Archive | June 2012

Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time

I think I’ve mentioned before that I have had a curious relationship with most of Nintendo’s flagship series. A lot of this comes from the systems that I owned: First a Game Boy, then a Sega Genesis, then a Sony Playstation. As a result, I tended to play Nintendo games either at my friends’ houses or in their weird, off-beat, portable incarnations. I had the opportunity to spend time with and appreciate games that nobody else seemed to–but I never really played many of the classics when they first came out.

The common wisdom is that Ocarina of Time is the pinnacle of the Legend of Zelda series, and it has been on my list of “games I ought to play” longer than perhaps any other entry. I knew that, of all of the gaps in my gaming education, Ocarina represented maybe the biggest.

Now, however, having played it, I’m in a heated debate with myself over whether I think that it represents a “must-play” game.

One thing I want to make clear: Ocarina of Time is a brilliantly crafted game, thoroughly engrossing, and difficult to put down. I have never been in doubt that if you decide to sit down and explore this particular version of Hyrule, you’ll have a great time. And really, that’s probably enough–if you want to have fun, play Ocarina.

Contrary to this image, stopping is not as easy as a push of a button.

Part of my consideration for this blog, however, is an examination of what it means to be “well-played,” and what constitutes a sort of baseline knowledge for gaming history. In this respect, the Legend of Zelda series is an interesting case, because the entire series is essentially a variation on one of two templates.

If you have never played a Zelda title, then I would posit that in order to really understand the series you ought to play two games: the original Legend of Zelda for NES and Ocarina of Time. The first is the origin of the formula and the second is the first entry to take that formula and rework it for use in a three-dimensional space (a feat which it accomplishes brilliantly). These two games are the archetypal Legend of Zeldas (“Legends of Zelda?”). They offer the purest, most distilled version of the series.

Unfortunately, they’re also sort of the least interesting. This might be a little heretical, but as someone who doesn’t have an enormous amount of nostalgia wrapped up in the games, the entries that have grabbed me the most are the ones that take the basic theme and do some riffing on it.

Link’s Awakening, Link to the Past, and the Oracle titles (not to mention Four Swords and Minish Cap) are all basically playing around with the same idea: Large, grid-based, open world divided into single screens and filled with several discrete dungeons in which you acquire an ever-increasing set of tools with which to defeat Ganon/Other.  In order to separate themselves from the original, they take a new aesthetic and/or gameplay lens and apply it to the formula: Link’s Awakening gives us an actual plot; Link to the Past stuffs itself to the gills with sidequests and adds an entire second world map; Minish Cap… had a hat that made you small? I don’t really know, I never played that one.

I guess the hat was a bird? The game was weird.

When Ocarina came along, it was almost like a reboot of the series, taking all of the essential elements and applying them to an entirely new play space. As I mentioned, it does this very, very well–in fact, between this and Super Mario 64, Nintendo’s record for translating their series into the third dimension flawlessly on the first try is pretty spectacular. It took Konami ten years to give us a 3D Castlevania that wasn’t abominable.

And yet–Wind Waker, Twilight Princess, and Skyward Sword are all riffs on the exact same tune (In this one he’s a wolf! In this one he’s a Powerpuff Girl!), and because these successors all have to do something with themselves stylistically to distinguish themselves from Ocarina, they’re all far more interesting than the original template. (Full disclosure: I haven’t played Skyward Sword yet. I hear it’s pretty neat!) What’s more, the formula at the heart of Zelda doesn’t change as drastically from incarnation to incarnation as, say, the gameplay in each iteration of the Mario franchise (In this one he has a water cannon! In this one he’s in space! …You know what, on second thought…).

I know that being a wolf and sailing the seven seas seem pretty different from hoofing it across Hyrule Field for the eighty millionth time, but you’re still going to elemental dungeons, solving environmental puzzles, collecting keys, and Z-targeting to smack enemies in the face with your Master Sword. I’m not suggesting that Zelda is stale! Not really, anyway. I’m only saying that in order to understand the way the Zelda series works, you don’t have to play every incarnation.

You really don’t.

