Shedding Light on My Dark Souls

In 2009, Demon’s Souls was released.  Initially a cult favorite, its popularity grew and put From Software on the map worldwide.  The game spawned four titles that the copyright lawyers assure you are only spiritual successors, as well as a host of imitators.  The series really hit the mainstream with Demon’s Souls’ immediate not-sequel Dark Souls, and its incredibly challenging, unforgiving and epic dark fantasy quests became iconic.  Until reviewers passed the title on to Crash Bandicoot and Cuphead to hide how terrible they were at old-school platformers and action shooters, Dark Souls became the go-to example of a hard game.  It was the Dark Souls of lazy and often nonsensical comparisons.

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No, seriously, they compared this to Dark Souls, look it up.

My feelings on the series (Demon’s Souls, Dark Souls 1-3, and Bloodborne, the fan name for the collective being Soulsborne) are… complicated.  I wanted to like the series, lengthy and challenging action-adventure games in a dark fantasy setting sounded great to me.  But with all those stats and equipment to manage, despite being Japanese I would classify the Soulsborne games (or at least the earlier ones) as really hard WRPGs.  I have no problem with hard games if they’re in a genre I like, but WRPGs are definitely not one of those genres.  And the controls and hit detection seemed too clunky for such a demanding game.  But were my complaints legitimate, or just me refusing to adapt to a series outside of my comfort zone?  I was never completely sure, which was a major reason I haven’t said much about these games before.

Well, the series offered to meet me halfway, and I accepted.  Bloodborne and Dark Souls 3 addressed some of my major issues (the characters move faster and checkpoints are a little more sane), and I managed to beat both of them.  For reference, I made it around a quarter of the way through Demon’s Souls before giving up, and only played a little bit of a friend’s copy of Dark Souls to confirm it hadn’t fixed my issues.  I didn’t bother trying Dark Souls 2.  I’m not claiming to be an expert on the series, but am I a fan?  I’m still not completely sure, which is why I’m writing this article.  While playing Dark Souls 3 (I beat that very recently, while Bloodborne was a couple years ago), I switched several times between finding it an enjoyable and satisfying game, and being furious at it and wanting to quit.  But either way, it was addictive and dominated my gaming time.  When I finished it, I felt a wave of emotion that was part accomplishment and part relief.  I’ve been trying to understand and articulate my thoughts on the series, and I think I’ve finally gotten it.

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I hate this asshole more than any other boss in recent memory.

The Soulsborne games have a concept I love, they are in a genre that has great potential to draw me in.  I really want to like them, but I feel like there are some serious flaws that could be easily fixed.  However, many of these flaws haven’t been addressed, and I think a major reason for that is that reviewers and the gaming community are refusing to acknowledge these flaws.  As the series progresses, some of my problems are addressed, but others are completely ignored.  I trudge through these issues to get at the part of the game that I enjoy, while wishing that the genre could fix these flaws and feeling resentful towards the rabid fanbase of the series for refusing to acknowledge these issues as flaws.  As these thoughts went through my head, I realized there was a very close parallel to my feelings about Soulsborne in a different series.  Yes, for all the games that supposedly are the Dark Souls (apparently the first difficult game ever made) of their genre, Soulsborne itself fits into that mold.

Dark Souls is the Grand Theft Auto of the 2010s. 

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Forget King’s Field, this is the Dark Souls prototype.

Yes, Soulsborne lines up almost perfectly with the beloved sandbox codifier that contains my personal punching bag (Grand Theft Auto 3 will always be terrible no matter how much the series improves).  And I think I’ve pinpointed what I find so frustrating about both the Soulsborne games and the pre-Grand Theft Auto V GTA games…

Recently, I’ve grown fond of the term “quality of life” as it relates to game design.  I define quality of life as features in a game that reduce frustration and inconvenience without making the game easier.  Being able to quickly equip items or abilities in real time instead of constantly pausing, information about items and stats prominently displayed and easy to access, the ability to retry challenges on the spot instead of being forced to commit suicide if you think you’ve messed up too much to finish an area.  And I’m sorry to say that in many ways the Soulsborne games seem to pride themselves on being anti-quality of life.  Want to fight a boss again?  In the later games you can almost always run to that boss easily without enemies getting any hits on you, but every time the boss kills you have to make that run again.  To make matters worse, you have to deal with a load time that’s longer than it would be if you could just respawn in the boss room.  You aren’t allowed to have a map, which isn’t even justified by realism, explorers made their own maps.  You… you can’t even pause.  There’s an offline mode, for God’s sake, let us pause!

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Seriously, how the hell is not being able to pause an offline game acceptable?

This is in addition to things that do make the game harder, but in ways I feel aren’t legitimate.  Having one shot at collecting the souls/blood you had at your last death is an interesting feature, but something needs to be done about how it punishes you for making progress between checkpoints.  Die early?  You can easily get your experience points back.  Make lots of progress then die?  You are very likely screwed.  And don’t get me started on using an item, dying, the enemies you killed along the way respawning, and that item STILL BEING GONE.  The line between challenging and cheap is always… one of those… to draw, but I think there are some elements of the Soulsborne games that are legitimately cheap.

