Perhaps February is too late for a year-in-review-type post, but as my posts this past year have been… lacking, it seems my window of opportunity is still open. (Even though that may be entirely the result of my elbow impacting it at a high rate of speed.) My life continues to slip deeper into the dark persona of ‘responsible adult’. Three children don’t leave one much time on the side for gaming – though this year I’ve been able to play some games with my eldest. As a result, this year marked my shift into handheld games. Being able to snack on games in fifteen minute nibbles, or devour them in hour long feasts, depending on my circumstances, enabled me both to play more games than I otherwise would have been able, and to get more sleep, not being fettered to late night binges to satisfy my cravings. But before I delve into the statistical analysis, allow me first to summarize what I played last year.
Christmas of 2006 was a Final Fantasy event for me: I received III, V, and XII. As FF3 was first chronologically, as well as the only historic Final Fantasy game I had not yet played, it got first dibs. Despite the cutesy character style, I thought it was a good translation of the game from 8-bit to modern technology. Obviously, there are some dated game mechanics, but as a whole, FF3 is the polished 8-bit entry, as well as an innovator regarding jobs, its take on the class system. While I played through the game that first year, I still had some loose ends to tie up – a few jobs to master, and the optional boss to take down. Having gathered some momentum with my DS towards the end of 2008, I decided to slot FF3 again and clean house. Not the most fun game for post-game grinding, but I have all of the job cards if you are in need…
There is something intrinsic to the Front Mission series of games that sucks me in, and I think it has everything to do with the system – the fact that the system is attached to large combat robots is just icing. The DS entry is actually a port of the original game (or the expanded PlayStation port, I do believe) so its mechanics are less involved than later iterations, but there was still enough meat that I happily gnawed on this game for the better part of 2008. But there was one phantom mechanic that wasn’t really documented in the game, and I spent some time last year testing builds and cataloging stats. The result was a Dodge Faq that I submitted to the community. I also made available the Wanzer Maker spreadsheet I compiled (something that has become a tradition for me). While it is too early to speculate on what the next Front Mission game will bring, if it has an engaging system I may find it difficult to resist, even if the series does goes Armored Core, abandoning turn-based strategy.
Zelda: Phantom Hourglass
The Phantom Hourglass had been in my possession for a year and a half before I got around to unwrapping it and slotting it in my DS. It would also be the only DS game I played in its entirety in 2009. I must say, I really enjoyed the game. I thought it did a great job being a Zelda game, without resorting to annoying and obscure fetch quests like Ocarina of Time. It wasn’t a very difficult game, but it was fun, and I really looked forward to playing it. What sets Phantom Hourglass apart is how well it utilizes the DS hardware. Being able to annotate maps is an incredible boon. Found a weird symbol that you can’t interact with yet? Mark it on the map and forget about it. Though it was only done once, I also appreciated the uncharted island that you had to map yourself. Whale of a good time, that was. Some of the puzzles did a great job incorporating the hardware capabilities, especially one involving transferring a map location. And one of my favorite boss fights pits the hero against an invisible monster, but the top screen becomes MonsterVision(tm). One complaint that often appears in reviews is that the player has to constantly revisit the Ocean King’s Temple. I did not have a problem with this. There are puzzles and shortcuts on each floor that can only be accessed with tools from later parts of the game. Once you reach the half-way point, a warp appears allowing you to skip the first half. I thought the designers did a good job adding layers of complexity to something that easily could have become tedious. Also, my four year old daughter likes to play it. Granted, she prefers to play my end-game save and wander around grappling chickens, buying pretty crowns, modding the boat, and sailing around. But the fact that I can share this game with her is pretty cool, something I’ll touch more on later. Overall, I thought Phantom Hourglass was an excellent addition to the series, and I look forward to playing Spirit Tracks.
Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow
As the DS is my first handheld platform, there are a lot of good GameBoy Advance titles that I missed that are now available to me. In 2008, I spent some of my birthday money on the Castlevania Double Pack, being a longtime fan of the series. Having played Harmony of Dissonance at the end of 2008, I started 2009 off with Aria of Sorrow. After the insane success of Symphony of the Night, the 2-D Castlevanias have followed its model more than the original NES titles. And while it has its own gameplay tweaks, Aria is really just a reskinned Symphony. And that’s okay. It is a fun, exploration driven, Castlevania game. And that pleases me.
Final Fantasy V
I was very excited to play Final Fantasy V when it was released for the PlayStation as part of Final Fantasy Anthology. Actually, I was very excited to play it when screens for it were first published in Nintendo Power as a sneak-preview of Final Fantasy III (and then Square skipped it and gave us VI instead). I enjoyed it enough on the PlayStation, but the problem with playing old SNES games on the PlayStation was the stupid load times in front of every combat – of which there were many. The GBA port boasts some graphic tweaks, a different translation, and bonus content in the form of a few additional job classes and a pretty challenging bonus dungeon. For whatever reason, I enjoyed my time playing this version of the game more than my previous encounter. I also managed to log an extremely large number of hours playing it – not sure how accurate that counter is. And while I didn’t master every job for every character, I did develop a masterful party and conquered all of the extra bosses. I think it was playing this game that I became fully sold on playing rpgs on handhelds. As an aside, FFVI is my favorite Final Fantasy game, and I opted not to get its GBA port. My hope was that it would get a DS makeover much like FFIV, but it looks like I may have miscalculated that one…
Having been fully convinced of the handheld viability of playing rpgs, I sought out GBA titles, previously unknown to me, that I could pick up on the cheap, having limited discretionary funds. I found Golden Sun. Golden Sun strikes me as a combination of the Dragon Quest games and Breath of Fire 2. Combat is turn based, with lines of text describing the actions and results, akin to Dragon Quest. Combat is viewed from a behind the hero 3/4 perspective, as in Breath of Fire. Also similar to BoF2 (and Wild Arms) characters have powers that they can use in the field to solve environmental puzzles. The resulting gameplay is that of a pretty traditional rpg, with interesting dungeon designs, and a surprisingly complex combat system. But on top of that, it has some really good storytelling. The prologue successfully pulls off a tragic event without feeling melodramatic or trite. Then, the plot is layered with threads that initially seem to be linear advancements in the story, but turn out to be overarching elements that can’t be concluded until much later in the game – if you choose to do so. Actually, one such element, which is introduced in the first town your party arrives in after setting out on its quest, doesn’t fully resolve until almost the end of the second game. If you missed it, and are looking for a good rpg, I highly recommend Golden Sun
Golden Sun: The Lost Age
The Lost Age picks up where the first Golden Sun game leaves off. You can even transfer your final save from the first game to carry over your party’s stats and inventory. Actually, the game picks up slightly before the end of the first game. And while your party from the first game does transfer, you play the bulk of The Lost Age as the party of ‘bad guys’ the heroes were chasing in the first game. Makes for some pretty good narrative tension as it becomes obvious one side is being misled, it’s just a question of which one. Gameplay is essentially the same as Golden Sun, but there is a greater diversity in powers that are used in the environment. The Lost Age is a larger game, with some pretty involved dungeons and polished mechanics, but is not as well written. By the end of the game you control a party of eight, with four battle-active members, and the ability to swap with standby members. The Djinn junction system is expanded from seven to nine Djinn per character (combinations of different elemental djinn junctioned to a character determine their class and stat boosts, but those classes and boosts are temporarily lost when the djinn are used in combat, which enables powerful summon attacks.) Things get pretty complex – or at least can be. In reality, much of complexity can just be ignored, and it is probably a better strategy in most cases to do so. But if one is compelled, one can sink a lot of time and thought into crafting clever strategies to overcome ones adversaries. In closing, a new DS game in the Golden Sun series is slated for release sometime this year. It is not suppose to be a remake, but a new story involving the descendants of the heroes of the first two games. Based only on the series pedigree, I would put that on your watch list, and pick up the two GBA games while you’re waiting.
