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Best of 2012

Happy New Year everyone.  I know my blog hasn’t been exactly “hopping” lately, but I’d be a horrible person not to summarize my picks for the year.  Once again – please keep in mind, I have in no way experienced all of the things that came out in 2012 so if your favorite thing isn’t on my list, deal with it.  And this has been a weird year for my media consumption patterns, so we go to some weird places.

Book of the Year - The Cross in the Closet (Timothy Kurek) (by default)

I apparently didn’t read many books of import this year – certainly not anything that actually came out in 2012. That’s a little weird. I’m currently working through Ghostwritten, but that’s not new.  Of the 2012 books I DID read, though, this nonfiction one was pretty important. The basic idea being the author (a Christian) was brought up to believe homosexuals were the enemy. So to test this belief he decides to “come out of the closet” to understand what homosexuals actually must face, from family abandonment to being ostracized from certain facets of society.  He does this for a year, and learns a lot about love and how Christianity is supposed to work. Recommended for anybody with a stake in the Chick-fil-a debate.

 

Album of the Year - Days Go By (The Offspring)

So this one wins primarily because it’s finally another good Offspring album. By which I mean, not just “cool if you like the band” but interesting and relevant and also cool if you like the band.  Soooo many old groups have dropped the ball lately (Linkin Park, Blink182) and it’s disappointing because I lack the ability to stop buying a series of something that I’ve ever at any point liked.  So it’s nice to be rewarded once in a while. Better than Offspring’s been since Americana–you know, the last time you remember hearing about them, and track 1 is exactly what I thought Offspring would sound like in 2012 when I first got into them.

Runner up: V/A (Handheld Heroes)

 

Movie of the Year - Wreck it Ralph

So, I saw a lot of movies I enjoyed this year, but a lot of them on video and stuff seeing as we couldn’t leave the house for half the year, and then didn’t go to movies much during the final months when all the nerdy important emotional films are in theaters.  But that’s okay, because this would have been my movie of the year anyway – Wreck it Ralph.  It was great!  It is too perfect to exist, so I have no idea why it’s here, but it is.  It goes beyond just a dozen or so funny game references in that its made by people who “get” games, so all the other non-referency decisions are basically references, because they are how games WORK, not just “remember Pac Man? Ha ha!” type moments.  It’s funny, has hearts, and is a very well constructed movie.

Runners up: Cloud Atlas, The Hobbit

 

New Show of the Year - Don’t Trust the B in Apt. 23 (ABC) (by default)

Another “by default” win – we just haven’t started watching any new shows really.  So while I’m not saying you should start watching “B” right away because it’s totally awesome (it’s not)… for a lame show, it’s not bad. The best part which you should be aware of is that James Van Der Beek (Dawson) plays himself on the show, and by “himself” I mean an egotistical, oblivious jerkwad. It’s hilarious self-satire and it’s what keeps me coming back.  Keep in mind I have never once seen Dawson’s Creek – but the skewering is so entertaining it works regardless.

 

Returning Show of the Year – How I Met Your Mother (CBS) (caveat)

So this is a bit of a lie and a misdirection, as it really should be going to Doctor Who, which I discovered this year AND had a good season.  The current season HIMYM isn’t actually its strongest. So why did I choose it?  Well, because I think a lot of people may have dismissed it as just some stupid sitcom, or like me, some stupid sitcom with a terribly stretched premise after 8 seasons.  Well, the thing about HIMYM besides the crazy and appealing acronym for its name, is that it does really interesting things with plotting and the flow of time that no other show has done.  While this is far more appealing in seasons 2-4 than the recent ones, those seasons are definitely worth experiencing and if you haven’t, then get to Netflix and invest some time.  These writers know, or at least knew, what they were doing and crafted some great fun for continuous viewers.  Also it has Neil Patrick Harris who is just delightful(ly a terrible person in this show).

But also go watch the “Don’t Blink” episode of Doctor Who and if you dig that, dive in.

Runners up: Doctor Who (BBC), Supernatural (CW), Walking Dead (AMC)

 

Portable Game of the Year - Kid Icarus: Uprising (Nintendo, 3DS)

I love Kid Icarus. When Nintendo announced this game, I don’t know, 4 E3′s ago at this point? it was like they announced it just for me. It came out this year, and it was pretty sweet. Every level was basically an anime episode that played out in the background as you flew over Nintendo’s finest pre-WiiU graphical showpieces fighting crazy monsters at increasingly high speeds. It also had oodles of 8-bit fanservice and a great villain swap a few levels in. Also, Troy Baker speaking computer binary faster than you’d think possible. So it’s got everything. Unfortunately I didn’t really have time to devote just to KI when it came out, and ended up beating it months later on the (far superior) 3DS XL. It’s a shame, too, because there is TONS of content locked away that I never scratched the surface of, from an innovative difficulty system feeding into loot crafting and online multiplayer…  If you’re the type of person, or the same age as, I was when I first fell in love with the Kid Icarus franchise–and one game has to last you a month or more, Kid Icarus: Uprising really WAS made just for you.

Runners up: Final Fantasy Theatrhythm (SquareEnix, 3DS), New Super Mario Bros. 2 (Nintendo, 3DS)

 

Digital-Only Game of the Year - Tokyo Jungle (Sony Computer Entertainment, PSN)

As much as I want to give the nod to my buddy Sean Velasco at WayForward–and you should definitely all go download Double Dragon right now–Tokyo Jungle is exactly the type of game I always used to imagine playing as a kid, but had to accept would never get made. And yet it lives. This is a game where you play as an animal in post-apocalypse Tokyo and are forced to survive. There are a bazillion animals to unlock, a story mode, and the main survival mode. It plays like a light roguelike on a nightmare version of the Nature Channel. Nothing beats sneaking around as a house cat and engineering a battle between Shibuya’s Tiger and Hippo populations.

Runners up: Super Hexagon (the VVVVVV guy, iOS), Double Dragon Neon (WayForward, PSN), Fez (Polytron, XBLA)

 

PC Game of the Year - Walking Dead (TellTale)

Another year, another instance of me cheating this category by lauding a game I played on console by virtue of me not actually playing PC games… Walking Dead is pretty great. You know that, because you’ve already played it, but if you haven’t for some reason give it a shot. It’s a LOT like Shattered Memories in that the experience is meant to tailor AROUND you and the point is really MAKING the decisions, not having an actual different game play out than people who chose differently… and that’s fine, because making a game that ACTUALLY supported independent results for 12 hours of choices would be out of the scope and budget of the industry as it stands (but at least SH:SM had multiple endings, just sayin’).

