Five Nightmarish Recurring Enemies from the Final Fantasy Series

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Final Fantasy means a lot of different things to a lot of people, in part because almost every game is a significant departure from every other game in the series. New worlds, new characters, new story themes, new game mechanics; new everything. But one of the constants is the multitudinous imaginative menagerie of massive menacing monsters you are sure to face on any given adventure.

Each game in the series has plenty of its own signature beasties, but there are some standouts who have become part of the iconography of one of gaming’s most prestigious role-playing series. Only the toughest and most unique enemies need apply for this honour. The ones that’ll blow themselves up just to spite you, can turn your entire party into a bunch of drooling stooges with one breath, or will just ever-so-slowly creep up to your characters with lantern held aloft before suddenly stabbing them all to death with a butcher knife. The ones that you learn to fear.

These are five of the nastiest customers who have become Final Fantasy mainstays through generations of abusing, frustrating, and terrifying players with their fearsome and often infuriating combat tactics. If you want to grab a Chocobo and ride out of here, now’s the time.

Bomb

bomb

Bombs are the demonic jihadists of any Final Fantasy world. They’re often moderately tough adversaries that attack with fire spells and/or strong physical attacks, but that’s not what makes them a problem. What makes them a problem is that they are sore, sore losers.

Once a Bomb gets to the point where they are about to be killed, it uses its next turn to dive into your party and blow itself up with typically devastating results. It’s usually not fatal to a strong party in good health, but they very seldom attack alone, either. They travel in packs and with other monsters, making an otherwise basic battle something nerve-wracking because in addition to the usual buff/debuff/attack/heal of traditional RPG combat you have to go focus on not letting one of these things use their last breath to swing the odds hard towards your annihilation. Hit it hard and fast, or just leave it alone until you can.

Sometimes, they don’t even need low health to explode on you; the fuse gets lit after getting hit three times. Once you get your offense in order Bombs usually stop being a major threat, but you usually have to learn how to deal with them the hard way, which makes them nasty customers for FF newbies. There was a rare drop in Final Fantasy IV that allowed you to harness the Bomb’s suicidal power by summoning one to help take out your enemies. I’m surprised that didn’t catch on because it was satisfying as hell.

Tonberry

tonberrysYour party finds itself facing an innocuous-looking little green hooded creature with a fishtail holding a lamp in one hand and a carving knife in the other. It doesn’t attack; it merely takes slow steps forward towards your party, its empty eyes blankly staring. Perhaps it responds when you attack it with a karmic retribution for your aggression proportional to the damage it received, but otherwise it is unusually docile for a monster. Maybe you relax a little and heal up some of the damage from the karma counters. I mean, what’s the rush? This enemy is cake. That is, of course, until it reaches you.

After a few turns the harmless looking monster who only attacks when attacked finally closes the distance. Doink! Out stabs the Chef’s Knife and an ally falls dead at its feet. Holy shit! Doink! Another party member down before you’ve even processed what just happened. Phoenix down! Too late. Doink! After each kill, the Tonberry casually ambles towards the next party member, but if he’s already gotten this far, good luck resurrecting your party members faster than he can kill them. It’s game over, man. Game over.

Tonberry is such a great concept for an enemy, it’s no wonder he’s become a Final Fantasy mainstay. The whole experience is so creepy. They usually have a lot of HP so each battle is a race against time to kill it before it reaches your party and massacres them. Final Fantasy XIII had the fun concept of pitting you against not one, not two, but three of the creepy psychos, each equipped with a “deep-seated grudge” power that heals itself and smashes your party at the same time when their HP gets low. Final Fantasy VIII let you use the Chef’s Knife for you own game by making Tonberry a summonable monster.

 Ahriman

Winged bastards from beyond, these guys are. ffx ahrimansAhrimans are what happens when a Beholder, the Grim Reaper, a Cyclops, and a bat have a few too many in Hell and wake up the next morning regretting the choices they made. They’re like some bizarre unholy spawn of a monster orgy that defied all laws of science and yielded a beast with all of the nastiest traits of their irresponsible swinger parents.

They come in a lot of varieties and have gone by several names -my favorite being the properly descriptive Plague Horror- but for the most part they are a pain in the ass. Sometimes they are really fast, do major damage, and attack in groups capable of wiping you out in a turn like in FFX, but usually they are just capable of dealing instant death, or at least a doom spell counting down to certain death.

Final Fantasy VII’s Ahrimans use an instant death spell that kills everyone in your party that has a level divisible by 4. Normally, an instant death spell gives you a certain percent chance to live so you’ve got some possibility to resist. Not with this one. Is your level divisible by 4? Dead. Sucks to be you. I lost a lot of battles due to having characters at the wrong levels in my party. What kind of bullshit is that, Square?

Behemoth

final fantasy crisis core behemothUsually when this enemy starts appearing, it signifies that shit just got real. Get ready to grind like your name was Darling Nikki, because this sucker will usually take you out hardcore the first time you meet one. They are usually massive, purple beasts with big offensive power that show up late in the game to hinder your passage as you approach the climax.

Not only are Behemoths crazy strong and tough, but they often use meteor spells as a nuclear option to wipe your party out on a whim, sometimes even as it dies. They are also fond of countering, which is to say that every time you hit them, they hit you back harder in addition to their active attacks. Considering their HP is usually through the roof, this makes them pretty rough customers.

Most any Behemoth is a pain in the ass that requires a lot of leveling before they can be easily defeated, but Final Fantasy XIII’s variety was particularly badass because once you got its health down to half, it would stand up on two legs, pull a sword from its own body, and usually proceed to wreck your party in seconds.

Malboro

ffx ahrimans

No better enemy to anchor this list than the dreaded Malboro. And no, you can’t smoke it. It will probably smoke you. This betentacled Lovecraftian monstrosity is almost always voted “most likely to make you throw your controller in rage” among the enemies in a given Final Fantasy game. Unless you strategically arrange your party with warding status ailments in mind, any encounter with one of these things is a gamble you may not want to take.

