Wednesday, January 3, 2018

2017 Games Of The Year Spectacular

2017 very well may have been the best year in video game releases we've ever seen. In the several years I've been doing these blogs, I never had this many games that were in contention for my top 10 list as I did this year. There were so many great games that I sunk dozens of hours into that I simply didn't have the time to play very popular games like Shadow of War and Assassin's Creek Origins.

But, as always, before I get into my personal top 10 games of 2017, here are some categories for me to give fake winners to.

Biggest Surprise
Prey

Had it not been for some positive word of mouth from a coworker and the fact that I received a digital copy as a freebie from work, it's likely that I wouldn't have given Prey a chance. I've never played the original Xbox 360 game with its definitely not racist-pun named protagonist, and had no interest in the cancelled sequel or this reboot/remake/re-imagining/re-whatever this is, but it was described to me as Bioshock with aliens, which sounded pretty solid to me.

I certainly have my nitpicks with Prey, like the loading times and one instance late in the game where I'm pretty sure there was no proper exit out of a room and had I not had enough ammo for the GLOO gun that I would have been stuck there forever. But Prey did a lot more right than it did wrong. Even after powering up I felt still felt vulnerable late in the game and had to use careful strategy when encountering certain enemies.

You can beat the game several different ways at many different points in the story, and I love that about it. There was a nice twist at the end that I didn't see coming, but I'd be lying if I said that the game maybe went on a few hours longer than it should have. Many of the side quests are good and worth your time, but when it came to the main story, it got to be a bit of a slog. I thought I was on the last mission and used up all of my resources and was more careless with my ammo, only to find myself struggling when it turned out I still had several chapters left to play. Definitely a game worth playing, and it certainly surpassed the limited expectations I had prior to playing.

Runner up: Little Nightmares

Biggest Disappointment
Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle

Not every genre is meant for every type of gamer. For me, I've never been good at nor have I ever really enjoyed strategy games. Strangely enough, I still find myself playing strategy games for the first few levels trying to convince myself that this is going to be the game that changes it for me, but it never happens.

I did that again with Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle. Surely, having the Mario pantheon of characters and the Mushroom Kingdom as the setting would change my mind and bring me around on the strategy RPG genre, but alas, here I am writing this entry. Like every strategy game, I made it past the first world and decided that I had had my fill. Not even my Nintendo fanboy blinders were enough to convince me that this was a game that I was enjoying enough to continue playing.

Let's talk about this again next year after I inevitably attempt to play whatever new Fire Emblem game there is.

Runner up: Crash Bandicoot N-Sane Trilogy

Most Unnecessary Re-release or Remaster
Ultra Street Fighter II: The Final Challengers

This was a tight race between LA Noire, Rayman Legends, and USFIITFC, but it was Street Fighter that came out on top. I had no interest in L.A. Noire on the previous generation consoles, and hey, guess what, I still have no interest in it. Rayman Legends is an amazing game, but not one I feel that I ever need to play again. If anything, Rayman Legends on the Switch is inoffensive.

Ultra Street Fighter II: The Final Challengers, on the other hand...just, why? It's obvious that Capcom will not be content unless there is a version of Street Fighter II on every console possible. The fact that they had the audacity to call this "The Final Challengers," insinuating that this would be the last version of SFII WHEN WE ALL KNOW THAT THAT ISN'T TRUE, CAPCOM! just boils my blood. Can we just lay Street Fighter II to rest already? Just let its corpse rest in peace. That's all I'm asking. Capcom, have mercy on Street Fighter II already and put it out of its misery.

Runner up: L.A. Noire

Best Re-release or Remaster
Wonder Boy: The Dragon's Trap


Let the remake of Wonder Boy: The Dragon's Trap be the example for any and all future remakes. This is how it's done. This is how you take an old game and make it for a new generation of gamers. You take what was great about the original and update it. Not every game that gets another chance has to be given the "gritty reboot makeover" like Bionic Commando.

The way you're able to seamlessly switch between new and old graphics or the new and old music on the fly was done so perfectly. I've never played the original Sega Master System version, so I constantly found myself switching to the older graphics because I would find something that I thought looked cool and was curious how it looked in its original incarnation. The same goes for the music. Those remastered and updated tracks are beautiful pieces of music, and the 8-bit predecessors aren't so bad either.

Runner up: Mario Kart 8 Deluxe

Best Multiplayer
Splatoon 2


You know a game is good when you move on to the next game and feel like you didn't give the previous one enough love. I adore Splatoon 2, and it's the only game that I spent a significant amount of time playing with friends this year. Splatoon 2 became appointment gaming for my friends and I for about a month. With as great as 2017 has been, it's been hard to go back simply because there's always something new that I want to play, but few games have given me as much overall fun as Splatoon 2, despite some of the ridiculous things Nintendo did with it.

All of the maps are unique and fun, the community is great, and it just spews style from every orifice. I even got into some of the ranked battles, which is not something that I normally do, and really enjoyed the different types of matches. Even though I put it on the shelf a couple of months ago, it will eventually be pulled back off when the world of gaming slows down and the need to splat some fools comes back.

Runner up: Friday the 13th

Best Retro Game
Kirby Super Star


Did you know that I'm a huge Kirby fan? If you didn't, you do now. He's probably my favorite video game character outside of Mario. However, my love of Kirby really didn't begin until the DS era, so I missed a lot of his early glory like Kirby's Adventure and Kirby's Dream Land, but Kirby Super Star is the best of Kirby's back catalog (I still prefer the newer games to the older ones).

