Gaming Bus Thu, 01 Nov 2018 16:17:41 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Gaming Bus’s Games of the Year for 2015! Tue, 26 Jan 2016 01:34:45 +0000 Gaming Bus LIVES!!!

OK, “lives” might be relative. The DNS still works. The website loads. Our archives are there. But for how long it will live as a place that takes posts, I don’t know. I honestly debated writing this on this site if only because it’s seen two posts in the calendar year, and one was an obituary. I guess I do this out of sheer nostalgia: I haven’t not written a Game of the Year post since I’ve been a writer. I’m sure there was another reason I wanted to write this…

Oh. Right. 2015 was a freaking amazing year for games. That’s why.

Indie games were incredible. Mobile games were incredible. Even AAA games were largely inoffensive. What’s really happened is that developers are starting to get comfortable with the new console hardware, and PC gaming is as solid as ever, especially as we’re still able to game effectively on new AAA games with years-old hardware. The software – and never mind what they say about hardware, it’s always about the games – was impressive, both in quantity and quality. Narrowing down a top 10 was not easy, in the slightest.

Before going further, a run-down of my rules for my yearly posts, which have a couple of additions this year as we adjust to new ways of doing business.

1) These are for games released between December 1st, 2014 and November 30th, 2015.
2) These are my personal favourite games, for systems I own. No other metric went into this other than my personal enjoyment.
3) Games must be out of Early Access. If a game was released in full in this year, it qualifies for this year.
4) Ports don’t count. A game must have seen initial release in America in 2015.
5) NEW RULE: Major expansions of existing games count as games. Examples include Destiny: The Taken King and Final Fantasy XIV: Heavensward.
6) NEW RULE: Free to play games only count for the year of their initial release. I.E.: Fallout Shelter counts, Path of Exile doesn’t.

Notably, this was the year I got a PlayStation 4 and a Wii U, meaning I was no longer behind on any non-Halo release.

With that out of the way, I’ll address some games that are conspicuous in their absence:

* Trails of Cold Steel and Xenoblade Chronicles X were released in December, and don’t qualify for this list. They qualify next year.
* The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky SC wasn’t considered because I am a completionist and the first game is a nightmare for that, so I’m getting there first.
* Bloodborne didn’t get considered because I haven’t played it yet.
* Metal Gear Solid V did not get considered because I barely played it, largely due to a messy divorce between Konami and I.
* I was gifted The Witcher on Boxing Day and I simply haven’t had time to get into it.

Next, is an award I’ve given out for years, called the Mount And Blade Good Bad Game Award. This is named in honour of the original Mount and Blade, which had great potential but wasn’t there yet. I liked it, but reviewed it poorly on DHGF. Thankfully, Warband, the sequel, turned out far better. Let’s hope the two games that “won” this year go the same way. That’s right: for the first time, we have a tie!

2009: Muramasa: The Demon Blade (Wii)
2010: Record of Agarest War (360)

2011: Vacant
2012: Vacant
2013: Knights of Pen and Paper (iOS/Steam)
2014: Desert Golfing (iOS)

falloutshelter2015 (tie): Fallout Shelter (iOS) – Fallout Shelter is a typical freemium game in that it’s not free. They want you – need you – to buy lunch boxes to get any kind of “loot” worth keeping. But the funny part of this is that this game has a cap of how well you can do; once you get to 200 “dwellers”, you can’t have any more – “ValutTec regulations”, say the arbitrary rules, which is hilarious for a game set in the nuclear apocalypse – and if you get more, they wait impotently outside your vault. You have to basically kill off followers to get new ones.

That doesn’t mean the game is not addictive, mind. Training your dwellers, keeping stats up, all of that tickles the part of the brain that likes to achieve, that sees “level up” and smiles, knowing they’ve accomplished something, even if all that is is the need for another lunch box and the game’s punishing drain on my iPhone’s battery. I played this longer than I should have, and even started a second vault before I realized what the hell I was doing. As an ad for Fallout 4 and a time waster, it does the trick. But don’t expect typical Fallout quality.

fuckinghuniepop2015 (tie): HuniePop (PC) – Let’s get this out of the way: under any guise of humanity, HuniePop, as a product, is detestable. The game’s sheer lack of respect for females is galling. The characters are walking racist stereotypes with no individual personality; they’re there to be gawked at and masturbated to, and to suggest otherwise is to be laughed at by the game’s target audience. Even that part is underwhelming; the “porn” in the uncensored version of the game is weak. And the developer is a horrible human, supporting GamerGate in a weak attack on some cartoon villain version of “social justice warriors”.

But damned if there isn’t a good Match-3 game in there. A strangely strategic game that actually works, even if there are balance issues near the end, there’s a wealth of good ideas to be had in the actual gameplay portion of the game. It’s just a shame that you need a shower after actually playing it.

To finish that game’s analogy, we have one more round of foreplay: our Honourable Mention games. It took a lot of work to narrow this to five games:

Axiom Verge (PC/PS4) – I have a soft spot for Metroidvanias, which I share with just about every game developer, apparently; all of the best ones outside of Metroid and Castlevania are one-man jobs. Thomas Happ’s Axiom Verge is no exception, managing to take an eight-bit aesthetic and add the oppressive atmosphere that made the original Metroid so wonderful.

Nobunaga’s Ambition: Sphere of Influence (PC/PS4) – It’s great to see Tecmo Koei ignore the boob jiggle physics of some of their other games for a second to bring this series back to prominence. Nobunaga has always played second fiddle to their Romance of the Three Kingdoms games, but this is a wonderful way to help people get more familiar with Japan’s Sengoku period.

Broforce (PC) – Sitting in consistent development for years, Broforce finally managed to break out this year, showcasing what everyone loves in the first place: a bunch of 80s heroes blowing shit up in the name of freedom and ‘Murica. Good, dumb fun.

Prune (iOS) – An addicting, hauntingly beautiful game about helping trees see the light of the sun. A bit esoteric, but gorgeous and soothing.

Downwell (iOS/PC) – Devolver does it again: Downwell is a brilliant game for short-bursts, preferably off the bottom of your feet. The only thing keeping this from the top 10 was the sheer quality ahead of it, and the phone version’s touch screen reliance.

Finally, the main event: Gaming Bus’s Top Ten Games of 2015!

Fallout_4_cover_art#10: Fallout 4
Systems: PlayStation 4, XBox One, Windows
Developer: Bethesda Game Studios
Publisher: Bethesda Softworks
Original Release Date: November 10th, 2015

It says a lot about the Fallout brand, and the expectations surrounding it, that I feel the need to simultaneously explain why Fallout 4 rated so “low”, while at the same time making the theme of this entry one of disappointment.

Fallout 4 is a good game. It’s huge. There’s a lot of personality. The mechanics are well done. All of the bubbles that have to be filled in on the “good game” checklist are filled in.

But Fallout 4 is not a good Fallout game. All of the role-playing elements that made past games good have been boiled out, as if they were impurities. What’s left is just another AAA game meant to cater to the widest breadth of gamer possible. Gamers that thought Fallout 3 had too many of those pesky “choices” to make are fine with a game that has no real branching storyline except one, but it makes for a bland experience. Fallout 4 is vanilla. Very high quality vanilla, but vanilla nonetheless. For a franchise that made its mark on being moose track, that’s unsatisfying.

I like Fallout 4, but this game just made me appreciate Fallout 1 and New Vegas that much more.

her-story-script-01#9: Her Story
Systems: Windows, OS/X, iOS
Developer: Sam Barlow
Publisher: Sam Barlow
Original Release Date: June 24th, 2015

Her Story is not a “game” in the classic sense. It’s a visual novel with videos, but there’s no action to be had. But if there’s any consequence to the indie boom of the past few years, it’s that the whole concept of what a “video game” is has not changed so much as it’s expanded. Her Story is basically a search engine simulator to get a conclusion the author had in mind, but what makes it work is the story itself – at times wonky, but in other cases mind-blowing – and the acting work of debutant Viva Seifert.

Story based games are only as good as their story, and Her Story was almost impossible to put down. Immediately gripping, and finally enriching, Her Story is a tribute to a genre it will surely be seen as a bedrock example of.

yoshi#8: Yoshi’s Wooly World
System: Nintendo Wii U
Developer: Good-Feel
Publisher: Nintendo
Original Release Date: June 25, 2015

It’s apt that a developer called “Good-Feel” created this game, because that’s what Yoshi’s Wooly World was about: good feels. The whole yarn motiff worked out well with Kirby’s Epic Yarn on the Wii, so they put it on a system with a stronger engine, in the Yoshi’s Island world where it works just as well. We argue about measurable metrics such as gameplay and graphics and, as the science begins to be broken down better (and exposed more by another game on this list), how levels are constructed, but there’s no adequate way to enumerate and boil into a measurable just how happy and relaxed a game can make the player feel.

Yoshi’s Wooly World passes that test. It’s the only game on this list that my whole household enjoyed. It’s a game that others can play and enjoy, no matter if they’re experienced or relative newcomers. There’s a joy of exploration that made everyone smile as they found new things, and a way of implementing it that makes cooperative play a joy. Yoshi’s Wooly World deserves points for bringing non-gamers into the mix if nothing else.

nba2k16#7: NBA 2K16
Systems: XBox One, PlayStation 4, XBox 360, PlayStation 3, Windows
Developer: Visual Concepts
Publisher: 2K Sports
Original Release Date: September 29th, 2015

NBA 2K16 is arguably the greatest sports game ever. Both online and offline, it plays like a dream; no game outside of maybe MLB The Show approximates its sport as closely as this one. No other sports game can adequately show the difference between a superstar player and an average one. Its franchise mode is by far the best run mode in the genre. 2K16 is sublime.

The only thing keeping this – a sports game – from the top three is that 2K decided to break arguably its best mode, replacing the bog standard MyPlayer mode with a Spike Lee interactive movie that is mandatory, goes on for way too long, and is even less believable than Lee’s last overwrought basketball movie (He Got Game). It speaks well to just how solid NBA 2K16 is that their best mode can lay such an egg, yet the rest of the game is so good that it still makes the top 10 in a good year.

Dragon_Quest_Heroes_cover_art#6: Dragon Quest Heroes: The World Tree’s Woe and the Blight Below
Systems: PlayStation 3 (JP), PlayStation 4, Windows
Developer: Omega Force
Publisher: Square Enix
Original Release date: October 13th, 2015

The benefit of Dragon Quest is that its world is so well established that even all of the separate games exist in an overreaching canon that has been in place for thirty years now. While Final Fantasy has constantly reinvented itself, Dragon Quest has stayed remarkably consistent in its presentation.

Dragon Quest Heroes had the potential to be horrible, as does any game that take the Dynasty Warriors engine and shoehorn other elements in, but it works beautifully inside Dragon Quest’s established template, providing the same cathartic Dragon Quest gameplay fans have loved for years with all the comforts of such a venerable franchise, from the characters down to the music and sound effects. The addition of other popular characters from old Dragon Quest games was icing on the cake.

Dragon Quest Heroes has all the best elements of two franchises that fans love, with almost none of the annoyances. It’s a fantastically well made game that shows what SquareEnix is capable of when motivated.

Rocket_League_coverart#5: Rocket League
Systems: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Windows, OS/X, Linux
Developer: Psyonix
Publisher: Psyonix
Original Release Date: July 7th, 2015

Whereas other sports games emulate existing sports and the performance of the athletes that play them, Rocket League does something completely different: it basically creates a new sport.

Oh, sure, the concept is simple, and I’m guessing its genesis happened over adult beverages one night where someone said “fuck it, let’s do football with cars!” That’s the kind of thing a 12 year old thinks up at recess. But then Psyonix added tight controls, a decent camera, and a novel scoring apporoach to the mix, and the result is an organized chaos that is simple to learn but takes a lot of skill to play right.

I see Rocket League becoming the new Team Fortress 2, where a simple game with an effective ruleset that future updates and a rabid fanbase cause to rise to a new level. That’s a double-edged sword – TF2 has since gone freemium and effectively ruined itself – but until that other shoe drops, Rocket League stands to be the game with the longest tail of all of the ones on this list.