What makes these creatures such a freakin’ nightmare is their signature “bad breath” attack, which afflicts every member of your party with just about every status ailment known to man or sprite. Silence, berserk, charm, confusion, blindness, and whatever else it’s possible to do to make a fighter worthless are all inflicted at once on everyone. So unless your characters are equipped with defenses against these ailments, in one turn you can be watching your party go from a seasoned indestructible monster-killing unit to a pack of morons impotently flailing at one another (and probably missing, due to blindness) with no way to control them while the ugly beastie casually exterminates them all in his own good time. It’s among the single most aggravating experiences one can have playing a role-playing video game.

Final Fantasy X in particular throws increasingly powerful varieties of Malboros at you over the latter half of the game. There’s an optional dungeon that I actually ended up fleeing without getting to the end because it featured a variety Malboro that would ambush you every time you encountered it, meaning it always got to act first. Do I even need to tell you what attack it always chose? I’ve never given up on a dungeon before that. Worst. Enemy. Ever.

Great Writing is the New Awesome Graphics

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For most of the evolution of video games as an entertainment medium, the defining standard for quality was usually how good they looked. From Pac-Man to Super Mario Brothers all the way to Halo, it’s always been graphics, graphics, graphics. Whenever a new system came out, what we were really impressed with was how much prettier the colors were and/or how realistic it looked.

As graphics are finally approaching photorealism, the focus seems to have changed. There’s only so much shininess you can add to a pixelated image and only so much smoothness you can attain for gameplay. At some point, you need something more than powerful hardware and ace programmers, and that’s when you call in the writers to make some art.

The telling and writing down of stories is one of the oldest and most potent forms of human expression. We love creating and experiencing stories. After all the technological and social advances we’ve made as a species in the past million or so years, it’s always going to come back to that. What started at the campfire moved onto paper, then to film, and here we are in the digital age.

Gaming may have started as a simplistic time killers where you jump over barrels or navigate mazes, platforms, and whatnot to test your skills and coordination, but it was always going to end up as just another way for people to tell each other stories. The last console gen really kicked this into overdrive, sealing the argument about whether games could be art for good. Not only can games be art, but the medium’s interactive nature means that they may have the potential to surpass all other forms of entertainment in that respect.

final fantasy VII aerith

Hard to believe there was ever a time that this seemed impressive.

A lot of us remember firing up our first Nintendo or PlayStation game and marveling at how amazing Super Mario World or Final Fantasy VII looked compared to what we were used to, but now the graphics gap between console gens has closed and lo and behold, we now have games that make us think and feel. I mean, when we found out our princess was in another castle or that a winner was us it warranted a shrug at best. The weak attempts a story were just an excuse to do whatever it was we were doing in the game. Now a lot of us are playing the game to get to the story. We’ve got games that make grown men cry; that make us question the nature of reality and the human condition. They’ve got substance.

Who really cares about how realistic a picture looks when a video game can have characters and situations that make you fall in love and grieve and cheer and gasp and feel all of the things that make life so amazing in the first place? You can’t really do those things with awesome graphics and gameplay alone. At some point, any given genre is going to have exhausted its supply of visual and gameplay devices. It takes artistry and effective storytelling to make the gamer really experience a story to its full extent. It takes great writing.

Now, PC gamers have been spoiled with games with solid writing this whole time. I mean they’ve had games that were literally just text so the writing kind of had to be good. But we pitiful console types have only in recent years been consistently reaping the bounty of games that actually bother to tell fantastic stories with fully-realized characters. At this point, even sports games are expected to have some sort of story mode beyond the base gameplay.tales of vesperia-cast

Currently I’m catching up on a JRPG that’s been sitting in my “to play” list since the day it came out in 2008. The game is Tales of Vesperia and when I demoed it then, it struck me as pretty basic so I’ve just never gotten around to it until recently. Having poured some hours into it, I find myself loving it not because of the gameplay or even the pleasing visuals, but because the characters are so well realized.

Little touches like the way different combinations of party members interact with one another in post-battle victory celebrations and optional group conversations while exploring the world take a really standard real-time battle JRPG and make it a joy to experience. It’s a game that runs almost entirely on the charm of its characterization. Take out the outstanding writing, and it’d be downright dull.

And do I even need to mention BioWare and Telltale Games? Telltale in particular utilizes subpar (by current standards) comic bookish graphics and largely removes standard gameplay from the equation, leaving dialogue to do the heavy lifting in carrying the experience. The player interacts with the story largely through dialogue choices rather than action scenes that carry them from one story scene to the next like in most video games, but with the writing so compelling you are often more in the moment arguing with your in-game companions than you would be running around mindlessly shooting zombies or whatever.

Telltale’s been so impressive, in fact, that they’re being tapped to not only expand the worlds of comic book properties like The Walking Dead and Fables, but the fantasy intrigue-fest Game of Thrones and even Borderlands, the loot-filled first person shooter from another game company. That’s what you call being in demand.

And for all its deep fantasy role-playing goodness and epic quests, the things I remember most about Dragon Age: Origins were character moments mostly free of action. For instance, finding Ohgren’s ex-girlfriend and watching them argue was hilarious.

The random conversations your party members strike up as you explore the world are priceless. Leliana’s merciless teasing of the stoic warrior Sten as a “big softie” after catching him playing with a kitten (“I was helping it train”, my ass) or picking flowers was a personal favorite, but pretty much any combination of characters would yield a wealth of discussions.

To me, this is what modern gaming does that you just can’t get anywhere else. It not only puts you in amazing worlds as an active participant, but it also enlivens the characters around you and lets you converse with them. They may be just props in your grand adventure, but they don’t feel that way. They connect with you and one another in surprising ways and often have depth and substance. They evoke genuine feelings the way that a great performance from an actor would, but these aren’t just performers; they’re your companions. Their personalities influence the way you play the game, and you often make in-game choices based on how you feel about them, or even how you think they feel about you.

The complexities of fleshing out a world of potential conversations and interactions where characters react differently to everything you say and do is something that’s really underappreciated. The sheer number of hours put into just conceiving and writing a Mass Effect game is something that most of us probably couldn’t even conceive of. It’d be like writing a novel where every conversation could go in several different ways and you’d have to write every possible response from every possible character who may be present knowing that any given reader likely will only ever see one outcome. It kind of boggles the mind.

We’re asking a lot more than we used to from our video game experiences these days, and the only way they can keep on delivering is to keep improving the quality of writing. The focus is shifting away from system horsepower and towards engaging the player on an intellectual and emotional level. Games need great writing to break the art barrier and it seems like that front is expanding all the time. Writing is something that has long been taken for granted by the public at large and I’m glad to see it becoming a primary focus in an up and coming entertainment medium on the verge of widespread acceptance. I can’t wait to see what the future holds.

