Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Weekly Top 5: Worst Things About Being a Videogame Collector

I first began collecting videogames back in 2008. I had just gotten my Nintendo Wii, and the Virtual Console was one of the coolest things in the world at the time. Playing all of these games from my childhood caused so many memories to come rushing back to me, and it made me miss my old consoles. That's when I decided to begin collecting retro games. At the time, I had a ton of disposable income by working two jobs and having minimal bills, and prices for retro games were nowhere near what they are now. There were times I would find a seller who was starting auctions on eBay at $0.01 and would include free shipping on any additional auctions you won after the first one. I would go through their entire catalog and bid $0.01 on everything, and on more than one occasion I wound up winning 10 NES games for $4.

Those days are long gone, unfortunately. You can still find some really great deals, but not on eBay or Amazon unless you find them the moment they're listed. Because of this, I've spent the last several years growing my collection by other means. I frequent the local flea markets, scour Craigslist, make friends with local retro stores (who often give me a nice discount), and other things.

I collect with my friend Chris. We go to the flea markets together and scope out all the tables and sellers, it's better to have two sets of eyes than one. We have only a few rules: 1) If one of us doesn't already have a game that we find, it goes to that person if they want it. 2) If we both have the game (or neither one of us does), whoever spots it gets first crack at it. 3) If we come across a wholesale lot of games, we split the cost and figure out who gets what at the end of the day.

However, being a videogame collector isn't always sunshine and rainbows, it has its downsides as well.

Honorable Mention: Finding the room

My wife and I live in a moderately sized, one-floor house. It has 4 bedrooms, and my wife was cool enough to let me use two of those as game rooms, one as a retro room, and one as our current game room, where the newest systems and my nice HDTV are located. At one point in time, I was a huge collector of NECA's videogame toy lines. I pretty much bought every one I could get my hands on, even overpaying for some from online retailers. Then a certain fact became very apparent: I didn't have enough room for all of these toys. I wrestled with the idea of selling them for a long time. Then I looked and saw how much some of them were worth and it became a little easier to part with them.

I don't consider myself a hoarder by any means, but it's really hard for me to get rid of something I paid for. Then I had both a realization and a question for myself. The realization was that they were just sitting in boxes every since I got married, and the question was "Will I miss them when they're gone?" The answer was no.

But now my game shelves are starting to become very cramped, and I don't have room to put up another one, so what is a collector to do? Thanks to the years of Tetris, I find ways to fit things into certain areas and crevices, but eventually it'll be filled beyond capacity. But I'll cross that bridge when I come to it.

5. Some sellers are chums with certain collectors

Flea markets have their own little communities. Chris and I see the same people every week and like to give them nicknames. There's one guy who wears the same camo outfit from head-to-toe every week, his name is "Combat Carl". There's also a collector we call "E-Cig" for his propensity for smoking electronic cigarettes all day. Then there's "Voice Box" who...has a voice box--I never said our nicknames were clever.

Because we see the same buyers every week, that means the sellers also see the same buyers every week, and some of them are in cahoots with one another. Countless times this past summer we would find someone unpacking their items and ask if they had any games, or we would start looking through their stuff, only to have them say things like "Come back in about a half hour when I have everything sorted out." Not wanting to be rude, we move along and keep a mental note to come back. Then we make our way back around only to find that all of their games have been sold.

Normally we just chalk this up to bad timing, but then we came across one gentlemen who had a box full of games under his table, but then told us they weren't for sale. We felt like something was up, so we stayed in the area and watched him sell to someone else. Sure, they may have already had a pre-existing deal, but if that's the case, why even bring them out? Very shady.

4. The guy who swoops in and buys everything

There's a guy who runs a booth at the flea market who sells DVDs and games. He's pretty cool to us, and is willing to haggle a little bit. The guy is always hustling, buying up huge collections from people. He prices everything according to VGCharts, but will knock off a couple of bucks for us.

I don't usually bring a ton of money to the flea market with me, most times I'll bring around $100. It keeps me in check and prevents me from overspending. This seller, however, apparently brings thousands of dollars with him, and is willing to pay tons of money to buy another seller out. In this particular instance, I was looking over a table full of games, grabbing any that I didn't have. They didn't have prices on any of them, which usually means that the seller either doesn't know what they're worth, or they want you to make them an offer. I found a few games worth buying and was about to ask how much they wanted before this guy walked up and offered this woman $500 for everything.

The woman had over $500 worth of stuff between the games and systems, so he still made out pretty well. I had to give up the games I was trying to buy (one of which was the original Donkey Kong Country, which I don't have for some reason) because he decided to buy everything. When I asked if we would sell the games I picked out for the same price as the nice old lady, he said he wanted to take everything in and price it up first, which is a roundabout way of saying "No." I'm sorry, as much as I love it, I'm not paying more than $5 for Donkey Kong Country.

3. The sellers who think every game is made of solid gold

Every seller does one of 3 things when it comes to prices:

1) They looked up prices online and price their games the same.

2) They choose a universal price for every game.

3) They have no idea what anything is worth and ask for a ridiculously high or low price.

Then there are several different sub-categories that fit inside of the three main ones I just listed. The one I want to talk about is the third category. There are a ton of people who have no idea how much certain games are worth, which is why I was able to snag things like Super Smash Bros. Melee and Contra Force for $5 each. I know some people may be thinking "Dustin, you ripped them off." You're darn right I did, they should have done their research, because I've done mine. If someone has a copy of Earthbound and says they only want $5 for it, I'm not going to bat an eyelash about the deal.

But then we have sellers who are the exact opposite. For these people, I imagine what happened is they saw a news story about an incredibly rare game selling for thousands of dollars and assuming that the copies of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Super Mario Bros./Duck Hunt they have in their attic are on the same level. The most outrageous example from this past summer is someone trying to sell us a disgusting Super Nintendo with a copy of The Lion King and a couple of sports titles for around $100. They also tried to sell us just a Sega Genesis (again, one that was filthy) for $65.

