Wednesday, September 21, 2016

My Top 115 Favorite Video Games (50-46)

Click here for the introduction!

50. Streets of Rage 2 (Genesis)

Streets of Rage 2 is my favorite co-op game of all time. I don’t even have to think about that one; nothing else even comes close. I have countless great memories of playing through Streets 2 over and over again with family and friends over the years, from childhood to adulthood. It's the ultimate chill-out, talk about life, and beat up some thugs kind of game. As far as beat ‘em ups go, they simply don’t come any better. Its stages are huge and detailed, encompassing a wide variety of different sections, and each one seems to flow into one another naturally, forming the kind of progression and silent storytelling that I dig. Tying the whole experience together is the divine soundtrack largely composed by Yuzo Koshiro (with some help from Motohiro Kawashima). The music is so good that it’s the only video game I know of (besides the other two Streets of Rage games) that credits the music composer on the title screen right underneath the Sega copyright.

49. Resident Evil (GameCube)

Originally released for the GameCube in 2002, the Resident Evil remake is a masterpiece of atmosphere. There’s an HD remaster of the game out now, but even the original version still looks great because of its intricately detailed pre-rendered environments. Every frame, every moment, every screen of this game was purposely constructed and fixed to provide a certain mood, and every shot could be a beautifully macabre painting. Candles flickering in the foreground, creepy shadows dancing on the wall, ominous hallways stretching into the darkness…this game has it all. The labyrinthine and looping Spencer Mansion is a master class in level and environmental design and one of my favorite settings in video game history. I have an affinity for relatively small but richly detailed spaces in video games and perhaps nothing encapsulates this principle better than Resident Evil’s residence, which doesn’t look that big when you look at a map of it, but feels like a universe when you are lost in its dark recesses. Countless esoteric riddles, memorable creatures, and weird hidden documents all contribute to an unparalleled interactive horror experience here. Many call the “REmake” the example to follow to do a remake right, and while I think the best approach varies depending on the game, there’s no denying the remarkable achievement the developers pulled off here.

This may sound odd, but there’s also something strangely comforting about this game for me. Maybe it’s all the time I spent watching my brother play the original PS1 version (as well as Resident Evil 2) as a kid, or just something about the atmosphere, but I find myself drawn back to this game again and again. I’ve only played through it twice myself, but I never tire of watching others play it and have found myself watching Let’s Plays, Twitch streams, and friends playing it over the years and am always strangely entranced by this hauntingly hypnotizing experience.

Super Mario Galaxy 2 is a really good Super Mario game. In one sense, it might even be the greatest Super Mario game Nintendo has ever created. Stripped of almost anything that gets in the way of you jumping around through one colorful, imaginative level after the next, Galaxy 2 is pure, unrestrained joy from beginning to end; it is very much the original Super Mario Galaxy streamlined. It overall has a more “fun” vibe that its predecessor; it’s a brighter, more jubilant game in a way, and pretty much does whatever it wants with its levels without worrying too much about strictly adhering to the space theme. That said, Galaxy 2 still has some of those more contemplative, peaceful moments that the first game is full of, and also like the first Galaxy, it’s simply a thrill discovering each new galaxy and launching into them to see what new adventures await. Galaxy 2 really captures a feeling of cosmic adventure as Mario and friends sail through space on a starship shaped like the plumber’s head. Yoshi’s back as well and this game is perhaps the most fun I’ve ever had controlling him; his mechanics feel bouncy and fluid, using pointer controls for his tongue is a smart idea, and there are also a lot of fun Yoshi-centric power-ups to use. Unlike the New Super Mario Bros. games, Yoshi doesn’t just feel thrown in for nostalgia's sake, but instead his inclusion feels inspired and he features heavily throughout the game. Super Mario Galaxy 2 unfortunately broke the trend of each new 3D Super Mario game being a major event and something truly unique and exciting, but this is a game where the immense enjoyableness of the experience seems to overshadow everything else.

