Sunday, July 26, 2015

My Favorite Summer Games

It’s a hot, sunny day in the middle of July right now and an air conditioner is blaring in my right ear. It’s summer. I have many fond memories tied to the summer season and unsurprisingly, many of these memories involve video games. There are several video games that are intrinsically tied with summer for me and always will be, mostly because it was during summer that I played them, but also for reasons involving the content and nature of the games themselves. What initially gave me the inspiration for this post was the recent release of Splatoon. Nintendo’s kid-squid simulator is a perfect summer game that I think was ingeniously released right at the beginning of the season. Splatoon is a game about a bunch of sea creatures splatting each other with ink-filled super-soakers by day and having rad, neon-lit dance parties by night. Sounds like summer to me.

I’ve also played a few other games this summer thus far that also seem well-suited to this time of year: the Uncharted series is filled with action and adventure and is inspired by summer blockbusters, while The Secret of Monkey Island is a pirate-themed adventure through a fantastical version of the Caribbean. All of these games fit in nicely with my long history of summertime video game experiences, several of which I’d like to talk about right now. These games aren’t all necessarily among my favorite games ever (though most of them are), but these are all games that embody summer to me and it’s on these hot, air-conditioned midsummer days that I reflect on them fondly.

Sonic was a huge part of my childhood (I played the games, read the comics, watched the shows, and turned my living room into Marble Zone one time) and I was enamored with the original Sonic Adventure on Dreamcast. It’s not shocking then that I was awaiting Sonic Adventure 2 with bated breath, and I very clearly remember finally picking it up at the start of summer vacation in June of 2001, when it was released in North America. I remember reading the back of the case and eagerly pouring through the manual, carefully studying all of the character profiles in anticipation of the game (as anyone from my generation and before it can probably relate to, this “manual ritual” was mandatory back then). I specifically remember thinking something like “this is gonna be good” in an excited, awed sort of way. I put so many hours into Sonic Adventure 2 that summer, and spent so much time just replaying the levels over and over again just for fun, even the much-maligned treasure-hunting stages (hell, especially the treasure-hunting stages, which I loved exploring). Sonic Adventure 2 hasn’t aged as gracefully as I would have liked, but my fond, happy memories of playing it that summer are eternal.

Exactly one year prior to my Sonic Adventure 2 summer, I was perhaps even more giddy for the arrival of Kirby’s long-awaited 3D outing on the Nintendo 64. This list isn’t intended to be ranked or anything, but Kirby 64 embodies summer for me perhaps more than any other game on this list. While this has much to do with the time in which I played it, Kirby 64 gave me such an amount of perfect bliss and excitement back then. It’s the kind of whimsical, imaginative platformer that I purposefully played slowly, taking in every unique level and sight and sound. I remember playing Kirby on the Fourth of July and thinking about playing Kirby while swimming in a friend’s pool. I remember fighting the whale boss at a friend’s house and searching tirelessly for the last crystal shard I needed. It’s a game that in my mind followed me all through that summer vacation, and remains not only one of my favorite games of all time, but one of my favorite summer gaming memories.

In one way or another, Japanese RPGs have always seemed to be largely associated with summer for me (and spring actually, but maybe that’s for another time). Whether it was watching my older brother play the Final Fantasy games long ago, or flirting with Final Fantasy VII when one of my childhood best friends came over one summer day, or of course, my own experiences playing them, JRPGs with all their adventure and beautiful, mysterious worlds and stories and spiky-blue-haired characters have often been summer games for me. Three JRPGs in particular stand out in my mind as cherished summer experiences.

Final Fantasy VII
I already mentioned playing it a bit with a friend one summer, but it wasn’t until years after that I sat down one summer to really get into Final Fantasy VII myself. This was years after the game’s prime and I already knew a fair bit about it, but it still intoxicated me with its now famous brilliant opening sequence, its unforgettable world that blended machinery and magic brought to life by detailed pre-rendered backgrounds and a poignant soundtrack, and its winding and intriguing narrative. All of this makes for a game brimming with an atmosphere that I can still feel. For me, much of my experience with FFVII is wound up in summertime. I fondly remembering visiting Cosmo Canyon for the first time and hearing that music start up, a moment that perfectly embodies that kind of wonder and adventure and freedom that the summer months brought when I was younger.  

