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

Monday, September 22, 2014

Weekly Top 5: Resident Evil Games

With the recently released teaser trailer for Resident Evil Revelations 2, I figured this would be a prime time for me to do a "Weekly Top 5" that pertains to the series. I've written extensively about Resident Evil in the past, as I've been a fan of the series from the very beginning. RE is a surefire candidate for my favorite series of all-time (perhaps that could be the topic of a future top 5). My list is likely going to look a bit different than most who have been with the series as long as I have, but if you've read some of my previous Resident Evil related blogs, it shouldn't be too much of a shock.

Honorable Mention: Resident Evil 5

I think RE5 is unnecessarily trashed by fans, and it's all due to what circumstances there are when you play the game. When played single player with an AI-controlled Sheva, the game is straight terrible because Sheva is an idiot. "No, Sheva, I don't need more handgun bullets, I have a shotgun. Sheva, stop healing me, I have my own first aid sprays. Oh great, you gave me all of your ammo and now you don't have any. Sheva, that's a boss, use a bigger gun! Sheva, I hate you!"

But when played co-op with a friend, it's a great experience. When it came to games I played co-op last generation, the only games I played more than RE5 were the Borderlands games. It's basically just a re-skinned RE4 with updated controls. Lots of people hate this game, but I think it's a very serviceable entry in the series when played co-op with a friend.

5. Resident Evil Darkside Chronicles

This may be an unpopular thing to say, but I'm actually not that big of a fan of Resident Evil: Code Veronica. I mean, I like it, and I understand why it was a step in the right direction for the series, I just thought it was mediocre. Resident Evil 3 was released as a way to hold over fans for Code Veronica, but I actually like RE3 better. So, you won't see RE:CV on this list, but what I'm talking about now does include Code Veronica content.

If you've never played Resident Evil Umbrella Chronicles or Darkside Chronicles, I highly suggest them, they're two of my favorite games on the Wii. For those unfamiliar, they're basically just rail shooters that recount the stories of the main games in the franchise, as well as giving you a ton of bonuses to unlock. They're essentially love letters to fans of the series. Where Umbrella Chronicles covered RE0, RE1, RE3, and an extra scenario, Darkside Chronicles went with RE2, RE:CV, and a new scenario called "Operation Javier" which gives us more details about the past relationship between Leon Kennedy and Jack Krauser, as well as an extra hidden scenario.

Darkside Chronicles gets the nod over Umbrella Chronicles for providing a better original scenario, as well as covering my favorite RE title from the original PSone days and providing more backstory for RE4.

4. Resident Evil Revelations

Since Resident Evil had been on a downward slope, and there was already a mediocre Resident Evil game on the 3DS, I was very skeptical about Revelations. Or "Revelaitons", if you prefer. Yes, they misprinted the name of the game on the box, which didn't exactly convince me that I needed to play this game any time soon. If they can't take the time to proofread the game title on the box, then surely not a lot of care went into the actual game and this is nothing more than a cash grab. Then the reviews came out, and they were mostly positive, which lifted my spirits. I received the game as a gift that year and decided to give it a whirl.

What I found was a return to form for the series. I think Revelations is the best entry in the franchise since RE4. The majority of the game takes place on a tanker ship, and there are sections of the ship that reminded me of the Spencer Mansion, and that's a good thing. Tight corridors, a creepy atmosphere, scarce ammo, Revelations did something that I didn't think the series could do to me anymore: it made me nervous. I've always had a fear of water in games, and the sections of Revelations where you're wading through waist-high water with enemies all around you legitimately made me hesitant to continue. After every water section, I would have to have an internal monologue. Do I continue, or do I save and come back later because I'm too stressed out?

The only real negative I have about the game is that most enemies are very similar to one another, but to make up for that, all of the bosses are awesome. I actually remember the first time I battled Scagdead: I had exhausted almost all of my ammo, and I literally killed him with my last bullet. It was a very thrilling encounter. Also, Rachael is terrifying!