We chose Kirby Super Star as one of our retrospective episodes on the Error Machine Podcast this year, and what I found is a collection of bite-size games that each brought their own unique kind of fun to the table. Obviously, The Great Cave Offensive and Milky Way Wishes are the two games in the collection that stand out. They each have metroidvania-like elements to them, and I would love it if Nintendo would take these ideas and turn them into a fully fleshed-out game, even if it were nothing more than a $20 downloadable title.

Runner up: Windjammers

Best Moment
"Kick It" - Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus


There were so many great moments in gaming this year, most of them organically woven into the gameplay. All the moments of Super Mario Odyssey that made me smile, the Breath of the Wild moments that left me in awe, the exhilaration from taking down a Thunderjaw in Horizon Zero Dawn, all fantastic moments. But no game 2017 is saturated with more shocking moments that I'll vividly remember for years to come than Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus.

WOLFENSTEIN II SPOILERS AHEAD!




It was really hard to pick just one moment because there are so many that left an impression. BJ's execution and subsequent transplant onto a new body, finding BJ's father waiting for him at his childhood home and their tense interaction, finally sticking that ax of yours into General Engle's face, all very good moments. But, when a game offers you the opportunity to kick Adolf Hitler in the face, any non-terrible human being on earth takes that opportunity. In fact, if you played the game and didn't kick Hitler in the face, I have legitimate reason to believe that you may be a Nazi yourself.

Runner up: The New Donk City Festival in Super Mario Odyssey

The "Wore Out Its Welcome" Award
Golf Story

Never before have my feelings on a game from start to finish varied so much. Golf Story has such great and fun writing, and characters that I really liked. When the game was first revealed, it looked like everything I ever wanted, and it was...for about the first 8 hours. When you reach the third act, you start to realize that there's no more to the game than some quirky writing and a decent golfing game.

But even the witty writing wore on me to the point that I began skipping all dialogue. This was most evident after completing the second major tournament, when the rivalry between the old folks and young kids reaches its climax with a rap battle. That sounds funny when you write it down, but it went on so long that I said out loud "is this still going on?"

The actual golfing is solid, but outside of a few diversions, you quickly realize that you're essentially doing the same mini-games over and over with a few variables switched. The game is pretty easy until you reach the final golf course, where both the mini-games and final tournament have one of the sharpest difficulty spikes I've ever encountered. After beating every tournament and match on my first try, it got more than a little frustrating when it took me no less than 20 attempts to win the grand finale.


Game I Fell Off Of The Hardest
Destiny 2

I loved the time I spent with Destiny 2, and I actually played the great majority of the game by myself. It was a great couple of dozen hours, and I haven't thought about the game since. After I beat the final mission, I spent about a half hour checking out the post-game stuff, turned off my PS4, moved on, and never looked back.

Even the expansion content, which I got for free from work, wasn't enough for me to turn it back on. Sorry, Destiny 2. I enjoyed the time we had, but you're in my past and you'll be staying there.

Runner up: Splatoon 2

Best 2016 Game I Played in 2017
Stardew Valley

The life/farming simulator has never been my type of game. Games like Harvest Moon or Fantasy Life have never grabbed me regardless of how much time I've spent with them. I picked up Stardew Valley this year when the physical version was released on Xbox One. I mainly bought it because my wife is a big fan of the genre, and I figured I would go ahead and give it a shot myself due to the overwhelmingly positive buzz about the game.

If you would have told me that I would have devoted more time this year to Stardew Valley than I did to Breath of the Wild, I would have laughed at you, but that's exactly what happened. I devoted a solid month to the game on two separate occasions during 2017, and don't regret a moment. I got sucked into the lives of the characters, earning their trust, mining for resources, fishing, crafting, improving my house, expanding my farm, fixing up the community center, and courting Haley (who, of course, I chose because she bears the closest resemblance to my own wife). As much time as I've already spent with Stardew Valley, there are still many, many things left for me to do, and I'll be returning to it again at some point, no doubt about that.

Runner Up : Witcher 3: Blood and Wine expansion



Honorable Mentions

There were two games this year that I really liked but simply didn't play enough of to form a strong enough opinion about, so I want to give them some love here.

Cuphead

I simply can't get over how good this game looks. I picked it up late in 2017 and only played a handful of levels before writing this blog. The word that spread about the game is its difficulty, and it is certainly a difficult game, but not so difficult that I don't want to keep playing. It does a great job of getting you to come back for one more try. Its also a great co-op game that the wife and I have been enjoying in the early stages of 2018.

The Mummy Demastered

The Mummy Demastered is truly a gaming oddity; a very good game based on a very bad movie. If you're a fan of the metroidvania genre like me, what you'll find here is a tight experience that offers constant upgrades, good boss fights, and a map that's extremely fun to explore. The retro aesthetic adds a charm to the game, and you would come to expect nothing less from a company like WayForward.
Top 10 Favorite Games of 2017

10. Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus

Considering how much I enjoyed Wolfenstein: The New Order, it came as no surprise to me that I enjoy this sequel. What it lacks in gameplay it makes up for with a great story that is chock-full of surprising and shocking moments as well as a cast of characters that I really enjoyed. That's not to say that the gameplay was bad, it just didn't do anything particularly special to separate from other first-person shooters. I did my best to play the game as stealthy as I could, but it seemed like too often I would be spotted from someone very far away and that would eventually just turn into me dual-wielding and running around the room like a crazy person. I had a much easier time playing stealthily in the first game. Wolfenstein II is certainly not without its flaws, but I still think it is worth playing for anyone that likes the genre or wants to good story.

