[Warning - this article contains potential spoilers for many games. Despite the title this is not limited to games released in the 2010s. I made an effort to avoid revealing any major spoilers but it's likely I failed at least once. Proceed at your own risk.]
Last year, which is actually 10 years ago by the time this will be published, I wrote an article chronicling my gaming experiences in the zeros. About 1/4 of the way into it I bemoaned how much easier it would have been if I kept track of what I played all along. Of course, in 2000 it never occurred to me that I'd want to write something like this. I was fresh out of college and about to get married. My web site was a small collection of programs I wrote and other random junk. Anything resembling a coherent article was a few years away.
Years passed and my site grew to something that broke over a million page views in a day on a few occasions (although the average is a fraction of that). 2009 rolled around and I had the itch to do a retrospective piece, a grand review of everything I played in the past decade. My memory wasn't perfect and I admitted as much in the article. I certainly forgot a few games, misplaced some time lines, and gave overly rosy or negative reviews based entirely on hazy memories. Despite this I think it turned out just fine, but it could have been better.
In 2010 I made a conscious effort to keep a running draft of the next Decade in Review. I started recording my gaming experiences as they happened, or as close to it as I could. This means the entries won't be all that contemplative ("hey remember last week!") so in December 2019 I'll go back and reflect then.
Anything you see in a box like this is "old me" in 2019 going back over something "slightly younger me" wrote years prior.
One plus to this approach is it will force me to try more new games than I otherwise would have. Like last time, every year I will award a "Favorite game of 201X (that was actually released in 201X):" and "Favorite game of 201X (that was released before 201X)". There were a couple years in the zeros when I barely bought anything new so it was slim pickings for the first award, I'll try to do better this time.
Another positive is I'll capture my immediate reaction to news and trends instead of only the hindsight. I think that will provide more balance to this.
One concern, and it's a real one, is that I'll be 44 at the end of 2019. Will I be too old for gaming? I'm supposed to be playing golf and having a midlife crisis not guiding a digital plumber through battles with giant mushrooms.
What if I finally grow up?
If you're reading this then that hasn't happened. I doubt it will. Unlike previous generations I'm proud to be a member of the first that grew up with video games. I was raised on the Intellivision, spent summer breaks with the NES, was a foot soldier in the 16-bit war, and even worked the Sony PlayStation launch. This has been part of my life since I could read and I don't see why age will change a thing.
Alright, enough rambling let's start this journey already and head back to the birth of a new decade...
December 31, 2009 - I Miss 2009
Once I had my first daughter in 2003 things like New Year's celebrations were a thing of the past. On quite a few I went to bed long before midnight. In 2008 my daughter decided she wanted to stay up all night on New Year's Eve. I don't know where she got that idea but we gave it a shot. She fell asleep at 11:58 PM.
The next year she wanted to try again. At this point she was really, really into Disney Channel so we all watched a marathon together. It was some kind of fan picked "best of" thing, people voted online for favorite episodes and they aired them. Hours on end of Hannah Montana, Suite Life of Zack and Cody, Wizards of Waverly Place, and Sonny with a Chance.
I wonder where many of these Disney stars will be in another 10 years. Will Selena Gomez and Demi Lovato go the way of Lindsay Lohan? It would be sad yet not surprising.
The marathon ran all day and there's only so much Disney Channel I can stand at once. So after putting our 1 year-old to bed I plopped down on the couch and fired up the Nintendo DS while my oldest daughter watched her favorite shows. This seemed like the perfect time to start Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks on the DS.
My initial impressions of the game was positive. I'll get the bad out of the way first, the whole train track thing was too confining. In Phantom Hourglass you had the ability to plan any course of travel you wanted, this was a letdown. Otherwise it started with a good story and soundtrack. Play wise it was virtually identical to the previous game.
Eventually the night ended with the grand countdown. Immediately when it ended and the streamers flew through the air she started sobbing "I miss 2009". It had been a really great year for her.
Little did I know what the 2010s would bring, this montage sums up everything I remember about popular culture this decade:
The Disney star comment sure seems prophetic now...
2010 - Small Screen
Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks was obviously the first game I played in 2010. I spent many nights working my way through it. In addition to my previous comment about the confined environment, I grew incredibly frustrated with the blowing into the microphone mechanic. I swear, I will never play another DS game that uses it. Even with that annoyance this was a good game, not as good as Phantom Hourglass but not bad either. The snow levels were my favorite part of the game, possibly because I was playing it in winter but more likely because I like ice/winter levels in general.
I got up to the last boss in Spirit Tracks but quit after trying roughly 20 times. The rest of the game was unusually easy but this last boss was highly frustrating, to the point of not being fun anymore.
The next game I tried was Scribblenauts, also for the DS. I was eagerly anticipating this game since I first read about it. It looked like one of the most innovative games ever created and delivered a home run in that department. In many ways it reminded me of an old-school text adventure. Whatever you can imagine, just type it and it happens.
The only rub on the game is it gets repetitive after a while. Maybe years of gaming has destroyed my imagination but the same few items could be used to solve every level. I think I'll give this game to my oldest daughter and see what crazy things she comes up with.
Next up - more DS. After being curious for over a decade I finally played Chrono Trigger. I remember it when I worked at Waldensoftware, we maybe received 1 copy a week and it sold immediately even at $65. I figured it had to be pretty good but never wanted to spend a bunch for a copy off eBay. That problem was solved when it was remade for the DS at the relatively low price of $30.
I instantly got wrapped-up into Chrono Trigger. The characters were all compelling, I wanted to keep playing to see what happened to them. The soundtrack and cinemas set the mood perfectly. I played through until I knocked down an assortment of endings. Definitely one of the best RPGs I've played and a reminder of why the 16-bit RPG is my favorite game genre.
In between playing DS games, in the beginning of 2010 I started chipping away at an article called Video Games of the Monday Night War. After a brief hiatus, I got back into watching pro-wrestling. Not as often as I did in the 90s but enough to keep up with who's who. For this article I went back and played every pro-wrestling game made during the great Monday Night War era. It was a fun trip down memory lane to see all the wrestlers of that era. It was often depressing because so many of them died before their time. Still, I discovered a ton of games I never tried before and several of them turned out to be worth the effort.
At the annual E3 conference Nintendo announced the 3DS. I think the whole 3D thing is nothing but hype, an attempt by the entertainment industry to compensate for sagging box office sales. So when I first heard that Nintendo was releasing a 3D system I yawned, when I saw the near final product I instantly craved one.
What could have changed my stubborn mind so abruptly? Simple, it was all the classic game love from Nintendo - finally a new Kid Icarus game and an Ocarina of Time remake. I don't know if I'll buy one of these at launch. Nintendo's track record for handhelds suggests waiting for the 2nd revision (i.e. GBA SP, DS Lite).
In the first half of 2010 I was working on one of worst death march projects I'd ever had the misfortune of being involved in. I worked 13-18 hours a day non-stop for most of April and May. A lot of that time was spent supervising, via web conferencing, work being done in India. Luckily I could do most of this at home and had breaks of idle time throughout the process. I decided that was the perfect time to start Paper Mario for the Nintendo 64.
I bought Paper Mario on clearance in the early zeros for $10. I wanted to play it for a long time but never got around to it. Heck, I played the sequel in 2008 but still not the original. Unfortunately it seems I played them in the wrong order. It turns out the sequel is incredibly similar but (obviously) with cleaner graphics, better soundtrack, and an improved battle system. When I say "incredibly similar" I mean "the plot and characters are virtually the same". I suppose if you played them both when they were new then it would have been a great experience, but it was a small letdown for me. I still played through the entire game and enjoyed it.
After playing through a fairly linear RPG I was ready to start another GTA-style sandbox game. I decided to go with Bully for PlayStation 2, another game I got really cheap and had sitting on the shelf for a while. From the very beginning I was completely blown away by the quality of Bully. The visuals were much more detailed, smooth, and glitch free than the last Rockstar game I played on PlayStation 2 (GTA: Vice City Stories).
The part that struck me the most is how it reminded me of a similar game idea I had in mind. If you're a video game nerd then you undoubtedly have many game ideas of your own floating around. Well, Bully was like one I had only 1,000x better than anything I could pull off.
Another thing that stood out to me was the incredible scenery on the winter stages. I'm a sucker for a good winter level, they're always my favorite stages in games. This had the best I'd seen since Twilight Princess.
It's hard to find faults with Bully but for the sake of completeness I will... the soundtrack was nice but also rather limited. Most of the songs seemed to based on the same basic theme and it got a little repetitive. The storyline toward the end gets pretty nonsensical but up until then it's fine. There are also two stealth missions in the game that I found really annoying. I prefer to solve missions by irresponsible use of force but these required sneaking around.
At the start of fall I felt like firing-up the Game Boy Advance and gave Super Mario Advance a try. This was kind of a letdown because I preferred the original Super Mario 2 to this remake. The main reason being the annoying voices they added to the characters. I couldn't stand to play as Toad because his was especially terrible.
Super Mario Advance didn't last long and I found myself in the mood for an old-school RPG. So I gave Final Fantasy III on DS a try. This of course is a remake of the original unreleased-in-the-US Final Fantasy III and not Final Fantasy VI. It was about what I expected in many ways - airships, classes from the original game, linear storyline with some free exploration, and so on. The cartoony style of the character sprites wasn't really my thing but it didn't take away from the game experience. What was annoying is how they didn't take advantage of the dual-screens, it was effectively a single-screen game most of the time. Despite that it was a good RPG. The job system was a neat concept but I didn't play around with it too much. All my characters were their original classes until I unlocked the final set.
Unfortunately I found the end-game of Final Fantasy III to be one of the more annoying I've encountered. Without spoiling too much, at the end of the game you have to battle a marathon of bosses without any opportunity to save in-between. If just one of them defeats you 30-60 minutes of progress is totally lost. I really don't care for RPGs that don't let you save whenever you want, or make save points extremely sparse.
I've been a fan of the Ys series since I first played Ys Book I&II around 1990. Unfortunately it's a series that rarely makes an appearance in the United States. It was a happy day when I read that XSEED Games was localizing the PSP versions of Ys Seven and Oath in Felghana. I pre-ordered both of them and bought a PSP 3000 at the start of my annual 2-3 week December sabbatical.
Three games from Falcom's Legend of Heroes series already crossed the ocean and I suppose I would have eventually bought the PSP for them. I could have waited until the system was on clearance for those though.
Ys Seven was the first PSP game I tackled. It was an impressive game all around. Great soundtrack of course but what else would be expected from Falcom. I really enjoyed the storyline and setting even though it was all very cliche. Is there ever an advisor to the king who isn't horribly corrupt?
I played through on normal difficulty which wasn't too rough except for one or two boss battles. The final battle was one of my absolute favorites in any game, Ocarina of Time might be the only better one. It ended in such a way as to setup an eventual Ys Eight which I really hope we get in the United States someday.
I have a funny feeling I'll be writing about a lot of Falcom games for the PSP over the next year or two...
Favorite game of 2010 (that was actually released in 2010): Ys Seven
The Ys series changed quite a bit throughout the years and they've managed to keep improving on it. At first I was skeptical about playing as characters other than Adol but the addition of new combat styles expanded the gameplay.
Favorite game of 2010 (that was released before 2010): Bully
It's a hard choice between this and Chrono Trigger. Maybe when I re-read this later I'll change my mind but for now I'll go with the one I enjoyed more. Chrono Trigger was stronger in the storyline department but the setting of Bully completely captivated me.
OK, it's 9 years later and I would definitely now flip these. I don't think I was "wrong" in 2010, it's more likely my taste in games has changed. I've been gravitating more toward JRPGs and enjoying GTA-style games less as time rolls on.
2011 - Old Favorites
The first new game I tried in 2011 was Burnout Legends for PSP, well new to me. There was really no particular reason other than I was curious how the crash mode was. I could be mistaken but this seems to be identical to Burnout Takedown for the PS2. That's alright, it was still fun and something that I played off and on for the rest of the year.
For some reason in January I had the urge to revisit Chrono Trigger for the DS. I think it was some psychological thing because I last played it when it was freezing out. I previously finished 4 out of 13 possible endings and decided to collect the rest.
This second visit was as much fun as the first. Chrono Trigger may very well have the best storyline of any game I've played and each time through I uncovered new sub-plots. It also made me realize that although I enjoyed the sequel Chrono Cross it was unnecessarily complex. I understood the story of Chrono Cross better after playing Chrono Trigger but it was still far too entangled. Ultimately Chrono Trigger is the better game because the storyline is engaging and can be understood.
For years I've followed the news on Falcom.com as best I can. So few of their games make it to the US but they're still intriguing to me. In the 90s I watched the Legend of Heroes Gagharv Trilogy being released in Japan without a single American port. The series looked great from afar but it would be a long time before I finally played it.
All three games were remade for the PSP and brought to the states. The games were ported out of order though so to play them in the right order I started with The Legend of Heroes II: Prophecy of the Moonlight Witch (which is technically The Legend of Heroes III). The game started out great, the characters were well developed and the story was well done. Over time it got a little boring though. There's a lot of storytelling and not much action. I ran through the final dungeon without hitting a single enemy and still managed to defeat the last boss at a low level. The game felt like it was made for beginners who like the story elements of an RPG but don't want to deal with building up levels. Come to think of it, Prophecy of the Moonlight Witch is an awful lot like a Paper Mario game that way.
The further removed I am from the Gagharv Trilogy the more I feel like playing them again. Their style is a precursor to Falcom's Trails games which (spoiler alert) consumed most of late decade for me. I doubt I will revist them though unless there is a remake. Given that Falcom's current president is a huge fan of the series it can't be ruled out.
The winter of 2011 seemed to go on forever. Outdoor activities were out of the question until May so I kept on trying semi-RPGs. Despite not finishing Phantasy Star Online I figured Phantasy Star Zero was worth a go anyway. I guess I should have passed because ultimately it bored me for all the same reasons Phantasy Star Online did. You keep redoing the same levels over and over again stockpiling items along the way. After getting through three bosses I couldn't take any more.
When Ys I&II Chronicles was announced I immediately preordered it. OK, I've already played through the TurboGrafx-16 version a few times and cranked through the DS version just two years earlier but still I couldn't wait to tackle the PSP version. It didn't take long to get through it but it was a blast nonetheless. The remixed soundtrack was amazing, on par with TurboGrafx-16 version. The control was significantly better than the DS version but tougher to master than the TurboGrafx-16 version. Overall though, if someone who's never played Ys I&II asked me which edition to buy I'd steer them toward the PSP one.
Since I was already on a major Ys kick I went right into Ys: The Oath in Felghana next.
It had been quite a while since I played Ys III: Wanderers from Ys but the soundtrack has never left my MP3 player (although many MP3 players have come and gone). Ys: The Oath in Felghana was a solid remake. It used a game engine that was similar to Ys VI but not quite the same. It improved on the original in many ways, most notably by expanding on the plot and interactions with NPCs.
I didn't try the New Game+ mode in Ys: The Oath in Felghana but perhaps I will later in the decade.
In the late summer/early fall of 2011 Sony started announcing details about their sequel to the PSP - the PlayStation Vita. One of the first titles revealed was a remake of Ys IV. If that comes to the United States I'll bite the bullet and get the Vita, overpriced memory cards and all.
I stuck with Falcom a little longer and continued my obsession with completing the Gagharv Trilogy. What can I say, it's something I've wanted to do since the 90s.
Unfortunately Legend of Heroes IV (AKA Legend of Heroes: A Tear of Vermillion) wasn't all that good. If I tried it first there's a chance I wouldn't have touched the others. The game system was identical to Moonlight Witch which made it easy to pick-up. The storyline though was far less interesting. In Moonlight Witch you followed a young couple on a coming of age journey. I was really rooting for them to succeed in their quest and anxious to see how their personal story ended.
In a Tear of Vermillion the characters weren't as interesting. It was a typical "save the helpless girl" quest that was only made interesting by some of the side characters who join along the way. Like Moonlight Witch, the difficulty level was low so I finished the game anyway. It was a bit of a grind though, advancing through the story required tons of dialog that after a while I stopped caring about. I guess you could say this is a game I finished out of spite.
It had been a while since I preordered a Zelda game, the last few installments didn't have any nifty bonus items. Skyward Sword promised a gold WiiMote and 25th anniversary soundtrack so I ordered it immediately and started it the day it arrived.
I don't think I'll go into great detail about my experiences because I already did in another article.
Favorite game of 2011 (that was actually released in 2011): Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword
No, this game wasn't perfect. By Legend of Zelda standards it was average, that still makes it a darn good game.
Favorite game of 2011 (that was released before 2011): Ys: Oath in Felghana
In many ways this is the perfect way to remake a game. Change the play style without completely butchering the original feel, remix the soundtrack, expand the storyline, and you have a nice blend of old and new.
2012 - Neo Retro
I spent the first few weeks of the year wrapping up Skyward Sword. In the previously mentioned article I found the last boss fight a bit anti-climatic. Still, after winning it I went back to my last save state and wrapped up a couple small loose ends before defeating Demise a second time.
After looking over my game backlog about 100 times I picked Final Fantasy IV on the DS as my next quest. I never played the original on the Super Nintendo and was curious about it after playing Final Fantasy VI. It was more linear than its sequel but that wasn't surprising. The storyline was strong and characters interesting so the linear plot wasn't an issue. Being a 90s JRPG there was a lot of grinding required to finish it, especially toward the end. That's fine too, I've always been something of an RPG grinder. There's something oddly fun about building up my party until they're invincible.
I decided it was time for a change of pace and tried Manhunt 2 on the PSP. I was expecting this to be a GTA style game but of course it wasn't. This was a much more stealth-mission-oriented game - start a mission, travel to each checkpoint, cinema, repeat. It was moderately fun but also frustrating at times.
I finished it after a couple weeks, I don't think I'll go back to try the original. The soundtrack was nice and creepy though, it inspired me to create a "Halloween" playlist comprised of spooky game soundtracks.
At some point I started writing an article about games that I started but never finished. I suspect I'll never finish that article either, I don't know if that qualifies as irony. One of the games in that article was Ys VI, a game I started in the zeroes but quit after roughly 50 failed attempts to beat what I thought was the last boss.
I gave up because I was at a point in the game where you aren't able to backtrack and upgrade your equipment leaving me stuck to keep retrying the boss with no hope of ever beating him. In all RPGs, including action RPGs, I keep two save games - a "safe" one that's in a town and an "unsafe" one that's deep in a dungeon. In the case of Ys VI my "safe" game was about an hour behind my "unsafe" one. In hindsight it was stupid to not go back to the "safe" one earlier.
Anyway, that's exactly what I did one day. Ys Seven was a partial inspiration for this. One of the characters in Ys VI joins the party in Ys Seven and it reminded me that I never finished this game. After reloading my "safe" save game and after an hour of grinding I went back into the last dungeon and massacred the boss that gave me so much trouble. It turns out he was only the second to last boss but the real final boss didn't put up much of a fight either. It felt good to finally complete this game.
And now I'd like to take a moment to say how awesome my wife is. There are a 1,000 reasons why I say this but today it's because of her propensity to win contests. Every time she's called into a radio content she's won, literally every time. Just a couple months ago she won a nifty color Nook tablet. I don't know how she does it.
It's amazing how dated "Nook tablet" sounds after just a few years.
Every year our daughter's school holds a fundraiser event which includes a raffle. At this year's event she entered and won me a shiny new PlayStation Vita. I would have bought one eventually but not paying $300 for it was just fine with me (although we gave $500 to the fundraiser so I'm technically down $200).
The Vita came bundled with Modnation Racers: Road Trip which wasn't really my thing. There are a number of racing games I enjoy but for some reason I couldn't get into this one. In a lot of ways it felt more like a tech demo than a full-blown game. It tried to use every feature available on the Vita even though it didn't always make sense.
I hit the PSN store and tried out a few free demos. The one I enjoyed the most was Touch My Katamari which reminded me that I had Me and My Katamari for PSP sitting unopened on my shelf. Generally unimpressed by the first round of Vita games I went back to the previous Sony handheld generation.
Me and My Katamari was an absolute blast at first. The concept of the game is unique and the ultra-perky soundtrack gets stuck in your head. The downside is it all gets very repetitive after a while. It seemed like there were only about 5 stages that you kept playing through with increasing difficulty. I was about 80% through the game before I felt this way so I powered past the last couple of levels just to say I finished them all. I know, not exactly something to brag about.
Sometime in the past few months my oldest daughter discovered the Kirby character and was immediately hooked on him. Soon she was nagging to play every Kirby game in my collection which was limited to 8-bit titles (unless you count Kirby's Avalanche). These didn't hold her attention for long so I picked-up Kirby's Epic Yarn for Wii.
