Reading too deeply into these things since 1981
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Ah, the poor Wii U. It never did quite capture hearts the way nearly all of its predecessors did, and I’ll be the first to admit that it never came close to reaching its potential as a home console. Nintendo had the odd strategy of baffling consumers with it and then plopping it onto shelves in the hopes that it would somehow take care of itself.

It never did. We know that. And just four short years later, Nintendo quietly killed it off, like a cast member it could never figure out how to integrate into plots. Last night the company hosted a live debut of The Switch, the Wii U’s replacement console. It’s officially dead, and it’s never coming back.

But there is one small benefit that comes from a console with such a short lifespan: it’s pretty easy to pinpoint its highs. And because it struggled for releases I can honestly say that I’ve played an uncommonly high percentage of games available for the system.

As such, I’d like to present to you the ultimate top 10. And, no, there’s absolutely no Mario here. (Perhaps that was one of the problems?)

As secondhand Wii Us become more plentiful and less expensive, this list might help you decide what to pick up in order to build a collection. And, you know what? If you just played these games, I bet you could trick yourself into thinking this was one of the best systems yet.

I will point out before we start that downloadable games are not exempt from consideration…but none of them made the list. I don’t think there was anything in the Wii U eShop that really demanded download, the way the Wii had with World of Goo, the two classic Mega Man reprisals, the BIT.TRIP series, the Art Style series, Castlevania: The Adventure Rebirth, and lots more.

Also, it’s worth pointing out that as much as people referred to it as a “first-party system,” there’s a good amount of third-party releases on this list. I honestly didn’t expect that, but I was pleased to see it.

The Wii U had some truly great games. It’s just a shame they were destined to be overlooked.

10) Sonic Lost World

I have no idea why this game gets brushed aside the way it does. I suspect it’s just because of the (rightful) prejudice that’s developed against modern day Sonic the Hedgehog games, because Sonic Lost World is a great deal of fun, and certainly one of the best titles in the series post-Genesis. I do remember reading a lot of grumbling about how closely the game attempted to emulate (or…rip off) Super Mario Galaxy, but having played it myself, I can only conclude that those people are parroting conclusions they couldn’t have possibly reached themselves. It’s nothing like Super Mario Galaxy…unless you count all the times that Sonic runs upside down or on the sides of walls, in which case the series has been ripping off Super Mario Galaxy since 16 years before that game was released. Anyway, it’s a lot of fun, unfairly dismissed, and one that’s definitely worth appraising on its own merits. It won’t change any lives, but it’s a very enjoyable few hours.

9) Nintendo Land

No, it wasn’t Wii Sports. No, grandma didn’t want to play it. No, it didn’t show off the console’s abilities in as urgently engaging a manner. But Nintendo Land was a legitimately great pack-in. Granted, on its own it was pretty dull, but playing with others was a blast. The concept — a themepark-inspired collection of minigames based on Nintendo’s various properties — was solid, and while the games weren’t of a uniformly high quality, the experience had a lot to recommend it. There were arcade games, adventure games, racing games, and even games that were more like puzzles. It was fun, and easily the best implementation of the Miis on the entire console. What’s more, the Luigi’s Mansion game is still probably the single best use of the gamepad, allowing some genuinely tense games of hide and seek between a group of players sitting next to each other on the couch. I’ll admit that I didn’t play Nintendo Land much, but whenever my friends and I did pull it out, I was reminded of just how much fun video games can be.

8) Batman: Arkham City

I’m noticing at this very moment that this is the only game on the list that was never exclusive to the Wii U. I think that may say something. As much guff as the Wii U got for lacking exclusives, the ones it did have were pretty darned good. Batman: Arkham City was playable on all of the major consoles of its generation, and I’m not going to tell you that this is the best way to play it. I don’t know that for sure, and I certainly don’t remember the gamepad giving me much more than a (welcome) map. But I will say that the game was great, superior to its already excellent predecessor Arkham Asylum in every way…except perhaps in focus. Arkham City probably had a bit too much going on, and as much as I enjoyed playing it, I distinctly recall fatigue setting in a few times over. If you self-police, though, and refuse to let yourself get bogged down in the far too numerous sidequests, instead cherry-picking only the ones that seem most interesting to you, you’ve got a great game, with some of the most satisfying combat I’ve ever experienced. Some will tell you that Asylum is the better game. Others just as quickly point to City. Either way, though, you’re in for a soaring, dark, bone-crunching treat.

7) Bayonetta 2

I’ll admit, Bayonetta 2 makes this list due at least in part to the fact that the game came with a complete, remastered version of the first game…for no extra charge. I’d never played Bayonetta, so this was the perfect opportunity to do so. It was even better than the rave reviews led me to believe. It was brilliantly excessive and often deeply funny, with an attitude of unbridled, over the top abandon. And, somehow, the sequel had even less restraint. But what really made the game — both games — great was the combat, which seems confusing until you actually start trying the things the game teaches you. It’s the kind of game that seems to have endless combinations of buttons to remember, and which necessitates practice screens to get them right, but once you’re in the flow of an actual fight, it just…works. What seems impenetrable is revealed to be natural, and that’s a fantastic trick. To this day I’m not sure if I ever learned to play the game properly, or if Bayonetta and its sequel are just that good at making your mistakes look so stylish. Bayonetta herself is also one hell (ahem) of an engaging protagonist. Kudos to the games, as well, for taking a hyper-sexualized character and not making her seem hyper-sexualized at all. Bayonetta is just who she is. If that happens to be sexy, then so be it. You can stay there in the gutter; she’s got other places to be.

