I have had a passing familiarity with some of the games I’ve written about here in these articles: I had picked up a controller and fiddled with Metroid before I sat down to play it in earnest; I had actually made it a fair way into Ocarina of Time before I went back and decided I needed to finish it to understand it better.
ActRaiser is different. This one I went into blind.
Well, maybe blind is a bit of an exaggeration. I knew that the game was divided into platforming sections and “simulation” sections, and a friend had once (aptly) described it as “Wizards and Warriors meets Populous,” but no one had told me how delightfully and expertly the two different modes of play were intertwined. It’s simple, it’s elegant, it’s compelling.
So here’s the deal, in case you’re as in the dark about ActRaiser as I was: You play the role of a god who, with the help of a tiny cherub secretary (who I’m going to pretend is Pit from Kid Icarus), frees the land from monsters (by slicing them in half with your sword) and then helps primitive civilizations to spread and settle a given region (by giving them marching orders while fending off monsters).
The dirty secret to ActRaiser is that, taken separately, neither of these modes of play are particularly special. Don’t get me wrong, they’re fun to play–the platforming has tight controls and cutting enemies to shreds with your sword feels real good! You will have a good time doing it.
All I’m suggesting is that these platforming sections aren’t Castlevania. They’re not Mega Man. They’re not even Ghouls and Ghosts, really (and thank goodness for that). They’re good! They’re just not genre-defining.
Likewise, the “simulation” sections aren’t exactly SimCity. They’re not even Populous, actually–all you’re doing is telling your little worshipers where to build so they can go stamp out the monster nests and occasionally using your phenomenal cosmic powers to bring your little dudes some favorable weather.
You should probably use your cherubic side-kick to make sure they don’t get carried off by giant bats, but hey–they’re villagers. Give ’em a little time, and they’ll make more of themselves. ActRaiser is actually quite forgiving: if you fail a given level, it’s not game over. You’re just taken back to your menu screen, where Pit tells you “it’s okay, dude, that level was pretty hard. Why don’t you give it another go?”
So if both sections of the game aren’t unique or compelling on their own, what makes ActRaiser special? The answer, of course, is the way that these two sections play off each other.
Like many 8-bit and 16-bit games, ActRaiser gives you a score for your platforming sections. With every bad guy you kill, with every power up you collect, you get another couple hundred points. You’ll also get a bonus at the end of every level for how many lives you have left in your inventory. Here’s the difference between ActRaiser and just about every other game that has this same mechanic, however: in ActRaiser, your score actually matters. I know, right? Weird!
Think about it: When was the last time you actually cared about your score in Sonic the Hedgehog? Sure, you’ll get an extra guy every 50000 points, but you’re not about to go out of your way to try and bust some extra baddies just to work toward that incentive. And, of course, you shouldn’t–the primary draw of Sonic is speed. So why does Sonic give you a score at all?
In ActRaiser, your score directly influences the potential population of the region you’re about to cultivate. The higher your score, the higher the population can be. This is exceedingly important, because the total population of your world is the number that functions as “experience” for your sword-wielding avatar. In other words, how well you do at platforming directly affects how well you can do at the “simulation,” and vice versa. If you don’t take the time to expand your towns to cover every possible inch of the map, you’ll never level up, and the later levels of the game will be impossible to conquer.
ActRaiser is perhaps the only game that I can think of whose level cap is set by the player’s performance. If you max out your score in the platforming levels, I think you can reach a global population of 6000 and go into the final confrontation at level 20. That wasn’t my experience playing it–I had all my towns at their “max” population going into the final battle, but I was just shy of level 17.
This simple loop created by the game is absurdly compelling. I definitely took the time to linger in levels, slashing monsters until I got my score as high as I dared before going into the boss area–a real gamble, considering the game’s difficulty curve: if you do well in the beginning and level up throughout, the game starts out challenging and becomes slightly easier as you progress; if you’re reckless, it can turn brutally difficult on you. Nevertheless, the incentive to get a high score so that I could reach a high level made me excited–it creates tension in the player that’s a whole lot of fun!
