Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Top 10 Video Game Heroes


Before we get down to the business of naming my favorite game ever, let's shower you with top tens. I've made up eight of them, and I'll be sharing them over the course of the next week. The number one game and moment will be posted on Saturday. Until then... LISTS. Because LISTS.

This one is surprisingly by the numbers. Not much in the way of obscurities. I wasn't going to include them for the sake of including them. They consist of my ten favorite video game heroes. Some have good writing, some are just enjoyable characters, some are just sort of iconic.

Without further ado... My top ten video game protagonists (leading roles only, supporting characters come later).

10. Master Chief
Halo Series

Not exactly the most talkative guy around, sure. It could be argued that he's fairly overrated (I wouldn't argue with that, I suppose, anyone who's met an overly enthusiastic Halo fan knows how they get). What gets me is the absolute assurance that he's going to succeed.

Launching through space toward an enemy ship while strapped to a bomb? Sure.
Shooting his way through about seven billion parasitic zombie-likes to reach his objective? He'll do it.
Wage a one man war on two huge fronts? No problem.

He says that he'll do it (often in an understated, yet badass way), and that's that. It gets done.

9. JC Denton
Deus Ex

The game's script reads like a conspiracy theorist's wet dream, but the augmented Mr. Denton does a good job of keeping it grounded. A lot of the dialog sounds kind of silly in retrospect, and he gets a little "author tract"ish in places, but the character of JC Denton is still pretty damned top notch.

8. Tidus
Final Fantasy X

It would've been so easy to make Tidus just another one of the "young disillusioned dude saves the world" archetype clones that Final Fantasy games seem to have in no short supply, but Tidus is different. When you first meet him, he's brash, impulsive, and rude... and immature to the nth degree. Whereas most of the series' protagonists would have made only small, vague steps toward maturity, by the end of Final Fantasy X, it's clear that Tidus is not the same character he was in the beginning. The bittersweet ending only cements the growth.

7. Sora
Kingdom Hearts series

The plotline of the series is nigh incomprehensible, and mostly only exists to tie in a bunch of fun gameplay in various different mythoses, but Sora remains steadfast through the whole thing. I don't even know why, but once his character comes back into focus in the second game, I knew: So help me, I like this character.

6. Cloud Strife
Final Fantasy VII

Ugh. I know. The whole amnesia thing, the massive angst-fest that follows him everywhere. The hair.

The dude is just so badass toward the end of the game game (after he gets his head put back on right). I can't help it.

5. Razputin

I should really give this game another try, I think. Everything that this character says is golden. He takes everything in stride, while trying to provide order to people who wouldn't know the meaning of order. He's the straight man in a world where straight men practically cannot exist.

Rather than go on and on, I'll just provide an out of context quote from one of my favorite sequences in the game:
Den Mother: Enough! It's time for me to pluck out your eyes!
Razputin: HA! You can't. That is the purpose of the goggles!
4. Mario
Super Mario series

Eatin' shrooms, savin' princesses...

3. Naked Snake
Metal Gear Solid III

I originally had Solid Snake on here, and I guess it really doesn't matter which is on here (ya know... clones and all), but I like the character progression with Naked Snake more. The development he goes through from the naive beginning to the cynical and crushing ending it much more interesting than a series of treatises on nuclear war and the definition of a modern soldier. The ending leaves little doubt as to why this character is about to go off the deep end. I'd gladly follow him there. Also, it's easily David Hayter's best performance.

2. Commander Shepard
Mass Effect series

It's a little bit of a cheat, since you can essentially create Shepard to be anyone you want (male or female, pushover nice guy or stone faced jerkass), but no matter which path you choose, the voice acting is superb, and the guy (or gal, if you prefer) can give a hell of a rousing speech.

...plus there's that whole "take on an ancient race of killer machines and win multiple times" thing. That doesn't hurt.

