All posts by Gavin O'Reilly

My Thoughts on E3 2016, Part 3: Nintendo

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Nintendo’s E3 presentation was in good hands with Reggie Fils-Aime at the helm!

I had no idea what to expect from Nintendo going into E3 2016.  Although a few interesting titles like Paper Mario: Color Splash or Ever Oasis spiced up Nintendo’s showing, a whole lot was riding on Pokemon Sun and Moon and Zelda for Wii U/NX to make allow the Big N to keep up with the frankly stellar performances of its competitors.  And yet somehow, they managed to deliver despite having only two games, a true example of what JonTron termed the “Nintendo hadoken.”

Let me lead with the one I’m less excited about, and that is Pokemon Sun and Moon.  There are a lot of steps forward being taken in this game that I love.  For one thing, I love the enhanced 3D models and the fact that you can see 3D models of whatever trainers you’re fighting.  The fact that Zygarde is coming back into play with different levels of power has me stoked – finally this guy is getting the attention he deserves.  The Battle Royal mode is also fascinating, and adds an interesting new dimension to a battle system that’s been normally trainer vs. trainer until now.  The new Alola region is also gorgeous, home to some pretty cool looking new Pokemon, and the legendaries are amazing, although I’m most excited about Magearna for its Steel/Fairy typing.

But the big money is coming from the true reveal of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.  I’m going to just say it, this game looks lit.  I genuinely think BotW is going to set the standard for Zelda in the years to come.  I’ve never seen an installment take this many risks since Wind Waker, and in my view, it trumps even that game pretty cleanly in terms of innovation and variety.  We see a level of freedom that hasn’t been seen since the first ever Zelda, tempered by many inspirations in between like Elder Scrolls and Shadow of the Colossus.

This game gives you the bare minimum story context before letting you loose on the overworld, an overworld TWELVE times larger than the one seen in Twilight Princess, one of the largest the series has seen to date.  You can climb, hunt, forage, cook, fight, ride, pick up weapons and armor to suit the environment…this game allows the player to do leagues more than Zelda has ever allowed before.  Top that with improved physics, gorgeous art style, and a dynamic story wherein the player can complete the game without learning much of anything about the world, or get the full experience by exploring.  Throw in some amiibo compatibility, including using the Wolf Link amiibo to make the wolf your temporary companion, and you have a nostalgia arrow that’ll go directly to my heart.

All I’m really left hoping for is that this game has a rich offering of sidequests.  Previous entries like Majora’s Mask had excellent sidequests that were extremely rewarding for how they gave unique, unpredictable items that proved useful in different situations.  Other games, like Twilight Princess especially, had sidequests that were entertaining in large part because of interesting characters and missions that took you all across the overworld.  In an overworld as large as Breath of the Wild’s, I hope to see sidequests taken to a new level – I want to see mysteries and interesting questlines, huge battles and cool gear.  Also, as a last mention, I hope the classic green hat and tunic are at least possible to find somewhere in the game.  But if this game is able to fill its shoes, it will redefine one of the most iconic series of all time, maybe even beating out Twilight Princess as my favorite in the series.  It was unquestionably the game of the show for me, and I can’t wait to get my hands on it!

My Thoughts on E3 2016, Part 2: Sony

Sony's press conference was full of surprises and promise.
Sony’s press conference was full of surprises and promise.

Sony’s press conference leads me to believe that the PS4 is about to become the leading platform for cinematic, poignant, and hard-hitting video games.  From the next installment in the God of War franchise, to Hideo Kojima’s undeniable collaboration with The Walking Dead actor Norman Reedus, to a series of VR experiences of all kinds, it looks like Sony is aiming to evolve in the position it’s always had, pushing the boundaries of the stories video games tell.

So what really got me going at the press conference?  Well, just about every other thing.  God of War looks like it’s about to go in an interesting and hopefully more narrative-driven direction compared to its old third installment.  The Crash Bandicoot remakes hopefully signal a re-emergence of that franchise that so many of us grew up with.  Horizon: Zero Dawn looks like it will be an incredible combination of themes and deliver on some thrilling gameplay, and I have to admit, the very idea of Insomniac Games creating a new Spider-Man game gets me cautiously giddy.  As for all the promised VR spinoffs shown, all I can really say is I like the idea of them – given the current expense and relative novelty of VR, it’s something I can’t honestly say is going to be amazing or not – I may take an in-depth look at VR in another post, another day.

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But now onto the real hype machines.  First off, Detroit: Become Human looks like it’s going to set a new standard for interactive story building, exploring insanely interesting themes of real humanity vs. artificial humanity through engaging, investigative gameplay.  The multiple endings also make me thinking this is going to be an incredibly deep, well-crafted narrative experience and I can’t wait to see it take off.  Death Stranding and Resident Evil VII: Biohazard also excited me almost to the point of tears, not necessarily because they represent the kinds of games I play a lot, but because they are sure to shake the industry to its core.  The ingenious minds at Kojima Productions are most definitely going to make Death Stranding an intensely creepy and profound work of art, and RE7 not only looks like a return to the series’s survival horror roots, but the continuation of the kind of immersive, disturbing gameplay we were promised in Silent Hills before it was canceled.

