It’s Steam Summer Sale season and despite my best efforts not to, I’ve been eyeing a couple of games to add onto the Pile of Shame. Said pile has grown quite a bit this first half of the year, thanks in part to the Wii Shop’s closure and our cross country move (we picked up a some co-op Switch games for the drive, but ended up not needing any of them). There was also the delisting of Telltale Games’ back catalog at GOG, which led to fears that the same would happen at Steam, and, in a roundabout way, the second review for this post.
However, let’s kick things off with something I’d had in my backlog since last year’s Steam Summer Sale…
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.
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.
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.
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A copy of Halo sat amongst other barely or never touched PC games—stuff like American McGee’s Alice and Half-Life—for a number of years. Early in 2010, I decided to change its status, and got around to starting it on April 17th. This decision was one that I’m still feeling the effects of.
It did so many things right: consistent world design, likable characters, unique (for a first-person shooter, anyway) music, good equipment, and great momentum. There was also the big plot twist, a moment when so much seemed to change; I believe this was also the moment when I became hooked.
It’s not like the game didn’t have any problems, as it had a streak of sameness and repetition running through its many grey corridors, but as with any flawed piece of brilliance, the magic of the rest was such that they were minor concerns.
After Master Chief and Cortana’s adventure on Installation 04 came their next one, which starts in orbit above Earth. The situation had become grave, the enemies less cartoonish, and the animations a touch less snappy. Realism and gravity—in a galaxy filled with whole races of aliens that could speak perfect English, a Forerunner civilization that rivals StarCraft‘s Xel’naga in terms of crazy conundrums, and Sergeant Avery Johnson (minor spoilers in link)—was trying to worm its way into a realm that was fun and exhilarating above all else.
Although I wasn’t sure what to make of this change of tone, with it came a closer look at the Covenant and their motives, and the introduction of a new playable character, the Arbiter. This disgraced Elite was a welcome change from the UNSC’s perfect super soldier and whatever seriousness that was imbued in the story suited him quite well.
The air may have changed, but the action didn’t. In fact, the ante was upped, with dual wielding, new equippable weapons (including the truly badass Energy Swords, which were present in the first game, but not a useable option), and frantic battles. Unfortunately, the final fight, which aimed to be the pièce de résistance, fizzled instead, thanks to a shortsighted bit of level design. The ending was a cliffhanger this time, as the “trilogy” formula had now been settled upon.
The action outdoes itself again, and there are crisper graphics this time around due to this being the first Xbox 360 outing for the series. Also still present is the gravitas, with extra emphasis on Chief and Cortana’s relationship, which takes a turn away from the first game’s buddy-movie-screwball-comedy antics to something a bit more tender and weirder, with a slight whiff of retcons.
As for the rest of the plot? Muddled and nothing to write home about, with a none-too-subtle throwback to the first game at the end and some non-closure closure.
Although I’d put up with it for three installments, here is where the formula really started to wear thin. Despite being an RTS, taking place two decades before Combat Evolved, and featuring a whole new cast of characters, a familiar three-act structure was in place. It would all be eyeroll-inducing were it not the most fun I’ve had with a game in this series since pre-final battle Halo 2.
I am and remain a PC person when it comes to first-person shooters (though, as I’ve said before, the Wii’s controls for first-person games are damned good). With Halo Wars though, I found a console RTS with a control scheme that suited my style of play fairly well. It was also, sadly, Ensemble Studios’ final game.
The second in the Not-Master-Chief non-trilogy puts the player in the role of an Operational Drop Shock Trooper during the events of Halo 3. Its emptiness, coupled with basic character animations attached to equally basic characters, brought to mind the first game, more than any of those that had been made previously, albeit with a moody touch of noir on top. The story was modest and significantly different, in terms of structure, from the ones that had come before it. Perhaps the one thing I liked the most—and this is the only time it has happened in the series—is that the main character is not only nameless, but pretty much voiceless, a true silent protagonist whose UNSC-issue boots I can easily slide into.
ODST is a wonderful game, but aside from the rare bit where it’s obvious you needed to have played Halo 3 first, its biggest frustration is representative of something that I’d noticed about the console Halos I’d played to this point: the save system, or rather, the lack thereof. One of the great things about modern PC games is they haven’t forgotten about the value and necessity of manual saves. Autosaves and “save and quit” features are all well and good, but not if one wants to go back and try a different approach, as I did with ODST when I realized that I was unraveling the plot’s core mystery in the wrong order. Redoing the previous mission over again, I found my acquired weapons gone and my checklist cleared of any real progress. This was why I deleted my save file and started the game over again. That said, it is unfortunate that certain other progress markers, namely the Xbox Live Achievements and the in-game audio file unlocks, could not be similarly wiped clean.