9. Little Nightmares

The easiest way to describe Little Nightmares is do refer to it as "3D Limbo," though I think that is super reductive and sells Little Nightmares short. I loved Limbo, and I would say that I still liked it more than Little Nightmares, but Little Nightmares has a lot more going on. Its bleak atmosphere and enemy design that seems ripped straight out of an animated Tim Burton film gives it an underlying sadness that makes you want to see the main character, Six, successfully find her way off of The Maw.

The game has some genuinely thrilling chase sequences that oftentimes left you escaping by the skin of your teeth. It's a short experience, but what you get here is quality. It does so much with so little, and that's what makes it great.

8. Steamworld Dig 2

Steamworld Dig's first direct sequel continues the trend of taking a simple concept and making it incredibly addictive. You're constantly postponing turning the game off because you just want to see what else you can find in the mines. You tell yourself that you'll stop when you reach the next cave, and then you get to the next cave and you say you'll stop after you solve it, then you solve it and say that you'll stop when you get to the next pipe that transports you back to the main town, and that's how the game goes until you've finished it.

Steamworld Dig 2 improves on an already great game by giving you new and better abilities and increasing the amount of secrets and areas to explore. The cave puzzles are challenging without being frustrating, and the increased amount of enemies was a welcome addition. I'm hoping to see Image & Form return to create a Steamworld Dig trilogy.

7. Splatoon 2

Despite my complaints about the map rotation, its poorly implemented app, and the fact that I can only play a certain mode of the game at specific times (I'm still yet to play Salmon Run), I don't know if there's a game that has a higher fun density than Splatoon 2.

I've never been big on multiplayer shooters, but Splatoon 2 just does so many things right that I'll look past both the game's shortcomings and my introverted nature. The style it has, the way the guns feel, the feedback from shooting, the splat of the ink on the ground and walls, sliding through the ink to refill your tank, every aspect of actually playing Splatoon 2 is pure gold. It's just a shame that the way Nintendo mishandles the user experience hampers its periphery.

6. Everybody's Golf

I hate golf. But I love golf video games, especially the Hot Shots series. The latest iteration of the long-running franchise changed to its international title, but while I prefer the Hot Shots moniker, that's about the only change I disapprove of. The series may have gotten away from the super wacky characters that they had in HSG3 and Fore!, but the actual golf is just as great (and anger inducing) as ever.

Golf is usually a relaxing game, but after one poor shot, you'll see just how infuriated I can become. That being said, however, the Everybody's Golf series is one that I continuously come back to throughout whichever PlayStation's life is current. While I didn't get too into the online tournaments, the online play with some of my coworkers and customers this year was some of the most fun I had in multiplayer outside of the few bugs we encountered. If you want a golf game on the PlayStation 4, Everybody's Golf is the perfect blend of simulation and arcade.

5. Resident Evil 7 Biohazard

Not counting the Revelations semi-spin-off series (which is great), I had been waiting for a great Resident Evil game for 8 years. In case you're wondering where my math is coming from, I consider Resident Evil 5 to be a great co-op game. There isn't a series that I've written about more in my life than Resident Evil, as I've been a huge fan from the very beginning of the series, but after the abysmal RE6, I was worried that the series was no longer a viable commodity for Capcom. In this case, I could not be more happy to be wrong.

I will admit to being more than a little skeptical when the first gameplay footage had the game in a first-person view, everything else surrounding it seemed like exactly what I wanted from a new Resident Evil. Taking cues from films like Texas Chainsaw Massacre, you never once feel safe after you encounter the Baker family. Everything from the beginning walk up the driveway to the Baker plantation to the return to the house after an excursion feels masterfully crafted. The only real complaints I have about the game is the anticlimactic final battle and lack of variety in the enemies.



It felt like a return to its roots, but seeing as it didn't sell as well as Capcom had hoped, I wouldn't be surprised if they go back to the heavy action the series had come to prior to this. Personally, I would love to see the series stay right where its at.

4. Metroid: Samus Returns

Much like Resident Evil 7, I had my reservations about Metroid: Samus Returns after I found out that MercurySteam was at the helm. While I did enjoy the original Castlevania: Lords of Shadow game, I feel like they tarnished the good name of Castlevania beyond repair with the two games that followed.

That worry went right out the window from the very onset. Some may not have enjoyed the counterattack feature, I felt like it was a necessary, adding a variety to the combat that the series lacked. I could go into a lot more about Metroid: Samus Returns, but I wrote a review of the game over at Scholarly Gamers, so give that a read for my full thoughts.

3. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

What can I say about Breath of the Wild that hasn't already been said? The fact that I played close to 100 hours of the game and was still discovering areas of Hyrule that I had never seen before is astounding. The sense of discovery is unlike any game I've ever played before, and oftentimes I would forego fast traveling simply because I wanted to everything on the way. Scaling the towers and finding little things in the distance that pique your curiosity could sometimes lead to hours-long diversions that lead you to all kinds of breathtaking moments and discoveries.



When the game released, my Twitter feed would be full of animated GIFs from people showing all of the cool ways that they were able to manipulate the tools at your disposal to do something that was likely not even thought of during development. Breath of the Wild rewards your for experimentation, and there are so many ways to approach each situation that there are probably still ways that no one has discovered. I truly think that Breath of the Wild is the new gold standard of open-world games.

