Tuesday, November 11, 2014

The Hiatus 2014


I've been in limbo for the last month. Okay, for the last 3 or 4 months actually. I've been looking for a job and that hasn't been turning out so great. After filling out dozens upon dozens of applications and typing up more cover letters than I’d care to, I've had about 5 interviews, and two call-backs. I’m a very competitive person who hates losing/failing, so that’s not a very good percentage for me. As a result, I started feeling pretty useless and eventually delved into a bit of a depression.

Once depression set in, I didn't really know what else to do but play video games. They've always been my safety new when times get tough. When school work was getting too tough in high school, Final Fantasy was there to help me escape. In middle school, when bullies made life difficult from the bus stop to the classroom and back again, I’d look to Banjo and Kazooie for comfort. Therefore, it’s no surprise that I’d turn to gaming once again when life gets me down as an adult.

That’s the thing about video games – they never quit on you, they don’t judge you, and they allow you another world to dive into when the real world you’re in starts to get the better of you. I used to think this habit was a bit pathetic when I was younger. When I was younger I was always concerned about how other people perceived me and I valued their opinions of me above being and liking myself. This led to me having a poor self-image and self-respect when I used video games as an escape. But they helped me get through tough times, so I didn't abandon them, and thankfully so, because I eventually outgrew that silly idea about needing others’ approval of who I was to be happy. Who knows what would've happened if I did continue to value the opinions of random people who didn't really matter, then I wouldn't have video games to fall back on today when times get tough.
I love you, video games...you understand me!
So as I said, times have been less than stellar for me lately, and I became a recluse. I stopped tweeting for quite some time, removed myself from other forms of social media, and rarely left the house except to go to the occasional interview or social function with friends. The vast majority of my time was spent playing, what else, video games, and I definitely had the backlog to support the habit. I played games on a variety of systems, from the Sega Genesis to the N64 to the Xbox 360, but most of my attention went to the PS3. This was because the majority of my backlogged games were on Sony’s “last generation” console, and it was about time I took care of that.

I’m going to try and do a write up for the games I thoroughly enjoyed, even if they will be shorter in length than my usual style, but I make no promises. Still, since my last blog post two whole months ago, here are, in no particular order, the games I've played and on what systems:
  • Arkham Asylum (PS3)
  • Arkham City (PS3)
  • Sly Cooper: Thieves in Time (PS3)
  • NHL ’94 (Genesis)
  • Mario Party 5 (GCN)
  • Mario Kart 64 (N64)
  • Super Smash Bros. (N64)
  • Viva Piñata: Trouble in Paradise (360)
  • Super Mario All-Stars (SNES)
  • Resistance 3 (PS3)
  • NHL ’15 (360)
  • Battleblock Theater (360)
  • Fez (PS3)
  • Stealth Inc.: A Clone in the Dark (PS3)
  • Metro: Last Light (PS3)
  • Dead Space 3 (PS3)
  • Dynasty Warriors 8 (360)
  • Dark Souls (PS3)
  • Borderlands 2 (360)
  • Hoard (PS3)
  • Proteus (PS3)
After compiling that list I’m slightly embarrassed at its length, especially for just 60 days of gaming. But like I said, I’m unemployed and have almost nothing but time on my hands. Still, it’s amazing how much gaming one can accomplish when they’re left to their own devices with limited distractions. Hell, I was even visiting wedding venues with my fiancé over that time period so it’s not like I was distraction-free.
It's only with 10 Gamerscore Points - not worth it.
However, while this experience was enjoyable, it was rooted in a need to escape during a rough time in my life. I would rather have been able to enjoy my gaming without worrying about finances or if I was slowly creeping towards uselessness. I wish that I could have the freedom to play copious amounts of games without the added burden of worrying about paying rent or feelings that my college degrees are just useless pieces of paper. But until the day comes that I win the lottery, I guess it’s nice to know that regardless of whether I’m gainfully employed or can’t land an interview to save my life, video games will continue to be a rock I can cling to and pretend everything will be okay.

Thursday, September 04, 2014

Targeting Systems Offline


I've already given my opinion on the treatment of people (aka – fellow human beings) in the gaming industry when people don’t like them or disagree with their views. But recent events involving threats of violence against people in the gaming industry and have made them even scary places. It’s gotten to the point that I’ve considered taking a break from social media and just hiding away in my own personal gaming world until it all blew over, but to do so would be cowardly and wouldn't actually help the situation. So…here we go.

If you've been following the timeline of what is now being called “GamerGate” from Zoe Quinn to Anita Sarkeesian to dozens of other lesser-known journalists, developers, and personalities in the video game industry, you've undoubtedly noticed a huge chasm form between many gamers. There are the GamerGaters, people who believe what they are doing is right and fixes the industry by purging it of those who have conflicts of interests (COI) and use shady practices to get ahead, and those who believe that the targeting and harassment done by GamerGaters is excessive, often illegal, and is founded on white male privilege that is so prevalent in the industry.

I've looked into both sides since things got ugly with rape and death threats, and I've noticed a rapid shift in tone from those who identify as part of the GamerGate movement. While there were (and are still) those who threaten “toxic” journalists and developers with sexual and physical violence, there are many people a part of the GamerGate movement who are trying to expose those with COIs and have them removed from the industry through more civil means. I’m in no way defending the movement – I personally believe this is just a more subtle version of coercion – but it’s worth noting that there are people who still believe they’re doing the industry a favor by ridding it of these “cancerous” individuals.

But let’s be honest with ourselves as gamers for a moment. What is this actually solving in the video game industry? Sure there are big(ger) fish that are targeted like Zoe Quinn and Anita Sarkeesian who may or may not have hidden agendas when they write and create; that’s not for me to judge. But lately I've seen a lot of GamerGaters go after mainly small-time journalists, and, here’s the kicker, the overwhelming majority of them are women.