6) Rayman Legends

Rayman Legends is vastly inferior to Rayman Origins, its predecessor on the Wii. It doesn’t feel as inventive or unexpected (the uphill battle faced by all direct sequels, admittedly), and its mandatory gamepad sequences are, to be blunt, pretty awful. They entirely break the flow and pace of the game, and I can honestly say that I felt my heart sink every time I saw that I was in for another one of those levels. The fact that they seem to take the place of the mosquito-based shoot-em-up sequences from Origins made them even more disappointing; those levels broke format in a way that was exciting and fun. These just clog up the machinery. So why is it on this list? Because it’s still great. It says a lot about how fantastic Rayman Origins was that its far worse sequel is still wonderful in its own right. The levels (the standard ones, anyway) are all fun to play and full of surprises. The animation is fluid and downright gorgeous. The soundtrack is brilliant. And the musical levels? The musical levels are rightly lauded, and deeply rewarding to perfect. It’s somewhat ironic that one of the Wii U’s best games sees the gamepad being its biggest detriment. I’ll give Ubisoft credit for trying, though, and I mean that as a genuine compliment. But in the end, it was just a stone around the neck of an otherwise perfect platforming experience. And even with that hindrance, it’s a standout title of the entire generation.

5) Lego City Undercover

Grand Theft Auto is a fun series, but Lego City Undercover proves that you can have a lot of creative fun in an open world without having to lean on the appeal of mindless violence. (This isn’t meant to take anything away from Grand Theft Auto and its ilk; it’s just a genuinely nice surprise.) I adored Lego City Undercover. It was every bit what I imagined my little cities to be like when I built Lego structures as a kid. Racing around, finding new locations, tearing down and building up new buildings and objects…it was just fun. Much ado was made about excessive loading times, and that’s absolutely a fair complaint, but once you’re outdoors the entirety of Lego City is yours to explore, unbroken, and so the loading times don’t interfere with the action so much as they draw a line between chapters of the story. The writing and voice performances are also brilliantly funny, with silly jokes and sharp wit sitting side by side, peppering every conversation with laughs and making the game that much more of a delight to play. Lego City Undercover looked like a cute, simple kiddie game. But it was actually one of the best open world games I’ve ever played, and one of the few that kept me coming back long after the story was finished. I’m hoping that, one day, we can get a better-loved sequel.

4) Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze

I remember when Donkey Kong Country Returns was announced for the Wii. People went ape. B-) ok but really tho, there was a huge amount of excitement about the return of the classic SNES-era platforming series. And, surprisingly, once the game was released that excitement was actually justified. Donkey Kong Country Returns wasn’t just another sequel; it was a great game. Less fanfare greeted Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze. That was to be expected, as it didn’t have the immediate “wow” factor of its predecessor. But that’s also a bit disappointing, as Tropical Freeze is absolutely the better game in every regard. Its levels are more varied, its soundtrack more memorable, and its character roster doubled. (The ability to play as Cranky is every bit the reward we always knew it would be.) It also seems to have a much more rational difficulty curve. Whereas Returns hit unexpectedly hard early in the game and never really eased up after that, Tropical Freeze feels more like an adventure of satisfying ups and downs. I’ve played through this one multiple times, and I’m sure I’m not done with it. I’d even say it’s the best Donkey Kong platformer yet. And if you don’t agree, brother, you’re…bananas. B-)

3) Yoshi’s Woolly World

I expected to like this game, but I never expected to love it the way I do. I was a big fan of Kirby’s Epic Yarn, and I think most people were…even if they wished for a higher level of difficulty. I never understood that criticism; Kirby games certainly didn’t have a reputation for being anything beyond “pretty damned easy,” and, frankly, the fact that you couldn’t die didn’t make Kirby’s Epic Yarn a cakewalk; there were optional collectibles for those seeking a challenge, and many of them were very well hidden. The reason I bring this up is that Yoshi’s Woolly World not only addressed the difficulty concern — both through collectibles and tough as nails secret levels — but it’s a better game overall. What’s more, I’m not even a particularly big fan of the Yoshi series. This one won me over with its perfect blend of platforming and exploration, fairly pitched challenge, and visual aesthetic that clearly lands on the all-time-best list. It’s one of the few games from this generation that I bothered to 100%, which was surprisingly difficult to do so. And I loved every moment of it, and I’m currently playing through the entire game again with my girlfriend. Yoshi’s Woolly World could have rested on many things: its cuteness, its series pedigree, its visual invention. And yet, every aspect of the game goes at least one step beyond expectation. It’s sweet, charming, and deeply fun. It reminds me of why I fell in love with video games in the first place. And that soundtrack is just so pleasant and comforting…I can still call to mind specific songs from certain levels, which is something I’m not sure I’ve been able to do since the SNES days. Yoshi’s Woolly World is the best of classic gaming combined with the best of modern gaming. It’s this generation’s unexpected masterpiece.

2) Pikmin 3

Whenever a new Nintendo console is released, you can expect to hear the same questions about a few of its franchises. “Where’s Metroid?” “Where’s F-Zero?” “Where’s Star Fox?” Well, I don’t join in those particular choruses, but I sure as hell wonder where Pikmin is. After skipping the Wii entirely (ports excepted, only one of which, I think, was even available in this country), the series returned on the Wii U. And it wasn’t just the comforting return of a great series…it was the best title, easily. I loved Pikmin from the moment I played it on the GameCube. In fact, much of what I loved about that game came from the biggest criticism other people had about it: the strict time limit. I felt that it added some real stakes and facilitated a different kind of approach to problem solving than I would have employed otherwise. Normally I’m a careful guy; give me a strategy title, and I’m going to take a lot of turns to accomplish my goal, but I’m also going to come through relatively unscathed. Take too long to accomplish Pikmin‘s goals, though, and you suffocate on an alien planet. The game encourages and requires a sort of artful carelessness, which often fences you into having to deal with the consequences of a decision you previously made in a fit of panic. It was beautiful, it was fun, and it was my favorite GameCube game. Sure enough, the sequel eliminated the time limit, and felt inconsequential as a result. I never even bothered to finish that one, whereas I played through Pikmin many times, eventually earning the best ending. Pikmin 3 offers a great middle ground. There is a time limit, but it’s one you can extend by playing well, giving you the chance to progress more or less at your leisure…but punishing you with much tighter deadlines if you don’t take your task seriously. In short, it’s the sequel the first game always should have had. It looks better, it plays better, it sounds better, and it’s a thousand times more focused than Pikmin 2. Pikmin 3 would have been destined for this list even if it was a lazy reprise of the first game, because the first game was just that good. But what we got was a phenomenal experience, and one I’d be grateful for even if I enjoyed nothing else on the Wii U. And it’s still not the system’s best title…

