Friday, September 30, 2016

My Top 115 Favorite Video Games (15-11)

Click here for the introduction!

15. Okami (PS2)

Some people call Okami “the best Zelda game Nintendo never made”, but I don’t think that does the game justice. Yes, in terms of its structure and feel Okami definitely takes inspiration from my favorite video game series, but similar to Beyond Good and Evil it is also a uniquely brilliant game in its own right. The level of artistry on every level of Okami is awe-inspiring. The art design is breathtaking, the musical score is wonderful, and the Celestial Brush is one of the most inventive mechanics in video games. The world, a fantastical version of Japan, is a layered land of wonders and the narrative and endearing characters truly moved me in a way that only a handful of games, or any works for that matter, have ever done. There are few feelings as magical as dashing through the fields of Nippon as Amaterasu as flowers bloom in my wake. The way mechanics, art design, and the central narrative themes of good vs. evil and restoring nature all come together in Okami is nothing short of poetic, and more than just an endlessly imaginative journey, Okami feels like a lifetime. Okami is a video game masterpiece if there ever was one.

14. Shenmue (Dreamcast)

There has never been a video game that has amazed me as much as Shenmue did in 2000. It was way ahead of its time and revolutionary in many ways. Many video games strive for realism, and while graphical prowess has continued to evolve, few feature a world that truly feels “real”. With its dense, yet hyper-detailed world, Shenmue felt like I actually lived in Japan throughout my duration of playing it. It appealed to me because of my interest in eastern culture, but the magic of Shenmue is also in the mundanity of it. I mentioned when talking about Animal Crossing that despite it being a very unique experience, there was actually another game somewhat similar to it that I had played previously. I was referring, of course, to Shenmue, and like Animal Crossing, it is the simple act of living a life day to day that makes Shenmue so special. In other words, it’s another game where “downtime” is the focus. I could walk around Ryo Hazuki’s house and open every drawer, I could buy and drink soda from a vending machine (and even inspect the cans), I could enter a convenience store and browse through different packets of noodles, or I could waste hours buying toy capsules from a machine outside of it. I could play classic Sega games at the local arcade, I had a daily allowance from my sweet housekeeper, I went to work, I practiced martial arts in the park, and I could talk to a wide variety of other people living their lives (and at the time, I was astounded by the sheer amount of voice acting in the game). Shenmue immersed me in its ordinary yet foreign world, it made me want to travel, it catered to my love of Japanese culture, and it made me gain more of an appreciation for other cultures in general. The sense of realism in the game, the wide degree of interactivity, the atmosphere, the ambitious storytelling…Shenmue was and still is in a league of its own and is an experience that will always stick with me.

13. Super Mario 64 (N64)

I don’t specifically remember the very first time I played Super Mario 64, but I remember the time period. The Sony PlayStation and Nintendo 64 were taking console video games into a bold new dimension, and everyone on the N64 side was either playing Wave Race 64 or Super Mario 64. Mario 64 truly felt massive back then, with an intricate, labyrinthine overworld full of secrets and what seemed like a never-ending supply of colorful and imaginative levels to explore. I remember even being taken aback by the peaceful courtyard of Peach’s Castle; Mario’s world had come to life in a way it never had before. Super Mario 64 is a playground; it’s a joyous, bounding experience in which it is a wonder to just move around. That’s perhaps what I remember most about my initial experience with the game: just how damn good it felt to move Mario around in 3D, to do backflips and triple jumps and climb trees. I’ve gone back to 64 in the past simply to run and jump around just for the hell of it. Super Mario 64 is more than just great control though. Its many worlds feel like the epitome of classic Super Mario themes (which, for the record, I don’t inherently hate) and all of them are jam-packed with memorable moments, like the terrifying piano in Big Boo’s Haunt, exploring the pyramid in Shifting Sand Land, and finding the hidden town in Wet-Dry World. Beyond the worlds is the brilliantly-designed hub from which you access them: Peach’s Castle, which might be my favorite thing about the whole game. There are just so many secrets and little details to discover inside and outside the castle: the secret aquarium, looking at the sun in the lobby, following a Big Boo and leaping into a birdcage to access a new world, not to mention the surprise waiting on the roof…so much effort was put into making the hub just as interesting to play around in as the levels themselves. Mario 64’s Koji Kondo-composed soundtrack is also one of my absolute favorites in the series, with “Dire, Dire Docks” and “Koopa’s Road” being particular highlights. The game’s colorful art and smooth, simple geometry also really stood out to me back then over the grainy, jaggy PS1 visuals and still holds up pretty well today despite the obviously dated technical aspects. It’s amazing that Nintendo got 3D Super Mario so right right out of the gate and paved the way for intuitive 3D control in video games with this one exceptional title.