Super_Mario_Maker_Artwork#4: Super Mario Maker
System: Wii U
Developer: Nintendo EA&D
Publisher: Nintendo
Original Release Date: September 10th, 2015

Creating new Mario levels has never been a novel concept; ROM hacks have existed since emulation. But Nintendo, the same company that boiled a complex game like SimCity down for the masses in the Super Nintendo era, is the king of taking something that requires an involved skillset and giving laymen the ability to perform the task. Thus, we have Super Mario Maker, an open sandbox for Mario fans to create, share, and play levels.

The beauty of Super Mario Maker is that one doesn’t even have to be a talented level designer in order to get something amazing out of the package. The play modes that allow players to play random levels designed by other players is worth the purchase price in and of itself. But digging into the level creator is a wonderful way to stretch one’s creative muscles, whether it’s to see if they can make their own good Mario game, or to create chaos, giant Goombas and walls of fire as far as the eye can see.

It’s a testament to the game that the only problems are the ones Nintendo caused, such as the need for codes for individual levels and the limited upload slots. This is the perfect tool for Mario fans and has me wishing for a Zelda creator.

splatoon#3: Splatoon
System: Wii U
Developer: Nintendo EA&D
Publisher: Nintendo
Original Release Date: May 28th, 2015

It’s a testament to how games are played online in 2016 that Splatoon – a game ostensibly designed with kids in mind – is the most mature shooter I’ve ever played, specifically because of the things it limits.

I’ll borrow the Team Fortress reference from my Rocket League writeup. Someone starting new at Team Fortress at this point is almost guaranteed to get their doors blown in. It goes beyond learning the weapons and the classes, and goes to learning all of the game’s inate quirks and unwritten rules. Splatoon democratizes that a bit, and in effect makes it so there’s more actual playing skill involved. By limiting the game to a few maps a day, players are forced to learn the new maps quickly.

But most important was the decision to remove voice chat. Serious players think they need voice chat in order to effectively communicate with their team; my experience through fifteen years of using voice chat is that it leads to either the team’s self-appointed superstar browbeating his teammates for poor performance, or simply being called names by a prepubescent. Taking away voice chat does two things: it means I can have an online experience free from the typical crap that turns me off to them, and adds a new skill to the mix: making it so that players have to pay attention to the map and read their teammates’ intentions from that. I prefer the spontanety to SOCOM-levels of coordination.

Lastly, Splatoon brought back the power of the support player. I am an average shooter; I was a decent sniper in my day in TF2, but beyond that, it’s not my milieu. But the rules of Splatoon – which make map coverage, not player-on-player action, the goal – means I can just take my paint roller and gain my team an early advantage. Splatoon is a wonderful game that is meant to include kids, but plays perfectly for adults.

ori#2: Ori and the Blind Forest
Systems: Xbox One, Xbox 360, Windows
Developer: Moon Studios
Publisher: Microsoft Studios
Original Release Date: March 11th, 2015

I will admit that I’m a sucker for atmospheric storytelling, especially if it looks pretty. I loved Limbo when it came out. Child of Light made my top 10 last year, and Valdis Story: Abyssal City made it the year prior. But while those games told a good story, none quite touched my soul the way Ori and the Blind Forest did.

Just the prologue is a heart-wrencher that rivals the beginning of the movie Up! in terms of making the person taking it in feel sad. It’s also a great setup for the rest of the game, which is a platformer that rewards exploriation while maintaining both a hopeful venier of recussitation and a punishing difficulty that counts the amount of times the player dies.

Death will come frequently. Ori is tough – not quite VVVVVV levels of punishment, but not far off – but set up in a way that never feels cheap. Success is rewarding while failure is a tool used to drive the player to greater heights. It’s wonderful platforming, and gorgeous to boot.

Ori and the Blind Forest is another in a line of games that continues to evolve the wheel that is the platform genre, rounding out the few rough edges left and polishing it to a shine.

Before the big prize, a look back at the past Games of the Year, per my list last year which included some retroactive changes:

2007: Football Manager 2008
2008: Space Invaders Extreme
2009: NHL ’10
2010: NBA 2K115
2011: The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
2012: Dishonored
2013: Fire Emblem: Awakening
2014: Freedom Planet

Finally, the fourth ever Gaming Bus Game of the Year, which surprised me as much as anyone…

papyrusGAME OF THE YEAR: Undertale
System: Windows, OS/X
Developer: Toby Fox
Publisher: Toby Fox
Original Release Date: September 15th, 2015

My introduction to Undertale was through its retroactive hype. I’d heard it was good, just another in a line of one-man projects made with love, in a sea of similar projects. At first, I thought it would be no different than my #5 game of 2014, Another Star.

Then Undertale won the “Best Game Ever” GameFAQs 20th anniversary poll, taking out legendary games like Pokemon Red/Blue, Sonic the Hedgehog 2, Super Mario 64 and former champion The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time in the process. This actually had the effect of turning me off the game initially. The video game fanatic portion of the internet has a propensity, especially lately, of acting very stupid, and I figured the push for Undertale being the greatest game ever was the latest in a rash of instances where an organized mob decided to be counterculture solely for the purpose of being counterculture and watching people get upset. Basically, I dismissed Undertale because I strongly dislike being trolled by pimply-faced teenagers from Reddit.

I eventually played it after picking it up on a 20% off sale, and found that it was indeed a very good game, full of personality and spirit. I avoided spoilers as best I could, and found that it was a wonderful game that rewarded thinking outside the box. I spared enemies. I petted dogs. I dated a skeleton. Maybe it wasn’t quite the new Earthbound everyone said it was – Earthbound was, above all else, a classic-style RPG – but it was charming. I was prepared to put it in my top-10, and that would have been it.

Then I started to experiment on the second playthrough. That’s when I realized just what Undertale was.

Undertale is, at its core, a deconstruction of modern gaming tropes disguised in a game that happens to perfect what would normally be trite RPG battles. If it was a standard JRPG that used the “bullet hell” method of avoiding damage, that element would be a solid footnote to the package, something used in a bullet point to sell the product. But just about every step of Undertale is used to set up some kind of joke, or statement, or way to screw with a player’s normal perception of their game and its environment.

Giving specifics would spoil the effect of finding them, which is a high compliment to pay to the writing, but I’ll give one example. In one fight, you can’t really spare a particular enemy; you can try, but the enemy doesn’t say anything and continues to attack. Eventually, if you keep sparing the enemy, their defence drops a bit, but then they start repeating lines. That, in most games, is a cue that the player has exhausted all avenues and needs to do something else, but here, continuing on that path is the way to win the fight without killing the enemy, in a game where killing the enemy is something to be looked down upon.

There are so many ways the game changes the perception of what you’re supposed to do that it’s shocking to learn that Undertale is a one-man job, and barely a man at that. Toby Fox did most of Undertale himself, including the programming and design. This is the fruit of the indie generation; for every two-bit guy that wants to make the next big hit, this 24 year old – barely a man – managed to funnel his incredible imagination and vision into a solid product that continues to find ways to surprise even long after the game has been initially beaten. In the old days, Toby Fox would have been designing the graphics on Random Enemy 53 in some huge AAA EA game, if he was even in the games industry at all. Thanks to the democratization of the industry, he’s making award-winning video games.

Let’s get this out of the way: Underatle is not one of the top video games of all time. In terms of scale, it doesn’t match up to Ocarina of Time, whichever Final Fantasy one prefers, or any other timeless classic that has survived the times. It also cannot be ignored that those games created the tropes that Undertale plays off of. But in a fantastic year for the medium, Undertale stands out for being so full of soul, so full of spirit, and such a deviation from the random cash-ins that permeate Steam. Hats off to you, Toby Fox, you made the best game of 2015.

I was reading something from my old hangout recently, where many of the people who have been there for a decade bemoaned how bad 2015 was for games. In a way, I’m glad to be rid of such negativity, because anyone who can’t see what an awesome year this was for games of all makes, models, shapes and sizes is simply trying too hard to be counterculture. If you wanted retro games, they were there. If you wanted AAA games, they were there. Sports, puzzle, freemium to play on the bus, just about every kind of gamer imaginable had amazing things to do in 2015.

What a time to be into video games.


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Iwata-Senpai Mon, 13 Jul 2015 06:24:44 +0000 satoru-iwata-nintendo-muppetSome things, and some people, are big enough, and important enough, to end what one would call a sabbatical.

The news of the passing of Satoru Iwata has been making its way around, and notably, has been posted by many friends of mine outside the video games industry, who don’t even play video games. The name “Nintendo” is still titanic, even to those that don’t play video games, and the ones who occasionally play, almost always play a Nintendo game. My girlfriend is not a gamer, does not understand gaming or the industry, and literally looks aghast when I buy games, particularly imports that I can barely understand, but she still plays Mario Kart 8.

Much of the thanks for that is due to Iwata-Senpai. I call him “Senpai” for a reason: he taught us, through his humility, love of gaming, and most importantly, his leadership, that games were fun, and that’s literally all that matters.

As an analyst who specializes in the industry, and its financials, that’s sometimes hard to keep into perspective. I would go days when I was writing every day for Gaming Bus where I wouldn’t actually play a game simply because I was pouring over numbers. Imagine that, a man who runs a video game site, professionally, who couldn’t find the time to play a damn video game. I bring this up for one reason: to show how easy it is for us, as this industry grows and becomes less a labour of love and more of a blockbuster industry where billions of dollars in commerce are conducted, to lose perspective that video games are fun. We get so lost in the minutia of quarterly reports, ROI, the “long tail” of modern releases based on microtransactions, new IPs and all of the other buzzwords and talking points that we, as pundits, have obsessed over for years that we sometimes forget the simple joy of seeing a mushroom crawling along the floor and saying “what if I jumped on that”.

I’ve argued both in favour of and against Iwata the Executive. I’ve cheered on his desire to keep Nintendo kid-friendly even as I’ve derided their poorly thought out and ineffective online system. I’ve defended the company for their insistence on supporting unpopular hardware even as I’ve derided their inability to keep anyone developing anything for it. I’ve lauded their ability to connect with an increasingly jaded fanbase even as I’ve slammed their ham-fisted approach to YouTube. Iwata the Executive was a mixed bag.

But unlike others like Activision’s Bobby Kotick, or Electronic Arts’ Peter Moore, Iwata the Executive is only a part of the overall picture. The stories about Iwata the Programmer are the stuff of legend, and some of the stories I see being passed onto Twitter today – like how he basically rebuilt EarthBound from scratch, and enabled Pokemon Gold and Silver to squeeze another world into a Game Boy cartridge – are head-shakingly awesome. Then there was Iwata the Leader, a man who could get a major, multinational corporation on a path that ran it counter to their larger, more well-funded competitors, keep it there, and do so with the quiet dignity of a man who is above leading with fear. This contrast is, in my eyes, the underlying reason why Nintendo is still flying strong, while Zynga, a company built by a venture capitalist whose headstone quote will be “we don’t fucking want innovation”, struggles.

All three of those pieces were tied together by Iwata the Gamer, the most important of them all. The man who went to work for HAL Laboratory straight out of college and who worked on so many great games – even the partial list is unbelievable – and who added so much flair to whatever he did. The gamer who, when releasing the Nintendo Wii, stated he wanted to destroy the wall that separated those who played video games and those who didn’t, meant it, and then pulled it off. Think back to the success of the Nintendo Wii. What most readers of this site will remember as a shoddy system that happened to catch fire with our grandparents was able to shatter the perception of just what a video game was to the same people who never considered them worth anything before having the ability to throw pretend bowling balls with a stick. Iwata wasn’t just a suit; his E3 presentations weren’t the dreams of PR hacks trying to make someone more “presentable”. He was the real deal, someone who loved video games, and who was universally loved because of it.

In my time off from writing about games, I’ve since bought a Wii U and have been actually playing video games a lot more lately. The game I’ve had the most fun playing throughout all of 2015 is a third person shooter where the goal is to paint the map – not shoot other people – starring kids that happen to be squids. That, right there, is Iwata’s legacy. In an age where everything has to be bigger, browner, and more pleasing to shareholders than their customers, Iwata bucked the system, successfully, based off of a simple, belief that video games are supposed to be about fun.