Perhaps women are just more likely to have COIs and use shady practices to get ahead in the industry, and if you believe that I have some nice ocean-front property in Arizona you might be interested in. Regardless, while some people in the GamerGate movement are using civil coercion to force people to quit or their companies to fire them, there are still a large number of people who use threats of violence to scare them and show them that they “mean business”.

The fact that this has to be reinforced is not a good sign.

Now I know that these people don’t necessarily represent the GamerGate movement as a whole, just like any subset of a movement or group doesn't really define the whole at its core, but it begs the question, where should people really be targeting their efforts to cleanse the world of video games of wrongdoers and those of little to no scruples? Perhaps the bigger problem with the gaming industry and community at large is this belief that if somebody is seen as a threat to our beloved hobby, then threatening them with rape and violence, DOXXing and SWATting them, and overall abusing them is justified. Maybe those who see themselves as white knights for the gaming industry need to clean up their own back yard before complaining about the state of the neighborhood.

It could be the way I was raised, but I see a much bigger problem with fellow humans being forced from their homes because of fear of bodily harm than I see with them writing a review for a game that their friend helped create. COIs, sexual favors, and whatever else people have been accused of doing to gain a foothold in the industry is no excuse for calling their parents with threats and making them feel like their life is in danger. It’s people like that that continue to rot away at the image of gamers and the industry.

I think those in the GamerGate movement need to stop just encouraging people to use more civil tactics and instead target those who continue to threaten people to get their way, because it’s those people who are the more prevalent threat to the industry. They’re the reason why I almost hid away from the industry and community that I loved so much, but they’re also the reason why I decided that I shouldn't just sit back and watch the hobby I love become identified as a bunch of misogynistic loudmouths who prefer scare tactics to being a decent human being.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

The Fine Line Between Passion and Abuse

I love being a gamer. It’s one of the few things in my life that I love to do and that I’m actually good at. But the games aren't the only reason I love being a gamer. There are millions of people just like me all across the globe who share this passion. Retro gamers, PC and console gamers, RPG lovers, shooter fanatics, MMO enthusiasts and live streamers: they all lend their voices to the gaming community at large. It’s this same community that I've come to appreciate through the dedicated and fervent gamers I've met on Twitter and the gaming blogs I read regularly. So why is it that gamers from the same community I laud are frequently seen as spoiled, mean-spirited, and full of vitriol by not only fellow gamers, but by the developers of the very games they love?

Phil Fish is perhaps the most polarizing figure in gaming, if not historically then most certainly within recent memory. While his highly successful indie game Fez drew near unanimous praise from critics and fans, the man behind the game seemed to attract nothing but controversy. First drawing ire for the constant delaying of Fez in 2010/11, things haven’t improved for Fish. He’s evolved from gifted developer and symbol of the indie game industry to Twitter rage-quitter to punchline on level with Half-Life 3. If you've followed the chronicles of Mr. Fish (especially on Twitter), then you know that he doesn't do himself any favors with his often brash way of communicating with people and his almost poetic way of feeding trolls. And while it may be easy to just shrug off Phil Fish as a developer who couldn't handle the pressure or who didn't appreciate what he had, I think we as a gaming community need to seriously consider our role in events such as these.

Gamer entitlement is a real thing, but is it wrong? Is it a problem?

Fish may be in the spotlight for lashing out at gamers and the industry at large, but he’s far from alone in his feelings. Indie company Puppy Games recently wrote on their blog about the PR quagmire that all game developers must muck through and its many pitfalls. The post talks a lot about how the gaming community is like a mob and how there’s very little companies can say that won’t excite that mob to turn on them. They go on to speak about the danger of trolls (no surprise here, especially if you’re Phil Fish), but the most telling passage is below (emphasis theirs):

“Firstly, gamers aren't very nice people. Yes, you. You are not a very nice person. Statistically speaking. By which I mean, independent game developers get more nasty shit from gamers than they get praise. Right now you are preparing to lecture me about how I talk to customers, or how I deserve to be broke and unsucessful [sic]. If you’re feeling particularly sanctimonious you’ll tell me you’re never going to buy any of our games again. If you’re especially spiteful you’ll also tell me that you were about to buy one of our games (for a dollar! ho ho), but now you’re not going to. 
No matter. What does matter is you’re not allowed to point out when someone is just being a shithead to you because they can. Don’t do that. The internet hates you.”

Perhaps you could view the opinions of Phil Fish and Puppy Games as disgruntled game developers whining about how they are not praised enough, and maybe you’re right. But stories like these just keep popping up, and they’re simply the tamest of examples. Consider the case of Zoe Quinn, a game developer who has recently come under attack due to a bitter ex-boyfriend’s crusade to make her life a living hell.  He rallied the darkest corners of 4chan to his cause and before you could bat an eyelash Ms. Quinn was receiving threatening messages and calls, had private photos of herself ripped and posted publicly, and people (most of whom identify themselves as gamers) spewing all sorts of vile things about her personal and sexual life online. 

Zoe Quinn has a point. A very good, and crucial point in this saga.

Let that sink in for a moment: a woman who has done nothing but create games for a living and break up with an ex-boyfriend is coming under attack from people who think she deserves this because…why? Because she’s a woman? Because she doesn't belong? Because she asked for it by working in a “man’s industry”? Because if she can’t handle it she needs to get out of the business? All of these reasons have been put forth by the attackers who think it’s okay to send death and rape threats to someone from behind the safety of their computer screen. It’s terrifying and angering all at the same time.