Lastly (pun intended), we have The Last Guardian, the long awaited third entry in the series of extraordinary games that started way back when with Shadow of the Colossus.  It’s looking better than ever on this generation of consoles, and I think it’s sure to move us like few other games can.  Truly, Sony wowed us with the variety and promise of their whole presentation, and I hope their final products are as good as they look.

My Thoughts on E3 2016, Part 1: Microsoft

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E3 2016 was an incredible showing from every major company!

Going into E3 2016, I had no idea what to expect.  So little information had come out prior to Day 1 on June 13 from any major company.  But the expo was absolutely incredible this year – from advances in community and technology to reveals of extremely impressive new games, a lot has come to the surface.  Just about every company has brought interesting stuff to bear, so let’s break it down by presentation, starting with Microsoft!

Microsoft @ E3 2016 saw some huge announcements in tech and games from Xbox!
Microsoft @ E3 2016 saw some huge announcements in tech and games from Xbox!

A lot of what Microsoft turned heads with was the information it gave about its future plans during its press conference.

For one thing, it announced the implementation of Xbox Play Anywhere, which promises seamless integration of saves and data, not to mention  more cross-play, between Xbox One and Windows 10 PC.  Paying for an Xbox One digital game gives access to the PC platform.  This feels like a massive step forward for Microsoft in a market where more people are tending toward PC play than ever before, and it should put games in the hands of fans more often for no extra cost.  This is an idea I completely approve of, provided it doesn’t get bogged down to be more complicated than it has to be.

But Xbox also came out swinging in terms of hardware – it announced a new design program for custom controller color palettes as well as the Xbox One Slim.  But the big news was the first official announcement of Project Scorpio, the next console generation for Microsoft, which promises no-compromise 60 frames-per-second gameplay in 4K resolution.  How they will deliver on that promise without making the thing the size of a portable generator I don’t know, but we’ll see!

As far as games go, the press conference felt to me like most other Microsoft conferences: there was a lot of stuff that got me excited and a lot I don’t care about one bit, like Forza Horizon 3 and Dead Rising 4.  Other games like State of Decay 2, ReCore, and Tekken 7 all have me really intrigued – they look like they could be bringing a lot of beauty, innovation, and variety to a console that, for a long time now, hasn’t sparked my interest that much.

If I had to pick my favorite games on display at the conference, they would have to be Sea of Thieves, Inside, and Scalebound.  As someone who loves a good pirate battle in a video game, Sea of Thieves for me carries the promise of creating a unique online experience, and I hope it becomes the game to bring my boys at Rare back into the light.  Inside, the spiritual successor to Limbo, promises to do what its predecessor did – use the interactive medium to pose interesting questions and offer interesting yet simplistic gameplay.  Scalebound, meanwhile, just looks like PlatinumGames (the team behind Bayonetta, Wonderful 101, Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance, and Star Fox Zero) is doing what it does best: creating some over-the-top, intense, awe-inspiring boss fight carnage.  It looks like it has a ton of personality and I hope to get some time with it soon enough.

In all, I think Microsoft put on a great presentation and looks to be offering a lot of variety and opportunity to its fans that we haven’t seen in previous years.  Now feels like a better time than ever to keep an eye on these guys, especially if the Scorpio breaks the current bounds of gaming technology.

Oddworld’s Immersive Design

The classic logo for Oddworld! (Photo: DeviantArt)
The classic logo for Oddworld! (Photo: DeviantArt)

Oddworld was a huge part of my childhood.  And sure, it’s easy to get attached to something you see a lot as a kid.  But my love for the series goes beyond the fact that I used to play it with my family.  It fascinated me, and that fascination held through the years.  The reason it’s on my mind now is because of the recent release of Oddworld: New ‘n’ Tasty.  It’s a head-to-toe remake of the first game in the series, on Wii U.

Oddworld: New 'n' Tasty! (Photo: DeviantArt)
Oddworld: New ‘n’ Tasty! (Photo: DeviantArt)

After so much time away from the series, I wondered if it would still have the same appeal.  It absolutely did.  So much so that I knew I had to talk about it.

But I don’t just want to talk about the game plainly.  I also want to touch on the things that the creators of Oddworld do so well to make it a unique experience.  The Oddworld series mixes up its design from entry to entry.  But any game designer stands to learn a lot from how Oddworld Inhabitants, the team behind the series, does things.

Oddworld Inhabitants, the company behind every Oddworld game to date! (Photo: DeviantArt)
Oddworld Inhabitants, the company behind every Oddworld game to date! (Photo: DeviantArt)

The most significant thing about Oddworld to me is that it redefined what it means for a game to be ‘cinematic.’  Nowadays, a lot of developers seek to make their games more realistic-looking.  It’s a common assumption that being cinematic means being a spectacle.  The error here is that movie-quality realism isn’t always necessary for an interactive medium.  The emphasis is supposed to be on the player’s relationship with the game.  The game’s relationship with real life is fairly unimportant.

