Top 10 Games of 2011

With 2011 coming to a close, I am looking back on the games that I played this year and like all great minds, I am making a top 10 list of my favorite games. Now, I am limited to only Wii and handheld games, since those are the only systems I own and I only played about 20 new games this year. Most of what I played was several years old at least. So this is a somewhat limited list. Let’s get on with it.

10. The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time 3D
This is still a phenomenal game, even after 15 years. The only reason it isn’t higher on the list is that it is an only barely touched up port of a 15 year old game. Still, it is a good port of a great game. If you haven’t played Ocarina of Time, what is wrong with you?

9. Okamiden
If I had stopped this game halfway through, it would probably have been 4 or 5 spots higher on the list. Okamiden started out a delightful romp, but the longer it went on the less fun it was. It looks and sounds great, but the early simplicity is replaced not with increasingly complex difficulty but with sheer tedium. It is hard not to compare Okamiden to the DS Zelda games and find it lacking. It has a cohesive, explorable over world, but it stumbles nearly everywhere else in comparison. Still, it is a very good game, if not a great one like its predecessor.

8. Pokemon White
It is a new Pokemon game. There are a number of changes on the periphery, but the core gameplay remains unchanged. I plowed through to main game right as I got this, but haven’t felt the need to go back for the post game yet. Still, it’s a Pokemon game, you already know it you like it or not. I do like it.

7. Kirby: Return to Dreamland
This doesn’t quite reach the magical heights of Nintendo’s best games, but it is still a terrific co-op plat former. This is the game Kirby fans have been waiting for since Kirby 64 and it didn’t disappoint.

6. Professor Layton and the Last Spector
More Layton is always good. There is little new in this fourth entry (except for London Life, which I’ve barely touched) but as long as there are new puzzles, I’ll buy new Layton games. Plus, newcomer characters Emmy and Inspector Grosky are some of the best new characters of the year. Good, good stuff.

5. Solatorobo: Red the Hunter
Solatorobo is a game that whatever its faults, of which there are several, it is so earnest and heartfelt that is it hard to hold it against the game. It is a delightful romp through a charming, fantastical world. Sure, the game never really moves beyond picking up things and throwing them at enemies and the plot goes off the rails near the end but the bulk of the game is pure cheerful fun.

4. Kirby: Mass Attack
While Return to Dreamland was a classic Kirby platformer, Mass Attack is one of the pink blob’s experimental games. One that worked out better than most. It is a surprisingly intuitive combination of platformer and RTS that is simply a blast to play. If you own any sort of DS you should own this title.

3. Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective
This comes from the makers of Ace Attorney, and obviously so. It has the same wacky yet dark story and some top notch writing. The story is really great and the puzzle-y gameplay is nearly perfect.

2. Tactics Ogre
I love a good TRPG, and this remake of Tactics Ogre may be the best I’ve ever played. It comes from the same stock as the classic Final Fantasy Tactics and it shows. I put more than 60 hours on this thing and didn’t quite beat it. This game is nearly perfect.

1. The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword
This isn’t even close. I loved Skyward Sword. I loved every part of it. The new run button, the motion controller sword fighting, you name it. Plus, Groose is the best new character of the year. Every part of this game is great.

NFL Week 16

This didn’t post the day I had it scheduled to. Rest assured, everybody that was waiting for my picks, here they are. I absolutely made this picks before the games were played.

Texans at Colts: Colts
Broncos at Bills: Broncos
Cardinals at Bengals: Bengals
Jaguars at Titans: Titans
Raiders at Chiefs: Raiders
Dolphins at Patriots: Patriots
Giants at Jets: Giants
Rams at Steelers: Steelers
Vikings at Redskins: Redskins
Buccaneers at Panthers: Panthers
Browns at Ravens: Ravens
Chargers at Lions: Lions
Eagles at Cowboys: Cowboys
49ers at Seahawks: 49ers
Bears at Packers: Packers

Last Week: 7-9
Total: 145-79

LoZ Skyward Sword Review

This post was supposed to be more of a well-considered review than the unabashed gushing that was my previous Zelda: Skyward Sword post but now that I’ve beaten the game, I realize that all I want to do is gush about it some more. I absolutely loved The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword. There are some flaws, there are with every game, but they are tiny, negligible things barely worth mentioning and only worth noting so that they might be cleaned up in the eventual sequel. Skyward Sword is exactly what I love about video games.

