Six Outstanding Story Moments from Batman: Arkham Knight

BATMAN™: ARKHAM KNIGHT_20150624013107

The latest virtual venture into Gotham City may have been marred somewhat by an overabundance of Batmobile that perhaps resulted from Rocksteady tiring of their own brilliant creation, but the truth is that what Arkham Knight really brings to the table is more than the flawless gameplay and innovative mechanics that have made playing as Batman such a joy for four games. The story is a true work of art, plain and simple.

Batman: Arkham Asylum, Arkham City, and Arkham Origins were all exciting cinematic romps through the grit that pervades modern Batman comics. Aside from some interesting redesigns, the characters were all true to the source material in a way we seldom ever see in adaptations, and the dev’s understanding not only of their appeal, but of their very essence has been as big a factor as the excellent gameplay in making this video game series amazing.

But Arkham Knight was no longer interested in a typical comic book romp. The characters were all introduced and it was time to really cut to the heart of darkness at the center of Bruce Wayne’s world. While I’d argue Arkham City was the better game, I can honestly say that Rocksteady’s trilogy closer is the greatest and most definitive Batman story to come along in a very long time, regardless of medium. Here are some of my favorite moments when this video game transcended to art. It’s all spoilers from here on out.

Guess Who’s Backarkham knight joker miss me

Arkham City‘s big finale saw the demise of the Joker -terminally ill from the events of Arkham Asylum- when he died ironically after attacking Batman and destroying the antidote he’d brought to him. I don’t think anybody thought it would stick, but Arkham Knight opens with the player firing up the furnace that consumes the remains of the Clown Prince of Crime, and we see his perpetual smile burned away with our own eyes.

Early in the game, the Dark Knight is diffusing a bomb placed in the Ace chemical plant by Scarecrow. At this point, Batman is trapped inside the plant and doomed, but he is still desperately working to minimize the damage to the rest of Gotham by carefully removing a series of cylinders. The minigame takes a steady hand and after several repetitions and a lot of intensity, you remove the final cylinder and turn around to find Joker’s horrific visage staring you in the face with a gun to your head crowing “Miss me?” Fade to black. Gunshot.

I have to say that is among the best jump scares I’ve ever encountered anywhere, and it’s the kind of moment that only a video game could pull off as effectively. The way Rocksteady diverts the player’s attention with a task requiring both concentration and repetition before springing this on them and leaving them hanging is just brilliant. In the next scene, you control Commissioner Gordon remarking on the Batman’s absence and the player is left with a pile of mindfuck to sort through for a little while.

arkham-knight-oracle-killing-jokeMaking a Killing (Joke)

Comic veterans may have figured that no, the Joker did not rise from the dead, but appeared as a hallucination due to Batman’s exposure to Scarecrow’s fear gas. But it’s not a one time thing. Turns out that before he died, the psychotic clown managed to infect a number of people, including Batman, with his infected blood, meaning that in addition to being heavily dosed with fear gas, our hero has a little bit of Joker in him. The combination means that throughout the game, Bruce confronts his very worst fears as narrated by his deadliest nemesis. It’s a pretty great narrative device, I have to say.

Arkham Knight‘s theme is fear, specifically Batman’s fear of getting his friends and allies killed in his crusade against crime. It’s always been an essential element of the character in the comics, resulting in his distant and cold demeanor towards his loved ones. At one point Batman goes to Oracle’s clock tower to investigate her kidnapping at the hands of the Arkham Knight and is confronted with another vision of the Joker straight out of Alan Moore’s seminal masterpiece The Killing Joke, in which Barbara Gordon answers the door to find Joker, who proceeds to seve her spine with a bullet and photographs his handiwork as part of a plot to drive her father, Commissioner Gordon, insane.

It’s a legendary moment in the Batman mythology, and watching it unfold off the page while helpless to prevent it was quite an experience for me. Any comic fan knows that when Joker struck her down, she became more powerful than we could ever imagine, but witnessing Babs alone, sobbing and writhing on the floor was a horrible experience nonetheless. When I finally looked away I found a message scrawled on the Clocktower wall: “THIS IS WHAT HAPPENS WHEN YOU DRAG YOUR FRIENDS INTO THIS CRAZY LITTLE GAME OF OURS!” It was absolutely bone-chilling. Later on, Bats is treated to the fate of Jason Todd as well, but it didn’t come close to topping this.

Dust in the Windarkham-knight-poison-ivy-death

One of the surprising aspects of the series is its willingness to kill off established characters. Arkham City not only saw the deaths of DC’s most popular villain, but Batman’s long-time love interest (and baby mama in the comics) Talia al-Ghul met a shocking end as well. And fear toxin-induced hallucinations aside, neither came back. Arkham Knight cheated death once with the player witnessing the apparent suicide of Oracle -which turned out to be just another hallucination- in an extremely upsetting scene, but another prominent character bit the dust for realsies.

In an interesting turn of events, the plant-hybrid eco-terrorist Poison Ivy joined forces with the Caped Crusader to save Gotham by taking control of gigantic ancient plants lying beneath the city, using them to absorb Scarecrow’s toxins and purify the air. This unusually supernatural moment was a change of pace, but it made for some epic visuals. However, the victory came at the cost of Ivy’s life when the strain of absorbing so much poison overwhelms her, causing her to crumble to dust as she utters her last defiant words in Batman’s arms: “Nature always wins”.

arkham knight jokermobileIn the Mouth of Madness

Throughout the game, Batman is aware that he is slowly losing his sanity. There were other Gotham citizens similarly infected by the Joker’s tainted blood, and each was driven insane in turn and took on various aspects of the deceased psychopath’s personality. While Harley Quinn found this twisted legacy delightful, our hero’s stoic anxiety on the matter is clearly illustrated by his visions of Joker taunting him and anticipating the moment where, aided by his foe’s repeated exposure to the fear toxin, he will take over his mind completely.

After being forced to surrender to Professor Crane, being publicly unmasked, and then personally overdosed with the villain’s fear toxin needles, Bruce Wayne withdraws completely into his own mind to face his greatest enemy one last time. At this point, the player becomes the Joker, who has taken over Gotham with terror in direct contrast to Batman’s campaign for justice. He even has a Jokermobile, which he uses to massacre dozens of people before popping out to hunt down his rivals in crime personally in a shooter sequence.

But just like how Joker has been haunting Bruce’s every move, the Bat shows up to make his nemesis face his own fears, driving him back with by confronting him with visions of his own terror of being forgotten and finally locking him away before regaining consciousness. The entire sequence is so unlike anything else I’ve ever played, illustrating and contrasting the two characters so well it made for a much more interesting climax than another dumb boss battle.

This is How the Batman Diedarkham knight ending

Having spent an entire game overcoming his various fears, Batman now has to deal with the fact that the entire world knows he’s Bruce Wayne. After witnessing the victimizations of his allies, taking down the titular former protege-turned-psychopath, watching one of his greatest villains sacrifice herself for him, nearly losing his mind to the machinations of the man who once died in his arms, and once again saving Gotham from apocalyptic doom, he’s been undone by the media of all things.

