Class is in Session

Note: The following originally appeared in the November 4, 2014 edition of Our Town

Like so many forms of entertainment, video games are this kind of shared experience. Almost everyone who has been devoted to some game at some time can remember talking about it with their friends at school and swapping hot tips and tricks. Actually, school is also one of those massively shared experiences. So we might as well combine those two things. It’s time for some edutainment!

In preparing for this article, I conducted a completely unscientific survey, i.e.: I just asked, of my friends and co-workers. This encompasses people who went to school in Arizona, California, both Dakotas, Florida, Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, and Wyoming, so that covers a lot of ground, or at least a lot of the Midwest. I asked what they played in school. While there was some variety (there are a lot of educational games of varying quality out there), a few names came up over and over. Indeed, games produced by one company came up a lot. That company is the Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium, or MECC.

MECC produced a large number of extremely memorable games that populated our nation’s schools, including “Odell Lake,” “DinoPark Tycoon,” “The Secret Island of Doctor Quandary,” and probably any game that end with “Trail” or “Munchers.” And no kid who grew up in the 80s or 90s really had a complete childhood without “Oregon Trail” or “Number Munchers.”

“Oregon Trail” may very well be the most famous edutainment game ever made. The saga of loading up a wagon in Missouri (or Illinois if you want to do the Mormon Trail thing) and rolling across America to Oregon is one that everyone can get behind. And amazingly, it teaches about a bunch of different subjects.

You’ve got geography and history-these should be self-explanatory. You learn about medicine-turns out that choosing the “rub salt in the wound” option when someone gets hurt is a bad idea. Also you learn all about dysentery, specifically that you can die of it. You learn about making deals-later games had a pretty robust trading system. And you get to learn about cooking-did you know that if you shoot a jillion pounds of buffalo and don’t figure out a way to preserve it, like salt, it’ll go rotten? Because it will. And then you’ll probably die of dysentery. And as a shameless plug, “Oregon Trail” was developed by some guys at my alma mater, Carleton College.

While “Oregon Trail” helped pioneer the educational historical simulation genre, for those of us who needed some form of entertainment to make math palatable, there was “Number Munchers.” The premise of “Number Munchers” is pretty simple. You’re a green Muncher dude and you move across a grid where you have to eat numbers that match a certain criterion (like prime numbers). In doing so, you have to avoid the evil Troggles, who are more or less like Pac-Man ghosts except that you can’t pick up Power Pellets to make them start blinking. As you get better, the action gets faster and there are more Troggles. I’m not actually sure whether this helped my math skills, but I’ll say it did. It sure taught me the world “Troggle,” though, which I still occasionally use in place of “troglodye,” so thanks, “Number Munchers!”

But to get away from MECC, no edutainment discussion would be complete without mentioning the only series which could unseat “Oregon Trail”-the Carmen Sandiego games. In case you weren’t familiar with the series from the Swedish developer Broderbund which saw a myriad of releases and two syndicated TV shows, the premise is pretty simple.

Carmen Sandiego and her team of crooks from V.I.L.E. steals something, usually something outlandish, like the Great Wall of China or the Sun, and you have to get it back (especially if it’s the Sun; I feel losing the Sun would be bad). You collect clues and track the criminal through knowledge about geography or history or whatever. I’m going to be completely honest-I learned all the capitals in the world in second grade for the sole purpose of getting good at Carmen Sandiego. It was that big a deal. If you actually caught Carmen Sandiego, which always happened on your 45th case, that was mad street cred. I actually unintentionally stopped class in fifth grade when I caught the mastermind herself in “Where in the US is Carmen Sandiego” because I was very proud of myself and not very considerate.

It also bears mention that there is one very special, very rare edition of Carmen Sandiego that pretty much every kid in the state played. That is “Where in North Dakota is Carmen Sandiego?” Back in 1989, some teachers in the Minot Public Schools got Broderbund to release a prototype game where Carmen was stealing things in North Dakota and you had to get them back. I’m pretty sure Salem Sue got taken a lot. Anyway, as a kid in North Dakota, this was the coolest thing ever. The locations you traveled to were real places you’d seen! Sadly, no other state-specific versions of Carmen Sandiego were made, so the North Dakota version stands as this weird historical curiosity.

Edutainment games aren’t like other genres. You don’t play them solely to get good at them. Yeah, it’s cool if you’re the best in your class at a game, but they’re there to teach you and be fun. It’s a strange balance that can only work in very specific instances. But the games discussed here have achieved some level of cultural significance. We still talk about them years later. They’re a part of many a school experience, just like touch football and the joys of fractions.

Hope is a local attorney and video game enthusiast. He is so proud of all the times he’s caught Carmen Sandiego that he put it on his resume. Special thanks to the numerous people who answered my questions about what they played in school.

Stop! Scissor Time

Note: The following originally appeared in the October 28, 2014 edition of Our Town

You may or may not have read my views on a lot of modern horror games. That’s because I’ve put them in no fewer than three previous columns where I talked about older (and better) examples in the genre. So with Halloween this week, what do you think I’ll be writing about? If you said “an old horror game,” collect your money! Let’s get to it.

