ALF Reviews: ALF, Sega Master System (1989)

Oh, my aching ass hole.

It’s been two years since I finished reviewing ALF, but the fucker still haunts my dreams. People still send me ALF shit in the mail. (Not literal shit excreted by ALF, though I think I’d actually prefer that to the figurines and paper plates and coloring books.) People still tag me in every YOU’RE SO OLD IF YOU REMEMBER THIS meme that features a picture of ALF. Every time the National Enquirer catches Max Wright shambling out of his apartment to plead with God to take him, I’m the first to know.

All of which is to say, I have yet to exorcise the demon. My work must not be done. I attempted to do this a year ago with that review of ALF Loves a Mystery that I promised to a reader who doesn’t come here anymore, but the Earth has completed one more orbit around the sun and society has sunk another dozen or so notches toward hell and I still have work to do.

ALF, released for the Sega Master System on December 31, 1989, is something I actually did want to cover during my reviews of the show. Casey over at Perfect Strangers Reviled feels compelled to drag out his misery by covering every fucking thing that happened to every fucking actor during every fucking minute of their day. Me? I did the bare minimum and fucked the hell off, secure in the knowledge that I’d only have to dip back into the show every year for the rest of eternity.

I think we can easily see who won that round.

ALF: The Video Game, which is what I’ll call it to avoid confusion with the show (though ALF: The Digital Fuck-You is almost certain to be more accurate) was not the only ALF-related software released during the show’s run.

It is probably, however, the only title worth reviewing. Most of it was printing software and educational games with an ALF license. There was a computer game called ALF: The First Adventure, which I haven’t played but seems to be a pretty simple and inoffensive little maze game. It was also released in 1987, which was actually when anybody with half a brain might have given a shit about the show.

I don’t know what month it came out, but 1987 covers the stretch between the second half of season one and the first half of season two. That’s perfect tie-in timing. ALF: The Video Game, by contrast, came out at what must certainly have been the worst possible time: just as the show was about to end forever with the Alien Task Force disemboweling ALF in a field. A December 31, 1989 release means only 11 episodes were left. Four of those episodes actually came close to being good, but one of them featured Jim J. Bullock so fuck it.

I’ve never played ALF: The Video Game before. That’s partially because I wasn’t one of the 30 people who owned a Master System. For those of you who don’t know, the Master System was the hunk of crap Sega made before the Genesis. The Genesis is the one you remember, trust me. (Unless you’re in the UK, in which case the Genesis was called the Mega Drive. The Master System was probably called the Goody Box or some such nonsense.)

My uncle had a Master System, for some reason. I remember playing it way back then and not feeling even slightly disappointed that I owned an NES. I definitely remember playing Rocky, which only made me wish I were playing Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!!, and some Duck Hunt-style game that really fucking made me wish I were playing Duck Hunt. The Master System version did have little armadillos that curled up into balls when you shot them, though, and that was kinda cool.

I don’t think my uncle had ALF: The Video Game, which is good because I was a fucking idiot as a kid and probably would have played it. My mental state is fragile enough as it is, so I can’t imagine cramming this traumatic experience into my past as well. I’d be a gibbering wreck.

More of a gibbering wreck. Maybe I wouldn’t even be able to gibber!

Anyway, the one thing I do know for sure about ALF: The Video Game is that it has puzzle elements, and it’s not just about jumping over obstacles and eating…um…man, it’s been so long since I reviewed ALF. What was it he was famous for wanting to eat?

Oh, right: underage tits.

That’s mildly worrying, because it leaves open the possibility that I’ll get permanently stuck on some inscrutable puzzle at some point, but I did find a walkthrough. I won’t refer to it unless I absolutely need to, but I’m glad to know it’s there.

The funny thing is that the walkthrough was written in 2012! Twenty-three years after nobody cared about this game in the first place, some dodo dug it up and personally wrote a step-by-step guide to playing it.

Holy shit. Can we all just take a moment to reflect on what a sad fucking life that guy must lead?

Anyway, please enjoy my exhaustive review of ALF: The Video Game.

No nevermind FUCK IT SHUT THIS OFF FUCK IT NO

I…

This is a real release.

This was on store shelves.

This was a product people coded and manufactured and distributed.

Why does it look like this?

To put it in perspective, here are just a few of the other games 1989 had to offer: Super Mario Land, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Phantasy Star II, Golden Axe, Mother, Dragon Warrior, Castlevania III, Duck Tales, Prince of Persia, Mega Man Fuckin’ 2.

This was a good year for gaming, and I’m only listing the games whose legends have endured. Add in the forgotten and overlooked gems (not to mention the brilliant games that would have been released a year earlier or later) and you’d have yourself one hell of a fantastic retro library.

So why do we have a title screen with hideous pixel art of ALF realizing he just sat on his sack?

Why couldn’t they capitalize the P in Productions? Why can’t they get three fucking letters the same size? Who on Earth would want to play this?

And I’m just showing you the static image. I’m not making you listen to the music. The tinny, maddening, looping music. It’s fucking terrible. I know writing about music is like dancing about architecture (my observation so please credit me if you use it elsewhere) and I’m even worse at architecture than I am at dancing, music, and writing, so I know I can’t possibly describe it for you.

But maybe think about an ice cream truck playing a peppy little jingle. Only that jingle is composed of digitized shrieks and screams. And the volume is so high that it overwhelms the truck’s shitty speakers and comes out sounding distorted. And that ice cream truck is currently getting the electric chair. And your little brother is puncturing your eardrums with heroin needles.

What I’ve just described would be “Hey Jude” compared to this horse shit.

The music loops a few times and then the game plays with itself.

Nothing really happens except that ALF walks to the left. Like, he’s in a house walking to the left, and then he’s on a street walking to the left and then he’s in a cave walking to the left.

Different games have taken different approaches to this, but these demo sequences are holdovers from the arcade days of “attract modes.” The idea, obviously, was that every quarter had to be peeled out of somebody’s hand, so in addition to cabinet artwork and flashing lights, a game going unplayed would sort of audition itself briefly to passing kids. It would show off action-packed sequences to prove it could be fun. It would show off impressive cinematics to prove it was cutting edge. It would show off interesting late-game levels to prove it was worth playing for as long as it took to get there.

It would, in a word, convince. It was its own commercial.

In the attract mode for ALF: The Video Game, ALF walks brainlessly into a pit and his angel ascends to Heaven.* Great.

There are a few sequences in the demo, and since we don’t see any puzzles or platforming or combat, I guess ALF: The Video Game is just intending to show us all of the incredible, varied locations ALF can walk left through. If you’d like to know how many there are, I’ll help you figure it out.

Look to the left. Now look to the right. Now look below you. You’ve just looked at more locations than you’ll find in ALF: The Video Game.

The very end of the attract mode is ALF swimming. Some nameless human enemy fires a harpoon at him and the sequence ends literally one frame before the harpoon pierces ALF’s throat. It’s a far better cliffhanger than “Consider Me Gone” had, that’s for sure.

I will point out that I’m playing this on an emulator, because no human being deserves to profit off of ALF, least of all the guy on eBay who wants $480 for a copy, plus $20 shipping.

Yes, there are cheaper copies, but when something sells for $500 and you buy the same item for $35 or something you can be reasonably sure you’re going to receive a box full of ants.

I bring this up, though, to assure you that while I will be emulating what is clearly going to be the gaming experience of walking in on your parents making a snuff film, I won’t be using save states or anything. And if you don’t know what that means, it’s enough to know that I won’t be cheating my way through it, and I won’t be manipulating the game in any way to make it easier on myself.

If you don’t believe me, just reflect on the fact that I reviewed all 99 episodes of ALF, and the movie, when I could have easily cheated and just said I died.

Ah alright fine whatever I’ve stalled enough let’s play this garbage.

Well, that will sure teach me not to make fun of the art on the title screen.

This is…like, this is actually Microsoft Paint, right? Like, without any joke, that’s what we’re looking at here? This is exactly the quality of art I was able to produce with it at around 12 years of age, and about what I’m still able to produce with it today. But there’s an important difference, I think: I AM NOT AND HAVE NEVER BEEN A PROFESSIONAL ARTIST FOR VIDEO GAMES.

Those games I listed above as coming from 1989? Those were all varying degrees of good games. But, what’s more, they were all varying degrees of beautiful games. Look at the art style of Phantasy Star II, Duck Tales, Castlevania III. Look at what people were able to achieve with pixel art. Look at the way each of those games evokes different feelings, emotions, universes with nothing but simple sprites and backgrounds. And those games were far from alone; even terrible games back then tended to (though they certainly didn’t always) have actual artistic direction. They had care invested in their presentations.

It’s not enough to say, “Eh, it’s an early console game,” because that does a disservice to anyone who ever worked their ass off to successfully produce a game that looked, sounded, or played fantastically. And, let’s be frank here, a number of companies such as Nintendo, Capcom, and Konami were already doing all three reliably.

What this first screen of actual gameplay tells me — this first impression of what the game is — is that the developers don’t care. They don’t care that it looks like crap and they don’t care that it sounds like crap, so I’ll be shocked to holy hell if they care that it plays like crap.

Anyway I’ve spent enough time bitching that ALF has entered his impatient animation. He knocks on the screen, so angry that he forgets how punctuation works.

But guess what, pixel dick?! I ain’t done yet!

This is clearly meant to be the Tanner house, and we start outside. ALF’s spaceship is on the garage, which would seem to imply that he just crashed here. And that would be fine! But we remember from the show both a) he crashed at night and b) the Tanners waited something like 71 episodes before they bothered removing the fucking UFO from the roof.

On top of the house itself, there’s some kind of green scooter thing. ALF can scale the ivy to the top of the house, which we remember was always one story.

Once there, ALF automatically stands on the scooter, but he can’t do anything. So far as I can tell, only one action button in this game does anything. The Master System had two action buttons, labelled 1 and 2, but 1 both jumps and interacts with things.

ALF hints that we need to find some fuel for this thing, and that seems to be all we can interact with here. I head off to the right in the hopes that the next screen will have, at the very least, a different shrill, ear-scraping melody.

It doesn’t. Or maybe it sort of does? It’s hard to tell. It’s like saying I hear a different melody when I put my own head through a glass window than I hear when I put your head through one.

Despite the fact that most of the garage is out of view and the fact that the garage was an important location in so many episodes of the show and the fact that THE COCKING SPACESHIP is on the roof of the garage, you can’t go in there, and heading right leads you to the middle of some street.

I didn’t cut anything out between those two screens. Walk right from the scooter and there you are, in the middle of traffic. No wonder a social worker can afford a home like this in Los Angeles; the fucking highway runs right into the side of it.

I thought at the very least we’d be able to explore the rest of the Tanners’ yard, or maybe the Ochmoneks’ house (where ALF could snag a rad Hawaiian shirt). Any of that would have required some degree of creativity though so fuuuuuuuck dat.

We do see two of the game’s many (three) enemies on the screen, though. There’s a kid on a motorbike who zips by again and again. Only the wheels are animated, which would normally be fine, but the fact that he seems to be the only person using the road makes it very clear that the developers were being as lazy as possible.

In the upper right you see…I dunno, The Hamburglar? He shuffles along the sidewalk like he shit his pants, and he just keeps opening and closing his hands as he walks, like he’s honking a set of imaginary tits.

My assumption is that this guy is supposed to be from the Alien Task Force, despite the fact that the show always had them dress as officers in the military and this guy is cosplaying Carmen Sandiego. I figured I’d look up the game’s manual online to be sure and, yep, Alien Task Force.

Of course that means I had to read the fucking manual to ALF: The Video Game so I’m not letting you off the hook, either.

And…that’s pretty interesting, in more ways than you might at first realize.

I will say that I have no idea if the age of 229 is show-accurate. Maybe one of you remembers. The odds are good that you’ve read my ALF reviews more recently than I have, and frankly I’m just thrilled that I managed to erase some ALF information from my mind without physically carving it out with runcible spoon. But beyond that…

Even at the very end of the show’s run, official products can’t decide whether to call him ALF or Alf. Here’s my humble take on it: It’s clearly ALF you fucking morons.

Then there’s some interesting information complementing what we heard in the show. In no particular order, this confirms that Melmac indeed exploded when everyone plugged in their hair dryers at the same time. If I remember correctly, this was stated in the show, but as that kind of offhand comment ALF so often made that we could never definitively prove wasn’t a joke. (Three cheers for the metatextual irony of never knowing whether or not something in a sitcom is meant to be funny.)