So why is it that people in the gaming community, my supposed colleagues in the world because of a shared hobby, feel it’s okay for them to personally attack someone? Is it okay to publicly humiliate another person simply because they’re “internet famous” or work for a gaming company? Do these people honestly believe they’re entitled to drag others down with them to the lowest depths of humanity because they didn't like their game, or don’t like that a woman is finding success in an industry “meant for men”? It’s simply disgusting and if at this point you aren't outraged that this happens ON A DAILY BASIS then please consider yourself part of the problem.

Look, I know that gamers are some of the most passionate people around. I myself defend gaming fervently to people who view it as a waste of time or a cause of society’s major issues. There’s often a thin line between fans being passionate and abusive, and when people believe that as a consumer or a member of the community they have the right to personally attack someone, online and/or in real life, then they've crossed that line. Let me make this perfectly clear: nobody, and I mean nobody, deserves to have their personal life a matter of public debate, and nobody deserves to be threatened for just doing their job or living their life as they please.

Looks like I'm not the only one who thinks that devs are also human.

We as a gaming community have a lot of power, it’s true. We have buying power that can make or break smaller companies, and can determine the route larger companies take with their development of current and future gaming titles. But we should never use this power as an excuse to take another gamer, another human being, and make them feel unsafe because they changed a small aspect of a beloved game or simply don’t agree with you. Again, perhaps Phil Fish didn't do himself any favors when he fed the trolls, but maybe we played angry mob to his Frankenstein’s Monster and made him the person he is today. In any case, we certainly didn't help the matter. And maybe it’s true that Puppy Games isn't helping their case by addressing this elephant in the room, but guess what: we’re the ones who created the elephant and need to take responsibility. And in the case of Zoe Quinn, there are no excuses for the way people are treating her and her family. If we as a gaming community don’t start standing up for the victims and against the dregs of society who attack them, then the cycle will continue and people will stop caring what we think, and will only fear what we’ll potentially do.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Graduation Day - Mass Effect 3 (Xbox 360)


***WARNING!!!*** POTENTIAL SPOILERS AHEAD ***WARNING!!!***

The Good: Like its predecessors, Mass Effect 3 does a great job of combining RPG and action elements with the ever enjoyable paragon/rebel decision system to create an amazing journey through this very climactic end of the best video game trilogy in recent memory.

The Bad: With a game this big there are bound to be a few bugs such as collision physics issues. The multiplayer feature seems forced and gets old very fast due to its repetitive nature.

The Glitchy: Having played through the entire trilogy as my male Shepard, the decisions you made even as far back as the original have an effect on this final installment, which is a great feature for loyal gamers of the franchise. Also, the decisions in Mass Effect 3 are much, much heavier than the last two combined, especially at the end of it all.


Friday, August 08, 2014

Graduation Day - King's Knight (NES)


If you were to ask me what game companies I associate with quality, Squaresoft would be at the top of my list. Sure, they’ve merged and now go by Square-Enix (Squenix, for short), and perhaps their quality of games has waned a bit since the PS1 days (my opinion…but also fact), but when I was a kid, Squaresoft’s talent rivaled that of the good folks over at Nintendo. I mean, Squaresoft was behind some of my favorite RPGs of all time, like Final Fantasy 9 and Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars.

So you can imagine my excitement when I snagged a small lot of NES games to find a game from Squaresoft I’d never heard of before, King’s Knight. Surely I had found an old-school RPG gem from the 8-bit days! Forgive my naivety at the time – my main experience with RPGs comes from the 16-bit era and beyond – but I truly couldn’t fathom a game from the days of Squaresoft could be bad. How wrong I was…

The Good: The box/label art is awesome. All in one place you’ve got a pink-haired princess being protected by a knight in golden armor, and a dragon carrying a wizard and some prehistoric-looking child on his back. Not to mention it’s got that old-school anime look going for it so bonus points.

The Bad: There’s no direction whatsoever, no motivation to care, random characters, nameless and faceless enemies, an apathetic soundtrack, and to top it all off, the difficulty is brutal. Plus, I’m not even sure this should be classified as action or adventure as the game states.

The Glitchy: You lose health by getting hit by enemies, but in a bizarre twist of gameplay mechanics, also by collecting “down arrows” that can somehow litter the screen when you destroy the environment.

First Impressions: Well, thing’s started out innocent enough with the title screen. Then all of a sudden I was transported to some forest where my guy was scrolling upwards towards enemies and I had no idea what to do. No intro, no text, and not the slightest hint at what the hell I’m trying to do. It just wasn’t a great start at all, especially for me because I promptly died about 10 seconds in. I’m not one to shy away from difficult games, but this is just brutal.

Graphics: Look, it’s an NES game. I can barely remember my time playing TMNT or Mario on the NES as a kid so it’s hard for me to compare it to anything except later generations. I will say that I recall TMNT and Mario having a bit more detail, even when TMNT when to a top-down look (which is all King’s Knight utilizes). But, the game came out in 1989, before Squaresoft pulled itself from the brink with their Final Fantasy franchise so I’ll give the graphics an…average?

Trust me, the cart is more interesting than any game screens.

Sound: Not great. There are very basic sound effects for shooting your weapons…or whatever, and for when you destroy things and get hurt. There’s also a little riff going on in the background, but it all seemed just very unaware that there was a game going on. Sure the sounds matched up with their respective events, but if you’re asking me to hum this tune from memory, forget it.

Controls: Again, this is an NES game: D-pad for movement in all directions, and use of a single button for firing your weapon. Pretty simple stuff, I guess, and it’s responsive so things are par for the course in this category. Nothing more to see here, move along.

Gameplay: It must have been freeing to develop games “back in the day” (in this case, the 80s), because there wasn’t a lot of pressure to fit your game to a formula that had proven successful yet. Sure there were popular games, but there wasn’t that air of “Simpson’s did it!” in the industry. Because there was still so much uncharted territory, companies were free to try new things out.

