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A reflection upon the PSX turning 20

So I’ve always thought that the story of how I ended up with a Sony PlayStation instead of a Nintendo 64 was rather amusing and worth recounting. I wrote it up a couple years ago, but I thought I would clean it up a little and share it again on account of the PSOne 20th anniversary celebrations going on everywhere. And by everywhere I mean in Sony promotional materials on the internet.

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I think that a big part of my desire to be “well played” (that is, to play as many historically and culturally important games on as many different systems as I can manage) stems in part from the fact that my console allegiances shifted a number of times when I was young. I got a Game Boy for my seventh birthday (bought for me by my extended family, to my parents’ chagrin) and a Sega Genesis for my tenth birthday (bought for me by my extended family on the OTHER side, also very much to my parents’ chagrin).

I never felt particularly embroiled in the 16-bit “Console Wars” between Sega and Nintendo– I certainly was glad to have a Game Boy rather than a Game Gear, because I enjoyed being able to play my handheld for more than twenty or thirty minutes before it ran out of batteries–but I was quite content with my Sega Genesis, and didn’t feel like I was missing out by not owning an SNES (it turns out I was wrong, of course): I might have had the inferior TMNT game, but I had the better version of Aladdin, so all was well.

When it came time to move on to the 32/64-bit generation, however, another chance of fate conspired to shift my allegiances once again.

It was the holiday season of 1996, and the new consoles had been out for somewhere between a few months and a year. I felt as though it was time to move on from my Genesis and embrace the world of the new. Knowing that my parents had a firm policy against buying me systems, I understood that it was going to take not just my savings, but the sacrifice of my trusty Sega console and all of its games, plus all of the birthday money my grandmother had given me. I wistfully gathered up my gaming collection and asked my father to take me round to the mall so that I could make my purchase.

I knew what I was after. The parents of my friends had no such misgivings about the purchase of consoles for their offspring, and some of them didn’t even have to wait until Christmas to acquire their prizes. I had been to my buddy Charles’s house and played Super Mario 64. I had seen the future, the three-dimensional future, and it was glorious. The way was laid before me by the mustachioed son of Miyamoto.

So when I rolled up with my father to the CD Game Exchange with my little cardboard box containing the remnants of the hedgehog’s 16-bit kingdom, I had my sights firmly set on a January exploring the hallways of Peach’s castle. The plumber exhorted me to “let’s-a go,” and I was ready to obey.

I set my old games on the counter in front of a young man who I imagine was in his early 20s. I have no recollection of what he looked like, now, which is unfortunate, considering the profound effect he was about to have upon me.

The dude quickly calculated how much my cardboard box was worth, and it was just enough that with my additional savings, I would be able to purchase the system–and a game besides! I rubbed my hands together in naive anticipation.

“I want an N64, please,” I said, all full of hope.

The words fell like a headsman’s axe: “Can’t. We don’t have any.”

I stood looking at him in shock. What? Didn’t he understand how important it was that I have this system? When my brain finally processed the implications of his statement, I reached for the cardboard box and began to pull it back toward me across the glass display case. “Come on, Dad,” I said. “We’ve got to go to a different store.”

“It’s no good,” said the man behind the counter. “No one has them. You won’t be able to find one.”

I can’t say for sure, but it’s entirely likely that my lip trembled. Why was the universe intent on crushing my pre-adolescent dreams?

And it was at this point that the gentleman leaned over the counter and beckoned me closer with a crooked finger. Desperate for any glimmer of hope, I approached, hoping that he was about to tell me that there was just one system left, in the back, and he just wanted to make sure it went home with a young man who really wanted it.

He looked at me and the corner of his mouth bent upward in a smirk. He leaned in conspiratorially, as though he was about to impart to me some secret of the Adult World.

“You don’t want an N64,” he said. “You want a PlayStation.”

I blinked. I wanted a what? Why?

“You want a PlayStation,” he repeated. “Trust me on this one.”

And you know what? Reader, I believed him.