2. Horizon Zero Dawn

It may be strange to some that I just said that Breath of the Wild is the new gold standard of open-world games and then have another open-world game higher on my list. Here is my explanation: Breath of the Wild had a sense of discovery that I've never encountered, but my nitpicks about it were enough to knock it down a peg. While the world of Hyrule is unmatched, that combat in Breath of the Wild is only adequate, the story is practically non-existent, the stamina meter and weapon degradation are two mechanics that no game should ever have, and Link becomes completely useless in the rain.

On the other hand, while Horizon Zero Dawn may not have a world that's as fun to explore as Hyrule, everything else is done better. I don't have to wait for the rain to stop before Aloy can scale a mountain, she doesn't get tired from running or swimming short distances, the story is probably the best of the year, and the combat is top-notch. Horizon Zero Dawn sometimes requires intense strategy and other times brute force to succeed in combat, and taking down a group of tough enemies is sometimes a very harrowing experience. I even took the time to get the platinum trophy for this game, which is not something that I'm typically inclined to do, and I went through the trouble of doing the same thing for the Frozen Wilds expansion.



I had a customer tell me that when I told him that I liked Horizon better than Breath of the Wild that I legitimately upset him, and then he played Horizon and came back into the store to tell me that he agreed with me. If you have a PS4, Horizon is probably the best game you can get on the system.

1. Super Mario Odyssey

Surprising no one, Super Mario Odyssey is my favorite game of 2017. But that's not just my nostalgic heart talking, that's everyone talking. I never grew tired of exploring the various Kingdoms, I never got tired of seeking out new Power Moons or purple coins, I never grew tired of the combat, I even enjoyed one of the water-based worlds in Odyssey, and that is saying a lot.

If the game has a fault, it's that it is almost too dense, which is not something that games usually deal with. There are so many moons available to find that it becomes a bit of a daunting task for the completionist. I took the time to find 500 moons in order to unlock the last area, put the game down, and will return to it in a month or two and there will still be almost 400 more moons to discover. That's insane!



All of the things you're able to capture in the game add new and fun abilities to Mario's arsenal that a lot of the time you don't ever want to return to playing as just Mario. The sense of discovery in Odyssey is just as great in Breath of the Wild but in a different way. Rather than seeing something in the distance, you'll see something that just seems slightly off and you know that you can manipulate something to make a Power Moon pop out. The late game moments are truly incredible, and the way it honors the history of Mario played wonders with my nostalgia.

I think Super Mario Odyssey will be to the current generation of kids what Super Mario World is to me.

Thank you all so much for reading, and here's to hoping that 2018 is as good for video games as 2017 was.

-TheDustinThomas

Friday, October 13, 2017

Why WWE Could Benefit By Being Its Own Platform


Chances are that if you're reading this article, you play a lot of video games and you could very well play all different types. But there is a sect of gamer that sticks to the one or two titles that release annually and they're satisfied with that. Nothing wrong with it, it's just the way it is. If the new Madden, the new NBA2K, the new FIFA, or the new Call of Duty are the only games you play every year, who am I do judge?

Some of the customers that I encounter say they used to be big on the Madden  games every year, but they fell off because it felt like the same game every year. They also say that they would like to see EA go to a biennial release schedule with roster updates in the off years. Essentially, they would like to see sports games become their own platforms. Back in the early-to-mid 2000s, I was that kind of gamer, but my preferred annual release was WWE.

While EA may not see the point in changing Madden's annual release schedule, it may behoove 2K to do so with WWE. The main difference between WWE and other sports (and if you have a problem with me calling professional wrestling a sport, see me after class) is that every other sport has a constant flow of new stars each year. A kid that graduated from my high school just got drafted by the Detroit Pistons, and people are already trying to scalp his jerseys and rookie cards. He's already a superstar despite the fact that he hasn't played a single NBA game.


WWE doesn't have that. While some wrestlers come to WWE or their developmental NXT promotion and immediately capture the fans, it's rare for that to happen with anyone that wasn't already well-established in other promotions like New Japan Pro Wrestling or Global Force Wrestling (formerly TNA/Impact Wrestling). A.J. Styles, Shinsuke Nakamura, Kevin Owens, Finn Balor, these are all guys that fans knew before making their debuts because wrestling is so much easier to follow in this day and age. Everyone already knew how talented those guys are and fans were excited to finally see them on WWE's grand stage.

Those men are the exceptions to the rule. Most wrestlers that get signed to NXT either spend years there only to be released or spend years there and finally get a shot on the main roster. Even then, a lot of characters that were super popular with NXT fans don't mesh with WWE's fans. Despite being under the same umbrella, the fan bases for the two are very different. The Ascension is a great example of a tag team who did great in NXT but floundered when WWE fans didn't take to them (mainly due to poor booking, but I digress). Other sports don't have that problem. While an athlete may eventually lose some of his stardom as he or she ages or injuries make them no longer able to compete with the younger players at a high level, he or she is never going to change their character.

Another issue that I feel hinders WWE is how frequently it changes. By this time next year, someone is WWE 2K18 is going to have a completely different character when next year's game is set to release. Or perhaps an NXT wrestler gets called up shortly after the upcoming game releases. What if a popular star gets released for violating the company's wellness policy?