1) Tokyo Mirage Sessions ♯FE

The Wii U didn’t have a distinguished life. It was never well-loved. It may not even be remembered fondly. But the games on this list aren’t good ones; they’re great ones. And yet when I sat down to write it, I know immediately what the best of the best would be. Tokyo Mirage Sessions ♯FE is my favorite game on the console, and one of my favorites in years. It’s an incredible, fun, addictive experience that didn’t get anywhere near the attention it deserved. It was also one of the few to use the gamepad in any truly meaningful way, turning it into the interface for a messenger app used by the characters. So, that’s nice. But it’s not what makes Tokyo Mirage Sessions ♯FE so great. No. That would be the incredible, colorful, memorable visuals. The absolutely stellar soundtrack, consisting of some great, original J-pop songs. The brilliant combat that occupies perfectly the space between complex and frustrating. And the characters. Oh, the characters. While Tokyo Mirage Sessions ♯FE gets flak for its story — which, to be fair, is pretty light — it’s really a game about its own characters. As much as it often seems to be otherwise, it’s not about finding and fighting a big monster. It’s about people discovering who they are. Figuring out what they want to be. Finding the right ways to get what they need. It’s a game about friendship, about support, about coming to understand each other. It’s a game about teamwork, and about the power that comes when you find yourselves pulling together in the same direction. (Ellie best girl btw) It’s an adorable, unforgettable experience, with a long campaign and lots of optional sidequests that flesh out the world and the characters that occupy it. I found myself seeking out as many things to do as possible, just to spend a little more time with the game…and that’s not something that I do often. There was a bit of disappointment surrounding this title when it was released, due mainly to the fact that it was initially pitched to the public as a crossover between the Fire Emblem and Shin Megami Tensei franchises. The result is a game that isn’t much like either, and that’s understandably disappointing for anyone who was hoping for the best of both. But Tokyo Mirage Sessions ♯FE is a near-perfect RPG in its own right, and one of the most engrossing I’ve ever played. Not because I wanted to see what happened next…rather because, for once, I didn’t want to leave.

The Joy of Knowing Nothing

January 6th, 2017 | Posted by Philip J Reed in video games - (3 Comments)

Some time ago I picked up Tales of Zestiria from a PSN sale. It was an impulse buy; basically it was priced very low and I’d vaguely remembered hearing good things about the larger series. I didn’t, I hasten to add, pick it up because I had any specific interest in it or time to play it.

It sat on my home screen, waiting for me to give it a try, wondering if I’d really play Spelunky atrociously for the thousandth time again instead. At one point I did try it. I didn’t play for very long…just long enough to start to feel overwhelmed by the battle system. I figured I’d pick it up again, eventually, when I had the patience to really learn it.

And I didn’t touch it again for ages. I was intimidated by what I felt to be a needlessly complicated set of controls. I didn’t abandon the game, but I definitely decided I didn’t have the time to dig into it just yet.

Video games occupy a pretty interesting position in entertainment media, in the sense that gamers don’t really feel obligated to start a series at its beginning. Final Fantasy XV just came out, and if my Facebook timeline is to be believed, there are an awful lot of people diving in not because they have any familiarity with the series, but because it looked fun on its own merits.

The same thing happened with Fallout 3. With Ocarina of Time. With Skyrim. With Persona 4. Heck, it happens all the time. With very few exceptions, any series will be visited (or not) by an audience that dips in here, dips in there, samples one title, gets immersed in another, and probably isn’t following along in sequence.

It’s a bit odd. I’m sure relatively few people picked up the fourth Harry Potter book first, because it looked the most interesting. I don’t think anyone starts with Back to the Future III. People, on the whole, start series in other media at the beginning, and decide with each installment (or during each installment) whether or not they’d like to keep going.

I’d be tempted to compare video games to television episodes in that regard, but in the era of easily available back seasons and an increased reliance on serialization (even in silly sitcoms), people may not be dropping into and out of shows at disparate points as much as they used to.

Video games, though, are embraced in that way. In fact, developers bank on that fact. There’s no way Final Fantasy XV would have been greenlit, for instance, if Square Enix expected it to be purchased only by those who had played all fourteen of its main-series predecessors.

We count on people hopping in and out of game series. We’ll remaster or port an older installment for modern systems now and again, but almost never is it intended that gamers play each entry, in order, before grabbing whatever interests them most.

I know what you’re thinking: with few exceptions, video games series don’t have consistent plot threads. Characters from an earlier game might show up in a later one, and we all enjoy finding some visual or aural nod in a new game to an earlier one in its lineage, but stories are self-contained. Link is on one quest, and in another game he’ll be on the next. (And he probably won’t even be the same Link.) Mario still needs to rescue the princess. The members of STARS need to find — and stop — whatever’s behind this particular outbreak.

Experience with earlier games in the series might give you a deeper understanding of what’s happening, or help you to appreciate echoes and resonance that a newcomer wouldn’t recognize, but it’s not a prerequisite. You just need to jump in, find out what you need to accomplish, and then set about doing it. It’s a short story more than it’s a chapter in an ongoing narrative.

It does have some negative side effects, however. My experience with Tales of Zestiria was tainted almost immediately by the overwhelming controls. There seemed to be a preposterous number of button combinations to learn, which would trigger various actions that would then require their own button combinations to trigger the next set. It was too much.

I was fighting weak spiders in the intro dungeon* and slaying them easily…but I was only pressing one button. The tutorial windows and hint stones and menu explanations kept telling me how much more there was to learn. Sometimes they’d come in such rapid succession that I wouldn’t even be able to practice what I’d been told before I was being told something else.