Point is, like the show and comic, Walking Dead puts you in the very grim reality of a zombie apocalypse and the difficulty of banding together to survive when everyone in your group is just as frazzled, damaged, and close to death as you are. No punches are pulled, and the game does an admirable job of endearing you to Clementine, the nine-year-old who’s been put in your care. I haven’t heard of anybody NOT affected by seeing Clementine’s disappointed pout after they made a tough but necessarily horrible decision at some point in the game.  This is good stuff, and if you’re a fan of storytelling in digital media it’s pretty much a must-purchase.

 

Console Game of the Year - Journey (That Game Company, PS3)

Speaking of storytelling in digital media, there are great ways to do that without crafting rails around a linear narrative. Not sure how? Play Journey. Journey isn’t just the most beautiful looking thing on four wheels, but it integrates multiplayer in a brilliant way that not only keeps you safe from the perils of the other people on the internet, but also tells a self-created narrative. You’re on a journey with others–and you will interact with them (or not) as you go along. Most will help you, some will ignore you, and in the end you’ll be better having struggled alongside someone else than going it alone. The great thing about this is, the metaphor doesn’t just apply to one type of person. My experience was trying to keep up with (or guide) the same person through as much of the journey as possible… but any other approach is equally valid, and supported by the game and its narrative. Did you break off from your friend when he wasn’t as concerned with treasure hunting for trophies?  Did you find a white robe and follow his every move hoping to get one of your own?  Did you decide the multiplayer was stupid and ignore it, or worse yet, disconnect from PSN so you didn’t have to be bothered?  These all say something about YOU, the player, and don’t help or hinder your ability to reach the end of the journey… powerful stuff, and all without a single line of dialogue.

 

Runner Up - Spec Ops: The Line (2K, XBox 360)

So this deserves more than just a funny caption, because it’s pretty heavy and depressing. You need to play Spec Ops. If you hate modern military shooters (or like me, never play them) you need to play Spec Ops.  If you LOVE modern military shooters, you especially need to play Spec Ops.  It has a message, and that message is not a trite “War is bad guys.”  Just play through it. It’s kind of a miracle this game exists in its final form.

 

But Seriously You Owe it to Yourself to Play - Super Meat Boy (Team Meat, XBLA) (disqualified – came out years ago)

Blog? What’s going on with seriously Tomm update your dumb blog.

Hey all! Real life is all busy and such so all my down-time has gone to relaxing with games or movies or shows or whatnot rather than blogging. There’s also been a lot of traveling around lately and that tires me out. I figured I should check in and maybe update with some of the things I’ve been spending my time with lately. Maybe if you spend your time on them, you won’t need me to update.

But sorry for the lack of updates.

MOVIES

Brave – Pixar’s latest. It’s good (see, I said it was Pixar, there. And the title is not “Bug’s Life”). However, it was a bit less adventurous than I would have liked, and I felt the movie was a little bit scattered in its plotting. The “point” of the movie doesn’t start moving until nearly halfway in, and some events just seem thrown in at random without properly connecting to the story as a whole. I’ve had a lot of people disagree with me so your mileage may vary. It also succumbs to Video Game Logic in a spot or two, and that’s pretty sloppy for Pixar. Obviously beautiful, though.

Jeff, Who Lives at Home – I’m beginning to like Jason Segel, so I thought I’d check out this movie. It’s a bit weird, and if you hate those indie-type films about regular unremarkable people you probably won’t like it much. Without spoiling much I’d say it’s Signs, but without aliens and grounded in the rules of reality. I enjoyed.

Indie Game: The Movie – Ever wonder what it’s like to make a game? Or what type of person attempts such a thing? Well, then you should enjoy this movie. The people featured are kind of extreme examples, but I could definitely relate despite never having considering suicide if a game failed (I will admit to a small bit of satisfaction when Phil Fish encountered negative fans on the internet).  Nevermind the trailer making it seem all pretentious and stuff.  You don’t have to like these people (you don’t like me!), but you will be interested in them and their successes.

The Amazing Spiderman – You already know if you’re going to see this movie or not. Anyway, I thought it was a bit better than the previous series in a lot of ways. I won’t get into detail, but the Spiderman bits were truer to the comics (more cracking wise) and a lot more impressive (constant webslinging). However,  Garfield’s Peter Parker was a bit odd. Rather than shy/nerdy he comes off socially retarded. Maybe that’s just the modern version of nerdy, but it was hard for me to watch in some scenes.

The Secret World of Arrietty – It’s a Ghibli film, so watch it.

GAMES

Super Meat Boy – Indie Game The  Movie got me interested in trying this out, and I wasn’t disappointed. Don’t be deterred by the fabled difficulty, as it’s really not that terrible. Stages are incredibly short and you respawn immediately after dying. Tons of retro references, too.

Walking Dead – Forget about waiting for the upcoming game from Activision, Telltale’s adventure version captures the feel of the series perfectly. It’s tense, dark, and forces you to make split second decisions you don’t want to make. It’s episodic (2 Chapters so far), though there is a bug where the game doesn’t quite remember  every choice you made, but hopefully that gets resolved. I will admit it’s fun to play a game so clearly built off Shattered Memories.

Frogger: Hyper Arcade Edition – Did you enjoy Pac-Man CE? Do you like Frogger? I don’t care, buy this fun game. Didn’t you ever wonder why I wrote that Daft Punk / Frogger parody?

Fallen London – Do you like Social games, but wish they were more compelling and less colorful?  Check this one out, it’s pretty good.

Realm of the Mad God – Do you hate Social games because they’re nothing like actual games? This one is! Check it out.

COMICS

Walking Dead – Being a fan of the show, I decided to use Comixology on my iPad to get caught up on the comic that inspired it all. Holy crap is it depressing. If you hate life or are interested in hating life, make sure you read this (but in a good way). I will say, if you are squeamish or events in fiction can really bother you, you might want to think twice. Walking Dead is GRIM with a capital bleak.