The way I see it, the goal that these developers are trying to achieve is best accomplished by making their games immersive.  And I know ‘immersive’ is an overly broad term, it’s like ‘fun.’  But I think of it as  transporting a player’s senses in the way only a game can.  And this, my friends, is where Oddworld shines.

To talk about this, I reached out to my friend Everett Aldrich. He’s a talented artist working both in 2D design and 3D cinematics.  He’s also done a lot of projects involving fantasy (one of his self-stated fields of interest).  I decided to ask him about how he thought audio-visual aesthetics play into creating a unique game.  He and I agreed that such attention to design is crucial to putting a game over the top.  “If you only make a nice video or game, then that’s cool, but it’s most likely just going to sit there,” said Everett.  “If you create this dynamic, eye-catching piece of promotional art or character renders or something, then you have a better shot at reaching out to more people.”

In its first couple of games, the makers of Oddworld focused strongly on making smooth, realistic cutscenes.  These went a long way towards selling the world.  But more importantly, they also made the in-game environments feel real.

The game reaches out and touches the player instead of just looking realistic.  It delivers seamless, dynamic transitions from cutscenes to gameplay, as well as atmospheric music that compliments each environment perfectly.   On top of that, clever gameplay elements keep the game constantly fresh.  Whistling passwords to progress through the lands of Mudokon natives, or running through gauntlets of deadly traps on the back of an Elum (read it backwards) steed enrich the quirky, funny, mystical, unpredictable world of oddness that the player is adventuring through.

I could go on and on about how the early Oddworld games are brilliantly constructed.  But what also deserves mention is how the even more brilliant Oddworld Inhabitants managed to completely change the formula and story for the fourth installment in the series, Oddworld: Stranger’s Wrath, yet integrate the same tone perfectly to create a similarly amazing experience.  Although the gameplay was entirely different, with a cheesy Western theme and much more badass run-and-gun style, it lives up to its namesake.  So what is it that Oddworld does that lets it transcend genres like this?

Stranger, the Bounty hunting hero of Stranger's Wrath! (Photo: DeviantArt)
Stranger, the Bounty hunting hero of Stranger’s Wrath! (Photo: DeviantArt)

Oddworld offers what few games effectively offer in my experience: the feeling of being on a journey.  Despite being mostly linear with only a few branching paths here and there, the tone of most Oddworld games is consistent.  Through everything from sound to narrative, playing it feels like being part of a myth in action.  In fact, during an interview, series creator Lorne Lanning said of a canceled Oddworld title in development: “I wanted to play off of myths that lie deep in our history of civilization, one of those dynamic, eternal battles, like good versus evil, which forms the basis for Star Wars and Lord of the Rings.”

And truly, never while playing Oddworld have I been fully aware that I’m playing a video game.  The experience has always been so engrossing that it becomes more like a temporary way of life.  The visuals use color and light to create magnificent atmosphere.  The sound design is a paragon of its craft.  Its soundtrack is far from traditional, but excels in that it’s perfect in the context of the medium.  It blends different types of instruments and creates sounds that feel like part music and part background noise.

When I asked Everett about the importance of audio compared to visuals, he said from experience that audio has a lot to offer.  “It adds so much life to your video game or film,” he said.  “It may have more importance than visuals actually.  I mean, you have some really nice games that don’t require breathtaking visuals, but they do have an engaging musical score.”  And sure enough, the mechanical tones and sound effects that play when sneaking through a factory, or the simplistic natural beats laid over the perilous wilds of Oddworld suck the player in such a way that it’s hard not to be continually awe-stricken by the world you’re in.

I feel there’s a lot to be learned from games like Oddworld.  Its parts not only work together, but enhance each other to amount to an extraordinary whole.  The visuals drive home the gameplay, the gameplay compliments the music, and so on.  Its combination of smart design, relentless creativity, and a good sense of humor creates something timeless.  In any case, I’ve noticed it makes for an unforgettable game.

To wrap up this delightful ramble down memory lane, I encourage those with an interest in game design, graphic design, or even just in a magical experience, to give Oddworld a try.  More and more odd goodness is being created all the time, with a remake of Abe’s Exoddus entitled Oddworld: Soulstorm coming in late 2017, which will apparently deepen the lore even more than the original.  This has me insanely excited, and if it means more people get a taste of one of my favorite game series of all time, that gives me all the more reason to be.

My Top 10 Favorite Super Smash Bros. Characters

I watched a lot of great top 10 videos during my early days on YouTube.  Since I love ranking things, it wasn’t long before I started making them myself.  I thought it might be fun to start putting some on ScreenLooker.  Why not list my my top 10 favorite characters in my favorite crossover/fighting game ever?  That’s right, it’s Super Smash Bros. for Wii U.

So without further ado, here it is, my top 10 Smash…brothers…I guess?

10 – Mewtwo

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One of Nintendo’s greatest decisions in developing this game was bringing Mewtwo back into Smash Bros., ready for round two.  I remember being super-excited because I’ve always thought Mewtwo was cool, but I never really felt like I got to experience the true extent of his power in the actual Pokemon games.