The aesthetics and “story” aren’t particularly engaging, but the game makes it blissfully easy to turn the message display speed all the way up and breeze through the dialogue and menus. And perhaps one of the great things to recommend ActRaiser is its length: Longer than your usual platformer but shorter than a proper RPG, the game is manageable and doesn’t drag.
Should you go back and play ActRaiser? Yes, emphatically yes. It’s not very long, it’s a reasonable difficulty, and it’s really fun. It’s not the most complex game you’ll ever play, but there’s strength in its simplicity, and its character progression system is a hook that makes it very compelling. You can get it in the Wii’s Virtual Console real easily, though short of emulation or finding a real authentic SNES copy in the wild, that’s about the only place it’s available at the moment.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Alright, Kid Icarus. You win.
I don’t want to play you anymore.
I’ve encountered a number of 8-bit titles that are exceptionally difficult. Heck, I just recently spoke about Contra a couple weeks ago–maybe the very pinnacle of difficulty! (Or maybe that’s Ninja Gaiden. Or Bayou Billy. Or Ghosts ‘n’ Goblins. Or that %#$@ dam level in the NES TMNT. Okay, you know what? There are a lot of hard NES games.) In part, this difficulty was a means of extending the longevity and value in an entertainment experience which has always been pricey. In part, it’s an artifact of an era when the whole medium was less accessible, less mainstream, more “hardcore.”
But it has always been the goal of the game developer to balance difficulty with engagement, and the classics of the medium have always succeeded to a large degree at striking this balance. Take the Mega Man series, which combines brilliant level design with tight controls and allows the player to experiment through trial-and-error at finding the correct order in which to defeat the robot masters. Castlevania, similarly, allows players to prepare for difficult segments by knowing which of the sub-weapons will be most useful at dispatching the enemies (or the boss) they’re about to face. Metroid offers an enormous, open world full of dangers, but promises that each power-up a player collects will be forever preserved so that they can fully arm themselves for further exploration.
In structuring its progression, Kid Icarus tries to do something akin to what Metroid offers, but with a much more linear environment, far fewer checkpoints, and, you know, none of the aesthetically pleasing aspects of Metroid.
The game gives you about a dozen checkpoints throughout, one at the end of each of its levels, and all of the progress that you’ve made so far is saved–your items, your hearts (currency), your health, even your experience (and the game does have experience!). The upgrade system, which exists somewhere in between Metroid‘s power-ups and Legend of Zelda’s items, offers you new weapons to purchase as you proceed, as well as means of restoring your health when it’s been depleted. If you’ve killed enough enemies and accrued enough experience, when you begin a new level, you’ll have a larger health bar. There are places mid-level where, if you’ve dispatched enough foes, you can acquire more powerful arrows! It all goes a long way to make you feel like it’s worth it to kill bad guys and be thorough.
And this is where the game runs into its major problem, in my opinion. The great paradox of Kid Icarus is as follows: because the game is linear and you can’t go back to earlier levels in a given playthrough, you are inclined as the player to linger as long as possible, killing all the enemies and accruing as much experience as possible before moving on. You want to be prepared when the game gets more difficult in the later levels, right? Unfortunately, the longer you linger, the higher the chance that you’re going to get dinged by some piddly blue serpent or flying octopus, and the larger the odds that you’re not going to make it through to the end of the level. Playing methodically and carefully is actually a risky strategy, because the levels are long enough that your odds of clearing them are relatively low no matter how careful you are. With each run of a level, you are essentially gambling with your time.
In my experience with Kid Icarus, I tended to lose. The game is difficult, no bones about it, and for every attempt at a level that I played methodically and patiently, more often than not my reward was that I would lose ten minutes instead of five. It doesn’t help that a single missed jump will kill you instantly (unless you spend some of your in-game currency on “bad jump insurance,” in the form of feathers). It doesn’t help that the jumping mechanics feel more like the floaty, non-specific controls of Metroid than the pixel-perfect tightness of Mega Man.