Looking back on it, I’m certain that he was just trying to make a sale, that he was thinking of how nice it would be to make his numbers go up on that little board in the back room, but I bought it. Hook, line, and sinker, I bought it. I couldn’t explain why, but I knew in that moment that I did want a PlayStation.

(An aside, here: Have you ever looked at the word “PlayStation?” How weird is it? We’ve had this as part of our gaming lexicon for some twenty years, and do we ever stop to examine how silly it is as a portmanteau?)

And so I handed over my Genesis and my Sonic 3D Blast and my Ristar and my Jurassic Park: Rampage Edition and a dozen other games, and I left the store with a brand new Sony PlayStation. My post-holiday need for instant gratification won the day.

The games I bought immediately were actually kind of lame: I went home with Ridge Racer Revolution, which was a decent game but only had three tracks, and Aquanaut’s Holiday, which, seriously, what the hell. ArtDink, man.

Somehow I wasn’t deterred or disillusioned by my purchases, despite– well, despite the fact that Aquanaut’s Holiday was really boring, and Ridge Racer Revolution spent more time in my Discman than in my PlayStation. The system came with a demo disc that had some excellent suggestions, and pretty soon I saved the scratch to invest in Jumping Flash 2 and Jet Mototwo games which have aged pretty well, relatively speaking, and which I would still recommend.

But it wasn’t until later that year that I truly realized how right that CD Game Exchange worker had been. I saw an ad for Final Fantasy VII in my gaming magazine (the now-defunct Next Generation), desperately begged my mom to take me to the mall after school, and came home to rush to the basement, pop in the disc, turn on the console, and see this opening. Wowzers.

When I finally managed to pick my jaw up off the floor, I said a little prayer of thanks to that guy at CD Game Exchange, because it became clear to me in that moment that he had not been just messing with me to make a sale. It seemed to me, then, that he’d been genuinely concerned with my well-being as a young player of games.

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Castlevania and obsessive series completion syndrome

I continue to have a problem.

I’ve written about the Castlevania games in the context of compulsive completionism before, but in the intervening months I’ve found that my desire for achievements has all but vanished–a fact that can be explained mostly by the construction of a new PC (the first I’ve ever built myself, and the only one I’ve ever had remotely capable of playing new games!). When one’s “permanent record” is distributed over more than one system of merit badges (in my case now, XBox achievements AND Steam achievements), the weight that either one carries is dramatically reduced.

Whereas before, I could feasibly delude myself into thinking my XBox history to be a complete record of my interaction with modern games (I was somehow able to rationalize away all of the handheld games I’ve consumed), now this conceit is too far-fetched for even me to consider.

So! Cured, right? No more compulsive need to play everything!

I played this last week:

castlevaniagbbox…and this:

belmontsrevengeboxThese are… objectively terrible games. Really, plainly unfit for consideration on anyone’s “to-play” list. Aside from their wickedly awesome early-90’s box art, they’re not good for much at all.

And yet I didn’t just sample them– I played them to completion. It took me approximately ninety tries to beat Dracula in Castlevania: The Adventure.

What excuse do I have for myself? I guess I don’t. Like I said, I think I have a problem.

My real mistake, from the outset, was creating a Google Doc titled “Castlevania games I have played” and compiling a list of the entire series (including the Game Boy spin-off Kid Dracula, because, let’s remember, I have a problem). I bolded the games I’d beaten and italicized the games I’d sampled but never played to completion.

And then I looked at all the titles left and said, “yeah, I could probably manage those.”

Why?! Why would I do such a thing? The truth of the matter is that all the list told me, at the outset, is that I’d beaten pretty much all of the good Castlevania games. I’ve beaten Symphony of the Night and Aria of Sorrow and Dracula’s Curse. I’ve beaten Portrait of Ruin and Circle of the Moon and the original Castlevania. I’ve even beaten my fair share of the mediocre games, like Lament of Innocence and Harmony of Dissonance and Stampede of Elephants. (Okay, I made that last one up. But if it existed, I probably would have beaten it.)