Unfortunately for King’s Knight, this culminated in some odd concepts. First off, you shot projectiles/energy up the screen to destroy parts of the environment and enemies. This wasn’t a foreign concept in 1989, but then again your characters weren’t planes or spaceships – they were people (or in one case, a monster/dinosaur thing…more on that later). It just didn’t fit when a knight or a thief could shoot projectiles. A wizard, sure, but come on Squaresoft – I only have so much reality I can suspend for one game.

Second, your character could lose life by being hit by enemies or their weapons, but also from random down-arrows that appeared on screen from destroying things around you like trees or rocks. This is very confusing at first because of the lack of explanation, and I initially thought these arrows controlled the screen’s scroll speed. Needless to say, this is why I died quickly on my first playthough.

But the oddest thing is how you’re supposed to “beat” the game. This isn’t anything I figured out on my own because I never even got close: I had to look it up. Apparently you play as 4 warriors tasked with saving a princess or save the world or something. But since they don’t bother to explain this ever, it doesn’t really matter, now does it? You have the knight, the wizard, the monster, and the thief, and each has to collect certain items and then enter a dungeon of sorts to defeat a mini-boss, then at the end each character fights the main boss and things happen.

That last sentence is so boring I almost fell asleep writing it, and that’s about how much you’ll care about this in a game that is not only brutally difficult but has given you direction or clue as to what you need to do whatsoever. Plus, when you need to fulfill a series of tasks or events in order to beat a game and there’s no way of you knowing what those are, that game will soon be finding its way to the bottom of a trash can.

Story: I gave this away above multiple times, but there’s no way to figure out the story or plot unless you look it up online, or maybe beat the game, which is impossible. Trust me, it’s not worth the effort either way, so just come to terms with that and forget all about this game.


Final Thoughts: <sigh> I really had high hopes for this NES Squaresoft game, but they were for naught. This “action/adventure” romp to kill baddies and save…stuff did nothing but frustrate and confuse me. I guess if there’s one positive thing about this whole experience it’s that I know the great things that Squaresoft eventually went on to do in the gaming industry.

Final Score:
2/10

Friday, July 25, 2014

Games of Our Fathers



Father’s Day has already come and gone, but I didn't have a chance to write a post about my father due to my travels outside of the country. Now that I’m back and have trusty wifi and a laptop, I want to take some time and write about the man who is not only my role model, but the reason I’m the gamer I am today. I encourage all of you, regardless of the day, to thank your fathers and mothers as often as possible, especially if they had a hand in you becoming a gamer.

As a gamer well into his 20s, it’s interesting to look back at my past and think about the beginnings of my love for gaming. It may have been nearly 23 years ago that I first popped a cart into a Sega Genesis and began what would become a lifelong hobby and passion, but to this day I have vivid memories of my earliest experiences as a gamer. Still, no matter how many times I look back at my history with video games, there seems to be one constant: my father. Without him, I wouldn’t be the gamer I am today, for it was he who taught me how to hold a controller; it was him who introduced me to the likes of Sonic and Mario; and it is him who, to this day, still games with me.

Sadly, as the years go by, my father and I seem to have less and less time to game together. Still, when we finally find the time, I always have flashbacks of my 5-year-old self with my father sitting at my side in front of an old CRT as we save imaginary lands from evil and build memories that will last a lifetime. As a way to thank my father for all those wonderful memories, I decided to write letters from each stage of my gaming life as I’ve grown to be the gamer I am today.


Preschool Gamer

Dear Daddy,

Thanks a bunch for getting that Sega Genesis! It’s really, really fun to play with you when you get home from work. I like playing NHL with you, especially when I get to play as my favorite team, the Red Wings. I also really like playing Sonic the Hedgehog. He’s really fast and cool, plus he’s my favorite color! He is the best character because you call me your little hedgehog when you carry me on your shoulders. My favorit-est game is Toejam & Earl cause we get to play together a lot. The aliens make funny noises and do crazy things when they open presents, but it’s really hard to play all by myself. I really need you to help me get all the spaceship pieces, and it’s cool when we get to sit for a long time and play together. Thanks a lot for letting me play games with you. It’s the best part of the day.

Love,

Timmy


Elementary Gamer

Dear Dad,

The SNES you bought is really fun to play. I really like the new games we have. Every morning I wake up and play Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars before I have to catch the bus. Sometimes I almost miss the bus because I’m playing too much and you don’t like that, but it makes me very happy to play before school. I know that you don’t like RPGs as much as I do, but thanks for helping me beat that boss early in the game. Oh, and thanks taking me to Blockbuster every week to rent Earthbound. I’m not sure what’s going a lot of the time, and it’s really hard to play, but I want to play it all day and all night. I wish we could play these games together like we used to do, but RPGs are for one player only. But if you ever want to play games with me we can rent a two-player game. Or I can play my games while you watch. I like that, too, dad. I also like Command & Conquer on the computer, but I’m not that good at it so I like watching you play that more, especially when Tanya blows things up. Okay, I have to go play Earthbound.

Love,

Tim


Middle School Gamer

Hey Dad,

Firstly, the N64 is awesome! The graphics are so cool, and Mario is in 3D! Of course you already know this because you watched me play Super Mario 64 for the first time when we brought my N64 home. It took a really long time to save up enough money from my paper route to buy my very own console, but I did it and I was so happy to play it for the first time. When I asked you to buy me one and you told me to get a paper route, I thought I would never own an N64, and I was a little mad at you. But I worked really hard, and you helped me a lot by driving me around to houses when weather was bad. Remember when we got a few feet of snow in winter and we delivered the papers together in a blizzard? It was hard but we did it, and to celebrate you bought us some pop and meat sticks and the corner market. That was fun, even though I was super tired.

