An important announcement…

If you’re a regular reader of my blog, first of all—thank you—and second, you’ve probably noticed something is lacking. It’s been harder and harder to get entries written, hence the fact that I’ve been posting bi-monthly, which sounds less like a writing habit and more like some sort of irregular menstrual fetish, and let’s face it: nobody wants to look at that. So here’s the deal: I’ve been struggling with depression. Not the sad, mopey Eeyore depression (although if anyone left me a comment, chances are right now I’d respond with “Thanks for noticing me.”), but more of the manic, crazy Robin Williams depression. But unfortunately, even if I’ve been so fortunate as to have a debilitating brain disorder that makes me want to make others happy, no brain disorder can bestow upon me the same brilliance, talent, or charisma as Mork.

This blog is viewed by upwards of dozens of people per…month. And I’ll not kid myself. A few of you might be shy, but avid readers who love video games, but the vast majority of views I get are people searching for BDSM who stumble upon my Shadow Hearts: Covenant article by mistake. Between that and my Brand New Youtube Channel! viewed consistently by…my wife…when she remembers…and I often feel like an accomplished professor giving a brilliant lecture to a dead log.

Is it worthwhile to write just for myself? To an extent. I do kind of like having an extensive record of all the games I’ve played. But then there are the months where I can do everything right—take my medication on time every day, get regular exercise even though exercise is miserable, sit out in the sunshine, and eat healthy—and that raises my mood about high enough that I can manage to get out of bed in the morning and occasionally shower. Or eat breakfast. (But doing them both on the same day isn’t looking good.)

So I’m currently sitting on the task of writing about three different randomizers (Legend of Zelda: like playing a new game every time, Super Metroid: like playing the same game every time, but sometimes starting off with the screw attack, and the Super Metroid Link to the Past Crossover: easily the biggest time waster since Skyrim, but fun as hell), as well as Shadowrun for the SNES (it’s like someone took William Gibson’s Neuromancer and infused it with the worst parts of point-and-click-adventures and ineffective RPG elements), and Brent Weeks’ Lightbringer Novels (Amazing fucking story about sorcerers imbued with the power of 3-D printing). Plus I’m playing through Breath of the Wild, which I could totally augment by contacting my old classmate Trish Sumersett for an interview with the voice of Princess Zelda (true story…in high school, I was in “Damn Yankees” with her. She was the beautiful seductress indentured to Satan. I was scrub baseball player #2.).

Will any of that get done? I have no fucking clue. Honestly, the future of this blog is pretty up in the air right now, and I really have to figure out if I’m struggling to write because I don’t enjoy not having an audience or if I’m struggling to write because depression is sapping enjoyment out of everything I do. So…it’s July as I’m writing this and you’re seeing this post about two weeks after my Xenogears article. (Hey, it’s my 35th birthday today! And already with the midlife crisis. Damn, I’m an early bloomer!) I’ve probably been working in the background to get something done, either personally or professionally, but let me ask a favor of you:

If you do read my blog, let me know. Leave a comment (or two or three). Talk about your favorite game or series. Do you think I’m worth reading? Do you just scan the pictures and the captions? Do I even play games you care about? Not fishing for complements…be completely honest whatever you say. You just don’t have any idea how helpful it will be to know I’m actually reaching some sort of audience.

If I had some cool catch phrase I used for signing off, I’d put it here. But I don’t.

-Jake

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Xenogears – PS1

 

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…one of the minor enemies, actually.

The pathology of an independent, freelance game critic such as myself is not unlike the madman who plunges head-first into human waste hoping that, unlike the last two-dozen piles of excrement, there might be something good inside. I generally prefer to think of it like the Shawshank Redemption, that someday I’ll emerge victorious and stand triumphantly cheering in the rain as I taste the sweet, longed-for joys of pure freedom; unfortunately, I’ll have to swim through a lot of shit to get there. I don’t know. Maybe making a habit of criticizing games just teaches me to look for the negative, or maybe having just a modicum of disposable income and enough tech skills to emulate just about anything I can’t afford has piled up the shitty games that look interesting at first glance. Fortunately, every so often there’s a game that, even after two decades of play, still does everything right. A game so well-conceived that it’s almost depressing how fucking awesome it is. A story so strong it empowers you, makes you feel invincible. “Yes!” you cry to the heavens. “I am important! I have made contact with the divine and thrown the yokes and shackles of an oppressive deity from the shoulders of mankind, and thanks to me the world will at long last know the true release of tension and live its days in glorious peace. Now I have to shut off the Playstation, look for my unemployment check, and then go watch the dog take a shit in the back yard so I can pick it up with my hand.”