 

Is Halo Still a System Selling Franchise?

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It seems like it wasn’t so long ago that I got home with my new Xbox and fired up one of the best first person shooters of all time. I may have bought Microsoft’s console gamble for the promise of Elder Scrolls and Star Wars RPG’s, but I’d been hearing great things about this Halo: Combat Evolved game. And sure enough, Bungie’s epic military space opera lived up to the hype.

American gamers came out in droves to play the next big thing in gaming. The Xbox had a lot of great games to recommend it, but not nearly as many as the heavyweight console champ, Sony’s PS2. It’s pretty much agreed upon that Microsoft has Halo to thank for giving it a strong foothold in the console gaming industry.

So, fast forward some thirteen years and we’re now on the third iteration of the Xbox console. The Xbox One is supposed to be the next step in gaming. The problem is it doesn’t really have many games to play that aren’t also available to play on its predecessor, the 360. But no sweat, the PS4 doesn’t have much either. Then again, Sony’s got a heady lead in hardware sales due to its lower price/higher power death combo as well as its worldwide popularity.

How to win this?The obvious answer is games, games, and more games. Microsoft is offering dis-Kinected consoles to folks like myself who want no part of it at this junction and kicking the price down in the process, but GAMES, man! Gamers want games! Titanfall didn’t turn out to be the new killer app everyone was hoping for. Any guesses as to who Microsoft is looking to next to save their system?

master chief

You’re damn right, Master Chief. Halo 5: Guardians is slated for fall of 2015 and at this point it seems to be Microsoft’s only hope to get gamers excited about their new console. But is this still a valid strategy? History shows it may be. How long has Nintendo been cruising on Mario, Zelda, and Pokemon love at this point? But then, Nintendo has a full stable of classic characters to draw from and rotate in and out as necessary to keep their fans appeased. Since the last Gears of War crashed and burned Xbox has only Halo, and that well may not be bottomless.

Halo was among the first games to utilize the trilogy storytelling format, and its deep lore and iconic sound effects, music, and imagery make it the closest thing we’ve got to a gaming equivalent of Star Wars. The first game blew away the competition with realistic AI, amazing set pieces, an epic feel, and gameplay that revolutionized the FPS genre. It was a perfect storm of awesome. The sequel added online multiplayer, more complex storytelling, and plenty more to become a true classic and arguably surpass its predecessor.

Everybody’s got their favorite moments from those first two games, and most everybody agrees that they were amazing. But after that, a little bit of lag set in. Halo 3 was a legit system seller for the Xbox 360, nearly tripling sales for the Xbox’s progeny upon release and it remains the high point of the entire series in sales. And while I would argue that the story left me somewhat disappointed, few complained about the multiplayer which was now the premiere feature of the franchise.halo release chart

Halo: ODST was the last highlight of the series for me from a storytelling standpoint. It was technically an expansion of Halo 3, but it was different in tone from the rest of the series and featured a new cast for a very different kind of Halo story; something more understated and moody. Plus, it added the Firefight mode (which I adore) and new multiplayer maps.

But with the main trilogy complete at this point, it seems like the series kind of took a turn for the worst. You can probably chalk this up to the wait between the first three games. There was about a three year period between games in the original trilogy. That’s a lot of anticipation. But starting with ODST, Microsoft’s policy became Halo overload. Halo: Reach came out only a year later, the real time strategy spin-off, Halo Wars had come out between the third game and ODST, and a ten year anniversary remake of the original Combat Evolved came out a year after Reach. That’s a lot of Halo.

Halo: Reach sold nearly as well as Halo 3 and featured a team-based story in a prequel to the original trilogy, which was really cool, and it featured a complete overhaul of the multiplayer balance with the addition of armour abilities. This upset a lot of hardcore players. To a lot of gamers, it was the equivalent of dedicating yourself to a sport and then having all of the rules changed. They didn’t like the random elements like jetpacks and cloaking in a game where the gameplay had previously been limited to walking, jumping, and shooting.

Halo 4 came out another year after the Combat Evolved: Anniversary Edition with a new developer. It had been five years since gamers had played as the iconic Master Chief, and big things were expected from this return, but what we got was fairly blah by Halo standards with minimal effort put into the story.

halo reachReach’s deep and exciting Firefight mode was replaced with downloadable Spartan Ops co-op DLC which was fun and had an actual story but lacked the replayability of the mode it replaced. Plus custom loadouts was now the order of the day in multiplayer matches, increasing the randomness of battle conditions in a game whose players have become increasingly inflexible. All of this added up to Halo 4 performing more poorly than its 360 predecessors.

While it was a long damn way from being a commercial failure, the overall attitude towards Halo 4 is that it didn’t live up to the standards Bungie had set in previous installments and it fell down the rankings of most-played Xbox Live games that previous games had dominated for years. If Halo 3 is what got people out to buy the 360 in the first place, it seems like they bought Halo 4 out of habit.

So the question now is whether or not Halo is still a property that will get people excited enough to buy a whole new console for. The last few games got to piggyback of the success of Halo 3 since they came out for the same system a lot of players bought to play it, but now that the sheen has worn off of the franchise it seems likely that the next installment could be the one that brings Master Chief back down to Earth.

I mean, I’m a bonafide Halo nut who owns every single game ever released (Anniversary Edition re-release excluded) and played them all extensively. I love the armour abilities and other randomizations that have forced players to be able to adapt rather than simply lather rinse/repeat/ the same strategy every match. But if I buy an Xbox One, it will not be just to play Halo 5.

If I end up with an Xbox One I will almost certainly buy the new Halo as well, but Microsoft is going to need to offer me more than a franchise that appears to have peaked at this point to sell me on their latest console. I still love Master Chief, but at this point I’ve been there and done that many times over and the prospect of going there and doing that yet again just doesn’t excite me as much as it used to. Coming from a player who staunchly defends things that many gamers have hated from the last few games, that is a really bad sign.

halo 5 trailerWith original Halo developers Bungie releasing a brand new multiplatform IP, Destiny,in a few months and the only look at Halo 5 so far being a rather unimpressive trailer featuring Master Chief wrapped in a cloak for some reason (is he worried his armour will get dusty?) the hype train seems to be rolling in the wrong direction altogether. It’s been a while since Halo 4 came out with only the poorly-received iOS venture Spartan Assault plug the gap. People should be more excited.