TELEVISION

Dr. Who – Here’s the big one. Dr. Who is brilliant. This would be the 2005+ show, rather than the old version from the 60′s (which my wife used to watch with her dad–so she can fill me in). We’re just finishing the fourth series now, and I’m consistently floored by the thought of how much this show would blow me away were I a 12-year-old.  Which isn’t to say it isn’t great now–I just mean I’m a bit jealous of the kids who get to experience Who before being jaded by media overload. I guess I could be older than 12… my Sophomore year of high school I was blown away by Disney’s Gargoyles and Chrono Trigger, and this is like those combined times five.  Check it out if you haven’t already, nevermind the fart jokes early on.

OTHER

Extra Credits – A lot of people ask us game professionals “how can I make games?” or “How can I get your job so Silent Hill doesn’t suck anymore?” well, these people clearly are not watching Extra Credits.  This is a series of videos on Penny Arcade (I guess they started on Escapist) that address a variety of topics throughout gaming that you might not think of if you’re a more general “fan” of gaming–but you should.  The person who writes them is apparently a big time design consultant who also lectures at DigiPen. I wholly recommend them, even though they criticize my Silent Hills while clearly having never actually played them.  (At least from what I can tell) Love you anyway, EC.

Slowly Crawling through Zelda – Conclusion

Sorry guys, I’d intended to write a big cool super-review of Skyward Sword to cap off the “Crawling through” series (as well as sum up the rest of the games).  But life got in the way and the drive to write it went away and once the drive is gone it’s difficult to get it back.  The drive to finish the game itself, however, was fast and furious and I beat it a long time ago.  I really liked it!  This should be obvious, considering I named it my Game of the Year.  The only thing I’d really change is I’d stagger the shields a bit further apart.  I had the same maxed purple shield for 70% of the game.  Other than that–gold!

So why bring this up now?  Well, I was recently reading this biased, nostalgia-blinded, needlessly negative article claiming Skyward Sword is the worst Zelda after a long steady decline since the very first.  However just because I disagree doesn’t mean the article is worthless.  The author actually brings up a lot of great qualities of the original game(s) that maybe haven’t been present in the games since.  Clearly, he and I agree on what makes the first Zelda games great… it’s just a shame he sees SS as the nadir whereas I see it as several positive steps in the right direction, especially since I feel SS took a lot of cues from Majora and Zelda 2, two high points of the series according to the article.  But regardless, everyone is allowed their opinions.

The article did spur me, sitting in a hospital room with a 3DS and the 3DS Ambassador Program, to kick off a playthrough of the original Legend of Zelda.

While the article claims every Zelda since the first has been worse than the one before, it’s clear what REALLY happened is it simply developed in a different direction than he would have entirely liked (and at the same time, games grew up and focused on being more accessible).  Yes, Zelda started out really combat heavy and had very few tool-based puzzles outside of creature weak-points, but at LttP there was a crossroads and Nintendo made a clear choice.  Zeldas since have been building off that foundation, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

Still, there are a few elements of Legend of Zelda that I do hope show up in future games, because they helped make that a unique experience (some of which I’ve already discussed, a few of which Skyward Sword seemed to acknowledge)….

1) In Medias Res

Zelda starts you off in a screen with a cave.  The only thing you can do is move, as you have no weapons or tools yet.  Now, a lot of games did this out of necessity back then (especially if you didn’t sit at the title screen and wait for the prologue text).  What set Zelda apart was just how DIFFERENT it was from every other game we’d played (“we” being gamers without PC’s or NetHack).  It was SO stark that Nintendo of America spared no expense in educating gamers about this bold new adventure, creating a super thick manual, a map insert with tips, and one of the earliest Strategy Guides.  This still wasn’t good enough for my friend Tim, who wouldn’t let me play the game because he hadn’t figured it out yet.  Doing this literally nowadays might be a bit much, but there is precedent for it.  Ico basically drops you in a big castle with nothing else to go on.  Demon’s Souls stacks the odds against your underpowered, inexperienced character.  It’d certainly shock Zelda players weened on Navi and Midna, but an Ueda-styled non-prologue would be REALLY COOL, and force the player to feel like he was exploring again.

This was all the story you got, and they made sure it was nearly impossible to read.

2) Nonlinearity

Kind of a companion to the above, but it’s a lot better when Link can wander into a dungeon he’s not “supposed” to be in yet.  Even if he gets murdered in the first room, or EVEN if there’s some contrived roadblock like the final dungeons in Zelda and Zelda 2, there’s a palpable awe for the player in discovering these things on their own, out of order, without a clearly spelled-out path. I always take Level 7 down in LoZ before trying Level 6 because of those stupid Blue Wizzrobes.  There are plenty of natural roadblocks (thin rivers you need the Ladder for) to keep players from completing a dungeon before it’s time, that you don’t need to forcefully block them out of certain areas.  Though having carefully designed faux-corridors has been a necessity due to hardware limitations from OoT-onward, we’re certainly approaching a point where the world can be open and nonlinear but STILL feature carefully designed moments.  After all, the original did.  So did SS, to a point.  You know the feeling when you dropped down to a new section of the map, and it was like… okay now what?  Imagine if the whole game was like that.

3) Tools, not Keys

I’ll begrudgingly borrow some terminology from the article, to beat this dead horse from earlier in my blogs: Link’s special weapons / items / tools / whatever need to be FUN and MULTIPURPOSE mechanics.  The player should be encouraged to use them all the time; in combat, for puzzles, for navigation, and just to mess around.  They should NOT simply be glorified keys where you “see the hookshot point” and “use the hookshot”.  In the first Zelda, I might use 3 or 4 tools in the course of a single room.  While it’s frustrating to have to swap to a menu to swap (something the series has long since solved), it’s still fun to have so many possible actions.  As previously mentioned, this is something Skyward Sword recognizes and takes steps to fix… with a smaller inventory of gadgets that are fun to use in a variety of different situations.  (And the article’s suggestion that the series was better before bombable walls had cracks is insane… they clearly haven’t thought about how that would actually work in 3D).