Among the game’s many strengths, perhaps the greatest is that it never forgets that it is a video game. Unlike most of the series 3D entries, Skyward Sword is more closely descended from the original Legend of Zelda, rather than from Ocarina of Time. Ocarina and its ilk, as good as all of those games are, try to make Hyrule seem like a real place. OoT’s Hyrule Field is big and empty, impressive for its time and great hub for that adventure, but ultimately barren. Skyward Sword dispenses with the notion that this is a place that could exist outside of the confines of the game. The areas are no longer one large, connected place, but discreet sections. This may seem a blasphemy to longtime Zelda fans, but what it loses in cohesion, it more than makes up for in playability.

Each of the games 3 main overworld areas feels more like a section of Zelda 1’s world that any other game in the series. It isn’t just a path to lead you to the next dungeon, with the odd puzzle and token enemies to deal with. They are intricately designed gauntlets of puzzles and foes that are nearly as meaty as the dungeons themselves. There is a fine attention to detail apparent when you return to each area later in the game, armed with new items and able to discover new shortcuts and areas previously unavailable. While exploring the worlds of previous Zelda’s was fun, they were always empty, even with the number of secrets hidden about. (While something of an exception for Majora’s Mask, that game too was dense.) In Skyward Sword, any time you are on the overworld it is game time. No more running straight through an area, at least not the first time. This makes each section feel as intense and satisfying as the dungeons themselves.

The dungeons, the most important part of any Zelda game, are satisfying as well. After the first few simple dungeons, they really expand into true meaty obstacles. They also have some of the best, most innovative designs in the series. The dungeons feature effective use of the item found there, but aren’t wholly reliant on them. There are a few straight dungeons, but there is also an old abandoned pirate ship and dilapidated factory. The best dungeon is probably the Ancient Cistern. There are only two floors, but one represents heaven and the other hell, with completely different challenges on both floors. And the boss is one of the best in the series. Which makes it an anomaly in this game. If there is a weakness to Skyward Sword, it is in the boss battles. Several are repeated, several are boring, and one is downright laughable. Many of them are still decent from a gameplay perspective, but their look and how easy it is to beat them make sure they are a disappointment.

On the presentation side of things, Skyward Sword also excels. The graphics are some of the best I have seen, no need for qualifications about that being for a Wii game. Regardless of what it lack in technical power, Zelda looks good. The art design covers any deficiencies it might have. The soft, impressionistic backgrounds are magnificent, popping with life in color as it goes from vague dots to full clarity. I wish all games could look this good. The music is amazing as well, which is no surprise. Every Zelda game since the first has sounded wonderful.

The story and setting are likewise excellent. It is the usual Link must save Zelda stuff, but it is better told than normal. The first hour or two of the game, which are a bit slow, are used to set up an actual relationship between Link and Zelda. It also sets up the people of Skyloft, who are easily the best incidental characters of the series. Each of the townsfolk is well characterized and feels more real than most games, despite Zelda’s lack of voice acting. With just a word or a grunt, Skyward Sword imbues its characters with more life than games with hours of cut scenes, whether it is Peatrice’s bored grunts or the nervous jittery Fledge. The real star is the buffoonish, bombastic Groose. He starts as the school bully, who has a crush on Zelda and is jealous of Link. Over the course of the game, he develops into one of the greatest ally any Link has had. While the town of Skyloft in not especially big, the characters therein fill it with amazing life.