We also learn that ALF left Melmac to find a “space-age candy store.” This could contradict what we learned in the show — he fled when he heard the emergency sirens, without helping anyone else — but I’m actually cool with it. Everything we learned about him points to the fact that while his family, friends, girlfriend, pets, Orbit Guard colleagues, and his entire history and culture perish in a nuclear holocaust, his first thought would indeed be where to get some junk food.

What’s more, the colony of New Melmac or whatever it is that Skip and Rhonda founded was evidently on Mars. Fine, whatever.

But the most interesting thing? Maybe you noticed, maybe you didn’t, but…ALF joining Skip and Rhonda on their new homeworld was an idea not yet introduced by the show proper. This confirms that there was some communication between the developers of this game and the writers of the show; the developers were privy to a plot development that viewers wouldn’t see until the final episode.

As a recap, “Consider Me Gone” saw ALF attempting to meet up with Skip and Rhonda as the Alien Task Force closes in on him and Willie thinks “THANK CHRIST” so loudly you can hear it in your bones.

The manual also mentions that Lucky is in the game, even though he died in “Live and Let Die.” Not a big deal, but I figured I’d point it out since Lucky is the only character other than ALF mentioned in the entire fucking manual.

The manual also offers some extremely helpful insight for players, such as “You can’t beat this game without items.” Gee, thanks.

Introducing a list of those items, it says, “Not all items are actually pictured in the game, so we’re showing you pictures of them here so you can see what they look like.” Which is more or less the creative team saying, “We’re so lazy we didn’t even bother to draw most of the shit that’s supposed to be in this game.”

Oh and this:

I hope to fuck this is one of the items not actually pictured in the game.

Anyway, I go left to the garage again and then left one more screen, and I’m instantly in the Tanner kitchen.

That’s Lucky on the counter, and Tits McSqueezins coming in from the left. Not pictured is me on the ground, twitching and nauseous over the pattern on the floor.

Also, suddenly, I have a status bar, which disappears when I go outside to the right again. I have to assume it’s a programming error, because there’s no reason for my score, money, and lives to be displayed on this screen and not the other two I’ve already visited.

I’m assuming those are lives in the upper right, anyway. They’re ALF heads, I think. Or maybe they’re little icons of his arm making a muscle? Maybe they’re Melmacian genitals. Who gives a shit.

The next time I come in, that fucking guy enters from the right instead.

This means I can proceed to the left, but I have to wonder if that’s the actual solution. Is that what I was supposed to do? Flee the room and return, somehow warping spacetime and plopping my adversary somewhere else entirely? At least the game follows the narrative conventions established by the show: something happens, then something else happens, then something different happens, then it stops.

At least, I hope it stops.

I walk past Lucky, who disappears. I was hoping for a sound effect like when Pac-Man swallows a piece of fruit whole but no such luck(y). The cat appears in my inventory instead. Please don’t ask where ALF crammed him.

I try to interact with the refrigerator, but suddenly the 1 button doesn’t let me, and the 2 button does. THANKS. Was every screen made my a different person? Jesus.

In the refrigerator ALF finds a salami stick. He says “Just the ticket for those nasty bats,” and I have no fucking clue what he’s talking about. What bats? I’m assuming we’ll find them later, but isn’t it a bit strange to say that now, when it’s impossible that any player would have seen them yet? And why would seeing a stick of salami immediately make you say, “Aw yeah, now I’m gonna fuck up some bats”? I don’t understand this even slightly.

ALF wedges the salami snugly beside Lucky and we move further left. Now we’re in the Tanners’ central corridor, which we all certainly remember from every episode of the show. On the wall are two portraits that you can’t definitively prove aren’t Willie and Kate so there that’s your cameo shut the fuck up.

At least we get three doors to choose from, and the fact that I’m genuinely excited about that, in spite of the fact that they couldn’t possibly lead to anything interesting, shows how much of an adventure game fan I am.

I grew up playing graphical adventure games of all stripes. My favorites were the ones made by Sierra, mainly the Space Quest series, but Freddy Pharkas: Frontier Pharmacist is still the best one I’ve ever played. I also loved Leisure Suit Larry 6, which took place in a hotel that is still one of the best and most memorable locations I’ve ever explored in a video game.

Elsewhere there was The Secret of Monkey Island, which my friend Ray owned and which I was deeply jealous of until I got a computer that could run it many years later. And another game that ALF is perhaps oddly reminding me of, Hugo’s House of Horrors, which saw you exploring a haunted house.

The most classic of these games, though, was Maniac Mansion, which I originally played on the NES. I remember poring over an issue of Nintendo Power that featured a complete map of the Edison Mansion, and instantly falling in love. As much as games could transport me to outer space, to the old west, to fantasy lands beyond number, this game with its promise of a trek through a creepy old house absolutely grabbed me from the moment I laid eyes on it. I got the game that Christmas, or perhaps for my birthday, because I had pestered my parents endlessly for it. I knew for a fact I would love the game…and I did. I loved it even more than I expected to.

It was clever, it was funny, it was scary. It was tense. It was impressively versatile, with a number of different characters to choose from and what felt like an infinite number of ways to progress leading to an infinite number of endings. I was familiar with games you could win or lose; Maniac Mansion was the first game to give me a story that you could win and lose in so many unexpected, interesting, hilarious ways.

Games like this saw you plodding back and forth over a location or a series of locations, accumulating items, paying attention to dialogue and descriptions for clues, and solving oblique puzzles as you moved forward. In most of these games you could die, typically for failing to solve a puzzle correctly and frequently in a way funny enough that you wouldn’t get frustrated, but none of them had a life system like we see here.

Lives make sense when you accidentally run Mario off a cliff, because games like that are built around reflexes and quick thinking. You need, if the game is going to be fair, at least a few chances to get things right. In a game like this, though, I’m a little baffled by the life system. An adventure game shouldn’t be about reflexes or quick thinking; the solution comes to your mind, not to the tips of your fingers.

We’ll see how it works out, but my immediate thought is that whoever made this game knew that video games usually gave you a set number of lives and didn’t take the time to wonder if that was even a good fit for the kind of game they were making here.

Anyway, all of this is to say that in graphical adventure games, being confronted with three doors is like a promise that the game is about to open up in fantastic ways. There’s something unknown behind each one, another little world to explore, even if it’s the size of a single screen. Puzzles to solve, things to find, backstory to uncover.

oh who I am I kidding they each just lead to the street again don’t they

The leftmost door leads to what I assume is Willie and Kate’s bedroom. I have to assume this, because the game is going to go out of its away to avoid ever using the words “Willie” and “Kate.” Perhaps this was due to the fact that in the fifth season, the characters were going to be written out anyway, as a result of Max Wright threatening to strap dynamite to his chest and blow himself up in Brandon Tartikoff’s office if they didn’t let him out of his contract.

Whatever the reason, we sure as shit aren’t running into any Tanners in the Tanner house. It is nice that the game passively continues their established habit of never, under any circumstances, fucking. In the universe of this game, they’ve staved off physical desire by working to break the world’s record for largest number of decorative pillows.

There’s not much in the room, but there are two more doors. The one on the left is locked. ALF says he’ll find a key. Lucky, already cramped, cringes at the thought.

I see I earned 700 points somehow, I guess. That’s great. I hope you are jealous of my score I wish I were never born.

Anyway, I guess we’ll have to come back to this door later, so I’ll try the one on the right…

Hm.

Remember that thing I said about the game promising to open up fantastically?

Anyway, in this room and the hallway, I seem to be free from Alien Task Force harassment. It would be one thing if avoiding them were any kind of puzzle…or if, say, the game had a 60 minute time limit before the Alien Task Force closed in on the house, and you had to fix your spaceship before then…but instead they’re just sort of there, because whoever made this game heard that video games have enemies and and didn’t take the time to wonder if they were even a good fit for the kind of game they were making here.

Rad.

Going to the left takes us back to the hallway, but if we go right, we end up in a new area:

I’m assuming this is Brian and Lynn’s room? In the show they had separate bedrooms, but having them bunk together certainly makes things more convenient for ALF.

For the record, the rightmost door in the main hallway also leads to this room. We’ll get to the center door momentarily, but for now just remember that the far left and far right doors lead to the same long room, and somehow there’s a door that leads to a different room between them.

Fuck this show…’s tie-in game?

You know, this game is inadvertently proving how empty a universe ALF created. I talked about that a bit in my review of the godawful Gilligan’s Island episode, but now we’re seeing evidence of the fact that setting an interactive game in the Tanner house — the main location for every single episode across all four seasons — reveals that the show introduced nothing worth interacting with.

Think about the many Simpsons games that allow you to explore 742 Evergreen Terrace and/or Springfield in general. Starting, I think, with Virtual Springfield in 1997, which wasn’t much of a game but which thrilled me when it came out just because it was dotted with so many things and characters and locations from the show. Much more recently there are the South Park games like The Stick of Truth and The Fractured But Whole which allow you to dig through characters’ homes and closets, uncovering and collecting relevant items from the show’s history. It’s fun. It’s a treat for fans. It makes the games feel that much more interesting and worth playing.

I know I’m trying to force modern sensibilities onto an old game, and that isn’t be fair. But let’s say ALF: The Video Game were made today. Somebody says to the development team, “Pack it full of references that the fans will appreciate.”

What references could there even be? What would you find in Brian’s closet? Who would you interact with outside of the Tanners? What would it be like exploring Willie’s workplace?

These things are complete blanks. I guess there are a few things you could stick in there. Maybe you could find the perfume that killed the giant cockroach, or you could find Uncle Albert’s corpse in a kiddie pool outside. But, really, after 99 episodes and a movie, ALF was so embarrassingly empty. It’s possible we didn’t get these little in-universe nods to past adventures because that’s simply not what tie-in games did in 1989, but making it in 2018 wouldn’t change a thing.

Anyway, let’s see what’s behind this door.

Oh fuck you.

This game must have been really easy to write dialogue for.

And speaking of dialogue:

Whoever wrote the manual melded two of ALF’s catchphrases together. It’s “Ha, I kill me,” and “No problem,” you dingdongs. I fucking hate the show and even I know that. “Ha! No Problem!” is meaningless. Unlike ALF’s actual catchphrases which are DEEPLY MEANINGFUL. I guess I should be grateful they didn’t stick a burp in there.

Anyway, back into the hallway, so we can check out that middle door.

It brings us to some stairs leading into a dark basement. Which is also somehow in the middle of the extra-long bedroom we were just in. There looks to be a grey cat or something running around at the foot of the stairs, but I’m guessing it’s actually a mouse or a rat.

With only two action buttons it doesn’t take long to experiment, and by that I mean accidentally solve the puzzle without trying.

Either 1 or 2 releases Lucky, I guess, and the mouse runs off. That’s it. Also, ALF isn’t animated when he climbs or descends the stairs…he just winks from one step to the other. I really am starting to think each room was coded by a different person.

I’m guessing the mouse would have killed me, or something? No idea. Now I will never know. And if knowing is half the battle, never knowing must logically be the other half, so I guess I’m doing pretty well.

Anyway, have you noticed something? This is evidently the first screen on which I need to use an inventory item…AND IT IS ONE OF THE SCREENS THAT DOES NOT DISPLAY THE INVENTORY.

Great fucking game, ass bags.

ALF warps by increments to the bottom of the stairs, where there’s nothing to do. Jumping turns on the lights, just as we remember things working in the show.

The Tanners did have a basement in ALF, but if I remember correctly we only ever heard that it was full of shit from Willie and Kate’s honeymoon. They even have their original box of condoms, still factory sealed. But we never got to see it, unless Satan is keeping up his end of the deal and actually wiping my memories of the show.

Now we not only see it but we learn that it houses the secret entrance to a cave.

Jesus fuck, Willie, fix your damn house. Are you just hoping that some C.H.U.D.s will find their way in and eat Brian?

I’m honestly assuming I need to find some more items to progress in this direction, but what the hell. ALF isn’t especially fazed by discovering the secret entrance to a cave, so I guess I shouldn’t be either.

I die literally the moment I enter the cave.

The mouse from before appears behind me before I can even move and murders me, as mice are wont to do. You remember that mouse, right? The mouse that the game made sure we scared off before getting anywhere near the cave? Well also it’s right behind you and if you don’t shag ass you’re fucked.

How god damned weak is ALF that a mouse bumping into his ankle kills him instantly?