When I looked at that list, the first thing that I should have seen was the good Castlevanias that I haven’t yet played. I should have said to myself, “Self, you haven’t yet sampled Order of Ecclesia, which is supposed to be pretty great. Nor have you played Curse of Darkness, which is supposed to be the best of the 3D lot before MercurySteam came along and really got it right with Lords of Shadow. Why don’t you track down one of those?”

But instead, what I did was look at the list and think: “Hey, those Game Boy Castlevanias are probably pretty short. I bet I could knock a couple of those out real quick and be that much closer to having played them all.” Then, I invested multiple hours in doing so. Those are hours I’m not going to get back.

Castlevania games are not Pokemon. There is no reward for catching them all.

Actually, is there a reward for catching all of the Pokemon, besides bragging rights? Maybe it’s better to say that Castlevania games aren’t Stars of Destiny.

And the worst part of all of this is that I know I have wasted my time, I know I should have done something else. And yet I still feel a twinge of pride at having bolded those two bullet points on my list. Congratulations, Nate. You’ve invested the time to beat two terrible games. Achievement unlocked!

Possibly the only thing I can say in my defense is that the remorse at having wasted my time compelled me to drop a couple bucks on Rondo of Blood for the Wii Virtual Console, which is an objectively awesome game and well worth my time (and yours).

I tell myself that my desire to play as many games as possible comes from a place of wanting to be “well played,” of wanting to foster an intimate understanding of the medium by attempting to expose myself to as much of it as possible, but I’m not entirely sure that I’ve furthered that ambition by playing these two mediocre platformers from the early 90’s. Maybe it’s possible that we can talk intelligently about games we haven’t played.

Maybe I shouldn’t have spent that dollar on Castlevania Puzzle: Encore of the Night for iOS.

 

 

 

Grand Theft Auto V as grotesquerie

 

Enough has been written about Grand Theft Auto V in the week since its release that I’m hesitant to attempt any kind of incisive criticism; the best writers in gaming have been at work on that since long before I even got my hands on the game.

I have been trying to sort out for myself, as I’ve made my way through the first part of the game, why I am enjoying it so much. Why I have always enjoyed this series. Why I feel affection for its protagonists, even though they are unquestionably Bad People by any reasonable metric. Of course it’s possible to feel sympathy for the Devil, but I’m somehow uniquely susceptible to it in this medium in a way that I haven’t encountered in others. I don’t watch Breaking Bad. I’ve never really been a fan of Scarface. Niko Bellic, on the other hand, is a character for whom I have considerable love.

I have been trying to understand why I am willing to invest myself in characters like Michael and Franklin (not so much Trevor, yet, I’ve just gotten to him and thus far I don’t like him very much) when I am so resistant to do it in other media. I think I’ve finally boiled it down: GTAV is a grotesquerie, both in its world and in its characters.

The first thing that it is important to note is that the world of Grand Theft Auto is unambiguously horrible. It is horrible in some of the same ways that the real world is horrible, only more so. There has been a lot of talk amongst games writers about Rockstar’s “failed satire,” but I don’t even know if satire is really what they’re going for here. I think that the aesthetic of the Grand Theft Auto series has drifted completely away from satire, if it every truly fit the term. From where it stands now, I think that it would be more accurate to call GTA a grotesque.

Both the world and the characters of GTA are meant to elicit both disgust and pity in the player. The counterpoint of those two emotions is what makes a grotesquerie so compelling: the player (or reader, or viewer, or what have you) wants to continue the narrative because they want to see whether or not the characters come to a place that’s less disgusting, less pitiful.

In Liberty City or Los Santos (or the rest of San Andreas, or even in Vice City), the subtext of commercialism, materialism, and capitalism that runs beneath our everyday lives is made explicit. The radio spews vile filth almost unceasingly. The billboards are suggestive and woefully adolescent. The people you pass on the street are vapid and superfluous, by design as much as by the convenience of programming. If this were satire, there would be some narrative commentary, some pointed suggestion as to the meaning of such excesses, but in GTAV there is none. It is the worst of the world made uglier, turned up to eleven, and presented to the player with barely a raised eyebrow. Again: grotesque. This is America-as-gargoyle.

