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Category: Game Love

Captain Olimar’s Excellent Adventure

Quick note: this is my entry for this year’s Review a Great Game Day, a writing jam organized by retro gaming site 1 More Castle. Enjoy!

Out of all the games Shigeru Miyamoto has created, Pikmin is far and away my favorite. I’ve put countless hours into Shiggy’s creations over the decades, from Donkey Kong to Wii Fit, but none has captivated me quite so much as his intimate tale of a diminutive spaceman and the even tinier creatures who aid him during a crisis. It is visually and aurally charming, not to mention a brilliantly designed example of how to do real-time strategy on a console, but it’s also much, much more.
Captain Olimar and the pikmin.

Pikmin is something which is, even now, extremely rare amongst big-budget titles: a narrative game about a normal grown adult. The main character, Captain Olimar, is on an alien planet not because he’s been sent there to fight a war, nor is he chasing adventure or purpose. He’s there by accident. He’s a run-of-the-mill businessman, in the middle of traveling, who crash-lands in unfamiliar territory and spends the rest of the game calmly trying to repair his ride and get home to his worried wife and kid. There are no princesses or kingdoms to save; the only thing which needs rescuing is himself. Despite the fantastical universe he resides in, he’s as familiar as most any commuter you may see on the train in the morning. In this way, Pikmin is about the trials and mundanities of adulthood as much as many other games are examinations of adolescence. It’s shockingly refreshing, and Olimar has since become one of those rare game characters with whom I can truly identify.

Actually, I have to take something back—part of that “fantastical universe” of Olimar’s is almost as ordinary as he himself is, but in a different way. While the planet Olimar lands on is new and interesting to him, its identity soon becomes apparent to the player. As evidenced by the litter that Olimar encounters during his crisis, this strange new world is our own. Sure, the flowers are giant numbered pellets surrounded by petals, the creatures include two-legged speckled bugs and bird-beaked burrowing snakes, and the Pikmin themselves are plant/animal hybrids that could exist nowhere else but a Nintendo game, but there’s no mistaking it. Olimar is on Earth, and he is the size of an insect upon it.

The presence of the Pikmin and other weird living things, combined with the familiarity of Olimar’s situation and the random man-made flotsam, is perhaps meant to make us think about the nature we too often take for granted and our relationship to it. Study real-life plants and animals closely, and you’ll notice a wondrous, vibrant world, perhaps one similar to that which Olimar sees. Even at the current rate of extinction, new species are still being discovered; with that in mind, the birds and bugs of Pikmin don’t seem all that farfetched. The primary-colored Pikmin are clearly inspired by ants, insects which famously work together in groups and come in a wide variety of types. Scenes of them flocking around any given object are entertaining in the same way as watching ants carry a piece of food that’s much larger than they are.

Some pikmin attack a froglike creature.This mix of the unusual and the ordinary naturally extends to the gameplay. As I said earlier, Pikmin is a real-time strategy game. The RTS genre is traditionally relegated to the PC, due to the need for precise controls, such as with a mouse, to organize and command units. Pikmin takes the RTS concept and simplifies things, with just three types of units (red, yellow, and blue Pikmin) and a total limit of one hundred individuals that can be controlled in the field at any time. The defense stats of these units is indicated, Super Mario Bros.-style, by physical appearance, and the best of these can be most easily cultivated by letting them “grow” in the ground for a longer period of time. In any other situation, this would not be a problem, but Olimar has only thirty days to find the same number of parts for his spaceship before his life-support system dies. Thus, time is Olimar’s largest, most ominous opponent, moreso than the massive creatures that attempt to eat the Pikmin along the way. Success in this game is determined by your command of the Pikmin, and how well they can fight off threats and navigate territory both while searching for and carrying back Olimar’s precious parts. Pikmin can be challenging at times, filled with all manner of clever obstacles and terrain, but it is also quite manageable, with a perfectly-tuned learning curve. It helps that the Wii’s “New Play Control!” port is a dream to play with its remote and nunchuck setup (unfortunately, there is no GameCube controller support in this release, so I could not compare the original control scheme to the new one).