Bruce tells Alfred to ready the “Knightfall Protocol”. Depending on how much of the game you complete, you get a series of endings when you enact it. Having cleared all of the sidequests, you get the second ending where Bruce Wayne lands the Batwing in front of Wayne Manor in full view of the press and enters moments before the mansion explodes.

And if you have managed to complete Riddler’s insane gauntlet of puzzles and hidden collectibles you get the coda, in which a family very much resembling the Waynes is accosted in an alley by confident muggers enjoying the privileges of post-Batman crime. Then they are suddenly confronted by an apparition of the Bat, who explodes into a gigantic flaming phantasm as it comes for them.

It’s an initially baffling sequence until you consider it. Having mastered fear itself, Brucy Wayne apparently faked his death and years later, Batman re-emerged not as a man, but as a myth personified, using Scarecrow’s trademark weapon to his own advantage to strike true terror into the hearts of criminals in a way he never could as a mere man in a suit. As trilogy closers go, it beats the hell out of running off with Catwoman to Italy or some shit.

BATMAN ARKHAM KNIGHT HARLEY QUINN DLC

We’re All Mad Here

Arkham Knight pre-orderers were treated to a bonus DLC mission where they got to play as Harley Quinn. I’m calling this one a bonus since it’s not actually part of the main game, but it’s definitely worth a mention here because of the character work woven into the content. It’s funny because when you google “harley quinn dlc” the first thing that pops up is an article creatively titled “Arkham Knight’s Harley Quinn DLC is Terrible”. I respectfully disagree.

The content of the download is admittedly meager and it was disappointing that the prequel tale of Harley springing her occasional patner in crime/confirmed love interest (in the comics), Poison Ivy, didn’t offer any reference to their long-time relationship. Plus the boss battle with Nightwing is lame. But these aside, there is some really fascinating insight to the former Dr. Quinzel offered up in this little romp through crazy town.

The primary source of character develoment comes in the villainess’ equivalent to Batman’s detective vision, in which the world tints red and her subconscious thoughts are messily scrawled across the walls accompanied by creepy disembodied giggles. Meanwhile, Harley’s former self pleads with her from within her own mind. I’ve never seen her portrayed this way and it was a refreshing interactive look into the mind of a psychotic but delightful character that is too often treated as an eye-candy side villain. As pre-order incentives go, this was one of my favorites.

Should Batman: Arkham Knight Be the End of the Series?

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Let me cut to the chase without an overlong preamble slowly building my case while pretentiously hoping you are reading it on the edge of your seat waiting for my final opinion and say “yes” right off the bat. There should be no more Arkham games. As one of the premiere franchises to come out of the last console generation, these games have redefined everything we thought we knew about comic book games and have far outstripped even Christopher Nolan’s esteemed Dark Knight trilogy as the premier modern iteration of the Batman.

So why do I want it to end? There are plenty of reasons, but let’s look at what the series has accomplished first to put things in perspective. Batman: Arkham Asylum was hailed as an incredible achievement upon its release, and without a doubt it set the pace for the game that followed. New takes on our favorite characters that were both fresh and familiar with an incredibly dark atmosphere, a mature story, loads of unlockables and Easter eggs, plus great gameplay. What more could we want?arkham city combat

Rocksteady’s freeflow combat system is arguably the best gameplay innovation of the last ten years. Easy to pick up, incredibly deep, challenging to master, and it never, ever, ever gets old. It’s a perfect mechanic. This alone would be more than enough for a franchise to be built off of, but the funny thing is that combat is a relatively small part of the game experience as a whole. There was puzzle solving, exploration, character building, excellent stealth sections, and all sorts of other things for the Caped Crusader to do other than bust heads. This variety is what puts the series near the top of the modern gaming pile, but if you wanted to just kick some ass, Rocksteady made sure to include challenge mode so you could play it your way.

Arkham City improved on the winning formula in almost every way, adding an open-world component and playable Catwoman to make a one of the best games of the PS3/360 era. Rocksteady stepped aside at this point and let the fledgling Warner Bros. Game Montreal handle the prequel game, Arkham Origins, which became the black sheep of the series. It was a competent game with a solid story, but it pretty much retraced all of the same steps from the previous game and the ambitious multiplayer component was non-functional, leaving fans wondering when Rocksteady would be back,

arkham knight flightAnd then along came Arkham Knight, Batman’s next gen debut and the biggest game yet. It increased the verticality of virtual Gotham to epic levels and took all of the diverse intricacies of the previous games and expanded them while at the same time rendering them largely unnecessary by focusing the story missions heavily around the newly-playable Batmobile. In fact, a more accurate title might have been Rise of the Batmobile. But in spite of this misstep, Arkham Knight brought the thunder when it came to its story, which proved to be the most artistic entry yet, exploring themes only previously found in the comics in new and exciting ways and really putting the player into the heads of its characters en route to a perfect ending to the tale of the Dark Knight.

But the problem with a perfect ending is that it puts the series in a place where it’s got few places left to go. Rocksteady’s epic finale to their masterpiece trilogy leaves very little more to be said or done on the topic of Bruce Wayne. And I don’t really think any more needs to be said for the time being.

Spoilers in the following paragraphs.

There are three consecutive endings to Arkham Knight, depending on how much you finish. First, the heroic victory over Scarecrow and Batman’s own fear of becoming like the deceased Joker, whose phantasm has been haunting and taunting him throughout the game, which results in his public unmasking as Bruce Wayne. Then having completed all of the side missions, Bruce Wayne enacts his “Knightfall Protocol” in which he lands the Batwing on the grounds of Wayne Manor in full view of the mobs of press and walks in the front door seconds before the mansion explodes in a mass of hellfire. A good death, to quote Frank Miller.

Should you be OCD enough you solve all of the Riddler’s 200+ challenges and haul him into GCPD, you’ll get an initially baffling coda where criminals confidently assailing a very Wayne-ish family in an alley are confronted by a hellish flaming specter of the Dark Knight’s legend. One can assume that Bruce Wayne faked his death and is using what he learned about fear (and chemistry) through his trials against Scarecrow to operate purely from the shadows, not as a man, but as a mythic figure to strike true terror into the hearts of criminals. Like I said, a perfect ending.

End Spoilersarkham knight ending

How do you top that? With more prequels? Not likely. Multiplayer? Maybe if it actually works this time, but probably not. Base it on The Dark Knight Returns? There are worse ideas, but the fact that Rocksteady focused on the Batmobile as much as they did tells me that they were itching to make a completely different kind of game from their first two installments. So why not do exactly that and move away from the Caped Crusader altogether?

There are plenty of other DC heroes and heroines if nothing else. The highlight of Arkham Knight was the team-ups with Catwoman, Nightwing, and Robin so why not make a team -based game? Suicide Squad was teased in Origins (plus, they have a major film upcoming) and I would give my left something-or-other to see a Birds of Prey game done right.

It’s unlikely that they are going to let a massively successful series like Arkham just lay there gathering dust (but no profit) so don’t expect to see the end until they’ve run it into the ground and everybody is even more sick of it than they are Assassin’s Creed, but I wish they wouldn’t.