Case in point: Jeff Hardy. He's one of the most charismatic superstars that professional wrestling has ever seen. Unfortunately, he's also had to battle problems with addiction in his past, and while we certainly hope and pray that he never succumbs to that again, he was, at one, time, released from the company because of it. It's a very real possibility not only for him, but for any wrestler on the WWE roster.

At this point, the WWE games have every type of match you can imagine and can be customized beyond belief. Even though I'm not a fan of this particular model, I really think WWE would benefit from foregoing annual disc releases and providing fans with updates at a reduced rate or perhaps offering new wrestlers for the game at $1.99 a piece or bundling several wrestler together at a lower rate. This may be a problem for customers without access to the internet, but that could easily be rectified by providing an annual update card that could be purchased at any major retailer.

The WWE already has experience in this area with the WWE Network. Fans can forego paying $60 for the next WrestleMania simply by signing up for the WWE Network at $10 a month. They also have the WWE Supercard mobile game, which is doing very well for them.


Maybe the WWE video games could do something similar to the MMO model: get your free one month trial of WWE Online on our website, then it's only $4.99 a month and you receive all updates for free!

Vince McMahon may not know a lot about video games, but if you ask me, he's one of the smartest businessmen the world has ever known and I have no doubt that he could make something like this work. In the long run, I think WWE fans would prefer this model. You wouldn't have to wait until the following October to play as your favorite new star or get new move sets or pay-per-view arenas to wrestle in. If there's one company in one sport that I think could pull it off, it's the WWE.

There are a lot of possibilities for the company by making this switch. A new star that makes an impact could be in the game within days or weeks. The company releases a talent and they could be removed immediately. They could constantly update the game with new legend characters. Maybe once a year they do a major overhaul and include a new story line for the player. It would be like a new World of Warcraft expansion: a new story, new wrestlers, new customization options for the create-a-wrestler, and so on.


The ratings for WWE games (as well as the overall sales numbers) have been in steady decline ever since 2K obtained the rights from THQ. According to VGCharz, WWE 2K17 has sold a total of 2.26 million units, which is respectable, but is a far cry from the 7.28 million that Smackdown vs. Raw 2008 did.

I think a lot of that could be attributed to annual release fatigue. If WWE took a year off, did a major overhaul, and began work on what would become its platform, it could be a major moneymaker for the company in the long run. The WWE Network looked like it was going to be a failure, but now makes them major bank, and if there's one thing we know about Vince McMahon, it's that he loves money...and wrestling incestuous story lines for his employees, for some reason.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

An Outsider's View on Parenting in the Age of Mature Games



I do not subscribe to the notion that playing violent video games leads to a violent teenager or violent adult. In fact, I did several essays and presentations in college opposing that idea. I believe that there was a lot more going on with Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris than the fact that they were listening to Rammstein and playing Doom when they walked into Columbine High School that tragic morning. My purpose of writing this piece is not to recount all the terrible actions that children have carried out and men like Jack Thompson and Joseph Lieberman have blamed on violent video games, but as someone who has worked in video game retail for several years, I have come across lots of parents that seemingly don’t care what type of video games their children are playing, and it has always irked me.
Let me start off by giving you my history with violent video games. I was seven years old when I first saw the original Mortal Kombat arcade cabinet at our local Putt-Putt Mini Golf location (R.I.P.). I always tried out any new game that came in, but this one I couldn’t get to because it was always in use. Despite not being able to play it, my brother and I kept hearing about it from friends and seeing images of it in the pages of GamePro and Electronic Gaming Monthly. When the news hit that the game was making its way to our Sega Genesis, we begged our parents to get it for us that Christmas, which they did.

Luckily for us, ignorance was bliss in this case, as my parents had no idea what Mortal Kombat was or that it was very controversial. All they knew was that it was a game that their sons wanted and they could play it together. In some ways, my parents were much like the ones that I see at work, but in other ways, they’re the direct opposite. The original Mortal Kombat, as most of us know, was one of the biggest reasons the ESRB was created. But at the time, my parents — who stopped playing video games after Super Mario Bros. 3 — had no idea that games could be this violent.
Despite a new copy of Mortal Kombat being under the tree that Christmas, my parents were always very aware of the television I was watching. We weren’t allowed to watch Beavis and Butt-Head (though we still found a way), in fact, MTV was blocked on our televisions so we couldn’t watch any of those “rap videos with the naked women.” I wasn’t even allowed to watch The Simpsonsuntil I was in junior high, which eventually backfired on my mom when The Simpsons became a little bit of an obsession of mine. No scary movies unless they watched with me, and if there was any nudity, you cover those eyes young man, and you better not be peeking!
So, my parents were very cautious of the type of television I was consuming, but the medium of video games and the direction it was going was uncharted territory for them. The following Christmas they were kind enough to buy us Mortal Kombat II.
So if my parents weren’t aware of the violence in video games, is it fair for me to be critical of parents that allow their young children to play mature rated games today? Personally, I think it is. It’s been over twenty-five years since Mortal Kombat first hit the scene, and we’ve come to understand a lot more about video games than we did back then. As with every medium, video games have evolved as technology has improved, allowing for more realistic graphics and more engaging characters and stories. Things that were controversial back then seem very tame by today’s standards. A television network never would have given The Walking Dead the green light back in 1993. Any Grand Theft Auto game would have been given an AO rating back then. You would have had to go to the video game black market to obtain a copy.