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Gaming Bus’s Games of the Year for 2014! Thu, 01 Jan 2015 17:00:35 +0000 Welcome to the 2014 Gaming Bus Game of the Year awards! Before I begin, a laying out of the ground rules, as usual:

1) These are for games released between December of ’13 and November of ’14.
2) These are my personal favourite games, and that’s it. No other metric went into this, and this is far from scientific. If I were to review these as objective reviews, #4 might score lower than #9.
3) No Early-Access titles. Full retail releases only. (new rule)
4) These are games I’ve played, for systems I own.

#4 is very key this year, because this is the first year that the PlayStation 4 and XBox One were in full swing. In addition, the Wii U is still running, although at not nearly the same pace. However, I own none of those systems. Blame what you want for that – satisfaction with the prior generations, an injury reducing my spending money to buy $500 systems with, increased PC gaming, waiting for a must-own sports game – but it means there were a lot of AAA games that I didn’t get to play this year, or that I played on systems that couldn’t really handle them. A list of games that made most lists but I can’t put on my own:

Titanfall (didn’t play)
Bayonetta 2 (didn’t play)
Mario Kart 8 (didn’t play)
Far Cry 4 (played on PS3, need to play on PC)
Destiny (played on PS3, just didn’t like it)1
Dragon Age: Inquisition (played on PS3, which couldn’t handle it. Need to play on PS4)

In fact, looking at the games I came up with for my GOTY list, I was struck that almost no really big titles showed up. The bigger names were on handhelds, and the bigger publishers had their mid-tier games make it. I don’t know if I’m growing out of the AAA grind, or if it’s grown out of me, but there’s almost no big-name games that made my list. That includes sports games; for the first time since I started writing about video games professionally, no sports game makes my top 10 or honourable mentions list.2 Also notable is that many of the games on my list were spiritually much like the ones I played as a kid in the 90s. It’s like I spent the entire year holding up my hand against the motion of progress, resisting it as best I could.

With that in mind, let’s start with the oddball “award” I usually give out at this time:

2014 MOUNT & BLADE GOOD BAD GAME AWARD: The Mount & Blade Good Bad Game award is named after the game Mount & Blade, which I gave a negative review to on its’ release in 2008 despite having fun playing it. Since then, I’ve given out the award a few more times:

2009: Muramasa: The Demon Blade (Wii)
2010: Record of Agarest War (360)
2011: Vacant
2012: Vacant
2013: Knights of Pen and Paper (iOS/Steam)

For 2014, we’re keeping it mobile:

desert_golfingDesert Golfing (iOS): It doesn’t get much simpler than Desert Golfing: you pull back to sling the ball along the desert, using a surprisingly robust physics engine to move things along, and once you get it in the hole, you move onto the next, generated hole. Then after 18 holes, you keep going. And going. And going. At the time of this writing, I was on hole 343, and I felt compelled to play four more holes. It’s the perfect cell phone game because it’s best played in small bites.

In fact, that’s the frustrating thing: that’s literally all it is. It takes 1,000 holes before players can register their scores on Apple’s leaderboards, and I’m not even half way there over a month after buying the game. It’s not even possible to delete the game’s save data; players have to delete and re-download the entire app. All indications are that this was an intentional design decision, and while that’s cute, it makes the game a pain in the neck on occasion, especially after I burn eleven strokes on a hole.

Desert Golfing is fun, and it’s cheap at $0.99. It has no pretenses, and doesn’t help the player do anything. That qualifies it for our Mount & Blade Good Bad Game Award.

Next, let us go over our honourable mentions for 2014:

Nidhogg – A local multiplayer game making any kind of list for me is an honour in and of itself; I simply don’t play local multiplayer, and it strikes me as a pretentious design decision. But Nidhogg is a fun game to play whether it’s against the computer or against one of the few people that would be into a game that makes the original Karateka look beautiful. Nidhogg might be the one game on my list that is as fun to watch as it is to play; the speed and depth of the game are not readily apparent, and watching two skilled players on Youtube is a joy to behold.

Luftrausers – If there’s one thing that Vlambeer is good at, it’s making bite-sized gameplay that requires skill and doesn’t hold the player’s hand. Lift raisers continues their tradition with a game that, even on consoles, is ready to play in seconds. Gameplay is simple, yet difficult enough to add layers of complexity, while having enough unlockables to keep players engaged. Everything Vlambeer touches turns to spastic gold, it seems.

Age of Wonders III – Combining 4X gameplay with a tactical battlefield that made my inner Fire Emblem fan tingle, AoWIII was my favourite 4X of the year in a banner year for the genre; Pandora: First Contact and Endless Legend were all good.

Transistor – The spiritual successor to Bastion was one of the most immersive games I played this year, with outstanding presentation and a seamless way to integrate exploration and storytelling. I wish the story itself was a little better, but Transistor is still worth playing through for the experience alone.

The Banner Saga – The best way I would describe The Banner Saga is to mix Final Fantasy Tactics with Don Bluth, and add in a touch of punishing difficulty. The Banner Saga’s difficulty plays into the wonderful Nordic atmosphere; if they wanted to simulate the feeling of an eternal struggle, they did it.

Finally, let’s go over Gaming Bus’s Top Ten Games of 2014!

Divinity_Original_Sin_cover#10: Divinity: Original Sin
System: Windows, OS/X
Developer: Larian Games
Publisher: Larian Games
Original Release Date: June 30th, 2014

Divinity might be the ultimate role playing game in that I find myself trying to role play two people at the same time. Sometimes, that leads to hilarious results, where I have my two characters, my two avatars, arguing with each other, threatening violence, and ultimately handling their actions with rock, paper, scissors. Imagine watching this happen in real life: me carrying on an argument between two people I’ve made up, with me voicing both sides, and then playing RPS against myself. What’s the over/under on how many times I’d be tased before they committed me?

Divinity’s brilliance is that it not only makes something like this normal, it makes it fun. The game is not easy – I had to restart early to get a more optimal pairing once I started to “get” what the game was about – but anyone with the willingness to dive in head-first will have an amazing time.

Geometry-Wars-3-Dimensions-key-art#9: Geometry Wars 3: Dimensions
Systems: PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, XBox 360, XBox One, Windows
Developer: Lucid Games
Publisher: Activision
Original Release Date: November 26th, 2014

Before the genre became a bit passe, Geometry Wars effectively caused the dual-stick shooter to burst onto the scene when it was released for the XBox 360 back in 2006. The sequel underperformed, competing largely against all of its own pretenders, and because that’s what AAA publishers do, Activision did the maths, and decided that they had to scuttle the series. It sat dormant for years, brewing, until now. 

Geometry Wars 3 took everything that was great about the first two games, released it again, added elements to make the game worthy of more than a few quick bursts of gameplay, and released it everywhere that would have it. The various ways to play a dual-stick shooter are all on display, and have been perfected. Geometry Wars is still the king, standing over all of the pretenders.

south_park_sot#8: South Park: The Stick of Truth
Systems: XBox 360, PlayStation 3, Windows
Developer: Obsidian Entertainment
Publisher: Ubisoft
Original Release Date: March 4th, 2014 (NA)

I can’t remember the last time I watched South Park regularly; I think it was when the movie was released. I watched the movie numerous times, laughed, we made jokes, and then South Park just kind of ceased to be; I figured it would last another year or so, and then fade away like most other shows.

I could not have been more wrong. The series is still going, and still specializing in raunchy, yet intelligent and timely humour. The Stick of Truth shows that not only do the show’s creators, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, still have “it” when it comes to South Park, they make a damn fine game when they’re actually paying attention to it. The Mario Kart and You Don’t Know Jack wannabes of the past have been replaced by a product that both emulates and eviscerates video game’s tropes, all while being an effective RPG in its own right. South Park: The Stick of Truth was good enough to at least get me paying attention to South Park again, even if just to know some of the references that I’m no longer “hip” with.

astebreed000#7: Astebreed
System: Windows
Developer: Edelweiss
Publisher: Playism
Original Release Date: May 30th, 2014 (NA)

I picked up Astebreed about the same time I picked up another SHMUP I wanted to play, Crimzon Clover WORLD IGNITION. I was actually a little more excited about the latter game, as I’m a bit more familiar with bullet hell shooters. Astebreed was a bit of an afterthought until I started to play it for a Gaming Bus stream.

It wasn’t my most entertaining stream ever, and oddly, it’s the game’s fault. It’s hard to be funny or witty when totally immersed in a game, which is what Astebreed did to me.

I still couldn’t tell anyone about what the game is about – something about twin girls, and a standard anime archetype protagonist saving the world, standard fare for anyone who got into anime with Evangelion – mainly because the story was flying by me as I played. It didn’t help me understand much – hard to when “not dying” is the number one item on the docket – but it added to the game’s immersive atmosphere, which was helped by this being arguably the best combination of various shooting mechanics I’ve seen in one game. A combination of a standard shooter, Panzer Dragoon-like auto-targeting, melee fighting just for the hell of it, and a combo system that ties everything together into the health of the hero, Astebreed sewed many different games together and left it so most people couldn’t even see the stitches.

Shantae_3_cover#6: Shantae and the Pirates’ Curse
Systems: Nintendo 3DS, Nintendo Wii U
Developer: WayForward
Publisher: WayForward
Original Release Date: October 23rd, 2014 (3DS), December 25th, 2014 (WiiU)

The Shantae series was, for a long time, a bit of an underground series; the few who played the original Game Boy Colour game knew it was a gem, but other than that, it went largely unknown. Shantae: Risky’s Revenge was later released for the 3DS, but also fell under the radar a bit. WayForward, knowing their cult following and taking full advantage of the digital era, is out to make sure the series is no longer under the radar, with Half-Genie Hero in the pipeline and the Pirate’s Curse being released in October.

Risky’s Revenge isn’t on this list because it does something new and exciting; that’s not WayForward’s way. All the game does is take an existing template in a well-established genre and further perfect it. Everything that made Shantae great – the level and puzzle design, the inch-perfect platforming, the brilliant characterization – is back for the third go-around. Shantae and the Pirate’s Curse is an outstanding platformer, by a company that does it better than anyone else at the moment.

another_star#5: Another Star3
Systems: Windows, Linux
Developer: Vision Riders Entertainment
Publisher: Vision Riders Entertainment
Original Release Date: March 30th, 2014

I know what a lot of people are thinking: “awesome. Another crappy game that tries to sell me my memories from the mid-80s”. Anyone who dismissed Another Star out-of-hand on that line of thought – and I’ve seen the sales numbers, a lot of people did just that – missed a legitimately good game by any stretch. Developed on a single tilesheet, Vision Riders managed to fit in a 20+ hour game with all of the things that made the games we did grow up with wonderful. Even with such primitive graphics, I got a sense of wonder and joy from simply exploring the world, and was more excited to find easter eggs in this tiny game than I was to find anything in Grand Theft Auto V, the largest and grandest game world I’ve seen outside of an MMO.

While Another Star wasn’t a complete representation of the era – the flexible difficulty is definitely a concession to the modern era – it has many successes that go beyond any decade. The characters suck the player in and never let them go, the story is well told and arguably paints a better picture with text than many larger games paint with pictures, and the soundtrack is amazing. Regardless of my relationship with the developer, Another Star is the definition of a hidden gem, and I will scream to the mountaintops to ensure that more people notice it.

Child_of_Light_Boxart#4: Child of Light
Systems: Various
Developer: Ubisoft Montreal
Publisher: Ubisoft
Release Date: April 29th, 2014 (PS3 NA)

Last year, Ni no Kuni made my top 10 at #5, largely for the sense of childlike wonder the game filled me with. Child of Light, despite not having the same credentials coming in, largely accomplished the same goals. A buoyant story with a fairy-tale like atmosphere and some solid RPG mechanics, Child of Light was a pleasant surprise coming out of Montreal. Even the game’s sad moments – in a game born from the story of a girl who can’t escape what she believes is a nightmare – have a pleasant vibe to them, like the part of a children’s story where the bad guy shows up but it’s assumed that everything will be alright in the end.