As Batman we’ve pretty much done everything there is to do, seen everything there is to see, and been treated to an extremely fitting ending to the Dark Knight’s story that made Christoper Nolan look like a hack in comparison. If I had my way, we’d let the Bat hang up his cape for a while and maybe let somebody else get some spotlight before rebooting. But we should probably brace ourselves for Batman: Arkham Returns anyways, because even if we don’t want it, we’ll probably still buy it.

Four Shows for Gamers That are Currently Streaming on Netflix

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It’s pretty rough out there if you’re a gamer looking for old-world entertainment made for your culture. Network and cable television are pretty much no-gos aside from the occasional episode of shows like Community or a brief reference here or there. But what about shows just for us?

I know that a lot of of us gamers get our entertainment for free by pirating like the bad Lord intended, but some of us old-timers still like to pay for stuff. And let’s be honest, Netflix deserves our money in ways that companies like Apple, Disney, Comcast, and EA will never comprehend. Plus, they cater to absolutely everybody. Even gamers.

Most of the shows on this list started out as independent webseries because no way does any channel pick them up, but they became popular enough for Netflix to make available to the masses, which is pretty great because for a lot of them they edit the typically sketch-length episodes into feature length presentations, making Netflix the ideal venue to view them. Game on.

Red vs Bluered vs blue

This one started way back in 2003 as a machinima using the multiplayer component of Halo: Combat Evolved to create comedy gold. It populariized the art form on the net, put Rooster Teeth on the map, and has even spawned an official Halo multiplayer mode, Griffball. And it’s still going.

The original premise was as simple as the title with two differently-colored groups of soldiers seeking to eliminate each other in often hilarious ways iterating the woes of mulltiplayer gaming. Early episodes include a plasma grenade stick to someone’s helmet mistaken for a spider, the coining of the phrase “team-killing fucktard”, and the funniest game of capture the flag ever played.

As new Halo games were released, RvB upgraded and evolved, satirizing its parent series all the way- at one point teaming up with Microsoft to release a pre-launch video for Halo 3 demonstrating the improved tea-bagging physics. While the show typically avoids anything approaching Halo canon it’s built up its own world and timeline to rival the game’s, becoming increasingly complicated as it’s progressed beyond the sitcom format. Not bad for a bunch of guys doing funny voices over video game footage.

sword art onlineSword Art Online

It’s no surprise that the only non-webseries on the list is from Japan, given the way gaming is integrated into their culture, but SAO is an unusual show even by anime standards. Taking place almost entirely within a near-future virtual reality MMORPG, the premise seems silly enough: if you die in the game, you die irl (dum- dum-duuuummmmm!), but the series takes itself and gaming very seriously and opens the viewers up to the very real possibilities of future entertainment technology allowing bad people direct access to our brains throough VR interface.

In spite of the concerns of fusing our minds with technology, SAO treats gaming as a lifestyle rather than a mere hobby or pastime. When an insane video game developer traps all first day players’ minds in his virtual world, some of them don’t even mind, preferring virtual reality to their own lives. The world is populated by the different kinds of people one encounters online, from villainous player killers only out for their own gain to people grouping together and regimenting strategies to beat the next dungeon and everything in between.

Sword Art Online has the distinction of airing on Cartoon Network during the late night Toonami block, making it the closest thing we’ve got to mainstream success with a television show based around playing video games. And it’s not even a comedy.

The Guildthe guild

I probably don’t have to tell you who Felicia Day is, but I will anyways: actress, writer, producer, avid gamer, veritable internet goddess, and patron saint of geek culture. The occasional Whedonverse occupant went on to create and star in her very own webseries where she pretty much did everything but play all of the characters herself, and it’s beyond entertaining.

The story follows a group of gamers who share nothing aside from a deep abiding love of the World of Warcraft-esque MMO and the guild they formed. Older episodes typically started with video diaries from Day’s character Codex putting the kind of anti-social anxiety and bizarre neuroses that often plague hardcore gamers on full display (although it’s somehow a lot more charming when she does it), which right off the bat puts the show in a league of its own.

“The Game” (as it’s referred to by the characters) is never actually shown on-screen as the show focuses exclusively on the characters themselves and the comedy of having so many different bizarre personalities colliding with one another. However, Day has written a comic series detailing some of the cast’s in-game exploits. Simply put, The Guild is one of the funniest things you can watch and another testament to the virtues of low budget do-it-yourself entertainment.

video game high schoolVideo Game High School

VGHS was a long-form webseries with surprisingly high production values (thanks to a very successful Kickstarter campaign) whose creators include pro gamer/actor/internet personality Freddie Wong. It managed three seasons leading up to a surprisingly epic finale and even beyond the other internet sensations on this list shows what can be done outside of the mainstream entertainment industry.

VGHS takes place in a satirical dystopian (utopian?) future where gaming is an extremely important cultural force and presidential elections are decided in a reality show competition. And the finale of said show is subject to interruption if a particularly epic FPS match breaks out. The titular institution is a world famous school where the finest gamers of the world congregate to learn to be the best of the best. Cliques are naturally formed according to gaming preferences, and the results are pretty hilarious.

The actual gaming is portrayed in live action with special effects which is a pretty cool approach. The cast were really charming with some really funny over-the-top performances and cameos from gaming industry figures. Good times are pretty much guaranteed if you give this one a try, and it’s probably the best example of what happens when gamers get together to make their own fun outside of their typical medium.

Five Must-Play Dinosaur Video Games

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This week we’re seeing the triumphant relaunching of Hollywood’s blockbuster dinosaur franchise after an almost fifteen year absence with Jurassic World hitting theaters and breaking records, so there’s no time like the present to look at some of the coolest dino-themed games to hit our favorite consoles over the years. Dinosaurs make everything cooler, and video games are not an exception to that rule. So to celebrate the successful return of giant prehistoric creatures to the big screen, here are five of my favorite dino-themed games. Hold on to your butts.

Jurassic Park: The Gametelltale jurassic park

Not to be confused with the original Jurassic Park game for the SNES (which was cool, but not cool enough to make the top five), this slice of awesome was brought to us by Telltale Games just before they became the toast of the gaming world following the massive success of their take on The Walking Dead. Reading the reviews for this one, you’d think it wasn’t as good. You’d be wrong. PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 owners, it’s not too late.

Telltale’s Jurassic Park suffered from being just slightly ahead of its time and utilizing a franchise that hadn’t been cool since the mid-90’s before lackluster sequels made us forget that the original film was one of the most amazing things ever put on the big screen at the time. Jurassic Park: The Game has the memorable characters, smart writing, unpredictable story, tension, and interactivity we love from Telltale, but with the massive action set pieces and killer visuals of a summer blockbuster.

The story runs parallel to and beyond the events of the film with species not featured in the original narrative -including the Mosasaur featured prominently in Jurassic World– and goes so far as to attempt to fill in some of the gaping scientific holes left in the film by further expanding on details from Michael Crichton’s original novel. In spite of its linear path, this game does not half-ass. If you’re a fan of Telltale Games and Jurassic Park and haven’t played this, you’ve missed out.

turok evolutionTurok: Evolution

While this fifth game in the Turok: Dinosaur Hunter series didn’t gather as much acclaim as the original, I still remember it really fondly as one of the first awe-inducing shooters to come out in the Xbox/PS2 /Gamecube era. The original game was a big win for the Nintendo 64 back in 1997, but I recall being really frustrated by the terrible first-person platforming mechanics. Still, a lot of it was blowing up dinosaurs with insane firepower so rest assured, that sucker was badass.