Xeno6Xenogears is, quite frankly, the best game ever made, and there is a special place in Hell, where you’re forced to play Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde until the end of eternity, reserved for any of you who disagree with me. How’s that for being completely objective, non-judgmental and totally writing without any preconceived notions whatsoever?

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Have you considered, maybe, joining the circus?

Most often cited as Xenogears’ biggest flaw is its story, said to be convoluted, harder to follow than a GPS unit set to the “down syndrome” voice, and denser than the impacted bowel of a neutron star. All those grievances are…well, I’ll give it this much; it’s not the way we usually tell stories in video games. Even some of the best told stories necessarily take a back seat to gameplay. That’s why the vast majority of games fall into the fantasy genre, where questing allows both plot an character to take a direct route through the vilest, stinkiest dens of monsters in order to carry out interspecies genocide in the name of personal growth and development. If you instead want to steer your heroes through populated areas to examine mundane desires and struggles of a broken society under the oppression of the powerful, you might have to reign in those violent instincts lest we start to notice your characters’ party tends to look like boys’ night out with Joseph Stalin, Genghis Kahn and Hannibal Lecter.

Xenogears attempts just that. Our main character, Fei, starts the game with nothing but his God-given amnesia trope and the personality of a gladiola. When a centuries-old war crash lands in his village (after somehow avoiding it for five hundred years), he gets into an abandoned mech (called “gears” in this world), and in trying to protect everyone accidentally inflicts collateral damage that slaughters 95% of the population. Oops. Anyway, he spontaneously decides to take a short hiatus from living in the village, and begins to travel the world, exercising more care about where and when he participates in battle. Problem is, he attracts trouble like Scooby Doo attracts asshole cosplayers, not to mention he discovers that a hidden nation of elites ruled by an oligarchy of old men with strong self-interests and an inept figurehead of executive power is manipulating world events through the use of their over-inflated military. Oh, I know what you’re thinking, though…they don’t represent the United States because their de facto leader is a brilliant physicist who specializes in life-extending nanoengineering, while our de facto leader is a clown that wants you to supersize your french fries.

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Why does God look like someone drew a face on the Thanksgiving turkey?

Anyway, the story does weave together about a dozen plots, complete with several factions of villains who all strive for their own personal goals. In short, we see people struggling to live and find meaning in life across the world, only for the villain to resurrect a God who has literally been farming us because he was hurt 10,000 years ago and has to harvest a shit ton of organs. So the hero, who has both to discover the reason why his personality is as developed as a hydrangea and to embrace some weird, Freudian mommy issues, now has to fight that god just to restore meaning to the lives of the game’s survivors. Almost all characters affect the plot in one way or another. Villains have noble ambitions and human emotions, while heroes make mistakes and succumb to temptations. It’s a moving story, deeply human, beautifully written, and translated with as much care as a lemur with a hangover and access to Google translate. The language is more distracting than a bikini courtroom, but I don’t think this necessarily counts as a strike against the game. Rather, I think it’s strong support for a remake. The game has one of the most amazing end-credits songs I’ve ever heard, and I think Square-Enix ought to upgrade its translation from “hungover lemur” to something a little higher up on the intelligence scale, like “stoned cocker spaniel” or maybe “pig that isn’t so sure that was really a truffle anymore.”

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If I had a dollar for every time someone told me that…

Also a point in the “needs a remake” category, the game’s second disc plays like you were running out of time before the test, so Square had to rush through the Spark Notes before class started. Granted, there is something strangely Shakespearean about seeing characters act out vital scenes against a black stage and a poorly drawn backdrop, but the finer plot points about a planet in turmoil over the resurrection of an unfeeling God probably require a little more nuance and development than your average Elizabethan dick joke. And when entire dungeons are swept over in just a few lines of dialogue, the game ends like a customer service transaction from Wells Fargo—you’re more than just a little confused, but pretty sure that it owes you something it’s not planning on giving you.

Like any good RPG, the actual game is played out through hundreds upon hundreds of repetitive battles. Here, Xenogears is…eh. It’s okay. Not great. But okay. They’ve got a system where rather than enter the “fight” command a half a million times until the game ends, you mix up weak, medium, and strong attacks until your action points run out. Really, it doesn’t matter what you throw at 90% of the enemies—all you’re doing is teaching characters special deathblow combos or simply using the combos. I guess it’s better than your typical RPG. Magic in Xenogears is very much like a bedpan: it has some creative applications, but you’ll probably never want to use it unless you’re healing.