This time around, we’ve got something special. It’s a game that was never officially released in the United States-”Clock Tower.”

Human Entertainment’s “Clock Tower” series has a naming history not unlike “Final Fantasy.” The original game came out in 1995 on the Super Famicom. It was later ported to the Japan-only Wonderswan portable and got a remake on the Playstation. The second “Clock Tower” game, surprisingly called “Clock Tower 2” in Japan, got localized over here and is known only as “Clock Tower.” It continues the story of the first game, so prepare to be confused if you play this one first. Then there was “Clock Tower II: The Struggle Within,” which is actually a spinoff game called “Clock Tower Ghost Head” in Japan and is absolute garbage. Confused yet? Eventually Capcom took over the series and got the numbering right with “Clock Tower 3.” The one we’re talking about is the actual “Clock Tower.” So, what is “Clock Tower?” Simply put, “Clock Tower” is the one of the first console survival horror games, and one of the crowning achievements of the 16-bit era.

While the term “survival horror” officially was first used to described “Resident Evil,” two console games, 1989′s “Sweet Home” on the Famicom and “Clock Tower” have been retroactively given the title as well. The setting certainly fits the horror genre. “Clock Tower” is loosely inspired by Dario Argento’s movie “Phenomena,” which probably explains why our heroine, Jennifer Simpson, is a dead 16-bit ringer for Jennifer Connelly, who starred in the movie. Your plot, like any good horror game, is part dread, part mystery. Jennifer and her buddies are all orphans who have been adopted by the mysterious Lord Barrows. They all get taken to his massive estate and, because horror game, they get separated and Jennifer is left alone to figure out what’s going on.

“Clock Tower” eschews pretty much all action elements and instead opts for a point and click adventure with one massive twist-Scissorman. And Scissorman doesn’t mess around. In what could be described as the inspiration for characters like Nemesis, those stupid ghosts in “Corpse Party,” and pretty much any monster in “Amnesia,” Scissorman is a persistent stalker. True to his name, he pops out, seemingly at random, wielding a massive pair of scissors and chasing after Jennifer. And you can’t fight Scissorman, so don’t try. All you can do is hide. This is one of the first games I can remember, and certainly the first horror game, that incorporates stealth elements. Also notable is that Scissorman learns from what you did before. Did you hide under a bed once? He’ll remember that and the next time he does into a room with a bed, he may stab through the mattress and into Jennifer underneath.

And this seems like as a good a time as any to explain how health and damage work in “Clock Tower.” Because Jennifer can’t fight back, she doesn’t need or have a traditional health bar. Instead, she has a panic meter that rises or falls depending on what’s going on. If Jennifer gets startled or Scissorman pops out, it’s going to rise. If she’s chilling out in an area with no danger, it falls. If it gets all the way full, Jennifer will lose it and Scissorman will likely cut her life short. It’s a nice way to deal with not being able to damage your enemy and, to be honest, is likely pretty realistic. I mean, would you try to fight a guy who can one-shot you with a pair of scissors?

Also of note is that Scissorman doesn’t always appear in the same place every time and the mansion’s layout is somewhat randomized each time you play, so you have to be on your toes when that stupid music starts up and you have to run for your life. Touches like this are, first, amazing given that this was a game on a 16-bit system, and great for maintaining that sense of dread that you have no idea what’s going to happen.

The only big problem with Clock Tower is that it never got released in America, so playing it involves getting a Japanese system and copy and using a translation guide so you know what you’re doing and what’s going on in the story. And you’ll want to know what’s happening in the story, as “Clock Tower” tells a compelling narrative that offers a ton of turns and multiple endings for you to experience. In all honesty, this is one of the best horror games ever made and fans of the genre owe it to themselves to put in the effort to check it out. And remember that Scissorman can be anywhere. He might even be in your shower right now, waiting for you to experience shear terror. You should probably go check on that. Happy Halloween!

Hope is a local attorney and video game enthusiast. This runs the streak of Halloween games reviewed in which the heroine can get killed by someone with a pair of scissors to two.

Why is a Raven Like a Video Game?

Note: The following originally appeared in the October 21, 2014 edition of Our Town

In doing a quick survey of article topics in the 14 or so months, I’ve noticed a few trends. I have the 16- and 32/64-bit eras on lockdown and try to cover interesting new releases with some regularity. I haven’t done a lot with 8-bit games, but that’s due in large part to the fact that it’s an era that doesn’t translate well into discussion in print.

But for whatever reason, I’ve missed a bunch of the PS3/360/Wii era. I don’t really know why this is. This generation spanned two of my prime gaming periods, undergrad and law school. And I own a metric ton of games from this era, so I don’t really have any excuses. So I’m going to pick a game at random from my collection and talk about it.

No, scratch that. I’m just going to pick something from the beginning of the alphabet because scrolling through my big ol’ game spreadsheet is a pain. So, “Alice: Madness Returns” it is.

Back about a year ago, I did a column on the influence of the ongoing adventures of Alice Liddell on gaming. In that column, I mentioned both “Madness Returns,” released in 2011, and its prequel, 2000′s “American McGee’s Alice” as the preeminent games that actually feature the Alice mythos. They tackle the story in a novel enough way that manages to engage even the more seasoned Alice fans out there.