Even if you manage to talk these people down, you're still going to wind up on the losing end of the transaction, so avoid them altogether.

2. The moment you realize you just missed a big score

The thrill of victory is so much greater than the agony of defeat. Unfortunately, the agony occurs more often than the ecstasy. So many times over the years I'll show up right behind another collector, only to find that the giant plastic bag they have is full of games, and I realize then that I was just a minute too late. "If I hadn't taken the time to stop by that other table I would have had those". It's very disheartening, because finding that great score can make or break the day for me.

The flea markets I go to are an hour drive away from my home, and I have to wake up at 4:30am to get there before everyone else does. I'm a morning person anyway, so that's not a problem, but taking the time to drive all the way down there only to come away empty-handed is a tough pill to swallow, and it's even tougher when you realize you were just a little too late.

1. The internal debate

Every collector will undoubtedly have that moment where they contemplate getting out of the collecting game and sell it all. I made that mistake once and regretted it terribly. I didn't get out of it completely, instead I decided to focus solely on the NES, so I sold off the rest of my collection to stock up on new NES titles. At the time I wasn't as smart about things as I am now, and wound up just taking great (and expensive) games like Earthbound, Chrono Trigger, and Secret of Mana to a local retro game shop, where I surely wound up getting screwed out of some major bank.

I'm glad it happened, actually. Now that I'm back into collecting for all systems, I know to ignore that little voice telling me to sell or trade them all away again. I know the pain of losing it all. But I'm not so attached to my collection that if some sort of emergency were to arise that I wouldn't sell it all in a heartbeat. I'm sure my collection cumulatively is more than enough to pay off my student loans, which would help me out a lot financially, but for now there's no need to panic about my bank account.

Several times I've sat there in my game room, staring at my shelves and just thinking "There's so much money in there", but there's so many memories attached to those games, as well as so many classics I've never played, that I can't just let them go just yet.

Anybody else a collector? Have any good stories? I'd love to hear them.

Thanks for reading. Follow me on Twitter and listen to my podcast.

-Dustin

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Weekly Top 5: My Greatest Gaming Shames

You ever have those games you're ashamed to admit you've never played or finished? I have quite a few, that's why I've been on my recent backlog adventures. I've managed to get several titles off of my shame list, but it didn't do much, as there are still countless games that I need to get to. The games on this list are the most notable ones for me.

5. The only Mega Man I've beaten is Mega Man 10

I was born the same year the NES came to the United States, and since I had a brother who was a few years older than me, naturally the NES wound up being our first videogame system. I consider the NES era to be the weird pre-teen age of videogames; a little wiser than it was in its infancy, but impressionable enough to where its best days were still ahead. Despite this, the NES is still my favorite console of all-time to this very day. Growing up in this era meant that I played all the classics: Super Mario Bros. 3, Castlevania, Contra, Punch-Out, and of course, Mega Man. Notice that I used the word 'played' and not 'completed'. Because videogames were still coming into their own, there were some designs choices that would need to be altered over the years, one of which would be difficulty.

I don't mind difficult games, I've completed my fair share of them, but as a youngster, I didn't have the fortitude or patience to stick with games that were giving me an extra hard time. While Mega Man games are far from being unbeatable, they're still mighty difficult, especially the 8-bit titles. If I were to go back I'm sure I'd be able to stick it out and beat one now, I just haven't. With the releases of Mega Man 9 and 10, I had renewed vigor for the series. I wound up getting to the final stage of MM9, which I've been told is one of the hardest Mega Man games there is, but I just never got around to finishing it. Mega Man 10 came around a couple years later and I wound up beating it...on easy mode. It counts, I guess. I've tried some of the Mega Man X titles, and Mega Man Zero, but it seems that I would always get fairly far, then come to a difficult section or level and give up in favor of different games. As a kid I would just give up and go outside, but now I give up and play one of the hundreds of other games sitting in my game room. I'm sorry Mega Man, I'll get to you eventually.

4. SNES RPGs

I've stated before that I've never liked turn-based combat with only a few exceptions. Also, I played a lot more Sega Genesis as a youngster than I did the Super Nintendo. I wound up having both, but the Genesis had the Sega Channel, which to this day is still one of the coolest gaming services that has ever existed. Because of this, I missed out on a lot of classic SNES games. You may have noticed that 4 of the 5 games mentioned in last weeks Top 5 were SNES games, and now you know why. I didn't play Final Fantasy II/III (or IV/VI if you want to be that guy), I didn't play Chrono Trigger, I didn't play Earthbound, and the list goes on. I tried playing Chrono Trigger when it was ported to the DS and wound up making it to the Black Omen, which I'm told is pretty far into the game, but I got frustrated because I couldn't make any progress and quit the game. I don't know if perhaps I was under-leveled (screw grinding) or if there was some tactic I should have been using that would have helped, but nevertheless, I put it down and never returned.

Every game that I've mentioned in this entry is one that many people will argue for being the greatest game of all-time. I see their points, and I did enjoy the time I spent with Chrono Trigger up until I got to the Black Omen. There's a part of me that feels like less of a gamer because I haven't finished--or started--some of these games. I'm still in backlog mode, I just started Secret of Mana, so perhaps one of these other games will be the next one I tackle.

3. Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker

Outside of a short, plump, Italian plumber, I would have to say that Metal Gear Solid is my favorite series. I've been in love with it since I first explored Shadow Moses back in 1998, and every title that has come since then has been one that I frothed over. My anticipation hasn't dwindled at all, as Phantom Pain is the only game I currently have pre-ordered and is easily my most anticipated game of 2015. The one title that I just can't get into, and shames me to this day, is Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker.

