Tuesday, June 2, 2009

My Ten Favorite Videogames (Part One)

My Ten Favorite Videogames (Part One)

So the odd truth is that I'm a gamer who isn't very good at games-- at least in the most “gamey” sense. I love board games, but I'm average at them. I usually pick up the basic sense of a game pretty quickly, which means I'll win my first couple of games when I'm teaching a game or playing with new people. But once others have picked up the mechanics, I'm probably done for. I suppose if I focused in on a single game I might get better, but I love a lot of different games and enjoy diverse mechanics. We used to play INWO, the Illuminati CCG quite a bit and I could do OK, but generally I didn't have the patience to construct a really lean and hungry deck. The kinds of combos and structures other players developed continually threw me for a loop.

I have the same lack of basic skills and focus with video games-- though again, I do enjoy them. I claim to be decent at only a couple of games and for the most part that's a casual proficiency. I've steered away from online play because I simply get my head handed to me. I would come in solidly below the middle every time we did LAN parties, and more often than not at the bottom. I suspect that's why I like co-op FPS and those kinds of games-- the pleasure of working together to win at a task.

All that being said, I do love video games-- in a fairly narrow niche, and I have some that I really love a lot. These are the ones that I go back to or would go back to if they still played well on the current generation of machines. It really is a shame that older PC titles just don't run or run poorly on modern equipment. I have a number of things I'd replay if I could get them to work without having to jump through hoops and track down odd system patches from the backlots of the internet.

Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri
John B lent me Civ II a number of years ago, back in the old days of PC gaming and I played that quite a bit. Mind you, I never really played on any serious level of difficulty. I enjoyed the idea of a turn-based world builder game-- the sandlot possibilities. Sherri for many years played the various realtime city building games like Pharaoh and Rome. She could manage the pathing and micromanagement on the fly, but I really liked being able to take my time.

SMAC was probably the first game that we saw previews for and waited anxiously for it to come out. When it did we weren't disappointed. It polished the Civ forumla, provided a rich world backdrop and added many new elements. At the same time the interface gave you everything you needed. Even Civ IV, a great game, still hasn't matched the excellence and clarity of this game. The ability to design and build your units, that different factions felt different, and that your initial set up could heavily impact your path made this game great. I never played for the competitive aspect-- I played just to see a Faction through the game and enjoy the vision of expanding and developing my empire.

Final Fantasy Tactics
I'll admit that I had a serious bias against JPRGs in the beginning. Scott always seemed to be playing them and they looked awful. Everybody went on and on about FF7, but I just didn't get it. We tried the first Wild Arms game and a couple of others and hated the story. Then for some reason we picked up Final Fantasy Tactics for the Playstation. To say the translation was bad would be putting it mildly. The tutorial in the game made nearly no sense. Then, even as you played through, the story seemed bizarre and not particularly clear. You'd meet characters, interact with them, then they'd get killed in the labyrinthine plot, and you'd never be sure why or if it even mattered.

But aside from that, the game itself was enormous fun. Real strategies could be developed, you could sink your time into leveling up characters, and you had the goal of making sure every character went through every single class and profession in the game. We clocked in hundreds of hours on the game. I think Sherri and I both played it twice. The only problem would be that FFT set a bar for Strategy rpgs that few other games would even come close to (and we've tried them all Makai Kingdom, Suikoden Tactics, Hoshigami, Disgaea, Chaos Wars, La Pucelle, Jean d'Arc, Soul Nomad, Phantom Brave, Kartia, Front Mission, even the other FFT follow-ups). I replayed the game not too long ago on the PSP and still enjoyed it, except for the hand cramps that system gives me.

Shin Megami Tensai: Nocturne
The best JPRG I've played. Great combat balance, interesting backstory, excellent graphics. Plus the fact that the story seems to revolve around a semi-gnostic demon summoning cult who calls the end of the world but you're saved by their rogue herald who changes you into a half-demon and leaves you to wander the sphere shaped wasteland of a post-apocalyptic Toyko battling monsters, making deals with a Lucifer figure, assembling the massed hordes as your servants and making philosophical decisions about what the world's going to look like once someone manages to seize control of this fledgling world...yeah, that kind of works for me.

The Shin Megami Tensai series, as a whole, produces some of the strangest and most interesting rpgs out there. Only Shadow Hearts even comes close to reaching those heights and it tends to devolve into some deliberate self-parody about the ideas. SMT always manages to keep itself straight on target. While I've enjoyed the other games in the series (Digital Devil Saga, Persona 2, 3 and 4, for example), Nocturne still stands as the best. Here's a small detail, but I notice its absence in other games like it: Nocturne has a free floating camera, allowing you to look in all directions, even up. There's a dungeon in the middle of the game where you make your way up an enormous sky-scraper tower gutted on the inside. Several times you'll come out onto ledges and look down and I can feel my stomach drop. Really potent and well done.

SSX Tricky
Yes, I love a snow-boarding game. But the SSX series is (or was until the last game but a stake in the heart of the franchise) the best racing games I've ever played. SSX Tricky really gets everything right. The first game (SSX) showed the potential, and the next game (SSX 3) had polish, but Tricky has an incredible balance of elements. You could play courses over and over again, learning the timing, finding new and better shortcuts, and truly mastering the play. I'd say this is one of those games, provided I had a little time to reacclimate myself, that I am pretty damn good at. I haven't yet found another racing game that delivers as much of what I want (though Jax Combat Racing was pretty close). I do have to admit I didn't get the tricks system for a while until one of Sherri's friends came to visit and figured it out-- after that the scales fell from my eyes and I understood how dynamite the game could be.

Castlevania: Symphony of the Night
A Playstation game Sherri and I picked up on a whim from the bargain bin of EB Games. It had been out for some time, but we'd never looked at it. Neither of us had had any really experience with platformers-- certainly we didn't grow up with a Nintendo system and the closest I got was a Lode Runner rip-off for my Odyssey game system. We ended up playing it for the rpg elements and staying for the dynamite gameplay and amazing graphics. The game is more fun than it has any right to be. We bought a Turbo controller just to pull off one particular goob.

Everything's well-balanced about the game. And once you've gotten to the point of having mastery of the thing, suddenly it opens up and the size of the thing doubles. We've played through this several times. I've picked up other of the 2D Castlevania's but none comes close to matching the accessibility and sheer fun of this one. I'm still not that good at platformers and don't pick them up as a rule. Instead, if I really want that experience, I'll go back and play this again.