90’s Flashback: Wing Commander

wingcommander

Remember the 90’s? Good times. It still stands as the best decade of gaming in a lot of opinions (mine) and there are a lot of reasons for that. Reasons like the Super Nintendo, PlayStation, and our long-lost friend the Dreamcast and all of the timeless classics that went with them. To me, it stands as the definitive decade for gaming, where the medium made the biggest strides towards becoming the powerhouse entertainment industry it is today.

We’ve lost a lot in transitioning from the late 20th century to the 21st. We’ve gained some amazing new technology and more AAA games than we’d ever have imagined back in the day, but a lot of what made 90’s gaming so incredible has fallen by the wayside. Franchises like Grand Theft Auto, Resident Evil, and Nintendo’s stable of classics have been reborn again and again and strong as ever (okay, maybe RE is limping), and Final Fantasy remains a head turner even as Square seems to have no idea what to do with it, but we’ve lost a lot virtual friends in past decades. I’d like to revisit some of those friends.wingcommander1

This week, I’m bringing back one of my favorite SNES titles, 1990’s Wing Commander, which was ported from the PC where the series made its home. The franchise was the brainchild of Chris Roberts and developed by Origin Systems, Inc. It was billed simply as “The 3-D Space Combat Simulator”, but it was so much more.

In all honesty, I’ve never had a gaming experience that directly compares to my first playthrough of Wing Commander. There aren’t a lot of games I can say that about. This thing blew me away. It’s a typical military sci-fi premise: you are a rookie pilot in the middle of an intergalactic war with the alien Kilrathi and you have to kill stuff until it’s dead. But more than anything I’d ever played at that point, this game really put you out there and made you feel like you were part of an infinite universe and a larger story and conflict where you never knew what was going to happen next.

Most games hit you with a “game over” when you failed an objective and your partners are immortal. But in this game, your fellow soldiers could die permanently and if you screwed the pooch on a mission, the war went on. If you were about to die, you could eject and finish the mission that way, keeping your progress, but you had to live with the consequences too. The flow of the war would change based on your successes and failures and so would the available missions, leading to different endings. If you got it done, you would remain on the offensive, but if you consistently failed, you would end up on the defensive and eventually be driven from the system.

Adding to the immersion of the game’s impressive (for the time) flight mechanics, you could converse with your fellow soldiers aboard the Tiger’s Claw Strike Carrier and during missions. You could give orders to your wingmen, although different pilots had different personalities and their listening abilities were not the same. For instance, your first partner was a veteran named Spirit with a respectful personality who always obeyed orders. On the other end of the spectrum was a young hothead who went by the callsign Maniac who made it his goal to top the kill scoreboard and wouldn’t listen to a thing you said. You could even send out taunts to enemy pilots to get their attention, which was all sorts of awesome.

wingcommander2While most games tend to go with the “every mission is the most important mission EVER” approach for dramatic effect, Wing Commander treated things as routine in the name of realism with a lot of patrols and escorts and floating through space. If you wanted, you could set auto-pilot and go straight to the mission waypoint (unless you encountered enemies) but I remember being so enamored with the game’s immersion that drifting through space on patrols admiring the endless ocean of stars and planets while listening to the ambient music took on an almost meditative property. It was soothing to feel like it was just another day at the office and so much more exciting when my wingman would announce enemy contacts and I’d have to decide whether to engage or not.

Did I just say decide whether to shoot the bad guy or not? You heard me. Some missions you were ordered not to engage unless necessary and that was the correct thing to do. The Kilrathi would use patrols of their own to distract you from your mission, for instance drawing you away from your escort while another team swoops in after you leave to destroy it. That asshole Maniac may take off and ignore your orders to keep formation and end up biting off more than he can chew, dividing your numbers and forcing you choose who to save, or he may wreck the bait patrol all on his own, or you may just be badass enough to kill everything. The game wasn’t tightly scripted so like I said, you didn’t always know what would happen.wingcommander3

The series was a true trail blazer for its time and a precursor to many of the science fiction games we revere today. It also had a memorable soundtrack. Wing Commander implemented everything from branching storylines, dialogue choices, and live-action cutscenes over some eleven proper titles and spin-offs in the 90’s (many of which were ported to the PlayStation) inspiring a series of decent novels and concluding with a poor film adaptation before vanishing to never see the light of day again in a mainstream release.

Technically, there was 2007’s Xbox Live Arcade exclusive Wing Commander: Arena, but we won’t count it because it barely resembles even the shadow of the franchise. The independent fan-made Wing Commander Saga is available to play for free on the PC (and from what this filthy console peasant hears, it’s actually quite good), but what we really need is a proper rebirth for the series as there is nothing like it to be found in modern gaming. EA owns the rights, but the fact that they allowed Saga to be made and that Chris Roberts (who is working on a spiritual successor with MMO components, Star Citizen) claims they “don’t care” about the franchise doesn’t bode well for immediate plans, but we can always hope.

wingcommander4

This early image from possible Wing Commander successor, Star Citizen, is looking damn good.

A modern Wing Commander implementing all of the elements of the series in one AAA game would be a sight to behold. Modern Mass Effect-like character development coupled with the real threat of losing your comrades out there in combat by itself would make for instant investment, with every engagement a calculated risk. Best-case scenario, the game would auto-save upon each death like State of Decay and make resetting impossible or even wipe your save if you don’t eject before you die to be really hardcore. There is no reloading saves in war, after all.

And then there’s the obvious multiplayer possibilities, which I don’t need to get into beyond saying that customizable ships would make for a really interesting dynamic there. 1993’s Wing Commander Academy had an innovative mission editor that allowed players to create their own scenarios. Think about how great that could be with modern tools. The Privateer spinoffs functioned in an open-world rather than as a series of missions, allowing the player to play the role they wanted and react as they saw fit to the events unfolding around them while the later main games featured impressive interactive live action full motion videos featuring known actors and branching dialogue choices.

Adding all of these aspects together (with digital cutscenes instead of FMV…just my personal preference) would make for an epic sci-fi monster that any gamer should want to play. I don’t know what happened to the space combat simulators like Wing Commander and Star Wars: X-Wing that were so revered in the 90’s and vanished like magic at the turn of the century, but it’s maybe time for devs to think about rehashing and updating some concepts from previous decades that worked instead of rehashing games from last gen and ideas that a lot of gamers are getting burnt out on. Just a thought. Maybe if Star Citizen becomes a success, we’ll see a new generation of awesome sci-fi flight sims, or at least some PSN re-releases of the old ones.

The Ten Most Epic Moments in Final Fantasy History

ffepic

We’re at least a year out from the release of Final Fantasy XV and a lot of us are nervous to see if Square Enix can get it together and deliver the kind of definitive RPG experience we used to expect from the franchise after two underperforming MMO’s and a reviled trilogy that has turned all but the most hardcore fans away from the series. In the meantime, we’re getting a console remaster of the well-received PSP title Final Fantasy: Type Zero. Type Zero is the first M-rated game in the series to date, but if what I hear about the the atmosphere of XV is true, it may signal a new direction for the series towards more modern, gritty storytelling.

That’s all well and good, but I hope they don’t forget what brought us here in the first place: great characters on fantastic adventures that push the artistic limits of video games as an interactive art form. So to help us all remember why we should still care about Final Fantasy after almost three decades and dozens of main titles, spin-offs, sequels, re-releases, and even films and television series here are ten definitive moments in my long history with the games that dropped my jaw, blew my mind, and brought tears to my eyes. The kind of moments you never forget and keep you playing game after game, always searching for another. These are the most memorable Final Fantasy moments I’ve experienced.

Getting your eidolon on.

I know, I know; a lot of people hated Final Fantasy XIII and now you’re already mad at me for including it right off the bat. But here me out. If nothing else, the game was freakin’ gorgeous and featured a pretty sophisticated mythos. It’s just too bad that they didn’t bother explaining the latter until some 30 hours in. Still, this cutscene in which our outlaw heroes invade Cocoon is not only action packed and awesome, but it also showcases the game’s coolest feature: the summons. Each character is bonded to a Transformer-esque eidolon they can summon and control in real time and each of them are put on showcase in this eye-popping sequence.

A night at the opera.

One thing that the series has always had to its credit is the best scores of any series of games. Sure, we all remember the themes to Zelda and Mario, but Final Fantasy was on a different level of musical sophistication from the get-go and only in the last decade have other games finally caught up to the kind of musical epicness that’s always been a hallmark of this series. In Final Fantasy VI there was an honest-to-goodness musical number many years before decent voice acting was a possibility. With an unforgettable haunting melody combined with beautiful onscreen lyrics, a reluctant Celes played her part on the stage and created an interactive scene (you need to remember your lines) unlike anything else in gaming at the time, and one of the best parts of one of the best RPG’s of the 16-bit era.

May I have this dance?

Historically speaking, there’s usually not much to say about video game romance. Boy loves girl, girl gets kidnapped, boy saves girl, maybe the sprites smush together for some kind of hug/kiss thing at the end and that’s about it. As we’ll see later, Final Fantasy VII definitely upped the dramatic stakes, but VIII was the first game to really capture the essence of romance in this cutcene where our awkward hero Squall is wooed by Rinoa (dat smile….) with a dance that was another exceptional landmark in a series that is largely made of gaming landmarks. It was unlike anything else that had come before it in games and a moment where motion capture, music, and character blended together into something really special and emotional in a whole new way for the medium.

