Five PlayStation Classics that Need Reboots

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A lot of gamers have really fond memories of the original PlayStation, and with good reason. It had a massive library of classics to choose from that allowed Sony to violently knock Nintendo off of its perch as undisputed king of video game consoles. There’s just no argument about which console kicked the most ass during the mid to late 90’s.

The PS1 featured some of the best games I’ve ever played, but not all of them made it out of that generation intact. Some series were discontinued, some of them kept going using engines that were no longer viable on newer consoles, and some went mobile with unsatisfying results. But I’m here to say that these franchises still have value and represent a void in current gaming libraries that need to be filled. Let’s resurrect these games from the dead and introduce them to current-gen gamers.

Bushido Bladebushido blade

When I think intense competitive multiplayer, Bushido Blade comes to mind. This short-lived series represented realistic combat in a way I’ve never seen in any other video game before or since. It was authentic one-on-one  weapon combat with no life gauge. If you get chopped or skewered, you get dead. The focus is on defense, maneuverability, anticipating your opponent, and mastering fighting styles. It’s the closest thing to being a real samurai.

The intensity of the fighting mechanic was what really made this one work. One slip-up and you were gushing blood so you really had to think about what you were doing. Different techniques and stances let you go from one attack to another and you could even have secondary weapons like throwable knives to catch your opponent off guard. Glancing blows could cripple your opponent and limit their movement or attack options and give you an advantage and the stages were tone-appropriate and interactive.

My friends and I had some seriously great duels on Bushido Blade 2 and I can’t think of a game better suited for online competitive play. A modern version could feature customization, including the option to build your own warrior from the ground up or even design your own weapon. Authenticity isn’t something people seem to value when it comes to fighting games, but for those who do, this is one that needs revisiting.

final fantasy tacticsFinal Fantasy Tactics

This one remains my second favorite Final Fantasy game of all time and it’s been ported and ported and ported again through every generation since it debuted in 1997. It still represents my exact concept of perfection in a turn-based strategic RPG and its combat engine has not been improved upon. In fact, it’s been degraded.

There are two sequels to this game, but they were portable titles that utterly failed to capture the balance and depth that were present in the original and relied on lame mechanics like learning abilities by equipping weapons rather than earning experience through combat to purchase them.

A current gen console reboot of Final Fantasy Tactics could not only give strategy RPG fans something they simply don’t get enough of in a high quality AAA title, but the top-notch visuals that the Final Fantasy series is known for could make this an experience like nothing else out there right now. You got anything better to do, Square? Perhaps another unwanted sequel to a game that alienated your core fanbase?

Monster Ranchermonster rancher

Yeah, yeah, this one was a Pokemon rip-off. But it was a really, really good one and it wasn’t handheld. Monster Rancher had a lot to recommend it beyond Pokemon fans too. For example, the sheer possibilities of the monsters you could get. For starters, the game featured an extremely interesting mechanic to generate monsters with. You get a music CD or even another game and put it into your console and the game would generate a monster based on the data. It was random as hell, and twice as addicting.

So the bigger your disc collection, the more options for monsters you had. I don’t even want to think about how many hours I spent doing this. But finding that rare monster that was exactly what you wanted was so worth it. Plus, you could breed monsters together to create awesome creatures with various combinations of appearances and abilities. There’s pretty much no way to catch ‘em all when the possibilities are practically infinite. Considering I haven’t even gotten into the actual gameplay mechanics of monster training and the exceptional combat, there’s a lot to love here.

There were Monster Rancher games made into the PS2 era, but the last proper one was nine years ago. It’s time for an update. In the future, they may need to find an alternate monster generation method since physical media is on the way out, but I’m sure most of us have no shortage of discs lying around at present time so now’s the time to go all out and make this the series it could be for the current generation.

tenchu killTenchu

Tenchu: Stealth Assassins was like the game of my dreams when it came out. You played as one of two ninjas and you got to actually be ninjas. None of this run around shurikening and slashing at waves of enemies. Ninjas are supposed to be silent shadow killers, gone before anyone knows they were ever there. You had to use various skills and items to accomplish your objectives and the ideal score was only achieved when nobody ever laid eyes on you. It was one of the best stealth games of all time.

This is the only series on the list that is represented in the past gen. In fact, there are two Xbox 360 titles and a Wii game bearing the Tenchu brand, so why am I clamoring for a reboot? Well, basically they haven’t changed anything in the core gameplay since 1998. Yeah. Imagine a Resident Evil game today that used the same control mechanics as the original. It doesn’t really work.

