Star Wars Games: Episode I

I’ve dabbled here and there talking about Star Wars games on this site, but I haven’t made it clear how important they are.  We take for granted just how good LucasArts was at making video games.  Nowadays we live in the days of Star Wars Kinect and EA using microtransactions and pre-orders to sell us our favorite franchise for triple the price.  In the mid-2000s and prior, though, we had some truly amazing games coming out.

I’m the biggest Star Wars fan I know, and the video games were a huge part of my childhood.  I’ve played so many Star Wars games, and every so often I’d like to talk about them.  This is going to be the first of a few posts where I talk about my favorites.  It’s officially Star Wars season 2017 now that The Last Jedi has come out, and I’m very excited.  To celebrate, I’m going to talk about three Star Wars games I just love.

Star Wars: Jedi Starfighter

Jedi Starfighter is the sequel to Star Wars Starfighter for PS2, Xbox, and GameCube.  It was actually a more recent play for me, the only similar game I’d played was Rogue Squadron for N64.  I’m not the biggest fan of Rogue Squadron, but the formula of flying around in a starfighter is all good with me.  That was my favorite part of Battlefront, for sure.

Jedi Starfighter follows the adventures of Adi Gallia, a hugely underrated character from the extended prequel universe.  I don’t really remember the plot all that well…something about a rogue bad guy looking to unleash deadly weapons of mass destruction on the galaxy who needs to be stopped.  Basically it’s an excuse to fly around and shoot things.

The project was headed up by W. Haden Blackman, who was also a project lead on Star Wars: The Force Unleashed and wrote a few Star Wars comics like Jango Fett: Open Seasons.  He also wrote the story, which does a decent job.  It all comes down to a lot of “destroy this” and “protect that” because frankly it’s a game, and story just needs to provide a solid backdrop.  And as a game, Jedi Starfighter is a lot of fun.  Since you’re playing as a jedi, you can use multiple force abilities, like a shield or a lightning burst.  These were a fun add-on to some already good dogfighting, and hearing your companions over the staticky comm channel provided a nice Star Fox vibe.  This is the kind of game that works great with Star Wars.  Nice and simple, and it shows how much goes on behind the scenes in the universe.

Criterion did a great job creating the space combat for DICE’s Battlefront II, so I’d love to see them make some kind of Poe Dameron game just like this one.

Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith

When people say there are no good movie tie-in games, most of the time I point them towards this game.  Episode III is not a very good movie, but the game represents it really well.  It’s not a long game, but it’s essentially an 3D action beat-em-up that tells the story of the film.  It starts with a few missions of the Chancellor rescue, then Obi-Wan’s mission to Utapau, Anakin’s destruction of the Jedi Temple, and finally the confrontation between master and apprentice.

What I enjoy most is that the tone is actually more intense than the movie.  It includes practically no mention of Padme, and Anakin turns to the dark side full tilt, no brooding, no beating around the bush.  You get to live out the destruction of the Jedi Temple that you don’t get to see in the movie, actually fight General Grievous and Count Dooku.  In a lot of ways I like to experience the story better this way than by watching the movie, because it’s all action.

The movesets of each character are also impressive.  Every character has a unique moveset, from Dooku to Mace Windu.  This is especially cool because there’s also a versus mode with about a dozen characters.  There are also five bonus missions where you get to play as Magnaguards, Master Yoda, and even Darth Vader.  Vader and Old Ben Kenobi are also unlockable for versus mode, so you and a friend can fight each other as young and old Vader, or young and old Obi-Wan.

Each character has a moveset that fits their personality.  The dev team spent some time training with Hayden Christiansen and Nick Gillard, the coreographer for the prequel movies, to make sure their work was faithful.  And it shows.  The combat is surprisingly deep, with some pretty complicated button combos.  I used to love playing this game’s multiplayer with friends.

The story mode is also pretty decent.  The climactic moments of the movie are well-realized.  The prequel soundtrack is used at its finest, and I love the combo of James Arnold Taylor as Obi-Wan and Mat Lucas as Anakin Skywalker.  I think this may be my favorite video game adaptation of a movie.

