Monday, September 27, 2010

A Look to the Past: Games of the Years 2000 - Rayman 2: The Great Escape


Rayman 2: The Great Escape (Dreamcast)

Okay, obligatory confession of not having played important games: both Chrono Cross and The Sims escaped my grasp. But that's all right, because Rayman 2 was a phenomenal game anyway! We find ourselves in  the year 2000, with a brand new millennium just waiting for some rad games to be released. When it came to the best game of 2000, I debated back and forth with myself between The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask and Rayman 2: The Great Escape. As you already know (if you read this year's title and even glanced at that large image above), I picked Rayman 2; and just by the slightest margins. Majora's Mask was a brilliant twist to a familiar series, but had its flaws, ultimately failing to stack up against its predecessor. Rayman 2, on the other hand, suffered from a microscopic amount of faults. It creamed the original Rayman in almost every way, hurling the limbless hero into a new world and far surpassing the genre's standards. From start to finish, Rayman 2 was a smooth platforming adventure that never hits a dry spot. The 3D platformer wasn't exactly a new concept, but this game was handled with such grace, everything felt fresh. There were two things that really stood out: the way Rayman moved and the magical yet funky setting. I have no idea what Rayman is, but he has a bunch of weird abilities. He could hover through the air by twirling his hair, swing on fairy-like Lums with his unattached hands, and throw balls of light at will. All of these maneuvers flowed one after the other effortlessly, requiring skill without ever coming to a jarring halt. There were moments of sheer frustration in Rayman 2, but rarely did they feel unwarranted or cheap. As far as platformers go, it doesn't get much better than this.

Even Rayman wants to stop and stare at the scenery.

The Glade of Dreams was a bizarre place filled with strange denizens and metallic pirates that all spoke in some kind of forgotten form of Simlish. Textures featured swirly designs and a distinct color pallete and the mystical forest was overgrown with weird plant life. There were treacherous underground lava channels, rocky bays with pirate ships docked inside, creepy nightmare lands adorned with grasping, bony hands that grabbed at Rayman at any given chance... all manner of creative places. The music style carried on the tradition of oddness with a groovy soundtrack that used tribal drums, electric guitars, tense strings, rad basses, strong pianos, and a bunch of other instruments, all combining to create a totally unique sound. The game's universe was weird and seemingly random, but the pieces fell together and make a cohesive picture that leaves one wanting more. It's so darn easy to enjoy Rayman 2, you can't help but to enjoy yourself immensely. All that and Rayman has NO ARMS OR LEGS. That's the mark of a Game of the Year.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

A Look to the Past: Games of the Years 1999 - Soulcalibur


Soulcalibur (Dreamcast)

I have to say that I'm happy to see at least one Dreamcast game make it on the list, and this is the best the gone-but-not-forgotten console had to offer. Beating its fellow Dreamcast games (Sonic Adventure) and other fighting games (Super Smash Bros.), Soulcalibur deftly snatches up this year's prize. This powerhouse was so far ahead of its time it's a wonder it didn't come packaged with a flying car. The visuals were phenomenal, sporting fine detail, fluid animation, and incredible hair and clothing effects. It was a jaw-dropping experience to simply sit back and watch the characters perform their stylish and impressive maneuvers as they leaped, spun, and sliced through the air. The fact that such a good-looking game could come out on a console in 1999 was definitely something special. The music pushed boundaries as well, for Soulcalibur's epic score got the blood pumping with extremely exciting, steel-clashing songs that begged to accompany a dynamic duel. The fighters themselves welcomed such duels with a diverse array of cool weapons and fighting styles, and they rank up there with the classics of fighting game casts. Even though Soulcalibur unleashed the abomination known as Voldo unto the world, it more than made up for it with rad characters like Maxi, Nightmare, and Astaroth. And even more admirable, it was a launch title, too. That's really, really impressive. I mean, what would you prefer to purchase for your shiny, new Dreamcast: Soulcalibur or Ready 2 Rumble Boxing?

I'm pretty sure that's not a very protective pose to strike when facing a samurai warrior.

One of the main reasons Soulcalibur was so memorable was due to its approach to the genre. While other games, such as Tekken and Virtua Figher, might have been competent and well-made in their own manner, Soulcalibur focused on crafting a flowing combat system that looked super awesome. Siegfried's elaborate swings of his sword would clash against Kilik's whirling staff as the two combatants danced through the fight with all the grace of a ninja. Although accused of being a button masher, Soulcalibur quite obviously required strategy and wits to master, and it was a heck of a lot more entertaining to watch than its competitors. Using the revolutionary eight-way run mechanic and incorporating sensible combos that weren't impossible to pull off, Soulcalibur melded form and function together to create an experience that could be entertaining right off the bat but had real legs in the long run. Never before had combat in a video game been so fun, and the entire package still holds up beautifully today. Soulcalibur set the bar ridiculously high for both the Dreamcast and fighting games in general, and taking only its sequels and the later Super Smash Bros. games out of the equation, I still hold it up as the greatest fighting game of all time. So come on now, you have say it:

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

A Look to the Past: Games of the Years 1998 - The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time