With games like the Splinter Cell and Arkham series perfecting stealth-based gameplay, Tenchu is pretty much garbage by comparison at this point. It needs to be rebuilt from the ground up for current gen consoles. Tenchu Z allowed you to create your own ninja, which was a great idea that should be brought forward, but with glitchy outdated gameplay there was no point. A new, smoother engine is a must. Given proper attention, a new Tenchu game could potentially be as cool today as the original was back in the day. The stealth genre has blossomed in recent years and it just seems wrong that one of its OG’s isn’t leading the way.

Darkstalkers  darkstalkers 3         

I’ve got to be honest, here. I never actually played a Darkstalkers game on the PlayStation. The series came out along with the glut of fighting games after the Street Fighter II era and while I was aware of it and loved the concept of an all-monster fighting game, I was just done with the genre by the time I got my PlayStation, what with Street Fighter, Mortal Kombat, Soul Caliber, Tekken, King of Fighters, Virtua Fighter, Dead or Alive, and all the rest having dominated gaming for years. And unlike those games, I never found Darkstalkers in arcades. My loss, I know.

The last proper release was ten years ago on the PSP and it’s been a whopping seventeen years since Darkstalkers 3 came out, with all subsequent releases being updates and spin-offs. The original games were given the re-release bundle treatment on XBL and PSN last year, and they still play really, really well.

The Darkstalkers Resurrection re-release was reportedly Capcom testing the waters for a potential new installment. Crossover series like Marvel vs. Capcom have made the series’ characters popular mainstays and given the success of the rebooted Capcom series’ with 3D modeling, Darkstalkers is clearly next in line to get that treatment.

I disagree with Capcom’s assertion that current sales of decades-old games that have been re-packaged over and over are a proper gauge for whether people would buy a new one or not. Fighting game fans want a new AAA Darkstalkers game with all the trimmings, not another damn re-release. Playing Resurrection shows that the series has the fun factor and charm to make a comeback in the now-niche fighting game genre; it just needs a current-gen update. And if it gets one, I’ll be lining up for it.

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10 Unforgettable Classics from the Dawn of Multiplayer

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These days, playing with and against dozens of other people from all around the world is a standard expected video game feature. But back in the day, multiplayer was limited only to whoever was standing next to you at the arcade cabinet or sitting next to you on the floor (couch was too far away). Friendships and rivalries were forged in the heat of battle, and lifetimes of memories were made.

For better or worse, the first two generations of multiplayer video games set the tones and standards that were followed for decades. They taught us how to lob grenades, fly ostriches strategically, survive a croc attack with the help of a less fortunate friend, cooperate with others to achieve what we couldn’t on our own, and then stab them in the back for personal gain.

As the first gaming generation, we lusted after delicious flies, pulled hair, laid cities to waste before eating each other, or sometimes just passed a deadly ball around. We were heroes. We were villains. We were gamers. These are our old-timey multiplayer war stories.

Ikari Warriorsikari warriors

1986 brought us arcade shoot-em-up multiplayer greatness that stood out by using an innovative joystick with a rotating top that allowed you to move and shoot in different directions simultaneously. At the time, this was mind-blowing. It also pioneered the still-basic shooter mechanic of having one button to shoot your guns, and another to lob grenades.

Ikari Warriors was an amazing game to play with a friend. Two soldiers battling side by side in bullet hell; at the time it was the definition of awesome. You could even climb into tanks and helicopters. The NES version suffered from lack of rotary control, but partially made up for it with a glitch where if both players entered a vehicle at the exact same time, it split into two vehicles. After a game or two, it became customary to count to three together every time you found a tank or copter. That’s cooperative play, baby!

Combat

Combat was a launch title for the Atari 2600 system and very possibly my first-ever multiplayer experience. It’s actually kind of mind-boggling the number of game types it had for such an early title. Twenty-seven games within the game. In 1977. Eat it, Titanfall.

You could play many variations of game utilizing dogfighting planes -complete with strategic cloud cover- and tanks battling in mazes using various abilities including invisibility and ricocheting projectiles. You had to work out ways to outsmart and outmaneuver your opponent. There was no spawn-camping, no power weapon-whoring, no sniping, no corner trapping; none of the things that often make modern competitive multiplayer a pain in the ass. Just two players entering on even terms and one player leaving. Perfect.

gauntlet cabinet

Now this is a multiplayer gaming cabinet!

Gauntlet

Cooperative fantasy dungeon-crawling gameplay officially arrived in 1986 with Gauntlet. This game about blew my mind when I discovered it in arcades. Four selectable characters, all with completely different capabilities able to work together to fight their way through a hell maze of respawning enemies (with destroyable spawn points) was an incredible concept at the time.