Originally a PSP game, I had already traded in my PSP by the time the game was released, and it really bothered me that I didn't have a way to play the latest Metal Gear Solid. And it follows the events of Big Boss after Metal Gear Solid 3? Now I'm really bummed! It wasn't until the game was released as part of the Metal Gear Solid HD Collection that I finally got my hands on it, and boy was I disappointed.

Peace Walker is much different than all other Metal Gear games. I'm not saying that just because a game is different than its predecessors that it's bad, but it's not what I wanted from a new Metal Gear Solid. To me, Metal Gear Solid has always been a single-player experience, and I didn't like the fact that playing online with others was both encouraged and necessary. I also didn't care for the base-building game-within-a-game. I only made it a handful of missions into the game before I came to a spot where I needed to blow up something that was blocking my path, but I didn't have C4. Where can I find the C4, I wondered. Well, it turns out I have to create it back at the base. The base where I don't fully understand what I'm supposed to be doing or how I'm supposed to be doing it. Eventually, I gave up.

Why couldn't there just be some C4 for me to find somewhere? Should I replay previous missions to gain more xp? Is there xp in this game? What's with this base? The only reason this game shows up on my shame list is because I'm such a big fan of the series that I feel like I need to know what's going on, and reading about a Metal Gear game is nowhere near as exciting as playing/watching it. I'm not sure if I'll ever go back to this one, so perhaps reading up on it is the only option I have.

2. N64 Classics

I only owned a Nintendo 64 for a very limited window of time before I traded it in towards a PlayStation. The only game I ever owned for it was WCW/nWo Revenge, a fantastic game for sure, but not one of the titles synonymous with the system. Because of my limited time with the N64, I completely missed out on Super Mario 64, Ocarina of Time, StarFox 64, Mario Kart 64, and other games with numbers in their titles.

At the time of its release, Super Mario 64 didn't interest me. I think I wasn't ready to move to the third dimension just yet. I didn't even try playing it until I first got a Wii and picked it up on the Virtual Console. I can say that I enjoyed my time with it immensely, but didn't feel compelled to finish the game. I'm a self admitted Mario fanboy. I think that little man can do no wrong, even the ones considered by many to be lackluster, like Super Mario Sunshine and New Super Mario Bros. 2, are some of my favorite games on their respective consoles.

Luckily, I've become more of a portable gamer than anything these days, and games like Ocarina and StarFox 64 have found new life on the 3DS, as well as a Majora's Mask remake in the works, so there's a good chance that this particular shame may be put to rest someday.

1. I've never finished Super Mario Bros. 2

I almost feel bad for what I just typed. I don't care what anyone says, Super Mario Bros. 2 is great. If you're one of those people who say "It's not the real Super Mario Bros. 2" then I'll kindly ask you to shut up, because the "real" SMB2--known better to us in the States as The Lost Levels--is horrible. If I had played that game as a kid, I would have been angry at Nintendo. Instead we got a Japanese game that was re-purposed and given a Mario paint job, and it was excellent. If it weren't for Super Mario Bros. 2, we wouldn't have classic Mario characters like Birdo, Bob-ombs, Pokey, and Shy Guy.

Not to mention the most terrifying enemy in videogame history.

I never owned this game as a kid, but I rented it from the local grocery store (ah, memories) more than I did any other game. Super Mario games on the NES are fairly lengthy if you forego warps, and the absence of a save feature made these games difficult for me to complete as a child. Out of all the shames I've just listed, this is the one that eats at me the most, and the one that I'm vowing to complete in the near future. This list could almost be called "Top 5 Gaming Resolutions" because I intend to beat all of these over the course of 2015, but I've had over a quarter of a century to strike this one off the list, and I haven't been able to it.

This will be fixed. This, I promise.

Don't forget you can follow me on Twitter @TheDustinThomas, and you can also listen to my podcast, we just did an episode about The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past and The Last of Us.

Thanks for reading.

-Dustin

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Weekly Top 5: Games I Can Finally Remove From My Backlog

In an era where we're bombarded with games that are worth playing on a near weekly basis, naturally, it becomes one where most of us are trying to play catch up. Unless you're Chris Carter and live in a world where days have 36 hours and weeks have 9 days, you probably don't have the time (or money) to play most new releases. Seriously, I'll never understand how that guy churns out as many reviews as he does, my hat goes off to him. Much respect, sir.

But over the past year, I've made it a point to finally get some of the monkeys off my back and whittle that backlog down a bit. These are some of the games that I've managed to eliminate from an ever-growing list.

Honorable Mention: Shadow of the Colossus

The reason this incredible game is only being mentioned as an honorable mention is because I've already written about it in a previous blog. After I had bested the 16 colossi, I finally understood why Destructoid ranked it as their top game from 2000-2010. I didn't play the game for any particular reason, it just didn't interest me when it was first released, and then I just never got around to playing it once I warmed up to it. It was released as a free title on PlayStation Plus about a year ago, along with its spiritual predecessor, Ico. I played Ico first and really, really didn't like it. Sorry, guys. I know that game has a its fair share of fans, but it just wasn't for me. SotC, on the other hand, is legitimately one of the best games I've ever played.

5. Ratchet & Clank PS2 titles

I love the Playstation 2. So much so that I ranked it as my second favorite console of all-time on my very first Weekly Top 5 list. But for the majority of the time I owned a PS2, I was either unemployed or only making a minute wage at a part time job, so buying a new game was usually a once-in-a-blue-moon kind of affair. Oftentimes I would buy games used, and one of the games I bought was the original Jak and Daxter. I loved that game, and the sequels as well. The PS2 had its fair share of cartoony-action-buddy-comedies (which should be a actual genre at this point), and I thought the Jak series, the Sly Cooper series, and Ratchet & Clank would all be too similar to one another, so once I played Jak, I never went back.