It also doesn’t help that the main character, Pit, sounds suspiciously like Ecco the Dolphin when he takes damage, but that’s sort of beside the point.
I think, perhaps, that much of my complaint against Kid Icarus stems from the fact that the various systems that make it interesting are done more compellingly, and with better aesthetics, in other NES games of the time. Is it, strictly speaking, a bad game? No. Is it a game that you should go back and play?
I’m not going to straight up suggest that you would waste your valuable time playing Kid Icarus, and if you’ve got a childhood affection for it, go crazy! I have a long list of games I love that are of questionable quality, and I certainly wouldn’t let some jerk on the internet disparage my nostalgia. But if you have no previous affection for it, and you feel compelled to do some old-school platforming, might I make some other recommendations?
Do you have a hankering for a game where you jump around a lot and shoot things? In that case, may I suggest Mega Man, a series with six entries on the NES? It has tighter controls, better level design, and far superior music than what you’ll find in Kid Icarus.
Are you in the mood for a difficult platformer that rewards you for being careful and thoughtful, that has enemies flying at you from all directions and jumps which will kill you instantly? There are three Castlevania games for the NES, at least two of which are superb. Even if you’re familiar with the original, if you haven’t tracked down and played through Dracula’s Curse, you’re really missing out.
Do you simply have to have a game that’s exceptionally brutal? You should treat yourself to Ghosts ‘n’ Goblins. You’ll be up against an onslaught of enemies that are near-unavoidable, and you’ll die after only two hits. If you’re lucky, you might even make it to the second level! In my opinion, if you’re going to have your spirit broken, you might as well have it broken by the best.
As someone who aspires to be “well played,” I’m glad that I have gone and finally spent some time trying to wrangle with Kid Icarus. But you know what? Now that this blog post is over, it’s going to go back on my shelf, and there it will probably remain. Your mileage may very, but my advice is to pass this one over for another.
Confession time: I used The Code.
Is it so surprising? The Code is carved into the very heart of Contra. Contra is the reason that most of us know The Code. If it weren’t for The Code, thousands of children would have never seen Contra‘s later levels. Even as an adult gamer with some skill and a fair amount of retro cred, I can’t make it halfway through the game without The Code.
I wanted to really feel like I understood the game before I tried to comment on it, and I didn’t feel like I could do that properly without seeing it through to the end. Hence: The Code.
Contra is such a fascinating dichotomy: brutal, unforgiving, and unbelievably fast-paced; it is a game that chews up players and spits out their tiny pixelated bodies. And yet: The Code. Contra starts you out with three lives, and you’re allowed two continues. That gives you a grand total of nine–count ’em, nine–like a cat. Good luck making it past level three! You’ll need it.
Of course, all it takes is a little up up down down left right left right B A select start and you’ve got yourself a nice deal with the metaphorical devil: Thirty lives! Thirty lives per continue! For those playing along at home, that’s ninety lives. That’s ten cats.
Ninety lives gives you plenty of wiggle room to beat the game. On my first try, without having seen levels five through eight before, I cleared it in somewhere around sixty-seven deaths. It’s still fun, and it still takes a certain modicum of skill and reflexes, but deep down inside you know you’ve used The Code and there are no bragging rights to go along with your accomplishment. You are a Contra Tourist.
Difficulty levels in games have always fascinated me, because when considering the choice of which difficulty to select you necessarily have to ask yourself what you want to get out of the game experience, like an actor calling offstage to the director: “What’s my motivation?” Are you playing primarily for the narrative? For the joy of exploration? Or are you playing for the challenge itself–for the sense of accomplishment that comes from having triumphed over a system that’s trying to kill you?
