Friday, April 29, 2011

RPG vs DND Part 3: Autocalculation vs Leniency, Cheating, and the Magic of the Dice

One of the banes of the D&D player’s existence is the constant flipping through the rule books.  Action cards in 4th edition have limited this a little, but the infinitely complex and little understood grappling rules have gained a status of infamy in the world of Dungeons and Dragons.  Perhaps that is why Bioware wisely decided to leave grappling out of the NWN games.

In a VRPG, there is no need to check the rules in general.  Finding out what a particular item or spell does can be done with the click of a button, and everything else is done automatically.  Combat, attacks of opportunity, sneak attacks.... Neverwinter Nights never forgets a modifier.  It’s somewhat glorious.  Also, math is no longer needed, adding modifiers to modifiers to dice rolls.  It’s all done for you, and you can watch the math happening at the bottom of the screen (other games don’t allow this I believe, but the process is still happening).  One combat encounter takes about 30 seconds in NWN.  In D&D that 30 seconds would have stretched out for at least 20 minutes as people rolled initiative, made decisions, and flipped through stacks of books to find out exactly what kind of save would be required against Burning Hands.

Why, when everything takes exponentially longer (completing NWN: 10 hours.  Completing a D&D campaign of a similar scale: 1 year), would you choose rulebooks over computers?  Three words: leniency, cheating, and dice.

When you can’t quite find that rule or the DM just doesn’t want to worry about it, you don’t have to find it.  The rules are always there to help you, never to hinder you.  People tend to forget that.  If it’s too complicated, ignore it.  Grapple checks can be done with one or two dice rolls, not with 6 pages of rules.  The DM is free to modify things however he wants to.  Also, the DM understands the one argument that NWN cannot: “But it’ll be so COOL!”  You can get away with things if it looks like it will be an epic moment, even if it would not normally be possible.  In fact, I think Exalted is supposed to be based on this idea.  The DM has the power to bend the rules and be lenient to help the players enjoy the game, which VRPGs cannot do.

Also, a smaller point: cheating.  If the DM isn’t looking you can reroll that dice.  If it falls off the table, it’s essentially a free reroll.  The DM doesn’t know ALL of your stats.  How is s/he supposed to know if you added an extra modifier in there, or if that shield you described having crafted had one extra tiny ability?  I never cheat of course *cough*, but it’s possible, and it prevents those inevitable times when every roll you make is below a 3.

Finally, the dice.  They are magical.  There are loads of superstitions and traditions regarding dice, passed on from one gamer to the next.  Cover your dice when someone attempts a grapple.  When you get a new dice, make sure to roll the 1s out of it.  It’s fantastic.  There’s a whole culture just surrounding those numbered polyhedrons, and I don’t think an RPG is really complete without it.

Basically, my point here is that while the VRPG is very well ordered and structured, the tabletop game has so much more variety, flexibility, and hilarity in it that I don’t think should be ignored.

Oh and of course, save points are very, very useful.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

RPG vs DND Part 2: One Great Plot vs Open-Endedness

There has yet to be any truly open ended VRPG.  Fable and Oblivion are excellent examples of things which come close, but there is no game where you can do whatever you want whenever you want.  The game just doesn’t have the capacity to allow that sort of freedom.  Now this has two sides to it.

On the one hand, continuing to use Neverwinter Nights as my example as I’m playing through that again, the main plotline is fantastic.  I could never create the complexity or the scale that Bioware did in this game.  There are NPCs all over the place, some with sidequests, others just standing around complaining at you for having your weapons drawn in their presence.  Each of your potential henchmen has a backstory and a quest.  The main plotline has twists and turns and a variety of scenes and locations.  It develops well, keeps up a good pace, and is really quite moving.  Only the best DMs could hope to achieve that.  To be fair, I’ve seen some who’ve managed it.  But it’s hard.

On the other hand, no matter how great the plot and subplots of NVN, you can’t deviate.  You can never say, “Hey, this isn’t my problem.  I’m going to Calimport!”  You can’t say, “Hey, you’re suspicious but no one else seems willing to act on how devious you look, so I’ll kill you now myself!”  You can never derail that plot, or avoid it, or follow it in any manner other than the one intended.  Not so in D&D.  When its all in the DM’s head, you can twist things, bend things, BE CREATIVE!  Your actions have consequences neither you nor the DM can always foresee.  “Actually, thinking about it, didn’t you say this whole place was made of wood?  So wouldn’t that pillar of fire I just set off burn the city to the ground?”  Whoops.

Also in terms of flexibility, there’s no such thing as a dialogue tree in D&D.  You can say whatever you like, whenever you like.  You can make incredible logical arguments that pull the rug out of attempted traitors.  You can also (and more frequently) say the dumbest possible thing and get the whole party thrown in jail.

Basically, anything can happen in D&D, and that’s its greatest selling point.  In no other computer game could you ever have the situation where the half-orc wants to find out what’s going on, and so attempts to grab a random passerby, critically fumbles the dice roll, and ends up roaring questions at a chair he’s holding.  Brilliant.

