Paperboy – Arcade, NES, Sega Master System, Game Boy, Game Boy Color, DOS, etc.

Yea, though I bike through the suburbs of death...

Yea, though I bike through the suburbs of death…

By a show of hands…or comments, I guess…how many of you had a paper route as a kid? Any of you slip through the cracks of child labor laws that somehow determined that riding a bike around town during the pre-dawn hours didn’t constitute any form of endangerment or deprivation of education? Because if I wanted to strut through the fifth grade flashing huge bankrolls (usually dimes or quarters) the only options I had as a pre-teen involved walking the streets delivering our small town gazette riddled with spelling errors, inaccuracies, and menial events passing off as news, or I could lug bags full of steel clubs through a field dodging little white balls careening towards my head at 290 kilometers an hour (180 mph for my American readers). But alas, I never had a paper route. So ironically, instead of having a job to enable my horrible video game addiction, I played a video game to simulate the experience of having a job.

Include this under "signs you don't have a large enough news market to sustain a newspaper."

Include this under “signs you don’t have a large enough news market to sustain a newspaper.”

Released for the arcade in 1985, Paperboy faithfully re-creates all the obstacles and challenges of delivering newspapers, including urban terrain, rabid dogs, careless motorists, swarms of bees, runaway lawnmowers, zombies, and the specter of death. As the paperboy, the game tasks you with never stopping your bike–the newspaper doesn’t pay you to lallygag, after all–and chucking your papers at everything that does or does not move. For every bundle of papers you pick up, you may toss one or two at someone’s doorstep–or extra points for their mailbox–but the rest you need to take down zombies, stop lawnmowers in their tracks, and threatening and vandalizing anyone with the audacity to not subscribe to the Daily Sun. That last note raises a point of interest, since all the Sun headlines revolve around the paperboy himself–thus rendering it only slightly more interesting than my hometown’s Mining Gazette–usually commenting on either his failure to deliver papers or his attempts at vandalism. I’d think, given the scenario, non-subscribers probably wouldn’t feel all that compelled to spend money to learn about the destruction of their own property, and any subscriber who failed to receive a paper wouldn’t necessarily need a Ph.D. to figure out the content of anything they missed.

Accurately simulating all the targets, ramps, moving jumps, and mechanical spikes you'll encounter in your chosen profession as a delivery boy.

Accurately simulating all the targets, ramps, moving jumps, and mechanical spikes you’ll encounter in your chosen profession as a delivery boy.

At the end of each day’s route, you navigate through a training course, a testament to the 30-year vintage of the game, since no employer in 2015 would dare pay to ensure quality and competence in their employees. On the other hand, wasting money on newspapers for the purpose of cluttering up people’s yards and smashing windows to extort subscription money sounds exactly like current business practices. Still, the thought of putting money into researching a throwable paper with the power to stop a Model-A dead in its tracks sounds both wonderfully progressive and about as useless as a Jehova’s Witness knocking on St. Peter’s Basilica. But I guess all these little inconsistencies just help to make Paperboy a timeless classic.

All right! Just a few more customers to piss off and I won't have to lift a finger anymore!

All right! Just a few more customers to piss off and I won’t have to lift a finger anymore!

The game doesn’t pull any punches. Essentially an eclectic obstacle course, you have to correctly identify customers’ homes and place the papers precisely on their doorsteps or mailboxes. Just a bit off, though, and you’ll ensure the tunnel-visioned morons will never find the papers, and you’ll lose them as customers. Also, they’ll cancel their subscription if you break one of their windows, or just miss their house entirely. You can earn new customers by making perfect deliveries for one day. Allegedly. Developed for the arcade, Paperboy aimed to take your money from you as fast as you could throw papers to earn it, so you have about as much chance at making a perfect delivery as you have of finding a girl on an Internet dating site who doesn’t want to you to sign up for her webcam subscription.

Just a guy with his jack hammer out pounding the side walk. Completely innocent.

Just a guy with his jack hammer out pounding the side walk. Completely innocent.

Parents worried about violent games never even stopped to consider the vicious cycle in Paperboy–you play a paper-throwing simulator, thus compelling you to chuck newspapers like you brought a wheelbarrow full of rocks to an Old Testament stoning, only to earn more money to throw away at the arcade. Don’t you miss the 1980s? (Keep an eye on the skies…Doc Brown should show up with his DeLorean soon, if you want the chance to steal it) But as much as I enjoy Paperboy (with the arcade version slightly beating out the NES version), I don’t really like bikes much at all. My hometown–as well as my current town–both grew out of hillsides. So half the time I tried riding a bike, I’d either careen downhill in a sonic boom of panic, or slowly trudge uphill in a slow painful, slog, like a slave rowing a viking longboat. That might also explain why my local paper eventually replaced the traditional paper boy with a middle-aged woman with three teeth and an SUV, who would drive right up onto people’s lawns so she didn’t have to get out of the car to stick the papers in the mailboxes. So to celebrate my hatred of a transportation method that requires me to balance all my weight on a hard rubber knob under my testicles, next week I’d like to turn to a historically more traditional and far less painful mount: the ostrich.

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Grand Theft Auto III – PS2, XBox, PC

GTA3boxcoverBack in my undergraduate days, I worked at a Sam Goody. Never heard of it? Well, that just goes to show that charging $5 more per CD than anyone else selling music doesn’t constitute a particularly solid business strategy. But in trying to make up for dropping sales in overpriced music, they tried selling video games. Shortly after remodeling the store, adding the demo consoles, and gussying up the place all nice and pretty, I began to notice trending video games, two of which pop into mind as phenomenally stronger than anything else I sold to unsuspecting customers. One of these, Madden games, tricked people into buying the same shitty game year after year, only to disregard it as soon as the next installment came out. But even more popular than games doomed to life as a second-rate coaster, Grand Theft Auto III simply would not stay on our shelves.

