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.

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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]

 

The messy genius of Metal Gear Solid 3

I have so many issues with Snake Eater that I probably should hate it. Instead, I have a deep affection for Kojima’s bizarre, talky Cold War saga. I’m certain that I shouldn’t have warm and fuzzy feelings for a game that made me roll my eyes so often and had me cursing at the screen on an hourly basis, but after the credits of MGS3 rolled, all that I seemed to remember were the highlights.

Kojima lost me with Sons of Liberty. I’m not alone in this regard. It wasn’t the bait-and-switch that had us playing for 80% of the game as Raiden–I thought that was a bold move, and I have a soft spot for Quinton Flynn (who once voiced Jonny Quest, and would later go on to be Reno in Advent Children and Axel in Kingdom Hearts–who are, let’s face it, pretty much the same character). It wasn’t the fact that the villains went from over-the-top to over-the-over-the-top. (I rather liked Fortune, though I found Vamp less than compelling. I mean, a real vampire? That’s just–Ugh, never mind. Kojima.) It wasn’t even the end of the game, where all semblance of proportion and balance are tossed to the side and you are forced to fight wave after wave of Metal Gear Rays.

Okay, maybe it was a little bit of all those things. Mostly it was the La Li Lu Le Lo.

I really enjoyed my time with Sons of Liberty. I may even have played through it twice; I can’t recall. When compared with the original Metal Gear Solid, however, which delivered a mostly coherent (though admittedly melodramatic) narrative, the plot of MGS2 was a nightmare labyrinth of absurdity and incoherence.

Consequently, when Snake Eater was announced a couple of years later, I was no longer as invested in tactical stealth espionage action, and felt I could give the game a pass. Even when some friends of mine played it and declared it the best in the series, I didn’t feel obliged to give it a go.

It was probably a couple of years ago, when I embarked upon my quest to fill in the gaps in my gaming history and become “well played,” that I finally picked up a copy of Snake Eater, and even then it sat on my shelf for a long time. Finally, in a bid to clear out some of the titles in my backlog, I loaded the game up and sat down to play it in earnest.

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There’s a lot about the game that’s hard to swallow. Perhaps the most vexing element is how vague and wishy-washy the stealth is–there’s been some talk in the gaming community about how stealth is a difficult thing to pull off in a game because of the challenge of presenting complex systems while still clearly communicating information to the player in a way that makes play feel “fair.” Klei’s Mark of the Ninja, in particular, which I haven’t played outside of the demo, has been recently put forward as an example of how well this can be done–though part of what allows Mark of the Ninja to succeed in this regard is a restriction of perspective: in two dimensions, it’s a lot easier to communicate everything that surrounds your player.

Snake Eater, on the other hand, feels more akin to another recent offering: Assassin’s Creed III. Though I’ve been effusive in my love for Ubisoft’s latest entry into its series of historical murder simulators, I’ll be the first to admit that the game often asks you to do things without being seen and then proceeds to deny you critical, need-to-know information. The result is that you are often seen by bad guys and immediately forced to murder dozens of men.

This happens a lot in Snake Eater.

Kojima’s team at Konami made the decision to remove the radar that served, in the first two MGS titles, as your best means of evaluating which actions would result in you being discovered. Instead, you’re given a handful of other tools that provide you with incomplete information–the locations of moving enemies (but not their field of view), the location of all living organisms (in a way that gives away your position), your relative proximity to bad guys (but not their location)–and the result is that sneaking involves an absurd amount of guesswork.

This is mitigated by the inclusion of the camouflage system, which allows you to change your clothes and receive bonuses to your stealth–but even this system doesn’t give you discrete information on which you can act. Sure, I know that being 50% camouflaged is better than being 35% camouflaged, but what am I supposed to DO with that info? Not once in the game did my camouflage allow me to change my strategy and act with confidence and certitude. Instead, I had to make do with vague assurance that I was in a better position for having hopped into the menu and changed my equipment. Maybe.

mgs3stealth

Did that guy see me? Damn! I thought I was 80% camouflaged! How close can I GET to a guy who can see 20% of me without alerting him?

I did a lot less sneaking in MGS3 than I did in either of its predecessors. I did a lot more judo.

I’ll happily admit that using the Close Quarters Combat system feels delightful. Throwing a guy to the floor is immensely satisfying. It was a little weird that the most viable strategy often seemed to be charging a guard who was filling me with AK47 rounds and knocking him out with kung fu.