1. John Marston
Red Dead Redemption

'Layered' doesn't begin to describe it. Without heading too far down the unmarked spoilers path, Marston is the most interesting character I've seen in a video game. He's a loyal helper, but he's got scars on his psyche as deep as the ones on his face. He's a devoted family man and a cold blooded killer on the same token. Every time he speaks, people pay attention. The scenes toward the end of the game, once the goals have been achieved are absolutely wonderful. Props to everyone involved in making this character come alive. I hope to see more like him in the future.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Top 50 Video Games: Number 2

Platform: SNES
Absurdly Specific Genre: Emsemble cast, the RPG
Difficulty: 5 (there's a couple of fights that pack a bit of punch, but it's nothing too crazy)
Beaten: Yes

It's only now that I realize the grave error I've made in my top 50 moments list. That list is, by its very nature, more nostalgic and prone to be swayed by how I felt during the moment as it occurred. With that in mind, how on earth did I miss the introductory cutscene to this game? It's cinematic as all get out - with the three mechs overlooking the town and then making the slow walk in the snow. It's a top 30 moment for sure, and I blew it.

Maybe that's because the rest of the game does such a good job of making sure that it never lets up on the powerful moments. From  poisoning of Doma to Cyan's (all too brief) reunion with his family to the mildly terrifying first encounter with Atma/Ultima ("Feeble creatures... GO!" and the chilling boss music that plays) to the finale, when Kefka admits that at his core, he's not homicidal, he's omnicidal he just wants the whole world to burn.

Laughing all the way.
The story is epic. The music is epic - it's probably Nobuo Uematsu's best work (the way the boss theme breaks into play in any of the many times that a boss sneaks up on you is lots of fun). The characters are all rich and varied (lots of archetypes from previous Final Fantasy games, but lots of new ones, as well). 

The game itself plays beautifully, and though the second half doesn't quite live up to the first half (I always chose not to abuse the vanish/x-zone glitch, and I only taught one character Ultima, since I generally try to keep things on a non-lame level), it still has plenty of memorable parts while you get the team all back together for the final assault. I actually liked the fact that you had to split the party in three for that final attack, since I'm generally the kind of guy who likes to use all kinds of different characters, anyway.

Except Strago. Fuck that old brainwashed coot.
All of it adds up to a game that is the best game that isn't the best game ever. I play through the whole thing every couple of years, and I always find it to be a joyful, fresh experience. RPGs have gotten bigger and prettier and more complex (one last dig at the goofypants Final Fantasy XIII story, I mean, that shit was just weird). They've never topped this one. I sort of doubt they ever will.

Other Notable Final Fantasy games:

I started a new run of Final Fantasy I well after I had solidified the list, and I'm finding it to be a lot of fun. Probably not top 50 fun, but it's still a pleasant surprise.

I get Final Fantasy IV and V confused in my head a lot. It probably means I should give them both a replay. I'm thinking of starting with V, since it's been longer since I played through that one.

I'm trying to remember ever having played II or III. I can't remember details on either. Are they good?

Top 50 Video Game Moments: Number 2

I love the Portal series. You should know that by now. Portal 2 has, in my opinion, the best ending to any video game I've ever played.

You could read on not having played Portal 2, but that would be ridiculous. The game  is great. Just go buy it.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Top 50 Video Games: Number 3

Platform: NES
Absurdly Specific Genre: Eatin' shrooms, savin' princesses...
Difficulty: 7 (if you argue for any less, you've been playing the first few worldsnot enough of that 8th world)
Beaten: Yes - probably a dozen times

This is the best platformer ever made.

