll off the controller like it used to. And by the time I’ve gunned down that mental rabbit hole, I’m usually able to side step my feelings with the absurdity of what I’m witnessing. Because the game knows it’s a joke, and wears its heart on its sleeve.

Review: 4 stars (out of 5)

Kentucky Route Zero; Act 1

Driving into the Dark

To say that Kentucky Route Zero is beautiful is an understatement. In it’s own unique way, it might be one of the most beautiful games I have ever seen. And it uses aesthetics like a puzzle, twisting itself as the camera pans to change the meaning of what you’re seeing, without changing what you’re seeing. It’s a quietly terrifying experience. Even though you never feel the characters life is in danger, as there appears to be nothing that threatens it, it is the  danger of unhinging. Dying is the least of your worries, because it’s unclear if this world is bound by death.  Whatever the character is experiencing, it feels lonely and metaphysical, and if you try to hold onto anything it slips away from you.

Act 1 set the stage, with little in terms of narrative coherence. The game asks constant questions of you, and it’s unclear if your answers mean anything outside of your own internal reflection. And that reflection could be enough.

It’s Moments Like This When You Know Things Will Dissolve

Super Mario Run Review

Title: Super Mario Run
Platform: iOS

Not That Easy to Hate

I never understood the beauty of Super Mario Run until I played it with my daughter.

My first impression two years ago was that it was cute and serviceable enough to distract me from my crippling jetlag. This time around, when my daughter saw the instantly recognizable Mario icon in my phone, I understood why it exists- it is impressively simple. You push the screen and Mario (or flavor of your choice) jumps. That’s it.

It’s virtually impossible to die on the first level, and given Mario’s self-propulsion, you don’t even need to press forward. As a result, you set your own personal goals. My daughter played the first stage over and over, each time getting a few more coins. Eventually she felt brave enough to venture out into harder courses, only to come back again to the first level. Aesthetically, it seems to borrow the most from Super Mario World (my personal favorite), but the mechanics are a grab-bag, even digging into black sheep like Super Mario Bros 2.

The game is not unique in its simplicity, but it’s also Mario, and there’s something that bridges a lot of gaps as a result of that.

Review: 4 stars (out of 5)

Valiant Hearts Review

Title: Valiant Hearts
Platform: PS4

Let’s Play! WWI

Valiant Hearts is an odd game.

I’m left asking myself, “who green-lit this”? Is it an educational game in disguise, made to secretly teach teenagers about the atrocities of WWI, much like my 9th grade reading assignment of All Quiet on the Western Front? (Which is a mesmerizing book: humanizing Germans, shitting next to each other in trenches, hanging out with French girls, the atrocities of war perpetrated on and by teenagers. Side-side-note, it has a rating of 3.9 on Goodreads. Moby Dick has a rating of 3.5 on Goodreads. The current New York Times bestseller, Leverage in Death by J.D. Robb, has a rating of 4.5.)

Or is it a puzzle game with some light action rammed in for the hell of it? Maybe it was just a bunch of WWI nerds who wanted to spread the word about how insane this nearly forgotten nationalistic macho-fest really was. And good for them if that’s the case. There were parts of France that experienced so much death that it salted the earth. And then in less than one generation, a new war was raging in those same places.

So how would you present this unprecedented level of pointless death and destruction? Again, the game doesn’t seem to know. It oscillates between Saturday morning cartoon villains and hidden violence (when you throw a grenade into an enemy embankment, they throw their hands up an run off the screen comically before it explodes), to scenes that are so grotesque that you’re hiding behind mountains of corpses, as French soldiers are being ripped to shreds all around you. These scenes are over-the-top, and intentionally so given the loss of life in WWI, but then why wait until the end of the game to show something so savage? Yes, the Neville offensive was a huge waste of life, but there were over a million casualties in the Battle of the Somme alone (one of a dozen other ugly battles you’ll march through), none of which are presented with as much butchery.

It does have a nice feature where you can collect little artifacts around the level that give you information about WWI living conditions. Normally these types of search quests would be a drag, but it’s pretty seamlessly integrated, and never overly frustrating. I enjoyed it enough that I went back and found them all when the game was done.

As a game, it’s not much. As an educational game, it’s admirable. I’ll give it the benefit of the doubt that it’s the later.

Review: 3 stars (out of 5)