I still haven't played the console port, but I enjoyed it very much on the 3DS. I would consider it a must-have for the system.

3. Resident Evil 2

The original Resident Evil blew my mind. I had never had that kind of gaming experience in my life. Corporate cover-ups, a huge, sprawling mansion full of secrets, terrifying monsters, it was incredible. Sure, by the standards of today it's nothing special, and the voice acting is legendary for its camp factor, but in 1997, it was groundbreaking for me and what I thought videogames were capable of.

When the sequel was announced, I kept obsessive track of the game in magazines. By this time, I was old enough to stay home by myself, but I would still go with my mom on every trip to the grocery store and hang out in the magazine aisle while she did her thing. If any of those issues had information on Resident Evil 2, I would beg my mom to buy it for me. I still wasn't very privy to the game industry, so I didn't actually know when the game was released, but I remember one day seeing it on the shelves at Walden Software and rejoicing. I wasn't able to buy it myself, and I actually remember that the only reason I got it was because I was pouting to my mother that I didn't have any games to play--which was totally a lie--and begging her to buy me the game. She showed up a couple hours later with the game in her hand. I probably didn't even thank her, because I was a crappy 12 year old. Mom, if you're reading this, I'm sorry I sucked so much as a kid, I love you.

I find Resident Evil 2 to be the best of the three traditional games that appeared in its first generation, although all three are quite good. I was never good at Resident Evil games back then, I always tried to shoot my way out of trouble rather than run for my life, and if you've ever played an old RE game, you know that's a bad idea. That didn't stop me from trying though, and it was a communal achievement when a friend and I teamed up to beat the game together. Starting the game at the flaming wreckage from your now destroyed police cruiser and making your way through the streets of Raccoon City was way more intense from the start of the original. Here, your first taste of gameplay is right in the middle of the action with a dozen zombies slogging their way toward you. I found the police station to be a much more interesting setting than the Spencer Mansion, and every time I walked into a new room, I was praying to hear the save room music to signify that I had found respite.

The game essentially had four campaigns with interwoven storylines. If you played Act One with Leon, you played Act Two with Claire, and vice versa, and let's not forget the secret campaigns with Hunk and Tofu. This added an incredible amount of replay value to the game. The monsters were scarier, the story was better, and overall, RE2 offered more than its predecessor.

2. Resident Evil Remake

This is how you do a remake. I just said I thought RE2 was better than the original, but the GameCube upgrade of Resident Evil came and took the throne back.

I never owned a GameCube while it was a viable system, but I had a lot of friends that did. I went with the PlayStation 2 and was too lazy to get a job and buy a GameCube myself. Being a big fan of not only Resident Evil, but also Mario and Metal Gear Solid, I was very jealous of my friends because they got Super Mario Sunshine (I don't care what anyone says, that game is great), Metal Gear Solid: Twin Snakes, Resident Evil 4 (which was luckily only a timed exclusive), Resident Evil 0, and of course, the remake of the original Resident Evil.

It wasn't until 2005 that I finally played the game with a friend, and if 1997 Dustin thought the original game was scary, then 2005 Dustin was in for the same amount of terror. The updated graphics just make the game look...creepy. One of the downfalls with the hardware of the original games is that they were still figuring the system out, so all of those games are very bright and don't do much with shadows or lighting, which makes it harder to create a scary atmosphere. Due to this, they had to rely more on jump scares. That wasn't the case with this one. Don't get me wrong, they definitely have their fair share of jump scares, it's a staple of both the Resident Evil series and the survival horror genre, but this game created a foreboding sense of dread from beginning to end, and it has a lot to do with the graphical upgrade.

But it wasn't just a shot for shot remake like the 1998 version of the movie Psycho. They took a game that many already considered great and made it even better. They added new locations, new monsters, and a new boss. Oh, and those last two things I mentioned? They're two of the most terrifying things in the entire series: the crimson head and Lisa Trevor.

Her mask...is made...of FACES!

And yes, I will definitely be getting the HD remaster of this game the moment it becomes available.