I expect there to be some dissent on that particular claim, but this isn't as tied into nostalgia as one might think. Sure, there was that week or two that one summer that my brother and I awoke every morning before dawn to squeeze in a bit of time with this game - that's not an insignificant part of why I love it. Really, though, consider this...
  • * There is no more precise platform game in existence . When you want to move left, you move left, when you want to jump, it happens.
  • * The graphics are about as pe to conjure, and still look crisp to this day.
  • * The music, while maybe not quite as classic as the original overworld theme, is still catchy and memorable.
  • * The worlds are all varied, as are the variety of weird and wonderful powerups.
  • * This is the game where series mainstays like a World Map, the Leaf, and my favorite... Boos.
Also. Kuriboh's Shoe. The most lethal shoe since the infamous shoe-knife.
The difficulty curve was just about perfectly paced. Early levels could be mastered by relative newbies, while later levels give me fits to this day (8-2 still me throw the occasional controller).

There's room for plenty of debate when it comes to the best game in the series. SMB2 just missed out on the top 15, the original is an absolute classic (though maybe not one that I play on a very consistent basis, as the fact that you can't change direction in midair drives me up a wall). The newer 3D offerings are tremendous games in their own right (though I haven't played a whole lot of the Galaxy series, and I don't know why). Even the new co-op game (New Super Mario Brothers Wii) is miles ahead of most platformers. The series just doesn't seem to have any room for failure (though I'll go to my grave saying that Super Mario 64 is by leaps and bounds the worst of the series), but for my money, Super Mario Brothers 3 comes out on top.

Top 50 Video Game Moments: Number 3

Only three moments to go. Now for the ultimate in video game twists.

The game is Bioshock. Don't read if you plan to play it sometime - you will ruin a very integral part of the plot.

If you've played the game, you already know what I'm talking about. Let's do this.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Top 50 Video Games Moments: Number 4

One last Modern Ware moment. It's a doozy.

Top 50 Video Games: Number 4

Platform: SNES
Absurdly Specific Genre: Deaf-Mutes Saving the World
Difficulty: 4
Beaten: Yes

When I first came up with the idea of making this list, I knew that that it would take a while (though it has ended up taking a lot longer than I thought, because I'm lazy and time was hard to come by for a while), and there was a good chance that I was going to play some damned good games in between the initial posting of number 50 and the list's completion. So I cheated. The original list had 45, and I gambled that I'd find five additional games over the course of the list. Some games, like Red Dead Redemption, were natural fits, but I figured that this would also be a good time to revisit some classics that I was just never able to get into before to see what I'd missed. Chrono Trigger was one of those games. I got a lot more than I bargained for.

In much the same way that a visit to the millennial fair ends up being a little more exciting than planned.

I don't even know why it never clicked back in the day. I sort of recall not liking the concept art that I saw, even though the game is easily the prettiest game on the SNES. This time, though, I was hooked like I haven't been hooked by a video game in years. I got home from work and flicked on the TV, enjoying myself fully and wholeheartedly.

The music in this game is absolute top notch. Even Linds enjoyed some of the themes (she did recognize the main overworld theme from Video Games Live, so that surely helped). The different lands you travel to (and the time-travel mechanic in general) are all flawless. The characters that make up your party are well-rounded and interesting. The battle system is probably my favorite of all RPGs of any console.

You can stick a sword into an enemy's noggin then hit the sword with lightning. Best fighting ever.
It's a fair point that Lavos isn't exactly the most compelling villain - he does pretty much define "giant space flea from nowhere" - but if ever there was a game that was about the journey, and not the destination, this is it. I made sure that I hit every side mission I could possibly find, I took every chance to dive into the mythos and gameplay of the world that I was presented.

I might not have figured it all out the first time, but I'm almost glad it happened this way. I got a special experience where I wasn't expecting one, well after

Monday, June 11, 2012

Top 50 Video Game Moments: Number 5

We're here... top 5. Of the final five moments, four are scripted, one is nostalgic. Three of the four scripted events are pretty widely regarded as some of the best moments in gaming history. This is the fourth, a moment that I would consider one of the most underrated in gaming.

I just discussed Metal Gear Solid 3 over the weekend. Let's hear a bit more about the ending...