Unfortunately, the result of the loosey-goosey stealth in the game is that a lot of the environments either feel too full or too empty. One of the final areas, a giant warehouse in which you must plant a number of explosives on fuel tanks, felt so empty that it wasn’t a challenge. In areas with lots of enemies, it’s impossible to make your way through without being noticed and being forced to kill a bunch of dudes. In areas without many enemies, one doesn’t feel as though much is being asked of them. I kept wishing, throughout the game, that there would be areas chock full of baddies that I was able to navigate without ever sounding the alarm. I don’t think that ever happened.

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Part of my frustration stems from the combination of overheard perspective and first-person shooting. Jumping back to a nearly ten-year-old game from an era of over-the-shoulder shooters, I found being forced to move in one camera position and shoot in another (a system which felt liberating and empowering when it was first introduced in Sons of Liberty!) jarring and uncomfortable. Likewise, gathering information about your environment in the first person and then popping back to the overhead camera in order to move is a very disorienting business.

And those are just gameplay elements. The narrative, well… The narrative is just as absurd as a story told by Hideo Kojima has always been. There’s some gratuitous sexuality, fetishization of weaponry, and plenty of long, (theoretically) meaningful glances between characters in which not much is really communicated. The plot doesn’t run completely off the rails in the same way as the plot of Sons of Liberty, but there are still a dozen times when characters improbably monologue about Cold War politics and half-baked philosophy for the benefit(?) of the player and not the other characters.

One doesn’t expect a narrative about a walking, nuclear-capable supertank to be particularly grounded, but come on.

And yet–and yet. I forgive it. I acknowledge the weaknesses, the absurdities, the broken elements, and I set them aside and love the game anyway. Why? Why, when a game has frustrated me and made me roll my eyes, when I am frequently kicked out of the narrative by the producer’s bizarre predilections, do I still think of my time with it fondly?

I think, probably, it’s because of how clearly Kojima loves what he’s doing, and how clearly it shows in every aspect of the game. The dude loves the characters he’s created, and he wants us to love them too. He loves dramatic showdowns, and he packs his game full of absurd, awesome boss fights. He loves pop culture and a good laugh, and so there are dozens and dozens of conversations Snake can have over the codec that are patently absurd. Kojima loves self-reference, and breaks the fourth wall often to wink at his audience and remind us that we should be having fun; after all, it’s just a game.

So what did I take away from Snake Eater? I remember the first time I did kung fu on a guy. I remember each time I ate a python and Snake’s comments about how delicious they were. I remember the sniper duel with The End. I remember eating glowing mushrooms to restore my batteries. I remember Snake revealing to Para-Medic that he was terrified of vampires, and Major Zero’s indignation upon learning that Snake wasn’t a fan of James Bond. I remember how many times we got to laugh at how much of a dork Revolver Ocelot is, and how he turned out to be pretty cool when all was said and done.

I remember the fight with The Boss.

mgs3finalboss

So, nine years out from its release, is it worth it to go back and revisit Metal Gear Solid 3? It depends, in large part, on your ability to forgive a game for its faults. There are parts of Snake Eater that feel old and creaky as it approaches its tenth anniversary, and Kojima’s rambly melodrama has always been an acquired taste. But the game is a labor of love, and if you can pick up a controller and feel that love, well… it’s hard to step into the shoes of Naked Snake and not feel like a badass, even when the game conspires in so many ways to undermine it. And when you get to that final showdown in the field of flowers, it’s a hardened gamer indeed that won’t be thrilled.

The music of DuckTales

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Who’s excited for the impending DuckTales remaster? Hands in the air.

Everyone’s hand should be in the air right now. What’s wrong with you people?

I had the opportunity to fool around with WayForward’s remake at PAX East, and I’m fairly confident that Scrooge is in good hands–it feels pretty much identical to the original, and the new visual flair that they’ve laid overtop the old mechanics doesn’t distract much from the exceptionally solid platforming that was the hallmark of the NES classic. I don’t think we’ve got another “Turtles in Time: Reshelled” situation on our hands, is what I’m saying.

One of the things that I’m most curious about with the remake is how WayForward is going to treat the original’s exceptional music. The Penny Arcade Report mentioned in its announcement that Yoshihiro Sakaguchi’s music was not going to be “replaced,” but rather “updated.” As someone who has a deep and abiding love for chiptunes, I would be quite content to have the game’s soundtrack be completely unaltered, but as someone who also has a healthy dedication to the archives over at OCRemix, I’m open to the idea of new takes on old favorites.

The music to DuckTales isn’t just nostalgia-inducing, it’s legitimately great. I’ve argued before that the Moon Theme is the pinnacle of all human musical achievement, and it’s an argument I stand by. Here, have a listen.

