Small Particles

O my countrymen!–be nice;–be cautious of your language;–and never, O! never let it be forgotten upon what small particles your eloquence and your fame depend.

The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman

Before we begin, this is your fair warning that this post contains plot spoilers for Far Cry: New Dawn. I can’t quite decide if I’d call them minor spoilers, so if you plan on playing it and believe any story-related spoilers would interfere with your enjoyment, bail now.


I finished Far Cry: New Dawn recently, and I enjoyed it very much. It retained just about all of the best things about Far Cry 5 and cut huge amounts of fat. The result is a tight, focused experience that allows for plenty of freedom but also never loses sight of itself for the sake of providing more content.

I wasn’t quite sure going in whether or not I would encounter a sincere ethical dilemma at any point in the story. I hoped I would — as those are almost always my favorite parts of apocalyptic/post-apocalyptic games — but I was also fully aware that Far Cry, as a series, is about moment-to-moment action and bombastic thrill.

I did finally get my ethical dilemma toward the end of the game. It was a good one, but it was complicated in a way I didn’t expect and which I still don’t know how to process.

If you regret ignoring my first spoiler warning, consider this to be your last one.

In Far Cry: New Dawn, you play as a different character from the one you played in Far Cry 5, but it’s a direct sequel — set around 20 years later — and you encounter a few of the same characters, including that game’s central villain, Joseph Seed.

In Far Cry 5, Eden’s Gate — his doomsday cult in rural Montana — is a genuinely dangerous force that commits atrocities against the residents of Hope County, which Joseph and his followers have seized.

Throughout the game you liberate the county inch by inch as you fight your way toward Joseph. When you finally do confront him, the distant explosion of a nuclear bomb vindicates his prophecy — though certainly not his methods. Doomsday was coming, and now it’s here.

In Far Cry 5, Joseph is very clearly a villain. You can argue that he’s charismatic. You can, ultimately, argue that he’s correct. But as a human being, the most slack you could possibly cut him is a willingness to believe that he’s a slave to severe mental illness.

He is not sympathetic, and any sympathy you could possibly feel for him is stripped away every time you see his followers gassing innocents, peeling their skin off, or executing them on the roadside.

That’s okay. There’s enough going on that Joseph Seed doesn’t seem one-dimensional, even if the game doesn’t complicate his role as villain.

In Far Cry: New Dawn, the game complicates his role as villain.

Here, the villain title — within both the game and its marketing materials — is usurped by Mickey and Lou, the twin leaders of a massive group of raiders called The Highwaymen.

Being as Joseph survived the events of Far Cry 5, the twins taking over as villains suggested two possibilities to me. Either Joseph is now reformed, or the twins are so terrible, his behavior seems tame in comparison.

Both of these things are true.

While Joseph and his followers behaved horrendously and absolutely did need to be stopped — in the face of a looming apocalypse or not — they operated by a kind of logic. Cruel, reprehensible logic, but as you take down his three “Heralds” who each control their regions, their individual motives and methods are clear. There is a kind of law — a clear system of transgressions and punishments — at work. The whip comes down for reasons you were explicitly told the whip would come down.

The twins, in sharp contrast, are wildcards. They behave every bit as terribly as Joseph and Eden’s Gate did, but they do so for the hell of it. There’s a bit of loose logic behind their actions (so loose it would only muddy the discussion to get into it here), but they are ultimately creatures of selfish impulse.

Talk back to them and they might smack you. Or kill you. Or kill your friend. Or kidnap your family. Or burn your settlement to the ground. They’re capricious. They’re unpredictable. And so while someone could — in theory at least — carve out a life for themselves within the strict and unforgiving doctrine of Eden’s Gate, nobody, at any point, could possibly be safe from the twins, because there are no rules. There is no system by which one can avoid punishment. When The Highwaymen drive by, you can do nothing other than hope that they keep driving.

So, yes, the twins are worse on a day-to-day basis than Joseph was.

And Joseph has also reformed.

He is no longer violent. He has abdicated his seat at the head of Eden’s Gate, and lives a life of simple, isolated humility. (Well…comparative humility.) The settlement he founded is the most successful one in post-blast Hope County. It’s self-sustaining, quiet, and peaceful. His followers have traded guns and fatigues for bows and cloaks. Unlike the Eden’s Gate of the previous game, which worked to actively conquer the land, the group now coexists with it. It lives in easy harmony with nature, far from the gunfire and explosions and chaos that dominate the map.

Before I even encountered Joseph in New Dawn, the game did a great job of making me consider my feelings toward him.

For starters, I had information my character didn’t. I saw Joseph in Far Cry 5, and I saw the atrocities committed in his name. My character in New Dawn, however, did not. My character sees the fruits of Joseph’s labor and not the blood with which they were fertilized. Enough people in Hope County survived the apocalypse that word of Joseph’s unforgivable ways still floats around, but damned if my character can see any evidence of them. In fact, at one point we turn to Eden’s Gate for help and…we get it. At great cost to their community, they help us defend ours against those who seek to harm us. Because I’ve seen both sides of that coin now, my feelings are complicated.

And so I eventually face the dilemma I should have expected.

I won’t get into the complete events of Far Cry: New Dawn because I don’t want to spoil things unnecessarily, but it’s enough to say that things don’t go so well. (It’s the post-apocalypse, for crying out loud.)

Joseph, alone in a remote cabin, frets for his soul. As certain of himself as he was in the previous game, he’s uncertain now. He isn’t sure he was ever a prophet. His faith in God doesn’t seem to waver, but his faith in himself sure as hell does. Almost two decades of reflection have him questioning whether the ends justified his means.

Far Cry: New Dawn expects us to have experience of Far Cry 5. Our character does not, and this contrite, damaged, tormented Joseph is all they know. But we know more.

So when we are given the prompt to kill Joseph, we recognize it as a bookend to the prompt that opened Far Cry 5 telling us to arrest him.

We didn’t actually have to arrest him. We had a choice. We could silently refuse. And we have that same choice now.

Do we kill Joseph?

