Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Graduated Gamer's Game of the Year 2013

The end of another year is nearly upon us and like clockwork every gaming site, magazine, and blogger big and small is making a list of their top games of the year. I’ve never really been much of a sucker for this sort of thing, whether it’s done by self-touted experts or fan voting, because as I’ve said numerous times before on this blog, on Facebook, and on Twitter, gaming tastes are extremely subjective. Sure, there are some phenomenally rated games every year, but does it mean that they should be considered Game of the Year (GOTY) over lesser-rated games? Does a number truly dictate if a game offers significantly better entertainment value to a gamer?

These matters are what drive websites to more hits, because humans are drawn to interaction and discussion with others, even if it involves nothing more than fanboy arguments and homophobic slurs (if you’re not sure what I’m talking about, just check out any IGN or YouTube comments section about anything). Still, opinions are like assholes (and even worse, it’s mostly assholes who share their opinions) and every year the voting and conversations about GOTY lead to arguments about games that get the most press because “experts” use their groupthink to give them all near-perfect scores in an attempt to avoid the wrath of the deranged masses. It makes me sad to think that we live in a world where people demand a reviewer be fired for giving GTA 5 less than a perfect score, but alas it’s true.

Well somebody's getting fired!

Regardless, I like to think that there are still sane, reasonable gamers in the world who prefer to think for themselves rather than let the opinions of others sway them. I mean, do you really trust someone who thinks a single sentence and a paragraph can be the same thing?

I know I certainly don’t.

But I digress – I’ve decided to cave this year and tell you all what game I’ve chose as my GOTY. Now I’ll admit right now that about 95% of my gaming is done on the Xbox 360, and I also didn’t start gaming seriously until about halfway through the year. Oh, and one more caveat – I played a lot of retro games and games not from 2013 this year. So essentially, when you boil down my seriously playing time to games from 2013, you get Grand Theft Auto V and Dynasty Warriors 8. And this is where most of you should stop reading, because I’m about to name a personal GOTY based on non-empirical and highly subjective data from a severely limited pool of games from this past year on one console (are you beginning to see yet why I hate GOTY awards?).

If you’re still reading, I apologize, but I’ll just get to it. The winner of the inaugural Graduated Gamer Game of the Year Award (henceforth known as GGGOTY) is Grand Theft Auto V. This should come as no shock to my followers and readers, as I spent an unacceptable amount of time playing this came when it released. For one, I was at the midnight release which I’ve never done before for a video game, and I played it for almost 8 hours straight that first night before going to bed for a few hours to promptly wake up and play it the entire next day.

Rockstar, you're a bunch of mad geniuses.

Now amount of playing time doesn’t necessarily make this a great game, but the reason why I was so enthralled does. For one, the story is at least engaging, which is a plus for a GTA game. After the now-understood abomination of a game in Grand Theft Auto IV gave us not only a boring story but uninteresting characters with no emotional attachment, the geniuses at Rockstar seemed to realize their mistake and put a lot of effort into the design of the characters and their respective story-arcs. I was extremely engaged and invested in these characters, and even more so I found myself laughing out loud at the in-game and cut scene dialogue. If the game wasn’t so absolutely gorgeous to look at, I’d say that the writing was the best thing about this game.

But alas, the graphics are phenomenal, and as someone who always stays away from the argument of “game X will be amazing because the graphics are great”, this pains me to say. But I can’t deny a game so beautiful that I actually spent moments in the game taking in-game pictures of scenery and just moving the camera around to catch the perfect shot of a sunset over a mountain. For a world this large with various ecosystems and a large city to explore, the textures are well-done (even if it does take them a few seconds to fully realize when you’re moving across the map) and I found myself just staring in awe at how well-designed every detail was. You could certainly tell that the makers of this game took pride in what they were doing, and I have to appreciate this.

Gorgeous mountain views await you in Los Santos!