Speaking from personal experience, I almost always play games on “Normal.” Why? What’s my motivation? Well, when I ask myself what I want out of a game, I ultimately have to admit that a lot of the reason I’m playing is to have a dialogue about the experience with other players. When I talk to other gamers about having played the game, I want to make sure that my experience is in line with theirs–and I assume that most players select “Normal” because this is often the default setting. Very frequently, if I take a second trip through a game, I’ll crank the difficulty up to “Hard” in order to give myself an added challenge.
Nevertheless, this decision has implications. I’ll be honest and admit that I wasn’t all that frightened by the original Dead Space on account of playing it on Normal. (It’s still a super great game! I had fun!) I simply didn’t feel in real danger enough to be frightened (brilliant sound design and direction notwithstanding). I still enjoyed the narrative a great deal, and the exploration–it’s a very atmospheric game–and blasting Necromorphs was a hoot even if they didn’t kill me very often.
I was frankly a little bored during my first playthrough of Kingdom Hearts II because it was simply too easy on Normal. I was mostly in it for the story (yes yes, enjoy your laughs at my expense here), but the game does have a very compelling combat system that’s a great deal of fun to play–if it’s challenging enough for you.
If I’m playing the guitar in Rock Band, I get bored if it’s a difficulty lower than Expert–if I’m playing drums, I’ll fail out almost immediately if it’s on Hard. All of these choices of difficulty can legitimately affect the quality of the entertainment I’m experiencing (and the character of the entertainment as well, in the case of Dead Space).
Which brings me back to Contra. How does the enormous difficulty gap affect this game? More importantly, is this a game you should go back and play?
Ultimately, I think it is. It has a flavor unique among 8-bit games, and because of its arcade roots, it’s immediately accessible–jump, shoot, run. I think the most important thing about it, though, is that there are more than just two Contras: there is, of course, the Contra that will keep you cursing and fumbling with your pitiful mortal thumbs after the fifth time you’ve been shot in the foot and killed. There is the benevolent, forgiving Contra that grants you innumerable chances and reassures you with “There, there, it’s all right–perhaps I made the flame-spewing pipes too numerous. Give it another try.”
But in an environment with such a yawning gulf of stark contrast, there must necessarily emerge player-driven objectives and self-challenges. “Well,” perhaps you’ll say, “I’ll use The Code, but if I bring my buddy along for the ride we’ll see if we can beat the whole thing without having to continue.” “Let’s see who can get the furthest on the nine lives we’re given.” “Whoever dies first buys the beer.” That sort of thing. Could we call them “emergent objectives?” Why not? Who’s to stop us?
The common wisdom is that 8-bit games are monstrously difficult, and this truism isn’t entirely off-base. But through avenues like the Konami Code, they are more diverse than they are often given credit for. Contra is made easier by means of The Code, but it’s not at all cheapened. Rather, it’s made more interesting–the player is given more perspectives from which they can evaluate it. It’s for this reason that I think it’s worth going back and replaying. Well, this, and because shooting everything with a million bullets is somehow fundamentally satisfying. Surely that has something to do with it.
My Experience So Far: I have a very odd relationship with Nintendo’s flagship series. All of them. It’s a little difficult to pin down the nature of this relationship, but generally stated, I have a tendency to play (and love) all of the oddball entries in Nintendo’s canon while ignoring the biggest, most important games in a series. Consequently, there are many stand-up classics that I have never played (and hopefully, that means I’ll get to them in the course of writing this blog).
I never owned an NES as a child. I got into gaming with a grey-brick Game Boy (and my relatives’ Atari 2600), and when I got a real honest-to-goodness home console, it was a Sega Genesis. This is probably where my awkward relationship with Nintendo originates.
So suffice to say, I had never really spent any quality time with Metroid. If I played games at the house of a friend who had an NES, it was usually a game like Super Mario Bros., in which we could take turns, or World Cup Soccer, in which we could pummel the hell out of each other while pretending to play a sport.
There’s something about Metroid which evokes solitude, and I never had that with an NES.