What will the updated version of the Moon Theme sound like? Could it possibly be altered and still retain its supremacy over all other musical endeavor?
Maybe, maybe not. If WayForward walks the path of the remixer, it might end up sounding like this OCRemix from the ever-talented Star Salzman:

Listening to this, one almost wishes that WayForward would solicit OCRemixers to redo the entire soundtrack, much like Capcom did for the HD remake of Street Fighter II. But there are other ways to update classics, too, and the Moon Theme isn’t the only brilliant piece in the original DuckTales. Here, for instance, is the music from the African Mines:

Fairly funky, no? Might WayForward, then, choose to update in a similar manner to The One-Ups, who busted out some superb sax in their rendition of the tune?

Listen to that sax! The One-Ups sure know what they’re doing, don’t they? I’ve got my fingers crossed that whatever happens to the music in DuckTales, it captures the spirit of the original pieces in much the same manner as the arrangements I’ve highlighted.

But y’know, as excited as I am to team up with Scrooge McDuck again, I can’t help but be a little forlorn. See, this is my shameful secret: as much as I love DuckTales, as much as I continue to believe that the Moon Theme is a perfect expression of musical brilliance, as much as I have dreams of one day swimming in a money bin full of coins myself, there yet remains a classic Capcom platformer that I think is tragically overlooked, that deserves more love, that is even more chock full of chiptune goodness. It’s a game that I think deserves to be remade even more than DuckTales.

What is it, you ask? What is this pinnacle of perfection, this paragon of playability?

DuckTales 2, of course.

Yes! Scrooge had a second outing on the NES, and it was every bit as fine-tuned and brilliantly balanced as the first. Maybe even more so. It gets overlooked, often, because it came out in ’93, at the twilight of the NES’s life cycle. Admittedly, it didn’t improve on the formula much, but when your source material is as brilliant as DuckTales, you don’t really need to.

And the most important thing, of course, is that DuckTales 2, like its predecessor, had some totally rockin’ chiptune music. Without the Moon Theme it’ll never have as much cultural cache as the original, but just listen to some of these tracks and try to tell me I’m wrong:

Final Boss:

Glomgold’s pirate ship:

And, perhaps my favorite, the music from the final screen (this version is from the Game Boy port):

It may be a madman’s hope, but all I want is for the sales of the DuckTales Remaster to be so overwhelming that Capcom remembers the lonely, forgotten sequel to its masterpiece and finds it in its heart to gussy it up and trot it out just like they’re doing for its big brother.

I’m not going to hold my breath, of course, but then– what does the song say? “Everyday, they’re out there making DuckTales.”

A guy can dream.

Bioshock Infinite and player agency

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[Note: This is an article primarily about the ending of Bioshock Infinite, and as such it contains numerous spoilers, as well as spoilers for the original Bioshock. Probably you shouldn’t read it if you haven’t finished these games. There are also some references to other games–the new Tomb Raider, Mass Effect 3, and Red Dead Redemption–but they’re less explicit. Nevertheless, fair warning.]

There have been a number of essays written recently about the strengths and weaknesses of Bioshock Infinite. It is a hugely significant game for a number of reasons, and it deserves most of the praise (and most of the criticism!) that it’s receiving from the gaming press. I can certainly go on record to say that I enjoyed my time with the game thoroughly, and despite a few criticisms, I’d easily call it one of the best games I’ve played in the last couple years. But the final half-hour of the game, after the final battle has been fought, in which all of the game’s secrets are laid bare before the player, left something of a sour taste in my mouth.

Bioshock Infinite has one of the most frustrating endings of any game that I can recall. It gains much of its emotional impact by being deliberately dissatisfying to the player, and it thwarts a player’s sense of agency in a way that few other games dare to–for better or worse.

Inevitability is at the heart of Bioshock Infinite’s narrative. It’s a theme that is brought up frequently throughout the game, most often by Robert and Rosalind Lutece, who show up periodically to remind Booker of how little choice he has in the events of the story–and, simultaneously, to remind the player of how little choice THEY have in influencing the narrative. None of the minor choices present throughout the game have any significant effect on the events of the plot, and indeed, some of them are even decided for the player.

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An early scene in which the Luteces ask Booker to call a coin toss always comes up heads, but Booker can actually call it either heads or tails. Importantly, however, it is Booker, and not the player, who makes this decision. This scene accomplishes a couple different things: first, it reinforces the overarching theme of the game, that the events of the world will play out in a certain way no matter what the player does; second, it creates dissonance between the player and their avatar, Booker–”why,” the player must ask themselves, “does the game not offer me input on this binary choice, when I have already been asked to decide between two courses of action earlier in the game?” (The scene is also, as Kevin Wong points out at Gamasutra, a nice little hat tip to Tom Stoppard.)