Lastly, the gameplay is a blast. The GTA series has always done a good job (understatement) of adding new and revolutionary ways to play in their wide open worlds, and they certainly set the bar pretty high in their latest installment. Almost everything you see in the game can be driven and/or explored and/or stolen and/or reached and/or destroyed and/or killed. The amount of freedom you are given in this game is impressive, and the nice little touches to crimes you can commit and missions you can complete make all the difference between a great game and my GGGOTY. Store clerks shooting at you after you rob them isn’t a necessary touch, but it adds a small detail that will make you stand up and slow-clap…once you get the hell out of there and evade the cops that is.

I could continue to drone on and on about how Grand Theft Auto V is my GGGOTY, and I haven’t even gotten into the online portion of the game (which, depending on your viewpoint and experience, could make or break my argument for this game being the best of 2013), but I don’t want to bore everyone to sleep. Besides, as I said earlier this is all subjective garbage that most of you will disagree with, and frankly I want you too. My experience is extremely limited with games from 2013, and sticking to only the Xbox 360 this past year I’ve missed out on amazing titles like The Last of Us, Diablo III (PC), and Gone Home.

So please, disagree with me, and take everything you read from so-called experts with a grain of salt – the truth of the matter is, your opinion is just as valuable and chances are more informed than those who write for the likes of IGN and Game Informer. Happy New Year everyone – here’s to an amazing 2014 filled with great gaming and fewer fanboy fights about XB1 and PS4. Cheers!

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

My Top 10 Role-Playing Games

Well, I finally cracked and made it: my list of top 10 RPGs. This was extremely difficult seeing as how I’ve played dozens over the course of my life, but after some forceful encouragement from my girlfriend I was able to narrow it to 10 games. Some people will obviously think my list is crazy, and that there are some true classics missing. To this I say, I was born in 1986 and was therefore too young to play some of the truly old-school, original RPGs. Plus, I like to think that I grew up in the golden age of RPG rejuvenation of the mid-90s, and since all I had was a paper route it was quite hard to afford all the games I wanted to play. I was also a console gamer for the vast majority of my gaming life (including today), so that alone limits my potential library of RPGs quite a bit. Still, as my very wise friend Casey told me, “you played what you liked – no shame in making that list dude.” So, without further ado (and despite any fear of reader backlash), I give you my, Graduated Gamer’s, undisputed* list of the top 10 RPGs of all time!

10) Mass Effect 2

Oh Shepard, my Shepard!
With sexy alien lovin’, a rugged rogue hero, and humanity in danger of extinction, the Mass Effect series had everything a sci-fi fan could want. This may not be a traditional RPG, but the ability to build and level a party of players with different strengths and weaknesses from across the galaxy it still counts in my book. Plus, you’re basically on a one-man mission to save the universe as we know it from certain doom, and it doesn’t get much more RPG than that. The first Mass Effect was great as an intro, but the second installment had better characters (including cameos from the first game) and even better choices that affected the way you played makes the second installment trump the original. Oh, and the Geth Pulse Rifle is possibly the best weapon in a modern RPG I’ve ever seen.

9) Dark Cloud 2

Bringing a wrench to a sword fight is a bad idea.
Dark Cloud is an easily overlooked series from the PS2 era, but any fan of RPGs would be remiss to pass up a gem like this. The cell-shaded look made this game a beauty to look at and play, and still holds up well even to this day (and I’d love to see what an HD remake would look like). The true star of this game was the mix of two classes that are classic staples of the genre: inventor and warrior. One character is all toughness and is your go-to for up-close-and-personal encounters, whereas the other uses ranged weapons like guns and other clever “toys” to get by. Mix in the use of randomly generated dungeons and an original and touching story and you’ve got a classic RPG for the generation.

