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The Hook

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It doesn’t matter what I write. As long as I type it with passion along with a certain researched and practiced intellectuality. I don’t want to play unless I’m hooked like a fish. Dangle an action packed introduction that serves as a focused crash course on the basic game mechanics like I’m a catfish hungry for Kool-Aid dipped hot dogs. Also big words. Long sentences. That’s no lie. The hook brings you back. Press that power button and pick up the controller. Now for the harmonica solo.

Where is the best place for a game to dangle its bait soaked hook in front of the player? Well, at the beginning of course. Great designers know this, so in more linear gameplay and narrative driven games some of the best writing and content occurs in the first few hours. How often have the guys at the newly departed Irrational introduced a deep mystery to the player only to give them a satisfying bread crumb trail that gives them detail after detail at an almost agonizingly slow pace. But you keep going. You have to see how this crazy tale of this megalomaniac Andrew Ryan ends! You have to stop SHODAN!

How many people got hooked to Final Fantasy VII as a result of its action packed intro, essentially putting all the story and character development on hold for the first hour while you infiltrate the Sector 1 Reactor and blow it to smithereens. The rest of Midgar can get quite strange, from Wall Market crossdressing to a talking dog like creature. In FF8 you watch a nice swordfight, and it can get you pumped up if its your first time playing. Unlike the predecessor you watch the action, then wake up and spend a quiet day at school before doing anything based on action, and then you’re rudely interrupted by tutorials! Its quite a contrast compared to the sudden, jarring start of FF7.

Shut up!

Shigeru Miyamoto has said that the most important part of a video game is the first thirty minutes. There needs to be something in the first few minutes of a game to really get the player pumped up and eager to play. Pick up almost any game designed or lead by Miyamoto and you can see how true he sticks to this philosophy, from Donkey Kong, to Star Fox, to New Super Mario Bros.

For a game designed around fast and precise gameplay this seems a bit more simple, just let the player play the game. A long, narrative based game like an RPG presents another challenge though. The story might not really kick in for 10 to 30 hours, maybe not until the final act. An action packed start such as the one I mentioned in FF7 or the slaughter of the Unicorn Brigade at the beginning of Suikoden II can really get the player on the side of the protagonists, or questioning them. A slower paced character driven introduction can be just as effective though. If you’re playing an RPG you’re probably doing it for the story after all.

Some games have been so painfully slow for me that continuing would probably leave me with a perpetual scowl than any sort of accomplishment. Yes. I am looking at my copy of Grandia III. Three hours and nothing has happened. Nothing! I haven’t even left town yet! Grandia II is much quicker in comparison, with action in the first half hour and great character introductions.

Even the first two Fallouts have introductions that can almost cause ulcers, and those are two of my favorite games of all time! In the first one the first thing you do once you’ve left Vault 13 is kill a bunch of rats while leaving the cave that Vault 13 is in. Good for experience, but dull from a player’s perspective. Fallout 2 isn’t much different, except switch rats out with little radscorpions and giant ants inside the Temple of Trials. The first thing you do in the Fallout universe is play exterminator.

One thing that bugs me about games anymore is the inclusion of a mandatory tutorial. They have been around for some time, but they serve no narrative purpose and always break the fourth wall by telling you what button to press. I know what the X button does! I’ve been playing Playstation since before they were numbered! I remember a time before analog sticks and Dualshock! Get off my lawn! If I need to know what the buttons do then I’ll read the manual. But they don’t make those anymore, now I’m looking at Tales of Xillia.

When a game like Thief: The Dark Project makes the tutorial an option on the main menu its quite refreshing. You know it exists seperate from the game world because you don’t play the tutorial after selecting “Start Game”. Besides, a mandatory tutorial kills replay value as it is a guaranteed 20 minutes to an hour of just sitting there mashing the buttons to make the text go away. Final Fantasy VIII is an example of hellish tutorials. That time could be spent on an excellent cinematic scene that blows the player away from the moment they select “New Game”. A tutorial is not a hook. It is not bait. It is boredom. Don’t force us to keep playing tutorials. They should always be optional.

So what are some of your favorite gaming introductions and hooks? Least favorites? Have any gripes about modern games that you can’t avoid? Rant about them here!

Retro Video Game Christmas Commercials: The 90’s

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I am a child of the 90’s, a love child. This was the age of Mode-7, Blast Processing, 3D, Playstation, and encompasses the rise and fall of Sega. So let’s take a look at as many Christmas commercials from the 90’s as we can possibly fit on our monitor.

Nintendo

What exemplifies the early 90’s more than the constant playground war of Nintendo vs. Sega? So it makes perfect sense for retailers to pick one side of the other in this argument or face everybody’s wrath!


Gee, would you look at the time? I missed the memo that I must write in rhyme! When it comes to your games, Sears has them all days. In the front or the back, come buy your new cartridge pack, and play the kiosk in store to curb your hunger for more.

Seriously, Sears kicked ass in the 90’s for gamers. What the hell happened?


This is just amazing, if there is one piece of media that makes me remember what it was like being a kid in the 90’s it is this right here. Entitlement of youth, grungy attitudes, snarky remarks, and a desire to sit down and play video games. I like how the rhyme goes, “South Park will be fine,” as if they’re just settling for it. “Yeah I’ll take it, but I really wanted Mystical Ninja you dumbass parents!”


A nice, generational war, of course. Then as soon as the douchey 90’s teens find out that grandpa likes to roll with some Tetris they decide that old folk aren’t bad. If grandpa’s hearing aid worked he might learn that Tetris was made by a dirty Communist!