OK, this wasn't completely for her. I watched a couple preview videos and thought it looked like a throwback to the era of 16-bit platformers. I wasn't disappointed in that regard, it felt like something that could have been on the Super Nintendo with minimal changes. They upgraded the old platform formula with a two-player cooperative mode. This wasn't the first game with this feature of course, that honor might go to Chip ‘n Dale Rescue Rangers but there's probably something even earlier. Turn-based two-player mode was the de facto standard for most games, a legacy of the early arcade scene. Cooperative mode is definitely more family-friendly and we spent many hours playing together. The difficulty level was low, very low, but there were a couple tricky spots that my daughter couldn't traverse on her own that I could guide her through in cooperative mode. This game had amazing cross-generational appeal and I hope it's a role model for future releases.
My favorite aspect of Kirby's Epic Yarn though was the soundtrack. It was a simplistic and relaxing arrangement of piano songs. So far I'd have to say it's the best of the decade. Since I know there are new Ys games coming it will have some competition.
I was a late adopter of the whole downloadable games thing. I know it's the future of gaming but I've always preferred to hoard physical copies of games. I also have a nagging concern about what will happen to digital copies of games once their online service goes under. The thought of an entire collection going poof one day isn't appealing.
I finally gave in to the trend when the fine folks at XSEED translated a few Ys PC games and released them exclusively on Steam. Some of my skepticism about downloadable games was reduced when I saw how cheap games were on Steam, 50% less than traditional retail prices.
Ys Origin was the first title they brought over. For years I was aware of this game and wanted to try it, I bought and played it the day it was released. No hyperbole there, I blocked off time to play it and everything.
Like the rest of the Ys series I enjoyed the soundtrack and opening cinemas. I was pretty fired up to get into it. Once the game started it wasn't quite what I expected. Unlike the rest of the series there are no towns or overworld of any kind. The entire game is set in Darm Tower like the latter half of the first installment in the series. It was a straight dungeon hack ‘n slash game with some dialogs scattered throughout.
I'm not a huge fan of origin stories, blame Star Wars for that. Ys Origin was effective in one way - it made Adol's journey into Darm Tower in Ys I seem like an epic quest.
If you haven't heard of Adol before he's the hero of every other Ys game. Since Ys Origin takes place decades earlier he's nowhere to be found. The lead characters are ancestors of secondary characters in the first two games. They are forced to conquer Darm Tower, 25 floors that each have a distinct personality. There are desert floors, water floors, and all the other dungeon tropes. Each floor is filled with an army of evil foes that grow stronger as you ascend.
This same dungeon is revisited in the original Ys game only it's more sterile. Each floor looks more or less the same and many are short pass-through levels. While playing Ys Origin I imagined Adol going through the same challenges in his quest. Or alternatively going through a ruined version of this setting. Either way, it added to the original which is the opposite of what the Star Wars prequels did. This wasn't the best game in the Ys series by any stretch but Falcom earns an A for getting the origin story right.
Despite being let down by Legend of Heroes IV I decided to finish the trilogy with Legend of Heroes V: Cagesong of the Ocean (AKA Legend of Heroes III: Song of the Ocean). I guess I was still high on Falcom games after playing Ys Origin. This was another game I'd been anticipating for a long time, well over 10 years at this point. I'd been reading about it (the best I could) on Falcom's web site since the late 90s. I didn't exactly know what the game was about other than it was an RPG that involved music.
This was a bit more like Moonlight than Tear of Vermillion in that it involved a young couple on a coming of age journey. This time they were guided by a brawny grandfather who had an ulterior motive for the adventure. The storyline was better than the previous installment but didn't quite edge out the original.
One cool feature was the incorporation of previous save data into the game, something that reminded me of the gold box AD&D games a bit. I didn't know this going in but if your PSP memory card had save games from the first two games you could unlock optional mini-stages featuring characters from previous games. I had a lot of fun with this mode.
Another new trend, one that I wholeheartedly support, is the emergence of "neo retro" games. These are new games deliberately done in a style that mimics an 8 or 16-bit system. One such game is Retro City Rampage, another title I followed for a few years.
This game began life as Grand Theftendo, a NES game looking to deliver a 2D GTA experience. Which I suppose would be the first two GTA games. The developer decided to shift gears and instead deliver this idea as WiiWare game. After a year or so of development he moved it to the PlayStation Network and it was released for both the PlayStation 3 and Vita. I was pretty hyped about this and it became another launch day purchase.
The game was everything I expected and more. Beside GTA, Retro City Rampage parodied a dozen NES games. There were missions based off Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and mini-games based on The Legend of Zelda. There were also some inside jokes that I didn't understand but I'm positive they made someone laugh.
One definite throwback was the difficulty level. I hate to sound like an old codger but video games today are too darn easy. Retro City Rampage went back to the 80s, especially for the last boss battles. The final battle takes place over two parts. The first, in the game's overhead view, requires dodging an extremely fast boss with a wide attack range. The second part takes place in a fast-paced Roadblasters type level. This part requires memorizing a pattern of obstacles and enemy attack patterns. Each of these parts took over a dozen tries to survive.
The soundtrack was also a nice homage to chiptunes. Every song sounded like it could have come straight from a cartridge game. Overall Retro City Rampage was a perfect blend of old and new. I hope this trend continues through the decade.
The Nintendo Wii may be the greatest family system ever made. Not recounted in this article are the countless hours spent playing Mario Party, Pac Man Party, Wii Sports, and even Just Dance. The Wii has become the replacement for family board game night in our home and millions others.
On the flipside, it lacked more mature games. I'm not talking about M-rated games, although it has few, I mean games designed for older players. Nintendo's last system also came up short in this area and I fear this may be a long term trend. A group of concerned gamers, under the name Operation Rainfall, petitioned Nintendo to port three RPGs that were available in Japan over to America. After a very dedicated effort they convinced publishers to bring over two of them: Xenoblade Chronicles and The Last Story.
Of the two, The Last Story raised my interest. It was the first RPG by Final Fantasy creator Hironobu Sakaguchi since his departure from Square-Enix. He was reunited with Final Fantasy composer Nobuo Uematsu too. Those two names alone almost guarantee a game won't be bad at the very least. So I took a gamble and pre-ordered it without reading a single review.
The Last Story sat on my shelf a couple weeks until the long Thanksgiving weekend when I finally started it up. Like Final Fantasy VI, the game sends the player directly into combat from the first moments. It's a trial by fire mechanic that Sakaguchi-san obviously favors. This immediately introduces the player to the six characters in the party along with their strengths and abilities. There's really one main character that the story revolves around but all the others have a backstory that is explored at some point.
The scenery in The Last Story is the best I've seen in any game. The game revolves around a massive hub city called Lazulis. It's done in something of Tudor style and each building is given a unique design. I spent many hours just admiring the game world. The relaxing town music didn't hurt. The soundtrack was generally very atmospheric in nature with some grandiose tunes reserved for battles and key moments.
The plot was a bit recycled, there are portions that were almost copied directly from Chrono Trigger. Then again there are many RPGs cliches that reappear on a regular basis. It didn't hurt the overall story of the game too badly.
Favorite game of 2012 (that was actually released in 2012): The Last Story
It was tough to pick between this and Retro City Rampage. Of the two it's more likely that I'll playthrough Retro City Rampage again. It's possible I'll try the New Game+ mode in The Last Story first. Regardless, The Last Story gets the nod
Favorite game of 2012 (that was released before 2012): Kirby's Epic Yarn
I'd like to reserve this category for games from a previous generation but there's no way I can't give this to Kirby's Epic Yarn. It is one of the best platformers I've ever played, maybe the best since Super Mario Bros 3.
2013 - Almost Next-Gen
The first two months of 2013 were spent wrapping up The Last Story. I'm something of a grinder when it comes to RPGs. I like to get my party leveled-up to the point of invincibility and that's exactly what I did here. The arena mode makes that a bit easier as does completing all the optional quests. This resulted in a pretty easy end-game all the way through the final boss.
After dispatching the final enemies an epilogue chapter opens with a couple short quests. I always appreciate RPGs with a little extra content at the end. The ending sequence can be unlocked at anytime along the way. The final cinema left room for a sequel while the characters' backstories left room for a prequel. It's always great when a game leaves you wanting more.
I'm not a big fan of iOS and even less of a fan of iTunes. However, I recently acquired a free iPod Touch. Well, not exactly free - it was free with some major household item purchase. There are many games only available on iOS so I figured I'd get a few hours out of it.
I won't bore you with all the free mini games that came free with a cup of Starbucks. None were especially memorable and I'm including the breakout hit Angry Birds in that statement too.
Free iPhone games and songs from Starbucks is another thing that sounds very dated after a short period of time.
The first full-blown game I played on the iPod Touch was Final Fantasy V. This was another game that skipped the American market for many years. Originally a Super Famicom game, the first official English release was a port on the PlayStation followed much later by a Game Boy Advance port. The iOS version was based on the latter of these ports. That meant it retained a 16-bit appearance unlike the polygonal style of the Final Fantasy III remake.
The job system in Final Fantasy V was similar to Final Fantasy III but with some improvements. Characters were able to use skills gained from one job while learning another. It reminded me of how old-school AD&D handled multi-class characters. It heavily rewarded level grinding which is something I'm always up for. By the end of the game my party sported an amazing mix of abilities that made them unstoppable. Or at least I thought so... after dispatching of the last boss from the original game a bonus dungeon was unlocked with three new super-bosses. These presented a considerable challenge that required an insane amount of grinding, maybe the most I've done since Phantasy Star II.
I also gained some perspective on why this game wasn't originally released outside of Japan. The plot of Final Fantasy IV was a bit more complex and featured a wider array of playable characters. In this regard Final Fantasy V felt like it was the earlier game. I enjoyed it more than Final Fantasy IV but I am probably in the minority on this.
Another interesting new trend is crowdfunding, and it is quickly gaining traction in the game industry. Independent game developers can bypass large publishers and fund their development through thousands of small donations. The first project I backed on one of these sites (Kickstarter) was a new Android game system called the Ouya.
"Game system" is a stretch, the Ouya is more like a cell phone that connects to the the TV. Unlike a cell phone it advertises being completely open. Owners of the system can root the device or connect it to a PC for development. At $99 it seemed worth a gamble. I figured the worst case is I could use it as a small media player.
After patiently waiting by the mailbox it finally arrived. My first impression was mixed. The controller was low quality, it felt like the kind of 3rd party accessory you'd normally avoid. On the sunny side, it sported a ton of emulators that worked perfectly with a Wii Classic Controller. It wasn't long before it became a dedicated emulation box.
I'm not advocating piracy here. Once I found it had a perfect PC Engine emulator that support CD images I ripped my entire collection to an external drive. The TurboDuo may be my favorite game system but the load times are borderline agonizing. Sure in 1990 it was worth the wait to see the magic of FMV but a quarter century later I'm OK forgoing the authentic experience. On the Ouya everything is instantaneous, as an extra bonus there's no need to worry about filling the tiny system battery.
Perhaps later I'll be able to talk about new games developed for the Ouya. For now I'm happy with how I'm using it.
I know the Ouya is something of a punchline now but it's still a perfectly acceptable emulation box. At $99 it's a little more than building a Raspberry Pi (once you throw in power supply, SD card, and case) but it's less than 1% the hassle. With the Ouya it took about 2 seconds to sync a PS3 controller while on RetroPie it's a complicated setup that sometimes just randomly breaks. I've tried many other options since 2013 and found the Ouya to be the simplest (not including dedicated mini consoles).
I have this strange aversion to things that are popular. The more I hear people preen over a movie, TV show, or video game the more I reflexively despise it. I suppose that's a tendency many nerds have.
Over the past 14 years I've been hearing about how great Final Fantasy VII is. That of course caused me to avoid it. I thoroughly enjoyed Final Fantasy III-VI so I finally conceded that just maybe I'd like part VII. Another factor is it was on sale for only $5 on the Vita and I really wanted an excuse to play it more.
My first impression of Final Fantasy VII is that even though the setting is different from previous games in the series it follows the same formula and is fairly predictable. Maybe it would be more accurate to say it's very predictable if you've played 5-6 other Hironobu Sakaguchi produced games. There are certain themes and archetypes that he likes to reuse in his games. That's not a criticism as this approach has been highly successful. With Final Fantasy VII I also have the perspective of playing his later games. In many ways The Last Story is Final Fantasy VII in a Tudor-punk style.
Other parts of Final Fantasy VII mirrored elements of Chrono Trigger. For example, which of the two games am I describing here?
Thousands of years ago an alien parasite landed on your planet and began draining its life energy. This fact is not revealed until several hours into the game when you learn of an evil group that is trying to tap into this being for nefarious purposes. At the start of the adventure you control a spiky-haired hero who develops a budding romantic relationship with a young woman he meets early on. Eventually they are joined by others including a talking animal. They pursue a brooding villain across many locations before uncovering that the real villain of the game is this alien parasite. They have to find a way to defeat this alien before the world is destroyed.
That was a trick question of course.
The graphics for Final Fantasy VII haven't aged especially well but I managed to keep the perspective of someone playing it in 1997. From that viewpoint the visuals are amazing. The soundtrack was, as expected, among the best I've experienced. For some reason the Mako Reactor theme stuck out to me more than others because of the mood it created.
Despite having a range of characters to choose from I stuck with Cloud, Tifa, and Yuffie for most of the game. This was a minor problem toward the end but nothing huge. I selected these three because I thought they had the most interesting personalities. Cid was an abusive, unlikable character so I never used him. Barrett was the typical tough guy that I usually avoid using. Then there were some novelty type characters that I usually avoid like I did in Final Fantasy VI. Maybe I'm missing out on some great characters but I don't mind. The whole point of an RPG is to play as an alternate personality you find interesting and that's usually how I select parties.
The ending was a little flat compared to the rest of the game. It was brief and didn't feature the two optional characters, likely to save space. It felt like they were going for something of a downer ending, like even though you saved the world from destruction it's still a dark & depressing place.
The only reason I wanted a PlayStation Vita in the first place was Ys: Memories of Celceta. When it was revealed in Japan I swore I'd buy the system as soon as it was released in the states. By sheer luck I got the system before XSeed announced the port. I pre-ordered it immediately and waited patiently for it to arrive. At some point an alternate "Silver Anniversary" edition was announced and the folks at Amazon were kind enough to upgrade my order so I now had a cloth map, soundtrack, and compass to look forward to.
I wasted no time in starting it once it arrived. After finishing Final Fantasy VII I held off on starting anything new just so I could play Memories of Celceta the day it arrived. If that sounds crazy just keep in mind that I've been waiting for a US release of Ys IV for roughly 20 years. Ys I-III on the TurboGrafx-16 CD all crossed the ocean but part IV never did. It had a Super Famicom port that also didn't receive an (official) translation. Memories of Celceta wasn't Ys IV exactly, it was half-sequel half-remake, but it was more than good enough to satisfy me.
Memories of Celceta did not disappoint, I was captivated from the beginning. Adol has just returned from the events of Ys IV with a bad case of exhaustion and amnesia. The latter being an overused convenient plot device but it can be forgiven. He has to retrace the events of Ys IV and face a new villain invading the land. Along the way he confronts the collateral damage left by his first quest, something that would be incredible and hilarious to see in a Zelda game.
As usual the soundtrack was outstanding. Over the past 20 or so years I listened to the Ys IV soundtrack a couple dozen times and this was a remixed version. Although not drastically different it was still one of the best soundtracks of this decade so far.
The gameplay expanded on the Ys Seven engine. Again there were multiple playable characters with different strengths and attack styles but there were some improvements. My favorite new character was Karna who had a missile attack which was new to the modern series. Frieda, with a sweeping halberd attack, was another fun new character to use. These two, along with Adol, constituted my main party throughout most of the game.
The only letdown was the ending. Throughout the game you're building up your party in anticipation of a final battle involving everyone; at least that's how Ys Seven ended. Instead the final battle is a 1:1 fight with Adol. By then I had Adol at his maximum level with fully upgraded equipment making it a very lopsided fight. The ending cinema itself was very short by Falcom standards. Their games typically wrap-up with lengthy scenes that reflect the conclusion of an epic adventure. By comparison this was a weak closing, just a couple screens and credits.
The one redeeming quality of the ending was unlocking a new game+ mode where you could replay with your end-game character statistics and items. My whole party was maxed-out already so I could use this mode to fly through the story again sometime.
This Christmas I received exactly what I asked for - a Wii U Zelda bundle and Scribblenauts Unlimited. I knew the Wii U was struggling, maybe on the verge of failure, but I didn't care. Nintendo consoles are delivery vehicles for Nintendo games and if you want to play Nintendo games your options are limited. Wind Waker was one of my favorite games of the previous decade and I have many fond memories tied to it, like being a new father. Replaying it 10 years later sounded great, as did the prospect of getting a new Zelda game some time in the future.
Unfortunately my first Wii U experiences were rocky. Wind Waker HD was a download which required being able to actually access Nintendo's servers in the week after Christmas. Apparently Nintendo didn't expect the post-holiday surge. Luckily I could start Scribblenauts Unlimited without an internet connection.
Compared to the previous Scribblenauts titles this one was incredibly easy. None of the puzzles required great thought or a wide vocabulary. On the plus side it surpassed the two in terms of creativity allowed. In Scribblenauts Unlimited you have the option to modify any object on the screen on adding adjectives or outright hacking it. This was much more of a sandbox game than the DS games and was fun in entirely different ways.
The real fun though was playing this with my kids, or watching them experiment with it. Their vocabulary may be smaller than mine but their creativity is 1000x greater. One of the first examples I can think of is when they equipped their character with a flying diaper. This of course gave them the gift of flight (in addition to wearing a diaper). My brain can't come up with anything nearly as silly anymore.
I'd be remiss not to mention that the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One were released this year. I know I'll sound like either a cranky old man or Nintendo fanboy (err.. fangeezer) but I wasn't slightly interested in either. I skipped the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 in the zeroes and was completely happy with my gaming experience. There's no denying I missed out on many games but I still played dozens that I thoroughly enjoyed. I don't expect this generation to be any different. Instead of playing Medal of Honor: Something Something I'll be playing The Legend of Zelda: Something Something and Ys: Something Something.
If you keep reading you'll see this didn't work out exactly how I thought it would.
Favorite game of 2013 (that was actually released in 2013): Ys: Memories of Celceta
I'm sure there will be a formal Ys 8 later this decade, or at least I really hope so. I wouldn't complain if it was the same style as Memories of Celceta.
Favorite game of 2013 (that was released before 2013): Final Fantasy V
Sure, the iOS version was released in 2013 but it's hard to consider this a new game since it's a port of a Game Boy Advance game which is a port of a PlayStation game which is a port of a Super Famicom game. Whew.
2014 - RPG Backlog
2014 was either an unusually brutal winter or perhaps my tolerance for cold weather finally came to an end. Whatever the case, Wind Waker HD helped keep me warm for many weeks.
I never understood why so many considered the sailing aspect of the game boring. It was my favorite aspect of the original and remained so in the remake. The original Legend of Zelda inspired this amazing sense of adventure due to its open world map. Wind Waker managed to top that feeling and encouraged players to explore at will. With the upgraded scenery, sailing the warm ocean was so inviting during this winter.
Toward the end of Wind Waker my Wii U Pad started having connectivity problems. It started with the occasional error message but over the course of roughly two weeks it deteriorated to the point that I had to hold it at a precise angle no more than 18" away from the system. This made an otherwise easy last boss fight a tad difficult.
I tried all the diagnostics Nintendo recommended but nothing worked. After owning Nintendo consoles for nearly 30 years I had my first warranty replacement. Nintendo handled it well. My system was returned quickly with all the saved data intact. It still left me with an uneasy feeling about the quality of components used by Nintendo now. Although this is anecdotal evidence, a scan of forums makes this seem like a not rare problem. I heard all the tales of failed Xbox 360s but never thought Nintendo would fall victim to the same issues one day.
While my Wii U was in the shop I decided to tackle a couple games that were never released in the US and translated by ROM hackers. These games are a gray area for me. Yes, it's technically piracy to download the ROM but lacking a way to legally purchase them in the US I'm puzzled by what other options exist. Should these games be lost to obscurity forever?
The Famicom had many graphical adventures / visual novels that weren't released outside of Japan. The cost of translation and lack of popularity in the US made it infeasible. One game I was curious about was Seirei Gari ("Ghost Hunter").
It started off OK, your possible girlfriend is kidnapped by a ghost and you have to save her. I was expecting a Shadowgate style game but the gameplay was more like Snatcher in that you only interact through a text menu. It was OK at first but the plot started drifting so I moved on to a different adventure.