For everything I had the chance to actually try, 10 different windows would be trying to teach me things I didn’t. It was noisy. And it just never seemed to stop. No matter how many I’d seen or how far I’d gotten, the game just wouldn’t stop telling me things.

I was still beating enemies with simple combinations and strategies, but I know that couldn’t last forever. At some point the game was going to ask me to use 50 things I’d learned to defeat a boss, when I would have retained only five. I had no hope of catching up. Hints and advice and guidance multiplied with every step I took.

It was too much. I stopped playing.

And yet, someone who had played the previous games probably wouldn’t have been overwhelmed.

I certainly can’t say for sure, but I suspect that the absurdly complicated controls of Tales of Zestiria evolved over the course of the fourteen previous games. They didn’t arrive fully formed; they started with some degree of complexity, and developed gradually from there. Fans of the series may have had some new things to learn in Tales of Zestiria, but I had to learn 15 games’ worth of new things. Those tutorial windows were there for me. Most people could blow right through them. “I remember this.” “Yes, yes.” “Oh, this is new…”

Me? I had to read them all. And feel crushed beneath their weight.

Game series don’t often have a crucial inter-title continuity…at least, not in a narrative sense. In the sense of game design, they nearly always do. Super Mario Bros. teaches us that Mario can stomp on enemies, but later games don’t bother, because they assume we know. A Link to the Past teaches us that link should cut grass and smash pottery. Later games assume we know. I hadn’t played Donkey Kong Country for years (or very much) before I played Donkey Kong Country Returns, and in that game I missed a lot of collectibles that relied on me “remembering” that Donkey Kong can leap out of a roll while falling.

You might know things; you might not. Games don’t expect you to remember (or even experience) all plot details, but they do expect that you understand the basic mechanics.

I don’t know why I stuck with Tales of Zestiria, or even why I went back. The story wasn’t especially engaging, but I did very much like the visual aesthetic. The soundtrack was also pretty incredible. And I think I was at least a bit seduced by the chance to play as an angel, which must hold some inexplicable appeal to me, as I remember that being something I also very much enjoyed in Dragon Quest IX.

But I did stick with it. At some point I felt so overwhelemed by the controls that I looked up a “how to play” video on YouTube. Again, I wasn’t doing poorly in the game; I just didn’t understand so much of what was being told to me that I expected to hit a wall at some point that I wouldn’t be able to get over. (Something I didn’t very much enjoy in Dragon Quest IX.) I only watched a little bit of the video, because something** was said that made everything click for me. I went back to the game…and played regularly from then on until I finished it.

And I loved it.

I genuinely fell in love with the game the more I played.

I loved the world. I loved navigating it. I loved the characters, who engaged me and felt important and distinct. I loved the animated cut scenes. I loved the music more and more with each new area I discovered. I loved tracking down the gigantic monsters that decimated my team earlier in the game to cut them to ribbons now that I’d gotten stronger. I loved finding sidequests, not because they were varied and exciting (they were often neither) but because the towns and NPCs felt real, and I actually felt like I was helping people. Like my assistance made a difference. Indeed, revisiting older towns to hear NPCs share rumors of my accomplishments helped me to feel that way.

I wasn’t a guy steering a video game character through challenges. I was helping people. What’s more, I was on an actual journey with my teammates. I could see and feel them change. I could see the world becoming a better place. I could understand how — precisely how, step by step — my character went from being a well-meaning nobody to being a savior. And I believed in the transition.

When I finished the game, finally, I looked it up. I read about it. I wanted to hear interpretations of its themes. I wanted to see people talking about how it tied into other games in the series. I wanted to get some sense of which characters (and stories) appealed to players on the whole, and which did not.

Instead, I found a lot of complaining. A lot of discord. A lot of people who felt let down by the experience. That was a bit strange to me, since I enjoyed it quite a lot, but the stranger thing was that they were taking issue with much of what I specifically loved. The music. The characters. The environments.

And what they were doing was comparing them, unfavorably, to the games that had come before.

When I played Tales of Zestiria, I could appraise it only on its own merits. It was necessarily its own experience. Maybe the soundtrack was a letdown compared to previous titles. Maybe the character design was a step backward. Maybe the story was, relatively speaking, simple and too predictable.

But I couldn’t possibly say any of that for sure.

And so I was free to enjoy it.

Which I kind of love.

The players experienced with the series likely weren’t as baffled or frustrated by the controls as I was, but they also didn’t enjoy the experience the way I did. And, of course, I wasn’t baffled and frustrated forever. Eventually I got over my misgivings. Did longtime fans get over theirs?

I don’t ultimately have advice to share, or a point to make, or much of anything to convey, really.

Except that, sometimes, knowing nothing might be its own reward.

—–
* “Introdungeon” is a portmanteau that’s almost too perfect when discussing video games.

** I could explain it here, but it’d only bore you. Suffice it to say that the game wasn’t teaching me new things the way I thought it was…it was giving me multiple ways to understand the things I’d already been taught. It encouraged me to complicate my strategy, rather than attempted to redefine it. Once I realized that I was free to concentrate on getting very good at just a few things, it made all the difference.

Resident Evil 4

THE TITLE IS THE WHOLE POST GOODBYE

…okay, of course it’s not. You know me. If I can say something in nine words, I might as well say it in nine thousand.

Anyway, there’s a big update post to come, giving you all an idea of what to expect in the coming months. In short, though, December is going to be awesome, with the Fourth Annual Xmas Bash!!!! live stream, a great Christmas-appropriate Fiction Into Film, and a major, huge surprise that’s going to make December the busiest month this blog has had in a while.

But…you’ll have to wait to find out about that.

Because I’m playing Resident Evil 4 again. Or, I’m trying to.

And I can’t. I mean, I can, of course. But I also…can’t. Because this game genuinely scares the daylights out of me.