The setup for “Madness Returns” is that Alice has found herself thrown in an asylum and later in an orphanage in a psychiatrist’s care after her family is all killed when their house burns down. At the same time, Wonderland, the fantasy world she created to cope with the real world, is in big trouble and is slowly fracturing because a mysterious train has been plowing through it. Alice, being the adventuring sort of woman that she is, picks up the Vorpal Blade (it looks like a butcher knife and its item description confirms that it goes snicker-snack) for one last trip down the rabbit hole.

The first thing you’ll notice about “Madness Returns” is that it’s a 3D action platformer. Somehow developer Spicy Horse missed the memo that it’s no longer 1998 and platformers in this style aren’t exactly common anymore. Amazingly, this game even runs into some of the problems the genre had way back in 1998, with twitchy jump controls, invisible walls that preclude you from taking some angles, and some dodgy targeting mechanics in combat. They somehow even forgot to put in boss battles besides the final climactic encounter.

But even with some obvious problems, “Madness Returns” does a lot right. Each of the six worlds is quite memorable and well-designed, with mad ups to the eerily quiet Card Castles world, where you’re mostly solving puzzles in some castles made of playing cards hovering far above the terrain of Wonderland. Between each world, you also experience brief interludes in London where Alice slowly pieces together what happened with her family. I will mention that the last world, the Dollhouse, is interminably long, though, and seems to take up 20% of the game’s length on its own.

As you might expect, the game is also chock full of references to both Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, with various characters and locales making appearances, from a skeletal Cheshire cat to the Walrus and the Carpenter (because you have to put them together) doing a stage performance. Alice has an array of whimsical weaponry to complement the Vorpal Blade in her arsenal, including a hobbyhorse that acts as the game’s Megaton Hammer, a rapid-fire pepper grinder, or the teapot cannon that shoots, um, scalding tea over a large radius. Never let it be said that this game doesn’t go all-in to try to recreate Carroll’s Wonderland, just…darker.

“Alice: Madness Returns” is by no means perfect. If you are looking for perfect controls and flawless combat, this is definitely not the game for you. It’s rough around the edges. But if you’re looking for something a little different, with a compelling story, a fantastic aesthetic, and a supremely interesting world, it’s definitely worth a shot. Besides, you must be mad, or else you wouldn’t be playing it.

Hope is a local attorney and video game enthusiast. He liked Alice’s costumes enough in this game that he actually plopped down the $2 that it cost to unlock the DLC ones.  

Oh My Hero, So Far Away Now…

Note: The following originally appeared in the October 14, 2014 edition of Our Town

‘Ere I walk away, let me here you say I meant as much to you…
Image courtesy of, um, this blog: http://2.bp.blogspot.com

It’s fair to say that most people have that one video game moment that sticks with them. Maybe it’s an accomplishment, like being the first guild in the world to beat the Lich King, or a boss fight, like Psycho Mantis. Perhaps it’s some incident that became an inside joke with your friends, such as “Santana Moss is the Best Moss in Deep Coverage.” Don’t ask about that one.

Or maybe it’s something that is only tangentially connected with a game’s main plot, like, oh, I don’t know, a scene that takes place in an opera. We’re finally breaking into Final Fantasy with the best moment in the best game in the series: Aria di Mezzo Carettere, aka the “opera scene,” from “Final Fantasy VI.”

“Final Fantasy VI” was released in America on October 20, 1994, so it only seems fair to talk about the opera scene as we approach its 20th anniversary, especially since the Ted Woolsey English translation is part of what makes the scene so memorable. Back in 1994, set pieces that were designed to look cool or evoke some emotional response weren’t especially common in video games. Almost everything that happened had some obvious connection to the main storyline. The opera is different.

If you’ve never played “Final Fantasy VI,” you’re probably wondering how a fantasy role-playing game manages to squeeze in a night at the opera without invoking the insanity clause. The setup is really pretty simple. You need an airship, because this is a role-playing game and of course you do. And there’s only one airship in the world. It’s owned by a guy named Setzer, who happens to like opera. Actually, he likes Maria, the prima donna for the opera. Maria looks exactly your party member, Celes, and so a plan to get Setzer to show up to the show so you can steal his airship is hatched.

This bit of tomfoolery takes a backseat to other considerations, like development of the relationship between Celes and “treasure hunter” (NOT thief) Locke, the content of the opera itself, and the plan of Ultros the purple octopus, the greatest comic relief villain ever, to ruin the show. There’s a lot going on here. And they all intertwine to bring you the greatest show ever.

With the setup out of the way, we can talk about the opera itself. It has a very opera-y plot, with the East and the West fighting and Draco, the hero of the West, promises to his love Maria that he’ll return to her. Anyway, Draco disappears, and Maria (played by Celes) is forced into marriage to the dastardly prince of the East. Because this is an opera, she sings an aria about how she’ll never forget Draco. When people talk about the opera scene, they usually mean the aria.