And so, when the time comes to educate yourself as a gamer, when you sit down and try to fill in the gaps in your “gaming education,” you have a question to ask yourself: when it comes to the Legend of Zelda series, what’s important for you to know? If you want The Legend of Zelda at its most basic, then you should play the games that set the tone and offer up the template.

If that’s not important to you, I would suggest that you can come to know and understand Zelda by playing just about any game from each of its two formulae. If all you’ve played is Link’s Awakening and The Wind Waker, then you already know what The Legend of Zelda is all about and you can talk about it intelligently. You can sit down with any game in the series and find a creative, compelling adventure on which to embark–but if you don’t, you’re not missing as much conceptually as you might imagine.

Portrait of the Gamer as a Young Man: A 12-year-old’s Homemade Sega Genesis Mixtape

I was a gamer from a very young age. Despite my parents’ firmly-held (and probably correct) belief that too much screen time is a bad thing for a developing mind, my extended family gifted me with a classic Game Boy when I turned six. This my parents tolerated–after all, it wasn’t a television, and could only be played in direct light. Then, when I turned nine, someone (not my parents) got me one of these bad boys:

It did what Nintendidn’t.

A Sega Genesis. It was probably the best birthday ever up to that point, despite the fact that the games they picked for me were Krusty’s Super Fun House and James Pond. It didn’t matter! The system came bundled with Sonic 2, which was (and still is) a masterpiece of platforming.

I don’t know how it is that we gamers end up getting the music bug, but I already had it by the time I unwrapped my Sega. I had it bad. I was pulling up the sound test in every Game Boy game I owned, holding that pathetic speaker to my ear like I was some sort of boom-box sporting 90’s cliche. By the age of eight, I was already a dedicated game music enthusiast.

But a Genesis wasn’t portable like a Game Boy, and I couldn’t bring its excellent tunes in the car with me, or anywhere that wasn’t TV-adjacent. However, being a resourceful young lad with access to a handful of electronic devices, I devised a cunning plan: I held my parents’ stereo up to the TV speaker and made a Sega Genesis mixtape.

I’m writing to you, ladies and gentlemen, not simply to reminisce, but because I have made an archaeological discovery. I’ve uncovered that mixtape, and analyzed its contents. And I am here to tell you that young Nate had mostly great taste in 16-bit music.

What follows are, and I am not kidding you, the actual tracks on the Genesis mixtape I made when I was 12 years old.

1. Dr. Robotnik’s Mean Bean Machine, “Versus Mode”

This is what I’m talking about when I say that young me knew what he was talking about. The Genesis’s sound chip was kind of weird and limited compared to that of its competitor, the SNES, but I didn’t know that at the time! All I knew was that I liked these poorly-synthesized shredding guitars! This is the sort of piece that really deserves some attention on OCRemix. One of their musical sorcerers could undoubtedly translate this into something superb.

Mean Bean Machine is a pretty good game, too–as a Puyo Puyo clone, you could definitely do worse. I’d take it over Kirby’s Avalanche any day, even if it does have licensing from the Sonic the Hedgehog cartoon (the bad one).

2. The Lion King, “To Die For”

Disney interactive had a pretty great streak of making delightful games in the mid-90’s. Well, it had two, at least. The Genesis versions of both Aladdin and The Lion King were superior to their SNES counterparts, in my experience. (My wife could vouch for the Beauty and the Beast tie-in games, but I never played them myself.) Really good platformers, both of them! You should go play them.

It seems silly that young me should have preferred the 16-bit translations of Hans Zimmer’s excellent film score (which is superb), but, well, I didn’t have that film score, and in any case, the track in question takes a few brief measures of the piece which shares its name and extends them to become a whole piece unto itself–a piece which plays during a very cool level which was a departure from the standard side-scrolling the game had shown me up until that point.

3. Ristar, “Crazy Kings”

Ristar is amazing. A colorful, cartoonish platformer developed by Sonic Team, Ristar revolves around a quirky combat/navigation mechanic which is much more fun to play around with than it sounds (the titular character has… stretchy arms. Look, it works, okay?). Each world you visit in the game has a distinct personality and lush, detailed visuals. Because this is Sonic Team we’re talking about, the music is toe-tappingly great as well.