With that evolution, parents have become much more lenient with mature content. Most parents that come in to my store and allow their children to purchase Call of Duty are probably going to be playing the game themselves or playing the game with their children. Video games have been popular for long enough that they’re no longer a thing for kids. In cases like that, I still have concerns, but at least supervision is present.
But when I have to ask a parent if it’s okay for their children to purchase a mature-rated game, and their responses are things like “It’s nothing worse than they see on TV,” “They already play it at their friend’s house,” and “If it’ll make them shut up,” how do you not expect me to be critical of that? The responses I want to reply with are “Why are you letting them watch that kind of stuff on television?” “Why aren’t you making your kid get new friends?” and “You’re a bad parent!” But I can’t say that, because that might offend someone, and we just can’t allow that.
My church operates a day care, and one day I was there helping out with some work. The young boys at the day care knew that I was into video games, so they struck up a conversation with me. When I told them they were too young to be playing Grand Theft Auto V and they should be playing something more age appropriate, one of the kids responds with (and I’m not kidding) “We play killing games.”

I was legitimately shocked when those words came out of that child’s mouth.
My wife and I are currently trying to have a baby, and I have a feeling that when he or she gets to this age that there will be lots of “But my friends are playing it” arguments. But if you’re a parent and reading this, let me assure you of something. It is completely alright to tell your kid no. You don’t have to explain yourself to them, you just have to say no. I know we live in an age where everyone has to be included in everything, but it is alright to not allow your kid to do or play or watch or listen to something that you don’t want them to. You’re the parent, they’re the child. You’re the authority, they’re not.
Recently, I had a man come in with his grandson, and when I read off the laundry list of reasons why Grand Theft Auto V was mature rated (it’s just coincidence that it’s always GTA V), he told his grandson to pick a different game. This grandfather had restored my hope, and that hope lasted for all of five minutes. After some whining and pouting, that child had a brand new copy of Grand Theft Auto V, and I let out an audible sigh as I stared out into the evening sun and wept.

Perhaps it is not fair for me to be critical of any parent when I myself am not one. It’s kind of like that guy who doesn’t workout telling you how to get more fit when you’ve been exercising for the past ten years. I know that parenting is not easy, and I know that I’m going to mess a lot of things up when I do become one.
As I said in the very first sentence of this article, I do not believe that mature games lead to violent or immoral adults. I believe I’ve turned out pretty well, and I grew up with them. I’m not condemning games like Grand Theft Auto, I play every GTA game and I really enjoy them. But I do believe that mature content can and does leave an impression on any developing brain. If you’re a parent, I genuinely hope that you’ve read this and take something away from it. Don’t take this as a condemnation, take this as an encouragement to be more aware of what your children are consuming and understand that it can affect them.
Video games are an amazing hobby, and I have a lot of great memories and met a lot of friends because of them. They can help you live out the power fantasy of being the Dragonborn, or let you throw the winning touchdown in the Super Bowl, or drift around corners at 100 mph. You can be a knight wielding a shovel, a handsome adventurer, and the Batman all in one afternoon. They allow creativity to spring forth. They allow you to create the Mario level you doodled on your math book in fifth grade. Video games allow you to be something you’re not and do things you can’t do. They’re an escape when you’ve had a bad day, and they’re a great social experience when you have friends over.
But the one thing that video games can’t be is a child’s babysitter.

Friday, May 26, 2017

More Than a 'Metroidvania': Guacamelee!


Death, taxes, and ‘Metroidvanias’ — those are the only certainties in life. It seems like every week, an indie developer releases a new game in the genre. That is not a complaint, because the Metroidvania is my absolute favorite type of game. Even a lackluster review on one will still quantify some further investigation on my part. The quality of these games can vary from brilliant to dreadful, but every now and then, we get one that does something wholly original and makes everyone else have to step up their game. Enter Guacamelee!
I intend to make this a running series of articles, but I knew going in that Guacamelee! was the one I had to start with. I think we all have those games that are so special to us that we wind up playing them at least once a year. For me, those games are Super Mario World and Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, but now, I can add Guacamelee! to that list, especially since it made such a masterful transition to the PlayStation Vita, which in my opinion is the best way to play the game.
But what makes Guacamelee! stand out from the other great Metroidvania games in recent years like Axiom VergeShadow ComplexAliens: Infestation, and Ori and the Blind Forest? To understand Guacamelee!, we have to understand its source material: lucha libre. Given my love of video games and who I was in a previous life, I think I am a pretty good candidate to explain this to you.

The basic plot of Guacamelee! goes like this: You control Juan, an agave farmer in love with El Presidente’s daughter. When an undead charro named Carlos Calaca attacks the small village, he kills Juan and leaves with El Presidente’s daughter, intending to use her in a sacrifice so that he can rule the worlds of both the dead and the living. Juan finds himself in the land of the dead, where a luchador named Tostada (stealing that name for my next gimmick) bestows upon him a mysterious mask, endowing him with SUPER LUCHA POWER!
Is it a silly premise? Sure it is, but what is significant is where the game takes place: Mexico. Mexico is where lucha libre wrestling originated and is still the primary type of wrestling you will find there. In the United States, professional wrestling is treated differently than it is everywhere else in the world. Here, it is entertainment. Monday Night Raw is treated no differently than any other television show you watch on a weekly basis. In Canada, professional wrestling is a tradition and wrestlers are respected as legitimate athletes. In Japan, it is treated as a sport on the same level as sumo wrestling or baseball. But in Mexico, lucha libre is practically a religion.

