Sunday, September 30, 2012

My Memories are Framed by Video Games

When I was a small boy, my family and another family traveled to Cape Cod three or four summers in a row. What I remember from those days is hanging out under a bridge at the beach, washing sand off my feet in an outdoor shower, playing flashlight tag at night, building with Legos and playing Super Mario Land 2: Six Golden Coins on my Game Boy. In fact, the first thing I think of is usually Super Mario Land 2. When I wasn’t playing Mario at my Cape house, I remember playing in the sand at the beach with tiny objects, reeds and rocks and other beach things, and thinking about the game while I did so. Video games are intertwined with my past and my memories are often framed in the lense of whatever video game I was playing at a certain time.

                My grandfather’s house in Maine reminds of playing Castlevania: Bloodlines at one stage of my life, Astro Boy: Omega Factor at another, and The Legend of Zelda: The Minish Cap late into the night another time. I remember playing Super Mario Bros. 3 with my childhood best friend in his basement and dreaming up my own Mario-themed worlds for the game after playing it. There is nothing more powerful than my imagination and video game have often sparked it in tremendous ways. Thinking about innocent days when I hung around with my brother playing Sonic the Hedgehog and Streets of Rage 2. And two separate occasions when was feeling ill I had played my two favorite Zelda games: Link’s Awakening and Majora’s Mask. Even sickness reminds me of fond memories of gaming, finally solving that one puzzle in the Bottle Grotto dungeon in Link’s Awakening, and battling through the Woodfall area in Majora’s Mask. More modern memories are also framed by video games. Freshman year of college reminds me of playing Half-Life 2, travelling through the dark tunnels  of City 17 and fighting off headcrab zombies late at night while my roommate slept.

                Certain smells and sights often trigger memories of certain places and people and events in our lives. For me, video games are often these powerful triggers and vice versa. Places and events remind me of video games and video games remind of those places or memories. Video games have such an important place in my heart and memories, much of my life is lensed by that wonderful gaming experience I was having at a certain time. The way it captured my imagination. The way it captured my soul. My memories are framed by these experiences.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

My Top 15 Favorite Video Games of All Time (2012)

I had a difficult time numbering these, but ultimately the numbers don't matter too much aside from the top two or three. I also limited my choices to one game per series for this list. This list is also, of course, open to change in the future.

Here are my top fifteen favorite video games of all time!

15.) Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow: I adore the Castlevania series and if I had to pick a favorite, it would be Dawn of Sorrow for the Nintendo DS. Simply put, this game is a perfection of the “Metroidvania” formula pioneered by Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. It has a huge castle to explore, my favorite magic and equipment system in the series, epic bosses and enemies, a great soundtrack as always, and is just overall the most perfect Castlevania game I can think of.

14.) Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater (Subsistence version): The jungle environment in this game makes for some really exciting stealth scenarios and I love the survival and camouflage mechanics. The game also gives the player the freedom to explore and tackle situations in different ways. The story of The Boss and Naked Snake is quite touching as well. This game is simply the most fun I’ve ever had playing a Metal Gear game. So fun in fact, that I played through it once on a borrowed copy and then went out and bought my own copy and played through it again.

13.) Metroid Prime: Metroid Prime built on the atmospheric game design first established in games like the excellent Super Metroid and delivered a gorgeous 3D alien world to explore. The environments in this game are astounding. I’ll never forget the first time I stepped out into the gorgeous, snowy landscape of the Phendrana Drifts and watched the ice flows drift by to that peaceful music.

12.) Kirby’s Dream Land 2: This is a choice born mainly out of nostalgia, but Kirby’s Dream Land 2 is also a great platformer. This game is one of my childhood favorites and it captured my imagination when I was younger. I even wrote a short story for school partly inspired by this game. I played this game for hours and hours and had so much fun exploring every secret of Dream Land with Kirby and his friends.

11.) Okami: Everything about Okami is wonderful. The fantasy Japanese world is full of memorable locations and characters, the game’s visuals look like a classic Japanese painting come to life, the gameplay is fluid and fun, and the Celestial Brush (which allows the player the turn the world into a canvas and paint objects into reality in order to solve puzzles) is still one of the most unique and interesting gameplay mechanics I’ve ever seen in a game. “Masterpiece” just seems so appropriate a word when referring to this work of art.