The understated soundtrack is standard-quality Nintendo fare, but as for the graphics, they are Pikmin‘s most prominent weakness, as, despite their novel designs, they haven’t aged as gracefully as the rest of the game. Pikmin was originally released in 2001 and it shows, thanks to now-dated texturing and lighting, and simplistic character models. However, please don’t let this put you off on playing this masterpiece. It is one of the greatest and most unique video games of its kind, and also one of the best Nintendo has ever made. It is a surprisingly deceptive game, in a good way: approachable and wholesome enough for kids, but with a story and protagonist which are more relatable to adults. It speaks to its audience about nature and its relationship with humanity, without passing judgment on anyone or anything, leaving the player to reach their own conclusions about the world and its inhabitants. Most importantly, it is mature, in the truest sense of the word, than most other games which claim that adjective for themselves.

Everlasting Love

When I saw the “Game of the Decade?” thread on the Cheap Ass Gamer forums, I took the title more into consideration than the post itself. The “best” game of the ’00s? Even now, I’m still not sure about that. However, the game that best defines the past decade? When I posted my reply, it was based largely on a gut feeling, and one I still feel pretty good about. So anyway, here is the answer I gave, and now, I will also tell you why this game fits the bill.

Many splendid things can be picked up in We ♥ Katamari. Much love to llshibata on flickr for saving all the original official Katamari wallpapers.Game of the Decade:
We ♥ Katamari (PS2, 2006)

Thought I’d say something grander and/or more obvious, huh? Nope. My pick for GotD is the sequel to the idiosyncratic Katamari Damacy which, on the surface, merely looks like more of the same. However, not only is it a bigger and better game than its predecessor, but it also serves as a compact time capsule of much of the past decade in gaming. Here is why We ♥ Katamari is important in these terms:

It’s the quintessential auteur game in a decade full of them – …and few of the newer video game auteurs have been as genuinely creative as Keita Takahashi. The designer of the original Katamari, Takahashi wasn’t originally all that enthused about a sequel, but got on board for one all the same. What resulted wasn’t just a great game, but also one that was strikingly personal in a way that was and is rare for the medium: the plot this time around has to do with the King of All Cosmos (i.e., Takahashi) dealing with his newfound popularity (Katamari Damacy‘s global success) and trying to please his fans (the sequel’s new goals). The Japanese title—Minna Daisuki Katamari Damashii, literally “Everybody Loves Katamari Damacy”—reflects this theme much more directly than the Western one.

After We ♥ Katamari, Takahashi would not touch the series again, nor would he create another video game until 2009’s Noby Noby Boy. I haven’t played this new game, but I hear it’s interesting, and wonder how much of Takahashi’s sensibility shines through in it.

It was one of the brightest spots in a period of turmoil for Japanese games – …to say the least. When a famed producer from a major Japanese publisher declares that their home country is “done” at the 2009 Tokyo Game Show, then there’s trouble. During the past decade, Japanese genre staples like shmups and fighting games continued their steady decline in the West, the JRPG began one of its own, Sega got out of the hardware business, several companies merged with each other, and certain Western PC genres (most notably first-person shooters) exploded in popularity on consoles. Oddly enough, while all this was going on, it tended to be the more “Japanese” Japanese games that really made an impression on people. ICO was one such title, as was Disgaea: Hour of Darkness, Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney, and, yes, Katamari Damacy. While the latter game’s US sales defied Namco’s expectations, We ♥ Katamari proved that it wasn’t just its predecessor’s lower MSRP that led people to pick it up. The Japanese quirks were certainly a selling point for a large chunk of the audience, but for others, it might’ve been the positive buzz or the weird gameplay. Or the simple fact that the first game was genuinely good and fun, and the sequel was said to be great as well; when it comes down to it, that’s what it’s usually about, right?