Still, I got good tips that day and was able to save up the $200 to buy the N64! And the best part is you can play a lot of games with me, like Wave Race 64. I’ve been practicing really hard to beat all your times and win all the races, so I hope you’re ready to play when you get home from work. Well, it’s time to practice my stunts in Glacier Coast as Dave Mariner (“Fatboy”).

See ya!

Tim



High School Gamer

Dad,

I don’t have as much time for video games as I used to, what with working at Dairy Queen a lot these days, but let me know when you’re done with the PS2 so I can continue playing Call of Duty. I didn’t know that shooters were so fun, but those D-Day missions really sucked me in. I didn’t think anything could drag me away from Gran Turismo 3: A-Spec or Burnout 3, but I’ve found myself playing Call of Duty and Black more often. It seems that our schedules are opposite one another a lot these days, plus my girlfriend wants to go out a lot (and she has a knack for calling when I’m in the middle of a gaming session). Still, I’m hoping one day we can continue trading missions in SOCOM: U.S. Navy SEALs. I know it’s not co-op like we usually do but I enjoy the way you play. You’re a lot more patient and prefer stealth, but I just can’t help but go in with guns blazing.

Speaking of guns blazing, I’m still angry with you for not letting me buy GTA III. All my friends are playing it and I still don’t think it’s that big of a deal – I mean, I played Mortal Kombat as a kid and I turned out alright. However, you say you’re doing it for my own good and you have to draw the line somewhere, and there’s really nothing I can do about it. I still love you even though I’m mad at you, and maybe one day I’ll understand your reasoning, but it just doesn’t make sense to me right now. Aw crap, the girlfriend is calling me again – and I was just about to go play Final Fantasy X. She’s probably going to ask me to sell my games again…as if! Thanks for at least understanding that gaming is important to me (unlike some people).

Later,

Tim


Graduated Gamer

Hey Papa,

I can’t believe that time flies so fast. It just seems like a few years ago we were lighting the lamp in NHL ’94 and saving up to buy an N64 together. Yet here we are, you about to retire and me engaged to the woman I love, about to embark on another adventure in life. It’s been a long and rocky road to this point, and while girlfriends, seasons, schools, hairstyles, and just about everything else has changed or gone completely, I wanted to thank you for the one constant through it all – video games. Now I know that you’ve given me so much in my life, and believe me I’m grateful for it all, but gaming was really the one thing that has helped keep me sane over the last 20+ years. Growing up as an only child isn’t easy, particularly when the summers hit, and I often turned to video games as a source of comfort and companionship. I knew characters like Sonic, Ness, Mario, and Cloud better than I knew a lot of my friends, and while many people may think this is sad, it actually helped me find a place in this world.

As the years went on and I was able to get out of the house more, I still turned to video games to get me through tough times. When I had a tough day at school, the struggles of Zidane, Dagger, Vivi, et al to save the world put things in perspective. And when I needed to de-stress after a long session of doing homework, I could find that relief by dodging cops and competitors in Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit. So you see, video games give me a good outlet for emotions and tough times.

That being said, the most important thing I got out of gaming was the bond between me and you, dad. You did it right and started me out at a young age. I know the stigma that video games have faced through the years and that your method of bonding with me through gaming probably wasn’t a popular one, but trust me, it was the right call. Some of my most vivid memories are of us playing games like Toejam & Earl and Road Rash. I can recall sneaking peaks at the screen as you played Doom, even though I wasn’t supposed to, and of playing Command & Conquer because you did. And to this day, one of my favorite memories is of you beating that damn crocodile mini-boss for me early in Super Mario RPG for the SNES. I don’t know if you remember it, but I’ll never forget it as long as I live because it meant so much to me at the time. You know what they say – the smallest gestures can make the difference to a child.

And as I grew up I know that we had our fair share of fights and disagreements (GTA III, anyone?), and we grew apart a little during the high school and college years. Still, through those tough times I went back to video games as a source of familiarity, safety, and comfort. Even at our worst moments when it seemed like we’d never speak again, I had a connection to you that I could never sever. Whenever I boot up the N64, the SNES, or even the PS3, I’m booting up a long history of gaming that I wouldn’t have without you.

So thank you, papa. Thank you for opening my eyes to the world of gaming at such a young age. Thank you for teaching me a valuable lesson in responsibility by having me buy my own N64 (and then playing it with me). Thank you for looking out for me and trying to protect me from explicit content, even though I disagreed with you at the time. And thank you for continuing to game with me to this day. And even though sometimes we’ve been hundreds of miles away playing Battlefield 3 over Xbox Live, it still feels like we’re side by side, playing Sonic the Hedgehog for the first time all over again.

Your Son,

Tim, aka – Graduated Gamer

Wednesday, July 09, 2014

Graduation Day - Ni No Kuni


Out of all the gaming genres, RPGs are nearest and dearest to my heart, particularly JRPGs. While many gamers are turned off by common JRPG conventions like grinding, grinding, and grinding, I can’t help but fall in love with the traditional JRPG elements like classes, summons, world-destroying villain, and yes, even the grinding. It is with this in mind that I finally took the dive into the world of Ni No Kuni.

To be honest, I really took the plunge because of two reasons: a) I finally bought a PS3 a few months back and b) a friend of mine lent me the game for free. This isn't to say that I didn't completely and utterly want to play this game! When you’re an arguable hardcore JRPG fan and a game like Ni No Kuni comes along you don’t just shrug and move on with your life. It’s the same reason why I regret never finishing Final Fantasy VIII or Legend of Dragoon – games like those speak to the very essence of who I am as a gamer: obsessed, stubborn, old-school, and willing to sacrifice personal relationships for something that nobody else really cares about (okay, that last one is harsh, but do you really think the world gave a fuck that Cloud saved them from Sephiroth?). But how exactly did Oliver and his band of familiar-wielding (aka – summon-wielding) pals sit with the late-20s me that may have a teen version of me trapped inside?