Star Wars: Bounty Hunter

Now THIS is a big one for me.  I don’t know if I’ve ever said it, but of all the Star Wars characters, my favorite is Jango Fett, the intergalactic bounty hunter.  The DNA template for the Republic Clone Army, possibly my favorite thing about the prequels.  Back in 2003, the geniuses at LucasArts decided to make a video game that tells the story of how Jango Fett was chosen as the template for the strongest army in the galaxy.  That game turned out to be Star Wars: Bounty Hunter, an action-adventure shoot-em-up platformer. My absolute favorite game for the first eight years of my life.

Bounty Hunter is a story of mystery, twists, betrayals, and unnecessary dual gun twirling.  The goal is to hunt down Komari Vosa, the rogue apprentice of Count Dooku.  Its story consists of several stages.  It starts you at a pit fighting arena in the sinister Outer Rim, takes you through the high society of Coruscant, through a breakout from the highest-security prison in the Galaxy, and then to the dusty hive of scum and villainy that is Tatooine, before you finally reach your prey at the Moon of Bogden.  I just love how all the areas look completely different, and how you visit all of the seediest places in the Star Wars universe.

I absolutely love the look of this game.  The third person camera is in just the right place, and the HUD is practically nonexistent.  It shows only your health bar and whatever weapon you have equipped — exactly what you need to know at any given time.  It becomes much easier to take in your surroundings completely without information constantly in your face.  This game is also great because it rarely tells you how to progress through a level.  Sometimes you’ll have to climb a small tower or a rock and jetpack over to where you need to be.  The ability to jetpack around gives you so much horizontal and vertical mobility that the scale had to adjust to match it.  And thankfully, it does.  There are a lot of moments when you barely make it to where you need to go, and those moments are extremely satisfying.  It feels like the world is not built for you to traverse it.  Sometimes that gets frustrating, sure, but it’s also why the whole world feels so damn convincing.

I’m just gonna gush about this game for a minute.  You can light people on fire with a flamethrower.  Whipcord-tying people and neck chopping them is usually an instant-kill.  Roz and Zam Wesell are genuinely cool characters that the movies could ever have done justice.  There’s one late-game level where you can’t use a jetpack because Jango decided it was too heavy and he doesn’t need it.  Freakin’ amazing.  In another one you have to fight your way out of a jail cell with only your bare fists until you reclaim your equipment.  Love it.  There are so many interesting things in this game that are small, but particularly sell it as a movie tie-in.  Actually some of the cutscenes are leagues better than the prequel films.

Star Wars: Bounty Hunter is criminally underrated.  Definitely pick it up if you can find it.  It’s a good example of solid world design and HUD.

The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess — My Favorite Game

I’ve been bummed out lately, so I’m going to ramble about my favorite game of all time.  This game opened my eyes to what games could be, and it helped me permanently fall in love with Nintendo, my first real game company.  It’s The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess.

Twilight Princess HD logo
Logo for Twilight Princess HD. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Twilight Princess was released for the GameCube and Wii in 2006.  Basically, it was a reaction to American audiences who thought that The Wind Waker was too cutesy.  Nintendo decided to go a different way, and combined elements of The Wind Waker with a robust story and high-fantasy design elements.

I remember playing this game when I was around ten years old, but I didn’t finish it until about six years later.  It’s a well-loved video game, but I notice it always gets overshadowed by some of the games before it.  So I’m going to talk about it in depth, and why I love it so much.

Mechanics and Quests

Mechanically, this game isn’t so much a Breath of the Wild overhaul, but more of an expansion of the 3D Zelda style introduced in Ocarina of Time.  The geographical layout of Hyrule is pretty similar, actually.  Twilight Princess throws in new mechanics like horseback combat, new maneuvers, and new items.

Dungeons in this game are built very consistently,  A lot of them have a similar design that takes you through a specific order of rooms, each with their own challenges.  They run the risk of feeling too similar, but usually they add just enough variety to avoid getting stale.  They also have pretty neat mechanics, like pulling heavy chains or shifting stairs like in the Lakebed Temple.  Sure, like I said, dungeons in this game are more about atmosphere — but they’re different enough that I never found myself bored.  Mark Brown can explain it a bit better than I can, though.

