Reading too deeply into these things since 1981

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In the years between when I stopped playing Mega Man games and his miraculous resurrection in Mega Man 9, there were plenty of games I enjoyed. Games I loved, in fact. Resident Evil, Metroid Prime, Pikmin…even the game that remains my all-time favorite, Majora’s Mask.

I still enjoyed games. The medium evolved and in many ways no longer felt like the one I grew up with, but if I sat down looking for a good time, there were more than enough games that would give it to me.

Then Mega Man 9 came along, and it didn’t just give me another good time. It reminded me of what games used to be like.

I don’t just mean that it reminded me what they used to look and sound like, though it certainly did those things. I mean that it reminded me of what games used to feel like. Of what gaming itself used to feel like.

As games through the generations grew larger, deeper, more complex, they almost uniformly lost the feeling of addictive simplicity that attracted me in the first place.

One of my earliest gaming memories is playing Outlaw on the Atari 2600 with my uncle Glenn. It was a two-player game that saw each of us controlling a cowboy, firing blocky projectiles at each other. I’d guess there was a single-player mode as well, but I’m not sure I ever actually touched that. Whenever a shot connected, the struck cowboy would fall onto his rear end, which always made the two of us laugh.

The game couldn’t have been less complex. Or, well, I suppose it could have, as every so often a stagecoach would drift through the center of the screen, absorbing shots. (And – what seemed a revelation at the time – sustaining visible damage if it did so.) Ultimately, though, it was a game perfectly suited to the one-button philosophy of Atari. The learning curve was practically non-existent. You could play the game with your younger brother and have just as much fun as you would with your uncle. It took no time to explain, and no time to learn. The game existed, and you innately understood everything there was to understand the moment you saw the game in action.

Fast forward a few generations, and that was almost never the case any longer. This, I believe, is why I fell away from gaming in my college years. With so little time to devote to anything other than school and work, it ended up being a rare occasion that I could sit down and puzzle out the complex controls and mechanics of any recent game. In a few cases, I took that time. In the overwhelming majority of cases, I didn’t.

I remember playing games with my friends in college, because it was still a great way to unwind. When we did so, however, it tended to be something from an older system. We’d grab some beers and see how far we could make it in Bubble Bobble. We’d load up Kirby’s Adventure because we knew we could plow through it in one long sitting, and what better way to kick off a weekend? We’d shout and howl through session after session of the first two Mario Kart games, feeling immediately as addicted as we were when they were new. And, speaking of addiction, I remember a friend in the journalism program who came very close to flunking a semester’s worth of classes because she couldn’t tear herself away from Dr. Mario.

Clearly I wasn’t the only one yearning for simplicity in my games, though I certainly wouldn’t have been able to articulate that feeling.

With Mega Man 9, I had exactly that simplicity in a brand-new game. I loved it. And, for the first time in a long time, I didn’t just play a new game and move along when I finished it or got bored of it…I played a new game over and over and over again. I finished it and started it over from scratch. I pushed myself to learn it more thoroughly and to get better at it. Defeating Dr. Wily wasn’t enough; I wanted to master the game. That was a desire I hadn’t felt since I was a child. Possibly since I’d played an earlier Mega Man game.

I didn’t speak about Mega Man 9‘s achievement system much in my last writeup, but I have to admit that it helped inspire me to dip back in as often as I did. Collecting 999 screws could have encouraged me to stand around and farm respawning enemies, but it really just provided a reason to dive back into a particular save file and enjoy the trip through Mega Man 9 all over again. Beating the game multiple times to unlock certain achievements gave me that much more of a push toward mastery. And completing the game quickly, or without dying…well, those things seemed tough, but I was certainly getting faster and dying less with each attempt, so maybe I could actually accomplish them.

Only one achievement seemed truly impossible, and it’s the one that cracked open the entire series for me once again, to enjoy as if they were brand new games I’d come to love in all new ways.

It was the Mr. Perfect achievement. That’s the one that requires you to complete Mega Man 9 – still one of the most difficult games I’ve ever played – without taking any damage whatsoever.

In a sense, this seemed doable. You were able to save after each level, so all you’d need to do is reload your save whenever you took damage, and you’d largely retain your progress. But that, of course, still required you to beat every level without taking damage. And what happened when you got to the Wily stages? Hell, what about the boss rematches toward the end, followed by each of Wily’s forms in immediate succession? You had to do all of that in a single stretch without taking damage even once?

How on Earth was that possible?

Way back in my review of the first Mega Man, I talked about how we’d gather around a friend who was good at some particular game, and watch him first-hand, demonstrating his skills for all of us to see. There were plenty of rumors about impossible things in video games, and rarely could we actively disprove them. But when it came to stuff we could prove, we did. Everything we knew, we knew from direct, personal experience.

By the time of Mega Man 9, I didn’t have a community like that anymore. I had friends that played games, but few that played them often enough to get truly good or to discover interesting things on their own. Certainly nobody would call me up and say, “Hey, I can beat Mega Man 9 without taking damage. Want to see?”

So I turned to the modern equivalent of those play sessions: YouTube. I wanted to see somebody, somewhere, unlocking that Mr. Perfect achievement that I still didn’t believe was possible. And not only did I find that; I found videos of people playing through every Mega Man game, stage by stage, without taking damage once.

My childhood reeled with disbelief. It was hard enough just to finish those games…now I’m learning that it was actually possible to pound them out without ever getting hit?

And so I watched those videos. I studied them. They were fascinating. Little Mega Man could do almost nothing other than jump and shoot, but that was enough to get him through literally any level unscathed. My mind was blown. And, sure enough, I wanted to dig back through the old Mega Man games to try it for myself.

I succeeded. Level by level, I learned to beat every Robot Master stage without taking damage. I did this – and uploaded my own results to YouTube – for most of the games in the series: Mega Man through Mega Man 7, with a detour through Mega Man V for the Game Boy, which had unique stages and bosses. I would have done Mega Man 8 and Mega Man 9 as well, but I didn’t have the equipment necessary to record my playthroughs.

Mega Man 9 didn’t just give me a new game to love; it gave me a reason to rediscover my love of the games that preceded it. And all it had to do was suggest to me that it was possible to play them in a way I never, ever would have thought to try.

In short, Mega Man 9‘s legacy was, to me, more than that of a great game. It reminded me of why the series was important, why I’d spent so many hours with those games as a kid, why they sparked my imagination and determination in equal measure.

What’s more, it wasn’t just a tease. It didn’t remind us all of how great those simple, NES-era games once were…it left us with the promise of another sequel. By the time I lifted my head from those old games I’d nearly forgotten, a new one was already on the horizon. Mega Man 10 was coming. Mega Man 9 wasn’t just a late-game sequel; it was a series relaunch.

I was thrilled.

And then it released. At which point…I was disappointed.

But let’s come back to that.

I sat down to re-play Mega Man 10 as I did with every other game for this review series: as an official release. No emulators, no save states, no cheats. If I had easy access to the original hardware and physical copies, I would certainly have used those. Instead I played the more recent digital releases.

Mega Man through Mega Man 7 were played on either my 3DS or WiiU, and Mega Man 8 through Mega Man 10 were played on my PS4. I didn’t prepare for these games in any way, working from memory to make it through and letting the games themselves teach me again whatever I’d forgotten. I didn’t make any special efforts to play the games in a certain way – no speedruns or no-damage runs or anything like that – except that I did pick up all optional items. (Barring Mega Man 8, which, as discussed, does not allow for 100% completion.)

In a word, I played them now with much the mindset I would have had as a child. It was a game, I was going to fumble my way through it, and I was going to play as intended.

Then came Mega Man 10, and I remembered something.

After Mega Man 9 had shown me – directly and indirectly – how versatile the series had always been, I set a goal for myself with Mega Man 10, one I never actually saw through. The goal was to do a no-Buster run of the entire game.

The Mega Buster, stretching all the way back to Mega Man’s first adventure, is the default weapon in each of the games. It does not consume any weapon energy, and it allows for a fairly-generous total of three projectiles on the screen at once. It’s fast, it’s easy to use, and its shots travel as far as the screen will allow. In short, it’s a pretty great weapon, with many of the Robot Master weapons in later games paling in comparison.

In Mega Man 10, though, there was a unique opportunity to never use it. This was due to a set of downloadable extra stages that rewarded you with weapons you could carry over to the main game. Start a game with those in your inventory and, theoretically, you’ll never actually have to use the Buster.

I hadn’t heard anybody else talk about playing the game that way, and there was no achievement for doing so, so there was a decent chance it wouldn’t work. I’d be going into uncharted territory. I’d be giving myself a handicap by stripping away the easiest weapon to use and burdening myself with ammo concerns that no other player would have.

It sounded fun!

But I never did it. I don’t know why. Revisiting the game for this series, though, I figured I’d finally change that. I’d do my no-Buster run of Mega Man 10.

Why? Well, I might as well say this here and now: while you are going to hear me say a huge amount of good things about Mega Man 10…I don’t actually like it very much. A no-Buster run, I’d hoped, would provide me with a new avenue to experience the game, and possibly enjoy it much more.

The biggest obstacle Mega Man 10 has to face is that it has very little in the way of new ideas. Mega Man 9 did nearly everything Mega Man 10 does, and it did all of it better. Mega Man 10, therefore, is in the position where being very good makes it feel like a disappointment. Worse, Mega Man 10 only sometimes rises to the level of “very good.”

The story this time around is that a computer virus (amusingly referred to in identifiably human terms as Roboenza) is infecting robots on a massive scale, causing them to do exactly what they’ve done for nine previous games and seemingly infinite amounts of ports and spinoffs.