I don’t know why. I can’t put my finger on anything in particular. In fact, I don’t think it is anything in particular. I think it’s a combination of things. I think it’s the fact that the hordes of enemies (largely) don’t look like monsters, making it more difficult to keep them at a fictional remove. I think it’s the visuals of sickly greys and browns. I think it’s the soundtrack, which keeps unnervingly quiet until it rises up and swells against you right along with the enemies.

I think it’s everything. I think Resident Evil 4 is so well built, so atmospheric, so masterfully constructed that I can’t feel safe.

Other Resident Evil games have scared me, sure. But they’ve mainly scared me through unexpectedly placing an enemy around a corner. One of my most formative scary moments in games is shared by anyone who’s ever played the original: the dogs crashing through the windows. It’s effective, it works, and it’s also kinda cheap. And that’s been Resident Evil in a nutshell for me.

Cheap makes you jump. Cheap makes you shout a bit. Cheap makes your heart race.

But it doesn’t terrify you, because cheap is over as quickly as it begins. And cheap gets old. The 50th time a zombie pops out of nowhere, it doesn’t register the same way. You no longer panic; you respond. Instinct kicks in. The dogs crashing through the window are so fucking scary because it happens so early in the game, when you don’t know what to expect, don’t know how to deal with them, and are likely still learning the controls.

The later scares in that first game aren’t as memorable, because by the time you get to them you have some idea of what you need to do. You ready your weapon. You deal with the problem. We can all agree that the dogs scared the crap out of us, but can we all agree that anything later in the game had the same effect? Probably not.

And so Resident Evil, as a series, faced diminishing returns on its horror. We got used to its tricks and its methods. We started to anticipate what should have felt unexpected. We may not have known the lyrics, but we sure as hell knew the melody.

None of which is to say that the series peaked with its first installment, or that the series shouldn’t have continued, or anything like that. It’s just that the first Resident Evil could have done anything, and we wouldn’t have known what to expect from it. In later games, we had a kind of understanding. We knew what we were getting into. We’d jump when something popped up. We’d run out of ammo. We’d cling desperately to our healing items, trying to gauge how likely it was that we’d run into a save point before keeling over. The tension was still there, and in large part so was the horror, but it was also something we understood before it kicked in. That’s what Resident Evil is: monsters and ammo issues and unknowable gaps between save points. The first time, it’s a surprise. Every other time, it’s a convention.

Which is part of what made Resident Evil 4 so great. Knowing that fans of the series already understood how it ticked, and were savvy to the series’ tricks, Capcom chose to make a fourth installment that was entirely different. If the horror didn’t work as well, that was fine; Resident Evil 4 would be an action game instead.

Shift the genre. Shake up expectations. It was a gamble, but a smart one. You might be able to find some people who don’t think Resident Evil 4 is the best game in the series, but you’d have to do some digging.

And so Resident Evil 4 succeeded. It kept the general themes of the series alive, checked in on a few of the recurring characters, and was still artfully stingy with the ammo. Players familiar with the previous games felt largely at home, while the game itself took the series in a very different direction.

All of which is to say this: Resident Evil 4 shouldn’t scare me.

I’ve even seen people say that it’s not a horror game. They’re wrong, quite clearly, but the fact that anyone could even entertain that opinion says something.

There’s more of a focus on combat, for one. If you’ve played the previous games you probably have a lot of memories of dodging enemies in a panic, but in Resident Evil 4 your memories are more likely to be of taking on throngs of enemies with little Leon, hoping to cluster them together in a way that won’t overwhelm you, yet will allow you to send many of them toppling over with a kick.

Resident Evil 4 doesn’t want you dodging…at least, not for long. It wants you running, climbing, crashing through windows, knocking ladders down behind you when you finally find the right vantage point. Soon enough you meet your companion character, and it’s her job to stay out of trouble. She plays the role of a protagonist in the previous games, in that sense; she avoids danger whenever possible. It’s your job, by contrast, to clear the trouble away.

And yet, the game scares me. It scares me more than any of the other games do, and I think I’ve played them all (outside of Resident Evil 5, Resident Evil 6, and Revelations 2*).

It’s the best of the games I’ve played. It’s the most exciting. It’s probably also the most fun.

…but I’ve never gotten far in it.

I’ve played the Game Cube version. I’ve played the Wii version. Now, thanks to a Halloween sale, I’m playing the PS4 version.

I’m going to finish it. I’m going to force myself to finish it. I feel as though I need to. But every time I’ve picked up that controller to play it — any of three controllers to play it — my heart sinks. My blood grows colder. There’s something about the game that scares me more than the others do, scares me in a way that the others do not, and I don’t know why.

Partially, I think the shift to action-oriented gameplay is responsible.

Strictly speaking, Resident Evil 4 isn’t scarier. It’s not. Like, it really is not. It’s rarely claustrophobic, ammo and healing items are not as rare as they were in previous games, save points are indicated on the map to let you know exactly how far you have left to go, a merchant pops up regularly to serve as an armory, a medic, and comic relief all at once…

But I can’t play it. I keep having to stop. I pick it up. I make some progress. I get overwhelmed with feelings of terror, and I have to stop.

Nothing’s happening, and I have to stop.

I try five times to get through a wave of attackers. I succeed, and I have to stop.

I see nothing around me. Maybe a merchant. It’s quiet. I’m in no danger, and I have to stop.

It’s confused me for years. Why can I play the other games in the series? It’s not that they don’t scare me — they often do — but I can keep going. I can push on. The scary moments are thrilling, and then I move along.

In Resident Evil 4, the scary moments are oppressive. And they’re all scary moments.

Years ago I had a friend who couldn’t sleep in the same room as the box for the first Resident Evil game. He’d have to move it out of the room before he’d be able to rest at all. That always fascinated me, but I felt something like it when, very early in Resident Evil 4, I came across a man’s body hanging over a fire pit, while deranged villagers circled around it. The game just started, and I was already chilled.

Why didn’t I have his reaction back then? Why would I have it now?

Again, I think it’s the fact that the game is an action game. For some reason, that’s scarier to me.

See, I’m not good at those. Give my character a gun, and he’s probably not going to use it very well.