4) Challenge

You can die in LoZ.  If you aren’t really good, you can die a lot.  I mentioned in a previous blog that I never died once in Wind Waker.  Unacceptable.  I know it seems harsh by today’s standards, but LoZ’s death penalties were marshmallowy. You didn’t lose any money.  You didn’t lose anything you collected.  Heck, you got to restart in your current dungeon if you died underground.  Certainly nicer than the stuff you run into in Demon’s Souls.  So why is Nintendo so afraid of letting Zelda players die nowadays?  Part of the problem is you have lots of props now (jars, bushes, grass, etc.) and you need some kind of reward for messing with that–hearts make sense.  You can’t stack the rupees too high (though this happens too, and if I wasn’t restricting myself to five you can bet “constantly buying stuff” would be on the list), and so plentiful hearts is the result.  The solution would be to make individual encounters / rooms very dangerous, so that players NEEDED those hearts (or to be really, really good).  Skyward leans in this direction, making each encounter a kind of motion control puzzle, but eventually you fall into the groove of 1-to-.75 swordplay and it’s all pretty easy.  Hopefully Nintendo expands on this on Wii U, and every counter/room can really tax the player, forcing them to use a variety of tools and master swordplay and dodge blue Darknuts.

5) Crazy Dungeons

Of course, there’s more to Zelda Challenge than a room full of Red Bubbles.  LoZ has a number of dead end rooms where the player is left to find exactly HOW to reveal that hidden stairway, bombable wall, or shutter switch.  It would be nice to bring this back instead of having “find the trigger for the item you may or may not have and then trigger it.  Proceed” gameplay forever.  However, at the same time, you can’t have “push one of 12 pillars in this room to reveal a stairway across the way” in 3D.  It’s not fair.  What’s the happy medium?  Another cool dungeon challenge element in LoZ is using the map/compass and being blocked from the room you KNOW you need to reach… how do you get there?  Granted, the 3D Zeldas have this to a degree, with high/faraway ledges you have to hike around to reach, or dropping down from a higher floor, etc.  But it’s not “abstract” enough.  Zelda dungeons should never be SH Otherworlds, but they could stand to feel a little more LIKE them, don’t you think?  Skyward’s final dungeon is flavored a bit like this, and it was such a big change from the last 15 years of Zelda I had to call my wife in just to get a new perspective on potential solutions.

So, sure, Zelda’s changed over 25 years.  It would have to.  And while Skyward Sword is (in my opinion) one of the best in the series and leaves me hopeful for the future, we (or, less we and more Aonuma and crew) shouldn’t forget that there’s a quarter century of history here, and every single one of the games has something that can inspire greatness in the future.  So don’t be afraid to experiment, Nintendo!  But don’t forget to look back and be inspired, too.

(Images from the first and most recent Zelda games)

Best of 2011

Happy New Year everyone.  Since I have a blog now, I figured it’d be fun to do a fancy “Best of the Year” list.  So we’ll take a break from Skyward Sword (which I beat two nights ago) to rundown the year’s best… things.  Keep in mind, I have in no way experienced all of the things that came out in 2011 so if your favorite thing isn’t on my list, deal with it.

Book of the Year – 1Q84 (Haruki Murakami)

With all my international travel, I’ve had a lot of time to read this year.  Of course, most of the books I’ve been reading aren’t actually from 2011, so this is a difficult list to make.  You end up with the two books I read that DID come out this year.  And my BotY here isn’t even a book I’ve finished – I’m about halfway through.  However, I’m enjoying it immensely.  I’m a big Murakami fan, having read all of his novels released in English, and this is on track to being in my top 3.  I’m not sure anything could top Norwegian Wood (certainly not something 900 pages long), but this is incredibly enjoyable.  It features two stories running in parallel, and I’m enjoying them both.  I’d say it’s definitely among Murakami’s most accessible books.  So unless it takes a weird bizarre turn (which it easily could–it wouldn’t be his first time), it’s far and away the best book I’ve read this year.

Runner up by default: Bossypants (Tina Fey)

 

Album of the Year – Wasting Light (Foo Fighters)

This one wasn’t even a contest.  Again, I’ve been traveling a lot, and that entails a lot of music-listening.  On top of that, I wrote Book of Memories – and writing requires even more music listening.  I kept coming back to this album.  They recorded it in Dave Grohl’s garage, to return to a rough “rock band” sound.  It certainly comes through.  The tracks are nice and raw, and just great songs.  “Rope” has some really nice lyrics, and there are a few songs that would sound at home in Silent Hill.

Runners up: 21 (Adele), Camp (Childish Gambino – explicit lyrics)
Biggest Pleasant Surprise: Sea of Memories (Bush) – their best album since their first album

 

Movie of the Year – Rise of the Planet of the Apes

So if you haven’t seen this film, you’re probably like me a month before it came out – not at all interested in this archaic franchise and completely burned by that embarrassing Tim Burton version. However, for some reason in the weeks prior to its release, I got the fool idea in my head that the movie would be amazing.  Turns out I was right!  It’s well-written, and it goes beyond merely referencing the original films to instead reference them in very intelligent ways.  If you think the reference you’re thinking of is cheesy… you need to think about it harder, because it’s brilliant.  If you happened to pass on this film because “Ugh, dude, seriously?” = give it a shot.  You might just like it.  I’m sure there’d be more recent films on my “Runners up” list but I haven’t been to the theater all winter.

Runners up: Limitless, Puss in Boots, Crazy Stupid Love, XMen: First Class, Source Code

 

New Show of the Year – Once Upon a Time (ABC)

I’m at that age where the new shows I watch are primarily dictated by the shows my wife wants to watch.  However, I’m glad that we started watching this one.  Long story short, fairy tales were real and the evil queen used a spell to transport them to “a realm where she rules” or some such black magic, and they ended up here in our world with no memory of their old identities.  Cameron from House shows up and starts to piece things together at the behest of her biological son.  It might sound weird and kind of lame, but the way they weave the fairy tale stories in with the plot of each episode is pretty neat, and it’s a fun game trying to figure out who’s who based on your own knowledge of these things.  It’s certainly better than Grimm–likely the more watched of the two.  Plus, Gabriel Belmont is in it.  (I hear American Horror Story is right up my alley, but I’ll wait for Netflix to prove it)

Runner up: New Girl

 

(Worst New Show of the Year – Whitney (NBC) )

It has to be said.  If you watch and enjoy this show, you can be legally categorized as insane.  How this didn’t get immediately cancelled is beyond me.