I’m being wry, but I’m not complaining. Mega Man has never given us a truly compelling reason to go out and shoot robots; all it ever needed to do was make it fun to go out and shoot robots. I am fine with that. Also nice is the thematic tie to the Mega Man X series, which sees its own versions of Robot Masters driven to madness and violence by the Maverick virus. There’s no evidence that Roboenza becomes or is related to that later virus, but it’s a nice, quiet parallel between series.

Dr. Wily is, of course, still the villain. (Sorry for what can only be considered a spoiler if this is your first Mega Man game.) This time, though, it makes a reasonable amount of sense that the good guys would choose to work with him. Wily is brilliant. He understands robotics probably better than even Dr. Light does. Yes, he’s tricked them more times than you’ve had hot dinners, but Roboenza represents a legitimate crisis. They can either choose to work with Wily on the chance that he’ll actually help them develop a cure, or they can sit back and watch civilization as they know it crumble.

So they work with him and he turns out to be the bad guy. Fine. What isn’t fine is the ending sequence, during which all is resolved through a line of text and a still image of some medicine Dr. Wily left behind.

It might seem odd to speak about the ending so early in this review, but I think it’s one of the clearest illustrations of the gap in quality between Mega Man 9 and Mega Man 10.

In Mega Man 9, the game ended with a glorious meta joke about how many times our hero has forgiven a contrite Dr. Wily, followed by an extremely good bit of credits music and a slideshow of what each of that game’s Robot Masters (and heroes) is getting up to now that peace has returned. It’s sweet, it’s funny, and it’s positively bursting with charm and creativity.

Mega Man 10 gives you white text on a black screen and a static image with no characters in it.

I’ll leave the comparing and contrasting to you.

The fact is that Mega Man 10 simply doesn’t seem to have had the same level of creative energy invested in it. In a way, this makes sense. Mega Man 9 had to be a glorious return. It couldn’t just be another Mega Man game way too late for anyone to care…it had to be great. Incredibly, it actually was.

Mega Man 10 does get to be just another sequel, but it seems like returning developer IntiCreates was all too eager to use that as an excuse to do less than their best. The game, understandably, suffers for it. What’s worse, Mega Man 10 ends up illustrating all too clearly what originally killed the series, by being a less interesting sequel that doesn’t give fans much of a reason to come back. The law of diminishing returns reasserted itself immediately.

But I do believe that Mega Man 10 does a lot of things very well.

For starters, there are the Robot Masters themselves. Well, maybe not them particularly, but the way their stages are themed.

Mega Man 9’s stages had some fairly basic themes. Fire, water, space, garden…it was fine, but you wouldn’t really point to that aspect of the game as a bastion of creativity.

Here, though, the stages feel distinct. You wouldn’t be able to confuse them with stages from previous games, on the whole. Sheep Man’s stage is in cyberspace. Nitro Man’s is a futuristic highway. Strike Man’s is the locker room, storage area, and field of a gigantic stadium.

They also play like recognizable Mega Man stages, which I mean as a compliment. Their gimmicks aren’t too distracting or complex – something that crippled Mega Man 8 – and are instead just a welcome, inventive dash of variety. Specific design choices from screen to screen aside, these stages feel at home in the series, and I admire them for that, considering how unique they are.

Even the stage themes we’ve seen before feel a bit different here. Magma Man just sat in a stage full of fire, but Solar Man’s stage feels like a trip through a smelting plant. Splash Woman occupied a basic water stage, but Pump Man’s stage takes us through the entire process of wastewater treatment. Commando Man’s desert looks a lot like Pharaoh Man’s, but its blinding sandstorms make it feel and play completely differently…not to mention the fact that it’s war-themed as opposed to Egyptian themed.

The remaining stages are a bit less impressive. Blade Man’s castle doesn’t feel all that much different from Knight Man’s, but it’s still a rare enough theme that it’s welcome. Chill Man’s stage is easily the weakest in terms of inventiveness, as it begins as the standard ice stage we’ve seen many times already, and doesn’t find anywhere interesting to go from there.

Sadly, the designs of the Robot Masters themselves are a bit lacking. The only truly interesting one is Nitro Man, who looks and jets around his room like a motorcycle. I’ll admit that I also have a soft spot for Commando Man, as it’s nice to see an explosion-based Robot Master who also qualifies as a bruiser, but that’s really it in terms of boss design.

Strike Man is Blizzard Man with stitching. Sheep Man is a sheep. Blade Man is a blade made out of blades and when he blades he blades blades at you. Hooray.

Fortunately, the Robot Masters are, as ever, more than just bosses. They also represent weapons and music, and the game shines far more in those areas.

The music, on the whole, is pretty great. Mega Man 10 also suffers here in comparison to Mega Man 9, but only in comparison. On its own merits, Mega Man 10 has an incredible soundtrack with some excellent standouts.

My favorite tune is probably Nitro Man’s, with its driving electric rhythm that feels perfectly matched to the theme and feel of his stage. Divorced from its context it’s still fantastic, but hopping onto and off of speeding robot trucks while his pulsing music underscores the action is absolutely perfect.

A close runner up for me is Commando Man’s tune, which sounds vaguely Arabic, conjures up the feel of oppressive desert heat, and keeps you engaged even when all you’re doing is waiting patiently for a sandstorm (Desert Storm?) to die down. Then there’s the absolutely pounding rampage of Solar Man’s song, which is so good it borders on being distracting.

Strike Man’s track may actually be the most interesting and the biggest surprise, as it feels appropriately sporty and contains a genuine stadium rave up, complete with the sounds of an 8-bit crowd clapping and stomping in the bleachers. It’s a damned fine treat, and it really helps that stage to stand out as the highlight it certainly is.

The rest of the Robot Master tunes are fairly forgettable, though certainly not bad. (Aside from Chill Man’s, of course, because everything about Chill Man is pants.) The Dr. Wily stages have some of the best music they’ve ever had, with some experimentally atmospheric ones bookending the experience, first in a short section outside of his fortress and then again when you finally track him down into outer space.

It’s a good soundtrack, and its quality is more or less matched by this batch of weapons. It’s again outdone by Mega Man 9, but this game at least learned a valuable lesson from that one. In Mega Man 9, the weapons could also be thought of as utilities. That seemed to be their overarching theme; you could both pelt your enemies with them and use them to navigate stages more easily. Mega Man 10 similarly ascribes a theme to its weapons: splash damage.

Here, for the first significant time ever, you shouldn’t just pelt your enemies with your weapons. You should think about how the weapons work, and use them wisely to inflict greater damage.

The most obvious example of this is probably the Thunder Wool. Like any other weapon, you can hit enemies with it. It will deal damage and disappear. However, the wiser thing to do is miss enemies with it, and have the lightning it discharges hit them instead. That will both deal far more damage and linger on the screen, potentially hitting multiple enemies, or hitting the same enemy multiple times.

This means that you can’t – or at least shouldn’t – fire mindlessly at things. You have to think about where your projectile will go and where your enemy will be, but you also have to think about how the splash damage will work, as that’s the only way you’ll get true mileage out of the weapons.

This largely carries through the entire set. You can hit enemies with the controllable Commando Bomb, but it’s better to miss them, because the blast it sets off is far more powerful than a direct hit would be. The Solar Blaze will split, potentially mowing down enemies on both sides of the screen. The Chill Spike can either hit an enemy and freeze it, or create a dangerous patch on the ground that will injure or destroy an enemy that walks over it.

Perhaps most interesting is the Rebound Striker, which can be fired in six directions and which becomes more powerful each time it bounces off of a surface. This means that you can either strike an enemy directly for a decent amount of damage, or deliberately miss them so that it bounces around the room like a billiard ball and hits them later with a much harder strike. It’s not the easiest weapon to use effectively, but once you get a sense of how to understand a room’s geometry, it can be downright devastating. It’s Mega Man 8’s Mega Ball done exactly right.

Even the seemingly “simple” weapons have nuances worth understanding. The Wheel Cutter can be spat forward as you’d expect, but you can also hold down the fire button to keep it spinning at the end of your arm like a sawblade. Additionally, you can use this exact functionality to rocket you up vertical surfaces. I won’t pretend there’s much call to do so, but like Mega Man 4’s Wire Adapter, the fact that it’s fun to use is reason enough to play with it.

Then there’s the Water Shield, which is a fairly basic shield weapon, but with components that can be destroyed if they suffer damage. When you fire it, the remaining components spiral away from you either clockwise or counter-clockwise, depending upon which side of the screen you’re facing. Again, not a very useful feature, but at least one you’ll need to put thought into to use effectively.

The Triple Blade is…well…three blades. They’ll fire upward if you’re standing on the ground and downward if you’re in the air, which is one thing to consider, but their power is also determined by your distance from the target. If you’re far away, only one blade can conceivably hit the enemy. Close in, though, and you can hit them with all three at once, dealing three times the damage.

Mega Man 9 will always have my favorite batch of weapons, but Mega Man 10’s may well be the most interesting, and I’m impressed at how much thought must have gone into their design and the ways in which they could be employed.

But there’s a problem, and you may have picked up on it even if you haven’t played the game: don’t these weapons sound kinda difficult to use?

The appeal of the weapons earlier in the series was not just that they were fun to use, but that they were easy to use. Cumbersome weapons like the Atomic Fire, Top Spin, and Charge Kick tend, on the whole, to sit quietly in players’ inventories for the duration of the game. If they’re unwieldly, why wield them? If something else is quicker and easier to use, why wrestle with the stubborn ones?

I wouldn’t call any of Mega Man 10’s weapons stubborn. And they’re certainly better weapons than the examples I provided in the previous paragraph. But they’re also not easy to use well. And if it comes down to trying to launch a cloud precisely above an enemy’s head in the hopes that they’ll still be there in a few moments when it actually discharges lightning…well, why not just use the Buster?