My first exposure to Ratchet wasn't until the second PS3 title, A Crack in Time, which is one of the best games on the console. Because I loved it so much, I went back and played the Ratchet & Clank HD Collection when it was on sale on PS Plus for $7.50 last holiday season. I went through and played them in their original order. It was obvious from the start how they improved the series, as the first game did not give me the option invert the x-axis, so I was constantly thrown off. Then, when I played the sequel, Going Commando, the x-axis was reversed to the way that I normally play, but it took me a long time to figure out if that were the case or not.

Anyway, if you do what I did and play the PS3 games before you play the original PS2 titles, I would actually suggest not going back to them unless you just really want to know how the series started. That's why I did it, and I'm ultimately glad that I did, but the Future series is so much better that going back might disappoint you.

4. Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars

I've never been a fan of the turn-based style of combat. It's the reason I've never been able to finish classics like Chrono Trigger and numerous Final Fantasy titles. In my life, I've only completed five, and four of them have "Mario" in the title. I fell in love with the Mario & Luigi series of RPGs, I'm not sure why, but I would imagine it's likely due to the fact that a) it's Mario, and b) they're fairly simple. I've owned a copy of Super Mario RPG for years, I just never got around to playing it, and when it was originally released, I had already converted to the Genesis because of the Sega Channel, so the years went by without me giving this classic game a go.

When I sat down and thought about some of the games that I wanted to conquer, Super Mario RPG was right near the top of that list. I thought about how much I love Mario & Luigi, and wanted to see where it all started. Granted, the Mario & Luigi games are a completely different series, but it was a great look at just how much fun can be had by Nintendo with their beloved franchise.

It's not a difficult game, nor is it long unless you want to level up your characters, but I never found myself having to grind. I did find a few boss battles giving me some trouble, but once I developed an effective strategy (which usually just meant setting aside one character in my party to be strictly a healer) I made short work of them. If you've played a Mario & Luigi game, it's no surprise to discover that this game has a great sense of humor. I had a few minor annoyances, but nothing worth noting. If I had played this game when it was released, perhaps it would have motivated me to play more RPGs as a kid.

3. The Legend of Zelda: A Link To The Past and A Link Between Worlds

A ways back, I wrote a blog detailing one of the greatest shames in my gaming life: I had never finished a Legend of Zelda game. The games themselves just didn't interest me as a kid, and throughout the years I tried to play a few, but never felt compelled to finish them. That being said, I've always had an interest in the Legend of Zelda's lore, and I love reading and watching new things about the world of Hyrule. The one game I tried the most to play was A Link to the Past. I first tried it a few years ago, but wound up getting stuck and putting it away. But I knew I couldn't go through my life without finishing a Zelda title, so when A Link Between Worlds was released on the 3DS last year, I borrowed it from a friend and told myself I was finishing this game even if it meant having to keep a guide in front of me.

I didn't need to do that though, as A Link Between Worlds isn't as opaque as previous entries. Some people didn't like the renting system the game introduced, but for people like me who were basically new to the franchise, being able to rent items and tackle the dungeons any way I see fit was a Godsend. The only problem with this is that the first dungeon I went to was also the hardest one, so I saw the "Game Over" screen more than my fair share of times. Still, once I was able to best that dungeon, the rest of the game was fairly easy. I was already familiar with the basic structure of Hyrule from my short time with Link to the Past, so knowing where to go or how to get there was never too much of a problem. I finished the game far from 100% completion--I didn't even get some of the more basic items like the Pegasus Boots--but it still turned out to be some of the most fun I've had on my 3DS.

Then I decided I wanted to pull a Tarantino and play this particular sequence in the Zelda timeline out of order and played A Link to the Past afterwards. Upon completion, I finally understood why Zelda had always been held in such high regard by my friends, Link to the Past in particular. It truly is a masterful game, and if I had played it back in the day, it's safe to say it would been a surefire contender for one of my favorite games on the SNES. I won't lie, I had a YouTube playthrough open during some sections in an effort to save time and sanity. Yeah, it's cheating, but I'm a fairly busy dude and have lots of other games I would like to get to, so I watched a walkthrough, sue me. It didn't take away any of the enjoyment. In fact, it probably caused me to have more fun than if I had tried to figure it out on my own, because there were several sections where I sat there and realized that I never could have figured out its particular trick.

Playing these games in reverse order was kind of interesting. I was able to play Link to the Past and say "Hey, they kept that in the sequel" or "Oh, so that was originally a Link to the Past boss" and so on. I suppose my next step is to complete a 3D Zelda game now. I'm thinking Wind Waker since it's the one I've always had the most interest in.

2. Super Castlevania IV

I mentioned this in my Top Castlevania Games list a couple of weeks ago. It really is amazing to me that I never played Super Castlevania IV as a young tyke, because I loved the NES games and this was a very early SNES title, so it was certainly around when I had a Super Nintendo. But I was never privy to when and what games were being released, so it's safe to assume that I just plum didn't know about it.

Throughout the years my love for the series only grew greater, and this became more and more of a blemish on my backlog. As the Halloween season approached, my Castlevania fire began to burn as it does every year, and I knew this game had to finally be completed. I had originally tried playing it when I first got my Wii and purchased it on the Virtual Console, but for whatever reason I just never finished it. When I decided to play through my backlog, I knew I wanted to play the games on their native systems, and with the exception of Shadow of the Colossus the Ratchet & Clank games (HD versions on my PS3), every other game on the list was played on its original console. I don't decry emulation, but being a collector, I figured if I have the games and systems, I should just do it that way.