 

Returning Show of the Year – Community (NBC)

I got into Community this summer, via DVD’s I brought to the Czech Republic.  I’m so glad I did, as this series is incredible.  The best sitcom of the last however many years you need me to state to make this credible.  While there are some flat episodes, the heights Community reaches at its best are far beyond what most sitcoms can achieve.  I wish I’d listened to my friends back in the day that told me this got better than the pilot, because then I could’ve been here on the ground floor.  As soon as I found out Chevy Chase played that annoying old guy at the community college who thinks he knows better than all the kids, I just had to jump on board.  Peerless writing, likeable characters, it has it all.  It’s my second favorite show on TV, but I had to give it the win because more people need to watch it.

Runners up: Parenthood (NBC), Walking Dead (AMC)

 

Portable Game of the Year – Super Mario 3D Land (Nintendo, 3DS)

Portable gaming has kind of had a lull this year, with the launch of the 3DS and the quiet leading up to Vita’s launch in February.  It was well-publicized that the 3DS (like every single console and portable ever released in the history of ever but I digress) stumbled with its library out the gate, things have finally started to turn around.  Super Mario 3D Land is a great game, and another solid entry in the Mario series.  There’s also plenty of game to keep players busy, with a second quest of sorts as well as Luigi mode for people who want to get the “true ending” (but plenty of time to stop before then for people who want to feel accomplished without doing EVERYTHING).  It really channels the spirit of Mario 3 with its varied challenges that change from level to level, though it would have been nice if some of the cooler ideas had been revisited.

Runner up: Aliens: Infestation (WayForward, DS)

 

PC Game of the Year – Portal 2 (Valve)

I don’t actually play PC games, and I certainly didn’t play Portal 2 on one (I played it on 360), but this lets me mention it and that’s good enough for me.  The first game was a special little gem of wonderment, and many were understandably skeptical that the same lightning could be rebottled in a fully-featured sequel.  Thankfully the end product put any such fears to rest immediately, with innovative new puzzles and a long and hilarious script, with new and returning characters I probably shouldn’t spoil here.  Needless to say, it’s an amazing ride if you played the original (myself), and even if you hadn’t (my wife, watching me play). The cake is a pie.

 

Console Game of the Year - The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword (Nintendo, Wii)

Now here’s a tough one.  I was all set to give this to Batman and then Skyward Sword had to go and be all amazing and junk.  Maybe if Batman had a timer on it I could compare completion times and give you some kind of “time to fun ratio”.  Here’s the thing, Batman was amazing and great.  It improved on its predecessor in every conceivable way.  Zelda, however, improved on 25 years of predecessors and nearly a decade and a half of adherence to a very specific formula.  But more importantly: it raised the game on motion controls.  This has been a big deal for me for the last five years because when I first saw the Wii I saw all kinds of potential.  I immediately designed the control scheme for Trauma Center: Second Opinion, and started dreaming of all the amazing point-and-click-adventure style games that would crop up, revived from their PC death years earlier.  Yet now, 5 years later, the only one coming to mind is Silent Hill: Shattered Memories which I’m not really allowed to unabashedly praise because, well, you know.  So while the mainstream game media sees a good Wii game and says “the graphics, while good for Wii, still pale in comparison to real consoles” I see a Wii game that uses motion control intelligently and shout “brilliant! genius! A++ would waggle again!”

The thing is, after Batman I was not hopeful for Zelda.  I expected it to be formulaic and tired and lame.  But it isn’t, it’s amazing–so it overcome my misguided pessimism and everything.  Also, Batman has “better bosses than the first game” but Zelda has “legitimately cool boss fights”.  Both games have aspects that beat out the other, and ten years from now I might say Batman is the better game, but I have to decide my GotY 2011 right here and now, so for the moment, that game is Zelda.

Runner Up – Batman: Arkham City (Warner Bros., X360/PS3)

Slowly Crawling through Zelda – part 8

Well, I found it.  I found Skyward Sword’s flaw.  Which is a shame, I’d gone through most of the game thinking it was absolutely flawless–a complete joy to play.  As good as the series is, most of its games have one big flaw: an area of the game that when I think about replaying, I find myself thinking “oh, but that means I’d have to go through ______.” Zelda 1 has dungeon six.  Zelda 2 has the path leading to the final temple.  Wind Waker has the triforce hunt.  Ocarina has the data on the cartridge, and so on.  But the best Zeldas – your LttP’s and LA’s – don’t have this sort of flaw.

This is hard to describe without spoilers, but remember how I mentioned returning to the older areas of the game?  It’s one of those.  And it’s not area 2 or 3.  It also has to do with water (though surprisingly, is not dungeon related).  The game turns into a scavenger hunt and it’s mandatory and there’s no easy way to even know where to look.  Worse, it spans almost an entire section of Hyrule.  It’s not a MAJOR flaw, it’s not like the game suddenly turns bad, but it knocks it from “perfect 10″ to “10″ if that makes any sense.  It certainly wouldn’t stop me from replaying the game (nor would any of the earlier mentioned series flaws), but I’ll certainly roll my eyes whenever I reach this point of the game.

Still, 45 hours in, maybe it’s not such a big deal to have 30 minutes of frustration.  It’s certainly a better ratio than most games.

Slowly Crawling through Zelda – part 7

I’ve made a lot of progress through Skyward Sword lately – finished the sixth dungeon and everything.  As I was expecting, there’s a major plot explosion and things get complicated.  Very enjoyable.  Some of you have heard there’s a big game-ending bug that you need to avoid, lest you restart your entire game from the beginning.  If you’re avoiding spoilers, but scared of the bug (which you should be – it would be easily to stumble upon it accidentally), I’ve put together a spoiler-free explanation of how to avoid it:

Once you finish the sixth dungeon, you’ll eventually be told to speak with somebody.  This will be somebody you have not met previously in the game.  Once you DO speak to this person, you’ll be required to revisit the 3 major areas of Hyrule… each one will be changed and lock you into that area on a quest until you complete it.  So…

  1. After talking to that somebody, go to any area besides the desert.
  2. If you do go to the desert, after completing the quest, do NOT speak with the Goron until completing one of the other areas.

That simple.

That said, I accidentally went to the second area of the game without knowing I’d be stuck there (I was only trying to complete a sidequest!), however the “changed” version of the area is pretty cool, and a nice way to mix things up from the earlier stage design.  Once again I’m impressed by Nintendo’s ability to take an area I’ve now explored twice, and switch it up so it’s still compelling.