Booker tells Elizabeth, on a number of different occasions throughout the game, that there’s nothing he can do to wipe away his past. Ultimately, of course, that turns out not to be true–not only is Booker able to atone for his sins, but he is able to literally prevent them from ever having occurred–and all it takes is allowing himself to be murdered.

This is an exceptionally powerful ending to the story, but at the same time it’s very frustrating to the player–neither Booker nor the player have a complete picture of the situation until the final moments of the game, and by that point it’s too late. Once all of the pieces are in place, there’s nothing left to do but watch yourself be killed and watch the credits roll. The inevitability of the narrative hits you hard, and you have to sit by yourself on the couch for a while and sort things out in your head.

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The question that was left ringing in my head, for days afterwards, was: “If the whole point of the exercise was that there was nothing I could do, why did I play the game?”

Bioshock Infinite’s comment on player agency in games seems to be that, at least narratively, it’s an illusion. None of the choices that you make have any real consequences. There is nothing you can do to affect the outcome of the story. Just like Booker, you are brought into the world of the game in order to play your part in events over which you have no control. Even death can’t stop you from playing your part: die outside the company of Elizabeth (who would otherwise resurrect you), and you reappear inside Booker’s apartment, only one door away from picking up where you left off. (And is it the same Booker? Does it matter?)

Like everything else in the game’s story, Booker’s ultimate demise (or is it a willing sacrifice?) is thrust upon the player without ever allowing them to take ownership of it. It’s not clear that it’s a choice Booker is making, and it’s not at all something that the player can make the decision to undertake–we don’t even really know it’s coming until a moment or two before it happens.

In no other medium could you so powerfully confront the player with their own narrative impotence, and that makes Bioshock Infinite very potent! In some ways, however, it makes me wonder whether the plot of the game wouldn’t be more satisfying in a different medium. Someone’s edited every story sequence in the game into a 3.5 hour film. Would the same messages about inevitability be just as compelling if the story weren’t interactive? Is the impact of the game’s ending dependent on the player’s belief that they might have some agency, or is it weakened by the player’s expectation to take ownership of the actions of their avatar?

“Nobody tells me where to go,” Booker says, close to the end of the game, and it’s an ironic statement on a number of levels. On the one hand, we as the player are telling him where to go. And on the other hand, there’s really no choice in the matter. As Elizabeth points out, the game brings us to the same place no matter how we try to fight it. And in the end, what happens to us? We are, as the many Elizabeths so appropriately echo, “smothered.” Frustrating! There’s nothing we can do. There was never anything we could do.

In the original Bioshock, one of the greatest twists in gaming plays heavily off the fact that you can’t progress in the game without following its prescribed, linear set of objectives. “A man chooses. A slave obeys.” And you have, of course, been unwittingly obeying the entire time. One of the great elements of thematic dissonance in that game, however, is the fact that the second act involves ridding your avatar from another character’s mind control, and yet the linear progression of objectives remains–you’re just taking orders from a different character, and though you’re no longer under the influence of “mind control,” you cannot deviate from the narrative’s path without bringing the wheels of the game to a screeching halt. You are, essentially, still a slave, and not a man. Players ask themselves: what have I really freed myself from, in the end?

I was always fundamentally disappointed with this element of Bioshock, and I think that I’m not alone in that assessment–the game’s ending is generally considered to be less compelling than its mid-game climax. I’m re-evaluating that assessment in the wake of Bioshock Infinite, however. My dissatisfaction with Bioshock’s second act was only retrospective–in examining the themes of the game once I’d finished it, I felt like there was a bit of hypocrisy there. While I had the controller in my hand, I didn’t feel any of that dissonance, because the narrative was aligned with my interests as a player: Tenenbaum wanted me to take down Fontaine, and she gave me instructions as to how I might do so. That was fine. After the betrayal I’d just experienced, I wanted to take down Fontaine, and I was willing to follow her “suggestions” as to how I might proceed, “would you kindly” or no.

Instead of asserting the player’s narrative impotence halfway through the narrative and then falsely “freeing” them from that impotence, Bioshock Infinite uses the last thirty minutes of the game to show us just how much of a pawn we really are, and then drive it home by murdering us and letting us watch the credits with slack jaws and a vague sense of betrayal.