Microsoft is hurting right now and I’m not sure that a new Halo is going to turn it around for them. At this point, it’s putting a bandage where stitches are needed. Better than nothing, but not enough to stop the bleeding. As of last month, five million Xbox Ones had been shipped to retailers. Even if every person who bought one got Halo 5, it would be a relatively paltry number for the franchise compared to what it’s used to. Halo 3 sold nearly three times that.

Consoles need to be moved, and it the latest Halo can’t do it for Microsoft I don’t know what will. The ditching of Kinect will be a help -as will an additional price drop between then and now- but what really needs to happen is more investment on getting exclusive innovative new franchises. Gamers want games and there are very few of them that are worth the investment of a new console all by themselves these days. When Halo was the new big thing in gaming, it may have fit the bill, but a decade has come and gone and we’ve seen it all before. It’s probably time for Microsoft to consider putting some eggs in other baskets again.

Netflix It: Madoka Magica

madoka

Every so often you get a story that not only transcends beyond the limitations of its chosen genre, but deconstructs it; devastating the tropes that define it in a way that resounds indefinitely. Watchmen did it for superhero comics, Scream did it to a lesser extent for slasher films (before becoming a joke itself with unnecessary sequels), Neon Genesis Evangelion did it for mecha, the Grand Theft Auto series routinely does it for third-person shooter video games, and for magical girl anime there’s Puella Magi Madoka Magica.

Part of what made this show so brilliant was the way it was presented and marketed in a way to catch the audience completely off-guard. For those not into anime, let me explain. Magical girls are invariably upbeat, saccharine girl-power heroines with powers fueled by love and kittens who spread joy to the world by beating cartoonish baddies with extra-sparkly magical powers while navigating the social perils of high school like supercharged Hannah Montanas. Surely you’ve at least heard of Sailor Moon. So when you go for a magical girl anime, you aren’t expecting something that’s going to challenge you intellectually. You’re looking for something like this: Continue reading

Orange is the New Black and the Onset of Male Obsolescence

male

So has everybody finished binge-watching the second season of Netflix’s best original show yet? Good. This one got me thinking after a particularly amusing exchange between two of the show’s black sheep characters, the prison’s hapless male counselor, Healey, and formerly psychotic hillbilly inmate, Pennsatucky, in which the former was attempting to inform his fellow anti-lesbian crusader of the feminist world domination agenda as put forth in a some book he was reading. As we all know, anything pandering to our personal insecurities in written form is automatically true; especially if they charge us for it. Ironically, this led to Pennsatucky seeking out the lesbianest lesbian she could find, Big Boo, in order to volunteer for the anti-male crusade. Boo happily (and hilariously) obliged her, although she could barely do it with a straight face.

While the idea of a real live lesbian feminist agenda to create mass male extinction is comedic to say the least, the obvious insecurity that led the character of Healey -a man surrounded by and tasked with dealing with a gender he has no clue how to relate to- is all too real. I mean, sure the male gender has maintained a dominant stranglehold on pretty much everything on the planet, but when you get down to it, what are we really good for? Sperm donations and jar-opening? If we ever develop methods of asexual reproduction and a smoother lid, surely the fairer sex will rise up and wipe us out?

Okay, maybe not, but in terms of media representation, Orange is the New Black is helping to blaze an interesting trail in entertainment and doing it in style. We’re talking about a popular television show of high quality with an entertainment factor that’s off the charts and it barely features any male characters of worth. Ladies have sat through decades of damsels in distress, Bechdel test failures, and various other lackluster portrayals of their gender in favor of more screentime for their male counterparts. It’s almost shocking to see the trope reversed so completely and successfully. Continue reading

Dark Passengers: What’s Behind Our Serial Killer Obsession?

???? Dexter

So I’m finally working my way through Dexter thanks to the magic of Netflix, and reading discussions about the show kind of highlighted something that I’ve been thinking about for a while. People goddamn love serial killers. And not just the crazy women who send them marriage proposals based entirely on knowing they are compelled to murder people. A really large percent of the population really gets off on stories about people being murdered in the worst ways possible.

True crime is an entire genre of literature that I hear a lot when I ask somebody what they read. Like, that’s all they read. And no, it’s not epic heists they want to learn about. They want blood, guts, gristle, rape, and torture. The Discovery Channel was a source of knowledge about the natural world for decades, but a hell of a lot more people watch the upstart spin-off station Investigation Discovery, which is focused almost entirely on murder. Other stations have been filling their programming with shows like Snapped that detail disturbing homicides.

But what we really love is a good old fashioned serial killer. Sure, these people who murder their spouses for insurance money or out of jealousy will whet our appetite, but we want a stone cold psychopath whenever we can get one. Someone who doesn’t kill for personal gain or anything we could conceivably relate to on a human level; someone who simply has to kill. And if we can turn them into heroes, that’s double our pleasure.

I first took notice of this in the 90’s when everybody was fawning over Sir Anthony Hopkins’ iconic performance as Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs. In that film, the character was a terrifying remorseless monster, but the sequel, Hannibal, attempted to turn him into some kind of bizarre romantic anti-hero. By the time we got to the origin story prequel, Hannibal Rising, he was a Nazi-killing avenger romancing Gong Li. Almost two and a half decades after Dr. Lecter took pop culture by storm he  has his own accaimed television series featuring the fourth actor to play him (counting 1986’s Manhunter). That is what you call an extended love affair. And all for a guy whose defining trait is killing and eating people in particularly creative ways. Continue reading

Are We Ready for a Farewell to Damsels?

damsels

Last week, I was watching the latest episode of Once Upon a Time, in which the heroine ends up in a dungeon and awesomes her way out, meeting the incoming dashing hero and telling him that nobody rescues her except her. It highlighted an aspect of the show that I hadn’t really considered before. For a show about classic fairy tales that typically regard princesses as things to be kidnapped and rescued, it’s more or less stayed away from the damsel in distress trope and it hasn’t cost it a thing. Are you listening, video games?