It all comes together into a game, that while not without flaws, is one of the greatest gaming experiences of the year, if not the generation. It shows that Nintendo still is the best at crafting exciting, innovative, lengthy adventures. No one comes close to offering an experience similar to Zelda.

NFL Week 15

Colts are going to win one eventually, and the Titans look likely. Tebow-mania continues. And the Steelers at the 49ers should be a good game, but I’m taking the Steelers, who still have some pressure on them. The 49ers have already made the playoffs.

Jaguars at Falcons: Falcons
Cowboys at Buccaneers: Cowboys
Dolphins at Bills: Bills
Seahawks at Bears: Seahawks
Titans at Colts: Colts
Packers at Chiefs: Packers
Bengals at Rams: Bengals
Saints at Vikings: Saints
Giants at Redskins: Giants
Panthers at Texans: Texans
Lions at Raiders: Raiders
Patriots at Broncos: Broncos
Jets at Eagles: Jets
Browns at Cardinals: Cardinals
Ravens at Chargers: Ravens
Steelers at 49ers: Steelers

Last Week: 13-3
Total: 138-70

Not So Glorious

For some reason I am having a hard time hating Glory of Heracles, an RPG for the DS, even though it is giving me numerous reasons why I should. The game looks ugly, the game systems are bland, standard JRPG fare and every other part of it is obtuse and unintuitive. Yet somehow, I am managing to eke a modicum of enjoyment out of it, though I am having trouble pinpointing just why that is.

Glory of Heracles is a special kind of hideous. It is ugly despite looking exactly how it is intended to, like a ghoulish Wind Waker. Much like the DS Fire Emblem, it uses what appear to be 3D models shaded to look like 2D sprites, which results in nicely animated monstrosities that manage to have all of the drawbacks of both 3D and 2D but almost none of the strengths. It is evident that a lot of care and effort went into making the game look exactly as it does, though I can’t imagine why. Even the DS Dragon Quest games, with their tiny sprites on top of PS1 quality 3D backgrounds look leagues better than this.

Speaking of Dragon Quest, if you’ve played any entry in that series then you are about 85% of the way to mastering Glory of Heracles’ battle system. Dragon Quest gets something of a pass for being very vanilla in its battle system because it was first and it generally does something else interesting, like a job system or monster recruiting. Glory of Heracles, though, does nothing interesting. Its only deviations from the generic are tedious. It puts the enemies in rows, but the only purpose for this appears to be to make random battles last twice as long, with the back row inaccessible to attacks until the front row is defeated. There is also some sort of field element system, but it has affected me exactly one time in 15 hours of play, so I’m not exactly sure how it works. Overall, the battle system is a blander, emptier version of Dragon Quest’s.

Then there are the simple things like exploring towns, which the game also manages to muck up. Take opening doors, for instance. When you walk up to a door, you push the ‘A’ button to open it. Not just run into to it, like most games, or push a button to enter. You push a button to open the door, but it doesn’t take you through it. There has yet to be an instance where I would want to open a door, but not to enter it. It is a small thing, but that extra step of tedium is indicative of my entire experience with this game.

Despite its demonstrable ineptitude, I am somewhat enjoying Glory of Heracles. I have a history of enjoying mediocre (Magical Starsign) or even terrible (The Legend of Dragoon) RPGs, but right now I have a backlog of supposedly very good DS RPGs to play, like Radiant Historia and SMT Strange Journey, that I should be playing instead. But I keep coming back to this piece. The story is bland and the Greek setting is squandered. I guess I keep playing because in a lot of ways Glory of Heracles reminds me of second tier 16-bit RPGs that I never got to play. It has that same sort of copycat with a touch or originality that those games seemed to have. Maybe this is my way of showing myself that I do not need to play Lufia or Breath of Fire. Or maybe I should, I doubt they are worse than this.