What a great ethical question. Has he atoned for his crimes? He certainly seems sincere. Moreso than he’s ever seemed. He’s lost everything and asks for nothing. Could that be enough? Can we (and should we) leave an old man alone in the wilderness? Or should we remember that he was once a young man who did terrible things? Technically the same man and yet…they genuinely could not be more different now.

Isn’t capital punishment intended to remove from society someone who poses a significant threat to others? If Joseph no longer poses that threat, is it right to punish him that way? Perhaps his crimes should not go unpunished, but what about all the good he’s done in the past 20-ish years? He founded the only successful settlement, and he founded it on peace. Does that count for enough on the karmic scorecard?

All of this and more went through my mind when I realized I had the choice to kill him or to let him live.

But then it was complicated. And it was complicated by one word.

Here’s what the game’s subtitles told me he said:

My soul has become a cancer. I am a monster. And I only spread suffering and death in the name of God.

Here’s what actually came out of his mouth:

My soul has become a cancer. I am a monster. And I have only spread suffering and death in the name of God.

Note the word “have.”

I’ve seen plenty of discrepancies between what a voice actor says and what a subtitle tells me they are saying. It happens. Sometimes they skip a word without realizing it. Sometimes they smooth a sentence out because what looks fine in print doesn’t always sound right when spoken aloud. Sometimes they find a certain quirk or vocal tic in the character that affects how they say things in a way that isn’t actually reflected in the script.

And all of that is fine. Actors across all media — and even singers with their own songs — change the words a bit, deliberately or not, when it comes time to perform.

But that one word — Tristram Shandy’s small particle — completely changes the meaning of Joseph’s confession.

If I were only reading the subtitles, I’d conclude that Joseph is upset because he continues to be a rolling source of disaster. If I were only listening to his voice, I’d conclude that he’s upset because he has caused so much disaster in the past.

One of those things might deserve mercy. One of those things might not. One of those things abandons responsibility to a cosmic absolute. One of those things accepts responsibility.

And, in a case like this, I’m still not sure — several days after I made my decision — quite how to handle that self-negating information.

Was the subtitle an error in transcription? Was the voice actor wrong and nobody caught it? We could, in theory, turn to the original script to find out, but does it even matter what’s in the script if it doesn’t reflect what the character actually said?

We’ve all misspoken, and while our intentions undoubtedly matter, are we not still responsible for the things that actually come out of our mouths? Don’t our actual words — whatever we meant to have said — shape the way others see us and respond to us? And…shouldn’t they?

There’s no chance Far Cry: New Dawn did this deliberately (if this were Nier: Automata, for instance, I wouldn’t be so sure), but in this moment, we get both versions of Joseph Seed, coexisting.

In one voice, it’s the old Joseph, the fount of continuous destruction. In another voice, at the exact same time, it’s the new Joseph, distanced from who he used to be.

I have very different feelings for each of these Josephs. I imagine I can’t be alone in that. And what was either a four-character omission by someone at a keyboard or an actor’s slip of the tongue that went unnoticed holds a character’s life — and his future, and the future of Hope County — in the balance.

The reason I love ethical quandaries in games is that they force me to think about them, to process them, to react to them, to learn more about who I am based on how I respond to unclear moralities. They make me more aware of what I think.

This one I ended up loving because it reminded me, unintentionally, to be more aware of what I say.

My 10 best games of my 2018

As I said last year, I don’t usually do an annual best-of games list because I don’t usually play many games close to their release. Once again this year, though, I did, and what I played felt like it was absolutely worth spotlighting.

So here we are again, yes, but I have the same problem I had last time: I want to include games that I missed out on the previous year. Games that would have made my list had I gotten around to them.

I’m still not quite sure of the best format to use for something like this, so I’m just going to stick three 2017 highlights in their own list, and then move on to my favorite 10 from 2018. My only real rule is that remakes/remasters don’t qualify…even though this year saw a mountain of truly great ones. Shenmue I & II, Spyro Reignited Trilogy, Lumines Remastered, Katamari Damacy Reroll, and a bunch more.

The probably obvious caveat here is that I haven’t played every game this year, including some high-profile ones that, to be honest, I’d probably love. No Spider-Man, no Red Dead Redemption 2, no Hitman 2…I’ll get to them, but not in the last week or so of the year.

My best games of 2018 (2017 edition)

3) Prey

Prey is honestly the game that made me want to reach back into 2017 and spotlight it…and, obviously, it didn’t even end up being the best game I overlooked that year, which says something.

This was a massively pleasant surprise. I didn’t get around to it initially because the reviews were middling and I figured I’d wait for a sale. I regret that, because I wish I could have shown my support to the game with a full-price purchase.

Prey is difficult to discuss without spoiling some of its magic, suffice it to say it’s a sci-fi horror adventure that takes place on the space station Talos I in the immediate aftermath of horrific tragedy.

You are Morgan Yu, and your goal is…well, that’s your call. You can try to salvage what you can of the research that went wrong. You can try to escape and never look back. You can sacrifice Talos I — and yourself — to prevent the still-unfolding catastrophe from reaching Earth.

I’d be overselling the game to say there’s limitless freedom, because there certainly is not, but Prey is impressively versatile in ways so passive and quiet that a good deal of reviewers overlooked them. I remember one sequence midway through the game during which I really wanted some supplies behind a crate that was too heavy to move. Strength upgrades were available to me, but I had passed them up in favor of other things that I thought would be more useful. I couldn’t get to the goodies I wanted.

For whatever reason, I decided to fire my weapon at the crate…and it moved, just enough to make me realize I could blast it out of the way with enough firepower. And that was the moment Prey revealed itself to me. It’s not a matter of killing or avoiding an enemy…you can repair a turret to kill it for you, or hack a terminal to lock them in a room, or scale a wall to avoid them entirely, or or or or or. I returned to earlier areas of Talos I that I thought would be inaccessible until I found the right abilities, only to find that, actually, I just had to learn how to use the abilities I already had. Nearly every “lock” in the game is one you already have a key for, if you know what you’re doing.