Given the current social climate and the general tiredness of that particular cliché, you’d think this concept would have caught on in gaming even before Anita Sarkeesian found a way for somebody with no interest in video games to make a goddamn fortune exploiting female gamers’ political insecurities without adding anything of actual value to the community herself, but no. We’ve been so bad about this for so long that’s it has come to that point. Time to handle our business like adults.

And no, I’m not here to declare that the pursuit of freeing captured females as a sinister conspiracy theory hatched by the Patriarchy, Illuminati, Freemasons, Whitey, or the Legion of Doom to keep our sisters enslaved. I’m here to say what we already know: that video games are girls’ fun too and more games should reflect that.    damsel gif

I realize that with old-school game graphics, it was pretty hard to tell a compelling story. The simplest way to explain why you were doing what you were doing is have the big bad carry off a vaguely feminine-looking object which you would naturally need to rescue by jumping and climbing ladders and such. It’s simple. It worked. It gave the boys being wowed by these new toys called video games something to strive for.

But now it’s 2014. Women make up nearly half of the gaming populace and over half of the overall population in places like America, Europe, and Japan. They are literally the largest demographic in most of the gaming world, and they remain largely untapped. Traditional video game concepts usually mean male characters doing awesome things like shooting and punching stuff and generally being ridiculous power fantasies. I’m not against that. We all love a great power fantasy.

In keeping with that concept, when you -the male hero- get captured by the bad guys, how does it go? What do you do? Do you wait around for somebody to get you out or do you just kick so much ass that you cannot be contained? Exactly. Odds are, if you get locked in a prison in real life you aren’t going anywhere, but video games invariably give us a way to get out. Providing you are the almost-always male protagonist, that is.

The point is that there’s no good reason why we should expect that a female video game character wouldn’t have the same capabilities. It’s just weak storytelling. It’s been done over and over and it seldom adds anything interesting to the storyline. The general mentality has not progressed beyond that first generation mindset that you just need to have a chick to rescue and there’s your excuse to go kill stuff.

damsel princess peach

Do I have to? Again?

But gaming is better than that now. Or it could be. Easily. I’m not saying no female characters can ever get kidnapped again, but at this point it needs to be both integral to the plot and done much, much better. Or, here’s an idea: how about somebody kidnaps a MALE character and a female protagonist rescues him? Did I just blow you brains out the back of your head or what? Men like to be seen as manly, manly men and see other manly men do manly things. They apparently don’t like or expect to see men be unmanly. Seeing men be unmanly makes them feel less manly and how can a manly man be manly when he feels less than manly? Or something.

By this logic, are women expected to feel like prisoners because they’ve been subjected to story upon story where that’s what their gender representatives are reduced to? Gaming is a blank slate where we can create anything and anyone. It’s a place for silly fantasy and awesomeness and good times for anyone who wants them. I don’t see the possible upside of alienating or reducing the enjoyment of that experience for a demographic of this size. With limitless creative possibilities in front of us, why would we ever choose to be so lame and unoriginal?

Fiction has its tropes, of course, and damseling has always been one of the most leaned-upon to create drama. I get that. But I also get that seeing the same thing over and over again is the exact definition of boring. Can we not just kick virtual ass in order to stop bad guys from doing bad stuff? Do we even need a reason all the time?

I kind of love that the 8-bit indie game Hotline Miami just has you as a guy who gets phone calls instructing you (via creative euphemism) to go somewhere and kill everyone there. Why are you doing this? Because you’re playing a video game and the game tells you what to do. That’s how it works. That’s actually how it’s always worked, regardless of how they’ve dressed it up. This refreshing simplicity highlights the intent of gaming as a thing you do for fun just because you can. No damsels necessary.

female gamer

Pictured: irl distressed damsel.

And guys, women are our mothers, sisters, daughters, significant others, aunts, grandmas, coworkers, and friends. Respect is mandatory. Females aren’t invaders from another planet trying to ruin your Call of Duty game by making the matches about kissy fights with Justin Beiber as the soundtrack. They’re just fellow gamers trying to game. Being an asshole doesn’t assert your manliness; just your assholeness. Not a soul is impressed, I promise you. You can better assert your manliness by being mature enough to give and receive respect.

Gaming is growing up as a medium for entertainment, art, and even social interaction, but this appears to be a big hurdle left to clear. But it will get cleared, one way or another. The Last of Us essentially attempted to trick male gamers by easing us into playing as an awesome female character and enjoying it. After hours playing as the zombie-killing gruff man’s man, Joel, the big guy goes down, leaving his game-long escort mission charge, Ellie, in the driver’s seat.

Where were all of those gamers whining about not wanting to play as a girl while Ellie was stalking adult male raiders with bow and arrow and slitting throats? LOVING IT. Why? Because the game did a great job of drawing you into the story and, more importantly, the character. Joel needed Ellie to save him; you needed Ellie to save Joel. And you were now Ellie. Was that so bad? In the DLC, you played as Ellie and when the inevitable sequel comes, I doubt there will be any resistance to Ellie taking the lead right from the get-go. Thanks, Naughty Dog.

The clear answer to kicking this habit is better-written female characters. When a woman is properly developed in her own identity, it actually feels like a robbery to have her get nabbed. The Witcher 2 is an example of this. When you spend the first half of the game in the company of a kickass sorceress and suddenly she’s kidnapped and gone from the game just because the writers couldn’t be bothered to come up with anything more interesting, it’s more annoying than anything else. It felt like a damn waste of a character. Hopefully with better characterizations, game developers and players are going to start to pick up on that and find better uses for female NPC’s as well as more female protagonists.

coed gamingSo yeah, I’m going to say we are not only ready to bid farewell to damsels in distress as an overused story trope, but we’re long overdue. It’s probably only a matter of time before women attain positions of power in gaming, take over the industry from within, and show us that we can get along just fine without reducing female characters to personality-free archetype trophies to be awarded to successful masculine protagonists.

Gaming is not (and should never be) just boys’ fun and while the female gender on the whole may prize character development and world-building above killing things in the nastiest way possible, I don’t see that as a problem. There’s room for everybody and I’m afraid we’ve hogged the couch for too long, guys. Time to scoot over and give the ladies a turn. You might be surprised by how good they can be.

There’s a New Godzilla Movie Coming, but What About the Games?