8) The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim

If you played Skyrim, you likely died a lot and saw this screen too much.
“Let me guess: someone stole your sweetroll?” This game…seriously man, this game. I hadn’t sunk 100+ hours into a single playthrough of a game since Final Fantasy VII, but Skyrim easily stole 120+ hours of my life and I don’t think I even bat an eyelash when I found out. If there’s one thing that RPGs love to do, it’s send you on side quests to either distract you from the main story or give you more background to why you do what you do. Skyrim did an amazing job with the balance of the side quests and especially with the way they made you realize just how alive the world was around you while you were off gallivanting around as the Dragonborn. The specialty/trait trees added a nice spin to traditional leveling up and did a great job of getting you to think critically about the choices you made in the game and when assigning your next attribute. I’m actually afraid to pick it back up for another go around, it’s that addicting.

7) Final Fantasy VII

Iconic image is iconic.
Now before you jump down my throat about what many people consider the “best RPG of all time” only being #7 on my list, hear me out. Yes, this game essentially single-handedly brought the genre back to the forefront of gamers’ minds, and yes it was visually stunning (well, the CGI was at least), and yes it had an amazing hero-villain duo, and yes Aerith’s death was heart-wrenching. And yes, when I list all those things out and paired with the fact I’ve played it through 100% on three separate occasions makes me doubt its low position on the list. However, it’s more a gut feeling for me rather than the game’s influence on the industry. I tend to be a very emotional player and tend to connect more with a game via my heart than my head, and looking back I liked a lot of the characters, and thought they were all cool and badass; but I only loved a few of them. If you asked me 15 years ago, this game would be tops, but alas I grew up, and so did my tastes.

6) Final Fantasy Tactics

Dear Square(soft..er Enix): never stop making beautiful cover art.
If it not for a very unfortunate series of events, this game could very well be higher on my list. About 9 years ago, I played the hell out of this game. I think an entire summer was spent either playing SOCOM with my dad, or playing Final Fantasy Tactics late into the night. I lost many hours of sleep getting lost into a truly fantastical world of chivalry, knights, ladies, might, magic, and other wondrous things that little boys grow up dreaming about while building their LEGO Castle sets. I was so close to beating the game, and one night I saved before the final battle so I could tackle it when fresh from a full night’s rest. However, I was also going up north for vacation the next day with my parents, and in the process of packing I somehow lost my memory card. It was never seen again and to this day I’ve never actually beat Final Fantasy Tactics. Still, because the game was so memorable and the story so deep, it haunts me to this day as one of my biggest gaming regrets. [Also, go easy on me and avoid spoilers if you can.]

5) Fallout 3

"I don't want to set the world on fire."
This game was my introduction into western RPGs, and I don’t think I could have picked a better game. I never played the original PC Fallout games, but I did my research beforehand and realized I was in for a treat…and Fallout 3 did not disappoint. One of the best gaming moments for me ever was when I first stepped outside after escaping Vault 101 and blinking off the sun’s harsh light stared amazed at the harsh wasteland before me. From that point every quest, every pocket picked, every mole rat squashed was a lesson in what the western world could and should do with role-playing games. Despite the glitches (to be expected with a game of this size), I’ve never had so much fun exploring a desolate wasteland before, and I’m eagerly awaiting Fallout 4 (understatement).

4) Pokémon Red/Blue

Pokemon Rap Battle...GO!
What can I say about the games that started it all that hasn’t already been said? Not only was this game filled with 151 adorable creatures to catch and collect obsessively like a hoarder, but underneath the cutesy façade lied a complex game that relied as much on strategy and a little bit of luck as much as it did on grinding. For those of us lucky enough to experience this game when it released in the 90s, we’ll never forget the memorable moments that blew away our conventions of what an RPG should be, especially on a handheld. Whether it was sitting under tress during recess with cables running between bulky green-screen GameBoys, or running home after school to battle the next gym leader, my time spent with the first versions of Game Freak and Nintendo’s series about pocket monsters that became a massive hit will always be remembered fondly.

3) Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars

Peach obviously isn't happy about placing third..
Seriously, you know you’ve got a winning combination when Nintendo pairs with Squaresoft to make a JRPG starring everyone’s favorite mustachioed plumber. What made this game so fantastic was it took Mario out of his platforming safe-zone and dropped him smack dab into a world filled with magical star powers, evil wedding cakes, and, of course, hit points. The 3D look of this SNES game was gorgeous to behold in its time. To me though, the characters in this amazing mash-up are the reason the game shines. Princess Peach is no longer the helpless victim and instead busts heads with an iron skillet and a parasol (I’ll admit, it’s a bit sexist); newcomers Mallow and Geno are two of the best one-time characters of any RPG with their mix of heart-warmingly epic and tragic tales; and Bowser is seen in a new light as vulnerable when he’s kicked form his own castle, and even shows us his talent as a wordsmith when he waxes poetic to the gamer (hands-down the best representation of Bowser ever). For a game that seems to not take itself too seriously it is amazing difficult, even requiring gamers to grind intensely in the first hour of the game just to beat earlier mini-bosses. But if you move past the early frustrations, you’ll be treated to one of the best games the genre has ever offered. A must-play for any fan.

2) Final Fantasy IX

*gets misty eyed* ...IT'S DUSTY IN HERE! I'M CUTTING ONIONS!
The Final Fantasy series is filled with so many amazing games, and I truly believe that it’s hard to pick the best one without inserting so much subjectivity. With that in mind, here we go. Final Fantasy IX is, in my opinion, the best game of the series that I’ve played. I will admit that I only got part-way through Final Fantasy VI and Final Fantasy VIII, and I haven’t played a game in the series since Final Fantasy X-2 (yes I played it, and I enjoyed it judgers!), but to this day, even when compared to Final Fantasy VII, nothing will ever compete with the whimsical world of Final Fantasy IX. Over the course of my life I’ve played hundreds of games, and I can easily count on one hand the number of games that caused my emotions to stir so much that it brought tears to my eyes, and this is one of them (to this day, “Melodies of Life” still gives me goosebumps). The love story of Zidane and Dagger is enough to make even a 6’4” bearded man quiver a lip, and the completely tragic existence of my all-time favorite FF character, Vivi, made the 12 year old me search his soul about the meaning of his own existence. Of course there are some flaws with the game, especially the ending where things become a bit confusing and convoluted, but as I said earlier I play more with my heart and when a game still gives you pause over a decade later, you know you’ve got a winner. To not have this in my RPG collection would be a mortal sin.

1) Earthbound

If this is what you think the game looks like, you're gonna be very confused.
And here we are: my #1 RPG of all time. I can’t accurately tell you when my love affair with this game began, but it was a long time ago. I’m talking a time where I had to beg my mom to take me to Blockbuster to rent a game once a week. A time where Funcoland was the big dog in the second-hand video game industry. A time where innocence reigned in my life and the goofy troubles and pressures of a boy named Ness spoke to the childhood version of me more than it ever could with each passing year. The issue with Earthbound is that it isn’t meant to be played by hardcore RPG gamers. It’s meant to be played by casual gamers, especially if they’re younger, because the game, while difficult at times, is light-hearted and speaks to the innocence of youth but the inherent pressures on that same generation of youngsters to one day “save the world”. I may have been an outlier by playing and beating it as a 9 year old, but the game was a dream to me and I felt like I was in a fantasy every time I booted it up. Even the soundtrack is trippy as all hell, but it works with the ever-quirky nature of the game. The humor is top notch, causing numerous laugh-out-loud moments. The writers for Earthbound should be on the staff of every game not trying to be a soap opera (I’m looking at you, Metal Gear 5). Also, the developers clearly had an appreciation for American culture (or a healthy sense of humor about it), because for a JRPG it has a decent amount of western themes (prayer, father-son issues) and references (Blues Brothers, fast food). The game can certainly give hardcore fans of the genre something to remember, as Earthbound is not only a length RPG but also a difficult one to boot. However, unless you played it in its prime during the glory days of the SNES, and unless you’ve retained a decent amount of youthful innocence, a lot of what makes this game #1 in my mind might just go right over your head….but you should still play it because it’s amazing!