It’s the best game in one of the few new genres to emerge this past decade – …and there weren’t many of them. I’ve talked about garden games before—that nebulous new genre occupied not only by the likes of the Katamari series, but Elebits and de Blob, two others that take on the same basic concept of timed mass cultivation. We ♥ Katamari is the crème de la crème of the bunch in every way: tight controls, uniform graphics, witty writing, challenging-but-not-frustrating play, fresh levels, and a soundtrack that easily ranks among the best of the decade—for any game. In fact, the only quibble I have with it are the load times, but these are made a non-issue by the King of All Cosmos’ amusing chatter.

It had co-op before it was cool – …and so did some other games of the time, but I just thought I’d throw that in there for shits and giggles. Hell, if the King of All Cosmos was writing this post, you know he’d do the same.

So, there you have it, my Game of the Decade. It might seem a bit underwhelming right now, but I’m sure a number of years down the road, We ♥ Katamari will be looked back upon with the fondness and reverence that it is deserved. It may not be the most important game of the decade (Halo? World of WarCraft? Brain Age? Second Life? There’s a lot to choose from here), it may not have been the most innovative (not games, but Steam and the Nintendo DS get my votes here), it may not have sold the most copies or inspired the most bits of fanart or been what people have played the most of these past ten years, but for me, it is emblematic of the tumultuous, chaotic, but still fun katamari that was gaming in the ’00s. Personally, I didn’t love everything about said decade, but I will always love We ♥ Katamari.


Just when Retro Game Challenge had distracted me from Tales of Legendia to the point where I’m on the very last challenge, along comes a game I’ve played before, several years ago, practically begging for me to play it again. It happened during a weekend last month, when my husband and I sought to spend some time together on a LAN game of StarCraft, via Brood War; instead of playing against each other (since I am, admittedly, a bit better than he is), we decided to do the Diplomacy thing against a bot. The bot player was too good, and we quit. I can’t remember if I suggested that he play StarCraft’s main campaign—a great way to learn the game’s basics—or he decided to on his own, but watching him do so arose in me feelings of nostalgia, and after downloading and installing the latest patch, I started up a new game myself.


The story of StarCraft is an epic one about three races, and told across multiple planets: the many Terran colonies, the Zerg’s ashen world of Char, and the Protoss homeworld Aiur. Much of it makes for your standard boilerplate sci-fi stuff, with humans caught in the middle of a struggle between alien races, one of which is a hivemind, and the other a noble, idealistic people who love their homeland. There’s also the Xel’Naga, a precursor race that (according to the manual, select bits of which I read for the first time ever during this playthrough) functioned for the Zerg and Protoss in much the same way as the unnamed aliens who sent the Monoliths in 2001: A Space Odyssey; of course, they’re talked about from time to time, but never seen, as they were gone a long, long time ago. And of course, no discussion of StarCraft’s story is complete without the characters; there’s Kerrigan, of course, but also Raynor, Duke, Mensk, the Overmind and its Cerebrates, Aldaris, Fenix, Zeratul, and, my favorite of the bunch, Tassadar.


The lore wasn’t the only reason why I wanted to play the game again. There’s also the missions themselves. Each of the three “chapters” focuses on one race at a time, where the player takes on the role of a Terran Commander, Zerg Cerebrate, or Protoss Executor. As for why I said earlier that these missions are a great way to learn the game, it’s because not everything is given to you at once. The missions start out simple, with hard caps on the types of units and structures one can create, but gradually become more and more complex. Mixed in with all this are a few infiltration missions, where the player controls a small detachment of troops to navigate an interior space with (which are always, by some quirk of chance or design, Terran facilities). These missions, particularly the one in the Protoss campaign, require just as much strategy as the regular RTS ones, and make for a nice break from said regular maps whenever they occur.


While the gameplay is as engrossing as ever, it’s remarkable how well StarCraft has held up in other areas. Graphically, this flat, sprite-heavy game has aged very gracefully, and the same can be said for the voice acting and music. If there is one spot in which StarCraft obviously shows its age, it’s in the CG FMVs which play between certain missions. The animation is smooth in that particular “old 3D computer animation” way, and the character models, especially those of the Terrans, are just as dated. As a technical aside, I had some stuttering starts whenever an FMV would play; not sure if it’s a codec issue or if it’s something else about my Mac Pro, but it’s likely another consequence of StarCraft’s age.

