My Favorite Games #2

River City Ransom

I’ve gushed about this game before, but it is really hard to stop myself. This game just hits a perfect spot for me. It has just enough complexity to be interesting, but still simple enough to be ever playable. It is a solid advancement of the beat-em-up genre. The usual ‘move right, hit all the things’ gameplay has added a rudimentary level up system. And it works.

The story isn’t anything better than most NES games, your rival has kidnapped your girlfriend, now you must fight your way through his lackey’s to save her. It doesn’t really matter. Where the game excels is in its simple world. There are hints of a lot more going on than the game has room for, with meetings with Simon’s girlfriend Roxy and tons of jabbering from all of the bosses. Then there are the fictional stores, which honestly just charmed me with stuff like free smiles at Merv’s. Plus, the kind of cutesy graphics make the world seem fun.

As far as I’m concerned, River City Ransom is the best co-op game on the NES. Sure, you could play versus in Double Dragon and I’m sure there is a bunch of other games I’m forgetting, but RCR is just perfect. It balances cooperation and competition. You have to work together to really make progress, but you don’t share money or items, so there is a lot in fighting to get a hold of money. Having a good partner really makes the game. Me, I may be the worst partner. I’m not going to attack my ally, but I will steal all the change I can get my hands on. I will leave you getting pounded by a mob of enemies and go get items and money.

Still, once you get a book of special skills, the game really gets going. Getting machine guns punches or kicks is awesome. It makes things that were darn near impossible now kind of easy. That is what makes the game great. There is a level of customization that is not usually present in beat-em-ups. It is great.

The final assault on the high school is one of my favorite gaming levels. You fight your way through the school to reach the roof. Just before the roof, you fight the Dragon twins, who are almost exactly the Double Dragon brothers. It even plays their music. My favorite gaming moment is from there, when my cousin got knocked out early, and it was just me versus these two bosses. They quickly knocked me down to about two bars of health, but somehow I managed to fight my way out, backing into the corner and kicking until I could kick no more. It was amazing. After it the last boss is kind of an anticlimax.

There are a lot of games that could be claimed to distill the essence of 80’s gaming, especially on the NES. River City Ransom may not be the absolute best example, but it is close. It is like the best Karate Kid game possible. And the ending is perfect. I just love this game.

Once More in the Breach

I beat Etrian Odyssey IV a couple of days ago. It is a great game. Probably better than the other games in the series, all of which were good as well. But I didn’t like it quite as much. However, I feel that is my fault, not the games.

The Etrian Odyssey series is quite niche. They are bitch hard dungeon crawlers and there is little story to speak of. Still, they feature some finely crafted dungeons and generally well balanced classes that give players willing to put in the work a lot of tools to help master the game. I live building a party from the ground up, having 100% control over what is in my party. It is much like the first Final Fantasy game, only with more classes and more abilities per class. Don’t expect these games to coddle you either, because they don’t care if progress. That is on you. While it is hard, it makes it feel like such an accomplishment to reach the next floor of the next stratum.

While all of that is true for the series as a whole, Etrian Odyssey 4 is definitely friendlier than previous outings. Floors seem to be smaller, the dungeons are broken up and there is now a casual mode that kicks you back to town if you die instead of back to the start menu. Despite me loving the series, these are positive changes. The game still has significant bite, it has just been soften around the edges so that more people can enjoy it. It also has a greater focus on story. Not enough to be intrusive, but it is definitely more present than before. Again, I think this is a good change. It doesn’t mess with the player’s party, although you do get the chance to recruit some story characters as the game goes on they are not appreciably different than regular characters of their class. In all, it is the same tough dungeon crawling with some newbie friendly frills.

If I like the changes, then why do I not like this game as much as the rest of the series? That comes down to how the classes are set up this time. In previous games, each of the five members of my party was an island. They did their thing regardless of what the rest of the party was up to. My Dark Hunter used binds. My Medic healed and occasionally bashed stuff. The status of one didn’t really affect the other. Etrian Odyssey IV has a greater focus on party synergy. Your team has to actually work together. The Dancer can follow up attacks, so to get the most out of it you need to have a lot of attacks to follow up. So I had to build all of my party members together, so each of their abilities helped to trigger each other’s abilities. And I did a terrible job of it for three quarters of the game.

Don’t get me wrong, it feels awesome to have your whole team mercilessly bash away at enemies as your Landsknecht’s elemental chaser triggers your Dancer’s chase attack which triggers the Landsknecht’s chaser which triggers the dancer’s again which trigger’s the Landsknecht’s and so on. But once one party member goes down the whole machine grids to a halt. It is not a worse way to set up classes, it is just not one that fits my personal sensibilities when it comes to building a party. Still, I did get some enjoyment out of working with unfamiliar goals, like games that force defensive strategies on me that go against my usual glass cannon approach.

The first Etrian Odyssey game is one of the games that sold me a DS way back when. Etrian Odyssey IV continues its fine tradition. It is not the be all, end all of RPGs, but it is a masterfully made example of a first person dungeon crawler. With each entry Atlus does just enough refining to keep things fresh and appeal a little more to the average gamer. It helps to sometimes get a reminder that there are still games being made that cater directly to my wants, and Etrian Odyssey IV is just such a game.