Turok: Evolution upped the wow factor for the new console generation in 2002 with an almost unheard-of attention to detail (with respect to Halo: Combat Evolved). While stalking through the jungles, dinosaurs would relieve themselves and you could walk up and look at the droppings. Even cooler, when you shot an enemy with a poison arrow, they’d throw up and die horribly. You could also go look at the vomit. What’s wrong with me that I spent so much of this game being impressed by looking at poop and puke? I was like like the Grizzly Man of dinosaur games.

Another thing this game had that the original didn’t was the Cerebral Bore. “What the hell is a Cerebral Bore?” says the young gamer. Why, it’s only the awesomest weapon ever devised for a video game. How many other fictional guns have a death metal band named after them? That’s cred. The gun fires projectiles that home in on your target’s skull, attach themselves to it, eat their way inside of it, and then blows it up. It’s like having a gun that shoots explosive Sentinel Spheres from Phantasm. It debuted in the second game, but Cerebral Bore’s inclusion in Evolution and the resultant memories of playing split-screen multiplayer with friends and relatives -I almost made them cry because it was so overpowered- helped me decide on this one over the original.

Primal Rageprimal rage

In 1994 arcades were in a full fighting game explosion following the inescapable popularity of Street Fighter II and the media-baiting gore-fest of Mortal Kombat. Then came Primal Rage, which looked at all of the ninjas, karate men, and street brawlers throwing fireballs at each other and said “Screw all that. Dinosaurs, man. Dinosaurs.” And who could argue? The popular game was ported all over the place from the SNES to the PlayStation, but somehow we’ve never gotten a sequel.

You picked one of several murderous prehistoric God beasts and set out to take over the post-apocalyptic “Urth” by slaughtering all who dare oppose you. Villagers gathered to watch the titanic duels to the death and cheer their monster of choice and got routinely knocked around. They could even be eaten for health. The game pioneered a lot of features, some of which stuck around in the genre, such as showing combo damage percentages onscreen.

It was definitely a breath of fresh air in the genre at the time and it’s kind of a bummer that it didn’t really catch on because this thing was seriously cool. How cool? Well, after you defeated your opponent, among many other things you could eat them. Instead of some over-the-top cartoonish fatality, some characters could literally begin devouring the corpse of their fallen foe. And if you played as one of the giant ape monsters, you could dissolve them with your piss. No matter how insane and ignoble Mortal Kombat gets with their fatalities, it’ll probably never be so awesome that you can literally piss on your opponents’ corpse after beating them and watch the flesh melt from their bones. Flawless victory.

dino4Dino Crisis

Fun fact: Dino Crisis was the first game I ever played on my own Sony PlayStation. Not coincidentally, it was also the first to scare the crap out of me. Having clung for too long to my SNES, I was a late comer to the PS era, and didn’t have the baggage of realizing that this game was pretty much just Resident Evil with dinosaurs. But it was done really well for a total rip-off.

Raptors dove on top of you through doors to keep you on your toes when they weren’t chasing you down hallways, and in one particularly memorable moment, a motherflippin’ T-Rex busted through a massive second-story window and devoured me while I did psychological battle with the utter confusion of my body telling me to run out of the goddamn room irl while my brain was telling me to do it in-game, stupid. I was not used to cinematic horror in interactive entertainment, needless to say.

Dino Crisis was a hit at the time and retains cult status to this day. It spawned two sequels; one on its native PS, and an Xbox-exclusive trilogy closer that I somehow didn’t play. There have been almost constant rumors of reboots and remakes ever since. I have yet to see anything official, but I definitely won’t be surprised if Capcom brings this one back from extinction soon.

Jurassic Park: Operation Genesisjurassic park operation genesis

Shooting dinosaurs with shotguns, grenade launchers, and crazy sci-fi tech, playing as dinosaur tearing the flesh from my enemies’ bones, and even running for my life from dinosaurs is all really fun, but I’ve got to admit that out of all the dino games I’ve encountered, this is the one I really want to play right now. Take the theme park/wildlife simulation gameplay of Zoo Tycoon, add dinosaurs and the Jurassic Park branding, and enjoy it any way you see fit. This one is all about you.

Think that old John Hammond was a hack and you could build a better Jurassic Park? Or maybe you just want to lure a bunch off sap tourists in so you can tear down all the fences and laugh as nature takes its course. Want to create your own dino fight club? Or maybe you’re as big a nerd as I am and you just want to create and observe a prehistoric ecosystem where these majestic beasts can roam free of enclosures and live out their lives. Like Cheap Trick, whatever you want, Operation Genesis gives it to you.

I’m a sucker for creative business simulator games, I was correctly pronouncing ridiculously long dinosaur names since first grade, and Jurassic Park is among my all-time favorite novels and 90’s films. So allowing me to design and run my own dinosaur theme park was like a dream come true to say the least. Once you’re up and running, there are lots of different ways to enjoy your creation; by helicopter, by jeep, and even through the eyes of the tourists. Just observing the dinosaurs and the way they interact with each other is fun and there’s a lot of satisfaction in seeing your visitors have a good time. Plus, the game throws curve balls like destructive tropical storms to make sure Chaos Theory is in effect. In addition, the Site B mode let you build your own ecosystem with any species you want without any constraints and let dinosaurs really rule the Earth.

But you know what else is fun? Wrapping up each session by setting all of the dinosaurs loose in the park. The big predators challenge each other, herbivores stampede and defend themselves, and the visitors? Well, they should have known better than to come to a park run by a gamer. Welcome… to Jurassic Massacre.

 

dino6

I’ve got your chaos theory right here, buddy…

Video Games Meet Folklore in the Feyland Series

feyland

Little by little, gaming is creeping into and threatening to take over other entertainment mediums. Whether it’s Telltale arguably outshining film, comic books, and television with their own digital interpretations of popular franchises or Hollywood’s increasingly less-desperate attempts to transfer the success of beloved game properties to the big screen, gaming is constantly increasing its pop culture presence.

But what about books? Surely with younger generations still miraculously retaining the ability to read and write creatively in the age of Twitter and gamers making up the majority of young consumers, it was only a matter of time before we started getting stories that incorporate digital entertainment as a central element. Independent author Anthea Sharp is ahead of the curve and her self-published Feyland series may represent the first wave of Western fantasy fiction aimed squarely at gamers.

Feyland‘s premise is somewhat similar to Japan’s own gamercentric Sword Art Online in that it deals with near-future virtual reality technology and video games that immerse you so completely that they can trap players inside and even potentially harm them. But while SAO keeps things entirely science-fiction based with the only fantasy elements being in-game, Feyland takes a more magical approach, blending the futuristic technology with ye olde world folklore in new and unpredictable ways.