With my visual novel appetite unsatisfied I fired-up another unofficial translation - Radical Dreamers for the Super Famicom Satellaview. I'd been curious about this game for a while, it's a sort of sequel to Chrono Trigger and parts of it were recycled for Chrono Cross. Within minutes of starting it I was hooked. Radical Dreamers stars a band of robbers looking for a treasure in an evil mansion. I turned off all the lights and let myself get drawn into the creepy atmosphere. The graphics were minimal but helped set the mood; even more effective was the soundtrack with its mix of ambient backgrounds and cinematic scores. Being a Satellaview game I was expecting something shallow but Radical Dreamers broke that expectation. Playing through the original story took about 8 hours only to find there was a New Game+ mode with different storylines and endings.
Radical Dreamers was not only one of best games of its genre but also one of the games I've enjoyed the most in a long time. The connection to Chrono Trigger was weak at best but it does perfectly fine as a standalone story. It's a throwback to the early interactive fiction games I played on Apple II but with a richer soundtrack than those speakers were capable of.
Final Fantasy VII wasn't the only game in the series I bought on sale for $5, I also snagged parts VIII and IX. VIII was purchased on the assumption I'd give it another try, IX because I heard it it was the best of the series on the original PlayStation. I didn't quite have the courage to start VIII so I started IX next.
Like Final Fantasy VII, part IX starts off with a linear storyline but lacks an obvious nemesis. It flips the "rescue the princess" storyline around by making you the abductor, somewhat similar to how The Last Story evolved. As the story progresses the party is joined by an array of companions who each have their own sub-plots, as I work through the Final Fantasy series this is standard fare. Don't take that as a complaint, the series found a formula that works and naturally keeps using it.
Some of the characters are goofy, like Steiner and Quina, and it contributes to an overall lighthearted feeling. It's like after creating a few Final Fantasy games with dark themes (VI, VII, VIII specifically), Square decided to try a different direction. Yeah there are dark moments in Final Fantasy IX but the cast, graphics, and music kept it feeling positive.
I spent a lot of time grinding in Final Fantasy IX due to the skill system. It reminded me a little, just a little, of Final Fantasy V. I was determined to get my party the abilities that made them insanely overpowered. My efforts paid off as the end-game was fairly simple, the last two boss fights weren't especially close.
After finishing Final Fantasy IX I gained a new perspective on Final Fantasy VII. IX was technically superior to VII and had a more likable cast. Yet somehow it made me appreciate VII in a new way. The plot of IX is rather weak compared to VII, or at least feels that way as the story progresses. Final Fantasy VII is straightforward - there's a bad guy, let's follow him around the world, do a few sidequests, and finally confront him. Final Fantasy IX starts off strong but grows increasingly incoherent as it progresses. By the end you have no idea why you're fighting the last boss other than it will save the planet somehow. A lot of JRPGs suffer this problem, Grandia II from last decade's review immediately comes to mind.
My Wii U was back from the shop for a while before I tried something new on. Well, sort of new...
Nintendo released a collection of mini-games called NES Remix that aimed right for the heart of aging Gen-Xers looking to relive a few moments of the mid 80s. In NES Remix, and its sequel released shortly after it, the player attempts several challenges from early NES games. They start simple, stuff like "get the sword" in Legend of Zelda, and evolve into fighting the final bosses from many games. The player is rewarded with stars for completing this challenges as quickly as possible. After gaining a certain number of stars remixed levels of games are unlocked. These remixes take a level from an NES game and add a crazy challenge to it, like trying to clear the first level of Donkey Kong with no jump button or playing a level of Super Mario Bros. where the right+run buttons are permanently pressed. It should be obvious that I enjoyed these games immensely. After completing every challenge in both of them I was craving more. Maybe we'll be lucky enough to get a SNES Remix in the future, or maybe a NES Remix with non-Nintendo franchises.
When the 3DS launched I wasn't especially interested. The 3D effects seemed like a gimmick and I can't see them well anyway. For whatever reason I've never been able to see 3D effects in movies either. Still, I knew I'd buy one as soon as there was a new Zelda game available for it - that game was A Link Between Worlds.
Two decades ago (wow, that sounds like a long time when I put it that way) The Legend of Zelda: A Link to Past convinced me to buy a Super Nintendo. I lost many hours of sleep checking every square inch of the world map for secrets. When its spiritual successor arrived I was powerless to resist it.
A Link Between Worlds was a near clone of A Link to the Past from an aesthetic and control standpoint. Where it improved on the original is in the openness. The original Legend of Zelda was an open world game, its sequel was more linear in that the dungeons had to be completed in a fixed order, A Link to the Past continued down this path. As the series progressed it only became more linear. A Link Between Worlds reversed this by returning to an open world design. The dungeons could be completed in any order and, like the original, the entire world map was accessible from the start. It was welcome return to the early days of the series.
The item rental system worked wonderfully, being able to unlock all the items early on was a nice change from the traditional Zelda system of gaining items one dungeon at a time. I spent a decent amount of time looking for money, which was plentiful, to outright purchase all the items as quickly as possible. The fire rod was the most fun of the lot and was essential against a few bosses.
The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds caused me to change the rules for these year-end favorites. Since this is about video game trends over the course of a decade it makes more sense to consider any game from this decade rather than just one from the specific year. As my backlog of games grows this will be more essential in later years. When 2019 rolls around I might be finishing some Wii U games even though it's likely the system will be replaced by then.
Against my better judgement I decided to try Final Fantasy VIII again. You can read my extremely brief review in my last decade recap. My logic went something like - "When I tried it 11 years ago I was a new parent, working too much, and going to graduate school so I didn't really have time for all the grinding. Now that I can play it on the Vita I can do all the level grinding on the couch or wherever. I also liked Final Fantasy VII and IX so the one in between must be good too, right?"
Alas, the junction and ability system was just as confusing as before. Once I finally figured it out I found it to be incredibly monotonous. Every enemy fight took 10 minutes because of the constant magic drawing and GF animations. The characters were also as unlikable as I remembered. To make matters worse the game is so incredibly linear. Your party is literally transported from one scenario to the next.
Realizing that Final Fantasy VII also started off linear I decided to tough it out hoping it would open up. Unfortunately it stayed fairly linear. The exploration options were limited with few optional side-quests compared to its older and younger sibling. In some ways it more like an interactive movie than RPG.
On the positive side, early on the party gains a GF with an ability to disable random battles. Equipping that improved the pacing of the game. Being able to travel through dungeons without battles is a great feeling. The level system made grinding unnecessary, but even so my three "main" characters were all level 100 by the end because they seemingly gain a level after every fight. The atmosphere, scenery + soundtrack, were still amazing. Those kept me going through the teen movie storyline. What I remembered about my first attempt to play was loathing the characters. They're all overly melodramatic teens which I suppose makes them realistic, but I wasn't in the mood to relive high school. The Laguna storyline is more interesting until late in the game when it takes an unlikely twist that I won't spoil.
Another plus was the ending sequence. One thing that can make or break a game for me is whether the ending is satisfying. Admittedly I must have liked a game at least a little to make it that far so obviously I didn't hate Final Fantasy VIII. The ending upgraded it from "didn't hate" to "alright". It was one of those endings that closed out the storyline and featured a grand celebration. Those are the two main things that constitute a good ending in my strange world. Of the three PlayStation Final Fantasy games part VIII easily wins in the ending department, with VII a distant third. My overall ranking goes - IX, VII, VIII so not even a great ending could bump it to the top.
At some point in the year I scored a free copy of Earthbound. Well, not exactly free. Nintendo has this system where you earn points for buying their systems and games called Club Nintendo. Chances are you already know about this unless it was discontinued around 2019. Buying a Wii U and 3DS in the same 12-month period managed to earn "Platinum" status and in 2014 Nintendo gave a free game to everyone at that tier, I chose Earthbound.
I mostly remember Earthbound for the oversized box when I worked at Electronics Boutique. It looked like an interesting RPG but I never played it back in the day. It later on became a hot collectable item and was unaffordable for years. It was released on the Wii U Virtual Console for the low price of $10, I would have bought it eventually but once it was available for nothing I finally tried it.
I wasn't really sure what to expect out of Earthbound, I heard so many glowing reviews that my expectations were through the roof. It started off about how I expected - a quirky RPG about a kid with minimal parental guidance and something involving aliens. It wasn't long though before it started to drag. Every time I entered a new area I had to spend at least 30 minutes level grinding to avoid being constantly killed. Even then the steady stream of battles made each dungeon take hours to complete. The inventory system resulted in countless trips home to store extra items. The lighthearted game felt like a slow walk through a swamp.
Then I realized my criticisms of Earthbound could apply to any number of 16-bit RPGs that I profess to enjoy. For example, Phantasy Star II has more random battles than Earthbound and larger dungeons making the sheer number of battles staggering. Yet I always say it's one of my favorite RPGs. The explanation is simple, when I played Phantasy Star II I had nearly unlimited time and nearly no responsibilities. If I started it from scratch today it would be a grind, at times Earthbound felt like a grind. Instead of playing for hours on end like when I was carefree I played Earthbound in 10-20 minute chunks over weeks. I didn't manage to finish it before the calendar rolled-over so we'll see if I finished it a little further below...
Favorite game of 2014 (that was released in this decade): The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds
The reality is even if I try to play games of the current year it's very unlikely I'll keep up. In the zeroes I tried to remain semi-current with the latest gaming trends but that's not the case anymore. So for 2014, and likely other years, I'll be using this category for games that are just slightly old. The first winner is A Link Between Worlds, the game that returned the Zelda series to its roots.
Kirby's Epic Yarn was also a factor in changing this category. It was the same generation as the game that won in 2012 and really what's the difference?
Favorite game of 2014 (from a previous decade): Radical Dreamers
This was a tough year to pick a winner. Final Fantasy IX could easily have won this but if I really think about it Radical Dreamers is the game I enjoyed most this year. This award isn't for "best" game of the year, it's for my "favorite" pick. Final Fantasy IX, and VIII, are technically "better" games than Radical Dreamers but if I had to play through any of them from the start again I'd easily go with Radical Dreamers.
2015 - Games of the Zeroes
It's hard to say whether I enjoyed Earthbound. The soundtrack was good, the graphics were nice, the storyline was silly but not terrible, the gameplay itself though... a bit rough. I was determined to finish it, maybe I was suffering from the sunk cost fallacy. Whatever the case, I powered through the final stages of Earthbound in early 2015. By the time I reached the last dungeon I decided to run from every fight and take my chances with the last boss at a potentially low level. Apparently my early game grinding paid off because the final fight was a breeze.
One really fun idea in Earthbound was the open world after defeating the last boss. Once the final battle concludes you're not thrown into an ending sequence, you have to travel home to trigger it. In the meantime you can wander the entire world map without a single enemy in your way. I wish more RPGs would adopt this idea.
This winter wasn't quite as long as the previous two but was just as brutally cold. Since I was already feeling frosty I decided to try a game my wife bought me for Christmas - Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze. She remembered the hours I spent on Donkey Kong 64 last decade and figured this would be a hit with me.
She was right but for the wrong reasons. Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze is a throwback to the Super Nintendo series and doesn't resemble the Nintendo 64 installment at all. I played the first Donkey Kong Country installment but can't recall now if I finished it. I definitely enjoyed it though. I still remember when it launched like it was some amount of time less than 20 years ago.
Tropical Freeze more or less plays exactly like Donkey Kong Country only a bit faster-paced. Some levels are low-key but there are several frantic "on rails" levels where you're forced to memorize jump timings. The latter weren't my favorite but the former more than compensates for them. If it wasn't for Kirby's Epic Yarn I'd say this has the best level design of any platformer since the Super Nintendo. In particular the levels in the safari-themed world were my favorite.
The two player mode in Tropical Freeze is great for parents who grew up on platformers to enjoy with their less experienced kids. My 6 (at the time) year-old has probably played more games than a kid her age should have. However, those are primarily games from recent years with excessive hand-holding and unlimited lives. An old-school side-scroller isn't something she can handle. Yet we played through every level in Tropical Freeze together. The way it works, player one controls Donkey Kong and player two controls one of the sidekicks. When the going gets tough, player one can carry player two past the challenge.
My 3DS was starting to feel a little underused so the next game I tackled was The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time 3D. This is a game I've played through 2-3 times already so I knew what to expect. It was more or less a straight port of the original with a few small enhancements. I can see how this is a lose-lose proposition for Nintendo. Ocarina of Time is a game beloved by millions. If they change too much people will complain, if they don't change anything people will also complain. They had to strike a balance of adding just the right amount. I think they succeeded.
The 3rd, or maybe 4th, time through Ocarina of Time was a quick playthrough. I tried to stretch it out a little by doing most of the optional side-games. Although short, it was still a great time.
A couple years ago I read about a game called To The Moon which was intriguing. It's an indie game, essentially a one person project along with a composer who's worked on an array of mobile games. The premise sounded unique but depressing. A team of mind-altering scientists give a dying patient one last wish by reprogramming their memories to make them think they accomplished some long abandoned goal.
It was programmed in RPG Maker and I've been on Ubuntu for a few years now so although curious, I had no way to try it. The developer, who apparently is much smarter than me, ported the RPG Maker runtime to Linux (or maybe emulated it). With that barrier out of the way it was time to see what this game was like.
To the Moon looks like an RPG, and again is built in RPG Maker, but it's not accurate to call this an "RPG", it's more like an interactive story with some puzzle solving elements. As far as I can tell there's no way to lose, that's not a criticism as the same is true for classics like Monkey Island. Ultimately the game isn't about last regrets but it has a message, one which I won't spoil for anyone stalling for years to play it. Really, this all boils down to a single developer who had a message they wanted to share and created a game to communicate it.
The soundtrack was outstanding, something that will be going directly into my library. The scenery was nice too. In terms of replay value, it's zero, like the majority of interactive fiction games. It was worth a playthrough though. I like this era we're in right now where anyone can develop a game and release it to the masses. Maybe the games are short or have 1/20 the features of a "AAA title", like To the Moon, but they're cheap and offer a different play experience. I wish I had the motivation to develop something like To the Moon.
..and then it turns out I did. To The Moon was one inspiration for me in trying to develop a short, solo programmer, interactive story game. Even if the final product isn't very good I ended-up with a real sense of accomplishment from it.
After playing a "near-RPG" I did a 180 and went for an old-school, brutally difficult RPG - Champions of Krynn.
In the 90s I owned an Amiga 500 and a couple "Gold Box" AD&D games. I started, but never finished any of them. These old RPGs were designed for people with tons of free time, or maybe just people who only played 1-2 games a year. The time commitment to play it straight-up is immense. To beat this game you need to dedicate hours to level grinding, map making, and restarting after cheap deaths. I figure it's 200 hours to get through it legitimately. I had no choice but to cheat.
Save game hacking guides for these old games are hard to find for some reason. In the late 90s internet there were probably a dozen Geocities pages with information but they're long gone now. I figured out how to edit experience points unassisted but item editing took a little more work. After a couple hours I had a party with the best possible equipment at the maximum level.
Even with a nearly invincible party it was tough to complete. The previously mentioned cheap deaths occur constantly. The way it usually works is an enemy lands a paralyze spell which leaves the affected party member vulnerable to a one-hit death. Combine that with battles against a dozen enemies with paralyze attacks and there are a lot of restarts involved.
Despite the difficulty I enjoyed the storyline & setting. I suspect I'll play through the whole trilogy, albeit with even more cheating.
As I'm prone to do after finishing a major RPG, I changed gears and tried something completely different. One thing about this era of gaming I like is the whole Humble Bundle thing. I assume this will be around in January 2020 but in case it's not let me refresh everyone's memory... Humble Bundles and the like are collections of games sold for ridiculous discounts. Generally it's 8-12 games sold for less than the price of one. Generally these bundles are for PC which doesn't help me much since I run Linux. As you're probably aware, it's mandatory for Linux users to mention they run Linux at every opportunity. Anyway, sometimes these bundles are for Android. I bought some RPG bundle for Android but haven't started it yet. Gaming on my phone isn't really my thing so who knows why I bought it in the first place.
Earlier this year the folks at Humble Bundle somehow managed to negotiate a 3DS/Wii U bundle. Since it required obtaining download codes from the Nintendo eShop it must have involved working with Nintendo at some point. Up until now Nintendo isn't exactly known for playing nicely with others. In a previous decade it would have been unthinkable that Nintendo would work with a 3rd party on a discount game bundle. Now here they are embracing small independent developers and at least trying this crazy bundle idea.
So to make a long story short - when this first 3DS/Wii U bundle launched I bought it immediately. One of the games in that bundle was Gunman Clive, a platformer that uses a old-school cartoon visual style. Something about the artwork appealed to me so it was the first game I tried. It was kind of short but I enjoyed it. The difficulty was low and I got through it in a couple of evenings. Mighty Switch Force was another game in this bundle and the story is roughly the same. It was a quick playthrough that was a little more difficult. I finished it in a few days and it was fun.
These games made me realize we're in a great time for gaming because small developers can get a short, inexpensive game out on multiple platforms without much trouble. All the various shops - Steam, eShop, and the PlayStation/Xbox equivalents - are packed with games from small studios. Outside of To the Moon, I haven't explored many of these games. I feel like I'm missing out on some amazing experiences by not trying more.
Out of nowhere I started getting a craving for some Katamari Damacy. I enjoyed Me and My Katamari but eventually got burned out on it. It was fun enough that I wanted to give the other games in the series a shot. I started with the original on the PlayStation 2.
The original Katamari Damacy isn't all that different than the PSP version - start with a small Katamari and roll stuff up until it reaches the goal size. Along the way there's wacky scenery, wacky music, and wacky characters. I enjoyed it on the big screen more than on a portable but that didn't stop me from playing Touch My Katamari on the Vita next. It was on sale pretty cheap recently, it seemed too cheap for a new-ish game. After completing the entire story in a couple hours I realized why. It seems like something that was rushed out and is way too short for a full price game. After playing through these two it was time for something different.
I set an arbitrary goal of finishing the first ten Final Fantasy games before, well, I'm not sure. Final Fantasy II was something I started last decade but didn't get too far into, I think I was burned out on JRPGs at the time. Since then I bought it on PSP for a fairly low price, some crazy deal on Amazon for $5. Since I hadn't fired-up the handheld in a while, getting one step closer to this goal was a good excuse.
Final Fantasy II was originally a Famicom game that was scheduled for release in the US but ditched at the last minute. As the legend goes, the translation was complete but Nintendo coerced Square to pull it over concerns it would steal some thunder from the Super Nintendo. To people reading this in the 2020s it is hopefully a completely ludicrous idea that US gamers have to wait years before Japanese games are ported. Somehow I suspect my beloved Falcom will be the last holdout in this department.
Yeah, Falcom is still the last holdout - I can't recall any of their games making it out to the US in under a year of its Japanese release.
Unfortunately this was the only game in the series I genuinely didn't enjoy. The leveling system was odd, a frequent criticism of the game, but I thought it was alright. It was different from anything else I played and could work really well with a few tweaks. The part that drove me insane was the excessive amount of grinding required to just barely survive. Five minutes after finishing it I couldn't tell you what the storyline was about, all I remember is fighting hundreds or even thousands of battles. Maybe I'm being too harsh, by late 80s/early 90s standards it required an average amount of grinding.
American gamers were better off jumping directly to Final Fantasy IV. The second and third installments were slow grinds with basic stories. Playing them would have turned many off from the franchise. The fourth part was a major leap in the storyline department with fully developed characters and an engaging plot about personal redemption. It left players wanting another sequel and set the stage for the series to be a smash hit in the US.
My Katamari Damacy burnout didn't last long because the next game I played through was We Love Katamari. All things considered this is my favorite in the series. The level design and variety made it feel like a larger game than the rest. The only real strike against it is the lack of any kind of "eternal mode".
I pre-ordered Majora's Mask 3D and it arrived back in February. I don't know why but I didn't start it until the fall. Maybe all the Halloween ambience reminded me of it. Majora's Mask is my favorite game in the series despite not being as open as Wind Waker or the original game. Of all the games it has the most interesting story and characters. The 3-day cycle is really the key to it all. Through it you learn the personalities and witness how they react to different situations. It also forces you to discover & track where & when key events occur.
Majora's Mask 3D is like an "easy mode" of the original. In the N64 game Link is equipped with the Bombers' Notebook which performs some basic tracking functions for NPC activities. It acts as a way to give general hints or jog the player's memory. In the 3D remake the Bombers' Notebook is more of a specific checklist that spells out exactly what that player needs to do for each NPC.
It's been 15 years since the original game was released. Wow that sounds like a long time when I write it out like that. Anyway, maybe Nintendo thinks gamers are dumber now than they were a decade and a half ago. More generously, maybe Nintendo thinks gamers expect games to hold their hand and is just giving people what makes them comfortable. Whatever the case, I preferred the more difficult version. On the flip side, the graphics on the 3DS look substantially better than the N64 so it was worth playing through.