12. Super Mario Bros. (NES)

Super Mario 64 changed the game in a major way, but there might not be a game at all if it wasn’t for Super Mario Bros., which essentially saved video games from a tragic early demise and is in my opinion basically the moment that video games stopped being merely “games” and started being works of art. It is also one of my earliest gaming memories along with Sonic the Hedgehog and Kirby’s Dream Land and very likely the first video game I ever played. Super Mario Bros. is basically the reason I care about video games at all. Video games were no longer a single screen with simple rules and only a few actions, they weren’t merely about getting a high score anymore; Super Mario Bros. was an adventure over land, air, and sea, it was a fantastical world, it had a story to it, there was a beginning and an ending. The first major post on this blog that I wrote four years ago was a breakdown detailing how Super Mario Bros. basically contains all of the core elements that make me love video games so much, and while I’m not sure I’d break it down into such a cut and dry list anymore, I still basically feel the same way; hell it even has the kind of progression and level-to-level connection that I love in platformers so much. Not only is Super Mario Bros. a game that I can go back to and play at any time, at any place, at any point in my life and get an immense amount of enjoyment out of, but there’s something about the stark atmosphere of Mario’s original Mushroom Kingdom adventure that I really love. I love the idea, whether official or not, of two plumbers supposedly stumbling upon a surreal fantasy world that has been conquered and brought to ruin by a fascist turtle monster (a set-up that the infamous 1993 film was actually surprisingly pretty “faithful” to) and whether intentional or merely a byproduct of the limited technology of the time, there’s a mystery and somewhat somber vibe about this game that was largely lost the more the series went on. The game’s narrative premise and backdrop of what essentially is a post-apocalyptic Mushroom Kingdom is at least a fair bit more interesting than the “Bowser absconds with the Princess to lava land” routine that the series constantly recycles today. Of course, even though I consistently replay it and do think the game has aged wonderfully, I also simply cannot deny how large a role nostalgia plays in my undying love for Super Mario Bros., and every art asset, music track, and sound effect evokes powerful feelings deep within me. A masterpiece of surreal art, a masterpiece of game design and game feel, Super Mario Bros. simply is eternal.

11. Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door (GameCube)

When I think of Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door, I think of a cool Saturday morning in October, the sun gently falling through the window, a little bit of heat coming through the radiator, and exploring the mysteries of the Glitz Pit, where Mario had enlisted as a prize fighter and was trying to weed out seedy corruption in the floating entertainment center accompanied by a newly-hatched baby Yoshi with a spunky attitude. Around the same time, I remember proclaiming that The Thousand-Year Door was my favorite game of all time. It’s hard to put into words just how good this game truly is, but let me try: Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door is one of the most creative, subversive, and memorable games that not only Nintendo has ever made, but that I’ve ever played period. It is the complete antithesis to the staleness the Mario franchise largely wallows in today and I find it hard to believe that the current Nintendo even created a game like this once upon a time. Like the original Paper Mario, The Thousand-Year Door is comprised of several chapters, each complete with their own unique characters and subplots that all tie into a larger story, which in this game’s case involves the core mystery of what lies behind the sealed Thousand-Year Door that a secret society known as the X-Nauts want desperately to unlock for some reason. Unlike the first game’s more familiar Mushroom Kingdom setting, TTYD takes Mario to a bizarre new land where he sets foot in the risqué harbor town of Rogueport, which features a gallows as a centerpiece, is full of the Paper Mario universe’s versions of criminals, and even has its own mafia. From here, we meet a host of colorful and memorable characters and go on one captivating adventure after the next throughout one of the most interesting worlds Nintendo has ever created, from the aforementioned corrupt fighting arena, to a cursed town in the woods, to a murder mystery aboard a ritzy locomotive. That’s the key word: mystery. The Thousand-Year Door is like a series of short stories and every one of them is compelling and full of mystery and intrigue. On that note, TTYD probably has the best writing of any Nintendo game aside from some of the Zelda games (namely the ones Yoshiaki Koizumi was involved with such as Link’s Awakening and Majora’s Mask) and is also probably the funniest game the company has ever produced as well, and one of the funniest games I’ve ever played period. Even if you don’t care about Mario or Nintendo, you owe it to yourself to try this game out. This list is all about special games, and it really doesn’t get much more special than Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door.


We head into the top ten next time with #10-4, followed by the big finale!

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

My Top 115 Favorite Video Games (20-16)

Click here for the introduction!