As gamers, we’re willing to suspend our disbelief about how much agency we have in a linear narrative in order to see that narrative through to the end–as long as the game gives us a compelling reason to do so. Playing through the Tomb Raider reboot, I didn’t care that I was helping to turn Lara into a mass-murderer, or that so much of the narrative (and indeed, the gameplay!) was “on rails.” The premise of the game is that Lara’s in a terrible situation and that she and her friends will all die if she doesn’t resort to some extreme measures. (Kirk Hamilton calling out the game’s homages to The Descent over at Kotaku underscores this pretty well.) Tomb Raider isn’t a game that’s particularly concerned with issues of player agency, and so players don’t feel too compelled to consider moral culpability as they play it. I think that’s just fine.

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There’s a reason, however, that there have been some good arguments raised about whether or not Bioshock Infinite’s ultraviolence undermines its narrative (and, of course, its accessibility to non-gamers or casual gamers). When a game strives to remind us, throughout its story, both that our character cannot wash the blood off his hands and that we may or may not have any choice in the actions that we’re taking, we start to look a little more critically at the slaughter that we’re perpetrating. This isn’t Yamatai–we’re not forced to choose between helping Lara slaughter thousands of men or watching her die. This isn’t even Rapture, where we’re forced to put down scores of Splicers that want to harvest us for our ADAM.

In Columbia, we kill hundreds of men because… Booker’s a bad guy already, and that makes it okay? Because we’ve been brought here by fate (or the Luteces) and because we have no choice? Because if we let them kill us, we’ll wake up back in our apartment and step out the door and… keep on killing? That’s a sort of WarGames scenario, right there. The only way to win is not to play. In Tomb Raider or the original Bioshock, there’s a light at the end of the tunnel–kill all the bad men, and eventually the killing will stop, and you’ll be safe. In Bioshock Infinite, if you kill enough bad men, then… none of it will ever have happened? Well, that’s cool. I’ll tell you how else that could happen, though: don’t play the game in the first place.

Obviously this isn’t a course of action I suggest anybody take. The game is awesome. If you don’t play it, you’ll be missing out on all sorts of wonders. I only mean to highlight the ways in which the game’s ending makes you reflect on your experience throughout the narrative and ask yourself, “why?” This isn’t Mass Effect 3 or Red Dead Redemption, games which also involve inevitable final sacrifices but allow the player to internalize, come to terms with, and follow through with those sacrifices as though they were their own decisions. Nor is it Shadow of the Colossus, which telegraphs its protagonist’s fate within the first hour of the game and dares the player to continue anyway.

Bioshock Infinite, by keeping the player’s blinders on until the final sequence, never allows players to understand the full import of their situation until they’re waist deep in the river and the only thing left to do is drown.

It’s a bold, powerful choice. Is it a good one? I’m not sure I’ve figured that out yet. Maybe the fact that I’m still sorting through it in my head means it was a good decision. Not all art needs to be cathartic, and sometimes brilliant pieces are deliberately dissatisfying. Nevertheless, I’m not sure I’ll be returning to Columbia anytime soon. The game aims to frustrate, and it succeeds! I will go and play some other things, and perhaps when my frustration has subsided, I will return. I’ll let you know how long that takes.

The Secret of Monkey Island – Main Titles

I have an unabashed love for the Monkey Island games. Like many other series, my experience with them is somewhat incomplete: I didn’t even know the games existed until someone gifted me with a copy of The Curse of Monkey Island, and I wasn’t able to devote the time to working on the earlier entries until the special editions were released a couple of years ago (and I still haven’t played Escape from Monkey Island, or Telltale’s latest episodic entries into the series).

But man, oh, man. The Monkey Island aesthetic is just brilliant. The number of video game narratives set in the Age of Sail is criminally small, and the number of successful video game comedies is pretty paltry, too. To have a game that combines the two, and does so with aplomb, is truly a gift.

It doesn’t hurt that Monkey Island has one of the catchiest and most memorable main themes in all of gaming. When I first booted up Curse and was treated to this:

I knew that somebody at LucasArts was working some magic.

The absolute best part, though, is that this theme has a strong enough melody that it’ll succeed on just about any hardware. The first game, playing its theme using your PC’s system noises, sounded like this:

You can call that horrific, electronic bleeps and bloops if you want, but to my ears that is solid musical gold.

If you really want proof of Monkey Island’s beautiful marriage of aesthetic, music, and comedy, however, you need look no farther than this scene from Curse, in which hero Guybrush and his newly-acquired crew of miscreants are boarded and robbed by a rival. If you’ve not seen it before, be sure to watch until the end. It’s… priceless.

Bioshock — Empty Houses

Buying the special edition of Bioshock Infinite, which comes with a digital copy of the game’s score, was a pretty fantastic decision.