My Favorite Games #3

Final Fantasy VI

This is the series I really had to restrain with my kind of followed one game per series rule. If I didn’t hold to that my list would have been 80% Final Fantasy, Zelda and Mario. So my barely followed one game a series rule is why several of Final Fantasies IX, XII, Tactics or IV aren’t on this list. While I like a lot of Final Fantasy games, VI is easily my favorite.

Final Fantasy VI is just about everything I want in an RPG. It has a decent array of character building options, a big number of well-developed characters to build and a story that is satisfyingly complex but never convoluted. Also, I played it at the perfect time for me. I was about thirteen when I first played it. I was aware of the series, having played the first Final Fantasy and having poured over what was then Final Fantasy 2 in Nintendo Power, but playing FF3 was a revelation.

I’m going to gush about the story, which these days seems almost laughably simple to me. It is a pretty simple fantasy story, but at the time it was the most sophisticated narrative I’d seen in a game. Even though the player’s party eventually has thirteen characters in it, nearly all of them have solid motivations for joining. You have the amnesiac girl with special powers, a JRPG stable to be sure, but Terra’s arc is different than most of those. There is the overprotective Locke, stealing his way through the world and trying to make up for past mistakes. The King doing what he can for his people, a mysterious Ninja, etc. From the start in the caves of Narshe, FFVI is just a breathtaking adventure.

One of the game’s favorite tricks is to split your party. It works on a gameplay level, giving the player a limited group to work with for the next few hours, but it also works in the story, giving each character a chance to shine and making everything seem bigger than maybe it really is. It also helps contribute to the feeling that the game has no true protagonist. It could be Terra, but her importance disappears less than half way through. Celes dominates a few hours in the second half. Locke is the parties biggest mainstay, but he usually one of the last to rejoin near the end. The way the story is structured gives us several characters who act as protagonist for some of the time, and it works.

Each of the characters has some special ability. Choosing your party makes a big difference on how you play. Then there is the esper system, where you learn magic from crystals. For the bulk of the game, choosing which characters learn which magic is pretty important. By the end, most characters will likely have the bulk of the games magic at their disposal, but they all still have their first ability.

I’ve beaten Final Fantasy 6 probably seven or eight times, and played through most of it at least ten times. I love these characters and their world. This game is largely the reason I love RPGs. It was the first one I played that really grabbed me. Plus, it has multiplayer. Playing this game with my brother controlling two of my party members was a lot of fun. Especially when we stopped fighting the enemies and started fighting each other.

Quick Looks at a Few Oldish Games

I finished up a few games at the end of May that I had been playing off and on for the better part of the year. None of them really felt worth its own blog post, but together I have enough to say about them to fill one.

Let’s start with Atelier Annie. The Atelier series is generally full of lightweight diversions and Annie is no exception. It is not a “bad” game, but Atelier Annie has little mechanical or narrative depth. It does have a fairly interesting structure, with there being little that is required to do and advancement in the story is based time and not any sort of in game accomplishment.

Although I found the simplistic crafting system almost hypnotically enjoyable, Atelier Annie is still kind of a failure of a game. Without there being anything interesting going on in the narrative and with the mechanics, the game tries to rely on its world and characters to pull it together. Unfortunately, the world is just warmed over Dragon Quest leftovers and the characters are unoriginal collections of tired anime clichés and tropes. I will grant that it has some cutesy charm and that the characters are at least tolerable, but it is not enough to carry the game. Atelier Annie is mildly enjoyable, but it is largely forgettable fluff.

I also beat Trauma Center 2. I’ve gushed about the Trauma series before, and TC2 is more of the same. In many ways this is a very good thing. It has the same tense gameplay. TC is one of the best uses of the touch screen to grace the DS, and the set up as surgery for works wonderfully. It feels like a classic arcade game, despite not playing at all like one. It also has a wonderfully serious, ridiculous story. It takes itself so seriously despite being patently absurd. There are, though, some problems with being more of the same. Like the focus on the GUILT superviruses. They are generally less fun to deal with during the operations and add an unnecessary layer of stupid on an already ridiculous story.

Trauma Center 2 does suffer from a lack of newness. The first TC game basically got the doctor game right, all TC2 has to offer is superficial improvements and more. That is more than enough to justify the experience, but it does leave it feeling a little lacking. Still, while it’s not quite the best Trauma game, that is Trauma Team, but it is a very good game.

Lastly, I beat Sonic Colors. I had been hearing about how the last couple of Sonic games really brought the character back to respectability. My experience with 3D Sonic games has not been exactly good. People whose opinion’s I respect said that both Colors and Generations were good games, though more Generations than Colors, so I went ahead and picked up a bargain bin copy of Colors. Its … not bad.

The mechanics of its platforming are really good. Jumping is a little floaty and imprecise, but it is more than made up for with the games sense of speed. Most of the alien power ups work well. They are perhaps just a little underutilized, but maybe I would feel different if I went back and replayed stages after unlocking some of them. The sidescrolling stages are mostly very good, and the bosses are a lot of fun. Where the game suffers is in the level design. The second half of the game is full of gotcha deaths, the checkpoints are oddly spaced and the whole game is really just a slog. It tries to ramp up the difficulty kind of manages to kill all the good things the game had going.