Monday, April 25, 2011

RPG vs DND Part 1: Graphic Imagination

      So I love RPGs, both regular and MMOs.  They’re great fun, and I’ve already explained why they are amazing.  But given the opportunity to spend the afternoon playing Neverwinter Nights or playing Dungeons and Dragons, I’d choose D&D every time, even if we were playing multiplayer NVN.  Why?  This week I would like to look at the relationships between virtual and tabletop RPGS.  Conveniently, I have three points, so I’ll divide this into three posts. 

                    Part 1: Visual Graphics vs Imagination
Can you say 'special effects'?  I can.

One of the best cases in favour of virtual RPGs is that you can actually see what’s going on.  In Neverwinter Nights you can see the enemies, see how many, what weapons they have, and all of that.  Also, it saves having to listen to the Dungeon Master giving a ten minute description of just how imposing the fortress is.  You can see it.  Your eyes process faster than your ears, at least when it comes to images.  I suppose reading a description of a sound is slower than hearing it.
So is this a crypt or a marketplace?

In D&D (or whatever tabletop RPG you prefer.  We can discuss that another day.) you have to rely on your imagination and memory to keep track of what’s going on.  You can use models and grids to map out a battle, and maybe the DM will be nice and draw you a map or a sketch of a building.  Generally though, you have to visualize everything yourself, and this does lead to confusion.  As DM I often find that I have forgotten to mention something important, like the giant pit in the center of the room, or the description of the altar the necromancer is standing behind.  This causes problems that you don’t really have as often in a video game.
Nowadays, with 4th edition, there is supposed to be a lot of software you can buy to make all the rooms on your laptop for your dungeon and visual aids are a lot easier to construct.  For those of us who don’t have that luxury however, the graphics and sound effects of video games seem much easier than belaboured and detailed descriptions of the stickiness of the floor.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Literature in Video Games: Rediscovering the Classics

So in an earlier post (Day 21: Game with the Best Story) I talked about Dynasty Warriors and how it is based upon one of the Four Great Chinese Novels.  I thought it would be interesting to research this a little further.  Romance of the Three Kingdoms, which DW is based on, is regarded as one of the greatest books in Chinese history, and I wanted to see what else has had a similar treatment.  Because there are lots of minor games based on books:,75/so,1d/  on everything from Dracula to Sherlock Holmes to Harry Potter, and because I am looking specifically for great interpretations of classical literature, I’m going to stick to only a few examples.  Ok, Dracula should count really, but I’m not big on horror.  I may come back to this another day, but for now, I think I’ll keep to two.  Otherwise we’ll be here all day.

After some rooting around on the internet, I’ve found a game series that I really want to play now: Suikoden.  These games have been coming out for years now, and revolve around the 108 protagonists called the Stars of Destiny.  For those of you who don’t immediately spot the reference there, these games are based off of one of the other Four Great Novels: The Water Margin.  To be fair, I only know about this because we have the box set of the 70’s TV show of The Water Margin, which was fantastic and hilarious.

Basically, the Water Margin is about 108 heroes who fight against the corruption of the Chinese government at the time.  Coming from all sorts of backgrounds, they gather in the marshes and are labelled bandits by the government.  It’s a really cool story.  Suikoden apparently takes this and puts it into game form.  I have to see how this works...

Then we come to Alice in Wonderland.  This story has been taken in more directions in more manners than pretty much any other story in existence.  I played an 8 bit educational version of it in school when I was 8.  Wikipedia lists around 20 different games with elements based on the story, and at least 4 or 5 direct interpretations.  American McGee’s Alice is perhaps the most famous of these in recent years, taking the whole story through an incredibly dark, Sucker Punch-esque twist.  There is also now an American McGee interpretation of most of the Grimm fairytales, which also look interesting.  I’m rapidly discovering lots of games I have to play today, but back to Alice now.  Alice in Wonderland is just such a delightfully bizarre story that it seems to lend itself to the reference-laden, mystery-filled world of computer games. 
What is interesting about this is that while we may not get the references to Romance of the Three Kingdoms or the Water Margin, at least not in the Western Hemisphere, we all know and recognize Alice when we see her, and know what things to look out for as a result.  In Kingdom Hearts, when you go to Wonderland and you enter a room that looks like a giant kitchen with an enormous glass table, you immediately know two things.  First, there’s a bottle on that table.  Second, there’s a talking door somewhere around.  A mushroom will change your size.  Its an interesting thing to consider, how games rely on concepts and rules that we already know to make the task of leading us through the gameworld easier.  But I digress.

Literature clearly makes some great video games.  It can provide the background and set up to some fantastic stories.  It’s amazing to me that more of the Greek classics like the Odyssey haven’t been made into more impressive games.  There have been a few, most commonly interpretations of Dante’s Inferno.  But I’d like to see more.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Day 30: My Favourite Game of All Time

I know I've been saying I wanted to mention SSBB for ages, but I didn't expect to put it here. As I considered my favourite games, however, I slowly began to realize that nothing could top Super Smash Brothers Brawl in each of the various areas it excels in. Let me run you through the process by which I arrived at this decision.

Kingdom Hearts 2 is a game I love, and has won several awards from me this month. However, it fails when it comes to replay value, not to mention the fact that it does not have a multiplayer mode. Even Sonic 2 had multiplayer! So that's out.