I’m clumsy. I don’t think well when I have to think quickly. I end up wasting ammo and spraying the air around the enemy. If I hit my target, it’s luck, and luck runs out. My favorite example of this has to be the first time I played Half-Life 2, where my chronic ineptitude rendered the conceit of the entire game incompatible with my reality. Characters would materialize and sigh with relief that I was finally there to save them…that I was their hero…that I was the only one who could help. Which is an odd conclusion to reach about the guy covered in bullet wounds who keeps blowing himself up with grenades.

But earlier Resident Evil games were puzzle-heavy. This may have been the design result of the fact that the controls and camera angles were, to be diplomatic, fuckawful.

Players couldn’t be expected to gun down hordes of baddies because players couldn’t be expected to even move their characters around reliably. And so the experience was something more like an adventure game. You’d find a puzzle, scour the area for clues, and have to figure out the solution for yourself. Resident Evil is a game about zombies, yes, but it’s also a game about consulting journals, analyzing paintings, shoving bookcases around, and searching for keys. That’s because without those things, you’d just have the combat. And the combat was terrible.

Resident Evil 4 makes the combat better. Much better. The camera isn’t fixed, you can aim precisely rather than simply point a gun in some general direction, and Leon is more nimble than the protagonists of previous games. As such — and I doubt this is coincidental — the puzzles take a back seat. You still have to find some kind of key or other, but they’re not especially well hidden, and there’s nothing you won’t find if you simply comb the area around you. Compared to the original Resident Evil, which required a good deal of oblique thinking and pixel hunting, this is a massive difference.

Now that you can be expected to kick zombie ass, in other words, the game might as well let that become the focus.

Here’s the thing, though: I’m good at puzzles. And I’m bad at combat.

And I think the lesson here is that horror, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.

My friend who couldn’t sleep in the same room as Resident Evil was probably better at combat than he was at puzzles, so the game frightened him in a way that it didn’t frighten me. Resident Evil 4 scares the pants off of me, but not off of so many others…at least most of whom, I’m sure, are better at video game combat than I am.

See, fear only sets in when you believe you’re in danger. Puzzles — lateral thought, process of elimination, research — are my element. Yes, it would be scary to be locked in a mansion with zombies, or to have to find some way out of a city infested with them, but if the main thing standing between me and salvation was a complex puzzle with some esoteric solution…well, I’d stand a chance. Because that’s how I work. I can do that.

I’m in a relative minority, and I think that’s what made Resident Evil so scary for so many people; they knew they were in danger, but escape required a level of knowledge — or at least an ability to find knowledge — that they didn’t have.

Resident Evil 4 switches the focus to combat. I’m out of my element there. Suddenly, I am in danger.

Others see this as less scary. They’ve been shooting moving targets in the head since at least Goldeneye. They’re ready for this. The big door with the puzzle embedded in it is replaced with some guns and ammunition. Now they stand a chance. That’s how they work. They can do that.

For me, the change to a better control scheme actually made things harder, because the game now expected me to use it. My capacity for abstract thought no longer serves me well. I need fast reflexes. I need precision married to speed. I need to actually fight.

And so the action game is actually scarier to me than the horror games ever were. Because fear is being forced into a situation that you don’t feel you can escape.

Puzzles were challenges. Not always fair challenges, as anyone who played those games can attest to, but they were able to be solved. Resident Evil 4, though, is war. If anything, a capacity for abstract thought is a detriment. If you’re taking time to think, you’re already dead.

I find this interesting. We all have different fears, of course. I don’t mind spiders, or heights, or most of the things that traditionally scare people. But put a gun in my hand and tell me I need to fight my way out, and I’ll be terrified. That isn’t me.

Fear really is in the eye of the beholder. Because we’re all comfortable with different things, we’re all afraid of different things. That’s why, for example, I can fight my way through Bioshock and trudge my way through Fallout with no problem, but I’ll never as long as I live touch Silent Hill, because as a man who struggles with mental health issues every day, I already know that’s a series — however good — that I can’t handle.

So I’m a few games behind. I love the Resident Evil series, as cheap and cheesy and unfair as it is. But the game that so many believe isn’t scary at all is the one that scares me so much I can barely even play it.

I’ll get through it. That’s a goal of mine. I’ll push through, because the game is good enough that it deserves that I push aside my fear.

But for now, I find it interesting that as the team was developing a game that they knew would shift away from horror, they were crafting, expertly, my worst nightmare…one in which my survival hinged on something other than my brain.

—–
* Are any of these worth playing? I heard 5 is awful, but beyond that…I really don’t know much. I adored the first Revelations, which I think is what’s keeping me from bothering with the sequel. It was so good that I’m really not sure what another game could bring to the experience.

Alas, poor Isabeau

September 12th, 2016 | Posted by Philip J Reed in video games - (0 Comments)

Isabeau, Shin Megami Tensei IV

In a few days we’ll be playing Shin Megami Tensei IV: Apocalypse. Well, I say we, but really I’ll have to wait a bit as I’ll be out of the country for a few weeks. So it’s actually everyone but me, and I think you’re all jerks.

Shin Megami Tensei IV is one of my favorite role playing games of all time. It may well be one of my favorite games of all time. It’s not perfect, but I never asked it to be. I bought it expecting a fun and hopefully engaging adventure. I ended up with one of the most unexpectedly profound narrative experiences gaming has given me.

In spite of its actual flaws — a confusing map screen, unclear objectives, repetitive side quests — it’s a work of hideous beauty. It’s a dark, dismal meditation on free will, on identity, on the very concept of progress, both in the game and in reality. (The more advanced society, ironically, is the backward one.)

It also has one of the all-time great gaming soundtracks, so even if you don’t want to think you can sure as hell rock out.