I’ve been listening to Garry Schyman’s superb work for the better part of a week now, and it’s absolutely beautiful. Any fan of game music, or orchestral music, or music that’s able to evoke any kind of emotion at all, ought to look it up immediately.

But I thought this afternoon that I’d highlight a track from Schyman’s score for the original Bioshock, which is every bit as worthwhile as his newest endeavor. This track, “Empty Houses,” is not as immediately recognizable as “Welcome to Rapture” or “Cohen’s Masterpiece,” but it’s still my favorite piece in the whole score–it gets utilized early on in the game, just as you realize what a bleak and appalling mess you’ve stumbled into, just as your one ally is asking of you an impossible task. This piece, more than any other, captures just how sad the story of Rapture is.

Give it a listen–really let the strings sink in–and think about how frightening it was to contemplate the prospect of navigating through the whole of that decaying, anarchic metropolis beneath the waves.

Bioshock: Up-Goer Five Edition

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Now that Bioshock Infinite is finally here, I’ve had Bioshock on the brain. Not wanting to spoil anything about Irrational’s latest, I’ll save talking about it for later, but it seemed as good a time as any to do a little reminiscing about the original Bioshock, which is unquestionably one of the best games of all time. It’s been dissected and analyzed in eighty-million different ways, but I thought that I’d try a simpler take on it. Much simpler. To that end, I’ve made an attempt at explaining the plot of the original Bioshock using Randall Munroe’s “Up-Goer Five” linguistic limitation: explaining something complicated using only the “ten hundred” most common words in the English language. This was done with the aid of Theo Sanderson’s “Up-Goer Five Text Editor,” which I highly recommend you play around with. (It’s worth noting that this post spoils the entirety of the plot of Bioshock, albeit in somewhat obfuscated language.) —————————————– In the game, the player takes on the person of a no-name guy who is in a flying sky car that falls into the middle of the big water. In the middle of the big water, the player finds themselves near a light house which offers their only means of getting saved. Inside of the building they find a one-person under water car which takes them to the Best City, a place under the waves. The player learns that the Best City was built by a Man of Ideas who wanted to escape from the up-on-top world. The Best City is amazing and pretty, but dark and something is wrong. It quickly becomes clear that not everything in the Best City is as it should be, and the player almost gets killed at the hands of mean angry guys who are not quite human. The player escapes thanks to a strange voice on the talking help box. Help Box Guy explains to the player that things in the Best City have gone bad and he needs help for his family. Talking Help Box Guy shows the player through different little towns of the Best City, and the player meets and fights many bad things and mean people, none the least of which are the very bad “Big Dads,” tall and big men with lit heads and sometimes guns which follow and help and sometimes fight for “Little Sisters,” small, once-human girls who now act to find and take the thing that allows people to change and make better their own self-making living stuff. When the player finally gets to the under water car that holds the family of Talking Help Box Guy, the bad friends of Idea Man blow it up as the player watches, and a really mad Talking Box Guy explains that the only means left to escape the Best City is through the Man of Ideas. The player sets off to walk quietly into the house of the Idea Man, along the way learning more about the story of the Best City: the Man of Ideas, a business guy, grew mad at the ideas of important people in the up-on-top world who wanted him to always share and give, and so he decided to build the Best City to be his own idea of a perfect world. He asked people who ran businesses, people who thought deep things, and people who made art to share in his perfect city, a place where they would not be told what to do by the big people of the up-on-top world, where they would be free to make better their big thinking until it was as good as it could be. It becomes clear to the player, however, that even in a perfect city, someone has to worry about cleaning work and other hard things to do, and bad and dark thoughts between the people begin to grow in the city. These bad thoughts are made worse by the coming of a man who wants to use other people, who sees the chance to use the people of the Perfect City to his own ends. Soon the business of trying to make a perfect world changes in a bad way into class fighting, fighting against the Idea Man, and in the end, everyone fighting everyone. Most people die. When the player finally reaches the Idea Man, they learn that they are not the free player that they had thought they were, and they have been used by a person they could not see. The Idea Man drives the point home by offering the player a means to kill him and asking them to try and stop listening to the orders of the one who makes them do things. He does this with his now well-known line: “A man picks one thing or another. A person owned by another person does what that other person says.” The player finds that whether they want to or not, they have to kill the Idea Man by beating him to death. Having gotten what he wanted, Talking Help Box Guy shows himself to be none other than the Man Who Uses People, and explains that he has been using the player to get control of the Best City for himself. After thanking the player for their help, the Man Who Uses People orders his friends to kill the player, who is saved, however, by a woman who has been caring for and making better again the Little Sisters that the player has helped. With the help of the Woman Who Saves Little Girls, the player finds a way to break free of the Man Who Uses People’s mind control and fight him. In the end, the player must turn themselves into a Big Dad in order to fight. In a last big fight, the player beats the Man Who Uses People and, with the help of the Little Sisters, escapes the Best City to find a new life in the world above.

