(I know I promised more Wolfe, but some of this material has been sitting around for a while, and most of my analytical energy is being exhausted at the academic level. Bear with me!)
Seeing as how my top ten movie list was unexpectedly popular, and seeing as how my ability to regularly crank out posts may soon be compromised, I’ve decided to do a followup post – this time with more pew pew pew.
5. Bangai-O Spirits (Nintendo DS, 2006)
The Bangai-O franchise is a sort of homage to giant robot anime. I mean, I’ve yet to encounter a show featuring robots that are powered by fruit, but I’m sure that it must exist.
Beyond that, Spirits is a strange game. For one thing, the linear, structured game you’d expect is actually found in the brief tutorial stages, where a crazy old scientist guy tries to teach a boy and a girl how to pilot the game’s giant robot. The rest of the package is a massive amount of bonus stages that can be played in any order and have no real story behind them whatsoever.
The goal in any given stage is just to destroy a certain number of designated targets. Targets can be anything: enemies, buildings, energy orbs. The enemies can also be anything: giant robots, giant ants, baseball players, etc. The stages will also have just about every theme imaginable: for instance, the theme of having all the walls and floors made up of extremely dangerous explosives.
Yes, you can indeed wield gigantic baseball bats
It is often the case in games that when too many things are happening on the screen at once, you will experience slowdown as the processor chokes on all the info. Bangai-O Spirits raises slowdown to an artform. The amount of firepower that is often on display frequently brings things to a halt, giving you time to appreciate the Jackson Pollock-esque mess you’ve created.
You may not, at the end of it all, really understand why you won, or even what the heck was going on in the first place, but you’ll know it was a fun ride.
4. Super Metroid (Super Nintendo, 1994)
When your game has become part of a genre title, you know you’ve done something good. A metroidvania game is, in short, a game which combines the 2-dimensional mechanics of a platformer with the expansive world of an RPG. In this case, a bunch of Space Pirates have taken the Metroid – a dangerous bioweapon – and you need to go to their home planet to recover it. Never mind that all these villains were obliterated in the first game; continuity is for chumps.
Sometimes those statues give you helpful items. Sometimes they’re actually alive
Anyway, the game has atmosphere up the wazoo (as the expression goes). Planet Zebes really does feel like a hostile, alien environment – even that room with the sakura petals. And that metroid thing thinks you’re its mommy, so there’s this weird maternal vibe underneath it all.
If this is starting to sound a bit like the Alien franchise, allow me to also point out that Super Metroid also features not one, but two explosive countdown sequences. What’s not to like?
And, honestly, there are worse things to rip off than Alien.
Perhaps I spoke too soon.
Oh please, make it stop!
3. Shadow of the Colossus (Sony Playstation 2, 2005)
Yes, I know I referred to this as the, “best game ever,” a few months ago, but I’m given over to superlatives like that. Click the link for more developed thoughts.
2. Chrono Trigger (Super Nintendo, 1995)
If there is one recognizably deleterious effect that Chrono Trigger has had on my life, it’s that I’ll always immediately associate the name Dalton with Queen Zeal’s conniving assistant. Sorry, Mr. McGuinty.
Chrono Trigger, which was originally released by Squaresoft for the Super Nintendo nineteen years ago(!) remains one of the most beloved video games of all time – and rightly so. For in the midst of cynical, nihilistic fare like the GTA franchise, pretentious, boring crap like 90% of the RPG genre, and pointless, grim Call of Dutys, Chrono Trigger stands as a sort of beacon. A beacon proclaiming two important things: that video games should stand for fun, and that buried within all those video game cliches is a story that is actually worth telling.
Anyhow, background. To quote Wikipedia,
Chrono Trigger ’s development team included three designers that Square dubbed the “Dream Team”: Hironobu Sakaguchi, the creator of Square’s Final Fantasy series; Yuji Horii, a freelance designer and creator of Enix‘s popular Dragon Quest series; and Akira Toriyama, a freelance manga artist famed for his work with Dragon Quest and Dragon Ball. Kazuhiko Aoki produced the game, Masato Kato wrote most of the plot, while composer Yasunori Mitsuda scored most of the game before falling ill and deferring the remaining tracks to Final Fantasy series composer Nobuo Uematsu.”
So it was one of those rare moments where someone’s fantasy lineup of creators actually came together and made something. And the game itself is self aware of the fact – containing a secret room where you can, to fanfare, meet the “Dream Team” yourself. They at least clearly believed enough in their creation to think that you’d find something like that cute rather than smug.
What, then, did the “Dream Team” make that they were so proud of? A first glance shows that it comfortably, perhaps almost complacently, follows the grooves laid down by the Final Fantasy games: you control a party of characters who explore a fantasy world, getting into combat situations where you order your characters around by selecting commands from menus. Your characters grow in power and learn new abilities, you collect money that you can use to buy weapons, armor and other sundry items, etc.