Since I have Majora's Mask practically memorized I got through this quickly, even while waiting to complete all side quests before confronting the final boss. So when Christmas season rolled around it was time to start a new game.
Next up was Final Fantasy X on the Vita. The actual title is something longer like "Final Fantasy HD Remaster Mixmaster Throwdown Edition" but I'll just go with "Final Fantasy X" from here on out.
A while ago I set this seemingly arbitrary goal of finishing the first ten Final Fantasy games. Only it really started with just nine. I was under the impression that starting with the PlayStation 2 the series changed from an RPG to an interactive movie with some RPG elements. That's an unfair assessment of the series, although the hours of cut-scenes increases with each game they're still fundamentally RPGs. So instead I decided to complete all the games that were produced by series creator Hironobu Sakaguchi. This goal is more logical since his departure from Square would be a definitive moment when the series changed. That doesn't mean I won't try later games in the series, I probably will. It just means that once I get through the tenth game I can safely say I experienced the original era of the series if that's worth anything.
I also became interested in Final Fantasy X while browsing through a pile of PlayStation 2 sampler discs I bought on eBay. It was an impulse buy and they were a good deal. I figured they'd also be an ok way to search for new games I might like. One of these discs had a demo for Final Fantasy X which lets you play the first 30 or so minutes of the game. It covers the intro up until the time when Tidus is absorbed by Sin. I thought the characters were goofy looking but I liked the story and battle system. I ordered the remake on Vita and set it aside for a rainy (in this case snowy) day.
The demo wasn't long enough to introduce the sphere grid system and at first I found it confusing. Before long I was hooked on it and spent every chance I could grinding to unlock new abilities for characters. I also looked for ways to create cross-over characters through some strategic grid navigation. It's a leveling system that would be nice to see in another game.
Story wise, Final Fantasy X is basically the Wikipedia entry for the Hero's Journey archetype. Since Wikipedia wasn't around when Final Fantasy X was developed I have to assume the story writer was familiar with the pattern, or at very least other things that follow it. Star Wars, Chrono Trigger, The Hobbit, Ocarina of Time, The Matrix, and countless other stories are based on the Hero's Journey. Final Fantasy X, like Star Wars, uses a literal confrontation with the father at the end making it a rigid implementation of the archetype.
Final Fantasy X was easy to win, the last boss is impossible to lose to. Yuna's Anima summon is practically unbeatable against all the enemies before then including the penultimate boss. Like earlier Final Fantasy games, Square included optional mega-bosses for gamers that want a more difficult challenge. These are found in a monster arena that offers powerful weapons as prizes. I tried a few of these bosses and they are indeed incredibly hard to fell. There are also the Dark Aeons which as far as I can tell are impossible without max stat characters. I never lasted more than two rounds against them.
I'll never have the time to try a 100% playthrough of Final Fantasy X. Getting through the main story and some side quests was satisfying enough. The story was interesting and kept me playing an hour or two every night until I reached the tragic ending. Well, tragic with a small glimmer of hope.
Favorite game of 2015 (that was released in this decade): Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze
Don't underestimate Tropical Freeze as just a throwback to the original "Country" series. It's a very well-constructed platformer that's challenging even for veterans of the genre. The visuals and audio are reminiscent of an earlier era but well beyond what could have been accomplished in the 90s. Sure, it's not PlayStation 4 or XBone quality, no point arguing that, but it looks great all the same. Flashier visuals wouldn't improve it one bit. Tropical Freeze was an all-around blast and will likely go down in history as an underrated gem for the Wii U.
Note: I disqualified Ocarina of Time 3D and Majora's Mask 3D since they aren't drastically different from the original versions.
Favorite game of 2015 (from a previous decade): Final Fantasy X
I really missed out not playing this sooner. My strange biases kept me from trying it last decade and I'm sure I would have thoroughly enjoyed it 10-15 years ago.
2016 - More JRPGs
The nice thing about waiting a decade to play a game is that if you enjoy it you can start the sequel right away. The ending of Final Fantasy X left me wanting more so immediately started Final Fantasy X-2. Again, technically it was something like "Final Fantasy X-2 HD Uber Remix" but let's stick with "Final Fantasy X-2" to keep things simple.
My first impression of Final Fantasy X-2 was formed over a decade ago when commercials for it ran during every break in South Park. Over the course of few weeks I heard ~15 seconds of "Real Emotion" enough times to commit it to permanent memory. I remembered it well enough to be puzzled about how it related to its prequel. Somewhere between the events of Final Fantasy X and X-2 Yuna apparently became a pop star. I was curious to see how that transformation happened.
Of course it was all a ruse. The musical intro was just a mechanism to introduce the main cast. After that it was tour of all the locations in Final Fantasy X. With the game divided into five chapters it meant revisiting locations up to five times. The geography of the world changed little between the games but the citizens evolved. This was ultimately a game about personal conflict - both small and large scale. The story revolved around helping people adjust to a new world where their previous beliefs were now mythology.
The level & skill system was very reminiscent of Final Fantasy V. Yuna ends Final Fantasy X nearly invincible but starts X-2 from scratch. That's a necessary change to enable the new Garment Grid system. Through it the three main characters can change classes at any time and utilize a wide range of abilities. It became one of my favorite RPG class systems instantly. The characters are all roughly equal, allowing the player to develop them any way they choose. I did the boring thing and made Yuna a general mage character, Paine a physical combat specialist, and Rikku a utility character. Some of the classes were a bit too powerful. Dark Knight, for example, seemed unbalanced and made most boss fights a breeze.
On my first playthrough I earned a not-great ending because I didn't know that it was essential to visit all locations in the first chapter to trigger events in later chapters. Entire storylines are locked if you skip a location. After finishing it I consulted a FAQ and learned that I missed a ton of content. I started a New Game+ and found it was like playing an entirely different game because there was little repeat content. My final completion score was in the high 90s due to a couple side quests that take an insane amount of time which I skipped.
This concludes my quest to complete the first ten Final Fantasy games. Yeah, yeah... this wasn't one of the first ten games but it's tied so closely to part ten that it counts. There are still side games for parts VII and IV that I'll get around to someday and maybe I'll decide to try a later game, who knows.
My free time took a major hit from April to July due to another large project. It wasn't nearly as bad as the project I had in 2010, which ranks as the worst in my career by a wide margin. Still, I was working 12 hour days with weekends here and there. I won't go into details about my job but I'll say this project was strangely fun even with the extended hours. I didn't play many games during this time. This meant something I pre-ordered sat wrapped in plastic until late summer.
Of course I pre-ordered Twilight Princess HD. When it arrived I was wrapping-up Final Fantasy X-2 and planned to start it immediately afterward but life had other plans. Once things settled-down it was time to revisit Hyrule again.
The last decade was a great one for Zelda games. Twilight Princess ranked third among them for me which says a ton about the quality of the series in the zeroes. The further I get from Skyward Sword the less I like it. I played through every other console Zelda game at least twice, Twilight Princess being the only exception up to now. I never once had the urge to replay Skyward Sword, it feels like a chore now that I think about it. Not wanting to play a game again doesn't make it bad. Skyward Sword isn't a bad game, but I can't imagine playing it from the start again.
I maybe felt the same way about Twilight Princess initially since the first 4-5 hours of the game are kinda dull. With experience on my side I powered through the first few mandatory tasks as quickly as possible to break the tedium. I think I enjoyed the second playthrough of Twilight Princess more than the first for this reason. I remembered the less-than-great parts and completed them as early as possible. What was left was a beautifully drawn world with quirky NPCs and intricate dungeons.
In this second playthrough I also spent more time poking around the villages and talking to people. It turns out I missed an entire building in Hyrule Castle Town the first time through, I thought I went over everything too. I also completed more side-quests and mini-games, finishing with all heart containers and upgrades. I guess I rushed through it too much the first time. My memory isn't perfect but I think after winning it I originally planned to go back and complete other side-quests but didn't.
Buying a ton of Nintendo products means earning a ton of Club Nintendo points. I cashed in a few points for a copy of New Super Mario Bros. 2 on the 3DS. I haven't gotten around to the first New Super Mario Bros. but am sure to eventually.
I heard that the Super Mario games get easier over time after Super Mario Bros. 3 but I had no idea. New Super Mario Bros. 2 was a complete cakewalk. I felt like it might be impossible to lose lives faster than you earn them. None of the levels or enemies were especially difficult. I got through the main game in three evenings. It was fun but I was glad to not have payed full price for it. Well, sure, fine, I bought a ton of stuff to get this game for "free", whatever.
Twilight Princess made me nostalgic for the GameCube. At 15 years-old it's time to start thinking of it as a "retro" system. The GameCube is the last system I bought at launch and it was my favorite system of the previous decade. I decided to revisit something from the launch and try the sequel to Luigi's Mansion. Plus it was Halloween season and it felt like the right time to try a horror themed game. Or in this case, an G-rated horror movie of a game.
Mechanically speaking, Luigi's Mansion: Dark Moon was similar to the original with new tools to expand the gameplay. On the GameCube it was all flashlight and vacuum, on the 3DS Luigi expanded his arsenal as the game progressed. This led to replaying some levels a few times to unlock things that were inaccessible the first time through. Right, levels.. The biggest difference between Dark Moon and the original was the level structure. Luigi's Mansion was set in one giant mansion where different segments were unlocked as bosses were defeated. Dark Moon traverses a series of smaller locations in a structure more like a Super Nintendo platformer.
I sort of liked the format of the original better but I can't really say one game is superior to the other. If Dark Moon was a direct clone of Luigi's Mansion that would have been a bigger letdown than it being different.
In November Nintendo released the NES Classic Mini. A plug-and-play collection of 30 upscaled NES favorites in a nostalgic case. It's something gamers have been demanding since Atari started releasing similar gadgets over a decade ago. I own something like 300 variants of Atari plug-and-play collections and 70 Sega ones. I even own one that's just Madden ‘95 and NHL ‘95. Finally Nintendo fans could own one.
Or at least that was the premise. The system was released in short supply and, as far as I can tell, sold exclusively to eBay and Craigslist scalpers. Buying an NES Classic Mini at retail was basically impossible so I gave up trying. I'm not giving scalpers my business so until Nintendo makes more I'll live without it. I own 28 of the 30 games in the collection already so it's not urgent.
The Legend of Heroes series is a mixed bag. The original game on the TurboGrafx-16 was a solid RPG for its time. The graphics maybe didn't stand-up to Genesis or Super Nintendo RPGs but the soundtrack and story were top-notch. That's what you're assured with Falcom games. The graphics and controls might be unconventional but you'll always get an A+ soundtrack and memorable characters.
Legend of Heroes II never received a translation but all the subsequent games did. Legend of Heroes III-V comprised a trilogy that was released last decade on the PSP. The first game, meaning the third overall, was my favorite. It was the story of a young not-quite couple travelling the world on a coming-of-age pilgrimage. The second/fourth game was a letdown, a buddy-tale that grew monotonous. The third/fifth turned things around and if I wasn't feeling burned-out on the series by then I probably would have rated it highly.
When the next chapter in the series, called Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky, was released in the states I bought it out of fandom. It sat unopened for a long time and finally I decided it was time to start it. I can't say what specifically inspired me, I guess it was just time to catch-up on the series.
The series has definitely evolved in a deceptively short time. On paper the last Legend of Heroes saga and Trails in the Sky are on the same system. In reality, the previous trilogy began as PC games in the 90s. The PSP ports weren't too far off the originals. That means there's really a 15 year gap between the series which for video games is a huge gap. It's the difference between the original Legend of Zelda and Wind Waker.
The technological leap for the Legend of Heroes series wasn't as drastic as the NES to GameCube but there was a noticeable improvement. The PSP games could have passed for Super Nintendo games while Trails in the Sky was undoubtedly next-gen... well, semi-recent-gen. Visually it was somewhere between PlayStation 1 and 2 quality. Better graphics are great and everything; the more noticeable evolution was in the style of the game. The battle system was upgraded to include a range of character-specific special attacks. The magic system now allowed all characters to possess a wide arsenal of spells (arts). The high-maintenance pets were gone too, a welcome change.
The writing improved dramatically as well. I found the story for Legend of Heroes III to be the best of the III-IV-V trilogy. It told the tale of a young potential couple leaving their sheltered village for the first time. Trails in the Sky, part VI part I in the series, mostly copied this formula. The main characters are a boy-girl combo leaving their little village to travel the kingdom. Along the way they're joined by a variety of sidekicks. This is where Trails in the Sky evolved the series, these side characters had full backstories, personalities, subplots, and abilities that made it fun to experiment with different party combinations.
Like the previous games in the series the story is pretty linear. Go to town #1, sort out their problems, go to town #2, repeat until confronting the final boss. Throw in a few optional quests or hunts for people who just enjoy grinding and bam - it's a JRPG. Trails in the Sky doesn't stray from this formula but it keeps it interesting through the storyline, character interactions, and combat system. Right, yeah, the combat system... also like the previous games it used a turned-based system with a movement grid reminiscent of the Gold Box D&D series. Trails in the Sky improved on the earlier games by offering a wider assortment of ranged attacks. The variety influences how the player selects their party. For example, I always kept one character with a long range attack in the group. They didn't deal massive damage but could slowly chip away at enemies and act as a backup healer. They were usually so far away from enemies during a battle that they were rarely below max HP. Another player could opt for a power team of close range fighters if they were inclined.
As the year comes to a close there's something I need to address. Over the course of writing this I neglected to include many Wii U games I played with my kids. Here are condensed reviews of them:
Mario Kart 8: I've never been huge on this series and wouldn't have played this if not for my kids. Seriously, I never played any of these games solo but then again it feels all sad & pathetic to play Mario Kart alone. We had a great time with this as a group. The number of vehicle customizations gives it a lot of replayability. We bought the DLC levels & vehicles too which were worth the $11 or whatever. Obviously the Zelda-themed stuff appealed to me.
Nintendo Land: I thought this was, well, awful. It's a collection of mini-games and none of them were all that fun. There were a couple OK ideas in it, like the Luigi's Mansion inspired ghost game, but it wasn't enough to make Nintendo Land worthwhile.
Super Mario Maker: I really expected to play this a ton yet so far I've barely touched it. My youngest kid, 8 at this time, is the main player. She likes to design ludicrous levels and I try to survive them. Maybe I'll give this a shot later on because, yeah, it really is something I could get into.
Super Smash Bros. Something: I don't understand the appeal of these games. Ganon fighting Pac Man is funny for like three seconds then it's all just mindless button mashing. Is there some strategy to these games I don't know about?
Super Mario 3D World: This was a really great game all around. I normally don't get into the 3D Mario games but something about this one was fun to me. The two-player mode is maybe a little annoying at times but with kids you don't have much of a choice.
Favorite game of 2016 (that was released in this decade): Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky
Again I'm disqualifying the remakes otherwise my favorite game of the 2010s would look an awful lot like my favorite games of the 2000s. This leaves a very short list to pick from this year. There weren't any other new-ish game I played in 2016 that I thought were great.
Favorite game of 2016 (from a previous decade): Final Fantasy X-2
I guess this wins by default, even with some competition I imagine it could have won. Yeah, the remake was released this decade but my "arbitrary remake rule" labels this as a previous decade game.
Sorry if this was a boring year to read about. When I started writing this I feared it would eventually lose steam as I gradually lose touch with modern gaming. The two current-gen systems I played the most this year are the two least popular.
2017 - What's the deal with all the fishing in video games?
I started the year by taking a hiatus from Trails in the Sky to play Ys IV on the PC Engine CD again. I played it last decade but quit about 2/3 of the way through when I hit an annoying dungeon. I always meant to finish it but as time went on it was forgotten. The translation I previously played was text only, with a supplemental guide to the spoken dialog. In later years a team of outstanding hackers and volunteer voice actors re-dubbed the dialog into English. While on holiday break in 2016 I went through the various steps to apply the patch and burn the game to CD.
With Memories of Celceta still in mind I enjoyed Ys IV immensely the second time. Over a couple weekends I powered through the main story. The dungeon that gave me grief before was surprisingly easy this time around. The last boss was the only part of the game I found unfairly difficult. That took about 10 tries to get through but was worth it for the ending.
I can't overstate how much I miss games in this style. Ys I&II on the TurboGrafx-16 CD completely captivated me something like 25 years ago. I won't argue with anyone who doesn't like the play style of it, with the whole running into enemies thing. That isn't what made Ys I&II great - it was the combination of story, artwork, music, and cut-scenes. The 16-bit CD era made all these things possible. It was during this time that developers tested the limits of what they could do and the results were amazing. In another era Ys IV would have been an average game. Released earlier it would have, well, been like the Super Famicom version of the game. It would have been OK but not great. Released later the cutscenes would be longer & more frequent, disrupting the pace of the game. It's a era that won't be easily copied, and that was over too quickly.
After finishing Ys IV I went to complete Trails in the Sky. I powered through the last dungeon and was briefly happy with the ending. Without going into spoilers I have to say "briefly" because once everything seemed settled there was a major twist. Some plot twists in games are completely contrived, like the last bosses of Final Fantasy IV & IX. This was not one of them. Although it would have been difficult to predict the twist ending of Trails in the Sky it fit the storyline perfectly.
After this ending I became obsessed with finding out where the story goes next and immediately bought the sequel - Trails in the Sky: Second Chapter.
A fun thing about Trails in the Sky: Second Chapter is it supports copying save files from the first game. The not fun thing was actually doing that. My save file from the first game was sitting comfortably on my PSP. The second game was a PSP download-only title (in the US). I had some spare PSP memory cards so no problem right? Of course not. Sometime after buying a PSP I upgraded my router to the latest spec. Every device I owned worked except the PSP which only supports obsolete standards. It's like owning a Game Gear TV tuner after the HDTV conversion.
Instead I bought the game on the Vita and went through the logistics of coping my save game from PSP -> PC -> Vita. None of this was necessary because the things that carry over between games were minimal. There's some weird defect in my brain that forced me to do it anyway.
Trails in the Sky: Second Chapter was a minor upgrade over the original. Mechanically the differences were minimal and the graphics were at best slightly tweaked. None of this was a letdown because I assumed they were built on the same engine by the same team. I was just interested in seeing how the story played out anyway.
The plot resumed a few months after the ending of the original and, like Final Fantasy X-2, was a "girl saves boy" story. It only took the game industry ~30 years to start flipping around these roles. Favorite characters from the first game returned and some new ones debuted. It all flowed very well.
Trails in the Sky: Second Chapter began in a new location then changed to a tour of all the previous locations. Every town from the first game is visited again albeit in a different order. Along the way new dungeons are unlocked while others have alternate enemies. As the plot advances the party again, wait for it, has to revisit every town. By the time all is said and done, every location in the world is visited at least three times between the first two Trails in the Sky games. The story was good though so I didn't really mind. These aren't the first, or last, RPGs to do this.
This time around the story ended in a definitive manner. It was a satisfying ending since it brought closure to the main plot. There's news that the third and final chapter of Trails in the Sky will be hitting Steam in the US soon. If it's Linux compatible I'll buy it of course, so far it looks to be Windows-only. From what I can gather it's a little disconnected from the first two games. The main character is a minor character in the second game and the previous leads have been demoted. I'd like to play it, no question, but it's not like how I felt about needing to play the second game to see the story come to a conclusion. Sadly, I won't be able to copy over my save game whenever I get around to starting it.
You don't need me to tell you the Nintendo Switch launched this spring. As with all major console launches it sold out immediately. I wasn't interested in it because I already had its marquee launch title, Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, pre-ordered for the Wii U. Since the Wii U wasn't a wild success this wasn't an issue for most shoppers. I'll eventually buy one. There's no question about that since I own every Nintendo console, even the Virtual Boy. I think I'll repeat what I did with the DS a decade ago and wait for the first major hardware revision.
I wasn't sure what to expect with Breath of the Wild. I heard it was an "open world" game but I assumed this meant it was like Wind Waker where the world is locked-down until some mandatory story quests are completed. That was a terrible assumption. Only two or so minutes into the game it was obvious there were no limits on exploration. From the offset Link can do anything and go anywhere. It is the first Zelda sequel to feel like the original game. Back in 1987 Link was simply handed a sword and told to figure the rest out on his own.
OK, yeah, Breath of the Wild is slightly locked-down at first. Link is initially confined to one region of the map. That region is far from small. I don't know anything about how it compares to previous worlds in terms of square footage but it feels bigger than the overworld of any previous Zelda game except for Wind Waker. This first area is only like 1/10 of the entire game map so even the vast ocean of Wind Waker is dwarfed by it. The purpose of this (relatively) mini-map is to be a self-paced tutorial. In it the player learns the basics of survival - gathering weapons, hunting, cooking meals, and fighting groups of enemies. These skills are essential for exploring the rest of the world.
