Saturday, October 30, 2010

A Look to the Past: Games of the Years 2003 - The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker


The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker (GameCube)

Nintendo took a gamble with this one. With a long and glorious tradition of making fantastic games in the Legend of Zelda series (two of which are featured on this list), playing it safe would have been agreeable to a majority of their audience. But as they've shown time and time again, Nintendo prefers to ignore what their fans claim they want and instead give them something that they claim they don't want but, in reality, actually do want. Seeing as The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker has gone down in history as one of the greats, I guess they knew what they were doing. With a cartoonified Link, a world covered with an endless ocean, and a Celtic-inspired soundtrack, there was bound to be some doubters. Some people never got over this drastic change and there's been some debate on the matter of sea travel and its inevitable trail of crushing boredom that it supposedly leaves in its wake. But an even larger legion of fans embraced this new side of Hyrule with open arms, especially its striking visual design. The cel-shaded graphics made vast strides in popularizing the art style and the new look gave the series a needed breath of fresh air. (Get the pun? Heh heh heh...) Heck, the game was so beautiful it even made 2003's Panzer Dragoon Orta look lame (and yes, you can quote me on that). Wind Waker didn't merely look good for the time or set quickly-defeated standard; it holds up on modern-day TVs baffling well. Of course, cel-shading wasn't what made this game the best title of 2003, despite that being a prominent feature. Wind Waker earns the prize with high adventure, exciting exploration, and a frightening level of polish.

Once you enter the land of blue skies, bird-men, and tiny feet, you will never want to leave.

Sailing across the picturesque ocean in a talking boat (yes, your seaworthy dinghy replaces the standard fairy as the local chatterbox in this game) was certainly a departure from what's been seen in Zelda games, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. Even though I wouldn't ordinarily trade a perfectly good horse for a boat (talking or otherwise), the act of discovering the islands dotted all over the ocean was enticing and invigorating. Hundreds of secret treasures, sub-games, and delightful prizes were hidden on these oases of solid ground, tempting adventurous souls to poke around and see the sights. The islands ranged from tiny, volcanic structures with a mystery to solve to large-scale towns containing all manner of characters, quests, and fun to experience. The interesting, light-hearted plot would point you in the right direction in order to rescue Link's kidnapped sister, but some of Wind Waker's best moments shined through in the sense of discovery that no scripted storyline can replicate. A flowing combat system made encountering and besting the animated foes a breeze (another pun! Ha ha ha!) as they reacted with an amusing amount of detail to Link's swings and jabs, whether it be a lowly bokoboblin or a mighty boss. And, naturally, the famed dungeons of Zelda tradition reappeared in the game, sporting creative designs in both gameplay and art. All of this culminated to craft yet another masterpiece while simultaneously taking the series in a bold, new direction. At this point in time nearly half of the franchise is made up of games with Wind Waker's aesthetic, proving to all its lasting merit. The origin of the excellent art style is still the best of the bunch, though; it's a joy to play through and thoroughly difficult to put down. Even when competing against amazing RPGs and action adventures such as Knights of the Old Republic and Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, Wind Waker blows away the competition. (I'm on a roll!)

Thursday, October 21, 2010

A Look to the Past: Games of the Years 2002 - Animal Crossing


Animal Crossing (GameCube)

I've never played another game quite like Animal Crossing. The most commonly compared series is Harvest Moon, but the farming sim is a totally different animal (pun!) than this odd, little GameCube game (and not half as charming, which is saying a lot). Animal Crossing has something very, very special to it. As what I guess is one of my more controversial choices, it did battle with giant monsters such as The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind, Metroid Prime, and Warcraft III. Although 2002 offered sophisticated experiences like these titles and more, I always find myself drifting back to that sleepy town inhabited by half-crazy animal denizens. At first glance, Animal Crossing seems like a bubbly casual game created for kids; cute perhaps, but ultimately boring and simple-minded. But spend a little time poking around and you will discover some genuinely funny writing, a vibe of relaxing amusement, and about-- at last count-- four zillion things to do. Honestly, there are too many activities to properly write down. A real-time clock keeps things moving at all hours of the day, year round, passing through all four seasons and highlighting special events (whether you're playing or not). Every town is randomized too, ensuring that you'll never visit another village exactly like yours. You can fish at the local river or ocean, collect hundreds of different items for your house, design your own clothing patterns, obtain tons of music tracks for your radio, randomly walk around and talk to and/or annoy the fellow villagers, and a boatload of other things. Needless to say, with a bit of creativity and imagination, you'll have plenty to keep you occupied every time you pop in to have a look around. And the true beauty of it all? There's no point whatsoever to any of it.