Xeno3Xenogears also employs a secondary battle system for gear fights. Rather than using up AP over a single turn, gears are fueled up and slowly deplete this fuel over the course of a dungeon. They can sacrifice a turn in battle to charge a small amount, which somehow is a feature they can’t use outside of battle. It’s like if you could only recharge your phone one percent at a time while in your car, idling in the fast lane of the freeway (functionality which I hear is coming in the next model iPhone). Gear battles take a little more thought than character battles since you can’t level-up your mechs. So just to lay this out here, your gear can only charge when its being attacked, it can fly in cut scenes but can’t reach a treasure box on the top shelf when under your control, but Squaresoft drew the line at a robot getting stronger through experience points. That somehow would have shattered suspension of disbelief? Meh. Whatever. The gear battles are difficult because you’re limited to the upgrades you can purchase in shops and three equipment slots, but once you lose to a major boss, you know what attacks to prep for and can equip your gear properly. The only downside is it requires you to either play through the game once or, you know…die…in order to have a decent shot at winning.

But quite honestly, any of the games combat flaws slide by virtually unnoticed because of how fluid and compelling the story is. So let’s get on it, Square. Time for a remake already!

Tales of Symphonia – Game Cube, PS2, PS3

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A game so bland the best screenshot is the box art.

Some games end not with a bang, but with a whimper. And then some games end with a string of texted excuses why I can’t play tonight, but I promise to turn it on in a few days if I find the time, until eventually it just stops calling to me and I can move on with my life. Such is the way with Tales of Symphonia. Honestly, I’ve heard so many great things about the Tales series, that I really wanted it to turn into a heated love affair, but I felt like I went in expecting a blind date with Natalie Portman and ended up with Dora the Explorer.

Sconversation

Like many, I am often troubled by games that try to portray pertinent information in well-written moments within the story. Fortunately, Tales of Symphonia babbles on like a fucking schizophrenic on open mic night.

The story opens in the world of Sylvarant, a pleasant, green thriving fantasy world that apparently needs to be saved from wasting away. Colette is a young girl chosen to lead the quest to restore mana to the world, which will save it from a perilous lack of questing, if nothing else. But instead we’re going to follow her friend Lloyd, who has no major effect on the plot at least 75% of the way through the game, and doesn’t seem important in any way other than he’s voiced by the most recognizable actor. Together with a cast of characters too bland to be generic anime archetypes, Lloyd and Colette travel the world, fighting their way through…literal tourist destinations. (But don’t let that fool you. This is less “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Niagara Falls” and more “Visit the Mystery Spot: Exit 255 at Chernoble.”) Anyway, the whole quest turns out more sinister than the entire world believes and Lloyd, Colette, and company take steps to upend the whole thing. I have to be honest, I didn’t get to the end, but I’m willing to put good money on “the power of friendship” being a major theme at the end.

Yes, you heard me right. I couldn’t get through this game, even though it dangled enough potentially interesting plot lines to keep me invested like a Nigerian Prince asking for just one more good-faith payment. Unfortunately, the Chibi-anime art style makes even the adult characters look like ten-year-olds. Outside of pre-teen players, there’s a very special group of people who get invested in a cast like that, a group that includes Michael Jackson and Jared from the Subway commercials. One character I found particularly obnoxious, Raine, one of the few adults and Lloyd and Colette’s teacher. If you combine the worst qualities of a know-it-all pedant with the insufferable nature of someone who you know is just pulling things out of her ass, that’s Raine. Then make her a chronic child abuser who beats the shit out of her (actual) ten-year-old brother whenever he strings together enough words to best Groot in a verbal debate.

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So uh…we gonna do this or do I have to buy you dinner first?

Just when I thought I couldn’t despise Raine more, there was a scene that required the characters to approach a unicorn trapped in a lake. Now, having written my masters thesis on the significance of eviscerating a unicorn in T.H. White’s “The Once and Future King” (no, I’m not joking. You can look up the article), I happen to know what the game refused to state outright lest it lose it’s G-rating: only virginal women can approach a unicorn. By this point, the party had three female characters, Raine, Colette, and Sheena. Sheena, one of the side characters who ends up being the most important character in the game (even though they never acknowledge it or treat her as such) just happens to be the only character with even a little bit of charm or enough cleavage to still have a good time when everything below the waist is off-limits. She had just joined our party, though, so Raine knew nothing about her except she was a summoner and prone to clumsiness, and yet she still had the nerve to say, “Well, I can’t approach the unicorn because I’m an adult, and Colette is certainly not going to approach the unicorn alone.” So yes, ladies and gentlemen, Raine, in this children’s game, is now slut-shaming strange teen girls, all the while claiming that premarital sex is her personal privilege.