Sega

So those were some pretty entertaining commercials from Nintendo’s side of the ring. But does Sega always do what Nintendon’t? Can they top the Big N and encourage people to buy any of the 3 systems they released in the 90’s? How about the add-ons?


Sega advertising at its finest, if you want your kid to be the cool kid on the block then go out and buy him a Sega Genesis for Christmas, then every kid in the city will want a piece of that Blast Processing action.


As a constant follower of Midget Wrestling this is one of the quickest ways to grab my attention, and they have good taste in video games since they just made a ton of money selling the game to Sega, somehow.

Ok, now let’s move away from North America for a moment and take a look at what Sega brought out for their Japanese commercials.


This may very well be the greatest thing I have ever laid eyes on. I am going to perpetuate the story of Segata Sanshiro as Santa Claus to my children, citing this commercial as definitive proof. If you’re unfamiliar with Segata Sanshiro and why he helped the Saturn dominate the Japanese sales charts then just check out this playlist.

Word of warning, the American Saturn commercials are weird as all hell, and incredibly frightening in some cases. Search at your own risk.

Sony
A newcomer on the scene of home video game hardware in the mid 90’s, Sony and their Playstation quickly rose to global dominance and kept its grip firm for over a decade. Is it because their commercials were great?


Yes, yes they were. Oh that sound and the PS logo really take me back, excuse me while I nostalgia-gasm all over my room. Again, this commercial shows what the 90’s was all about, trying to find your own voice, going against the grain, and supporting Bill Clinton.


What’s awesome about this commercial is that everything the singers say about Crash Bandicoot: Warped is 100% factual. This is one of the greatest parodies of a Christmas carol I’ve ever heard, I might start singing it this year. I feel bad for Canadians though, $50 for a new PS1 game and its already $10 off? Man, you guys will hate when I say brand new PS1 games in the States were $40. What was the exchange rate in 1998? Tell me Crabby!

Let’s head back to the Land of the Rising Sun.


Crash Bandicoot and PaRappa walk up to a random guy bearing Christmas gifts, just another thing to add to my list of things to experience before I die. Cosplayers, make this happen!


Kick! Punch! its all in the mind.

Well that about does it for the nostalgic video game Christmas commercials. I will be going on a small hiatus until 2013 rolls around. Until then, please share if you’ve enjoyed this post and my others, comment with feedback, and hit that follow button on the sidebar. SirPsycho out!

Psycho’s Gaming History: Top 10 Important Games from my Childhood 10-6

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Four off white walls surround me, a mattress just resting on the floor ghetto style, a television turned on with white noise on the screen. I sit in front of the TV with a Nintendo Entertainment System between us, my small finger pushes the button, and before I know it I’m running and jumping as Mario in 1-1. I was at my uncle’s house, my cousins being much older than me. I was a small child left behind and I discovered this wonder on my own accord.

This is one of my earliest completely vivid memories, and my first experience playing a video game. No surprise, it was Super Mario Bros./Duck Hunt and I was 3 or 4 at the time. I remember the events as they happened, usually not the exact time they happened, my memory has always been that way.

Now I would be personally gameless until I was 5, this is one case I remember the exact time as well as the events. Its hard to forget what is perhaps the most important Christmas gift I have ever received and most likely will ever receive. On Christmas of 1994 I unwrapped a Super Nintendo with Super Mario World and Super Mario Kart as the pack in games. My game life wouldn’t really spiral out of control until the PS2 was out in force, so for now let’s just take a look at the most important games I ran into growing up. But, real quick before we start, I am not saying these games are inherently good or not, they were just important for me, opening a door to a new genre or series. Thanks Crabmaster2000 for mentioning this idea you had done before on the Collectorcast, I’m stealing it.

Number 10: Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island

I was a fairly ignorant young gamer back in the SNES days. I didn’t read many magazines or publications to get a really good idea of what the system really had to offer, and still didn’t know until years later with easy internet access and a constant barrage of fan reviews, my own adding into that mix. What makes this game special was because it was a major victory against the parents. I knew about this game primarily because I had the first one, and seeing that a sequel was on shelves gave me shivers and pure joy up and down my spine. I begged and begged every time I went with my parents to the store for anything and there were games there. Finally they bought it brand new back when SNES and Genesis games were $60-70 new most commonly. Yoshi’s Island remains one of my favorite games on the Super Nintendo, I was a bit disappointed after playing the DS sequel but that does not take away any amount of importance the first game had on me.

Number 9: Grand Theft Auto 2

Back in my day (the mid-late 1990’s) we used to go to stores, not vending machines, that would allow you to rent video games and movies for a few days. This is the game I rented the most, to tell the truth if I could remember exactly how many times I rented GTA2 for PS1 it would probably tell me that it would have made much more sense to buy the damn game. But instead I found myself renting it when nothing new caught my eye on the shelves. This game is just simple, mindless fun. Not only do you have the ability to steal cars, but those bastards in the red shirts would steal YOUR stolen car. The green shirted dicksnots would sneak up behind you and try to rob your ass blind. Don’t stand for that shit, kill everyone, but most importantly, Taxi Drivers Must Die.