Some people herald Super Castlevania IV as the be-all and end-all of Castlevania series, but man, that's just not true. It's a fantastic game, no doubt about it, and such an improvement over the NES titles, but let's not kid ourselves. I wouldn't even rank it as the best linear Castlevania game. As much as I enjoyed it, I can't help but feel like this is one of those games that's clouded by nostalgia in the minds of those who champion it the most. It plays well, it sounds great, it's not too long and not too short, it offers a decent challenge, and much like the Zelda games, it was cool to see how much stuff I've seen in the more recent games that originally appeared in this one. It did a lot for the series, a huge step in the right direction, but it didn't break the mold.

1. Super Metroid

Super Metroid was at the top of my backlog list for years. It was one of the first games I picked up when I started collecting back in 2008, and it had been staring at me for six years before I finally sat down with it. I know of several writers and publications that have named it their greatest game of all-time, and since the "metroidvania" has long been one of my favorite genres, it was absolutely eating at me that I hadn't given it more time than I had.

Over the summer, my wife had to go out of town for a few days for work, and I was in a gaming drought. I didn't have a whole lot of current games that sounded interesting at the time, and I was booooooored. That's when I stepped into my retro gaming room. I didn't even have to scan the titles to find one that sounded good. I found the SNES shelf and immediately grabbed Super Metroid. I was determined. I was going to finally do this. Super Metroid was going to be played, and played hard. This is the game that started off my backlog conquest. Once I started Super Metroid, I finally had the determination to decimate the games I had never played.

While I wouldn't go as far as saying that Super Metroid is the best game ever made, it's certainly a contender. One thing that I didn't expect was for the game to almost feel like a horror game. Even though Samus is very powerful, it's made clear from the start that no one is coming to help you. The planet of Zebes has an incredible atmosphere, and I couldn't shake the feeling of bleakness and despair that emanated from the world around me. You just feel so...alone. This is another game that I didn't 100%, but I did scour the landscape as much as I could. The end game screen said I finished in just over 7 hours, but they obviously don't take into account when you're looking at the map, because I spent a lot of time looking at that map. Unlike Zelda, I mostly brute-forced my way through Super Metroid, only resorting to GameFAQS twice in my adventure on parts where I needed to bomb a certain area that gave off no indication that that was even an option.

It's a testament to the developers that they were able to tell such a great story with zero dialogue outside of the opening sequence. Take the section where you're taught to wall jump as an example. In games today, the little creatures that show up to show you that you need to wall jump wouldn't be there. Instead, you would have something pop up on the screen explaining exactly how to perform a wall jump. But here, you're basically just told "Hey, watch these little guys and then figure it out for yourself." It took a few tries to get the nuances of wall jumping down, but eventually it became second nature.

There are so many little touches like that that made the game an absolute pleasure to finally play. I don't have the nostalgia clouding my judgment, and even today I would say it's one of my top 5 SNES games, and this is the one game on the list that I'm legitimately sad I didn't play as a kid. One last thing, Super Metroid may very well have the best ending sequence in gaming history. Those last 15 minutes were outstanding.

My friend and I actually did a mini episode of our podcast where we talk about my experience. It's about 25 minutes long, and you can listen to it in this YouTube video:

So what's next on my list? Right now, it's Secret of Mana. While I do have other games, I'm going to save them for next week's list: My Top 5 Gaming Shames.

So, what games are you guys trying to get off your backlog?

Thanks for reading,

-Dustin

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Weekly Top 5: Castlevania Games

The Castlevania series is no longer looked upon with the same kind of reverence it was in the late 80s and 90s. It seems that after the success of a certain PSone title they've been doing everything in their power to capture that same "lighting-in-a-bottle", but it never works out quite the way they expect it to. It seems that these days the handhelds are where the best titles come from. But to the series' credit, there are very few entries in the franchise that I would consider bad, which is impressive when you consider that this is a franchise with over 30 games in it (that number increases even more if we include spin-offs and remakes).

Every year around Halloween I get in full-on Castlevania mode. It's like clockwork, and this year is no different. It's one of my favorite franchises of all time, so what better topic to discuss for this weeks top 5 than my favorite titles in the Castlevania series.

Honorable Mention: Castlevania: Lament of Innocence

Lament of Innocence was the first 3D Castlevania game after the lackluster Nintendo 64 titles. With the increased power of the PlayStation 2, the series definitely took a major leap forward, but it's still not looked at as a premier action title on the platform that also features the likes of Devil May Cry and God of War. The combat wasn't nearly as deep or engaging, but the music is great and it's a very pretty game for the time it was released. It's one of my personal favorite entries in the series, and worth playing if you've never given it a shot. This is also the game that takes place first in the timeline, so if you want to see the origins of Castlevania, look no further. (Note: If you're reading this blog the week that it is posted, this game is actually on sale on PSN for $3.99.)

5. Super Castlevania IV

Guys, I just finished this game for the first time a couple of weeks ago. I knew when October rolled around that I wanted to do this list, and being the fan of the series that I am, I knew it wouldn't be a complete list unless I had played and finished a title that many consider the best in the entire franchise. I was more of a Genesis kid, so I never played Super Castlevania IV when I was younger. I played it a little bit when I first got my Wii and picked it up on the Virtual Console, but I never finished it. So, for the purposes of this list, and a future list, I knew I had to finish this game. So I did, and I loved it.

I can't say I agree with it being the best in the series, nor do I consider it to be the best of the "traditional" linear Castlevanias, but it's still a fantastic game. This game is technically a remake of the original, and while it does look and control much better, it didn't do for me what Castlevania did. I'd wager that that has to do with the fact that I played it at 29 years old and not 9 years old, but there's no denying that Super Castlevania IV is a top-notch title.

4. Castlevania: Rondo of Blood

There are a lot of people who think this title should be number one on the list. But I can only go based on my experience, and the only version of Rondo that I've played is the 2.5D remake on Castlevania: Dracula X Chronicles on PSP. While it was certainly a good game in its own right, I mainly picked up Dracula X Chronicles so I could have a portable version of Symphony of the Night.