Additionally, Prey has some of the best sidequests I’ve ever encountered, which surprised me considering the fact that just about every character is a torn, burnt, disfigured corpse on the floor somewhere. Reading two halves of email conversations, finding notes, listening to recordings…nothing about Prey‘s execution in this area is groundbreaking, but the writing is phenomenal. You learn about games the crew members invented and played to stave off boredom. You uncover a secret love affair that’s genuinely touching. You follow the stories of colleagues who knew something was awry but were silenced, one way or another, before they could speak up.

Prey is far better than it was given credit for being upon release, and if you skipped it, you really should pick it up sometime. Come for the scary monsters. Stay for the fragile humanity.

2) What Remains of Edith Finch

What Remains of Edith Finch is a dramatic masterpiece, not just within the medium but in general. I have never, in my entire life, been moved so deeply and so unforgettably by a video game.

The game is a walking simulator, to use that needlessly disparaging term, but it’s one that any fan of narrative, of characterization, of family dynamics, of simple storytelling truly needs to experience. There are important lessons here, for readers and for writers alike.

I’m being purposefully vague, so please don’t correct me in the comments, but you play as Edith Finch, who returns to her childhood home with adult eyes. The things she assumed were part of the standard childhood experience are revealed to her now as something quite different, and we piece together along with her the tragic history of the Finch family. Her family. Our family.

By exploring their old bedrooms, each of which has been sealed up and preserved like a shrine to the Finch who once occupied it, we learn about who these people were. And then we take control of them, one at a time, to live out their final moments. By the time we leave one room and move on to the next, we’ve genuinely gotten to know somebody. Somebody who…well, somebody who is already gone, leaving behind the clutter of who they used to be in a house that nobody will ever clear out. Their rooms are frozen in time, but time itself refuses to freeze.

Some of these vignettes are sad. Some are funny. Most are both. What Remains of Edith Finch is a series of emotional gutpunches that assemble into a profound statement about identity, about destiny, about personal growth. Every one of them matters. In an industry that loves to celebrate its own games for lasting hundreds upon hundreds of hours, What Remains of Edith Finch is a brief experience built of brief experiences. It gives you what it gives you, and then it moves on. Like each of the Finches themselves, it doesn’t stick around long. Just long enough that you’ll miss it when it’s gone.

I’ve liked a lot of video game characters. I’ve laughed with them and been afraid with them and I’ve helped them along. Then I eject the disc or the cartridge and get on with my life.

In sharp, painful contrast, I spent a part of my life with Edith Finch. I got to know her better than I think I will ever know most people. I cared about her. She mattered to me without me even realizing it.

You know.

Until it was over.

1) Nier: Automata

I’d be hard pressed to think of many years in which Nier: Automata would have had to fight very hard for the top spot. Not only was it one of the best-made games I’ve ever played, it was one of the most impressive.

There are games that play well, that look good, that sound great, that have intriguing stories, that have memorable characters…and then there are games that do all of these things, with each element of the experience working so perfectly in tandem, that it feels like it crossed over from another dimension in which they make games far better than we do.

Nier: Automata is one of those rare glimpses into another world, and I am privileged simply for being here to experience it. The soundtrack alone feels like something so beautiful we have no right to even come near it.

The story centers on a war between machines, with players taking control of the humanlike 2B in her battle against far less advanced, more obviously robotic enemies. At least, that’s how the first run of the game goes. The second time through, you play as 2B’s companion, 9S, experiencing the same story from a different perspective, filling in some narrative gaps, answering questions, raising a few more…

And then there’s the third time through, which I won’t spoil, but I will say that this time you play through a sequel story with a decidedly schizophrenic approach that both sheds light on and complicates both halves of the previous story.

Yes, Nier: Automata requires three playthroughs to even truly experience, but it rarely drags. The player-controlled characters all handle differently, and while 2B is damned good at bruising her way through hordes of enemies, 9S is far weaker and relies on his hacking ability, which takes the form of a shoot-’em-up minigame. You may play through the same story twice, but everything about it is different, simply by virtue of experiencing it through a different set of eyes. And this is triply true for the third run…

It’s impossible to say much about the game without spoiling some of its many surprises, but I will say that if you think you know the twist, that’s okay; you don’t. A number of reviewers — most infamously Yahtzee, who seems to play games just long enough to find something to complain about and nowhere near long enough to realize the game addresses his complaint — patted themselves on the back for guessing what they referred to as the “twist.” Play it yourself, though, and you’ll realize that that’s not a twist at all…it’s merely a plot point, and the story is far larger, more urgent, more compelling, more important than any singular reveal could ever account for.

The twist is what happens inside, to you, as you guide one group of robots against another, and learn more about human nature in the process than any video game should be able to teach us.

Buy it. Play it. Nier: Automata is a fucking masterpiece.

My 10 best games of 2018

10) Super Smash Bros. Ultimate

I was in a very small minority that believed the original Super Smash Bros. for the Nintendo 64 was the best in the series, which I believed right up until the Wii U and 3DS versions came out.

Super Smash Bros. Melee and Super Smash Bros. Brawl definitely made the series more interesting for serious competitors, but I wasn’t one of those. I’m still not. I never will be. The appeal of a series in which Kirby swallows Mario whole while Samus shoots at them and Link hurls bombs all around is its sheer fun factor, at least for me. That’s also why I don’t care at all about the rubber-banding in Mario Kart games. These things should be chaotic, beyond the point of fairness, because that’s what makes them fun.

Melee felt bigger, but was less interesting. Brawl felt like it tried to introduce some fun things (such as Assist Trophies and Smash Balls) that were far more annoying than they were probably meant to be.

Course correction came with the Wii U and 3DS games, and Super Smash Bros. Ultimate manages to please both the silly and serious fans in seemingly equal measure…something I honestly would have thought was impossible.

Its default settings thrust me right back into exquisite chaos, and anyone who doesn’t like that can tweak any setting imaginable to better suit their desires…and then, brilliantly, save a variety of these settings for easy switching depending upon who you’re playing with.