On the console side of things, the only compartmentalized game I played was Lego Batman. I had played and enjoyed the two Star Wars games (though I thought the first one was more fun than the second, despite the second having the better subject matter) but missed the Indiana Jones game (something that will hopefully be rectified this year). At first I was skeptical, as I wasn’t sure how well Batman could translate into the Lego universe. Star Wars made sense, force powers and such, but Batman is just a guy in a suit with an aerodynamically improbable boomerang. And the suit, apparently, makes all the difference. To add complexity to the environmental puzzles in the game, Batman and Robin can find new suits that grant them special abilities. Replaying a level in freemode allows you to cycle through all of the suits and powers you’ve found, granting access to areas and bonuses previously out of reach. As a bonus, the game can be played from the perspective of the bad guys, providing the rest of the story. I thoroughly enjoyed playing this game, and think it the best of the Lego games (that I’ve played) to date. The layering of power-specific obstacles and the Batman universe itself kept the game interesting and fun for the duration. In retrospect, comic book style superheroes are probably perfect sources for Lego games.
Boom Blox: Bash Party
2009 marked another change in me as a gamer: my eldest child was now old enough to play some games with me, and I found myself looking for games that we could play together. When I bought Boom Blox: Bash Party (oh you foolish marketing people, why did you think such a title would help this game sell?) I was originally planning on purchasing Metroid Prime Trilogy. I was very excited about it too. But something happened (and honestly, I can’t remember exactly what it was), perhaps the time my daughter spent playing Phantom Hourglass, and it became more important to me that I find a fun way to game with my daughter. I had been attracted to the original Boom Blox when it was announced that it would support head-tracking. When the head-tracking feature was pulled, my interest waned. But it was reportedly a really solid puzzle game that made good use of the Wii’s motion controls. Bash Party was suppose to be even better. I haven’t played all of the levels, but it is a really fun and challenging game. Some of the tools are better than others, though. I’m not particularly thrilled about the timed Jenga-style levels, but the levels where you can blow stuff up in interesting ways are excellent. The game also has a robust level editor and supports internet file sharing without the need for pesky friend codes. Bash Party has a slew of one-player levels, but also boasts a good number of competitive and cooperative two-player levels. Another nice feature is that while normal progression requires you to beat one level before advancing to the next, you can buy into locked levels with money found in the puzzles or earned by beating them. This feature makes playing the game less frustrating for my four-year old, who really likes throwing baseballs, but doesn’t necessarily care that she’s suppose to break all of the gems in less than seven throws. I suspect we’ll be coming back to this game more in the coming years.
World of Goo (demo)
I’ve been anxious to play World of Goo since the first trailer went around after GDC in 2007. Sadly, I didn’t actually get to play it until last fall when Nintendo released a free demo version of it on the shop channel. (Hey Nintendo, more demos please.) I love it. The visual style is nice and simple and seems to pay homage to Tim Burton, and the accompanying soundtrack evokes Danny Elfman. The premise is simple, construct towers and bridges out of living balls of goo to reach an objective. Add a variety of hazards and variable goo properties and hilarity ensues. Using the Wiimote is really nice, as opposed to any other pointing device. And, your kids will love it. I was amazed at how quickly my daughter took to this game. She even drew a picture of it later, of the first level, complete with the pipe at the top that is your goal, and the faces of the roaming goo balls. While the puzzles seem to be relatively easy to pass (the ones in the demo anyway), the game provides incentive to be more efficient in your designs, allowing you to accumulate extra goo balls for a special casual level where you can simply build whatever you want. The understated goal here is to build the tallest tower you can, and your progress is compared to other players from around the world, their achievements tracked by clouds hovering over and around your structure. World of Goo appears to be a fun and brilliant little piece of software, well worth the $15. Now to scrape together said $15…
Xbox 360 CATALOG
Rock Band 2
I hopped on the plastic guitar bandwagon with the first Guitar Hero game. I was really impressed at how good it felt to ‘play’ these awesome rock guitar [covers]. Guitar was great, but what I really wanted, was drums. And Rock Band delivered. But, I missed Rock Band, which wound up being just as well, because the sequel came with better hardware, and for just a few bucks, I could import most all of the original set list. I really like Rock Band. The guitar charts seem to be slightly less interesting than comparable Guitar Hero charts, but are perhaps more realistic. For someone, like myself, who has only dreamed of hitting the skins, the drum trainer and gradual build of the drum charts are great. Vox is fine, if you know the song. I haven’t really had the chance to play with a group of other people though, so I know I haven’t experienced yet the full… experience that is Rock Band. Though there was one afternoon that I pulled out my guitar, and my son pulled out the mic, and my daughter wanted a guitar, and the three of us rocked out together. That was awesome. Only really lasted one song, but it was a great song. That may have been the actual impetus for the Boom Blox purchase. With lots of downloadable content, and the new Rock Band Network, I expect Rock Band to entertain me for years to come.