Sadly, the game wasn't available to us in the States when it was released, and instead we got a "port" in Castlevania Dracula X on SNES. I put that in quotation marks because it's less a port than it is a different game with the same plot and characters. The game was redone in many different areas, and the consensus is that it's far inferior to the true Japanese version.

The game was developed exclusively for the PC Engine CD, and being on a technically superior machine than the SNES means you get a much better looking game than the previous entries, as well as interstitial cutscenes. The game also has branching paths, and while that was nothing new for the series, it encouraged exploration more than any other game in the series had done up to that point, and rewarded you for doing so.

3. Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia

Unfortunately, the Castlevania series has mostly been relegated to handheld consoles. While I do enjoy the Lords of Shadow series, it's a different story with some of the same characters. The original series, however, hasn't seen a home console title since Castlevania: Curse of Darkness on the PS2 and Xbox (unless we're counting The Adventure Rebirth on WiiWare, which I'm not). The good news is that those handheld titles turned out to be some of the best on their respective consoles. Between Aria of Sorrow on GBA and the three Nintendo DS titles, you have four of the best games in the entire franchise. But I think Order of Ecclesia is the one that stands above the rest.

The game is naturally in the 'metroidvania' format, but the title that it most resembles in Castlevania II: Simon's Quest. While that may scare some of you off, it shouldn't. It's main similarity is that you have a town as a hub and visit other areas instead of having one giant castle to explore. It's kind of like having several mini-metroidvanias in one game. If you've never played the game, be warned that in order to reach the true ending you must rescue all the villagers scattered about. Once you do, you're able to explore Dracula's castle, and this comprises the second half of the game, because the castle is humongous and will take several hours to navigate.

Two other things that put this game above the others for me is 1) the weapon glyph system, which gives you the ability to customize weapons by combining glyphs (think Kirby 64) and 2) the difficulty. The metroidvania games have mostly been a cakewalk. By the end of the game, you're usually so high-leveled and powered-up that the final confrontation gives no challenge. Not so here. Between Dracula and a boss near the end of the game named Blackmore, I probably died close to 30 times. With that said, the battles aren't unfair, but they do require you to learn their tells and react quickly.

You can't go wrong with any of the Castlevania games on DS, but if I had to choose just one, I would go with Order of Ecclesia.

2. Castlevania

Easily one of my favorite NES games, this is the title that started it all. Because I was such a big fan of monster movies, Castlevania had me hooked from the beginning. It also helps that it has the best cover art of all time. The music is still some of the best on the NES, and those themes have become synonymous with the series. While the game itself wouldn't be considered scary, I remember getting really nervous with each successive boss battle. Strangely, I was better at the game as a kid. To this day, I've still never had the fortitude to beat the game, but when I was a 5-year-old I could at least get to Dracula. When I tried replaying the game in my early 20s, I couldn't even beat Death. Granted, as a kid I had a) more free time, and b) fewer games to play. Unlike today where we can download pretty much any game we want at any time, back then I was bound by what games I either owned, borrowed, or rented, which was very few. The NES era taught me nothing if not perseverance.

I'll freely admit that the reason this game places so highly on my list is mostly nostalgia. The games flaws are many, for instance, it's unfairly difficult in some regards. Getting knocked backwards when you take a hit and not being able to jump down stairs leads to many a cheap death. Luckily, Konami rectified this by giving you unlimited continues. The difficulty ramps up as the game progresses, with enemies doling out and taking more damage, as well as increasing the overall number of enemies on screen. Considering the game is only six levels long, I suppose they had to pad it out a little, and making it harder is a simple and cheap way to do so. The first two or three levels don't offer too much challenge, but the second half boss battles with Frankenstein's monster (accompanied by two fleamen), Death, and Dracula are difficult to best unless you know the exploits.

Difficulty doesn't make a game bad, so don't let that deter you from experiencing a legendary game if you've never given it a shot.

1. Castlevania: Symphony of the Night

There's really not a whole lot I can say about Symphony of the Night that you haven't already heard. Even if you're not a fan of Castlevania, you've at least played or know a lot about SotN. There's a reason Konami ports and makes references to this game more than it does any other, and it's because it's far and away the best in the series. Symphony is one of those games that I play at least once a year, and for some reason I can't help but constantly buy it over and over. I've purchased it five times if I include the Dracula X Chronicles version. I just recently bought it again so I could have it on my Vita.

So where do I even begin? It's the game that caused the gaming community to coin the term 'metroidvania'. Outside of the campy voice acting, I literally have zero complaints about this game. Even though I play it every year, I always find something new on every playthrough, whether it's an area that I had missed before, a familiar that I had never played around with, or a weapon I had never used, there's always something new to discover.

Even for a series that has always had great music, the music in Symphony really stands out. Surely I'm not spoiling anything when I reveal that there's a second, upside-down castle to unlock, and when you do so, you realize just how huge the game really is. The castle is filled to the brim with beautiful design and gothic architecture that one would expect from a European castle in 1796. There's a lot of things in the game that are there just for you to enjoy and don't offer a whole lot outside of a cool moment. For instance, a lot of people probably didn't even notice the giant eyeball peering in from the outside in the long hallway, or that there's an item called "Tall Boots" that make Alucard one pixel taller and serve no other purpose. One of the more interesting moments like these is the confessional booth in the chapel. Sitting in the booth will bring forth an apparition of a priest who will either drain some life from you or leave you a grape juice.

Considering how big the game is, they had to create a lot more enemies. While they did use a lot of enemies that you'd be used to if you have previous Castlevania experience, it's interesting to see how they incorporated different religions and mythologies in their enemy design. They cover Greek mythology with things like Scylla and minotaurs, wargs from Norse mythology, Shaft the Dark Priest would be a representation of the occult, and various demons from Christian demonology. Did I mention that one of the bosses is a giant ball of corpses? In Symphony his name is Granfaloon, but is renamed "Legion" in later games, which is the name of a demon mentioned in the New Testament. When you defeat Dracula, he quotes Matthew 16:26 from the Bible.