This was my first taste of Mewtwo in Smash, and it did not disappoint.  Although he’s fairly easy to KO, Mewtwo has some great aerial attacks, amazing mobility, and great mix-up options.  You have to remain firmly in control of the battle to play as Mewtwo, and his play style is unique.  He’s joy to play, and a joy to have back in the game.

9 – Mega Man

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I never grew up with the games, but I still love the Mega Man series – it revolutionized the action platformer and is a massive influence on gaming as a whole, not to mention a super-cool universe in its own right.

Needless to say, I was thrilled when Mega Man was brought into Smash, and was one of my early favorite newcomers.  His projectile game is extremely complex but rewarding, and very faithful to the series.  I’m insanely glad that Mega Man has returned to the spotlight for once, and I hope that he stays there for a while.

8 – Ness

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My attachment to Ness started when I got a Ness amiibo as a gift.  Before that, I mostly ignored Ness.  When I actually started committing to learning the character, though, I discovered that the little guy has a lot of strengths and fun complexities.  His moves are incredibly varied, but come together in a beautifully chaotic harmony.  He may take the title for quirkiest character in Smash for me, keeping his fantastic series, Mother, relevant for years, and I don’t think the game would be the same without him.

7 – Zelda

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I have a tendency to root for underdogs a lot of the time.  I’m well-aware that Zelda is considered the least competitively viable character in this game.  That doesn’t stop me from thinking she’s a good character.  She’s fun to play if you like trapping opponents in complex maneuvers.  Mixing up gameplay between her ranged and close-quarters combat is also a lot of fun.  Zelda is better than ever before, and I prefer her to a lot of high tier characters.

6 – Fox

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Straight-up intense speed in a fighting game really appeals to me. When I was first getting into Super Smash Bros., I liked Fox, but recently, I started getting into the competitive Smash scene.  Like many, I started by watching competitive Melee, in which Fox is considered the best character.

I developed a fascination with the character that I carried into my own experience with the game.  It also helps that, in my opinion, Fox in this most recent version of Smash is the best he’s ever been.  Overall, Fox is one of my favorite characters.  His speed and technicality in high-level play embody what I think the series is all about.

Plus, who wouldn’t love playing as a talking space fox?

5 – Cloud

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I never grew up with Final Fantasy games.  I’ve mostly observed the series from afar, but I always thought Cloud Strife from FF7 was a really cool character, the best representative of the series.  He was also one of my most desired Smash newcomers, but because of the complex licensing deals that would be involved, I never expected him to join the roster.

Needless to say, I was just as jaw-droppingly stunned as the rest of the Smash fanbase when Cloud joined Smash.  I remember seeing his reveal trailer late at night before going to bed.  When I woke up the next day, I wasn’t sure if it was actually real.  But as excited as I was about Cloud, he exceeded expectations.

His unique limit break mechanic not only adds a new layer of strategy to his gameplay, but it adds value to the little pauses in-between attacks during each fight to charge the limit meter.  This unique limit mechanic means that Cloud plays like no other character.  I’m incredibly happy about his inclusion and what it means both for Smash and for gaming as a whole.

4 – Lucina

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Lucina has frequently been written off as a pointless character because she has the same moves as Marth, a three-time Smash Bros. veteran.  Personally, though, I feel like Lucina is actually a better version of Marth.  In fact, despite their identical movesets, I think Lucina is a more accessible character.  She’s less floaty, she’s quicker, and she can do damage more consistently due to her lack of a tipper.  ZeRo (AKA Gonzalo Barrios) has expressed this same opinion.

All of her moves do a consistent amount of damage regardless of where her sword hits the opponent.  This is opposed to Marth, whose attacks do more damage when they make contact near the tip of his blade and less damage when they make contact near the hilt.  On the whole, Lucina is better for players like myself, who like diving into the fray more than being precise.

Above and beyond all this, I have a prior attachment to Lucina.  Her original game, Fire Emblem Awakening, was the first Fire Emblem game I ever owned, and it has since become one of my favorite games.  After playing it, I found Lucina to be an interesting character.  I like that she’s fiercely loyal and kind, but awkward and unsociable because of her lonely upbringing.  A lot of people would have preferred other characters over Lucina,  but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

3 – Sonic

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I’m no longer sure of whether I can still call myself a fan of Sonic games due to its lengthy series of ups and downs, I’m definitely a huge fan of the character himself.  I originally got into Sonic with the release of Sonic Generations in 2011, and since then, I’ve gotten pretty good with Sonic in Smash despite the fact that I used to hate him in the game.

His speedy movements and great recovery make him a serious threat, especially because his moves have gotten stronger since the last game.  Although Sonic as a franchise has gotten a bad reputation recently, I sincerely hope this character doesn’t go anywhere — after all, if anyone deserves to be in Smash Bros., it’s Mario’s greatest rival!

2 – Link

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I have a soft spot for Link because I’ve always been a fan of The Legend of Zelda.  When I first got Super Smash Bros. Brawl, the third game in the series, Link quickly became my favorite character.

Although he’s never been particularly viable in advanced, competitive play, Link has always been one of my go-to characters for his nicely weighted movement, decent capacity to do damage, and variety of powerful projectiles.  He has a lot of potential for technical play, particularly on unusually constructed stages. Watching a skilled Link player in action is an amazing experience.  The amount of planning that goes into an effective Link is staggering.  He’s a character who you can play with easily, but takes extreme skill to truly master, and that makes him one of my favorites.