What makes it a classic? Samus Aran’s original outing on planet Zebes is probably best known for a couple of things: the mood it creates, with its countless subterranean corridors and eerie, machine-like ambient music; encouraging exploration as a primary play aesthetic by populating this world with approximately a hojillion secret passages; the surprising reveal at the end that you’ve been playing as a girl this whole time.
Metroid, just like The Legend of Zelda, was one of the pioneering forays into open-world gaming. You can go almost anywhere on the map right from the outset, with only a handful of areas being cordoned off until you pick up the super jump boots or the morph ball bomb. There are plenty of items that you don’t HAVE to pick up–in fact, one of my few complaints against the game is that the three best powerups–things which I would say are essential to beating Mother Brain–are locked behind secret passages. If you don’t know where to bomb/shoot, you’ll never stumble across the Varia Suit, the Wave Beam, or the iconic Screw Attack.
You can debate amongst yourselves whether this bit of level design was a Dedication to a Pure Core Aesthetic of Play or an Excuse to Sell Strategy Guides, but speaking personally as a man who has lots of games he wants to play in his adult life, I could not be bothered with it. I pulled up GameFAQs without a second thought and figured out where I needed to go to get the items I needed to fill Mother Brain full of missiles.
As a child, I would have gotten a book of graph paper and a pencil, and I would have made a map of Zebes myself, and I would have gotten immense pleasure out of the exercise.
Here’s the thing about Metroid, though–that exploration and discovery may have been the core play aesthetic when it was originally designed, but even if you subvert that by goin’ to the ol’ GameFAQs as I did, it’s still an amazing game. The platforming controls are super-tight, the difficulty curve is pitch-perfect (Castlevania caution in the early levels, Mega Man recklessness once you’ve powered up).
Metroid even feels modern, thanks to the way it handles its checkpoints: Every power-up you grab is an item you’ve earned permanently. If you die, you’re sent back to the beginning of the area you were currently in (of which there are only five), given a meager, meager amount of health, and instructed to claw your way back up to full energy tanks. But–and this is the key–you keep all your stuff. Did you just barely make it to the Ice Beam before dying? That’s cool! As long as you touched it, it’s yours forever.
Metroid is compelling because it lays one rule on the table very clearly from the outset: there is a kind of progress that the game will never take from you.
That one simple concession to the player is something that makes Metroid very easy to play as a gamer used to auto-saves and frequent, generous checkpoints. There are no “continues,” no “lives,” not really–there’s no way to get a permanent game over.
Should you go back and play Metroid if you missed it? Yes. Emphatically yes. The gameplay holds up as well as that of Zelda, Mega Man, or Castlevania, the aesthetics are still remarkably potent (alright, so the 8-bit music can’t creep you out like Dead Space can–turn off all the lights in your living room and play with the sound way up and try and feel like you’re not nine years old again), and it’s a glorious challenge worthy of any retro gamer. Pull up GameFAQs and snag a map like I did, it doesn’t matter. It won’t affect your experience much.
BUT WAIT THERE’S MORE– This, I think, is the best thing about the original Metroid: if you are the kind of person who doesn’t like to kick it old-school, if you wish the 8-bit music were just a trifle more intricate, if you can’t possibly play a Metroid game without a map in the pause menu, if you are FINICKY, geez… There is a game for you!
That’s right, in 2004, when Metroid Fever was sweeping the nation (or… not), Nintendo released Metroid: Zero Mission for the GBA. The game is essentially a retread of the original Metroid with fancy new graphics, updated mechanics (i.e., a map), and a gratuitous sequence in which you play as Zero Suit Samus. I played Zero Mission back when it first came out, and that’s part of the reason I didn’t get around to playing the original until now.
It might be a little harder to get a hold of a GBA game now than it was five years ago, and many of you probably don’t have a GBA anymore (or even a DS), but I can definitely say that Zero Mission is worth your time.
At this point, everyone with aspirations of being a Renaissance Gamer probably owns at least ONE Nintendo system. The original Metroid is available on most of them. I think that most of you will probably find it rewarding and enriching to seek this one out and give it a go.