Of course I took note. “Why does everyone want this game?” I asked. “Should I play it to find out?” Well, I didn’t. But I did hear about it. Open-world. Free-ranging. And prostitutes. Lots of prostitutes. Also, controversy. Controversy always makes for a good game, right? Well, I’d like to pose a question to any readers who may have played the game in the early 2000s–did you actually like Grand Theft Auto? Can you still pop in the disk and relive the good times? Or, like Goldeneye, do you look at it and puzzle over what the hell you ever saw in it?

Naturally, in a game revolving around car theft, you can never find one when you need it. I spent about 25% of my time running after cars like a dog.

Naturally, in a game revolving around car theft, you can never find one when you need it. I spent about 25% of my time running after cars like a dog.

Reading reviews, wikipedia articles, and the like make GTA III sound like the messiah of sandbox games. Freedom! Non-linear gameplay! Wide-open world! You can do anything you want! To a certain extent, I see how they can make those claims. GTA III gives the player complete freedom to steal any car and drive around any street and hit anyone you want! Some examples of the variety of things you can do here include: Steal a taxi and get paid to drive people to their destinations, steal an ambulance and get paid to drive people to the hospital, steal a police car and get paid to drive around looking for criminals, or steal a fire truck and get paid to drive around looking for fires. I don’t want to describe this game as stupid, but what it lacks in imagination, variety, and any enjoyment whatsoever, it more than makes up for in tedium, repetition, and boredom.

I know this looks bad...but this still turned out better than a lot of dates I went on in high school.

I know this looks bad…but this still turned out better than a lot of dates I went on in high school.

I went in expecting a crime spree game. Something like Scarface pointing Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels at the Godfather while Mr. Pink runs off with the diamonds, some L.A. Confidential, Pulp Fiction type stuff. Instead I get Cars, without the cute CGI or Pixar wit. GTA III basically reinvents the driving/racing genre. Imagine Mario Kart, if every so often Mario pulled Toad out of his car and stomped on his face. The game also uses the exact same driving physics and controls as every driving game ever. The challenge in driving under this system lies somewhere between “playing a 3D platformer while blindfolded” and “trying to steer a hockey puck with a leaf blower during a hurricane.” Despite the amount of time the game puts you in the driver’s seat, it does occasionally let you get out of the car and engage in a rudimentary form of good, old-fashioned gang violence, but the awkward interface makes aiming feel like target shooting during a grand mal seizure. Despite the contract you took out to assassinate…apparently a ramen vendor…the game’s target selection program generally assumes that the innocent bystanders pose a greater threat than the thugs charging at you with automatic rifles.

Cars, in this game, like this one, only slightly improve on the quality of car I can afford to drive in real life.

Cars, in this game, like this one, only slightly improve on the quality of car I can afford to drive in real life.

Odd as this may sound, GTA III feels less like a video game and more like a board game. I didn’t see much of a story line going on, other than the main character robbing a bank, his girlfriend shooting him, and then his friends busting him out of prison. From there, you look for work, and you visit certain bosses over and over, taking missions in a pre-determined, very non-non-linear fashion, until that boss has no work for you anymore. You can lose these missions in a number of ways, such as running out of time, getting shot, your car exploding, or getting caught by the police. These don’t really pose a threat so much as a minor inconvenience. Getting killed just makes you start over at the hospital, and despite your recent jailbreak, the police seem to have more of a catch-and-release program going on, and a string of murder, reckless driving and grand theft auto merit no more punishment than having to go slightly out of your way while running errands.

Yep...get used to this.

Yep…get used to this.

Also, veteran players may have noticed odd claims by now, so in full disclosure, I didn’t actually beat this game. In fact, I didn’t get very far in it at all, for a combination of two very good reasons. First of all, I didn’t find myself enjoying the game very much. Driving sims just don’t do it for me. I can barely stomach the thought of real driving. But I’ve finished boring games before. However, ramping up the difficulty to “harder than Charlie Sheen on a Viagra overdose” may not have endeared me to completion. After three days and roughly ten hours of gameplay, I had completed maybe seven or eight missions total. Maybe I just needed more practice, or more experience with driving games. Or maybe the damn game shouldn’t make you repeat absolutely everything every time something bad happens. Oh no! Ran out of time! Looks like I have to visit the boss again, watch the cut scene, go steal a car, look for the gun store, find a gun, look for the ramen stand, aim for the bad guys, shoot a few pedestrians by mistake, then get shot to death while the ramen noodle man hops in his car for a car chase that won’t happen. The sheer amount of time required for each individual mission, combined with the fact that I didn’t really enjoy the missions to begin with and the rage-inducing effect of the game’s shitty soundtrack of radio stations, indicated certain health benefits in walking away from this one.

And not even the good kind of wasted. Although both often require medical attention...

And not even the good kind of wasted. Although both often require medical attention…

Grand Theft Auto III which wins my coveted “Sarah Palin Award for Intelligence in Game Design,” cost me $2.99 at Savers. I think I paid too much. However, I also picked up a $2.99 copy of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. So…I at least have to make a perfunctory attempt at that one in order to clear off my shelf full of games I bought and haven’t yet played. Joy.

Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion (part two) – PC, PS3, xBox 360

You will welcome this sight at first, before you have to finish twenty other stages with the exact same layout and objective.

You will welcome this sight at first, before you have to finish twenty other stages with the exact same layout and objective.