Standard fantasy and sci-fi are awesome, but blending them with video games is a bit obvious, don’t you think? What Sharp’s books do is go back in time to classical pre-Tolkien mythologies and bring those classical-yet-almost-forgotten elements into a new age using interactive virtual entertainment as a likely medium. In some folklore, the magical beings retain their power only so long as we mortals interact with them. And with the actual game of Feyland being a realistic virtual environment populated by representations of the magical beings of yore, it’s a pretty inspired idea to suggest that this digitized invocation of these forgotten races could empower them to infiltrate the virtual space and displace their own avatars to create mischief.

The books themselves are competently written and represent light fantasy fare, with stories centered around male/female protagonist duos from different worlds -usually figuratively, sometimes literally- coming together both in-game and out while navigating the perils of a virtual world overrun with strange magic. The overarching plot concerns the VR game of Feyland in its development stages and the testers and developers discovering that it has become a gateway between the human world and the same magical realm that inspired its creation. The game’s creator died in the early stages and is found living as his own avatar in-game, having made a deal with the faerie folk. Talk about an immersive interface. The corporation responsible for funding the game, VirtuMax, naturally disbelieves the stories of genuine magic and continues pushing for the release of the game, which would put millions within reach of the often-malicious fae and give them countless opportunities to infiltrate thee real world.

The original Feyland trilogy concerned the protagonists Jennet, privileged daughter of a game developer, and Tam, an exceptional gamer mired in poverty, and their efforts to thwart the monarchs of the Dark and Bright Courts in their attempts to break into the human world using gamers who wander into their realms. The ongoing sequel series, Feyguard, has filled out the cast nicely by putting supporting characters in the driver’s seat, making a whole interesting team of characters dedicated to policing the boundary between the two worlds as VirtuMax preps the game for worldwide release.

Sharp is clearly a veteran RPG gamer who injects her experiences with virtual entertainment into the otherwise typical fantasy narrative to create some fresh new elements in arguably the most done-to-death genre in popular literature. Adding in elements like cooldown times for abilities and avatar creation as well as the question of whether any given opponent they encounter is part of the actual game or a genuine faerie creature out to entrap them makes for some interesting and original elements for sure.

And like any good geek, the author is not exclusively obsessed with video games but, in this case, also with faerie folklore and mythology. It’s a winning combination. Feyland is built top-to-bottom on the fascinating (and sometimes bizarre) European faerie stories and all of the creatures in them, some of which have made their way into the popular fantasy lexicon and some of which have not. The rules, practices, and traditions of the fae folk and the poems and tales surrounding them are integrated into the stories in some interesting ways, occasionally mirroring the situations our heroes and heroines find themselves in.

The obvious question that springs to mind when discussing a fantasy novel based on video gaming is “would it make a good game?” And the answer in this casr will certainly be “yes”. Heck, the author has already done most of the conceptual work herself. And with the stories taking place across multiple worlds, there’s a lot of potential there to do what Assassin’s Creed has done in terms of integrating VR and “real-world” environments together, only much better. Hell yeah, I’d love to play a Feyland game. Will it happen? Probably not given most of the gaming industry’s pathological aversion to quality adaptations and the relative obscurity of the budding franchise in question, but at least there are more books on the way.

While reading the series, it struck me that there could be a kind of symmetry here. These novels about a resurgence of centuries-old folklore using a new medium struck a chord with me. People wrote down all of these stories and poems about magical creatures and heroes way back when and they’ve endured in some way, shape or form for countless years through several forms of media. With video games hurtling towards becoming the dominant entertainment medium thanks to their ability to allow the player to not only experience a story and world through other characters’ eyes but to actively interact with it on a personal level, I wonder if centuries down the line, people won’t be creating variations on the legends of Link, Commander Shepard, and Master Chief the same way we’ve passed down ancient stories in writing through the ages.

Video games have given us so many memorable experiences and creating so many amazing stories over the years, it’s not too hard to see some of these sticking around in some form. The explosion of new mythologies and world-building we’re experiencing in modern interactive entertainment could be our generation’s legacy to future generations to be re-imagined, re-created, and re-integrated into new forms of entertainment and mythologies in the future. That series like Feyland are coming along blending ancient folklore with modern video gaming is evidence enough that the two mediums share a human connection; both metaphorically in the story and literally in real life.

The first Feyland book, The Dark Court, is available to download for free for anyone who’s interesting in seeing what happens when classical faerie folklore, video games, and sci-fi/fantasy prose have a party together and I’ve found that the Feyguard series is shaping up to be even better. Anthea Sharp may be on to something here. I recommend checking it out.

Image Credit: http://mediciuniversity.co.uk/creativity/antheasharp/

Exploring Effective Storytelling in Two Dimensions With The Cat Lady

catlady

This is the opening paragraph where I explain for the hundredth time the virtues of low budget indie games and how the lack of corporate resources and oversight spurs creativity while offering a low-cost alternative to gamers fed up with endless AAA hype. Yay indie! Alright, now that that’s out of the way, allow me to point out 2012’s delightful British horror game, The Cat Lady, and how it manages to be awesome with a mere two dimensions to its name (what is this, 1987?) when so many larger titles struggle to create an effective horror atmosphere or interesting story.

cat lady gate

Ummmm…is this the line for the Slipknot show?

For one thing, you can’t get around the fact that the game is art. No matter how you look at it, it is at least as much art as it is video game, seamlessly blending themes of personal psychological struggle in with the disturbing violence we horror fans crave, a story of true friendship, sparse but extremely effective mood music, and some unreal hellscape and dream imagery. It’s an unforgettable story that’s amazingly well-told and engrossing in spite of the fact that in terms of gameplay it consists almost entirely of walking back and forth.

Sure you can pick stuff up and look at stuff and use stuff on other stuff, but most of your time as The Cat Lady is spent either standing there listening to dialogue or walking right-to-left or left-to-right with limited animation. And this in the age of Resolutiongate and full 3D open-world environments with crazy physics and explosions and motion capture and hundred hit combos and towering multi-stage monster bosses. How do you stand out as a horror title amongst all that eye-popping awesomeness?

You give them the unexpected. You make something that speaks to people. The Cat Lady had already perfectly fulfilled what Depression Quest aspired to be without all of the unfortunate baggage that ended up coming with that noble attempt at bringing the experience of suffering individuals to gamers in a language they could understand by taking the soul-crushing experience of living with depression and translating it to a video game. But this one has crazed serial killers in it too, making it equal parts personal psychological journey and visceral horror story.

cat lady cutsceneAt one point our middle-aged heroine, Susan Ashworth, wanders across the screen while a song croons “in my head it’s all hell”. The story begins with her attempt at suicide, but she is somehow saved and brought back by a mysterious supernatural woman who tasks her with eliminating a number of “parasites” from the world; people whose very existences are an abomination. But as we get Susan through her first tribulations and back to her flat, we find out bit by bit about her life and experience firsthand the mental state that led her to end her life and continues to make her existence miserable.

The game’s chapters are divided up into a diverse array of tasks; including everything from escaping a mental ward to choosing which one liner to say before ending a deserving bastard’s life to hunting down an out-of-control internet troll, crafting a ghost story to frighten a jerky neighbor, or even simply enjoying coffee and a cigarette. The last one is particularly intriguing because it’s accompanied by two meters. And you know how we gamers love meters. These two represent neither HP nor MP, or even a hyper bar. One is Susan’s level of anxiety, and the other is her satisfaction.

cat lady corpse

Cheerful.