And what an aria it is. The gameplay in this section is pretty limited, as all you have to do is choose the correct words for Celes to sing, but that’s not the point. For this brief moment, there is no big conflict to save the world. There’s no angst from the characters about what to do. There are no battles. There’s just Celes, a castle, a ghost of Draco, and a bouquet of flowers. It’s completely captivating, due to a memorable melody and the aforementioned translation that really hammers home that Maria is going full Penelope and will wait for Draco forever. The emotion feels genuine, you know, in this video game opera that in a lesser game would be a throwaway scene. It was the first time I could remember a game transcending its medium and delivering a cinematic experience.

The opera scene has proven popular enough that it, along with the other things that happen in the story at the time, were actually scored into a real operetta and performed in Italian with live vocalists. It’s been remixed a bunch of times, notably with Aeris’s Theme in “Final Fantasy VII” sounding a ton like it. A ton of praise has been heaped on the opera scene over the years, but for once, it’s more than deserved. It’s a major gaming moment that has to be experienced. Explaining it just isn’t enough.

Here at Welcome to Bonus Stage, we entertain a wide range of opinions. You can disagree with me that “Ocarina of Time” is the best game ever. You can disagree with me that Rise Kujikawa is the best game character ever. But if you disagree with me that the opera scene is the best moment in any game, you are wrong.

Hope is a local attorney and video game enthusiast. The opera scene was the first video he ever favorited on YouTube, all the way back in 2006.

Finish the Job, James…If You Can

Note: The following originally appeared in the September 30, 2014 edition of Our Town

It’s beautiful, isn’t it?
Image courtesy of the GoldenEye Wiki

Like many in my age group, one of the defining games of my early teen years was “GoldenEye 007.” There’s not really any getting around it. It still remains one of the most influential first-person shooters ever made. And there has been a lot written about said influence over the years, whether it was the mission structure or the multiplayer, or the fact that it showed a shooter on a console could be done right.

For whatever reason, however, one of the things I remember most about “GoldenEye,” and an addition that provided an astonishing amount of fun over the years, is something that hasn’t gotten nearly as much attention. Well, it hasn’t gotten attention outside of say, the speedrunning community. That is its cheat system.

Cheat codes have all but disappeared from games in the modern era, but once upon a time, they were everywhere, affecting games in all sorts of ways. Whether it was the blood code in “Mortal Kombat” or the ever-present Contra Code or Bill Clinton in “NBA Jam” (I’ll never get over how the sitting President actually made an appearance in a video game), cheat codes were all the rage during the 8- and 16-bit eras.

And with the start of the 3D generation, they were still hanging around, with some ranging from the mundane, like the invincibility/all guns/infinite ammo combo Big Cheat in “GoldenEye” precursor “Turok: Dinosaur Hunter” to really inventive, like the presence of the Naboo Starfighter in “Star Wars: Rogue Squadron,” a game which came out a few months before Episode I was in theaters. “GoldenEye” had an array of cheats, 24 of them, in fact-only 23 are normally accessible, but Line Mode can be added via Gameshark or an obscure button code, so there you go.

Anyway, the unique thing about “GoldenEye” was how you activated cheats. You had to actually earn them. As implied earlier, there are button combos to activate the cheats, but they weren’t revealed until years after the game came out. So to get all but three cheats, the Magnum, Laser, and Golden Gun, which only require completing a certain stage on a certain difficulty level, you have to reach a target time in a level on a particular difficulty. And these times aren’t something you’ll just get your first time through. You’ll have to do a low-end speedrun. And there is the beauty of the “GoldenEye” cheat system.

As it turns out, there’s a lot of replay value in earning these cheats. And you’ll want to earn them. You’ll figure out your own prostrats for shaving seconds off and flying through objectives. You’ll learn techniques like speedstrafing-if you strafe and move forward at the same time, you’ll move slightly faster, which can save you a few seconds, which is all the difference in the world, and taking damage to propel you forward. It’s like playing a totally different game. Of course, the greatest challenge in the entire game also comes in earning one of these cheats. And if you were a “GoldenEye” aficionado, you know exactly what cheat that is-Invincibility.

It only makes sense that the king of all cheats should be the hardest to get. And it requires completing the Facility, one of the first levels in the game, in a blazing 2:05. All of your techniques and skills will be put to use to get this one. You’ll have to use remote mines to quickly take out groups of enemies, get guards to open doors for you to avoid going into rooms with control consoles, and use a technique to blow up the gas tanks with three mines instead of the usual five. Oh, and there’s Dr. Doak too.

If you wanted the Invincibility cheat, you’d curse the existence of Dr. Doak. He’s a double agent, actually named for a Rare bigwig, who gives you a critical item, the Door Decoder. Unfortunately, Dr. Doak’s location is randomized among three or four spots, and for any cheat strategy, he’ll need to appear in a specific place. This means that all your hard work could get derailed by chance. And it will. A lot. So to get the cheat, you’ll need a perfect run where you hit your spots, find Dr. Doak, and still have to throw up a prayer. But when you reach that target time, well, you’re the baddest person on the planet.