Number 8: Deus Ex: Invisible War

I have a feeling I know what you’re all thinking, “Why is a forgettable sequel to one of the greatest games of all time on this list?” So to answer it I guess I just have to tell the story. I upgraded my family’s video card back in the day and this game came with it, without my experience with it I never would have played the first game, nor really cared too much about Human Revolution until I would have probably bought it cheap on Steam and tried it for like a couple hours before forgetting I even own it. All I could think about while playing this game for the first time was, “Its not bad as everybody’s making it out to be,” and truth be told, its not. Its not a bad game, the mechanics and graphics for its day were quite incredible, this public sentiment is more of a testament to how much better of an experience the first game was than its sequel. This one gets double points for not only introducing me to one of my favorite series, but being one of the gateways to more modern PC gaming in general for me because of that blazingly fast and powerful 128MB ATI Radeon 9250 PCI card.

Number 7: Tomba!

Before Tomba!, Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, and Klonoa came around there was a severe shortage of 2D platformers on the PS1. A lot of studios were going 3D just prior to and in the wake of Super Mario 64. Out of the three I listed the only one I had as a kid was Tomba! I would not own this game today if it were not for my sister, who bought this game for me as a birthday present. Given its current online price I think she did good spending $40 or less. Tomba! is about as childish of a platformer as you can get, but with its mixed in quest system (called Events), circular world exploration, tight controls and gameplay, and humor it is easy to see this game’s current status as an uncommon, in high demand cult classic.

Number 6: Final Fantasy VIII

I really don’t want to put this game on this list. I really really don’t. As a kid I enjoyed this game, why? It was my first RPG. Ever. Final Fantasy VIII being a first RPG feels like losing your virginity to a toothless, peg legged, one eyed, graying hooker and being really happy you didn’t catch anything. As a kid I enjoyed this game, somewhat, most likely because I had never played anything remotely like FF8 and being a young, naive, and ignorant gamer I wasn’t able to immediately see the countless ways there are to completely break the game, nor did I understand literary analysis and how much FF8’s storyline blows Taco Bell out of its ass.

Next week we’ll be counting down 5-1. Stay tuned! While you wait why not check out the previously mentioned RFGeneration Collectorcast on Youtube?

PC RPG Renaissance Part 5: Rise of the Mods

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The year 2000 did not slow down this new machine, the Renaissance had barely begun and there would soon be a flood of games from newer studios, and overall quality across the board seemed to have the highest average in over a decade. What better way to begin the new millenium and raise the middle finger to the Y2K scare than go back to Baldur’s Gate in a sequel straight from Bioware.

Bioware continued its string of gold plated releases with Neverwinter Nights in 2002, developing the game for Atari. While the single player story was nothing to write home about, the new 3D Aurora engine was a huge step forward for video game technology. What kept this game selling for so long after its release could very easily be attributed to the Aurora toolset and Bioware’s support of fan made content. Anybody could essentially use the toolset to make an entire D&D campaign and could hook up with friends online to play through it with your own characters.

Edit the zombies!

 

By now it was apparent that Bioware could be trusted with virtually any license and expertly craft a game in that universe based on d20 rules. So in 2003 Bioware did just that with one of the most beloved sci-fi franchises in existence. Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (KOTOR) released on PC and Microsoft’s Xbox to immediate critical and commercial acclaim. Bioware’s use of the Star Wars license to create a completely unique story set thousands of years before the first trilogy let them have incredible creative freedom and it shows. The cinematic angles in dialogue scenes would lead to a revolution in storytelling that still resonates this day. This is many longtime Bioware fans’ favorite release from them, and it is incredibly easy to see why with my own personal experience and playing this game near release.

This type of cinematic view changed everything.

Black Isle finally joined Bioware in the Forgotten Realms in more than just a publishing role, bringing a more action oriented adventure to the fold much further to the north in Icewind Dale. The game however is not connected to R. A. Salvatore’s Icewind Dale trilogy of novels. Quite sad, but that let Black Isle have the same creative freedom as Bioware for KOTOR.

A bit of turmoil had temporarily shaken up the blooming Black Isle while they were working on Fallout 2. A few key members left and founded Troika Games, which finally showed their first signs of their short life. Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura came in 2001. Temple of Elemental Evil in 2003. Finally the studio released Vampire: The Masquerade: Bloodlines in 2004 before finally folding in 2005. Every one of Troika’s games was critically praised for their stories, but criticized for the huge amoung of bugs present and spotty post release support.

Bleeding out like Troika’s bank account.

Bethesda had helped to continue the evolution of first person RPGs during the down years between the Golden Age and the Renaissance, but had been silent since then. Being a small developer they found it more difficult to secure funding and investors after a couple of failed games set in their own Elder Scrolls universe. 1997’s An Elder Scroll’s Legend: Battlespire was a very buggy action RPG that was not well received. A year later The Elder Scrolls Adventures: Redguard was a slow paced action RPG that received similar treatment on release, and with graphics that were heavily lacking even on release it was no surprise that Redguard floundered.

A small, core team of developers stayed around and kept planning during the down years between 1999 and 2002 for Bethesda. The third true installment of the Elder Scrolls would make or break the company, in a story a bit different, yet still similar to console RPG favorite Squaresoft’s rise to the mainstream. The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind released in 2002, and would show the first signs of a coming trend, consolization. Morrowind released for PC and Microsoft’s Xbox to critical praise and commercial success, and saved Bethesda from its financial turmoil and helped to allow them to become a force to be reckoned with.

Or will you believe M’aiq and his silly hat?