Anyway, I devoted many hours and a fair chunk of the past couple weekends playing those thirty campaign missions in StarCrack, and I loved every second of it. Even the very tough last Terran mission, which, while not driving me absolutely bonkers like it did the first time around, still had it’s fair share of challenges. Even that infiltration mission on the Protoss side, in which everyone in my party had died by the time I reached the goal, save for the one unit who mattered. Even though I have to play through two-thirds of the game to get to my favored Protoss in the first place (it didn’t help that the Zerg are my least favorite to play). And even those early Zerg missions, where I had to do without that race’s better flying units, but along the way and afterwards gained insight into how and why to use Zergling rushes. It’s StarCraft, and it’s awesome, and that’s the only reason I need.

Postscript: After beating StarCraft this past weekend, I finally went back to Retro Game Challenge today and beat that. Tales of Legendia, which I’ve been away from for too long, awaits me tomorrow.

The Final Fantasy VIII OST Appreciation Society

My friends, we are gathered here today to pay tribute to one of the most underrated soundtracks in a video game series famous for its music. While Nobuo Uematsu’s Final Fantasy soundtracks are a gateway drug for many a budding game music fan, lost in the shuffle somewhere between “One Winged Angel” and the opera sequence from FFVI is one of the composer’s most consistent, accessible scores. I speak to you of the one, the only, Final Fantasy VIII Original Soundtrack.

Almost as sexy as his soundtrack.
Almost as sexy as his soundtrack.

Final Fantasy VIII is one of the black sheep of the main FF series, as it contains many significant and drastic alterations to the traditional formula. Sure, many of the familiar Final Fantasy tropes are there, but the act of drawing spells from enemies, coupled with the Junction system, earning gil via a salary, upgrading weapons, and other quirks—not the least of which is a sometimes nonsensical and bewildering story of romantic dreams and time compression—didn’t earn it many fans. I myself disliked it a good deal until I played it a second time, in it strictly for the gameplay and armed with a greater awareness of Junction’s nuances. During that second go-round, not only did I have more fun, but I also noticed that the music was pretty damned awesome just about all the time.

Which brings me to today’s meeting. Final Fantasy VIII’s OST is one that, for me and likewise many of you, marks the pinnacle of Nobuo’s work on the series. FFIX, though enjoyable, was largely homage, like the game itself, and Uematsu-san hasn’t composed a full Final Fantasy score since then. The sheer depth of variety on the four-disk soundtrack is astounding, and remarkably, it’s all held together quite well by variations on a few key themes, notably the epic “Liberi Fatali”, the lovely “Eyes on Me”, and the melodic “Fragments of Memory” and “Ami”. The battle themes are wonderful, with Nobuo’s signature touches all over them blended with the types of sounds that one would be hard-pressed to find in any other FF game—the techno-informed “The Man With the Machine Gun” is a fine example of this, as is “Force Your Way”, which features a driving electric organ-led intro.

Outside of the incredible battle themes, there are many other things to enjoy about FFVIII’s music. Take “Roses and Wine”, a soft, dreamy piece with the type of repetitive melody that Nobuo does so well. Or how about “The Spy”, which wouldn’t sound out of place in FFVII… save for the 70’s-style funk coursing throughout. There’s also “Slide Show Part 2”, a better and more polished take on ragtime than FFVI’s “Spinach Rag”, and the snare drum-heavy “SeeD” and “Overture”, which serve FFVIII’s military academy settings very well.

Of course, I’m sure you’ll all agree that any discussion about FFVIII’s music is incomplete without talk of “Eyes on Me”, the award-winning song famously performed by Chinese superstar Faye Wong. While the likes of “Aria di Mezzo Caraterre” and the severely overperformed “One Winged Angel” may be more favored in the eyes of certain fans, “Eyes on Me” reigns over them in my opinion. Not only can I never get sick of it, but it is also remarkably easy (and fun) to sing along to. I’ve heard that this song, unlike the rest of the OST, isn’t available on iTunes, which is why the Society recommends purchase of an authentic hard disk copy from your favorite Japanese import shop.