The depth of co-op gameplay here was unheard of because of the diversity of available characters. There was also a game narrator that really added to the atmosphere of the game and kept you updated on the status of your companions. Everybody had their favorite role to play. Were you a Valkyrie, Wizard, Elf, or Barbarian?

Double Dragon

This game kind of blew my mind the first time I played it in 1987. This was the birth of the multiplayer beat-em-up genre, and arguably still stands as its greatest example. From the first time I grabbed a dude by his hair and slammed my knee into his head repeatedly, I was in love. This game was the shit.

With a friend, this game was king of the arcade. Not only was there a plethora of moves to be discovered from pressing different buttons together (which I believe was a first) but you could tag-team opponents with one player grabbing a baddie from behind and holding him helpless while the other player pummeled him. How did gaming get this awesome this fast? And after you beat the final boss, your last challenge was a battle to the death with your partner. The drama! Somehow the NES version managed to do away with the co-op gameplay entirely in what I think will forever remain the single stupidest thing the company has ever done.

Rampagerampage

If there’s one thing in entertainment I love more than anything else it’s monsters. There’s your vampires and your wolfmen, which are great, but kaiju were always my stock and trade as a kid. So imagine my delight when I walked into the arcade in ’86 and saw this bad boy. Three player madness as a giant reptile, ape, or wolfman smashing the shit out of major U.S. cities and each other. Shut up and take my quarters. ALL OF THEM.

The classiest of multiplayer moves was to wait until a fellow player was on top of a skyscraper with low health and then knock them off. Odds are good that they wouldn’t survive the fall and would return to their human forms and begin to sidle off of the screen while covering their shameful nakedness. At this point, the other two players could race to devour their vulnerable partner for a health boost while the victim fumbled for a quarter to continue and/or left in a rage. Good, good times.

Frogs and Flies

Back to the 2600 and a game that delivered EXACTLY what the title promised. Nothing more. Nothing less. 1982 brought us a game of flies and frogs named Frogs and Flies in which you were the titular frogs and the object was to devour the eponymous flies. The player frogs could jump and use their tongue for extra reach to get as many flies as possible as the day quickly passed.

In single player, the game was a decent distraction with simple gameplay, but with the added spice of competitive multiplayer, you had one of the first bonafide party game on your hands. Anybody could just pick up and play and the challenge was sufficient to make everybody want another turn. It was perfect in its simplicity.

contra boss

Contra

Harm could very well come to me in the comments section if I neglected this one. In 1987 Konami dropped a true NES classic on us, complete with a legendary cheat code that burned itself into the public’s collective consciousness through sheer repetitive use. You are thinking it to yourself right now.

Contra was Nintendo’s killer multiplayer app. Two players with a crazy arsenal of guns blowing the shit out of everything unfortunate enough to share the screen with themis pretty much the definitive gaming experience and it’s seldom been done better.

Joust

Another 1982 Atari classic with serious legs. Joust was a rare 2600 title that was popular for long enough to be ported to the NES some seven years later. The premise was that you were a knight riding an ostrich that could fly by repeatedly pushing the button (back then we only had one). The goal was to get the drop on the vulture-riding enemies by literally dropping on their heads. The levels had plenty of platforms where you could land and dash for extra speed so there was room for tactics.

Throw in a second player and Joust was an instant classic. Players could either work together to smash the opposition or compete for points and take each other out. Usually it was a combination of the two. The game’s flying mechanic became a gaming mainstay that has survived to this day, most recently utilized in Flappy Bird.

Toobin’toobin

This one is more of a personal favorite than anything else, but we’ve all got to indulge ourselves once in a while, right? 1988’s Toobin’ was a unique arcade title where you play as cool dudes in inner tubes braving the various dangers of the river, from pointy sticks to full-on dinosaurs. The creative controls involved four buttons for movement -one for each hand, forward and back- that you’d use to paddle to the left or right or in circles if you liked. A fifth button allowed you to throw soda cans as an attack.

This game was crazy fun. Even if you were playing solo, the system gave you a bot to compete with because the competitive-cooperative dynamic was vital to the game. For instance, every so often a crocodile would swoop in from behind and he wasn’t leaving until he got one of you or someone managed to hit him with a can (easier said than done, believe me). Whenever the croc came out, the game literally became the embodiment of the “I don’t need to outrun him; I only need to outrun you” joke, and that is totally tubular.

 

Warlords

When played with four players on your Atari 2600, 1981’s Warlords was, simply put, one of the most frantic and insanely fun things you could do with your time. It was the kind of ultimate party game that even the mighty Wii never managed. It’s the ultimate vindication of the concept of “less is more”.