Not all companies would escape their financial woes, and beginning a trend does not always mean you will see it to the end, or perhaps it could be a sign of the end? The end of a book? The end of a chapter? Interplay, crushed under the weight of all the studios they financially supported, dwindling sales, and whoring out their successful franchises all were desperate efforts to stay afloat. Fallout received a horrific tactical strategy game Fallout Tactics: Brotherhood of Steel in 2001. And, just to confuse gamers even more, released Fallout: Brotherhood of Steel onto the PS2 and Xbox in 2004, leaving me to ask the question ‘Why would you essentially name a game the exact same as a game you released a few years ago that everybody said was terrible?’ That certainly didn’t help Interplay sell copies of the game, but it could be argued that the 2004 Brotherhood of Steel is not completely terrible.

Black Isle would naturally participate in this brand whoring as well, working on dungeon crawling spinoffs to the main Baldur’s Gate series. Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance released in 2001 and its sequel in 2004, the last game bearing the Black Isle logo before Interplay ‘folded’.

So that covers the American and Canadian developers, but what of the Europeans? Well, a German developer did throw their hat into the ring by introducing the Gothic series in 2001. Gothic showed the gaming world how to build a persistent world right, each NPC had a daily schedule, sleep at night, work during the day, gossip from time to time, drink and smoke hookah at night. Every location has NPCs on different schedules, so traveling back and forth ends up giving the player an illusion of change. Despite control problems and a messy inventory, Gothic and its sequel Gothic 2 showed a different way to execute an open world experience.

What’s a Paladin?

While the days would brighten for Bethesda, the sun would set for Interplay, but rise new studios from those ashes. The day of Troika was short but memorable, and Piranha Bytes would keep creating deep worlds despite drama from the people above them.

PC RPG Renaissance Part 4: Rebirth

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To begin the Renaissance we must finally look at what is perhaps our oldest friend in the business, and the only company to receive a mention in every single part of this series so far, Origin Systems. Many longtime fans would agree that they had their last gas in 1997 before completely falling victim to EA’s business practices. Ultima Online would release just one week before Fallout to critical and commercial success, instantly becoming the largest MMORPG to date, before being dethroned by Everquest and Lineage near the turn of the century. The last two single player experiences in the Ultima franchise, 1994’s Ultima VIII and 1999’s Ultima IX were viewed as rushed, low quality, and highly messy, so Richard Garriott left the company he founded to pursue new interests for the new millenium.

Interplay would release Fallout and bring back the glory days of single player RPG experiences, using the ideas that the company itself pioneered in the mid 80’s with Wasteland. Along with Ultima Online and Diablo, Fallout would popularize the top down detailed 2D isometric perspective that would be the staple for years to come, and set a new benchmark for expectations of a single player world. Open world exploration was back with a vengeance, not in its purest form like the old Ultima games or the newer Elder Scrolls series, but with a map where the player can choose where to go and explore the wasteland to find where locations are. The turn based combat system would also come back with a fury. Originally Fallout was designed and based on Steve Jackson’s GURPS tabletop rules system, but due to licensing disputes as the game was about to release, the team at Interplay created the now iconic SPECIAL system of character building that defines the Fallout series. The team that created Fallout would soon change their name to Black Isle Studios, and they would bear the torch that Origin once held firmly when it comes to innovation in storytelling.

Fallout 2 was released the following year, the first game to bear the Black Isle logo as developer. Fallout 2 would continue the unique feel of its predecessor, the writing based around Cold War hysteria, Mad Max, and propaganda, making heavy use of dark comedy to build up the setting and characters. But while the first game could be seen as a hopeful revival of pre-war culture with a large helping of grittiness, Fallout 2 would be built to be more like a true wild west post nuclear adventure where nothing is safe. The series takes a much darker tone than the first game, and fans loved it, claiming Fallout 2 as one of, if not the greatest, RPG experience to date nearly as soon as it released, an honor it holds to this day.

While Black Isle did incredible work on the first two Fallout games they would produce what is in my, and many other gamers’, opinion their Magnum Opus in 1999. Interplay had gotten hold of the D&D license and were already making heavy use of it, but Black Isle took a lesser known campaign setting, Planescape, and built an instant classic around it. Planescape: Torment is the definition of a cult classic, the game was critically lauded on release, but with little to no marketing from Interplay, which was now showing sizable cracks in its armor as a company, lead the game to rest in the minds of a small amount of gamers until modern digital re-releases came about and word of mouth spread like wildfire.

Black Isle’s goal with Torment was specifically to break every conceivable trope and cliche that the RPG genre had found itself wrapped around since its inception, and with the meteoric rise of Japanese console RPGs that were dominant at this time, the team had plenty to work with outside of its own largely Western PC based community.

Torment puts the player in charge of a nameless character, there are reasons behind the lack of a name, it is learned fairly quickly that The Nameless One is immortal. He can ‘die’ but all that does is lead to him going unconscious for awhile before waking up later, albeit with his memories erased. So he does not remember his name, how long he’s been alive, or what he’s done and who he’s met through his many years. Because of his long life he is gnarled, heavily scarred, and ugly, which is in stark contrast to console RPGs at the time usually starring a young, charismatic, bright eyed young pretty boy. The Nameless One is supported by an equally unique cast of characters including a floating skull, celibate succubus, a man who is cursed to constantly be on fire, a malfunctioning android, and a possessed suit of justice dealing armor among others.

For the first time since Ultima IV the entire focus on a game was given to self discovery. Torment is built around the phisosophy surrounding immortality (more as a curse than the typical belief of it being a blessing). Because of The Nameless One’s loss of memories it instantly gives the player an incredible amount of questions to ask. Who is TNO really? What has he done? How long has he lived? What impact has he had on the city of Sigil and the planes which surround it? What relationship does he have with his current team? How did he become immortal in the first place? Most of these questions and others are given some form of elaboration, but the expert writing of the game does not explicitly answer all of them. Sadly, the gameplay was not as polished as the story and could have been the major reason for its status as a cult classic.