Anyway, we see the bats we were warned about when we found the salami, and ALF automatically brandishes it over his head like a flyswatter, so I guess we have to swat mammals out of the sky with a beeflog here in this shitty game for idiots.

Pressing 2 swings the salami, which sounds like a dirty joke, and now I’m mad because I can’t actually make that dirty joke. I died less than one second after taking this screengrab because I tried to jump onto the platform and for some reason just jumped straight up, giving the mouse plenty of time to bump into my ankle again and, obviously, murder me on the spot.

When I die here I restart at the entrance of the cave, and I have to remember to immediately move left because if I don’t, I’ll be killed by the fucking mouse in a matter of about one second. I still don’t know why ALF wouldn’t jump onto the platform, so this trial-and-error isn’t really working in my favor. I can’t even see how many Malmacian genitals I have left, because in the first area that can actually kill you they decide not to show you your lives.

This time I try to jump onto the ledge again and jump directly into a bat, because ALF controls like a fucking cinder block.

Then I realize I can walk under the platform and skip the jumping altogether so I do that and…

…really?

It’s a trap. I can’t do anything. Maybe I can jump over the mouse and go back the other way, but I die when I try it and Jesus Christ, guys, I used to like video games. I really did.

Well, then. I guess that’s that. It’s only fair I answer their question honestly…

Oh, alright.

It starts me off back at the cave entrance, which is nice. It means I don’t have to do both of the things I did already.

This time I jump into the bat three times while trying to get on to the ledge. The fourth time I manage to bat a few…bats out of the way, but they move so erratically and ALF moves so stiffly that there’s really no way to time anything. You just have to keep pressing 2 again and again, hoping your swings connect.

If you’d like to experience ALF: The Video Game but can’t afford it and don’t know how to emulate, there’s a home version you can play with your family. Ready? Pick up a controller and press a button over and over again, as fast or as slowly as you like.

There. You lose.

Wasn’t that fun?

This time I don’t get the option to continue. THANKS. I guess you can only do that once, so back to the start of the game for me…

I restart. I do all the shit I already did, but with less typing angry notes to myself for this article.

I get killed by the bats four more times and have to continue again.

Don’t get me wrong, ALF was fucking terrible. But who the fuck watched it and decided the video game should be about ALF slapping bats across the face with a meatstick? Is this really something that would please even die-hard fans of the show? Who is this for? People who hate bats and sausage?

I die four more times to the bats and have to start the game over.

The hit detection is abysmal. Sometimes the salami kills the bat, and sometimes the bat kills ALF as though it collided with his actual salami. This game is fucking terrible, and I’m not sure why a mediocre puzzle adventure feels compelled to pivot on a dime to become the world’s worst platforming bat-brawler.

I die four more times to the bats and have to continue again. I learn that after you kill a bat, it flutters slowly toward the bottom of the screen. If a single molecule in ALF’s toenail connects with the dead bat, you of course die instantly.

I die four more to the bats times and have to start the game over. There is no rhythm you can get into and no way to hit the bats more effectively. You’re in a cramped space with little room to maneuver and a character that anyway controls like an old shopping cart.

Sometimes you hit a bat and it doesn’t matter. Sometimes the bat attacks from an angle that you can’t possibly hit, because ALF seems to believe weapons are to be held two feet above your head at all times. In theory you could see that a bat is coming in at an unfavorable angle and move away, but since sometimes direct salami connections don’t count and sometimes a clear swing and a miss will kill a bat, there’s no way of knowing. You may think you’re moving away from getting hit but you could just as easily be moving away from a swing that would have killed the bat. It’s a crap shoot each time.

This is a fucking nightmare.

I die four more times and continue. I die four more times after that and have to start the game over. I make it further than ever before, but it doesn’t matter because this fucking cave never ends.

I die four more times and continue. I keep dying because the screen doesn’t scroll unless ALF is nearly at the edge, which means bats can pop out of nowhere and leave me with no reaction time. ALF can’t walk while swinging his salami (for me it just sort of happens naturally) so repeatedly attacking the whole way isn’t possible. You have to stop moving to attack, and stop attacking to move. Whenever you move, there’s a 50% chance you’ll walk face-first into a bat. Whenever you attack, there’s a 50% chance it won’t matter.

I’m not bad at playing video games, guys. Aside from crying it’s the one thing I do well. I beat every fucking Robot Master stage in the entire Mega Man series without taking damage, but I can’t make it to the end of ALF’s fucking salami cave?

I die two more times.

But then…

Holy shit! The cave has an end! ALF finds…a shed, I guess? And a gold nugget. He makes a shitty joke of a type that’s entirely in keeping with his behavior in the show: he mentions something you might recognize. Maybe the actual writers did make this game.

I die literally as soon as I close that text box because I guess there was a bat hiding behind it. This might be a slight blessing, as it looks like the “correct” way out is to walk all the fucking way back to the beginning of the salami tunnel. Dying, though, puts me right back at the entrance, so I leave, and, sure enough, I seem to still have the gold nugget. I retreat back to a screen that shows my inventory, because that’s certainly the way games should work, and I see I now have $50.

Woo! Spending spree!

Except that I now have only one life and no continues.

This is sure to go well.

I finally walk left of that main hallway and end up in the Tanner living room, with their famous inward facing couches. Nothing here is interactive and the Alien Task Force guy keeps grabbing at my last remaining genital so off we go!

Leaving the house puts us right back on the road. Fine. I’m just glad it isn’t another fucking bat cave.

Nearly all of the stores have CLOSED signs on them and I can’t even work up anger over the fact that this game features ALF walking around the neighborhood and visiting shops in broad daylight.

Finally, after what seems like forever, I find a store that’s open. In a fuck you for playing this far, the game’s “art style” degrades yet again so that the store is just a menu rendered in ASCII characters.

I can buy a key, a ladder, a fish, or a costume. I can only afford two of those things and I have no clue what a fish would be used for, whereas the key, I assume, will open doors in the Tanner house. I’ll go with that.

I walk out the door and get immediately killed by a biker who was on a completely different horizontal plane from me. He doesn’t even have the courtesy to stick around and watch me ascend into Heaven.

No continues. I have to start all over again.

I get back to the caves and die four more times. I continue. I die for more times and start over.

If there were actually any chance of getting better at this segment, I might possibly not hate it so much. Instead it’s just like flipping a coin 50 times in a row, and calling yourself a winner if it lands on heads every time. It will eventually happen, but it sure as shit won’t feel satisfying.

I die four more times and continue. I die four more times and start over.

This would be easier if I used save states for sure, but I want to have the actual, intended experience of the game. Watching ALF would have been easier if I fast forwarded the whole fucking mess but then I wouldn’t have had the right to bitch that a show about a farting puppet wasn’t very good, so I think we can all agree I’m making the right choice.

I die four more times and continue. I die four more times and start over. I die four more times and continue. I die four more times and start over.

Through some kind of miracle I make it back to the shed and find the fucking gold nugget on my first life. This is good. This is very good. I have all of my lives and a continue. If I don’t beat this fucking game now, I never will.

Hey, look. The bat hiding behind the text box this time didn’t kill me, so I was able to proceed left and confirm that…the universe ends?

Either this is an invisible wall and I won’t be able to proceed that way, or it’s a pit that kills me. Knowing this game, it’s the latter, so I’ll try walking back to the entrance.

A mouse that can levitate kills me seconds later.

Fine.

I spend way too fucking long trying to figure out how to get ALF to climb up some stairs, because this game is just that well made. I eventually manage it but I couldn’t tell you how. I just pressed everything forever and screamed profanities into the void. It seemed to work okay.

On my way out to rebuy the key, I realize there was a door in the living room I didn’t try because Fingers Magoo was blocking it. Shockingly it isn’t locked, and it takes me to the Tanners’ back yard. Or side yard, since I was in the back yard already? Who knows.

Continuity props for including the gate between the Tanners’ and Ochmoneks’ property. I don’t personally remember there being a moat around the house, but I’m sure that’s correct, too.

Yes, I can read the sign, but I try getting in the water anyway, and I learn that ALF actually has to put on more clothes to go swimming. Strangely enough, he just stands on top of the water rather than splashing around in panic or something, as though the water’s surface may only be broken by swimsuits.

I learn that if I keep the Alien Task Force guy on the screen, another won’t spawn ahead of me, meaning I won’t have to step into the road and be killed by another biker. (As we all remember from the show, the Alien Task Force is biologically unable to walk on tarmacadam.)

Thus begins my extremely fun progress through this area, which consists of me taking a few steps and waiting for this guy to shuffle a little closer, honking air tits at me all the way. Then I take another few steps and JESUS CHRIST HURRY UP DO YOU WANT TO CATCH THIS ALIEN OR NOT

I learn that, for no reason whatsoever, the jump button is disabled on street scenes. Despite the fact that, y’know, there’s a fast-moving enemy in the road you might want to jump over. THANKS. Also, the inventory screen isn’t displayed, despite the fact that you might want to know how much money you have before you go shopping. THANKS TOO.

I go left to see what else there is on this street, and you seriously can’t imagine just how tedious it is to walk slowly past endless buildings with CLOSED written on the door. I take a few steps and have to wait for the background music to cycle completely before this handsy fucker even gets close to me. He’s slow as all shit but my alternative is to scroll him off the screen and have his double spawn in front of me, forcing me into the road where I CANNOT JUMP OVER THINGS THAT KILL ME FROM COMPLETELY DIFFERENT HORIZONTAL PLANES.

Fuck.

Finally I make it to a bright yellow building that also sells things.

This place carries whatever an ALF book is and a lantern, and, just like in all five-and-dimes, everything costs exactly $100.

I can’t afford this shit so off I go.

Oh please Jesus no not more shuffling no please no

Actually this time it doesn’t take very long. I reach the end of the road and learn that it wraps around; I’m back in the yard.

I take a celebratory shit on the lawn.

Anyway, off I go, into the house to unlock some doors, baby! Now THIS is action!

Brian and Lynne’s bedroom is closest, so I go there first.

The key indeed opens the door but…I can’t seem to do anything else. I can’t interact with it or go through it or anything. Fun. Can’t wait to find out I was supposed to buy the fish instead.

I go to Willie and Kate’s room and open the door on the right side of the screen. Some kind of insect was in there and it kills me without warning. It happened so fast I couldn’t take a screengrab.

I went back and it was still there. LOVELY STUFF.

It followed me into Brian and Lynn’s room and killed me again. Feels so good to be burning through these lives. I swear to fuck if I have to do that bat cave again I will shit.

I enter the room again and the bug immediately kills me because it spawns on the same side of the screen that I do.

I have to continue. This is it. FUCK.

The bug, of course, is still there, but I make it to the last door. It opens and I get the swimsuit.

So, just to be clear, there are three doors you can open. There are no clues about what is behind any of them. One does nothing, one kills you, and one gives you what you need to progress. It’s like that old story, “The Lady and the Tiger and the Door With Nothing Behind It.”

I’m joking but I’m absolutely fucking terrified I’ll die and have to do the bat cave again thanks to this “surprise, motherfucker” bullshit.

I head back out to the water and…

Oh fuck no.

Another action sequence. This one isn’t nearly as bad as the bat cave, because the enemies move and behave reliably. The cat fish GET IT swim back and forth, and the harpoon guys fire when you get near their vertical axes. Easy, right?

Well, yeah…but you can only learn how they behave though trial and error. Which is how I blow through all four of my remaining lives.

I don’t even know what I’m supposed to be doing in that fucking water. At one point I found a treasure chest, but the text box didn’t stay on screen long enough for me to read a single word of it. There are air pockets to suck on as you go down, so I guess whatever I’m looking for is all the way at the bottom.

I don’t know. And I may never know. Because to even get another shot at this, I NEED TO REDO THE BAT CAVE FUCK

Hold please.

I’m going to do some soul searching.

Okay. I’ve slept on it. I’ve even consulted the manual again to discover that three of the four “helpful hints” are specifically about the fucking bat cave, meaning the developers absolutely knew it was needlessly challenging bullshit, but rather than, y’know, fix it they decided to add a hints page.

The other bullet isn’t a hint of any kind; it just tells you that if you sit still and cry long enough ALF will knock on the screen and bitch at you. For a good laugh, scroll up and see the screengrab.

In all honesty, I’d be (more or less) okay with the game giving away its more esoteric secrets in the manual. It’s not ideal game design, but it’s not a huge problem. Here, though, the game is admitting that it’s a piece of shit.