Guitar Hero: Metallica
When Guitar Hero 3 came out, I had to make a choice: for which platform should I buy it? I already had guitars for the PS2. But GH3 had online capabilities that I could take advantage of on the Wii. Future installments would eventually move away from the PS2. So I bought into the Wii. I figured I’d get at least two iterations before I had to get new controllers again. I was wrong. The fourth GH game, World Tour, Activision’s answer to Rock Band, required a different set of controllers. I wound up sitting out that generation of the games. But I did get a 360. And compared to the Wii, the 360 seemed to be the better platform for the music game franchises. And because of the compatibility of the controllers, the GH controller that I got with GH:Metallica became my second guitar controller for Rock Band. Bonus. GH:Metallica is essentially an expansion to GH:WT, but makes some tweaks to the game engine. One major drawback, however, is that the only DLC that can be played on it is Metallica DLC (read: Death Magnetic). Activision forces you to buy into one of their core installments to take advantage of their full library. The other major negative comment I have is that the vocal engine is crap. Rock Band is far superior in how pitch is registered and tracked, providing useful feedback to get you (back) on pitch. That said, if I had to pick one game that exemplifies the experience of what Guitar Hero was meant to embody, Guitar Hero: Metallica would be that game. All of the music (49 tracks total – 28 by Metallica) is kick ass rock/metal with good and fun charts. Probably more fun for guitarists and drummers than singers though. I was really glad to see a good number of pre-…And Justice for All tracks, as most people are probably only familiar with Metallica that they’ve heard on the radio or seen on tv. And Zombie Metallica is awesome! (Too bad you can’t use the zombie models when playing Metallica songs.)
My initial thought, when thinking back on the year, was that it was rather lean in terms of gaming. But I was neglecting just how much handheld gaming I did. Seven of the twelve games I played last year were handheld, but two of those were games that I had already played and was just hitting with the completionist stick. Of the nine full games I played, handheld games won out narrowly over console games 5-4. One third of the games I played I was able to share with my kids (or at least my eldest). The games spanned almost the entire decade of the oughts (based on the release date of the version I played), from Golden Sun in 2001 to Guitar Hero: Metallica and Boom Blox: Bash Party in 2009. 2008 was the most popular year with three games (Rock Band 2, World of Goo, and Lego Batman). Seven of the games played were acquired in 2009 (including Christmas of 2008). Which means five games played had been in my possession for more than a year, and about two of them for more than two years. Should be interesting to see what 2010 has in store, but that is a subject for another post.
It is also worth mentioning that 2009 was the year I got back into Dungeons & Dragons. The new 4th Edition rules, coupled with Penny Arcade’s successful evangelization – in particular Gabe’s reluctant yet total and impassioned conversion – stirred the type of memories so often captured in the virtual ink of Wil Wheaton. I haven’t actually played any games under the new rules yet. My reluctant wife has sort of agreed to play, and I have a nice origin adventure percolating in my mind for her dragonborn paladin, but I think she’s just humoring me enough that I leave her alone while secretly hoping this gaming session never comes to fruition. (So I’m looking for players, or a DM looking for players.)