Bungie’s final Halo would have it come full circle: in the beginning of their Combat Evolved, we learn that the planet Reach, which had been colonized by humans, has fallen to the Covenant, and that Master Chief is the last of the Spartan II-class soldiers. This game, then, tells a story of the doomed right from the start; I knew going in that the Spartan I would play, and the others in Noble Team, would fail to save Reach and die. The story did have a few surprises left, though, including one which was badly explained in-game, and only clarified by reading some forum threads and the facsimile diary that was included in the game’s special editions (I have the Limited one).
Interestingly enough, although the nameless protagonist “Noble Six” was not silent this time, gender was both obvious and up for grabs: Six could be male or female. Even with an already solid range of good-to-great women characters in the Halo universe, and the existence of female Spartans having been established since at least Wars, that I could make Six any gender I wanted was a welcome surprise. I went with the male option, though.
Male or female, Six is your typical Halo human protagonist: if s/he’s not already a decorated and admired soldier, s/he has an impressive track record. Only Halo 2 stands apart in its presenting the player with a flawed protagonist in need of empathy and redemption, and even then, the Arbiter is only playable for half the game. On the other hand, Master Chief (and his sidekick Cortana), Sergeant Forge, the Rookie, and Noble Six are characters who had admiration and/or respect on their sides prior to their in-game adventures, and could be considered canonical Mary Sues.
Although I have enjoyed my time with all of them, I continue to love the Arbiter the most.
Epilogue: Combat Evolved Anniversary, and Four
After a month-long binge on the not-Master-Chief non-trilogy, I am done for awhile. Anniversary, a remake of the original Halo: Combat Evolved, sits in my backlog, and there it will remain for awhile longer, mainly since there are virtual worlds I want to delve into that do not involve space marines. Halo 4 will come out later this year, but unless there’s a real must-have preorder bonus, I won’t pay full price for it. I don’t go in for the multiplayer on these games, otherwise I would certainly have my order in already, and $60 for what will surely be another eight-hour (or, heaven forbid, shorter) campaign is too much.
I do plan on buying and playing it, however. Despite whatever gripes I may have, Halo still has that special something.
February was a productive month, gaming-wise. After completing Tropico 4‘s campaign, I went ahead and played On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness, Episode Two, which was more of the same Penny Arcade-themed adventuring, albeit with a gimmicky end boss. There was something of a cliffhanger at the end, though, and given that Episode Three was cancelled, I would have to rely on Penny Arcade’s own documents should I wish to know the rest of the story. (ETA: Pete has informed me that Zeboyd is working on Episode 3. Huzzah!)
I also took up Pokemon White again, where, among other things, I added the last three Gym Badges to my collection. There was also a handful of new story events to play through, where Team Plasma continued in their quest to free Pokemon everywhere from trainer oppression. Compared to past Pokemon enemy squads, Team Plasma is easier to empathize with, though no more or less devoted to their cause. Their leader, the enigmatic N, is certainly the most memorable such character that I’ve yet seen in the series. Although I’ve set the game aside again, largely for practical reasons (Pokemon White has a season-based system that uses the DS’ internal clock, and I haven’t seen Winter or Spring yet), I’m looking forward to taking on Victory Road and the Pokemon League.
Tropico 4 was also revisited, much earlier than I thought I would. This time, it was to play the first two DLC missions. The one contained in the “Junta Military” pack was quite challenging, while the “Plantador” mission had a thick streak of humor, with its pop-culture friendly occult theme. In between all of this, I made a lot of progress in Sonic Colors, finally beating it on the 28th. It remains a wonderful Sonic, and simply a great platformer in general.
After all that was wrapped up, I decided to go back to the Halo franchise with the next game in the series, Halo Wars. I was already familiar with developer Ensemble Studios’ work through Age of Empires II, and therefore expected good things from what wound up being their final game. Thanks to Halo Wars‘ interesting missions and marvelous control scheme, I wasn’t disappointed. By necessity, it’s a lot simpler than PC RTSes, but far from dull; it’s probably the most fun I’ve had with a Halo game since the original. Sadly, the campaign was over fairly quickly, but on the plus side, it gave me my last beaten game of the month.
The PS2 port of Baroque was decided upon as my next game, and the first one for March. I started it yesterday and played for the better part of the afternoon, but decided to drop it in the end. It’s a roguelike, but with action, as opposed to turn-based, gameplay, which is unusual for the genre. Nevertheless, it has roguelike-style difficulty, complete with randomly-generated dungeons and being booted back to the starting area at Level 1 every time you die. I died quite a bit early on, but made progress at a steady pace, and then, not very long after starting over yet again, I came across the Experience Wings.