Top 50 Video Games: Number 5

Platform: Xbox 360
Absurdly Specific Genre: Chatting, Exploring, and Romancing...also Saving the Galaxy...again
Difficulty: 5
Beaten: Yes

In many ways Mass Effect 2 is a lot like the first game in the series. Great dialog, deep characters, epic 'save the galaxy' plot, guns, spaceships, alien sideboob, and the like.

Note Pictured: Alien Sideboob
The first game was a top ten, though, just being 'a lot like Mass Effect' would be a noble goal, but not something that would catapult a game into the top 5. So what does the second game do better?

* Better controls (my brother played the first game and liked it, he texted me a couple weeks ago saying he was going to start the second game, he texted me not ten minutes later and said "the first thing I notice is that the controls are tons better")

* Changing from an RPG with third person shooter elements to a Third Person Shooter with RPG elements (I know a *lot* of people disliked this change, but this game needed it.)

* No Mako

* About nine hundred other things that I'm forgetting, mostly because the first to the second are fairly subtle, until you've been away from the series for a while, and have to listen to a person complaining about the things they don't like about the first game.

I lent out the trilogy to a friend a couple weeks ago, and he called me to tell me the frustrations he was dealing with in the first game. As much as I loved that game (again... top ten), I found myself constantly having to tell him "yup, that gets fixed in the second game... just trust me". There are so many things that this game does right in comparison to other games, not only in the series, but on the xbox in general, that it's not even funny.

This series is a perfect example of learning from flaws in the prior game's gameplay and building upon it (with one glaring exception that I'll be discussing in a separate post). The ability to keep your character from the first game and have the choices you made there actually matter made the whole experience feel less like different games, and more like episodes of a larger story arc (I would love to see other games take this example - absolutely love it).

There are plenty of other reasons to love this game - The Illusive Man is an excellent character that is perfectly set up for his role in the third game, the side missions (samey as they do tend to feel after a while) aren't just carbon copies of the exact same bunker like they are in the first game, going out and making party recruitment and party loyalty a series of missions, which made the process feel much more personal. It succeeds in everything that it attempts.

Bioware had the unenviable task of following up one of the best games of the console generation, and it surpassed it in nearly every way. Mass Effect 2 is my choice for the best game on the 360, and any game on the 360 or any subsequent generation will have a tough time beating it.

Rest in piece, you abominable piece of garbage
Other Notable Games in the Series:

I'm too close to Mass Effect 3 to objectively place it (I literally finished it the night before I wrote this), but I feel like it would rate somewhere in the top 15. The game itself is great - the perfect synthesis of the first two games. The stakes are crazy high, the choices carry more weight, you're forced to make the types of decisions that define this series. Without spoiling...anything really...the ending really puts a damper on things. I'll probably write more about the ending and the game in general when BioWare comes out with the new ending as DLC, because hell yes, I'm going to play through the entire series again. The game leading up to the ending is probably top 5 - the ending just sours it.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Top 50 Video Game Moments: Number 6

Great moment in Gaming Moment #7 comes to use from Mass Effect. It comes from the end of one of the best current-gen games (one of the best games of any generation, really), so you really ought to hunt it down. I've said that about all of the moments on this list (they wouldn't really be my favorite gaming moments if I didn't think the games themselves were worth a look), but seriously. If you haven't played the Mass Effect series - DO IT. Don't listen to the bitching about the final game's ending (yes. the ending as it stands is severe weaksauce. The 100+ hours leading up to it are not.)

Top 50 Video Games: Number 6

Platform: Playstation 2
Absurdly Specific Genre: James Bond Meets Really Really Long Cutscenes
Difficulty: 6
Beaten: Yes

The Metal Gear Solid series is one that I've invested a lot of time in. I love so many things about the series, from the emphasis on sneaking, to the crazy bosses, to the little exclamation points that pop up above your enemies heads when you surprise them.