As for the plot, well, we already knew this was the very first Zelda chronologically, but now we can see how it fits into the overall lore of the series.  That just makes me even more eager to see how it ends, of course, and what effect that has on the games we’ve all played before.

Oh!  In other news, I finally have my head wrapped around the swordplay.  I can fight all the tricky “have to attack in this direction” enemies without taking too much damage.  Initial instincts suggest you have to swing your sword 1:1 with Link, which makes it hard to combo from one direction to any other direction but the opposite.  However, you really only have to slightly jerk the remote, so you can swing all over the place without too much trouble.  This probably doesn’t make much sense in text… but if you’re having trouble with the swordplay just remember it’s better to keep it controlled than to wildly swing.

Slowly Crawling through Zelda – part 6: Old Zeldas part 2

Zelda is 25 this year.  Take a look at my previous Zelda update.  Four games, right?  Those represent the first 12 years of Zelda.  Half of its lifetime, and only 4 Zelda games.  All of them pretty great.  Now look at how many games we have left to go for the second half.  This should tell you something.  What it should tell you other than “Zelda became Nintendo’s biggest core franchise from the N64 onward”?  That’s up to you.  You’re about to see what I think about it.

Part 2 – 3D Zeldas

    

Ocarina of Time (N64)

Bad news, guys.  We’re about to have words.  Ready?  OoT is easily the most overrated game of all time.  Certainly the most overrated Zelda.  Which is not to say it is a bad game.  It’s a fine game!  One of the finest on N64, obviously.  However, it’s the followup to at least 2 of the finest console games ever to that point, and non-negotiably the best portable game at the time.  What does it follow those legends with?  Rehashed stuff.  Complex swordplay? Zelda 2.  Two worlds to explore? Zelda 3.  Multiple ocarina songs?  Zelda:LA.  Trading game?  Same.  Detailed backstory? Oh you mean the one from Zelda 3′s manual?  The most original idea in OoT (Masks) wasn’t even complete; it simply set the stage for what Majora’s Mask would convert into a complex and fun gameplay system years later.

Forgivable, though.  After all, sequels often take the greatest hits of their forebears and spice them up (look at MGS, released the same year).  Unfortunately there are a lot of core Zelda ideas that get shortchanged in OoT.  Caves, for one.  Zeldas 2 – 4 really ran with this idea of caves, allowing little mini-quests hidden behind secret entrances.  LttP and LA hid some downright devious puzzles in caves.  So what’s the next evolution?  Grottoes: empty, useless grottoes.  At most you get a nice rupee haul, but normally it’s just a Sheikah Stone… which if you brought the right mask, equates to a Hint Old Man from the original Zelda.  Maybe.

But Tomm! What about Epona!  Yes, Epona, who was created to reduce the tedium of running all the way across Empty Field just to get from place to place.  Zelda worlds are always expansive, but at their best they are packed with secrets and little crannies to explore.  Hyrule Field is not.  But it doesn’t stop at secrets…

My strongest memory of the original Zelda is in Dungeon 5, en route to the Flute.  You finally find the secret room and walk in… to have the door shutter closed behind you.  You’re surrounded by Blue Darknuts, the baddest of the bad (other than Wizzrobes and Patra, of course).  You are SCREWED–and trapped, remember.  And you have to fight your way out.  Zelda 2′s got Iron Knuckles and Zelda 3 has some encounters like the Armos Knights boss… but all the games had this stuff, though usually toned down a bit from the original.  OoT does not.  Most of the game is entirely bereft of enemies, and when you DO fight more than one at a time, the second will hang back, allowing you to finish your encounter with the first before butting in.  Because of memory limitations, OoT can’t support very much combat.  Its supporters will say Zelda was never about combat it is about puzzles. Well… it used to be about both.

Overall, OoT just feels like a game of compromises.  There were things 3D just couldn’t do yet, or hadn’t been figured out, or memory couldn’t support.  So while there were great advances, like… …being able to fire an arrow at the sun, a ton of other great Zelda hallmarks were dialed back.  It was Zelda, of course–but was it evolved Zelda?  Or was it just a 3D Zelda game?  And if these choices were made of necessity, would they be remedied once hardware could allow it?  The answers are somewhat unfortunate.  I want to stress – OoT is not a bad game.  It’s fun, and has plenty of content to pad out the clock, and it’s great seeing Link in 3D (specifically on 3DS…), but highest rated game of all time…?

Greatest Contribution: Z-Targeting, which single-handedly saved 3D action games.
Lowest Point: Being responsible for every single thing I dislike about the Zelda games that follow it.  Oh! And what the heck is up with not including the Zelda theme!?

    

Majora’s Mask (N64)

Thanks to the magic of the N64 expansion pack, Majora’s Mask was able to have all kinds of new and fantastical things, the foremost being: enemies to fight!  It also followed the Link’s Awakening formula:

  • Go outside Hyrule
  • To find a new creative premise for the adventure
  • Make it real creepy.

…and they did it in style!  Majora’s Mask has become somewhat of a black sheep and I don’t understand why.  (To all you haters: play the song that slows time by half.  Also: learn to use the quicksave owl statues.  Voila!  Now the 3-day time limit IS NO PROBLEM WHATSOEVER.)  It takes the rather bland, warmed-over OoT base and injects it with all kinds of interesting bits, such as a town of evolving storylines, a UFO attack, and a fleshed-out mask system that gives Link all kinds of crazy abilities.

The most important change is how the areas are structured.  Now, rather than wandering around a big overworld hoping to find stuff (usually roadblocks telling you to try a different direction), Majora’s Mask creates little stages out of each path (see: Skyward Sword), so you’re challenged on the way to the dungeon as well.  While this strips away SOME of the nonlinearity, especially at the beginning, it also makes for tighter, more fun gameplay.  Of course, once you unlock a new mask ability, these limited areas open up further, and further…  THIS is an innovative new take on Zelda.  Majora is pretty much everything OoT should have been.  Also: really super creepy.

Greatest Contribution: Tingle!  (in a two-way tie with) the Anju / Kafei quest
Lowest Point: Making me retroactively like OoT even less, now that Young Link can use a bow and ride a horse like a champ.