That’s not entirely Mega Man 10’s fault. That’s a problem that arises strictly because of what series this is, and the fact that Mega Man always has his trusty arm cannon by default. Which is easy to use. And fast. And predictable. And which consumes no ammo.

When your option is to either mash the fire button a few times to kill an enemy or open your inventory, select the Rebound Striker, figure out the precise angle to toss it so that it bounces correctly off of the floors, walls, and ceilings, wasting ammo and time whenever you get it wrong…well, most players are going to stick with the Buster. That doesn’t make the special weapons worse, but it does make them far less likely to be used and appreciated.

Which is also part of why I wanted to do a no-Buster run. I like the special weapons in this game, but, well, I have to admit that I solved most of Mega Man’s problems with some quick blasts from the weapon he was born holding. Maybe stripping myself of that solution would lead to more interesting gameplay.

As I mentioned, a no-Buster run is only possible here due to some DLC stages. These pay homage to and borrow heavily from the Game Boy games, three of which featured bosses called the Mega Man Killers. The first Game Boy game introduced us to Enker, and defeating him gave us the Mirror Buster, which serves as a shield that reflects projectiles back at the enemies that fired them. The third Game Boy game featured Punk, who gave us the Screw Crusher, a projectile that arcs high in the air before falling back down, tracing a path something like an upside-down U. The fourth Game Boy game brought us Ballade, who had the Ballade Cracker, a slow explosive that could be fired in six directions.

The DLC stages in Mega Man 10 are reimagined versions of stages from the Killers’ respective Game Boy games, with remixed versions of the old music to boot. In those games, beating the Mega Man Killers would indeed give you their weapons, but by that point you were so far along that you wouldn’t have much more than a stage left to play with them. In Mega Man 10, beating the DLC stages gives you those weapons any time you start a new game, meaning you can finally enjoy them like you would any Robot Master weapon.

Choosing a replacement for the Buster was actually pretty easy. The Ballade Cracker is powerful, but it uses a lot of weapon energy, meaning you don’t get many shots and I’d have to rely on enemies dropping a lot of ammo. The Mirror Buster counts on enemies to fire at you first, which not all of them do, and it requires them to remain on Mega Man’s horizontal plane to be hit when the projectile bounces back at them. It’s fun to use, and a great idea, but not something that works in every context.

That left the Screw Crusher, and I was fine with that. It’s fast, it doesn’t seem to be any less powerful than the Buster, and it makes very efficient use of weapon energy. The only real downside is its awkward arc, but all that did was help me choose my first stage that much more easily: Sheep Man, who spends much of his time in the air above Mega Man’s head. That sharp upward arc would actually be a benefit.

And it was. The stage had enough enemies above me that the Screw Crusher worked very well. Even the lightbulb miniboss was easier to hit now that I didn’t have to jump as high to get to him. Sheep Man himself took a while to fight, but it wasn’t any more difficult outside of staying focused for a longer period of time. Each time he turned into a set of clouds, I just shredded through them and brought him crashing back down. It worked out well, and then I had another weapon: the Thunder Wool.

As soon as I got it, I realized this wouldn’t actually make things much easier for me. The Thunder Wool is also very inefficient in terms of weapon energy, and it’s difficult to use. Even if you could reliably use it against enemies, it absolutely would not last you through an entire stage, which meant the Screw Crusher was still my sidearm.

Even so, I took on Pump Man next. He’s weak to the Thunder Wool, so that boss fight wouldn’t be any different. The stage was fine. Again, there were enough enemies above that I got my mileage out of the Screw Crusher, and in other cases I could just walk right up to them and mash away. Hitting the little slug Mets that spew slippery slime at you wasn’t easy, but the Ballade Cracker, with some careful timing, took them out easily.

And that was it. Pump Man’s fight was the same as it ever was, only running out of Thunder Wool meant I pelted him with Screw Crushers instead of Buster shots.

Then it was on to Solar Man, who was weak to the Water Shield. Of course, the Water Shield is also very inefficient in terms of weapon energy, and it’s difficult to use. Even if you could reliably use it against enemies, it absolutely would not last you through an entire stage, which meant the Screw Crusher was still my sidearm.

I think you see where this is going. The boss fights were exactly the same as they were in a standard run, and for the most part so were the stages.

I swapped one weapon out for another, and that was it. I didn’t have to change my tactics or behavior, and if I wanted to rely on another Robot Master weapon, I really couldn’t; they weren’t versatile or efficient enough. I’d use them situationally, as I always had. By the time I got the Triple Blade – which conceivably could have served as an alternate Buster – I was already used to how the Screw Crusher handled, so I stuck with that. I can count on one hand the number of moments that changed significantly from a standard run, and usually those were made easier.

I tried adding another restriction, not allowing myself to use either E-tanks (to restore my health) or W-tanks (to restore my weapon energy). But that didn’t really make it any harder, as I’d racked up enough extra lives that dying was never much of a setback. I did have to continue once, before the final Wily fight. That was it.

Mega Man 10 had originally disappointed me, and my attempt at spicing things up disappointed me again.

Playing through the game again, though, did remind me how difficult it is to articulate just what I don’t like about it. So much of it is good. Some of it is great. Hell, it has the Weapons Archive, which digitally resurrects Robot Masters from Mega Man through Mega Man 9, and which is clearly the greatest fortress boss in the series’ history.

But when I play it, I don’t feel engaged. I go through the motions. Even now that I actively tried not to go through the motions, I ended up going through the motions.

Mega Man 10 feels like a game on autopilot. It’s chock full of solid ideas, but it doesn’t push any of them far enough.

Playing through it this time – my first time in a few years – I realized that even the highlights I remembered weren’t all that great. Commando Man’s sandstorms, now that I know how to deal with them, don’t require me to do anything but hold down a single button. Nitro Man’s traffic segments occupy just a few screens, and they don’t ask anything more from you than a handful of decently timed hops. The reverse-gravity Wily stage does absolutely nothing with its gimmick; literally anything you could think to do with an upside-down stage would be better than what we actually get here.

It feels half baked. It’s a great concept that doesn’t quite go anywhere. And that’s Mega Man 10 in a nutshell. There’s so much I love about it, but so little that lives up to its potential.

Mega Man 9 was nearly perfect because IntiCreates clearly took the time it needed to make it perfect. Mega Man 10 is another story. It feels like the team came up with good ideas, but didn’t take the time to truly refine them. It was enough for them to create an upside-down stage; they didn’t see the need to figure out what might be done with that. It was enough for them to come up with interesting weapons; they didn’t see the need to give players a reason to use them. It was enough for them to come up with a fun story; they didn’t see the need to actually show us that story’s own ending.

It seemed like a lesser shadow of what immediately preceded it, mixed with the lack of care and inspiration that plagued the weakest games in the series.

It was still good, it just wasn’t great. And that represents a big step down when Mega Man 9’s entire thesis was that the series could still be great.

There are reasons enough to tool around with it. The soundtrack. The interesting approach to weapon design. The returning endless mode, which isn’t quite as good as Mega Man 9’s but is still a nice time waster. The difficulty selection, which doesn’t just alter damage dealt and taken – as it did in Mega Man 2 – but actually changes enemy types, boss attacks, and certain obstacles. The ability to play as both Proto Man and Bass.

But there aren’t enough reasons to come back to it frequently. When I played Mega Man 9, I fell in love the same way I did way back when I played Mega Man 2. I wanted to get better at it. I wanted to experiment with it. I wanted to master it.

With Mega Man 10, I just want to like it. And for everything that I do enjoy – again, I enjoy a lot of it – there are two or three things I don’t. Or which feel undercooked. Or which I don’t think were entirely thought through.

And then…that was it. Rumors circulated about a Mega Man 11 for a while, and I’d be shocked if that wasn’t at least considered by IntiCreates. Rumors also circulated about a Mega Man X9 in the style of the SNES games. That might have been wishful thinking, but I’d still wager IntiCreates batted the idea around to some degree.

Then, in October 2010, seven months after Mega Man 10’s release, Keiji Inafune left Capcom. Inafune is often considered the father of Mega Man, and though the character was designed before he joined the development team for the first game, Inafune had a strong hand and important role in guiding the series from there. He did not create it, but he doubtlessly helped define it, and for nearly all of the Blue Bomber’s life, Inafune was at the helm.

His departure from Capcom did not seem at all to have been on good terms, and that seemed to suggest the death of the series. Inafune no longer had the rights to create Mega Man games. Capcom could certainly have continued making them without him, but they wasted little time in proving that they didn’t intend to.

The year after Mega Man 10 was released, Capcom cancelled the two high-profile Mega Man games they had in the pipeline: Mega Man Legends 3, and Mega Man Universe, which was a game creation tool that seemed like it would be very similar to the approach later taken by Super Mario Maker.

And that wasn’t all. An odd, little-discussed game called Mega Man Online was officially cancelled in 2013, though rumors of its death began circulating long before that. Eventually we even learned that Capcom had also cancelled a first-person shooter set in the Mega Man X timeline called Maverick Hunter. It was cancelled the same year Inafune left the company, and by all accounts he was the one who got development on that project started in the first place.

Capcom, perhaps out of spite, was killing everything with the Mega Man name on it. Their only true release was Street Fighter x Mega Man, and that was just a free download of a fan game that Capcom released through official channels. It was extraordinarily poor.

That was it. Mega Man made a truly welcome addition to the Super Smash Bros. roster in 2014, but a fighting game – however good it is – will never scratch the side-scrolling, platforming, robot-smashing itch the series was known for.

Time passed. Capcom, Inafune, and IntiCreates all moved on to different projects. Some of them drew clear inspiration from Mega Man, and most of them did not. Capcom released a few dolls, eyeglasses, and tissue boxes over the years to periodically cash in on the recognition of a brand they had no interest in resuscitating a second time.