In the world of GTA, sexism is rampant and horrible because the whole world has been crafted from a male perspective. Whether this implies a narrow, insensitive worldview on the part of the developers (likely) or a conscious decision to recognize the omnipresence of the patriarchy and depict it as even more omnipresent (odds are slim), the effect is the same: the disenfranchised are now nonexistent. The complex and interesting women who populate real life and so often go unrecognized by those with privilege are here less than invisible: in Los Santos, they simply do not exist. All of those angry dudebros who lashed out when critics gave GTAV less than a 10? This is their perspective given form and verisimilitude. And, like everything else in the universe of GTA, it’s horrible. A grotesque. An exaggeration that turns what is wrong into what is unconscionable.

It might be possible to set a GTA in a world that was not horrible in these ways (it would, in all probability, be more interesting), but this hideous fun-house mirror of real life makes it considerably easier to empathize with our protagonists. Oftentimes, they’re the least horrible guys in the room. But these three miscreants are grotesques, too, in the traditional sense: they are characters who simultaneously evoke disgust and empathetic pity.

Franklin’s kind of sad. Michael is sad, like, profoundly sad. Trevor, well, Trevor’s a whole ‘nother animal. But he’s pretty pathetic himself. (And, hey, while we’re on it– Niko Bellic is pretty sad, too.)

These are the kinds of characters which I would probably have a hard time watching on television (or–and I shudder to think of it–on stage). I think that my disgust would probably overpower my pity pretty quickly. Something about the medium of games, though, makes me give these guys a second look (it might have to do with how much, on a mechanical level, I like Shooting Bad Guys and Driving Fast Cars).

But I think there’s more to it than just that. In a world which is orders of magnitude worse than our own, we’re allowed to partner up with them and try and guide them toward being better–helping them to have more control over their lives, helping to dig them out of the pits of misery in which they’re entrenched–even if the journey there is over the bodies of wave after wave of thugs.

As I play the game, I don’t murder civilians for no reason. I try not to get anybody killed if I can avoid it. When I’m playing as Michael, I have him call his wife after every mission, hoping against hope that now that he’s back in the game and feeling more of a purpose to his life, he might start to treat her a little more humanely, and a genuine relationship might emerge. (Pretty sure this one’s a futile hope on my part. Gonna keep trying.)

GTA is complicated. At the same time that it glorifies hideous violence and makes the player complicit in it, it asks them to pity its miserable characters and try and guide them toward a place where they’ll be happier. But those two dueling emotions–disgust and pity–are the basis of any classical grotesque, from Frankenstein’s monster to Caliban to Smeagol, and it’s why even those of us who cringe at the hideousness of Rockstar’s ugly universe can buy in.

Looking at the game as an example of the grotesque doesn’t make the problematic elements go away, but for me it’s been a lens through which to understand my engagement with it.

Kingdom Hearts and plot connections as reward

So, after a several-weeks-long vacation in which I had nearly zero time to devote to gaming, I finally managed to sit down and polish off Kingdom Hearts: Birth By Sleep. Once the credits had rolled (for the fourth time, actually, due to the multiple-campaign story structure), I came to a realization about why I continue to be invested in the series despite the fact that I find myself frequently rolling my eyes at its absurd, nonsensical mythos.

Japanese RPGs that are plot-centric have (almost) always operated with a certain structure in the way that they reward their players: the payoff, plot, comes after the player has conquered a certain amount of gameplay (often in the form of one or more dungeons, a couple boss battles, etc.). With the advent (no pun intended) of Final Fantasy VII, these plot rewards were often paired with the promise of a visually-impressive cinematic sequence: Finish this dungeon, beat this boss, watch something awesome happen that totally wouldn’t be possible to communicate within the confines of the game’s engine.

As someone who grew up with JRPGs, Final Fantasies in particular, I don’t agree with those who believe there’s something inherently flawed with this system of rewarding the player. Though I’ll certainly grant that there is a purity, a compactness, an immersive ideal that is possible when the gameplay itself is the reward and plot development never wrests control from the player, I certainly don’t believe that all games need to strive for that ideal.