As you walk back and forth accomplishing menial tasks within her apartment, aggravations increase the bad bar and fulfilling goals like eating and showering give you good bar. If you fill the latter first, Susan can finally relax and fall asleep. I had no such luck (thanks to an asshole crow and that dickhead from upstairs) and she collapsed in a heap weeping as her beloved cat looked on and I was sent to the next segment with some disturbing words to think on. “Behind closed doors, I have fallen in love with the razor…”

Eventually, we meet a cheerful (and terminally-ill) girl named Mitzi. The game poetically spells out the contrast between the two women and their individual struggles with depression. Susan -who is immortal until she completes her mission- declares “It feels like all I want is to die, but I have to live” while Mitzi ironically responds that “I feel like I want to live, but I have to die”. Both are tragic victims of inevitability.

In addition to the refreshingly honest portrayal of the tortured and sympathetic heroines, The Cat Lady throws in plenty of classical puzzle-solving in your journey to find and eliminate the cast of nasties that end up in her orbit with some pretty interesting solutions. One dreamscape segment requires you to acquire a lock combination where the 2D presentation becomes an important element when certain background and foreground objects line up as you traverse the screen to put the solution literally in front of your face (although you likely won’t notice it at first). In another drug-induced dream, you are tasked with carving open a giant spider’s heart in a hospital lobby to acquire a narcotic to bribe another patient with. This transfer of physical objects from dream state to “real life” and vice versa is another interesting element giving the player something to think about in terms of where this story is really taking place.

And then, of course, there is the dialogue. While the speech sometimes comes off a bit stilted due to delays between responses, the game does a good job with its characters and in giving players the option to express themselves through dialogue choices, which is always a plus. For example, when confronted by the mysterious woman at the beginning and end who gives you your missions, you can assent to do as your told and agree to the choices she presents, or you can do what I always do: pick the “fuck you” option.

cat lady shotgun

BOOM! You just got Cat Lady’d, grandma.

The “fuck you” option (which doesn’t necessarily contain that combination of words) is always sign of good storytelling to me. After all, when someone gives you a choice between two things you don’t want to do, the right thing to do is probably your own thing. Even if it doesn’t affect the outcome, there’s satisfaction in seeing the aghast reaction of a character you’re supposed to listen to when you tell them to piss off. Sometimes in life you’ve got to appreciate those small opportunities to assert yourself, you know?

The story is full of moments of horror, weirdness, poignancy, and even beauty. Try and think of a game that evokes this combination of feelings for a minute. It’s kind of amazing to run across such a unique title that gets so much done with so little. It’s one thing to make a visual novel with player choices and call it a game, but to combine the storytelling strengths of that medium effectively in a true game where you directly control the character is an elusive experience in modern gaming.

In addition to Susan and Mitzi’s metaphorical journeys through the horrors of their own lives, the antagonists symbolize the inhumanity hiding in plain sight all around us in forms such as authority figures abusing their positions, impotent internet trolls seeking to do harm the only way they can with words, or sometimes just random monsters in human form, unseen until they choose to reveal themselves. These disturbing encounters keep the game from feeling pretentious with plentiful doses of violence, badass vengeance, and grisly imagery to counterbalance the more meditative and surreal qualities of the story.

All in all, I was really impressed that such a low-budget title was able to draw me in the way it did. The Cat Lady represented a several firsts in gaming for me by not only putting me in the shoes of a middle-aged woman and making me feel her hopelessness on a personal level, but by telling a story that works on so many levels and keeping me invested and excited when pretty much all I was really doing was walking back and forth. No jumping, (almost) no shooting; just solving a few puzzles and meeting other people. It was a pretty remarkable experience that I would recommend to any fan of indie games with love for psychological horror.

Gitting Gud: Confessions of a Souls Noob


souls

I remember hearing about the old school challenge of the PS3-exclusive action-RPG Demon’s Souls way back in 2009 and being a little envious since I only had an Xbox 360 at the time. I also remember a couple years later when its spiritual successor, Dark Souls, took the gaming community by storm. The art alone assured that some day, we would cross paths.

The ‘net was filled with people claiming the game’s difficulty made it like banging your head into a wall and brag posts from hardcore gamers mocking their ineptitude. “Git gud, scrub” was a common phrase. This put me in a weird place. As an old school gamer, I’ve been tempered in the fires of titles like Mega Man 2, Battletoads, Ghosts and Goblins, and all sorts of games featuring what I’ve come to refer to as “fuck you difficulty”, but like most gamers I’ve become a bit pampered in recent years.

Fuck you difficulty is properly attained when a game is not only designed to be challenging, but actively tries to make you rage quit by beingdark souls tips unnecessarily frustrating and often downright unfair. As a young child with my entire future ahead of me, I had nothing but time to give these games my all and learned valuable life lessons about perseverance through my countless defeats and glorious victories. But as an adult, I have precious little time to spend stalled against nearly impossible odds. My priorities have shifted from the thrill of overcoming a challenge towards simply enjoying a great story in an interactive medium.

So the problem at hand was how much money do I want to spend on a game that is promised to kick my ass and I will likely never beat? My disposable income is the one thing smaller than my free time. As I wrestled with this question, a Dark Souls sequel came out, then a new generation of consoles, and then finally yet another spiritual successor, Bloodborne, released to critical acclaim, massive sales, and more discussions about what an awesome challenge it was. Clearly it was time for this cowardly lion to hop on this bandwagon.

So I finally downloaded Demon’s Souls and began to play. The tutorial eased me in nice and easy, one combat technique at a time. Time and again, I achieved easy victory. Hell, this game is GREAT! What a fantastic combat system! This isn’t so hard! Holy crap, what am I supposed to do with that giant ogre thing I’m stuck in this hallway and he’s the only way out maybe I can roll around him and nope I’m dead. So this is the kind of game that gives you an impossible fight right at the end of the tutorial just to say “fuck you” (hence “fuck you difficulty”). ‘Kay.

Not only that, but this game that is designed to kill you effortlessly takes half of your max health bar away as punishment for dying. Even when you’re meant to die. So they take an inexperienced player and kill him as part of the story just to make the game twice as hard as they’re trying to learn it. You have to beat the level to get your health bar back to full and the you lose it again as soon as you die on the next level. This is what happens when you let sadists design a video game.

demons souls knightStill, the game seldom gets all that difficult. Like many gaming classics, it’s all about trial and lots of error. If you die, it’s usually because you suck so the simple answer is to….well, get good. Learn ffrom your mistakes. The diversity of weapon configurations, the fluidity of the controls, the constant healing item drops, and the wonder about what could be around the next corner is more than enough to keep a true blue gamer going. Every time you die, you learn and are better prepared for next time. It’s a pretty elegant design, really, and the curve ain’t bad.

But here’s the thing. We modern gaming folk are not only used to checkpoints after every enemy we kill, but we HATE losing our experience. Actually, it’s always been my least favorite thing that can happen in a game since nothing is more rewarding than building up your character. Having that character reduced to his state of a few hours ago with all that work gone is painful to put it mildly. Demon’s Souls punishes you every time you die by stripping you of all of your souls. Souls function as both currency and experience points, meaning if you die, you restart at the beginning with NOTHING. You can reclaim your souls by making it to the place you died and touching the bloodstain you left behind, but when that doesn’t work out the rage can be extreme.