Believe it or not, I was a bit disappointed with Super Mario Galaxy at first. It’s hard to articulate why, but I think it comes down to a mix of expectations, a handful of nitpicks, and perhaps simply becoming a little jaded as I got older. Simply put, Galaxy did not initially have as much of an impact on me as it seems to have had on many other people. After the stardust settled, however, I grew to appreciate and respect this game a lot more over time. Besides, it’s not like I didn’t immensely enjoy the game when I first played it even with those feelings of disappointment, and similar to The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess, few games capture the joy of Christmas morning as much as Super Mario Galaxy for me. There’s also just something special about this game. I don’t mean that it’s personally particularly special to me in this case, but rather that there’s something inherently special about Galaxy. When I think of Super Mario Galaxy, I think of that tranquil moment early in the game when Mario wakes up on a small planetoid and has to chase some star bunnies around. But I also think of that epic opening that precedes it with Bowser and his army invading Toad Town with their fleet of airships. It’s grandiose set-pieces backed by sweeping orchestrated music like this one mixed with more atmospheric, reflective moments like the former one that give this game a very unique appeal. Unlike its sequel, this game also feels more cohesive and has a stronger identity as it uses the space theme more effectively. Super Mario Galaxy succeeds on many levels: it adds a new dimension to Mario’s familiar platforming, it tastefully calls back to the series’ classic roots by bringing back elements such as Bowser’s airships and the iconic fire flower power-up (a trend that would unfortunately all but become the downfall of the series in my eyes in subsequent years), and it features a narrative with both a sense of weight as well as a surprisingly touching undertone. The character of Rosalina and her Little Prince-esque backstory brings a lot of emotion and personality to this game that the sequel definitely lacks. I said I was initially a bit disappointed with Super Mario Galaxy, but now nearly a decade after its release I long for another Super Mario game in its spirit; not a Galaxy 3, no I actually mean the exact opposite. I mean a truly new Super Mario game (and not, you know, another New Super Mario game either...). With its inspiring orchestrated score, distinct narrative center, and new cosmic setting, Galaxy is to date the most recent Super Mario game that truly felt wholly new in my eyes. I can only hope that whatever Nintendo is cooking up right now for the most famous character in video games, it’s something worth getting excited about again.

By the end of world one, I was impressed. By the end of world two, I was in love. By the end of level one of world three, I was in tears. Tropical Freeze is outstanding. It’s my favorite pure platformer of the last decade plus and a masterwork of the genre. I don’t even know where to begin because this game just wins on so many levels: its imaginative and lushly-realized worlds break away from stale genre clichés, its levels were painstakingly crafted piece by crumbling/growing/burning/spinning/flying piece and every single one of them is memorable, its mechanics are razor sharp, it is a colorful, beautiful-looking game, and its soundtrack, composed by returning master David Wise (with some help), is just sublime; it’s catchy, atmospheric, grand, creative, joyful, wonderful, and is simply one of the best OSTs in gaming period. In addition, the sense of progression and narrative framing is executed wonderfully. The attention to detail in Tropical Freeze is almost alarming: every single platform, every trap, every obstacle has a purpose and a context; platforms don’t just float in the air, they are attached to trees or get carved out and thrown in front of you by gigantic saw blades, they don’t simply move about on their own, but are tilted by falling streams of water in a leaky cavern or are part of an intricate fruit harvesting mechanism in the middle of a dense jungle. This game is alive; it’s dancing, it’s grooving and moving, and it is just gosh darn amazing. Where Donkey Kong Country Returns felt largely chained to the past, Tropical Freeze is more in the spirit of Donkey Kong Country 2 but surpasses that classic with an original adventure that is not afraid to break away and proudly be an experience that evokes nostalgia for a bygone era by not simply recycling or winking and nudging and saying “hey, remember that?”, but instead by simply being an experience every bit as wonderful, special, and imaginative as those classic platformers I fell in love with in the 90s are. Tropical Freeze captured my heart in a way that a game hasn’t in a long time and I have no hesitation in saying it is one of the finest platformers ever created.


The games continue next time with #45-41!

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