Lunar Legend
For a couple of summers in a row when I was in high school, I worked at an auto-insurance agency for a few hours three days a week. I was actually working there the summer I started playing Final Fantasy VII and I was also working there the summer I picked up Lunar Legend for the Game Boy Advance on a friend’s recommendation. I vividly remember working at Curley Insurance in the morning, being home by noon and eating a delicious roast beef sandwich for lunch, and spending the rest of the day and evening playing Lunar Legend. Lunar Legend isn’t my favorite RPG ever (and I’ve since heard it’s one of the weaker versions of the original Lunar), but it’s a colorful, magical journey and just classic JRPG goodness.

Chrono Cross
The final JRPG I want to talk about is probably the most summer-y of them all for me, and easily one of my absolute fondest summertime video game experiences. I was in my second year of college at the time and decided to replay Chrono Trigger on a whim (it’s always a good time for Chrono Trigger). I played it for a good chunk of my second semester and ended up completing it right at the start of summer, when I suddenly realized that I’d never played its often overlooked sequel, Chrono Cross. I remembered watching my brother play some of it years ago, and decided to borrow it from him and give it a go myself finally, because hey whatta ya know, it was summer vacation. Chrono Cross is one of those games that I not only associate with summer because that’s when I played it (I specifically remember trotting through an underground river in one of the game’s many enchanting locales, with my screened windows open on a pleasantly warm summer night), but because the game’s content itself is very summer-y. The experience opens in a pristine fishing village and the first real “dungeon” is a beach. You explore a bunch of islands while sailing on a small boat, and your main character trots around in shorts and a bandana (and, for the record, also has blue hair). The game’s world is brought to life through beautiful hand-painted backgrounds and everything is just so colorful and rich with detail and natural beauty. The mesmerizing soundtrack is the entrancing garnish here that ties all this together, and getting lost in the depths of this enigmatic and beautifully melancholic adventure is one of my most cherished summer gaming experiences.

Like many in my culture, when I think of summer, I think of beaches and the ocean. Perhaps less common is how I think of a decaying art deco city at the bottom of the ocean, crawling with deranged and deformed people scavenging its leaky corridors and hulking diving suits escorting little girls with gigantic syringes that feed on the aforementioned mutated peoples’ corpses. It’s summer! Actually, it’s BioShock, a groundbreaking title that I first began one summer years ago. I recall going to the beach one day, and that night, still sandy and sunburned, exploring the haunting halls of the city of Rapture. The game’s deep ocean setting and immersive adventure captivated me that summer and I still associate BioShock with the season today. Perhaps it is no accident then that I am currently playing through BioShock Infinite for the first time.

I’d be making a huge omission if I failed to mention this one. I don’t remember if it was just one summer in particular or several in a row, but back in high school my friends and I would hang out and go swimming in my friend’s pool what feels like almost every day and afterwards we’d smash and smash for hours. I have many memories of those times and many in-jokes arose, such as “NO!” and “BOP!”. Unless you are one of the four of us, you have no idea what those mean, but that’s fine; what’s important is that summer nights are all about Super Smash Bros. Melee and a duel taking place at the Fountain of Dreams as Marth, Link, Captain Falcon, and Sheik fiercely duke it out to that kickass Gourmet Race remix.

Doom 3
This is a bit of a weird entry, but I have a lot of memories with playing and watching other people play PC games during the summer. See, I grew up playing games on consoles and handhelds and PC games have mostly throughout my life been a kind of special, exotic commodity, something I’d mostly tangentially experience through friends, but not something I got to experience myself often (listen to my podcast for more details on my PC gaming history). It just happens that a lot of those memories with PC games come from the summer months. I played the aforementioned BioShock on PC actually, but I also began one of my most beloved titles, Half-Life 2, during late summer (though Half-Life 2 is also very much tied to fall and my first semester of college). Then there are cases of memories where I was often bored at the time, such as watching my friend play the Command & Conquer games and Star Wars Jedi Knight II: Jedi Outcast during the summer to no end (hi, Dan), but that I strangely look back on fondly now. I also played a good chunk of Doom 3 on PC with that same friend one summer. I’m sure there are other memories lost to time (here’s another one: playing around with emulators way back when during the summer), but those are a few that I have with PC games.