20. Sonic the Hedgehog 2 (Genesis)

One day back in 199-something, my brother and I were playing a game that we’d rented (a frequent occurrence back then), when suddenly the news came that Sonic the Hedgehog 2 had arrived in the mail. “Forget this crap!” I remember one of us saying as we yanked that poor, forgotten rental out of our Sega Genesis. Sonic 2 was here and it took precedence over everything else. Sonic the Hedgehog 2 followed up the original classic with a bigger, faster, prettier game, and while these things don’t always mean a better game, in this case they did. The Sonic sequel cut each zone down to two acts insuring that no one theme would ever drag, its levels are better designed around Sonic’s speedy momentum-based platforming, its visuals are more vibrant and colorful, its soundtrack is arguably even more amazing, and it introduced Sonic’s signature spin-dash and sidekick Miles “Tails” Prower, and co-op play along with him. In addition, the iconic Super Sonic made his debut here, and while I’ll likely never unlock him the legit way, cheats have allowed me to experience what a fun hidden extra Sonic’s powered-up form is. The memories with Sonic 2 are too many to count. Memories of trying to get through the game on my own as a kid and many more of fumbling around as Tails while my brother played as Sonic. Every zone, every boss, every section of every level has a story: the terror of the polluted water in Chemical Plant Zone Act 2, the secret base at the bottom of Casino Night Zone, getting stuck on those damn nuts and bolts in Metropolis Zone. Sonic 2 is an anthem of my childhood, it’s a part of me, and I always make sure to set aside some time to run through it and its two Genesis counterparts every year or so. Where once upon a time, the harrowing final boss fights were a nightmare rarely glimpsed, now I can get through the game in just over an hour.

19. Dragon Quest VIII: Journey of the Cursed King (PS2)

Dragon Quest VIII is the quintessential traditional JRPG and one of the most finely-crafted and polished games I’ve ever played. There’s a “classic appeal” to this game, an old-school approach to fantasy perfected that I really dig: exploring pastoral countryside, traversing quaint little villages and talking to townsfolk at the local inn, exploring a cave with torch in hand, finding treasure, battling monsters…there’s a true sense of old-fashioned adventure in Journey of the Cursed King. The world in DQVIII is vast, and this was the first RPG I played where I wasn’t some little avatar running around a world map but where every inch of the actual world was explorable, up close and personal. It all looks and sounds so lovely too, with a colorful semi cel-shaded aesthetic and probably my favorite use of live orchestrated music in a game with its astoundingly beautiful score. This is also another refreshingly narratively straightforward JRPG, and this works well combined with the rest of the game’s clean, simplified approach. What makes the story truly come to life though is the lively characters and superb voice acting. The colorful cast of Dragon Quest VIII is brimming with personality and this is definitely one of the funniest and most charming games I’ve ever played. DQVIII also features traditional, yet refined mechanics and its battle system is one of my favorites in the genre for its purity and accessibility. It can be quite a retro challenge at times, but Dragon Quest VIII is simply an RPG masterwork and was the perfect adventure to completely immerse myself in during winter break after receiving it on Christmas morning in 2005, playing until the wee hours of the morning every night.

18. Half-Life 2 (PC)

My favorite games have a way of sticking with me, of taking up residence in my consciousness and every so often signaling their presence. A particular noise, a certain location, even a smell can trigger a memory, an association with a cherished experience. Half-Life 2 is one of these games, and also like many of my favorite games, it is entwined with a very particular time in my life; in this case, my first semester of college and the week leading up to it. Even with so many distractions around me, there are few games that have immersed me as entirely as Half-Life 2. There is a lonely and absorbing atmosphere to this game that I can’t adequately describe, but it left its mark on me. I think of Half-Life 2 when I drive through city tunnels or when I find myself in a grungy stairwell; when I hear certain sounds, I think of headcrabs and Combine sirens and other sound effects from the game; tall towers occasionally make the Combine Citadel pop into my head. Half-Life 2 is also one of those games that just never seemed to end, but this could partly be because of the long period of time I stretched the experience out over. Regardless, I journeyed through the bowels of City 17, rode a hovercraft, escaped a horrible village filled with parasite-infested zombies, explored a vast coastline, crept through dark tunnels and creepy sewers, and still Gordon Freeman’s journey just kept on going. I fondly recall the night I finally reached the end of the game, sitting at my computer in the dark with my giant headphones on in my freshman-year dorm room as my roommate slept. I just couldn’t believe it was over. Darn, Half-Life 2 is so good, wouldn’t it be great if they made anoth-oh…oh yeah.

17. Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater/Subsistence (PS2)

Never have I seen a work balance extreme campiness with powerful emotional drama as beautifully as Hideo Kojima’s masterpiece, Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater. The game design in MGS3 is impeccable and much more open-ended than previous Metal Gear games, with the jungle setting offering a variety of ways to sneak around and introducing interesting new survival mechanics as well. The boss fights are, as always, incredible, but Snake Eater truly contains some of the very best in the series, including the brilliant sniper duel with The End, a patient, drawn-out affair that takes place across a gigantic multi-area battlefield. MGS3 also features a relatively grounded narrative that focuses on the fascinating relationship between Snake (aka Big Boss) and his mentor, The Boss, who is one of my favorite characters in all of video games. The finale of Snake Eater is absolutely stunning, but I won’t say any more than that on the subject. Much of what makes Snake Eater so special is in the details, such as the absurd antics of a young Revolver Ocelet and the infamous ladder scene, and just all of the ingenious Easter eggs and secrets that I don’t want to spoil. I enjoyed Snake Eater so much that after first playing through the original version on a borrowed copy, I immediately bought the Subsistence version and replayed the whole game again with the new free-form camera angle that improved version provided and never once did I feel bored or fatigued. And just listen to that glorious theme song.