    

Wind Waker (GC)

To announce this game, Nintendo created a cartoony, Looney Tunes-esque trailer to show off Link’s new style.  The internet went wild.  Not in the good way, though – they were furious!  This was due in large part to a Gamecube trailer Nintendo released a year prior, showcasing a mature OoT-style Link.  People wanted that (awkward, loosely animated) version of Zelda, not this NEW thing. Not stupid baby sissy Link.  Not CELDA Link.  What an abomination.  Does Nintendo even get Zelda!?

It reached such a fever pitch that I wrote an essay on it in college (assignment: argue a stance on something).  This paper included images of Link from all his previous games, and for what it’s worth, my teacher wrote his thoughts: “I honestly can’t tell the difference, other than the one on the end looks the best.”  It’s important to note he meant Wind Waker Link, rather than “pile of pixels” or “jagged ugly polygons.”

Of course, all this outrage only proves most video game publishers know how to make games much better than their fanbase does.  Wind Waker’s style was just that–a stylistic choice, to make the humble Gamecube (note: not the weakest console of its generation) create visuals that would long outlast its contemporaries.  Look at Wind Waker now.  Still looks amazing.  It is nearly a decade old, yet arguably the best looking Zelda, graphically.  More than timeless, it was also immensely fun to play and packed with character.  Link got some cool new tools: the leaf, the grappling hook, and so on.  While attempting to change up the formula a bit, WW made some concessions to my vision of Zelda: a 50-level arena focused entirely on combat where, yes, you’d find yourself surrounded by Darknuts.  Also, the best new Zelda character: the battleship minigame guy who says “sploosh.”  (And come on, guys, the only difference between the Boat and Epona is that you have to set the wind direction.)

Greatest Contribution: The atmosphere and buildup surrounding your acquisition of the Master Sword.
Lowest Point: The most challenging part of this game is attempting to actually die.  Also, the removal of two dungeons meant by waiting 6 months longer I could have had even more Wind Waker.  Wrong call, Nintendo.

    

Twilight Princess (GC/Wii)

To announce this game, Nintendo created a gritty, Lord of the Rings-esque trailer to show off Link’s new style.  Years later when the game was released, the internet went wild.  Not in the good way, though – they were pretty upset!  This was due in large part to how good Wind Waker actually was, despite Toon Link.  People wanted that (previously despised) spirit of Zelda, not this OLD thing.  Not Ocarina redux.  Not boring REALISTIC Link.  …which is pretty silly, really.  It’s not like OoT was Mr. Originality.  In fact, Twilight Princess was less “the direct sequel to OoT” and more OoT done right.  Is THIS how OoT felt to everyone else?  I finally understood.

The more powerful console allowed a huge world full of secrets, creatures to fight (even on horseback!), and for Ganon to look creepy and threatening instead of goofy and stupid.  The greatest part of this new, realistic Zelda was the caves.  Finally!  Grottoes were behind us, replaced by sprawling caves that went on forever!  An evolution on LttP’s approach (though not unlike Zelda 2′s) after all this time!

However, there were some flaws.  The threat of the OoT formula fully bloomed, opening to reveal the fruit of really poorly planned items.  In the Zeldas of old, each item was a tool as well as a weapon.  Entering a room full of baddies, you were often encouraged to fight them with items rather than your sword.  This decreased drastically starting with OoT, to the point where TP’s items are mainly glorified keys.  You use them to solve puzzles, including boss weaknesses, and that’s it.  The spinny thing is the prime offender, offering a mode of travel that is only useful in the dungeon it’s found in and a single canyon on the overworld.  That’s it.  That’s all it does. The game also suffered from rupee bloat, where early on you’ll have purchased each and every item you possibly can, leaving you to sit at max for much of the endgame.  Yawn.

Other than those two flaws, though, TP was mostly perfect–finally delivering on the promise Zelda had made way back on N64–that OoT’s formula could be super rad, polished, and fun.

Greatest Contribution: Midna.  Duh.  Mainly hot human Midna.
Lowest Point: Tingle is entirely absent.

…TO BE CONTINUED…

(Images obviously from the Zelda games listed)

Slowly Crawling through Zelda – part 5: Old Zeldas part 1

Been busy with holiday parties and taking care of things so my wife has time to play Star Wars, so there hasn’t been time to fit in Zelda for a couple of days.  However, this gives me a chance to blog about the older Zeldas and my thoughts on each one so you have a basis for my opinions.  Maybe we agree on everything!  Maybe we disagree!  Turn the record over to find out.

Part 1 – Pre-3D Zeldas

     

The Legend of Zelda (NES)

Where it all began, obviously.  My first memory of Zelda was not being allowed to play because my friend Tim “hadn’t figured it out yet” and was “waiting for the next issue of Fun Club”.  He did eventually figure it out but (to my knowledge) wasn’t very good.  He wouldn’t allow me to name my character, either, so I went with “Linked” (or potentially Linkd, I don’t recall).  This is not a tradition that held very long.  My other friends eventually got it, so I had more Zelda playtime and got to witness crazy stuff like Bubbles and Wizzrobes and Gleeok.  I never actually beat it until the day before LttP came out, and I’ve still never attempted the second quest.  Maybe some day.

None of that is to be down on Tim.  To his credit, Zelda was different from the other games of the time, which eased you in a mechanic at a time.  Zelda didn’t start with a screen scrolling to the right, or barrels rolling down a construction site toward you.  Instead it began with you in the middle of a …field?  With a cave nearby, and 3 possible directions to travel.  If you don’t go into the cave, you don’t even have a weapon to defend yourself once you proceed.  And in these times before long, complicated NPC dialogue, the only clues available were one-sentence fragments, shakily translated at best.  It created a unique experience where you had to discover the game and its mechanics on your own as you went.  This is something I miss in other games–not that it would be perfect for every genre, but once in a while it would be nice to have that feeling again.  Maybe I could create something similar on Vita. Hmm…

Greatest Contribution: Dropping the player in the deep end and letting them figure out how to swim–which none of the other games have been ballsy enough to do.
Lowest Point: Those stupid old men who want money for the door repairs–the primary reason I’ve never attempted the second quest.