We lost Mega Man all over again. The long-abandoned fans that had finally seen their favorite series reborn with a great game followed by a good one were robbed of it once more. Mega Man came back just long enough for his departure to sting. Now fans had two more games they could reflect on with longing, but that was small comfort. Mega Man was rebuilt just to be lost to whatever bitterness existed between his lead designer and the company that once treated him so well.

Dr. Wily, finally, stopped coming back.

That’s where the series ended.

And that’s where I expected Fight, Megaman! to end as well. Maybe it still will.

But, shockingly, between my review of Mega Man 8 and now, Capcom announced an Inafune-less Mega Man 11. As of this writing, they’ve released nothing but a brief trailer. Eight years after Mega Man seemed to shut down for good, we get the promise of another game. Another chance. Another revival.

Perhaps for real this time.

We don’t know much about it. We know it won’t be in the 8-bit NES style. We know it will have a different lead designer. We know we want it.

And so I’d love to leave you with some kind of closure. With some kind of ultimate conclusion. With some grand reflection on a series that – when I started this series – I was convinced was gone for good.

But I can’t.

Because there’s something on the horizon.

For Mega Man fans, that’s all it takes to get our hearts racing. To get our imaginations spinning out of control. To get us excited.

I don’t know if the game will be very good. Statistically speaking, it won’t. I don’t know if I’ll like the things the game will clearly do differently. Statistically speaking, I won’t. I don’t know if it can make anywhere near the same impact Mega Man’s previous resurrection made. Frankly speaking, it can’t.

But Mega Man fans have something to look forward to. That’s something that hasn’t happened in a long time. And as Inafune proved with Mighty No. 9 – his own off-brand Mega Man successor – in 2016, he might not have been the true creative genius in the room after all.

Maybe Capcom still has the magic.

Maybe Mega Man 11 will evolve the series in a direction that actually works.

Maybe I’ll spend 7,000 words in a year or so gushing about everything it does exactly, perfectly, incredibly right.

All I know for sure is that I’ll play it on day one, and I’ll do so as I’ve done with every single previous Mega Man release: like an excited child, just glad to see his old friend again.

Best Robot Master: Commando Man
Best Stage: Nitro Man
Best Weapon: Triple Blade
Best Theme: Nitro Man
Overall Ranking: 2 > 9 > 7 > 5 > 4 > 10 > 3 > 1 > 6 > 8

Note: Third Editions provided me with exactly one physical copy of each book in exchange for a review. No other compensation was offered, asked for, or delivered. The opinions you read here, as always, reflect my honest feelings as fully as the limitations of the English language will allow.

I’m a fan of Boss Fight Books. From the publication of their very first batch of titles, I’ve been following them closely, as excited about each new wave of announcements as I once was on Christmas morning. Sometimes they write about something I know well, and I look forward to the gift of experiencing a game through somebody else’s eyes. Other times it’s about a title I don’t know well at all, and I get to learn about the experience the game offers from afar, whether or not I end up particularly interested in playing it myself.

It’s a great series of books, and while there are a number of them that didn’t really resonate with me or work for me, I’m sure that those same titles are ones that hit other readers in genuinely profound ways. I don’t know how much agreement there is about which books are best and which are weakest, because they’re all so decidedly different. So unique. They’re like the people who write them; you’re going to immediately click with some, and you may never click with others.

I’m not complaining. I think that’s a selling point, especially if you dive in and grab a bunch of titles at once. The ones you end up enjoying the most could well be the ones you least suspected.

I mention Boss Fight Books for two reasons. Firstly, because the myriad different approaches demonstrated within that series – emotional, analytical, autobiographical, snarky, reverent – are appropriate for the still-young field of games scholarship. As a relatively new medium, and an interactive one, there is not yet an established, accepted method of writing about them seriously. Boss Fight Books represents the excitement at that new frontier, the giddy experimentation of holding up a game that may never have been given serious artistic consideration before, and creating, from nothing, the very discussion that will keep that game alive.

If I’m romanticizing that, so be it. I’m a romantic. I love art. I love discussing art, dissecting art, and sharing in somebody else’s passion. Boss Fight Books is a publisher that certainly does not lack for passion.

The other reason I mention them is that when Third Editions approached me for a review, Boss Fight Books was the very first point of comparison that crossed my mind.

On a very superficial level, I expected them to be quite similar. In fact, I wondered if this series could be theoretically absorbed into the other, and, if so, how well it would fit in.

I think that’s something Boss Fight Books should take as a compliment; they established a standard for games scholarship that anyone else who strolls into that area will have to live up to.

Third Editions does live up to it, but it also does so much differently that it almost doesn’t matter. The two series don’t – and shouldn’t – jostle for direct shelf space. Their intentions might seem similar, but their executions are very different. And they both work very well.

Full disclosure: I’ve pitched ideas to Boss Fight Books in the past, which is part of the reason I haven’t featured them directly on this site. I wouldn’t want there to appear to be any kind of conflict of interest should something work out between me and them in the future. I’d like to think my readers believe in my sense of integrity and that I wouldn’t ever dream of giving someone a good review in the hopes that I’ll get something out of it later, but mainly I wouldn’t want my words to seem retroactively hollow should one of my pitches actually pan out. (“Of course he likes them…they published his 750,000 word manifesto on Bubble Bobble.”)

Third Editions, though, is new to me. I don’t know any of the authors involved, I don’t know the publisher, and I know nothing of their plans for future books. In short, there’s nothing between them and me that anyone should even be able to misconstrue as a conflict, and I was free to approach the three books they sent me as a reader and a critic.

I’m glad I had that opportunity, because they were great.

The titles they sent me were Zelda: The History of a Legendary Saga, The Legend of Final Fantasy VII, and Dark Souls: Beyond the Grave. (Two other titles, covering Bioshock and Metal Gear Solid, are also currently available.)

In the case of Final Fantasy VII, the book is almost entirely about that individual game. The other two books, though, are about the series in general. This is in contrast to the Boss Fight Books releases, which almost exclusively focus on a single game each.

Each of these books is attributed to two authors. How closely the pairs worked together, I can’t personally say. But I will say that the books certainly read as cohesive works, and I didn’t notice any issues in terms of a shifting of authorial voice. They read well, they’re written clearly, and section breaks are meted out generously enough that no topic overstays its welcome.

That would be the whole of my general feedback if not for this fact:

These books are gorgeous.

As strong as the writing is – and we’ll discuss that momentarily – there’s no denying the books’ sheer physical appeal. These are some absolutely beautiful publications, and for fans of the covered games, I’d say they’d make for incredible gifts for that reason alone. These have value simply as collectibles, and I think it’s worth pointing that out. They’re lovely, and the photos I’ve taken do not do them justice.

Furthering their value as physical gift pieces, they’re all printed on impressively thick paper, which was a pleasant surprise. They each also have a color-coordinated ribbon for holding your place: gold for Zelda, white for Final Fantasy VII, and black for Dark Souls. I’m assuming this qualifies as a bonus, but I have to admit I’ve always found these ribbons difficult to use; I keep worrying that I’ll close the book on them wrong and crease them. That’s obviously just one of my many neuroses, but I’d be curious to hear if anyone out there has strong feelings about them either way.

Visually and physically, the books are great. It is, however, worth noting that they don’t contain any art assets. No illustrations, maps, or anything along those lines. That’s fitting for the approach the authors take, and their absence wasn’t felt to me as a reader, but if that’s what you’re looking for, it’s good to know in advance.

In my position –- reading all three books in fairly quick succession –- I will say that the font size for Final Fantasy VII took a moment to get used to. Zelda and Dark Souls use a large, easy-to-read font, but Final Fantasy VII uses one that’s noticeably smaller. I don’t think it’s anything that should be a deal breaker for somebody interested in that book alone, and I will emphasize that it’s not difficult to read, but it was rather jarring coming off of the easier fonts of the other two. As first I thought this was done so that the books could be kept of a relatively equal number of pages, but Zelda has 221 numbered pages, Dark Souls has 303, and Final Fantasy VII has 199, so I’d guess it could have afforded a larger font after all.

But, well, what of the actual content?

I have to admit, it’s a bit difficult to review that.

See, the approach of the Third Editions authors is largely clinical. It’s fact-based, with little in the way of personality or conversation. That’s not a problem at all, but it does make reviewing them difficult.

Typically, I’m used to novels. Fiction. Which allows me to discuss (and judge) things like style, pacing, creativity. Non-fiction is a lot different. I can judge a work of non-fiction on how much I learned and whether or not it kept me engaged, but beyond that, I’d struggle for much to say. And, of course, I’d prefer not to simply regurgitate the information the books provide. (That’s, y’know, what the books are for.)

This is also another area in which a comparison to Boss Fight Books might be helpful. Those books weave (to varying degrees) the information they provide into and within more personal narratives. Those do provide an element of creative expression, even while relaying relatively dry facts and histories.

So, hey, bear with me as I feel my way through this, and learn to review something in a way that’s pretty new to me.

I will say that the writing is solid. The chapters are clearly delineated, with very little overlap in subject matter, which means that you can either read them straight through (as I did), or hop around to the particular subjects that interest you. Reading straight through won’t bury you in redundant information, and hopping around won’t strand you without context. That’s nice.

It’s also worth pointing out that these three books are English translations from French originals. I can’t speak much to the actual translation process, but I can say that if I didn’t know they were originally written in another language, I wouldn’t have been able to guess. The English versions don’t come across as clunky or confusing at any point, and I’d guess their translator has done impressive work in that regard.