I got me a 3DS

Last week I began to learn the joys of 3DS ownership. In my Skyward Sword induced frenzy, the sight of the Ocarina of Time 3DS bundle pushed me over the edge and I splurged. I mean look at this thing:

I was powerless, I had to buy it. I still regret not getting the Zelda DS lite bundle.

It helped that there are now enough games for the system to make owning not a waste of time and money. The 3DS actually had a pretty decent launch line-up, with several good games if no great ones. Since then the trickle of games, the worthwhile ones at least, released have almost exclusively come from Nintendo themselves. Which is not unusual for a Nintendo system. Right now Mario Kart 7 and Super Mario Land 3D lead my list, with Pilot Wings Resort and Star Fox 64 3D just behind. Plus, there are several worthwhile downloadable games between DSiWare and 3DSWare. And the addition of Gameboy Virtual Console, which I’ve already bought Link’s Awakening DX from. Last but not least, my DS backlog can transfer right over.

Honestly, while the 3D effect is truly awesome, I can’t really play with it on for more than about 45 min. It isn’t really a strain, but it is a bit disconcerting. So far I’ve been using to regulate my playtime on Ocarina, keeping me from plowing through the game in one sitting.

I’ve also tried it out for playing DS games. It isn’t perfect. You can either stretch the game to fit the screen, or shrink it to it’s natural resolution. Neither option is as good as playing it on a regular DS, but it is definitely playable. Some of the games actually look pretty good.

There are certainly flaws that will become apparent to me with time, but right now, flush with new ownership, I am very pleased with this machine.

What I Read in November

I’m limping to the finale this year, but since I’ve already hit my goal for number of books read this year so I am fine with this. Since I was participating in NaNoWriMo last month, even though I petered out with about 20,000 words shy of the goal, I didn’t have time for much reading. I did manage read parts of several books, but I only managed to finish one.

The Mysterious Affair at Styles
Agatha Christie

This is my first encounter with both Hercule Poirot and with Christie. I have to say that I enjoyed it. I don’t have much to say about it, especially since I don’t have a firm footing on either the author or the genre.

Arthur Hastings stays with a friend of his at Styles, his friends step-mother’s home. While staying there he encounters his friend Poirot and just so happens to witness the mysterious death of the step-mother, despite her being in a locked room. With the help of Poirot, though, the case is solved.

My only problem with it is that it is not the facts of the case that are misleading so much as it is Poirot actively lying to his supposed friend the narrator, as well as hiding facts from everyone for spurious reasons. I know that there is a certain amount of deception inherent to the genre, but Poirot hampers his own case by lying to everyone. Mostly it seems because the book would have been only half the length if he just solved the case, he also had to throw in some meddling. Maybe that is Poirot’s thing, but in this one example it was a touch annoying. Still, I did like the book quite a bit.

And that is it for the month. Hopefully next month is a little more productive on this front, but we’ll see.

NFL Week 14

I did not do so good last week. Some of my picks (Jags over Chargers) were more wishful thinking than what I actually thought would happen. At least the Giants gave the Packers as good of a game as they have had all season. Every game that was a toss up went the other way. Too bad. I don’t see a lot that is interesting this weekend. None of the games really pop out at me.

Browns at Steelers: Steelers (Thurs)
Texans at Bengals: Bengals
Vikings at Lions: Lions
Saints at Titans: Saints
Eagles at Dolphins: Dolphins
Chiefs at Jets: Jets
Patriots at Redskins: Patriots
Falcons at Panthers: Falcons
Buccaneers at Jaguars: Jaguars
Colts at Ravens: Ravens
Bears at Broncos: Broncos
49ers at Cardinals: 49ers
Raiders at Packers: Packers
Bills at Chargers: Bills
Giants at Cowboys: Giants
Rams at Seahawks: Seahawks
Last Week: 7-9
Total: 125-67

Of Course I’m Playing the New Zelda

It should surprise nobody that knows me to learn that I have been playing a lot of The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword. To put it simply, the game is good. Very good. I love it, like I have loved nearly every Zelda game. My opinions might change with some time between me and the game, but right now it is everything I love about video games.