Ready to party.

final fantasy party

It kind of seems wrong to leave out the original game in spite of the early 8-bit titles’ lack of really memorable story moments. Final Fantasy was Square’s last ditch effort to make something memorable before folding, and, as we all know, the fantasy ironically turned out to be anything but final. But what made it such a smash? I remember the early days of video RPG’s and how awesome the idea of doing it all digitally was at the time. Growing up watching Thundercats and He-Man and the usual stuff, it never occurred to me that I would one day assemble my own team of heroes on my television. Being able to handpick a diverse crew of warriors with different abilities and skillsets is now a typical gaming trope, but back in the day the concept was epic. Western PC games already had this covered, but the original Final Fantasy is the moment that JRPG’s really blew up on consoles and made us all take notice. You always remember your first, and for a lot of burgeoning geeks, this was it.  

Here today, gone tomorrow.

The storytelling leap from the 8-bit era to the 16-bit era was a quantum one. III sported an incredibly sophisticated job system that has been reused many times over ever since, but in terms of story and character….meh. But IV on the SNES remains for me not only the moment that RPG’s became an unhealthy obsession, but my favorite game of all time as customization took a backseat to make way for genuine characters with their own strengths, weaknesses, and personalities. If I was feeling self-indulgent, I could easily have drawn this entire list from just that game. But one of the biggest moments takes place a good way into the game, having spent the entire game thusfar meeting the cast and filling your party ranks with friends. Just as you have your party all leveled up and oiled into a lean mean combat machine, disaster strikes on a voyage and Leviathan sinks your ship. Cecil wakes up having been washed up alone on a distant shore with the fate of his friends unknown. It was the first time I ever felt loneliness from a video game. The unexpected tragedy and resulting melancholy made this one of the best moments of a perfect RPG.

Downward, to glory!

Final Fantasy X stands to a lot of people as the last great title in the series, in spite of its linear nature. Whether it will end up being the last great one or not, its quality is pretty hard to argue against. Modern gamers have labeled the heroine, Yuna, as a damsel in distress since the story revolves around a group of guardians tasked with protecting her, but the truth is that her combination of magic and summoned monsters is indispensable in combat, and she’s an incredibly strong character all around. Case and point: her epic escape from her own wedding. While Tidus and company swoop in to save the day, Yunie shows them that the wedding was part of her own scheme and she didn’t need their help before jumping off of the airship like a total boss into the wings of her summoned aeon, Valefor; saving herself in epic fashion. Damsel that!

Naval warfare.

Final Fantasy IX was a return to form for the series after VIII’s departure into realism, angsty drama, overlong summons, and terrible magic systems. Not to be too hard on VIII, but I was extremely pleased by this. The moment I remember having my jaw dropped in this one was the unleashing of Bahamut. To put into perspective how amazing this was at the time, you should remember that this came out on the same console as Final Fantasy VII. PlayStation gamers were geeking out over VII‘s graphics a few years before, so imagine how amazing it was to experience the above scene in all of its destructive glory. The dragon has been a series mainstay since the very first game, but he was never more awe-inspiring than he was here.

All grown up now.

On to my favorite moment from Final Fantasy IV, this was the first video game scene that broke my brain. It actually links to the fifth pick on my list where you lose your entire party to a Leviathan attack. Part of that crew was Rydia, a little girl with fledgling summoning powers who was among the first characters you encountered. In spite of her magic pedigree, she was almost helpless when you took her on as a charge and was just beginning to come into her own when you were separated. Fast forward to later in the game as you confront the archvillain Golbez, who paralyzes your entire party before casually striking them down one by one. Seconds before he delivers the coup-de-gras to Cecil, a summoned monster appears and blasts Golbez before a mysterious offscreen character heals you. Epic boss musician kicks in as your savior steps into rank to help you fight. It’s Rydia, now a young adult with a nuclear arsenal of black magic and summons. I pretty much completely freaked out the first time this happened and it still gives me goosebumps every time.

No future for you.

When you ask about memorable FF moments, this tops a lot of lists. For a lot of people, Final Fantasy VII is remembered as the first game to make them cry and the death of Aeris still carries a lot of weight all of these years later. We all know how this damseling thing works: I explained it in my third pick. But not this time. Cloud confronts Sephiroth fully confident that he would beat the baddie and rescue his girlfriend. Instead, he got to see her get speared through the back and die in his arms. And just to rub salt in a wound that never closed, Square scattered items specific to her throughout the rest of the game, as if she was supposed to be there and you, the player, just freakin’ failed and now you have to play the game without your healer. Loser. Gamers were certain that this couldn’t be and searched feverishly for some theoretical secret way (finding the bead that fell after she was stabbed was a popular one) to bring Aeris back for years, but nope. She was just gone and not even the pleasure of destroying the evil bastard who killed her could bring her back.

This is it, the Apocalypse.

Final Fantasy VI had its issues, but it still stands as an amazing game and features probably the most epic and gutsy development I’ve ever seen in a RPG. VII may have been the game that broke our hearts, but that’s only after VI destroyed the whole world. VII had to aim for intimate because it doesn’t get any more epic than Armageddon. The villainous Kefka and his mocking laugh turned traditional video game plotting on its head by actually succeeding in obliterating civilization, leaving the player to watch the lush world they’d just explored be blown up and reduced to a barren wasteland, where Celes wakes up all alone, the fate of the game’s main heroine, Terra, and the rest of the characters unknown. It was similar in tone to IV‘s Leviathan attack, but with the stakes so much larger and the added wrinkle of a missing protagonist. Even today in the age of grittiness, it’s rare to see your heroes fail so utterly. In the 90’s it was practically unheard of, and that’s what makes this the ideal anchor for this list of Final Fantasy epicness. If XV can give us at least one more moment for the pile, I’ll be satisfied.

“How to Lose Fans and Alienate People” by Team Ninja

ninja

Dear gamers,

I understand there has been some disappointment regarding the quality of our products ever since that crazy rock star sunglasses guy Tomonobu Itagaki -you know, the one who knew how to actually make good video games- decided to up and leave us after Tecmo stopped paying him because who needs talent? But we’ve been hanging in there, even while gaming tournaments are banning our DLC because they don’t think a buxom woman clad in only a single Christmas ribbon sends the right message about acceptable professional fighting attire. Well, we say that if Ronda Rousey could pull that look off, she’d totally rock it. 

Anyways, to celebrate the loss of our mastermind way back in ’08, we decided to make the first Metroid game that people hated just to prove that we could. I mean, twenty five years is a long franchise win streak. They even made a digital pinball version and people still liked it. Nobody likes digital pinball! So we consider it a point of pride that gaming sites used phrases like “oh god I’m going to snap this disc in half” and “the future’s dumbest soap opera” in their official reviews. And that’s not even considering that we took a character known as a strong, badass female bounty hunter in an iconic powersuit, put her in skin-tight outfits, and then had her act like a spoiled teenager.

But I mean, come on, guys. Did you forget we took our premiere fighting franchise, got rid of the characters that didn’t have boobs, and turned it into a shallow oggle-fest under the pretension of making a barely serviceable collection of beach-related minigames? Oh, and making Legend of Zelda into another goddamn Dynasty Warriors game? Our idea. It’s time you made friends with the notion that you will never see another good Ninja Gaiden game too. This is us now.dead-or-alive-5-costumes

But what we are here to discuss today is our latest post-Itagaki strategy to avoid contributing anything of value to gaming, Dead or Alive 5. We thought to ourselves “remember how awesome DOA4 was? How about we do that, but make it not work and spend all of our time and energy on awful DLC instead?” And you know what? That’s what we did. The game crashed on an almost hourly basis and it was almost impossible to find an online match, but goddamn it, what other dev allows you to buy sexy Santa, kitty, bunny, schoolgirl, cheerleader, and maid outfits for their female fighters in addition to countless swimsuit sets and furry bras and panties? Whether the game works or not is beside the point, we’ve got a lock on fetish wear. Eat it, Street Fighter!

And think about it: if the game worked well enough for you to get online and play against other people, they’d know what a miserable tool you were to pay real money for stupid-looking outfits for your virtual waifus, so really we were doing you a favor. You’re welcome, whiners. We’re blazing trails here and all we hear is “we want to play the actual gaaaaame! WAAAAAHHHH!!!!!” That’s what you sound like.

So fine, you spent too much money on a game that constantly crashes in spite of coming out eights years later than its predecessor -which had nearly identical gameplay and graphics and worked damn near perfectly- and were met with dozens of DLC for bizarre and creepy outfits instead of a playable game. Fine. We’ve got just what you need. Just buy the Ultimate edition! Re-releases always fix that sort of thing, right? It’s a given.

dead or alive nursesPSYCH! Dead or Alive 5 Ultimate still froze up like, all the time, but check it out: BAM! Sexy nurses, baby! And stewardesses too! Did anybody say “shirtless overalls”? No, but we did it anyways. I know, I know, “can’t play the game….crashes….glitches, blah, blah, blah.” You’re sooooo predictable, gamers. Learn a new song.