It’s easily the best game of the series, and while I may have ranked it higher if I’d spent more time with it (it’s only a couple of weeks old as I write this), I probably wouldn’t have as a result of its appallingly poor online performance. It’s better than Brawl in the sense that one might theoretically be able to play a match online, but it’s far laggier and less reliable than the Wii U and 3DS entries. I have no clue how or why it took such a large step backward in that regard, but it is definitely unfortunate, because every other element of Super Smash Bros. Ultimate is perfect.

9) Bleed 2

Bleed is a game I missed as it was an Xbox exclusive, but I grabbed it in a sale last year when it came to PS4. Since then I repurchased it on my Switch, just to support the developer (…well, and for the portabilty, because the game is perfectly suited to portability). It was a smooth platformer/shooter that wore its brevity and simplicity on its sleeve, and I found myself doing what I rarely have time to do anymore: replaying it over and over again.

Bleed 2 was an easy purchase when that came out this year. It seemed like it would be little more than another set of Bleed levels and, minor tweaks aside, that’s exactly what it is. And that’s all I wanted.

You take control of Wryn, a girl with an exceptional command of both firearms and aerial acrobatics. The plot is barely an afterthought; it’s the gameplay that’s front and center. And though Wryn’s movement at first feels floaty and imprecise, it honestly doesn’t take long to master. And I can say that, because I am absolutely terrible at most shooters.

With the ability to launch Wryn multiple times (in multiple directions) during a single jump and the ability to slow time on command, playing Bleed 2 is an elegant dance of graceful brutality. Bullets and obstacles and enemies come from all angles, and you’ll have to learn how to snake around, over, behind each of them in the blink of an eye. Speaking of which, blink a few times before you start playing, because you won’t be able to during the game.

That may sound intimidating, but Bleed 2, like its predecessor, welcomes all comers. It’s exactly as difficult as you’d like to make it, and there’s no shame in playing through each level a few times on the easiest, most forgiving setting. In fact, that’s probably a pretty smart approach. Once you have a handle on what to expect, you can crank the difficulty up as many notches as you like and really test your abilities.

The entire game can be blitzed through in just a few minutes, and you’ll have fun for that time. But replaying levels at higher difficulties, squeezing off tricky shots while deflecting projectiles and weaving through swarms of enemies, feeling your heart speed up to keep pace with the pounding soundtrack…it becomes transcendent.

Bleed 2, again like its predecessor, provides some of the best arcade-style action out there. It’s no walk in the park, but it’s willing to teach you how to play it in the most rewarding way. And that’s worth learning.

8) Dead Cells

I want so much to love Dead Cells, but instead I have to settle for merely liking it quite a lot.

I think the game reaches a bit further than it really should, and the seams show too clearly as a result. It wants to be a procedurally generated metroidvania, which sounds like a great concept, but the limits on its procedural generation means you can’t backtrack to explore previous areas with your new tools, stripping it of the defining trait of metroidvanias. Instead, it’s just a roguelite with permanent upgrades, no more metroidvania than Rogue Legacy or Spelunky.

Dead Cells took two incompatible genres and tried so hard to make them work together that it’s frustrating to see how far short it falls of its own goal. What it does offer, though, is quite good.

It’s brutally hard, which is to be expected, but almost always rewardingly so. The nature of procedural generation means there are certainly times during which you’ll end up swarmed by powerful monsters and have very little chance of getting out alive, but it also means that other runs will hand you incredible weapons and items out of the gate, meaning you’ll barely struggle until the late stages of the game.

And that’s part of the fun. You get squashed like an ant; you squash everything else like an ant. The invisible hand of fate casts the dice, and while you aren’t told where they land you’ll sure as hell figure it out.

It’s a compelling gameplay loop. You find some items and gold, and you get the shit kicked out of you. You come back to find more items and gold, and you get the shit kicked out of you. But each time, you become just a little better equipped, and you’ll make it reliably further. It’s not a unique formula, but Dead Cells handles it well. Many was the time I sat down for a single run or two through the game and ended up playing for more than an hour.

The game’s main problem is that it doesn’t realize what it already has. It doesn’t need to inelegantly cram two genres together when there’s a single genre it does quite well. It doesn’t need to be constantly winking at the fourth wall and throwing cutesy meta jokes at the player, because it has an affecting, brooding atmosphere that should carry the experience instead.

Dead Cells doesn’t understand its own attributes, but even the lumpy, unrefined game we got is much better than most other developers manage throughout their entire careers.

I just wish, to paraphrase a Frank Zappa album title, it would shut up and play its guitar.

7) The Messenger

When games look back to the NES era for inspiration, they tend to focus on Mario titles, Zelda titles, or, more rarely, Mega Man titles. That’s okay; it’s a testament to the quality of those games that they serve as enduring inspirations decades later. The Messenger, though, finds its inspiration in Ninja Gaiden, a notoriously difficult action platformer that was among the most addictive and compelling on the console.

The Messenger is essentially a spiritual fan update, tightening the level design, eliminating the outright unfair moments, and turning Ninja Gaiden into the smoother experience it always should have been, an engaging and simple adventure from point A to point B, with a direct emphasis on moment-to-moment combat.

At least, that’s what The Messenger is at first.

Before long, the game reveals itself as something else entirely. You earn the ability to return to previous stages with your more recent upgrades, finding longer, more interesting paths than anything you’ve seen before. You find portals that allow you to travel back and forth in time, giving the game a new visual style, a remixed soundtrack, and clever puzzles requiring an understanding of what a certain section of stage looks like in two timeframes at once. You are given quests by NPCs in areas you previously blew through in a whirl of steel.

The Messenger is a game full of surprises, and while the narrative ones weren’t always great, the gameplay ones certainly were. The time-hopping mechanic is possibly the best implementation of such an idea I’ve ever seen, with the sly pun of console generations representing the leap in actual, human generations.

There are also multiple ways of solving problems. A few times I found myself at the end of a puzzle without having used a number of things that were clearly carefully placed around the screen. If you have a mastery of your tools, you’ll be able to skip over certain crutches that less-skilled players will have to rely on.

I rarely have time to 100% games anymore, but by the time I finished The Messenger I knew I wanted to go back and find everything I missed. I did, and while the actual reward for doing so was a bit underwhelming, I felt great for having done it.