I don’t mean for this to be a discussion about the merits, or lack thereof, of cutscenes. What I want to point out is the particular quirk that Kingdom Hearts puts into this formula, a unique and engaging (though sometimes frustrating) spin on the idea of rewarding your player with plot.

When I monitor my engagement with games in the Kingdom Hearts series, I don’t find myself more engaged in the story than I do in the gameplay. Whacking on Heartless/Nobodies/Unversed/whatever with a keyblade is an absolute delight, and each new entry into the series has further refined and deepened the game’s core mechanics.

Birth By Sleep, which not only sports smooth and fabulous swordplay but also adds some cool character-progression mechanics swiped from Crisis Core and Final Fantasy IX, is probably the best-playing game in the series. It’s also high-energy enough that when cutscenes come along, they feel like an appropriate breather from the frenetic action of battle.

KHBBSCinderella

On the left, someone you care about. On the right, not so much.

As in all of the Kingdom Hearts games, though, story sequences are dramatically divided into two different categories: interactions of the protagonists with the characters in various Disney worlds, and developments exclusively concerning the original characters created by Square Enix.

Almost exclusively, the former are boring as all-get-out, while the latter have the potential to be intriguing and dramatically potent. In almost every case, Squeenix uses each protagonist’s encounter with Disney characters as an attempt to hold some mirror up to them in an effort to show them realizing something about themselves or their friends. Such revelations are usually something along the lines of “never stop believing in your dreams” or “remember the importance of your friends.” Occasionally they are even more abstract, like “never give in to the darkness” or “protect your heart,” which… Ugh.

The Disney characters are almost exclusively reduced to flimsy, weak pantomimes of the events of their original stories, which have neither narrative potency nor any real interest to the player. Seldom are they given any kind of depth.

And so in a Kingdom Hearts game, rather than play through partly-engaging gameplay in order to get to the more-engaging story, the player plows through uncompelling Disney narratives they’ve encountered before in order to get to the original material that they might actually care about.

(As a sidenote, there is some pleasure in setting foot in new Disney worlds for the first time, but Kingdom Hearts II does this much better than anything that’s yet followed it. Going into the worlds of Tron, Steamboat Willie, and Pirates of the Caribbean was delightful.)

KHTimelessRiverThere’s another level of plot-centric reward that the series offers the player, however, and it’s on a much different level than the gameplay-plot cycle on which the rest of the game operates.

However absurd the mythos of Kingdom Hearts may be, it’s a series which does have a mythos–and which loves to tantalize with elements of that mythos that are as-yet-unrevealed to its players. Playing the Kingdom Hearts games to completion, sometimes on harder difficulty settings, offers players glimpses of connections between entries in the series, hints at the nature of the cards in the hand that the developers have not yet shown. If you are the least been invested in the world, as I am, then these narrative bridges become the greatest reward of all for playing the games.

This has been going on since the first game, in which, if players had fulfilled certain criteria, they were greeted with this upon the game’s completion:

This, in a game which ended on something of a cliffhanger, from the people who made Final Fantasy (not exactly a series known for direct follow-ups. …Well, not at the time, anyway).

The secret video at the end of the first Kingdom Hearts drove me absolutely bonkers. Was there going to be a sequel? Why was it so aesthetically different from the entirety of the game? Who the heck was that blonde kid?

When Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories came out, I snatched it right up. Tangling with the plot of this one was even more divided than the first game: not only had I already dealt with the Disney plots in the original movies, but I had already seen them through in the first Kingdom Hearts game! Talk about a snooze-fest! The card-based battle system was pretty engaging, though, and enough to keep me interested between scenes that involved the new original characters, Organization XIII, who were not only intriguing but offered some truly spectacular boss fights.

