Friday, September 6, 2013

What I'm Playing, August '13

at 7:57 PM
In this feature, we commemorate games I have for the first time started and finished in the last few highly variable time units.

August what the doctor ordered. This. K these need to be shorter. The last one was like a full-fledged review of every game I've ever played in my entire life. Considering I generally already write about the stuff I'm playing, this feature feels redundant. But I do it for posterity.

Special Recognition for Starting and Finishing:

Sonic Generations (Xbox 360)

Everybody Segasonic Racing, try to keep your feet right on the ground! Yay! This game has that song! Sonic Generations really makes an excellent tribute game. I was a bit concerned (due to the character and Sega's shaky history) that Generations' self-referentiality would be yet another gimmick, this time used as an excuse to recycle old content. A lot of anthologies get slapped together with sadly little effort to get new players excited about the classics. That's not at all the case here. Generations is every bit the celebration of Sonic that Smash Bros. is of Nintendo (scaled appropriately of course - Sonic is just one series) - the game is littered with references (the whole gang gets back together), in-jokes (Tails apparently shares our childhood unease with Chemical Plant Zone's purple water), all-inclusive callback mechanics (everything down to the Thunder Shield from 3 shows up!) and gives every fan what they most want: the ability to set every stage's music to [this immaculately gay version of] "Escape from the City"!

Games Started:

Beyond Oasis (Sega Genesis / Sonic's Ultimate Genesis Collection)

This game caught me a bit off guard in how modern it is. Typically it gets swept into that category of "games that wish they were Link to the Past", and while in truth it doesn't fully escape that stigma, it's almost too perfect how Beyond Oasis predicts the future trajectory of the action-adventure genre. It is all action. For anything but a brawler to have this much combat in 1994 is odd enough in and of itself (combat didn't become mainstream games' bready butter til maybe 2002) - to maintain and evolve fisticuffs as a primary mechanic alongside a largely linear quest of dungeons, minor puzzles, and boss fights is almost clairvoyant. That's what sixth/seventh-gen 3D action adventures like God of War and Devil May Cry do! But that type of game didn't exist in the '90s! Apparently Beyond Oasis disagrees. 

I've speculated on the possibility of a "missing link" of action-adventure that fills the gap in the '90s when arcade sideways walkers presumably would've been absorbed into Zelda-style adventures; Beyond Oasis certainly demands examination under that light. Even if it wasn't particularly influential (who knows, but I doubt it was widely played), it at least shows that Devil May Cry didn't simply appear out of the void with a new gameplay paradigm in tow. 

Mario Golf (Game Boy Color)

Yeah, this old boy. Okay, I have played Mario Golf before, but never stuck with it. It was a reward last month for Club Nintendo members (join up! you pretty much get a free Virtual Console or eShop game for every three Nintendo games you buy) so I snapped it up in lieu of any good golf games at all ever happening since. Why aren't there more sports RPGs? If anyone knows of a good baseball RPG, please let me know. I would like to play it. It's such a perfect union of genres - each round of golf is that much more exciting as it helps you build toward a better player and conquering the world. 

Killer Is Dead (Xbox 360)

This feels like the final step in Grasshopper's recent journey from experimental art-games to full-blown immersive narrative experiences. Dead is, in a word, slick. Unlike earlier Suda-directed games like No More Heroes, it's not looking to knock you out of your seat and bewilder (or overtly mock). Dead wants you to sit down and enjoy a story, even if it is a little cryptic at times. Shadows of the Damned started to move things in this direction a few years ago, although that (along with Black Knight Sword) was locked to a succinct cinematic through-line that kept it from feeling like a full-fledged game. The player was along for the ride. Which is certainly one type of video game narrative, but a primitive one. One which shies away from control. Dead is like the Super Mario World to Damned's Sonic the Hedgehog. It's a fully realized concept for a virtual world without any obviously cut corners (which even Lollipop Chainsaw didn't manage) - the player is stepping into the life of Mondo Zappa. 

None of that really matters. Grasshopper has proven time and again that rough experiments can be terrifically successful, far better than the polished turds being fawned over today. What does matter is that Dead's writing is excellent. The protagonist's name alone is rife with subtext: "Mondo" is a pun on Bond, a type of philosophical Zen question, the German word for moon (the moon plays a major role in the story), a genre of hyper-realistic gore-driven Italian films, and slang for extreme; "Zappa" reiterates the Italian connection and obviously calls to mind Frank, known as an artist, virtuoso, freak, and outsider. This is the kind of thing you have to look for if you want to get anything out of Killer Is Dead. Writing. Ideas. Thought. If you can't appreciate a five-minute dream-sequence in which you are left nothing to do but literally run around Mondo's subconscious reflecting on the game's events (the time to reflect is fittingly set at the edge of a reflecting pool showcasing the moon), you won't like this game. It's far too easy to write it off as "bizarre" and "impenetrable". Yet it is by no means arbitrary, random, or purposefully obscure. If you aren't creative enough to put together the pieces... well I'm sure in five years when it's widely accepted as an underrated gem, you'll sycophantically insist that you liked it all along, the same as you do with Killer 7 today.

You know, I wonder if there's something to be said about the fact that the video game critical community is made up mostly of journalists, while the critical film and literature communities are made up of, well, usually film studiesers and literary theorists. Games aren't generally reviewed by people who study games. They're reviewed by people who report industry news. Yeah. There's something really obvious to be said. I don't remember what though.

Games Finished:

Sonic Adventure (Dreamcast / XBLA)

Finished this up before moving on to Generations. This holds up much better than most would have you believe - it's glitchier than a fake top hat and the camera isn't particularly friendly, but the platforming really stands out from other turn-of-the-millenium efforts (or really anything else that followed). Namely in that it doesn't suck. Unlike many Crash Bandicoots, Spyros, and Banjo Kazooies of the 3D revolution, Adventure doesn't throw the baby out with the bathwater. Yes, it's a game full of babies and solid '90s fundamentals to boot.

It goes without saying though that the Adventure Fields are an atrocity and go to great lengths to mar what otherwise would be an undisputed classic. It's not so much that they're brutally unfun and occasionally broken - the problem is that they destroy the cohesion and pace of the "main" gameplay ("main" in quotes because in reality, the Adventure Fields take longer to play than the Action Things).

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