After many hours spent killing and being killed, it dawned on me that my class was all wrong for this game. I chose a thief because I’m a player who enjoys using stealth and finesse, but that shit was not working, largely due to the weakness of ranged combat and the fact that enemies seem to instinctively know you’re there once you get close. I re-rolled a well-rounded royal to give magic a try and found it to be extremely overpowered. But hey, it sure helped me get past that ridiculous fire breathing spider boss thing that pelts you with fireballs as you run down a long hallway and alternately webs you so you can barely move and then fills the whole room with fire when you reach it. HATE that thing.demons souls spider

While cruising the boards, I found that relying on magic is looked down upon. But screw them, man. I’m keeping my souls! And now I could take on those horrific cthulhu things in the prison level that zap you with lightning then pick you up and eat you while you can’t move instead of skulking around hiding from them. That shit gets old. I do wonder why the devs left such an obvious crutch in the game, though. Pity, I suppose.

I read a post that compared Demon’s Souls to a supermodel that kisses you and the punches you right in the mouth. Totally worth it. It definitely earns its reputation as an old school-style challenge, but with awesome new modern gameplay and graphics. And as much as the game kicks my ass, the ability to view my fellow gamers’ deaths in each dungeon by touching their bloodstains has convinced me that my status as a better gamer than they are is not in jeopardy. Man, people suck. Like, suuuuuuuuck.

Probably due to the age of the game, I haven’t yet encountered the joy of other players invading my game to kill me. I’m not sure if this makes me happy or sad. Part of me sees all of those red phantoms of other players’ demises being owned by the weakest enemies and laughs at the thought of them coming at me, but another part of me is visualizing insane gamers with crazy OP builds who have stuck around playing this game for six years farming the stones that allow them to invade the games of noobs just so they can ambush me at the most critical points and leave my hard-earned souls as a stain at their feet before messaging me to mock my weakness.

I definitely see why people love this series. Am I going to beat Demon’s Souls? Hell no. I ain’t got time to git that gud. But having cut my teeth, I can move on to the other games in the series with some confidence now. As cool as the first game was, the exceptional art of Dark Souls should make it an even cooler experience for me, even as it brutalizes me time and again. And I’m sure I’ll give Bloodborne a go too, should I ever manage to come home with a new console. I’ve got plenty of catching up to do on this series, and I plan on catching up.

Four Disappointingly Portable-Only Sequels to Classic Games

portable

The transition from home consoles to portable gaming form isn’t always a good one for a franchise. Generally speaking, when you make a successful console game you want to keep all things intact when you attempt to duplicate that success with a sequel. The memorable gameplay features, characters, and world-building that made the original so great is likely to be revisited, of course, but most of all you want to keep that core audience intact. This requires consistency in the choice of hardware you want to release your game on. But it hasn’t always worked out that way. Sometimes console sequels get released on portable formats, leaving homebody gamers out in the cold.

Maybe a company is trying to coerce gamers into buying their portable system, or the developer wants to work with a smaller budget and less pressure, or maybe there’s just no rationale we can understand as to why anybody would want to take the direct sequel to a game that was a beloved and acclaimed and banish it to inferior hardware typically bought for children to keep them quiet on road trips. These are four follow-ups to classic titles that were surprisingly only available in miniature form.

Final Fantasy Tactics Advancefinal fantasy tactics advance

It’s been almost twenty years since Final Fantasy Tactics was released on the original PlayStation and it’s still the best strategy RPG I’ve ever played. By far. The immense depth of that game is too much for me to get into here, but let’s just say that when I finally broke down and bought a Nintendo DS, I promptly snapped up Nintendo’s pair of portable-only sequels. Thanks to the DS’s backwards compatibility, this meant I could play Final Fantasy Tactics Advance, named after its system of choice, the Game Boy Advance.

I’m still trying to wrap my head around the insanity that saw the sequel to one of the PS1’s best games reduced to

pocket-size form for its sequels or what possessed Square to change a perfect game as much as they did by having characters learn skills based on what item they have equipped instead of how the player chooses to spend their experience to develop their characters, among other small annoyances. And having battle referees (or judges, whatever) imposing arbitrary conditions all the time? Who the hell thought that would be fun?

Not that it wasn’t good by portable gaming standards, but a sequel to a game like FFT has lofty expectations to meet. And then there’s the fact that SRPG’s are made up of long, drawn-out, tactical battles that can last over an hour while portable games are typically going to be played in short spurts; on break at work, on public transportation, etc. It’s kind of a pain to have to play these battles in increments with so many conditions to keep track of. This franchise spin-off is clearly not suited to being portable, yet somehow the only releases since the original have been two sequels on the GBA and DS and a re-release of the original titled War of the Lions on the PSP. Things that make you go hmmmm….

valkyria chronicles 2Valkyria Chronicles 2

Whether or not Valkyria Chronicles can be considered a bonafide classic may be up for debate, but as one of the clear standout JRPG’s of the last console generation it’s destined for cult classic status at the least. It’s one of the few games whose sales increased steadily rather than declined over its life cycle due to word of mouth and it was one of the first titles I was excited to play on the PS3. In spite of its initial weak sales, the game inspired anime and manga series as well as adulation from tactical RPG fans worldwide.

The good news is that gamers got two sequels to the charming military strategy game. The bad news is that they were exclusive to the PSP, a system I have yet to hear a single person claim ownership of in real life. The PSP looked awesome, had awesome games and features, and seems to have sold a ton, yet nobody seemed to actually own one. I don’t know how that even works.

Anyways, the tragedy is that there weren’t a ton of amazing console JRPG’s last gen and those of us who weren’t into Sony’s portable gaming venture were deprived of the continuation of one of the best. To this day we wonder why and hope that someday Sony will throw us a bone and consolefy them for us like they’ve done for Final Fantasy: Type-0 and the portable God of War sequels. Fingers crossed.

Metroid II: Return of Samusmetroid 2

There are few moments in old-school gaming more iconic and memorable than the revelation that the badass space bounty hunter Samus Aran was (gasp) a girl. The original Metroid was part of that slew of 8-bit classics that redefined the awesomeness that gaming was capable of along with titles like Legend of Zelda, Castlevania, and several other franchises that stand to this day. But out of that legendary bounty of amazing NES games, two were sequelized via Nintendo’s first foray into handheld gaming, the Game Boy. Tragically, one of those was Metroid.

I’ve got to say, Metroid II was amazing. Maybe even better than its legendary predecessor. Rather than relying primarily on backtracking with new gear to access new areas, the goal was to seek and destroy all metroids in each area before moving on. And the the further you went, the more the titular space jellyfish evolved and mutated into new forms, keeping the combat fresh. I loved this game.