16. Metroid Prime (GameCube)

Along with Metroid Fusion, Prime was my introduction to Metroid back at Christmas in 2002. Metroid Prime was unlike anything I’d ever played before, and to be honest it kind of stressed me out. It’s hard to really explain why, but I felt somewhat overwhelmed by this game. I struggle with various anxiety-based issues, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder being chief among them, and these issues can often be detrimental to my enjoyment of video games. When it comes to my initial Metroid Prime experience, it was something about the dense, detailed, oppressive nature of the game, my inexperience with first-person shooters (which technically Prime is not, but obviously it shares certain elements with the genre), and the scanning mechanic that brought about this stress. Scanning is an aspect of the Prime series that I have always had a love/hate relationship with because I love the concept but it’s a nightmare for my Obsessive Compulsive self because I need to scan everything. Ultimately, I think it all just came down to how detail-oriented Prime is. Even with my anxiety though, I still immensely enjoyed Metroid Prime, and revisiting it via the Metroid Prime: Trilogy compilation for the Wii in 2009 after having so much experience with the rest of the Metroid series and the other Prime games allowed me to fully appreciate this incredible game without so many hang-ups. Long-winded preamble aside, Metroid Prime is astounding. Every fiber of this experience is crafted with the express purpose of immersing the player in a rich atmosphere that literally steams and dampens their screen. The stunning art direction, the attention to detail in the HUD (aka Samus’s visor), the detailed lore and creature biology accessed by scanning, the mesmerizing musical scorePrime is scarily good. In fact, I can’t think of a single thing I’d fault the game for, not even the late game artifact-collecting mission as I tend to like that kind of thing. Metroid Prime is a sterling example of how to translate an established 2D video game series into a bold new 3D world, and even with its new first-person perspective, I would even say it is probably the most faithful example of such that I can think of, even more so than Mario and Zelda’s initial 3D translations.


Stay tuned for #15-11!

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

My Top 115 Favorite Video Games (25-21)

Click here for the introduction!

Kirby’s Dream Land 2 released during a time when a sequel to a game that I loved wasn’t an expected or familiar occurrence to me, so when I learned that there was a second Kirby’s Dream Land? Hoo boy! Dream Land 2 is just as important to me as the original, if not more so. This sequel is basically an expanded, much more robust version of the first Dream Land and it remains one of the most important games of my childhood. I loved all the varied worlds, seeking out the mysterious Rainbow Drops, and finally reaching the true finale. One of the big reasons why I really connected with Dream Land 2 was the new animal friends that Kirby could team up with. Not only am I someone who has always had an affinity with animals, but there’s a real sense of adventure and friendship here, and there’s an epic feeling as the game draws to a close. Besides the new animal buddies, Dream Land 2 also featured copy abilities, unlike the first game, and since the only other Kirby game I had played was that first game (and not Kirby’s Adventure, where copy powers were introduced), I actually played all the way up to the penultimate world without having any idea this was an aspect of the game. After getting stuck and having to consult the manual, my whole world changed when I learned of Kirby’s then relatively new ability and it only made this game that much more incredible to me. Dream Land 2 is also notable for introducing my favorite villain in the Kirby series, the enigmatic Dark Matter, and kicking off a three-game saga that would continue in Kirby’s Dream Land 3 and conclude in Kirby 64. I was so fascinated by this strange new villainous force that I basically included a rip-off of it in a short story that I wrote in the third grade. Finally reaching the true final boss of Dream Land 2 felt triumphant on its own, but it would be years before I finally succeeded and saw the true ending of this extremely special game.