“Can’t beat the bats? Well, they’re tough, so just keep trying.”

“Died after getting the gold nugget? Well, so did our playtesters so let’s just ignore it and move on.”

And, for the record, “Where does your mom keep the lunch meat?” is the world’s greatest insult.

So I don’t know, guys. On the one hand, I really want to play this game properly. On the other hand, the game essentially comes with a note from the developers saying “Sorry we made a heap of shit.”

I’ve decided to allow myself one save state. Just one.

I’ll replay the game until I can get to the gold nugget again on my first life. I did it once before, so I don’t feel too bad. I’ll lay down a save state there, and that’s it. That’s the only way I’ll ever finish ALF: The Video Game, so if you’d rather read my writeup of that than ALF Gets Eaten By Bats Six Thousand Times on the Same Screen, that’s what we’re going to do.

I need a different emulator to use save states, so forgive the change in image quality. I KNOW THEY WERE SO BEAUTIFUL TO LOOK AT

It actually only takes me one further death (and reload) to get the gold nugget. Praise the Lord.

I figure I’ll test out that end-of-the-universe thing I saw before.

ALF dies.

RELOAD SAVE STATE I GUESS

I try to leave the cave properly and get killed by a bat. This warps me back to the cave entrance and, yes, the manual tells you that you don’t need to get the gold nugget again, but since the inventory isn’t displayed, there’s no way for a player to actually confirm that they’ve collected it. Rock on!

There’s an Alien Task Force guy in the living room who kills me. This warps me back to the yard for some reason.

Then it’s back to

OH CHRIST NO

I can’t take it. I can’t take listening to this fucking music loop endlessly while a man with no knees hobbles toward me.

Fuck safety. I sprint down the road and somehow don’t die. I find the general store, buy the key, and open the correct closet door, solving the clever puzzle that the game provided hints about in the form of killing me a bunch of times.

Then it’s back to the fucking sea dive I guess.

I make it to that treasure chest easily enough. This section isn’t fun by any stretch of the imagination, but at least it’s an actual game. It has enemies with recognizable patterns of behavior and ways to reliably make it through.

This time when I grab the treasure chest I get to read the message.

ALF: The Video Game, I’ve been to Vegas. I know Vegas. Vegas gave me my favorite STDs. ALF: The Video Game, you’re no Vegas.

Wondering how much money this pirate treasure is worth? Too bad; the inventory doesn’t display on this screen, either. Eat my balls.

I’m assuming there’s more at the bottom, so down we go.

I get killed by a harpoon guy immediately. The next time, though, I do make it to the bottom, where I again die immediately.

“What oyster?” you may ask. Well, it’s behind the text box, and I didn’t see it either because you have to be all the way at the bottom of the screen for it to scroll, so I guess I bumped into it before it even existed and now I am dead.

On my way back down I get killed by another harpoon guy and I’m at the continue screen.

Fucking hell this game sucks.

Anyway, back to the oyster.

This time I descend on the far left side of the screen and, sure enough, I can see the oyster chomping away. Since the manual told me the pearl is a collectible item, I assume I have to time it so that I grab it while the thing’s mouth is open. Fair enough.

Actually, wait. If I didn’t get the pearl, does that mean its mouth was closed?

Then how did the fucking thing bite me?

I HATE THIS

I am now telling the computer exactly what ALF can do with the pearl.

Of course I need to swim all the way back up. But being as this is an actual game and not a mindless bat gantlet, I might actually survive the return trip.

Seriously, WAS EVERY SCREEN CODED BY A DIFFERENT PERSON?

A harpoon guy kills me.

I only now realize how odd it is that the little swimming cats are enemies and not bonus items or something. In Soviet video game, cats eat ALF.

My death warps me to the top of the water sequence, and then I leave and go back to the yard, where the status bar doesn’t display so I still can’t see what any of the shit I picked up is worth. Nice.

The grabby guy in the living room kills me because I touch the brim of his hat while trying to jump over him, but at least I can see that my deep-sea dive netted me a cool $300. That’s still not enough to buy all the shit I’ve seen for sale so I guess I’ll be hunting for more treasure somewhere else soon. Fantastic.

I go to the five and dime, because it’s closer to where the game restarts me. Selling the pearl gets me another $100, which means I can buy both items here and still have $200 left over for the general store.

Cool! I purchase the lantern and the ALF book.

As soon as I leave the shop, the ALF book opens up, I guess?

I press B1.

I press B1.

I press B1.

what

what

what no

WHAT

What the fuck is this shit?

The book didn’t even just kill me; it took ALL my lives away and reset the entire game. Was it the fucking Necronomicon?

Is this seriously the whole point of the ALF book? Just to kick little kids in the fucking balls? I honestly thought this was a cute little bonus while I was reading the text. You know…a kind of optional item that lets you read about ALF’s backstory, which would have been pretty nice in the pre-DVD days, when a lot of fans hadn’t seen the relevant (mainly early) episodes.

But then…

It really does take me back to the title screen, where ALF is making the same face I am right now.

Can you imagine if I hadn’t set that save state? If I read the fucking ALF book and had to do the fucking bats all over again just because I bought a seemingly innocuous item from the store?

Jesus Lord above. This isn’t just a bad game…this is a game actively designed to fuck you.

I know graphical adventure games, especially those made by Sierra, had a habit of killing you for doing silly things. However, they were nearly always things there were major hints you shouldn’t do. Yes, you can drink from the pool of acid, but you should be pretty well aware that’s a bad idea before the game punishes you for it. What’s more, though, those games allowed you to save your progress at any point.

Death in those games was sometimes a kind of reward, and the save-anywhere system allowed you to experiment both to figure out puzzle solutions and to do clearly stupid things just so you could see the unique death animations and read the mocking messages. It was part of the experience, and the experience was built around it. A silly death wouldn’t be funny if it happened four hours into the game with no warning and no way to restore your progress.

ALF: The Video Game isn’t being cute. This is outright malicious.

I load the save state and a bat kills me. Fine.

I buy the key and the dirt bike kid kills me. Fine.

I get the bathing suit and the pirate treasure, then I’m killed by a water snake, a cat fish, and a harpoon guy. Fine. I continue.

I’m killed by two harpoon guys. I get the pearl and I’m killed by one harpoon guy. On the way to the five and dime I’m killed by the dirt bike kid.

Fuck this game.

You know what, though? I’ve decided. The game betrayed my trust as a player. The ALF book has proven that this game doesn’t care if I only fail through fault of my own, so I’m leveling the playing field. I’m going to set down another save state before that water sequence, and after if it goes well.

I’m killed by a bat leaving the cave, and I’m convinced it’s impossible to escape alive. Then I’m killed by the dirt bike kid.

I get back to the treasure and the pearl, but due to having to time the oyster’s biting, I end up reaching for it as soon as an impossible-to-see harpoon guy fires down from off-screen.

It kills me. Whatever. At least I’m out of the water part.

I go to the general store first this time and sell the pearl. I also try to sell the swimsuit and the game reveals that it’s as sick of me as I am of it.

I buy the ladder, because it’s the only thing here that seems useful. Presumably it will somehow behead me the moment I walk out of the store, or format my computer.

I go back to the five and dime for the lantern. I have exactly $100 left over. Hey, that’s exactly the price of the ALF book! So anyone who just buys it because they have that precise amount of money left over and might as well pick up another item will get a real kick in the throat.

ALF: The Video Game, fuck you on behalf of all of those kids.

I make it back to the house without incident. Surely I need to be nearing the end of this fucking thing.

I thought for sure the ladder would help me get to the spaceship, but I can’t figure out any way to use it. I resorted to checking that walkthrough and discovered I actually have to go through the fucking bat cave again.

Only, this time, further.

MOTHERF

Save state.

I’m killed by bats twice. Reload state both times. I make it back to that little shed thing, only there’s what I assume is that ladder I bought stretched over a gap. Not sure why, since I didn’t need it to reach the shed the first time, but whatever. Save state…

Killed by a mouse and then a bat. Reload both times.

Now, instead of that black void that killed me before — remember when ALF fell in the hole? — the screen just keeps going.

THERE WAS NO HOLE YOU FUCKS

Jesus Christ does this bat cave ever end? I have slapped more bats out of the sky with a salami stick than any human being should ever have to.

I turn down the music. I can’t stand it anymore. It’s genuinely giving me a headache. It’s so fucking shrill. To hell with experiencing this game as intended. I’ll end up in a fucking institution.

I make it to the end, finally, and…

I find the same fucking shed with a different message.

Fuck you, game.

And what the shit is Melmacian scooter fuel doing in a second shed at the end of a long-ass secret bat cave underneath the Tanner house? WHAT THE FUCK IS GOING ON HERE.

Surely the game wants me to walk all the way back out of this cave. Surely this game can pork itself sideways.

A bat kills me and I’m out of the cave. The phrase “the sweet release of death” has never made so much sense to me.

Anyway, to the scooter I fuckin’ guess. I save state there, because there’s no way in shit I’m trusting that the game won’t pull some kind of massive bullshit.

I rose into the air and died for no reason that I could comprehend before I could even get a screenshot.

The game pulled some kind of massive bullshit.

Loading state…

I try again and what fresh hell is this

Little Fisher-Price airplanes fly by. At least I assume that’s what they are, because otherwise ALF is the fucking length of a jetliner.

It’s not difficult at all to avoid them. On my first try I make it to my goal, a space station, which is represented in proud ALF: The Video Game tradition by a menu composed of ASCII characters.

I guess I’ll buy the space suit.

When I leave I get a little scene with ALF flying away from the space station, so enjoy it. It was on screen for all of eight frames.

Then I guess I’m flying again, only now there are green comets and some kind of little Sputnik thing to avoid. Sputnik kills me, twice. This is much harder than the airplane sequence was.

I continue.

Sputnik kills me four more times. Game over.

This part pretty much sucks. You can move left and right easily enough, but pressing 1 causes you to ascend slowly and releasing it causes equally slow descent, making it difficult to avoid the fast-moving Sputnik.

There’s no way of knowing where it will appear, and it moves horizontally, your slow vertical movement making it sometimes impossible to get out of its way fast enough. If you move left or right while ascending or descending you can buy yourself a bit of extra time to get out of the way, but that can easily get you hit by the otherwise trivial comets, which move vertically.

Each time you die, you start back at the space station. The music is different here but even more shrill.

I reload the state. I’m killed by a comet and then by Sputnik. I continue.

I’m killed by Sputnik. I nearly make it to the moon, presumably my goal, but I’m killed by Sputnik.

I’m killed by Sputnik twice more and load the state.

I’m killed twice more by Sputnik. I fail to continue because the cursor defaults to NO, perhaps as an act of mercy. Load the state.

Sputnik kills me and a comet kills me. Continue. Sputnik kills me three times, a comet kills me once. Load state. Comet kills me. Sputnik kills me.

Continue. I have never seen the moon again.

Sputnik kills me four times. Load state. Sputnik kills me twice. Continue.

I finally make it back to the moon. The screen stops scrolling and I have no idea where to go. Sputnik starts moving diagonally. I fucking scream.

Finally I manage to do whatever the fuck I had to do. I guess I needed to position the scooter just beneath, but not in, the moon’s open mouth. Because inside the mouth, I assume, is a spaceship repair kit.

The moon has a fucking tongue, people.

ALF flies away and the game ends.

Well, at the very least, I can say that this game has definitely earned the right to bear the name ALF.

Just like in “Consider Me Gone,” Skip and Rhonda drive the plot and are neither seen nor heard. In the show, the fact that we didn’t see them at least was understandable; the puppets might not have existed anymore, or they could have gotten damaged since the first and only time we’d seen them in season one.

But here? Where we could mock up a quick pixel doodle of them and a text window that says CONGLATURATION. YOU’VE HAVE LONCHED THE SPACES SHIP! WELCOME HOME AL!!! it’s simply inexcusable.

And that’s it. That’s literally the whole ending. You’ve missed nothing. I’ll never get my life back.

Just to make sure nobody ever asks me to play this again, I started the game over and bought the two items I didn’t before, to see what they do. It’s much less frustrating this time because the game gradually taught me the correct way to play it which means I was able to improve at a reliable rate whoops actually it’s because I just keep using save states after every fucking bat.

I redo all the shit I wish I never had to do in the first place until I buy the key and return to Willie’s closet. This time I know which door houses the swimsuit, so I don’t have to guess, except when I open that door, the insect comes out and kills me.