Civ 2, now Civ 2 is awesome. I've played it all my life, it has infinite replay value, and is incredible for all the reasons previously listed. It is old though, and has pretty terrible graphics, even for its time. Also, it does not have multiplayer. Civilization 4 would be the obvious counter here, and it is an excellent game. Great graphics, excellent gameplay, and its great to play on your own or with friends. My problem here is that I haven't played Civ 4 much recently. I don't know it as well, and it is a very LONG game. So I keep thinking, but Civ 4 is definitely one of my top contenders.

Considering my favourite genre is the RPG, Neverwinter Nights should be among the top, and it certainly is. I just reinstalled it yesterday, and I love it again. It has good replay value, and is a fantastic game in and of itself. Making characters is a lot of fun and the story is really cool. It even has multiplayer. I haven't played it, but I believe it could be good.

All of these games are excellent, but they all have their own areas where they are not as solid, be it graphics or whathaveyou. This is where Super Smash Brothers Brawl comes in.

It is essentially, a fighting game in the tradition of Tekken and Street Fighter, but with all of Nintendo's best characters fighting it out instead of random martial arts people. It started out on the N64 wth 8 characters years ago, but now on the Wii the roster has grown immense, with something like 40-50 characters to choose from, including Sonic, Snake, and a number of different Pokemon. The fighting system is fairly simple, but gives you over a dozen different attacks to learn for each character, each with their own strengths and weaknesses. My personal favourites to play with are Samus from the Super Metroid Series, and ROB, the robot.

The reason that SSBB stands out beyond all other games for me is its consistently high ratings across the board. The multiplayer is of course, fantastic. Anyone who's played it can tell you how many hours of fast paced, endlessly aried fun you can have destroying each other. I don't really need to go into that too much. Additionally, the graphics are fantastic. Mario looks superb and so do most of the other characters. The fighters of SSBB actually look BETTER than they've ever done before in their own games, which is excellent. The gameplay overall is brilliant and works really well. There are very few complaints I have about the way in which the game is played.

Finally, whereas I have criticized many one-player games for their poor multiplayer, I cannot really fault SSBB (a multiplayer game) for its solo modes. SSBB offers a whole host of different games and adventures for the solo player, all of which are challenging. The main campaign is long, varied, interesting, and a real challenge to get all the way through. All-Star mode is also a massive challenge - to fight against every character in the game successively. Boss Mode is very tough, but rewarding too. I could play SSBB on my own for hours (and I have). This is how the game stands out for me. It is perhaps the only game since Goldeneye to have both a brilliant single player and multiplayer mode, and SSBB has several of both.

For excellence in Single Player, Multiplayer, Graphics, Design, Gameplay, Music, Sounds, Inventiveness, Difficulty, and Entertainment and Replay Value, Super Smash Brothers Brawl beats every competitor out of the park. Coming to this decision surprised me, but I can't help but feel that it is the right one.

And that brings the 30 Day Game Challenge to a close. I'm glad I copied Maddox in doing this; its been a lot of fun and I've learned a lot about my own gaming tastes as a result. Good times. I hope everyone else has enjoyed it too.  This also brings me to the end of my pre-done posts, sadly enough.  Now I have to blog on my own initiative.  It's a scary world out there.  Fortunately, I know a handy method of escapism.... several methods actually.

Day 29: Game I Thought I Wouldn't Like But Ended Up Loving

This was a contender for my guilty pleasure game a while back. For my penultimate game challenge, I present to you the wonders that exist within the N64 game Pokemon Puzzle League.

Pokemon Puzzle League is, in many ways, a VERY random game. All of a sudden, it seems there is a new challenge within the world of Pokemon, which centers upon this puzzle game which is played competitively. The game you play is essentially a variant of Columns, where you have to match 3 (or more) blocks of a kind together to eliminate them. When played against the computer, every time you get a cool thing (4+ blocks at once) you drop more blocks on the opponent. On top of this, the whole setup is slowly getting higher as more rows appear at the bottom. All of a sudden, what was at first a pleasant puzzle to pass the time turns into a fast-paced competition that has your brain moving at lightspeed to try and stay ahead of the computer.

The actual puzzle game itself is great. You have multiple different variations on this game to play, including the most impressive (and most difficult) Cylindrical game grid, as you can see in the picture, where you have to rotate the cylinder round as you match blocks up. The background to it is just wierd though. The very idea in the Adventure Mode that you should choose which Pokemon you're going to fight with is silly. It makes no difference to the game whatsoever, but you still get to choose which creature will be standing in the background as you play the game. Team Rocket getting up to mischief by setting up a Spa Service which you can thwart by... playing this challenge? It really doesn't make any sense. On the other hand, it doesn't have to, because everything in the game is there to give some justification and background to the puzzle playing.

That said, the puzzle is fun, addictive, very challenging at the highest difficulty level, fast, and visually appealing. Even the sounds and music are decent. It's a silly, childish game that overall makes very little sense, but the puzzle that it is built around is solid and makes everything else worthwhile. Besides, there's no such thing as an unenjoyable Pokemon game!