From Kirby to Mario, it should be clear if you’ve been following this list just how special the Game Boy and its games are to me, and how formative and crucial they were in my video game history. Game Boy was my go-to game device as a kid and I perhaps have more fond childhood memories with it and its games than any of the consoles. Super Mario Land 2 is emblematic of this time in my life. This game is my childhood in a tiny gray cartridge, and while I’ve been saying that I have three earliest gaming memories that were very formative for me (one more still to come), I probably should have said four, as this game is definitely mixed up in that time period. I feel like I must have played Six Golden Coins for several years and I brought it with me everywhere: in the car, on vacations, to the beach, to friends’ houses, etc. It influenced my imagination in countless ways, prompting me to dream up my own “zones” in the same spirit as those in the game and draw out maps on napkins. It’s more than just nostalgia though. I described my admiration for the Game Boy era of Nintendo eccentricity when talking about Wario Land II and Wario Land and Super Mario Land 2 is one of the quintessential examples of this imaginative spirit. There is no Mushroom Kingdom. There is no Bowser. There is no pandering nostalgia-bait. There is no goddamn desert land. There is Mario’s messed-up bizarro twin, Wario in his debut appearance, there is a carrot that grants Mario bunny ears, and one of the worlds is a gigantic mechanical statue of Mario where you fight the three little pigs in Lego land (this statement is 100% accurate, I assure you). One of my favorite things about this game is these creative worlds and the great sense of progression and detail that each one presents. Another world is Tree Zone, where Mario explores a gigantic tree starting at the roots, ventures into its sap-filled interior, and climbs up into its branches to explore a giant beehive and bird’s nest. It’s all a far-cry from the bland regurgitated environments Mario so frequently tromps through today and I can’t think of a better reminder of the wonderful creativity and variety that Mario once displayed in each and every new special adventure of his than Super Mario Land 2: Six Golden Coins. Also, just to set the record straight: Mario in space? This game did it first. Sorry, Galaxy.

Metroid Prime 2 definitely seems to be the underdog of the Prime trilogy, and that’s a shame because it’s an exceptional experience. Prime 2 is probably one of the creepiest titles in the Metroid series and also one of the most creative in my eyes. It has this very oppressive, harrowing atmosphere, and it really feels like, as Samus, you’re stranded on a twisted, hostile alien world. As I’ve discussed before, the whole “light and dark world” motif has been done to death when it comes to Nintendo games, but Echoes’ take on the concept at least feels inspired. I love how the very air of Dark Aether is corrosive as it really adds a great deal of tension to this eerie other world, and makes it really feel like a place you don’t want to be in. Dark Samus was also introduced in this one, and she (or it) is one of my favorite takes on the whole “dark doppelganger” cliché; she’s creepy, powerful, and she wants you dead (and she also has a badass theme). What chiefly comes to my mind about Echoes though is its richly-realized locales, which all stand out sharply in my memory, such as the rain-soaked Torvus Bog with its subterranean secrets and the beautiful, Tron-esque Sanctuary Fortress, which is definitely one of the most stand-out locations in the series. Retro Studios’ knack for creating believable, immersive alien worlds really shines in Echoes, and I felt completely absorbed in the flora, fauna, and terrain of Aether. As I may or may not talk about next time, the original Metroid Prime was initially a bit of a mixed experience for me, so in a way Echoes feels like my Metroid game; I was familiar with the Prime formula at this point, and it allowed me to get immediately sucked into this game and to quickly fall in love with it.

Oh Sunshine, you underappreciated, underplayed gem. I was so excited for this game and remember pouring over every new screenshot and detail that would emerge in the latest issue of EGM. When it finally released in the US in late August of 2002, I spent every remaining minute of my summer vacation playing it and continued doing so as I entered my freshman year of high school. Like the Game Boy, the GameCube was a special time of experimentation and unbridled creativity from Nintendo; a time when they focused on doing interesting things with the games themselves rather than with the controller you use to interact with them. Super Mario Sunshine is one of many examples of this creativity. It’s not the revolution that Super Mario 64 was or the grand crowd-pleaser that the Galaxy games are, but it’s sort of like the “Majora’s Mask” of the Super Mario series; a bold, creative follow-up to an immensely well-regarded and important game that feels more low-key and intimate in its own way. It won’t appeal to everyone, but those who recognize its magic will surely fall in love with it.  One of the things that makes Sunshine so special is the connected, detailed world of Isle Delfino. Being able to gaze into the distance and see other locations and how everything connects lends a sense of cohesion to the experience that I really love, and this great sense of place is strengthened by a potent atmosphere that takes the theme of a tropical vacation and fleshes it out to its limits with a variety of memorable locations, including a peaceful village resting in the hills, an offshore amusement park, and an eerie haunted hotel on a beautiful twilit beach. There are less “levels” than in other 3D Super Mario games, but Sunshine focuses more on building a world than linear challenges, and there is a great emphasis on quality over quantity as each area is densely packed with little details, including the central hub of Delfino Plaza. The result is a Super Mario game that feels less like a series of levels and more like a Mario RPG in 3D platformer form. There’s a great sense of context in Sunshine and this applies to its much-maligned narrative as well. While the game’s voice acting may be a source of great derision today (and largely for good reason), I still appreciate the effort put into framing an adventure that was more than just “Bowser kidnaps Peach” and back in 2002 I was just amazed that a Super Mario game had voice acting and such a relatively fleshed-out storyline.

There is just something so joyous and lively and “feel-good” about Super Mario Sunshine. I could go on about the incredibly fluid mechanics, which are probably the best of all the 3D Super Mario games, the jubilant sound design and soundtrack, the bright and luscious visuals, and those amazing water effects, but simply put Super Mario Sunshine truly is unique in this series and easily one of my Mario favorites.