Day: Ruined
At the conclusion of the second game, though, everything had sort of flown off-kilter. The plot veered into ludicrous territory, and the first game's epic fight against the eponymous Metal Gear was weirdly perverted into a fight against dozens of (maybe?) virtual copies of it, and the whole thing just sort of felt like a mess. Where do you go from there? In a flash of brilliance, the minds behind the series moved the series back 40 years and into a bold, unexplored territory - the outdoors.

Certainly the series had gone outdoors before, there was a snowy machine yard in the first game, and I'm thinking you could see sky in the second game sometime.
Yeah. See? Water.
Truthfully, though, the series hadn't really ventured into actual living, breathing nature since the NES days. Metal Gear Solid 3 not only ventured there, it dove in headfirst. Wisely stealing the "how well can my enemy see me?" mechanic from the Splinter Cell games, they added a whole new (and very sensible) layer to the series. The addition of stamina I could take or leave (though it was kind of funny to see Snake messily devouring a rabbit the first couple of times), and the cutscenes still bordered on interminable, but so many things were done right that it didn't feel like it mattered.

You could eat parrots. Instant top 10 classic.
The cutscenes actually bring up the biggest thing the game did right - a clear story. Sure, there were the crazy triple-crosses and weird parts where the story went off in bizarre directions, but it all felt like it had a purpose. It was able to be boiled down to "bad guy tries to extort macguffin from shadowy agency via threat of nuclear weapons." Everything else fit within that context, and so there was no wonky "oh! nothing is real, and we're pretty sure they just said that some sort of sentient slime mold/computer program just broke the logic of the storyline" lapses.

No one really cares about any of that, though. Metal Gear Solid, as a series has always been about one thing - crazy boss fights. 3 delivers on that promise, as well, with several inventive ways to reinvent the wheel. The End is one of my favorite boss fights ever, The Sorrow is almost puzzle game-like in its mind bending solution. As for the final boss fight...well...

Metal Gear Solid 3 seems about as well done as a game in the series could possibly ever be (caveat: I've never played 4, so take that with a grain of salt, I suppose).

Other Notable Games in the Metal Gear Series:

The original Metal Gear is ridiculous. I remember playing it occasionally as a kid, and never got anywhere with it. One night, my brother and I pulled up a walkthrough, and he read it to me over the course of the evening to beat it. I still had to cheat (missed a hostage somewhere?). There were points that were kind of fun, but I wouldn't ever play it again, and it wouldn't crack my top 50 NES.

The first Metal Gear Solid, on the other hand, probably cracks the top 20 (though not the top 15, so according to the crazy and obfuscating rules I've set up for this list, it stays off). I still remember borrowing my friend's Playstation and, since I didn't have my own TV at the time, sneaking downstairs late at night to play it. It's a fantastic game, filled with memorable scenes and dialog, along with a truly white-knuckle ending.

The second Metal Gear Solid was one of the most anticipated games ever, and for quite a stretch of the game, it lives up to it. The ability to go into first person is awesome, and there are tons of little gameplay tweaks over the first game that make the first half seem like it's setting the stage for one of the best games ever.

It should be noted that I'm not completely a Raiden hater. Certainly, the dialog that he and Rose share makes me want to drill out my eardrums, but the real problem is that he has no heft as a character. There's no reason to care about anything that he's a part of, and he doesn't do anything to earn any love from the player. Any backstory ends up falling flat, and by the time the truly bizarre ending is finished masturbating itself into a coma, he's simply 'the guy who replaced Snake'. The game itself is fun, but probably features in the mid-40s.

She's either pregnant with your child, or she's the figment of someone else's imagination...
I haven't played the fourth game. I hear it's fun.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Top 50 Video Game Moments: Number 7

verb /fôrˈSHadō/
Be a warning or indication of a future event.
See also: everything leading up to the big reveal in Knights of the Old Republic.