I haven’t finished the game. In fact, I’ve just finished the third dungeon, which seems to be close to the midway point of the game. The most notable aspect of the game, and the part I am most able to speak on with only half of the game behind me is the controls. I’m sure you’ve heard of the game’s intensive swordplay. It is everything you were hoping it could be. Normal enemies are no longer just mooks you bash once or twice and go on about your business. The are actual obstacles, they aren’t exactly difficult but they do require some thought. Or you can usually avoid them. The choice, at least outside of the dungeons, is left to the players. Fighting them can net you items and rupies, but it could also very well get you killed. On the plus side, it is also a lot of fun to smack enemies around with your sword. It just feels so natural and cathartic.

Another plus for the game is that this version of Hyrule, though I do not believe it is yet called that, is possibly the most imaginative Nintendo has come up with. Skyloft is easily my favorite city to run around. Yes, even better than Clock Town from Majora’s Mask. The NPC’s are probably the most likable bunch I’ve seen in a game. Nintendo does more to characterize them with little sound bite when you talk to them than most games do with hours of dialogue. The only disappointment is Fi, Link’s Navi stand-in companion.  But Groose and this version of Zelda are both fantastic.  As are some lesser characters like the eager Pipit.  And the games cuddly in the daytime/ferocious at night cat stand-in Remlits are wonderful.  The whole world just feels so full of life.  It is wonderful.

Right now I can do nothing but gush over the game. It manages to shake up the series with plenty of new stuff; the stamina meter, enemy drops to gather for upgrades, new circle menu’s for items, a limited space pouch, while managing to not change the core feeling of playing a Zelda game. Even more amazingly, nearly all those changes are improvements.

Professor Layton and the Eternal Diva is No Mystery.

When video games become movies it is often not a good thing. Animated films seem to fare better than live action ones, but even then the crap far outweighs anything of quality. Professor Layton and the Eternal Diva, though it is far from perfect, falls pretty far up the quality side of the spectrum. Professor Layton is in some way the perfect game to make the jump to film, since it’s story and gameplay are wholly separate. For the most part it does work as a movie. Professor Layton and the Eternal Diva is, for better or worse, a film that could have easily been the plot to the next game in the series.

For those unfamiliar with Professor Layton (first you should rectify that like now) the series follow the exploits of archaeology professor and puzzle enthusiast Hershel Layton and his trusty apprentice Luke as they travel across Europe (mostly the U.K, though) solving elaborate mysteries. Every game adds new characters, all rendered in the series ugly, lumpy, utterly charming style. Recent additions are Emmy, Inspector Grosky and Descole, all of whole play large roles in the movie. While the gameplay consists entirely of puzzles, the stories are fantastical and ridiculous adventure fare. Eternal Diva ramps up the ridiculousness even more than most of the game, eliciting as many eye rolls as delighted smiles.

In the film, the titular professor receives a letter from a former student, an opera singer, who asks him to come and investigate at her next performance. This turns into a contest to win the secret of immortality learned from the Atlantis-like civilization of Ambrosia. It gets crazier from there, with organ powered robot castles and whisky barrel helicopters. It does retain the charm of the game’s core cast; from the eager Luke to the excitable Emmy to the ever calm Layton the gang is just as likable as ever.

It is not a perfect movie. It is ridiculous, even for Layton. Enough so that it makes it hard to maintain suspension of disbelief. There are also some moments that draw attention to the series video game roots.

It isn’t a great introduction to the Professor’s adventures, but Professor Layton and the Eternal Diva is a decent enough adventure movie in its own right. It is a treat for longtime fans and should entertain most newcomers, though they may not leave wowed with the franchise. In all, I’d call it a success.