I’ll make this short. After two months of play, two or three dozen quests and an equal number of times accidentally nuking my vampire by taking her out in broad daylight, three or four times when an enemy disarmed me and I had to restart because I couldn’t find my sword on the ground, the most epic final boss battle a game has ever permitted me to watch without actually participating in, and one final bug that prevented me from receiving the prize for finishing the main storyline, I have finally finished Oblivion. And I find I have absolutely nothing to say about it. Having spent the final forty hours pretty much the same way as I spent the first sixty, with the notable exception of a nagging feeling of repetition, as though I’d traveled through the same dungeons killing the same monsters for the same meager handful of gold coins, armor too heavy to carry, and weapons too cheap to make it worth carrying them to the nearest shop to sell them for yet another shitty handful of gold coins. Congratulations, Bethesda, you took the time and care in making an RPG with a skillfully crafted world that still somehow feels like a randomized-dungeon crawler.

Once I discovered the Shivering Isles, I stayed there for the next fifteen hours just because it didn't look like the same old caves I'd explored thirty times in Cyrodil.

Once I discovered the Shivering Isles, I stayed there for the next fifteen hours just because it didn’t look like the same old caves I’d explored thirty times in Cyrodil.

As Anne has already suckered me into a good forty hours or so of Minecraft since I finished the Elder Scrolls, I have to admit that the open-world, free-form game play does offer something therapeutic compared to the shorter, more directed games….Don’t expect me to explain it, though, as I just spent about ten minutes avoiding that question hopping from link to link on Facebook. (By the way, no, internet, Haley Joel Osmont did not grow up and become “super attractive.” He looks like a potato swallowing someone’s face like an amoeba.) Games like that, though, don’t need to rely on a well-written story or intricate game play, but with that same logic I could also say that Mega Man doesn’t rely on deep, philosophical introspection and God of War doesn’t rely on an anti-violence message or anger management techniques. You see an enemy? Hack it with your sword until it dies! Or maybe cast a spell on it. Which spell? It doesn’t matter! They all do the same thing! Just pick out the one that does the same thing more powerfully than all the rest!

Yep. Sure looks pretty. Can we try a desert? Or a jungle? Maybe? Something a little new?

Yep. Sure looks pretty. Can we try a desert? Or a jungle? Maybe? Something a little new?

Bethesda, as I mentioned in part one of this series, has made a name for themselves by making the same game at least four times (I haven’t played Morrowind…maybe five). They’ve also made a name for themselves in expansive, open world, hiking simulators and pathetically lame boss fights. Yeah, by crawling through RPG Maker in what little spare time I have, I’ve learned the stool-hardening madness inspired by crafting bosses as interesting battles rather than simply a thirty-second-long random enemy encounter with special music. Still, could we at least ask for a boss with slightly higher stats than the average enemy? A specialized attack pattern that requires more than “run up, hack with sword, back off, repeat” to kill? At least with the Elder Scrolls games, you don’t have to worry about finishing off the battle with a quick glance at your V.A.T.S. system.

Yep. Just chillin in third person. Jake does that sometimes.

Yep. Just chillin in third person. Jake does that sometimes.

Cut out all the inventory maintenance, travel time, consulting the map every thirty seconds, and questionable emphasis on combat, and poorly written quests that generally amount to “go there, get stuff, come back,” and Oblivion boils down to a character void of any personality, exploring a huge open world of trees, caves, and other natural wonders, who enchants armor, brews potions, and carries a sword to fight off obnoxious skeleton archers. Congratulations, Bethesda, you made a high resolution version of Minecraft. Who would have thought that you could have made tons more money if you had only half-assed the graphics?

Fuck you, order! I fight for madness and chaos! Like the freaking Joker! Up yours, shiny metal Batman!

Fuck you, order! I fight for madness and chaos! Like the freaking Joker! Up yours, shiny metal Batman!

Again, not that a game that offers aimless exploration with a handful of fringe benefits has to suck goblin nuggets. Games strive for a simulated experience, and even living on the cusp of the wild, untamed glacier of Northern Minnesota, I often feel way too wrapped up in our modern urban world, yearning, like Tolkien before me, to go “back to trees.” I think that people who read Tolkien and don’t see anything in it beyond “people walking” might not get the value of taking in the world for its wonders, which I think captures the true meaning behind Oblivion. So Bethesda, if any of you read this, stop releasing DLC and get the licensing to do a game set in Middle Earth. And then someone needs to develop immersive virtual reality so you can release your next game on a VR console. And also VR Minecraft.

Hellooooo....imagine meeting a mod like you in a place like this.

Hellooooo….imagine meeting a mod like you in a place like this.

Elder Scrolls: Oblivion (part 1) – PC, PS3, xBox 360

Yep...I've discovered yet another Medieval-y looking town.

Yep…I’ve discovered yet another Medieval-y looking town.

Captain’s Log: Morndas, Morning Star 19. Sixty hours into Elder Scrolls: Oblivion, I can see no end in sight. I occasionally pass the time by wandering through caves and fortresses, but most often I manage inventory. Encountered a bug today. Had to restart. Cost me an elven helmet I found after saving. At one point, I dropped my sword in some grass. Couldn’t find it again, so I had to restart then, too. Maybe I’ll walk around the map for a few hours. Perhaps I’ll stand in one place and jump to raise my stats. I don’t know. One of these days, I will find a way out…

Bethesda Softworks built their name around Oblivion. Or maybe Skyrim. No, on second thought, I think one of the Fallout games…What about Morrowind? I never played that. Maybe they built their reputation on that. I don’t know. It might do more justice to say Bethesda has risen to fame by making the same game at least four or five times. Kind of like Madden or Fifa for sci-fi/fantasy nerds. So you know what to expect: long hours of exploring a highly detailed world, accepting quests from a civilization full of people who want some random object in a dungeon somewhere, an inventory frustratingly limited by weight, and more bugs than the Temple of Doom.