Day 28: Best Game Developer

This was a very tough call. I actually put up a Blizzard image first, because, well, they're pretty awesome, and I've been to a concert of Blizzard music. Bioware is also an amazing company with good ethics and an excellent ability to create games.

The winner today though has to be Rareware. I thought they were an excellent choice just for making Banjo Kazooie and Donkey Kong 64, both of which are fantastic games with a really good sense of humour. However, then I saw their full list of games. They made Goldeneye... winning. Also Jet Force Gemini and my friend's favourite - Conker's Bad Fur Day, not to mention Diddy Kong Racing.

They haven't done much in recent years, it must be said. However, during their N64 days, they rocked our worlds. Goldeneye is often rated the best N64 game of all time, and one of the best multiplayer games ever. Jet Force Gemini is a good solid game with an excellent co-op campaign mode. Both games keep up Rare's legendary sense of humour (DK Mode in Goldeneye anyone?) and JFG includes a playable character which is a dog built into a mini tank with a jetpack. Awesome.

And those are just its best FPSs. Banjo Kazooie and Donkey Kong 64 are two of my favourite games for the N64 as well. Adventure games with a pretty solid plot and creative characters, they make a powerful combination when put side by side. Banjo Kazooie I've already talked about, with its excellent character design, brilliant soundtrack and good humoured gameplay and dialogue. Donkey Kong is very similar, especially in game structure. Briefly, it has better graphics and gameplay, and is much larger, with 5 playable characters. However, the villain is rubbish compared to B-K (see Best Antagonist), and there isn't quite as much of the humour as you see in B-K and apparently Conker's Bad Fur Day.

Add in Diddy Kong Racing to the mix, and the fact that they also recently did one of the starting games for the Kinect on the Xbox, and you have a well rounded, solid gaming company with a reputation for excellence and sillyness. I love both.

There are other excellent developers out there, no question of that. But Rareware has such a variety of high quality games that it stands out of the crowd, even if it was mostly for the N64. They were my childhood in essence, and especially for their sense of humour which has stayed with me, they win today's challenge.

Day 27: Most Epic Scene

The challenge is coming to an end now, and I still haven't talked about Super Smash Brothers Brawl, which I love. But I won't today either, despite the fact that the campaign mode which gives this blog its name has some excellent moments to contend here. No matter what SSBB did though, the end of Sonic the Hedgehog 2 blows every other contender away.

The final stage of Sonic 2 takes place on the Death Egg, the giant Death Star rip-off which has just flown up into orbit. So yes, the final battle takes place in space. Remember that.

Oh yes, and before we begin properly, this is obviously a MASSIVE SPOILER ALERT. It's not that big of a deal though, unless you really want to find out for yourself what happens at the end of Sonic 2.

You start the level with 0 rings, and there are no rings in the level. For those who have played the Sonic games, you will understand the significance of this. For those who haven't, basically, you can't take a single hit. Usually you can have just one ring and you can lose it and pick it up over and over again and be fine. For this level, you have no shield at all.

You face off against a metal version of yourself, which I find to be harder than the final boss itself, which is a giant robotic version of Dr Robotnik. The final battle, if you know what you're doing, isn't actually that hard, but it definitely takes a while and requires very precise timing.

Eventually you win, and the space station begins to explode. Sonic runs down a corridor with fire blazing behind him and then LEAPS OUT OF THE DEATH EGG!

Remember, this is in space. Sonic just leapt out into space. The epicness begins.

On the ground, Tails sees the Death Egg explode and rushes to his plane to find out what happened and to find Sonic. He gets in and takes off. In the meantime, Sonic has just been falling to the ground of Mobius. He freefalls for the entire time it takes for Tails to see the blast, get to his plane, take off, and head in his direction.

Ultimately, as Sonic falls towards the ground, presumably contemplating his fate and whether it was worth sacrificing his life to stop Robotnik, a passive determined expression on his face, suddenly he hears the sound of a plane engine. Tails flies underneath him and Sonic makes a perfect landing on the wing of a moving biplane. After falling from space.

Sonic is the most epic hero in the world because no one in the history of video games can compete with a feat that impressive. Oh, and to top it all off, in celebration of his victory he then JUMPS OFF OF THE PLANE AGAIN! Biggest badass in the world. Not even Kratos beats that.

Don't believe me? Here's the video.

Day 26: Best Voice Acting

This was a really tricky one. I had to think for quite a while about this, and run through a lot of games. Dragon Age was an obvious choice, but while it was good overall, it lacked something. Banjo Kazooie was considered just for fun, but no, that wouldn't do. Starcraft was perhaps the biggest contender here, or Warcraft 2, for both sense of humour and excellent cinematic moments. However, once I considered what this day's challenge is ACTUALLY looking for, it was a much easier decision. Best Voice Acting is about the delivery of the lines, not the lines themselves. Starcraft and Dragon Age both have excellent dialogue, but they fall short on the delivery, at least in comparison to today's winner, which I'm sorry to say, is once again Kingdom Hearts, specifically KH 2. I was trying to keep things fairly balanced and not have games which I keep coming back to, but the more I go through this 30 day challenge, the more I realize which games were truly great and deserve more than one day's praise.