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If I was going to list off the three most important influences of my childhood, you could pretty much boil it down to Star Wars, Nintendo, and Godzilla. And out of those three, only the last one remains a really pertinent influence to this day. Star Wars still has its moments and I still respect Nintendo, but there is absolutely no question about which one incites the most excitement in my man-child brain. While jumping plumbers don’t really do it for me anymore and Jedi and Sith just ain’t what they used to be, my love for giant monsters smashing stuff is still as strong as ever.

As with the films that I grew up with and continue to anticipate to this day, my history with Godzilla video games is a long and storied one. It’s been almost a decade since we last saw a Godzilla movie released and nearly as long since we saw an official video game. This needs to be fixed.

With the big G poised to bring in audiences in his American film debut (we do not speak of then 1998 atrocity known as GINO) I figure the time has got to be right for a new take on a monster who’s made his mark on the video game medium. But first, let me take you on a tour of Godzilla games past.

The year was 1988. The country’s new motto was Don’t Worry be Happy, Who Framed Roger Rabbit was the most awesomest thing ever, and ten year old Nick is already a kaiju cinema veteran doing chores for a quarter apiece so he could take his accumulated wealth to K-Mart every few months to search for VHS cassettes promising to provide the spectacle of a giant radioactive green dinosaur battling suitably outlandish adversaries while badly dubbed Japanese people look on in horror. This is the year Godzilla: Monster of Monsters rocked my socks.godzilla nes

I wasn’t what you’d call a picky gamer. I’d play anything. But I can say that I most likely played this NES title more than any other. I WAS PLAYING AS GODZILLA! It felt good to scratch something off of my bucket list that young. I mean prior to this game I used to literally watch the movies with a controller in my hand and pretend I was controlling him. That’s possibly a diagnosable mental condition of some sort.

Even after I bought a SNES four years later, I still made time to play Monster of Monsters. There was nothing else quite like it. The levels were broken up into grids. The player moved Godzilla and Mothra strategically along the grid (each space moved represented a short level where your monster had to smash through an alien army collecting power-ups and leveling up) in order to engage a number of adversaries from classic kaiju films both familiar and obscure. The fighting was surprisingly great for the time.

Two years later, Godzilla made his self-titled handheld debut on the Game Boy. Was I pumped? I was pumped. Until I laid hands on it, that is. The game was a chibi-styled puzzle game where Godzilla climbed ladders and punched boulders while enemies chased him like he was Dig Dug. What. The. Hell. This thing was Godzilla In Name Only long before Roland Emmerich ever conceived his big screen abomination.

Godzilla 2: War of the Monsters came out in 1992 for the NES. If I’d seen it on store shelves, I’d have bought it (and I wish I had), but I did manage to rent a copy. This game represents a definitive milestone for me as a gamer because it introduced me to a genre I still treasure to this day: turn-based strategy.

Huh? Yeah. The sequel to the side-scrolling action title Monster of Monsters was a strategy game. Not only that, but you didn’t even play as Godzilla. Godzilla and his fellow daikaiju were your adversaries and you played as the Japanese Self Defense Force using your assets (which awesomely included Mothra) to defeat the invading monsters. It was amazing and I wish to god to see something like it again; preferably one where you could play as either side.     

super godzillaAt that point, the SNES was already out so it’s not surprising that War of the Monsters didn’t get much love. The very next year saw yet another creative shift when Super Godzilla brought the King of the Monsters into the 16-bit era in all of its glory.

In this game, the military tags Godzilla with a transmitter that allows them to control his actions and they turn him into a weapon to fend off an alien invasion led by the usual menagerie of massive menacing monsters. The levels take place in a split screen view with one part being a map and the other showing the monster himself. You guide Godzilla through cities smashing through anything that gets in his way (which costs him energy) en route to the big bad.

The battles were not your standard fights either. Rather than the typical kick/punch/jump, the combat most closely resembled the future PlayStation classic Monster Rancher and different attacks were available to you based on endurance and distance. When you attacked, the action was carried out in a cutscene, making it a really unique experience. The game was short, but memorable due to its originality.

At this point, most Godzilla games were only being released in Japan. Godzilla Generations came out on the Dreamcast to terrible reviews. The streak of Japanese-only and dud games ended in 2002 when the Gamecube finally gave us the game we wanted all along. That game was Godzilla: Destroy All Monsters Melee.

This was pretty much the kaiju game of my dreams. It was reminiscent of the classic King of the Monsters (which was not officially affiliated with, but definitely inspired by Godzilla), but was so much better. You take 2-4 monsters, put them in a city or other smashable environment, and there you go. It was crazy fun to play by yourself, and even crazier with friends.godzilla destroy all monsters melee

Not owning a Gamecube, I lucked out when Melee was released on the Xbox and even more so when it was enabled for custom soundtracks. If there is anything more awesome in a fighting game than tearing Tokyo apart via kaiju smackdown to Minstry’s New World Order I have yet to experience it. All of the monsters were well represented and the combat was pretty much as good as it gets for a game of the type.

Godzilla: Save the Earth was a direct sequel that came out only a year or so later and added some more monsters, but just didn’t seem as fun in spite of a playable Mothra who could change from larvae to adulthood mid-battle. Another sequel, Godzilla: Unleashed, came out on the Wii and PS2 and sported a monumental cast of monsters divided into factions with their own story modes. Having owned neither of those consoles, I had to give it a pass. The reviews imply that was a lucky break.

I once came really lose to buying the DS game, Godzilla Unleashed: Double Smash, but was dissuaded by the terrible graphics on the back cover. I later read that the game was named one of the worst DS games ever. That is not a title you want to hold on a console featuring games built around toy lines, kiddie shows, lame sports, fashion, ports of games way too powerful for the hardware, pop star simulators, reality and game show adaptations, and every other possible brand of shovelware in droves. Bullet: dodged.

godzilla unleashed

When I said terrible graphics, I was not kidding.

The fact that I almost bought a garbage game goes to show how hungry I am for a new Godzilla game. It’s been ten years since I played Save the Earth and seven since Unleashed came out. Gaming has come a really long way in that time and the time has never been better for another new take on the giant monster genre.

The way I see it, the fighting game format has been burnt out with the 00’s console entries being dedicated entirely to that format. It’s done. Time for something else. With the new Godzilla film returning the big guy to his roots as a deadly menace to humanity, I’d say the time is right to revisit that whole strategy game thing.