Child of Light runs well, looks beautiful, and is very well written. Even the standard Ubisoft issues – hello, UPlay – are minimal on the console versions. Ubisoft catches a lot of flack for many of the stupid AAA tricks they tend to pull, and a lot of that is deserved; The Crew, Assassin’s Creed Unity and Tetris Ultimate were slammed, and rightly so. But when they give their developers space to run, the results can often be magnificent, as is the case with both Ubisoft games on our list this year.

tumblr_mxkl98RQv81t6ksl5o1_500#3: Shovel Knight
Systems: Various
Developer: Yacht Club Games
Publisher: Yacht Club Games
Original Release Date: June 26th, 2014 (PC NA)

I noted with Another Star that there’s a cottage industry of people who grew up in my era re-selling my games back to me purely on a nostalgic factor. Some games do this well, some do it poorly, but in the end, games rarely make a major dent. That’s not the case with Shovel Knight, which dug into our collective conscious forcefully.

Get it!? Dug!? SHOVEL!?!? HAHAHAHAHAhaha… ha… screw you, I’m rusty.

Shovel Knight is a case of a team of professionals getting together and making a game with a goal in mind, and doing it with a set vision. That vision – a game that would have been a classic on the NES – was nailed. Shovel Knight is what would happen if Super Mario Bros. 2 and DuckTales had a baby. It looks, plays and sounds like an all-time classic that I would have grown up with, and while it might look and sound a little too good – there are a few instances of places that would exhibit flicker if they were tried on an actual NES, and the sound is too good – and might be a bit cheap with the difficulty (one aspect of the older games that has largely died off in evolution, thankfully), it’s a fantastic game with a lot of replay to be had for anyone both young and old. Old guys like me can play Shovel Knight and get misty eyed over Ninja Gaiden and Zelda II, whereas kids today can simply play one of the best games of 2014.

bravely_default#2: Bravely Default
System: Nintendo 3DS

Developer: Square Enix
Publisher: Nintendo
Original Release Date: February 7th, 2014 (NA)

Square Enix has been under pressure for years to create another Final Fantasy like the ones we grew up with. It’s never quite made clear just which ones – I remember a time when Final Fantasy IX was the “retro themed” game – just to keep reinventing the wheel. Personally, I think it was gutsy, what the company did with Final Fantasy XII and XIII, even if I didn’t quite enjoy the end products as much. Sometimes, they would fail nobly, such as with Final Fantasy Dimensions for cell phones. Other times, they would fail dishonourably, with titles such as Final Fantasy: All The Bravest shamefully selling off all that good will.

Finally, with Bravely Default – itself a spiritual successor to a spiritual successor in Final Fantasy: The 4 Heroes of Light – Square Enix got it right. They made a game that had the right “feel” of what we grew up with, and with it, had the best RPG in a strong year for the genre.

Bravely Default is a veritable checklist of things we love about the older games. Strong characters: check. Expansive world and dungeons: check. The Motherfucking Job System™: check. Bravely Default is a perfection of the older games, with some new wrinkles – the crowd-sourced town development and attacks – thrown in. It’s the perfect evolution of what can be a staid style of game if not given proper attention, and leaves the bar very high for future titles. Maybe it won’t replace Final Fantasy VI, but it can surely supplement it.

Before going further, let’s review my previous Games of the Year, some of which predate Gaming Bus:
2007: Football Manager 2008
2008: NHL ’094
2009: NHL ’10
2010: NBA 2K115
2011: Vacant6
2012: Dishonored
2013: Fire Emblem: Awakening

Now, the third ever Gaming Bus Game of the Year, and the first “indie” game to ever win my Game of the Year award…

freedomPlanet#1: Freedom Planet
System: Windows
Developer: GalaxyTrail
Publisher: GalaxyTrail
Original Release Date: July 21st, 2014

Typically, games of the year do something that the player hasn’t seen before. Skyrim gave us the most expansive world we’ve ever laid eyes on. Portal redefined first person shooting to include puzzles. Dishonored integrated the morality system beautifully. By that line, Freedom Planet didn’t do anything to warrant mention with those heavyweights. Not only did it not introduce anything genuinely new, it reveled in its retro glory, wearing it like a badge of honour.

Freedom Planet is not the Game of the Year because it introduced anything new, it’s the Game of the Year because it’s one of the best games I’ve ever played, and was my favourite game of 2014.

The easy comparison when looking at Freedom Planet is to Sonic. Many people dismissed the game out of hand because of the skin-deep similarities to the classic Sonic games of the 90s. Playing the game, however, shows that the better comparison is probably to Rocket Knight Adventures, though in reality it’s an anagram of most of the popular “mascot” platformers of the 90s. Each character seems inspired by a famous company from the 90s; Lilac is the closest thing to a “Sonic” character, while Carol takes inspiration from Chun Li and other Capcom characters and Milla plays the closest to a Nintendo character. Great care was taken made to fully voice out the cutscenes in the game, with many of the voice actors being very good despite the lack of any really big names. The soundtrack is also the year’s best, with independent chiptune artist Leila Wilson masterfully setting a tone to each stage that also makes great listening outside of the game.

The stages themselves are inspired, going beyond the standard Sonic tropes with some incredible battles, among them a ship-to-ship boss fight, all dragged along by a story with a bit of political intrigue but a lot of cuteness. I can’t understate how fun the interactions between the four main characters can get, with the sprite-based graphics telling the story better than polygons ever could. Everything in this game comes together beautifully, culminating in a well-developed title with a perfect difficulty curve and a genuine feeling of sheer joy while playing through it. Yes, it’s a little bit short, but would someone turn their noses up at a five-star plate simply because the portions are a little small?

Freedom Planet is what would happen if Sonic Team made a Sega Saturn game in 2014. In fact, if this was released for the Saturn, as is, we would regard it as one of the best games of all time, a model for all future mascot platformers. Even more amazing is the fact that this would have been a thirty person job when the Saturn was around; today, it’s possible with a third of that, with one man doing the majority of the work. This is Galaxy Trail’s first release as an indie developer, and they scored an all-time classic. Take a bow, Stephen DiDuro.

A trend on my game of the year list is easy to notice. Retro, retro, retro themed, retro… this was basically the year where I decided that instead of getting into anything new, I was instead going to pretend I was fourteen all over again. From a purely gaming perspective, 2014 was a transitional year, with the major consoles still getting the bugs worked out of them. This was a fantastic year for the indies to make a strong showing, and they delivered. While the flood of amazing indie games is sure to dissipate at some point – it’s getting harder and harder to stand out among an ever growing crowd – until then, we can just sit back and bask in their glory. The 80s and 90s were a long time ago, but their games were timeless, as their modern evolutions showed.

1 – Destiny is the dictionary picture version of a AAA game in 2014. It’s very pretty, and has a robust online presence, but there’s just no reason to go back other than the atmosphere. It’s a good atmosphere, mind, but there’s a part of me that wants them to flesh out the story a lot more. Destiny felt like a MMO in a sense, where what passes as a story is just something that passes players off from quest to quest under flimsy pretenses.

2 – The only game that came close was MLB ’14: The Show, and the only thing that game really did was not screw up what made it awesome in years past. Though in reality, the sports game I played the most was NHL ’14. NCAA’s dead, Madden is Madden, Live sucks, NBA 2K isn’t what it used to be, NHL ’15 should never have been sold, Pro Evolution ’15 was a juggernaut of goals,

3 – Obligatory disclosure: The developer of this game, Dale Johnson, has been a personal friend of mine since 2005, when we were both big names in the Fire Emblem community. That means I’ve watched Another Star’s development with varying degrees of attention since it was conceptualized. Former Gaming Bus staffer Crystal Steltenpohl is listed in the game’s credits for her testing efforts. For the “ethics” crowd: all it really means is that we tend to like the same type of games. That’s why Another Star stands out to me, but other games developed by friends of mine tend to fall off the wayside.

4 – WOOF. I got that one 100% wrong. NHL ’09 was a piece of crap. ’10 was much better, though. In fact, screw it: my retroactive 2009 Game of the Year is now Space Invaders: Extreme. If George Lucas can retcon, so can I, damnit.

5 – It’s important to note just where I stood at Diehard GameFAN: a lot of my choices had at least something to do with the fact that I was their only sports guy, and therefore, other than Mohamed occasionally picking a football title or maybe Guy picking NHL, I was the only prayer a sports game had of being mentioned. That weighed into my mindset a lot more than I think it should have in retrospect.

6 – Looking back in hindsight, I can’t see any other game but Skyrim coming out here, to the point where I’ll just retcon that in, too. Skyrim, Skyward Sword, and Dungeons of Dredmor, in that order. Boom.


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Perpetual Hatred Mon, 27 Oct 2014 13:00:05 +0000 frownI don’t watch the Boondocks, and have never seen more than a few clips, the only one prominent being the one involving Ann Coulter. I know so little about the show that I can’t even find the clip I’m thinking of on Youtube because I literally don’t know what to search for. But while flipping channels one night, I happened upon Adult Swim. I happened upon a scene where a bunch of older black guys were trying to deal with another older black guy who was – I’m guessing – possessed. So they tried to beat it out of him. This went on for minutes; a bunch of guys beating on one guy, the word “nigga” being said every two seconds or so. While this is happening, the show’s main character, a child – while talking to what I remember to be a ghost – look sadly at this spectacle. The lesson ended up being: you cannot kill hate with hate.

The actions of the past two and a half months – Jesus Christ almighty, I can’t believe it’s been almost a quarter of a freaking year – have me coming back to that part of that episode.

However, it leaves me with more questions than answers, namely… if hate doesn’t work, and we know kindness hasn’t worked, what does?

It’s notable that the one and only time I’ve penned something professionally about the GamerGate… whatever you want to call it – is it a movement? I guess maybe a bowel movement – wasn’t for the video games site that I own. It was for a a political site, and one where my political opinions tend to put me as the minority. It was hard to remain disciplined through that piece – I could write a 5,000 word entry on GamerGate that is just “FUCK YOU NECKBEARD LOSERS” Ctrl-V’d 1,250 times – but I managed to pull it off, even if it was painful to write. The reason is simple: I didn’t want to pollute my site with something so emotional. I’ve had to dig into this nonsense every day for the past two and a half months, and every time I think I can put it to bed, and kill the last vestiges of a dying culture by suffocating them of the oxygen they need to breed – attention – something else happens that shocks the system, something that makes me scream “what the FUCK” on Twitter, or literally out loud.

Fun fact: the best time I’ve had with GamerGate was explaining it to my current, non-gamer girlfriend. “Wait. Wait. Slow down… what is 4chan again?”

What’s truly distressing for me is that we’ve seen this before. “I don’t even know why the fuck I bother anymore” is what I wrote last June. The context – in that particular case – is irrelevant; it just happened to be an Xbox One announcement that set it off. The problem I pointed out was that the industry’s pulse had become predictable, and it was measured by hatred. “I don’t like it… GO DIE!” “No, you’re an asshole. YOU GO DIE!” “I think we’re being unreasonab–” “FUCK YOU! DIE! AND HERE IS YOUR ADDRESS!” This has been going on for so long – doubly so for women – that it’s sickening, and frustrating, and tiresome.

Notice the lead image I used. The Google search I used? “Shawn Michaels losing my smile”.

Ultimately, it’s not the “haters” that bother me the most, it’s their enablers. I have friends who I’ve lost just about all respect for, and industry figures – looking at you, TotalBiscuit – who will never regain their standing, repeat the nonsense about this being about “ethics” – a notion that my entire writing career, and the “fuck you just talk about games” reaction to it over those years proves definitively wrong – with an alarming consistency that comes straight from the Chan sites. I don’t see that respect ever coming back, personally.

It’s been the silence that’s been deafening. The New York Times ended up running a front page story on the controversy on the 16th of October; that was a Thursday. By Friday – known in political circles as the time when you want to hide bad news – Giant Bomb and Game Informer had come out with their own pieces on GamerGate; IGN finally got on board this past Friday. The biggest sites in the games industry wouldn’t cover the biggest event happening in it for almost two months by that point; it was far more important to run video reviews and talk about movies than to report that game developers were being RUN FROM THEIR HOMES.