The Messenger is the best Ninja Gaiden game right out of the gate, and then it becomes its own kind of even better game from there.

6) A Hat in Time

I already provided some thoughts on A Hat in Time, so go read those so you know just how impressive it is that a game with that many faults is ranking pretty damned well on this list.

In the months since I’ve played A Hat in Time, I still remember it, think about it, smile at it. The only reason I haven’t gone back to replay it and find some collectibles I missed is that there are new levels coming in a future update, so I’ll save my second pass for that.

A Hat in Time is just a lovely, charming experience. And while you (and I!) can sit around at pick it apart and shine a light on its flaws, we can’t rob it of its addictive, adorable fun.

It has a lovely visual style (with the hand-drawn static images perfectly capturing a Saturday-morning-cartoon aesthetic), a remarkable soundtrack, and quite possibly the most varied gameplay in any 3D collectathon platformer.

Hat Kid as well is such a well-developed character…not in the sense that there’s much depth or complexity to her, but because absolutely everything about her informs a recognizable and consistent personality. Her animations, her abilities, her design…she’s having a ball in this game, and her enthusiasm is infectious.

There were no shortage of throwback games this year, as this list and many others will attest, but A Hat in Time did the best job of nailing that carefree feeling you used to get from sitting on the carpet and playing a new game long into the night. It doesn’t just take cues for its presentation from those retro masterpieces of your youth…it inherits their spirit.

5) Yoku’s Island Express

Yoku’s Island Express is a pinball platformer, which is a combination of words that should make any healthy human being cringe. Every review of this game I saw before playing it made some comment along the lines of “this shouldn’t work.” Those reviews were positive, and I assumed that was because Yoku’s Island Express worked well enough for what it was. I never dreamed it would actually work brilliantly.

In the game you take control of a little dung beetle, rolling a big ball of…well, anyway, Yoku ends up becoming a postman, rolling all over (and above, and below) an island to deliver mail. Of course there’s also puzzle solving, combat, exploration, and so on, nearly all of which is handled by playing pinball with little Yoku.

This shouldn’t work.

I love pinball, but I’ve never been very good at it. I suspect most people who love pinball aren’t very good at it. It tests my reactions far more than it tests my ability to think ahead, or my accuracy, and any time I end up with a half-decent score, it’s because luck was on my side.

That’s fine. I can enjoy pinball without knowing what I’m doing. But there’s no way in hell I should be navigating a platformer, a genre reliant on precision, that way. Yoku’s Island Express, though, never becomes frustrating, and the times it gets closest to being frustrating have to do with puzzle solutions, not with pinball sequences.

I’m not entirely sure how it achieves this, but it’s certainly helped by the fact that Yoku never dies; you can always roll your ball back to whatever pinball sequence you’ve failed and try again. And when you’re relying on flippers and bumpers to navigate around the map, they are each carefully positioned to aid your progress rather than hinder it. You get the fun of pinball without the steep demand.

Yoku’s Island Express is a triumph in a way Dead Cells was not; this mix of seemingly incompatible genres feels graceful and correct. Whatever difficulties the developers encountered getting pinball and platforming to work together, they clearly worked hard to identify not just functional but elegant solutions to the problem.

It’s fun, beautiful, charming, and has one hell of lovely soundtrack. It shouldn’t work at all…and yet it’s better than most of the games I’ve played this year.

4) Dragon Quest XI

Most of my friends love the Final Fantasy series, and while I can understand why, it never quite grabbed me. Having said that, I did enjoy Final Fantasy IX a hell of a lot, and the little I’ve played (so far) of Final Fantasy X is promising. I hope to get to that one properly in the new year.

But the other games in the series…the older ones, the newer ones, the celebrated ones…they’re fine. I admire them, but I never actually want to play them. (And, to be frank, I had to take a long break from Final Fantasy IX before I worked up the interest to come back to it.)

But Dragon Quest?

Jesus goodness do I love Dragon Quest.

I really can’t explain why this series grabs me in all the ways Final Fantasy doesn’t. Maybe it’s because the cartoony aesthetics are more pleasing to my eye. Maybe it’s because it takes itself just seriously enough not to be ridiculous, but not seriously enough that it won’t stoop low for a good joke. Maybe…it’s just a better series.

I wanted to skip Dragon Quest XI because I knew it would eat up so much of my time, but I couldn’t. I broke down and bought it on release and invested more than 100 hours in it, which is a serious rarity for me. And while it didn’t do much that earlier titles in the series hadn’t already done, it did just about everything perfectly.

I’ve heard other fans describe Dragon Quest XI as comfort food, and I can’t think of a more accurate descriptor. It’s not meant to be dismissive; it’s a chance to have another helping of something you know you love. And, sure, it may not feel all that different from the helpings you’ve had before…but you love it enough that that doesn’t matter.

Dragon Quest XI is a perfectly tuned experience. If you’ve played and enjoyed any of the previous titles, you’ll find yourself in a similar place this time around, but with so many of the rougher edges sanded off.

The one area in which it might flag a bit is the narrative, which is by no means bad but also is nowhere near the kind of story that requires 100 hours to tell. Having said that, it’s something of an achievement that the game stays fun for that long without the strength of narrative to prop it up.

There’s nothing revelatory about Dragon Quest XI. It’s just Dragon Quest in its purest form.

And, honestly, that’s enough.

3) Iconoclasts

The Game Boy Advance was so perfect for comic book-like graphics, it’s a shame retro-styled games tend to focus on the NES/SNES eras for their visual inspirations. Iconoclasts, deliberately or not, reminded me in all the right ways of the GBA’s particular brand of presentation, and I couldn’t help but pick it up.

I’m glad I did, because far from being the sunny throwback I expected, and admittedly would have been just fine with, Iconoclasts was downright revelatory. It’s a fairly simple 2D platformer that managed to weave a better, more affecting story than most RPGs I’ve played. It’s a brilliant tale told as simply and quietly as possible, which only makes it more powerful, and it has a downright unprecedented skill with characterization that I don’t believe any other platformer has topped. It’s an achievement for the genre, and one of the most impressive I’ve seen.