Sheena

Sheena, the only character in two worlds to own breasts.

Tales of Symphonia wears its influences on its sleeve. By itself, that’s not a bad thing. I’m a huge fan of J.R.R. Tolkien, and he basically wrote Medieval fan fiction. The problem is, like everything else in the game, it’s watered down for a pre-teen audience. The developers just took Final Fantasy IX, X, a dash of V, and Xenogears, chucked them in a blender, then filtered out everything that didn’t fit into their juvenile, young-adult novelization schema of a video game. That would be like doing a remake of Silence of the Lambs where Hannibal Lecter is in rehab for his Kit Kat addiction and Buffalo Bill is sneaking up on farms and shearing sheep in the middle of the night. Yes, it’s kid-friendly, but if it’s supposed to be “disturbing and horrifying,” it kind of misses the mark…then flies hundreds of meters past it, nearly misses “comical parody” and buries itself by pure accident between the ass cheeks of “hackneyed mess of writing” and “just did this for a paycheck.” Why would anyone care about Final Fantasy X if we never had to worry about the value of summoner’s lives? What use is Xenogears if they cut out the question of humanity’s struggles and desires versus God’s arbitrary plans for us?

But hey, good gameplay can make up for this second-hand, watered-down beer pissed out of a drunken game developer before passing out in his kid’s bedroom, right? Well, that’s true, but Tales of Symphonia doesn’t have any. Despite being an RPG, leveling up and equipment raise your offensive and defensive capabilities about the same as suddenly sprouting an eleventh fingernail in your armpit. At one point I realized I had been playing for three hours with a character who didn’t have any equipment, and I just couldn’t tell based on his performance in battle. The game throws a lot of information at you about combo attacks, techniques, cooking skills, switching active characters, etc, but skills and techniques take time to charge and cost tech points, so it’s literally always a better strategy to run straight at the monsters, mashing the basic attack like you’re trying to exact vengeance on the A button for murdering your family.

Stales

And yeah…here’s another screenshot. Look, I gotta be somewhere. We done yet?

Even exploring the map is frustrating. The camera zooms in close enough to bill your insurance for a colonoscopy, making navigation a little challenging. And it isn’t an oversight, either, since they’ve added a function for zooming the camera out to see where you’re going, but only if you find a magic rock in each area of the map. I’m sorry, but that much dick move from developers who are obviously closet pedophiles makes me just a wee bit uncomfortable. It’s like going 75 on the freeway and suddenly you realize a nest of wolf spiders are crawling out of the defrost vent of your car, it doesn’t matter where you are or what you’re doing, you really want out. Fortunately, Tales of Symphonia commits the cardinal sin of reminding me of a far superior game and makes me wonder why I don’t just go play that one…so in short, look out in the next few weeks for a review of Xenogears.

A Link to the Past: Randomizer – SNES Rom Hack

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Fun Fact: Doctors developed heroin as a treatment for people addicted to morphine. And much in the way of attacking a post-op bulbasaur with a shivering, emaciated charmander who sold his tail to an old Chinese man in order to score some more horse, it’s super-effective! That’s back when doctors subscribed to the medical journal of Your Dad Making You Smoke The Whole Pack At Once, and fortunately, they’ve realized their mistake. Not so fortunately, they’ve unleashed the Godzilla of opiates for people who just don’t get the same rush out of King Kong; it’s not enough for them to climb a building and flip off a few airplanes, they’ve got to rip a city out by the subway system and knock the air force out of the sky like a major league baseball player with…I’ve forgotten where I’m going with this. Are we still on the drug metaphor, or have we moved on to kaiju? Eh. Who knows. Honestly, I make so many comparisons between video games and drugs that at this point I think my parents, friends, playground monitors, and pediatrician’s assistant were right all those years ago and that I should go check into rehab for my game addiction.

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Beeeeeeees!

But if the massive wall of games and the 4TB hard drive of ROMS I own draws at least one apt comparison between games and drugs, it’s that the high wears off and you’re constantly looking for the next big game to get your fix. Long story short, nothing new on my shelf has been doing it for me lately. And since you can’t OD on video games (Unless you’re Asian, apparently), reaching your tolerance of awesome games like The Legend of Zelda or Super Metroid and then trying out Star Fox Adventure or Lord of the Rings: The Third Age is like building up a tolerance to heroin and then trying to top it with children’s Tylenol. Fortunately, someone out there has found a way to distill the essence out of the awesome games like the last remaining gelfling and feed it to us like some kind of uber-heroin!