What’s perverse is that in a way, the hate movement – and that’s what GamerGate is, it’s a hate movement, don’t let Erik Kain’s pathetic attempt at calling it a “consumer” movement fool anyone – did prove a very telling aspect of the industry’s corruption. It’s still occurring; Electronic Arts and Activision have not said a word.

To my non-gamer friends – or more tellingly, those that stick to casual cell phone fare like Candy Crush Saga – this issue is laughable because people are being legitimately injured in some way over the perceived content of video games.

Video games.


The most iconic game in our industry involves a gameplay mechanic that has a plumber kicking a turtle’s carcass across the floor to kill possessed mushroom soldiers. Other iconic titles include:

* A sliding block game from Russia.
* A game starring a mammal that is famous for being fast, despite the mammal being both slow and nocturnal.
* A partially eaten pizza that itself eats ghosts.
* A cockfighting simulator starring a ten year old child.

THIS is serious business!? THIS is the industry that “social justice warriors” are going to destroy? An industry where Call of Duty is the biggest franchise going, and where the year-old Grand Theft Auto V – basically a prostitute killing simulator – is already the sixth greatest selling game of all time, is going to be destroyed because people who play video games for a living really liked Gone Home?

I’ve been thinking about the gamer stereotype lately, and that brings me to the comic book nerd stereotype. They’re largely the same: shut-in men who eat poorly, have no social graces, and get way, WAY too into their culture due to a perception that they don’t have anything else. It’s been a problematic stereotype for years because the industry long ago got past that, and yet we’re often judged on the same metrics that we were when I was a kid. It took me a long time, when I was writing for a living, to convince my father that I was able to make a living writing about the “crap” I used to play as a child, and that others had been waiting for me to grow out of. I have had to convince a lot of people – despite another career as a successful ice hockey official – that I wasn’t Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons.

Unfortunately, stereotypes exist for a reason, and that’s largely because the biggest names associated with their hobby are the alphas. Alphas are hard to ignore, because they’re the loudest. They’re the person arguing over rule sets and derailing your Dungeons and Dragons game. They’re the person who can set a comic book series’ canon by forcefully arguing that their version of multiple timelines is the correct, predominant one. They’re also the person who flips their shit because the ending to a game they like – hello, Mass Effect 3 – isn’t to their liking.

Remember when I made my shitty, ill-advised crack against “a bunch of basement dwellers with Asperger’s Syndrome” all that time back? This was what I had in mind.

The difference between when I was growing up and now is that when I was young, the only audience someone had was those in their immediate vicinity, and ignoring them became as easy as walking away. The truly deranged had to act in such a way that they immediately became social outcasts at best and prisoners at worst, most of the time before they could actually do anything. Now, the internet has changed everything. These people can direct their attention to ways to get their message across to as many people as possible, and as that information war has escalated, so has their methods; for the truly deranged, that involves “doxxing”, threats, and other ways to legitimately terrorize those who cross them, all aided by the anonymity the internet provides the truly skilled.

The difference between the football player who beats his ex-girlfriend and the neckbeard who posts her nudes online is that the former is easy to see and even easier to correct. Even if he resists, there are people trained in restraining him. There aren’t many people skilled in restraining the latter, and if they are, they’re likely focused on more pressing issues – like attacks from China – than on someone threatening Brianna Wu with a burner Twitter account. The combination of abnormal intelligence and misdirected anger is more frightening than some walking GNC store who can bench 300.

Ultimately, these people are proving their own stereotype right, but to them, it’s OK, so long as the games they play stay the same. Edged on by those who do not care one iota about video games – if you think Alec Baldwin really cares about video games, not that he 1) doesn’t play and 2) has been bitching about “feminism” and liberals for years – they attack in the hopes that the games they play continue to cater to their tastes, which just happen to involve a lot of women as sex objects and trophies, and happen to involve a lot of shooting people. Because ethics.

It wasn’t until I started thinking about this very piece that I realized just how much I’ve been pulling back from my chosen culture.

It started when I left FESS in 2008, which I had grown too old to understand and too busy to administrate. I left message boards for the most part soon after; I just didn’t have time to debate things anymore, nor did I have time for the ten paragraph missives from our versions of Comic Book Guy. At its worst, I didn’t have time for the people who would literally find my address and mail me things (the box filled with other boxes, sent as a form of bomb scare, was fun). This was a big step for someone who is still, six years later, considered a “big name”, even as a ghost, in the Fire Emblem fandom.

Soon, I all but stopped playing games online, either competitively or cooperatively. It wasn’t my rapidly eroding skills – and lack of time to keep them up – that did it, it was the invective. There’s only so many times a grown man can be called a “faggot” by a screaming prepubescent who also happens to have a 20:1 K/D ratio and keeps pasting the same pornographic image everywhere on the server before he decides he has better things to do. It’s notable that the one game I will occasionally play online is Mario Kart for 3DS, which doesn’t allow any communication beyond canned messages. It’s kind of sad that I’ve become the target audience for Nintendo’s kiddy, family-friendly online offerings, considering how I’ve criticized it in the past.

Even the thing that literally used to put food on my table has been cut back severely: my writing. Just one look at the updates on my site proves that out, and the reason is largely because I just got tired of having hate mail. The Asperger’s comment was my last time in a hate storm, and as noted in the past, what was partly depressing about it was that it was over so quickly. It only proved that the internet knows two speeds: dead and full-bore rage.

The truth is, the hatred – the constant, never-ending hatred, and all of the attempts to manage, mitigate and otherwise deal with it – in a hobby that is supposed to be fun are directly impacting my ability to enjoy it. I’ve played some tremendous games lately, and wanted to write about them; everything from Valdis Story to MLB ’14 The Show, Nuclear Throne, even Dragon Quest II, these are all games I would normally be able to write intellectually about. My mind hits a dead spot, though. Every time I try, I just end up saying “screw it”. Why bother? So someone whose Disqus name is “FuckGamingBus538” can tell me I suck? I’m in my mid-30s for Pesci’s sake. And this is from someone who writes about politics.

One of the key comments that came from those sympathetic to GamerGate around the time that Leigh Alexander’s “gamers are dead” piece took a match to the gas leak was “how dare games writers hate their customers!?”. From a personal perspective, it got to that point. I got tired of writing about death threats. Got tired of naval-gazing at what my job really meant. Tired of writing about misogyny. It seemed like every other thing I was writing was about a group of people – my “customers”, don’t forget – making life legitimately difficult for someone else. Especially if that person was a woman.

Over video games.

I don’t know how to handle it anymore. I guess the better question is, do I really want to?


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Amazon Buying Twitch Could Become a Complete Disaster For Everyone But Amazon Tue, 26 Aug 2014 01:28:36 +0000 twitchEarlier today, after earlier flirtations with Google, Twitch announced that they were being acquired by Amazon. The move is partially denoted by Google’s fear of antitrust legislation, and partially motivated by Amazon making a very strong push into video games beyond just selling them at retail. The move comes as the Amazon Fire phone tries to make hay in the increasingly competitive – and, increasingly, two-horse – mobile market, trying to tie in users to Amazon’s ecosystem. Reviews of the Fire Phone are decidedly mediocre so far, with many people saying it’s less of a phone than it is a walking billboard for Amazon services and sales.

Those reviews should worry anyone who liked Twitch, from streamers to consumers. Amazon has shown an increasing willingness to throw its corporate weight around recently, and they now have another hammer in their box.

On the surface, the move works. Amazon’s server backbone is one of the best in the world, as has been proven by the site’s stability, and their Amazon Web Service and cloud computing offerings are some of the best around. Putting those resources to work for Twitch will work wonders for the site, as will Amazon’s willingness and ability to play on a more even playing feel with telecoms who are salivating at the eventual and inevitable demise of network neutrality, preventing bottlenecks when Comcast and Verizon eventually turn the screws. If this was simply a question of uptime, this would be a no-brainer win for everyone. But that uptime comes at a price, and Amazon’s control of retail is the toll collector.

Both gamers and streamers had a fit when Twitch started wiping out both older streams, and copyrighted audio from the ones that were left. These complaints were almost completely justified, as it was a scattershot and poorly justified move that caught a lot of people in its net. However, Amazon has no interest in censorship; they can make the music industry – once compared to rogue states with nukes for their willingness to napalm anyone in their crosshairs – heel if they want to. After all, any retail sales of music CDs online come via Amazon, and a large share of digital sales do as well, via Amazon’s streaming music service. Since incorporating Kindle, their streaming service, and now seasons of popular television shows into their portfolio, they have come to control a large portion of the world’s entertainment.

Unfortunately, they also control a lot of the games industry’s online retail as well, and that’s where the worries start. The good news about an Amazon controlled Twitch environment is that Amazon can cross-promote streams with the retail product. For example, let’s say I stream MLB 14 The Show later this week on my own stream page, and move my stream to Twitch. Amazon recognizes the game, and bang, in the upper right hand corner of my page, where Youtube would put a similar link for music, goes a link for the game; to incentivize streamers, they can even go with tossing streamers a few pennies from any sales of the game.

On the face, that sounds like a win all around, but what about companies that don’t agree to what would likely be unfavourable terms from Amazon? That’s where it gets ugly. Now, Amazon’s algorithm can be set to not allow streams of games that don’t agree to terms. Streamers have to find somewhere else – without an audience – to stream. Gamers won’t see that game. All of the leverage is in Amazon’s court. If that seems extreme, then read up on what they’re doing to e-Book publisher Hachette.1

It’s that ability to interact with publishers – and threaten them with the stick – that allows them to dictate those terms, and it could be what causes many publishers themselves harm as well. Let’s say Tecmo Koei doesn’t want to sign onto Amazon’s streaming terms. All of a sudden, Amazon algorithms start deemphasizing Tecmo products, delaying shipments of their retail games, and otherwise sticking it to them. The same goes for music companies who have third party music being used in streams; that could become a bargaining chip in board rooms without anyone being aware of it. For gamers who are wondering how it could affect them, it’s important to remember that Amazon already has many streaming services under Amazon Prime, and is willing to give more incentives to sign up for the program. Even if they raise the price of Prime again, there are already enough incentives to keep people paying, and if Twitch stream watchers don’t want to come on board, there are many ways to coerce them, from withholding archives from them to depreciating video quality (removing HD streaming, decreasing download speeds and increasing instances of buffering), and in a worst-case scenario, outright holding certain titles or streamers from non-Prime customers completely. Again: don’t assume Amazon is above using the stick to force people to eat the carrot.

Amazon can provide great services, and for those who use it, Prime is a great service. But their actions over the past year have shown that they are increasingly willing to play hardball with both their customers and their business partners, and if they throw their weight around, it will make peoples’ complaints about absentminded music DRM look like nothing.

1 – For what it’s worth, in this particular case, I don’t have a lot of sympathy to Hachette, who have done everything they could to stiff their writers over the years, and imprinted some of the worst DRM on the market into their e-Books.


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Games I’ve Been Playing: Final Fantasy X (PS3/Vita) Thu, 21 Aug 2014 13:00:22 +0000 ffxSince the fateful day it occurred, I call it the Tragic Memory Card Incident of 2003.

When I was in the service, one of the first games I bought for my PlayStation 2 was Final Fantasy X. Nowadays, we regard it as an above average entry in a legendary series, but it’s not the kind of game that makes someone’s head spin the way IV, VI and VII would. For those who either don’t have good memories or who were too young to remember, the hype for Final Fantasy X was huge. It was considered one of the PlayStation 2’s first killer aps, something that would definitively show off the quality of the hardware by providing something as close to realism as anyone had ever seen, finally making hardcore gamers forget about the recently discontinued Dreamcast as their system of choice. For its time, the game lived up to the hype, providing an epic story to go with the visual splendor. Being that this was the time where SquareSoft was still making amazing video games, I devoured it, even bringing it with me on my deployment to the Middle East in 20021. To save money, I had a few third party memory cards that I would use in addition to Sony’s, which were about as overpriced as their Vita memory is now.