The selection of items in this game is clever.  Most of the dungeons are built around the items, but items like the Spinner and Dominion Rod, for example, are not only fun in their dungeons but also have puzzles in other parts of the overworld.  Even the Double Clawshot from the City in the Sky near the end of the game is the only way to win the STAR game in Castle Town.  I also think that firing projectiles like arrows felt better using the Wii pointer than using just about any other control scheme in the series.

Probably why Link’s Crossbow Training became a thing, am I right?

The major change is the introduction of playing as a wolf.  I didn’t much like controlling Wolf Link with motion controls.  Most of the time I felt forced to play as a wolf, since using his senses limited the field of vision enough to be completely situational.  For what they were going for, though, there was a good continuum.  I never felt like the game was pushing me to use my wolf form, and the parts where they used it were narratively very compelling.  Plus, it would’ve made no sense to make playing as a wolf form more common, because regular Link has all the items.

Master Sword
Link brandishes the Master Sword. (Photo: BagoGames via Flickr)

The combat system is my favorite thing about playing Twilight Princess.  It has a depth that no Zelda has achieved before or since.  Throughout the game you can find these things called howling stones, and yeah, they’re awesome.  They’re like mini rhythm games, where you have to howl and match a tune in wolf form.  Most of these songs are references to the little songs from Ocarina of Time, the spiritual predecessor.  Matching these tunes allow you to meet with the spirit of the Ancient Hero, who most fans say is the original Hero of Time.  In each encounter you learn a new move, which help with everything from armored opponents to hordes of enemies.  These moves create a fantastic sense of progression, and work pretty well with motion.  Before I leave combat, I should also mention that sheathing your sword after beating a tougher enemy makes Link do a little flourish, which I absolutely love.

This game ain’t Majora’s Mask, but sometimes I found some really interesting quests, like the 50-floor Cave of Ordeals, paying for the upgrades of Malo Mart, delivering hot spring water to Gorons to break boulders, and bringing Agitha glowing bugs from both Twilight and Hyrule.  The designers make the most of interesting characters to deliver fun quests.  The exploration in Twilight Princess isn’t quite as broad as The Wind Waker, but it has plenty of nice eureka moments, and no two challenges are quite the same.  Sometimes you have to wander through a long, dark cave, climb a tower, or float down to a small platform.  Looking for treasures never got boring for me.

The World of Hyrule

In making Twilight Princess, Nintendo made the most serious-looking Zelda game yet.  A lot of people criticized it as too dark, too much of a departure from the lighthearted look.  The game is inspired by games like Ico and Shadow of the Colossus, a cold look that uses the balance of light and dark to evoke a dusky, frozen aesthetic.  The desert feels warm, and endless in the night, cool and breezy at the height of the sandstone ruins.  The woods are quiet, and bring to mind the sounds of trickling water and footsteps in the grass.  The city in the sky feels otherworldly and oppressive, inspired by the mind-bending art of M.C. Escher.  Everything blurs the line between reality and fantasy.  While the game probably won’t age as well as more stylized games like The Wind Waker, its somber art style and use of soft, low light is still lovely to look at.

Midna and Link
Link and Midna. (Photo: BagoGames via Flickr)

I never wandered through a Zelda game that felt so alive.  All the characters are well-animated and well-designed.  I particularly like characters like Iza, the rapid ride girl, Agitha the Bug Princess, and Falbi who runs the cucco-flight game.  The only other Zelda game that comes close to having such interesting characters in my opinion is actually Skyward Sword.  But it can’t match Twilight Princess and the peculiarity of its characters.  Most NPCs in this game serve some kind of purpose, and I always find myself wondering about their backstory.

Playing in wolf form also lets you talk to animals in the overworld, which is really neat.  I actually kind of wish the game used the idea of familiars a little more, since the idea of a complex web of interactions you could have only as a wolf would’ve made me explore as the wolf much more often.

Exploring as a human is still pretty great.  This game definitely feels less empty to me than Ocarina of Time or Skyward Sword.  Maybe riding on a horse isn’t as interesting as sailing, but you can just ride around and find stuff in Twilight Princess, which is really rad.  It also intentionally has many more Heart Pieces to collect, so that there are more goodies to find, both in dungeons and the overworld.