1. Resident Evil 4

This should have been obvious. Resident Evil 4 is scientifically the best game in the series. Yes, the science is all just stuff that I made up in my own head to support my opinion, but that's neither here nor there.

The original Resident Evil didn't invent the survival horror genre, it just took it to the next level, and then Resident Evil 4 perfected it. You can argue that it's not so much a "survival horror" game as it is an "action horror" game, but the first time I played RE4, I still found myself with low levels of ammo and an uneasy feeling throughout the game. Before this game, enemies never teamed up on you, most of them didn't run towards you, most of them didn't carry weapons, and you were free from harm the moment you went through the next door. Not so in Resident Evil 4. From the very beginning, you're given examples of how this game is unlike any survival horror game you've ever played before. You're only given one or two enemies to defeat before you're slapped down right in the middle of a huge encounter, complete with an adorable chainsaw-wielding maniac.

You try to find a safe haven in the nearest home, only to have them bust down the doors and windows to try and get to you. Of course, you could use this to your advantage by forcing them all to bunch up as they squeeze through the door and tossing some sort of grenade. It was only a temporary solution, but you had to do things like this in order to get some breathing room. RE4 brought a new sense of strategy to the series.

The new over-the-shoulder camera made the game both easier to play and scarier, as you could no longer see what's behind you until you turned around, whereas before you were usually given a full view of the room you were in and you can freely navigate between dangers. The first time you use the quick turn to find a Regenerator a mere few feet behind you is enough to make you want to turn off the game. Ask my buddy Luke, because that happened to him and he's also a giant woman.

No, thank you.

Many people didn't like the switch from virus-infected zombies to plague-ridden villagers and cultists, but I found them to be much more terrifying. The series had to evolve away from zombies, and the couple of times they brought zombies back (Operation Raccoon City and RE6), the games were straight poo. Even the most ardent supporters of those games have to admit that they're lackluster, at best. Like I mentioned earlier, these enemies knew what they were doing, and they had motivations for taking you out other than "braaaaaaains" or "STAAAAAARS."

The inventory system was revamped, and I was very sad to see it go in RE5. Rather than having a limited number of slots for inventory, you were given a cache case that started out pretty limited, but could be upgraded for more space as the game progressed. Yes, this made the game easier, but the inventory system with the earlier games was just frustrating. You were always worried about carrying too much, because chances were you were going to find an item you needed to keep on you and would wind up having to discard a health item or ammo. Here, you have more space, and items like keys aren't put into the case, so you can fill it to better fit the kind of player you are. Like having a lot of ammo? You can do it that way. Prefer having extra health items? Do it. Want to fill it up entirely with grenades? You can do that, too! There are few things in the game more satisfying than having an inventory that looks like this...

Luke and I would always play this game together, and despite how much we love it, you'd be amazed how many times you would hear us say "I hate this part." We would actually compromise with each other: "I'll fight the town chief if you do the hedge maze later in the game." You ever have that game that you love and hate at the same time, but in a good way? Resident Evil 4 is that game for me.

There is no hyperbole when I say that we did literally everything there is to do in this game. We must have beaten the campaign a dozen times, finished all the Mercenaries maps with an S rank with every character, collected all documents and secrets, got all the trophies in the firing range, unlocked all bonus weapons, completed "Assignment Ada" and her PS2 bonus campaign "Separate Ways." We played the game so much that we would impose challenges on ourselves. To Luke's credit, we was able to defeat the gatling gun Ganado with just a knife. It took him about 20 minutes, but he did it.

I have nothing bad to say about the game other than the fact that Hunk was only playable in Mercenaries. For those wondering, Hunk is scientifically the best character in the series. Again, you can't argue with science. Lastly, enjoy this video my buddy Cole made as a tribute to the game.

Thanks for reading, and don't forget to follow me on Twitter @TheDustinThomas, and listen to my podcast on iTunes or on Stitcher.