     

Adventure of Link (NES)

The second most underrated game in the series.  Don’t get me wrong, when the game came out I was just like you; I played the game a ton because it was Zelda and I was expected to, but eventually I admitted that I kind of hated it.  It was clunky and dumb and not like Zelda at all, which we were all allowed to admit when LttP came out and was top-down again.  However when it came out on Gamecube as part of a promo disc, I discovered something about Zelda 2: it’s completely awesome.  I think the level up system was simply ahead of its time, as none of us had even played Dragon Warrior yet.  The ability to “ignore” a level up didn’t help matters, as it serves literally no purpose whatsoever… but since the game lets you do it, it seems like a reasonable strategy to a kid who has no idea what he’s doing.  The complex swordplay (for the time) is also cool, and led us to the system in OoT and, currently, Skyward Sword.  I like it so much I’ve more or less “mastered” it… I can level up 6 times by the time I defeat the first Palace, and I can complete the entire game in roughly 4 hours.

Greatest Contribution: The Up and Down Thrust attacks – the coolest moves in gaming history.
Lowest Point: Being all different and junk.

      

Link to the Past (SNES)

The big one!  This is the game that codified exactly what a Zelda was.  A little easier, with cracked walls to note bombable areas, and far more combat options… but trickier than before, with multi-level dungeons and puzzles to match.  With two huge worlds, and a kind of developing narrative, this was Zelda as it had existed in our heads for years.  I got games for my quarterly report cards if they were up to snuff, and it was no secret this was my big game upon its release.  But with two weeks to go until the big day… I just couldn’t wait any longer.  So I rented it and played through the Light World (which I knew was only part of the game, having read up in Nintendo Power).  I mean, I tried to hold off the cravings by finally beating Zelda 1 but it just wasn’t enough.  Then I tore out to the car on report card day to find Mom had already picked up the game for me at some point… I spent the next four days utterly obsessed with this game until I figured out the mysteries of Ganon’s tower and ultimately finished him off.  Oh, to have that much free time nowadays…  This is the Zelda that gave us the bug catching net, a dual world setup, and the creepy atmosphere of the flute-playing boy in the woods.

Greatest Contribution: Fully realizing the Zelda formula and crafting a grand, truly mindblowingly immersive adventure.
Lowest Point: Codifying a set formula that enslaved future entries in the series.

     

Link’s Awakening (GameBoy)

For many years, this game was secretly the best Zelda.  No, it’s true.  It took what LttP did and ran with it, cramming all that greatness into a small, portable package with even more devious dungeons and customizable actions with an item setup that didn’t require you equip a sword all the time.  It also threw us into a non-Hyrule setting, instead exploring the melancholy dreamworld of Kohilint.  It’s also the origin of the “trading quest” that has become a staple of the series. My key memory with this game is at one point you find a small temple and you go inside, and it’s all dark, and at the very back you discover this huge relief explaining the Wind Fish and the truth behind the island. It’s incredibly creepy and atmospheric somehow, in a way very few Zeldas manage.  It made a big impression, to say the least.  I blew through LA in just three days (1 fewer than LttP) and I believe I celebrated by starting up a new game immediately.  It’s also worth mentioning this is one of the few games (the only one I can think of offhand) that has more than 20 of the “find 20 to get a better sword” items, allowing players a sense of discovery but not requiring them to be insane completionists. How Nintendo could nail it the first time and then proceed to do the Gold Skulltulas is beyond me.

Greatest Contribution: A moody tale that breaks away from Hyrule.  Also, the Ballad of the Wind Fish.
Lowest Point: Lackluster bonus dungeon in the GBC port.

 

…TO BE CONTINUED…

(Images are obviously from the Zelda games listed.)

Slowly Crawling through Zelda – part 4

I only had an hour and a half to play last night, but I actually got a ton accomplished.  I even went from 0 Rupees to 1200 Rupees (ask me my secret!).  However, I’m not going to talk about any of that.  Why?  Because the most exciting part of the night can be communicated without words.  Presented here all blurry and close up so you don’t have the context spoiled for you, I found the most important thing Nintendo did RIGHT with Skyward Sword.

See Twilight Princess? WAS THIS SO HARD!?

Slowly Crawling through Zelda – part 3.71

In my haste to post yesterday, I forgot to mention two things I’d wanted to talk about (in case anybody is under the illusion I outline).

First is the visual style.  Zelda has a long and turbulent history with visual style.  First everyone wants realistic and they get cartoony.  Then they get realistic and they hate it.  Skyward Sword is somewhere in between, using classical painting as its motif.  On the surface level it doesn’t appear to make much difference… it’s colorful again but Link is cool and mature, okay.  Maybe a little LttP-esque.

However now that I’ve seen a bit more of what the game has to offer, I must say it is impressive.  There are some fire effects that blew me away.  It just gives the whole game an otherworldly distinctly “fantasy” feel, which is less common than you think it is.  Lately we trend to strive for uber realism in our fantasy movies, art, and television.  We want to know what a dragon might really look like, rather than embracing the, well, fantastical nature of it all.  Zelda succeeds by shooting just left of center.

Secondly, I’d previously mentioned how I enter a linear area, then slowly “unlock” its nonlinear pathways by pushing logs to create stairways or whatnot.  Well I’ve now been through a few sequences that require me to return to old areas and this has worked very very well.  Unlike your usual Metroid (or Zelda!) style, I don’t just return with an item, use it to open up a nook I couldn’t access before, pick up a thing and move on.  No, the “use an item” element (or sometimes not even that) is just a gateway to a section that I haven’t explored…

But here’s where it gets cool: that new section is intertwined with the old.  So I don’t have the “blah” feeling of been here done that, NOR do I have the very game-y feeling of “oh I opened up a new level.”  It feels like these new areas were here all along, and I was just too underpowered/naive to notice or understand.  It provides a very nice feeling of honest exploration, like back on the consoles with “N, E, and S” in their initials somewhere (and sometimes twice).

Zelda does a lot with the levels you’re given.  I honestly feel like I’m wringing these areas dry of content and yet there’s always more there to find or explore.

Lastly I should mention I experienced something which is detached enough I can use its in-game name: Trials.  While Fi (your sword-borne fairy-like companion) was explaining what would be required of me for this trial, I was screaming inside.  Noooo… I even loved Sailing and Wolfing in prior Zeldas, but here, right now, is the fatal flaw that will destroy Skyward Sword.  And it was going so well!

…but I actually really enjoyed it.  It brings a brand new feeling to Zelda but not an unwelcome one, when it’s all said and done.  Really exhilarating and scary.  I won’t say too much, but I enjoyed the Trials far more than I’d ever have thought.

People will tell you Trials were inspired by Phantom Hourglass but they’re wrong and liars.