It is definitely a step in the right direction. It is the first 3D Sonic game I’ve played that felt like it has a sense of what it wants to do in translating the hedgehog to 3D. It’s not Sonic Adventure 2’s weird mix of almost on rails Sonic levels, pointless Tails tank levels and simply awful Knuckles emerald searches. That game, and most of the other Sonic games, seemed to just be throwing things against the wall to see what worked. Sonic Colors has clearly defined mechanics, it simply works. If Generations is as much better than Colors as I’ve been lead to believe, then it is going on my to play list. And I am willing to let go of any doubts I have about the Sonic Lost World videos I’ve seen.

My 10 Favorite Games #4

Suikoden 2

For me, the ideal form of the JRPG is the 16-bit style. After that, flash and confusion seemed to take over. That and a decade long love affair with Neon Genesis Evangelion. I played a ton of PS1 and PS2 RPGs and most left me wanting something different. There were tons of enjoyable, even great games in there, just not exactly the kinds of games I wanted to play. But occasionally, one would stand out as being pretty much exactly what I want. Sometimes they were enhanced ports that I didn’t realize were actually old games, like the Lunar series. Sometimes they were prettied up throwbacks, like Dragon Quest 8 or Skies of Arcadia. The first two Suikoden games, though, just simply were cut from the same cloth as Chrono Trigger and the like. While there is much to love about Suikoden 1, Suikoden 2 is easily my favorite Playstation game.

While working through the lackluster translation can be a problem, Suikoden 2 is just a joy to play. The series gimmick of 108 party members gives means that there are so many characters thrown around the player is bound to love at least a few of them. The battle system is simple and breezy, with just enough going on to keep things interesting. It doesn’t quite move at the breakneck pace of its predecessor, Suikoden 2 is still a speedy game. The player moves from scenario to scenario very quickly.

What sets Suikden apart is that its stories are largely local. Most RPGs task the player with saving the world, Suikden the player is mostly trying to save one kingdom. The war in Suikoden 2 is both local and very personal. It eventually pits best friends Jowy and Riou (the player character with no actually name, but that one is “official”) against each other as leaders of the respective armies. While they do not want to fight, history has convinced Jowy that their two countries will remain at war until one side conquerors the others. The player mostly wants the war to end and to have his friend back. Throughout this thing there is love and loss and tragedy. It is just all the things I want in a video game story.

One of my favorite characters in the game is one that is a Star of Destiny, but he is not usable in combat, nor does he provide a useful service at you home base castle. Fletcher is probably spy. And he is probably on the player’s side. It is hard to tell if he is just the weasely coward who is just out for himself or if it is all part of an act. He is helpful several times throughout the game, but he has a way of just appearing when he is in trouble and helping you has a way of helping him. He is not a character that could exist in most games, but he works just fine in Suikoden 2.

The one problem I have with Suikoden 2 is that I do not own it. My brother does. He bought it at a pawn shop and I’m not sure I’ll ever forgive him for beating me to it. Too bad Konami is resistant to letting more people experience the game through download services. It is really just a fantastic game.

My10 Favorite Games #5

Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time

Time to write about Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time again. It might be one of my favorite games to play, but I don’t really like to write about it. Much like its predecessor, I just end up gushing without any insight. Plus, I’ve already done this once. Everyone knows that this game is great; I don’t have much to add.

OoT is one of the first great 3D games. It was the first games to have a real, believable world. Mario 64 was great series of playgrounds, but that’s all they are: playgrounds. OoT’s Hyrule feels like a real place. It is all connected. If you follow the river out of one area, you will still be near it in the next area. While there are still individual areas. There is a forest area, a mountain and a desert, but they flow fairly well from one to the other. Sure, you can argue that the central Hyrule plain is empty, but it is mostly just a hub. There is just enough there to keep you busy until you get Epona or the means to bypass it.

Ocarina of Time is the game that made me choose an N64 over a PS1 and the game that helped me convince myself it wasn’t a mistake for a long time. Sure, good games on the N64 were never abundant, but Ocarina of Time was so much better than anything else it was ridiculous. Despite my love of the Zelda series, I haven’t played most of them more than once or twice. Mostly just due to time. I tried to play through the whole series last year, but ran out of gas about halfway through when I hit Majora’s Mask (which as far as Zelda games go I rank near the bottom) and the then unplayable outside of emulation Oracle games. It takes a long time to play a Zelda game. They aren’t really for dabblers. However, I’ve beaten Ocarina of Time more than a half dozen times. It is just so easy to get caught up in.

It is the generic Zelda game. All the tropes and hallmarks of the series are there. Ocarina of Time is generally the best example of these things. It has the definitive Volcano Dungeon, the definitive Water Dungeon, and the definitive versions of Link, Zelda and Gannondorf. All of the games since it are defined by how they are different than Ocarina of Time. It is possibly the best game ever made, and is definitely belongs in my top 10.