Kingdom Hearts 2, by nature of being a Disney game, and possibly a little because its a sequel, doesn't have the snappiest or wittiest dialogue of any game. Ok, its mostly because its Disney, and because half of what is said is centred around varying metaphors for hearts and lights. But its delivered well. The voice acting is superb on all fronts, from the human to the cartoon characters. With the voices of Haley Joel Osmond, Hayden Panettiere, and David Gallagher representing the main protagonists, there was definitely some respectable talent in the cast.

There are some truly poignant moments in KH2, as evidenced by it winning Best Cinematic a while back for me. Bad voice actors though, as you get in far too many games, could have ruined those moments. But the actors in KH2 don't just play the dialogue well, they take decent dialogue and make it shine, something that few other games manage, and that's why KH2 wins today.

Day 25: Game I Plan on Playing

There are obviously many games I would like to play: Sonic the Hedgehog 4, Dragon Age 2, and I've already mentioned Starcraft 2. However, if there's one game that is more of an inevitaility rather than just a desire, it would be Civilization V.

Sid Meier's Civilization series has been a part of my life for years now. I grew up on Civ 2, and though I have always appreciated its faults, I still play it and love it. I've already talked about how awesome the Civ series is in general, creating and ruling an empire throughout history, but I think to understand Civ 5 its worth looking at how the series has grown.

Graphical evolution aside, because of course the graphics improved over 15 years, there are plenty of other improvements and innovations Sid has made. The diplomacy you can employ in the game has improved drastically. Whereas before you would have to give away all of your technology just to keep the world happy with you, only to have them nuke you the moment they are able, now there is a quite sophisticated system of negotiations which is far more realistic. The cultural system as well was a nice addition, where over time the borders of your city would expand to take into account your expanding influence. Compared to Civ 2 where your capitol city with millions of inhabitands would forever be the same size as the smallest village in your empire, this was a welcome change. Also, overwhelming a nearby foreign city with the pure force of culture could cause them to turn to your side. I love cultural warfare.

The addition in Civ 4 of the system of civics and religion made government much more flexible, which I appreciated. It feels more like a continuous evolution of your kingdom to change between being a police state or having universal suffrage, between slavery and serfdom, or having mercantilism and a free economy. Also, being able to have a state religion is hilarious. The number of times you see situations like the Americans founding Islam is fantastically ironic.

Basically, I have to find out how Civ 5 has taken all of these elements further. I have high hopes for it on the day that I get a more capable computer. Every game so far has been increasingly excellent, and I want to see how this trend continues.

Day 24: Favourite Classic Game

Tetris. Tetris tetris tetris.

I love it. This game is the height of frustration and logic and speed and focus and endless replayablility. The game itself is simple, yet can keep you entertained for hours.

That and the music is amazing. Classic Russian folk songs. I don't think Tetris needs much more of an explanation as my favourite classic game than this. It DEFINES classic.


Day 23: Game I think had the Best Graphics or Art Style

Very tough decision here. Many games which I would be tempted to put here, like Flower for the PS3, or even Portal, I simply can't comment properly on because I haven't played them. Even Smash Bros Brawl has excellently detailed renderings of all of the characters which I love. But there is one game which I feel deserves this title.

Starcraft was made in the mid 90's and so obviously, can't compare with games made today directly. But it remains one of my favourite games graphically, and the reason is quite simple. The characters are relatively rather small and if you watch closely, they only have a few different poses, but that doesn't matter. Everything in the game is simply done, but still detailed and interesting to look at, right down to the basic Zergling. They only have maybe 5 different poses they can stand in, but when watching a massive battle take place, you can still see everything which is happening cleanly and clearly. There is no confusion about what is going on which you get in other, more graphically advanced games. Just watch the Transformers movie and tell me that improved graphics makes for clearer images. Starcraft was smooth, streamlined, and remains one of my favourite games as a result.

It is this graphical style, which was used similarly in Warcraft II at the same time, which is what I didn't like about the graphics increase they made for Warcraft III (and what I am afraid of in Starcraft II). It's more difficult to make out what all the units are and what they're doing in a big battle in Warcraft III because there is more to them. More to see, more to process, more to be confused by. Starcraft was simple, but it was elegant, and I think it deserves this title as a result.

Day 22: A Game Sequel Which Disappointed You

I've put Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days here as an example of this, but I have a number of games in this category. The game sequels which always disappoint me the most are the sequels which are made on a different platform from the original.

Banjo-Kazooie Nuts and Bolts moved from Nintendo to Microsoft. Kingdom Hearts moved from the consoles to only the handheld devices like the DS and the PSP. I think even Baldur's Gate II: Dark Alliance moved from Nintendo to Sony if I remember correctly.

Whenever a game sequel moves to a different company or platform it frustrates me no end. How can I continue with the story? The trailer at the end of Kingdom Hearts II for the next game is AMAZING, and is one of the cooler game trailers I've seen, even if its very short and simple. Yet can I get the game? No. It's on the PSP. AHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!

I understand that its generally to do with the companies, not out of an attempt to crush my soul. But they succeed at that anyway. Grr.....