“GoldenEye” is one of those games that merits a ton of discussion years and years after its release. And the cheats are just another part of that mystique. They’re like an extra badge of honor evidencing skill and dedication. And they let you do cool things like be invincible or have all the guns, including ones that don’t appear in the normal gun. That’s pretty cool, too.

Hope is a local attorney and video game enthusiast. Unlocking all the cheats in “GoldenEye” is a bigger accomplishment for him than any platinum trophy he’s earned on PSN.

Shine On, “Harvest Moon”

Note: The following originally appeared in the October 7, 2014 edition of Our Town

Just like this, but a video game
Image courtesy of Wikipedia

Do you remember “Farmville?” Of course you do. It was all the rage back when I was in law school. I know this because about half of the students in any given class would be playing it on their laptops during a lecture. And when I first saw the once mighty Facebook game, my first thought was “This looks like ‘Harvest Moon,’ but not as good.” I was a total farming simulation game hipster.

Anyway, “Harvest Moon,” which serves as the flagship for Japanese developer Natsume, might be the clubhouse leader for video game series that have way more entries than you think, with an astonishing 25 main series games and 11 spinoffs since the series’ self-titled debut on the Super Nintendo back in 1996. Actually, it was one of the last games released for the system, coming out around the time of the N64′s launch, so hype was virtually nonexistent. It probably doesn’t help that this is a game about farming.

So yeah. No one can ever accuse “Harvest Moon” of following the crowd and not trying something different. If you’re looking for a plot, well, there isn’t one. For the most part, the series follows a series of variations on a theme-you inherit your grandpa’s farm and get a couple years to try to turn it from a pretty solid illustration of the concept of sunk cost into a prosperous model of agricultural productivity. And the only way to do this is to farm the heck out of the precious few acres you’ve been given.

“Harvest Moon” captures the basics of farming and animal husbandry, as you can also raise chickens, dairy cows, horses, and other cute animals to help out your farm as well. You clear ground, plant, water, harvest, rinse, and repeat for profit. And you’re going to be doing a lot of this. You can also venture into town or the nearby wilderness to get supply or gather resources as you see fit. That’s right, “Minecraft,” “Harvest Moon” was way ahead of you in the whole resource-gathering department. Of course, don’t work too hard or you’ll get exhausted and have to spend the next day in bed as a result of your reckless disregard for your health. Actually, the “Rune Factory” spinoff series was a big step forward as you can effectively set up magic runes to handle your farming stuff, so you can focus on more important things, like finding a virtual wife.

Yes, while “Harvest Moon” is about farming, it also allows you to get married, which is an essential part of the agricultural experience, or something. All the games have an array of six or so eligible bachelorettes (and an equal number of bachelors in the games where you play as a woman) for you to woo. A couple of the games have a rival character as well, but he/she is generally pretty ineffective, so it’s not a huge deal.

Anyway, once you’ve chosen the character archetype that you want to designate as the object of your affections, you’ll have to talk to and give gifts to him/her a bunch to build up a little love meter. I’m pretty sure this is also how it works in real life, so you’re getting valuable real world knowledge here too. Bioware branching conversations to build up relationships with party members these are not. Max them out and you can get married and eventually have a kid. It’s all quite Lake Wobegon.

And that’s really about all there is to “Harvest Moon.” You farm and do domestic things. There are various festivals and things to keep you occupied, but it’s really like “Animal Crossing” with people and agriculture instead of interior decorating. And it’s one of the best stress relievers out there. Tough day at work? Unwind by doing some planting. You can’t really lose the game unless you screw up really badly, in which case the ghost of your grandpa will chew you out. And no one likes to lose.

Believe it or not, “Harvest Moon” pretty much has a monopoly on the farming/marriage simulator genre, which is fine. It’s not like we really need a big competition in that area of gaming anyway. It’s not really a game that you sit down and play for hours at a time, but it’s definitely an experience that you can blow an hour on each day without a second thought. And sometimes that’s all you want.

Hope is a local attorney and video game enthusiast.  He has wondered which of the Harvest Moon girls was married the most.

Destiny is Waiting

Note: The following originally appeared in the September 23, 2014 edition of Our Town

Now that fall has arrived, we can finally hit the meat of the game schedule. And this year, there’s no bigger title that has been, and possibly will be, released than the Bungie-Activision vehicle “Destiny.” Of course, this is one of those games that more or less was going to be a hit no matter what, as Gamestop reported that it received the most preorders for any new piece of intellectual property ever. Also, “Destiny” pretty much had to be a hit, as Activision reportedly, at least according to Reuters, Forbes, and every gaming media outlet out there, sank $500 million into its development. And as for “Destiny” lives up to this considerable hype, the answer is a resounding “I’m not sure.”

Now, as you may or may not know, “Destiny” takes two really popular genres, first-person shooters and massively multiplayer online role-playing games, and smashes them together. It’s like “Borderlands,” but with a more serious plot and even more of an emphasis on the multiplayer aspect. It’s a really bold idea and considering how much flak the gaming industry gets as a whole for stagnating all the time, it’s pretty surprising a major company like Activision decided to try this.