Oblivion tells the story of…someone…who gets sprung from prison by the lackluster Emperor Patrick Stewart as he flees a group of assassins. The secret passage out of the city happens to go through your jail cell, and Emperor Xavier’s guards verbally decide not to close the door behind them “because it doesn’t open from the other side.” Because apparently, turning around and running back to assassins remains a better option than hiding your escape route from your pursuers. After getting sprung free, Emperor Picard drops a heavy quest on you–find his lost son and stop hell from overtaking all the world. You then do exactly what one would expect in a Bethesda game: you begin wandering aimlessly, accepting odd jobs from people with bizarre requests while giving a slight passing interest to the whole end-of-the-world thing every so often when it might not take too long to complete an objective.

Patrick Stewart as Uriel Septem, also known as "Sir Not Appearing in this Game."

Patrick Stewart as Uriel Septem, also known as “Sir Not Appearing in this Game.”

Given the absolute freedom to roam around the medieval fantasy world of Cyrodil, I immediately took in the sights, killed a bunch of monsters, wandered through what I would eventually recognize as bland, generic ancient ruins, and of course, contracted a horrible and incurable disease. I can proudly say I wrote the draft of this section in REAL TIME, as I actually “played” the game! See, out of all the quests in the game, the longest and by far the most obnoxious tasks you with curing the vampirism of the Count of Skingrad. And, for unfortunate bastards like myself, who spent the better part of a half hour adjusting the perfect face for a character only to contract hemophiliac porphyria, and to have the generic ugly vampire’s head swapped in its place.

So how does one cure vampirism? Well, considering the severe sunlight allergy you develop, you start by waiting indoors until night and then making a mad dash for your next destination, occasionally taking refuge in a cave or a shop. Asking around to the handful of people willing to talk to you without fleeing in terror or reaching for their wooden stakes, you learn about the Count of Skingrad, a quaint little village where everyone lives in lovely stone houses with reinforced steel doors. The count assigns you to go look for a witch who can supposedly cure the disease. She lives, surprise, surprise, on the opposite side of the country. Lacking the gypsy resources of Count Dracula, you’d better invest in a good pair of Nikes. So the witch asks for payment, which of course involves locating five extremely rare items without giving any indication of where you might find them. Then when you’ve paid in full–and advance–she sends you on the mother of all fetch quests to locate more super rare items. Once you have literally gone to Hell and back for her…you find out that the Game of the Year edition has a bug in it that prevents her from accepting one of the items, thus condemning you to live as a vampire forever.

Spent a half hour tweaking facial characteristics like a plastic surgeon...end up so disgusted with vampire face that I cover up with a helmet.

Spent a half hour tweaking facial characteristics like a plastic surgeon…end up so disgusted with vampire face that I cover up with a helmet.

Turns out, you can manage your vampirism, much like diabetes. Regular feedings will keep your photo sensitivity at bay, and people will gladly tell you how sick you look to indicate when you should hunker down in the mage’s guild living quarters until everyone goes to sleep. The bit about writing in real time? I got stuck in the witch’s house one morning, after twelve hours of questing for nothing. She wouldn’t go to sleep so I could eat her, and another bug in the game considered me a trespasser, thus rendering the “wait” feature inaccessible, and I had to stand there as the game’s timer ticked away to 8:00 pm. Fuck you, Bethesda. The entirety of God of War took less time to complete than this one quest. But no. I would rather sneak into a castle to pickpocket a key, dive to the bottom of a lake, search for the hidden trapdoor, make my way through three connected dungeons, and look for a random table, after which I have to locate a quest which opens a quest which opens another dungeon…all to get the one fracking ingredient that the witch won’t accept.

"Very Easy" my ass! Subjects of Tamriel must make lock picks out of pretzles if they break after every failed attempt.

“Very Easy” my ass! Subjects of Tamriel must make lock picks out of pretzles if they break after every failed attempt.

Due to the massive size of the game (which estimates online place at about 1036 km squared), I thought I should split the post up into at least two sections. So in a few weeks I’ll post about the remainder of the game (if Anne doesn’t sucker me into playing Minecraft for the next week while I prepare for the beginning of the semester). In the meantime, look at my estimated breakdown of the first sixty hours of game play:

2 Hours: Awesome world! More colorful than Skyrim…but not quite as HD.
3 Hours: I like how Cyrodil residents didn’t build all their fortresses and caves in straight lines…like in Skyrim. And look how unique they look! Skyrim seemed to repeat the same dungeons over and over.
0.5 Hours: Wow…Oblivion just repeats the same dungeons over and over…
1.5 Hours: So…when will Patrick Stewart come back? Did they honestly just hire him for the first scene?
12 Hours: Fucking Vampire Quest! Just let me go out during the day!
5 Hours: Fucking Vampire Diabetes! Should I even keep playing?
0.5 Hours: Of course I’ll play…I have an addiction.
5 Hours: Go into the cave to collect the treasure to buy the house so I have somewhere to put the treasure that I pull out of the caves.
0.5 Hours: Maybe I should spend some time on the main quest.
1 Hour: Oblivion! Hell dimension! Awesome!
0.5 Hours: Holy shit! The Siege of Kvatch monsters just won’t take damage.
1.5 Hours: Holy shit! I hate all the stupid, angry people on the internet giving advice for the Siege of Kvatch.
6 Hours: Shivering Isles? Score! It feels like a whole new game!
1 Hour: Looking for lockpicks after I broke all mine trying to open a chest that had six gold pieces in it.
20 Hours: Managing Inventory

Soul Reaver 2 – PS2, PC

legacyofkainsoulreaver2-01
This link takes you to page one of Finnegan’s Wake, a 1939 work by James Joyce that demonstrates both the limits of beginning a story in media res, and a depressing vision of what literature looks like after it suffers a massive stroke. I hope by drawing a comparison between a book that uses the term “bababadalgharaghtakamminarronnkonnbronntonnerronntuonnthunntrovarrhounawnskawntoohoohoordenenthurnuk!” and Soul Reaver 2: Legacy of Kain, I will make it very clear how I felt about this game. “But Jake,” you ask, “Why play through Soul Reaver 2 when only a few weeks ago, you clearly did not like or finish the original?” I have a very complex response to that, involving the tendency of video games to improve upon their originals, but really, Anne gave me the game as a gift, so I had to play it. Kind of like inscribing “Homer” on the disc. She wanted to see it, but didn’t actually want to play it herself. Now I understand why.