Day 21: Game with the Best Story

I was immediately tempted by games with classic stories like Kingdom Hearts, Neverwinter Nights, or any of the great RPGs. All of these are excellent, there is no doubt. But one game, or rather one series of games, blows them all away, because it is beyond classic. It's ancient.

The Dynasty Warriors series is a generally hack-and-slash sort of game where you control an officer in a great Chinese army. You slaughter hundreds of soldiers each level, each level being a key battle in the overall story. It's the story though, which makes this game so great, even more than the incredible variety of characters, weapons, and fighting styles.

The story from Dynasty Warriors is directly based upon the Chinese novel, Romance of the Three Kingdoms. This is known as one of the Four Great Classical Novels of Chinese literature, and thus one of the best pieces of Asian literature in history. This long tale of three kingdoms fighting over who would control China serves as the background for the various battles you fight through in the game.

Other games out there craft a beautiful or moving story, there's no doubt about that. But not even American McGee's Alice is the match for Dynasty Warriors for a representation of great literature. It's an old story, surviving for centuries, and Dynasty Warriors doesn't just let you witness cutscenes with the story, and in between you fight through random segments of level. Instead, every officer you slay, every objective you have to complete, and every event in the level, is based off of the Romance of the Three Kingdoms.

No other game out there can claim such historical heritage, or such highly rated literary background. Plus, its a great series of games. Love them to bits.

Day 20: Favourite Genre

With games like Baldur's Gate, Neverwinter Nights, Kingdom Hearts, Final Fantasy, Paper Mario, Oblivion, Dragon Age, Jade Empire, and more (though some of these could probably be disputed), my favourite genre has to be the RPG, or Role Playing Game, for the unenlightened. This was probably obvious, especially considering the amount of Dungeons and Dragons I like to play. There are two main reasons for why RPGs are awesome:

The RPG is the realm of video games that lets you, well, role play. Instead of in many other games where you control a protagonist who you have no connection to all and has no personality, an RPG lets you care about the character you're playing. The best RPGs let you control the fate of the character, taking them down a number of different moral paths. This adds a layer of ethical quandary and intelligent decision-making to the game, and lets you forge the character into a number of different options.

Neverwinter Nights and Oblivion are probably two of the best examples here, where the gameworld allows you to be whatever type of person you want to be, and Oblivion takes this the farthest.

Some are more flexible than others, Jade Empire being the least flexible on this list perhaps, or Kingdom Hearts, where the character is taken along a straight story path. Deviation and exploration is allowed, but the character will not change much due to your choices. JE at least has a scale of good/evil which affects some abilities.

I really like this aspect of RPGs. For a start, its liberating to have so much freedom in a game, and to be able to make choices. I like free will... On top of that, I like to see the different parts of the game which you can only see if you are only evil or only good, like Thieves Guilds and so forth. Finally, its a great way to get to know yourself. I find over and over again that I simply CANNOT play an evil character. I manage it once in a while, but generally I really do not like making those nasty choices. Turning down an orphan's plea for food or killing the messenger who brings you bad news is difficult, and that's somewhat of a rewarding experience to discover your own morality, even in pixelated form.

The second part of RPGs that I like is of course the character personalisation. Not just forming their moral and general life choices, but their physical form and abilities as well. Rolling stats, choosing abilities, determining exactly what kind of person you will be playing as for the rest of the game is great fun, and there's nothing better than Leveling Up. Seeing your character get stronger, and tweaking them to be excellent at what they do, be it diplomacy, fighting, theivery, magic, or a mixture, is a blast.

So generally, RPGs are fantastic because they allow for indepth and continuous character personalisation and development. Certainly all RPGs allow for the physical development side, if not the moral side. I enjoy the story driven action of the games, the difficult choices it throws at you (Dragon Age was particularly good here), and the challenge it puts to you at all times: Who will you be?


As a side note, its worth pointing out that Chrono Trigger is somewhat unique in that you can TRY and be a mean person, but they shut you down for doing so fairly quickly. You're put on trial early on in the game, and if you have been a mean person so far, you will be executed. Game Over. Harsh, but perhaps somewhat more realistic in some ways than, oh-I'll-just-use-this-glit

Day 19: Picture of a Game Setting You Wish You Lived In

I know how to do screenshots now! (EDIT: And just figured out how to change the size of the pictures on my blog!)

So yeah, no brainer here. This is a picture from one of my completed games of Civilization 2. Why do I want to live here? Let me number the ways:

1) There is no war, and never will be, because I conquered everyone else.
2) A spaceship has just landed a colony of people on Alpha Centauri, because I did both victory conditions
3) There is no pollution or global warming because of my excellent environmental program. Everything is run on hydroelectric power.
4) There is no discontent in my cities because everyone loves me and the things I give them.
5) The cure for cancer has been discovered.
6) Most of the military has been disbanded because this is a world where they are genuinely no longer required, allowing money to be spent elsewhere.
7) Transportation links between all cities is done quickly and efficiently by train, and there are a number of airports.
8) All of the 7 Wonders of the Ancient World are still standing in my cities, including the Great Library of Alexandria.
9) Women's Suffrage was granted in about 16-1700 AD.
10) Oh, and I'm the lord and master of the known world with a decked out throne room and a palace and I OWN THE WORLD WHICH I BUILT FROM THE GROUND UP!