Considering the odd blend of genres here, it only seems fair to address them separately. First is the shooter aspect. With Bungie’s track record with the “Halo” series, it’s not surprising that this aspect is done very well. Everything feels really spot-on and there is a nice variety of weapons for you to choose from. If this were a regular shooter, it’d be well-regarded, but probably not the potentially groundbreaking title that it is. The whole MMO part is what sets it apart.

Creating a shooter that exists entirely in a multiplayer world has been done before, notably this year with “Titanfall,” But while those were competitive games, “Destiny” focuses heavily on cooperative play. Like any MMO, you’re going to have a variety of quests to complete to earn experience points that will help you level up. And you can team up with a group of friends, called a fireteam here, to gallivant across our solar system, with locations on Earth, Mars, the Moon, and Venus, killing baddies and collecting loot.

And here’s where a lot of people have problems with “Destiny.” While each location is open and you can go after quests in whatever order you want, provided you complete a few prerequisites, there aren’t a ton of them. So you’re going to find yourself doing a ton of grinding to get up to the levels needed to the big endgame raids where your team actually joins another team in tackling a dungeon and its contained bosses. But it’s going to take a really long time for you to get to a high enough level to do that. Veterans of “World of Warcraft,” like my undergrad roommate, will remember back when the cap was level 60 and you ran out of quests and were left killing yetis in Winterspring forever until you finally maxed out. It’s a big problem to have endgame content that requires a substantial amount of tedium to reach, but that’s where “Destiny” is right now.

On a positive note, “Destiny” does avoid a lot of the pitfalls that new MMOs see. The servers don’t crash all the time. There aren’t tons of bugs. The game looks gorgeous and you don’t really experience any slowdown. So technically, “Destiny” is pretty much a marvel.

In any event, I said I’m not sure if “Destiny” lives up to the hype because it’s still a work in progress. Bungie has stated that it wants a 10-year plan for the game and its expansion content, so they’re clearly planning for the long haul. This also means that Bungie and Activision will care enough to tweak things as needed to make a better experience. At this point, “Destiny” is still a fun, but imperfect adventure that, assuming content gets added periodically, can keep you busy for a long time. And that’s just fine, as if Bungie’s vision works out, none of us will be able to escape our “Destiny.”

Hope is a local attorney and video game enthusiast. He’s still kind of disappointed “Destiny” only has three class choices, but what can you do?

It’s Punishment Time!

Note: The following originally appeared in the September 16, 2014 edition of Our Town

Goodbye sadness, girl meets boy meets girl…
Image courtesy of Kotaku

Note: The following contains a couple major spoilers for “Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc.” Actually, under pretty much no circumstances should you play “Danganronpa 2” without playing the first game either. You’re doing yourself a huge disservice not playing it.

It’s time to draw back the curtain and give you an inside look at how Welcome to Bonus Stage works. I keep a Word document with every Tuesday for the foreseeable future listed and fill in topics as needed. It helps to make sure I have new releases or holiday editions of the column covered. Well, I’ve had the September 16 column penciled in with “Danganronpa 2: Goodbye Despair” for several months. Good thing it doesn’t disappoint.

OK, so “Danganronpa 2” is a direct sequel to everyone’s favorite Battle Royale simulator developed by Spike Chunsoft and was released on September 2 on the Vita. If you played the first game, and if you’re still reading this, you should have, you’re going to feel right at home. In fact, the major game elements are back, pretty much in their entirety.

Just like the last game, you take the role of a student at Hope’s Peak Academy, the school which only recruits the greatest students in the world. This time around, instead of being the Ultimate Lucky Student (there is an Ultimate Lucky Student this time and he’s completely insane), you’re Hajime Hinata, whose talent is, well, he has amnesia and can’t remember.

Anyway, instead of chilling at the school and being forced to kill each other, this time you’re on a tropical island paradise with 15 other students and are forced to kill each other. You have an entire new cast of Ultimates-well, one, Byakuya, is a repeat. He also somehow got fat in between games. Your new high school buddies run the gamut of anime tropes, like Hiyoko, the foul-mouthed loli/Ultimate Traditional Dancer, Nekomaru, the super-intense coach/Ultimate Team Manager, and Peko, the stoic fighter with a weakness for cute things/Ultimate Swordswoman. They’re a pretty likable bunch, to be honest. Oh, and Monokuma is back.

Yes, the evil teddy bear, who is still around despite the death of his controller, criminal mastermind/Ultimate Despair Junko Enoshima, in the last game, is here to wreak havoc. And this time he’s joined by Monomi, a morally ambiguous magical girl pink bunny who wants everyone to live in peace and is abused by Monokuma a lot. Actually, having someone for the bear’s over-the-top personality to bounce off is pretty fun this time around.

And making a return from the last game is the black humor and a metric ton of references to video games and anime. Monokuma still makes a lot of jokes at the cast’s expense. There’s a book entitled “My Little Sister Can’t Be This Incompetent.” One character says that being the supermarket reminds them of running over zombies with carts. This is a game that knows its audience really well. There’s even a Chappelle’s Show reference, of all things. The localization crew at NISA did a really good job with this one.