-Dustin

Monday, September 15, 2014

The Koopa Kids and Their Pro Wrestling Counterparts

Initially, this blog was titled "The X Most Unappreciated Mario Characters." It didn't take long before I realized that it was basically just me talking about why Blargg is so awesome (by the way, Blargg is awesome). I've been going through a bad spell of writer's block recently, I just couldn't come up with any good topics, and unappreciated Mario characters seemed like a very basic idea just to get me out of my funk. But, the more I wrote, the more I hated it, so I decided to hit the big DELETE key and start back at square one. I looked up from my screen to see some old wrestling footage on the tube. Even though I've retired from the wrestling business, I found in that moment that writing about wrestling is usually my best stuff, and the WWE Network has been a Godsend for someone like me. I've been watching so much 80s and 90s wrestling it's ridiculous.

Watching those larger-than-life, Herculean-esque masses of humanity, and then staring at the failed blog in front of me, I knew then what needed to be done. Each Koopaling (or Koopa Kid, if you prefer) has a distinct personality and unique traits, much like the wrestling days of old. So I went through and compared each Koopaling to his or her pro wrestling doppelganger. Let us begin...

Larry Koopa & Shane McMahon

Out of all the Koopalings, Larry was the hardest one for me to find a counterpart to. There wasn't any wrestler that immediately stuck out like the rest, so I actually had to do some research (i.e. the Mario wiki). What I found is that in the Super Mario Advance 4: Super Mario Bros. 3 official guide, Larry is pointed to as being Bowser's favorite, So naturally, I took that to mean that he's the closest of all the original Koopa kids to being a son to Bowser. Who better to compare him to than the son of the King Koopa of wrestling, Shane McMahon?

Morton Koopa & Vader

Morton is the enforcer of the Koopalings, the muscle. He also has a star on his face, making him look a lot like Paul Stanley of KISS, but since I'm comparing the Koopalings to pro wrestlers and not untalented singers of overrated bands, I'm going to go with one of the most powerful and intimidating wrestlers of all-time: Vader. Vader was an absolute brute, and even though his WWE career was nothing to write home about, during his days in WCW and Japan (and Boy Meets World) he was one of the most dominant wrestlers in the game. Morton's has his star, Vader has his mask. Morton shakes the room, Vader shakes the ring. IT'S MORTON TIME!

Lemmy Koopa & Eugene

I'll be honest, I'm a little scared to write anything here. The Eugene gimmick was that of a person with a mental handicap, and while the man playing the role, Nick Dinsmore, did a masterful job portraying the character, it's still a tough thing to write about without sounding insensitive. I tried to find pictures of each character and let them do the talking for me...and that's exactly what I'm going to do. So, yeah, Lemmy and Eugene. The end.

Wendy O. Koopa & "Sensational" Sherri

This one wasn't even close. The moment I started comparing the kids to wrestlers, "Sensational" Sherri was the only possible choice for Wendy. For you younger wrestling fans who may not know Sherri, she was the heel valet. Think about any female that managed heels in wrestling history, and they don't hold a candle to Sherri, and as far as I'm concerned, Wendy O. Koopa is the first lady when it comes to Mario enemies. I don't care how many female antagonists have appeared in Mario games, whether it be the standard platformers or the RPGs, Wendy takes the cake.

Ludwig Von Koopa & The Genius

Ludwig Von is the brains of the Koopaling gang, so two wrestlers immediately came to mind: "The Genius" Lanny Poffo, and Harvard graduate Chris Nowinski. The Genius won out for several reasons: 1) Nowinski's entire character depth consisted of "I went to Harvard, therefore, I'm smarter than you." 2) The Genius was more entertaining. 3) The Genius is Randy Savage's brother. And 4) The Genius didn't just tell you how smart he was, he would show you. He would read poems before matches, showing off his arrogance, and I believe Ludwig would be the type to not only boast about his superiority, but prove it as well.

Iggy Koopa & Vergil

Iggy is a dork. Vergil is also a dork. Next.