I spent a ton of time exploring once free of the initial plateau. I really took my time too, I figured it would be a while before the next Zelda game was released and who knows if Nintendo would revert back to the Skyward Sword formula in it. I paced myself to unlocking about one tower a week until I had the entire map. I noted areas I wanted to go back to and gradually found & completed each shrine. I avoiding using the Sheikah Sensor to discover new shrines to keep that authentic 1987 vibe going.
After unlocking everything I could think of I stormed Hyrule Castle and faced Ganon. As last boss fights go it was about right - maybe not as good as Ocarina of Time but better than Majora's Mask (where the last boss fight is about the only weak part of the game). Shortly after defeating Ganon the first wave of DLC was released and it was OK. Not much new content but it gave me a reason to play a few more times. A few months later the second round of DLC came out, it was a little disappointing. It's alright, I already had more than my money's worth from the game.
Breath of the Wild finally made me enjoy Amiibos. I thought they were neat little collectibles but didn't understand the purpose. In Breath of the Wild they were used as a sort of daily lottery item. The Zelda-branded Amiibos could be used to unlock outfits from old games or powerful weapons. The non-Zelda Amiibos gave out cooking supplies mostly which saves the time of finding items. These Amiibo bonuses made me fire up the game every day even when I didn't have time to play for long.
Now for a dilemma - I sort of knocked Skyward Sword when I said I had no interest in playing it through again. The same is true for Breath of the Wild. Hitting the "New Game" selection is overwhelming right now. Instead I'll continue to grind away at my save game off and on. Maybe I'll max out some armor collections I neglected, fill my weapon arsenal with only the best options, and complete the few side-quests I skipped. I can't see myself starting a new game this decade though. Maybe if I get a Switch but even then there will likely be other games I'll want to start first. My 3DS and Vita backlog is huge now too so there's no shortage of games I'd rather try before a new Breath of the Wild playthrough. There was a 10 year gap between Twilight Princess playthroughs, that seems about right here too.
And another dilemma - is Breath of the Wild the best game in the Zelda series? That's also a tough question. In terms of storyline and characters, Majora's Mask is still my favorite. In terms of soundtrack, I'll go with either Wind Waker or Ocarina of Time. As visuals go, Twilight Princess HD wins out. Dungeon design goes to Skyward Sword. In terms of ability & incentive to explore randomly, Breath of Wild has to win. Previously only the original game incentivised wandering around aimlessly. It was impossible to get through The Legend of Zelda without extensive trial and error. Finding all the items required looking under every rock, burning every tree, and bombing every wall. Later games had secrets of course but with a mostly linear dungeon order. Breath of the Wild went back to its roots and forced the player to explore while letting them tackle dungeons in any order. That is the essence of the Zelda series that's been in decline for 30 years. That is what moves it to the top of the Zelda ranking.
Breath of the Wild also was an unintentional family game. Both of my kids had save games on it and played through on a different path than the one I took. There are an endless number of ways to get through the game and it was fun to see what they went with. As cheesy as it sounds, it was a legitimate bonding experience. Now that I think about it, perhaps Nintendo intended something like this all along.
At the annual Midwest Gaming Classic, Nintendo had a station to promote their latest system. This was my first opportunity to try it and I wasn't impressed. The game they were demoing, 1-2 Switch, felt like 2011 Majesco shovelware for the Wii. If that was the best Nintendo offered for the the Switch it would be a while before I bought one.
It's a strange contrast. Breath of the Wild is the greatest game I've played this decade, possibly ever. Yet I'm feeling incredibly negative about Nintendo as a whole. They botched the NES Classic Mini as badly as they could, discontinuing it while millions were demanding to buy one. I have no interest in whatever successor they ultimately produce because I'm sure it will be an equal disaster. I don't feel like fighting someone in the Thunderdome just to score a SNES or N64 Classic. The Switch has been out a few months and I hear it's out of stock everywhere leading to, surprise, widespread scalping. Nintendo's mobile games, Super Mario Run and Pokemon Go, aren't remotely interesting to me. It's like Nintendo has one A-team locked away making great games while the rest of the company is floundering.
About two days after writing the last paragraph I saw a Switch in a store for the first time. It was at a Toys ‘R Us that always has everything in stock. I wonder how the location stays in business sometimes because even on a "Black Friday" it's sparsely populated. I looked at the system in its shiny new box for a minute and decided to pass for now. I'll wait it out for the right deal like I did with the Wii U and 3DS.
And now a brief diversion to reflect on the passage of time... when I look at the outline of this article I realize it's almost time to publish it. Two and a half years isn't very far away. The little girl who was sad to see 2009 end is now nervous about starting high school. When I started this article I feared that by the end of the decade I might outgrow video games. As time passes the opposite is happening. Video games have become a way to bond with my kids or forget a frustrating day at the office. 2009 already feels very distant yet very recent.
After finishing Breath of the Wild I couldn't decide what to start next. I have a massive backlog of games, no doubt, but I didn't feel like starting any of them. Then I realized the problem, what I really wanted was something new, something that felt like a current generation game. The last time I had this urge was in 2001 when I pre-ordered the GameCube. After briefly assessing the current console market I bought a PlayStation 4. It was the leading system in this generation so I knew it would have games for years to come. With the recent announcement of an upgraded PlayStation 4 the original system was now $250 with a pack-in game (Uncharted 4). That deal was just too good to pass up.
It's funny, I still haven't played Uncharted 4. I even picked-up a collection of the first three for $10 under the assumption I needed to play through them in order. Anyone who grew up with a bootleg Indiana Jones VHS should want to play these right? I'm 99% sure I'll like them but keep putting them off.
There was also something weirdly unappealing about the Xbox One to me. I would blame the terrible PR the system received before it launched, all that nonsense about DRM and used games, but that wasn't it. Fans of Xbox 360 struck me as being obnoxious dude bros. There was a culture around the system that turned me off. It seemed like a system for people who only played online shooters and Madden games. I know that's not true but this stigma stuck with me up to this generation. The PlayStation systems, which of course had online shooters and Madden games, seemed to target a wider range of gamers. Of the two major consoles, the PlayStation 4 was the one for me.
Of course the biggest factor was Falcom supporting the PlayStation 4 over the Xbox One. Falcom is my second favorite game developer behind Nintendo. No Falcom games on the Xbox One means there's virtually no way I'd buy it.
I also really wanted to try Final Fantasy XV and it was the first game I bought for the system. I was initially uninterested because of the all male party, I thought storywise that wouldn't work. Then I remembered that Final Fantasy X-2 did just fine with an all-female cast and afterall it's just a game. It promised a reinvention of the battle system and an open world which made it seem worth a chance.
In my time ignoring modern generation systems I grew out of touch with how things worked. I bought the "Day One" edition of Final Fantasy XV at a decent discount. What I neglected to understand is that "Day One" really meant "two days of downloading updates". So a couple days after trying to start Final Fantasy XV I did.
The first thing that struck me about Final Fantasy XV was the setting. The typical steampunk world was replaced with a collection of oases frozen in the 1960s American southwest. The diners, shops, and gas stations were cut right out of an Americana collection on Pinterest (hopefully that's still a thing in January 2020 so the reference makes sense). I freaking loved it all, it was like an immersive version of It Came from the Desert. My first few days with Final Fantasy XV were spent looking for new map points and taking on side quests. Like Breath of the Wild, whenever possible I ignored the main story in favor of exploration and side quests. This meant my party was typically way over-levelled when I did tackle the story.
I don't feel like I ever really understood the battle system. It seemed like "hold X to win" was the best strategy. The magic system was equally confusing and even after finishing the story I'm still not sure I was doing it right. The player only controls one of the four characters and the others are AI. So if the party is at the right level they'll win all the fights regardless of strategy. Really, in most of the previous Final Fantasy games this is all battle strategy comes down to. If you're 20 levels higher than your opponent you'll win regardless of what boneheaded strategy you try.
The story of Final Fantasy XV is solid through chapter 8 then turns very dark. Members of the party suffer irreversible injuries, the main character's fiance dies, the world is devastated, and at the very end the main character has to sacrifice himself. Final Fantasy X ends with the main character and a major character departing the world but it's downright fanciful compared to XV. The game has a time travel mechanism that allows the player to return to the world as it was before chapter 8, back to when it was an open world game. This was nice, if let's say Final Fantasy V or VI allowed travel back to a previous time it would have been a welcome addition. Maybe this was a late addition by the development team to compensate for the "point of no return" events of chapter 8. That's fine, it added hours of time to the game for me.
There's one thing that prevents FFVX from being one of the best in the series - lack of a main enemy. There are minor interactions with the nebulous "empire" and run-ins with a frenemy who turns out to be the last boss after a convoluted story. Compare this to Kefka, Sephiroth, or Sin - all main enemies that the party interacts with throughout the story. In VI, VII, and X it's obvious who you have to face in the final confrontation and why they have to be stopped.
So maybe the story wasn't awesome but I enjoyed driving around, exploring, and camping. It was like Breath of the Wild but more confined. In Breath of the Wild anything you see can be climbed, anything. Only the mountains & oceans at the very edge of the map were off limits. At the end of the day the open world portion of Final Fantasy XV isn't all that different from Breath of the Wild. Wander around, find a new town, gather ingredients to cook status boosting items, run errands for random people, and camp at sunset or risk fighting night time enemies. Oh, and also catching fish...
Of the past three modern games I played all three involved cooking and catching fish. When exactly did these become mandatory game mechanics? They make sense in Breath of the Wild where the theme is survival and there are no shops until several hours into the game. Trails in the Sky could have dropped cooking & fishing and stuck with the typical potions found in RPGs. The game would have been just as enjoyable like this. In Final Fantasy XV cooking served as an alternative to traditional RPG levelling. I think it was better off the old way.
I blame Ocarina of Time for popularizing fishing. I recall it being a part of the game people loved even though it serves practically zero purpose. There could certainly be an RPG predating Ocarina of Time that required fishing, I'm too lazy to Google it. I'm just sayin' that Ocarina of Time likely made this mainstream. Cooking I'm not sure about, it can't be an extremely old idea because 8/16 bit RPGs wouldn't have wasted precious ROM space or memory on it. I'm just going to assume it started around the PlayStation era and evolved over the years into something that's now expected. At the risk of sounding like a cranky old man, I'd be happy with simple healing potions and spells.
At this point in 2017 I've played through three fairly lengthy games, each in the 60-100 hour range. This is by far the most hours of gaming in any year for me since 1995. This trend continues through to the end of the decade. There are a few reasons why.
I don't talk about my wife much on this site but I should because she's the most wonderful person I know and I have no clue why she's with me. In 2017 her dual career as an author and audiobook narrator took off. Now she was the one working death march hours while I was at a company that didn't require ludicrous crunch hours. This left me with a couple free hours every night. Suddenly a 60-100 game spanned a month instead of a season.
Our oldest daughter, the one upset about New Year, was now in high school and required less supervision. I won't say parenting a teen is easier than parenting a grade schooler, it's definitely not, but you're not spending time trying to keep them entertained.
Lastly, as I get older I'm spending way less time with friends. Don't feel sad for me, I'm not bothered by it. Over the years friends who got married either moved away or are spending most of their time with their family. The friends who never married I now find I have little in common with. Weekly hangouts turned to bi-weekly, then monthly, then holiday weekends.
I rarely play mobile games but in 2017 I played through a little game called Party Hard. I got hooked on it after trying a demo. It was a fun concept for a while but the novelty wore off. I paid something like $5 for it and don't feel ripped-off at all. The premise is your neighbors are holding an excessively loud party and you sneak in to murder them all without being spotted. You rely on a combination of stealth and setting traps. Not content with slaughtering the neighbors you move on to a variety of other parties like boat parties and rooftop parties. It was perfectly fine in small doses.
Favorite game of 2017 (that was released in this decade): Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild
It's been a long time since a game left me with the feeling Breath of the Wild did. Grand Theft Auto: Vice City last decade was close while its world now feels tiny in comparison. I hope it's not another decade before another open world game feels this impressive.
Favorite game of 2017 (from a previous decade): Ys IV: The Dawn of Ys
Yeah, I played this last decade but didn't finish it so I'm including it. With Breath of the Wild and Final Fantasy XV consuming most of my time I just plain didn't try much else.
2018 - Breath of the Wild ruins everything
Once I was thoroughly done with Final Fantasy XV I started Metroid: Samus Returns on the 3DS. I tried the bonus dungeons in Final Fantasy XV but they grew repetitive, like the 100 level optional dungeon in Final Fantasy X-2. Floor after floor of enemies with no change in scenery. Metroid seemed like a good change of pace.
Metroid: Samus Returns is a remake of the Game Boy classic Metroid II. I started, but never finished, the original in the early 90s. I think I was pretty far along but got stuck and couldn't figure out where to go next. I vaguely recall wandering around in circles trying to find anything new. I knew this problem wouldn't be present in the remake since all modern games make it painfully obvious where to go next. As expected, Samus Returns has all the modern-gen stuff - auto-mapping, constant reminders what the next objective is, and percent complete indicators for each area. That part of the game was easy.
The not easy part of the game was the combat. The system is based on timing-based counters. Enemies charge at Samus and you have to hit the counter button at a precise time. If you get the timing right the enemy is stunned, get it wrong and it's a hit for major damage. Throughout the game Samus acquires a liberal supply of power tanks. This seemingly endless energy meter is deceptive because late in the game enemy hits can knock off an entire tank. It's an interesting trade-off they went with here. I think I'd prefer fewer tanks with lower damage.
This system was especially frustrating during Metroid and mini-boss battles. Fighting a Metroid meant either pumping them with every missile in your inventory or mastering their counter timing. I was terrible at the latter so these battles were not fun. As the game progresses the Metroid become stronger. Yes, based on the ending of Metroid I'm convinced the plural of Metroid is "Metroid". Anyway, the last couple Metroid battles are absurdly difficult. I nearly rage quit the game on one of them. Same with the late game mini-boss battles. The second to last boss took me at least 10 tries and almost earned a rage quit. The last boss was a breeze though so maybe that evens things out.
So, the difficulty was bad - but I wouldn't call Metroid: Samus Returns a bad game. It has all the other expected Metroid elements like exploration, cool weapon upgrades, and trying to hunt down every missile/bomb/energy expansion. Those parts were all fine. It's a good entry to the series overall, a nice return to the original format.
So... needing a change of pace from Final Fantasy XV wasn't the only reason for starting Samus Returns. It was a also a way to put off playing Ys VIII for a couple weeks.
I pre-ordered Ys VIII for both the PlayStation 4 and Vita. If that seems a little crazy I have an almost reasonable explanation. Ys VIII was originally planned for the Vita only in the US and I ordered it promptly. Some time later it was announced for the PlayStation 4 as well. I didn't cancel the Vita order because, I guess I don't have a good reason other than it just wasn't a big deal to get both. Some number of months later it arrived and I planned to start it after finishing Breath of the Wild and Final Fantasy XV.
That plan didn't pan out because I read many complaints about the poor translation of Ys VIII. The last few Ys games were ported by XSeed who earned much praise for their efforts. Anecdotally I found they did a better job than Konami did with the Legend of Heroes games on PSP which had several easy to spot errors. For Ys VIII Falcom turned to NIS America for the port and it apparently went badly. So much so that NIS re-translated the entire game, including voiceover work, and released the update as a patch. I assume they did this to avoid losing favor with Falcom when it came to future translation bids. That patch was scheduled for late January and I decided to wait to start Ys VIII until it was out.
Ys VIII sort of feels like a mystery at the offset. Adol and his sidekick Dogi are working security for a passenger ship. As you meet the passengers you find that each has a vague backstory. It's clear that unlocking these stories will be important. Before you can get to know everyone there's a (somewhat predictable) sea monster attack followed by shipwreck. This leaves Adol stranded on an island, looking for other survivors.
Once reaching this overworld I realized that Breath of the Wild ruined all other games for me. Ys VIII, not unlike the rest of the series, has tight virtual walls around the environment. Cliffs aren't climbable without some kind of ladder and swimming is out of the question. There's a defined play area and you're sticking to it. This isn't different than a thousand games before it but I think a new standard was set last year. In the not distant future it will be an expectation in games of this genre that every surface in the world can be explored.
These limits didn't bother me for long since Ys VIII is really a blast. The combat system is roughly the same as Ys Seven and Memories of Celceta which is fine because it works well. It follows the formula of having three attack types - slash, pierce, crush - that are or more less effective against different enemy types. There are six playable characters, two of each attack type, and three are part of your overworld party at a time. The player controls one and the computer the other two with a single button press to switch between them.
Ys VIII takes the series in one new direction by introducing a town building system. Stranded on an island, Adol and the first castaways he encounters decide to setup a village. As the fearless explorer, Adol is tasked with gathering materials and fighting off monsters. He also needs to find the other castaways, each of whom brings a new skill to the village. Each castaway has their own set of chores for Adol that help reveal their backstory. I really enjoyed this aspect of the game. Every time the story advanced I went through the village to see if any new tasks popped-up. They could easily have doubled the number of sidequests and it wouldn't have grown old.
The main story was split between two time periods, a trope I almost always enjoy. In the present Adol is exploring a deserted island with ruins of a past civilization. In the past Dana sees visions of Adol's journey and tries to discover the cause of her peoples' impending demise. Through the miracle of plot devices, Dana joins Adol in the future and they team up to confront the force behind it all. This isn't all that abridged. The main story is shortened to make room for all the sidequests, hunts, and town building. Breath of the Wild follows the same formula I guess. Maybe this is a new trend.
Speaking of new trends - since Ys VIII is a game of the 2010s it has to include cooking and fishing as a core part of the game. Fishing could have been avoided but that means missing out on some good items and missing out on a character-specific sidequest. That sidequest earns a decent set of upgrades so it was worth it. Cooking would be harder to avoid since it's the primary way of healing.
Ys VIII, Final Fantasy XV, Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky, and Breath of the Wild all had cooking and fishing in them to some degree. Let's rank them:
4) Final Fantasy XV - The most realistic system of the bunch is also the least fun. It takes a while to hook a fish and once you do it's time to worry about whether your line has enough strength left to reel it in. Reeling is often a slow grind.
3) Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky - This is just a matter of timing. When there's a prompt to start reeling you have about 1/2 a nanosecond to respond before the fish gets away. Either you get it or you don't so that part's simple.
2) Ys VIII - This is a little like the Final Fantasy XV system where you have to work to reel the fish in. It's 100x better though because it happens fast and there's no line breakage. It's fun in small bursts which is all you really need.
1) Breath of the Wild - I expected Link to possess a fishing pole at some point in the game but that never happened. That's good because the system for catching fish was perfect as-is. Jump in the water and grab a fish before they swim away, shoot them with an arrow... or even better, shoot an electric arrow into a pond and catch a bunch at once. It should be this easy in every game.
4) Ys VIII - The cooking system in Ys VIII was more like a replacement for the traditional system of healing potions except it also had healing potions. It felt like something that was added just because everyone else is doing it. The annoying thing in Ys VIII is that while you have one meal effect active you can't use another one. So in a battle where you're taking a large amount of damage you can't heal twice without using a different item to clear the status. In other games the new meal effect just replaces the old one but in Ys VIII you're forced to reset it.
3) Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky - Not substantially different than Ys VIII, not surprising since they came from the same developer. It didn't have that horrible status reset thing though so it wins out.
2) Final Fantasy XV - There was something strangely calming about the camp scenes where you choose what meal to make. The whole presentation of Ignis pondering his options and presenting the final product was done well. Early on I didn't really understand the significance of the choices. A few days in I began to understand how critical the choices could be. If I was trying to grind up levels I'd cook something that boosted experience points. If I was about to enter a dungeon I might go for increased strength or status immunity. In rare situations i might choose something that boosted rare item drops. The potential stat boosts were all powerful providing an incentive to hunt down ingredients.
1) Breath of the Wild - The other three games all have fixed recipes that you have to learn. In Breath of the Wild it's all about experimentation. The item adjectives (i.e. "chilly") tell you what an item will do but you need to figure out the effectiveness. The real genius of the cooking system lies in how it compliments the armor system. If you want to visit a cold area you can either track down clothing with cold resistance, prepare some meals that add cold resistance, or combine the two. It facilitates the open world perfectly by giving the player more options to explore different climates.
One interesting choice in Ys VIII is the brief connection to Trails in the Sky. Without spoiling the story too much, toward the beginning of Ys VIII there's a villain seemingly related to the last boss of Trails of the Sky: SC. It's a brief reference that's hard to ignore if you've played both. I suspect Ys VIII will have 10x the American players as the Trails in the Sky series since the latter was a PSP release with niche appeal. I don't think Falcom is trying to say these two series occur in the same world, it was probably just a simple nod to their other franchise.