While we’re at it, I hope everyone in the Society has by now heard Fithos Lusec Wecos Vinosec, simply one of the finest game music arrange albums available? Many of the best FFVIII tracks are performed by an orchestra on this album, lending an even greater aural depth to what were already amazing pieces (however, as with the OST, “Eyes on Me” is noticeably absent in this album’s iTunes iteration). And let’s not forget what Nobuo’s rock band, the Black Mages, have done with FFVIII’s battle themes. Their versions of “Force Your Way”, “The Man With the Machine Gun”, “The Extreme”, and especially “Maybe I’m a Lion” come highly recommended.

Okay, so I’m a little biased; “Maybe I’m a Lion” is one of my personal faves.

Crafting a True Startopia

The image from Startopia's loading screen. Note the "GB" sticker.

I’m in an empty space station again, just me and my handy AI, the one with the British accent and dry sense of humor (or is that humour?) to match. No clients this time, no pressure to cater to the specific whims of an alien race, it’s just me and a couple of other upstart administrators competing for the public’s cash on our own terms.

The competition gets snarky at times.
The competition gets snarky at times.

The basics have been provided and are awaiting me in crates: a port, an energy collector, a berth, and so on, along with a few of the cheapest, barest-bones Scuzzers available. I open some crates, lay down the guidelines for the Scuzzers of where I want things to go, and they get to building. As the structures go up, the first few guests arrive, and the computer tells me some crucial, basic problems I must deal with as soon as possible.

Your visitors are hungry.
Your visitors are tired.
Your visitors are lovesick.

Unfortunately, the Scuzzers can only work so fast, and as new visitors are wont to do when they enter a bare bones space station, they head for the third and highest level, the Biodeck. In the meantime, I begin unlocking gates, terraforming the Biodeck, and hiring employees, while the only peep I hear regarding my competition is usually in the form of them crowing about their technological advances. In the midst of all this, I get a call from Arona Daal.

Arona is a notorious wheeler dealer in this part of the galaxy, specializing in nothing, overcharging on everything, and always with the smooth sales pitch. I buy a few things from him, against my better judgement, but the one thing I’m after the most is a Star Dock. It’s expensive, but it will enable merchants other than Arona to drop by, merchants who can offer me much better prices for many of the same items. Still, every once in awhile, Arona will have something that I would be hard-pressed to find elsewhere (like that most bizarre of alien amusements, the Oroflex), so I humor his sales pitch and take a quick look at his wares whenever he stops by.

Oh noes Skrashers D:
Oh noes Skrashers D:

My wing of the station is coming along nicely, despite a vermin problem that resulted in infected visitors, and then, Skrashers. There’s also the undercover agents and assorted other criminal scum, shooting up the place, planting bombs, and generally making station management a bit more of a hassle than it already is. I go into damage control mode when these sorts of disruptions happen, which more often than not results in me hiring more Kasvagorian security agents and stocking up on Security Scuzzers. There’s also the matter of the Grey doctor who I didn’t actually hire, hanging out in the sick bay as though he was just one of the employees. I’m not quite sure how to handle him, especially since his resume leaves much to be desired, but make sure that my sick bay is well-staffed and the docs that do work for me know what they’re doing.

The other managers don’t bother me… much. They probably sent those spies over, but have no real proof that they did. Ultimately, all their efforts are futile as I meet the terms of our competition first and they leave for parts unknown. I continue building up my wing of the station, adding more entertainments for the guests on the Pleasure Deck, hiring and promoting employees, and just generally making sure everything’s in order and everyone’s happy. It’s a good job.

Special Stage: New copies of Startopia, which runs on Windows 95B/98/Me/XP (not entirely sure about Vista), can be found for less than $20 these days. It’s a great deal for this criminally overlooked space station simulator.

A couple of Startopia links worth checking out:
• RTSC’s Startopia pages – Part fansite, but mostly strategy guide, this is an indispensable Startopia resource.
• Postmortem: Startopia – A look at the game’s production process, with analysis of what went right, and what went wrong.