This is a more recent memory; last summer actually. I also wrote a review of Pikmin 3 as well as a spoiler-heavy follow-up post about its finale that hopefully sum up a lot of what makes the game so special to me, so give those a look for more details. I wrote another piece about playing the original Pikmin and at least starting Pikmin 2 one summer, but Pikmin 3 is the one I really associate with summertime. See, it was late summer and I was on the verge of leaving a crappy job I had been doing for three years. I knew I only had a few weeks left there, so coming home at night to immerse myself in Pikmin 3 somehow felt all the sweeter. Pikmin 3 seemed like a game perfectly tailored for cool, late summer nights. Its lush, nature-rich setting and picturesque environments suited the season well, and when out and about during the day, even when on my break at work, I would stare at plants and small patches of flowers and vegetation and imagine little Pikmin running around and try to think of how different environments could be a level in the game. I mention it in the review, but this spark of imagination I got from Pikmin 3 is often a trait many of my favorite video games share.

Even though Super Mario Sunshine actually released at the very tail end of summer in North America and a good chunk of my initial experience with the game came in early fall, I still remember sinking my teeth into it the last week or so of my summer vacation that year. Surfing around on bloopers, collecting coins, hovering about with my water pump jetpack…good times. Do I really need to explain this one? It’s Super Mario Sunshine; everything about the game embodies summer and it’s also one of my favorite games of all time. It was a requirement that I put this one on the list, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t have fantastic memories playing it late summer.

The best Mario game you've never played
When I say “Game Boy games”, I’m mainly thinking about classic, original Game Boy games, but this category also extends to the Game Boy Advance and even the DS. I just have loads and loads of awesome memories playing Game Boy/handheld games during summer. In fact, when I was really young, my Game Boy was my game machine of choice and I’d even say most of my early gaming probably took place there. I brought Super Mario Land 2: 6 Golden Coins with me everywhere, but also when I went to Cape Cod several summers in a row. I remember playing Wario Land II on a boat trip around a Maine harbor and playing Game Boy Advance games like The Legend of Zelda: The Minish Cap and Astro Boy: Omega Factor (an underrated gem) at my grandfather’s house in Maine (to be honest, I'm not exactly sure if these three were all during the summer, but I think they all were). Waking up early one summer to play Castlevania: Circle of the Moon and finally finishing it one summer night. So many car trips and family trips over the years, of swapping carts with friends and trying random Game Boy games I’d never heard of and can’t possibly recall the names of. I also can’t neglect to give a shout-out to the Sega Game Gear, and my fond memories of playing Sonic games on it. Then there was another more recent (though still years gone now) car trip to Maine involving the original New Super Mario Bros. (yes, for all the shade I throw at that series, I do have some nostalgic memories tied with it…some) and many more memories of many more games. I could write another whole post about Game Boy memories specifically, and maybe I will, but plenty of those memories are tied with summer.

Other Miscellaneous Games and Rented Games

I’m running out of room here, but I wanted to call out a few more specific games and also all the random games I’ve rented during the summer. Summer months have always been a dry spell when it comes to game releases, and when I was younger and hadn’t built up a backlog three miles long, I would often rent games during the summer, either with friend or on my own. A few of these have become fond memories of mine, such as the summer I rented and played through the game based on the original Spider-Man movie (probably on GameCube). I later bought the Spider-Man 2 movie tie-in game and played that during the summer (also on GameCube), maybe that same summer actually, and both of these were to my recollection a surprisingly solid good time, Spider-Man 2 especially. I also have good memories of renting and soon after buying the original Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell, and also of sneaking around in its sequel, Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow, both on GameCube once again and during the summer from what I remember. I think I also played Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater for PS2, twice in a row (the second time being the Subsistence version), during the summer, so apparently stealth games that may or may not involve sneaking through jungles are a summer thing for me as well (and the Uncharted series adds to this tradition somewhat actually).

There are still many more games I have great memories of playing during the summer, so let’s name a few more notables here. Think of this as the “honorable mentions” list: Kingdom Hearts II (PS2), Watch Dogs (PC), Mario Kart 8 (Wii U), Super Mario Galaxy 2 (Wii), Paper Mario (N64)The Legend of Zelda: Four Swords Adventures (GameCube), and still more games and memories, not even including great memories of replaying old favorites during the summer months.

Summer is a special time. It’s something that has been conditioned in me to be associated with good times throughout my life thanks to its status as a break from school and its focus on fun activities, both outdoors and indoors and of course for me with plenty of video games. These are some of my favorite summer gaming memories. What are some of yours?

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