But for my money, nothing sells this game like the bosses. Fighting a shark in a submerged cavern, fighting a giant mechanical mole while in freefall down a mineshaft, fighting a deranged buzzard as it tries to take the stage from a songbird virtuoso–every boss in the game is unique, each one is gorgeous, and you get to fight them all while this music is playing. I’d listen to this while fighting possessed alien tyrants anyday.

4. Desert Strike: Return to the Gulf, “Intro”

All right, they weren’t all going to be gems. I was twelve, after all. This one takes the shredding guitars of Mean Bean Machine and takes them to their (il)logical extreme. Listening to this sounds like putting a Cylon through a wood chipper.

Desert Strike was a pretty cool game, I seem to recall, but man, was it difficult. I don’t think I got past the first area more than a couple times. Maybe that’s one worth revisiting. Was it, like, weirdly prescient? We did end up “returning to the gulf,” after all. Maybe there’s more to this one than meets the eye…

5. Cool Spot, “Rave Dance Tune”

Oh man! If YouTube is to be trusted (and I can’t think of a single circumstance where that wouldn’t be the case), this one’s by Tommy Tallarico, the guy responsible for Earthworm Jim and a handful of other 16-bit classics, as well as one of the creators of Video Games Live, an absolutely excellent show that I recommend you all attend when it makes its way to your city.

Cool Spot was not a great game. I seem to recall really wanting it, which about makes sense for a twelve-year-old. Some of its music included riffs on some pop culture tunes (wasn’t there the theme to The Magnificent Seven in there somewhere?), but other than that, well… it was about as engaging as you might imagine a game based around a soda mascot would be. I had almost forgotten about the game entirely until I discovered this track on my old mixtape. Nevertheless, a pretty nifty tune, huh?

6. Sonic 3D Blast, “Gene Gadget Zone Act 1”

This game was a mess. Sonic’s signature speed was gone, it was difficult to control, and the graphics were–well, the graphics were decent, but I think I was spoiled by a better 2D-to-3D conversion of a major gaming mascot. Coming out near the end of the Genesis’s lifetime, Sonic 3D Blast wasn’t really the swan song that Sega was hoping for, I think, and boded ill for the hedgehog’s future three-dimensional outings. Nevertheless, just about every track on this game’s score is solid musical gold. In fact, I may have spent more time with the sound test than I did actually playing the game.

And that’s it! Yep, six songs. Either that was enough to constitute a “mixtape” when I was twelve, or I just got bored and tired of holding that stereo up to the TV. In any case, I carried that tape around in my Walkman for several months before it became lost in a closet somewhere, buried beneath strata of personal belongings, to be excavated by me only recently.

That tape was important, though: it was telling. It was early evidence of a growing obsession with the music of video games–an obsession which continues to this very day!

In Case of Trouble

Just about the most worthwhile game purchase I made last year was Supergiant Games‘s Bastion bundled with its soundtrack by Darren Korb. 2011 saw an awful lot of good game music, but nothing has racked up so many plays in my iTunes counter as this soundtrack–part folk, part western, part electronica… It’s a little difficult to pigeonhole, but it’s nothing short of fabulous.

Look, the Humble Indie Bundle V is still going on for another two days, and all I’m saying is– that $9 you’d have to pay to get all eight games and five of their soundtracks? That $9 is worth it for the Bastion soundtrack alone.

Have a listen to this: “In Case of Trouble.” If this doesn’t get you psyched to go on an adventure, then no words of mine are going to do it.

Prince of Persia: Warrior Within

It’s nothing new for me to claim that there’s a world of difference between Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, which is widely regarded as a modern classic, and its successor, Prince of Persia: Warrior Within, which is widely regarded as… not.

However, most of the complaints against Warrior Within are leveled against its aesthetics: gone is the flavor of “A Thousand and One Nights,” and in its place we have a sort of heavy metal, blood and guts, gritty flavor that one might accuse of aping God of War until one realizes that it actually precedes Kratos’s first outing by almost a year.