You are Robin, a working-class mechanic living under the oppressive regime of something called The One Concern. The adorable blonde collection of pixels seems as though it belongs in a much happier game, living a much more carefree life, fighting a far less threatening force. But Robin didn’t choose to be here. Nobody did.

Throughout the adventure, you meet and team up with other characters, all of whom, potentially, have a lot to offer your budding rebellion. None of them live up to their own potential, giving the narrative, at times, a very effective feeling of hopelessness, even as you make progress. It’s nice to have these characters along, because it prevents you from feeling alone. But it’s easy to see that when you’re fighting an organized, established, well-armed oppressor, the actual strength you gain in numbers is negligible.

That’s not to say the game is all that difficult. Most of the trickiest bits are puzzle-centric, and the penalty for failure is, at worst, starting a room over again. But the narrative sells the danger, the stakes, the urgency of doing, somehow, what you know you’re not equipped to do.

With minimal dialogue, simple character design, and backstory parceled out just enough that you have some sense of what’s happening, Iconoclasts manages to build a a remarkably rounded and realistic set of characters.

I came to know these people. I understood them. Even when they did something I wished they wouldn’t do, I understood why they did it. Toward the end of the game a certain character behaves in a certain way that should have frustrated me, except that it was so perfectly earned that I instead had to admire the way Iconoclasts built to that frustrating and yet fully understandable moment.

The soundtrack is fantastic, the pixel art gorgeous, and the gameplay rewarding. On top of all of that, Iconoclasts manages to be genuinely funny at times while always taking itself seriously. Dead Cells had to resort to winking at the audience. Iconoclasts finds moments of levity in the world it actually occupies. One of those approaches is infinitely more rewarding than the other.

2) Hollow Knight

I have a weakness for simple games. Games that understand what they’re doing, do it well, and keep it interesting. Nintendo has long been the reigning champion of this kind of game, turning Mario’s jump, for instance, into something that stays interesting across dozens of levels in dozens of games.

Hollow Knight understands how to keep simplicity interesting as well as Nintendo ever has, and it also adds layers of optional complexity that keep you learning all the way through the experience.

Hollow Knight is about a fallen civilization of insects. You play a cute little greyscale bug that wields a nail like a sword. So far, so adorable. But its gorgeous hand-drawn style aside, this isn’t a cartoon world. This is a dead world full of dying characters. The atmosphere is sombre and morose. You’ll find a new toy that you’re excited to play with and it will ultimately, unavoidably, lead you to new reminders that this universe has more of a past than it has a future.

Moments of levity only serve to remind you how much was lost. An elderly stag beetle with aching joints ferries you back and forth across the map, reflecting on what once was. A brave adventurer you meet early in your journey is a corpse you find much later. A cute little pillbug mines away, singing a happy tune…succumbing slowly to madness…eventually no different from any other enemy. You slay her. It’s a mercy.

Hollow Knight manages to weave a story of remarkable — but usually only suggested — depth. It keeps you on its own narrative surface. You can learn more about who you are, about what happened, about why your journey matters, but only if you look for it and almost never will you get a straight answer.

It’s a massive game that repeatedly feels like it’s ending only to open up again and again into new territory, and it never once feels like it’s dragging. It’s full of fantastically designed boss fights and surprisingly sympathetic characters.

Hollow Knight, without any question whatsoever, the best metroidvania I’ve ever played.

1) Celeste

As much as I love Hollow Knight, there was no doubt in my mind that Celeste would take my top spot. I hope you realize just how much that says in itself.

Celeste is a brutally hard screen-by-screen platformer in the tradition of Super Meat Boy, but where that game (and just about every other one that took inspiration from it) relished the opportunity to beat you down, Celeste works very hard to lift you up.

It isn’t easy. It starts off difficult and gets harder every single time you think you’ve gotten the hang of it. But it actively encourages you to keep going. It speaks reassuring things to you in its loading screens. It reminds you openly that optional pickups and levels are, indeed, optional. It encourages you to push through even when it feels impossible…even when you’re sure it’s impossible…

…which, beautifully, is also the game’s story. We play as Madeline, a young girl determined to scale a difficult mountain. Celeste is that mountain, and Celeste is the game in which you scale it. It’s Madeline’s struggle that becomes yours. You work together to accomplish a singular goal from opposite sides of a screen. And the frustration you’ll feel throughout the game is Madeline’s frustration as well. It’s a game that connects you directly, emotionally, with the character you play.

Madeline is hounded by anxiety, by depression, by crippling self-doubt. Like last year’s big surprise, Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, Celeste is a game about mental illness. But whereas Hellblade placed you in Senua’s mind — hearing and seeing and pushing through her various hallucinations — Celeste is external. We see her the way anybody else would see her…not as the nervous failure she believes she is, but as an innocent girl dangerously unprepared for what she’s facing. The more time we spend with her, the more we understand what’s happening in her mind. Why this foolish excursion is so important to her. Why she refuses to be satisfied with anything she’s accomplished, always bracing herself against whatever comes next.

I never finished Super Meat Boy, though I genuinely loved it. At some point it got too difficult for me, and had I kept trying I would have eventually succeeded. But I didn’t keep trying. I had my fun, and seeing it through to the end didn’t matter. That game joked about the irrelevance of its own story, and that was part of the fun.

Celeste takes itself, and its heroine, and its subject matter, seriously. And I did finish it. This game got too difficult for me, too…but by the time it did, I knew Madeline. And I couldn’t leave her shivering in the snow, reflecting not on how far she’d come but on how much she’d never overcome in the future.

I helped her overcome. It was important to do so. She needed someone. Playing Celeste, you get to be her someone. And the feeling of satisfaction you get when you do help her…

Well, you helped a friend. For now, at least, you gave her a reason to believe in herself. And that’s not something either of you are likely to forget.

What were your favorites of the year? Let me know what I missed!

It’s possible but difficult to enjoy Fallout 76 alone

You likely already know this about me, but, just to be clear, I really really really really like Fallout. It’s a firm contender for my favorite game series of all time.