While Black Isle was Interplay’s internal studio they found a new talent of external developers that would help to firmly plant Interplay as the new leader of PC RPGs. Bioware. I’m sure we all know the name and have played at least one of their games. The second game Bioware ever made was set in the Forgotten Realms D&D setting, and centered around the city of Baldur’s Gate, pretty easy to figure out just by looking at the title, Baldur’s Gate. It was released in 1998 and instantly received critical and commercial success. While Black Isle was initially focused on the world surrounding the player, Bioware was focused on the party members surrounding the player. This writing choice would even influence Black Isle with its own games, most notably Fallout 2 and Torment.

While the main story of Baldur’s Gate was nothing new and largely cliched and predictable to long time players it came out at a time where RPGs in general were attracting newer, younger gamers in the direct wake of Final Fantasy VII’s immense success. So for many, Fallout and Baldur’s Gate became the de facto benchmark for PC RPGs, which is a well deserved title to be honest given the differences between the two developers.

PC RPG Renaissance Part 3: Darkness

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The times, they were a changin’. Doom singlehandedly restructured the market base for PC games, but there were other, and new genres rising to popularity through these down years for RPGs such as Real Time Strategy, Simulations, and God Games. Just a few months after the release of Ultima VII, Origin Systems was purchased by Electronic Arts, work was finished on the expansion to Ultima VII, The Serpent Isle, but after that the formerly consistent powerhouse developer that always pushed the envelope would only have one more release that was loved in the fan’s eyes.

But it was not all bad during this period of darkness for RPGs. Bethesda Softworks, a company known primarily for making sports games decided that 1994 would be a good year to release its first RPG, The Elder Scrolls: Arena. Arena was quite a mixed bag of RPG design. Outside of the major cities and plot required dungeons the entire world was randomly generated, making it very similar to a roguelike. The player’s perspective was given in first person, and combat was in real time as controlled by the mouse. Bethesda gave players the entire Septim Empire of Tamriel to explore, but Arena’s sequel would set the benchmark for the rest of the series. Despite its release in the mostly dead for RPGs mid 90’s Arena was fairly successful, enough to warrant a sequel anyway.

Bethesda returned in 1996 with Arena’s Sequel, The Elder Scrolls: Chapter Two Daggerfall. Daggerfall focused not on the entire empire, but instead on the Imperial provinces of High Rock and Hammerfell. Combat and control was kept intact, and the graphics were given a considerable overhaul, looking quite good for its time with pseudo-3D environments. The area outside of the cities in Daggerfall is once again, randomly generated, and this allowed the game to have the largest world ever imagined in video gaming. Daggerfall is twice the size of Great Britain, just a bit shy of 500,000 square miles. Bethesda would go for a hand crafted approach to Daggerfall’s follow up following criticism of monotony, continuing the tweaking of their own game formula until they found a  true winner in Daggerfall’s sequel.
Another major release came about in 1996, and its arguable that it signalled the end of True Darkness for RPGs and began the renaissance, all by being a detailed roguelike hack ‘n slash dungeon crawler. That’s right, Blizzard Entertainment released Diablo. Now the only reason I personally don’t start the renaissance here is mostly because Diablo is not an RPG in its truest form up to this point, at least in my opinion. It is an excellent evolution and mish mash of previously pioneered ideas. But for me personally, its not RPG enough to truly satiate my hunger. You only control one character instead of using deep strategy with a party. The story is almost nonexistent in Diablo, you’re given enough to go on in the early game and side quests slowly build it up to a final confrontation, but none of it is groundbreaking or shocking. Diablo is still an excellent game, and its sequel would only continue to catapult the series into becoming an instant legend and insane popularity.

During these down years there was one new team that was pushing the idea of combining RPG systems into different forms of established gameplay. Looking Glass Studios was originally formed when Lerner Research and Blue Sky Productions merged. They ended up partnering with Origin to produce an Ultima spinoff called Ultima Underworld: The Stygian Abyss, released in 1992. Many gamers of the time were blown away by the first person mouse based dungeon crawling, enjoying smoother turning instead of 90 degree turns in games beforehand. Ultima Underworld became a new success story. A sequel followed in 1993 before LGS did their first real combination of genres.

In 1994 Looking Glass released System Shock, the first game that fully combined first person shooter gameplay with RPG based character progression, and set it all in an awesome sci-fi universe. Unfortunately it would not be a commercial success, perhaps because of the delay of release between the floppy and CD-ROM versions. The CD-ROM version was much smoother and had higher quality audio and graphics, but since it came after the fact most that experienced it from the original floppy release had already moved on. But the game would remain a cult classic and spawn a sequel during the Renaissance.

But the good old days of true RPGs would come about in a reimagined way thanks to our old friends Interplay, who have a brand new team of young, visionary designers, and a publishing agreement with another young and upcoming developer.

PC RPG Renaissance Part 2: The Golden Age

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As the mid 80’s came there were plenty of new additions to the RPG scene, many companies would be built or come into their own as a result of success and the quickly growing PC market as a whole.

Origin would continue pushing the storytelling envelope with its own creations in Ultima V. Lord British has essentially been overthrown by his advisor Lord Blackthorn. Blackthorn was possessed and corrupted by power and ambition, skewing the virtues away from the original system of voluntary following as self enrichment and enlightment. Blackthorn has pushed the virtues into the law of the land, causing suspicious behavior and a suppressed populace around Brittania. Garriott really showed how a philosophical system of belief meant to free the minds of a world can be turned on its head and used for less than virtuous purposes.