Also like other games of the era, after finishing Ys VIII a bonus mega-dungeon is opened. As of this writing I haven't finished it. I might before the end of 2018.
Off and on in winter I played Yoshi's Woolly World with my youngest kid. Once the Wii U started declining it was one of many games I bought on clearance for an absurd price. My review will be brief - it's an OK imitation of Kirby's Epic Yarn. It looks a little better being on newer hardware. That's about where the improvements end. The level design is just OK and the soundtrack is about 10% as good as Epic Yarn. It does have a neat feature where Amiibos unlock different character designs, that was fun to try out. Ganon-themed Yoshi was my go-to variation.
Some time ago, maybe a year, maybe two, I pre-ordered a Vita game called Root Letter. It was billed as a limited release interactive-fiction mystery game. The price wasn't bad so I took a gamble. Ever since I learned there were piles of Japanese interactive fiction games never released in the US I've wished some would receive translations, even one or two would be fine.
Like a lot of games I pre-order this sat around for a while. Somewhere between then and now I learned that Root Letter has a story that runs about 10 hours and has multiple endings based on choices made. One random day I had to take a trip with a 5 hour flight each way and decided Root Letter would be perfect for it.
The story of Root Letter has the player searching for a lost high school penpal whose last letter admitted to a murder. The mystery is solved by tracking down your penpal's now-adult classmates and berating them into sharing information. No one really wants to talk about your former penpal and you have to resort to finding humiliating information about their past to bully them. The lead character isn't sympathetic this way. His initial motivation is intriguing - finding a lost friend. Everyone has thought of doing the same at some point. His methods aren't particularly relatable.
The storyline, or maybe just the ending, vary based on player choices. At the start of each chapter the player reviews an old letter and chooses the response. I liked that idea but also wish it would have changed the story. Reading FAQs after finishing it sounds like it only changes the last chapter.
The highlight of Root Letter was the scenery. Everything is a still image like Myst so it's not an interactive environment. The artwork is nice though, both cartoony and realistic. The music is mellow and changes at appropriate times. The mood & environment work well.
I don't know if I'd recommend Root Letter. I think it's fine if you want to try some Japanese interactive fiction games. It's either this or downloading ROM hacks. Fans of American interactive fiction games may find the menu-based system to be limiting, it's like a Twine game in that way. If you're expecting Zork with pictures you'll be disappointed.
Next up is Xenoblade Chronicles on the 3DS. I'm not going to sugar-coat things, I really didn't like this game. It's an RPG with an action-like battle system. It manages to combine the worst qualities of both turn-based and action RPGs in this El Camino of a battle system. You have attacks that are optimised based on whether you're in front of, in back of, or to the side of an enemy. You choose the command and by the time your character executes it the enemy has moved rendering the attack ineffective.
There's a level system that's a bit different. You can gain levels by fighting a lot of enemies - a lot, a LOT, have to be defeated before gaining a level. However, you can also gain experience more quickly through boring fetch quests. Some random villager wants you to bring a pie to some other random villager for example. There are about 20 of these at a time. Fetch quests aren't new and every game nowadays has them. Xenoblade Chronicles somehow managed to perfect making them uninspired and pointless. A lot of "hey can you bring this thing to someone and then come back here" or "we have a problem with monster X, I know you've already defeated 300 of them but we need you to kill 2 to help control the population".
Levelling didn't seem to help much anyway. At about 10 hours in my level 20 characters were still overwhelmed by an army of level 15 opponents. Most enemies could be defeated 1-on-1 but a group of 3-4 was tough and 5+ impossible. Occasionally while wandering around you'll run into an enemy 50 levels higher than you that wipes out your entire party before you can even navigate to the run away command.
I kept grinding, fighting monsters and running errands until I wasn't killed every 5 minutes. Eventually I ground my way to the second boss fight, a chatty robot named Xord, and quit after the second attempt. It's not only that the battle was difficult, it was just not fun. The dungeon to get to him was a slow grind. Each fight along the way felt like it took an hour. After failing twice I realized this boss battle also required a ton of patience to slowly charge up your chain attack meter - use a chain attack to wear the boss down just a tiny bit, then repeat. This is what Xenoblade Chronicles was to me, a gauntlet of lethargic battles and frequent defeats.
This gets back to my previous statement about Breath of the Wild ruining games for me. Before quitting I searched around the internet to see if I was doing something wrong. There were fan petitions and stuff to bring this game to the US, there just had to be something great about it that I missed. One review commented something to the effect of "it starts off kind of slow but at the 40 hour mark the story gets great and at the 60 hour mark just look out". 40 hours? Within the first 5 minutes, Breath of the Wild was great.
I don't expect all games to start strong, but 40 hours before good stuff is insane. It feels like some games are designed for people with unlimited free time, or that only play 1-2 games a year. Or maybe it's an overreaction to internet outrage over $60 games that are too short. I might be on to something here... it's fair to criticize a $60 game that can be finished in an hour or two. The "dollars per hour" math backs that up. That's not how the internet mobs work though, they demand at least 100 hours of content in a $60 game. Asking more than 50 cents per hour is outlandish to them. They would have hated arcades.
I should have known this because waaaay back in the 90s I'd get the occasional customer who'd ask if an RPG had "100 plus hours of game play" and refuse to buy it if not. After leaving my store they'd fume about it at home but didn't have the ability to reach others. Those types now have absurd numbers of online followers and can influence game design. Developers then feel like they need to make their games last over 100 hours whether it's fun or not.
Sometimes this works. Breath of the Wild didn't get old after 100 hours, or even 200. I lost count somewhere along the way. Final Fantasy XV required a lot of padding to break the 100 hour mark, mostly through repetitive hunts. Final Fantasy XV was a good game, no doubt, but it might have been better if it was only a 40 hour game. Ys VIII also might have been better if it was a little shorter. Paying $60 for an amazing 40 hour game is 1000x preferable to paying $60 for a 100 hour game that feels like a grind. It's a very small number of games than can pull off being incredibly long and continuously fun. Breath of the Wild and Grand Theft Auto: Vice City are the first two that come to mind.
Not ready to start another RPG I next played Donkey Kong Country Returns 3D. I logged a lot of time in Tropical Freeze and was really curious about the first installment in this series reboot. Donkey Kong games have always held a special place for me since the original arcade cabinet was my introduction to video games.
Mechanically this was essentially identical to Tropical Freeze. It has a smaller party, just Donkey and Diddy Kong, this wasn't surprising. Like Tropical Freeze it has a store system that allows you to buy power-ups to make the levels a bit easier.
I'm glad I played Tropical Freeze before the prequel because it's possible I would have skipped it the other way around. Donkey Kong Country Returns is frustratingly difficult. Many levels rely on sequences of precise jumps that leave no room for error. These types of stages existed in Tropical Freeze but Dixie Kong made them much easier with her hover ability (or whatever it's called). Lacking that, there were many levels that I lost 20+ lives on. The game has a de facto unlimited number of lives fortunately. It's still annoying to replay the same 10-30 seconds of a level dozens of times. I might have complained about Kirby's Epic Yarn being too easy. Maybe it is, but it's also 100x more fun than a game where you die every 5 seconds.
There are also some really great levels along the way. I'm not going to say it's a bad game because of the difficulty. I think I've finally reached an age where my patience for difficult games is over. I'm 100% positive my reflexes aren't as good as they were 20 years ago. Rage quitting Xenoblade Chronicles proved it's not only about skill for me, I'm just done with arbitrarily difficult games. I have a backlog that's over 100 games deep now, it grows about 10-20 games a year. I won't live long enough to play them all. I'm not getting all cathartic, it's just reality.
Anyway, despite some (very) painful levels this was still a fun game overall. The scenery was also colorful and detailed, it was easy to get distracted admiring the detail they put into the levels.
Grand Theft Auto: Vice City was my favorite game of the previous decade but that didn't translate to playing the rest of the series. I played through the sequel, Vice City Stories, on both PlayStation 2 and PSP. I tried Liberty City Stories at some point but it didn't take for some reason. I skipped GTA IV simply out of not owning an Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3. The 2D Chinatown Wars is the only other I played for any amount of time. I was in the mood to try another GTA game and with part V down to $30 I gave it a shot.
GTA V is a great game of course. When others inevitably write their "top 10 games of the 2010s" list it will be ranked near the top in most of them. At the time of this writing Fortnite is the hottest game on earth so it will top some lists. Minecraft will of course top many lists too unless it was technically a 2009 release. Barring something huge being released in the next 18 months, these three and Breath of Wild will probably be the top 4 games of the decade on 99.9% of lists (except mine).
So yeah - great graphics, easy controls to master, huge world, lots of customization options, and the whole three character thing. The latter was my favorite upgrade to the series. I liked the different personalities and how their stories converged. That's two games this year I played with multiple lead characters and both did it well. Awesome game, no doubt. Instead of rehashing how great it is I'll nitpick on a few annoying things...
I know I'll sound like a prude but I'd prefer GTA V if the content wasn't so raunchy. It doesn't really add anything to the story or the character development. Rockstar does a lot of things just to shock people which I could do without.
The open world is huge but largely empty. There's plenty of scenery but not much to interact with. In Breath of the Wild there was always at least something small every few feet. Maybe it was just a simple ingredient, sometimes it's a hidden treasure or an enemy, there's always something to find or do. In GTA V it's like "hey a ladder to the roof, I wonder what's up there... and it's nothing, again". Breath of the Wild would have something there. Even older GTA games like Vice City would usually have something. Vice City was a smaller map and there was "stuff" everywhere - hidden packages, free weapons, and rampages. GTA V just feels empty. I have to assume a lot of this dead space is reserved for online missions or whatever. I'm still not into online gaming, I realize this means I'm missing out on a lot but I'm fine with that.
After finishing the main story I had enough cash to start buying all the various properties. This is when I quit playing. The property missions are by and large incredibly annoying. They typically involve a setup like "we've just been robbed, please go get the guy". This is followed by a car chase / shootout that earns you a few police stars. So then you have to lose the police but before you do the timer on the mission runs out. So despite having the stolen goods you get a message about failing. The other variant is "hey the driver of some shipment flaked out can you help". This leads to having to drive an awkward vehicle over difficult terrain in a short period of time. Failure is nearly always guaranteed. Completing them doesn't even complete them because they just keep on triggering every time you pass some invisible line on the map.
The property missions in Vice City are 1000x less annoying because they can be done whenever & however and only need to be done once. It's another way that Vice City is generally more fun than GTA V despite being lower tech. If any game deserves an HD remake it's Vice City.
Hey, on the bright side no cooking for fishing.
OK, OK. Despite the complaints GTA V was a lot of fun. Again, I enjoyed the characters and story. It might have the best plot of everything I played from this decade so far. The driving mechanics weren't much different than previous installments and that's fine because they were perfect 15 years ago. The combat (shooting) mechanics were an improvement over the PlayStation 2 era games. There were a lot of interesting side quests and the replay feature was a nice addition. My beloved Vice City and Breath of the Wild would both benefit from a similar replay option.
I might be mistaken but Final Fantasy XV sure feels like it's ripping off GTA V in a few ways. The setting is an obvious one except I have to believe the Final Fantasy XV team had that in mind for a while. The random roadside encounters feel more like the ripped-off part. In Final Fantasy XV they're very shallow encounters and come across as a late addition. They seem to be mimicking GTA V's semi-random people who also need help at the roadside. I'm sure some game pre-dates GTA V on this though.
After GTA V I moved back to the small screen and started Bravely Default. I heard it was similar to Final Fantasy V and was in the mood for something like that.
The mechanics of Bravely Default were indeed similar to Final Fantasy V. There's a party of four characters with slightly different base statistics that can learn a dozen or so jobs (classes in D&D terms). The jobs unlock abilities that can be equipped, some are horribly overpowered. There are separate experience points and job points so tons of grinding is involved. This is what I expected and I enjoyed the game because of this system. By the end of the game I had the entire party maxed out in every possible level (thanks to a combination of aforementioned overpowered abilities).
The story is where I thought Bravely Default fell short. It starts with a perfectly fine generic JRPG story - bad stuff is happening to your world and you can only save it by something involving four elemental crystals. That was good enough for the original Final Fantasy and that's considered a classic. Bravely Default wasn't content to stop there. After doing the required crystal stuff the party finds themselves in some kind of parallel world or alternate timeline where they have to do the whole story all over again. This process then repeats until you are completely sick of it. After 80 or so hours of repeating the party confronts the last boss, saves the world, and sees a commercial for the sequel.
This gets back to my lament about games being arbitrarily long. Bravely Default is a 40-50 hour RPG without all the time looping or whatever happened. It was a perfectly fine game up until then, it wasn't better from all the padding. One time loop could have accomplished the same story. In one of the 4-6 loops the party encounters a version of the world where they died or never existed or something. That could have been the entire second half of the game right there.
I was solidly negative on Nintendo's NES & SNES Classic Mini systems. My opinion changed once they managed to figure out the whole supply and demand problem. With both systems readily available it didn't take me long to buy them. Spare me the whole "you can just emulate these on [X]" narrative. I've been running emulators since they were a thing. As of this writing I have an Ouya and Raspberry Pi dedicated to running emulators. These little Nintendo systems are worth it for me because they feel 100% like the original. They also do it with no messing around. What I mean is, that Raspberry Pi, I spend way more time trying to configure controllers on it than actually playing games. These roll-your-own emulation options aren't terribly convenient. That's the trade off, the Ouya or Pi can play 100,000x more games than a dedicated system but require a lot of tinkering. When I'm in the mood to run through The Legend of Zelda, which is often, the NES Classic is the best option.
So what new games did I try due to these Nintendo systems? The Castlevania series mostly. I tried various games in the series long ago but didn't give then a fair shake. Compared to Mario or Metroid they seemed crude. Not all games can be Mario or Metroid and I found that I appreciated the Castlevania games the longer I played. They are still frustrating and difficult at times but I've reached the place where I enjoy them. Many other old games are frustrating and difficult, it comes with the territory. Castlevania requires learning level layout and enemy patterns to succeed, just like 1,000 other games. For me, the setting is what makes them worth playing. I've been a fan of horror films since whenever my parents were foolish enough to let me have a UHF antenna in my bedroom. Castlevania is like an interactive version of a campy UHF movie and that makes it alright in my book.
Next I went back the Vita and started Tokyo Xanadu. Here's the pathetic thing - I can't remember when I got this game. It's a fairly recent Falcom game so I must have pre-ordered it on Amazon but as I write this I can't recall if I bought it a month or year ago. Anyway, I chose it because there was a Falcom-shaped hole in my gaming heart that needed to be filled after playing a couple non-Falcom games.
Tokyo Xanadu is an action RPG that mechanically is close to Ys VIII. That's not a perfect comparison really. Half the game is running errands around town and the other half is action dungeon crawling. The plot revolves around a group of high school students who spend their days in class and evenings fighting demons in a parallel world. That doesn't really do the story justice, I'm not good at describing stuff. It's better than I'm making it sound.
Like other Falcom games this features a detailed and quirky environment. I don't know firsthand what a Japanese town is like but this felt like the most authentic experience since Shenmue. There are modern shopping areas with bright signs and traditional shrines. There are family-owned noodle shops to dine at and mega electronics stores. Every day there are new events in every part of town to check out. Like the now almost 20(!?) year-old Shenmue it was fun to make the rounds each day.
Also like other recent Falcom games it goes off the rails at the end. The story is easy to follow until the last hour when it turns completely insane. This isn't really unique to Falcom, a number of JRPGs fall into this - Grandia II comes to mind immediately. There is a New Game+ mode as a reward in the end. I'm passing on it for now.
The soundtrack is solid as would be expected from a Falcom game. If I rank the soundtracks of the past decade it might break the top 10. It's not quite on par with recent Ys games but a B effort from Falcom is still great.
Do I really need to tell you that Tokyo Xanadu has a cooking system? Of course it does, of course it does. It resembles the Trails in the Sky system which seems about right. You learn recipes by buying them at restaurants, try and imagine McDonalds selling recipes if you can. The ingredients can be purchased from stores but are found throughout dungeons as well. The resulting meals are typically used for healing, some offer additional cures to specific status ailments. Up until the end of the game there isn't much need for healing.
The negative to Tokyo Xanadu is the translation which rivals NES games in the 80s. It didn't ruin the game but made it challenging at times. One example - character names would change spellings making quests like "go talk to whoever about whatever" challenging when "whoever" is a name you don't recognize. Other times it was terrible grammar or missed line breaks resulting in text scrolling off the screen. It was really rough and, like Ys VIII, a consequence of Falcom not having a dedicated presence outside of Japan.
If you follow this site, and thank you if so, then you know I've been very (very, very, very, very) slowly working on a Sega Genesis game demo called Retail Clerk ‘89. I couldn't have started it without the tutorials posted by Matt Phillips, creator of the Genesis game Tanglewood. A few years ago he started posting some articles about his experiences with Genesis programming. This eventually turned into a Kickstarter backed game called Tanglewood. As a small token of thanks I purchased a physical copy of his game.
I fired it up the day it arrived and it exceeded my expectations. It's a puzzle-solving platformer, like Ecco the Dolphin except I liked it (Sorry Ecco fans, outside of the soundtrack I never got into these games). The graphics and music were simply beautiful, it seemed more like a modern game with retro aesthetics than an authentic retro game.
Comparing Tanglewood to Ecco the Dolphin is unfair - it's more like Ecco the Dolphin crossed with Out of this World in terms of presentation and game play. Like if you took the best elements of those two games and combined them. I spent more time than I should wondering how this game would have been received in let's say 1994. Would it have been a sleeper hit like Ecco or a niche game like Out of this World? It's impossible to say. It starts off more like Ecco, with an introductory level that's free of enemies. It's a very slow build to the second level where the first threat is encountered. Then it abruptly kicks into an Out of this World style chase scene. I think players back in the day wouldn't have appreciated this contrast. In this era it works because gamers are accustomed to, if not expecting, different takes on genres.
Somewhere over the course of the year I also did another playthrough of Breath of the Wild. A year ago I thought I'd never start it over again. Out of nowhere I got a serious craving to start over. It was great the second time through too. I tried a completely different route and took some time to explore. There were fewer surprises but I don't feel like I enjoyed the game any less. I still haven't bought a Switch but it seems likely that I will.
Also over the course of the year my youngest kid tried Skyward Sword. Hours of Breath of the Wild grew their interest in trying other Zelda games. Seeing them struggle with the locked-down environment and outdated motion controls made me appreciate how well Nintendo corrected the series a few years later. Skyward Sword doesn't feel like the previous game in the series (not counting A Link Between Worlds), no, it feels like some ancient series prototype now. I am so happy now that Nintendo remembered what made the original Zelda great when they developed Breath of the Wild. A second iteration of a Skyward Sword style game may have doomed the series.
Favorite game of 2018 (that was released in this decade): Ys VIII
Picking Ys VIII over GTA V will earn me some hate mail. That's fine. This is all personal opinion and I understand why someone would flip these.
Favorite game of 2018 (from a previous decade): Super Castlevania IV
For the first time this is tough because I didn't play many new-to-me old games. This is an artifact of it being late in the decade. The 2000s are now 9 years in the past which is surreal. A game that's 5-7 years old is still from this decade. That wouldn't be the case just 2 short years ago. GTA V is a great example, that was originally developed for previous-gen systems - but "previous-gen" is still in the 2010s.
So I'm going with something I played for the first time on the SNES Classic Mini. I've never been a huge fan of Castlevania games. Typically I play them for a couple stages then rage-quit. Super Castlevania was new to me and I really got into it, I think it just might be my favorite in the series. The controls felt much better than other installments and the difficulty was decently balanced. I think it just might become a staple of the Halloween season for me.
2019 - Past & Future
The first debate of 2019 was which game to start. I just pre-ordered another batch of upcoming Falcom games (the first two installments of the latest Legend of Heroes series on PS4) but they won't arrive for a while. I could decide to try becoming a Breath of the Wild speedrunner (I'll fail). Instead I took advantage of the PlayStation Classic's failure and bought a new one at about half price for the express purpose of modding it.
The system is ill-conceived. It's an obvious attempt to capitalize on the success Nintendo had with their systems, only without understanding why Nintendo's systems were successful. The game selection on the NES and SNES Minis are all games that appear in "top 50 most bestest games for the system" list. The PlayStation Classic has 2-3 games in that category and a lot of miscellaneous titles that people obviously weren't excited about. They also nickel and dime consumers by not including an AC adapter. Sure, by 2019 everyone has ~2,000 USB AC adapters lying around that they don't remember buying. It's not really a problem except it makes Sony look cheap.