I mean, come on; this could be amazing. Laying out a giant map where the player can build up their defenses to repel  monsters as they appear or playing as the big beasties and laying waste has a lot of possibilities with modern hardware. Depending on which objectives you accomplish or fail, the story could unfold in different ways, the graphics and presentation would be amazing, and it would be unlike anything that’s been seen since 1992. Yes, I want this.

But seeing that most strategy games aren’t exactly big sellers, it seems unlikely. The old days had a lot of room for creativity and experimentation, which is why we saw such a variety of Godzilla games come out. These days you kind of need to engage that wider audience with familiarity and the action/fighting genre is just a really obvious choice for a monster best known for beating the crap out of other monsters. But wait…a new contender has entered the arena!

If you are thinking that in 2014 Godzilla will be going mobile, you would be correct. When I heard that the upcoming film tie-in Godzilla Smash 3 will be launching alongside the movie, I wasn’t sold. There doesn’t appear to be a Godzilla Smash 1 or 2 so that’s kind of weird, but whatever. Plus I heard it was going to be a Candy Crush-esque iOS puzzle game and face met palm. Then I saw this:

Yeah, I’d play that. And for free? I’d play the HELL out of that. So once again Godzilla forges into new gaming territory and offers his fans another twist on smashing and burning human constructs. I’d really love to see a full-on console game featuring the big G, but that doesn’t appear to be happening any time soon so this mobile game will hopefully scratch that itch until some studio gets up the juice to bring us something really killer. Until then, happy stomping!

 

Five Agonizing Choices from BioWare Games

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BioWare has given us dozens of memorable choices to make over the years, and have pushed forward storytelling in video games to previously unthought-of heights along the way. The true test of whether or not a choice has any meaning is how it makes you think and feels, and BioWare regularly serves up some emotional doozies.

The way I play these types of games is to make my choices and stick with them; even if I regret them. Most of the time, I don’t go back and load a previous save. I prefer to deal with the consequences of my actions as if the story wasn’t just a game. My first playthrough is my canon playthrough for always; no takebacks allowed. I want to see how the game bears out my on the spot decisions made with good intentions, even if things end up going full Breaking Bad on me.

In the best cases, I may make the decisions I think are right, and the results may seem horribly wrong when it’s said and done. That’s when you know you’re playing something that’s more than a simple video game. That’s when it’s interactive art. Here are the moments BioWare has given me control and left me wondering for years afterwards if I did the right thing or regretting that I failed to do it.

Why, Bastila, why?

Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic was a huge part of the decision to switch to Microsoft’s Xbox after some great years with the PlayStation. It looked like the game of my dreams, and it did not disappoint one little bit. Compared to the newer crop of games (now with 75% more ambiguous moral choices!), this one’s may not hold up on an emotional level, but there is still one that still haunts me over ten years later.kotor bastila

Bastila is a female Jedi who acts as your right hand woman through most of the game. Cute, charming, and a little uptight; she’s a solid, dependable character and potential love interest whose character evolves away from the strict code of the Jedi somewhat as the game goes on. At one point, she gets damseled, and when you go save her she greets you as a free woman. A free Sith woman, that is. Turns out that if you haven’t corrupted her already during your evil playthrough, Darth Malak’s mental torture does the trick and she has turned against the Order and you and is convinced she is beyond redemption.

Now depending on your choices, one of three things can happen. You can decide to take her out, she can decide to take you out, or you can convince her that she is redeemable. After a lengthy discussion, I chose the wrong approach, failed to convince Bastila that she still had a chance for redemption, she came at me, and I struck down a friend. I killed a valued team mate and I felt like a total failure even as I saved the universe. It was unlike anything I’d ever felt in a video game before and if BioWare hadn’t already won a lifetime fan with the rest of the game, this’d have done it.

That Goddam Mirror

In Dragon Age 2 I was presented with a serious ethical dilemma. It’s pretty much been established that blood mages are bad news at this point, so the sequel naturally puts one in your party: a Dalish elf named Merrill. In spite of her mega dark magic affinity, Merrill’s personality is made entirely out of adorableness. While her geeky combination of intelligence and naivety is normally charming, it occasionally swings into the “wtf are you DOING!?” range.

Merrill’s pet project involves an elvish artifact; specifically a tainted Evluvian mirror that she is attempting to repair. Not only is she into blood magic, but he ends up dealing with demons and all sorts of stupidity trying to get this mirror working, supposedly for the good of her people, who have shunned her because of it. At one point you have a shard of the mirror and have to decide whether to acquiesce to her desire and let her have it or keep it from her for her own good before she destroys herself.

merrill mirror dragon age 2

Seriously, da’len, you need a new hobby.

The real question there is whether you’re the kind of person who trusts in their friends and allows them the freedom to pursue their own affairs even at their own peril or the overbearing mother hen type who knows what’s best and will fight them until they agree or part ways with you. I’m the first kind. Freedom is my most consistently prized value. But it isn’t free…

So I let Merrill fuel her obsession with the mysterious, dangerous magical artifact knowing we could handle whatever came out of it. Except what happened was Merrill’s mentor sacrificed herself when the mirror bequeathed a demon bent on possession. She took the spiritual bullet for her wayward pupil and the demon used her body to attempt to kill us all. We struck the elvish elder down in self-defense just in time for the rest of Merrill’s clan to happen upon what admittedly looked like a pretty bad scene.

The banished blood mage with her forbidden dark magic artifact and her outsider companions leaving behind the corpse of the beloved elder doesn’t look great. I gave the wrong answer to their question and was then forced to slaughter my companion’s entire clan or be killed by the very same people she was claiming to be trying to save. Damn it, Merrill. I figured we could handle any foe the game could throw at us, but I never thought it’d be innocent people. Well played, BioWare.

Geth or Quarians?

This is an overarcing issue across all three Mass Effect games that comes to a head in the final installment. The Geth are an AI race who overthrew their creators, the Quarians, exiling them in deep space. They are a regular enemy who often align with the opposition, feeling threatened by biological races and occasionally manipulated by the Reapers. The Quarians are a species oppressed across the galaxy for their nomadic ways and they are consumed with the idea of defeating the Geth and reclaiming their homeworld.