 The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (Nintendo 64)

It's 1998, and we all know what happened in this legendary year. Of course, what else? Exxon announced a $73.7 billion deal to buy Mobil, thus creating Exxon-Mobil, the second-largest company on the planet by revenue! Other than that, I can't really think of anything. No, seriously, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time was released! A game that needs no introduction, Ocarina of Time is probably the video game community's collective Best Game Ever. From the moment the emotional title screen showed the hero Link riding across a moonlit field on his noble steed, you knew you were in for an experience that had never before been seen. Ocarina of Time acted as the Mario series' Super Mario 64. All the familiar elements that built up the Zelda franchise were there, including multi-layered dungeons, bombs and arrows, rupees inexplicably hiding inside tufts of grass, and all that stuff. By using the mega-awesome power of the Nintendo 64, however, Hyrule was utterly transformed into an eye-opening world of 3D wonder. Using the Z-targeting system, combat was also changed for the better, granting Link a rigorous set of fighting techniques. Dungeons, of course, took on a new atmospheric life with complex and brilliant designs that took advantage of Link's new dimension. Indeed, this installment of The Legend of Zelda made everything new again and had enough fresh ideas to reboot a series several times over. 

I was going to make a Navi joke, but I'm really sick of those. Instead, I'm just going to say that this game is RAD.

Ocarina of Time was all about exploring; exploring, adventure, and all the elements that make a great fantasy quest so great. The tale of the three goddesses of the Triforce, the evil king Ganondorf, and the shocking time-traveling plot twist will always be remembered, and the epic scope of Ocarina of Time ensured this fact. Hyrule came to life with its incredible 3D setting, allowing the player to truly experience the world through Link's eyes. You, the player, could scale the fiery Death Mountain itself, leap from the sparkling waterfall of Zora's Domain, explore the puzzling Lost Woods, and gallop across the vast plains of Hyrule field. It all felt magically real and is quite honestly one of the most amazing experiences in video game history. It didn't hurt that the game looked excellent, and sounded just as good. The soundtrack ranged from happy shop ditties to haunting ocarina songs, leading you through each location and story sequence with the proper tone. Some genius at Nintendo HQ even had the idea to let the player use an ocarina to play songs and affect the world in highly interesting ways, thereby granting the game its very name. This revolutionary and important game was a quality product from start to finish, and it's hard to forget the battles, journeys, and characters encountered along the way. There's no denying it: whether you compare it to any other game from 1998, be it Banjo-Kazooie, Pokemon, or StarCraft, there's no topping Ocarina of Time.

Saturday, September 04, 2010

A Look to the Past: Games of the Years 1997 - Star Fox 64


Star Fox 64 (Nintendo 64)

After the radness of '96, this year slowed down a little. At least... for me it did. Once again I have a Final Fantasy disclaimer: I've never played Final Fantasy VII. There, I said it. Now we can continue. Fallout premiered this year, as did GoldenEye 007, neither of which I have played. Castlevania: Symphony of the Night and and Grand Theft Auto were also released, but I didn't play those either. Of course, Diablo and Grand Turismo were features in '97, but they're just out of my wheelhouse too. Okay, 1997 isn't my strong suit, but I still happily give Game of the Year to Star Fox 64. The heroic Fox McCloud and his loyal team of fellow mutant animals are the stars of this fantastic sci-fi shooter, and it's a wild ride, let me tell you. I have a number of complaints regarding the illogical Nintendo 64 controller, but I'll always remember it for Star Fox 64. Not only did the oddly-shaped controller look a bit like an Arwing, but firing at swarms of enemy ships with the bright blue A button and tapping Z repeatedly to do a barrel roll felt perfect. And who can forget the epic Rumble Pak, which simultaneously made the game feel more engaging and the controller feel like a cinder-block with handles. Even so, Star Fox 64 played extremely well and looked just as good. The intensity of huge space battles full of laser beams and explosions was exciting to experience, and was pretty darn awesome for the time too. Shiny reflections on the smooth surface of an ocean and a monstrous, insane lava monsters made an impression on me, and I still enjoy marveling at the game's visuals even now.

News flash: Slippy is OK. Just don't expect it to last.

The sound design was even more memorable than the graphics, however, as it boasted some classic, bombastic songs and a heaping serving of memorable voice acting. Koji Kondo once against delivered with an unforgettable score that highlighted the action scenes, set the mood for creepy encounters, and made everybody feel great when a successful mission came to a close. As for the voice acting... well, Star Fox 64 is quite literally the most quotable video game (or any form of media, for that matter) on earth. I could go on minute upon minute spouting the game's script, and the characters were made lovable because of the earnest performance by all the voice actors. It was goofy, no doubt, but that was the best part. All of these good memories put together made for an amazing game, and is an experience that the Star Fox series has failed to fully capture ever since. With the announcement of Star Fox 64 for the 3DS, it looks like we'll get to take another spin through Lylat; but when will a brand new Star Fox game finally arise? The resurrection of Donkey Kong, Kid Icarus, and other Nintendo icons is a good sign, but I won't be satisfied until the controller is in my hand and Peppy is yelling instructions that I already know.