Gamers my age can see already that this will not end well.

I was close to the end. Very close. I forget just how close, but I wasn’t far from the end, close enough to see the finish line, where I could finally see how the story fit together. Then one day, I loaded my game, tried to load data, and… nothing. Curious, I loaded up the data management screen, and got a fearsome message: “You must format this memory card to use it”. I tried taking it out and putting it back in, but no dice: my data was wiped, and I had to reformat the card. My data was corrupted. I had other games on that card, but I can’t remember for the life of me what they were. It wasn’t the first time third party memory had failed me, but never so painfully. From that point forward, I swore off third party memory forever.

Interestingly enough, both SquareSoft the company, and my relationship with it, turned right around that time. The company who released Final Fantasy X in 2001 was a ballsy one, releasing a launch title for the system – The Bouncer – that was both out of their normal milieu (a beat ’em up for the JRPG kings) and that utilized a brand new feature of the system: pressure-sensitive buttons, a function that not many games would use throughout the life of the system. The Bouncer didn’t perform well, but they took a chance, as they had been known to do. However, the tides were shifting. In 2003, less than two years after the release of Final Fantasy X, the newly formed Square Enix – a Frankenstein monster created from parts of two of the biggest companies in Japan, and half as graceful as the character referenced – released Final Fantasy X-2, a then-unheard of sequel to a Final Fantasy game. It seems normal now, but back then, calling it sacrilege wasn’t far off the mark. To make matters worse, the somber, serious story and mechanics of the first game were replaced by pop concerts and glorified Barbie dress-up games. I still to this minute have not seen past first 43 seconds of the first cutscene; yes, I counted. Since then, Squeenix – as they’ve been known unofficially for years – has acted alternatively like a ruthless business that measures everything by focus groups and raw numbers, and like a dinosaur, too slow and old to see evolution coming behind it. The Final Fantasy name never recovered from these business decisions; FFXII, while solid, isn’t nearly as fondly remembered as its predecessors and wasn’t close to the system seller that X was, and Final Fantasy XIII was considered a disappointment, notwithstanding all of the spin-offs and alternative media they both produced. Meanwhile, Squeenix has put on their feathered fedoras and sent out the first six games, used up and a little creaky but still popular, to work new corners, and the games – sometimes costing as much as $18 for cell phone downloads – are suffering from the overexposure.

As for Final Fantasy X itself, I never had the heart to go back until now, with the game receiving a high definition makeover and a release to the modern Sony systems. I figured that twelve plus years was enough time; it was time to go back to Spira.

One of the first things I noticed about the game was– wait, hold on, we’re still loading. OK, the first thing I– damnit, another menu. OK, sure. Now, where was I– for Jecht’s sake, how much does this game load!? I almost feel like I have to pre-load the game to get it playing before I have to go to bed, and I don’t recall that being a problem on the PS2. Since it often loads when going in and out of buildings – making town navigation arduous – the option to install the game would have been nice. After finally being allowed to play the game, I was able to see, first and foremost, that the graphics were still great. Whether in action or in a cutscene, Final Fantasy X is a beautiful game, which makes it all the more impressive that that it’s a thirteen year old, first generation game that came out on a system that didn’t have the horsepower of the XBox behind it. Everything works at first; the cutscenes, the battles, the wandering of the town, it’s all there and it’s all great. It’s only when a savvy gamer who is used to how games play in 2014 takes a look to see the cracks in the facade that the passing of time has caused. There is a noticeable change in quality between the cutscenes – which will remain beautiful even 13 years from now – and the actual gameplay, where characters seem to resemble emotionless realdolls more than organic people. It’s most noticeable when looking at NPCs next to main characters, who all show a clear lack of detail in comparison. In 2001, this was still extremely impressive – only Shenmue even attempted something on this scale – but in 2014, it’s easy to notice issues like this.

The characters are a fun lot for the most part, with a decent amount of depth to their characters that gets brought out by some good voice acting, and some not-so-good – Tidus’s issues are well known, and Yuna is a wood boat – but looking back from 2014 at 2001 storytelling tropes, the numbers start to appear from underneath the paint, being standard in a way I didn’t quite understand before I discovered decent anime. It was nice to get away from the Angsty, Emo Antihero™ archetype that Cloud and Squall practically invented and perfected, but Tidus The Naive Young Sparkster gets old. Yuna is half Mary Sue, half Perfect Waifu; she’s perfect in every single god damned way, almost like someone asked a bunch of otaku what their ideal of the perfect Japanese woman was and this is what they came up with. Lulu is such a prototypical tsundere that she’s mentioned in articles describing what “tsundere” is. Wakka is the Jesus Freak. Here comes Rikku with the Spunky Little Girl act! And here’s Silent Hero Kihmari! Oh, did you miss your angsty antihero with a Tragic Past? We have Auron here! Everyone fits a comfortable stereotype that was well in play in 2001, and if this game were to be made nowadays, the tropes would look different. Frankly, I prefer the older, more subdued ones. Not that there aren’t moments of levity, with Yuna kicking the shit out of the Al Bhed being a personal favourite. “Did you hurt them?” “A little.”

The one thing I found the hardest to adjust to was the lack of a camera option. Though the camera will change perspectives depending on where Tidus goes, it’s become a stock option for years to be able to use the right analogue stick to move the camera. Not being able to – and being susceptible to environmental concerns that can block treasure, access points, and other helpful places – would be inexcusable if this game came out in 2014.

One other note, and this is for those who complained about Final Fantasy XIII’s linearity: every step of my progress through FFX so far, about ten hours worth, has been coordinated on a straight line. There has been no variance; the farthest off track I’ve been able to go was to get treasure chests. We loved Final Fantasy X when it was new, but criticized the hell out of XIII. Gamers are a bit of a fickle bunch.

Of course, the main thing that can drive people away from JRPGs is if the actual gameplay – combat, stat management, and the like – is boring, and FF X made some outstanding contributions in those areas. The combat is effective, eschewing the Active Time Battle system in favour of a more tactical approach where one can see moves ahead of time, and in some case, the effects of other moves on that order; recent Steam release Trails in the Sky pretty much lifted it wholesale, which is good, because it works. It forces a more tactical approach to fighting than APB did, which required some serious reflexes and advanced planning at higher levels of the game. Of most note to me, almost shamefully, is the sphere grid. Instead of leveling up at one time, based on where everyone is on the grid, characters level up bit by bit by bit, using sphere level points to move around. This has multiple side effects, all of them positive. For one, there’s no set “level” to grind to now; it doesn’t keep track of how many sphere levels someone has gained, just how many they have to spend, so there’s no point saying “I need to get to X level”. It also adds a strategic layer to battling, as most characters have “extract” attacks that they can use to get certain kind of spheres to level up; I’ve had to use the Extract Ability attack plenty of times in the early going as those tend to come from large enemies. Lastly, leveling up a character is cathartic in itself; it’s tickles the “accomplishment” part of a gamer’s brain. So constantly having to level up is a steady stream of positive reenforcement that would be best compared nowadays to that of the first few stages of a freemium title like Candy Crush Saga.

I’m personally surprised how much of this game I’ve been playing on the Vita; in fact, it’s been awhile since I popped in the PS3 version I bought at full price for the art book. With that said, I’m actually upset I bought the physical Vita version, which is only half a product; there’s a cart for Final Fantasy X, and a code for X-2; if I’d have known that, I’d have held out for a digital sale instead of running $30 for half the package. Buying Vita games in boxes is itself becoming a mug’s game, as they don’t even come with books anymore; it’s just a chip, basically, with nothing else. It looks nicer on my shelf, but that’s about it.

Final Fantasy X is still a good game, and I’m enjoying it. It’s funny to say that as this is a standard Final Fantasy game in most ways; the rhythms of the series are strong with this game when compared to predecessors. Thankfully, 2014 does bring with it some fantastic technological advances that will prevent me from having another “incident” like I had in ’03. Once set up, cloud saving is fairly seamless, with the ability to easily download the latest save onto whatever system is being used at the time. Since it’s on the cloud, the chances of it disappearing are virtually nil – no more having to rely on disposable memory cards – so my gamesave will be around as long as online options on the Sony systems are. It’s a good thing, because the only thing keeping me from beating Final Fantasy X is the knowledge that I will have to tolerate X-2 to finish the story arc.

1 – People will scoff that I was able to bring – and play – a PlayStation while in the Persian Gulf post-9/11. All I will say is, one, we worked hard and played hard. Two? It’s good to be one of the top guys in your group sometimes.


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The Highest Fidelity: Five More Games That Need HD Remasters Mon, 04 Aug 2014 13:00:23 +0000 The later part of the prior console generation, up to and including now, has been marked by a load of games remade from prior generations to fit today’s high definition standards. This has been a positive trend, bringing back games that have left the mainstream since their heyday in previous generations, while in some cases making games that had become prohibitively expensive available on new hardware.

In fact, this trend has been so positive that I don’t think we should stop at Final Fantasy X, Devil May Cry or Tales of Symphonia. There are so many games and series that need an HD makeover that I had difficulty stopping at give. What follows are games that, for various reasons, should make the jump to a modern system as quickly as possible, under some simple ground rules: namely, the games must be officially released in English (sorry, Sakura Taisen), and must be within the realm of reasonable possibility (this eliminated the Rainfall RPGs for the Wii). I’m also sticking to consoles, where fan-made mods can’t extend the life of the cult classics the way they can on the PC.


bushido_bladeBushido Blade
Developer: SquareSoft
Publisher: SquareSoft
Original System: Sony PlayStation
Original Release Date: September 30th, 1997 (NA)

Primary Reason: Graphics Update

Bushido Blade was a wonderful, unique concept when it came out: instead of being like every other fighter – both two-dimensional, like Street Fighter, or three, like Battle Arena Toshinden and Tekken – where players beat each other up until someone’s life gauge was gone, fights in Bushido Blade could end in one hit if someone was skilled, or lucky enough. It was not only possible to cut someone up in one shot, it was possible to wound them. It was even possible, if put into an impossible position, to submit to your opponent to be given a clean death. This was highly unique stuff in 1997.

An HD version of even the original Bushido Blade would be great, as the old game has not aged well. Even better would be to add on features such as online play and leaderboard support – all staples of every Xbox Live Arcade game since 2006 – which would make for some tremendously interesting matches. Not much beyond that has to be cleaned up; the gameplay is what people will go for, and that still stands up well in 2014.

grandia_2Grandia II
Developer: Game Arts
Publisher: Ubisoft
Original System: Dreamcast
Original Release Date:

Primary reason: Graphics update

The Grandia series is a rough one to gauge for the purposes of this exercise. The first game, while arguably the best, would require enough work to become a reboot. Grandia 3 wasn’t very good. Grandia Xtreme might as well not even exist.

That leaves Grandia 2, one of the best games from the Dreamcast era, and one that I’ve talked about in great detail. It had a great story, along with lovable characters and the tried-and-tested battle system that made Grandia stand out in the ATB era. An HD remake would add a new veneer to a game that saw a lot of ports, almost all of which were wholly subpar to the original Dreamcast game.

The Tales of Symphonia port showed that even a dated game such as this can be made to look very good. Change a few of the voice actors – an issue that stood out a lot more with the first game, in fairness – and there’s the chance for a proper remake to remind people why Grandia used to be so good in the first place.

Dragon_Force_CoverartDragon Force
Developer: Sega/J-Force
Publisher: Working Designs (NA)
Original System: Sega Saturn
Release Date: November 30, 1996

Primary reason: Rarity

Dragon Force was one of those games that had everything going for it; great gameplay, a lot of reasons to replay the game, and every game session was different than the last. It’s still an amazing strategy game 18 years later, and it was put out with loving care by Working Designs, only the most fan-centric publisher in history.

Naturally, we haven’t seen hide nor hair of this series since. They made a sequel in Japan that was never translated. They remade it for the Sega Ages line in Japan; it never made it to America1. We have Sonic the Hedgehog on every damn system known to man, and the gas station I go to makes the Sonic “rings” sound whenever I buy something, but we still can’t get Dragon Force. Oh, but they can cease and desist fan-made Streets of Rage projects. Other than possibly Capcom, Sega might be the most tone-deaf Japanese company when it comes to dealing with the West.