This seems like an open-and shut choice, but over the course of the series and independent Geth named Legion joins your crew and teaches you a lot about his peoples’ story, culminating in you taking a tour into the Geth’s collective mainframe where you see the events that led to their initial revolt. Turns out the Quarians instigated the war that caused their own exile when they attempted to wipe the Geth out after they achieved self-awareness. Not only that, but the Quarian leadership are mostly complete assholes.mass effect tali legion

The final conflict comes in Mass Effect 3 when the two races go Armageddon on each other over the homeworld in question. The Quarians hold the advantage but Legion has a program that would allow the Geth to achieve true sentience and hypercharge their capabilities to turn the tables and end their creators. With the Quarians unwilling to back off it was one or the other.

There is a third outcome that allows for peace, given you managed to work out a certain compromise in the second game, which I somehow failed to do. So I was tasked with deciding which race gets wiped out. Fuck my life. Given that I viewed the Geth as mechanical potential, evolving theoretical lives as opposed to the clear and present sentience of the Quarians, I was moved by Tali’s pleas not to doom her people. But it was close.

I was rewarded with a tear-inducing outcome that saw Legion desperately attack Shepard in an effort to save his people before being taken out by Tali. His last words were to ask her “does this unit has a soul?” Wracked with sorrow, Tali answers “Yes, Legion. Yes it does.” It freakin’ gutted me.

The Landsmeet

Out of all BioWare’s epic story twist, turns, and choices in their games, this is the gold standard for me. The climax in Dragon Age: Origins isn’t the confrontation with the gigantic Archfiend leading the swarm of Darkspawn engulfing Fereldan. It’s the preparations made beforehand as the country struggles with divided loyalties over an impending civil war.

The Grey Warden has to take a leadership role in unifying Fereldan against the threat. Your opposition is that prick Loghain who you must first attempt to best in a debate where he expertly twists your own words and deeds against you. Win or lose, it will come down to a duel between one of your number and the evil dickhead. If you win, you are presented with a lot of heavy options.

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I’m sorry, bro. [sob] SO SOOORRRRYYYY!!!!

In my case, I ended up compromising my own values for the good of the realm and making several decisions that were arguably wrong, but made with the best of intentions. I married my charming Templar knight (in training) Alistair to the ambitious queen of the realm, Anora, thinking the two of them would be the coolest of rulers. Except Alistair doesn’t like Anora. At all. So I lost a particularly cool party member and forced him to marry a woman he doesn’t love just because I thought it’d be neat. Shit.

Then there’s the issue of what to do with Loghain. I really wanted him to die. He deserved to die. But the thing is Anora is his daughter and I really wanted her support in this whole endeavor so killing her dad in front of her was not the call I wanted to make. So I had to lug this shithead around in my party now instead of Alistair. I then got the option to make him a fellow Grey Warden and allow him to die fighting the Archfiend. But then he would be remembered as a hero of the country and not the piece of garbage who betrayed it. I chose to let him live out his days in obscurity with a chance for redemption, but he never had to answer for what he’d done. Not only that, but as a favor to the witch Morrigan for services rendered (and possible future story intrigue), I….I let him bang her.

Don’t ask me how it ended up this way. I sold out my friend and gave the biggest bastard in the game the night of his life instead of a stump on top of his shoulders like he deserved. I’m actually rather ashamed that things ended up this way, but it’s a testament to the depth and nuance of the choices that the game offered to you. Life and conflict is about compromising and not always getting the result you want or doing the right thing and it’s not often you see that reflected in a video game.

The Toughest Call

For a lot of people, Mass Effect was the first time they experienced a truly agonizing choice. In RPG’s you are given a party of characters to be your friends and companions in all things. It’s part of the deal. On a few occasions, a character is scripted to die and it’s super sad, but it’s just part of the story. Their part is done. But what if their fate was in your hands?mass effect ashley kaidan

At the climax of that first amazing game in the trilogy, you send Ashley and Kaidan on separate missions and you only have time to save one before a nuke goes off and blows the facility to atoms. So who’s is going to be? How long did you sit and stare at the screen weighing the possibilities? Ash was kind of a racist tool, but an interesting foil and my best performer in combat by far. Kaidan…well, he wasn’t all that memorable or interesting to me and I preferred Liara when it came to biotic powers. Plus, Ashley’s kinda pretty. [blush]

If this was a one-off game, it wouldn’t have been any big deal. But Mass Effect is a trilogy, meaning th characters come back. While the second game had only small roles for either character, the closer brought them back to the forefront of the action on the Normandy. It’s like I barely even knew Kaidan. I’ve had three games to be attached to almost every other Normandy crew member in the series, but this guy’s story was cut short by my hand. Ash’s story in Mass Effect 3 was great. What was Kaidan going to be like in the third game? I’ll never know until I finally get around to replaying the entire series front to back.

So those are my dirty little first playthrough secrets from BioWare games that haunt me. They’re the kind of decisions that immerse you in the game’s world and really make you feel the stakes. As I’m sure some of you are raging about internally now, my picks were sorely limited by my status as a filthy console peasant so none of BioWare’s old PC classics made the list due to me not having played them.

So now it’s your turn. Share some favorite old school Baldur’s Gate or Neverwinter Nights tales if you’ve got them or tell us which Dragon Age, Mass Effect, or other latter-day game choices left a lasting impression on you. Or you can always just tell me how idiotic my choices were. No wrong way to play.

Celebrating the Most Horrorful Time of the Year

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October 31st is my favorite holiday, and very likely yours if you’re here. Most of the public may prefer Christmas for its crass commercialism and stable of timeless classic films and television specials or Thanksgiving for its epic mealtime, but Halloween is a holiday custom made for nerds. A whole day dedicated to cosplay, candy, horror, and evil music? Yes, please! It’s a time to celebrate all of the things we love with a sinister edge. Whereas the sights and sounds of Christmas very often reek of populist sentimentality and cynical modern cash-ins in the form of soulless Christmas albums and other forms of entertainment with a sheen of general cloying saccharinity, quality horror and everything that goes with it is something that never needs to be forced. Fear is with us everywhere we go all year ‘round and having one day to really celebrate it is a wonderful thing. But how to make the most of Halloween in 2014? I thought I’d share my experiences from this past month’s lead-up to October 31st and maybe give some of you some ideas about how best to pay homage to the spirits of the dead via geek-flavored entertainment new and old available this year. Continue reading