This style of gameplay itself emerged from a desire to emulate the experience of Dungeons and Dragons, with the CPU taking the place of the dungeon master. So in a curious way it shares more in common with those computerized poker and blackjack games than it does with Mario. You exchanged the presence of other people for all the pyrotechnics and flashiness that you couldn’t have in a tabletop game. This has created a problem which has perpetually plagued the JRPG genre: a disproportionate amount of the game’s value falls upon noninteractive elements like elaborate storytelling and (especially) the graphics. So they have a tendency to become more and more like interactive movies than games as the tech becomes increasingly sophisticated.
Chrono Trigger’s big success is to attempt to streamline this sort of cumbersome, pseudo-DnD gameplay style into something that is extremely fun in its own right; and to integrate it into everything else in such a tight manner so as to create an experience that is neither an interactive movie nor a mere aping of tabletop games. A good example of what I mean by this is the boss fight with Magus partway through the game.
The guy at the top
The plot has been building up to this point for some time. Magus has the usual pre-battle spiel with the other characters. He then turns his back to them, and the battle music begins playing in a low, ominous note. Then three things happen at once: the music breaks out into excitement; Magus suddenly turns around to attack the party; and the player’s input menu opens up. The interactive fight feels like the dramatic continuation of the non-interactive dialogue rather than an interruption in the drama for the sake of giving the player something to do.
The effect is something that you can’t achieve in a DnD game: the sensation of participating in an epic adventure in real time. All the menu selecting you do is boiled down to a minimum to keep a sense of flow that few games before or since have mastered. And it knows how to put its flashiness and excess to good use. It knows that you’d like to do crazy stuff like use a flamethrower to light Chrono’s sword on fire, and other such ridiculousness.
The story is pretty razzle dazzle too. Sure, it starts out with your standard save the princess plot. And, sure, it features at least two Evil Chancellors. But the princess in this case needs to be saved from being time paradoxed out of existence (ala Back to the Future). And that’s just the first hour or so. After that, you’re framed for kidnapping said princess and need to clear your name. But then it also turns out that a giant eldritch abomination called Lavos is going to destroy the world in 999 years, and that your only hope to prevent that from happening is to use time travel to alter the course of history for the good. Along with said princess, you team up with your inventor friend Lucca, a frog knight called Frog, a robot called, um, Robo, and a cavewoman called
Ok, so things don’t stray too far from Saturday Morning Cartoon fare, but it’s charming stuff, nonetheless.
1. Mega Man 2 (Nintendo Entertainment System, 1988)
There is a moment in the first Wily Fortress level of this game where Mega Man is required to do some platforming above your standard bottomless abyss. And then out of nowhere a giant robotic dragon swoops in out of nowhere and chases him. This is a sucker punch on the part of the developers; unless you have spiderman’s reflexes, you will be caught off guard and instantly killed on your first time through. But it is a magnificent rug-pull that is so artfully done that your annoyance is completely obliterated by the sheer wonder of it.
And that moment kinda encapsulates a lot of what I love about this game. Mega Man 2 delights in throwing players into situations that are harrowing and ludicrous, like spending an entire level dodging death lasers, or making precise jumps while robot crabs rain down on you. But while it sets the bar high, it is surprisingly forgiving if you mess up, allowing you to get back in the game with minimal penalties.
GIANT ROBOT DRAGON
Like Chrono Trigger, MM2 also has a bit of an interesting origin story: although the first game was a modest success, Capcom wasn’t too keen on producing a sequel. But the dev team, and in particular Mega Man co-creator Keiji Inafune, was pretty pumped about the idea. So they reached an agreement whereby Mega Man 2 was greenlighted under the condition that it could only be worked on during the team’s own free time. So that surprise robot dragon sucker punch wasn’t just put there because someone needed a paycheck – it was there because someone was really passionate about making a game with a surprise robot dragon.
MM2 is a sublimely ridiculous game. Mega Man is a candy coloured Astro Boy expy who, in superhero fashion, wears his underwear on the outside. His enemies are killer robots with cutesy anime designs. Their creator, Dr. Wily, resides in a skull shaped fort. But it is – at least for the first 95% percent of it, a really earnest game, as evinced in its more or less perfect intro sequence:
The other 5% has to do with the final level, which is in a sense an elaborate practical joke. While the penultimate level sets itself up to be the final showdown, Dr. Wily manages to escape, and Mega Man is thrown into a tunnel deep underground for the true final stage. Everything here is eerily silent except for the sound of dangerous acid dripping from the ceiling (of course). At the end of the tunnel is Dr. Wily, who reveals himself to be an alien and fights Mega Man one last time. It would seem to be a ridiculous, M. Night Shyamalan worthy twist. Except that, when the finishing blow is dealt to the alien Wily, it is revealed that he was just a holographic projection being manipulated by the real Dr. Wily, who immediately surrenders when he realizes that the ruse is up.
It’s a humorous fakeout (and how many games are willing to use their climax for that kind of gag?), but its also weirdly metafictional. The final boss isn’t real, but then the rest of the game is, well, just that: a game, an elaborate technological ruse, a piece of escapist fantasy. You didn’t actually do any of that stuff.
And you thought that games with robot crabs couldn’t be deep.