When the game concluded, I was pretty satisfied at having enjoyed some new plot material, though I wasn’t surprised that they employed the trope of having Sora’s memory wiped at the end. It was a handheld game, after all, and I was pretty sure that they weren’t going to expect people to have played it when they dove into the sequel (which, at that point, was definitely on its way).

Imagine my surprise when, upon booting up Kingdom Hearts II, I found all of that narrative information not only pertinent, but perhaps essential. I still didn’t know what was going on, of course, but the first hours of KH2 were replete with tantalizing clues.

kh2roxas

Hey, don’t I know that kid from somewhere…?

I have no idea how many people out there in the world of gaming are as captivated as I am by this meta-game of piecing together the mythos. I’m sure that many, if not most, adult gamers don’t have the time to invest in a series with a younger audience in mind, especially one that’s spread across at least five different systems.

What I do know is that the final epilogue of Kingdom Hearts: Birth By Sleep contains scenes which make no sense if you haven’t played Chain of Memories, the original Kingdom Hearts, Kingdom Hearts II, and 358/2 Days, and it delights me to no end. I’m not sure I can think of another series of games that invests that much time in establishing connections between its different entries, with the possible exception of Metal Gear Solid (you wanna talk about a self-referential mythos, yikes).

Though it’s obviously not everyone’s cup of tea, I think that the Kingdom Hearts series should be applauded for the way it rewards the series-faithful. There is great joy to be found, as a player, in gradually uncovering the pieces to a larger puzzle. I wish more games offered us this pleasure.

Handheld Summer, continued

twewycastI’ve been chipping away at my to-play list over the last week, though (surprisingly) spending time with family doesn’t leave a lot of time to sit down and game, even when you’re out in the country and the entertainment options are considerably limited.

I managed to finally make myself finish The World Ends With You, a game which I’ve been playing, on-and-off, for about five years. It’s thoroughly engrossing, and I’m embarrassed that I’ve kept putting it off for so long. The best explanation for why it’s taken me so long to finally finish the dang thing is that playing it is so unbelievably frantic, scrabbling at the screen with the stylus and slamming on the directional pad, that the thought of picking it up and making progress in it is intimidating.

The game also lets you dial your level down manually, with a slider in the menu, and playing at lower levels increases the prizes and experience you receive from battles, which means that I felt compelled to play the whole thing on hard, about twenty levels below where I actually was, which made it considerably more difficult than it probably needed to be.

Oh well. I breezed through the endgame, at least, when I finally resigned myself to tuning the difficulty down and my level up.

The World Ends With You is also a collector’s dream/nightmare, with about seventy hojillion pins, items, food, and clothing to obtain, not to mention a bestiary to fill up and secret reports to obtain by meeting specific objectives. My to-play list is considerable in length and I’m anxious to get to it, so I don’t think I’ll be diving back in again immediately, but it’s calling me nevertheless.

The hints of a possible sequel are likewise tantalizing.

Next on my list, I think, is the Kingdom Hearts prequel that I never made it through, Birth By Sleep, and having loaded it back up again I’m finding myself wildly vacillating between my deep enthusiasm for the franchise and my considerable frustrations with its storytelling quirks.

I keep being distracted, however, by something else:

I’m not what you’d call an Adventure Time “devotee.” I’ve only seen about a season and a half’s worth of episodes, and while I can definitely admit to being wholly enraptured with the show’s goofy charm, I wouldn’t put it near the top of my (admittedly lengthy) list of nerd obsessions. I downloaded and played the game’s demo from the Nintendo eShop and liked their take on the Zelda II formula enough to jot this one down on my “play if I have time” list, but I didn’t throw down the thirty bucks to buy the whole thing.

But this one song! I must have listened to this thing on YouTube about eighty times over the last four or five days. I’ve long been a fan of Jake “virt” Kaufman‘s work on OCRemix, and his skill at producing rockin’ chiptunes is up there with the best people working in the form. This song from the Adventure Time game might be my favorite piece of chip-rock since Anamanaguchi‘s soundtrack to Scott Pilgrim vs. The World: The Game.

Is it weird that I’m seriously considering moving this game up on my to-play list just because of the soundtrack? Why don’t you head over to SoundCloud and have a listen to this and some of the other tracks on offer.