How about this: you buy the game one more time: Dead or Alive 5: Last Round. We’re getting tired of people focusing on this stupid “broken game” thing (“broken record” is more like it. Sheesh) so we decided to be the bigger people and end this three years of insanely-priced DLC-peddling for a busted game once and again and for all. Okay, so maybe we screwed you on the last gen. That’s on us. But we were doing it up Team Ninja style for the new console generation. Putting the best foot forward. Past is past. Third time’s a charm. We may have boned you, bur you knew we weren’t going to XBONE you. We only asked one thing of you…dead or alive last round preorder costumes

Pre-order for new costumes! And check it out: a season pass for a mere $92.99 for the rest of the costumes to come. That’s a hell of a deal. Who knows what awesome ideas we’ll come up with? Dominatrixes? Sexy platypuses? Bikini clowns? Maybe we’ll finally cut to the chase and just have them all be naked. Download the season pass and find out in future months. The game itself? Yeah, doesn’t work. Still crashes every time you attempt to do stuff and won’t connect to servers a lot of the time. Oh, and if you try to punch somebody, it might wipe your save data. Business as usual. No big.

So now that we’ve ran this whole Dead or Alive fighting game thing into the ground and probably alienated every last remaining fan of the franchise with three editions over three years of an unplayable mess with only a wide variety of premium fetish outfits to recommend any of them, what’s next for us? Maybe we’ll make like fellow Tecmo-ites Koei and just do multiple Warriors games every year. How about DOA Warriors? Oooooh, I like that one. Think of the costume possibilities!

Seriously, though, we’ve taken over this Ni-oh thing Koei was working on since 2004, and it should be pretty amazing. Long development cycles always make for the best games, after all. I still say Duke Nukem Forever is an unappreciated masterpiece, in spite of its pitiful lack of costume DLC. We game developers make it a habit to play the poop-throwing section whenever we’re feeling uninspired about what to do with our projects. It reminds us that you people will buy any old shit as long as we keep chucking it at you.

And that, my dear disgruntled gamers, is why we will keep on keeping on, even without our fearless leader or anyone who knows what the hell they’re doing besides designing the worst DLC ever. I can’t wait to see your Youtube reaction rants when Dead or Alive Xtreme 3: Bikini Boogaloo hits the shelves.

Love and Kisses,

team ninja logo

Only Gamers Can Heal ‘The Rift’

rift

Hi, all. I know things have been crazy lately, and it’s a shame we don’t talk more outside of anonymous message boards and semi-literate Twitter arguments, but it’s time to fix that. Some of you may have noticed a a petition making the rounds regarding the state of our community. It seems that one of our friends at Blizzard, Mark Kern, is concerned for us and the public perception of us after an episode of Law and Order: Special Victims Unit portrayed some of our more rambunctious brethren as domestic terrorists. I suppose the label may apply. You don’t threaten people with rape and murder because they don’t align with you politically without fitting the bill, after all.

While I appreciate Mr. Kern’s passion for stopping the insanity that has defined online gamer culture these past months, I have to disagree with him when he places the blame at the feet of journalism. It was not Kotaku, nor Polygon, nor IGN or anyone else who made it this way and allowed it to distract us from what we all love. It was us. I’m not a journalist, I’m not a developer; I’m simply a fan who occasionally writes on the internet for fun. I’ve got no horse in this race, I just want to see this go away and I know I’m not alone.

There are a lot of factors at play here that not everyone is aware of, and a long history of sectarian isolation and persecution complexes in geek culture that have combined to become a perfect storm of cringe-inducing online behavior that’s gone beyond the “lulz”, oppression complexes, and the profiteering of various online entities and threatens to become part of the fabric of a culture that has more reason than any to pull together and celebrate inclusion.

Why do gamers have so much division in our ranks? Because we are everybody. Think about it. You go to a Justin Beiber board, you expect a certain kind of person. Go to a Star Trek convention, you know more or less who you’re going to find. But in this up and coming generation, everybody plays games, and more of those games than ever are online, throwing together people who are utterly ignorant of one anothers’ cultures. A Tumblrite who takes every thing she sees seriously would never normally wander into a 4chaner’s domain, where the object of the game is to say the most offensive thing possible and double down on the first person to express discomfort for maximum amusement. Yet they have a love of video games in common, and that is where worldview’s collide.

As the internet becomes a larger and larger part of everyday life, it’s become harder for a generation who grew up with it to differentiate what happens here from the real world. But we need to separate the way people act in real life from their internet pastimes. In real life one person is just one person and they’re limited in their ability to damage any given community, but on the internet it’s all too easy to exploit social media and anonymity to make a virtual molehill into a mountain and freely fill as much space as you want with any sort of madness you choose. And once you create the illusion of a movement, it’s human nature that others will hop onto the bandwagon and turn what may have began as a spiteful joke into full-on warfare.

And that’s where we’re at right now. It’s gotten to the point where nobody can even tell what’s going on anymore between inflammatory false-flag posts, people choosing to take sides and repeating whatever other people are saying rather than thinking this through, and a mainstream media that doesn’t really understand any of it. Thankfully, we have yet to see a single instance of real life violence linked with this online strife, but ask yourself if that’s what it will take before we can all calm down and stop this feedback loop of cyber warfare over nothing.

It’s an entertainment journalist’s job to discuss and report goings-on in a given community that are of interest to that community. This not only includes the entertainment itself, but the people of interest surrounding that entertainment and any relevant trends. I may be critical of many aspects of modern journalism, but to lay the bad behavior of the gaming community or the choice of a television show to create a fictional story demonizing political extremism in the gaming scene at their feet is not helping. At all.

It’s the gaming press’s responsibility to inform us of what’s happening in the gaming scene, not to moderate or take responsibility for the behavior of each individual gamer. Sure, they could choose not to cover topics such as the harassment of women in the industry by certain elements, but in doing so wouldn’t they seem at best indifferent or even complicit by ignoring it?

Gaming is a massive and growing market, and everyone wants a piece of that. Most gaming journalists are a part of that community and their choice of career matches their passion. They write about gaming because they love it. But you can make just as much or more from hating it.

Rest assure that more people are talking about SVU right now than have even thought about the show in a long time, and that translates to views, ratings, and revenue. And if you don’t have network resources, it’s been shown that you can sit in front of a camera and simply list all of the political things you don’t like about video games on Youtube for a half hour at a time and become an overnight celebrity with millions of views and an army of financial donors and supporters.

Which brings us back to the problem at hand: rogue elements of our community using the internet in an attempt to harass and silence the critics. It’s not only indefensible, but it’s extremely childish to take something so personally when the clear goal of attacking us is to make money and the attention garnered from making violent threats on Twitter, doxxing people, and threatening them in their homes does more to further their financial and political causes than any fictional TV show or internet rant could. Loving video games shouldn’t mean you can’t grow up.

It’s not journalists who’ve fostered social chaos in gaming, it’s our own insecurity. A lot of us grew up with our relatives and peers mocking our passion and have used it to escape from a reality that isn’t always kind to us, and we’re fiercely defensive. Others are upset at the implications regarding the clear under-representation of women, minorities, and LGBT characters in the medium, and they feel the same. As video games are moving to address the latter, both groups have become increasingly vocal and have fed off of each other in the worst way to create this schism.

But we’re all gamers. There’s room for everyone, and we need to remember that. There’s no ceiling to how big gaming can get, and it’s already threatening to be the biggest and best entertainment medium in the world. There’s no need for any of us to feel threatened. None of us are going anywhere and we need to get used to it.

Anonymous online threats aside, gaming is one of the most violence-free communities out there. There’s violence surrounding sports all over the world, violence in bars and clubs, violence in the streets, violence in shopping centers. How often do we get a legitimate report of violence linked to gaming? Almost never if mentally ill people who happen to play video games don’t count, and they shouldn’t since only the first part of that equation is relevant. And online shit talk definitely doesn’t rate.

If we want games, it’s up to the developers to keep making them. If we want to know what’s going on in gaming, it’s up to the journalists to keep us informed. But if we’re going to heal this rift, it’s up to every single one of us to treat one another with the same respect we desire for ourselves. If somebody says they want better representation for women in the industry or an LGBT character start shows up in your favorite RPG series, it doesn’t mean “social justice warriors” are taking over the industry. There will be another Grand Theft Auto, I promise. Please sit down.

And if an anonymous troll starts baiting you with childish insults or over the top threats, giving them the attention they apparently crave so desperately is only going to encourage them. Take a second to laugh at and/or pity them and then move onto something more worthy of your time. Please. It’s natural to pay more attention to the maniac running naked down the street screaming obscenities than to the people just going about their business, and he’s a lot more likely to be in the news than the others, but you shouldn’t assume that his behavior represents everyone just because he gets more attention.

We can do this, and nobody else can do it for us. We’re making nobody happy as we are and even our beloved devs are worried about us now. Hardcore gamers have always been subject to extreme stereotyping, but it seems like only recently we’ve actually been earning that disdain. I’ve even been considering leaving the online community altogether so I don’t have to hear about it anymore. But you know what? No.

Every last gamer I know in real life is defined simply by their love of games; they couldn’t care less about gender politics and they sure as hell aren’t threatening to rape or kill people. Game store clerks are some of the nicest and most helpful employees I’ve ever encountered, and my wife’s experiences are the same. My son and my niece argue over who gets to play as Wyldstyle in the Lego Movie video game, and that’s about as nasty as I’ve seen gender warfare get offline. I’ve never had anything but positive experiences with fellow gamers young and old, male and female in real life. It’s a small group online trying to appear big who are skewing peoples’ perception.