Ultimately, I think I can also vouch for the value of these books as informative texts. I personally know quite a lot about the Zelda series, a decent amount about Final Fantasy VII, and very little about the Dark Souls games. In each case, however, I learned a lot. This was especially surprising to me in the Zelda book, as I was more or less convinced I’d read everything I’d ever have to read about that series. It was a great surprise to me that there was still a lot for me to learn in terms of the design of those games, their development, and their larger inspirations.

For that reason alone, I’m confident in saying that these books go well beyond what you would find in the standard wikis and retrospectives you’re likely to read online. And that’s important, I feel, because with so much information available in so many formats at our fingertips, it may be difficult to justify spending money on what may turn out to be little more than a printed version of some small fragment of that information.

Third Editions does actually bring new (or at least uncommon) information to the table, though, and I certainly enjoyed the professional, clean approach taken with the material here far more than I enjoy the amateur writeups I usually find online. The quality of the writing and presentation here justifies the purchase price for fans of these games, and you’d be hard pressed to find better ways of learning about them.

In fact, these titles read almost like textbooks at times, and I mean that as a compliment. They successfully present themselves as definitive sources, and it’s easy to imagine them being used in the college lectures on video games that are certain to become more commonplace in the future. They serve as reference materials and study guides at once, providing relatively little in the way of interpretation but giving readers all of the tools they’ll need to interpret these games and series themselves. It lays the groundwork, in other words, for designers and gamers to reach the next level of understanding. As odd as it may sound in regards to books about video games, these are genuinely educational.

And, frankly, they’re pretty great. I was given these books in exchange for a review, but I’ve also placed an order for the Bioshock book, as I think that is a series that will lend itself very well to the Third Editions approach. I didn’t just read these and enjoy them…I read them and wanted more.

For fans of any of these games, especially fans who are interested in studying them, it’s hard to go wrong with Third Editions. They’re well-written, surprisingly informative, and deeply comprehensive. They look and feel great, and they’d make a great gift for gamers and scholars alike.

Whether or not the more clinical, detached approach will appeal to you is something I can’t answer. If the kind of video game chat you enjoy is held with good friends over a long night of drinking, then Boss Fight Books is probably a better fit for you. But if you’d prefer video games to get the exhaustive, thorough, scholarly treatment films and music have been getting for decades, give Third Editions a spin.

Personally, I enjoy them both for different reasons. But I look forward to seeing what Third Editions covers next. It will be interesting to see if it achieves the staying power Boss Fight Books has. I certainly wish them luck, and I hope they find the exposure they deserve.

You can view and purchase the books available from Third Editions right here.

Update: Prostrate

February 25th, 2018 | Posted by Philip J Reed in Meta - (1 Comments)

I was off to such a good start this year with regular posts! Oh well. Nothing lasts forever, least of all a consistent upload schedule at Noiseless Chatter.

I’m not dead, though that becomes a bit more appealing a prospect by the day! I’ve been struck with a particularly nasty flu, for the second time this season. (The first was right around Christmas.) It’s not pleasant. I have indeed been working on a couple of posts, one of which is the final installment of Fight, Megaman!, but I certainly don’t have anything in a publishable format quite yet.

That will change. I’m much better today than I was yesterday, and so on down the line. I’m just not totally recovered yet.

Do stick around. There’s lots of fun stuff to come, including this year’s Rule of Three, in which I’ll take extended looks at three related comedy films. So far I’ve covered two series of films that were very important to me growing up, and this time around will be no different in that regard. I look forward to writing them, sharing them, and reading your comments. Especially when it comes to the third film in the series, but…we’ll get there soon enough.

So, yes, I’ve been doing far more hallucinating than writing lately, but you ain’t rid of me yet.

I love A Hat in Time. And I hate it. It contains a large number of things I’d point to as absolutely perfect examples for other games to emulate, and an equal number that I never want to see done again. It does almost everything that isn’t important perfectly, and almost everything that is important poorly.

It’s a beautiful mess. It’s the worst game I’d recommend wholeheartedly. Everybody should play it, but it’s a shame they’ll feel so frustrated as a result.

I first learned about A Hat in Time years ago. I wasn’t actively looking for it and I didn’t actively follow it, so I can’t say for sure that I learned about it through the Kickstarter announcement. Likely enough it was after it had already been successfully funded. Either way, I remembered the distinctive look of the main character and little else. The next I heard of it was just a few months ago, when I learned it was about to be released for PS4.

The early reviews were positive, so it landed on my radar. Then more reviews came in. And more. And they were all positive as well. I intended to wait for a sale but, at some point, figured I might as well support an indie developer with a full-price purchase. After all, the game was evidently quite good. Why not contribute to its success?

I don’t regret my purchase, but I do feel conflicted in a way I’ve felt with almost no other game. Typically I either enjoy a game or I don’t. We can get more granular than that, of course, but I nearly always at least know which side of that dividing line the game ends up on. Here, though, I’m not as confident pinning it down.

It’s great. It truly is. It’s a wonderful, memorable, addictive, charming experience. It’s also, in many respects, a fundamentally bad game. So how do I rectify that?

Maybe I don’t. Maybe I just find some way to live with the fact that the game wasn’t what it could have been. But even then, I’m not sure that’s correct. It does fail to meet its own potential in some ways. In other ways, though, it exceeds them to such thrilling extents that I want to proclaim my conflicted love from the rooftops.

So what, exactly, the fuck, is going on here?

A Hat in Time is a retro-influenced collectathon throwback, which is basically to say it’s a 3D platformer decidedly in the vein of Super Mario 64. Modelling yourself so openly and directly after one of the most influential video games of all time seems like the kind of thing that can only make you look bad by comparison, but A Hat in Time actually pulls it off. This is its greatest achievement.

Super Mario 64 was a great game, and I’m using the past tense there on purpose. Through no fault of its own, the game has since aged. If you haven’t dusted it off since the Nintendo 64 era, do so. You’ll find a game that’s still a lot of fun and certainly retains its charm, but it’s also clunky. Its camera is stubborn. Many of its later levels lack focus, or ignore the philosophy of exploration that should be at the heart of the game. A handful of its puzzles are inscrutable. Creatures run off with important things (such as stars or your cap) and force you to wrestle with the camera and the environment simultaneously as you chase them down in irritation.

Again, though, this is through no fault of the game’s own. Super Mario 64 laid down the template for any 3D platformer worth its salt to follow, which is a profoundly impressive accomplishment. But the problem with going first is that you’re rarely the one that does it best. Every game to follow — Nintendo-made or not — had the luxury of studying Super Mario 64, of finding ways to improve it, of, basically, pushing the genre ahead from there.

Fast forward to today and play a few hours of Super Mario Odyssey. Hell, play 30 seconds of Super Mario Odyssey. Any complaint you may have about Super Mario 64 is addressed and made redundant by that successor, and certainly all of my complaints above are rectified as well. Super Mario 64 was very good at what it set out to do, but the games that came later were able to build on it and were better for that opportunity. The forefather of 3D platforming looks and feels a bit crustier with each passing year. Nothing makes that clearer than Super Mario Odyssey, the game’s own descendant.

A Hat in Time therefore has quite an opportunity to overshadow its inspiration. It couldn’t possibly hope to be as memorable or influential, but it can at least study Super Mario 64, pluck out the bits that don’t work, lean into the bits that do work, and build its own identity around the margins.

And, to its massive credit, that’s almost exactly what it does.

Let’s start with that identity, because it’s important, and it’s A Hat in Time‘s greatest asset.

Mario has a lot of passive personality (his groans of disappointment when he fails, his joyful whelps as he leaps around, the little dances he performs and poses he strikes when he completes a level), but not much character. This isn’t necessarily a problem — the global, consistent success of his games proves that — but it does mean it’s one easy area for A Hat in Time to run circles around him…and the game does.

The otherwise unnamed Hat Kid is bursting with infectious personality. She’s silly. She’s bratty. She’s a fun-loving scamp. We don’t hear her launch into monologues about her feelings, but she does make them known in other ways, such as the mocking faces she pulls at the residents of Mafia Town, the way she spins around in her captain’s chair when she sits down, or the way she keeps one eye shut for a while afterward if you accidentally slam her into a wall.

She feels real. You have complete control over what she does in terms of gameplay, but between and around your inputs, she asserts herself as an autonomous being. She exists. I might be able to imagine bumping into Mario in a shopping mall, but I’m not sure why he’d be there or what purchases he’d be carrying. I can, however, imagine those things about Hat Kid, along with her demeanor, the stores she’d want to visit and avoid, and the specific ways in which she’d torment the salespeople.

The story is so thin as to be essentially absent, but that works in the game’s favor. (And let’s not kid ourselves; Super Mario 64 didn’t have a story, either.) Hat Kid’s ship spills its precious cargo / fuel source — time pieces — and our heroine needs to track them down across several worlds. That would be that, except that the nefarious — and equally charming — Mustache Girl gets a sense of their true power, and seeks to horde them for herself.

It’s up to Hat Kid to find the time pieces, bop the bad guys, and guide her ship back home, all with the aid of a collection of hats that imbue her with special abilities. I’m sure it’s just a coincidence that Mario’s cap was the source of his powerups as well, right? Alright, probably not, but there is a difference. Nintendo didn’t want Mario’s caps to break the game, so it only allowed his powerups to function for a brief period of time. That would keep players from taking them into areas that weren’t designed for them. In A Hat in Time, though, Hat Kid can switch between them at will, and can use any of them she’s collected at any point in any area. This game provides the actual freedom that Super Mario 64 only suggested.

The sheer amount of personality in this game is staggering. Everything looks, feels, and sounds great. The background gags are always fun to find and are actually pretty funny. The dialogue got more than a few laughs out of me, from genuinely great jokes to cute jabs at genre conventions. And pretty much any time the profoundly expressive Hat Kid does anything, it’s worth a chuckle.