The game was also released in an HD version, and looking back, I kind of wish it included an upgrade system kind of like Skyward Sword or A Link Between Worlds.  The reason I say this is, the player is rewarded with rupees a lot.  I can’t tell you how many times I had to put rupees back in chests because I had a full wallet.  Upgrades would’ve been nice for harder playthroughs, and they would’ve given more purpose to all that cash.

The Twilight Princess soundtrack is etched into my mind.  An executive decision was made not to go with an orchestral soundtrack because it would be less interactive.  I love orchestral soundtracks.  I never thought I’d say that synthesized was a better choice.  But for Twilight Princess, it just might have been.  Low, drifting horns and woodwind instruments, and soft strings contrast with the harsh digital soundscapes of the twilight realm. Each of the game’s many worlds have music that fits like a glove.  In the same way Breath of the Wild uses a minimalist soundtrack to embody ruin, Twilight Princess‘s soundtrack embodies a world divided, a struggle between reality and shadow.

Story

Twilight Princess has the best story in any Zelda game to date in my view.  Only Majora’s Mask can touch it, but none of the other games make me feel nearly as invested in the world through its narrative the way this game does.  From beginning to end, there are so many great character moments that actually make this world feel full, and worth fighting for.

Let’s run down the list.

The kids of Ordon Village are not only lovable, but create a great emotional thread for Link, and for the player.  The inciting quest for Link is to save Ilia and Colin.  Ilia is a sort of love interest for Link, a kind and humble spirit, while Colin wants to be an adventurer just like Link when he grows up (I’ll talk about this later).  Colin gets kidnapped voluntarily to save one of the other kids, and the moment where you save Colin is incredibly moving, as he tells Link that the only reason he did it was to be like him.

Ilia also has a moving story, because she’s lost her memories by the time you find her.  After doing some quests (which give you tangible rewards, I might add), she finally remembers you.  What’s so satisfying about helping both of these two is that you’re with them from the beginning, and when you find them again, you realize how different things are.  You’ve changed a lot, as a character, and as a player.  The game always reminds you of where you started, and why your friends are worth saving.

I also adore the other people you meet along the way.  Prince Ralis, a Zora Prince found by Ilia who has lost his royal parents, has a heartbreaking moment with the ghost of his mother.  In Castle Town you find Telma, owner of Telma’s Bar, and a small resistance of kids trying to aid you in your quest.  Later on, there are hints of a romantic plot between Telma and Renado, the shaman who cares for the kids of Ordon.

Maybe none of these characters sound compelling out of context, but the point is that none of them are throwaways.  All the characters are developed, and the connections they form with Link are so sincere that the player feels them too.

Now let’s talk about the major characters, shall we?

Midna
Midna, the companion character of Twilight Princess. (Photo: Volpin via Flickr)

Midna is hands-down the best companion character in the entire series.  She has attitude, she warps you through the world, helps you fight in wolf form, and most importantly, she doesn’t try to bug you.  And she’s your shadow in human form, which I always found cool.  Her impish design and flaming hair reflect her personality perfectly, and everybody I’ve heard from formed a genuine attachment to her as they played the game.  She’s also a central character to the story, so the fact that she’s also likeable and mechanically important just make her that much better.

Zant
Usurper King Zant, the (almost) main villain of the game. (Photo: VampireGodesNyx via Flickr)

The villains are the most lacking in the character department.  I found Usurper King Zant to be a haunting, twisted villain at first, especially cool because of his connection to Midna.  But at the end he turns out to be kind of goofy, and a mere puppet for Ganondorf, the staple villain.  There’s a lot of wasted buildup for Zant, and not enough buildup for Ganondorf, which is kind of disappointing.  In the game’s defense, though, Ganondorf has never been so terrifying, and this game ends with the best Ganon fight in the series.