[*Actually, it’s okay to dispute this list if you want.]

Making this list was a pain, mostly because there are so many games that are worthy of high praise as RPGs. Therefore, I decided to recognize those that were in the mix but didn't make the final cut to the top 10. Basically, this is just another chance for everyone to disagree with me, but I'm cool with that.

Honorable Mentions:
  • Dragon Quest VIII
  • Paper Mario 
  • Mass Effect 
  • Final Fantasy X 
  • Chrono Trigger 
  • Fallout: New Vegas

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Paying Homage to Role-Playing Games

The other day I decided to create my list of top 10 role-playing games (RPGs), seeing as how it's my favorite and possibly most-played genre in gaming. I was ready to post it today, but decided that that just wouldn't do the genre justice. So, before I share my list with you all, I want to pay homage to the RPG, in my opinion, the greatest genre in gaming, not only currently but across the history of gaming. 

It very plausible that, in essence, without RPGs we wouldn't have video games at all. Some of the earliest games drew inspiration from pen and paper RPGs, and in turn those gaming forefathers inspired future generations of developers to craft even more complex ways to play as mystical sorcerers, hulking warriors, and shadowy thieves. Decades later, games like Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest, and Fallout revolutionized the way players could dive into the shoes of a hero(ine) of their choosing to save the world from some evil force (or in some cases seek to rule the world with an iron fist). Nowadays we’re lucky enough to have western RPGs that draw inspiration from JRPGs without all that “tedious” and “useless” grinding, as some might put it. However, JRPGs are still going strong with new and familiar faces across the landscape, and right now there is plenty to be happy about if you’re a fan of RPGs – I know I certainly am.

Respect your elders.

If there is one genre I recall from my earlier gaming days having a huge impact on why and how I play games, it’s most certainly RPGs. I played a lot of Mario and Sonic growing up, but when I sit and think about the games that constantly bring a smile to my face, titles like Earthbound and Pokémon always come to the forefront of my mind. To me, gaming was more about being immersed in a story, becoming part of a living, breathing world that your actions directly affected for better or for worse.

Growing up as an only child, I wasn't afforded the luxury of a sibling to play multiplayer with, and my game collection expanded maybe 2-3 games a year based on what Santa brought me under the Christmas tree. Therefore, I found RPGs to be the best bang for my buck as a solo gamer. I was able to get lost in a brand new world for 70+ hours each time, and I truly felt for the people in each one as if they were real. Perhaps being an only child and not having someone around during the summers led me to treat these sprites and pixels as my friends.

So many roles, so much time!

Whatever the reason, RPGs were and continue to be close to my heart, and because they spent so much time with me over the years, I've always come back to them time and again, like an old friend does. Sure we might not speak for a year or two, but it doesn't matter because once I fire up another, all is forgiven and we’re right back where we left off. So here’s the immortal RPGs of gaming past, present, and future – thank you for your countless hours of entertainment, sometimes grueling grinding, and amazing stories that let us live out fantasies of saving the world one summon, one limit break, one battle at a time.

Monday, December 02, 2013

Graduated Gamer Gave Minecraft A Chance

Everybody loves Minecraft, right? I mean, it’s just such an amazing game that feeds off of people’s creativity to make a truly unique experience every time and depending on who is playing. It’s crisp, easy to pick up, hard to master, and has endless replay value. It’s essentially everything that gamers could possibly want in a game. I certainly love it, and combined with my girlfriend we’ve poured over 200 hours into the Xbox 360 edition. However, I almost didn’t even give this revolutionary game a chance.