The graphics themselves aren’t anything impressive, but they pay appropriate homage to early polygonal games while still (clearly) improving on their visual quality. They also have a great deal of spirit and inventiveness behind them, even if they are simple when compared to games with larger budgets. Without question, though, the 2D art we see before each level is a consistent highlight, and is always gorgeous. They feel like promotional images from the Hat Kid cartoon we never had in our childhoods, but would have absolutely loved.

A Hat in Time is relentlessly adorable, and I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a cuter game in my life.

In addition to its much stronger personality, A Hat in Time also improves upon the level and goal design of Super Mario 64.

As a child I collected all 120 of Super Mario 64‘s stars, but I needed a lot of external information in order to do so. Nintendo Power and other guides lit for me the paths that weren’t clearly enough indicated by the game. By contrast, I gathered all of A Hat in Time‘s time pieces without any kind of aid at all. Not all of them were easy to find; it’s just that the game did a far better job of providing the information I needed in order to find them. A Hat in Time scratches the same itch as Super Mario 64, but without the frustrations we’d have about that game in this era of more enlightened game design.

In fact, in regards to the way in which certain time pieces are hidden in the levels, A Hat in Time outdoes Super Mario Odyssey. In that game, vague visual clues are sometimes found scattered throughout the levels. The game wants you to take a screenshot and consult it later to find a hidden power moon, which is fine, but it isn’t any fun, especially as many of the clues require an extraordinary amount of lateral thinking to work out. The answer is there, but you’re often expected to pore over the clue as you would one in a puzzle book, which isn’t very much fun when you’re sitting motionless on the couch for minutes on end with a controller in your hands. A Hat in Time, by contrast, provides an optional photograph of where the hidden time piece is. No screenshotting or puzzling out is necessary. You just look at the photo and soak in as many of the background details as you can, so that when you explore the level you can narrow down and eventually zero in on its location. It’s actually fun, because it gets your character moving, exploring, and attempting. You know…the things we like to do in video games.

For these hidden time pieces, A Hat in Time also takes a page out of Super Mario Sunshine‘s book, right down to the simplified, geometric visual design of that game’s secret areas. In both games, these sequences are a notable highlight, but the ones in A Hat in Time largely feel better and are more fun to play. In Super Mario Sunshine, the main gimmick of those levels was that you lost FLUDD, Mario’s water-powered jetpack, and you had to get by with your standard moveset. This made sense, but it also says a lot that the best parts of Super Mario Sunshine involve the game’s main mechanic being stripped out completely. A Hat in Time takes nothing away. Anything you can do in the rest of the game, you can do in these levels as well. Super Mario Sunshine had to ignore itself in order to provide these challenges. A Hat in Time embraces itself.

More favorable comparisons come from the levels themselves. While A Hat in Time has only five main levels and 40 time pieces to find, it almost always feels more expertly crafted than Super Mario 64. And while I know that’s bound to be a controversial opinion, perform this simple thought exercise: summon up all of your positive memories of Super Mario 64. Every moment you truly loved. Okay? Now set them aside. Next, summon up every moment of frustration in Super Mario 64. Every time you died because you couldn’t see where you were going, or didn’t know what you were supposed to do, or because the controls were too responsive or not responsive enough. Now set those to the other side. That’s…a pretty big pile, isn’t it?

Super Mario 64 did a lot of things very well. That’s a fact. And if you only look at its best moments, it’s far superior to A Hat in Time. However, if you look at the many (many, many) things it did poorly, A Hat in Time is the clear winner. It has its low points as well, but they aren’t as low, and certainly aren’t as numerous.

A Hat in Time is more consistent, in short. Super Mario 64 begins a delight and ends a chore. A Hat in Time starts at a high level of quality and almost exclusively stays there. It’s a solid game, and while Super Mario 64 had more ideas, A Hat in Time arguably handles its smaller amount in better ways.

I won’t spoil the game’s final level, but the four others aren’t just various open worlds with different color schemes. Mafia Town, the opening level, is the most like Super Mario 64‘s early stages. It’s large, its terrain is varied, it’s fun and easy to explore, and it’s packed with things to find. It’s a sunny, silly intro that sets the tone for the entire adventure.

After that, we take an unexpected detour into a movie studio, with objectives taking the form of films starring Hat Kid. Then there’s a spooky forest with a devilish character that keeps fencing you into signing contracts relating to your eternal damnation. In each of these levels, you choose an objective, the path to which is highlighted with a decidedly Mario-like camera pan.

In the fourth level, Alpine Skyline, that disappears completely. Your objectives aren’t spelled out for you anymore. You instead have to use the explorational skills you’ve developed in the previous levels to “read” the area and figure out what you need to do. I’ve seen other people grumble about this online, but, to me, it worked wonders. It reveals the objectives of the previous levels to have been something like training wheels, and Alpine Skyline challenges you to ride alone. Personally, I loved it, even if it took me a bit longer than it should have to twig what was going on.

To be blunt, there were levels in Super Mario 64 I hated playing, and still avoid whenever I can, even if I liked the concept. Lethal Lava Land, Hazy Maze Cave, Tick Tock Clock, Rainbow Ride…they just weren’t any fun. In A Hat in Time, I loved every area. Not equally, of course, but I never dreaded returning somewhere to fetch a time piece. In fact, I looked forward to it, and felt a little disappointed when I had entirely cleared an area, because that meant I had exhausted all of its surprises.

And, man, does A Hat in Time have surprises. I don’t want to spoil much here, but there are times that the game flows wonderfully into an escape sequence, a stealth sequences, a scavenger hunt, or even, once, a murder mystery, and it still feels right. It still feels correct. Super Mario 64 didn’t really have massive shakeup moments like that, or at least not many of them. And that’s fine; that game was a 3D platformer. But A Hat in Time shifts into and out of these memorable setpieces without ever feeling like it’s losing focus. They’re all equally valid elements of the game’s rich personality.

The music, as well, is some of the best I’ve heard in years. It does extremely clever and subtle things depending on where in a level you are, what you’re looking for, or what you’re up against, with the soundtrack shifting so naturally from one approach to another — or one set of instruments to another — that picking up on it is just one more pleasure to experience. There isn’t a weak track in the game, and some of them even have unlockable — just as good — remixes to collect.

If you’d like to believe A Hat in Time is a masterpiece, be my guest. Stop reading right now. I stand by everything I’ve said above, and, if you like, you can choose to leave with the idea that this game succeeds in providing an equivalent to Super Mario 64 for today’s generation.

You won’t be wrong. The game is beautiful.

But it’s also a mess.

The main issue and most consistent problem is the camera, which, to be blunt, is awful. When I look at the graphics, I have no problem with them being a marginal improvement on Super Mario 64 and yet miles behind current standards. When I say the same thing about the camera, though, I’m spotlighting a serious issue. Graphics don’t affect gameplay. The experience of actually playing the game doesn’t change in any notable way depending on how things look. Your enjoyment may be enhanced or diminished, but the gameplay itself isn’t affected.

In a 3D platformer, you can’t say that about a camera. When the camera fails to function, or functions poorly, it’s as much as problem as unreliable controls. The camera doesn’t just factor into the gameplay; it’s crucial to it. And so, yes, the camera in Super Mario 64 was pretty terrible, as we’ve discussed above. It zips between pre-determined notches, even if what you want to look at lies between two of those fixed positions. It cares about where Mario is, but not about where he’s trying to go, which is a problem whenever he needs to navigate small platforms and tricky jumps. It often behaves like an obstacle in itself, forcing you to manage it while you’re also trying to pull of complex maneuvers in treacherous areas. It’s bad.

A Hat in Time fixes much of this. The camera is easier to move. It’s much more versatile. It’s programmed to swing out and provide wider views during certain areas of the level, to give you a better sense of how to get where you’re going. This is all great, and it’s an improvement on Super Mario 64. However, this game’s camera introduces its own problems, and moderately outdoing the technology of a game that’s more than 20 years old isn’t much of an accomplishment.

Now, in full disclosure, I watched a video review that talked about how great A Hat in Time‘s camera is. The reviewer discussed all of the wonderful ways it avoids to problems people often have with cameras in 3D platformers, from foreground dithering to the smart way it changes perspective on its own. He gushed about it as though Jesus Christ himself had returned to redeem us from camera issues forever. So it’s possible that the PS4 version has camera problems that other versions don’t. To be honest, though, I think the solution is simpler: that reviewer was lying.

This isn’t a question of opinion, taste, or preference. This is a question of basic functionality. And while it’s certainly possible to 100% A Hat in Time, the camera keeps that from being a wholly fair experience, and often turns it into a frustrating one.

In many cases, the camera’s pre-programmed behavior worked against me. Yes, it’s nice that it’s smart enough to zoom out to show me all of the small platforms I’ll have to navigate, but what if I’d prefer not to see all of them and would rather focus on a single jump at a time? Too bad; many of the times the camera behaves autonomously, it also locks, preventing you from overriding it. Other times it poses a different problem; I might move the camera so that I can get a good view of where I am and where I want to go, and it works fine. But the moment I jump, the camera whizzes away to show me the leap from its preferred angle, throwing me off. It either doesn’t move, or doesn’t stay put.

This is especially problematic when combined with the fact that the game doesn’t do a great job of helping you gauge distance when you’re not moving. Many times I need to move the camera in order to get any sense of whether or not a jump can even be made…but I can’t. So I just have to leap and learn that a platform was either much closer or much further away than it seemed.

While that might sound like an exaggeration, I encountered both issues regularly. Many times the only path forward seemed to take me over a gap that looked far too wide to jump…but I could actually jump it easily, and the perspective was just throwing me off. Other times I fell to my death because I couldn’t actually reach something that looked to be only a short hop away. If I had more and better control of the camera, this never would have happened.