Oh! It’s worth mentioning that the game’s developer, WayForward, is also the house that’s working on the upcoming DuckTales Remastered, and that virt is going to be doing the arranged score for that, too. It almost seems worth it to check out the Adventure Time game just to get a sense for how WayForward is going to handle Uncle Scrooge’s classic outing. What do you guys think?

adventuretimecombat

 

Handheld Summer

ohioamishI’m on vacation from my day job.

Usually, being on vacation means a considerable uptick in the time that I spend playing video games. Rather than having just a few hours each week into which I can try to cram the biggest and most impressive AAA titles, I have whole days (indeed, even weeks) at my disposal, which means I can really sink my teeth into all of the big releases that I’ve missed over the last calendar year (and, of course, the years previous).

Or at least, that’s what it would usually mean. This summer, I’m spending most of June at my parents’ farm out in Amish Country, Ohio, and almost all of July on The Road, meaning that by the time I make my way back to all of my consoles at home, I’ll have probably a single weekend before it’s back to the daily grind.

On the one hand, this might be an opportunity for me to dial down the time that I spend gaming–ramp up my pleasure reading, perhaps, or get back to some pieces of fiction I’ve put on the back burner during the craziest months of the teaching year–and to a certain extent, that’s my intent for the summer months I’ll be away.

On the other hand, however, it’s also an excuse to turn my attention to my handheld systems, which usually take a backseat to my console gaming. There have been a number of superb handheld titles released over the last several months, most of which I haven’t gotten around to, because, well–I’m a fan of Fire Emblem and all, but it’s a little difficult for me to give my 3DS any attention when I have an Assassin’s Creed, a Tomb Raider, or a Bioshock at my disposal.

The DS and the PSP are past the end of their life cycle, which means I now have the opportunity to go back and mop up all the best games that I missed while they were in their prime (without having to worry about new titles being released!). The 3DS, on the other hand, just seems to be ramping up–Nintendo sure gave it a lot of love at E3. I have the feeling there are going to be plenty of games for me to mess around with over the next couple of months.

Here’s my Summer Play-List:

Games I Own and Need to Finish:

The World Ends With You

Ace Attorney Investigations: Miles Edgeworth

Kingdom Hearts: Birth By Sleep

Professor Layton and the Miracle Mask

Essential Handheld Games I’ve Somehow Missed:

Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker

Radiant Historia

Games I Would Really Like to Pick Up if I Have Time:

Fire Emblem: Awakening

Super Mario 3D Land

Castlevania: Lords of Shadow – Mirror of Fate

Kingdom Hearts: Dream Drop Distance

Adventure Time: Hey Ice King! Why’d You Steal Our Garbage?!!

Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together

Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops

The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky

Valkyria Chronicles II

Mario and Luigi: Bowser’s Inside Story

Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia

Games I Have Downloaded on my PSP and Always Want To Replay, Always, Seriously All the Time:

Final Fantasy IX

————————————

Wow! There sure are a lot of them, aren’t there? Of course, I won’t be able to get to all of these over the course of the summer–in fact, I’d be surprised if I get through more than two or three over the next month and a half. But I’m going to think of this as sort of a checklist that I can work on through the rest of this year and next–maybe, if I can find time to get to most of these games, I can retire the DS and PSP to my retro game shelves, content that I’ve sucked the marrow out of their delicious libraries.

What all do you have on the docket for the summer? Are there essential handheld titles that ought to be on my list, but aren’t? Is there anything you can say that will prevent me from starting up FFIX again this weekend?

 

 

Games you’ve never played: Lost Eden

Here’s a game I’m willing to bet that none of you have encountered before: Lost Eden.

I’ve been thinking an awful lot lately about my youth as a gamer, partly in response to reading Steven Kent’s excellent history of the game industry (The Ultimate History of Video Games), and it’s been a real pleasure to compare the milestones of the industry with my own experiences as a young’un: getting my Game Boy at the tender age of six, being on the Sega side of the Great 90’s Console Wars, choosing a Sony PlayStation over an N64 in a moment of blind prescience. I’m beginning to understand the global context in which my own history as a gamer has occurred.