To be brief, I loved it. Not in the, “Oh yea, I love the visuals and the action!” way of loving it that so many gamers seem to have these days (forgive me if this offends but as of writing this I've had a rough week and I have the urge to speak my mind – seriously graphics aren't everything, people!). I’m talking, “I wish I didn't have so many distractions in my life like a job, bills, loved ones, and the so-called ‘real world’ so I could grind to my heart’s content and get all my familiars up to level 100” type of love. It’s an obsession, and that’s what, to me, JRPGs are all about. The reason IMO that JRPGs fell out of favor with people in the 2000's is because people got lazy. Again, this isn't a problem with gamers as much as it is with the industry for not recognizing their consumer trends to not want to grins for dozens of hours to beat a few middling bosses. Gamers were screaming for more western RPGs and FPS games like Fallout 3 and Call of Duty: Modern Warfare. Gaming styles aside, the industry responds to what sells, and that’s what the industry has churned out en masse the last 10 years of so. However, as with fashion and history, things go in cycles and we’re now seeing a Renaissance of the JRPG, and I couldn't be happier.

So back to Ni No Kuni – what exactly was it about this game that dragged me back into the rabbit hole like Earthbound and Super Mario RPG did to me before? Well, first of all, it’s the likability of the characters. For Ni No Kuni, the star of the show, Oliver, is what I’d like to focus on. When I play a JRPG, for some reason I’m drawn more towards the characters that exhibit a bit of pure idealism, which some can also call innocence. Take Earthbound for example – you have a young kid who embarks on a massive adventure to save the world from an all-powerful alien being on a whim because he truly believes that his psychic abilities can do the trick. If that’s not innocence I don’t know what is. However, with the advent of Final Fantasy VII, popular characters and heroes became darker, edgier, moodier, and essentially Dariah-esque. While it did great to bring JRPGs back into the mass public’s attention, that anti-hero, emo archetype took away a bit of what made the genre special in some ways.

Some cartoons just want to watch the world burn.

But
Ni No Kuni brings us Oliver who is on the “Ness”-end of the hero scale. The journey has the feel of something straight out of Calvin & Hobbes. A boy running around with his stuffed animal friend and a stick for a wand just screams innocence and harkens back to the child in gamers like myself who grew up in awe of the magical worlds we were fortunate to explore. His sense of wonder and desire to do what’s right by the world and his friends is inspiring, and while it’s corny at times, it never gets over the top. 

Still, no game is complete with just great characters, One of the best things about Ni No Kuni is its balance. You have a choice of two difficulties – story-focused, or easy, and combat-focused, or normal. You get the same story either way, but one gives you an added challenge. This essentially boils down to grinding, but any JRPG fan would be remiss to select easy. I say this because even while playing on normal difficulty, I never felt extremely overwhelmed to the point of frustration. Sure there are times when a boss fight is tougher than others, but it’s not to the point where you have to grind for hours to beat it. Either you need to grind a bit more or you simply need to change your battle strategy.

And this is where Ni No Kuni has its best innovation but also its greatest flaw. The battle system allows you to take control of any party member and their familiars (more on them later), but you also dictate how your other party members should battle. Should they attack the weakest enemies? Should they act as a healer? Or should they not use abilities and only use physical attacks? This is great for many battles as the party AI is good for straight up attacking normal beasties. I rarely had issues with my party failing to contain a randomly encountered mob.

"Oliver, promise me you'll never set your AI to do what they like!"

However, boss battles are where the AI loses its luster. I found myself having to focus too much on keeping my team alive or out of danger because they did a terrible job of doing anything else but head-strong attacking. Setting a member to a healer means they heal when they feel like it, and it’s so random that it can hardly be called intelligent. Most of the time a healer would die in between heals because they rushed into the battle irresponsibly. Also, the team AI doesn't know when to retreat if their health is low, meaning they keep putting themselves in harm’s way leading to quick deaths. Eventually, I started treating boss battles like solo affairs and just ignoring my team members. While this strategy works, it’s frustrating to stretch a battle that should take 10 minutes into one that takes 30 minutes. Regardless, it’s forgivable for how infrequently it happens.

Now on to the most addicting aspect of the game – familiars. Think non-turn based Pokémon with armor and weapons, and you've got the gist of it. The world is full of familiars that you have to battle, and early on you’re given the ability to capture familiars and level them up. Each familiar has 4 evolutions, 2 of which are a choice between the 3rd and final form. Believe me when I say that familiar hunting and leveling becomes a game in itself. The addiction factor is high, and the cuteness factor even higher. I can’t tell you how much I've agonized over which final form to choose with some of my favorite familiars. When you've spent over 30 hours with the same creatures, you start to develop a bond. It’s akin to that feeling you have when your little Charmander finally evolves into a Charizard. It’s easy to get lost in the world of familiar hunting and leveling, but it’s a welcome distraction when you need a break from the overall adventure.

I choose you, you adorable sonofabitch!