10.) Half-Life 2: Something that a lot of my favorite video games have in common is a captivating atmosphere. Half-Life 2 features a brilliant, layered world that combines atmosphere and excellent sound design to draw the player in. It also doesn’t hurt that every single part of this game is engaging. Each stage in the game delivers something new and exciting for the player to experience. I haven’t played the game in years but still remember sections like the creepy Ravenholm, exploring empty seaside cottages, building bridges out of junk with the gravity gun to avoid creatures dwelling under the sand, and hiding from gigantic tripods trying to hunt me down. Half-Life 2 is simply a perfectly designed game, featuring a brilliant narrative that is unfolded through gameplay, a rich world full of secrets to discover, and pitch-perfect gameplay. It is a game that melds story, gameplay, world and art design into one unforgettable package.

9.) Shenmue: The word “realism” gets tossed around a lot when it comes to talking about the latest, greatest video games, but when Shemue was released gamers had never seen such a living, breathing world that felt so real before. It might seem trivial to some, but it was just so cool to me that every drawer could be opened, every object picked up, and that every character could be spoken to. Little things like going into a shop and examining packets of noodles are so fun to me in this game. I have a love of Japanese culture and Shenmue catered to this love as well as provided a rich world to explore, experience, and live in.

8.) Silent Hill 2: I remember watching my brother play Silent Hill 2. The dark, cramped apartment building in the game with its creepy ambient noises and twisted mannequin monsters freaked me out so much I had to leave his room and avoided the game afterwards. A long time passed before I finally played this masterpiece for myself and not only was my trip to Silent Hill a truly freaky one, but one with a potent human story lying underneath. This game still has the best-written and most-detailed story I’ve ever seen in a video game to date. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to praise the depth and richness of this experience enough. Play it, damnit!

7.) Shadow of the Colossus: I’ve never played any other game as epic, melancholic, and maybe even as beautiful as Shadow of the Colossus. This is a story about a boy and his horse, and their lonely journey to slay sixteen gigantic beasts in order to fulfill a wish: to bring a loved one back to life. Shadow of the Colossus involves a minimalist narrative that sweeps the player into a lonely world and forces them to question their own actions, which they are forced to carry out if they wish to complete the game. It also probably has the most epic boss encounters in any game ever.

6.) Chrono Trigger: Chrono Trigger is a true masterpiece in every sense of the world. It combines simple yet deep gameplay, wonderful music, a gorgeous and imaginative world and a thrilling story with memorable characters into one fantastic adventure. Play Chrono Trigger and you’ll be stunned by just how whole and complete the game is. Travelling through time to several different eras in the lifespan of a planet was and still is a revolutionary and amazing concept. Characters like Frog and Robo will always have a special place in my heart. And did I mention this game (along with its sequel, Chrono Cross) has my favorite soundtrack in all of gaming?

5.) Golden Sun: The Lost Age: Another masterful RPG, Golden Sun: The Lost Age is pretty much my ideal RPG: a giant, gorgeous world to freely explore, a simple and fun battle system with epic summons and magic spells, an engaging story, a great soundtrack; like Chrono Trigger, Golden Sun is just the whole package. This game’s world design is incredible and I loved exploring every area the world had to offer, both optional and mandatory ones. I really can’t say much else, except that this would be my favorite RPG of all time if not for one other game which appears a little higher on this list.

4.) Sonic the Hedgehog 3 and Knuckles: This awkwardly named game is the true Sonic the Hedgehog 3 that is born when Sonic 3 is attached to Sonic and Knuckles. Sonic the Hedgehog is a massive part of my childhood and will forever have a huge place in my heart and soul. Sonic 3 and Knuckles is my favorite Sonic game; it’s the most complete and perfect Sonic experience there is. Superb and imaginative level design, a fantastic soundtrack, and perfect platforming gameplay make for one incredible game and an integral part of my gaming career. I play through this game at least once a year.

3.) Super Mario Bros. 3: Mario 3 is a masterwork and my favorite platformer of all time. Tons of awesome power-ups, crazily imaginative world and level designs and an unforgettable soundtrack; this game has it all. I really can’t put my love for Mario 3 into truly effective words: it’s just a perfect gaming experience and I’ve played though it time and time again. It is the quintessential Mario experience.