So as I mentioned, you select “start new game” from the option menu and the game immediately expects you to understand the names of the characters, their back stories and motivations, game mechanics, the history of Nosgoth, macroeconomics, the depths of human psychology, the meaning of life and the true nature of the universe. Also I suspect a few lines of dialogue from the end of the first game would have helped out a little. I suppose, however, the game doesn’t quite deserve the comparison to James Joyce I previously made–the characters use English words with proper sentence structure and grammar, but the content of the text sticks together with all the cohesiveness of a thin film of pond scum. Characters–usually Raziel–tell the story through extensive internal monologues in an accent as authentically British as french fries. The writing carries a very refined sense of self-importance, sounding very lofty, as though an E. coli patient swallowed the King James Bible.

These things. They matter. Apparently. Also, watch Raziel float like a plastic action figure! No Deku leaf required!

These things. They matter. Apparently. Also, watch Raziel float like a plastic action figure! No Deku leaf required!

Customarily, I give you a synopsis of the story, but honestly, I have no idea. Soul Reaver 2 breathes life into the term “convoluted.” It opens with a verbal spat between Raziel and Kain. Then comes Moebius, who I assume we met in the last game, and whose name in no way indicates the cyclical nature of the plot twist or time travel. Themes of the sword–the Soul Reaver–seemed to spring up time and time again. I also picked up that Raziel somehow longs for his pre-vampire human form because of his former goodness and nobility, but–spoilers–he becomes disillusioned with himself after…witnessing his human self kill a vampire? Even evil Raziel mentions early in the game that vampirism “is a plague and had to be wiped out,” but somehow felt morally opposed to the persecution of vampires. Also they talk about some pillars. Apparently somehow these pillars broke and it bummed everyone out. No one ever bothered explaining why. Kain, the ultimate evil upon whom Raziel swore vengeance, skulks around like Smeagol, having pleasant chats with Raziel instead of fighting to the death. Also the Elder God, apparently Cthulu’s estranged cousin or something, appears every so often to have no bearing on the plot whatsoever.

Gameplay involves Raziel running through the Nosgoth, a magical land where every location connects to exactly two other locations adjacent to it. Raziel runs from one end of this course to the other, backtracks, travels through time, then runs through Nosgoth again. Along the way he walks past enemies who would otherwise take too long to kill, recites bland, lengthy monologues, and occasionally pushes some blocks or flips some switches, all the while spending hours and hours lost. In pitch black environments. While people may enjoy video games with “dark atmosphere,” developer Crystal Dynamics may have taken that term a bit too literally. To quote writer Amy Henning’s wikipedia entry: “She also feels that focusing too much on graphics can inhibit a game, saying that once game writers focus on creative expression, video games will greatly improve.” I agree wholeheartedly. But could you at least focus enough on graphics to give us, say, a wall or a floor. Maybe a flashlight, at the very least? People don’t understand how to use darkness and light. In real life, darkness scares people. You don’t know what lurks in the shadows. You have to rely on other, lesser developed senses. However, darkness in a video game usually means tapping buttons unresponsively while staring at a black rectangle and wondering whether you should make ramen for dinner or order a pizza.

No did I just find a door, or the floor. Or the ceiling. Or did I visit the night side of Pluto? And get this--the section I described in the post, even darker than this one!

No did I just find a door, or the floor. Or the ceiling. Or did I visit the night side of Pluto? And get this–the section I described in the post, even darker than this one!

Even better, the game sends you through an underwater labyrinth of caves where the Elder God dwells, utilizing a swimming mechanic that works as well as folding laundry underwater. So in a pitch black environment (with a handful of glowing rocks every so often), you have to navigate through hidden tunnels with a “jump out of the water” button combination that will send you shooting downward (or sideways) if you nudge the control stick even a smidgen of its zeroed axis. And even better yet, the game makes you do this three damn times! I guess they really wanted you to talk to Squidworth. You know, some deep-sea creatures have bioluminescent qualities….

Who lives in a cesspool deep down in the ground? Who turned all the lights off and cannot be found?

Who lives in a cesspool deep down in the ground? Who turned all the lights off and cannot be found?

Crystal Dynamics deserves some credit for fixing a few of the more obnoxious features from the previous game. For instance, you can kill enemies on your own now, instead of hunting around for a boy scouts with some flint to finish them off. Puzzles have also improved, albeit only slightly. If the first game said, “We gave you some generic video game stuff. Do it,” Soul Reaver 2 says, “We finally figured out how other games use these generic video game things. Now do that.” Except do them right, because not only did we not focus on graphics, we also didn’t bother fixing glitches. The game has a number of them, usually the result of failing a puzzle. At one point, I had to float from one side of a cathedral to another without dousing a torch in the pool of blood filling the room. I made it across, but couldn’t figure out what to do with the torch in time. Then the blood rose so high that it covered up everything I needed for the puzzle. I finally figured out that the game had done something wrong–not me–when I swam from one room to the next and fell to the floor, looking back on a room full of blood polite enough to not cross the threshold unless invited.