Sony's cheapness paid off in one way though - they neglected to secure the system in any way and modding it to play CD images just requires a USB drive and 15 minutes. That's why I bought this thing on apparent clearance. So I could copy a larger library of games to it.
Now of course I don't "need" this. I have a perfectly functional PSOne and PlayStation 2. The appeal was purely having an easy way to emulate PlayStation games and therefore avoid load times. I've tried PlayStation emulators and they're fine, except I tend to spend more time configuring controllers for them than playing games on them. With the PlayStation Classic I'm getting a little system pre-configured to do nothing but play PlayStation games. It's been great for replaying some old favorites and trying a few things that have been in my backlog for decades now.
The unexpected thing about the PlayStation Classic is how much my youngest kid enjoyed games installed on it. These were all made ~15 years before she was born and it didn't matter. Battle Arena Toshinden, Destruction Derby, and Cool Boarders 2 were all ones we played together. The graphics didn't age especially well but it didn't matter. Games that are fun are always fun.
I went back to the ol' backlog and found L.A. Noire on PlayStation 4 next. This was the last video game I bought at a Toys ‘r Us, 50% off during a closing sale. I remembered seeing the ads for it something like 7-8 years ago and being intrigued. It wasn't enough to convince me to buy a PlayStation 3 though. I still largely don't regret skipping the PlayStation 3. I would have liked GTA 4 I'm sure, I heard Final Fantasy XIII is great. The other handful of games I was interested in were also available on the Vita or remade for the PlayStation 4. I don't feel like I missed out on too much.
It's not a very different game than the old Sherlock Holmes FMV games. You learn people's names, visit them, update your notebook, repeat until you have enough evidence for a conviction. L.A. Noire's selling point was its facial match technology or something along those lines. This comes into play during the interrogation scenes. Using FMV would have been just as good to me at least. I'm sure they had reasons for not going the FMV route. Switching between rendered graphics and FMV would be weird, I concede that.
On the topic of the interrogation scenes - not fun. No really, not fun. The parts where you investigate crimes and gather clues - pretty good, again not too different than Sherlock Holmes. The part where you have to replay interrogations 100 times until you get all the choices in the right order - yeah, gets old fast. I like the premise and setting of L.A. Noire a lot, it's just these interrogation scenes that drag it down.
There was one other thing about L.A. Noire I didn't care for, the amount of violence against women in it. Spare me the "realism" or "historical accuracy" arguments. Neither do anything to move me on this. I thought it was overly gratuitous to the point where I wondered if the writer has issues with women. I'm not saying that companies should be prevented from making games with themes like this. I'm a firm supporter of free speech and free markets. I simply wouldn't choose to buy another game by the writer/director of L.A. Noire.
Maybe I'm being a little overly harsh on L.A. Noire. The thing is, it's exactly the type of game I would have played with friends in college. It's weird to think of a single-player game as being a group thing to some, not to me. I had a group of friends "back in the day" that I gamed with. We played 1:1 battle games like Mortal Kombat or Bust-a-Move naturally. We also worked together through puzzle games like the aforementioned Sherlock Holmes games, Night Trap, and The 11th Hour. One of us would would control the action while the rest of us kept notes and tried to work out solutions. I can 100% see us all crammed in a small room playing through L.A. Noire. Any concerns about excessive violence wouldn't have entered our 20 year-old brains. I can picture thousands of 201X dorm rooms playing L.A. Noire like this.
Since L.A. Noire reminded me of Sherlock Holmes so much I started the 3rd and final installment in the FMV series next. I played through the first two on the TurboGrafx-16. The final game was only available on DOS. I own a physical copy of it because I have a hoarding problem. So I ripped it and fired-up DOSBox.
There's not a lot to say - it's the same game as the first two. Based on the appearance of the actors I'd speculate all three games were filmed at once. There's a standard formula to these games. They start with an intro movie where you learn a few names and locations. You visit all of them and learn some new names and locations. This repeats until you've found all the keywords, just like L.A. Noire.
I know this will sound like trolling, and it's really not, but I prefer the Sherlock Holmes FMV games to L.A. Noire. Look, I get it, L.A. is an incredible technical achievement and I assume a consensus top 100 game of this decade. Despite my criticisms I enjoyed it enough to finish it. As detective games go, I like cheesy 90s FMV style games better. For one thing, they're more concise. There's no filler of driving around and clicking on every inch of a room hoping to trigger a search action. It's just choosing a location, watching an interview, and taking notes the old-school way on physical paper. I could go for more of that. I know there have been some new games in that style. I hear something called Her Story is one example. I guess that's why it really is a great time to be a video game fan. Whatever style of game you're into, there's probably an indie developer making something like it.
Instead of tracking down an indie FMV I went back to work on my Falcom backlog. I don't know what the exact definition of "indie developer" is. I doubt I could find two people who agree. I think it usually means "small developer" or "niche developer". For most of their history Falcom fits this description. I think they're publicly traded by now and that seems like a disqualifying factor. They're not a very small developer but typically release just 1-2 games a year. They're in the sort of gray space Sam Adams is in. They're not a top 5 developer but too big to be lumped in with really small studios.
As you know by now, I'm preoccupied with Falcom games and on a bizarre quest to get through them all. With three games due out this year (in the US) I decided to finish off my backlog (unless I'm forgetting something) with Gurumin on the PSP.
I picked this up late in the PSP's lifecycle, I think after winning the Vita but I'm not sure. Whatever the case, it fell by the wayside for a long time. As luck would have it, I needed to spend a few hours on a plane again and brought Gurumin along.
Structurally, it was similar to Tokyo Xanadu. You're minding your own business in the real world when you randomly stumble into a parallel world filled with monsters and dungeons. You play through the dungeon, fight enemies with elemental weaknesses, smash all the scenery to earn stuff, there's an item waiting in the last room, and you're graded on your performance at the end of it all. The setting and art style are completely different. There's only one playable character... and there's definitely no high school drama. One huge similarity is the lead character from each game is dealing with parents perpetually away on business. In Tokyo Xanadu, Kou is left home alone, he's old enough to deal with it. In Gurumin, Parin is shipped-off to her eccentric grandfather's house. There's a lot of overlap in the staff between these two games. Falcom must be a good place to work.
It now occurs to me that Parin is visually a hybrid of Estelle and Tita from the Trails games.
The tough part for me is treating this game fairly considering the time it was released in. Gurumin hasn't aged well. The camera in particular is pain-inducing. You can swivel it around but not change the depth. There are so many times in the game where zooming out would have helped tremendously. This was no doubt a cutting-edge portable game in 2006. In the game industry 13 years is a long time. It's the difference between Pac Man and Mortal Kombat. Gurumin is a rough game compared to the late Vita library.
I'll take all this into consideration and say overall it's an enjoyable dungeon crawling game. By Falcom standards the soundtrack is a little below average. This part isn't dated, the other Falcom PSP games are all better in the soundtrack department. It's alright I guess. With a better camera (sorry to go back to this) it would have been better than alright.
I (obviously) have a penchant for replaying favorite games after some arbitrary amount of time has passed. When I saw the announcement that Kirby's Epic Yarn was getting a remake on 3DS I immediately pre-ordered it. As luck would have it, the release date was just a few days before a business trip. It seemed like the perfect way to pass an 8 hour round-trip and several boring nights in a hotel room. When I visit a new city for work I usually try to sneak in a little sightseeing after hours. This particular trip was the third time I'd been to San Francisco in as many years so now I looked forward to doing nothing in the evening.
The first time through Kirby's Epic Yarn I tag-teamed with my kids. We did some levels together, they finished many levels without me, and I went back over ones where they couldn't find all the items. I never really played through every level and fought every boss. On my second time through I caught-up on everything I missed. They added a few things to the 3DS version but overall it was the same game as on the Wii. It still holds up very well. Good 2D platformers have a way of never seeming dated. Kirby's Epic Yarn is definitely one of the best. I'd put it above the Donkey Kong Kong Country games and even the Sonic series. I thought it was great several years ago and another playthrough only reaffirmed that.
It's like this perfect combination of old and new. Mechanically it's a 16-bit platformer. Even an 8-bit version wouldn't have to sacrifice much in the basic mechanics department. The visuals are simple but also well beyond what a system from the 1990s could produce. The soundtrack would be fine in chiptune form but still inferior to the digital version on the Wii and 3DS. It feels like they took the best parts of old platformers and layered modern A/V on top of it. I think they did a better job than the New Super Mario Bros games in this aspect.
One odd choice in the Epic Yarn revival was adding power-ups to make the game easier. Kirby could gain the ability to spin yarn at will, or yield or sword, or perform a whirlwind attack. These made an already not difficult game into a complete cakewalk. The only challenging levels were now confined to ones where Kirby transforms into a vehicle and can't take advantage of these new capabilities.
Skipping the PlayStation 3 means I also missed out on the Trails of Cold Steel games. I should be heartbroken about those since I'm obviously obsessed with Falcom games yet I'm not. In the PlayStation 3 era my kids were young and my free time was limited. Also, I now can't recall if I knew they were out in the US. Again, I had young kids and wasn't spending a lot of time following gaming news. In my defense, years of waiting for Falcom games contributed to this. I knew of the Trails of Cold Steel series but some part of my brain assumed we'd never get them in the US. That was the case for other games of the same era like Zero no Kiseki and Nayuta no Kiseki. I knew parts I and II in the series were on Vita because I bought them both around 2016. They fell behind in my backlog then and kept falling behind. As for the PlayStation 3 versions, I still have a hard time accepting they exist.
I was just about to start the Vita versions when the PlayStation 4 remakes were announced. Not just the two episodes I had on the Vita but the third too. As an extra bonus they included extra bonus content. Obviously I had no choice but to pre-order all three.
The first one arrived and I immediately fired it up. I started playing it and hey look at that it's the exact same game as Tokyo Xanadu.
OK, not the exact same. The setting is different and the battle system is based on the Trails in the Sky games. Otherwise, yeah, it's the same game. The lead character looks the same. He's a student at a high school like academy. He has classmates and teachers to interact with, some with the same names as characters in Tokyo Xanadu. You run errands for them because you're all helpful like that. There are day transitions that look completely identical to the ones in Tokyo Xanadu. Each day there are mandatory events to advance the plot and optional quests. There are NPC-specific "bonding events" where you strengthen your link to another character, also like Tokyo Xanadu. You have a cap on the number of these events you can experience a day where that cap is less than the number available. It's about 80% the same game.
None of this is a complaint. I like this style of game. After finishing Tokyo Xanadu I wanted to start another game like it, I didn't know I just had to look to the past. I'm excited to know that there are at least two more games in this style arriving on my doorstep this year. This is all great really.
This is a preview of my gaming future. I'll play through this series and whatever Falcom releases for as long as they are a company. They'll likely have more games called "Legend of Heroes something" and "something Xanadu" that follow this formula. The Ys series will have some similarities but ultimately will follow the Ys formula. As I write this Falcom is teasing Ys IX which I suspect will be a lot like Ys VIII. Meanwhile I think Nintendo fixed the Zelda series and will continue releasing open-world sequels that borrow heavily from Breath of the Wild. These are the games I'll be playing in the future, I don't expect my tastes to change at this point in life. If this is what the next decade holds I say bring it on.
If I'm forced to complain about anything in Trails of Cold Steel it's the absurd amount of dialog. I previously complained about RPGs trying to hit some arbitrary hours of content number. Trails of Cold Steel does this via tons of filler dialog. The highlight of Trails of Cold Steel, like Trails in the Sky, for me at least is the battle system. I'd prefer if they scrapped a little text and made the dungeons bigger.
Like Trails in the Sky the game ended on a cliffhanger, not quite as good of a cliffhanger but enough to make me anxious for the sequel. It was a short wait, two weeks that I filled by knocking a game off my backlog.
Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors had been on my shelf for a while, the majority of the decade by now. Like every other game in my backlog I kept finding excuses not to play it. For whatever reason this was the time to finally break that streak.
999 starts off interestingly enough. You're trapped in a room filling with water and need to escape. You solve a couple puzzles, while trying to reclaim your lost memory, and move on. You find a group of 8 others also trapped in this life or death game. There's a lot of dialog in between new rooms you need to escape from. It turns out none of the escape puzzles are difficult or can be lost and this is really a story-driven game. I see now that many others classify it as a "visual novel" game rather than a puzzle game. I get that. It has more gameplay than To The Moon or Root Letter but isn't too far off from them. I enjoyed all three because they had interesting stories.
I ended-up getting a bad ending in 999. There was a New Game+ mode that I didn't try. My oldest kid did though. I told her about the game and she wanted to give it a whirl. She earned the good ending and attempted to recap the story for me. It was a tad convoluted, I didn't feel like I missed anything not trying it myself.
I started Trails of Cold Steel II the day it arrived. One immediate change I noticed was an increase in difficulty. The first game was overall easy. Most of the overworld battles were won quickly unless you were careless and got surprised. It wasn't until the end stage that things ramped up. It wasn't too different than Trails in the Sky in this regard. In Trails of Cold Steel II every battle at the beginning is struggle for survival. The trade-off is you earn some more powerful attacks but they don't completely offset the stronger enemies. The difficulty tapers off a little as you add more members to your party but on average is higher than the first game.
At the onset the story reminded me of the mid-point of Final Fantasy VI. You find yourself in a remote area unsure what happened to your friends from the previous game. Meanwhile the world has been reshaped (metaphorically speaking) and is now largely under the control of elite royal families. To add to the tension you are now something of a fugitive. It's a bold opening that's hard to turn off for the night.
After about 20-30 hours it shifts to being, well, Final Fantasy X-2, kind of. I mean, you're on an airship with a list of locations you can visit. Some locations are required, the rest are optional but maybe have a good sidequest. The airship doubles as a mini-town, by finding people to join your quest you unlock new stores in the ship. Ys VIII further evolved this idea (keeping in mind it was developed after Trails of Cold Steel II).
Hmm.. now I wonder if I should write an article called "Evolution of Falcom Games" that follows design elements in their games over the decades. Seeing how the Ys and Legend of Heroes games evolved independently and then merged in the 2010s would be fun. Come to think of it, they literally merged in a 2010 Japan exclusive. There are even elements from Gurumin that can be found in both Tokyo Xanadu and Ys VIII. It would be a fun journey to explore, check back in the 2020s to see if I took it.
Now for the complaint section - Trails of Cold Steel II is essentially a long epilogue for the first game. Disappointingly, there's not much new in it. In the first Trails of Cold Steel the party often splits into two groups who visit different regions of the country. The player only sees one of them and there's no choice to visit the other. I sort of assumed the sequel would travel to these unexplored areas and was psyched to see them. Instead it adds one new town and drops a few new dungeons into previously traveled areas. That's about it for new locations.
Now the new town is nice, I have a weird thing for winter settings in games, but it's also small. It serves as an early basecamp but gradually fades into the background.
Also I'm not a fan of giant robots. My least favorite part of the game was the giant robot battles. They were less than 10% of the overall game so not that bad. Looking back, I quit Xenoblade Chronicles during a giant robot fight. I don't know what I have against giant robots. It probably dates back to being bored by some cartoon I saw 30+ years ago. Yeah, that's the problem with giant robot fights… they're just so slow and boring. The ones in Trails of Cold Steel II were over in a few minutes. A few boring minutes where I mostly checked RSS feeds on my phone while waiting for animations to finish. In Xenoblade Chronicles these fights went on forever.
A week or so after finishing Trails of Cold Steel II I had a little trip planned. If you've read this far you know that means reaching into my portable system backlog. This time I went with Shantae and the Pirate's Curse on 3DS.
Some would use the term "Metroidvania" to describe this game. I found it was closer in play style to a Wonder Boy game. Metroid, Wonder Boy, Castlevania, they're not all that different. Metroid games have a lot of free exploration while Castlevania games are linear, Wonder Boy games vary based on the installment. Shantae and the Pirate's Curse follows a similar formula to Wonder Boy Dragon's Trap/Curse. There is a central hub town and new areas you unlock after defeating a boss. The new abilities you gain help uncover secrets in areas you already explored.
Shantae and the Pirate's Curse was a little on the difficult side. Just a little, not worse than the average NES game. Until the last dungeon, that was short but brutally hard. It rivaled the Angry Video Game Nerd game (something else I played this decade but didn't review). It was a frustrating jump and I nearly rage-quitted. After dying about 100 times I made it through and found the last boss was refreshingly easy by comparison.
The highlight of Shantae and the Pirate's Curse for me was the soundtrack. It was a great mix of retro and modern music, very catchy. After finishing the game I hopped over to Bandcamp and bought a copy of it. Hey, so here's another positive thing about this era - you can buy soundtracks for any game now. I miss the 90s but don't miss having to import soundtracks for a ridiculous amount of money. Between Bandcamp and Amazon MP3 everything is available for a decent price. I purchased the soundtrack for darn near every game of the 2010s I played. I could never have done that in the 90s, or even the 00s. Of all the 2010s gaming trends this might be my favorite.
Hey, so when did EA become such a garbage company? In the 80s-90s seeing the EA logo on a game meant you were getting a quality title. In the early Genesis days EA was the best third-party developer, they even rivaled Sega for best overall Genesis developer.
OK, some context for that question.. When I bought the PlayStation 4 I browsed around for older titles that were now cheap. One of them was Star Wars Battlefront which might have been a launch title. It was now under $20 and seemed worth a go. It reminded me of the Rogue Squadron games, that's a good sign right? If you've read this far then you know I like to switch genres so after finishing a big RPG it was the right time to start Battlefront.
Battlefront was like Rogue Squadron in that it involved re-enacting different scenarios from Star Wars movies using different vehicles. That's a formula that usually works. Unlike previous games, Battlefront goes out of its way to annoy anyone who dares to play it.
Yeah the graphics are great and all that, the Endor levels in particular are something I could only dream of in the 80s. It's the rest of the execution that's terrible. When I started the game I was immediately greeted with a massive end-user license agreement (EULA). As of this writing I work for a large software company and am very familiar with the type of agreements attached to 6-7 figure enterprise software deals. The EULA for Battlefront was almost word-for-word identical with ones used for multi-million dollar software contracts. I paid $12 for this game. It's a complete joke.
It didn't end there. After each mission there was an annoying pop-up to sign-up for the EA network or whatever. There's no option like "hey I'm never going to create an EA account so knock it off". It's just finish mission, get nagged.. every time, every single time.
They also managed to break the simplest of game controls. Since the advent of dual-analog control, and by the way I was there, the left stick is used for control and the right stick is used for the camera or other non-control functions. In Battlefront the default controls use the right stick for controls. Why? Just why? Sure it can be changed, fine, whatever. It was a bad choice on EA's part, I assume they thought it was brilliant, or they didn't think about it at all. I don't know which is worse.
When there was gameplay it was OK. It was more or less a rehash of earlier games with better visual but fewer stages. Maybe you could pay to download more stages or something. I didn't look into it. I don't think it's even slightly controversial to say the GameCube launch title Rogue Squadron II is significantly more fun than Star Wars Battlefront. Rogue Squadron II was a complete game without constant spam. Battlefront was like half a game with an option to maybe buy the rest.
Right now it's hard to imagine Nintendo making any of these same decisions. I can't imagine Falcom doing it either. You see, they're focused on making games. EA is now apparently focused on being a big company and all that goes along with that. They must have a bloated legal team that thinks it's really important to make people sign a big agreement before doing anything. Maybe the developers & designers fought them on this but lost. They also decided they can ship half a game and scam people into paying for the rest. If I paid full price for Battlefront I'd feel ripped-off.
So anything good to say here? The Hoth level ended-up being my favorite which is the opposite of the previously mentioned Rogue Squadron games. Hoth has been a staple of Star Wars games going back to the Atari 2600. Fighting AT-ATs is the obvious theme and most games focus on that. The mechanics of that are often tricky to master, I feel like I largely finished previous Hoth levels by luck. Battlefront was the first game that got it right. It also had more than the typical AT-AT battles with a re-enactment of the imperial invasion scene and a overworld stage. That part was alright, it still felt like the entire game was about 20% the size of the GameCube era equivalents. I think this will be the last EA game I buy for a long time.
Trails of Cold Steel III was delayed a couple months so I used the time to knock down a 16-bit RPG I didn't finish. Way back in the 1990s I started Secret of Mana but didn't quit before the end. I started it over a break, got stuck late in the game, and forgot about it. As I recall I didn't level-up correctly. The game has this Final Fantasy II adjacent system where weapon skills and magic are leveled-up by using them. In my first playthrough I neglected to level-up magic since I didn't need it. The battle system is easy to exploit. The main character can keep hitting enemies with minimally charged attacks to stun then while the two AI controlled characters hit them with strong attacks. I figure 90% of the game is beatable like this.