The internet brought together previously isolated gamers into a public community and if we all walk away, the only ones left to represent us will be the fools who started and perpetuated this mess and that’s what people will think of us. I suspect we’re only one generation away from mainstream gaming domination, but I’m not giving up on this one yet. We built this scene and it’s up to us to represent ourselves as the adults we are and let the world know that these people do not speak for us. It’s not up to journalists to represent us. If we’re silent, they don’t have anything to represent us with. It’s time to represent ourselves and respect each other. Loudly.

The Ten Coolest BlazBlue Characters: Rebel Two

BBcharacters

Last week, I shared the first half of my list of personal favorite playable characters from the BlazBlue games, which have quietly been taking fighting games to new heights both in terms of complex storytelling and in creative gameplay mechanics for the last half decade, showing there’s plenty more life left in the genre.

This week I’m breaking hearts and revealing the second half of my top ten. I say that because they probably aren’t who you think they are and that’s part of what I love about this series: you throw out the awesome gameplay, inventive attacks, incredible finishing moves, great maps, unlockable fanservice bonanzas, and even the impressively convoluted plot and you’ve still got one of the strongest casts of characters of any franchise from any entertainment medium in recent memory.

It’s such a diverse bunch that narrowing the cast to ten favorites is still a challenge with so much charm, style, and general badassery to pick from. So I’m apologizing in advance for leaving out everyone I left out, but from where I’m sitting, these are the ones that have stolen the show for me.

Noel Vermillion

noel mu blazblue

“Please don’t mock me! I was supposed to be the winner…”

Along with Ragna the Bloodedge, Noel is a focal point of BlazBlue’s story. She’s one of a series of clones of Ragna’s sister and began the story as a NOL officer before fleeing once it became a puppet organization for Terumi and Relius Clover. In addition to her Nox Nyctores, Bolverk, she can command a Murakumo Unit (cybernetic battle armour) as Mu 12, so there are actually two different versions of her character available. And they’re both beasts.

Noel is one of the strongest combatants, but from her personality you’d assume she was the weakest. She suffers from social awkwardness and an extreme lack of confidence in herself, which is often used to comedic effect when other, more rambunctious characters mock her modest bust size and shy demeanor. Her overall arc is one of self-acceptance, as she is a being of tremendous power and destiny, but just wants to live a quiet life with her friends helping other people.

Noel boasts an impressive set of skills and attacks with Bolverk -twin guns which can combine and shift to several forms, including a shotgun or rocket launcher- and Chain Revolver ability, which is sort of an auto-combo mode perfect for beginners that strings a series of melee attacks together. As Mu, she can actually place auto-turrets around the screen at will to harass opponents and then either detonate them for explosion damage or send a single beam bouncing between them. With proper placement and timing, this can become a devastating combo in itself.

BBcharacters7

“I don’t have time to entertain men.”

Kagura Mutsuki

Kagura is a new character and major force in Chronophantasma. He’s from a noble family and holds a high rank in the NOL, which puts him in an excellent position to lead a coup from within. He’s known as “the Black Knight” and joins forces with Kokonoe’s Sector Seven in the story to gather the heroes and lead the fight against the Imperator’s genocidal plans.

Kagura’s personality and demeanor are what really set him apart in my mind. In spite of the lack of much animation in the story sections, BlazBlue always does a great job of bringing the characters to life with body language and voice acting . The Black Knight’s laid back attitude and elegant confidence speak volumes about him, although given the size of his sword one might get the idea he’s compensating for something. Still, I love the way he uses it to lean on whenever he gets a chance. His fatal flaw is a preoccupation with the female gender; and he’s particularly smitten with Noel. He’s not as obnoxious as Sanji from One Piece or anything, but he’s definitely a man who loves the ladies. Smooth operator he may be, it doesn’t always stop him from getting punched in the face.

His massive sword gives Kagura pretty good reach, but many of his attacks require the player to take a stance first with the Drive command, making him a character best left to experienced gamers. He’s only available to play as once you’ve completed the game’s story mode, or if you purchase him from PSN. Yes, they are selling a character that’s unlockable in-game.

blazblue nu 13

“Don’t wanna talk, hm? Perhaps you’ll open up after something a bit more… physical?”

Nu 13

Like Noel, Nu 13 is a clone of Ragna’s sister and commands a Murakumo unit. But while Noel is in control of her faculties, Nu is entirely under Terumi’s command and has lost all sense of self, behaving almost exclusively as a machine. She represents a reminder to Noel of what she could have been if she didn’t have her friends looking out for her.

The one exception to Nu’s lack of personality manifests when she comes into contact with Ragna, and this is where she earns her place on this list. Whenever she is around the main character, she goes full yandere in a psychotic corruption of Noel’s affection for him. Nu’s idea of an ideal romantic evening with her love is to have them kill each other again and again, becoming one in the same in mutual violence and death. Hot stuff if that’s what you’re into, I guess. I have to admit, there’s something disturbingly charming about her fixation on Ragna; the English voice actress does a really amazing job conveying both cuteness and complete insanity at the same time.

Nu is a monster in combat and a great character for beginners. She can summon energy swords from thin air, uses the blades that make up her wings in a variety of nasty attacks, and can hinder her opponents movement with gravitational fields to set up her assaults. Plus: truly epic finisher.

blazblue platinum

“What the hell? We got pwned by a total n00b!?”

Platinum the Trinity

Platinum is a child inhabited by dual personalities: an obnoxious young girl named Luna and an even-tempered little boy, Sena. They carry the Nox Nyctores staff, Muchorin, which contains the spirit of Trinity Glassfille, one of the legendary Six Heroes who was murdered by Terumi. She first made her appearance in Continuum Shift as a mysterious hooded figure carrying a wrapped bundle. Imagine the shock when the hood came off revealing an honest-to-god magical girl. Continuum Shift Extend made her playable and now it just wouldn’t be BlazBlue without her.

Having three personalities with which to interact with the many characters of this universe makes Platinum a great damn character. Luna tends to take the lead, heaping abuse onto her fellows while Sena is the Silent Bob to her Jay, only chiming in every once in a while. Trinity manifests occasionally to converse with old friends and progress the plot.

In combat, Platinum uses comically childish attacks like blowing bubbles and pogoing, and Muchorin can morph into various weapons from frying pan or toy mallet to a launcher that shoots projectiles that resemble feminine Bullet Bills from the Mario games. Good times are guaranteed.

blazblue celica

“If there’s anything I can do to help, then I’ll do my best!”

Celica A. Mercury

At this point, BlazBlue fans are possibly screaming about why Taokaka and Ragna aren’t on this list, yet I’m anchoring it with the most normal character in the series. Celica is Chronophantasma‘s title character and what makes her so cool is that she stands well apart from the rest of the cast. Kokonoe brought her back as a copy of her own aunt from a past era to use as a living key to Kushinada’s Lynchpin, a relic with the power to drastically alter the world and stop Terumi’s plans. In other words, she’s an artificial life form with a temporary shelf life. She’s also sweeter than sugar and a rare white mage.

She encounters Ragna the Bloodedge and takes an immediate liking to the gruff antihero, accompanying him throughout the story, in part because Kokonoe claims to have put a bomb in him that will detonate if he leaves her side. After charming the entire cast, we find out that she is not long for the world and was only created to serve a single sacrificial purpose. This brings the heroes to her corner to fight for her right to live, even if she wasn’t born into this era. An artificial person is still a person, just like Ragna’s artificial arm is still his arm.

Celica’s selfless unflappability and pleasant demeanor act as an anchor for the cast of wackos that make up BlazBlue. Her visual style is simple, demure, and elegant in contrast to the underboobage, overboobage, midriffage, and booty shorts of the rest of the adult female cast, she’s neither brash nor lacking in confidence; she’s a perfectly balanced individual in a sea of extremes, and that makes her damn cool. Chronophantasma Extend will feature Celica as a playable character, with her own magical abilities (healing magic in a fighting game? OP!) backed by her mechanical guardian, Minerva. Looking forward to it.

The Ten Coolest BlazBlue Characters: Rebel One

BlazBlue

finally picked up the PS3 exclusive BlazBlue: Chronophantasma when it went on sale on PSN a while back, and was met with quite the surprise. I had been disappointed by the announcements of the game’s DLC and that the individual story mode that set the series so far above and beyond all other fighting series in terms of story and character development had been eliminated in favor of a single narrative including all characters upon its North American release last year, but after waiting for the price drop to buy, I was met with what possibly should have been a 2014 game of the year contender.

In spite of the dated sprites and low-budget visual novel format, the amount of content and insane length of the story mode (about thirty hours of dialogue with very little combat) along with the realization that this fighting series not only boasts arguably the best gameplay in the genre, but the most complex lore of possibly any current video game series to boot I was more than pleased with this third game. I was actually kind of blown away.

But what is it I love so much about BlazBlue that I happily sit through hours on end of exposition and wacky antics when I could be comboing, rocking some of the most badass finishing moves ever, and powering up my fighters in the addictive rapid fire action of Abyss Mode? It’s the characters, stupid.

The reason I keep coming back and the reason I never get any good at this game is because I absolutely adore the characters. I use a different one every time I play because I want to play as them all. They’re all fun and full of personality and great abilities. To get good at a fighting game one needs to practice, practice, practice with a single chosen character, and I can never choose just one. My favorite varies from game to game depending on various tweaks.