1 – Shulk

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Before the full roster had been revealed, Shulk was my first choice for a Smash Bros. newcomer.  This was mainly because I owned his original game, Xenoblade Chronicles, and to this day it remains my favorite Japanese RPG, a truly underrated gem.

After I played Xenoblade, I knew Shulk would transition beautifully into Smash Bros.  I was even more right than I thought.  The ingenious designers on Masahiro Sakurai’s team turned him into one of the most complex and interesting characters in the series.

I think Shulk’s greatest strengths are his unique Monado Arts and his incredible range.  His Arts, called Jump, Speed, Shield, Buster, and Smash, are based on his unique abilities from Xenoblade Chronicles.  They allow him to greatly enhance particular attributes for a short time at the expense of giving him temporary weaknesses.  For instance, Buster causes Shulk’s attacks to deal more damage, but while using it, he takes more damage himself.  Arts can be switched out at the drop of a hat as the situation requires, making Shulk a force of nature in the proper hands.

These compliment Shulk’s extreme close quarter range — although most of his moves leave him open when they miss, a clever and patient player can do wonders with him.  To this day, he remains my favorite character to play as in Smash Bros. for Wii U.   It was a tough decision, but Shulk’s great design as a character combined with my love of the Xenoblade series make him my absolute favorite character in Smash to date.

And there we have it!  I hope you all enjoyed my long-considered Smash ramble.  To close, I suppose all I can say is, get the game if you haven’t already.  As far as I’m concerned, it’s one of the best games out there.

New Games Leaked: Pokemon Sun and Pokemon Moon!

Some new rumors have surfaced in anticipation of the Pokemon-themed Nintendo Direct on Friday, February 26th – namely that a 7th generation of games entitled Pokemon Sun and Pokemon Moon is to be announced as part of the broadcast.

Although this hasn’t been confirmed (and won’t be until the Direct at 10:00 AM / 7:00 AM PST), the leak is in the form of seemingly legitimate trademark information discovered by Nerdleaks revealing the titles of the game and even showing off highly polished logos.

A seventh Pokemon generation seems to be coming at the right time as Nintendo releases a new wave of Pokemon titles as a jumping off point into their next console generation.  It should also serve as an excellent promotion for the spinoff title Pokken Tournament, coming to Wii U on March 18th.

As for my thoughts on all this, I like the idea of another generation with elemental and maybe even mystical theming.  Some individual Pokemon like Solrock, Lunatone, and the legendary Cresselia are based on the sun and moon, and I think there’s a lot of potential there, stylistically and otherwise.

I likely won’t be getting myself any of the next generation games, unless some irresistible changes to the formula come with them (I already filled up the whole Gen 6 Pokedex, so don’t be judging me), but I do have a theory from the game alone.  I personally wouldn’t be surprised if Sun and Moon types were added to the already extensive list of types in place.

After all, Fairy type was introduced in Pokemon X and Y, much to the joy and/or frustration of many, so this seems like a prime moment for new type additions, especially if new Pokemon are created specifically to be put in these categories.  Even if the hardcore players are forced to tweak their precious metagame all over again.

No matter what happens, I’ll be fairly stoked if a new Pokemon generation is announced, and especially happy if it plans to bring a lot to the table in terms of enriching an already amazing franchise.  I’ll be keeping right on top of this broadcast on the official Nintendo Direct website, so until then, stay frosty!

Portal 2: Best 3D Puzzle Game Ever?

I came to Portal 2 way late.  There have actually been quite a few games that I missed out on at the time of release.  Portal 2 came out in 2011, so it was either that or Skyrim.  I chose Skyrim.  I don’t regret it, but I remember that both Portal games were praised for their brilliance.  Thankfully, I have a friend who absolutely loves Portal and was awesome enough to lend it to me.  So now I feel like I should take the opportunity to talk about this gem.

A brief view of the majesty of Portal 2!
A brief view of the majesty of Portal 2! (Photo: Flickr)
Portal 2 Should Be Impossible to Make

Playing Portal 2 has confirmed for me that there are some games you have to play to really appreciate, both for better and for worse.  The brilliance of Portal is that the player’s greatest asset is one incredible, unique mechanic.  The fact that you can place a portal in one spot, and then another portal in a different spot, and the two lead into each other is…just extraordinary.  I remember seeing it in action for the first time and wondering, “How could they possibly code this?”

And yet, as dumbfounded as I was, using portals felt natural.  It was only a couple minutes before I started using them proficiently to solve puzzles.  The game’s famous slogan is “start thinking with portals,” and that’s literally what the gameplay consists of.  The challenges Portal 2 presents to its players are mostly intellectual.  They don’t require much motor skill apart from jumping and good timing.  This makes it possibly the most accessible 3D puzzle game in years.