2.) Skies of Arcadia (Legends version): My favorite RPG of all time, Skies of Arcadia is not simply a video game, but a true adventure. I have so many memories of endlessly exploring the sky both above and below the clouds and across numerous floating islands and continents. An engrossing story, endearing characters, beautiful music, and those big, open skies to explore…everything just so perfectly captures that sense of adventure and wonder that the human soul craves. An unforgettable masterpiece.

1.) The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask: Here we are. My favorite video game of all time. It’s a game about healing. Throughout the game, Link heals and helps many people. And healing is precisely what this game does for me, and what video games as a whole do for me. They heal my soul. They cheer me up when I’m sad, they keep me company when I’m lonely, they stir my imagination, they challenge my mind, and they make me happy to be alive. I’ve gotten to know many video games over the years and one has always stood out among the rest. Call it powerful nostalgia or call it what you will, but Majora’s Mask is simply the reason I play video games. A touching story, layered and blissful gameplay, an unforgettable world and countless endearing scenarios all meld into the experience that is closest to my soul among all of video games.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

My Top Ten Favorite Video Game Soundtracks (2012)

Music has always been a very important part of my gaming career. Video games often exhibit such a beautiful musical presentation that these soundtracks stay with me long after the game is over. Here is my list of my top ten favorite video game soundtracks of all time. I tried to limit things to one game per series, but I had to make a few exceptions. There are also many games that did not quite make this list, but were very close. It was a tough list to make!

10.) Streets of Rage 2: The entire Streets of Rage series has excellent music and part two is the best of the bunch. From the memorable intro theme (which doubles as the haunting melody that plays on the final stage), to the iconic music of Stage 1 all the way to the endlessly badass theme of my favorite boss in the game, Shiva; this game has a beautiful score. Every track is composed to not only suit the atmosphere of the situation but also to get the player pumped up to clean up some streets. Yuzo Koshiro and Motohiro Kawashima did some truly fantastic work here.

9.) Kirby 64: The Crystal Shards: Like many other games on this list, Kirby 64 is part of a series with a tradition of excellence in music. Kirby 64’s varied soundtrack stands (or floats) at the top of the pink cream-puff’s musical legacy for me personally. I’ll always remember themes like “Ruins”, “Shiver Star”, “Factory Inspection” and of course my favorite final boss theme of all time: “02 Battle”. The game’s tunes range from traditionally cheery Kirby stuff to haunting and atmospheric pieces like the Ruins theme and “Factory Inspection”, to some really moving stuff like the 02 battle theme. Jun Ishikawa and Hirokazu Ando are to thank for this beautiful selection.

8.) Sonic the Hedgehog 3 and Knuckles: The Sonic series is known for always being stellar in the music department. For me, Sonic 2 and 3 have always been the best musically, but in the end, part three manages to spin dash into first place. I just love the melodies and instruments used in the game. Angel Island Zone, Hydrocity Zone, Ice Cap Zone, Launch Base Zone, Flying Battery Zone, Lava Reef Zone…the list goes on and on. The music is upbeat, jazzy, thoughtful and always enjoyable. Sonic 3 and Knuckles has a very long list of composers (including some help from Michael Jackson himself) and all of their talent really shows in the final product.

7.) Skies of Arcadia: RPGs usually always have memorable soundtracks and Skies of Arcadia is no exception. I love almost every single track in this game. From the moment the beautiful title screen theme begins to play, the player knows they’re in for a fantastic soundtrack. The Kingdom of Ixa’taka theme, The Valua City theme, the adventurous Delphinus world map theme (which dynamically changes depending on which part of the world you are in) and so many more are all brilliant. Every track in the game perfectly suits the location or situation is is played against and is enjoyable to listen to. Yutaka Minobe and Tatsuyuki Maeda accomplished stunning work here.

6.) World of Goo: Oh man, World of Goo…World of Goo. I don’t even know where to begin. Composed by just one man, the incredible Kyle Gabler, World of Goo’s soundtrack is one of the most original and breathtaking I’ve ever had the pleasure of hearing in a video game. From the nostalgic “Ode to the Bridge Builder” to the haunting “Years of Work” to one of the most moving ending themes ever composed in “Best of Times”, this soundtrack elevates itself high above so many other works. Seriously, you have to listen to some of this stuff.