21. Golden Sun and Golden Sun: The Lost Age (Game Boy Advance)

Similar to Sonic the Hedgehog 3 and Sonic and Knuckles, Golden Sun and Golden Sun: The Lost Age are merely two halves of the same big adventure, originally intended to be one large game but split up due to hardware limitations and developer ambitions. Funnily enough, Golden Sun was recommended to me by a random stranger I was chatting with in a random chat room at the dawn of the internet age, and it then became my first Game Boy Advance game along with Sonic Advance. I thank that person (whoever they are and wherever they are now) because they were right: Golden Sun is fantastic. It is pretty much my ideal RPG: a traditional battle system with a large, explorable, interesting world, with unique psychic powers called “Psynergy” that are used in puzzle-solving and combat mixed in for good measure. The gorgeous sprite-based visuals also have to be seen to be believed and these are easily some of the prettiest GBA games around, featuring visually-stunning and over-the-top summons and magic attacks. The “Golden Sun” portion of this two-part journey is certainly great, but in a way it sort of feels like a prologue to The Lost Age, which is where the experience really takes off, opening up the great world of Weyard and featuring multiple continents, islands, intricately-detailed villages, complex dungeons, and a vast ocean to explore. The Golden Sun saga also takes a different tone from most JRPGs and features a refreshingly easy-to-follow and not overly complicated narrative, but the narrative structure is nonetheless very interesting. There are basically two central groups that set off on a journey at the start of the first game, each with opposing goals, and in Golden Sun you play as one side and in The Lost Age you switch perspectives and play as the other. The situation in the game then is not a straightforward “good vs. evil” tale as in many RPGs, but that’s all I’ll say about it. In addition, if you play both games (which you obviously should), you can transfer your characters from Golden Sun into The Lost Age, an element that comes into play as The Lost Age goes on. Of course, it wouldn’t be one of my favorite games of all time if the soundtrack wasn’t amazing, and the Golden Sun/The Lost Age OST is really something quite different. The music has a very signature sound and a certain style that I find very unique, and it ranges from peaceful and relaxing with many of the town themes to downright inspirational when it comes to the world map and traveling themes.


Only twenty games left? Yup! #20-16 is next!

Monday, September 26, 2016

My Top 115 Favorite Video Games (30-26)

Click here for the introduction!

30. Super Smash Bros. Melee (GameCube)

Super Smash Bros. Melee blew my mind when I first played it that Christmas morning on my shiny new GameCube in 2001. Melee is one of those sequels that took the foundation of the first game and simply exploded it in a big bang effect, expanding and elaborating on the original a dozen times over while still retaining a distinctive sense of identity. I simply got lost in the various modes, new characters, trophies, and the ever-deepening series of unlockables within the game. Melee has a lot of stuff in it, but not so much stuff that it feels overwhelming, and every new avenue, from trophies to the new Adventure Mode, has worth. It keeps the original’s unique target-smashing stages and features a similar Classic Mode, but the added Adventure Mode, All-Star Mode, Event Matches, plus more all help to create a satisfying single-player experience. Of course, what cemented this one in my heart was just how long I continued to play it after release because of its multiplayer, a fairly unique situation in my video game history. Many summers in high school were spent hanging around with my friends, which often entailed swimming in my friend’s pool followed by hours upon hours of four-player smashes. Melee is one of the few multiplayer games that I didn’t tire of after a few sessions of play, and it seemed like no matter who I played it with, I had a blast. It was an evolution of the original that set the standard that the rest of the series is still following today, and it’s the Smash that is most special to me.

29. Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow (DS)

It’s very difficult for me to pick a favorite Metroidvania game, and therefore favorite Castlevania game overall, because I love them all for different reasons (except for maybe Portrait of Ruin), but Dawn of SorrowDawn of Sorrow is so frickin’ beautiful. It picks up right where Aria of Sorrow left off, building upon and refining everything about that already refined game, including the return of the Tactical Soul system, and features a massive castle that rivals Symphony of the Night’s in terms of its marvelous design, details, and copious secrets upon secrets. Just when you think you’ve seen or done it all, there’s more, and if you think you’ve finally seen it all, you’re wrong. Being the first Castlevania game on the DS, its visuals are gorgeous, featuring beautiful environments, huge sprites, and colossally gruesome bosses, its musical score is among my favorites in Castlevania history, and it is simply all-around probably the best-designed game in the series. The only things wrong with Dawn of Sorrow are its unfortunately mediocre anime character artwork (the beautifully elegant artwork of Ayami Kojima was sorely missed) and its weak narrative and villains. Aria of Sorrow’s narrative was pretty wacky too, but it’s interesting at least and has an important purpose in the grand scheme of the Castlevania mythos, but Dawn of Sorrow, as much as it pains me to say it, is unfortunately just sort of an unnecessary continuation of that story, and it just feels like they had to come up with something to justify this otherwise beautifully-designed game. The narrative isn’t terrible and it doesn’t greatly detract from the experience, but let’s just say as the final story chronologically in the series, it could have been better. When the rest of the experience is so phenomenal though, I’m willing to turn the other way. Its narrative and official artwork aside, Dawn of Sorrow is the pinnacle of the Metroidvania series.