(Tycho and Gabe at Penny Arcade captured the new spirit of the Prince pretty accurately: “I smolder with generic rage.”)

As I sat down finally to make my way through the game, however, some seven or eight years after its release, I realized that it wasn’t actually the disappointing aesthetic shift that bothered me the most. There was some magic in the gameplay of Sands of Time that was no longer in evidence here, or at least in shorter supply. What I ultimately came up with is this: the fundamental method of engagement in the first game is translation, and that gets muddled considerably in the second offering.

Allow me to explain a little bit what I mean by “translation.” Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time is a game which focuses brilliantly on one of the most basic elements of gameplay present in any platformer–evaluating the geography in order to discover the correct series of inputs to allow your character to traverse an area. The player “translates” the layout of the environment into the moves necessary to move through it.

You know, like this.

The brilliance of the game is in the basic number of options you have, as the Prince, to navigate any configuration of terrain that the developers place in front of you. In this regard, the Prince of Persia games have more in common with Portal than they do, say, Super Mario Galaxy or even Assassin’s Creed, a series with which they share some aesthetic and even control elements. Like Portal, there is great emphasis in examining and understanding your surroundings in order to proceed. The true joy of Prince of Persia lies in looking at an environment and innately, almost instinctively, understanding “I need to wall-run here, then jump across that gap onto the bar and swing myself up to that ledge.” Unlike Portal, of course, less emphasis is placed on decoding the environment, and more emphasis played on controlling the Prince to correctly traverse the obstacles in his path.

The reason Sands of Time was so revolutionary was because of the way that the developers restrict your perspective: Ubisoft gave us enormous chambers and caverns, the entirety of which we couldn’t possibly translate from any one vantage point, and asked us to simply have faith and jump into it, trusting that if we could read the geography well enough, the path would always be laid out before us clearly, even if there were many places it would collapse beneath our feet if we dawdled for even an instant.

In playing Prince of Persia, we’re forced to translate on the fly, as we go, and when we’re able to do it successfully, it makes us feel like a total badass. The game is tuned to make those simple inputs show up onscreen as brilliant flips, jumps, and somersaults. There’s a huge amount of joy in making the astonishing feel easy.

Let me pause to say that these sequences–the huge, beautiful arenas in which the player may parkour to their heart’s content, are still present in Warrior Within. They’re there, and they feel just as wonderful as they do in Sands of Time. But before I follow that line of thinking, let me talk a little bit about the other elements of translation present in these games.

Near as I can figure, there are two other primary flavors of gameplay at work here: hallways full of traps, which operate in a different way than the expansive arenas, and combat, which works as a kind of “dynamic translation” that I’ll touch on in a minute.

First, let’s take a look at these hallways.

All of the environments in the Prince of Persia games are populated with these absurd hallways full of spikes, spinning blades, buzz-saws, and spikes on spinning-blade-poles. These form a geography that needs to be translated, too–except, unlike the expansive arenas I’ve just described, you can see the entire sequence at once, which is important, because in each case, you need to traverse the hallway in one smooth motion by using the same inputs and mechanics you use to traverse the larger areas (or else be impaled, sliced, skewered, etc.). These hallways often form the bridges between the more large-scale platforming areas, and serve as a kind of breather for the player–the method of engagement is slightly different, asking us to translate small chunks at a time rather than a large sequence of inputs.

Something similar is occurring with the combat, which often takes place in pockets of the large areas, except the inputs are different–and yet still limited. The Prince is given a handful of different attacks, each of which seems to work better on a different type of enemy, and the player is asked to translate a moving target. (This is the “dynamic translation” I alluded to earlier.) Knowing that you can’t vault over the tall enemies and can’t directly attack the fat ones is functionally equivalent to understanding that a large horizontal surface means “wall run” and two poles next to a wall means “swing, wall-jump, swing.”

Better vault over these guys, then.

The combat in Sands of Time is relatively simple for a reason: the joy of the game is in achieving a sense of flow, where you can see the next moves unfolding in front of you even as you complete the current one. Every game has the player evaluating environmental stimuli and reacting to it, but the Prince of Persia games excel because they are straightforward, well balanced, and allow the player to feel “in the zone.”