In 1985 the aforementioned Interplay joined the ranks of the success stories in this genre, releasing The Bard’s Tale, the same year as Ultima IV, such a wonderful year. While gameplay wise The Bard’s Tale was quite similar to Wizardry the focus of the story and combat was more focused on magic than most games before it, which featured it as an option that may or may not retain balance in combat depending on party build. Interplay would develop the sequels to The Bard’s Tale, but since they were forced to change the original intention of the storyline and flow for the series their heart was not really in it, leading to the sequels being considered largely mediocre. Interplay’s heart would instead go toward the development of an entirely new experience for gaming, the post apocalyptic world. In 1988 Interplay would release Wasteland, a popular and successful endeavor that focused on the politics and rebuilding efforts of survivors of a global thermonuclear war. Interplay loved this idea so much that Fallout would be designed as a spiritual successor to Wasteland. A recent Kickstarter for a true Wasteland 2 was recently funded by Interplay’s founder Brian Fargo and development will be between his new company InXile and many members of Interplay’s Renaissance internal team at their new company Obsidian.

Strategic Simulations, Inc. would bring the officially licensed Dungeons and Dragons to the PC market with its series of Gold Box games starting in 1988. While SSI had its own experience beforehand with 1985’s Wizard’s Crown and 1987’s Eternal Dagger they were the ones who won the bid to license D&D from TSR. The Gold Box games would use the storytelling benchmark set by Temple of Apshai at first, telling its story primarily from print media with in game citations for players to read after completing certain events. SSI and its Gold Box series would top the sales charts through the late 80’s through a combination of crisp design, storytelling, and riding on its D&D license.

1987’s Dungeon Master would bring the first person perspective from early dungeon crawlers such as Wizardry and the dungeon diving in early Ultima games and produce combat in real time. This game can be only be described as ahead of its time, as it offered many seemingly smaller details that combined into a smooth, immersive experience. Players were able to manipulate objects with the mouse. All of these innovations combined into a powerful game that SSI would emulate with its later Gold Box games.

Wizardry would also keep chugging along through the late 80’s, the 4th through 6th entries in the series introducing more story elements, but really keeping the same gameplay intact. But after 3 games before it Sir Tech had their gameplay design largely intact already. All that mattered now was to really balance the first person dungeon crawling, turn based combat, party building, and difficulty, really the difficulty.

To close out the 1980’s we have Might and Magic, a series which began in 1986 and continued until 2006 despite the company who bought the original developers going out of business. While Might and Magic was highly popular for its time it did not really do too much differently than those that came before it, borrowing heavily from other RPG series of its day. But it all came together in a tight experience and made its home in the hearts of many gamers.

By the early 90’s there were so many companies which had success behind them and their various series that the only thing that seemed able to stop them was their own increasing ambition. Well, that is partly true. Technology was advancing at a fast rate, early pseudo-3D was gaining momentum and development times were getting longer as teams got bigger. A few new success stories came about, but of those, few were able to keep their momentum as the declining popularity and shift in market interest was already happening.

Origin made it through the 80’s standing taller than ever, and celebrated the new decade with Ultima VI. Ultima VI introduces a political quandary to the player, showing the consequences of his actions in Ultima IV, namely taking the Codex of Ultimate Wisdom. Demons invade Brittania to reclaim their holy book and are later taught to share.

Ultima VII would be the beginning of a new trilogy, and set it off with a bang. Now a big, bad archdemon is trying to take over Brittania and only the Avatar can stop him! Ultima VI and VII take some inspiration from Dungeon Master in that many objects can be moved around the world, put in your own bags, or dropped wherever the player desires, giving Brittania a huge, new amount of interactivity.

Other than these new Ultima releases the early 90’s were already quieting down, but one more influential release would come about before the True Darkness set in. Betrayal at Krondor was released in 1993 and as far as I’m concerned, the Golden Age has already passed by this point, and this is the last gasp of an era passed. Betrayal is based on Raymond Feist’s Riftwar universe, making it one of the only licensed RPGs up to this point that was not a Gold Box D&D based game. Despite being a solid role playing experience the times had caught up to this game even before release. The graphics were considered outdated at release but heavy RPG fans let this game slip in as a cult classic despite largely forgettable sequels.

The PC RPG Renaissance: Part 1 The Dark Ages

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In 1997 there was a large shift in the RPG World in general. On the console side the genre was given immense exposure due to the exploding popularity of Squaresoft’s Final Fantasy 7, this game would go on to be the second highest selling game for the Playstation. This series is going to be focused on the PC side of things. Fallout: A Post Nuclear Role Playing Game was released by Interplay Entertainment in this same year to widespread critical success and commercial support, selling more than any RPG had in years for the PC. Before Fallout released many industry insiders and long time gamers had essentially given up on the genre, developers were not making many due to rising costs and due to diminishing returns publishers had stopped greenlighting them.

Now by its simplest definition a renaissance is a rebirth or revival, which means there came a time before the release of Fallout where RPGs on the PC were king. So before we step deep into this revival it is imperative that we understand what came before, from what heights had this classical age of PC gaming climbed to? How hard and fast did it fall? What did these gamers get to experience in the days before RPGs shifted to consoles?