But you’re probably wondering about the gameplay additions. So, by and large, this is the same game as “Danganronpa.” The basic premise of killing another student and getting away with it to escape the island is still there and you’ll be investigating and doing trials to reveal the killer behind each extremely complicated murder. But there are a few changes.

First, a couple new minigames have been added. The first are arguments, where you have a one-on-one showdown with another character to make your case. In the argument, you “cut” their arguments by swiping the Vita’s screen and use a Truth Bullet, though it’s a blade here, just like during the debate segments. It’s a cool idea, though not one that makes the game better or worse. The best thing about it might be when you get into an argument with Sonia, the Ultimate Princess, and she yells “Bow down!” And then there is the Logic Dive minigame. Oh, the Logic Dive game.

In their review of the game, RPGFan had a caption below Logic Dive that said “Worst minigame ever.” They’re not that far off. In Logic Dive, you’re on a snowboard in a virtual half pipe and you have to answer questions about the case to come to a conclusion you probably already knew while dodging obstacles. It’s terrible and I lost half of my health in one case once because of one round of this stupid, stupid game. Also, the Hangman’s Gambit is back and still really annoying. Just FYI on that one.

OK, so verdict time. Like the first game, “Danganronpa 2” has its faults, notably in some really bad minigames that completely take you out of the zone in trial. But the narrative and characters are really strong and you’ll want to plow ahead to solve the mystery. If you liked the first game, this is a no-brainer and explains most of the loose ends from that game while, in true Spike Chunsoft fashion, giving you some completely bonkers plot twists near the end. We can only hope that Monokuma has one more ride in him and gives us a third “Danganronpa” game.

Hope is a local attorney and video game enthusiast. In both games, his favorite character ended up being the killer in the third case. So that happened.

 

You’re a Shining Star (of Destiny)

Note: The following originally appeared in the September 9, 2014 edition of Our Town

Collect all 108 and impress your friends!

One of the most annoying and overused buzz phrases in video gaming is “RPG elements.” It’s usually code for “we’re going to shoehorn in some really lazy experience system that means nothing. Oh, and there will be a bad crafting system. Gotta craft ‘em all.” But what if the reverse happened? What if there were a role-playing game that had elements of other genres? And when I’m talking about elements of other genres, I mean for their use as major game features and not just thrown in minigames.

Well, luckily for us, there are quite a few role-playing games that incorporate other genres, with the “Persona” series, which I’ve talked about before, and “Thousand Arms” on the PlayStation, which has a full-integrated dating sim aspect (maybe we’ll talk about that for Valentine’s Day). But one of the first series to do this seamlessly is a sadly-neglected property of Konami, “Suikoden.”

“Suikoden,” pronounced “Swee-KO-den,” I think, as no one in any of the games has ever done a title drop, started back in 1996 on the PlayStation with its eponymous game based on the 14th century Chinese novel Shui Hu Zhuan, which is known in English as Water Margin, or Outlaws of the Marsh, or All Men Are Brothers. It now encompasses five main games and a smattering of spinoffs. Anyway, the plot of the first game is about our hero, the son of a general of the Scarlet Moon Empire, forming an army of 108 Stars of Destiny (really fancy way for saying soldiers) to bring down the corrupt empire. “Suikoden” is unique, not just in the whole 108 Stars of Destiny thing, which allows for a stunning amount of party combinations, but also in the other genres it manages to integrate.

First is the fact that collecting all 108 Stars is required for the best ending and usually for saving a major character from dying. This adds an interesting collection aspect to the whole thing, as you really will be searching everywhere for them. Luckily, all the main entries more or less drop a detective character into your lap who can help you find other Stars. They range from incredibly useful, like the omnipresent member of the Howling Voice Guild, the only group in the world with access to firearms, to worthless, like the guy who runs your castle’s bathhouse.

Oh, and you get a castle in every game. There’s always some storyline event that leads to the protagonist getting a castle where all the Stars of Destiny can chill and be useful. It’s a kind of town management type thing where you’re going to take a degree of pride in how full your castle gets by the end of the game and all the people that have come together to fight for justice and other good things.

But an aspect more or less everyone will remember from a “Suikoden” game is the strategy part. Yeah, this is the real cross-genre thing. This is a game about war and the effect war has on everyday people, so from time to time, there are going to be massive battles. And as the general of this large army, you get to command your armies, whether in turn-based or real-time format. It’s a change of pace from grinding on the world map forever and really brings home the point of the series in such a way that only witnessing big battles through cutscenes could do.

And then we get to the overarching mythos of the “Suikoden” universe. Unlike almost any other role-playing series, every one of the main “Suikoden” games takes place in the same universe. That means that events in one game affect the next one or characters reappear. The first two games have a ton of crossover, with rockstar supporting cast members and ringers in battle Flik and Viktor playing a central role in both games and villains like the vampire Neclord showing up in both. Two characters, the mysterious Rune Mistress (Magic is done through runes) Jeane and ditzy teleportress Viki even show up in every main game. It’s really interesting to see across games how events affect the whole world or to hear characters reference what you did in a previous game.