So. Where does Warrior Within stumble? In a couple of different places. Firstly, the ratio of one type of engagement to another has been shifted, so that rather than focusing primarily on the large platforming arenas and using combat and trap hallways as bridges, the game gives us each type of gameplay in about equal measure. Though I can’t imagine why any series would want to shift its dynamic away from the thing it does the best, this in itself would not be a terrible move if it weren’t for a couple other changes that happen concurrently.

The Prince seems to take more damage both from traps and from enemies in Warrior Within, necessitating more uses of the Sands of Time to rewind and try again (and probably more game overs). This is probably in response to complaints that the first game was “too easy” or “too simple,” though I can’t find much evidence of these complaints in reviews of the first offering–perhaps this came out of a focus group? Whatever the case, more game overs in a series whose primary strength is creating a sense of flow in the player is absolutely a step in the wrong direction. Even having to use the Sands more frequently is probably a bad thing–the ability to rewind time functions best, in my opinion, as a reassurance that allows the player to proceed quickly and recklessly.

The biggest gameplay change from Sands of Time to Warrior Within is the change in the combat, which no longer functions as a kind of translation but instead is more complicated, with many more moves, combos, and even different weapons to be used. The removal of the simple combat from Sands of Time means that battles can no longer be “read” in the same way that they once could, and the player must be in an entirely different mindset when enemies are about. There are still combos which work better on certain enemies (can’t vault over the Sexy Battle Ninjas this time instead of the Tall Guys), but there’s no shifting geography to be read in the groups of enemies that you encounter in Warrior Within. You move around, you try not to get hit, and you lash out with the best combos you’ve got in order to try and dispatch the bad guys before they kill you.

DECAPITATIOOOOOON!

In some ways this combat is more frustrating and less accessible, though there are times when the complexity allows for some satisfying moments. The problem, really, is that battles no longer function as a kind of extension of the primary gameplay mechanic of the series–the game’s focus is less unified than its predecessor, and focus is really the strength of these games. In addition, Warrior Within adds a number of boss battles, which, when you look at the history of video games, ought to be the perfect place to preserve that element of reading the enemy–but it somehow manages to miss the mark in this regard.

These three gameplay shifts (the change in ratio between the modes of engagement, the added difficulty, and the more complex combat) mean that Warrior Within is not as unified and focused as its predecessor, and when this is combined with the jarring aesthetic gap between the first game and the second, the whole game begins to feel weirdly disjointed.

Should you seek out and play Warrior WithinWell, I’m certainly not going to steer you away from it. The core of brilliant platforming is still at the heart of the game, even if it’s obscured by more clutter than the first game had. There are also a handful of awesome things going on in the game, most notably the sequences in which the Prince is chased by the Dahaka, which add a beautiful urgency and desperation to their gameplay.

Nevertheless, Warrior Within is not a “must play,” a title I would definitely bestow upon Sands of Time. (Please, please go play that if you haven’t already. It’s one of the best games of the last ten years.) If you’re a fan of the original, it would be worth your while to check out the second game in the trilogy, but be cognizant of the fact that it comes with some baggage. And if you’re just looking to spend some time with the charming protagonists you came to know and love in the first game… you’ll have to look elsewhere. They didn’t make it into this one.

9 Video Game Locales in Which to Spend Your Summer Vacation

Summer is upon us! The season of sun, surf, and freedom is just beginning, and the blue skies and long, warm evenings are calling to all of us. But with three months of endless possibilities stretching out before you, how do you plan to fill that time? Are you at risk of spending all summer bumming around your apartment, your parents’ basement, or your Arctic doombase? Are you worried that you won’t make yourself get out and do something?

Don’t fret! There are thousands of potential exotic locales you might visit, and of all these, there are a couple that immediately jump out as superb destinations. No matter your disposition, I guarantee that you’ll find a place on this list where you can make your summer satisfying.

Not bad, right?