In the End…

It’s hard for me to express just why I love this game so much.  It has flaws.  All games do.  But the way we review games is subjective.  You can’t boil down the reasons you like a game with mechanical, 7.3/10 kind of reviews, it’s about how you feel.  That’s why some of us love games that are mediocre or worse, why we forgive the things that meant a lot to us.  That said, Twilight Princess is not mediocre by any means.  I never finished it until years later, and it’s aged quite well.  It’s objectively wonderful, the way a lot of Nintendo games are.  The difference is that all of the atmosphere and unique qualities of Twilight Princess hit 10-year-old me ten times harder.

There’s this moment in the credits, when you see what became of the game’s colorful cast of characters.  After the dust has settled, you see a shot of young Colin from Ordon Village, with a little sword and shield strapped to his back.  It’s simple, and cute, but it sums up why Twilight Princess stuck with me.  It made me feel the way no other game had, and it still does.  The way Link was an inspiration for Colin, this whole game was an inspiration to me.  It was a gift.  I suppose that kind of inspiration and wonder is something I want to pass on to my own nephew.  I want to be the Link to his Colin, as silly as it sounds.  I hope someday I can give him some kind of experience that is as unforgettable for him as Twilight Princess was for me.  I guess that’s all I can really say about this game…it’s an unforgettable classic.

Elder Scrolls Sequelitis: Oblivion VS. Skyrim

The Elder Scrolls games are each a product of their time.  The first three, Morrowind included, came out in the late 90s to early 2000s.  A time of games on three discs that you would pour hours of your life into.  It was an age of writing information down on paper.  Sometimes you’d be forced to walk away from a quest until you understood how to complete it.   The games were harsh, and so were many of the worlds.  For example, Vvardenfell was mysterious and intimidating, just like the game as a whole.

Oblivion brought in the Xbox 360 generation, when Xbox Live came into its own and games truly hit the mainstream.  The AAA games market was pushing towards the height of realism, experimenting with new physics and mechanics.  It used features like radiant AI and new dynamic facial expressions to enhance the sense of realism.  And for as horribly as they’ve aged, they were state-of-the-art at the time.  The new lighting technology also created a contrast of light and dark that I still love to look at today.

Skyrim was my first “real” Elder Scrolls game.  With the others, I’d mostly watched the action but didn’t really participate or make my own decisions.  When Skyrim came out in 2011, I knew immediately that I had to play it.  The hype behind it wasn’t like anything the series had seen.  It was the first game in the series to release in the true Internet age, when online playthroughs were becoming more popular and hype culture was alive and well.  In a time when AAA developers were perfecting the gritty aesthetic, Skyrim promised to deliver on realism like we couldn’t even imagine.  The web blew up when Skyrim was released.  It was immediately released to critical acclaim, some praising it as one of the best games of all time.  And at the time, it was absolutely revolutionary.

Bleak Falls Barrow
Bleak Falls Barrow, an early location in Skyrim. (Photo: BagoGames via Flickr)

Even after just a few years, though, people have already tired of Skyrim.  What started out as a love affair between the public and its new big video game has become a serious seven year itch.  So it only seems right to judge it based on its own merits and see how much it really changed compared to the game before it.

Let’s sling some arrows, shall we?

Story and World

Skyrim‘s tone is completely different from Oblivion‘s.  Like the other games before it, it’s highly prone to bugs and general gameplay flaws.  However, the serious, gritty overtone of Skyrim made these flaws stand out like a sore thumb.  In Oblivion, it adds to the charm.  In Skyrim, it turns out to be more of a distraction in my opinion.

Oblivion
The plane of Oblivion. (Photo: Fantasy Art via Flickr)

Oblivion has a diversity of environments and quests that I think makes Skyrim look like a chore.  While I think Oblivion‘s side quests are better than Skyrim‘s, though, the major questlines may be better or worse depending on what you value as a player.  Oblivion is high fantasy, and it’s not afraid to embrace absurdity, so I never felt any sense of high stakes.  I’d say the most tension I ever felt was the end of the Thieves’ Guild questline, but I won’t spoil it.

Meanwhile, Skyrim has more serious atmosphere and plotlines, so its quests tended to be more action-oriented.

As main story goes, neither one is good.  I found Skyrim‘s to be more compelling, but the sense of participation is lacking in both.  It’s all either “go fetch this” or “go kill this,” and I considered dragons in Skyrim to be more interesting than Oblivion gates.