Impressively, its most significant — and rewarding — plot twist comes at a very early point in the game. I won’t spoil it for you, but you’ll know it when you get there, and it’s a very brave thing to play your trump card so early in a long experience. A lesser game — or team of artists — would have saved the reveal for a more structurally climactic moment. Shin Megami Tensei IV lets you get just comfortable with what you think the game is, then plunges you into something very different, leaving you, like the character you control, to wonder what the fuck, exactly, you’re doing.

There are also a few perceived flaws in the game that, for my money, actually enrich the experience, and help Shin Megami Tensei IV to make its point in ways it wouldn’t be able to if things were ironed out. Two of these “problems” are interlinked, at least in a thematic sense. First, it’s the hamfisted characterization. Second, it’s the game’s odd approach to determining your alignment.

The characterization thing is bunk. The alignment thing is…less bunk, so we’ll deal with that second.

When people point fingers at the characterization in Shin Megami Tensei IV, they’re pointing at Walter and Jonathan. Those are two of your companions throughout most of the game. They pop up to give advice, to express their feelings about certain decisions, and to help you fight. Beyond that, they serve as little more than a devil and angel on either shoulder, suggesting what your next move should be.

And people say that their characterization is flimsy. They’re both right and wrong. When they’re right, however, they’re missing the point.

Neither Walter (Chaos) nor Jonathan (Law) are nuanced characters, but they also shouldn’t be. They can’t be. That’s not their purpose, and adding nuance would only interfere with their purpose.

They need to exist in order to show you the extremes of the two alignments. That’s what they’re there for. By giving Walter second thoughts about betraying the samurai code, or some such thing, you’d be dismantling him as a signpost for Chaos. By allowing Jonathan to concede that the social structure of his home kingdom is unfair, unsustainable, or untrustworthy, you, as a player, would then need to doubt his devotion to the Law path.

Walter and Jonathan both represent flawed individuals in the sense that they are steadfastly, unthinkingly, innately devoted to their paths. There’s not a rulebook that Walter doesn’t tear up and Jonathan doesn’t respect. This idea is reinforced over and over again, with neither of the two being painted in particularly flattering colors.

The odds are good that you’ll agree with Jonathan’s peaceful solution in one case, and find it frustratingly naive in the next. You’ll side with Walter one time that he suggests that someone can’t be trusted, but wish he’d shut up about it the 50th time, when he has no particular reason to doubt that person’s intentions.

You’re supposed to know who they are, and you’re supposed to get angry with their reluctance to give. Softening Walter or educating Jonathan wouldn’t allow that to be possible. If either of them struggles with internal conflict, there’s no reason for you to struggle with them externally. They need to be devoted entirely to what they believe in, because they need to stand in stark contrast to you, the player, the individual, the actual breathing living human being who can’t possibly side with either of them all the time.

You want nuance? You are the nuance. You are the deeper character, trapped between two poles of natural, eternal conflict. Which, hey, when you think about it, is the entire theme of the game. What do you know? Maybe that choice of simple characterization was deliberate and meaningful after all.

(Also, it’s telling that complaints about characterization ignore the mass of non-companion characters that do have deep — if only oblique and suggested — backstories, drives, and desires, such as Hope, K., Fujiwara, Hugo, Tayama, Aquila…hell, even the towns you visit have unspoken histories that unfold detail by detail the more you dig and explore.)

Shin Megami Tensei IV doesn’t deepen Walter and Jonathan because it doesn’t want to. It’s not that it can’t; other games in the series (and especially in its celebrated spinoff series, Persona) have characters that are large, that contain multitudes. That fact — and the presence of other rich characters in this game — is your clue. If these characters are not deep, it’s because there’s a purpose to their shallow natures.

And that purpose has to do with your alignment.

It’s up to Walter to side with the forces of Chaos every time. It’s up to Jonathan to be unflinchingly devoted to the Law. But everyone else in the game, including those anonymous residents you’ll meet in the most hellish places imaginable, is somewhere in between. You see those who live in relative comfort, which is only possible because they’ve allowed themselves to adapt to Chaos. You see those in low places, lost, without hope, who yearn for the chance to build up the exact same kind of Lawful society that collapsed and damned them in the first place. You see one particular character who seems to exemplify Law, until you find out he’s addicted to the pleasures of Chaos, and sends you repeatedly out for forbidden artifacts just so he can indulge in private.

And throughout, you, quietly, make your decision.

You’re neither Walter nor Jonathan. You can’t be, because they’re unrealistically dedicated to their definitive solutions to trickier problems. You’re a human being. And you see the way other characters in these tragic civilizations live. Those who manage to survive, those who don’t, the tragic circumstances that define each of their existences.

And you try to determine how you’ll make things better, whatever that may mean to you.

At least, you think you do. Ultimately, the game makes your decision for you, based on your actions.

And, yes, I admit that it does so in a pretty frustrating way.

Choosing to side with Walter’s suggestions of how to proceed will gradually shift your alignment toward Chaos, and choosing to side with Jonathan will tip it toward Law. That’s easy and clear enough.

But there’s a third path. The path of Neutrality. Which is, essentially, the right path. It’s when you land directly in between the two extremes. You anchor them. You keep them both in check.

And it’s an extremely hard path to get.

In some respects, that’s okay. The best ending should be the most difficult to get. But it requires you less to adhere to a truly Neutral doctrine than it does require to you flit back and forth between allegiance to Walter and allegiance to Jonathan, which makes the Neutral path feel more like the Indecisive path. It also involves a lot of guesswork in figuring out the right way to proceed, because the Neutral personification, Isabeau, tends not to speak up.

Yes, there’s a third personified alignment on your team. And she’s why I’m writing this.

Isabeau is a great character. Not because she’s more realistic, exactly, but because her struggle is an exaggerated version of your own. While you can often find yourself in agreement with either the caustic Walter or the cautious Jonathan — and are many times forced to side with one of them — Isabeau never bends to either side. She sees both points of view, but doesn’t exactly accept — or dismiss — either.

She’s there. In the middle. Not knowing what to do. Deferring, often, to you, not only because you’re the player character, but because you are a lot like her. You also have some difficult choices to make, and there often isn’t an answer you agree with. The only difference between you and Isabeau is that you have to choose something anyway. Isabeau is always in a state of limbo.