In the Dark Ages, for the sake of ease I’m going to label this time period as the late 70’s to the mid 80’s when most PC games were largely text of ASCII based. A lot of ideas would be pioneered during this time, deep storytelling came about from text adventures and gameplay ideas came from the earliest text based RPGs. Rogue was highly influential in terms of development ideas. This one release popularized the idea of ‘randomly generated content’ to developers and gamers, leading an entire subgenre of RPG to be labled as ‘Roguelike’. This basic design philosophy inspired everybody, from the massively successful Diablo series to the more niche Mystery Dungeon games from Japan.

Temple of Apshai was released in 1979 and was one of the first graphical RPGs to be released on any PC system. Limitations lead to what became a team effort for storytelling that would become prevalant through the late 1980’s. Text in the game would give the player a section of literature to read in a printed manual that came with the game. ToA was perhaps the first RPG to do this, and set a true benchmark until technology could catch up.

At this time graphics started to make their appearance more well known on the early Personal Computers, before 1980 most games with detailed graphics were on powerful mainframe systems. Due to technological limitations most of the RPGs that came out in the early 80s were simple representations and retellings of the designers’ own tabletop campaigns, mostly Dungeons and Dragons. Wizardry and Ultima would release at roughly the same time, 1981, and both would prove highly popular and influential for the future. Wizardry was built completely around one large dungeon, laying the early groundwork for the modern dungeon crawler. Ultima would also make liberal use of dungeons, but spread them out throughout a world with its own story, the player able to fully explore the overworld before delving into the underground dungeons.

Wizardry would keep its basic design philosophy and continue being fairly successful. The series was the benchmark for character building and those who just wanted to dive into a dungeon and get right to the action. Wizardry would become incredibly influential worldwide, even making quite the splash in Japan where the series would become the most direct inspiration for Dragon Quest according to its creator.

Ultima made a habit of evolving its world, storytelling, and gameplay experience with every new release. Origin Systems and primarily Lord British himself, Richard Garriott, would become the greatest storytellers in gaming history to this point. Many of them even hold up today. Ultima III would really be the first release that truly set the series apart from its contemporaries, introducing plot twists into its story as well as really starting to hash out the mythos for Brittania.

Ultima IV is an entirely different beast though. Where RPGs were largely shallow up to this point (and even after), telling stories centered around ultimate magic artifacts or one stereotypical bad guy bent of world conquest/destruction, Ultima IV would introduce the idea of total freedom, philosophy, and self discovery to gamers. There is a story, but there’s no real evil antagonist at all. The world of Brittania is at complete peace after the events of Ultima III, so the main character is summoned by Lord British and educated about a philosophical system based around 8 Virtues and sent around the world to master these virtues. This adventure is a landmark in not only gaming, but the evolution of storytelling in gaming. No game before it was not solely focused on some evil force or mystical artifact, and few have focused solely on the philosophy of a world and belief system as much as Ultima IV since its release, making the game quite an enigma.

Keep an eye out next week for Part 2.

When Does a Console ‘Die?’

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The topic of today’s post has been in the works for quite some time. And the topic of today is ‘When is a console considered dead?’

Traditional logic would say that a console is dead as soon as official support for it dries up and no new games come out from the big publishers. In the more recent generations those usually consist of watered down sports games or low budget niche titles that last for a handful of years after the console is no longer manufactured or sold. We’ll take a look at a few cases which turn this easy to grasp idea on its head.

First off we’ll take a look at a system which keeps selling, which is still being made despite being over 10 years old and only a very small trickle of games are still coming out for it. I’m talking of course about the monstrous Playstation 2. Brand new systems can still be purchased directly from Sony and even in retail outlets in larger cities. Why is this? It still sells, slowly sure, but it sells consistently and for a hefty profit. For the budget minded gamer or for collectors the Playstation 2 is the best system out right now because of this reason. Brand new systems are still available and there is a massive library of games that can be found online or in stores for $1-15, a starter set of a brand new system and a dozen games can be had for less than $150 easily.

Now let’s take a step in time and look at the Dreamcast. Sega officially stopped supporting this system in 2001, but a hardcore fanbase continues to support this system to this very day. Among this fanbase resides a few teams of homebrew developers that release physical copies of their games to diehard Dreamcast fans and collectors. One of the newest games to be released for this system is called Gunlord, which was developed by NG:DEV.TEAM which also developed this game for the Neo Geo MVS and AES systems, just a couple more examples of an arcade and home console system respectively receiving after market support.

Some of these homebrews are breaking away from the system they were originally developed for as well, allowing gamers with current systems to see what the all this fuss is about. For example, another developer, Senile Team, released a game called Rush Rush Rally Racing for the Dreamcast in 2009 and is working on a WiiWare port which is scheduled for release later this year in North America, and is already out for Europeans.

The Dreamcast has seen at least one brand new game be physically released for it every year since 2005, meaning that fans have had plenty to be happy about and to keep their Dreamcast. This can be considered a true measure of fan loyalty as despite the small development teams, the fans have supported them and allowed some developers to make multiple games and even publishers centered around the homebrew community.

Now let’s take a step back even further but keep our attention on a Sega system, the Genesis. I’m sure plenty of you readers have fond memories of either having a Sega Genesis, playing a friend’s, or listening to the arguments of Super Nintendo vs. Genesis on the playground. If you’re not only a Genesis fan but an RPG fan I have fantastic news for you. Pier Solar and Great Architects.

It was released in 2010 by WaterMelon Co. and diehard Genesis fans and collectors have already began to include this game into the list of best games ever to come out for the system. Going onto various collector’s and fan forums and you’ll see a common thread, “Name the best 100 or 200 games for X system”. Usually the rule is one addition per person so every list is different and in no particular order. But since its release the fact that this virtually brand new game for a system most in the mainstream or even niche would consider to be long dead is being included on virtually every single one of these topics shows not only the power of the homebrew community, but the fans that support them.