The Experience Wings are a piece of equipment that boost the amount of experience points one can get from each defeated monster. Needless to say, they make level grinding much easier, lessening the pain I felt just on Normal difficulty. However, after going through several floors, I play through a story event that sends me back to the beginning, at Level 1. After making it so that the Experience Wings can be carried over to this new session, I do it all again, though it’s much more monotonous this time, and the same thing happens. While reading some info about the game afterward, I found that progression is determined not by what floor of the dungeon you make it to, but whether or not you can fulfill the arbitrary and oftentimes vaguely hinted-at goals given to you by the macabre, dull, and badly voice-acted NPCs. Upon learning this, I could readily envision the tediousness this would entail, and promptly decided to give it up.
So, what’s on the agenda next? As I said before, I’m on hiatus from Pokemon White again; also, I don’t think we’ll be tackling Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles‘ tough endgame again anytime soon. Right now, my plan is to continue on with more Halo games I haven’t played yet, namely Halo 3: ODST and Halo: Reach. I also have Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary in my backlog, which I’d like to play co-op, but that’s not as big a priority. I also want to start another JRPG, though I haven’t settled on which one yet. Tales of the Abyss, perhaps?
How many games will I beat in March? Stay tuned…
Special Stage: Congrats once again to my friend and fellow Citadeler Tarale on her recent engagement! The incredibly geeky story of how she proposed to her boyfriend, via Team Fortress 2 and with some special help from Valve, made Kotaku Australia; here’s the story!
I meant to post here not long after beating StarCraft II‘s Terran campaign, and to devote an entire post to my impressions of the story and campaign structure, but I got sucked back into Dragon Quest IX so quickly again. Also, I’m a procrastinator.
Seriously, though, DQIX is incredibly addictive. I finally saw the credits roll yesterday afternoon, and though the basic meat of the plot is relatively straightforward and shouldn’t take too long to complete, thanks to all of the other things to do, my beat time was 125:27:02. And there’s still a lot more left in the postgame! However, I’m not even thinking about that stuff right now. For the time being, I’m Dragon Quested out.
"Darlin', when I squint my eyes at you, you better listen."
What else has been going on with me, gaming-wise? As I said before, I beat the StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty campaign. The missions had an incredible amount of variety compared with the original and Brood War, but in general, they also felt easier (it must be noted here that StarCraft II‘s campaign has difficulty settings; I played the entire thing on Normal). The easier, more diverse play compliments a story that, while serviceable, lacks some of the raw… je ne sais quois of the previous games. Certain things, most notably Raynor’s relationship to Kerrigan, are less ambiguous, and there is more humor and in-joking than ever before. One minor pop culture reference in particular was, while silly, somewhat anachronistic considering the setting.
Some of this can be attributed to the new structure in place for the between-mission bits. Instead of a dingy briefing room with an android adjutant, where you are a commander working with General Duke or whoever, you are an observer aboard a battlecruiser, with Raynor as your main character, a detached sort of avatar. A more human angle has been given to the story in the form of Raynor’s conversations with his shipmates and others, but in exchange, something has been lost. I’m not sure which approach I prefer.
The character models and voices are also worth mentioning. Raynor still has his smooth Southern drawl and still squints when he’s upset, but his face is no longer lean, but meaty, and he has an equally meaty build to go with it. His hair is darker as well. Kerrigan, in brief glimpses of her old human form, is more fair-skinned than I imagined her to be through StarCraft‘s crude character portraits, and I’m not too crazy about her new voice. Mengsk and Zeratul fare better, and in general, the new characters are well done.
I think I have a pretty good idea of at least some of what the next campaign, the Zerg one, might bring. It doesn’t have quite the same magic as the original (and its expansion), but StarCraft II is still damn good, and I’m looking forward to the rest.
Another thing I played recently—well, more like messed around with: Kingdom Hearts II, believe it or not. Compared to the original and even the low-key GBA spinoff Chain of Memories, KHII felt like weak sauce, dumbed down with a convoluted and contradictory story, QTE-style special attacks, and some Disney worlds that, design-wise, paled in comparison to their Kingdom Hearts equivalents. However, it did have some redeeming qualities, like the improved Gummi Ship schmup sections, a certain visually stunning minigame in the Hundred Acre Wood, and a few great worlds, like Space Paranoids, the KHII home of Tron.