A great deal of lucha libre wrestlers (“luchadores”) wear masks, which hold a special significance, and matches where the loser must relinquish his mask, while common, are always treated as a very big deal. One of the greatest luchadores of all time, Rey Mysterio Jr., once lost his mask in a throwaway match in WCW, and the outrage among the Mexican community was immense. Luckily for Mysterio, it did not hinder his future WWE success.
In their native land, luchadores are looked upon as more than just wrestlers: they are superheroes. Perhaps the two most popular luchadores of all time are El Santo and Blue Demon. Both men were buried in their trademark masks, and between the two of them, there is only one occurrence of their faces being seen in public. One short year after retirement, El Santo appeared on the Mexican television show Contrapunto, where he lifted up his mask just enough to show his face, effectively saying goodbye to his fans. He died only a week after the program aired. Santo’s identity was even hidden from the other wrestlers. When traveling, he would take different flights from the normal wrestling crew so they wouldn’t see his face when he removed his mask to make his way through customs.
Their popularity went beyond the wrestling mat. Santo appeared in over 50 films, many of which saw him in the lead role and were usually named “Santo versus…” and had him facing off against some supernatural entity. There was also an El Santo comic book series that ran for 35 years, ending in 1987. The only person in American history that we could possibly compare to El Santo would be Elvis Presley, but I think even that comparison fails to capture just how huge Santo was.
Now that you have gotten that history lesson, it should be easier to understand why Guacamelee! is more than just a simple metroidvania game. It is authentic. It may be a bit stereotypical, but it is not insulting to Mexican culture or heritage, and it does right by the lucha libre community by incorporating legitimate wrestling moves and portraying its protagonist as a larger than life persona who always fights for a noble cause.
One may argue that while luchadores were portrayed as superheroes, and took their characters very seriously, they did not do anything in the real world on the same level as saving the President’s daughter the way Juan does in Guacamelee!. That is where you’d be wrong. In 2006, Jack Black starred in his magnum opus, Nacho Libre. It is the story of a cook at a Mexican monastery orphanage who becomes a luchador to help raise money to provide better food for the children he looks after.
What many do not realize is that Nacho Libre is actually based on a luchador named Sergio Gutierrez Benitez, who wrestled under the persona of Fray Tormenta (“Friar Storm”). Benitez is a former drug addict turned priest who was in dire need of money to take care of the children in the orphanage he ran. By day, he was Friar Benitez, by night, he was Fray Tormenta. He has long since retired, but is still a priest at the monastery, and actually passed on the Fray Tormenta name to a boy from the orphanage who became a luchador. While I have a tremendous amount of respect for John Cena and all the charity work he does, he is no Fray Tormenta.
When you combine the authenticity of the character with the excellent game design from Drinkbox Studios, you get perhaps the best metroidvania game since Symphony of the Night. Because Super Metroid really solidified the genre and is heralded as one of the best games ever, many of the better metroidvania games have similar sci-fi settings, like the aforementioned Axiom Verge.
Drinkbox had an idea that was completely out of left field with a setting that was atypical from the genre standard, and condensed it down to one of the most solid 5-6 hour experiences you may ever have in gaming. The feedback from your controller makes every uppercut, body slam, and suplex feel like they have real weight to them, and the controls themselves are responsive to the point that you never feel like the game is being unfair in its difficulty.
Speaking of the difficulty, Guacamelee! does what I feel more games should do. You have a main story that offers a decent challenge, one that may result in a death every so often but you know you are capable of defeating with a little more focus. The platforming sections can be a bit tricky, but much like games like Super Meat Boy, can be conquered with a little trial and error. Secret areas and challenge rooms are a different story. These can be downright cruel, but do not offer you anything required to finish the game unless you are a completionist.
Drinkbox Studios also threw in many references to meme culture, and the video games that inspired them in the creation of Guacamelee!. Some of them are so subtle that they can easily be missed. It is a big love letter to the games that old farts like me grew up playing, and they are there for no other reason than to bring a smile to your face.
I could not possibly recommend Guacamelee! any more than I already have. You do not need to be a fan of lucha libre in order to appreciate it, but perhaps reading this will help you to appreciate the game just a little bit more the next time (or the first time) you sit down to play it.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Ed Boon's Best Game is Within Another Game


NetherRealm Studios, along with their fearless leader Ed Boon, have emerged as one of the premier fighting game developers with the long-running, ultra-popular Mortal Kombat series, as well as the recently released sequel to Injustice: Gods Among Us, pitting various DC Comics superheroes/villains against one another. Boon is one of the original creators of Mortal Kombat and has an established track record of producing solid games.
While I have never been a fighting game connoisseur, I have always had a special place in my heart for the Mortal Kombat series. I have many fond memories of playing the first two games on Sega Genesis, spending quality time with my brother and our friends trying everything we could to execute every single fatality and beat the game with every character. Over time though, I fell out of love with the fighting genre. It was one of those “it’s not you, it’s me” kind of partings. My departure began in 2008 with Street Fighter IV, and then the reboot of Mortal Kombat in 2011 was my own personal nail in the coffin. To me, fighting games just are not the same unless I am in a room full of friends binging on Pepsi and Pizza Hut.
The last fighting game that really sucked me in was Mortal Kombat: Deception in 2004, the follow-up to the first fully 3D Mortal Kombat game, MK: Deadly Alliance. I have probably put more time into Deception than every other Mortal Kombat game combined, without even the slightest hyperbole.