When Fallout 76 was announced just before E3 this year, my first thought was, of course, “I’m going to buy this.” It wasn’t even a matter of waiting to see if it was any good. Each dip into the various corners of the Wasteland has been worth it, even in the disappointing entries. (Which vary, depending on who you ask.)

And so, fine. I could wait for reviews and find out the story stinks, or the game was buggy, or some feature we all wanted was missing…but none of that would prevent me from enjoying it overall. Fallout, to me, is about forging your way through an unforgiving hellscape and having your personal sense of ethics challenged as you struggle to survive. Oh, and some dark comedy and an ironic old-timey soundtrack. Give me that basic experience, and I’ll find enough to keep me busy.

Then it was revealed that Fallout 76 would be a multiplayer game, and multiplayer would be mandatory.

This had me worried, and I was far from alone. Fallout has, as long as the series has been around, been a game with a strong emphasis on solitude. This is reflected in the official descriptors for the main characters in the series: The Sole Survivor. The Lone Wanderer. The Chosen One. You get to leave your mark on the Wasteland, for better or worse, and you’re going to do it alone. Sure, you can find a companion character to serve as a pack mule, and that’s nice, but the game is as clearly about your destiny as it is clearly not about theirs.

In a multiplayer game, you matter less. Arguably, you don’t matter at all. I don’t play Fallout to feel important, but your character’s importance is a defining aspect of the experience of playing.

Fallout 76 has recently been experimenting with an invitational beta period. I planned on sitting it out and waiting for the refined official release, but a reader was kind enough to offer me a beta code, and I figured I’d give it a shot.

At the very least, I’d be able to know for myself whether or not Fallout 76 could be played solo.

Or, rather, scratch that. Of course it can be played solo. But can it be enjoyed solo?

I imagined it could. Maybe it’s easier or more fun to take down giant monsters with a group of people, but what I always enjoyed more than combat was digging through the ruins of civilization, piecing together stories untold and lives ruined, finding settlements that rose and fell in the aftermath and learning what went wrong…or what is very close to going wrong.

Then there are the Vaults…the ostensible fallout shelters that secretly double as cruel experiments on their residents. Nearly every time we discover a Vault in our adventures, the experiment is long over. The residents are long dead. Their tragedy echoes in the halls, and we can pore over terminals, documents, and environmental details to learn what specific flavor of hell these people were fated to endure.

If that’s what I enjoy about Fallout, would it matter if I wandered around alone? In fact, could my ideal experience even work in a multiplayer arrangement? What would the rest of my team do while I slowly read and interpreted terminal entries written by characters we’d never meet?

Anyway, I’ve played the beta for around five hours in total, and I’m conflicted.

On the bright side, I’m pleased to report that it seems like you can indeed play through the game alone. It’s very possible that later in the game (or in certain areas) that is no longer a realistic option; I can’t vouch for that. But so far, yes, Fallout 76 is an experience that can be enjoyed alone.

But that’s not quite the whole story.

Back when this was announced, I had a brief exchange with reader Jerod.

“I’m happy enough to let the series experiment,” I said, “and I’m sure I’ll check it out, but I’ve never once wandered the wasteland and thought the experience would be improved by screaming trolls.”

Jerod replied, “Hopefully it’s optional co-op or something similar, and not being stabbed and called a cuck every time I log in.”

I was exaggerating for effect. I’m sure Jerod was, too. I’m bringing all of this up because it’s important to me that you understand just how far my heart sunk when I started playing and the very first things I heard were two or three other players (I couldn’t tell) repeatedly shouting “nigger” into their headsets.

The game opens with your character waking up in Vault 76. Each player begins in his or her own room and I hadn’t yet left mine, so I know they weren’t shouting it at me or anything. They couldn’t see me or know I was there. They just thought it would be fun to say “nigger” over and over to each other. That was small comfort, though.

I’d heard that players could mute others, but I didn’t know how. I fumbled around with the controls hoping to find some sort of setting, and I found nothing. I’m pretty sure the setting doesn’t become available until you’ve passed a certain point in the tutorial. I could be wrong, but at the very least I wasn’t shown that I could do it until I left the Vault, dozens of “nigger”s later.

This was my introduction to the game, and it set a very sour tone. I can’t imagine I’m the only one who had (or will have) a similar first impression.

All I wanted to do was immerse myself in the game world, but without the immediate option to silence anyone, I was stuck listening to them. The Overseer made a series of announcements I couldn’t hear because other folks on the server were cursing at each other and slinging “nigger” around, followed by bursts of laughter, and then the cycle would repeat. Fallout 76 was trying to tell me one thing about playing the game, and the other players spoke over it, telling me something very different.

I started out by tracking down terminals, as I usually would, and found myself skimming instead of reading and enjoying. I still couldn’t turn off the hooting teenagers that I guess were destined to become this game’s soundtrack, and it’s difficult to focus on reading when you’re being bombarded aurally.

I could have muted my television, but I didn’t want to lose all sound. I wanted to hear the howls and scuffles of approaching enemies. I wanted to enjoy the in-game radio station. I…y’know. Wanted to play the game.

Eventually I gave up and left the Vault figuring I would come back later, when it was empty, and do my reading and exploring then. Unless I’m missing something, though, Vault 76 is the first starting Vault in the entire series that doesn’t let you back in after you’ve left. So, great. The very first thing I was looking forward to doing is already gone for good.

The game told me how to find others on the server, and this is where I learned how to mute them. I couldn’t find an option to mute everyone at once, so I had to go through the entire list of all players on the server, line by line, and mute them individually. It’s a deeply tedious way tell the game you’d rather not hear teenagers shout “nigger” all the time.

Outside the Vault, with the rest of the community muted, I could start playing the game solo. And…it was pretty fun, actually. It would be a lie to say I “rarely” came across other players, but I also wouldn’t say I did so frequently.

One of them was fighting off a crowd of Scorched — new ghoul-like enemies — and I ran into the fray with my junky knife and maybe (possibly) helped him take them down. Much later, that karmic favor was returned when I was being attacked high-level Scorched and two completely different players came to my aid. I actually bumped into these two players a few times in my session, so I guess we were working through the game at similar paces.