The sad thing is, the work is already largely done. Bring over the Sega Ages compilation, shoehorn in the original translation, clean up a few textures, and sell it for $15 on the PSN, XBLA and Steam. Easy-peasy. The closest we’ve seen to a Dragon Force game was the DS’s Spectral Force Genesis, and… yeah.

What’s really sad is that this isn’t even the biggest Sega-related travesty on the list…

panzer_dragoon_sagaPanzer Dragoon Saga
Developer: Team Andromeda
Publisher: Sega
Original System: Sega Saturn
Release Date: April 30, 1998

Primary Reason: Rarity

This is another series where picking one game is tough, but at least some games have seen improvements, even if those improvements are themselves a bit long in the tooth, seeing as how the last we saw of the first game was when it was packed into Panzer Dragoon Orta as an unlockable when the latter game was released all the way back in 2003 on the XBox One. Really, the whole series could use a coat of paint.

But it’s Saga, a game released on a dying system by a company gearing up for the Dreamcast, which needs special attention. The rarity of the game is no secret; one glimpse at eBay shows that the game is still commanding prices averaging out at about $200 a pop. The game itself is one of the most inspired takes on what was becoming a tired JRPG genre at the time. In an era where Final Fantasy ruled the land and you either went ATB or went home, PDS was a gem, expanding on a world that we barely saw with the rail shooters, and featuring a unique battle system that didn’t stray so far from the norm that it alienated people.

Panzer Dragoon Saga’s only fault was that it was released late in the life of the Saturn, with a very small print run. Ebay prices reflect this; the cheapest I can find the game for right now, complete, is $300, and some unscrupulous sellers are trying to sell incomplete sets for almost as much. It costs more to take home this one game than it does to take home a Wii U; in most cases, more than it does to take home that system plus a top-rated game. Most infuriating is that Sega knows this, and yet refuses to budge, not even to release a port of the game. It’s inexcusable that we’ve seen HD remakes for NiGHTS and other Sega games, and they keep whoring out their Genesis games to any system that will take them – I could play Flicky on a toaster at this point – and yet we haven’t seen Panzer Dragoon Saga. It would feel like Sega were taunting us if they were more competent.

Parasite_Eve_CoverartParasite Eve
Developer: Square USA
Publisher: SquareSoft
Original System: Sony PlayStation
Release Date: September 9, 1998

Primary Reason: Graphics Update

Really, most Square titles could have made this list from the PS1 era – Chrono Cross almost did, and who remembers Tobal No. 1?2 – but Parasite Eve stands out as a game that needs the most coat of paint. The core gameplay, style, everything about the game still stands out as being wonderful, and well ahead of its time when it came out in 1998. A mature story – it was the first SquareSoft game to receive an “M” rating – combined with the typical SquareSoft approach to JRPG making in the late 90s – throw a bunch of tweaks to the standard formula at the wall and watch most of them stick – gave gamers a fresh take on the genre less than a year after Final Fantasy VII blew up in North America, and gave Square Enix another sterling franchise in their arsenal.

Granted, a HD version of the game would be handled by the same people who made The 3rd Birthday and royally screwed it up, and the entire franchise in the process. And there is going to be the temptation to change a lot of things around to please a new generation of gamers who are used to having things spelled out for them far more. But if done right, Parasite Eve would have the potential to simultaneously provide an outstanding experience to people who weren’t around for the first one, and resurrect the franchise by showing everyone how it’s done.

1 – Though some games did make it over to America in the Sega Classics Collection, the ones everyone wanted – Dragon Force, both Phantasy Stars – didn’t.

2 – No, “that thing that came with the Final Fantasy VII demo” doesn’t count as “remembrance”.


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Then and Now: Metroid (NES) Mon, 21 Jul 2014 13:00:04 +0000 This weekly column looks at classic video games both in how they looked back in the day and how they stand up today. Though scores will be assigned, our tough review standards will be relaxed a bit for these games to give a general overview instead.

All retro games come courtesy of Retro Games Plus, now with two locations, in Westport and Orange, Connecticut.

For the first time in a year and a half, I break out the defunct Then and Now column, inspired by my experiences with a game that I haven’t played thoroughly in well over 20 years. I played the original Metroid to death, beating it multiple times even before I knew what “Justin Bailey” was. Now, it’s being offered by Nintendo as a “reward”1 for Gold-level Club Nintendo members, and Aileen – who was born the same year this game came out – is asking if it’s worth it.

At the risk of sounding cocky, she couldn’t have asked anyone better.

Original System: Nintendo Entertainment System
Developer: Nintendo R&D1
Publisher: Nintendo
Original Release Date: August 6, 1986 (JPN)/August 1, 1987 (NA)

HOW WAS IT THEN: I am not entirely sure it’s accurate to say Metroid was nothing we’d ever seen before; any time someone makes a statement like that, there’s always that one asshole who comes out of the woodwork to mention some obscure TRS-80 game that did something vaguely similar, even though six people played it. I’m not interested in having that tired debate. I can confidently say, however, that Metroid deserves its reputation as a pioneer in the advancement of both exploration and atmospheric setting in the context of a video game.

Unlike most games from this era, Metroid was dark. The surrounding areas were mostly a dreary blue, even at the start, and the music can at times be foreboding; Brinstar’s music in particular makes it plainly clear that the player is wholly alone in this new world. Thankfully, there’s a lot of world to explore, and back in 1987, that was a big deal. The game only gave basic hints on what to do – a very small crevice that can only be entered after acquiring the Maru Mari (morph ball) at the very beginning of the game, and places that can only be reached by conveniently placed enemies lying around to be hit by the Ice Beam – with the player being expected to figure the rest out largely on their own. Exploration, and trying to find things that don’t seem to be there, is something that was heavily rewarded in Metroid, with players finding their first bombable wall and often deciding to shoot and bomb everything in sight to try to find anything from a secret passageway to new weapons to missiles and energy tanks. How many were there in the game? Who knows! Keep finding them until there’s no more to find! For a young child who wanted to find everything, this was amazing.

Despite the open-ended nature of the game, there was a progression that players were expected to abide by. The entryway to the final area of the game was located right in the first couple of corridors, hidden away by statues of the two mini-bosses, located within their own section of Zebes. The enemy diversity, even if many of them were little more than palette swaps, gave each area its own feel, an accomplishment in an era where that was an art form due to the memory and other technological limitations. Metroid was one of the few games willing to have such an open-ended feel in an era when most other games were linear, A-to-B jobs.

A read-through of the instruction book refers to Samus, the masked bounty hunter, as a “he”, which makes the games famous giveaway at the end that much more shocking: “he” is a long-haired “she”, and if the sub-one hour ending was to be believed, “she” had a hell of a bikini body to boot. We don’t need Anita Sarkeesian to tell us that this was the era where women were damsals in distress and little else; having a female lead was mind-blowing back in the 80s. It’s almost too bad that the game had such an archaic – even at the time – save system; whereas The Legend of Zelda had a battery backup, Metroid and Kid Icarus had long passwords that required perfect diction; lest one character be missed, hours of work could be lost. It’s the only real annoyance we had over Metroid when it was new; it earned its status as an all-time classic.


HOW IS IT NOW: If the original Metroid were to go into the future and see what it spawned, it would feel incredibly proud of its accomplishments. Perhaps we could imagine Samus Aran going forward in time to learn that she married Castlevania’s Simon Belmont, and had children. Along with their respective siblings – Metroid II for the Game Boy and Castlevania III/Castlevania IV for the NES and Super NES respectively – they raised Super Metroid and Castlevania: Symphony of the Night together. They were the chosen ones, who went out and founded their own genre, which begat so many fantastic games. Cave Story, Guacamelee, Valdis Story and others have proudly worn the Metroidvania label, combining exploration with intense melee combat. Hearing a game is a “Metroidvania” almost always guarantees sales from a prominent section of customers, who can’t get enough worlds to explore, items to find, and map sections to track back to, new skills in tow.

It’s a wonderful story. In fact, one pictures Samus and Simon sitting around the table, in their old age, saying that there was no way they could compare with the skills their kids developed. It’s easy to picture because it’s true; Metroid is simply locked in its own time.

The number one thing a modern gamer would notice plugging up Metroid would be the complete lack of a map, or of any kind of assistance in finding their way through the maze. Super Metroid had maps; later games went as far as to put a big spot on the map, saying “GO THERE”. Metroid? Here’s your character, here’s a ball; you can figure out the rest. Oh, and bomb everything. That wouldn’t fly with a teenager in 2014.

There’s also the technical limitations, such as the fact that this is the only Metroid game where Samus can’t shoot anything below her chest. Even in the Game Boy game, she can kneel to hit enemies that are crawling along the ground, a notable point with all of the Zoomers, Zeelas and Novas to be found in the game. While they can be dispatched by bombing them, that doesn’t help if they’re farther away. Later games added the ability for Samus to aim down while jumping, and even to angle her gun down; there was simply no way to do that with the NES’s limitations, so it was up to the player to work around that.

To be fair, technology helps Metroid in many ways, though it requires another version of the game. Virtual Console players have at least one savestate, and anyone playing on a non-sanctioned emulator has other assorted goodies at their disposal. There’s also a plethora of maps and walkthroughs to be found, in addition to the many Metroid-centric Wikis and other fan websites to be found on the internet; back in the 80s, we had the Official Nintendo Player’s Strategy Guide, and that’s about it. It’s never been easier to beat Metroid.

The question is why anyone else would want to, and the answer to that is to ask another question: did you play Metroid when you were young? Are you like me – someone in his mid-30s, who remembers the NES era from his childhood, and grew into Metroidvania games from there? I had a blast playing Metroid recently, but that’s only because I was playing it on my 3DS, with Virtual Console savestates, and because the same guy in his mid-30s who often goes off-trail whenever he goes into the woods just to see what’s still has that eight year old boy in the back of his head, who wants to explore everything and see if there are any secrets to be found. I loved playing through Metroid again – even if I got a bad ending – but I will acknowledge that my brothers (23, 17) would be done within an hour, for good. Even I wouldn’t want to be writing down passwords at this point.

That’s probably the final straw, actually: the ending, which is an issue I have with all Metroid games. For a game that rewards exploration so much, it’s funny that the better endings are locked behind a time gate; it takes under three hours to get Samus’s leotard, which I blew away while working off 25 years of rust. Anyone trying to find anything, without doing a speed run, is going to not get the best ending. While the intention is for people to go back and get better times and more items in a more efficient manner, but for most, there isn’t going to be a second time.

Metroid was amazing in 1986. I don’t have the words to explain just how much of an impact it had on me as a child, and it’s still fun for me to go through now. But it’s a honed enjoyment, that I don’t think the average gamer is going to get today. Why would they bother? They either grew up with Super Metroid, or one of the later games, all of which are leaps and bounds superior. The only reason to go back and play Metroid is like the only reason to go to a museum: to look at dinosaurs. At least the admission’s cheap.


1 – I quote that because those rewards are pathetic. Members have every right to be pissed at Nintendo


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Games I’ve Been Playing: 2014 FIFA World Cup Brasil Fri, 11 Jul 2014 02:05:49 +0000 2014_FIFA_World_Cup_Brazil_gameI hate to admit it, but 2014 has been a rough year for football games. I think my issues with FIFA ’14 were largely those of perception; I hated the new tackling they put in, which caused defence to be an issue to say the least. More on that in a bit. But most tragic to me was the absolute gong show that Pro Evolution Soccer had become, with even my fellow football fan Mohammed Al-Sadoon, aka The Notorious MAS, calling it “an unfinished game Konami released for full price”. Konami basically broke their game. So for my football fix, I’ve been going with Football Manager, which I’m not going to touch in one of these articles because I’ll write 50,000 words and end up selling it as a full critique like that time someone wrote a book on Spec Ops: The Line.