This is part one of my list with the first five of the ten most interesting and stylish characters out of the twenty-eight playables. Chronophantasma Extend will bring the series next-gen for Japan in April with even more storylines and content. Cross your fingers for a prompt North American localization and a quick turnaround for the next full game in the series, because there are still plenty of non-playable characters who need some love. The wheels of fate are turning. Rebel one – Action!

Arakune

arakune blazblue

“Ignorance makes you worthless.”

The thing I’ve always loved the most about the BlazBlue franchise is its pure imagination and creativity. Within the fighting game genre, there’s a pretty limited number of character archetypes and fighting styles that we see again and again. Then Calamity Trigger comes along and suddenly we’ve got characters like this semi-liquid shape-shifting thing that resembles the No-Face spirit from Spirited Away and uses insects as an attack method. Did I mention imagination and creativity?

Arakune is an old colleague (love interest?) of beloved doctor Litchi Faye-Ling and student of the mad scientist Kokonoe who lost his mind (and form) while engaging in ill-advised experiments. Litchi is single-mindedly obsessed with restoring him to his old self, but every other character considers him a lost cause. As he is, he typically wanders in search of the Azure speaking in barely understandable sentence fragments that usually end in a fit menacing maniacal laughter.

In combat, he flows around the battlefield effortlessly and has attacks that can “curse” an opponent, which allows his assault to be temporarily augmented by insects attacking from all over. Very, very fun to play as, and arguably the coolest concept for a fighting game character ever.

Rachel Alucard

rachel alucard blazblue

“I expect to be amused.”

Rachel is a pivotal figure in the series as one of the few characters who knows what the hell is going on. As an Observer, she exists somewhat outside of time and can see the time/space possibilities both infinite and finite within the time loop where BlazBlue takes place. Her primary goal is in breaking this time loop, which she describes metaphorically to series protagonist, Ragna the Bloodedge, as a story that constantly changes but always has the same unhappy ending. Unable to change fate herself, she manipulates the heroes of the story in an attempt to overthrow destiny and break the cycle.

Rachel is a delightful character largely due to her adeptness at wrapping other characters around her little finger. She has one of the legendary world-saving Six Heroes, the werewolf Valkenhayn, as her personal butler and is constantly accompanied by her cat and bat familiars, who she uses in battle as shields so she never actually gets directly hit. Her haughty, indifferent demeanor drives Ragna crazy, but her passive-aggressive reverse psychology never fails to set him in motion.

Rachel is possibly the most interesting combatant of all. She controls the weather and can use wind for many purposes from sending projectiles at enemies to sailing across the screen on a parasol as well as placing lightning rods on the battlefield she can be activate at will. She also uses familiars for several unique attacks, such as a frog that hops about until it comes into contact with an opponent and delivers a shock. She’s not a major power character, but she’s incredibly unique in the fighting game genre.

Kokonoe

kokonoe blazblue

” If you’re one of those nutbars who’s all ‘I don’t need help’ or ‘I only want to unlock hidden stuff’ or ‘I’ll just look for a flowchart online’, then you can piss off…”

Like Rachel, Kokonoe is an Observer, but unlike Rachel, she doesn’t like to share any of what she knows. Her haughtiness is also less refined than Rachel’s, making her an abrasive genius who cares little about other people except as pieces in her chess match of practicality with the Novus Orbis Librarum organization, who act as a government whose secret agenda is to recreate the world through destruction. She’s the daughter of two of the Six Heroes, which makes her extremely powerful, and her scientific knowledge and ambition make her a primary force in the story.

Kokonoe’s sarcastic attitude is what really makes her a star in the series. She’s really a one-of-a-kind personality. One thing about the localizations of BlazBlue games that can’t be overstated is the performances by the English voice actors. They pull out all the stops in making these characters their own and coupled with the artist’s renderings with emphasis on posture and facial expressions, they really come to life in spite of the limited animation.

Sadly, the character is only playable as waaaaaay overpriced DLC, but her reputation as a top-tier character is cemented. Naturally, her fighting style incorporates a lot of tech and physics, including utilizing singularities, her creation/fellow fighter, Sector Seven’s Hellboy-esque enforcer cyborg Iron Tager, and a finishing move that literally drops a meteor on her opponent as she laughs maniacally. Hopefully, she comes included in the Extend package.

Azrael

azrael blazblue

“‘ll fold you up so you’ll fit in a coffin.”

This psychotic man-mountain made his debut in the latest installment, and made a big impression. He was a Sector Seven member who was driven mad by his own raw power and became known as the Mad Dog once he became so obsessed with his own capacity for violence that he began killing people on the battlefield indiscriminately. Once he became beyond control, Kokonoe devised a cryogenic cell to keep him in stasis and out of trouble. Needless to say, he eventually got out and is now a rogue force of destruction on the loose.

Because of his immense raw power Azrael’s body is equipped with a limiter that keeps his strength in check. Evil puppetmaster Relius Clover claims he will only remove this limiter once he kills his enemies, so the big guy wanders the world searching for opponents to destroy and devour while tracking his targets. What makes the Mad Dog so damn cool is, again, his demeanor. He engages in conversation in a perfectly lax manner with half-lidded, indifferent eyes, but when he finds a worthy opponent, he throws his arms out in a thoroughly intimidating “come at me bro” stance and lets his crazy out. That boy ain’t right.

It’s no surprise that this guy is a rushdown character. Lots of powerful punches and kicks. His Drive ability marks weak spots in the areas he strikes that can be struck to create more damage and nastier combos. He can also absorb projectiles and send them back, and his finisher is lifting up a huge chunk of earth with his opponent on it, throwing it into the sky, and then smashing the whole thing as it descends. BAMF, much?

BBcharacters5

“I do all the wonderful things I do because I want to see the miserable look on the faces of people like YOU when you’re wallowing in despair, dismay, grief, frustration, misery… all sorts of other unpleasant nouns.”

Hazama

Hazama is the head of the NOL’s intelligence department, where he was a mysterious and snarky figure with unclear motives until it was revealed that he is actually an artificial host body for Yuuki Terumi, a former member of the world-saving Six Heroes turned apocalyptic villain.

Hazama usually has a calm and condescending demeanor, but has maintained a twisted air of menace since being discovered for who he is. His classically gangsterish outfit complements his affinity for butterfly knives and as you can see, the man knows how to rock a fedora most villainously: with a partially concealed menacing glare. When he gets excited, Hazama is prone to psychotic outbursts, and that’s when he really earns his high ratings as the best villain in the series.

The contrast between his usual calm, cool, collected image and the insanity within makes for a great character. Hazama uses a Nox Nyctores (causality weapons that combine technology and magic), Ouroboros, which has a snake-like form which he uses like a grappling hook; like Scorpion’s harpoon in reverse except instead of “get over here!” it’s more like “here I come!” He can use it to pull himself immediately to his opponent for combos or to traverse to anywhere the screen almost instantly, making him an extremely mobile fighter. His hooded other half, Terumi is available as DLC in Chronophantasma.

I’ll meet you back here next week to for Rebel Two.

Five Vital Life Lessons I Learned from Playing too Many RPGs

rpglife

I’ve been playing role playing games most of my life, and have written too many articles with intros that begin with some variation on that statement. What can I say, it’s my favorite genre. I’ll just leave it at that this time. The more I’ve thought about why that is and what it is about the combination of mathematics and unfettered imagination that defines the role-playing experience, I’ve come to realize that the lessons you learn from playing these kinds of games are the same things that are vital to making yourself happy in life.

So being in a rare self-help kind of mood today, I’m going to proselytize the educational virtues of the nerdiest of gaming genres and iterate how we can use the lessons learned from spending a hundred hours doing the same things over and over while searching for rare item drops and trying to get strong enough to take on the big bad and save the world to level up in the real world too.

Never Be Afraid to Try New Things.

RPGs are all about advancement. As you learn new skills and get new pokemon isn't very effectiveequipment, you sometimes have to discard the old faithfuls. Your favorite firebrand sword that sets enemies on fire will eventually stop being the best thing in your arsenal and your new spell hotness may one day become old and busted. It won’t avail you to cling to the outdated as your foes become stronger and more resilient. You’re going to have to get with the program and say goodbye.

That’s how it is in RPGs and that’s how it is in life: out with the old and in with the new. Our base instinct is usually to stick with what we know -even when we know that it’s not working for us- and fear change. Yet Einstein defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. We all know this, yet we are usually unwilling to alter our ingrained habits, even when they are working against are best interests.

Some attacks work against some enemies and some don’t. To determine what to do in a given situation, it’s best to experiment and find what works for you. Even if you find something that works, it’s still good idea to continue experimenting because there’s always room for improvement. Life is the same way. The more things you try, the better you’ll know what works and what doesn’t and be prepared to handle whatever is thrown at you next. That’s the benefit of an open mind.

Clinging to ideas that don’t work for us anymore but are comfortable can hinder us enormously, like cool-looking armour that has a crap defense rating. It may have been adequate for the level you found it in, but it has since become obsolete; yet we are averse to letting it go. For example, remember when gaming was for boys and dolls were for girls? Well, that ain’t the way anymore and resisting the progress of gaming as a universal entertainment medium is doing nobody any favors. Time to upgrade your mental gear, bros.