Mechanics and Stuff

After a while I started to feel like the quests in Skyrim lacked creativity.  The first time you do a block rotation puzzle or a claw puzzle it seems interesting and creative, until you reach your 40th one and realize that this game can be a real one-trick pony.  For how big and beautiful the world is, it’s sure filled with a lot of repetitive challenges.  The good news is, I started with the major quests.  At the time their novelty made them feel more epic than they really were.

Whiterun Fields
The fields of Whiterun in Skyrim. (Photo: Joshua Livingston via Flickr)

Oblivion wasn’t much better.  I’d say since its dungeons were darker and more open, they had more atmosphere.  Both games suffer the same problem.  With each game in this series, the world gets bigger and bigger.  The amount of content in that world has to get bigger too, to fill out the empty space.  There’s an increasing distance between the designer and the player here.  In Morrowind, the world wasn’t massive, but Todd Howard and his team focused on crafting every inch of it deliberately.  Every location had a purpose.  Starting with Oblivion, they couldn’t help but copy and paste a little bit.  How could they?  100 years of work across the entire studio went into Morrowind.  Multiply the number of quests and NPCs, and you’re talking about an inhumane crunch.  I think the solution would be to take a step back to the simpler, more personal way of doing things.

It’s no coincidence that both Oblivion and Skyrim also have the quest marker.  There was so much to the game that the designers felt the need to direct the player.  I’ll admit, the ability to follow a dotted line to get through a quest was convenient.  But in the long run, I wonder how much it really makes the game better.  I don’t think Skyrim moved things forward there.

Dragon
The player’s first encounter with a dragon in Skyrim. (Photo: Joshua Livingston via Flickr)

Combat in Oblivion is terrible.  It’s fast, and blocking is more useful than it is in Skyrim.  But there’s very little balancing, and not much need to experiment with different options.  Weapons have very little sense of weight, and Skyrim fixed that problem.  The addition of shouts makes the combat way more interesting and engaging, and finding new upgrades to shouts is a great incentive.  That said, fighting things in Skyrim starts to feel like dead weight when you’re fighting your 58th Dragur Deathlord.  I think the lack of enemies is a problem in both games.  Most of them fall into fairly plain tropes.  You fight one, you’ve fought a thousand.  This is something I hope future games try to fix.

The Difference

The first 60 hours of Skyrim landed it permanently in my list of favorite games of all time.  Would I say it’s necessarily better than Oblivion?  Maybe.  Although I definitely prefer Skyrim, I’d say it’s completely subjective.

Northern Lights
The northern lights of Skyrim. (Photo: Kenneth DM via Flickr)

Overall, Oblivion is a game I play with my friends while Skyrim is a game I play by myself.

Counting all DLC, I played Oblivion for 90 hours and Skyrim for 150.  Oblivion is dated as all hell, but it’s a great time getting together with people who know nothing about it, to see them experience its weirdness firsthand.  It’s so awkward it’s become a meme, but I love it all the same.

I left Skyrim feeling very disillusioned, because I went back to the well so many times that the magic was completely gone.  And yet, I barely got over half the level cap.  There’s a good deal left in Skyrim that I never did, but I feel no desire to go back.  I want to show the final part of DimeTree’s series, “The Elder Scrolls Problem,” because I think it sums up how I feel.  In fact, I suggest anyone interested in these games watch his videos.

I’ve heard a lot of people say the same kind of thing, and it’s brought me to this conclusion.  There are some people who mod Skyrim and play it for thousands of hours on end, but for the rest of us, it’s the most magical game of all time until you exhaust it.  From that point on, instead of remembering the magic, we remember all the busy work and glitched quests.  We remember running into the same bandits or the same draugr for the 117th damn time.  Everything is so slow and deliberate that it starts to feel like punishment.  The thing is, those first 60 hours of discovery are unlike anything I’ve felt in any game.  They’re unique, and special.

These two games are both very flawed, but Elder Scrolls games are more than just a reflection of their times.  They’re about doing everything at once.  Maybe they don’t do everything well, but they definitely try.  I still can’t think of another series that looks so good, has full voice acting, hundreds of quests, and still lets you sit down in your house to read a book.  People had to create all of these things, and that alone is a feat.