Roy Koopa & Jesse "The Body" Ventura

That comparison photo pretty much says it all, doesn't it? Roy, much like Jesse Ventura, is the perfect blend of style and machismo. Like his brother Morton, Roy is a powerhouse, but he's about more than just showing off his muscles. When Roy brings the hammer down, he does it with pizzazz. I could easily see Roy Koopa fighting alongside Schwarzenegger in a future Predator film.

Bowser Jr. & Erik Watts

For lack of a better phrase, I'm going to have to go a little "insider baseball" on you here. While Erik Watts had a respectable career, it would not have happened if it weren't for his father. "Cowboy" Bill Watts is an old-timer, and at one point in time was the booker for WCW, and he pushed his son, Erik, to the top, even though he had no right to be there, and fans didn't care about him whatsoever. That's what I think of when I think of Bowser Jr. No one likes him, and the only reason he's had his 15 minutes is because his daddy is calling the shots.

Hey...thanks for reading. You're awesome.

Follow me on Twitter @TheDustinThomas, and listen to my podcast on iTunes.

-Dustin

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Weekly Top 5: Best Mortal Kombat Characters

Apparently, some people actually do like Stryker. I'm still not convinced that they're not lying, but I'll let it be.

Guys, this list was really hard to make. I'm going to have an honorable mention before I get to the main list, but I could put 10-12 characters in that honorable mention spot. It's safe to assume you already know who the top two on the list are, so really I was narrowing the list down to three, and that was no small task because for every bad MK character there are two good ones.

Honorable Mention:

Pretty much every character that appeared in MK 1, 2, and 3.

Also, Ermac. Ermac is awesome

Now that I've covered all bases, let's get on to the list!

5. Noob Saibot

First Appearance - Mortal Kombat II

Noob Saibot didn't become cool until Mortal Kombat: Deception, where he was teamed with Smoke and collectively known as Noob-Smoke...very original. I think what made him so great was when he was finally shown in his ninja form and used the Monkey fighting style. I'm not sure why it took them so long to introduce a ninja that wears black since they've done pretty much every other color in the spectrum, but I'll take it. I always thought Noob Saibot was incredibly boring before this game because he was nothing more than just an all black shadowy figure.

But what really made me love him was when you beat the game's story mode with Noob-Smoke, and it's revealed that Noob Saibot is actually the original Sub-Zero that was killed by Scorpion, and the older brother to the current Sub-Zero (spoilers, I guess). This was such an awesome revelation for MK fans. When it was revealed that it was actually Quan Chi that murdered Scorpion's family, it kind of bummed me out because it meant that he didn't have to kill the original Sub-Zero, but then we get this little twist and it made it all worth it.

4. Liu Kang

First Appearance - Mortal Kombat

Liu Kang was my least favorite character in the original Mortal Kombat, he was painfully generic. He was just an Asian guy who wore plain black pants, and his fatality was just a super uppercut with a little flip beforehand, which was kind of cool, I guess. He was basically just Bruce Lee. But over time, Mr. Kang grew on me, mainly because he did those awesome screams when doing the the bicycle kick and he wore a sweet headband.

Liu Kang is considered by Ed Boon to be the face of the franchise--though fans don't necessarily agree. When I played Mortal Kombat: Deadly Alliance for the first time, I was shocked to find that Liu Kang was killed by Shang Tsung and Quan Chi in the opening cinematic and didn't appear in the game. How do you kill off the so-called "face of the franchise"? But they made up for it by including zombie Liu Kang in Deception before zombies were entirely overplayed, plus his alternate costume was regular Liu Kang.

My favorite appearance from Liu Kang is actually in Mortal Kombat: Shaolin Monks. If you haven't played it, I highly suggest it, it's certainly a hidden gem and one of the best brawlers in recent memory. And story wise, it's a bridge between MK and MK2, so you'll see all of your favorite old school characters.

