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.



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.



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!


High School Gamer


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).



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.

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.