Basically, the game was like an Arkanoid battle royale. Each player had a base in a corner of the screen that was surrounded by walls and a shield that could be moved around your walls with the classic paddle wheel controller. A ball was then released and players had to defend their base by deflecting the ball at their opponents’ bases using the shield, breaking down their walls until they could get the ball in there and destroy the base. It was a simple but extremely effective evolution from the Pong concept and I’ve little doubt that if you could get four people in a room to play it today, Warlords would still rock the party.

Did Spike Jonze’s “Her” Show us the Future of Gaming?

her

I finally got around to watching Spike Jonze’s science fiction film Her when it became available to rent on Netflix last week. I can’t for the life of me imagine why such a film didn’t make it into wide theatrical release considering the alternatives we’re being given, but that’s another discussion for another place and time. Aside from the emotional moodiness, beautiful music, and general brilliance of the film, one thing that really struck me was the ideas it presented for near-future gaming.

The protagonist, Theodore, is presented as a lonely gamer in the midst of a divorce. In his world, artificially intelligent Operating Systems have become a reality and his sounds like a very charming Scarlett Johansson. It’s also heavily implied that video game characters are imbued with independent personalities of their own as well. While the story focuses on Theodore’s love affair with his OS, Samantha, I was really interested in expanding the concept to Her’s vision of video games.

Rather than being limited to a screen or even some virtual reality helmet like we often see in sci-fi, Theodore’s game fills his living room. And it makes sense. Why encase the player’s head in some helmet with a screen when you can just project the game around the player? In lieu of a controller, the game is played using the player’s words and gestures, which is something I still believe Microsoft will some day manage to get right.

This is all good stuff, but as with most games these days, what really floats my boat is the characters. In Her, Theodore’s in-game character is challenged by a small alien with a penchant for profanity-laden abuse. He converses with the alien in real time as the point of view seamlessly switches from third person to first. It even responds to Samantha when she chimes in to update him on his email and mocks Theodore’s sensitivity. It’s pretty awesome. Assuming profanity = comedy in your mind, that is.

Lionhead Studios kind of toyed with this idea in their original Kinect demo named Project Milo, which made us think that Kinect was going to be this amazing thing. But at this point I think we can kind of assume that they were blowing smoke up our rear ends considering it’s been five years and we’ve seen absolutely nothing else playable along those lines. But still, it could happen in the future.

Sure it’s only recently that video games have developed AI sophisticated enough not to continuously try to run through walls or compulsively hide behind explosive barrels in the middle of a firefight, but progress is progress, yeah? Sooner or later it could be possible for developers to program video game characters with real personalities beyond a mere script that are able to respond in various ways to our interactions with them. Eventually, they could theoretically operate without canned programming prompts at all like they do in Her.video game character wedding

Now considering the film’s premise of romancing an AI Operating System, the next logical step would be romancing video game characters. Heck, people have already done that in real life so it’s arguably a previous logical step. Japan is almost always ahead of the pop culture technological curve and they have long been focusing on crafting virtual substitutes for genuine human romance. 2009 saw the world’s first human-video game character marriage in Tokyo. This is happening.

Romancing an OS without even an avatar to look at is one thing, but what about a character who could literally be projected into your home? Could an artificially intelligent being capable of learning, evolving, and conversing like a real person with a semi-physical form be an ideal partner for some people? In Her it’s made apparent that dating OS’s has become fairly commonplace and possibly even socially acceptable, although Theodore’s ex-wife makes the very valid suggestion that it implies an unwillingness to deal with genuine human emotion.

But negative sociological judgments aside, virtual personalities could be a great tool for people who suffer from social anxiety and allow them to practice interacting with other people in a safe environment. And if somebody decides they’d rather have their romantic needs met by an AI I’m not sure I have a problem with that. You know, may as well have some fun with them before they take over the world, go all Hal 9000, and exterminate us all Skynet-style, right?

So not only is Her one of the best and most emotional sci-fi films I’ve seen in forever, but it successfully raises a lot of legitimate questions that we may be dealing with irl as both gamers and human beings before we know it. And it’s not even pessimistic, for a change. Definitely a breath of fresh air in every sense.

morrigan dragon age

Darling, you’ve got red on you…

So now I’m left dreaming about how freaking great the new Dragon Age would be if I could converse in real time with my companions at camp and have them respond not with a canned, pre-recorded script, but according to their own personalities. Even with all the options in current gaming that help make a story your own, being able to really interact with the resident of a game’s world using your own ideas instead of a set of laid out options and having them respond in kind would be some serious next-level immersion.