I could go on, but this seems sufficient. Keep your beauitful scenery in later games with better graphics. I know there are nice places to live here, because I built them, and my people love me for it. The Hanging Gardens, for instance.

Incidentally, this particular game was played as King Howard Williams of the Welsh :P

Day 18: Best Protagonist

This was pretty easy. Sora of the Kingdom Hearts series is a fantastic character and a delight to play as. Many protagonists in games barely get a role at all, never speaking or doing anything particularly interesting. Sora on the other hand, has a fully developed personality and he is a key part of the game, rather than just an avatar to explore the world with.

He's funny, he's kind, and he's quite polite, which I like. Arrogant heroes are no fun at all. He's also not afraid to show his feelings, and still manages to keep a game face on when the battle is tough. I don't want to spoil too much, but he also has a particularly strong will to succeed that's born of love for his friends, not out of pride or grit or something, and this is beautifully demonstrated repeatedly towards the end of the game. One of his best characteristics though, is his childlike playfulness. He pulls faces, he makes jokes, and he seldom lets the whole crazy mess he's in drag him down - and when he does, he has Donald and Goofy to help him to keep a smile on his face.

Essentially, Kingdom Hearts is a Final Fantasy series stuck into a universe populated by old FF characters and LOTS of Disney ones. The worlds you explore and inevitably save are all Disney films - Beauty and the Beast, Hercules, Tarzan, etc. You recognize almost every character immediately. Sora starts out however on a remote island (aptly named the Island of Destiny) with his two friends, Riku and Kairi. When the island is attacked and shadow surrounds you, all of you are separated into the universe - Kairi in particular has been dragged away. Thus you vow to save her. Cue plot.

From a lost boy in a vast universe he does't understand, Sora grows into a true hero, drawing on simple wisdom about love, faith, inner strength, and the heart to defeat every obstacle in his path. The fact that all the enemies you face are monsters drawn from the darkness in people's hearts makes Sora's perspective particularly relevant. Yes, the game is all about hearts and so the fact that he is very heart-centric in his speeches is a little obvious, but it WORKS. And it builds Sora as a passionate, intelligent boy selflessly devoted to his friends and with a good appreciation of the childish and the ridiculous.

He is a delight to play, and through Kingdom Hearts I and II, you never stop loving that boy who loves so much.

Day 17: Best Antagonist

Tempting though it was to say myself in any Neverwinter Nights or similar game where I played an evil character, I decided to go for the antagonist which made me glad to be playing the game, who I enjoyed beating, and who I could empathize with, at least a little.

Gruntilda, the ugly witch from Banjo-Kazooie, is distraught to discover that a young girl, your sister Tootie, is prettier than she is. Resolving to do something about this, she kidnaps her and places your sister in a machine to suck all the beauty out of her and give it to Gruntilda. Similar plots exist, but when you get a Game Over and it shows the machine working, you are forced to consider the fact that Gruntilda's new body looks pretty good, and you haven't really had much game time to connect with your sister (who is now hideous)... perhaps Gruntilda winning isn't such a bad thing after all? Where can I buy flowers...

Seriously though, she is remniscent of GlaDOS (who would have won if I had ever played Portal) mixed with a children's nursery rhyme. As you progress through her castle and collect puzzle pieces to open new worlds to explore, she constantly harasses you with disheartening messages. The fact that everything she ever says is in rhyming couplets doesn't quite make her any more terrifying, but it certainly makes you laugh.

She's vicious, but with a well-humoured side. The best example of this is that in order to get to the final battle, you have to cross a giant board which serves as a quiz about the game which she hosts. There are some nasty squares on that board and there's lava all around you, which reminds you that this rhyming, scheming witch has a slightly sadistic side. I doubt, after all, that she just has this lying around... she built it to taunt you. Banjo is renowned for being a little slow, so its only due to the intelligence of the player that you're actually able to cross. On his own, and even with Kazooie, Banjo would likely never make it across.

She's endearing, she's vicious, she's funny, and she rhymes. She also wears a purple scarf... presumably there's a draught in her castle? You've got to love her.

Banjo Kazooie itself, just to go into it briefly, is a standard-construct game from Rare, almost identical to Donkey Kong 64. The magic of Rare, and why they're a serious contender for my favourite gaming developer, is how they have taken two almost identical games (slightly slow brown character with assistance progresses through levels collecting special objects to open next level. The big green villain watches you progress in frustration. Each level you have assistance from friendly characters to overcome the challenges ahead) and made them both a blast to play. Sorry for the long sentence.

As an N64 game the controls were sometimes a little clumsy, but it had a good sense of humour, with Kazooie joining in with Gruntilda sometimes in taunting you. Kazooie, so we're all clear, is a large red bird who lives and operates from the backpack of you, a bear. Cue confusion, but that's the glory of the game. Everything is odd, but it works very smoothly. The levels are varied and fun to play around, the music is great fun and very catchy, and every character is fun to interact with, even if there's not much dialogue. Donkey Kong 64 is the better game in most respects - graphics, controls, playable characters - but Banjo-Kazooie blows those monkeys out of the water when it comes to sense of humour, interesting levels (haunted mansion beats ice cave by miles), and most significantly - villain.