1. Besaid Island, Final Fantasy X

Looking for someplace to get away from it all? Someplace with sun, sand, surf, and Sin? Well, okay, maybe not the Sin part. Nevertheless! If you’d like to spend the summer working on your tan, hiking through the tropical jungle (complete with waterfalls and ancient forbidden machina ruins), or just tossing the blitzball around in the sand with your bros, then Besaid Island is the paradise for you. The villagers are friendly, the local wildlife is low-level, and the jaw-dropping vistas just can’t be beat.

If you’re thinking of vacationing on Besaid, timing is key: you want to plan your trip after the colossal avatar of destruction that decimates the towns of Spira has been defeated. If you can swing this, then there’s nothing to prevent you from enjoying three long months of good weather, hospitable company, and beautiful scenery.

2. Mineral Town, Harvest Moon: Back to Nature

Of course, some people aren’t happy unless they have a project to carry them through the summer. For anyone inclined to spend the long daylight hours working up a sweat, there’s no better place to head to in June than your grandpa’s farm out in the country. A place like this is just waiting for some ambitious upstart to restore it to its former glory! Mineral Town, in particular, offers several amenities for the hard-working farmer: monthly festivals, beautiful woods and hills, excellent fishing, and a town full of personable characters eager to meet a newcomer from the big city. Who knows? You might even find romance! There are a disproportionate number of attractive young people in this quaint farming village.

Sure, there’s a lot of work to be done on a farm– planting, watering, feeding, milking, collecting, mining, inventory management– but at the end of the summer, you can sit back proudly knowing that you’ve made something that will last. You might have such a good time, you decide you want to stick around through the winter!

3. Casino Night Zone, Sonic the Hedgehog 2

For those to whom a leisurely, rural vacation does not appeal, I would heartily recommend a visit to the Casino Night Zone from Sonic 2. A veritable ocean of glittering neon, the Casino Night Zone offers everything a gambler or gamer could ask for: slots, pinball… rings. If you’re the sort of person who is up all night at the blackjack table and spends most of the day in bed, then this is the vacation destination for you. Just be careful that you don’t get caught up in the whirlwind adrenaline rush of gambling and leave your partner behind… offscreen… to catch up to you what seems like eons later.

Seriously, Tails, you’re an abominable sidekick. Moving on!



4. Whispering Rock Psychic Summer Camp, Psychonauts

So perhaps gambling isn’t your thing. Perhaps you’d like someplace that combines the rural pleasures of a country vacation with the nostalgia of your youth. What better way to relive the summers spent away from your parents than going back to camp? Whispering Rock has everything a camper could ask for: friendly bunk-mates, counselors who are experts in their fields, and a terrifying, abandoned insane asylum just across the lake! A few weeks spent at Whispering Rock and you’ll have made friends, done some arts and crafts, and learned how to set things on fire with your mind.

There are some potential hazards in visiting Whispering Rock, as with any summer camp: you might not get along with some of the counselors (especially if they force you into the twisted hellscapes of their subconscious), you might get picked on by the other campers (or captured by a hideous, building-sized lungfish for use in maniacal experiments), and, if you’re not careful, you might get cooties. Nevertheless, if you have even a passing interest in clairvoyance, telekinesis, or levitation, then Whispering Rock is the summer destination for you.

5. Star Tropics, Star Tropics

Maybe you’re the adventurous type, an individual whose summer would be incomplete without a little action and danger. Does spelunking through creature-infested caves in a tropical paradise, armed only with a yo-yo and a baseball bat, sound like your cup of tea? That’s what the Star Tropics have to offer. Well, that, and maybe a little early-90s residual racism toward Pacific Islanders. But hey! It was developed by the same guys that made Punch-Out. A little cultural insensitivity oughta be expected.

Star Tropics has several amenities which make it well-suited to being a summer getaway: plenty of unspoiled, pristine islands to explore, a submarine in which to cruise around and take in the sights, and a surprising number of English-speaking native creatures! I’m pretty sure there were at least a dolphin and a parrot, maybe more. If you’ve spent too many summers in Hyrule and need to find a retreat that’s just a little more balmy and pleasant, the Star Tropics are the place for you.