3. Kabal

First Appearance - Mortal Kombat 3

Mortal Kombat 3 was released in 1995, and at that time, a 10 year old Dustin was trying desperately to make everyone think he was edgy because he wore his brother's Korn t-shirts to school--Korn used to be cool, guys, I promise. This was when I was first starting to get into metal music, and Kabal looked like something you'd see on stage at a White Zombie concert, therefore, I thought he was awesome. Sub-Zero had always been my favorite up to that point, but I wasn't in love with the MK3 rendition that features suspenders, slicked-back hair, and a "scar" that was obviously just red face paint. I had to find a new favorite, and Kabal was the one I gravitated towards.

I didn't know much about the MK lore back then, so I just thought Kabal was this weird dude with a mask and hookswords. I didn't realize at the time it's actually a breathing machine and that he had been horribly disfigured. He had a fatality where he takes off his mask and literally scares the soul out of people, which caused me to think that Kabal was an actual monster under the mask, kind of like how Scorpion just has the skull under his.

Kabal was supremely powerful in his initial appearance and is typically well received by fans, which is why it was hard to understand why he didn't become playable again until MK: Deception.

2. Scorpion

First Appearance - Mortal Kombat

Remember when they didn't include Scorpion in Mortal Kombat 3? What was up with that? Netherrealm will never make that mistake again, I can guarantee that. Liu Kang may be the "hero" of Mortal Kombat, but it's the combo of Scorpion and Sub-Zero that are synonymous with the franchise. When they reboot the franchise with MK9, who do they put on the cover? Scorpion and Sub-Zero. When they released the trailer for MKX, who were the combatants? Scorpion and Sub-Zero.

The original Mortal Kombat ninja combo were the standouts of the original game and only rose in popularity as the series gained momentum. And they actually brought my brother and I closer together. Mortal Kombat was the first game that we would play together, and where my brother always chose Scorpion, I wanted to be similar but different, and went for his frozen counterpart. I would always lose because my brother had three years of gaming experience on me, but I didn't care, I was just happy to be hanging out with my big bro.

Scorpion's harpoon is perhaps the most recognizable move in the series. It's the "hadouken" of Mortal Kombat, every fan knows how to do it, and it's always awesome hearing Ed Boon's voice booming out the demand "Get over here!"

1. Sub-Zero

First Appearance - Mortal Kombat

You've perhaps already stopped reading, because after Scorpion was #2, who else could possibly have been #1? Raiden? Shut up with Raiden. I'm kidding, I really like Raiden, I always have, but he's no Sub-Zero. He's the one character that has been playable in every game, whether in his original pre Noob Saibot form or otherwise. His design is always similar to his previous one but features slight changes and variations, they weren't always home runs (like MK3 and Deadly Alliance), but then sometimes you get Shredder-Zero and it's incredible.

I mentioned how I always chose Sub-Zero so I could stand a chance against my brother, but maybe it was more because he had such a brutal fatality that they had to create an entire videogames ratings board because of it. I remember the night that my brother's friend came over with a list of all the fatalities that he had copied out of a magazine. We had only seen a couple of them before that night, so we rushed upstairs to our bedroom and went through the select screen one-by-one, refusing to switch to a different character until we had input the button combinations successfully. It was like Pandora's Box had just been opened up to us.

First, Johnny Cage's decapitation. "Awesome!" We had already seen Kano's heart rip, so we skipped over him and pushed down to highlight Raiden on the screen. His electricity decapitation made us shout in amazement even more than Cage's. Then Liu Kang's stupid, stupid, stupid super uppercut. Seriously, so stupid. We had seen Scorpion's, so we went right to Sub-Zero.

Then, this...

I remember us looking around the room at each other with our mouths agape. We were in stunned silence. We had never seen anything like this in a videogame before. I could almost hear "Ode to Joy" playing in my head, with visions of fireworks exploding as a single tear rolled down my eye and I saluted the American flag. Okay, none of that happened, I'm just trying my best to convey how awesome this moment was.

From that moment, I claimed Sub-Zero as my favorite character, which meant that my brother couldn't, because you have weird rules as kids.

Thanks so much for reading, don't forget you can follow me on Twitter @TheDustinThomas and to listen to my podcast on iTunes.

-Dustin