This time, the swimsuit is in Brian and Lynne’s closet. So…Jesus Christ? It’s bad enough there are no in-game clues as to which door will kill you and which will help you advance, but every time you play the game it’s different, so there’s no way to just remember the solution and avoid this Melmacian Roulette bullshit.

When I dove, though, I found a cool glitch where three enemies embedded themselves in each other and couldn’t move.

That’s the most fun I’ve had with this game.

So okay, after the dive I have all the money I need to buy the items I haven’t tried yet.

The fish seems to do nothing. I bought it, left with it, went swimming with it, and nothing happened. Here’s a screengrab proving it’s in my inventory; that little icon is all you get for your money, so far as I can tell.

The instruction manual has this to say about the fish: “What’s the mystery surrounding this scaly object? None, really…but it does make the game interesting!” Yes, I am so interested in the game siphoning $20 out of my coffers for a dummy item.**

I also purchased the costume, which you’ll remember is supposed to make the Alien Task Force agents overlook you.

And, surprisingly, it works! It also creeps the shit out of me to look at but it works!

Of course, this being ALF: The Video Game, there are a few catches.

1) It stops the Alien Task Force agents from spawning at all, so it’s kind of disappointing that we don’t get to see them grabbing at a clown’s anus.

2) It replaces the Alien Task Force agents with dogs, as you’ll see in the screengrab. They run far more quickly than the shamblin’ squeezers, which actually makes you far more likely to get hit. If they catch you, the costume disappears and you’re right back where you were, with the agents reappearing and you in grave danger. It’s useless.

3) The costume disappears when you’re in the house, despite the fact that the place is swarming with Alien Task Force agents and the item would be very useful here, as the rooms are cramped and you can’t move vertically to evade them like you can on the road.

This means the costume functions on a whopping one screen in the game, and it makes that screen harder.

SO GLAD I WENT BACK FOR THAT

So, is ALF: The Video Game any good?

Fuck off no.

Nothing about it is good. The controls are stiff, the animations are either hilariously simple or non-existent, the puzzles are often guessing games, the action sequences are unplayable half the time and too easy the rest, it looks like crap, it sounds like crap, it kills you for curiosity, despite the fact that random guessing is the only way to solve anything in this fucking game, and my favorite thing about it is that it took another several years off my miserable life.

I’ll admit, though, I like the premise. A lot could have been done with this. In another time and place, I can absolutely imagine a game like this working. You’re a beloved little alien wandering around, collecting the items necessary to leave Earth in your spaceship, avoiding government agents who are trying to take you away. That’s a can’t-miss premise, isn’t it?

Isn’t it?

Oh

Tune in next year when I review the fuckin’ paper plates.

DEATH TOLL:
Bat – 68
Sputnik – 24
Harpoon Guy – 9
Mouse – 5
Comet – 4
Dirt Bike Kid – 4
Insect in Willie’s Closet – 3
Alien Task Force – 2
Water Snake – 1
The Bottom of a Screen – 1
Cat Fish – 1
Oyster – 1
A Deep Hole – 1

* This is unintentionally, I’m sure, open to interpretation. ALF has no halo, for instance, and his wings look far more like those of a demon’s than of an angel’s. But he does, in fact, ascend Heavenward as opposed to descend Hellward. And wait, is ALF going to Earth Heaven, with God? Not Memlacian Heaven, with Barry? God didn’t make this piece of shit; what does He want with him?

** If anyone out there has found a use for the fish, please contact me. I’d like to fly to your house and punch you in the balls.

Review: Third Editions’ new English translations

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.

A Hat in Time is a Beautiful Mess

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.

My 10 Best Games of My 2017

I don’t normally do “games of the year” lists, and that’s primarily because I’m only rarely playing games released in the current year. I’ll have one or two I look forward to, and I may or may not get around to them in a timely fashion. I’m usually working through a backlog, or revisiting old games that I already know I love. But this year, for whatever reason, I played a lot of games without being especially far removed from their release. And, what’s more, most of what I played was really good, and worth spotlighting.

In every case with the games you’ll see below, I wanted to sit down and write long, dedicated posts about them. In every case, I didn’t do that. (I’m nothing if not consistent.) So this is a good excuse to run down more quickly and succinctly what I loved about these games, and raise the main points I intended to raise in longer essays. Also, lists always get pretty good views and tend to engender discussion (and suggestions) so I hope you all enjoy disagreeing with me.

Oh, and because it’s my site and I MAKE THE RULES, I’m allowing myself to take games from 2016 into consideration. Why? Because I sure as heck didn’t do a list like this last year, and if I played them for the first time in 2017, I’m counting them. That’s why this is a top 10 of my 2017. If you don’t like it, take over my life and lead it differently. Really; I won’t stop you!

10) I Am Setsuna

Thanks to a really nice deal on Amazon, I was able to get Final Fantasy XV shortly after it launched for about half price. I was very excited, because I thought I’d have to wait a year or so before the cost came down enough for me to buy it. The reluctance to shell out full price, though, wasn’t really a question of money; it was a psychological barrier that I kept in place because I knew — knew — that if I started playing Final Fantasy XV, it would suck so much of my life away that I’d never get back.

But it was cheap. I’d be stupid not to buy it at 50-ish percent off. So I bought it. And I started playing it…and far from sucking my life away, it was a chore to ever boot up.

I didn’t like it. It wasn’t fun. All of the ingredients were there, and I didn’t feel tricked by the marketing campaign or anything. Whatever I expected to find, I found. It just…wasn’t fulfilling. Just like I expected, I was cruising around a big world in a cool car with my cool friends, pulling over to fight monsters. We’d meet eccentric characters, admire gorgeous landscapes, and let the plot unfold at (largely) our own pace.

But it wasn’t fun. I didn’t care. I tried to care. I played it for many hours after I realized I didn’t care, hoping I eventually would. But I didn’t. And so I booted up something else published by Square Enix. Something I also got on sale, which just kind of sat around. Something less ostentatious than Final Fantasy XV. Something easy to overlook. Something bracingly simple and unassuming. And I was hooked from the get-go.

To me, I Am Setsuna really does carve out its identity by contrast. On its own merits, sure, I think it’s a good game. But when stacked up against celebrity titles like Final Fantasy XV, it seems to actively pose the question, “Do you need all of that?”

As games grow larger and more complex, flashier and more advanced, are we actually moving forward? There’s not a definitive answer there. In fact, “not always” is about as close as we can get to a uniform truth. I Am Setsuna is a throwback to the narrative and gameplay simplicity of the SNES era, with graphics that are only marginally more advanced. Yet — or perhaps because of this — it successfully weaves its quiet story of desperation and detachment. It builds a world without hope, populated by characters without hope. Its central plot, after all, sees you serving as bodyguard to a human sacrifice, escorting her to her destination safely…where, of course, she will die.

It’s decidedly minimalist in every sense, right down to the breathtaking, heartbreaking soundtrack that consists almost entirely of a lone piano. I Am Setsuna isn’t overwhelming in its despair…rather it leaves opportunities open for you to find joy along the way, no matter how bleak the journey may be. Maybe you find it in those sparse, twinkling keys. Maybe you find it in the rare moments of levity between two characters. Maybe you find it in another character, who is willing to sacrifice his or her own safety to help you complete your mission.

The snowy wasteland of I Am Setsuna is its simplest and most successful innovation. As long as I live, I’ll never forget leaving trails through the frozen world to the haunting notes of a cold piano. As much as Final Fantasy XV worked to make itself memorable, it’s I Am Setsuna that I won’t forget.

9) Fallout 4: Far Harbor

I debated whether or not to count this as a “game,” but…what the hell. Sure, it’s technically an expansion pack for Fallout 4, but it provides a large, isolated map, unique locations, unique quests, a unique story, unique gear…you may need to own Fallout 4 to play it, but it is a complete and self-contained experience.

Mainly, though, I wanted to call it out for adding something that the base game was sorely missing: genuine ethical conflict. Granted, Far Habor doesn’t entirely scratch my itch in that regard — the most problematic ethical conundrums unfold off camera, before you arrive — but it at least raises difficult questions that are worth thinking through.

The plot kicks off in a way guaranteed to grab my attention: you’re called upon to play detective. As much as I love shooting Super Mutants in the head with a railgun, I like pretending my last name is Marlowe even more. Far Harbor asks you to travel along with out-of-time noir detective Nick Valentine (one of Fallout 4‘s more impressive characters to begin with) in search of a young girl who’s gone missing.

This conveniently takes you to the town of Far Habor, and the larger island around it. From here, in true Fallout fashion, you can do whatever you like. You can immediately seek out the girl, you can get embroiled in any number of sidequests, you can aimlessly wander in search of interesting locations and stories, or you can toy — deliberately or not — with everybody’s fates.

So, hey, it’s more Fallout 4. And while it’s my least favorite of the Bethesda-era games, I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t enough appeal in that alone for me to enjoy it.

But at the center of everything in this expansion — both narratively and geographically — is DiMA, perhaps the richest and most complex character in the entire game. DiMA is a synth…the same model as Nick Valentine. He’s lived on the island since he escaped The Institute, and helped it grow. He assisted the Children of Atom when they arrived, and he’s helped the people of Far Harbor to survive the noxious fog that coats the island. What’s more, he’s successfully brokered a peace between these two mutually antagonistic factions. Oh, and he runs a large and efficient colony for refugee synths.

I plan on avoiding specific spoilers, but if you don’t even want to hear about general revelations in the game, skip to the next entry now.

DiMA is a good guy. He helps people. He keeps everybody safe.

And yet, as you dig into his history, you learn that he didn’t do any of this in ethical ways. If he’s a good guy today, it’s only because he was not one yesterday. As a robot, DiMA has the ability to erase his own memories, and he indeed does so. You are able to piece the deleted data back together, revealing DiMA’s misdeeds, and when DiMA learns of what he’s done, he’s appropriately horrified. He’s such a good person that he doesn’t even seek to justify his actions…he’s appalled by them.

And yet…he’s still the person who committed them.

The ethical question, again, is resolved by the time you arrive. DiMA already acted monstrously in pursuit of a brighter tomorrow. And, well, he succeeded. It’s brighter. Whatever you may think of his methods, they panned out the way he expected them to. The island knows peace. It’s a peace that must be actively and painstakingly maintained, but the residents are safe from each other, in a way that they truly are not in other areas we’ve explored in Fallout games. DiMA raises and answers his own question about the ends justifying the means before we ever meet him.

But once we do, we have an after-the-fact ethical question to face. Should DiMA escape justice?

That one’s entirely up to us. And while I’ve made my decision and completed the storyline of Far Habor, I think I can go back and forth on the right answer all day.

What’s more, that’s just one (admittedly major) aspect of the expansion. Elsewhere there is so much more to enjoy. There’s Jule, the tragic synth forced to live with a botched memory wipe. There’s The Mariner, the rightful owner of Far Habor who labors day and night to keep anyone in need of shelter safe. And there’s Kasumi, the missing girl whose identity crisis kicks the entire story into gear. She flees her home and family because she’s not sure who she is anymore…and no matter what you do in the DLC, neither you nor she will leave with a definite answer. Is she a synth? Is she a human being? The ethics behind the decisions you make will be at least in part determined by what you believe, but you’ll never know if what you believe is true.

In many ways, Far Harbor does Fallout 4 better than Fallout 4. It adds much more than an environment.

8) Inside

One of my favorite games of all time is Limbo. It was striking, surprising, and remarkably effective for such a simple game. (I never believed a game that only saw you walking, jumping, and grabbing could possibly feel so deep and profound.) Inside, a followup by the same team, somehow escaped my attention upon release. But I finally sat down to play it, and found myself impressed and in love all over again.

Not “in love” because my heart was warmed or inspired or…anything positive, really. Rather “in love” with the bravery of a game that unfolds in such oblique, mysterious ways, telling you more with every screen but never enough to truly orient you. Never explaining the who, what, when, why, or where. Never giving you a direct reason for progressing, yet compelling you to progress all the same.

Limbo was a remarkable achievement in that area, I feel. I’ve played through it multiple times and still don’t know what it’s about…beyond the obvious (but fair) observation that it’s about the experience. And it’s a great, unique, memorable experience to be sure.

Inside follows its predecessor’s lead in every way I could have wanted it to. Its simplicity, its mystery, its quality.