Valve’s Half-Life is a lot like Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe.
Hm. Let me back up a moment.
In my quest to further my gaming education and make myself familiar with as many gaming classics as I can, Steam’s holiday sale has been enormously useful. Valve seems to think that it is okay to tax everyone’s wallet by selling gaming history at a fraction of its cost every December, and, not being one to argue, I picked up several choice titles this year in the hope of experiencing brilliant games which my pitiful computers were never able to run back in the day.
Naturally, Half-Life was a prime candidate.
Half-Life, originally released in 1998, is widely credited with revolutionizing the way that first-person shooters told their stories. Gordon Freeman’s crowbar-wielding escape from the Black Mesa Facility is one of those escapades that form a central part of gaming canon. It frequently appears near the top of “Best Game of All Time” lists.
A brief tangent: When I was in college as an English major, I was asked to read something like twenty works of literature my senior year in order to prepare for comprehensive exams. One of these was Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, a book which is the origin of an entire genre (castaway stories) and in many respects is the first modern novel. Without Crusoe, we can’t have Jules Verne’s The Mysterious Island, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, or classic Bob Denver vehicle Gilligan’s Island.
The thing about all of these stories that pay homage to Robinson Crusoe, however, is that most of them are improvements upon the original, taking a revolutionary development in storytelling and using their own individual quirks and tropes to make something unique and memorable. What I discovered in college (somewhat to my disappointment) was that having taken in and enjoyed all of these more complicated, more interesting stories, it was somewhat difficult to go back and really enjoy the book that started it all.
You can probably see where I’m going with this.
Half-Life deserves credit where credit is due: it revolutionized a genre, and at the time of its release was one of the most cinematic gaming experiences available on any system. It’s a game that establishes a mood very early on, and it creates tension to such a degree that even though its graphics are outdated and blocky, the player holds their breath when edging around a corner.
At this point, however, most of us have played narrative-based FPSs that are able to deliver much more compelling cinematic experiences. If we are a modern gamer, it’s likely we have played Bioshock. We’ve played Call of Duty. Most well-versed gamers (and here I have to lower my hand meekly) have played Valve’s follow-up, Half-Life 2: Life Harder.
For my part, while stalking the halls of Black Mesa in search of headcrabs to murder, I continually compared my experience to another FPS from the same era, which I had not played until early last year: Deus Ex.
Deus Ex, which doesn’t look much better than Half-Life despite being released a year and a half later, has several layers of systems and mechanics which make gameplay complicated, interesting, and fresh. Half-Life has some pretty good shootin’, some so-so platforming, and some occasional puzzles which don’t do a very good job at giving you clues within the environment. Deus Ex is more complex, and it feels more modern.
One of the major differences between Half-Life and Deus Ex is that the former tries its best to tell you its story from entirely within the gameplay–no cutscenes here. As a general rule, I would say that HL‘s approach to storytelling is one which games should shoot for: the more you take control away from your player, the more they will be reminded that they are playing a game. Of course, the dialogue choices in Deus Ex‘s cutscenes allow for player choice in a way that keeps them engaged, but my main point is that the story happening all around the player in Half-Life can’t achieve the kind of depth and complexity that Valve achieved in later efforts like Portal, Half-Life 2, and even the Left 4 Dead games.
So, should you go pick up a copy of Half-Life and give it a go? That depends. If you’re looking for a first-person shooter with an engaging story and solid gameplay, I would have to recommend picking up a copy of something more recent–though Half-Life has both of these things, it hasn’t aged as well as some of its contemporaries. If you’re like me, however, and are interested in the history and evolution of gaming, then you really owe it to yourself to grab a crowbar and hunker down with Mr. Freeman for as much of his first adventure as you can get through: your path through Rapture, Omaha Beach, and even cyberpunk Hong Kong has its origins in a tiny chunk of the New Mexico desert called Black Mesa.