5.) Silent Hill 2: Here we are at the top five and Akira Yamaoka’s masterful work in Silent Hill 2 is more than worthy. Really, just about any of the following contenders could be number one as they all exhibit the very top of their class. The Silent Hill series has incredible music and sound design and Silent hill 2 is the best of them all. This soundtrack is at times melancholic and haunting and at others extremely moving. It is alternately uplifting and depressing and always atmospheric and fitting. Have a listen to just a few tracks from this stellar score, "Theme of Laura" and "Theme of Laura (Reprise)".

4.) Shadow of the Colossus: Like Silent Hill 2, Shadow of the Colossus is a video game that blends atmosphere and music with perfection. Ko Otani composed a true masterpiece here. The slow and thoughtful opening theme, the grand and epic music that plays during a colossus encounter, the emotional ending theme: everything is perfect. The soundtrack fits the game so well because it dances between an epic and melancholic score and anyone who has played Shadow of the Colossus knows how appropriate this is.

3.) Castlevania series: It’s here in the top three that I cheat a little bit. I can’t honestly single out one Castlevania soundtrack from all the rest because for one thing they are all just so damn fantastic. Secondly, the entire series features perhaps more remixed and different versions of recurring songs than any other and for that reason it is almost like the whole series has one giant soundtrack. And what a gorgeous piece of work it is. Dozens of composers over the years including the incredibly talented Michiru Yamane created a true legend. Have a listen to "Vampire Killer" and "The Sinking Old Sanctuary".

2.) TIE: The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask and The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker: I had a very hard time choosing which soundtrack from the Zelda series to pick, so hard in fact that I decided on picking two games from the bunch. Majora’s Mask features a very emotional and at times disturbing soundtrack which includes some of my favorite themes in the entire series such as “Clock Town, First Day”, “Giants’ Theme” and perhaps my favorite song in the entire Zelda series: the “Song of Healing”. Koji Kondo and Toru Minegishi did wonderful work here. The Wind Waker has an extremely well-balanced and gorgeous soundtrack. I love almost every single track in the game. From the cheery and cozy “Windfall Island” to the haunting “Sage Laruto” to the epic music that plays during the final boss battle; everything is atmospheric, moving, and joyous to listen to. Kenta Nagata, Hajime Wakai, Toru Minegishi, and Koji Kondo all worked together to create something truly special here.

1.) TIE: Chrono Trigger and Chrono Cross: I couldn’t choose just one of these stellar soundtracks because they both mean so much to me. I’ve honestly listened to the soundtracks for Chrono Trigger and its sequel, Chrono Cross, more than any other game and I still listen to them on a regular basis today. They just never get old and remain touching and beautiful to me to this day. Chrono Trigger presents the best of the 16-bit best and has my favorite video game song of all time: “Time Circuits” (or “Corridors of Time” as it is also known). Yasunori Mitsuda, Nobuo Uematsu and Noriko Matsueda are legends. Chrono Cross followed suite with a beautiful and stirring soundtrack of its own composed by Yasunori Mitsuda once again. The opening theme “Time’s Scar” really gets the player excited to begin the game and the haunting themes of the Dead Sea and Chronopolis will always stay in my memory. And then there are the ending themes of “Life~A Distant Promise” and “Radical Dreamers”, two of the most, if not the most moving ending themes I’ve ever heard in a video game (along with Chrono Trigger’s own “To Faraway Times”).
                But it’s more than just beautiful music. The soundtracks to Chrono Trigger and Chrono Cross have truly inspired me over the years. They’ve influenced my writing and sparked my imagination. They’ve cheered me up when I’ve felt sad or lonely, and as corny as it might sound, they’ve truly touched me and given me back my enthusiasm for life when I’ve needed it most sometimes. They are my favorite video game soundtracks of all time and I will continue to listen to them again and again and again for as long as I can.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Why Do I Love Video Games? A Recent Playthrough of the Original Super Mario Bros. Reminded Me Why

Why do I love video games so much? Just what is it about these electronic, computer-created jumbles of pixels and polygons that stir my heart so much? A recent playthrough of the original Super Mario Bros. for the NES reminded me of all the central reasons why I love video games so damn much.