This is why we play the Elder Scrolls games.  This is why I’m going to play them for a lot longer.  As long as there’s still caring, I’ll always go back to Tamriel again.

“May your road lead to warm sands.”

Elder Scrolls Sequelitis: Morrowind VS. Oblivion

When December rolls around, I get a hankering for a good RPG.  Maybe it’s the feeling of the holidays, and the combined wonder and stress surrounding the dawn of a new year, but an open-world fantasy always gets me going around this time.  And my preferred poison has always been Bethesda’s Elder Scrolls franchise.

I’ve been a fan of these games ever since 2003 when I would play Morrowind with my sister for hours on end.  I loved every second of it.   The sound effects, music, and rich environments felt vague and earthy, which I loved.  When Oblivion came out around 2006, we did the same thing.  The land of Cyrodiil was at our fingertips, and at the time, there was no offering quite as realistic as Oblivion.  Every character had voiced dialogue, and the world was intimately detailed.  It was amazing for a little kid.

I stepped away from these games almost entirely after Oblivion began to die down, and it wasn’t until Skyrim that my interest picked back up.  But I want to talk about Skyrim another time.  Right now I’m more interested in talking about the two games from my childhood.

Oblivion dungeon
A dark dungeon in Oblivion!

I played through Oblivion properly a couple years ago.  The game was so dated that I picked up the GOTY edition for 5 dollars at my local GameStop.  I was expecting to be let down by how poorly the game had aged.  I had no illusions about it, and it showed in every moment.  But I loved every last minute, even to about 80 hours in.

Morrowind has always been a tougher nut to crack.  About once a year, I try to get back into the game with my own character and make sense of it all.  It was definitely a game of its time, and it held onto the traditional western RPG roots for dear life.  Stats were a core component of the game.  There was no luxury of doing whatever you wanted, at whatever pace you wanted.  You could easily wander into the path of some bandit or creature that would waste you in seconds.  Even combat was based on random chance.  You can stand in front of an enemy, and not land a single blow if your stamina is too low.  To many people, this is like having a button to breathe.  In a video game, it rubs most people the wrong way, especially nowadays when the action element of a game is so much more pronounced.  People love the atmosphere, but don’t want to work with the machine behind it all.  They want the freedom to walk on out into the world and see all it has to offer.

In a lot of ways, I think Oblivion was reactionary to what these people were feeling.  Maybe it was Bethesda spotting a trend in games for the new generation of consoles.  Maybe it was trying a different direction based on people’s response to Morrowind.  Whatever the reason, there is a core difference between these two games:  Morrowind is a slow burn, and Oblivion is a playground.

A lot of discussion has gone toward which of these formulas is “better,” but I think this really misses the point.  Comparing one Elder Scrolls game to another is pointless.  In reality, they’re all completely different games that share certain tropes.  To say one is better than another means nothing.  But I still find it infinitely interesting to look at how this series evolves with time, to take stock of what’s left in, what’s left out, and how things change.

Morrowind Sunset
A sunset treeline in Vvardenfell. (Photo: Joshua via Flickr)

I’ve been doing this kind of thinking a lot recently, which is why I thought I’d take some time to compare these games to each other one-on-one.  I wanted to start with Oblivion vs. Morrowind because they’re polar opposites.

In Morrowind, I notice that I can spend five hours in a single city and not discover everything it has to offer.  In Morrowind, nothing is ever handed to you.  It makes you take notes by hand to keep track of what you learn, how every location relates to every other location, who’s important, and who might be important.  You never know what might come in handy.  Maybe you meet a person who you have to charm in order to obtain a favor.  If you have enough personality, it might be easy.  Otherwise you might need a certain vendor who sells a certain potion to give you just what you need.  There are always different ways to approach a situation, leaving room for the player to deal with things as they would in real life.  The opening of the game doesn’t tell you who you are or what your “end goal” is.  You’re just a prisoner from a boat trying to survive until at some point, you’re not anymore.  Heck, I had no idea what the story of Morrowind was until I looked online.