The best part of catching a fish is the glorious fact that it's always followed by a groan-inducing pun!

Animal Crossing exists for the pure reason of being Animal Crossing. Sure, you could call paying off your debt to the business-minded raccoon Tom Nook as an ultimate "goal" but that by no means ends the game. If you want to live in a big house and have a shiny statue crafted in your honor, go ahead and return all your borrowed money; otherwise, do whatever else you want. Because of the all-important real-time clock, as your real life goes on, so does your character's. Your insect collection will slowly grow as the dragonflies of summer yield to crickets of autumn and checking Nook's shop every day just might earn you the nifty TV you've been waiting for. Chat with your neighbors and you'll be exposed to their sheer oddness and likability, eventually leading you to either cheer or sob when one moves out, only to greet a new face the next morning. As you watch your town evolve bit by bit over the months and years, a sense of nostalgia becomes attached to your second home. The route from your house to the post office becomes second-nature, your living spaces's layout starts to settle into an image of your personal taste, and your daily routine of whacking that super annoying pig over the head with a bug-catching net is a great comfort. The graphics might not look like much, but the cartoonish village is a pleasure to look at and fits the game's style very well. More impressive is the music, an off-beat collection of songs for every hour (AM and PM) of the day. The music is impossible to dislike, often emphasized with drum and bass tracks, and has a wonderful way of conjuring up optimism and memories of good times. In fact, playing Animal Crossing is sort of like experiencing the happy days of childhood again. No stress, no worries, and lots of time to mess around and chase fireflies. It's a pure, simple joy (and really, life needs more of those), making it one of the most original and downright lovable games I've ever played. It's unconventional in the very best of ways and, in its uncomplicated fun and originality, rightfully remains as the greatest game of 2002.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode 1

8.0 - [Excellent]

Gameplay: 8
Visuals: 8
Music: 8
Sound: 7
Value: 6

Publisher: Sega
Developer: Sonic Team
Multiplayer: N/A
Console(s): XBLA, PSN, Wii Ware, iPhone
Reviewed on: PSN
ESRB rating: E (Comic Mischief)
BMR rating: E (No Descriptors)

Good Points:

Genesis-style gameplay returns - Great soundtrack - Sharp visuals - Challenging to collect everything - Sense of speed and pacing is to be commended

Bad Points:

Plays it very, very safe - Pushes the limit on the price/content ratio

In the wake of Mega Man 9's shocking return to the NES days of yore, I couldn't help but to wonder if the trend would catch on. What other series would launch itself into the past and craft a new game in the long-dead trail of its earliest efforts? When the name Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode 1 bounded onto the scene, I was joyously excited. What better choice could there be? Fans have been clamoring for a return to the Genesis games for sixteen years, and despite successful forays into two dimensions such as Sonic Advance and Sonic Rush, the speedy hedgehog hasn't quite managed to capture the feeling of those glory days. But with such an endeavor comes heavy responsibility and high expectations; after all, sixteen years is a long hiatus. Most people are ready to hold Sonic's head underwater until the timer ticks its last death note, clearly not in the mood to be receptive of Sega's mascot. But wonderfully enough, Sonic Team has done an admirable job of emulating the old formula while tweaking things enough for them to feel fresh again. It's time to slip on the red sneakers and embark on a brand new adventure!