I try to keep individual posts on my Top 5s fairly short, and I'll cut myself off there. I could seriously write a dissertation on why Symphony of the Night is so incredible. If you'd like to hear myself and a couple buddies talk more in depth on the Castlevania series, you can listen to the latest episode of my podcast here.

Thanks for reading.

-Dustin

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Remembering My Best Friend

(Due to some tragic events in my life (detailed below), I decided to skip a week with my "Weekly Top 5" series, but I'll be back with a new list next week.)

I've always dealt with grief by writing, whether as a way to take my mind off of the situation or to express my feelings about what's going on. This past week has been a complete roller coaster for me. Last Thursday, I welcomed my new baby niece to the world. This isn't my first rodeo in the uncle game, but this is the first child from my side of the family, so it's a little different. My parents were so excited to be grandparents, and it was truly a day for the Thomas family to celebrate. However, my dad informed me that my dog wasn't doing very well, he's been sick for a while now and things had gotten worse than I had thought. My dog has always been very high energy, and when I went to go see him, it was obvious that he just wasn't the same boy that I'd had for the last nine years.

Then, the next day, I took a mini road trip to Cleveland to be a groomsman in my buddy's wedding. It was an absolute blast, but come Monday, reality checked back in. My brother called me and told me I should probably make the hour long trip back to my parent's house because our dog was struggling to breathe and was fighting for his life. I arrived, and spent a few hours there with him. He could no longer stand under his own power, and he hadn't eaten and drank anything for several days. I knew his time was coming up. I prayed and just said "God, I know You're calling him home, just please make him comfortable until that happens." It was obvious he was in pain, but I didn't want to take him to a vet to put him to sleep. He was always scared of the vet's office, and I didn't want his last moments to be frightening. As a family, we agreed that we would wait until the next day, and if he didn't pass naturally, we would take him. People say it's the humane thing to do, but it was still hard for me. Luckily, I didn't have to deal with that. Early Tuesday afternoon, my boy Muldoon was called home.

I got him when he was a puppy with my own money, so I considered him to be my dog for several years until I moved out of my parents home and couldn't bring him with me, at which point he morphed into the family dog. I knew that I wanted to write something about him, but how do I tie this in with videogames? It didn't take long before I realized that he had been there through a lot of my favorite gaming moments.

I remember several nights playing Resident Evil 4 with him sleeping in my lap as a puppy. He always seemed really confused when something would startle me and I would jump, waking him up in the process, at which point I would have to calm him down to get him back to sleep. I hit a rough patch in my finances and wound up having to move back in with my parents back in 2010, where I stayed until I got married in 2012.

My brother and I had a mutual game room, where I would spend my time playing a plethora of titles while my brother played Call of Duty with his clan. Every night, we would be sitting there gaming, with Muldoon laying on the couch next to me. He was there with me during the thousands of waves of Locust that I killed in Gears of War 3. He was there as I mined for material in Mass Effect 2. He was there when I spent hours hundreds of hours exploring the vast world of Skyrim. Granted, he spent most of the time napping on the couch while I did all the hard work, but he was there with me through it all.

When I met the woman that would become my wife, we decided to replay Borderlands together. We had already played the game before we met, but when we realized that we both had the same affection for the series, we started new characters and played with each other every night. We really bonded a lot during those late night sessions on Pandora, and we both give some credit to the series for our marriage. And guess who was sitting next to me during every second. You guessed it, Muldoon.

My last picture with Muldoon. Five days before he passed.

Unfortunately, I've dealt with death a lot in my life. They say a dog is man's best friend, and I really understand it now. I truly lost my best friend. It's going to be a bummer when I walk into my parent's house and he's not there to greet me with excitement. It's going to be a long time before I feel capable of having another dog, and while I already miss him an incredible amount, I know he's at peace now, and I'll always be thankful for the happiness he brought to my family.

Goodbye, Dooner. I love you, buddy.

Thanks for reading.

-Dustn

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Fangs for the Memories: Two Way Mirror of Terror

If you've played the game, the title alone is enough to clue you in on what I'm talking about here. It seems like no matter what I do, I can't stop writing about the Resident Evil series. Whether I'm listing its greatest characters or writing a breakup letter to the series or using it as a topic for one of my weekly Top 5 lists, it seems as though I can't get away from it. So I'm just going to embrace it from now on.

While Resident Evil wasn't the first survival horror game, it took what came before it from games like Alone in the Dark and the original Clock Tower and expanded upon them. It wasn't the first one, but it was the first that I played, so when the sequel was released, I was ecstatic. I have no shame is saying that the original RE scared me out of my wits, and I think the sequel increased the dread significantly. When Destructoid first put out the call for this blog theme, I knew I was going to pick Resident Evil 2, but I wasn't sure which moment. The first encounter with the Licker was up there, because I had already exhausted my shotgun ammo and the Licker immediately lunged forward and decapitated a young Leon S. Kennedy. What about the numerous surprise attacks from the Tyrant-103 (known to most fans as Mr. X)? Or how about the scene where reporter Ben Bertolucci meets an unfortunate end at the hands of what can only be described as an Alien chest burster?

But when push came to shove--which is a saying that I still don't fully understand--there was only one choice. The moment that literally made me scream in terror, the two way mirror. For anyone who hasn't played the game or isn't all that familiar with the series, Resident Evil 2 takes place in the Raccoon City Police Department. At one point you need to enter a room behind a two way mirror, where a Licker is waiting and drops from the ceiling. As long as you have some firepower, there's no cause for concern. At most you would need two shotgun blasts to put it down.