A save point. The game generously gave you two or three of them. Don't start playing unless you definitely have three hours to kill at a time.

A save point. The game generously gave you two or three of them. Don’t start playing unless you definitely have three hours to kill at a time.

A further improvement, the soul reaver sword doesn’t vanish when you get hit–although that doesn’t exactly make combat smoother. If you kill an enemy who has a weapon, the reaver will automatically equip you with that weapon, which all invariably have far less strength than your reaver, and which Raziel can’t use quite as quickly as his opponents can. So combat often involved me dashing for cover, trying to put down weapons so I could use the useful attack again. The reaver does also inhale enemy souls before you can use them to refill your life, but considering the massive amounts of health I lost while whittling my enemies away with a weapon only slightly more powerful than a bronze toothpick, I never saw any reason to not use the reaver. Unlike in Onimusha, where souls come straight to you when you call, like a faithful and well-trained Labrador, when Raziel calls souls, they act like cats, fat and sluggish, interested in the treat you have, but kind of lazy after the big meal they just ate.

Unfortunately, small tweaks that bring the game up from “beginner’s effort” to “uninspired” don’t really make the game worth playing. I found it tedious and frustrating–like when I encountered enemies shorter than Raziel’s waist. He swings his sword in waist-high horizontal strokes. Only. So I’d always have to lure these monsters to a hill or incline because my character, named for the Hebrew Angel of All Knowledge, couldn’t figure out the first trick that Link learns in every game. Then by the end, approaching the nearest thing the game has to a boss fight, they hand me an upgraded soul reaver that makes Raziel invincible. Totally invulnerable to anything. For the rest of the game. Yeah, I suppose the plot twist after the final boss did entertain me for about ten seconds, but seriously…why even have a battle if you can’t die.

I spent a lot of time looking for this guy. Raziel felt very close to him during the three minutes of screentime he has. This is him wonder why.

I spent a lot of time looking for this guy. Raziel felt very close to him during the three minutes of screentime he has. This is him wonder why.

With writing full of cliches like “this opened my eyes!,” stupid puns like “feel the pull of history” as some mystical force drags me across the room, and human enemies lobbing taunts learned in a night-school course on one-liners for minor characters in fantasy games, I easily grew bored. The relentless monologues put me to sleep and the hoity-toity language just sounded like a sophomoric attempt to sound cultured. At one point Raziel shouts out the phrase, “Spare me your elaborate metaphors!” Please do, Soul Reaver 2. Please do.

Leisure Suit Larry: Land of the Lounge Lizards – DOS

Ah, the beautiful sanctity of marriage. Such an auspicious and respected tradition.

Ah, the beautiful sanctity of marriage. Such an auspicious and respected tradition.

Sometime early in college, my great Uncle Harold upgraded his computer.  Essentially my grandfather, Uncle Harold has some impressive traits for a senior citizen. One, as an early adopter of technology, he always has the latest gadgets (usually photography-related) well before anyone else in my family. Two, although he doesn’t flaunt it like a lot of old men, he has a vibrant, private dirty side to him. And while I may not yet have found his alleged hoard of Playboys, I did receive a pleasant surprise when he gave me his old Windows 95 computer (in 2002) and a box full of unmarked 3.5 inch floppy disks. Let me stress the term “unmarked.” While most of them had nothing of note on them, two of them caught my attention. On one, what I can best describe as an extended animated .gif, a woman having sex demonstrated the technological capacity for photo-realistic breast-bouncing. To put it mildly. On another, I found that for all of Uncle Harold’s subtle disapproval of my reading fiction and playing video games, he had indulged in a lively, lighthearted little legend among electronic gaming, Leisure Suit Larry and the Land of the Lounge Lizards.

You couldn't call a game about the quest for anonymous sex complete without a good, moral lesson about public exposure.

You couldn’t call a game about the quest for anonymous sex complete without a good, moral lesson about public exposure.

Sadly, for all my interest in classic SNES-era RPGs, I’ve found that entries with terms like breasts, penis, sex, bdsm, and any other of those erotic terms I can figure out how to squeeze into the text are really the entries that drive viewers to my blog. Since I’ve finished all the Mystique Swedish Erotica series, I had to look around for something new. Fortunately, I’ll have underground sex games aplenty should I ever need to up my viewership. For now, after spending about a week with Larry Laffer, I have, let’s say, “unlocked a new achievement”: Two in a row! I have just abandoned my second game in a row due to overpowering tedium!

Wait, let me get my calculator...sorry, I can't find the beer button.

Wait, let me get my calculator…sorry, I can’t find the beer button.

Let me get the background out of the way, first. Leisure Suit Larry tells the story of Larry Laffer, a 40-year-old version before Steve Carell made it cool, on a quest to get laid. I guess publisher Sierra had a different approach to the concept of “virtual reality.” I play games for something unusual and interesting! Not to relive ten years of frustration! Anyway, over the course of an evening in Las Vegas, Larry must go through all the proper steps of wooing women–boxes of candy, jewelery found in a men’s room, expensive wine, and other gestures that came off as hackneyed and cliched at a time when movie stars still rode off into sunsets and people wrote stories on papyrus. The game comes in two forms, the 1987 text parser adventure (type commands via keyboard) and the 1991 remake, which uses a point-and-click interface, and an upgraded resolution that can show more realistic looking anatomy, including shaded breasts and nipples–but chooses not to do so. Keepin’ it classy, eh, Larry? I hate to break it to you, Sierra, but your attempted humor has all the appeal of a Tuesday night strip club–a few drinks might make it interesting, but I’d still rather go home and sleep.

Because all adults can agree on the appropriate answer to this question, furthermore, without acting like children.

Because all adults can agree on the appropriate answer to this question, furthermore, without acting like children.