“Suikoden” is a series that has a really crazy cult following, especially for the second game in the series, which, thanks to a limited release and Konami’s apparent unwillingness to put it on PSN, has kept a price of around $100 for a disc-only copy for at least ten years. It’s another one of those series that isn’t really like anything else and is definitely work a look if you have any interest in role-playing games. Be forewarned, though, aside from the first game, which is on PSN, and the fourth, which isn’t that great, all of the main series commands some pretty solid prices. But they’re worth it. Yes, even “Suikoden II” is worth it.

Patrick Hope is a local attorney and video game enthusiast. 2>5>3>1>4

Your Skills Have Improved, Fox

Note: The following originally appeared in the September 2, 2014 edition of Our Town

Thanks, Peppy.
Image courtesy of wikia.nocookie.net

The beginning of the PS1/N64/Saturn generation has always fascinated me, perhaps because I remember it really well, or maybe because, in retrospect, it was historically a pretty important time for games.

“Super Mario 64” was blowing the doors off whatever we thought action-adventure games could do. “GoldenEye 007” completely revolutionized the FPS genre on consoles. “Final Fantasy VII” ushered in an RPG boom. “Resident Evil” and “Metal Gear Solid” pretty much created their own genres and “Final Fantasy Tactics” and “Tactics Ogre” did turn-based strategy games so well, that 15 years later, most games still use their basic template. It was a time when gaming was a blank canvas. Anything was possible in pretty much genre.

And that Kevin Garnett-inspired “anything is possible” motif carried into one of gaming’s more venerable genres, the shoot ‘em up. Almost since video games first became a thing, there has been a fixation with flying a spaceship around and shooting things. And with the big dimensional leap, fans would wonder what was next. A 3D corridor shooter? Free movement? Why not both, along with some other stuff?

Enter “Star Fox 64.”

The original “Star Fox,” released back in 1993 on the Super Nintendo, was kind of a unique beast, making use of the Super FX chip to create 3D polygons, which were almost unheard of at the time in console games. The Nintendo 64 version of the game looked pretty similar, with the game being played in a corridor in which your ship, the Arwing, could move freely and boost into the foreground. Of course, 64 is a much more refined title graphically and the polygons actually look like something as opposed to large wedges mashed together. But the basic concept is the same. However, “Star Fox 64” gave us a host of other cool ideas, including one that you more or less couldn’t miss.

If you bought “Star Fox 64” back in 1997, you would have noticed that its box was larger than normal. That’s because it contained Nintendo’s new-fangled peripheral, the Rumble Pak, which was this big ol’ device that shook at certain times and is more or less what inspired the “shock” part of the Dualshock controller for the Playstation. This was a totally new idea back then and I distinctly remember eschewing games at times if they didn’t offer Rumble Paks support because the idea was just sooooooo cool. But that debuted with “Star Fox 64.”

Then there’s what has become the most enduring legacy of the game-its voice acting. Now, voice acting wasn’t really a new idea, but it hadn’t been seen too much in major Nintendo games beyond stuff like sports and fighting game announcers or Mario saying “Let’s a-go.” “Star Fox 64” has a ton of voice acting. Every single member of the Star Fox team, the rival Star Wolf team, helper characters like Katt Monroe and Bill the Dog, and all the bosses have voiced dialogue.

And, especially for being 1997 voice acting, it’s all well-done and gives the characters personality. Yeah, some of the lines are beyond cheesy, but if you read “Never give up! Trust your instincts,” “So Andross, you show your true form,” or “Can’t let you do that, Star Fox,” you will likely hear the voices of those characters in your head. No other games besides “Metal Gear Solid” and “Resident Evil” from the time have such memorable voice acting, and the latter is more because the acting is so bad.

Amazingly enough, I’ve barely even touched on the gameplay in “Star Fox 64.” Rest assured, it holds up really well, even today. The controls are intuitive and the game handles like a dream. A big feature in the game was also that there were numerous paths you could follow to get to the last level, Venom, which even had two variations depending on how you approached it.

Worlds ranged from Katina, which is under attack from a mothership that bears a striking resemblance to the ship from Independence Day, to Macbeth, a supply depot which has you following alongside a train to slowly blow it up and eventually reroute it to slam into a weapons factory, to Area 6, a heavily-guarded portion of space where you will get no time to breathe as you take out ship after ship.

And some of the worlds also eschew the traditional corridor shooter and instead use what the game calls “all-range” mode, where you fly around in a big open area where you can move freely and go after targets, often the Star Wolf team. And I would be remiss to not mention that a total of three worlds throw you into either the Landmaster (a tank) or the Blue Marine (a sub) instead of your ship to give more variety.

“Star Fox 64” stands out as one of the big games from this era which has aged incredibly well. It still looks good today and it definitely plays great. Like with many shoot-em-ups, its replay value is absolutely through the roof, as you can play through a different route or try to beat your high score. Yeah, it’ll only take an hour to beat the first time, but playing it only once completely misses the point. And that point is having fun. Only this game has the brains to rule Lylat.

Patrick Hope is a local attorney and video game enthusiast. You should ask his mom what she thinks about Slippy getting shot down on Titania.