PAX East 2013

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I have always wanted to go to PAX. From the moment the first one was announced, I knew that it would be something spectacular. It’s never really been practical for me to go until this past weekend.

It was a hoot! It was not, exactly, the be-all-and-end-all of conventions that, back in the day, I dreamed it might be, but it was an overwhelmingly positive experience.

Here are some personal highlights:

–I got to converse, briefly, with some of the big names of games journalism. I had conversations with Ben Kuchera of the Penny Arcade Report, Brian Crecente from Polygon, and Dale North, Editor-in-Chief of Destructoid (and OC Remixer!). They were all exceptionally friendly guys, and it was a pleasure to chat with them about the state of games journalism and some of the new and exciting trends in the industry.

–I got to shake the hands of the Vlambeer guys, who are responsible for Ridiculous Fishing. If you haven’t played Ridiculous Fishing yet, your wallet is three dollars too heavy and you’ve been wasting the last two weeks of your life. I’m just saying.

–Everyone in the Indie Megabooth is just wonderful. Really. It’s a privilege to walk through there, play their games, and talk face-to-face with people who are so passionate about their craft.

–I finally, finally got to play Johan Sebastian Joust. It is every bit as glorious as I had been led to believe. I don’t know that there’s any place you can play a 12-player game of it outside of a convention, but it’s… just… every game ought to be so pure, so quick, so FUN. I miss it already, and I only played three rounds.

–I didn’t take the time to play Supergiant’s Transistor, but I don’t need to. They made Bastion. I have every confidence that Transistor is going to be worth playing, and I’m 90% sure it’s going to be a moving and engaging experience, even if it doesn’t end up reaching the same level of refinement as their freshman effort. I DID have an excellent moment at the Supergiant booth: I asked one of the team members what the current wait was to play the game, and he checked with one of his colleagues and ruefully reported that it was at least an hour and forty-five minutes. (The line was never shorter than this throughout the entire weekend.) Deciding that I wouldn’t wait, I asked the guy from Supergiant if he knew, at least, if Darren Korb was once more going to be doing the soundtrack. The eagerness must have been evident in my voice, because he looked at me funny for a moment before replying, “Well, yes, I am.” I was talking to the man himself! Needless to say, I shook his hand earnestly and expressed my boundless appreciation.

–The Protomen. You guys. The Protomen. I cannot say enough good things about how hard the Protomen rock. There was no concert stage left at the end of the set, just a smoking crater where the force of their jams had destroyed the convention center. Or at least, that’s what happened in my mind.

Like at any convention, there were a dozen or more tiny moments that made the experience a pleasant one. Walking past Ken Levine in the expo hall, being handed free hats by PopCap Games, the Shaq-Fu tournament at the OC Remix panel–it was a very full weekend, and an enormously fulfilling one at that. I thoroughly enjoyed my first PAX–and I’ve resolved not to let it be my last.

Castlevania: Circle of the Moon — Awake

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Utl5udium0Q]

I’ve been listening to a lot of Castlevania music lately. Specifically, I’m catching up on back episodes of Brett Elston’s superb video game music podcase, VGMpire. He did a thing about six months ago where he took his listeners on a grand tour of the entire Castlevania musical oeuvre, and even as someone who is a die-hard fan of the franchise, I learned a thing or two (apparently Order of Ecclesia has some fabulous music! Who knew?).

Still, the thing that most struck me as I listened to track after track of awesome chiptune goodness was how much I really, really like the opening track from Circle of the Moon, titled “Awake.” I may or may not have stopped cleaning the house to do a little rocking out when one of the episodes opened with it.

The GBA doesn’t have great sound quality, and even the cleanest recordings sound like you’re hearing them broadcast from space through a battery-powered transmitter, but some of the compositions on the system were superb regardless (I point out here Advance Wars, in particular, along with the score to Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga), and Circle of the Moon, as a launch title, is particularly impressive.

Through the fog of memory, I can’t recall whether I purchased my GBA because I desperately needed to play Circle of the Moon or, as is more likely, that I had a good bit of pizza-delivery money burning a hole in my pocket and was anxious to be an early adopter of a system, but Circle of the Moon was unquestionably the only title available for the system at launch that was worth a damn. Even now, I have an inordinate fondness for the game, despite the fact that on the original GBA, the game was so dark that it was often impossible to see unless you were sitting directly underneath a bank of florescent lights. It was hard, sometimes brutally hard, and it was the first game after Symphony of the Night to ape the “Metroidvania” method of level design.