The level design is are brilliant and innovative, both in single player and two-player modes.  Each of the many sets of levels features a particular gimmick like tractor beams or energy bridges (none of which came about simply).   These gimmicks are used in a variety of ways to keep them from getting stale.  This also keeps the experience challenging while only requiring the ability to navigate 3D space efficiently.  The ability to think in terms of these set pieces is more important than anything else.  That makes it an excellent puzzle game by itself.

Portal 2 is Charming as Can Be

What really turns this game into the stuff of legends for me is its presentation.  Its narrative.  Its world.  The main personality of the game, GLaDOS (voiced by the spectacular Ellen McLain), is so humanly charming in her inhumanity that she may be my favorite villain in any game.  Although I play a lot of games with my dad, Portal 2 is one of relatively few that I’ve really seen him immediately take to.  Part of what he loved about it was its tongue-in-cheek humor.  Not only was its humor memorable, but the way each test chamber gradually introduces the player to different uses of portals made a vast multitude of possibilities seem manageable, even to someone new to the series.

Portal 2 also makes some brilliant aesthetic and thematic choices that make it stand out from the crowd.  The fact that player characters never talk makes it that much easier for the player to feel like part of the world they’re in.  Even the color palette, with its shades of black and white broken up by the colors of the portals, is brilliantly simplistic.  And while I won’t spoil the story, I will say it’s fantastic.  It’s not only hilarious, it also made me ask questions. I questioned things I knew about games and about life as a whole.

Furthermore, the presentation compliments the genius design of the game – while the game’s introductions to puzzle-solving are fairly quirky and on the nose, they don’t feel rigid, as they’re supported by the thematic tone of the game.  Portal 2’s unique personality, combined with its fantastic commitment to a unique gameplay style, is why I don’t hesitate to say this is my favorite 3D puzzle game ever, and I hope it goes down in history for being remembered as the favorite of many.

Why Minecraft is So Popular

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The classic Minecraft logo! (Photo: Flickr)

Playing Minecraft was a pivotal moment in my gaming life.  I remember when I was 12 and the game was brand new.  Just a quirky little game from a group of indie developers in Sweden.  The player was given no goal but to build and survive.  I watched entire online communities grow around the game.  Channels like the Yogscast and CaptainSparklez gained millions of subscribers with Minecraft as their foundation.  This game is huge among kids aged 10 to 60, and I was part of that crowd myself.  Nowadays I look to see that Minecraft has sold over 70 million copies, one of the best selling games of all time next to Tetris.  Its creator, Markus Persson (AKA Notch), has meanwhile become a millionaire within the space of a few years.

Me being myself, it’s not enough for me to simply say Minecraft is a great game, and leave that as the reason why it’s sold so well.  A game doesn’t sell that well, doesn’t appeal to such a wide array of players, without striking a deep chord with people.  Minecraft is no exception, and I think my suspicion is confirmed by the game’s global popularity.   Minecraft has even made its way to Nintendo consoles, most recently the Switch.  It’s  proven massively profitable for Nintendo because of its appeal to players in Japan, and Its new community on Miiverse has been hopping with amazing in-game art and enthusiastic players.

We can partially credit Minecraft’s success to Mojang’s wise decision of port it to every platform under the sun.  As of now, it’s on PS4, PS3, Xbox One, Xbox 360, Wii U, Switch, PS Vita, mobile devices, and of course, PC.  But this only scratches the surface.  A game can get in as many hands as it wants, but it still has to have staying power to become popular.  So, where does its staying power come from?

Minecraft has such a wide appeal because it can be both extremely simple or extremely complex.  The most casual player can have fun making simple stone houses and admiring the beautiful, blocky vistas of their unique worlds.   Meanwhile the most hardcore crowd can sculpt mountains, build castles in midair, make underwater tunnels…whatever tickles their fancy.  Beyond that, it focuses on bringing players together.

People could play together in the same world ever since the game’s inception.  This provides a sort of network for players to experience each other’s in-game creativity firsthand.  In fact, some users like Hypixel are well-known within the community for essentially creating games within the game of Minecraft.  Re-purposing its assets to create new gamemodes has drawn consistently big crowds.  One way or another, it seems like Minecraft has a way of appealing to everyone’s tastes, no matter who they are.  This is how the community has become one of the largest and strongest in the world.  It’s chock full of everything from magnificent builds…

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A town build within the world of Minecraft using a custom texture pack. (Photo: Pixabay)

…to many, MANY parodies of pop songs.

Mechanically speaking, though, Minecraft is also enjoyable because just about everything in the game is intrinsically rewarding.  Mapping out a cave, digging tunnels, gathering resources, building…all of them feel good to do in their own right.  They cater to creative instincts that humans have had for years.  It’s the same rewarding feeling of creating your own homestead without the time, effort, and danger.  This might be how it finds success everywhere.

Most other games consist of smaller goals that the game provides to you in some way.  If there’s a level, you have to make your way to the end and move to the next one.  If there’s a dungeon, you have to puzzle and fight your way through.  The reward is whatever story, treasure, or otherwise that lies at the end.  That’s not to say that this stuff can’t be satisfying, but a game like Minecraft transcends this formula.  It gives you the opportunity to do just about whatever you want, which can’t help but be satisfying because the game is an extension of you.  It can be an escape into a simpler world, a grand adventure, or an artist’s blank canvas.