Learn to Love the Grind.

south park wow grinding

While some of us may like doing the same shit over and over again, others are just as single-mindedly stuck on diversity. We don’t want to murder endless waves of enemies, we want a bunch of deep minigames and interactive story elements and endless wardrobe options and customization and secrets and endless options. What ADHD kid wants to sit there and grind levels? Anyone out there have a job? Pretty boring right? Same thing. But it’s a dull means to an end and there’s no rule that you can’t make even unwelcome repetition fun for yourself.

Shonen Knife once sang that you can’t find any more, but you can find a new way, and you know what? They’re right. Sometimes in always looking for something new when so very few things in the world are genuinely original, we miss finding reasons to appreciate the familiar. Being open to something new is always a good thing, but demanding that every single thing you experience be for the very first time will lead you to unhappiness just as surely.

In enjoying an experience repeatedly, you can sometimes find new ways to appreciate it for what it is and increase your ability to recognize and value something fresh and new that much more when it comes along. Whether or not that thing is boring is more of a personal mental label than an objective reality, meaning it’s all in the way you chose to look at it.

Old school style RPGs love to make you sit and fight the same enemies over and over trying to level up to make you better able to take on the enemies in the next area or farm item drops to get the coolest gear. This can seem boring if that’s your attitude about it, but on the other hand it’s also a great opportunity to experiment and try out different configurations and attacks to improve your overall game knowledge. Plus, anything that makes you stronger is something to be excited about, but we’ll get to that later.

Similarly, our IRL jobs may be 8-12 hours of mind-numbing drudgery, but that’s because we make it that way in our own minds. We can use that time to make friends with coworkers, come up with new ideas for what we’re going to do once you get home, or just focus on being the best there is at what we do, like Wolverine….but without all the dismemberment.

Explore, Explore, Explore.

A great RPG is one that has endless places to go and handsomely rewards final fantasy iv cheststhose who are willing to go off the beaten path. What good is an adventure if there isn’t something to discover around every corner? I remember playing Final Fantasy IV on my SNES back when it was FFII and having my mind blown by optional dungeons containing some of the nastiest challenges and most rewarding results. If I’d just gone where I was told to go, I’d have missed getting the best summons or finding out about the fates of some of my favorite characters.

That spirit is still alive and well today. Elder Scrolls games are best known for insane explorability and having so much for the player to do that the main story is at best a footnote to anybody’s game (if they even bother with it at all) and that’s how life should be. It’s the journey that counts, not the destination. Single-mindedly striving towards a single goal at all times takes all of the flavor and joy out of life. You’ll end up like a businessman with billions of dollars who can’t think of anything to do with his life but try and get more billions. What’s the point, man? Getting more of what you’ve already got too much of? Be
more boring.

Thoughtful repetition is one thing, but getting stuck in a rut of thoughtless routine in the antithesis of creativity. And without creativity, we’re just a bunch of barely-evolved apes fulfilling base needs. Going new places, doing new things, and meeting new kinds of people is what keeps life fresh and interesting. In role playing games it gets you the coolest rewards and the excitement of anticipating those rewards and in real life it broadens your mind with the same kind of anticipation of finding out what’s around the next corner.

Experience is Everything.

Ifallout level skillsn role playing games, your character progress and ability to battle stronger opponents is perfectly quantified in levels gained by earning experience points. You may not be able to pull up a status screen to see them, but real life has experience points too. Each and every individual is made up not only by their base stats rolled at birth but primarily by the experience they earn every second of their lives.

Some of us choose to level up our pop culture knowledge, our gaming skills, or our sports knowledge or abilities, and some of us choose to focus on finances, sociability, or craftsmanship, but on some level we have all accumulated a ton of experience, skills, and knowledge at something.

It’s worth keeping in mind that every single thing we do is giving experience points towards some skill, so the way we spend our time is extremely important to our builds, even in the real world. Do you want to be a geek? Play games, watch cartoons, read comics, shun social contact. Want to be popular? Talk to people, go to social gatherings, learn the etiquette dos and don’ts. Want to be an architect? Research architecture, take classes, and network appropriately in that community.

Immersing yourself in the knowledge and skills of anything will make you that thing, so learn to grindclass appropriate skills to maximize the abilities you take pride in. If you enjoy playing politics and arguing with people on the internet, consider researching your topic of interest in earnest rather than relying on other peoples’ tweets and blogs. Real reading may seem boring if that’s your frame of mind (as we’ve already covered), but objective knowledge in life is what separates the pros from the noobs; the max levelers from the scrubs still stuck in tutorial mode. If it was to get an advantage over your fellow dungeon crawlers in a video game, you wouldn’t neglect grinding, would you? Why do any less in life?

If It’s Too Hard, Get Better.

We’ve all run up against an obstacle that’s kicked our ass. It may bedark souls dragon bossa boss in a video game, or a boss at work, or something completely non-boss related. Shitty things happen to good people all the time, just like in Dark Souls, but there are plenty of inspiring clichés about how to handle such a situation; ones including clever wordplay about tough goings-on and getting going and such. Games are usually meant to be a challenge so it can’t be too much of a surprise when you meet one, and this is when you’ve got to pull it together and use everything you’ve learned.

There are usually three ways people respond to insurmountable challenges: they tap out like a loser, they continuously and stubbornly beat themselves against the challenge, or they wise up and try different things until they succeed. In role-playing games skill, strategy, tactics, experience levels, and equipment are all determining factors in whether or not you get your ass kicked. Just like life.

There are always innumerable and ever-changing factors that can be altered by your own design. The best way to achieve your goals is to arrange those factors to your advantage by learning everything you can, manipulating the system using whatever skills you have, and giving yourself the tools you need to succeed. Just like in an RPG, proper use of buffs and debuffs, weaknesses and affinities, optimized gear, and strong, diverse party members can make the difference between getting wiped or accomplishing your quest and acquiring the spoils of victory.

And just like in a video game, sometimes you’ll still get your ass kicked. Higher level enemies will have to wait until you are strong enough and just like in Persona 3, sometimes your party members do something really stupid beyond your control and you have to pay the price. Happens to the best of us. But after every “game over” screen, there’s always the option to reload, get better, and retry. Every time you fail for any reason, it’s a chance to get back in the game to try a better way or become so strong that nothing can stand in your way. And if the rewards no longer justify the time investment in your mind, you can always find another game more to your liking and start all over.

Six Great Last-Gen RPGs that I Just Couldn’t Finish

rpgfinish

When it comes to electronic entertainment, role playing games are a breed apart. The genre is essentially a digital translation of the classic pen-and-paper nerd hobby that crosses Tolkien-inspired fantasy with lots of mathematics and perpetual virginity. It’s the nerdiest of nerd pastimes.

I’ve always loved the imagination and character building that’s associated with the pen and paper games, but find the math and social interaction tiresome. That is to say that the increased sophistication video games have afforded to solitary role-playing has been a life-altering. A whole wide world all to myself. Digital bliss.

So I always make it my business to play as many different kinds of RPGs as I can for whatever console(s) I own. I love a good shooter and always keep an eye on the fighting scene as well as keeping on the lookout for anything else that piques my interest, but at the end of the day, I always trend hard toward games with role-playing elements. But here’s the thing about that: most of them are long. Like, REALLY long. Lllllllllloooooooonnnnnnnggggggggggg, if you will. And that’s not mentioning other headaches that spring up from time to time.

Since most of the last generation was a nonstop barrage of quality titles, there were some really great ones that I never got around to finishing, and it continually eats my brain. Sometimes I try to go back and pick up where I left off, and am often sharply reminded that one thing that sets RPG’s apart is the intense dedication it takes to master one. Picking a game you were 50 hours or so deep into after having being away for a few months is not like riding a bike. It’s like forgetting how to swim and being thrown into the deep end of a swimming pool. So here are the five best role playing games from the Xbox 360/PlayStation 3 era that I was too lame to beat.

 rpgfinish1Operation Darkness

A real one of a kind tactical RPG exclusive for the Xbox 360 with possibly the best premise (and worst camera) ever. Okay, picture you joining a ragtag squad of anime misfits fighting the Axis in World War II. Now imagine the Nazis are vampires, zombies, and demons and your squad consists of werewolves, Frankenstein’s Monster, Lovecraft’s Re-Animator, a firestarter, and Jack the Ripper, amongst other awesomeness. Werewolves with rocket launchers taking on Panzers should sell you by itself, but as a mix of Penny Dreadful, the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and Saving Private Ryan with gameplay somewhat similar to Valkyria Chronicles (without the real-time elements) you are just wrong for not having played this game.

The thing about this game is it is gruelingly difficult. I mean that in the best way; permanent character deaths and one-hit kills are around every corner, but the fact that you can’t save mid-battle was what eventually led me to move on. A lot of the 27 main missions can take hours and even if you are in a position to win, one bad turn of luck can take out your re-animator -the only one who can revive casualties- making a restart a good idea. This is a game for the hardcore for sure, and I love it for that, but damn, guys, maybe allow a save or two per mission, yeah?

 rpgfinish2Record of Agarest War

Another tactical RPG, this one of truly epic length; reportedly about 100 hours for just the story. This is a particularly great concept because it’s pretty much five adventures in one. The game takes place over multiple generations, beginning with a typical hero and his party and branching out from there. You see, the ladies in your party are potential love interests and based on your dialogue decisions you can garner favor with each. When you get to the end of your 20 hour or so quest and save the day, you can take a bride. The game then picks up in the next generation with the offspring of your hero and his love as the new protagonist and the cycle begins anew. It’s pretty great.