Pier Solar is also manufactured with its own unique Genesis cartridge as opposed to many other titles being made by small or one man teams using ‘donor carts’. Donor carts are ones where the original rom image is taken off of  some copy (hopefully a sports game) and a new one is flashed on. Pier Solar’s cartridge includes 64 Megs of power, making it the most Powerful Genesis game ever released.

Virtually every system ever made has some sort of homebrew community devoted to it, most do it for fun and to polish their own programming and game making skills, few do it specifically for profit (although they would like some). Even the maligned Atari Jaguar has some homebrew games for it. As mentioned earlier even the Neo Geo AES has games still coming out for it, and many fans and collectors consider it the Cadillac of video game consoles due to the fact that everything about the system (including the system) is legitimately rare and expensive!

So if you have an older console laying around that you only play for nostalgic purposes, take a look around online, chances are you can find a brand new game to add to your library and have it shipped to your door in a factory seal. Links for NG:DEV.TEAM and for Pier Solar are included below for those interested.

http://www.ngdevdirect.com/

http://www.piersolar.com/

PSP Farewell Part 2 of 2

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Last week I took a look at PSP re-releases and remakes. This week its all about the original or new games made specifically to show off the PSP’s power and place in the handheld world. But first I did forget to mention a rather great re-release that slipped my mind despite it being one of my primary hunting targets.

Tactics Ogre: Let us Cling Together

This is a remake of the Playstation port of the original Super Famicom release. Let us Cling Together was originally developed by Quest before they were bought out by Square. The director of the game, Yasumi Matsuno, has quite the history. Almost right after finishing this game he left Quest and joined Square before the buyout, going on to direct Final Fantasy Tactics, Vagrant Story, FF Tactics Advance, and FFXII before going freelance and joining modern RPG powerhouse Level-5.

Now onto what everybody is really waiting for, the new stuff!

The early life of the PSP was virtually a wasteland of uninteresting games or botched PS2 ports. But there was one bright spot that helped to lift opinions and outlook about the system while many were ready to write the system off as just another one that Nintendo crushed beneath their mighty thumb.

Daxter

Sure it is a spinoff of the incredible Jak & Daxter trilogy that is not made by the original development team. But this is a worthy title to anybody’s PSP collection, its a wonderful little 3D platformer with cartoony graphics. Really that’s what Sony’s 2nd party developers did best during this time. It is quite fun and actually has a decent camera, unlike many other platformers for the system. Odd that one of the first managed to do it correctly.

Monster Hunter Freedom, Freedom Unite, Freedom 2, and Portable 3rd

This is it. For the Japanese gamers this is the series that made the PSP a must own system. The first Monster Hunter came out on the PS2, and Capcom decided to continue the series in handheld form and managed to find a yen river that flows directly into their headquarters. Now the gameplay is stylized yet has some essence of realism. You can find meat on monsters, eating it raw heals some health, but cooking it heals more! And cooking is based on timing and not automatic. Crafting is quite deep in the series as well, but to describe it all would take the rest of this post!

Freedom and Freedom Unite can be found in the US quite easily, but if you absolutely crave more Monster Hunter and need Portable 3rd for PSP you will be forced to import it from Japan. A PS3 HD version does exist as well, again only for Japan; but that’s not going to stop an importer from playing it on their region free US console!

Space Invaders Extreme

A true blast from the past! This is a re-imagining of the classic arcade series for its 30th anniversary in 2008. It is multiplatform so go ahead and grab a DS copy if you wish but in my opinion, the PSP version is superior. Mostly because the UMD is capable of holding a higher quality of sound and the PSP screen is of a higher quality, showcasing wonderful and colorful background graphics. The game is quite a trip, and a sequel was released in 2009 as a DS exclusive. If you are an old school Taito fan then you should rejoice with these releases, the first is one of the best games Taito has released in years. The sequel was developed by Project Just and not Taito, so obviously they just weren’t cut out to make a game for the PSP.

Metal Gear Portable Ops, Peace Walker, and AC!D series

Metal Gear received a lot of love on the PSP, including 2 sequels to fan favorite Snake Eater. The first games to release for the system were the two AC!D games. They are much different than anything fans would have expected for the series to go down, Collectible Card Games. Yes, the virtual CCG has infected the Metal Gear series. If you’ve played any CCG before you can get the hang of the AC!D games quite easily.

Now Portable Ops and Peace Walker star our old pal Naked Snake (now with the Big Boss codename) and are set in the rain forests of South and Central America respectively. Portable Ops is a hybrid of the classic MGS stealth/action gameplay, but incorporates squad based elements and strategic maneuvering. The player directly controls one squadmate, so instead of just dishing out orders like Ghost Recon, you play the role of consciousness hopping god.

Thankfully this was taken out in Peace Walker in lieu of true co-op gameplay. That’s right, now you have mission based progression that you can play with somebody online! Unfortunately neither Portable Ops nor Peace Walker live up to the greatness of Snake Eater, but they make great additions to your PSP library! If you’re more into home consoles then Peace Walker is available on the Metal Gear HD Collection along with Sons of Liberty and Snake Eater, and benefits from the control given with a 2nd analog stick.

This is all we have time for this week. I may revisit this in the future or start up another feature as each console is replaced with a successor. If you want me to sift through the shovelware in the DS library or talk more about the PSP, or any other system that I own, then feel free to comment with suggestions!

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