The nature of your plight seems to change multiple times over the course of the game. At first it feels like escape. Later, it feels like infiltration. Later still…well, if you played it you know what comes later still, but I won’t spoil it specifically here. This is in contrast to Limbo which, in my opinion, didn’t really define the nature of your plight in any way whatsoever until its ending. Inside is a little trickier, and plays a little bit more actively with your expectations.

One thing I regretted from my initial experience of Limbo was that I didn’t play it all in one sitting. I’d get a bit further, then do something else. I’d come back to it in a few days and make a little more progress. At one point I stopped playing, picked it up again the next day, and saw that I’d taken a break right before the end of the game. That’s part of the problem with not defining a clear goal: players never know how close or far from that goal they are. Had I known what I was chasing, I might have been more aware of the fact that I was nearing it.

And that always bothered me. It wasn’t Limbo‘s fault…I was mainly mad at myself that I put a break between the ramp up and the conclusion. I made sure to rectify that with Inside, which I saved for one long sitting, and I’m glad I did. I allowed the game to dictate its pacing, its rhythm, its flow. And so each segment — isolated though each may feel — worked in service of a greater psychological and emotional whole. What’s more, the running theme of agency was made so much more ipactful because I experienced it in so many ways over the course of such a short time.

Playing this game made me dream of a sort of Twilight Zone series of games. Same engine, same basic controls, but with a different story unfolding in each installment. Maybe we could treat it like an episodic season of games (see the next entry), with a small number of regular releases. Each entry is self-contained, but we’d end up with an anthology of tales like Limbo and Inside. Games that disturb us the way the best episodes of Rod Serling’s series did. Games that explore major themes in artistic, artful ways. Games that mean far more than they say.

I doubt we’ll ever see this kind of game released at a regular clip, and I’m not even convinced it would be a good thing if we did. But I’m glad we at least have this pair of bizarre, disorienting masterpieces to return to again and again.

7) The Walking Dead: A New Frontier

Maybe I’m mistaken, but I seem to recall The Walking Dead: A New Frontier being advertised originally as The Walking Dead: Season Three. It’s not a crucial change, but it’s indicative of how detached this season is from the two that preceded it.

If you haven’t played the previous games, Telltale’s The Walking Dead is a series of episodic games that last around two hours apiece. Each episode picks up where the previous left off, and the decisions you make affect what happens in later games…along with who will or won’t be around for the next leg of the journey.

The gameplay is more about choice than it is about action. You certainly have your moments of popping zombies in the head, but the more important sequences are much different, such as when you need to divvy up the remaining food among survivors, knowing full well there’s not enough to go around. Or when you need to give your young charge Clementine just one piece of advice to carry her along through the unfolding apocalypse. Or when you need to decide whether or not to make a pass at your brother’s lonely wife.

Everything you do or say is likely to have some degree of consequence, which is why it was a bit surprising that A New Frontier followed new characters entirely, in a new setting, with a new goal. It wasn’t so much that your previous decisions didn’t matter…they still had the same emotional impact they ever had. It was more that they suddenly felt irrelevant, part of a parallel universe, as though A New Frontier were a kind of reboot.

And that makes sense to me. It gets increasingly difficult to sell a batch of games with the caveat that you should have played all of the previous batches as well. Starting over with new characters is fair. After all…it’s the end of civilization. There are more stories to tell outside of one small group of survivors.

A New Frontier did have previous protagonist Clementine, and it did actually follow up on a number of plot threads from the previous game, but its focus was firmly on newcomer Javier and his relationship with his estranged brother David. Someone buying this set of games without having played the others may feel a bit lost at times, but those times would be infrequent. Any important information would be information dished out here and now.

And, overall, I think that worked. It makes A New Frontier feel much more like a side story than a sequel, but it tells a compelling and deeply personal story about family, about relationships, about loss, and about identity. After all, Javi is and has always been the family fuckup. For him to be in charge of anybody, himself included, these must be seriously trying times.

Part of me wishes Clementine didn’t show up. As much as I like this latest branch of her story, forcing her into A New Frontier requires a pretty abrupt severing of much of season two’s narrative. In fact, I spent season two forming a very strong bond with someone I thought was an important and fascinating character…only to have her instantly killed off at the start of A New Frontier. It felt like a cold disservice to her more than it was one to me.

But I enjoyed A New Frontier for what it was, and the idea of an isolated season worked in favor of raised stakes. If this was the only time we’d ever see Javi and co., nobody had to survive to keep the story going. The family fuckup could well fuck up the family, and that would be that. Gravity could assert itself. Everybody could be crushed by the plans crumbling down around them. And, indeed, the story can play out a number of different ways.

However it plays out, though, you’re sure to have your patience, your loyalty, and your tolerance tested many times over. And that’s the best trick A New Frontier pulls. It places one of gaming’s most effective family dramas in the heart of a zombie swarm, where nothing’s likely to be resolved positively.

6) Battle Chef Brigade


Sometimes a game has a concept so perfect, I know I’m going to buy it no matter what. Even if the reviews are poor. Even if people tell me it’s junk. Even if it looks terrible. There are just some central conceits that are too perfect to let pass me by. Battle Chef Brigade was one of those for sure…and it also turned out to be pretty great, which is a nice bonus.

The idea is essentially that it’s Iron Chef set in a fantasy realm. So for that overlap between “nerds” and “viewers of Food Network” (a niche I am quite comfortable occupying, thank you very much) you really can’t ask for more. The gameplay involves hunting and killing the creatures that will serve as your ingredients, and then preparing your dish for harsh and particular judges.

Think an episode of Iron Chef in which the theme ingredient is crab meat, and we spend half the show watching Geoffrey Zakarian stalk giant crustacean monsters in a swamp.

That’s the kind of thing that should be fun even if it doesn’t work as well as intended, but Battle Chef Brigade works pretty damned well. The combat felt a little clunky to me at first, but once it clicks, it’s actually quite fluid and interesting. And the cooking sequences seem a bit lame at first — oh, a match-three puzzle game? yay… — but are actually more frantic and involved than you’d expect.

Perhaps my favorite thing about the game, though, is its art style. It’s light on animation, but heavy on character and personality. Everything just looks…lovely. The game establishes and maintains a distinct visual approach that reminds me of storybooks several generations removed from the ones I used to read. Maybe storybooks from an alternate reality, in which the heroine bravely leaves home to seek her fortune in cooking competitions.

And that heroine, I have to say, is one of the main draws of Battle Chef Brigade for me. Mina was just so charming that I wanted to spend time hunting and cooking with her, competition or not. I wanted to roam around town with her. I wanted to talk to strange and wonderful people with her. I wanted her to win, because she worked hard enough and wanted it bad enough that she deserved it.

The game is packed full of little side quests and character interactions that make it feel so warm. With competition at the heart of the game’s progression, only rarely does it feel truly combative. More often you have two skilled culinary artists squaring off with each other through mutual respect. There’s so much camaraderie in this game that it’s almost inspiring. It’s a nice and unexpected reminder that while two individuals may hope for different outcomes, they don’t need to be at each other’s throats.

Battle Chef Brigade is a great game to unwind with. There’s evidently also a daily challenge feature, unrelated to the actual plot of the game, which I haven’t tried yet but really should. It’s a game to visit and catch up with when you need a break from the real world. It’s a game where you might need to beat up a dragon to please a judge, and whatever the outcome, whether you win or lose, you feel good about the effort.

5) Sonic Mania


I grew up in a Nintendo household, which I’m sure couldn’t possibly surprise anyone. But, to be honest, I was never really jealous of those who had Sega consoles. There were fun games and crappy games on both sides, but I couldn’t imagine trading a Nintendo library for a Sega one. It seemed like it would be a huge step downward. So I’d play Sega when a Sega was available, but I’d go home to the comforting arms of Nintendo, where I belonged.

Except when it came to Sonic.

Sonic was…great, actually. My uncle had the first game, and years later one of the kids I babysat had the second and eventually third. I put a lot of hours into all of them — the second game especially, which I still believe is the best one — and felt, for the only times, a feeling of envy.

It still wasn’t enough to make me want a Genesis, but at least I knew if I had a Genesis, I’d have three great games I would not likely tire of.

They were fun. They were colorful. They had stellar soundtracks. There was always another secret or twist to the level design to discover. I’d be lying if I said I was actually much good at the games, but I enjoyed them a huge amount. Later in life, long after Sega stopped making consoles, I played those three games (& Knuckles) properly, and found them to have held up pretty well. They were still great, and I enjoyed playing through somebody else’s childhood.

But that was…it. 3D Sonic games never interested me much, and the ones I did play largely didn’t impress me. (I still hold to my opinion that Sonic Lost World on the WiiU was far better than anyone gave it credit for being, though.) So even though I finally got to become a Sonic fan, I didn’t care enough to seek out any of his new games. In other words, I didn’t finish the 2D games and dive excitedly into his other outings…I finished his 2D games and thought, “Yeah, those were good. That’ll do.”

Sonic Mania, though, made me pay attention. I’m a sucker for retro throwbacks in general, and this one looked like an actual lost title from that era. I was excited to give it a spin…especially when the reviews came in and were uniformly positive. When’s the last time that happened with any Sonic game?

It was everything I could have wanted. Brainless, inventive, giddy fun. It reveled in the series’ history, which I’m sure was a treat for bigger fans than I’ll ever be, but it also tapped into everything that made the original games work and refined anything that didn’t. It did a great job both of recreating what the original games were and what our memories of them were. Playing it put me immediately back in mind of how I felt when I was a kid, experiencing levels for the first time, wondering what could possibly come next.

Sonic Mania is one of the very rare games that I completed and then immediately played through again. In fact, I’ve made multiple trips through the game by this point, and I’ve enjoyed it a little more each time. It isn’t easy to live up to nostalgic expectation, but Sonic Mania outdid itself. Of course, even in 2017, it still comes in behind the plumber.

4) Super Mario Odyssey


Mario’s been quite a fortunate character in the sense that he’s never had any real missteps. He’s had a few games with mixed reception (such as Super Mario Sunshine) and a few outliers that are easy to ignore (such as Mario’s Time Machine), but, on the whole, Mario’s presence in something is a reliable seal of quality. His games are fun, addictive, and positively overflowing with joy.

So it says something that Super Mario Odyssey is clearly one of his best.

As much as this game gets credit for returning to the massive sandbox layouts of Super Mario 64, it also does so much new and does it so well. The most obvious innovation is Cappy, a sentient hat Mario tosses at enemies and NPCs to temporarily possess them. It’s a concept that sounds distractingly gimmicky on paper, but which is integrated so well it’s difficult to imagine Super Mario Odyssey being even half as fun without it.

Each of the worlds features new ways to explore it, new things to find, new challenges to complete, but as with any of the best Mario games, the real attraction is simply being there, hopping around, exploring, admiring the inventiveness of Nintendo at its best.

I knew Super Mario Odyssey was going to be great. I waited for its release to pick up a Switch, and it absolutely lived up to my expectations. While the main storyline itself can be conquered in just a few hours, there are a total of 999 Power Moons to track down throughout the game, giving you a lot of reason to return to it many times over. My own plan is to pop in for a few hours here and there, finding whatever I can find, eventually getting them all…and then starting all over again.

Mario games are built to be replayable, and there’s no way Super Mario Odyssey will turn out to be any different. It’s a game that will lead to breathtaking speedruns. It’s a game that will be worth revisiting just to beat your times in the footraces. It’s a game you’ll think about long after shutting down the Switch, looking forward to when you’ll have time to boot it up again.

One very interesting evolution to me is the inclusion of vocal tracks. The music throughout the game is pretty solid, as is to be expected, but there are a handful of tracks on which there is actual singing, which I’m pretty sure is a first for a Mario game. What’s more…they’re really, really good, especially one that plays toward the very end.

There’s a lot that Super Mario Odyssey does that I didn’t expect it to do, and there hasn’t been a moment yet that’s disappointed me. It’s all just been varying degrees of fun and exciting, and watching Mario march through and pay tribute to so many aspects of his heritage is like taking a trip through my own life, as well. I’ve known Mario since Donkey Kong, and I’ve actively followed his adventures since Super Mario Bros.

I care about the guy. I care about what he gets up to. However old I get, however rough the world gets, Mario’s still smiling, still laughing, still showing us new ways to have fun.

Super Mario Odyssey acknowledges the character’s history in a way that reminds us of his consistency, his reliability, his steadfast refusal to accept defeat. On the rare occasions that he does stumble, he hops right back up, better than ever before.

3) The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

I could have played Breath of the Wild much sooner than I did…but I didn’t want to. It got great reviews. People said it was the best in the series. My friends assured me I’d love it.