Considering that each generation after the first has several possibilities for its lead hero depending on the genetic combos, the replayability is significant. It’s a shame the game is so long that only the hardest of the hardcore gamers are going to make it through multiple playthroughs. I was well into the third generation (about 50-60 hours) and I wasn’t really sure about some things regarding story events so I made the mistake of reading some of a FAQ. I saw that I had missed a lot of story content in the past generations because it was dependent on being at a specific place on a specific date and the game itself gives you no indication of these things.

Realizing the missed memories I’d never have with my beloved former comrades, and realizing I’d have to spend the rest of the game with an FAQ in my lap to catch everything I wanted to see, and that’s no way to game. I decided to take a break from the complicated game for a while. When I finished my next title in line and came back, I realized I had no clue what was going on. I’ve currently got the PS3-exclusive sequel sitting on my desk, ready for when I finish with my current title. Wish me luck.

rpgfinish3Resonance of Fate

 If there’s one title on this list that I really should have beaten, it’s this one. It was well-balanced, incredibly unique, great characters, featured probably the best battle system of the last gen hands down, and is apparently not insanely long at a mere 60 hours or so. But, you know, stuff happens. As I recall, this one ran up against a major release (possibly BioWare-related) and got tossed aside before I reached the end. And I just never got back around to it.

Resonance of Fate’s dystopian future is somewhat Final Fantasy-esque, but the combat consists of fast-paced semi-turn-based gun battles that would make John Woo blush. Your trio of heroes dashes and leaps across the arenas raining double-fisted lead and shrapnel death on enemies individually and in badass delta attacks. You also get to mod your weapons to RIDICULOUS levels. Probably more than anything else, this is a must-play for RPG enthusiasts looking for an exciting new approach to RPG combat.

rpgfinish4 The Last Remnant

Square Enix’s attempt at an original new title was sadly hobbled by its Final Fantasy XIII ambitions and is in need of a do-over that it will almost certainly never get. This is a tragedy, because with some more TLC from its dev, this could have possibly been the best JRPG of the decade. It suffered from distractingly delayed texture loading, too few memorable characters, and horrific unbalances, but at its core it had a battle system that I would kill to see catch on. Kind of a cross between Ogre Battle and Kingdom Under Fire with a massively cinematic twist. I remember reading that funding was pulled in mid-development to divert towards FFXIII, resulting in Square releasing a lesser, un-finished game for the 360 that they never even bothered porting to the PS3 as planned and that is just tragic.

The Last Remnant had the exciting, visceral, large scale battles where your party members fought according to their skills and the camera switched to wherever the action was. While this took some of the accustomed interactivity from the player, it still managed to keep even a control freak like me engaged if not riveted. Unfortunately, some of the enemies were just plain cheap and unbalanced.

 I remember towards the end of the first disc (it’s two discs long) I bulled my way through a particularly long and harrowing dungeon to meet an overpowered boss that would turn my own fallen parties against me. And here I was without the items I needed. I found it too much of a pain to even find my way back out of the dungeon and its respawned enemies to get to a store and threw in the towel like a total wuss. I still want to go back and start it over sometime, though. This game deserves another shot.

rpgfinish5

Ain’t gotta lie to kick it, Mao.

 Disgaea 3: The Absence of Justice

Out of all the games on this list, this PS3 exclusive is the one I invested the least in, but I still had a great time with it before it made me want to smash it to bits. Disgaea is yet another tactical RPG, this time from a running series. It takes place in Hell and you play a demon in high school assembling beasties to do beastly things. What sets it apart from most other RPGs is the focus of the story is on comedy, which makes the tone really refreshing. For the first 15-20 hours at least, before you notice most of the jokes are repeating on a loop.

But it definitely wasn’t the repetitive Emeril Lagasse references or the delightfully psychotic (and adorable) princess or the class delinquent (which in Hell, means she’s actually really nice while the honor students are bastards) that turned me off of Disgaea 3. It was repeated random unfairness wiping out hours of progress. You see, the best way to level up in the game (and power up your favorite items) is to explore the randomly generated dungeons inside of the items. Unfortunately, there’s no way to get out except for once every ten battles and no saving is allowed so you rolls your dice and you takes your chances.

This makes for great tension and risk/reward, and I accept that. But after kicking ass for hours and gaining tons of levels and rare loot, being randomly transported to a room full of characters to talk to and having one of them start a fight when everyone in the room is countless levels ahead of you and you can neither damage them nor escape from them as they effortlessly mow you down with ridiculous damage is complete, unadulterated, controller-throwing, fuck you bullshit. Difficult situations is one thing. Literally impossible ones is another. And there’s way too much of that going around for those who dare to explore. Absence of Justice indeed.

rpgfinish6Fallout 3

I had a fight in my head between this and Bethesda’s other amazing game I couldn’t finish, The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. The reason I went with Fallout was because not finishing Oblivion was a technicality. I poured probably 100 hours into that one doing everything EXCEPT the main story because to progress it, they wanted me to do some boring crap like close a bunch of Oblivion gates in every major city. Do that pointless busywork, or take over the assassin’s guild: gee, I wonder which sounds like more fun? Fallout 3 was an equally awesome game with a much better story, and it had a much more interesting fatal flaw that led me to move on before its time was through.

Like in Elder Scrolls, I took my sweet time getting around to story missions. In this case, it was nothing against the story, but there was just so much to do and explore. Investigating random Republican cannibal communities, committing slaver genocide, engaging in Super Mutant wars, ghoul busting, and defending settlements from invaders was just too much fun. I finally got around to following the story after several dozen hours and I started noticing that I was no longer receiving experience. The hell is this fuckery?

Yeeeeeeaaaaaah, so it turns out that one of the best RPG’s of its era had a really low level cap. You hit level 25, collect your ultimate perk, and that’s it. No more character advancement for you. It seems weird that this would be a dealbreaker for me; so much to do, so much to see, so much fun to be had with slow-motion dismemberment and all that. But somehow, this really bugged me. Although playing an awesome video game should be its own reward, suddenly all of the things I was doing felt pointless. So much so, that I moved on. Call it a casualty of the Skinner Box effect.

90’s Flashback – EVO: Search for Eden

evo

Sometimes in entertainment, the best and most creative ideas are the ones you never hear about. The making of a classic is a tricky thing. A lot of circumstances have to come together for creativity and originality to find proper funding and exposure, and even then there’s no guarantee of mainstream success. The forces of business, art, and chance are fickle and as a result some of the best movies, music, books, paintings, and video games are ones we’ll probably never even know existed or at best heard of but never got a chance to get into.

Oh crap, is grandpa Nick gonna tell us another story about the good ol’ days? Yeah, looks like. It’s not like there’s much going on with you next gen folks right now. So for a few weeks, I’m going to remember for us a golden oldie that represented really original thinking in its time and could be devastatingly good if the concepts were applied to present day gaming.evo fish evolve

Either that or we could go back to waiting with baited breath to find out about the minute changes being made for the next Assassin’s Creed and Call of Duty games instead. I won’t judge. I know we’re all super excited to get to complaining about the next barely-improved twice-yearly installments of AAA  franchises past their primes, but for now let’s go back in time and look at a game that I’d rather be playing.  Yo, DJ, bring that beast back!

I know remake has been a bit of a dirty word that inspires thoughts of creative bankruptcy, what with Hollywood feverishly remaking every single film foreign and domestic that holds any sort of international name recognition among genre fans and video games rebooting franchises the same way. But sometimes a remake done right can be a really great thing, especially with video games. Taking an older title with a brilliant premise and bringing it into a new decade with better technology and resources to expand upon its core concepts isn’t a bad idea so long as the devs keep in mind what made the original worth bringing back.

At the top of the pile of games I’d love to see brought into the modern era is an obscure 1993 SNES title called EVO: Search for Eden. The story is the story of life itself on this planet and takes the player through billions of years of prehistory starting with life as a tiny sea creature and carries on to the advent of sentience. You want epic; you’ve got it. This game was a beast back in the day, and it has the capacity to be even more so today.

evo snes dinosaur

The real reason dinosaurs went extinct: they couldn’t handle all this swag.

The game featured side-scrolling action/platforming gameplay with RPG elements. Basically, what you did was travel from area to area and weave your way through the food chain, devouring weaker creatures and avoiding stronger ones. Each meal restores health and gives experience. The cool thing here is that you used accumulated experience to evolve your creature from humble to dominant.

 Any part of your beastly avatar’s body from jaws to tail could be modified to augment your base stats or bestow new abilities on you. You could put a horn on your snout for a charge attack, focus on more powerful teeth to improve your bite, add armor to your body, choose to become a two-legged animal instead of four, or even get wings. Each choice had its positive and negative effects on your abilities, so it was really all about building the kind of animal you want to build. Needless to say, the replayability was through the roof.

Funny little aside about life in the early 90’s: I was the only one of my friends allowed to play this game. Why? Because evolution was for devil-worshipers, of course. Laugh all you want, but that was real shit back then. I guess my mom figured time I spent playing evil video games was time I wasn’t lighting matches and cackling menacingly while staring into the flame and went with the less scary of the two. She probably made the right call.