My husband became curious about the upcoming movie Tron: Legacy after we saw a trailer before Inception. Neither of us had seen the original Tron, though I was familiar with its reputation as an early pioneer in the field of computer animated special effects, and so we rented it. Tron wasn’t very good story-wise, but it was a visual treat, and reminded me a lot of its appearance in Kingdom Hearts II. Wanting to show KHII‘s Tron world, Space Paranoids, to my husband, I fired up the PS2 and loaded up my starred save game. Unfortunately, I had forgotten how to travel between worlds, so I did a lot of needless backtracking before finally caving in and looking up how to do it. As I traveled through Space Paranoids—including Light Cycle and Solar Sailer rides—and recalled my experience playing through the story bits, I saw just how much of the movie had made it into the game. In this respect, Space Paranoids is no different from most other worlds in the series, but considering that I hadn’t seen Tron until now, it was neat to gain this new perspective on it.
The last couple of games on my recent agenda have been Plants vs. Zombies and Kirby Super Star. In the former, I killed lots of time in two (successful) attempts to get a couple more Steam trophies. The latter’s last and toughest minigame took me a long time and many attempts, but I finally beat it on the last day of August. I had a good time with both games, though Kirby took a little while to grow on me.
That’s about all for now. The next game I plan on starting is Metroid Prime (the Wii-enhanced version), and after that, Etrian Odyssey II. I’ve also been neglecting my Pokeymans, so I suppose I’ll have to pick up Platinum again as well. Oh, and I’ve added some more links to (where else) the Links page. On a related note, if you haven’t noticed, I’ve also made a few small cosmetic changes to the site over the past couple of months. I don’t know if I’ll do any more such tweaking, but it’s certainly not out of the question, and if you spot anything that looks out of place in the meantime, please let me know.
I’ve been back for awhile now, but have been either too lazy, busy, or tired to update this place. I did, however, post at my CAG blog; there, I shared a whole set of photos from the Dragon Quest IX launch event that took place a little over a week ago at Manhattan’s Nintendo World Store. There were lots of people, demo stations, freebies, and frozen treats from a Dragon Quest-themed Mister Softee truck.
This slime is almost as big as my backlog!
Funnily enough, although I got DQIX a day early, I didn’t actually start playing the damned thing until the following Monday. I’ve played quite a bit of it since then, though. It’s an unusual game for the franchise, in terms of how it breaks with tradition, though I don’t have anything bad to say about it so far. I do wish the dungeon designs were more puzzle-intensive, along the lines of certain ones in earlier Dragon Quest games, but that sort of thing doesn’t seem to be Level-5’s strong suit. This game also seems to have eased the difficulty in certain subtle ways, which I feel ambivalent about. On the other hand, a feature that I really like reminds me of one of Earthbound‘s best: enemies—which are all now visible on the field—are likely to run away from your party if you’re too strong.
I’ve also made a lot of progress in Pokemon Platinum. Actually, that was the only game I played on the trip, which means Might & Magic: Clash of Heroes has been relegated to the backlog for the time being. Later, I put Platinum down upon starting DQIX, then picked it up again this weekend. I’m currently up to five gym badges and am beefing up my team before taking on Pokemon Gym #6 (not its real name).
Along with the DS RPGs, I’ve been plugging away at Kirby Super Star, but I don’t know when I’ll beat it, though I’m very close to being done with everything, save the minigames, which I’ve mostly ignored. And then there’s StarCraft 2: Wings of Liberty, which will arrive here in less than ten days in all its Collector’s Edition glory. Right now the plan is to beat DQIX before SC2 gets here, which will leave my August free for a super-long, and super-shiny, Terran campaign, plus some possible multiplayer and/or modding.
Oh, and my birthday happened. One of the presents I received was an Amazon gift card, which was spent in part on a used copy of Izuna: Legend of the Unemployed Ninja, an Atlus-published roguelike I’ve had my eye on. It’s now in the backlog pile, along with Clash of Heroes. Plus, I preordered Etrian Odyssey III, which is due out in September, since I had to have that artbook.
Every year, gamers complain about the “drought” that happens in the summer. Pssh. Even without Dragon Quest IX and StarCraft 2, I would be overwhelmed; there’s just so much in my backlog, and so much more I haven’t even picked up yet, like late-winter and spring releases Bayonetta, Nier, and Super Mario Galaxy 2. Come the fall, while my husband is consumed by Civilization V and World of WarCraft: Cataclysm, there will be the aforementioned Etrian Odyssey III, along with Rune Factory 3 and, if it turns out to be any good, Front Mission Evolved. Then there’s the “epic” games that I will not get right away but will likely pick up sometime, namely Kirby’s Epic Yarn and Disney Epic Mickey.