But I remembered Twilight Princess. People said the same thing about that.

And I remembered Skyward Sword. People said the same thing about that.

At some point, after you stop enjoying something, you need to stop going back. Especially when that something costs you $60 a pop.

I love the Zelda series. Nearly all of the games blew me away and became instant favorites. I still feel that A Link to the Past > Ocarina of Time > Majora’s Mask > Wind Waker represents the greatest sustained run in video game history. But then…I stopped liking the games. They began to annoy me. They no longer trusted me to play them. Exploration gave way to exposition. Problem solving gave way to following instructions.

I stopped caring.

So Breath of the Wild came out, and people liked it. I was glad they did. I was no longer convinced that I would.

What I failed to realize is that it addressed every single one of the concerns I ever had with the series. While I was quite fond of a few helper characters (Navi, Tatl, The King of Red Lions), it was nice to play an entire game without anyone bleating answers over my shoulder. While the overall lack of combat difficulty in some other recent titles never bothered me, it was nice to play a game in which I really did need to pay attention to everything I did in every fight, lest I wind up dead at the bottom of a ravine. And while I never really minded the predictability of dungeon weapons, it was nice to play a game in which there were so few of them, and I instead had to scrap by with whatever I could scavenge.

Breath of the Wild is clearly a Zelda game, and yet it’s so little like what Zelda has come to represent. It’s Zelda stripped down to its elements, and then built back up with a much stronger framework. Playing it was revelatory. It was the Zelda game I had always wanted, and yet never expected. And while a few areas felt disproportionately hard, I get the sense that I could have made them much easier on myself had I visited some other areas first and stocked up on better gear. That’s something I’ll keep in mind for my next playthrough.

What I really loved about Breath of the Wild was how much fun everything was. Not just the battles and dungeons, but everything. Sitting at a campfire cooking meals should have been dull, but watching the ingredients pop and sizzle in the pan was actually pretty hypnotic. Hiking from town to town revealed new things on the journey each time, whether it was fellow travelers, monsters, or environmental puzzles to waylay me. Even getting around — the singular act of motion — was thrilling. Paragliding, climbing, surfing down sheer rockfaces on my shield…everything was fun.

I don’t get it. I really don’t. Breath of the Wild is nothing like what I would have described as my ideal Zelda game, and yet it’s the perfect Zelda game. It’s engrossing. It’s rich in detail. It’s alternately hysterical and brutal. It’s cute and it’s shocking. It’s personal and it’s cruel. It’s overpowering and it’s empowering.

It’s a great game, and as much as I love Nintendo, it’s a more mature one than I honestly thought they were capable of creating. (Short of creating an all-new IP, at least.) It represents a brave new step forward, and a massive gamble on rendering a reliable formula almost completely unrecognizable.

The payoff was massive. Breath of the Wild was everything the best games should be, and the only thing I truly dislike about it is that I’ll never be able to play it for the first time again.

2) Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice

As far as video game titles go, you can’t get much more generic than Hellblade, which is why I was not only surprised it was so unique, but was also surprised that it’s an incredible, respectful, admirable portrayal of mental illness. Surely the best and most accurate in video games by a wide margin.

I didn’t know that aspect of the game even existed when I started playing it. I’d heard good, vague things about Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, so I tried not to read much about it, knowing I’d eventually give it a spin. All I knew (or at least retained) was that you played as Senua, who traveled into a dangerous land with the severed head of her boyfriend attached to her hip.

So, fine. Explore this crazy world, fight these crazy monsters, finish this crazy quest.

I didn’t expect that “crazy” would be such a defining aspect of the game, though.

The very first credit in Hellblade goes to a mental health advisor. The moment I saw that, I knew the game was either destined to become one of my favorites, or one of my most hated. Fortunately, it almost immediately established itself as the former. As somebody who struggles with mental health issues — anxiety being the relevant cocktail ingredient here — the swirling, conflicting, smothering narration that precedes, overlaps, and follows every action Senua undertakes is all too familiar to me. So much so that I had to stop playing the game at several points, just to recover from it.

Senua is plagued by voices. Real? In her head? It doesn’t matter. She hears them. They criticize her. If she backtracks, they laugh and mock her for getting lost. If she takes damage in battle they give up on her and write her off as dead. If she teeters on a small ledge over a steep drop they tease her and assure her she won’t make it. They are relentless.

This is what life is like for me. Not the same voices, not the same words, but the same experience. I’ve never seen it represented so accurately, and I believe that the accuracy is helped a lot by it being attached to an interactive experience. Watching a film about mental health issues may be instructive, but experiencing them in response to your actions, hearing every little thing you do wrong get criticized, learning to second guess yourself in anticipation of oncoming criticism, diminishing your own accomplishments, becoming overwhelmed by voices that are in your head and which you cannot control…

It’s nightmarish, and Hellblade respectfully renders that nightmare. It’s even smart enough to let the voices conflict at times with each other. Some seeming to offer genuine encouragement while the rest tear you down…but you know it won’t be long until they’re all on the same side again, their faith in you completely lost, their unwillingness to believe you’ll ever accomplish this or any goal you set for yourself. Reminding you of your failures with every step you try to take forward.

It’s remarkably affecting, and I think very helpful to players who don’t suffer from or understand mental illness. I’ve had friends (often very good ones) who don’t understand why I can’t hang out whenever they’d like to, or why I shut down in certain social situations, or why I worry so much about things that don’t even register to them. Some of them get frustrated. I can’t blame them. But I do think a game like this is extraordinarily valuable. It translates the language of mental illness from something they can’t see or hear into something they can actively experience and feel. Hellblade would be great for that alone.

But it’s also an impressive game in general. It’s beautiful, in a haunting, desolate way. The sound design is incredible. The swordplay is deceptively rich. And Senua herself is probably the single best looking video game character I’ve ever seen. Not exactly in terms of attractiveness, but in terms of…humanity. She looks real. I’m not controlling an avatar…I’m controlling Senua. A person. A person who moves and reacts and responds realistically. She’s the most human video games character I’ve ever known…so expressive. So unique. So fragile.

Early in my game, the voices were correct. I didn’t make it across a narrow ledge. I fell and died. And I didn’t think, “Oh well, I’ll try again.” I thought, “I killed Senua.” And I felt awful.

That alone set Hellblade apart from anything else I played this year.

1) Persona 5

A few years ago, my good friend Matt practically bullied me into playing Persona 3 and Persona 4. I’ll be grateful to him forever as a result, not least because having these games under my belt allowed me to participate in the brilliant wave of anticipation for Persona 5.

The game suffered delay after delay, with very little information or screenshots being communicated through the official channels. I don’t think anyone truly expected that the project was dead or dying, but we knew almost nothing beyond the broadest strokes what Persona 5 was even going to be.

Then it was released, and it was a strong contender for the most stylish video game in history.

Everything about it was so…correct. The character designs, the animations, the voice acting, the environments, the battle system…and, yes, these things all built upon and learned from the Persona titles that came before, but they still felt so right here. They were the latest link in an evolutionary chain, but they were also uniquely Persona 5. Held together by a striking black and red color scheme and a modern pulp aesthetic, every moment of the game is beautiful, and beautifully designed.

It also may have the best soundtrack of any game, period. I’m dead serious. In fact, I think it would be unfair to compare many other game soundtracks to this one, as it would be a sorely mismatched fight. I very much enjoyed Persona 3‘s hiphop and Persona 4‘s J-pop, but Persona 5‘s smokey, jazzy, chanteuse numbers are on a plane of their own.

Overall, I don’t think I enjoyed it as much as I did its two predecessors, but any complaints I have would be minimal (as you can probably guess from the fact that it’s still the best game I played all year). It’s a fun, often dark, sometimes silly time…an RPG of epic scope crammed into the space between school nights, one in which the beating back of evil has to be scheduled around exams and class trips, one in which life or death dalliances with your friends won’t keep you flirting with that cute girl you know, because whether you survive or not, you’re only young once…

It’s an adorable game full of impressively rounded characters, and while I’d argue that a few of them miss their marks, so many of them land well enough that you’re never far away from the next engrossing backstory. Each of the characters — major and minor alike — are haunted by some mistake in their past. Spend enough time with them, and you might just get to see them move, finally, forward. Persona 5 is a game full of isolates, full of characters who want only to connect, but don’t see themselves as capable or deserving of connection. Gradually, one by one, you can help them to tear down their walls…achievements even more satisfying than slaying the biggest monsters.

There’s so much to love here. Ryuji, the first friend you make at your new school, seems like your run-of-the-mill knucklehead, but soon comes to reveal real vulnerability and loyalty. There’s an overachieving honor student who is asked to spy on you, and if you pay attention while roaming the city, you can spot her doing just that. And Futaba’s story arc is probably the most affecting and heartfelt in the series…which is saying something. I found myself genuinely moved by her struggles, and being very defensive of her throughout the rest of the game.

She was human. As so many of these cartoon characters revealed themselves to be human.

I’ve heard many people say that Persona 5 is too long. And, you know what? They’re probably right. But just like every Persona game, it also feels just a bit too short. By the time it’s over, however long you had together, you still wish you could have just one more day with your friends.

And there you have it. My top 10 games of 2017-ish. What did I miss out on? Let me know; I may feature those games in my best of 2028 list.

(Screengrab burgled with permission from Full House Reviewed.)

On video games, consequence, and playing along

Fallout is a game series I think about a lot. Even when I’m not playing it. Which, obviously, is most of the time.

There’s something about the series that keeps me enthralled. I love wandering the Wasteland, I love interacting with characters, I love deciding who to help and who to hinder. But I also love reading about the games. I love thinking about the games. I love watching others experience the games in ways I didn’t, not necessarily because their choices were different but because their perspectives were different.

When Fallout 4 came out, there was a bit of fan backlash. With the benefit of hindsight, I can largely agree with that backlash, even though I think the game did a lot of things very well. A friend of mine shared some of his frustration with the game pretty soon after release on Facebook. It was one of the first true criticisms of the game I saw.

Largely his complaint was with the way the game opened, which botched the necessary stage setting for the rest of the experience, he felt. Spoilers for this game (and Fallout 3) beyond this point. I’d consider them to be very minor, but you’ve been warned.

Anyway, very soon into Fallout 4, you witness the murder of your spouse and the kidnapping of your son. This sets the main story into motion, as you chase down the culprits through post-apocalyptic Boston.

My friend’s complaint was that as soon as he regained control of his character, he started gathering up loot, talking to new characters about unrelated things, building crazy weapons…in short, doing exactly what no human being could possibly do after witnessing the murder of his spouse and kidnapping of his child.

Fair enough, but I didn’t share that concern.

Yes, you can start collecting garbage and, as he put it, go adventuring with your new pals from the future…but you don’t have to, and the game doesn’t actively or immediately encourage you to do so. Someone brought up The Last of Us as a point of comparison, as that’s another game that opens with personal family trauma in the face of apocalypse, and handles it much better. And…well, yes, it does. That game is a masterpiece, with a deeply affecting opening sequence. Period.

…except that you can actually work against the intended emotional impact there, too, spinning in circles and acting like an idiot when your main character is supposed to be experiencing profound personal trauma.

That’s just an inherent gap of the medium. The character is meant to do or to feel something, but the player is not obligated to do or feel anything. Great games draw players in and encourage them to bridge that gap themselves, but the gap is always there at the start. You’re the one required to cross it, and you’re the one who can choose not to.

Fallout 4 makes it easier for a player to work against it than The Last of Us does; that much is absolutely true. There’s more to do in Fallout 4 for a start, meaning a player has more to experiment with and — therefore — more to distract him. And, frankly, the pre-war world we briefly occupy at the start of Fallout 4 is a bit cartoony and detached from reality compared to the deeply true-to-life single-parent home of The Last of Us, so we are at a relative emotional remove.

But, again, the fact is that any game that offers interactivity* allows the player to do things that aren’t in service of the game’s end. Mario is supposed to grab the flagpole, but he can walk endlessly into the side of a pipe if he wants. Link is supposed to collect the triforce pieces, but he can smash pots and play minigames until the player loses interest. And you’re supposed to mourn the collapse of your family in Fallout 4…but you can find a laser gun and play Buck Rogers if you prefer to do that instead.

I’m not shifting the blame away from any particular game. If the game fails to keep a player engaged, that’s on it. But the fact is that you can detach from the main goal at any point, whether or not there’s in-game incentive to do so.