Later in the game, you gain access to the room on the other side of the mirror--the interrogation room. I remember getting an uneasy feeling as soon as I walked in and surveyed my surroundings. Nothing seemed out of place, but even in videogame form, the room seemed so sterile and cold. It just felt uncomfortable. You have to walk by the mirror in order to pick up a key (the Rook Key, if memory serves me correctly), and as soon as you go to exit the room, a Licker bursts through the window with a loud crash. Resident Evil is known for its jump scares, and this one is the best in the entire series.

In retrospect, it's kind of funny that it terrified me as much as it did. If I were playing it for the first time today, with nearly 17 more years worth of gaming experience, I would have seen it coming from a mile away. It's terribly telegraphed. They may as well have had writing on the mirror that said "DON'T WORRY, EVERYTHING'S COOL".

If you'd like to see the scene play out in its entirely, check out the video and start watching around the 2:55 mark. This is the scene that cemented my love for the series. To this day, jump scares still freak me out, and still occasionally cause me to pause the game to regain my nerves. Even though Resident Evil has strayed far from its survival horror roots, going back and playing the early titles still instills a sense of dread that few games before or since have done.

Thanks for reading. Don't forget to follow me on Twitter @TheDustinThomas. You can also listen to my podcast on both iTunes and Stitcher.

-Dustin

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Weekly Top 5: Best Nintendo Power Covers

Any Nintendo kid of the late 80s/early 90s has a special place in their heart for Nintendo Power. Gaming magazines were such a huge thing for us as children, and it still makes me sad that, for the most part, they're obsolete. But it still warms my heart to go back and look at the covers of old issues, which is what I did for this list. The 5 covers I chose have nothing to do with my personal feelings on the games featured, and are purely based on how much I liked designs of the covers, and special issues like strategy guides were disqualified.

Honorable Mention: The Final Issue

No list about Nintendo Power would be complete without at least mentioning the final issue. I bought two copies, one to read and one to keep sealed forever. The fact that they recreated the cover of the original issue just does my heart good. I'm a sucker for the clay model artwork that was so prevalent for the magazine at the time. Pour a 40 out for Nintendo Power.

And now, let's begin the countdown...

5. Issue 77 - Super Mario World 2: Yoshi's Island

I'll admit that I'm not as big of a fan of Yoshi's Island as a lot of the Internet is, although I do enjoy it. One thing I do love, however, is the art style, and this cover shows it off flawlessly. I'm not quite sure why they felt the need to draw attention to Baby Mario's butt with some "Hot News" about Super Mario RPG, or why the yellow Yoshi is laying like he's lounging at a nudist colony (or why it kind of looks like he's flipping me off), but that's not the point. The point is that after the introduction of Yoshi is Super Mario World, I was clamoring for the opportunity to control Yoshi(s) in his (her/their) very own game. And this cover did exactly what it was meant to do for me.

4. Issue 75 - Virtual Boy

Regardless of how you feel about the Virtual Boy, you can't deny this covers awesomeness. This shows exactly what I thought virtual reality was going to be: Neon all up in ya. And naturally they had to include those weird glowing eyes, because every new console in the 90s had to be accompanied by some sort of monster or otherworldly being. Although I have to say that no matter how hard they tried to make the Virtual Boy seem like a viable counterpart to the handheld powerhouse that was the Game Boy, there was no amount of convincing that could possibly do the trick.

3. Issue 11 - Super Mario Bros. 3

I've already spoken about the clay models used for NP covers, and again, it's on full display here. They even managed to use the right colors on Mario this time. In fact, they did a great job recreating the pose of the box art for Super Mario Bros. 3. Then they throw in the bonuses of Larry Koopa, Chain Chomp, and the Sun. That Sun, guys. I'm not sure who scared me more as a kid, the Sun or Phanto. Both of them traumatized me.

It's a very simplistic cover. The color used for the background reminds me of a sun setting, and that brings back great memories of coming home on a Friday after school, immediately firing up the game and playing until the late evening.

2. Issue 50 - The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening

I've written in the past about how I'm just not that big of a Legend of Zelda fan from a gameplay perspective, but I love the story and lore of the series. I mean, the only ones I've ever finished are Link to the Past and A Link Between Worlds (more on those in a future Top 5). This cover is for Link's Awakening, the series' first foray into handheld gaming, and boy is it epic. What's great about it is that it doesn't feature either character from the game's title, and instead shows the aptly named character, Owl. I'm not sure if Owl is covering his face because he's an angsty teenager trying to be mysterious or he's covering his mouth to cough, but either way, he looks great.

And that sword is bedazzled like nobody's business. There's so much bling on that sword it would make Master P blush. This is a very fitting cover for Nintendo Power's 50th issue.

1. Issue 2 - Castlevania II: Simon's Quest

Easily the most infamous Nintendo Power cover, so much so that it caused parents to write letters to the magazine exclaiming that the cover gave their child nightmares. And...yeah, I can see that. It's a very macabre and gruesome scene, and definitely not in line with the family friendly image Nintendo has always had. But now that we're 25 years removed from the release of this issue, we can look back on and see how awesome it really is.

By the standards of today, it's pretty tame. But when you consider the type of restrictions that Nintendo had on in-game content at the time, it's kind of amazing that this made it past the editors. Granted, Nintendo Power didn't have to go through an approval process by the company it represented before putting an issue to press, but you'd think they would want to be as in-line with the company as they could. You can't have blood in Mortal Kombat, but you can have a dude holding Dracula's decapitated head.

Thanks for reading everyone. I'm very much looking forward to October, as all of my lists will be Halloween themed, should be a good time.

Don't forget you can follow me on Twitter @TheDustinThomas, and you can listen and subscribe to my podcast on both iTunes & Stitcher.

-Dustin