But here was the thing: the Game Boy ran on batteries, Metroid 2 utilized save points that were sometimes few and far between, and a young gamer like myself wasn’t always mindful of such things. There was no battery life indicator on the GB so basically, you knew the batteries were low when the screen started dimming. And a dimming screen does very little to help you find a save point, so for me this awesome game comes with a lot of bad memories of losing hours of progress and exploration, getting headaches squinting at the fading image on the colorless screen while desperately rushing to find a save point before it winked out entirely, and failing. If this had come out on the NES, it’d be standing alongside its predecessor as a definitive classic.

kid icarus myths monstersKid Icarus: Of Myths and Monsters

Out of all of those unforgettable NES classics, Kid Icarus is the one that’s always gotten the short shrift. It joins Metroid here as the other 8-bit franchise to be sequelized on the Game Boy, but unlike Samus, Pit’s franchise would not see the light of day again until the 3DS’s Kid Icarus: Uprising in 2012 and we still haven’t seen it return to consoles proper in spite of Pit’s triumphant return in Super Smash Brothers Melee.

All these years later Kid Icarus remains a unique gaming experience with nothing else comparable to it. Nothing except its forgotten sequel, that is. Of Myths and Monsters translated the experience of its predecessor to the small screen with added features like rewards for killing more enemies and the opportunity to win weapon upgrades whereas in the original you had to purchase them at great cost or use a credit card (an innovation that surprisingly never caught on) and spend hours grinding to pay back the debt. Plus it saved after every level passed, which was a massive improvement over the unbearably long passwords of the first game. It would have likely been another hit had it come out on the NES.

It’s a shame when a truly exceptional game gets a sequel that becomes an obscure footnote in gaming history because it was downsized. Sometimes, like with Metroid, it’s a brief stopover and the franchise recovers its prestige and returns to glory on home consoles, but other times it all but condemns the franchise to the sidelines by only making it available on the portable market and gamers miss out on some really promising titles. Not that portable systems don’t need great games too, but I just wish they’d cultivate their own franchises suited to the format like Scribblenauts and Pokemon rather than minimizing games that would be best played while basking in the glow of home television screens.

Unleashing the Beast with Tokyo Jungle

You know where you are? You’re in the jungle, baby. You’re gonna diiiiiieeeeee!” -Axl Rose

You know that feeling when you impulse buy an unheralded low-budget indie game and think to yourself “where has this been all my life?” I had one of those moments after playing the PSN-exclusive release Tokyo Jungle. I mean, come on. A post-apocalyptic nature simulator where you play as one of dozens of species of animals struggling to survive and procreate in the toxic ruins of the biggest city on Earth? Concepts don’t get much more interesting, at least not to a nature geek who spends too much time thinking about dystopian futures and apocalyptic events.

But there’s always the execution to worry about. A great concept does not always a great game make. And there’s only so many things an animal can do, really. To borrow an old Slipknot album title: “Mate. Feed. Kill. Repeat.” pretty much sums it up. But one should never underestimate the power and appeal of Japanese weirdness. I came to fulfill my dreams of becoming one with nature, but I stayed to experience the joys of complete fucking batshit insanity afforded by the randomness of a game in which animals ranging from chicks to cows to goddamn coelurosaurians share the same ruined city.

tokyo jungle lion

Better run and tell Simba his uncle is back, Snoopy.

Did I ever picture myself as the leader of a tribe of Pomeranians engaged in an epic turf battle with the feline forces of evil before? I did not. Weighing the worries of getting fleas from a bunk female with the fear of dying alone and getting a game over before finding a better mate? Not so much. And I never gave much thought to the risks involved with attempting to mark territory under the nose of a pack of hyenas either. Nor could I imagine the terror of being a small sika deer pursued relentlessly by an organized pack of terriers. No, but in this case it was probably karmic payback for all of those baby chicks I kicked so hard they flew off of the screen earlier just ’cause I could. At least now I have another excuse to hate lapdogs.

If nothing else, this game is utterly unique. All of the old-school difficulty of the dreaded and beloved Souls series, but without all off the macho egocentric human bravado. You’re not slaying any massive demons to save the world, you’re just a humble creature trying to get by and pass on your genes until you can unlock the next step up the food chain in a world that desperately wants you to die and will go to extreme lengths to starve, poison, and murder you to bring that inevitable end about. And when you die, you start back at square one like this was an 80’s side-scroller without the extra lives. Tough yet unfair. Classic gaming.

tokyo jungle animalsIt always starts simple enough. It may seem easy to be able to play as a lion in a world of rabbits and gazelle for that first couple dozen years or so, but you’ve presumably earned that right by grinding and conquering as all of those lower beasts to get that power. But how long can you hold onto that king of the jungle crown when your food sources suddenly vanish, your world becomes polluted, and suddenly you’re surrounded by mobs of unfriendly crocodiles, bears, and dilophosaurs that want nothing more than to devour your flesh and absorb your liony strength for their own?

That’s a lot of pressure, man. Maybe you’d rather play as a nice, peaceful herbivore. Plenty of grasses to hide in, you don’t have to chase down your meals, and the meek are supposed to inherit the earth anyways. Plus, the inability to mount a believable offense against the apex predators of the world opens up some interesting tactics. Like when a panther is in your way and you lead it into a pack of wolves and then hide in some foliage and watch the silly carnivores tear each other apart while you slink away, chuckling evily to yourself. Is there something wrong with me that I still find ways to be destructive while playing as harmless species?

The trials that manifest themselves while traversing the post-apocalyptic Tokyo wasteland are legion, and the stories that result can be made epic by your choice of attire. I forgot to mention that you can totally dress up your animal of choice and make him a bonafide character. The ill-fated tale of my epic quest hunting the dreaded Beagle Boss for the first time with my cat and his merry gang of fraternal feral felines just wouldn’t have been as memorable if the protagonist didn’t have a mohawk and wasn’t wearing a schoolgirl outfit and cat paw gloves over his actual cat paws. It made the decimation of my clan by a single ruthless canine after an awesome run a truly tragic thing to witness and the epic ballad about the confrontation in my head sounds like a verse from “A Boy Named Sue”. This doesn’t happen when I play Assassin’s Creed or Halo.

tokyo jungle outfit

Swag level: dangerously high.

So I get my dream of an open-world nature sim with dozens of animals, it’s got the bonus of being apocalypse-themed, AND I get to play wacky Japanese dress-up and make the whole thing completely absurd? And it’s got an inappropriate-yet-oddly-pleasing EDM soundtrack too? How did this game exist for nearly three years without me playing it? And why haven’t YOU played it? Okay, maybe you’re not a nature-obsessed weirdo who gets a kick out of the idea of dressing up hippos in tuxedos with a beanie, but if you were you’d be either kicking yourself right now or shaking your head at me for being so behind the times, having already unlocked all of the creatures and purchased all of the DLC for yourself long ago.

It’s nice to be reminded that there are still developers out there who want to bring us something fun, simple, new, and slightly insane. Tokyo Jungle is one of those titles that I wish would come along more often and give us some real bang for our buck in a world where season passes for underwhelming AAA games are starting to cost as much or more than the games themselves and continual hype is dulling our sense of wonder at exploring these virtual worlds. Sometimes it’s the little independent titles that slip in under the radar and catch us by surprise that help us recapture those feelings that made us want to be gamers in the first place. It’s a good feeling.