A few times players came up to me and did little dances or jumped up and down. They may have also been speaking to me, but in muting the trouble makers I had to mute everyone (the game doesn’t identify who is speaking), so I never found out what they wanted. Once I found a player waving to me from the top of a small building. There was an icon above him indicating he wanted to trade. I approached the building and was ambushed by a bunch of angry robots, who were much stronger than anything else I’d fought so far.

I survived, barely, and couldn’t find a way onto the building to trade with the guy. He may have lured me into a trap. If so, I’m far more impressed than I am angry.

Typically when I play these games, I create a character that looks somewhat like me. That is to say, I try to make a character that looks like me and eventually give up. This time I did get a character-creation screen, as everyone does, but it winked away as quickly as it appeared, leaving me with the default look: a handsome black man with very short hair. I’m assuming this was some kind of glitch, because within Vault 76 I saw a few other folks who looked exactly the same as me, and one female who was pretty much me with breasts. Same haircut, too.

This may have been why the kids got started with the “nigger” business, but I think you’ll agree that doesn’t justify it in any way.

There were definitely a few glitches I encountered, but aside from skipping character creation, nothing really bothered me. There was a Ghoul standing in a doorway, looking back and forth, doing nothing. He was marked as hostile, but never fought me and I couldn’t kill him. Later on I saw two other players trying to kill the same Ghoul, who just stood there, blinking.

Fighting the Scorched, possibly because they’re so fast they outrun the server’s latency, I found myself striking them without doing any damage. I’d hear the sound of my knife connecting, see the spurt of blood, and their health wouldn’t decrease at all. Another time I reduced one of them to zero health and the game wasn’t sure what to do, I guess. The Scorched stared at me for a bit and then went slowly into a T-pose, where it stayed for a long time. I was about to take a screenshot but then it launched itself into the air like a rocket and finally fell dead to the ground.

Sometimes the radio station seems to stop broadcasting for minutes at a stretch. Sometimes containers take a hell of a long time to show you what’s inside, allowing enemies to attack you while you stand around waiting to see that it contains a single toothbrush or something equally worthless. And the only time I died, I was nearly at full health, and one swipe from a Scorched laid me out. At least, that’s what I think happened. Every so often I’ll take damage and grunt as though somebody or something has struck me, but I look around and there’s nothing there.

Outside of the glitches and the periodic encounters with other players, the game really did feel a lot like a solo Fallout game. Nobody tried to bother me, and if they challenged me to a duel or something I didn’t hear them. For the most part, I could explore Appalachia at my own pace in my own way.

Human NPCs are absent from Fallout 76, which I know was a controversial choice, but the fact that Ghoul, Super Mutant, and robot NPCs exist means I’m fine with it. I don’t care what species a character is, as long as the character is good. Sadly I can’t comment on that, because I only ran into two NPCs in my time playing. One was a Protectron vendor, and the other was a Mr. Handy who wanted me to fix him. (I didn’t have the correct parts.)

Fallout 76 feels like a full game made of the space between plot points. Exploring the Wasteland is just as much fun and compelling as it ever was, with the added bonus that the game looks fantastic. I’ve heard people complain about draw distance and pop-in. They’re welcome to complain about it. I think the game looks great, and I have no issue with mist obscuring low-texture models in the distance.

I haven’t found any true ethical dilemmas to solve, and the main quest (which I’ll discuss momentarily) hasn’t done much more than incentivize me to visit certain areas earlier than I otherwise normally would. Fallout 76 seems to involve finding structures, killing the things inside, taking the loot, and moving on. Holotapes and journals tell you the sad stories of the skeletons and corpses you find strewn around.

But that’s it. If your love for Fallout was rooted in the exploration, you’ll have a great time here. If exploration was just something you did between compelling quests…I’m less convinced. I do still think it’s worth exploring, but I’d be shocked if anyone who didn’t already find exploration fun had their opinions changed by Fallout 76.

The draw is supposed to be teaming up with friends or strangers to conquer the Wasteland, or at least have a lot of fun getting the shit kicked out of you. And that’s fine. There’s a market for that, and it’s not the game’s fault if I’m not part of that market.

But it still feels at odds to me not just with the Fallout experience in general, but with the specific Fallout 76 experience.

How are you supposed to listen to long holotapes while a server full of miscreants carries on a conversation? How are you supposed to stumble upon a hidden location or cache of goodies when a cluster of player markers on the map makes clear there’s something there? How are the stories of sacrifice you uncover supposed to feel weighty if a big part of the game is killing each other for fun?

In my time with Fallout 76, I actually enjoyed the little bit of the main quest I experienced the most.

The object of the quest, at least for now, is to find the Overseer of Vault 76. Early on I found a recorded message from her in a small, relatively untouched house. Listening to that message, I learned that this was her house. Vault 76 only stayed closed for 25 years. The Overseer grew up in Appalachia. She knew it well. She saw one world when the Vault door closed, and found another very different one when it opened again.

She returned to her childhood home and recorded a message to her parents, both of whom were long dead. We find that message in what was likely her bedroom as a little girl. There’s a pair of skis against the wall. Head into the basement and there’s a poster by the washing machine for Pleasant Valley Ski Resort. The life she remembers is over.

Her message is painful to listen to. In Vault 76, she’d survive the nuclear war that claimed millions of lives. But once she leaves she goes home, lies down on her old bed, and records a message for the family she doesn’t have anymore.

That one single moment tells the same story Fallout 4 should have told, and it tells it far better.

But it’s also a moment that simply wouldn’t work if you were taking advantage of Fallout 76‘s own mandatory multiplayer.

Bring some friends along. Run into that little house because that’s where the quest marker is. Grab the holotape, ransack the place for goodies, move along to the next marker.

The Overseer laid down in that room and stared at that ceiling and reflected on 25 lost years and an entire civilization she’ll never know again.

xYeBoobieBoy420x blitzed through the room shouting “nigger.”

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.



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 by 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…


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.


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…


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.


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.


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.


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


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 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.


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 no


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.


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.


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, 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?


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

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.