A Hat in Time does seem to realize it has a problem in this area, and it addresses it in a few ways. By placing collectible gems around the stage, it often leads your eye to the correct way forward. In fact, many times, the presence of gems was the only reason I thought I could clear a jump at all. It’s not an elegant solution, but it’s a fair one.

Also fair is Hat Kid’s shadow, which helps you see where you will land and gives you a sense of how you should maneuver in the air. The problem here is that the shadow disappears between floating platforms, making it almost useless as an aid to orientation. What’s more, the platforms are either small enough that seeing your shadow return doesn’t leave you with much reaction time, or so large that it doesn’t matter specifically where you land anyway. It’s a nice thought, but it only ever works when you don’t need it.

Then there’s Hat Kid’s double jump ability. Now, I’ll say here that I really enjoy Hat Kid’s moveset. When you’re flipping and somersaulting her through wide, expansive areas, it’s a lot of fun. Kudos to the game for that. But in the difficult platforming sections, the game seems to use the fact that you can double jump as an excuse for its own shoddy layouts.

In the same video review I referred to above, A Hat in Time‘s lead designer talked about the double jump as an opportunity for the player to correct his or her own mistakes. To paraphrase, the idea was that you could realize you misjudged a jump and then quickly jump again in the air to rescue yourself from your error. My response is the same as above: he’s lying.

See, that may be the move’s true origin, but it doesn’t reflect the way in which it’s actually used and required in the game. If that’s the purpose of the double jump, then it shouldn’t be necessary to use it to clear long gaps in the first place. If it’s there as a last-ditch salvage effort, it can’t be mandatory for certain jumps as well. But, of course, it is.

As a designer, you can either employ this mechanic as a bonus flourish, or as a necessary means of progression. A Hat in Time seems to think it can do both, but it really can’t. The reason for this is the difficulty in judging distance that we’ve already gone over. Because it’s hard (sometimes almost impossible) to tell how far away the next platform is, you don’t know if you’ll need to use that double jump or save it. In short, if the developer were telling the truth and every gap could be cleared with a single jump, the player would learn that and the double jump would serve the dedicated purpose of bailing you out of your mistakes. And if every gap needed a double jump to clear, the player would be able to learn that. Instead, some require a single jump, some require a double jump, and it’s not clear until you’re in the air (or falling out of it) which was which. It’s often a guessing game. Try to clear a gap with a single jump, and by the time you realize you need another one, you’ve already fallen too far for it to matter. Try to clear a different gap with two jumps and you’ll find you’ve overshot the platform and have no way of going back.

It isn’t fun, and it isn’t rewarding. Again, I want to make it clear that I explored every area and found every time piece in the game. It can be done. I’m not saying this because I’m so bad at A Hat in Time that I’ve decided to declare it impossible. Instead, I’m saying this because I gave the game more than enough time to teach me what to expect and how to respond to it, succeeding at each of its most devious challenges, and I still think it’s poorly designed in that regard.

Additionally, the camera doesn’t easily allow you to look up or down, which is a truly baffling decision in a game with so much vertical design. Typically a limitation like this would clue the player in to the fact that all or most of the action will be conducted horizontally, but vertical progression is frequently required in A Hat in Time…and you just have to deal with the fact that you’ll be doing it blindly. This is inexcusable. And, again, it’s not a matter of taste or preference. When the game asks you to ascend or descend a structure safely and you can’t actually look at where you’re meant to be going, that’s a failure of basic functionality.

There are also control issues. While Hat Kid seems to respond perfectly well to what I tell her to do, and that’s great, the game doesn’t always play by its own rules. Sometimes it will allow Hat Kid to grab a wall and climb up, and other times it won’t. Sometimes it will provide a prompt for Hat Kid to grab a hook or dive onto an enemy, and sometimes it won’t. Sometimes invisible barriers, especially in the fourth level, prevent Hat Kid from making jumps she should easily be able to, and you end up falling to your death through no fault of your own.

These are fundamental problems. If it’s up to Hat Kid to find the time pieces and bop the bad guys, the game actually needs to let you do those things reliably. Fumbling around while you learn the controls is one thing, but fumbling around many hours later in the vague hope that the game will obey its own rules is something else entirely.

Again, A Hat in Time seems to be aware of its own problems, and rather than fix them, it provides a peace offering. Many areas are crawling with health restoration gems. After a long enemy gauntlet or an especially tricky platforming section, this makes sense. But more often they seem to be tossed around after very basic, simple challenges, which suggests to me that the game knows it is unreliable even in its easiest stretches.

Other areas require a number of crown coins to be collected before you can progress, and there are always more crown coins than necessary. At first I figured this was to provide an element of choice to the player, about which coins to collect and which not to. But by the time I got to a long sequence of crown coins on collapsing towers, which Hat Kid would sometimes climb and sometimes wouldn’t, I realized it was just because the game didn’t reliably function the way it should. It wasn’t a buffer for your sake, it was a buffer for its.

And that’s by no means everything. I’ve had enemy attacks land but deal no damage to me. I’ve fallen into bottomless pits without losing any life, and fallen into other bottomless pits that took away three units of life. (For the record, it’s supposed to take one.) I’ve had platforms I was standing on turn invisible. They were still there and I didn’t die, but the game must have thought they were off camera because it suddenly stopped rendering them, and wouldn’t start again until I changed perspective. I’ve had checkpoints fail to register. I’ve had to stop the game and scratch my head when A Hat in Time expected me to hop onto a series of tiny red balloons floating above a sea of red lava. Would it really have been so much to ask for the balloons to be literally any other color, so that I could actually see the damned things?

To be fair, A Hat in Time is an indie game. It had a small staff and a limited budget. I understand that there was only so much they could accomplish and only so much technical prowess they could possibly demonstrate. But while I can make those mental allowances in my mind, it doesn’t make the game’s problems any less frustrating. However much or little money was dumped into the game, I’m still the one dying my 10th time because I’m trying to go over here while the camera’s giving me a great view of the platform over there. I’m still repeatedly swinging my parasol against a bell that doesn’t ring until the fifth or sixth time I strike it. I’m still sliding down walls I was able to climb a moment ago.

And yet…

And yet.

I also loved the game. I came home from work every day this past week and dove right back in. It was a fun and cheerful way to unwind. The knowledge that I still had some more secrets or areas to uncover was compelling me to play it over and over again. The frustrations would always be just on the horizon, but…I kept coming back.

I have played literally thousands of games that are better designed than A Hat in Time, that work more reliably, that exhibit more polish. But the vast majority of those I eventually lost interest in. I never finished. I never truly cared about.

A Hat in Time is often profoundly sloppy…but I couldn’t stop playing it.

In fact, I sat down to write this article after finishing the game. I knew I had missed three time pieces, but that was okay. I certainly had enough to say, and I could pick them up some other time.

…but just a few sentences in, I wanted to go back and get them. And so I did. I sat down again with A Hat in Time after I had finished, just because I knew there was something else to do. And I wanted to do it.

I said above that A Hat in Time does almost everything that isn’t important perfectly, and almost everything that is important poorly. Nearly all of the stuff I gushed about is nice to have, and the stuff I complained about is crucial to have.

But maybe that’s the real lesson here…that the stuff we think is important really isn’t, and the stuff we often dismiss as flourishes — great soundtracks, adorable characters, charm to spare — is what actually keeps up coming back.

I’m never going to argue that a game shouldn’t focus on getting its camera system or basic controls right, but how often do I return to flavorless, soulless games that are technically proficient? And how often do I return to the fun, memorable, quirky ones in spite of everything they do wrong?

I think we all have our own answer there, and I don’t think that acknowledging A Hat in Time‘s flaws marginalizes its accomplishments. I do, however, hope we get a sequel that irons out the kinks. A Hat in Time already does so effortlessly what mountains of other games struggle to. Now, all I want is a sequel that also plays as well as they do.

A Hat in Time is wonderful. You should buy it. You should set time aside to lose yourself in it. You should give yourself over to Hat Kid and Mustache Girl and the series of unique, funny, unforgettable worlds they inhabit. But you should also know that the game’s plumbing is exposed, and you’ll trip over it often.

A Hat in Time is the best game that ever sucked.

Seven and thirty-seven

February 4th, 2018 | Posted by Philip J Reed in personal - (2 Comments)

I promised a new year’s post looking back at 2017, and then never wrote it. What’s more, I didn’t even want to write it. Very little appealed to me less than looking back at the past year. I kept waiting to see if I’d be inspired to write it, and I never was. Which shouldn’t have surprised me at all; I’ve been lacking the inspiration to write about things I would like to cover. Forcing myself to write a new year’s post — even something as simple as “Let’s not do that shit again” — just wasn’t going to happen.

Besides, I knew I’d have to follow that up soon enough with the actual tradition that is my birthday post. I might as well put it off, and say anything I had to say later.

It’s later, now. Today is my birthday. I turn 37 as this very site enters its seventh year of existence.

And what is there to say? What do I want to say? What can I bring myself to say?

It was a hard year. I’d stop short of calling it terrible (in fact, it wasn’t terrible), but, much like the year before it, it certainly wasn’t easy.

Life has been trying, lately. Change is always hard, but I think it’s fair to say it’s far harder when that change isn’t your choice. I had two friends pass away. I had my car legally totaled by a freak hailstorm, and then had my replacement car targeted repeatedly by vandals. I was forced to move out of a place I loved and into a place I didn’t. I was accosted in a parking lot one night and then had to recount it again and again to authority figures who haven’t been able to find the guy. I ended up hurting the one person I’m willing to believe has ever truly loved me.

And…well, something else. Something I’d prefer not to go into now, even as I’m opening myself up. Suffice it to say, I went through something this past year that left me more or less convinced I would not be around much longer. Very likely not long enough to even write this post. Something I’ve told almost nobody, and certainly nobody who will ever read this site. I struggled alone, through something I really believed was going to kill me. I guess I got lucky. That much depends on how you look at it, but, either way, I’m here.