In Oblivion, you play through a very linear tutorial, and the story and your role in it are laid out instantly.  And logically, you’re basically unbeatable anywhere you go.  Partially, this is because of Oblivion‘s leveling system.  It uses an infamous scaling system, whereby a given enemy in a given cave could be a rat or a troll depending on the player’s level.  Bandits could be wearing cheap hide armor or a full set of the strongest armor in the game.  The world grows with the player, which has drawn its share of criticism.  It’s hard to suspend your disbelief in a world that’s clearly  based around you and your needs.  That’s why so many people value the brutality of Morrowind and, think Oblivion is kind of a joke.

Oblivion screenshot
A fight in Oblivion. (Photo: BenBenW via Flickr)

Oblivion is a joyous experience, though.  Sure, in a lot of ways I enjoy it for the “so bad it’s good” element.  Dialogue and faces are awkward, the combat is laughably simple, and some scenarios are so unbalanced that they ruin a climax.  For example, the last battle of the Mages Guild questline was so absurdly easy for me that I questioned whether it was worth my time.  The thing is, I enjoyed almost every step of my journey through Oblivion.  The setting is gorgeous, and really invokes that back-to-basics style of Arthurian fantasy that I remember from the old Errol Flynn Robin Hood or the vibrant illustrations of The Hobbit.  All the characters are a little bit different, and the combat leads to a lot of laughs.  Oblivion is one of those games that feels genuine for all of its flaws, and balances itself out with enough of a sense of wonder that it feels pretty great to play.  Some of the quests are also really clever.

Morrowind, as I said, takes a completely different tack.  Everything is uncompromising, and finding your way through the world is very difficult and time-consuming.  When you finally do master the game, though, the satisfaction is unlike any other experience in a game.  The thing is, Morrowind is a game that is extremely tough starting out, but which bends to the will of someone with the perseverance to find its weak points.  Becoming a master alchemist or enchanter gives you the path to complete domination of the world. You can buy things for free because your personality is too damn high and destroy the most powerful enemies in the game.  But no one’s going to tell you how to do it.

This idea of leading the player by the hand brings up another defining transition from Morrowind to Oblivion.

The quest marker.

In Morrowind, you have to intuit and remember locations of key figures and locations.  Oblivion will mostly just give you a quest marker pointing to exactly the thing you must interact with to advance the quest.  It also has free fast travel to any of the cities, or anywhere you’ve visited.  As a result, the game feels much more focused on busy work than Morrowind.  Sure, you need to find your way to the end of a dungeon, but the dungeon is marked neatly on your map, waiting for you to conquer it.   The less patient player will enjoy having the first steps of each action done for them, but they inherently miss out on the satisfaction of discovering it for themselves.  A lot of the mystery is lost from Morrowind to Oblivion.

Oblivion Inn
Some in-engine art from Oblivion. (Photo: faustina cartia via Flickr)

Is it better?  Is it worse?  That’s all a matter of opinion.  As I said, each one has its merits.  I found Oblivion to be much more relaxing than Morrowind personally, because I could enjoy the narrative of a quest by going from location to location and unfolding it easily.  Then again, the process of getting your hands dirty and making sense of a world like in Morrowind has a kind of value that modern games don’t replicate.  It forces you to play by its rules, and I respect a game that must be tamed.  That’s why comparing these two games in terms of which is the better iteration of a formula makes no sense.  They are vastly different.  In fact, if not for similar races and lore, I wouldn’t know they were from the same franchise at all.

What makes me curious is why Bethesda decided to make Oblivion after Morrowind, and call it a sequel?  I think that in the moment, they thought it was a revamp and expansion of everything Morrowind set out to do.  Instead, it handed the player a silver key to everything it offered.  But…it’s fun.  I like wandering through the Shivering Isles.  I love fighting through the arena with my bare fists right after finishing the tutorial.  It’s like eating a pile of candy starting with your favorite candy.  Morrowind, meanwhile, is very sweet-and-sour.  You have to experience the perspective and challenge of harsh NPCs, alien environments, and physical weakness before the world becomes your oyster.  I love them both for opposite reasons.  And honestly, I think that’s part of why The Elder Scrolls is so magical.