Stepping up to the plate for your first attempt at swinging, the game first pitches you a quiz. It asks you for your age, and if you answer in the range of 0-15 or over 100, the game automatically kicks you off.  Apparently seeing the hints of pixilated cleavage and a square representing an erect nipple through a dress might just cause centurions to have heart attacks, or send a 15-year-old boy spiraling into a den of sin from which he’ll never escape. No problem with 16-year-olds, though. Apparently, sex adventure games rate somewhere less than “R” and higher than “PG-13.“ Next problem I encountered, the game quizzed me to make sure I fell in the 21-39 range I claimed after I stopped trying to have fun by playing a game and fess up honestly. Apparently, Sierra has developed a crack formula for determining information that all adults know, but would mystify anyone younger than 16. Mainly that consists of knowing intimate details about the Nixon administration, including knowing all three vice-presidents from 1973-1974, the fact that Ford didn’t ever win a presidential election, and a running tab of U.S. attorney generals. Fortunately, I could guess the number of calories in a can of beer and look up the star of “Bedtime for Bonzo,” but I disagree vehemently with the game when it said that showing up to a party in your birthday suit would not “a: Help you make a lot of new friends.” I guess I could consider finding ways to age restrict what they perceived as a racy game as a noble attempt, but half that stuff I knew by the age of 12, and the other half I had to rev up my brain into GRE mode just to have a shot at answering. I’ll admit I don’t know what germ causes syphilis. I’ll wager a majority of the people with syphilis don’t even know the name of the germ, and the majority of them have a minimal knowledge of germs in general.

Losing all control when someone shows you porn seems like a bad quality in a man who sells naked women for a living.

Losing all control when someone shows you porn seems like a bad quality in a man who sells naked women for a living.

By the time I got to the actual game, I first took note of Larry, moving around the screen with all the vivacity of a sedated tortoise suffering from severe depression. After about an hour of playing, I noticed an option in the menu for increasing the game’s speed. It baffles me that anyone thought people would welcome this option. If you need five minutes to mentally adjust to the idea of crossing a room, you should avoid video games of any sort. Seriously, if you need to play LSL at anything less than the fastest setting, a rousing game of solitaire could trigger an epileptic fit, and something like Minesweeper could put you into anaphylactic shock. I also didn’t appreciate having to repeat commands, reading graffiti or flipping through TV channels ad infinitum just to read through every last pitch for a joke that went around the developer’s table. Comedy relies on speedy timing, and having jokes delivered on the backs of snails does tend to ruin the jokes. By the time I did figure out I needed to enter the command multiple times, I had enough time to notice that since the TV used a rabbit-ear antenna, I would not likely find the porn flick that eventually distracted the pimp on a broadcast station.

Finally, Larry, you've found some wholesome wife-material. Take this one home to meet mom!

Finally, Larry, you’ve found some wholesome wife-material. Take this one home to meet mom!

In addition to that, the game includes such interesting behavior as a) handing out booze like spare change, thus ensuring a speedy death via alcohol poisoning to any drunk who might have randomly useful shit in his pockets. b) A woman proposing to a complete stranger who gave her a diamond ring, then danced with her, because when it comes to the gray area of fucking a stranger, only marriage will somehow clear up any moral ambiguity. Because she shouldn’t worry at all about the syphilis germ. Or her potential death at the hands of a possible serial killer. And, of course, I have to mention the coup de grace, c) censored sex scenes. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, in a game preying on humans’ instinctive attraction to sex, a game involving a rigorous age filter, a game about a balding 38-year-old hobbit looking to score, every time the pants come off, the black “censored” bar goes on. Custer’s Revenge had more erotic moments than Leisure Suit Larry. Fuck it. Skip this game and just go to Red Tube.

What the fuck? Literally! Their parts may have the lowest resolution this side of the Atari 2600, but I think I deserve it for having slogged through the unintuitive muck of this game.

What the fuck? Literally! Their parts may have the lowest resolution this side of the Atari 2600, but I think I deserve it for having slogged through the unintuitive muck of this game.

Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver – PS1, Dreamcast, PC

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I knew it would come to this eventually. When I decided to play every game worth playing–and some not worth it, but nevertheless amusing–I made every effort to finish the game before I wrote about it. I couldn’t always keep that promise: some games have no real end, while games like Donkey Kong would require unemployment, a government grant, and ten years of having literally nothing better to do than jump over barrels in order to get to the kill screen. Also, Bubble Bobble kept crashing and Gauntlet just got boring after 64 virtually identical levels. But I knew eventually I’d find a game that would force me to quit just due to its sheer awfulness. A game with not only picture and sound, but a pungent aroma–probably of dead fish. As of tonight (and by “tonight” I mean November 5th when I actually wrote this), I have found that game. Ladies and gentlemen, if Satan himself handed me a clarinet carved from his own petrified shit using a reed soaked in Drano, I would rather play that then Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver.

Yep...spectral realm here. Not too much going on. Nice and blue, though.

Yep…spectral realm here. Not too much going on. Nice and blue, though.

Soul Reaver draws inspiration from arcane Hebrew myth in a way that makes God of War look as canonically accurate as Bullfinch’s Mythology. You play as Raziel, named for the Jewish Angel of Knowledge, God’s own version of Astinus of Palanthas, who records all knowledge and delivered a book of magic to Adam and Eve with the instructions to help them return to Eden. Naturally, none of that interested the designers, so instead they give us an anthropomorphic hoover vacuum cleaner. A former servant of Kain, one day Raziel sprouts a pair of wings. Kain passes up the chance to found his own personal Luftwaffe, and interpreting these wings as an obvious threat to his manhood, rips them off with his bare hands, and to add more injury to injury, drops you into a swirling lake of fire to burn for eternity. Eventually, an Elder God revives Raziel and empowers him to take his vengeance upon Kain, entirely ignoring the fact that the past few thousand years has reduced the world to a post-apocalyptic shit hole with no one in it but a few monsters and nothing to do except writhe in the agony of boredom.