Oh, and evidently the world is in a political deathspin. That’s nice, too.

It’s difficult when so much of your headspace is dedicated to simply coping to find the inspiration — or, perhaps, the energy — to be productive. Through all of this, of course, I work a full-time job and freelance whenever possible.

I start thinking about things I’d like to do as chunks of time I won’t get back, and then I don’t do them. Sure, I could read for an hour, but then that’s an hour less of sleep, or one less freelance job I can take. I’d love to see that new movie, but after travel and conversation with whomever I go with, that’s three or four hours I can’t use to catch up on everything else that’s been slipping. I can write an article for this site, or I can actually watch / play / listen to / read whatever the heck I might want to write about.

And so, to be blunt, I’m aware I haven’t had the most productive year here. I won’t do the math, because there’s no way it would lead to any number I’d like to focus on, but I’m willing to believe I’ve had the least productive year here.

It’s not all about volume. I know that. We all have our ups and downs, but I wouldn’t say that the quality of my work — here or elsewhere — is any lower on the whole than it’s ever been.

I’m a really glass-half-full kinda guy, huh?

Alright, fine. I will say, in all honesty, that I’ve published some of my favorite things in the past year. Flipping through the archives I see posts that felt important to share. Posts that opened doors for me creatively and professionally. Posts that led me to people and artists I would not have encountered otherwise.

But I wish there was more of it. I have a number of things I wish I could have written. I have a number of series I wish I could have kept up. I have a number of things I’ve been asked to cover that I simply haven’t been able to, because I’ve been drained and dragging and empty.

That was 2017. A year I simultaneously wish I could do over and am glad I’ll never see again.

Now it’s 2018, and having a birthday just about a month into the year is actually very efficient for someone like me: I get to blast through all of my introspection in one good stretch. I’m glad, because I don’t think I’d survive doing it twice annually.

Shortly before the new year, a Facebook friend shared an image of a chart like the one you see above. The idea was that you’d fill in one square each day, color coded by mood, and when you were finished you’d have a bit of pixel art representing your year. I thought “pixel art” was a bit of a stretch — as you’re guaranteed to end up with a vague speckled mess as opposed to, say, an 8-bit apple — but I also thought it might be a nice idea. I mocked up my own version in Excel — along with mood options I felt were more suited to me specifically — and, so far, I’ve been keeping up with it.

And you’ll see it’s…really not that bad. So far, 2018 has been pretty great. It hasn’t been perfect, and I’ve had a couple of lousy days, but…things are okay.

I’m happier. My background tragedies have either been resolved or naturally receded. I’ve met a great new person. I have a wealth of new opportunities. I wake up in the morning to go to a job I love and, relatively speaking, I have energy on the weekends to do the things I enjoy.

“The year” is obviously just a construct. It’s helpful to file away history by the page, and this is how we’ve chosen to measure it. Beyond that it has very little significance. I know that. And yet, this time around, it really does feel as though a dividing line has been carved. I approached the end of one year an anxious tangle of despair, and started the next one feeling…normal.

Feeling almost human. Feeling like just a person who gets to live. One who, of course, has to deal with whatever hardships life chooses to lob his way but one who doesn’t find them unduly compounded to the point that they’re impossible to overcome.

But there’s a caveat.

Obviously a chart like that can’t show the complete story. Nearly every day I experience the entire colorful range of those emotions. Maybe I’ll get lucky and not feel too anxious. More likely, I won’t feel happy. But those things change by the hour, at least, and mapping emotions at that level would be unsustainable. So at the end of each day, I have to sort of average it out. And averaging a day out to “satisfied,” even if it’s accurate in a general sense, by no means tells or suggests the actual emotional cocktail that is any given day.

Even moreso, though, the chart doesn’t and can’t take into account the background hum of depression, anxiety, and hopelessness that I experience constantly. A friend who saw my chart a few weeks ago congratulated me on having a great start to my new year. And, again, I have. But as we continued the conversation and I mentioned that in spite of those very good days I still feel like I have no hope for the future and very little desire to keep going, he said, “That doesn’t sound like a great start to me.”

And, well, it’s not. I’m never one to mince words anyway, so let me be clear: it sucks.

I don’t like the feelings I’ve been cursed with. I don’t like that that’s where my brain lives, only popping out temporarily for a peek at the sun before sinking into the mire again. I don’t like that that’s who I am. After a social event this year, another friend of mine asked me if I enjoyed myself. She was taken aback when I replied, “I have a complicated relationship with enjoying myself.”

I didn’t say it to be wry or even to dodge the question. That was my answer. It was honest. And it’s only when somebody else hears it and is baffled by it that you realize that’s not how it’s supposed to be.

A good day or a good social event isn’t about enjoying myself. It’s about distracting myself — maybe — from the desolate hum that is always, hour by hour, pulsing through my brain. It’s about not actively hating who I am or what I’m doing. It’s about not being so anxious or socially terrified that I shut down completely.

You need to grade these things on a curve. For me, that’s a good day.

And then I get anxious about actually enjoying myself. On those rare occasions that I do fine, tell jokes, make some new friends, or whatever else, I end up giving people the wrong impression. I’m open about my mental health issues here, on this blog, because it’s far easier to consider them and write about them and post them for people I’ve never met than it is to put myself on the spot in front of somebody I see regularly. But when I do open up to people, I often get responses such as, “That’s not true. I’ve seen you in social situations. You can do it.”

In a sense, they’re right. In a sense, they’re wrong. Sure, I can do it. And also, I can’t. It depends on what my brain lets me do. If I’m able to push through, I will. Why not? Who on Earth would rather have a bad time with others? Certainly not me. When I do struggle, fail, shut down, it’s not for lack of trying. It’s because I can’t — genuinely cannot — push through the barrier. My own mind will not let me enjoy myself.

I want to enjoy myself. Why wouldn’t I?

I want to have truly great days. Why wouldn’t I?

I want to be funny and charming and sweet to everybody, all the time. Why wouldn’t I?

Instead, those things happen with extraordinary rarity. Life is already hard. People are already assholes. Getting ahead is already difficult. On top of all of that, I have my own mind holding me back. I wrestle with it 24 hours a day, every day that I’m alive. A good day might mean that I won 51% of the matches. Honestly, a good day might just mean that I won 20% of them.

When I can’t push through, I can’t push through. There’s no decision I can make or amount of energy I can invest to change that. It’s a problem. And while medication and counseling have helped me a great deal in reducing the volume of the hum, it’s always there. Every moment of every day. And it always will be.

One of the most flattering things that happened this year is that I was contacted by the marketing arm of a counseling service I’ve actually used, and which I was certainly happy with. (Here, in this context, I’d prefer not to mention them by name.) They have a resource section managed by their therapists and wanted to know if they had permission to use excerpts from my blog, to help others who are dealing with the same kinds of issues.

They had no idea I was a former patient. When I told them, they were surprised. But they singled out a few posts I had written as being potentially helpful to others and…well…that’s pretty much the whole reason I open up in the first place.

It helps to talk about it, sure…but only so much. Every so often I might type out an experience and give myself a new perspective on it by doing so, but, more likely, it’s just me, firing sentences off into the aether. If I can help anybody out there — anybody at all — by sharing the way I feel…if I can make them feel less alone…hell, if I can make them feel better just because they don’t have to deal with the kind of crap I do, or don’t have to deal with it as severely or as deeply…well, then, it’s worth it.

We all suffer what we suffer. We don’t get to choose our afflictions or our hangups or our neuroses. We all have issues, and, if I had to guess, I’d say a very small percentage of people indeed would have chosen their particular issues.

But that kind of universal dissatisfaction is exactly what gives us such great escapes as books and movies and music and video games in the first place. It’s why I immerse myself in those things. It’s why I (at times…) write about them. It’s why I discuss them. It’s why I connect with people who like the same kinds of escapes that I do.

I’ve known many people who find their escapes (whether or not they’d call them that) with travel. Or with partying. Or by shopping. And that’s all fine. Those are good things, as long as you don’t overdo them, or do them foolishly without regard for consequence. But those are never things that have really helped me. I’ve never gotten home from a party — no matter how fun — and said, “I really needed that.”

Conversely, I’ve said that or something very similar after a huge number of books.

Art is important. It’s art that has allowed me to understand who I am. It’s art that has allowed me to see myself through another lens, and gain valuable perspective about what’s important. It’s art that provides a consistent source of comfort, which is essential when your own mind provides you with a consistent source of discomfort. Art allows me a crucial and necessary balance.

I feel privileged and grateful that I have that. I feel even more privileged and grateful that I’ve been able to be part of meaningful projects that have helped people, provided them with entertainment, or at least just gave them something fun to enjoy during some downtime.

I’m lucky. I know that. I’m a writer who gets to make a living doing what he loves. I have friends who care about me. I’ve built the family I never had before. As trying as the past year has been, every day this year seems to remind me at least once that it’s worth sticking around.

Thirty-seven years of struggle takes its toll, though. And I’ll always have that nagging feeling of helplessness because each year makes it more clear that I’m going to have these same struggles forever. They won’t go away. They can’t. That isn’t an option.

The only option is to keep on going. To hope you don’t cause too much damage along the way. To hope you’ll have enough green stretches to catch your breath. To find people who understand — actually do understand — who will help you feel less alone.

I guess that’s what it’s like to live with that hum. You’re cursed always to feel alone, even when you know beyond the shadow of a doubt that you’re not.

And you’re not. Whoever you are, whatever you’re up against: you’re not.

It’s worth sticking around.

Even if it never quite actually feels that way.

Happy new year.

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