Years ago, I recall learning about the beta release of Minecraft. I stumbled upon the game after perusing some gaming site, and I’ll admit that my curiosity was piqued. I was in a transition phase from PC and console gaming to strictly console gaming, so I was still interested in a PC-only game, even if a bulk of my time was spent on the PS2 (it took me a while to switch to the next gen of consoles, judge away).

I gave the game a fair shake in my opinion – or at least as big a one you can give a game without actually playing it. Videos were viewed, previews were read, and purchases were considered. However, this was a much different time in my life than where I’m at now. This was a time when JRPGs and FPS dominated my gaming time – if you couldn’t summon or pull a trigger, I wasn’t interested. I was also a very shallow gamer and looked mainly towards a game’s graphics and pedigree as reasons to either play it or not. But most of all, the game seemed based on a player’s creativity to drive the play and the experience, and the Not-Yet-Graduated Gamer did not consider himself to be a creative person at all.

So, rather than keep it on my radar for later or give the beta a try, I gave it a pass and moved on to the next shooter that was in my library. Years passed and I made the transition to strictly playing consoles. I upgraded from the PS2 to the Wii…which I promptly sold and bought an Xbox 360 (a story for another day, I guess) and life was grand. I eventually became a Graduated Gamer and got a big boy job, which soon sucked out my soul and humanity, prompting me to pursue other careers – this included consideration of dream jobs.

If you want me to play it, you should probably release it on these.

A friend recommended looking into Rooster Teeth, the folks behind Red vs. Blue, as a company to explore for ideas on a future career. I took his advice and start watched a bunch of the Achievement Hunter video series. My girlfriend found the Minecraft series particularly entertaining and encouraged me to consider buying the game. I had to admit that the gameplay looked fun, and the graphics weren’t as bad as I remembered. But the biggest selling point for me was that there was now a 360 edition. Now that I was able to play the game on my medium of choice, there really wasn’t an excuse to try it, especially at only $20. So I took the plunge, found the game fascinating and addictive, and the rest is history.

It’s funny what can influence a gamer’s decisions on what to try, what to buy, and what to ignore completely. Mojang obviously didn’t have to come out with a 360 edition of their award-winning and record-smashing game, what with their huge PC following, but they must have known that there was an untapped market of holdouts like me. I’m certainly glad they did, and also glad that my tastes in video games had matured to a point where I was at least willing to reach outside of my comfort zone and try new genres. Of course, I had known about Minecraft’s popularity, read rave reviews, and heard about friend’s amazing creations in the game, so there was plenty of evidence that this wouldn’t be a wasted purchase.

Regardless, I soon found myself immersed in a truly unique gaming experience. At first I was a bit frustrated with the survival aspect of the game and died quite a few times at the hands of zombies before I was able to get a sufficiently sturdy edifice erected. Still, with a little practice, the game soon opened up and I was able to build insane railways, Sims-esque houses complete with furnishings, and my very own castle with hidden rooms and wolves a la Game of Thrones. I also found that my reservations about my creativity were not a limiting factor in my ability to have fun in the game. In fact, the game could be played with meticulous planning and trial-and-error just as well as it could with spontaneous imagination. My experience was also heightened by playing with my girlfriend on split-screen, because she’s the artistic one in the relationship and I could help her build her amazing creations. It was a match made in gaming heaven, and I was hooked.

Our castle is better than this...no it isn't.

I consider this a learning lesson for the way I view games now and in the future. I’ve learned over the years that gaming tastes are extremely subjective, from the passing fanboy to the most “expert” of reviews; it all really boils to opinion. Many people stay away from games with “low” scores or that don’t fit into their personal favorite genres. However, I believe that gamers should at least create informed opinions about the games they choose to ignore, otherwise we’re (almost) no better than all the fanboys out there. I’m certainly glad that I gave Minecraft a chance, because it not only expanded my gaming horizons, but it helped me realize that my skills and tastes in gaming were not just relegated to my old pre-conceived notions. Over a year and 200+ hours of gameplay later, it’s one of the best $20 purchases I’ve ever made.