Top 50 Video Games: Number 7

Platform: Xbox 360
Absurdly Specific Genre: THE CAKE IS A LIE, LOOOOOOOOL
Difficulty: 5 (both of them featured puzzles that generally made me sit and look at them for a while, and both of them featured at least one that made me wonder what in the hell i was doing wrong)
Beaten: Yes (at least three times a piece - and co-op twice on the second game)

My friend Branny's then-girlfriend (now fiancee) knew all the memes to Portal. It was kind of annoying, actually - I pulled the game out, and she talked about companion cubes and cakes, but when she asked her if she had ever played the game, the response was a meek 'no'. Within tem minutes, she was hooked, and it was all we could do to not spoil every puzzle for her by pointing it out.

It's my opinion that Portal is the perfect game - maybe the only perfect game.

That's an odd thing to say, considering I have the pair of them at number seven, but hey, there are a lot of factors in considering these things. All of the remaining games on this list might be more dear to my heart that this pair of games, but none of them can say that they're perfect - Portal and Portal 2 can.

The first game, in particular, is the only game I can think of off the top of my head that is absolutely perfectly paced. The second game can't say that - there's a couple a points toward the end where the player is kind of ready for the whole thing to be over, no other game I know can say that. The first game has nothing I would cut, and nothing I would add. Every other game is either just a smidge too short or too long, Portal is perfect.

After this test chamber, the game's done what it came to do, anyway.
My wife might be the only living human being that hates the GLaDOS character. In her defense, she really just hates robotic sounding voices (it sounded way more robotic and artificial in the first game). When the second game's trailer came out and was shown on TV a bit, I was ecstatic. Linds just sighed and said "so I guess I have to hear her voice again". I just laughed and started saving my money.

Speaking of the things this series does right, the voice acting in both games is perfect. Sure, in the first, the only voice acting you heard was Ellen McLain's fantastic turn as the homicidal GLaDOS (she did the turret's too, if you want to be really specific), but she created a classic character. I'll wager that there isn't another voice acting job done as well in video game history as Ellen McLain did in the first Portal game (full disclosure: I haven't heard Jennifer Hale's acclaimed turn as the female version of Commander Shepard in the Mass Effect series, and judging by how I've liked her previous characters, I'm likely to enjoy that a ton).

Following up that performance in a way that lived up to it would've been a difficult thing to do. Getting three voice actors to equal it? Impossible. Until Ellen McLain, Stephen Merchant, and J.K. Simmons teamed up and did just that. The writing was top notch (the writers for the dialog have to be some of the best ever assembled), but all three actors seriously brought it, and the result was an experience that rivaled the first game's brilliance.

Demented, mildly psychotic brilliance
At the WGoM caucus in 2009, I attended without really knowing anyone. I don't even know how it happened, but I got on the subject of Portal with a guy with some crazy sideburns, and before too long, we were talking and laughing like lifelong friends. I keep in contact with him to this day.

I've gotten this far into this overview without even mentioning the gameplay in passing, and that's sort of untrue to this series. Without the gameplay, this series would've topped out in the low 20's probably. The writing and pacing and voice acting and everything in the Portal games are perfect enough to get the series by, but the games are backed up with some great first person puzzles. The whole "portal" idea is brilliant, and allows for some great puzzles (co-op really brings that out. playing alone is a blast. playing with another person in the same room while you're both trying to figure out just what in the hell is going on? completely brilliant), and the second game's addition of different gels adds a fun element to an already solid experience. Choosing between the two games would be a futile exercise, both are two parts of a whole; both are inseparable from each other..

Really, when it all comes down to it, though, this series ends up being a shared experience. It's the type of game that you want to tell others about. Great moments are shared, fun memories exchanged, it's the perfect sort of gaming melting pot, and it's hard to find another series like it. It's no wonder Portal brought about so many memes. It's the perfect breeding ground for such things. It's the perfect game, after all.