I could go on about how the game looks great, but it’s on the PS3 so you know that already. I could go on about the story, but it’s a JRPG so you know it has a hero saving the world. All of these things are secondary to the best aspects of the game I mentioned above. The point is that Ni No Kuni harkens back to JRPG forefathers like Earthbound, earlier Final Fantasy games, and Super Mario RPG. If you’re like me and love the feel of exploration, with a dash of innocence and a hint of Pokémon, then you’ll love Ni No Kuni. It may take you 50+ hours to beat (not complete), but you’ll enjoy every minute of it. I know this will be a game I’ll come back to years later, pop it in, and have major feels about the first time I played it, and that’s when I know a game is something special.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Reliving Past Glory


One of the greatest things about video games is that you can play them again and again. Okay, so that’s also true for a lot of things like movies and songs, but there are things that you can’t experience again and again…like important life events such as a wedding or the birth of a child. I guess that argument fell apart a bit there, whatever. Regardless, video games are awesome because they have replay value, even if they’re the same every single playthrough. I've recently been thinking about games I’d love to play again, and I decided to put those thoughts down into list form. I hope you enjoy a walk down my memory lane, and feel free to let me know about games you’d love to play again on Twitter or in the comments.

1) Super Mario RPG

You aren't fooling anyone, Bowser!

This was one of the most memorable experiences I've ever had playing a video game. I can still recall days waking up for elementary school, throwing on clothes, and running to the living room to play this classic before the bus came. I’d be lying if I said I didn't miss a few of those buses because of this game. I was a huge Mario fan as most (S)NES children were growing up, and when Squaresoft combined Mario’s world with the RPG genre it was like crack. You couldn't keep me away and I loved every second of it, so much so that it inspired me to try some more of Squaresoft’s work (like that little Final Fantasy series they make). It’s been years since I stomped on baddies heads with the likes of Mallow, Geno, and of course emo-Bowser (his best role ever), and now that I have the Wii fired up, it’s time to rectify that.

2) Earthbound

The creators of this game definitely weren't on acid.

Where Super Mario RPG made me fall in love with Squaresoft, Earthbound is the game that made me fall in love with RPGs. I first rented this cult-classic from a Blockbuster, back in the days when it was kind to rewind, Nintendo hosted Donkey Kong Country tournaments, and the rental also came with the game guide/manual (how it didn’t get stolen I’ll never know). I remember the whimsical nature of the game that seemed driven to not take itself too seriously, and I also remember how absolutely unforgiving the game could be, especially to an inexperienced child. I rented Earthbound 3 times but couldn’t beat it…at least not until I bought a used copy from a Funcoland (remember those!?) years later. Sadly, I eventually sold that copy, but recently picked up another cart at great cost, and will one day save the world with the precocious and heroic Ness.

3) ToeJam & Earl

Spaceship hunting is hard work.

Today, multiplayer gaming is the norm, and can be done across oceans with the press of a button. But if you’ve been gaming long enough, you know well enough that the multiplayer gaming experience used to be scant and involved having multiple controllers plus a good friend down the road. My first experience with multiplayer gaming was with the Genesis classic ToeJam & Earl, playing for hours with my dad trying to help those funky aliens rebuild their spaceship and escape in the insanity of planet Earth. At the time, the highlight of my day came when my dad and I would sit on the floor together in front of the old CRT and enjoy a game just inches apart. Good times, simpler times.

4) Road Rash II

TAKE THAT LAWSON, YOU BITCH!

If you’ve ever played any of the Burnout, Need for Speed, or even Twisted Metal games, then you owe the Road Rash franchise a big thank you. Back in the Genesis days, Road Rash made battle racing extremely enjoyable, and they did it on motorcycles! There was just something so satisfying about pummeling your competitor with a police baton or metal chain so much that they crashed, then outracing a cop to the finish. I actually got my first experience with the 2nd iteration of the series on Sega’s little black box, and I loved it so much the first time that I rented it 3 more times from Blockbuster. Oh, and Road Rash was also one of the first video games to have a soundtrack with popular bands and allowing gamers to access them via a jukebox feature.

5) Jet Force Gemini

I barely remember these bugs but damn was this a fun game.

If you were to ask me why I love this oft-forgotten gem from the N64, I’d have a hard time telling you why. All I know is that as a kid I was blown away by the game and was deeply saddened when my copy of the game froze. Perhaps it was the sci-fi theme, and I know for sure that I was impressed by the assortment of weapons you could wield in the game (upon reflection, Jet Force Gemini has a lot of things in common with later games like Jak and Daxter and Ratchet and Clank). Regardless why I loved it, I would love to go back in time to the day I popped this little known cart into my N64 for the first time just to know the feels.

6) Super Mario Land 2: 6 Golden Coins

Classic box art is classic.

I know some of you may be wondering how/why a Super Mario Gameboy game made it on this list ahead of a Pokémon game, and I have a good reason for it – ­Super Mario Land 2 was the first Gameboy game to feel whimsical and make Nintendo’s super handheld system a must-have wherever I went. Before, the system was something I borrowed from my mom between her Tetris sessions and my Super Nintendo games. However, once I started Mario’s hunt for those golden coins in Gameboy’s glorious shades of green, I couldn’t put it down. It was soon afterwards that my mom realized that the Gameboy would have to be borrowed from me, and it’s because of this game that classics like Pokémon found their way into my game library.

7) Final Fantasy VII

My sentiments exactly, Cloud.

Okay, so this one is probably on a lot of lists out there, and while I’ve made it no secret that Final Fantasy IX is my favorite installment in this celebrated franchise, the first time I ventured into Shinra as Cloud Strike & Co. was an experience that any RPG lover will never forget. While I was certainly no stranger to RPGs at the time (see above), the dark and brooding nature of Final Fantasy VII was a deviation from the bright, vibrant worlds of my previous experiences. Plus, I nearly dropped my controller on the floor with my jaw whenever Sephiroth did, well, anything badass like he does. I mean, very few villains have made me want to buy a sword quite like that silver-haired sociopath. Hell of a salesman.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Final Fantasies and Emotional Realities


Many gamers develop feelings for the games they play. Love, hate, and everything in between can be elicited by the characters, genres, and fictitious worlds we cherish so much. As a young gamer, my emotions were mainly kept to a minimum in gaming, usually surfacing in little bits and snippets, like when I’d complete a certain level that seemed cheap and impossible to beat. It made me proud, and I’m sure everyone can relate to these feelings to a certain degree, but for me it took some time until one game actually made me feel, and the impact was so great that to this day it causes me to stop and reflect on the time I spent playing it in the spring of 2001.