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Samus apparently doesn’t mind that bug-catching kid sees her as a sex symbol.

For those of you who haven’t heard of randomizers, hackers will rig a game’s ROM to rearrange items, entrances, bosses, or what have you into random locations. So, for example, Link could hop out of bed and pull the power glove out of his chest instead of the lantern. It happened to me. It was awesome. Immediately after rescuing Zelda on my first randomized run, I had the gold sword, the red mail, half the heart containers, and absolutely no way to get into most of the dungeons. Even after playing through seven or eight different runs, there’s usually a point where I get stuck and end up wandering Hyrule aimlessly back and forth like a Jehova’s Witness who wandered into an urban ghetto. The randomizer has a pretty well-developed logic that should prevent you from getting stuck, but I’ve found that even if I choose the option for “no glitches,” sometimes it helps to be able to pull off some of the easier ones, like the Fake Flippers, or .

ALttP - VT_no-glitches-29_normal-standard_uncle-ganon_367235787-180324-213521

That sums up my feeling quite nicely.

Even aside from the glitches, playing the Link to the Past Randomizer has helped me learn more about a game I thought I knew well. For instance, I learned there are a total of 216 special items hidden throughout the game. Furthermore, whenever I just needed the hookshot or the mirror or the fucking lantern, I learned just how many of those items are goddam useless-as-fuck rupees, bombs or arrows. I also learned just how long I can spend in a dungeon before realizing that the randomizer’s logic put that last key I need to open the door to get to the final chest inside that final chest, behind the locked door that the key opens. I also learned that the pegasus shoes aren’t considered an item of vital importance, and without them the game kind of crawls along like a sloth on Ambien drowning in a pool of Jello shots.

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Hmm…didn’t Link tell me something about bombs and chickens?

But while I necessarily point out the comical flaws for the sake of humor, most of these problems resolved when I discovered a treasure chest I never knew about, a new trick I could pull off, or (more frequently) an embarrassingly obvious item location I walked by six dozen times and just assumed I had already picked it up. But hey, at least I’m not as visually impaired as the boss, Blind, who I learned can only be damaged by the sword or the game’s two canes. That’s our eponymous hero! Bludgeoning the disabled with their only tool for tactilely seeing the world.

So I thought I’d play through once or twice to get a feel for how the game handles when randomized and I thought I’d fill in my off-week with a quick update. Then after about 50 to 60 hours, putting off Tales of Symphonia, neglecting about two weeks worth of classes (hey, I’m just a sub! It’s not like they needed my attention!), skipping several meals, showers, and subpoenas, coming up with a very creative excuse for why the government should accept my taxes in August rather than April, and forgetting what natural, full-spectrum light looks like, I figured I might as well give you a full entry on it. I’m not quite good enough yet to compete in the Zelda randomizer tournaments, but I still highly recommend giving it a shot, especially if you have a close friend and/or Ambien sloth to race against.

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…no comment.

The Randomizer
Japanese 1.0 ROM

Mega Man X4 – Playstation, Sega Saturn (PS2 and Game Cube as part of Mega Man X Collection)

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Let’s add “fire-bot and ice-bot” in same lineup to the list of things Sigma probably should stop doing.

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Why, praytell, would a robot need shapely breasts? Unless that’s a special place to store her double-D cell batteries, I’d say the real drama behind the X series is the use of sexbots, hereafter known as “sexploids.”

I haven’t reviewed many Mega Man games, even though I talk about them I’m bringing up an old flame to make the games I do play frequently jealous. Truth is, they’re wonderful, but a little difficult to write about. For the purposes of a humor blog, the games are comic gold. Dr. Wiley, one of the most brilliant minds of all time, has a distinct recipe for his schemes—build a team of eight robots, each with a rock-paper-scissors Achilles heel that will rip each other open like a pinata in a batting cage—and he refuses to deviate from that plan for fear of breaking his streak of inevitable failure. A hundred years later, the ultimate reploid Sigma shows a sense of learning from history rivaled only by the United States Congress, and launches his wars against X using the exact same tactics. Still, writing these blog entries entirely with the copy-paste keyboard shortcut feels a bit like cheating, hence the reason I’ve avoided most Mega Man games.

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No, no. It’s totally reasonable that you want to build a ten-meter tall robot with giant hulk hands out of solid gold. Aren’t the practical applications obvious? Oh, wait! Let’s make him fly!