The story in Sonic 4 is simple. In fact, it's nonexistent. The game makes an invested effort in keep all voice acting and anything resembling a plot far, far away and that works out just fine. Although Sega has claimed that the story from Sonic & Knuckles is continued here, the first episode doesn't seem too keen on fleshing it out. Rather, Sonic dashes through crazy lands with reckless abandon as he attempts to thwart the mad Dr. Eggman's evil scheme, which is more than enough context to get things going. Episode 1 includes four zones to master, each containing three stages and a boss. There's Splash Hill, a tropical world of grassy slopes and blue skies; Casino Street, a flashy casino packed with all sorts of pinball flippers and playing cards; Lost Labyrinth, a collection of ancient ruins with more traps than a jaunt through Limbo's forest; and Mad Gear Zone, a dizzying array of mechanical mechanisms and deadly doodads. Seven bonus stages (one for each Chaos Emerald) will also occupy your time. None of this is new ground for the franchise; Sonic 4 is obviously playing it safe. Nevertheless, the familiar zones ensure players that they'll feel right at home and it's hard to argue with such proven success.

Everything you remember from the old days is alive and well here. Sonic can roll into a ball and barrel through opponents with his trademarked spindash, springs will fling him through the air with a giddy sense of momentum, rings will spin and glow temptingly all over the multi-layered stages, and badniks will try as they might to knock the shiny prizes from Sonic's grasp. It all feels great, and despite the new engine and over a dozen years' time to get out of shape, Sonic 4 plays remarkably like its predecessors. The one major new addition is the homing attack, an established move of the hasty hedgehog's repertoire since the release of Sonic Adventure. Pressing the jump button while in the air will boost Sonic forward, and if an enemy or object is properly auto-targeted, send him flying towards the target, swiftly launching him back into the air after the impact. This is a surprisingly tactile addition, allowing players to chain combos together without the nuisance of hitting the ground, as well as offering some extra momentum for those tricky jumps. It doesn't make the game too easy, but instead creates an interesting aspect that keeps the flow moving in a satisfying manner. When I fired up the old Genesis games for comparison, I found myself instinctively tapping A in order to utilize this feature only to miss my objective and dilly about while I readjusted my pace. It's a small inclusion, but a noteworthy change for the better.

It's Sonic! But in HD! AND THAT'S AWESOME!

The stages are well-built and rife with alternate paths. Loops and runways are appropriately madcap and only those with quick wits will reap the benefit of the fastest routes, proving that practice and a sharp eye will go a long way to finding all the shortcuts. Like the Genesis tiles, Sonic 4 knows when to slow things down for some momentary puzzle solving and platforming. A couple of the more creative sequences have Sonic wielding a torch to light a darkened temple and matching cards to earn bonus rings and lives, gracing the game with a well-placed dose of variety and strategy. There are a few frustrating moments that force players into blind jumps or confuse them with odd geometry, but as a whole, the brief moments of precision help to create a well-rounded experience instead of a one-note speedrun. The most impacting example of this comes in the form of the bonus stages, obtained after completing a level with at least fifty rings. These levels greatly resemble the first Sonic the Hedgehog's bonus stages, except for the fact that one must now rotate the stage itself instead of simply moving Sonic around the abstract arena. Also, the visuals are less blackout-inducing. And the music is no longer terrible. And it's actually fun. The goal is to tumble Sonic through a floating maze and to a coveted Chaos Emerald, collecting enough rings to pass through toll gates and competing against the clock. These sections can become extremely challenging, especially when the dreaded end-all walls appear. With a single touch, these menaces throw the unhappy hedgehog out of the entire stage and require him to beat a level all over again for another shot at success. The final stage is especially maddening, almost to the point of cruelty. Nevertheless, this challenge is tense, delicate, and ultimately rewarding. If one manages to nab all seven of the emeralds, there's a special prize waiting to be collected. Trust me, it's well worth the effort.