One of the eras I’ve recently been reexamining is the mid-90’s, at the tail end of the 16-bit generation, just before the arrival of the PlayStation, the Saturn, and the N64. I have been thinking about the time my family acquired our first computer with a CD-ROM drive and the bizarre and foreign experiences that were now available to me, a kid who had grown up entirely in the realm of consoles and handhelds. I remember playing Myst and marveling at how different it was from anything in my previous experience. What were you supposed to do? It was intriguing. It was mysterious. It was, it is to be admitted, a trifle dull.

Nevertheless! The enormous success of Myst in 1993 opened a floodgate of adventure-game imitators, and at one point, at the house of a friend, I encountered Lost Eden. “What’s the deal with this game?” I asked my friend. I was eleven.

“It’s kind of like Myst, but with dinosaurs,” he explained. He had captured my interest.

“What kind of dinosaurs?” I asked, no doubt raising a discerning eyebrow.

“All kinds,” he replied. Upon learning that the game featured a talking, psychic parasaurolophus, I knew I had to have a copy for myself.

LostEdencharacters

Lost Eden tells the story of Adam of Mo, a young human prince tasked with rebuilding the severed alliances between dinosaurs and man and uniting the world under a single banner in order to defy the evil Moorkus Rex, leader of a tyrannosaur army threatening to subjugate the entire world. Except… he didn’t really look like a t-rex? That part was a little weird.

The point is, the t-rexes were the bad guys, and the velociraptors were the good guys. As a youth devoted to the point of obsession with Jurassic Park, this was clearly right up my alley.

Lost Eden was not a particularly great adventure game. It didn’t have the unique humor of a LucasArts title, nor did it have the compelling arhitecture or attention to detail found in Myst. It didn’t even really possess the charm of a King’s Quest. What it did have was dinosaurs. A generous helping of dinosaurs.

While the gameplay and puzzles were not particularly interesting or challenging, there were a couple of elements that worked well. Its narrative, while mostly predictable (it’s called Lost Eden, you play a guy named Adam… is anybody surprised when Eve shows up?), does have a couple of poignant moments: the reaction of your dinosaur companions to the discovery that their culture’s great prophecy for the future spells doom for their races has the appropriate gravitas, and a moment in which the hero poisons himself to journey to the land of the dead is pretty cool.

The game also had a really interesting new-agey score by Stephane Picq. Some of the tracks sound like B-sides from Pure Moods, but on the whole, they contribute greatly to the game’s excellent, brooding atmosphere. Also there is a track called “Velociraptor Ride,” which, come on. It was compelling enough that I actually tracked down the soundtrack on the internet five or six years after playing the game and had it shipped from France. Importantly, because CD-ROM games were a relatively new phenomenon, the music sounded unbelievably different than anything else I was used to hearing in games.

Here are a couple tracks, to show you what I’m talking about:

The main theme:

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CB4v9_rYqnc]

“Amazonia”:

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YrclTLERh2I]

“The Magnificents”:

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cMgqCQRFn5A]

Would I recommend that other people track down Lost Eden and give it a go for themselves? Eh, probably not. We’re busy people, and it isn’t what I’d call a forgotten classic. It’s important to me, however, because it demonstrates just how varied our gaming histories are–none of us can claim to have played all of the classics, for one, but all of us–especially those of us who have been gaming since we were very small–have played many, many games. As children, when we were less discerning, we exposed ourselves to a higher-than-usual proportion of flawed-but-interesting pieces.

As someone who’s interested in the whole history of the medium, I’m fascinated by all of the forgotten games of our collective childhoods. How many games have you played that were, by all accounts, not great–but have stuck in your memory anyway, informing your tastes as a gamer and occupying a special place in your heart? I’d be willing to bet that each of us has quite a few.

Anyhow, here’s “Velociraptor Ride.”

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2By-G5JHIyw]