This time around I made a point to level-up magic after unlocking a new magic type and/or level. All I can say is - wow is this boring. There are RPGs with a lot of grinding and then there's Secret of Mana. It rivals, let's go with Phantasy Star II in terms of mindless battles required to power-up your party. Without all the grinding this is like a 4-5 hour game max. The only plus to my strategy was that my party was usually over-levelled and able to afford the best equipment available.
This is how times have changed. Today you could make a short RPG with a crazy story and outstanding soundtrack and get away with selling it for $5. In the 1990s this wouldn't fly. If you're paying $60 for a Super Nintendo cartridge it better take a long time to beat. One easy way to pad a 4-5 hour game into 40-50 hours is grinding.
I recently finished working on a little Sega Genesis demo called Retail Clerk ‘89. It takes almost exactly one hour to beat if you know exactly what you're doing. I could have added a level system and random battles and all that. I bet I even could have made it take 100 hours to finish. This would only have made an already boring game completely unbearable. Also, as the only tester I didn't want to suffer through this.
I think Secret of Mana is an OK game. It's like a worse version of Chrono Trigger. I hear they started as the same game. The soundtrack is the best part by a healthy margin. It has the misfortune of being compared to other Square RPGs on the Super Nintendo. They published at least four better Super Nintendo RPGs in the US. Earthbound has the same problem. It's hard for me to think of them as being better than average RPGs because they're not close to being in the top 5 for the system, or even top 10 for their generation.
Again, this is all personal opinion here people. If you think Earthbound or Secret of Mana is the very bestest 16-bit game I won't argue with you.
I'm trying very hard to not develop into one of these jaded video game fans. There have been some amazingly great new trends in gaming this decade. Many are things I never expected or never expected I would enjoy. There are also some very, very bad ones. I think the third or fourth worst is the rise of the angry entitled gamer. Video games are supposed to be fun. Video games come in all different shapes and sizes, there's something for everyone. All members of our community would be happier focusing on playing games they like and not worrying about what others enjoy. In my last two reviews I started slipping into this territory and need to knock it off. Star Wars Battlefront wasn't my thing. I should have just left it at that.
There's not much time left in this decade but I'm committing to only being positive about games for the rest of it. Consider it an early New Years resolution. If I don't care for a game I'll just quietly move on. I'm done with the negativity.
In case you're curious - my number one worst trend is hate groups using video game chat apps and message boards as recruiting tools. I don't have a solution to this problem other than aggressive banning which is just a continuous game of whack-a-mole. Please note that I'm intentionally using the general term "hate group". If anyone reading this thinks I'm talking about a group they affiliate with then, well, maybe they need to do a little introspection.
Swatting is a close contender for worst gaming trend of the 2010s. I never could have predicted that would be a thing. I'm not a psychologist/psychiatrist but it's obvious there are some common underlying issues like complete lack of empathy. It's not that budding young sociopaths haven't always been around, they obviously have. Today they have access to new tools. Hate groups formerly had to resort to underground newsletters and now they can reach millions online. Discord seems to be their latest preference and the company is either unwilling or unable to do anything about it. Swatting is only possible because VOIP technology far outpaced caller ID capabilities. Maybe technology intended to solve the robocall problem will accidentally address this.
>90% of gamers I've met or known are, for lack of a better term, normal. They have jobs and families. They don't go on angry rants because a developer changed some minor detail in a remake. They certainly aren't going to get violent over losing an online match. They're also not particularly active in communities like Twitter or Discord. This gives the impression that the stereotypical angry gamer is a disproportionately large group. It doesn't help that every major gaming site publishes outrage articles that only amplify this small group. Some extreme minority of gamers say or do something awful and gaming news sites turn it into a headline. This encourages more of the same behavior because now they get a laugh from seeing the outrage.
This bothers me because video games are a hobby I've enjoyed for nearly 40 years. I was working the original PlayStation launch before most of these aforementioned angry entitled gamers were born. It's like we had this really fun thing going for a while and then the worst people on the internet decided to crash the party.
Alright, sorry, didn't mean to get off on a tangent like that. Back to some games...
Remember when I said I'd buy a Switch after the first hardware revision? Well I did that. The Switch Lite was exactly what I was imagining a couple years ago, Nintendo is very predictable. I couldn't pass on the latest Zelda remake either.
Link's Awakening is a game I first played 16 years ago. It's older than that but I waited to play it until buying the Game Boy Advance SP. I was impressed with it then, it was a light version of Link to the Past. The remake didn't change the game much. The new graphic style turned out nice. It's been done in a pixel style twice so the change was welcome. Mechanically it was maybe a little slower than the original but I'm OK with that.
The dungeons were more confusing than I remembered. There's a sort of sine curve pattern to the quality of Zelda dungeons. The original game was simple but great. Zelda II introduces a sudden spike in difficulty and confusing layouts. This kind of up and down went on for a while. Skyward Sword, for all its flaws, had elaborate but not confusing dungeons. Breath of the Wild then went with rather small dungeons. Link's Awakening was an upswing in difficulty after Link to the Past took a step down from Zelda II. On the flipside, the boss fights were some of the easiest in the series.
I didn't play with the dungeon design mode much. It seemed like an experimental idea that has potential. Maybe Nintendo is teasing a future Zelda Maker game with it.
Here's an odd thought… I bet Breath of the Wild was the first Zelda game for a generation of young gamers. Whatever the generations after Millennials will be called, those kids (as of this writing there's no official name for the generation after Millennial and I refuse to use the term "Gen Z" even though I just did). Yeah, the majority is probably more into Fortnite. I'm not delusional enough to think Nintendo is the top dog.
A lot of them got a Switch for Xmas or a birthday these past couple of years. The attach rate for Breath of the Wild is something close to 100%. Some of them I'm sure saw a "new" Zelda game being released and nagged their parents for it. Oh who am I kidding again, I bet they all have their own credit cards by age 10. Regardless, one way or another they got Link's Awakening. I wonder what their opinion was, did they even think it was a real Zelda game? Unless you watched the series evolve it's easy to understand being confused by the perceived sudden change in style. A similar comparison would be starting the GTA series with San Andreas then playing Chinatown Wars next.
So anyway, after about two weeks I was done with Link's Awakening so it's time to move on...
Should I mention Untitled Goose Game here? I didn't play it but my kids did. Awesome idea for a game. It was really short but for $15 that's not a problem. I guess they could have padded it out to 100 hours with a lot of filler content, it's better they didn't.
It's almost November I suppose I should proofread this thing before I post it. There will be plenty of mistakes anyway, I'm sure of that. This draft is coming in at 70 pages which is 50 more than I thought I'd manage. So I'll have to cut to the chase on the end of 2019.
Trails of Cold Steel III.. more of the same really. The game starts in a remarkably similar way to the first installment. The first town and school even have almost the same layout. The overworld map looks huge, I hope most of it is visited over the story. If half of it is reserved for part IV then I worry I'll never see it. As of right now there are no plans to release the final chapter in the US. This seems like a good use of Kickstarter. If XSeed or NIS America thought they might lose money porting the likely large dialog of Trails of Cold Steel IV they could try crowdfunding it. I think hardcore fans of the series would be perfectly happy to throw $100+ at the project.
Other first impressions - I like the initial tension between two of the new characters and Rean. In the previous games almost everyone thought he was awesome and it's nice to have a couple who are unimpressed. I heard the battle system was streamlined but I don't see much of a difference. Since there are 10 or buttons that do something in battle the new menu is nice because is clearly shows which button maps to what action.
Trails of Cold Steel III did kind of get me thinking that maybe video game graphics peaked in the previous decade. I get it, they have more Ps or whatever now. I'm not claiming the technology peaked, I'm claiming that in the zeroes we have games looking about the best they will. I think the Characters in Trails of Cold Steel II, originally a PS3/Vita game, look better than the characters in part III. I think Twilight Princess is still the best looking Zelda game. That's all the examples I have. Then again I'd be fine if the Cold Steel games looked like the Sky series. That should invalidate my opinion on game graphics as it's obviously not that important to me.
I don't have much to say about the story yet and probably won't until around Thanksgiving. I bet the game is around 80-100 hours so that's at least 30-40 days. By then I'll have a million other things going on so this may be the last game I start in the 2010s.
Quick comment while I'm doing some last-minute spellchecking.. The story is OK. It reminds me of Star Wars: The Force Awakens because it's mostly running through a checklist of past characters to meet without a ton happening. Like the previous games the story is divided into chapters. The 2nd chapter heavily references the two Crossbell games (Zero no Kiseki, Ao no Kiseki) that weren't released in the US. If you don't follow Falcom games this chapter is likely confusing. Even if you do, I suspect you're missing a lot. This makes an already niche game incredibly niche. It's roughly impossible to follow the story if you haven't played parts 1 and 2 already. In part 3 you also need to know about the events of the PSP Trails games (or at least 5 of the 6).
On a related note, the chapter 2 end scene on the train.. that was really awkward. The whole bit with the flat images of the Crossbell lead characters in the distance, I can't accept that anyone thought it looked good. I have to rank that as "worst moment in the Trails series". I said no more negativity earlier right? OK so I'll move on and say I liked the increased difficulty in Trails of Cold Steel III. In the first two games, the second especially, a very powerful magic user could one hit kill all random battles and quite a few bosses. It was simple formula: wait for Emma to join your party, equip her with every magic attack boosting equipment/orbment you have, add the orbment that increases damage for the first magic attack, maybe throw in a EP regeneration orbment and... instant victory in almost every fight. The latest game has some tricks to make battles a bit unbalanced, like the Ebon Dragon and Crazy Hunt orders, but I haven't found an instant victory exploit yet.
So far no word on whether part IV in this series will be coming to the US. It's obviously way too early to guess on the recently announced sequel or Crossbell game remakes. I'm very cautiously optimistic on all of them.
Oh, one quick favorite new trend of 2010s - indie developers putting games on sale for like 9¢ on the Nintendo store. Back in the 1970s-1990s you'd pay 25¢ to find if a game is worth trying. 9¢ is a total steal, adjusting for inflation that's roughly equivalent to paying 4¢ in the 1980s. Maybe the games aren't all that awesome but it's 9¢. As I'm writing this I checked and there is one game going for an entire penny. I don't think my little Genesis game is quite good enough to charge anything for. Maybe some future thing I create will just barely be good enough to be worth a penny.
So that's the end of the decade. At the risk of sounding cliche, it feels like I just started this article yesterday. It has me wondering, when 2029 rolls around will I be wrapping-up another article like this?
At the end of the next decade I'll be in my mid-50s and might even have grandchildren. I doubt anyone will care about my opinion on games then. I doubt anyone does today either. Maybe this whole www-something-dot-com thing will be replaced with a VR thing you plug directly into your brain. The combination of YouTube and social media has already mostly made web 1.0 sites like this obsolete. 10 years is a long time, I can't say what will happen between now and then. When I started this piece I wondered if it was possible that I'd reach some stage of life where I stopped playing video games. I now believe that day will never come. Just maybe I'll keep on logging what I play and we'll see what happens when 2029 rolls around.
Thanks for making it this far. I know this was an unconventional look at the 2010s and I hope you enjoyed it if just a little.
Favorite game of 2019 (that was released in this decade): Trails of Cold Steel II
In reality Trails of Cold Steel is one giant game split into four installments. Of the three I played this year, I liked the story of the second chapter best. I apparently enjoy plots that revolve around rounding-up a group of people who have been separated.
Favorite game of 2019 (from a previous decade): Gurumin
This is a winner by default I guess. This is very strange for me, three years in a row of mostly playing new releases. This is largely due to a massive Zelda game and flood of Falcom translations. My backlog can't compete with that.
My top 10 games of the decade
In this decade the two systems I logged the most hours on were the Wii U and Vita. In the 90s it was the TurboGrafx-16 CD so you can tell I'm a tad eccentric. The PlayStation 4 did some catching-up late in the decade but still trails. My list won't look much like the mainstream ones. If you read through this whole thing then you know that already.
With these disclaimers out of the way, prepare to be deeply offended by my final ranking:
10) Final Fantasy XV
9) Trails of Cold Steel I-III [since they're kind of one giant game altogether]
8) Trails in the Sky - Trails in the Sky SC [ditto]
7) The Last Story
6) Kirby's Epic Yarn
5) Grand Theft Auto V
4) Ys VIII
3) The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds
2) Ys: Memories of Celceta
1) The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild
There was really zero competition for the top spot. Breath of the Wild will be hard to bump from my favorite game spot. I hear there's a sequel coming so it's possible. Direct Zelda sequels are rare and have a hit or miss record. I think the consensus among fans is that Zelda II was inferior to the original Zelda but Majora's Mask is better than Ocarina of Time. I had Majora's Mask ranked first of all Zelda games until Breath of the Wild. The challenge for the sequel will be the overworld. If it reuses the Breath of the Wild map it will be a disappointment. Can the team create another overworld of equal quality? It's a tall order.
I realize 99.9% of other lists like this have games like Red Dead Redemption II, Fortnite, Skyrim, and so on. That's why I'm calling this "my top 10 list" and not "10 best games of the decade, period". I already admitted to being out of touch.
The hardest decision on this list was whether to include Final Fantasy XV. The open-world portion of Final Fantasy XV would be a top 5 contender if separated into a standalone game. As for the storyline.. I don't like to do "worst something lists" anymore so let's just say it wasn't very inspiring. So what to do about a game that's half-great and half-bad? I kind of averaged it all out to the #10 slot. I still reserve the right to replace it before anyone reads this.
Trails in the Sky vs Trails of Cold Steel was another debate. They're very similar games in every aspect except for the graphical generation. I preferred the story and characters in Sky over Steel. The storyline of the former is centered around the journey of two main characters. At the end of the first game there's a major plot twist that puts the events of the story into a new perspective. The second game then tries to make everything right. In Trails of Cold Steel the characters end up on wild quests because that's what they were told to do. There are backstories to learn which are often interesting. There's a plot twist at the end of course but it's less interesting. Trails in the Sky, like Final Fantasy X, leaves you eager to finish the story.
Also, and I know I'm going on too long, I liked everything about Trails of Cold Steel other than the teen male fantasy where every female in the world is hot for the main character. I don't mind a romantic storyline in video games. There are some games that do it well and others that are awful at it - like Final Fantasy X vs Final Fantasy VIII. "Literally every eligible female is after you" isn't a romantic storyline, it's Letters to Penthouse. Tokyo Xanadu mimicked the Trails of Cold Steel bonding system except for this aspect. Maybe Falcom made a conscious choice or maybe it's a coincidence. Either way, that's the biggest thing that bumped Trails of Cold Steel.
That leads right to a couple honorable mentions, the first is.. Final Fantasy X/X-2 HD Remaster. X would have placed in the top 5, X-2 probably 8 or 9, but I bumped them because they're remakes of a game from the previous decade. In the piece I wrote 10 years ago (yikes!) I didn't apply the same rule but I'm older and possibly wiser now.
Ys: Oath in Felghana was bumped for roughly the same reasons. That was a tough decision because it's not all that close to the original. Disqualifying Oath in Felghana opens up Memories of Celceta for possible elimination. After playing Ys IV again it was clear that Celceta wasn't just a port but something more like Final Fantasy X-2. It takes place in the same setting as Ys IV and has many of the same characters but is its own story.
The NES Remix games also might have broken the top 10 too. I didn't consider them since they're more or less collections of NES games. If Legend of Zelda and Metroid can be included in the top 10 games of the decade that list would look very different. I wish there was room for Ys Seven on this list too. This list was definitely harder for me than the last one.
My top 10 soundtracks of the decade
Writing about soundtracks without any audio clips is dull. Instead let's do this as a podcast:
https://nerdnoiseradio.blogspot.com/2019/12/channel-f-nerd-noise-game-club-w-hugues.html (Note: ad blockers appear to interfere with the web player)
Bonus - My revised top 10 games of the zeros
The list I wrote just over 10 years ago was of course based on games I played from 2000-2009. Now that I've managed to try a couple more games of the zeroes I feel a slight reorder is due.
10) Grandia II
9) Katamari Damacy/We Love Katamari/Me & My Katamari [they're all really the same game]
7) Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess
6) Final Fantasy X
5) Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker
4) Wii Sports
3) Chrono Cross
2) Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask
1) Grand Theft Auto: Vice City
Which games were bumped?
After playing through Twilight Princess a second time I have no idea why I ranked Grandia II above it. Grandia II was a fun RPG with an amazing soundtrack and it deserves to be on the list. A decade later and I can't remember why I thought it was better than Twilight Princess. Maybe I was frustrated with how linear Twilight Princess was, Grandia II isn't any better. A second playthrough of Twilight Princess improved my opinion on it a bit. I think much younger me was being too harsh.
Keeping Wii Sports above Wind Waker feels a little weird. Wii Sports was just so much fun though. It was a simple game, simple and addictive. There was a long stretch in the 00s through the 10s where I played it daily, even if just for a few minutes.
Final Fantasy VI was bumped based on the remake rule I applied to this decade. This also means Chrono Trigger DS and Final Fantasy V on IOS weren't included.
Extra Bonus - Revisiting my predictions for this decade
At the end of the last decade I made three predictions about gaming trends in the 2010s and one about, well, other stuff. Let's see how I did:
1) End of physical media. The next generation of consoles will have giant hard drives but no CD slots. Well, maybe not "giant" hard drives. More like overpriced drives to differentiate price points. For example, the Xbox 720 might be offered with a 320GB drive for $300 or 500GB for $400. Never mind that a 500GB hard drive will be $50 by then. The hardware manufacturers can put a 100% markup on the cost of the drive and most consumers won't know they're being fleeced. The real fleecing will be the game prices though. Once they have complete control over pricing don't expect a lot of discounts.
This didn't happen in the 2010s. Even at the very end of the decade there are only the beginnings of this. Microsoft launched an Xbox One variant without an optical drive but that's hardly the standard. There was serious customer revolt when Microsoft tried this with the initial Xbox One announcement.
2) Once everyone else develops a motion control system, Nintendo will sour to the idea. Nintendo doesn't like doing what everyone else is. As more imitators arrive they'll start focusing on something different, I don't know what that will be but expect a radically different control scheme from them this decade.
I'll take partial credit on this. The Wii U largely got out of the motion control business. The Switch got back into it but only on a few gimmicky launch titles. The majority of the library doesn't rely on motion controls and the first hardware revision dropped them entirely. My "radically different" prediction didn't work out unless you count the optional Labo additions. You know what.. let's count Labo and proclaim that I'm a genius.
3) More casual games on non-gaming devices. The average ebook reader has significantly more RAM and a faster CPU than the average 16-bit game console did. Casual games, like those flooding the iPhone, will spread to more and more devices.
I'll go ahead and give myself a hit on this. It seems like the most obvious prediction except I don't think this was a given in 2009.
4) The world does not end on 12/12/2012, all the morons who believe the 2012-theory-of-the-week will move on to the next end of the world prophecy. I know this isn't gaming related, unless you count the inevitable 2012-themed games, but I just had to say it.
If you are currently reading this article then I nailed this one.
Super Extra Bonus - My predictions for the next decade
Since I did an outstanding job on my last round of predictions, here's a new set for the 2020s:
1) There are a lot of stories late this decade about working conditions at game studios. Extended periods of forced overtime were already common in the game industry but they're receiving more attention now due to how stories spread over social media. I don't know if conditions are actually worse now than 10-20 years ago but the outrage is louder. Game companies will respond to this not by improving working conditions but by sending more work to developing countries. Our outrage culture doesn't care about people working 100 hour weeks in China or India. Game companies will figure out they can quietly reduce US/Canada/UK staff by eliminating teams after a big project then replacing them with offshore teams. Did you really think I would predict game companies would instead grow a heart?
2) Long-running franchises will reboot themselves as open-world games. There are already examples of this happening so I should be more bold... in the 2020s we'll see wild things like an open-world Castlevania reboot and less wild things like a fully open-world Final Fantasy game. If we saw an open-world Kirby game I wouldn't be surprised.
3) At least one major US network will start airing eSports, likely replacing an underperforming physical sports program. This decade we saw something called the AAF signed to a major network only for it to fizzle out before the conclusion of its first season. The XFL reboot is likely set for the same fate. Networks are slow to recognize new trends but some executive will realize Madden games would get higher ratings than football games starring players that couldn't make a practice squad. An even smarter executive might realize League of Legends or Fortnite would outperform most of their non-football weekend lineup. The biggest risk to this prediction is that maybe networks have already lost too much ground to streaming. I have a hard time imagining someone currently watching eSports on Twitch or YouTube changing over to a network station. So for this to happen it might even require a major network to purchase exclusive rights to broadcast a particular game.
4) The company that currently calls themselves Atari will license their logo to someone selling CBD products. They may even hold a crowdfunding project for "Atari CBD" or whatever they end-up calling it.