But don't let the deceptively calming melody of the bonus rounds fool you: Sonic 4's soundtrack is upbeat and entertaining to listen to. The synth-heavy songs don't possess the same versatility and overall awesomeness as did the Genesis masterpieces of the '90s, but there's a contagious energy that drives the music a level far above mere competence. It's unfortunate that the style chosen causes most of the songs to sound overly similar to one another, but at least it's a good sound in the first place. Besides, the snappy drum samples and catchy tunes do a great job of keeping the classic format alive. Speaking of sounds, you'll hear all the beloved dings and boings your brain can recall from past Sonic products, including the iconic "BOIP" of jumping that is so tragically missing in some of the recent games. The visuals are bright and vivid, fully HD and prepared for this generation of fancy TVs. Sonic 4 does a good job of recalling the proper vibe of the series but doesn't try to directly recreate it (unlike Mega Man 9). Expect to see a hedgehog built up of polygons mingle with a happy mixture of parallax scrolling and 2D planes. It's a sharp-looking game that carries on the tradition of beautiful backgrounds and thrilling speed. The entire presentation feels like an authentic Sonic experience through and through, spruced up for a new age of technology. It doesn't take any risks, and does slip a few inches into the pit of genericness, but it all works out in the end.

For $15, twelve stages, four bosses, seven bonus levels, a smattering of Achievements/Trophies, and a couple of other things I don't want to spoil aren't bad. Considering that this is the first episode in a series of games, it would have been nice to have a friendlier opening price, but it's hard to complain when Sonic Team directly delivers the fondest dreams of every gamer that ever enjoyed the Genesis. A time trial mode and leaderboards make for a more complete package, giving people a reason to go back and improve their form. Beating all the levels isn't especially difficult and it certainly won't take more than a an evening or two to do so, but this is a fantastic start (or, to be technical, continuation) to what promises to be an amazing series. This first installment seems to lean on the original Sonic the Hedgehog both functionally and stylistically, so one must wonder what the next episode has in store. Will we get the chance to torment Player 2 as he desperately yells at Tails to catch up? Will half-pipes make an appearance during the bonus stages? Will Sega release lock-on technology for $10 DLC, thereby losing all the good will previously built up among the community? These unanswered questions tear at my soul in the darkest hours of the dawn. But regardless of what the future has in store, a "new old" Sonic game has finally been delivered and the unspoken words can at last come forth: Sonic the Hedgehog is back.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

A Look to the Past: Games of the Years 2001 - Super Smash Bros. Melee


Super Smash Bros. Melee (GameCube)

Sonic Adventure 2, Final Fantasy X, Grand Theft Auto III, Halo: Combat Evolved, Pikmin, Jak & Daxter, Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty, Paper Mario, Burnout, Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 3. Are those enough big names for you? Well, all those and more came out in 2001. It looks like this whole new millennium thing is working out well. However, when it comes to the best of the best, one game stands above them all: Super Smash Bros. Melee. Not only did Melee put the original Super Smash Bros. to shame, but it became one of the greatest games of all time in the process. Back in the days when online play for consoles was an obscure novelty and the rhythm genre was dominated by DDR, there was no substitute for Melee when it came to a game-yearning group a friends. Instantly playable for newcomers and endlessly gratifying for experienced players, Melee offered a list of characters, modes, stages, and unlockables longer than Sonic 06's loading times. All of the old combatants returned from the first game, mingling with a huge cast of new characters ranging from obvious inclusions (such as Bowser and Zelda) to some pretty far-out inclusions (see Mr. Game & Watch). The stages didn't slack either and pulled memorable locales from a ton of classic series. Everything was drenched in a Nintendo nostalgia, even going so far as to include hundreds of collectable 3D trophies that cataloged the vast history of what many view as the greatest video game establishment that ever was.

A futuristic race car driver, a cape-bearing plumber, a gorilla with a tie, and a ball of pink do battle atop a giant sea turtle's back. That would make a good anime.

