Monday, September 19, 2016

My Top 115 Favorite Video Games (55-51)

Click here for the introduction!

55. Sonic the Hedgehog (Genesis)

Sonic the Hedgehog is one of my three earliest video game memories and possibly the first game I ever played. Therefore, its music, its sound effects, its visuals, its slopes, and its loops are etched into my mind in a way that few games are. Sonic is one of the primary reasons I love games as much as I do. While I’m incapable of being completely impartial about this game, I recognize its flaws yet still find much to be impressed by in Sonic’s debut adventure. Compared to later games in the series, the original Sonic feels lonelier and more foreboding, especially in the final level. Just listen to the menacing boss theme; it really captures the idea of a little rodent going up against a megalomaniacal industrialist. The whole nature vs. technology theme that is present throughout the Sonic series, especially in the older games, as well as the focus on playing as and rescuing animals has always spoken to me directly. While they contain some annoying designs, I find Sonic the Hedgehog’s levels or “zones” unforgettable and inspired, even so many years later. This game began a trend in the Sonic series of taking Sonic to imaginative locations such as a surreal city park filled with pinball equipment, a dreamy starlit highway, and a treacherous polluted factory, giving it a unique identity that set it apart from many other common platformer clichés in the 90s. Beyond the locations themselves though, Sonic’s worlds are largely so memorable because of the game’s distinctive art direction and musical score, both of which were quite unlike anything else at the time. It’s easy to look at the original Sonic the Hedgehog now and compare it to its sequels and other games and dismiss it as archaic and awkward, but at the time it was new and exciting and unique, and I applaud its developers for having an inspired vision instead of just blatantly copying what Mario was doing.

54. Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia (DS)

Order of Ecclesia has a very fond place in my heart for several reasons. For starters, it was the final Metroidvania* produced by Koji Igarashi, and although I would have gladly accepted more explorative Castlevania, in my opinion Order of Ecclesia was at the very least a glorious note to go out on. It combines several different elements from throughout the Metroidvania series such as the multiple area approach of Portrait of Ruin and a similar ability system to the Tactical Soul system from the Sorrow games, and it even incorporates a hub town full of eccentric villagers that brings Castlevania II to mind. To top it all off, it all culminates in one of the most climactic final battles the series has ever seen. The soundtrack is of course also glorious and the 2D art is at its absolute best; what’s more, Ecclesia also features a beautiful painterly art style for character portraits and official art, a welcome return to form after the garish anime look of the past two DS Castlevania titles. Perhaps my favorite aspect of Ecclesia though is its narrative and its protagonist, Shanoa. In Order of Ecclesia, the Belmonts are nowhere to be found, there’s no legendary Vampire Killer whip, no contrived tie-ins to past games or cameos, there’s just Shanoa, an ordinary woman who decides to stand up and fight evil because no one else will. Ok, so there’s a little more to it than that and Shanoa technically isn’t entirely alone in her quest, but I just love this game’s basic premise and Shanoa is my favorite protagonist in the series. Castlevania isn’t exactly known for its great storytelling, but there are actually some pretty touching moments here and the way in which the adventure progresses feels very inspiring in a way and almost like Igarashi and company knew this would be the last one. If I had a hat, I’d tip it to those folks, and I eagerly await this game’s long-awaited spiritual successor, Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night.

*Just a side note: when I say “Metroidvania”, I am not referring to the whole subgenre, but rather just using the term as shorthand for the seven Symphony of the Night-style Castlevania games. Speaking of which...

I didn’t really get super into the Castlevania series until 2001’s Castlevania: Circle of the Moon and I waited years to finally play 1997’s Symphony of the Night when it was re-released on PSN. While I don’t quite hold the game in as high regard as many others mainly because I feel many of its successors improved on it mechanically and also because I’m not exactly a fan of the game’s “second half”, Symphony of the Night is nonetheless a masterful creation, especially for its time. It has perhaps the most well-designed version of Dracula’s castle in the series and almost every nook of this obsessively-detailed gothic mausoleum is etched into my brain…besides the recesses I’ve likely still yet to discover. Symphony of the Night is also a brilliant work of 2D video game art and is wholly embossed with its own distinct atmosphere. Its soundtrack by Michiru Yamane combines hard rock, chapel hymns, gothic anthems, and funky electronica to produce something extraordinary. Symphony is special, it is timeless, and nothing can ever replace dialogue like “What is a man? A miserable little pile of secrets.”

I actually didn’t care too much for A Link to the Past at first. I certainly liked it to an extent, but I kind of struggled through it difficulty-wise and overall didn’t think the adventure was as inspired as Link’s Awakening, the only 2D Zelda game I’d previously played. I didn’t really start appreciating A Link to the Past until I had more Zelda experience in me and returned to replay it over and over again. Each time I did, I seemed to enjoy the game more and nowadays it may not be my favorite Zelda game but it sits neatly in the middle or so. It’s a quintessential-feeling game in many ways through its structure, its level of polish, and its overall completeness. There’s just something very satisfying about finishing A Link to the Past. This game also has a charmingly classic feeling and distinctly magical atmosphere about it and for as much as it established for the series as a whole, A Link to the Past still feels unique among its peers. It has one of my favorite soundtracks in the series (the ending credits theme is profound and makes me tear up every time I finish the game), its mechanics feel great, and its art is colorful and pleasing. I also dig ALttP’s storytelling, which I don’t think gets enough credit. While there’s a wonderfully written and illustrated backstory in the original SNES instruction manual and certainly quite a few exposition dumps throughout the game, I love how details about its world and its lore are fleshed out by NPCs hiding in caves and whatnot throughout both the Light and Dark World. Speaking of the Dark World, it’s both an interesting concept narrative-wise and design-wise and while the whole “dual world” idea has been completely beaten into the ground by Nintendo today, A Link to the Past still stands as one of its best examples. From its expertly-constructed opening to its satisfying, climactic finale, A Link to the Past is a great game that’s easy to just jump into and have an adventure with.

My first experience with Kirby’s Adventure was the Game Boy Advance remake, Nightmare in Dream Land, which I’m pretty sure I didn’t even know was a remake of the NES classic at the time. Which is amusing, because Adventure is yet another game I longed to play for years. I grew up with the Game Boy Kirby games and Adventure released at a time when I did not have access to a NES. I remember the boxart alone making my imagination run wild about the wonderful Kirby adventure I was missing out on. While I of course eventually played the original Kirby’s Adventure and think it’s great, my preferred version is Nightmare in Dream Land, which features new visuals, enhanced music, new modes, and so on. Having missed the original version and Kirby Super Star as a kid, NiDL was the first Kirby game I played with such a large set of wacky copy abilities. It was a joy discovering them all as well as making my way through imaginative and colorful lands such as “Ice Cream Island” and “Butter Building”. You can’t go wrong with a level called “Butter Building”. Kirby’s Adventure/Nightmare in Dream Land is also probably what I would call the quintessential Kirby game; it’s kind of like the “A Link to the Past” of the series. It was the second game in the series and built on the template of the original Kirby’s Dream Land in numerous ways. Not only did this game introduce Kirby’s signature copy ability, but several boss concepts and characters (such as series mainstay Meta Knight) also originated here, in addition to an overall game structure and many conventions that would go on to greatly influence the series. No matter which version you play, Kirby’s Adventure is a great time sure to put a smile on your face.


We get ever closer to the big finale next time with #50-46!

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