 

I don’t know how far away we are from this kind of thing, but I guess I should give up on flying cars and hoverboards and shoot for this instead. Not only is it way cooler, but it’s probably a lot more logistically feasible as well, even if it could decimate the need for human interaction as we know it. I just really, really want to look an alien in his eyes some day and tell him “fuck you” just to see what he’ll do before I die. I can’t be the only one.

 

Where Did True Blood Go Wrong?

trueblood

You know, it doesn’t seem so long ago that HBO’s supernatural sex and violence fest was the toast of geektown. A best-selling series of books to draw from, the HBO pedigree, an original vampire mythology that didn’t completely defang our favorite creatures of the night, and a great cast; what more could you ask for? Some bizarre spoilers from throughout the series will be present. I’m not sure anyone still cares, or if non-viewers will even believe them when they read them, but just in case, here’s your warning.

Season one was pretty much an entertainment masterpiece. Reworking and expanding on Charlaine Harris’ novel Dead Until Dark, True Blood managed to perform one of the rarest of feats; an adaptation that surpassed the original work. While the novels focus exclusively on psychic heroine Sookie Stackhouse’s point of view, the writers crafted an outstanding ensemble cast, expanding existing characters who were barely in the novels into fan favorites along with some originals and adding in political subtexts without harming the story’s original narrative. And people loved it.

But the love affair didn’t last long. By the time Game of Thrones came along, people had stopped speaking of True Blood with excitement. In fact, scorn is probably a better word for the typical reaction. But the best word for how people felt about the show was the unkindest one of all: indifference. People may pretend it’s because vampires are out or play the maturity card as if the new hotness wasn’t just as full of unnecessary nudity and violence. But let’s look at the real reasons why True Blood is in its last season and nobody cares.      Continue reading

Knights of Sidonia is Another Win for Netflix

sidonia

Netflix original programming is quickly becoming a premiere go-to source for quality television. HBO may have a hefty head start as the reigning champion, but it may not be very long before the diversity of programming the DVD rental/streaming service starts to eclipse even their titanic credentials.

In a couple years, we’ve already received the charged political drama of House of Cards, the irresistible Orange is the New Black, the horror-themed Hemlock Grove, the return of fan-favorite comedy Arrested Development and Star Wars: The Clone Wars, and a lot more including an ambitious upcoming collaboration with Marvel Comics to bring several of their characters to the small screen.

Surely this bounty of awesome entertainment is missing something, though. Perhaps high-concept science fiction or (dare I suggest) anime? Don’t worry, friends. Netflix has geeks covered on both counts. Knights of Sidonia became available for our viewing pleasure last weekend as their latest serving of original programming and it did not disappoint.

Science fiction means a lot of things to a lot of people. To some, anything that takes place in space or has aliens or robots in it is sci-fi. To some, the genre is defined by high-concept social commentary, and to others it’s all about the science and future possibilities of technological advances. My favorites are the ones that can combine all of these different aspects into a single cohesive story with great characters and amazing visuals.  This is one of those.

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Maurice Devereaux: The Horror Legend that Never Was

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This week I’ve elected to shine a spotlight the troubled career of a talented independent filmmaker who could been the next John Carpenter or Guillermo del Toro if he’d been given the chance. Instead, he’s had to fight to scrape by financing his own films only to find them practically buried once the rights were sold, rendering someone who could have been filling our screens with horror classics for years a practical nonentity.

Maurice Devereaux started out as a French-Canadian film geek inspired by the best of the best who set out to make his own visions come to life and hopefully inspire others to do the same. He wrote, directed, edited, and produced four of his own films over a dozen year period through sheer determination and is possibly the most talented director you’ve never heard of.

Devereaux’s style combines horror creeps and gore with creative visuals, satire, and social commentary, all worthy of the Romero comparisons his work invites. But as much strife as Romero has overcome in his legendary career, he never had to wait seven years to get a film finished after he started shooting. In fact, mainstream fandom was always completely out of the question for Devereaux, given the impossible budgets these films were made on. Only indie fans need venture forth.

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Five Nightmarish Recurring Enemies from the Final Fantasy Series

ffenemies

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

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

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

Bomb

bomb

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

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

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

Tonberry

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

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

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

 Ahriman

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

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

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

Behemoth

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

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

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

Malboro

ffx ahrimans

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

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

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

Great Writing is the New Awesome Graphics

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

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

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

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

final fantasy VII aerith

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Is Halo Still a System Selling Franchise?

halo

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

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

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

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

master chief

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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