One of the most impressive things about Melee was the extent to which it creamed its predecessor, as if the creators pushed the Turbo button on the Mad Catz controller that is Super Smash Bros. and ran with it. The whole experience exploded in scope, upping both the graphics and gameplay to new heights never imagined. The pace was quickened and the move set enlarged, allowing for a far more versatile and deep experience. New dodging mechanics were introduced as well, and a boatload of fresh items arrived to make things even crazier. The stages became huge and dynamic, even going so far as to pit fighters against one another on top of giant, Pokemon-shaped balloons and inside a massive Game & Watch. Throwing every other fighting series' principles to the wind, Melee became an exciting game that topped its competition while barely staying in the same genre. Whether two players duked it out one-on-one without any items to get in the way or a room full of people took turns chucking bombs at each other for laughs, Super Smash Bros. refused to disappoint. In conclusion, it goes down in history as one of the greatest games to ever exist because Roy was in it. I'll never forgive Brawl.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

GDC Online 2010! The Conclusion!

It took six hours of sitting in a car, almost sitting in the empty Ballroom A facility instead of the correct Ballroom C, and several cereal bars, but I made it to Austin and back home again without doing anything incredibly stupid and getting thrown out of GDC Online. As I mentioned in the previous post, I attended the Game Career Seminar, so I was only there for the one day. All of the talks were informative and relevant to a college student like myself, and I had a really great time. Hearing the sad end of Pandemic firsthand was fascinating and I learned a lot about networking. Turns out you're not supposed to show up at a dude's house, bang on the door, and demand a job. I've been doing it all wrong this whole time. I regret that I didn't get a chance to speak with any of the lecturers (I was so close, but the lines kept ending!), but I still got a lot of my questions answered. The exhibit halls was filled with booths about games, technology, and physics engines that I didn't understand. Again the lines thwarted me as I was forced to rush back to Ballroom C (not A) to catch the next sessions instead of dropping by the Bioware area. Lame.

My head was buzzing with information by the time it was all over and I hope to use my newfound knowledge for good and not evil. Everybody there seemed really into the whole gaming scene (imagine that at a video game conference) and I certainly got the same impression that I get from everyone who tells me stuff about the industry: it's difficult, hectic, and doesn't pay well. However, it's the passion and dedication of those involved that make it worthwhile. Will I graduate into that realm in the coming days? Only time will tell. For the time being, I'll continue to investigate the world of video games as I post reviews and other tidbits here. Oh, and one last thing: Blue Mage didn't want to come, but ended up sneaking into the exhibit hall without registering. He couldn't find Final Fantasy XIV Online, kicked over the 38 Studios booth, got arrested, and spent the remaining five hours sulking in a corner and muttering about some sort of Mario-related conspiracy. So, unlike me, he did do something stupid and got thrown out. Unfortunate, but not unforeseen.

Thursday, October 07, 2010

GDC Online 2010!

I'm a little behind on updating Blue Mage Reviews, but I have a good reason: I'll be heading out to Austin for GDC Online! I'm amazingly excited for this event, and as it's also my first video game conference, I'm hoping I don't do something incredibly stupid and get thrown out. Although it's mainly focused on the (surprise!) online aspects of gaming, it'll still have plenty to offer for people who aren't especially literate in that area (like me). I'll only be there for the Game Career Seminar on Friday, but that's more than enough to get me hyped. Here are the lectures they'll be having:

  • Show Me, Don't Tell Me: Portfolios and Resumes in the Game Industry
  • Don't Be Stopped at the Gate
  • Making Your Own Path
  • You Studied Game Design, Now What?
  • Networking With the Pros
As somebody who's trying to find out how to break into the industry, this is going to be perfect. I'm especially looking forward to hearing from Carey Chico, a former Pandemic member who worked on games such as Mercenaries and Star Wars: Battlefront (two of my favorite games from the last generation). For more information about this seminar and more, I highly recommend heading over to the GDC Online website. If you've never been to something like this, I'm willing to bet this is a good first step. I hope so, for my sake. If you have been to something like this... tell me what to do! Either way, take a look around and consider showing up! 

Also, I finally gave in and started my very own Twitter account: @StephenKelly180. Are you proud of me? Yeah, neither am I, but I'll slowly be posting more and more as the passage of time continues to ooze along, so feel free to follow/retweet/respond/harass me. Just kidding about that last one.

That's about it for this update post. See you next time!