I’m referring to the classic Final Fantasy IX from Square (don’t tell me to put the Enix there because I won’t do it). The gaming world was still experiencing a rejuvenation and new-found respect of JRPG titles, thanks to the worldwide hit Final Fantasy VII, and I was definitely one of those gamers who fell hard for the dark and angsty world of Cloud and Co. However, the seventh installment of Square’s flagship series failed to move me on any level further than an outburst of “WOOHOO! I just beat Sephiroth!” Perhaps I was a bit too young to fully connect with the characters on an emotional level. Or perhaps I just didn't care that much about the story as an 11 year old. Whatever the reason, little did I know my experience with Square’s medieval-esque fantasy world would change me as a gamer and a person.

Sad? No. I was PISSED because I leveled Aeris.

While my last statement may’ve seemed a bit extreme, I think it’s time to express my outlook on the importance and validity of video games as more than just a way to pass time. For hundreds of years before television and video entertainment, humans looked to other forms of media to inspire and shape them. Authors wove brilliant tales of faraway lands and dashing heroes while splicing in themes and motifs that morphed the minds of the young and old (and continue to do so today). Thespians would perform for kings, aristocrats, and common folk alike to not only give them an escape from their troubles, but to also teach them about important issues in their society and the world at large.

Whereas literature, theater, and art have prevailed for centuries, people in the modern society still look at media, like video games, as just an escape, something that people do for nothing more than simple pleasure. And many still believe they hold no real connection or significance in today’s world like those aforementioned activities did in the past. However, I (as I’m sure most of you reading this do as well) believe that video games are increasing in importance, not only as artistic mediums, but as tools to help the general public progress into a new era.

Now that that’s out of the way, back to Final Fantasy IX. By the time I opened up my copy of the game, I had spent over 200 hours in the world of Final Fantasy VII. I had also attempted to play Final Fantasy VIII, but alas, a faulty disc caused the game to crash about halfway through completion, and I've never had the heart to pick it back up since. Regardless, I had a basic understanding of what to expect for FFIX; however, I had no idea the kind of impact this game would have on me.

Around the same time I was going through a personal transition from boyhood to manhood. And before you stop reading, I’m not going to go into any weird biology here. What I mean is, I was moving on to a new realm of my life, one where I’d start attending high school, driving, dating, having more freedom, etc., and in the midst of this process I was attempting to find out more about who I was as a person. I know now that many people experience these events multiple times throughout their lives, especially during college years (been there, done that, graduated with more questions than answers…), but this was my first foray into the makeup of what made me, me. And compounding this complicated stage in my life was the loss of an aunt, the first death in my family I’d experienced, and the exploration into questions of religion and an afterlife. So as you can see, 2000/01 was a very intriguing time for me.

Still, you can’t keep a good gamer down enough to separate him from his habits, and while I was busy soul-searching, I began my quest to kidnap a princess, fall in love, and eventually save the world. But throughout my journey I started to relate to the themes and characters in Final Fantasy IX in a way I’d never done before. Particularly those of mortality and purpose expressed through my all-time favorite FF character, Vivi Ornitier. Vivi’s past is initially shrouded in mystery, and it takes the loss of a loved one to inspire him to explore the world and discover more about himself. And through his journey with the main protagonist, Vivi grapples with serious issues of his own transience, why he exists in the world, and if he was inherently good, or destined to be evil. (Some of these themes are also expressed through the lead character Zidane, but I identified more with Vivi, possibly because I love black mages more than thieves.)

Not sure if philosophical or emo...

Throughout the game, I became entranced by many of the cut scenes, especially those that involved Vivi’s storyline (and there were quite a few). His struggle to take his questionable existence and place it within the reality around him struck a chord within me, because of my desire to know where I, myself, fit in the world. When Vivi learned of death and how he too may quite possibly die one day, it played with my emotions particularly because of the recent passing of my aunt. And when Vivi questioned whether he had any control over his destiny in life, and if he controlled the ability to be good or evil, well, I think that’s something many people in this world can relate to at one point or another.

Once I attached myself to Vivi and his band of misfits, I stopped being just a player and observer – I began to feel for them, and at many times laughed and cried alongside them. But it wasn't until after all the battles had been won and peace was restored to the world that I truly realized how much this game had affected me. As the credits began to roll, the song “Melodies of Life” began to play, and I just lost it. All the hours spent relating to these characters was really a part of my own self-discovery, and when it was all over I didn't know what else to do but sit and cry as the text scrolled and the FMVs from my 70+ hour adventure played. Call it whatever you want, but I truly believe that my adventures spent with Vivi & Co. helped me back then and now, years later, to grow as a person.


But as time passed, the emotional connection to Final Fantasy IX somewhat faded. Don’t get me wrong, it still remains my favorite FF game of all time (and my favorite video game OST of all time, period), but I no longer cry or tear up at the sound of “Melodies of Life.” I don’t need the experiences from this game to carry me through life anymore, even if I’m going through another personal exploration. Still, I can’t deny the emotions that game invoked inside me and the hold it had on me over 10 years ago. And while many other games have come along since then and affected me emotionally on many different levels, I’ll never forget the first game to cause me both joy and sorrow in such a meaningful way.