My friend taught me something about myself as we had this conversation. He said that I probably have a greater willingness to “play along” than he does. And I’ve been stewing on that ever since. I don’t just suspend disbelief…I actively invest belief in whatever a game would like me to.

And why not? As with novels, films, television shows and even some music, the appeal to me is an opportunity to inhabit a world that an artist has created. I don’t have to give myself over emotionally to these things, but I find it both easy and rewarding to do so. I like playing along. Give me a hackneyed setup. Give me an idiotic twist. Give me a predictable arc. I’ll go along with anything if I expect it will pay off in some interesting or satisfying way.

Obviously, it doesn’t always. And if a game (or novel, or film…) loses me, I tend to stay lost. But I’m willing to give things the benefit of the doubt as long as I possibly can. Which is why I didn’t have an issue with Fallout 4‘s hamfisted emotional opening; I was absorbing it with the belief and understanding that it wasn’t an end in itself…it would lead to something else that would excuse whatever flaws it displayed up front.

Did it? Well, I won’t get into that, because it would distract from the point of this piece. The important thing is that I’m not only willing to engage with games on their own terms…I do so actively. And once my friend pointed this out about me, it felt important for me to know. I’ve been thinking about it ever since.

I have another friend who will reload his Persona game over and over again until the conversations he has with other characters go exactly right. When I play, I let the conversations happen more or less naturally. Yes, that means I lose out on the chance to connect with certain characters before the game ends, but if my natural interaction with those characters isn’t something they enjoy, then why am I trying to connect with them at all?

The answer, of course, is that I can unlock gameplay perks by completing these connections (or, as the game calls them, Social Links). But it must be more important to me to be true — to “play along” within the fiction of the game — than it is to treat these interactions from the perspective of a player sitting on the couch who, really, has no reason to go through any of this except for the in-game perks. I treat the characters as people, and surround myself with the ones I would surround myself with in reality, rather than as digital means to an end. Even though, strictly speaking, that’s exactly what they are.

Heck, just today I was playing Wasteland 2 — my love of Fallout extends to related games easily — and I was low on supplies in a difficult area. I found a locked door and was able to force it open, revealing a small room. Inside were some containers, which were almost guaranteed to have the health and ammo I needed desperately, among some other nice treats. But one of my companions figured out my intentions. She said, “This is Kathy’s office. We shouldn’t be in here.”

…and I left the boxes unopened.

She was right. It was Kathy’s office. And they were Kathy’s things.

Why did that matter? It probably didn’t. My digital avatar could have used those digital goods…but I wanted to play along. My character wasn’t a thief, so he wasn’t about to thieve. My character makes friends and helps good people, so that’s how I’ll play…even if deviating from that self-imposed rule would make my experience easier.

And, yes, it would make the game easier, but would it make it more satisfying? Is playing games about getting to the end, or about the experience along the way? If you think it’s the former, you aren’t wrong, and you’re entitled to that belief. But I fall firmly into the latter camp.

I like opening myself up emotionally to art, when I can. Speaking only about video games, it would be difficult to get emotionally invested in Mega Man, for instance, as much as I love it. But as story and characterization become more important seemingly by the hour, I find myself rewarded for giving myself over to games like Limbo. Or The Last of Us. Or the single best example of unexpected consequence I’ve yet seen, Braid.

And, certainly, the Fallout games.

Opening myself up emotionally — playing along — isn’t just a way to feel what the developers want me to feel. It’s a way to feel what the character would actually feel. It’s a way to put yourself in somebody else’s shoes. In somebody else’s situation. In somebody else’s dilemma. And that’s valuable. Studies have shown that readers of literary fiction develop a stronger sense of empathy, while readers in general (those who read popular fiction or non-fiction) aren’t much different in that regard from non-readers.

Likewise, not all video games have the same empathetic value, and I think the difference is similar to the split between literary and popular fiction. Popular fiction pulls you along through an experience, but literary fiction encourages you to think about the consequences or implications of that experience. It’s another layer, and it’s the defining one. Video games haven’t been around long enough to earn equivalent labels, but I do think there’s a difference between playing Call of Duty and playing Fallout 3. They each hand you guns and tell you to shoot the bad guys, but only one of them will haunt you for years with the choices you made. Or failed to make.

I’ve written about post-apocalyptic ethics a few times (such as here and here), but I wanted to share another memory with you now. One in which my willingness to give myself over to the game actually resulted a deep ethical shock to my system.

For all of the settlements I failed to save, for all of the people I failed to help, for all of the tragic outcomes I failed to avoid, there was a situation in Fallout 3 in which simply exploring one area — and the consequence of exploring that area — felt more meaningful to me than almost anything I’d done in video games before, or have since. By playing along with the game, I expected to feel consequences. But I never expected to feel monstrous.

Why would I? I’m not monstrous. I’m flawed. I may not always make the right decisions. But I’m not the bad guy. I choose not to play as the bad guy. That’s my choice, and one this game — like many others — allows me to make. I’ve chosen not to be the villain.

And then, suddenly, I was.

My favorite parts of any Fallout game are the Vaults. Within the universe of the series, Vaults were designed as (largely) effective fallout shelters to protect humanity through nuclear war. Of course, they also functioned as contained social experiments, with different (and often cruel) variables inflicted upon the unprepared occupants to see how they would cope. By the time you as a player get to experience any of the Vaults, the experiments have almost uniformly come to an end, and you get to explore the wreckage, reading terminal entries and assembling the unseen Twilight Zone episode that was these occupants’ lives.

May favorite Vault experience was Fallout 3‘s Vault 106. I stumbled across it on my own. No character in the game had mentioned it, and I had no specific reason (apart from curiosity) to climb inside. It’s a game, after all. I might as well check out this new area and see what cool items I can dig up.

I had seen several Vaults in the game already (you begin the game in one, find an important character in another, and — in a truly brilliant sequence — tour a promotional model in a bombed-out museum), so the design was familiar, but it was immediately apparent, once I entered, that this was not going to be a safe experience. Tables and chairs were overturned, trash was everywhere, and the lights didn’t seem to be entirely functional. I was on guard for enemies at this point, but I couldn’t find any.

I explored the Vault deeper. There wasn’t much food or anything to scavenge. Before long I met an occupant…who ran at me, babbling incoherently, and brandishing a lead pipe.

I holstered my weapon, which is a cue in this game for not wanting to fight, but the occupant kept coming. I backed up, giving him time to reconsider, but before long he was attacking me, screaming, not letting me speak to him. I didn’t really have a choice, so I targeted him and shot him dead. The game named this attacker “Insane Survivor.”

Well, there was my answer. At least one occupant had gone insane, and that’s why Vault 106 was trashed. It’s also why I couldn’t reason with him in the same way that one can reason with many other individuals: he had no sense of reason. His mind was gone. He was insane.

Further into the Vault I encountered a few other enemies marked as Insane Survivors. At first I still tried to get them to drop their weapons. After all, my character lived in a Vault once, too. My friends lived in Vaults. I’m not here to cause trouble. But they were indeed insane, and I had no choice but to kill them if I wanted to survive. It really was me or them. And if they were truly crazed, beyond any kind of understanding, lost entirely to brainless, unending violence…isn’t ending their lives a kind of mercy?

Being attacked by humans was nothing new. Fallout 3 contains a lot of people in enclosed spaces who want you dead. Killing Vault dwellers indeed felt wrong, at first, but after enough of them swarm you with weapons, you make a decision. And each time it happens, you make that decision a little bit faster.

What really set this experience apart, though, was something that happened as I was walking through a corridor. I heard some bizarre mumbling ahead of me, and proceeded with caution. After a few steps the entire screen went blue, and the mumbling stopped. I thought it was a glitch in the game, especially when, a few steps later, the color was properly restored, and the babbling started up again. An Insane Survivor was up ahead. I chased him down and killed him.

These “blue-out” moments kept happening, though. I went from assuming it was a glitch to assuming that there was some kind of unreliable blue lighting in the vault (a night-time simulator?) that was kicking on spasmodically. I then assumed the Insane Survivors were trying to disorient me by flicking the lights on and off. It was creepy enough as it was, and it became even moreso once I realized, after several more times, that the vault looked a lot…cleaner when it was blue.

The tables were upright. The papers were stacked neatly. No more grime and greasy (bloody?) handprints. The computer monitors were not smashed. In fact, they were functional. And if I activated them, I could read notes that changed each time I called them up. They asked me to soak in the blue. It was safer here. It was nice…

Eventually I was able to piece together that these blue-outs were caused by gas leaking through the vents. It was causing hallucinations. It was causing colors to change, characters to vanish and reappear, items to rearrange, exits to relocate or disappear entirely. Someone, somewhere, according to a computer terminal, had decided to test a psychoactive chemical on the residents of Vault 106. It was still being pumped into the rooms when I entered, long after everybody was driven mad by these hallucinations. Was it intended to continue indefinitely? Or was it meant to be temporary, with those conducting the experiment either going mad themselves, or being killed by those who did, before they could discontinue it?

The blue-outs kept happening. Then going away. Then happening again. I was in two versions of Vault 106 at once. One safe and cool…one treacherous and full of murderers. At one point I was attacked before the hallucination (as that was now, clearly, what this was) kicked in, and the attacker turned into a character I hadn’t seen since the beginning of the game…one of my childhood tormentors. I tried not to fight, but I lashed out at last, just in case my hallucination was more powerful than reality. He disappeared when I struck him, became somebody else, eventually turned back into the real-life attacker in the properly-colored world.

It was disorienting, overwhelming, and frightening. It’s one thing to know the odds are against you. It’s another to not know where you are, how to get back out, or what’s waiting around the next corner.

Ultimately I made it as deep into the Vault as it was possible to go. There was a small room. A storage cupboard. I opened it and I found one last occupant there, sealed off from the rest of the Vault dwellers. When I opened the door, she attacked me, but something was different. The game didn’t mark her as an Insane Survivor. She was marked instead as Survivor. The absence of the modifier (the qualifier) gave her an entire history.

She had not been driven mad by the hallucinations. Instead, she saw what was happening to the others and, unable to interfere without getting herself killed, gathered up as many supplies as she could and isolated herself from the chaos. The occupants originally entered Vault 106 to escape the war on the surface, and she entered this storage cupboard to escape the war in Vault 106.

But I killed her. She fought me, and I killed her.

Because I couldn’t reason with her. Because I was on edge. Survival was not the issue. She didn’t have much of a weapon. (Did she even have a weapon?) She was not insane; she just knew she had no reason to trust me. Why would she approach me in peace? For all she knew, I would shoot her in the head, loot her supplies, and leave again. That’s what anyone else would do, including her fellow residents, lost to their madness.

I wouldn’t have done that, given the choice. I wouldn’t have killed a sane survivor. And yet that’s just what I did.

I’m not monstrous. I’m flawed. I may not always make the right decisions. But I’m not the bad guy. I choose not to play as the bad guy. That’s my choice, and one this game — like many others — allows me to make. I’ve chosen not to be the villain.

And then, suddenly, I was.

Vault 106 successfully messed with my mind enough that it culminated with me murdering an innocent woman. A woman who took steps to avoid the Insane Survivors all around her lost her life to a reasonable, pragmatic guy who had just gradually gotten used enough to gunning down Vault dwellers that he didn’t think twice. Was I any better than the Insane Survivors? Or did I just have better equipment?

All I know is that there was a sane woman locked safely away in a Vault somewhere. And sanity in the Wasteland is a precious resource. Now she’s dead, because I thought it would be fun to do a little exploring.

And that’s what demonstrates Fallout 4‘s biggest weakness to me. Ultimately I don’t share the same concern as my friend, but he helped me to understand what I felt was lacking. In that game, I made my biggest decision — to destroy the Institute — and never looked back. No, I don’t think it was a perfect solution to Boston’s problems, but before doing it I was convinced that I was making the right decision for me. Afterward…no additional information or ramifications made me reconsider that. The decision was large, but ultimately hollow. I decided to do something and did it, and had no more afterthought than I would after having flipped a light switch.

Fallout 3, however, haunts me years later…and all it had to do was give me a Vault to explore.

I never expected such a small thing to have such a big impact.

And, of course, small things don’t always.

But any time they do, I’m reminded of the importance of playing along.

—–
* The exception here might be visual novels, with the only true opportunity for deviation coming from withholding input. But, honestly, I’d think that counts. When the game is waiting for your response and you choose to provide none, ever, at any point, that is still a method of playing.

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