Mortal Kombat Konquest

However, the reason for this fascination was not because of the fighting mechanics. Neither was it the iconic characters, the inclusion of “Chess Kombat,” or even the Puzzle Fighter rip-off “Puzzle Kombat.” Despite the fighting being decent, that was not what kept me going. The thing that really sucked me in was “Konquest.” Konquest mode was established in MK: Deadly Alliance, though at the time it was nothing more than a series of challenges for each character to help you learn their combos and special moves. Mortal Kombat: Deception took the idea of Konquest and expanded it to the umpteenth degree.
One of the new characters added to Deception was a warrior named Shujinko. If you just jumped right into the fighting portion of the game, you would see that Shujinko is a man well advanced in age. Konquest mode on the other hand uses Shujinko as its main character, and chronicles his life from a young boy all the way up to the beginning of the Deception story in an action RPG/fighting hybrid, completely separated from the arcade portion of the game.
Shortly after his training with Bo’ Rai Cho, Shujinko encounters an otherworldly being known as Damashi, who convinces Shujinko to help him acquire six powerful items, collectively known as the “Kamidogu.” When Shujinko finally collects the sixth piece (46 years into his search), Damishi reveals himself to be none other than Onaga, the Dragon King, who manipulated Shujinko into finding the Kamidogu for him for his own malevolent purposes.


I wanted to get the story out of the way, because all things considered, story in a Mortal Kombat game is typically secondary to the actual gameplay. Shujinko is not a the most well-designed character; when Onaga reveals himself, you start to wonder why Shujinko never asked any questions and just went along with everything “Damashi” told him.
It is a weak plot, but it is also mostly there just because it needs to be. The story takes place across six different realms, each of which contains a piece of the Kamidogu. You start off in Earthrealm, and over the course of the game you travel to Netherrealm, Chaosrealm, Outworld, Orderrealm, and Edenia. Each realm has various missions and challenges, though most missions amount to nothing more than fetch quests. The challenges are typically normal fights with some sort of stipulation added. For instance, one challenge requires you to defeat Scorpion while Shujinko is bleeding, causing your health meter to be constantly depleting over the course of the fight. Other challenges include not being able to use the weapon stance, the inability to use projectiles, etc.

Mortal Kombat Cutscene Images

Unlike Konquest mode from Deadly Alliance, the updated version provided a legitimate reason to play through it. Treasure chests are scattered throughout the various realms, which contain either coins (or rather, Koins, since this is Mortal Kombat) or keys that unlock items in the crypt (or rather, the Krypt, since…well, you know). The Krypt is where you unlock new items, such as hidden characters, alternate outfits, concept art, behind-the-scenes videos, and more. Koins can be accumulated through the other modes that the game offers, but Konquest is the only place to obtain keys to certain coffins in the Krypt.
A lot of the treasure chests are in plain sight, but if you want to unlock everything in the game, it would not be a bad idea to have a guide next to you. Some chests only appear at certain times, days, or places. The most ridiculous of these are the chests to acquire series hero and primary protagonist Liu Kang, as well as his alternate outfit. Liu can only be acquired after returning to Konquest mode once again after completing it, at which point his treasure chest still only appears on Thursdays behind a tent in Edenia. His alternate outfit is even more specific, requiring you to be at coordinate H-5 of Edenia on the first day of any given month between 12:00pm and 1:00pm. Trust me, you want the alternate Liu Kang, because the “normal” Liu is a zombie. You heard right: Zombie Liu Kang is the default Liu Kang in this game. This stems from the developer’s idea to kill one of the series most beloved characters in a cutscene at the beginning of Deadly Alliance.


Luckily the game gives you the option to meditate, causing time to speed up significantly, so if you happen to miss the time frame for a certain item, you can get back to it quickly. No missions are time sensitive, meaning you will not miss out on anything should you decide to meditate for a substantial period of time, which was a good design decision considering how tedious obtaining chests can be. Despite the story not being exceptionally strong, it is still annoying to miss out on items or missions due to a time restriction in any game, which has been a prevalent mechanic in many RPGs over the years.
There were also some weird design choices in Konquest. Over the course of the adventure, Shujinko encounters certain characters who provide a tutorial. When the tutorial starts, Shujinko transforms into that character. It was done as a way to teach you the combos and special moves of the other characters in the game, though that could have been accomplished with the simple addition of a practice mode. Or conversely, you could just learn the characters the old-fashioned way: by playing the game.
Another weird design choice was locking Shujinko’s special moves in the Krypt. In order to use Shujinko’s special attacks in the arcade and versus modes, you have to find the keys in Konquest. If Deception were made today, this would almost undoubtedly have a microtransaction option attached to it.

Mortal Kombat in the PlayStation Store

The Konquest mode really hyped me up prior to release, as we were told that it would feature every Mortal Kombat character up to that point. The 37 different colors of ninjas, the really bad characters that only made it into one game like Nitara and Movado, and even Stryker was there. I hate Stryker. Everyone hates Stryker. But I was really excited to see his dumb face in the Orderrealm.
Mortal Kombat: Deception‘s Konquest mode does not do anything great, but it does everything well enough to be a solid time-waster. In 2004, there were better fighting games, better RPGs, better stories, better voice acting, practically everything Konquest did was done better by somebody else. That being said, for me it was the perfect mishmash of all things Mortal Kombat, and what resulted was one of the best things Ed Boon has ever put his name on.
Unless you count Noob Saibot.