Mega Man X4 tackles the familiar formula with the free thought, creativity, and the deviance of an 80-year-old woman attending mass on a Tuesday morning. The game opens with a cut scene introducing Repliforce, an organized militia of Reploids designed to hunt Mavericks. Perhaps if you live in a world where reploids tend to turn maverick and become threats to humanity, it might not be wise to let them unionize. In the first stage, Sigma hijacks some Repliforce soldiers, pulls a false flag attack on the Sky Lagoon. Again, I have to question the wisdom of the people who welded a handful of battleships together and suspended them over an inhabited city like an anvil over Wile E. Coyote’s head, but perhaps in the future, Congress has passed some sort of MacGuffin Act to move plots along expediently. The Repliforce Colonel shows up in the wake of the attack and decides that rather than disarm and sort out the confusion with reason, diplomacy and grace, he’ll spit out some NRA “cold dead hands” vitriol, thus dooming the entire Repliforce to be branded as Mavericks. Even so, the General decides to peacefully take his army off-planet to found his own colony where they may live in peace, stressing that such an act is neither about rebellion nor insurrection against the humans. So naturally, the maverick hunters do the only logical thing and hunt them down to wreak bloody, bloody justice on their rusting corpses.

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X gets this weapon after beating Grady in the Overlook Hotel.

That is, for those of you keeping score, more story than in the entirety of the classic Mega Man series, and also a wonderful justification for never having attempted anything more in-depth than “mad scientist steals robots, programs for evil, hides in castle.” Fortunately, it doesn’t have to have a strong story; it has to be a good game. And Capcom sticks to its Mega Busters on this one, with the tried-and-true formula of an octet of rampaging robots running weaponry hardware that is 100% compatible with X’s systems. You’d think they’d learn and switch from Mac to Linux. It might run a little more successfully, cost less, and at the very least force X to program his own drivers. I suppose they could switch to Windows, but X would have to read the EULA before each boss fight, and they’d only get one or two good shots on him before crashing and needing a hard reboot.

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Zero got this technique after defeating my garage roof in February.

X4 adds its own unique touch on the formula, though. Rather than having Zero make cameo appearances as a playable character, the player can choose to play through the whole game as either X or Zero. X does his normal routine, blasting his way through an army of small robots who, I don’t think we’ve ever established, may or may not be sentient, and also searching for the upgrade capsules that Dr. Light spread around the planet like his own Gap chain. Zero, however, functions differently. Rather than gaining mobility through capsules and weapons from enemies, each maverick defeated augments either abilities slightly through the use of special moves. It’s amazing how such a minor change can make it feel like X4 is essentially two games, with the same bosses requiring different weaknesses to beat, some becoming easier and others harder, and level order requiring new strategies and opening new possibilities. In this, X4 introduces a brilliant new feature to the series that cracks the series formula wide open, adding layers of depth to the old formula heading into the future! So naturally, Capcom never did this again.

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Dying reploids look an awful lot like a spyrograph design.

Lord of the Rings: The Third Age – PS2, Game Cube, XBox

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Batting cleanup for Gandalf, who really needs to employ the “double tap” philosophy. No use being stingy with ammo when fell beasts roam the land.

Movie licensed games are like hot dogs; absolutely fucking disgusting and probably lethal if you have more than two or three per year, but somehow they still sell enough that the industry thrives like cockroaches. And yes, in spite of my declared hatred toward them, a quick glance through the menu to the right reveals that I do, occasionally, indulge in these games myself (notably unlike hot dogs). So clearly, you can swallow gold dust and shit out something sparkly enough to catch my attention, but I’ve stepped in enough piles by now that it takes an exceptionally shiny dump to get me past the smell. Clearly I’m writing about a Lord of the Rings licensed game today, so something must have gotten me to stifle my gag reflex. Whatever could have inspired that, you ask? Turning the game into an RPG. But much like a Tide Pod, it turns out that swallowing a tasty-looking package might leave you with horrible, life-threatening internal chemical burns.

LoTR Balrog

My bet? Gandalf Plows past Balrog, but loses to M. Bison in the first two rounds.