Here we see light. Not sure what it means, but it broke up the monotony.

Here we see light. Not sure what it means, but it broke up the monotony.

If we can describe games like Resident Evil 4, 5, and 6 as “action packed” and Metroid or the Legend of Zelda as “adventure packed,” then Soul Reaver proudly sports the label of “unpacked.” Critics in the late 90s may have praised the game for its dark, gloomy atmosphere. Perhaps they wouldn’t have focused on the atmosphere so much if the game didn’t had any other aspects to it. Raziel runs through a sparse, open world much like a hamster dropped into a brand new maze. Everything looks the same; kind of a dull brownish-green, a lot of rocks, stones, dark sky and murky water. Large portals connect various parts of the game, but labels each one with an complex symbol and no text, handing you about half a dozen of these things straight off with no context for why any of these locations matter. Raziel could pull out a GPS unit, input a location, and the thing would shoot back, “Sorry dude. Even I can’t find this one.” I spent most of the game just looking for the next important location, running through a big empty world, trying to avoid the random enemy the game so graciously bestows upon us every so often. And to make matters worse, upon loading a previously saved game, you get to start from the beginning! Of the entire game! Good luck finding where you left off! I’ve come to grips with the fact that even accomplished players often have to consult a walkthrough, but when my time playing versus time reading ratio reaches 1 to 9, I figure I might as well go all out on the walkthrough and save myself some money on the electric bill.

Use this portal to exchange the green filter for a blue one, but blue filters make you too weak to turn a door knob.

Use this portal to exchange the green filter for a blue one, but blue filters make you too weak to turn a door knob.

The game’s core feature lets players shift between two parallel realities, the spectral plane and the material plane, kind of like the light world and dark world from A Link to the Past, if you never picked up the moon pearl and had to play as the bunny while in the dark world. In the spectral realm, Raziel can’t alter or interact with anything physical. He can’t carry weapons, open doors, push blocks, but he can walk on rickety platforms and survive underwater. Don’t get too excited about that, though; they rarely do anything with this. I imagine Soul Reaver’s developers as the kind of people who could stumble upon a huge supply of gold and use it to weigh down a handful of papers in their office so they wouldn’t blow around when they chucked the rest of the gold into the alley behind the building.

As if sliding blocks didn't insult us enough, they actually managed to make it more infantile by putting it on a track.

As if sliding blocks didn’t insult us enough, they actually managed to make it more infantile by putting it on a track.

Rather than use this shifting-between-planes bit in a way that made the game creative and fun, you get to…wait for it…push blocks around rooms to solve puzzles! Yes, apparently the dark ancient god has resurrected Raziel in order to perform the most nonsensical overused cliche in all of gaming. He will extract his vengeance upon Kain by…slightly reorganizing all his stuff. “Ha ha,” says Raziel. “Now you will come through here at night and probably stub your toe because I put this block in a different place!” Gloomy atmosphere aside, the game sounds like an Eddie Izzard routine. I’ll put up with sliding block puzzles once in a while. The Legend of Zelda often uses them quite well, forcing you to think, “Now why did they put this sliding block here? What can I do with it?” In Soul Reaver, I’d often find a block, and way on the other side of the room you’ll see a block-shaped hole. “Oh no!” I say. “How ever will I slide this block all the way across the room!” Unique to Soul Reaver, Raziel has a mechanic that lets him flip blocks over, which as usual utterly disappointed me in its failure to incorporate this in any way that actually makes this fossilized corpse of an idea fun.

Because apparently the developers forgot to make the game fun. Usually in a game that installed the crap filter backwards, a modicum of fun will occasionally slip past the net to break up the time consuming tedium of wandering around lost and rearranging the furniture, but even Soul Reaver’s combat refuses to relent. Apparently on his checklist of “bad ideas for vengeance on Kain,” the elder god also included, “not giving my emissary the power to actually kill anything.” Sure, you can poke the monsters with your claws or occasionally whack them with junk you find lying about, but that only stuns them momentarily. You can’t reave their souls unless you happen to find a staff to impale them with or a handy campfire to chuck them into. And no, the game does not provide you with them; after all, such entitlement programming might make you dependent on killing enemies. You can’t even damage the first boss: you kill him by running away and luring him into places to drop gates on him Rancor-style.

I need to take vengeance upon this guy? He looks like he should be trying to gasp out the phrase, "Kill me, please!"

I need to take vengeance upon this guy? He looks like he should be trying to gasp out the phrase, “Kill me, please!”

After the second boss, Kain, you get a sword, coincidentally named Soul Reaver–which leads me to think the developers built the entire game around a really cool sounding name, and then spent most of the project bickering over whether it would describe the protagonist or the weapon. You can kill things with the sword, but unfortunately it only appears when you have full health. Eventually I found myself unable to attempt a sliding block puzzle because of two monsters tag-teaming me. With no fire or sticks about, I could only switch into the spectral plane, reave some energy to fill my life and charge my sword, then return to the physical plane just to get whacked before I could deliver my own whacking. After repeating this cycle about ten times, I finally stunned a single monster; however, Raziel prefers a wind-up to the finishing blow that could fill the plot of two solid Dragonball Z episodes, giving the other enemy ample time to knock my health down, or if I targeted that one, it the stunned enemy had plenty of time to recover. After another twenty or thirty rounds of this, I threw down my controller shouting, “Fuck it! I will not play this game!”

And I finished Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. So that should tell you something.