I liked Isabeau. I also liked Walter and Jonathan, and many other characters. But it was Isabeau I felt something for, something a bit deeper than the default affinity you feel for a party member that doesn’t actively upset you. This was probably because she was the only character who seemed to lack agency. (She didn’t really; she’s just quick to surrender it.) But whatever the reason, the game delivered a terrible gut punch toward the end, when I had to kill her.

Characters die in games. Characters that we like. Characters that we’re invested in, either in terms of our time or our emotions. Heroes leave to conquer, and not all of them come home. We know this.

But we don’t often have to kill them. Especially those we agree with. And yet Isabeau, if you end up on either the Chaos or Law path, must die by your hand.

Suddenly the opaque restrictiveness of the Neutral path, the monumental unlikelihood of finding yourself there, makes sense. You’re supposed to fight her. And it’s supposed to hurt.

This may not be the decision you’d like to make, but it’s one you have to experience. It’s something the game wants to put you through. Maybe, just maybe, so that the next time you’ll play it, you’ll work so much harder for the Neutral path, just to avoid having to do it again.

Isabeau isn’t a difficult opponent.

She barely even fights.

You encounter her as you set off on your game-ending journey to buoy either the forces of darkness or light.

She can’t abide either.

She never could.

And now she stands in your way. Not because she expects to win. Not because she wants to fight. Not even because she wants you to fail.

But because she has to. Because she’s opposed to both Chaos and Law, and if you’re either…well…she knows she needs to die by your hand, because she can’t bear to watch you go down those paths.

It’s not a pleasant scene. It hurts to witness. It feels wrong to push the buttons that tip the fight, turn by turn, even more steeply in your favor. When you also have to fight either Jonathan or Walter later — depending on who you sided against — the emotions involved are not as complex. They each represent, after all, by design, the polar opposite of the path you’ve chosen. (Again…deliberate characterization, as this wouldn’t work with shades of grey.) They’re also each bolstered by supernatural strength, and they put up incredibly demanding fights.

Isabeau isn’t, and doesn’t.

Isabeau falls.

She’s nothing special.

She has no tricks up her sleeves.

The only time she’ll hurt you at all is when she slumps over, half-dead. Her portrait appears, bloodied by your sword.

She has something to say.

She never wanted to fight. But you chose a side. And this is what had to happen.

No matter which path you pursue, innocents will be hurt. You know that. Those are the main stakes of the game. You’re reminded of that at every juncture.

But those innocents are collateral damage. They die, whoever dies, in the service of what you’ve decided is a greater good. They choke on fallout. They’re injured by debris. They’re mowed down by the force of cosmic war. They die indirectly.

But Isabeau, the most pragmatic, rational, respectful character in the game, is the one you must slay face to face. Hers are the eyes you must look into as she dies, her blood staining your weapon.

The Neutral route is so difficult to find because you have to see this first.

You have to see this.

And you have to ask, “What the fuck, exactly, am I doing?”

Super Mario Land 2: Six Golden Coins

I had a Game Boy as a kid, and I loved it. Hell, I still love the Game Boy. There were too many great games available to list here, but one that I certainly played endlessly was Super Mario Land 2: Six Golden Coins. I had the first Super Mario Land as well, but it always felt a little…off to me.

The sprites were too small. The fireballs bounced. Invincibility stars played the can-can music. It was just…weird. Like falling into another dimension and playing their version of a Mario game.

But Mario Land 2 was great. It looked (and looks) gorgeous. The branching paths and secrets felt perfectly designed for the series as I knew it. It contained this song for fuck’s sake. I played it constantly.

And I don’t just mean I picked it up and beat a few stages. I mean I completed it. Over and over and over again. As an adult I’ve revisited it, and while it’s not the game I quite remember it being, all of that childhood charm came rushing back to me.

…but so did a question.

Here is that question:

What the absolute hell is Wario doing at the end?

Wario — who you probably know by now from other games and spinoffs — is the evil converse of Mario. He’s greedy and hoards coins, unlike Mario who…

…anyway, point is, he’s bad. So at the end of the game you run through the fortress he stole from Mario and beat him up. Easy enough.

But then…well, watch the fight if you like, but feel free to skip to 1:28.

And what the hell does he do after Mario defeats him?

He shrinks. I get that. Mario does the same thing (usually) when he takes damage.

Then he cries. I get that. He’s a selfish bastard who just lost his castle. (Well, Mario’s castle. Why, exactly, is Wario demonized for wanting the kind of impenetrable fortress Mario himself already had? Why is Mario the hero and Wario a villain to be vanquished if they both craved the same exact kind of power? Okay…another Pop Question at some point then…)

But then he…throws a projectile of some kind. It doesn’t hurt Mario. Wario makes a silly face and runs off.

…I don’t get that.

What actually happened?

What did he throw?

This is the very end of the game…Wario’s final gesture of defiance…the last word from our fallen adversary…and I have no idea what it is.

It looks like no other item in the game. Part of me wants to assume it’s his hat, as you see the hat disappear before he throws whatever he throws.

…but Wario’s hat doesn’t look like that. His looks like the kind of ballcap Mario always wears, and this item looks a lot more like Link’s Phrygian cap.

Then I wondered if it’s Wario’s shoe…but it’s completely the wrong size for that, and it still doesn’t explain why the hat disappears. Granted, the coloring of the sprite’s feet changes, so that could represent a shoe being removed, but then where is the other shoe?

Or is it something else entirely? I honestly have no idea what Wario does here.

It’s clearly something cheeky, but I must have finished the game 30 times as a kid and I’ve done it a few more as an adult, and I still have no idea what in the world Wario is doing here.

He throws something at Mario. The game plays a sort of collision sound that you wouldn’t expect from a soft item of clothing. It also doesn’t seem to phase Mario. Then Wario scampers off…his final rebellion a mystery.

So I ask you:

What the hell is Wario doing?

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