I foresee that the impact Minecraft is having on the game industry, particularly for younger audiences, will last for years to come.  Hopefully we start to see designers more focused on making their games personal experiences for players, ones that are satisfying in themselves.

Meanwhile, I’m going to go build myself an underground lair with my friends.  Thanks for reading!

Amiibo: Genius, or Gimmicks?

Toys and collectibles were separate from video games for a long time.  But now, since the turn of the century, companies have found ways to overlap these kinds of entertainment.  This is still a relatively niche corner of the industry of course.  But that doesn’t stop adults and kids alike from collecting toys-to-life products.  Specifically, I want to talk about amiibo.

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A collection of amiibo. (Photo: YouTube)

Anybody who knows anything about video game figurines will tell you they hit it big with the advent of Skylanders.  The idea that a plastic figurine in real life could translate to a character in a video game was mind blowing.  And true to form, Activision hasn’t hesitated to capitalize on it (surprise, surprise).  As of today, around 300 million Skylanders figurines have been sold so far.  Disney Infinity, another toys-to-life franchise, has sold millions of figure packs of various Disney properties, from Marvel to Star Wars.  Clearly a market has developed for these things.

Regardless, a lot of people were surprised when Nintendo announced they were getting in on the toys-to-life trend.  Whether their fan base approves or disapproves is still rather undecided.  Amiibo can never seem to win with the public.  Some people love them dearly, some people think they put Nintendo as low down as EA or Activision.  Then again, many are indifferent.  For people who haven’t really followed to amiibo scene, their biggest failing is that Nintendo hilariously underestimated their popularity at launch.

The likely reason is because Nintendo decided to get ambitious in their production goals.  They created figurines for every single one of the over 50 Smash Bros. characters, a line for Mario Party 10, and a few for Splatoon, with more and more coming all the time.  This was a lot to take on, and people were all over these things when they came out, which only made matters worse.

Amiibo ended up with an issue from the very start, stemming from how Nintendo decided to market them.  They started out with a small line of around 10 Smash Bros. characters, but a tier of “rarity” immediately emerged.  Nintendo assumed that more well-known characters like Mario or Link would be in highest demand.  However, people gravitated towards characters who had never gotten any real merchandise before.  As a result, you saw characters like Marth, Villager, and Wii Fit Trainer selling on eBay for hundreds of dollars.  Wii Fit Trainer is still not available in stores anywhere in the U.S., even after more than a year.

For better or worse, a culture has developed around amiibo.  Certain amiibo have become more desirable, and ironically, demand for them has increased because they’re not in stock anywhere.  Twitter accounts like Amiibo Alerts work constantly to put figurines in the hands of fans, gaining almost 40,000 followers in the process.  Now even when figurines are restocked, people think of them as rare. However, logically, no single amiibo should reasonably be harder to get than another.  Tons of videos now exist like this one where people show off extensive collections of amiibo.  Many of them are still impossible to find in stores.

Fans have argued that amiibo are everything from a cash grab, to a waste of time for people who take games seriously.  My argument is that they are something of a cash grab, but that doesn’t make them a bad thing.  Plenty of things in the world are for the sake of making money.  The question of how we receive them comes down to quality.  In the case of something like amiibo, we have to ask what they add to their games.

Functionally speaking, amiibo are a mixed bag.  In my opinion, the two best uses of amiibo so far are the Smash Bros. line and the Shovel Knight amiibo.  Smash amiibo are trainable figurines that serve as sparring partners for players.  The Shovel Knight amiibo unlocks co-op play for the game.  These are because they add to their games without being necessary to enjoy them.

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The worst offender, on the other hand, is Animal Crossing: Amiibo Festival.  It’s built specifically to try to sell amiibo.  It would be more excusable if the game involved some kind of motor skill like Mario Party.  It would be even more excusable if the game itself didn’t sell for a full 60 dollars.  As it stands, though, the game is pretty much just a money pit.

Nintendo is still figuring out how to implement amiibo in a way that makes them worth buying.  Although they’ve had missteps, they’re onto something.  The best figurines don’t act as a paywall.  In fact, a lot of people are concerned about the upcoming release of The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess HD, which is to come with a figurine that unlocks a new dungeon.  The future is uncertain for these things.

After a year of experimentation, many have written off amiibo as a misguided attempt by Nintendo to expand its product lineup.  But to answer my own question, I don’t think they’re a scam.  I personally love the little things.  I think they have value in that they’re not only software compatible, but collectible.  Lots of figurines are characters that don’t otherwise come with merchandise.  Therefore, they’re more interesting than simple collector’s items, without being particularly expensive.  I never thought I’d ever have action figures of characters like Shulk from Xenoblade or Ness from Earthbound, yet here they are.  And the fact that they play a role in actual games is something I think can have lasting appeal if done right.

As long as supply of amiibo in the future can meet the public’s demand for them, I think they have a bright future.  Developers just need to balance them so that they’re important, but not necessary to the experience of a game.  Granted, I don’t plan to buy that many more, but who knows?  I never planned to buy amiibo at first, until the right ones came along.  Now I have, well…a couple…

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OK, maybe more than a couple.