It’s tough to recommend Circle of the Moon to a new gamer (or new Castlevania fan) when there are much more accessible games available (like Symphony of the Night, and Aria/Dawn of Sorrow, and Portrait of Ruin)–but for those of us that played it back when it was originally released, Circle of the Moon was really something special.

Celebrate St. Patrick’s Day the traditional way: by beating the crap out of these snake enemies

St. Patrick’s Day is just around the corner, and you know what that means: It’s time to beat up on some snakes!

“But Nate,” some of you might say, “aren’t you forgetting about the REAL point of St. Patty’s Day–the drinking?”

Your collective point is well taken, but I am a traditionalist, and (at least if I’m reading my Wikipedia correctly) the most important part of St. Patrick’s legacy is that he was a reptile-rouster, a herpetological herder, a real asp-kicker.Yes, like our friend Samuel L. Jackson, St. Patrick had had it with those monkey-fighting snakes on that Monday-to-Friday plane island.

And so I propose that in the spirit of the holiday, we march forward, controllers in hand, and do a little python-pummeling of our own. Allow me to humbly suggest some select serpents to squash.

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1. Midgar Zolom, Final Fantasy VII.

The “Midgar Zolom” is the obnoxious creature that will chase, slay, and devour you with nary a second thought if you venture out into the swamps near the Mythril Mine–at least, unless you’re astride a chocobo. When you first encounter it, it’s about ten levels higher than you, and you pretty much don’t stand a chance against its absurd, nuclear-explosion-causing magic. To top things off, on the other side of the swamps, you run into one of the creatures impaled upon a tree–the handiwork of your quarry, Sephiroth. Talk about intimidating!

It’s worth it to circle back and seek your revenge once you’re equal in power to the creature, though–you can learn that handy nuclear-explodey-spell for yourself, and besides, you’re not going to let a giant snake get the better of you, are you? On St. Patty’s Day, All Snakes Must Die.

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2. Snake Man, Mega Man 3

By the third Mega Man game, it seems that Dr. Wily had already begun to reach toward the bottom of the robot barrel for ideas. One can understand the usefulness of a robot who is very quick, for instance, or one who throws bombs. One can even imagine the utility of a robot who… has guts. But what plans did Wily have for a robot whose head is a snake, and who also shoots snakes? Was he going to open a reptile farm and finance his evil robot empire that way? Did he anticipate being attacked by Indiana Jones, perhaps?

Regardless, Snake Man deserves to die.

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3. Killer Snake, Dark Cloud

Dark Cloud is a game that seems to have fallen off a lot of people’s radar, which is a shame–it, and to a larger degree its much-improved sequel, offered some pretty compelling dungeon-crawler/town-building gameplay. The second one even let you travel in time! I don’t think it let you beat up a giant snake, though, and so the original is the one that earns a spot on this list. Of snake enemies. That you can beat up.

Fun fact! If memory serves, this snake boss requires you to pass a loathsome Quick Time Event in order to slay it for good. So it totally deserves to die.

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4. Two-Headed Snake Boss, Suikoden II.

Two for the price of one! Suikoden II offers you this unsettling monstrosity, which can be a real pain in the butt to fight if you don’t know it’s coming. You’ve got to kill it, though–you must–if for no other reason than the fact that… can you see? Look really closely. At its mouths.

That’s right. This snake has human-like teeth. If that by itself ain’t enough to give you nightmares, then you’re a braver man than I. I bet St. Patty and his whole army of leprechauns would’ve had a hard time with this sucker. Did St. Patrick have an army of leprechauns? My research for this article was cursory at best.

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5. Matango Snake, Secret of Mana.

Secret of Mana is a game with a lot of delightful bosses, but this snake! This is a pretty sorry snake, if you ask me. Why, it’s just a bunch of orbs that move in tandem! This faux-slitherer is an embarrassment to all of its herpetological brethren. If it were to unhinge its jaw (if it even can, the phony), how would its gruesome meal pass through its digestive tract? Its head isn’t connected to its body, and I find the biological implications of such an anatomy highly suspect. I would rate this snake two out of five, at best. You should probably put it out of its improbably-configured misery.

And finally…

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6. Liquid Snake, Metal Gear Solid.

Because duh.

I hope that’s a good list to get you started. Let’s all work together to ensure that come St. Patrick’s Day, there are no more snakes left in all of gaming!

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Well. Perhaps we could make one exception.