So if the thought of liquefying your organs hasn’t dissuaded you from playing Lord of the Rings: The Third Age, let me explain the story, which as best I can describe, is the J.R.R. Tolkien equivalent to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. Except with out the witty dialogue. Or compelling storyline. Or philosophical overtones. In fact, it’s less like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and more like you’re playing as Gandalf’s cleanup crew. The action opens just after the Council of Elrond names the members of the Fellowship of the Ring—not in the same place, of course. God forbid you have any outcome on the plot. After Gandalf gets a commitment out of the Fellowship and puts a ring on them, he immediately starts two-timing the party for Berethor, errant knight of Gondor, contacting him psychically, telling him to follow the Fellowship so the wizard might meet him on the side. And while he entrusts Frodo with no more than a single quest—save Middle Earth and the world of men from magical enslavement by destroying the final vestige of the Lieutenant of the evil god Morgoth—Berethor gets countless tasks such as “kill three wargs,” “find a dwarf,” “rescue five elves from Uruks.” Clearly, we know who the important party is here. Especially when Gandalf faces the balrog, the foe beyond the abilities of any of the indispensable fellowship, he beckons Berethor and company to stand beside him in slaying—and getting slain by—the ancient evil.

LoTR Drums

Berethor breaks up his neighbor’s cave troll drum circle, complaining of the noise, but we all know it’s just him being racist.

At the very least, Berethor and his lower-case-f fellowship are like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in that they’re completely expendable and inconsequential to the main story. But Berethor doesn’t even seem to have a story of his own. The game forgoes traditional character conflict and development in exchange for Gandalf filling Berethor’s head with bad student films cut from the original film and dubbed with his own Tolkien-esque voice overs. Dude, even Michael Bay shows more generic diversity than you. If you’re going to do 108 short films, why not throw in a cut from Star Wars or Pulp Fiction or something? Or better yet, explain why the hell we care about the characters we’re playing as. If Frodo manages to get to Mt. Doom without his help, is there some reason to focus on Berethor? Was he pulling strings behind the scene? Did he struggle to find his purpose in a world torn by inter-species war? Did he adventure with the Eagles to the edge of Middle Earth to keep Voldemort from teaming up with Palpatine and George W Bush in order to invade the Shire while the hobbits were away? Nope. In fact, he seems to change tasks, warping from place to place like Doctor Who in Middle Earth.

LoTR Bow Legged

I’m not sure this is what they mean by “bow legged.”

It turns out there’s a reason the story sucks more than a battle between a hoover and truck stop whore, as EA Games did not hold the legal rights to use anything from Tolkien’s books that were not explicitly part of the films. And since fans’ idea of “enforcing the canon” means they feel that any deviation from the story means they get to shoot you with a canon, this story was received about as well as a gay nephew coming out at an Alabama Thanksgiving dinner. But hey, lousy stories can easily be overcome by good gameplay, right? Spoiler alert: not in this case.

LoTR Discount Characters

Discount Aragorn talks to second-rate Boromir, while shoddy immitation Arwen looks on.

For a company so worried about copyright infringement that they’d crap out a story like this, it’s surprising that they lifted the battle system so blatantly from Final Fantasy X that it’s a wonder they didn’t name the characters Yunalas, Kimharimir, Gimlulu and Wakkagorn. On the surface, I’m fine with that. Final Fantasy X was an awesome game and the combat was part of the reason for that. But while battles in FFX were fast-paced and zippy, Third Age animations are reminiscent of yoga instructors on Ambien. Characters are sluggish, skill points are awarded like birthday money from your grandma who hasn’t adjusted for inflation since 1953, and attacks connect with the striking accuracy of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra keeping time using an incoming Morse code signal.

LoTR - MoreLembasAnd…that’s it. That’s all there is to the game. There are no towns. No NPCs to talk to. No shops to buy items or equipment. I’d say there are no safe zones at all, but the game has a method for random encounters that feels like you can’t bribe enemies to attack you if you waved a raw, juicy shank of man flesh under their noses. So the game gives you a series of disjointed locales with the occasional story battle that takes place in a pool of clam chowder. The lack of shops means treasure chests inundate you with basic healing items, but since leveling up and saving both restore full HP and AP, you end up with a backpack full of lembas bread in full fungal bloom. There’s also a crafting system wherein you can make items—but only in battle. Personally, I’d like to tell my dwarf that facing down a hoard of murderous Uruk-hai may not be the best time to knead your dough and wait for the loaf to rise, but the game tells me I have to bake 125 loaves of lembas bread in order to gain the eloquently named “elf medicine,” then I’m just going to have to take out Saruman’s hoards with delicious bread smells. I haven’t been this bored since role-playing as the merchant in Dragon Quest IV. But maybe that’s it…maybe The Third Age wants you to role-play as a baker. God knows that’s exactly why I’ve always wanted to live in Middle Earth.

Fire Emblem: The Binding Blade – GBA

 

FE - Stab

Quit poking me.