K.Rool is very smiliar to Gruntilda in many ways, but his cutscenes are poorly done, his dialogue is atrocious, and he has no real influence on the game. Gruntilda is wise-cracking, intelligent, and harasses you the whole time. K.Rool detracts from the game, Gruntilda makes the game more enjoyable. Simple.

Day 16: Game with the Best Cut Scenes

I had a different answer prepared yesterday but I forgot what it was. (EDIT: It was supposed to be Super Smash Brothers Brawl.  Oh well.) So I try again:

The Super Mario series has, in my opinion, only been getting better as time goes on. Consistently strong, consistently innovative, consistently fun. Super Mario Sunshine is somewhat looked down upon by many gamers, but undeservedly. True, its a very green-political game (the main plot is that Mario, after a case of mistaken identity, is charged with cleaning up all the pollution from Delfino Island using no more than the sentient squirt gun he found) but quite frankly it gives the game a more interesting structure than Super Mario 64's you-need-stars-to-get-through-doors-to-get-to-Bowser-so-go-get-stars.

The gameplay is smooth, well crafted, and the whole experience feels seamless. The water effects are, naturally, somewhat dazzling, especially the sea. It's BEAUTIFUL!

Gathering the various Shine Sprites (this game's Stars) presents the usual variety of challenging battles and puzzles, along with some very interesting scenery and levels to work through. Every level is gorgeous (I cite the beach hotel at sunset as evidence), and interesting to walk around. The abilities you acquire with your squirt gun Fluud are entertaining and fun to use, and Mario has become quite the acrobat since Super Mario 64; you can have hours of fun just running around the town and jumping, spinning, and floating your way about the place.

But yes, the cutscenes, those are the important bit here. From the beginning right through to the end, the story is simple enough to follow obviously, with just hints of mystery for those who watch closely. The graphics are clean and a delight to watch. The opening cutscene, where you land on a runway only to find it covered in gunk, and the following one where you are blamed for the mess and thrown in jail, having your new companion Fluud explain the situation to you, are both smoothly done, and interesting.

What makes this game great for cutscenes though is the final boss and the scenes surrounding the leadup and resolution of that fight. It's a lot of fun, entertaining, and visually appealing. I will say two things: Anatomy is brought into serious question, and the final boss fight takes place around a bathtub.

Awesome. Undervalued game with beautiful scenery, challenging... umm, challenges, a great soundtrack, and great cut-scenes to boot. Yay.

Day 15: Screenshot from a Game you are Playing Now

Screenshots are boring, so I have this awesome picture instead, because I'm currently playing Chrono Trigger and Civilization 2, and I haven't talked about this one yet properly.

Chrono Trigger is perhaps the greatest of the early RPGs. It was for the SNES, and used some new techniques to give it a bright, cartoony look that works really well. The story is complex, epic, and endearing, with surprising twists and a group of well-developed characters you grow to understand and empathize with.

In short, you are a young boy (who for no apparent reason carries a katana all the time) who, with a few friends, stumbles upon a series of time portals. While wandering around time and getting into trouble in all sorts of ways, you discover that there is a BBEG in the core of the Earth, and ultimately destroys the world. Vowing to stop this, you and your increasing band of followers set out on an epic quest across several periods of time, from the prehistoric to the futuristic, trying to find a way to stop this evil menace.

You encounter robots, true love in several forms, magic, frogs, ghosts, fear, intrigue, immortal sages, mortal sages, false prophets, disguises, golems which are scared of heights, emperors, kings, princesses, wizards, and a cat woman.

Every character has a story behind them that you can't help but love. Chrono is in fact, the most boring character there, as in true RPG tradition, you don't say anything the whole time. Everyone else though, remains fascinating to see interact, hence my favourite gaming couple a few days ago was from this game - the techie and the robot. Dawwwwww.

It's like the Princess Bride, but with more awesomeness. And strangely... no pirates.

The gameplay is quite similar to Final Fantasy, with the ATB gauge determining when you can act. One of the more interesting features of Chrono Trigger is that amongst your regular individual techniques, there are a series of Double Techniques which every pairing of characters can learn. This leads to powerful joint healing techniques (although Slurp Kiss, jointly done between Frog, the sentient frog knight, and Ayla, the sexy monkey woman, is a somewhat disturbing sight) and equally powerful offensive techniques of various types (the water-ice combo Glacier with Marle and Frog is a favourite of mine). This means that its not just the 3 individual party members you take with you at any one time that is important, but the combination they make. Yes, you can take a physical offensive, a magic offensive, and a healer, but what additional techniques can you get between them? Ayla and Marle can charm items from monsters together, but Marle and Robo can do one of the more powerful healing techniques together. It adds a layer of complexity and teamwork to the game which I haven't seen in many other places.

Overall, it never feels grindy and the story keeps up a good pace, driving you forward right till the end, however you end it. Note: there are about 28 different endings. I aim to see them all. This is a great game that I recommend to everyone.