28. GoldenEye 007 (N64)

GoldenEye is one of those games that I completely dissected as kid. It was more than a game; it was a world. I spent hours playing and replaying every mission and each session brought new discoveries. I would obsess over details like the ventilation shafts in the Facility level and how they all connected, I would create my own meta-games in my head and my own fantasy storylines for each mission. I settled into each level, exploring every room, examining every toilet and desk; these levels were more than just linear corridors, they were fully-designed environments to explore and uncover. I longed to finally unlock the coveted hidden Aztec and Egyptian levels, which I sadly never did. I used to dream about this game. Then there was the multiplayer, where countless hours were spent with friends playing hide and seek in the Complex, laying proximity mine traps in the Caves, and having duels in the Temple. It’s amusing to me that one of my strongest nostalgic attachments, one of my most cherished and memorable video game experiences, is a licensed James Bond game based on a film I wouldn’t first watch until years after finally putting the game down, but so it is.

27. Kirby 64: The Crystal Shards (N64)

After drooling over screenshots of it in Nintendo Power prior to release, I finally got Kirby 64 in my hands in late June of 2000, and it is another game that is fondly synonymous with summer for me. I still remember the pure joy this game brought me as I began it and how amazing it was to me back then to finally have a Kirby game with 3D visuals. Not only was Kirby 64 one of the first “2.5D” platformers to my knowledge, but its clean, colorful art has aged remarkably well and the game stands as one of the best-looking N64 games in the modern era. When it comes to platformers, Kirby 64 is another game that hits just about all the right notes for me. Though they largely follow familiar video game tropes such as the good ol’ desert and beach, the worlds of The Crystal Shards execute these themes with a lot of imagination and detail, and although there aren’t a whole lot of them, every single level in the game is unique and nothing feels copy and pasted. The ice world is particularly memorable for its pseudo-futuristic and industrial themes, as well as for the fact that it seems to hide a suspicious backstory. What also makes Kirby 64 still stand out among all of its brethren is its fantastic power-combining system. For the first and basically last time so far, Kirby can combine copy abilities. For example, combine Cutter and Burning to make a giant fire sword, Burning and Bomb to turn into fireworks, or Ice and Spark to morph into an adorable Kirby refrigerator that barfs up snacks! It’s a brilliant spin on the familiar Kirby formula and it’s a ton of fun to experiment and play around with each combination. The game gets a ton of mileage out of only a handful of base abilities and you’ll find yourself making surprising discoveries even late in the game. The simple narrative is also excellently implemented throughout, providing both great motivation and a great sense of progression. Rounding out the whole delightful package is my favorite Kirby soundtrack, which is a stand-out even by the series’ very high standards. The music in Kirby 64 contains a wide variety of styles, including some very atmospheric and emotional tracks, including the true final boss theme, which is one of my favorite final boss themes in any game.

26. Kirby’s Dream Land (Game Boy)

Another of my three earliest gaming memories and crucial formative games (along with Sonic the Hedgehog and one more upcoming game) is Kirby’s Dream Land, the very first Kirby game. I’m fairly certain that this was my first Game Boy game and I remember walking around Toys “R” Us with my Mom when the game’s strange boxart caught my eye. There are two elements that I chiefly admire about Kirby’s Dream Land: simplicity and surrealism. I love the simplistic nature of the mechanics and platforming; this was a world where Kirby could not copy the abilities of his enemies yet, he could only inhale and exhale, and there’s something about this pure, uncluttered design that I find appealing. The game can also be finished in about 40 minutes (not counting the special “Extra Game”) and I love this too; it’s a breezy, charming little adventure. I also love how surreal and strange Kirby’s Dream Land is and it raised so many questions for me when I was a little kid: why am I fighting a sentient tree that’s attacking me with apples? Why am I now fighting a sentient blimp with a lemon? What exactly is Kirby anyway? And what is “Dream Land”? Is the whole game a world of dreams or a figment of some child’s imagination?? Why is the main villain a big penguin with a hammer wearing a Santa Claus suit??? This game ignited my imagination as a child, and it and Kirby’s Dream Land 2 feel like they are a part of me.


It's the final countdown! #25-21 is next!

Saturday, September 24, 2016

My Top 115 Favorite Video Games (35-31)

Click here for the introduction!