6. St. Mystere, Professor Layton and the Curious Village

If, on the other hand, you’re the sort of person who would prefer their summer to contain the least possible amount of danger, I would suggest seeing if you couldn’t find boarding at the inn in St. Mystere, a quaint little town full of friendly personalities and charming character. Just… never mind that ominous, looming tower in the distance. St. Mystere has plenty to offer, including lovely parks, a cozy cafe or two, and beautiful, old-world style architecture. You’ll spend your summer reading outside a coffee shop, listening to the soothing strains of French accordion music, and trying to put your finger on what, exactly, seems to be amiss in the quaint little town…

A word of warning, however: if you’re planning on vacationing in this Curious Village, make sure to pack your thinking cap. You can’t get anywhere in this town without solving a puzzle. Want to check into your room at the inn? Hope you’re good at chess! Want a place to park your car? Get ready to slide some blocks around. Like a cappuccino from the shop down the street? Better be able to get those chickens and wolves across the river without any of them eating each other. Students eager to leave the brain-twisting challenges of academia behind might want to pick a different destination.

7. Shibuya, The World Ends With You

Maybe your idea of a good summer is to bombard your senses with as much stimulation as possible. If you can’t stand the thought of leaving the madding crowd and feel most at home in a sea of strangers, then you would do well to check out Tokyo’s Shibuya ward, one of the world’s primo shopping districts and centers of night life. Of course, if you’re visiting the Shibuya of The World Ends With You, you might be a little distracted by all of the abstract animal/graffiti monsters trying to snuff you out to have a good time, but still! Think of all the shopping!

Reapers and Noise aside, there’s no better place in all of videogamedom to be bathed in neon, deafened by club music, and surrounded by your fellow human beings. Anybody looking to spend most of their summer holidays in a dance hall, Shibuya is the place to be. And if you happen to be interested in being hunted “Most Dangerous Game” style and fighting back with stylish pins and the latest fashions, Shibuya works for that, too! If you have an aversion to anime kids with huge hair, you might want to look elsewhere.

8. The Great Sea, The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker

Hyrule is one of the most beloved vacation destinations of gamers everywhere, whether they’re seeking a link to their past, an awakening of sorts, or are just out to feel like a hero (of time) for a while. But it’s the Great Sea of The Wind Waker that I’m going to recommend as the optimal place to unwind for the discerning gamer on vacation. Refreshing sea breezes, the call of seabirds, and the gentle rocking of a boat beneath your feet all combine to create a truly idyllic escape. The Great Sea sports many tiny islands to explore and take in, each with its own unique charm. There are several dungeons to traverse and investigate, if you’re adventurous. If you’d prefer, however, you could while away your summer sipping fruity drinks on the beach or immersing yourself in the native culture.

If you’re not a sailor, you won’t be able to make the most of a visit to the Great Sea, so be warned: there is a lot of sailing involved. A lot! We’re talking hours and hours here. However, if the thought of setting out onto the bounding main with the wind rushing through your hair fills you with the spirit of adventure, then this is absolutely where you should book passage this summer.

image credit: mudron (go buy a print for your wall!)

9. Mushroom Kingdom, Mario Series

The Mushroom Kingdom is the Disney World of videogames. This is the kind of place to which you’ll want to bring the kids, book a stay for a week or so, and devote at least a day to taking in everything there is to see. Forget your Wii Sports Resort; the Mushroom Kingdom has everything: tennis, golf, baseball, soccer, go-karts, they even have their own Olympics. You’ve got castles, haunted houses, picturesque volcanoes, a mountain where you can literally climb to the stars… and did I mention dinosaurs? Or that you could compete in the luge against penguins?

Everything’s very kid-friendly, of course, and so there’s not much “adult” entertainment available–but when you can race your friends on go-karts through an active volcano, there’s not much to complain about. There are parties all the time, cakes are getting baked by royalty–it’s a good time for everyone. Even the bad guys seem pretty friendly. This is one vacation destination that I can wholeheartedly recommend without reservation.

I just hope you don’t mind Italian food.