Oh god, when does the Fire Emblem madness end?

FE - Big Bird

What the hell, dude? I just asked if you could tell me how to get to Sesame Street!

Now. It ends now. I have Path of Radiance sitting on my shelf, ready to go, but like for firearms, it might be a good idea to impose a mandatory cool-down period, lest I totally flip my lid, fling the disc in the air, shoot it like skeet, then use its shards on a murderous rampage. But knowing Fire Emblem rules for weapon degradation, it’ll probably do enough damage to leave an unbleeding flap of skin on my first victim’s thumb before the disc completely disintegrates, leaving me defenseless against the inevitable counter-pummeling I’d then receive. Damn, I know Fire Emblem games have a reputation for being hard, but I’ve played six of them now, and the Binding Blade is easily the worst of them all. This game is more punishing than growing up with an ex-military hockey coach dad and a rampaging tiger mom (And trust me; growing up with just a hockey coach dad, we had our own gulag set up in the basement for bringing home any grade lower than a B.).

FE - Handsome

And I am conceited.

So first, some background on the Binding Blade—or “Fuin no Tsurugi,” or “The Sword of Seals” or “The Sealed Sword”–was never released in the U.S. Naturally, Fire Emblem was only released in the U.S. at all on account of Marth and Roy appearing in Smash Bros., so why Nintendo’s refusal to release Roy’s game is akin to a drug dealer lacing a joint with crack, and then selling you nothing but Xanax and Advil when you come back for more. So the Binding Blade is only available as a fan translation. Now, I’ve played some great fan translations before, but back when I was listing off the different titles, you may have noticed that “The Sealed Sword” doesn’t quite mean the same thing as “The Sword of Seals” and “The Binding Blade.” Personally, translators who can’t tell the difference between the genetive and a participle (which, for non-grammarians out there is like not knowing the difference between a 4th-grade Valentine card and a restraining order) probably should be kept far, far away from a Fire Emblem story. Even the well-translated games read like someone chucked Game of Thrones fan fiction through a wood chipper. The Binding Blade feels like after they did that, they threw it in a hot bath with a Risk board and some discount Anime figurines named after T.H. White characters.

FE - Kage Bunshin

Kage bunshin no jutsu!

Aside from writing that flows naturally as a story arc for Wheel of Fortune, the gameplay hits one of my battered, raw RPG nerve endings—low accuracy rate. Missing needs to be an option for video game combat. It adds a random bit of chance into battles, a little flavor on top of mathematically predictable fight scenes. So if missing is the spice to add flavor to battle, the accuracy rate in The Binding Blade is a full-on turmeric overdose. Rather than trading blows in a nice, even manner to progress the game, characters stand on opposite sides of a tornado and chuck Nerf darts at each other. Using save states, I actually began to manipulate the RNG just to get through the game, and it seems like some weapons are glitched to hit far less often than their accuracy rate, and there is little that can make a game more tedious than rushing into battle with Ray Charles, Helen Keller, and the entire pre-op ward of a cataract surgeon’s clinic.

FE - No Arms

Murdock has overcome great adversity, not having any arms sprouting from his giant shoulders.

Low cash flow, breakable weapons, and few chances for experience are staples of Fire Emblem games, but again, the Binding Blade expands this to the absurd. There are inner-city school districts with more funding than Roy’s army. So even though the game quite regularly springs for an extra hoard or two of enemies halfway through each battle, units have to lie on their resumes for experience. This is becoming a constant theme on my blog, but if I wanted to live surrounded by shoddy items, less financially solvent than most crows, fighting a futile battle to get more experience to change all that, I’d just shut off the goddamn game and write a few cover letters.

FE - Animal House

These are getting a little lazy. Rutger…filed his income tax. Marcus…had cake for breakfast. Roy…I don’t know. Went to bed early or something.

I feel at this point, it’s still not clear just what kind of a blinding rage this game threw me into, so let me make this point: in order to finish the game on a reasonable timeline—which still took probably more than 50 hours—I had to use over 280 save states. That’s right, the sheer number of save states I used to get through this Fire Emblem game would have caused binary overflow on an NES. Furthermore, as I mentioned earlier I had to learn how to manipulate the RNG. If I have to go into full research mode, read what people have written about the game mechanics, delve through the game’s coding, run controlled experiments with each unit on each turn and (optional) publish a dissertation on my findings, chances are this will be a difficult game to enjoy, to say the least.

FE - Report Card

I haven’t been this pissed off over a report card since I got a C in 8th Grade English.