35. Paper Mario (N64)

Did you know that the only fanfiction I’ve ever written was a Paper Mario one? As I was eagerly anticipating the upcoming Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door, I lamented the fact that I had never played the original N64 game, so I tracked down a copy and played Paper Mario in the summer of 2004. While playing the game, I began posting on the IGN Paper Mario forums, initially just asking for help. This soon spiraled into me becoming a full-time member of a gaming community and before I knew it I was writing a fanfiction. I have extremely fond memories of that time and can’t help but associate them with this game and its sequel. Paper Mario itself is a wonderful example of creativity; it features an inspired take on the familiar Mushroom Kingdom and I love its chapter format, diversity of lovable partner characters, and simple yet satisfying RPG mechanics. In this premier outing, the whole “paper” concept was just an aesthetic choice, and it made for a compelling art-style that still holds up well even on the aged N64 hardware.

34. Mario and Luigi: Superstar Saga (Game Boy Advance)

Superstar Saga was the first Mario RPG I played and I instantly fell in love with it. It is zany, imaginative, and hilarious. It’s from a time when Nintendo wasn’t afraid to do whatever the hell they wanted with Mario and when the Mario RPGs in particular were a bastion of creativity and unique ideas. Unique ideas like an evil bean witch stealing Princess Peach’s dialogue (as in the text in her text boxes) and replacing it with explosives and sending Mario and Luigi on a quest to the Beanbean Kingdom, an all-new land where Bowser loses his memory and becomes a thief’s apprentice, the now infamous villain Fawful makes metaphors about sandwiches and mustard and doom, and Mario uses his brother as a surfboard I think? What I really love about the first Mario and Luigi compared to its successors is its open, interconnected, detailed world, which doesn’t feel like merely a handful of areas stapled together. It feels like a 2D Zelda overworld almost, with tons of secrets to find and interesting areas to explore and quirky characters to meet. The battle system and mechanics are engaging without being drawn-out or gimmicky and the humor is inspired. Superstar Saga isn’t bogged down with tutorials or repetitive, boring areas full of mundane fetch quests, and it’s not a mess of touch-screeny, motion-controlled mini-game gimmickry; it’s just a wonderfully creative, well-designed RPG. None of the games that followed in the still ongoing Mario and Luigi series have managed to capture the magic of the original for me, and quite frankly they don’t even come anywhere close.

33. Final Fantasy VII (PS1)

Let me get something out of the way right now: I’ve never finished Final Fantasy VII. I stopped playing at the very end of the game on disc three with only the big finale to go, so I did play through practically the whole thing, I just never actually finished it. It is one of my biggest gaming regrets, because I adore this game. Final Fantasy VII is tied with memories of a high school summer long gone by and even though I was quite late in playing the game, I still found myself engrossed in its extremely compelling world and complex narrative. For its time, FFVII was incredibly ambitious, and it’s one of those games where I can feel the passion of the developers in every facet of the experience. I unabashedly love this game’s atmosphere as well as its soundtrack. Composed by the great Nobuo Uematsu, Final Fantasy VII’s score is a wonder, and easily one of my absolute favorites in video games. It also contains the greatest battle music in JRPG history that still gets me pumped up to this day. Someday, someday soon, I need to go back and re-experience this whole game complete with a proper conclusion.

32. Final Fantasy VI (SNES)

First off: another masterful soundtrack by Nobuo Uematsu. It should be clear if you’ve read just about any one of these posts, but music is extremely important to me, in video games and otherwise. In fact, it is one of the most important elements in video games for me; it can set a mood, create an atmosphere, evoke emotions, and so much more. I think when it comes to Final Fantasy VI, “emotion” is a very key word. One of the first things I think about when I think about FFVI is its characters; their different stories, the way they grow, and how the narrative draws them together and progresses with a focus and a confidence that few other games can match. Unlike many other JRPGs, the narrative here is not convoluted or overly complex, but it is gripping stuff and does a great job of balancing humor and drama. FFVI is filled with powerful narrative moments that I won’t dare spoil, but suffice to say it’s an incredibly narratively ambitious game for its time and summons a heap of emotion using only pixels and sprites, which is actually quite similar to the next game on this list…

31. Cave Story (PC)

Cave Story speaks directly to my heart. It pulled me in, held me close, punched me in the gut, and left me deeply moved. It just does everything right. The detailed world-building, emotional storytelling, and level of imagination on display in Cave Story rivals any of my favorite games of all time. Also, I know I’m a fossilized record at this point, but I also adore this game’s pixel art and soundtrack. From its enigmatic beginnings to its multiple endings, Cave Story is an unforgettable and special journey that can be downright brutal in more ways than one. I really want to spoil as little as I can about the game as it’s something best experienced as blind as possible, but you have my word that Cave Story is easily one of the greatest video games I’ve ever played. It is also immensely inspirational, as the entire game, which was inspired by the likes of Metroid, was developed by a single person, Daisuke “Pixel” Amaya, who did the art, writing, music, level design, and programming all by himself in a five year effort. An indie inspiration and simply an incredible game, Cave Story is a work of art in every way.


Only 30 more games to go! The final stretch begins next time with #30-26!