How JRPG and Western RPG Genres Differ

With Christmas less than a week away, I want to talk about one of my favorite genres of video game: the RPG, or Role-Playing Game.  The holiday season always puts me in the mood for RPGs.  The childlike sense of wonder I feel during this time of year makes me crave the kind of exploration and mystery that only a deep fantasy RPG can provide.  But I got to thinking about what ‘RPG’ even means for a video game.  The discussion is everywhere from the forums of GameSpot to YouTube by people like Trailer Drake.  This is a hard question to answer, but I figured I’d give my two cents.

A statue of the man-god Talos from The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. (Photo: Flickr)
A statue of the man-god Talos from The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. (Photo: Flickr)

The way I see it, the main characteristic of an RPG is freedom of choice.  This is where the line is drawn in determining whether a game is an RPG or not.  Think about it, the RPG is one of the oldest genres of video game, but it didn’t start electronically.  It has its roots off the screen and on the tabletop with cultural phenomena like Dungeons and Dragons.  In these games, players would get together, create their own characters, and spell out their own fantastical adventures together.  It was literally a game of playing roles, and this tradition of crafting your own story has made it to the digital age.

As a contrast, look at games like Super Mario, or Sonic the Hedgehog, or even Battlefield.  These games are fun because each time you play is different and unpredictable.  But they essentially consist of lots of little experiences.  In each of the many matches, levels, stages, or what have you in games like these, there’s a set goal in mind.  Success is binary: you either win, or you don’t.  Winning is the end goal.

This isn’t a bad thing, of course.  Linear games are very fun provided they aren’t repetitive.  It’s just easy to look at something and know it’s an RPG.  These games have an entirely different flow.  They tend to take place in larger worlds of some sort, and goals are rarely obvious.  You can follow the “main story” or you can go build something, or fight something.  RPGs are worlds apart from reality.  Player agency is king.

If you try to go deeper than freedom of choice, though, things begin to diverge.  For example, consider two of the most popular RPGs of all time: Final Fantasy VII and Skyrim.   One might guess they’re similar — after all, they’re part of the same genre.  They both last for hundreds of hours.  But these games approach the same genre in two different ways.

These videos by the phenomenal YouTube channel Extra Credits lay it out pretty well.  They point out the same idea of an special divergence in the RPG genre.

Skyrim is experienced from an individual perspective.  It has a single, player-customized protagonist.  It contains many, many quests, with no particular need to complete any of them.  Completing the main story isn’t the end of the game, because there’s lots of other content.

 Final Fantasy VII, on the other hand, is more story-oriented.  It has seven different protagonists, met over the course of this story.  Its overworld is explored differently, and combat has completely different mechanics.  Clearly there must be some reason for the difference, right?

As it so happens, there is a big difference.  The differences seen from one RPG to another almost always come down to region.

This is why we hear terms like “Western RPG” or “JRPG,” (J is for Japanese).  In fact, this is basically the only instance in which a genre of game has been divided by region.  That’s unheard of, but it has good reason.  The difference basically emerged because the west and the east came up with separate schemes for role-playing video games.  We ended up with different interpretations of the same idea.

Western companies like Bethesda Softworks, Mojang, and Blizzard have famously created games like Minecraft, Fallout, The Elder Scrolls, or World of Warcraft.  They have no clearly defined “goals,” but tend to focus more on exploration and questing.  The idea of “role-playing” is more broad, leaving more room for the whims of the player.

Japanese companies like Nintendo, Square Enix, and Monolith Soft, on the other hand, have seen series like Mother, Xenosaga/Xenoblade, or Final Fantasy.  These are more goal driven, and focus more on storytelling, often with many playable characters with certain specializations, and detailed management of stats.

Of course, these definitions are far from concrete.   We see a lot of overlap with MMO (Massively Multiplayer Online) RPGs like WoW or Guild Wars that are largely unrestricted in terms of goals, but have myriad amounts of playstyles, equipment, weaponry, and so on.  There’s also the hit Nintendo Legend of Zelda series (a personal favorite) that blends playstyles.  It focuses on a single main protagonist and has equipment mostly for exploration, but also focuses on the completion of a main quest.

This kind of overlap makes perfect sense, because RPGs all have their roots in the Gygax-esque tabletop format.  Both involve decision making, encounters with enemies, and stat management.  Where they differ is in mechanics and style.

“Western” styles meet with a lot of popularity worldwide because they involve a very broad range of cultures.  They’re also more accessible in a lot of ways.  Combat is natural, leveling isn’t as crucial, and grinding is rarely necessary.  This isn’t to say that one type of RPG is better.  It’s just a testament to the point of this post: RPGs and JRPGs are different beasts.  This is why it’s interesting to see them interact.

The reason I bring up this whole question is that many people point at games like Zelda or Minecraft and say they aren’t “real” RPGs.  My argument is that the question of whether a given game is an RPG or not depends quite a bit on your point of view.  And in fact, I think it’s a good thing that RPGs come in all shapes and sizes.  “RPG” serves as a sort of banner for various different games from all over the world to unite under.  In my opinion, that’s just how it should be.