Maybe it’s the subconscious knowledge that I was already going to Hell for playing EVO that’s made me such an irrepressible bastard all these years. Welp, I already played Satan’s favorite video game so I may as well pop some Slayer into my cassette deck and go sacrifice some babies while spray-painting inverted crosses in alleyways. But wait, now it’s the 21st century and the Pope believes in evolution? I’ll bet he’s a closet gamer too. He would totally bless this remake if it happened.

evo gaia

Ironically, the game featured Deist Intelligent Design concepts rather than traditional Darwinism, which is something Christianity would embrace after the whole Creationism thing started seeming unlikely.

 One should never underestimate the 16-bit era from whence many of the greatest games of all time sprang, but when you think about the massive possibilities of this premise, a 2D action-platformer probably wasn’t the extent of this concept’s potential. The game was developed by Almanic, and I’ve never played another of their titles, which doesn’t bode well. However, Enix was the game’s publisher, and I wonder if Square-Enix might still have the rights tucked away somewhere. If so, screw them for not making a new EVO instead of those ridiculous Final Fantasy sequels.

A lot of games these days are making massive, detailed open worlds with AI ecosystems that operate independently of the player. Think about how great that would be to play as a creature in such an ecosystem working your way to the top of the food chain instead of, say, running drugs, hitting things with swords, or running over hookers with stolen cars. An open world EVO on modern systems would be a hell of a showstopper. And that’s not even thinking about the multiplayer possibilities.

So anyone else out there remember this one? And if you don’t, would you not rather be evolving totally awesome and unique creatures instead of trying to make videos of yourself doing 360 no scopes, hunting for exploits, trolling message boards and comments sections, and doing other things gamers do because they’re bored and developers normally can’t be bothered to make something cool and interesting enough to really capture our imaginations anymore?

Pride, Prejudice, and Perversion: A Virtual Trip to Akiba

akiba

My son wasn’t the only one who was blessed by the video game fairy this past holiday season. While the youngest Verboon was rolling in Wii U games and Disney Infinity statues, a Christmas angel delivered unto this grown up gamer a bizarre new PlayStation exclusive that is definitely not for kids by the name of Akiba’s Trip: Undead and Undressed. Some games could be described as the most fun one could have with your clothes on. In this one the fun comes in taking them off. Not like that, though.

akiba's trip body pillow

Commencing waifu body pillow beatdown in 3…2…1…

It may be written as Akiba’s Trip, but one look at the game’s box cover/title screen sheds a little light on the game’s premise. After all, the Akiba in question isn’t a person so it couldn’t very well take a trip. It’s really Akiba Strip. But before I get to the good stuff explaining this twisted little premise, some backstory for the non-otaku among us. Tokyo’s Akihabara district (Akiba for short) is a worldwide Mecca of hardcore geek culture. It’s an area surrounding the Akihabara station that is densely packed with as much electronics, anime and manga culture, video games, maid cafés, and general Japanese pop culture insanity as anybody could ever want.

I remember a few years back when I saw a preview for a Kinect game where you could explore a virtual recreation of Disneyland and get fake hugs from Disney princesses. Being California born and raised, this struck me as really sad because where I come from, trips to Disneyland are an indispensable part of childhood. No way a video game replaces that. After playing Akiba’s Trip, in which you wander a digital recreation of what’s essentially Disneyland for anime geeks, I imagine this is how Japanese otaku feel about lower class loser gai-jin like myself who will most likely never see the Land of the Rising Sun with our own eyes and have to settle for a video game approximation of their nerd Nirvana.

But to be fair, I doubt you get to strip the clothes off of Goofy in Disneyland Adventures or smack Snow White down with cat paw mittens or a rolled up anime poster while cross-dressing. The opening crawl of Akiba’s Trip promises “a little something to offer even the most fetishistic of appetites” and while it may not be quite that perverse (no girls using cups as props, for instance), it’s well off the beaten path of repressed American popular culture, which is exactly why I had to play it. Anything this insane needs a look.

Okay, the game’s premise: Akihabara has been invaded by mysterious vampire-like humanoids feeding on the passion and greed of the nerds who populate it, rendering them listless and inert. The only way to defeat them is to expose their entire body to sunlight. That means if you’re going to fight back against them, their clothing has got to go. Ready, set, strip.

akiba strip

It’s all in the name of public defense, honest.

You play an Akiba resident lured to their doom with a shady job offer promising to pay in rare anime figurines and changed into one of these creatures, known as Synthisters. You’re saved by a typical anime girl in a frilly dress wielding a parasol as a weapon, meet up with your buddies at your hangout game bar, and then set about figuring out how to save your beloved town from the menace along with your whichever girl you play your cards right with.

In most cases, a game where the combat is based around tearing the clothes off of people in public would be the world’s worst idea. Actually, it probably still is. But Akiba’s Trip does a great job of placing its tongue as far into its cheek as possible, making the experience of shopping in virtual Akihabara genuinely fun, keeping away from the pornography that is suggested by the premise, and keeping things equal between genders.

There are at least as many male enemies as female, after your initial playthrough you are able to choose a female avatar if you like, and even the risqué screenshots of the major characters you strip (which you can use as wallpaper for your smartphone menu) are split between male and female characters. Virtual Akiba is populated both by random asshat “playboys” who can be seen being slapped while hitting on random girls and by fujoshi shipping male passersby and pontificating on the finer points of tops and bottoms. That is to say that the game is perverted, but it’s equally perverted, be you man or woman. My kind of progress. It’s worth pointing out that the romances are super tame too, akiba's trip boy love fangirlconsidering.

And I have to say that as a high school kid who used to wish I could hit bullies with a hadoken, I now think it would have been way cooler to strip them naked in public using drunken monkey kung fu or by thrusting my hips at them to make their clothing fly off with telekinesis. But even if you’ve never had fantasies of being Marv in Sin City and telling people “that there is one mighty fine coat you’re wearing” before beating them down and taking it for your own, the story, dialogue, and characters are funny enough to warrant giving the game a shot if you’re nerdy enough even without the awesomeness of free-roaming Akihabara. I mean, who hasn’t wanted to respond to a prissy lady with “well excuuuuuuse me, princess” or hit a villain with “your ideals are bad and you should feel bad” or suggest to a heroine “it’s dangerous to go alone. Take me”? Lame people. That’s who. Go back to your pep rallies and proms, noobs.

In addition to hilariously random pop culture quotes as dialogue options, how often do you see a game story where the whole cast sits down to binge watch an entire season of anime together in preparation for a cosplay contest? Even funnier is the post-binge discussion in which all praises heaped on the show are qualified with the suffix phrase “except for the last episode”. This kind of nerdbaiting always gives me the warm fuzzies.This is clearly a game built for geeks by geeks, and that’s something you see shockingly little of considering video games are our hobby of choice.

akiba's trip sister pose

I wish my kid sister wanted to practice anime poses with me.

The sequences where you converse with your character’s hikikimori sister (which are apparently some kind of minigame I haven’t figured out) are charming as various visions of geekiness dance around her head and the talks have unpredictable (and adorable) results. Never thought I’d be called “3DPD” by a video game character. Another nice feature is the social media app, Pitter, where you occasionally get to see exchanges between various internet users that are almost a little scary in how closely they match message board culture, right down to a character who compulsively identifies herself as a girl and other members calling her a “trap” (not a transphobic slur in that context, as some sites have reported, but a reference to the classic online bait-and-switch pranking that spawned the term).

Although Akiba’s Trip suffers from a low budget presentation spearheaded by the still-effective visual novel storytelling format in place of animated cutscenes, it’s still a fun open world game if you don’t go in expecting Grand Theft Auto: Japan production values. You have a relatively small area to wander and a short story, but that area is packed with awesome and the game thrives on customization and replayability, featuring dozens of stores to shop in and tons of rare items to hunt and optional quests to complete, some of which are hilarious. Plus there are more features added upon completing each difficulty and a ton of free DLC featuring content from popular video game and manga franchises and even more customization options if you get the upgraded PS4 version. But don’t buy the DLC character swimsuits. That’s just dumb.

akiba's trip rin pose

Japanese pride much, Rin-chan?

There’s a lot of respect shown for the bizarre subculture Akihabara represents woven into the diversity of the cast and the goofy story to counterbalancethe mocking ridiculousness of the whole setup. While the villains declare the otaku community wastes of energy and seek to harvest it for their own use at the cost of emptying the nerd race of the passion that gives their lives meaning, our heroes come from differing backgrounds ranging from successful businesswoman to pop idol to neckbeard loser to old timer but are brought together by a certain ownership of what Akiba represents as a place where you can let your freaky geek flag fly without fear of prejudice.

On top of all the insanity of geek culture satire and tongue-in-cheek perversity, Akiba’s Trip is first and foremost a celebration of otaku culture, good, bad, and ugly. There’s a genuine pride in what the community of Akihabara represents that comes through, even if the idea of a woman dressed as a maid calling you “master” makes you cringe (and in my case, it does) or you find Japan’s pop culture to be bizarre (as pretty much everybody does). After all, Akiba is maybe the one set place in the world where you can be a total weirdo without being judged for it. Just don’t go ripping people’s clothes off outside of the game, yeah?