I decided to try one more time with a modern FIFA game and rented 2014 FIFA World Cup Brasil over the past week, figuring that I would be getting my money’s worth if only because that’s about what the game is worth. I remember my disillusionment with the prior World Cup game, when the tournament was in South Africa, when I reviewed it. I gave it a decent rating, but was tepid in my statements on the game, particularly aghast at the asking price of a full $60. The game must have sold well, because four years later, we’re here again, with a new FIFA World Cup game, another case of sticker shock, and a realization that this is almost the exact same game – warts and all – I played four years ago.

I will say upfront that I didn’t touch the online modes. Couldn’t be arsed. For people that do play online, this game is a bit more palatable because of the modes available, including the road to Rio that has people playing in all of the stadiums that are in Brazil. All I did was play through CONCACAF qualifying with the Canadian team, which allows for the fixtures to be like real life, or for seedings and pairings to be moved around. I took real seeding, which put me in the second (of four) rounds. Depending on region and seeding, this can feel like a whole season mode; the second round is six matches, then the third is six, then the final round is ten, with friendly matches mixed in. If bang-for-the-buck is the goal, this mode will provide it, at least until the football starts.

Before every match comes a training session. This involves playing a minigame for points. They’re good at first just to get some of the more sensitive controls down, but after that they’re a time-wasting pain in the ass that nonetheless feel mandatory to increase stats. There’s also the annoying Adidas MiCoach, which “recommends” the players that need a particular drill the most. Mind that these changes are those to form; they’re not permanent. So it’s always going to be the same four or five fringe players that get the training. This is frustrating because my qualifying started in 2011; that’s three years ago, and yet the Canadian football team has the same options, same players, with largely the same ratings, depending on form, for those three years. My #1 striker is Dwayne De Rosario. Do you know how old he is, without Googling? He’s THIRTY SIX. Even if Canada made it to the World Cup – or at least the final qualifying round – there’s no way he would have been on the roster. He’s a THIRTY SIX YEAR OLD STRIKER, and his form is shot. That’s a big issue to me: World Cup qualifying in this game exists in a vacuum, where each player’s club season, injuries, and the realities of ageing don’t apply. These are the things that *really* matter; if a player isn’t performing for their club, their ratings should take a hit, and vice versa, dependent on where that player plays; Tim Howard’s playing for Everton should matter much more than Julio Cesar playing for MLS’s Toronto FC.

This is all before an actual match takes place, where I quickly learned that, save for better jostling for balls in the air, this game plays almost exactly like the one I reviewed four years ago. Simply put, I don’t know where Association Football begins and Aussie Rules Football begins at times. Most of the time, defence is a matter of simply running into the player with the ball and shouldering him off of it. Did your striker get a run on you? No problem! Just run up to him – it doesn’t matter who he is or who you are, you will catch up – and jostle; you will grab on for a few seconds before just running him off the ball. It would help if players ran intelligently off the ball, but no dice; it’s usually just one player making a run at strange times, to the point where through balls don’t stand much chance because they’re either not set up properly or put in too close to the goalkeeper. Once again, the best ways to score are to either keep throwing crosses into the box and hoping one sticks, or just bombing away from outside the box. Build-up play usually just involves slowly and methodically making connect-the-dots passes; stringing together multiples is hard because of the speed of the ball. If it’s a game where the opponent is a particularly defensive team – CONCACAF fans, think Honduras – then forget it; players are in for a night of probing, sideways passes along the pitch and 35 meter prayers masquerading as shots.

In the end, I didn’t even bother getting to the World Cup, to see the best part of the game. I had to bring the game back, and rather than ring up late fees – in a store that’s made them virtually non-existent – I simply couldn’t be bothered to care enough to finish the game. Unfortunately, by the time World Cup ’14 comes down in price, it will be too late; the Final should be over by 6PM on Sunday night, which might as well be stamped on the box like a freshness seal, because once that time passes, the game becomes largely irrelevant.

I can’t even recommend 2014 FIFA World Cup Brasil to hardcore football and World Cup fans. Eventually, qualification will become boring, though there are challenges to be had, especially for anyone who wants to try to do damage with a team from Oceana. FIFA ’15 immediately makes any gameplay elevations in this title – which seem to amount to “you can crawl over someone’s back to head the ball now, yay” – irrelevant the day it comes out. It doesn’t even look good, especially since EA’s priority has clearly become the PS4 and XBox One versions of their engine. Anyone who really wants to play the World Cup would be better served petitioning EA for the World Cup to instead be added to FIFA ’18 as a $30 DLC purchase instead of coming out with an entirely new game. I feel sorry for anyone who bought this, because I think it’s pretty clear they were taken for a sucker.


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Taming the Backlog: Cook, Serve, Delicious! Wed, 02 Jul 2014 13:00:00 +0000 Like most people, I have a huge backlog of games. My mission: use my Backloggery to try to knock it down a bit. Whether I play these games five years or five minutes depends on the game.

I work in IT, and spent some time doing this games writing thing for a (meager) living, but I really cut my teeth as a professional in the restaurant business. For most who started out in restaurants, they did it for just a little while; a summer spent washing dishes to have play money here, a semester spent waiting tables to be able to put money on the meal plan there, for the non-lifers, restaurant work is usually a stepping stone.

When you’re the son of a Greek who owns a diner, however, restaurant work is the stone. From the time I was eleven years old, I spent every week, once or twice a week, washing dishes, busing tables and working as a side-cook at Johnny’s Restaurant – now Johnny’s Diner (under a new owner) – in Fairfield, CT. It’s hard work, in hot condition, for very little money; this is basically how I earned my allowance, getting $25 per day. While it’s true that $25 dollars carried farther in 1992 than it did in 2012, especially for a 12 year old, it didn’t carry far enough to the point where that was even close to the minimum wage. I eventually left restaurant work at 15 to go work full-time – yes, full-time, over a summer, at 15 – as a janitor, effectively telling my father to piss off1, but I would go back and forth, in and out of the business, most recently filling in for my ailing mother as a waiter while trying to make a go as a writer. It never really leaves you, and it takes me five minutes on the floor before I’m back in a natural element.

I didn’t expect to go back to those days when I saw Cook, Serve, Delicious! come up on my list of games to play. I looked at a small indie game that was Greenlit, and figured I was getting Diner Dash: PC Edition. I was wrong. Wow, was I wrong. Instead, I found the closest simulation ever to the hectic pace of restaurant work I’ve seen in video game form.

csdCook, Serve, Delicious!
Developer: Veritgo Gaming
Publisher: Veritgo Gaming
Systems: Windows, Mac, Linux, iOS, Android
Release Date: October 8, 2013
MSRP: $9.99

The premise behind Cook, Serve, Delicious! – CSD going forward – is simple: the economy is picking up, and as occupancy in a corporate building picks up, the campus restaurant has been opened up as well, and it’s the player’s job to bring the restaurant back from walls literally crumbling into becoming a five star restaurant, while appearing on cooking shows, taking bets and buying new equipment to be able to cook more food. Each level, or star, has a checklist of progressively more difficult items that must be completed before advancement. The player is given a few thousand dollars, and a list of things that they can buy, be it equipment or food itself.

One notable thing about CSD is that stock doesn’t have to be replenished; once a food item is bought, it’s there in perpetuity. So while a food item is prohibitively expensive at first, and upgrading it also hurts, the money can eventually be made back. The good news on that front is that some items, when upgraded, get a lot more expensive to buy, so it’s important for the player to consider the benefits of buying and upgrading the expensive fish option instead of keeping it cheap with corn dogs; the corn dogs are irrelevant halfway through the game, while fish and steak will eventually make someone a five star restaurant.

Promotional writing for CSD refers to it as a restaurant “simulator”, but that’s not accurate; a simulator would be what my father’s role currently is, which is not only setting the menu and the prices, but dealing with safety regulations and inspections, labour issues, and other boring aspects of restaurant management. Here, the player simply buys the food, sets the menu, and cooks to order. Each item on the menu has both good and bad points to it, which balances out nicely. For example, corn dogs are very easy to cook, and don’t cost much, but they’re fatty, cause garbage to pile up, don’t sell well in the morning, and attract rodents. On the other hand, soups are staple foods – foods that will always be on most menus – and sell well, but take a lot of effort to cook. These perks and cons can combine to either raise or lower “buzz”, which is power of the word of mouth that the restaurant is getting. Putting many health conscious items together will increase buzz because it brings in the healthy eating crowd, while putting a whole bunch of fatty foods together will lower it. The last part is something I don’t understand; if I were to have a restaurant with a theme, I would definitely put burgers, fries, and other snack items like corn dogs and soda together every day. Furthermore, the game complicates things a bit by instituting something called “menu rot”, where an item will consistently lower buzz every day it’s left on the menu longer than two days. From the perspective of someone putting a menu together, this makes no sense – if I have good burgers, they’re going to be on the menu, and the idea that burgers aren’t a “staple” item doesn’t make sense because they’re even sold as kid’s menu items in niche restaurants – but from a gaming perspective, it does help to spice things up and force balance.

All of this leads to the actual shift; a 9AM to 10PM marathon of cooking and cleaning. Depending on the size of the restaurant, there are a varying number of customer slots, and as customers come in, they will give specific orders. Each dish has its own options, and its own cadence to cooking. Whereas corn dogs are simply adding either mustard, ketchup or both, soups can have plenty of options on adding different seasonings, pastas, croutons, and various vegetables. Some foods go on the grill, others don’t, some get boiled, some have to cook for a long time, others burn easily. Each order is graded as being either perfect, “meh” (little mistakes, like forgetting the lettuce in a BLT), or bad, which either involves the customer walking out before being served, or making a tragic mistake on an order, such as badly undercooking meat. Along the way, chores will also pop up, involving fixing the toilet, doing dishes, taking out trash and even giving police reports after being robbed.

It’s the cooking aspect of the game that takes up most of the time, and it’s where the game truly shines. This is where my brain clicked into Short Order Cook Mode. I instantly learned all of the orders by heart, so I could bang them out with a staccato, robotic precision. My grill management skills instantly came back, being able to juggle multiple orders with different needs and requirements. I showed this mode to my mother – who only waited tables in diners, along with running the grill and side cook positions, for forty years – and she said she was starting to get a form of PTSD. She was only half-joking.

The game itself has other, “gamey” elements to it such as cooking competition, betting games and other ways to break the monotony of cooking many of the same dishes over and over and dealing with a somewhat slow pace – the first star doesn’t even come until after 20 days, no matter what – but the cooking aspect is still great. It determines how much enjoyment a player gets out of CSD; if the thought of rigorously grinding through a day of cooking more and more complex dishes doesn’t appeal to someone, nothing here will change their mind. I like it, so naturally, I like this game.

On a 1-10 scale, how likely am I to finish this game? – 9. I love playing this game. Love its charm, love its simple-yet-complex gameplay, love the options gamers have, it’s just great. Maybe it’s not for everyone, but I’m going to have a blast getting to five stars (what I consider to be “complete”).

Should anyone buy this game? – I would recommend Cook, Serve, Delicious! to open minded gamers who don’t mind a bit of grind. Anyone who can get past the slow start will enjoy the options that unlock – I’m still not into the real meat and potatoes of the game (literally! Ha, I’m witty and clever!) – and once the game gets into a proper swing, it keeps getting better. Those who don’t like grind, repetition or what is effectively a simple typing tutor should avoid this, but at the cost, and with as often as it goes on sale, Cook, Serve, Delicious! is a bargain on any platform.


The following is a list of the games I’ve focused on for this piece, and my current status with them:

Galcon Legends – Stopped playing for now. Will likely gut out beating this game for achievements for an hour or so.
Cook, Serve, Delicious! – Getting my first star imminently.

NEXT TIME ON TAMING THE BACKLOG: A game the ‘Bus loves unconditionally appears! Command?


1 – This makes my father appear in a bad light, but I wish I could talk to 14 year old me about this, because my father – while very tough to work for in those days – wasn’t raised like most people. Long story short: illegal Greek immigrant, came to America in ’73 as a stowaway, punched out a Philly cop and ran away to avoid arrest and deportation, learned the language literally as he went along, and now, at 66 (we think), is fully naturalized, and still works 80+ hour weeks owning two restaurants. Put bluntly, my father is a motherfucker.


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