Of course this is a big one. The first time I ever picked up a controller, it was just joy to move a character around in a colorful environment. And what game better demonstrates pitch-perfect gameplay than Super Mario? Super Mario Bros. is still a blast to play nearly thirty years later. It’s a challenging, rewarding and supremely enjoyable experience. It’s this kind of player control-infused enjoyment that makes me love video games.

A key factor of video games is their immersion. A rich, engrossing atmosphere is a must for a game to draw me in and make me fall in love with it. As a child, Super Mario Bros. drew me in with a strange, new world to interact with and explore. There are the bright and colorful surface areas filled with floating bricks and question-mark blocks, green pipes and all manner of odd creatures stomping about. Then there is the underground with its mysterious ambient music and dank atmosphere that just begs to be explored. The Mushroom Kingdom’s weird and wonderful atmosphere is why I love video games.

Music and Sound Design

Great atmosphere goes hand-in-hand with great music and great sound design. Super Mario Bros. has such memorable and catchy chiptunes that the main theme of the game is recognizable even to those who don’t play video games. From the aforementioned famous tune to the mysterious underground theme to the calming underwater track to the ominous castle music, Super Mario Bros.’ music is mood-setting and sets the rhythm to brilliant gameplay and level design. And that’s to say nothing of all the iconic sound effects from collecting a coin to that oh-so-satisfying power-up sound when Mario grabs a mushroom or fire flower. Great music mixed with great sound design is why I love video games so much.

A compelling tale that is told through a mixture of gameplay and well-directed cut-scenes (or purely though gameplay) is another reason to love video games. On the surface, Super Mario Bros. tells a straightforward and classic tale: a hero embarks on a journey to defeat an evil villain, save a princess, and save a kingdom from tyranny. This classic story is great and it’s always fun to feel like a hero, but it’s the parts of the story that aren’t explicitly told in-game, as well as the completely untold parts of this story that truly capture my imagination. The backstory of the original Super Mario Bros. tells the tale of how Bowser and his underlings who live in the harsh badlands of their world grew jealous of the neighboring Mushroom Kingdom’s prosperity and decided to conquer it using black magic. Using this dark magic, Bowser turns all of the citizens of the Mushroom Kingdom into blocks and bricks and kidnaps the kingdom’s ruler and locks her up. Bowser has basically already won. As Mario travels through each world in the game, he is defeating Bowser’s sentries and lowering the enemies’ flags, effectively taking back every fortress in the land. This (for me at least) is the meaning of the flagpole at the end of each level. Also, I always imagined the untold parts of Super Mario Bros. How did two Italian plumbers end up in this strange world? I’m not sure if this is meant to be the story or not, but I imagine that Mario and Luigi were once two ordinary plumbers living in New York City or somewhere and one day they stumbled upon a warp pipe which led them to the secret Mushroom World. Once there, they learned of the kingdom’s plight, gained super powers and saved the day. After saving the kingdom from Bowser and gaining the princess and her people’s affection, they decided to live in the Mushroom Kingdom and had many more adventures afterwards. This is how I imagine it anyway. It is this imagination and this combination of told and untold story that makes me love video games.

The World and the Aesthetics
I’ve mentioned before that the beautiful and imaginative worlds of video games are one of the main reasons I love them so much. I’m also going to include is this category the art and graphics that make those worlds vibrantly come alive. In Super Mario Bros., the senses are treated to a colorful and surrealistic landscape that Mario hops around in. These aesthetics change abruptly to dark and dreary when underground, soothing and peaceful when underwater, and treacherous and nerve-wracking when in one of Bowser’s cold, gray castles filled with spinning fire blades and leaping lava. This memorable and unique world design is why I love video games so much.

So there you have it. Super Mario Bros. is one of the greatest video games ever created and it contains everything I love about the medium. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go play some Zelda next.

About The Stock Pot Inn

I love video games. One of my favorite aspects of video games are the memorable worlds that they showcase. The Stock Pot Inn is a cozy retreat located in eastern Clock Town, the central city in The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask. The Stock Pot Inn has always been one of my favorite locations in any video game and it represents a warm mix of nostalgia, fond memories, and a place that will always hold my heart captive.

I therefore found it appropriate to name this place after the inn, for it is here that I will collect memories, musings, and many thoughts on my favorite hobby: video games. I love video games and I want to share that love with you. 

Welcome to The Stock Pot Inn. Will you be staying the night?