So, what is my overall point, what am I hoping to get out of this?  Well, it ties back to the Grand Theft Auto parallels.  In 2008, Saints Row 2 came out, and in 2012 I finally tried the “GTA rip-off.”  It was night and day, SR2 kept everything I liked about GTA and fixed all of my problems.  That’s what I want: the Saints Row 2 of Dark Souls.  A game that improves the genre so much that previous games in it feel unplayable in comparison.  Something that even makes the developer of the earlier, more famous series take notice and improve their games.

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We may have the Dark Souls of everything, but what we need is the Saints Row 2 of Dark Souls.

So, back to the question of how I feel about Soulsborne, it remains complicated.  The later games are for the most part enjoyable for me, but I’m actively hoping for a game that will make me unable to ever go back to them.  So I guess I’m a fan at the moment, but a fair amount of that comes from Stockholm Syndrome.  Soulsborne draws me in with things I love, and holds them hostage with needlessly annoying and frustrating “traditions” that its fanbase refuses to acknowledge as flaws.  I seriously saw people arguing that the pre-patch Bloodborne load times were a good thing because they punished the player for dying.  Few internet gaming opinions have aggravated me that much.  For the time being, the Soulsborne games are good, but they could be so much better.  Let’s just hope that someday a Saint-like franchise fills these Dark Souls with light.

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Player’s Choice

When it comes right down to it, the video game industry in general is a very tumultuous place. It seems like consumers, publishers and the journalists who act as intermediaries between the two are often at each other’s throats in a way that doesn’t appear to be that common when it comes to entertainment in general. Usually, I find myself siding with the customer side of things: after all, that’s probably where I end up falling most of the time – I think my article from last month proves that. The thing is, lately, I’ve been noticing a trend among some more vocal gamers. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’ve always hated the “entitled gamers” label: frankly, I think it’s generally just used as an out for publishers to put out a lackluster product, expecting to get away with it scot-free. But I’ve seen cases where I’d be willing to apply the label; if it weren’t for the baggage associated with the term. I’m talking about the kind of people that demand that every game priced at $60 owes them 60 hours of gameplay, bare minimum. Of course, that’s a rare and extreme example, but it exemplifies this trend I’ve seen. I’ve heard of cases where people have demanded platformers and other speedrun-friendly genres last between 30 and 50 hours to be considered worthwhile purchases. It just sort of strikes me as a ridiculous proposition: there are decidedly few genres out there that could achieve anything remotely close to that length on a regular basis, and most of the time, they have to resort to “tricks” like endless sidequests or a multiplayer mode. Single-player campaigns just aren’t built to last for that long and frankly, I can’t really recall a period where it was practical to hit that mark consistently.

Expecting an hour of gameplay per dollar paid for a product just seems insane and unfair to me. I mean, let’s compare this to other forms of mass media. At the time I’m writing this, most Blu-Ray releases of theatrical movies tend to range between $25 and $35 – and that’s after taking into account severe discounts compared to the manufacturer’s suggested retail price, which generally appears to sit around $40 a movie. I don’t see people demanding an hour’s worth of film per dollar spent on new movies. Granted, those usually come with bonus features. You know what doesn’t? Watching brand new releases in the theater. The average price of a movie ticket in the United States was about $8.84 in the first quarter of this year – yet, I can’t even remember a mainstream film that clocked in at five hours, let alone eight. Books are a bit harder to gauge in terms of how much time is spent getting through them – everyone reads at their own pace, after all – yet I don’t recall seeing any Amazon reviews calling a book a ripoff because they got less than 100 pages for every dollar they spent on it.

One possible argument I could think of is that when someone buys a movie or a book, they can rewatch or reread it ad nauseum, whenever the urge hits them. I don’t see how this doesn’t apply to video games too. Maybe the longer ones would be difficult to replay immediately, but if shorter games are the problem in the first case, then it should be easy enough to replay them soon after if they’re that short. In fact, replay value is where video games shine compared to other media. Most movie buffs talk about how certain films can be viewed in entirely new lights upon repeat viewings, but that’s nothing compared to video games. Due to their inherent interactivity – well, in most cases – each playthrough of a video game offers an entirely new experience. In pretty much every video game I’ve ever played, there have always been new secrets and exploits to be found upon second or third playthroughs, allowing for a more in-depth look at the game. That’s nothing to say of self-imposed challenges: I’ve replayed the original NES version of MegaMan 2 several times, but it’s been years since I started with Metalman – the traditional boss to start with when playing the game – and the game feels entirely new each time I tweak the order.

Then of course, you’ve got additional bonus content. While many games these days tend to hide extra features behind paywalls as opposed to in-game achievements, there are still a fair amount of games that respect the old ways in at least some small form. While most home video releases of major motion pictures and TV shows have a tendency to add bonus features, the majority of them have little bearing on the meat of the package. Maybe you’ll get the occasional “extended cut” that mixes various deleted scenes back into the work proper, but most of the time special features are generally expected to be enjoyed outside of the feature attraction. Not so with video games. Higher difficulty levels, alternate playable characters and “New Game+” modes all add something new to the game itself, allowing for entirely new experiences, which can double the standard length of a game. It’s a shame that features like this generally aren’t taken into account when gauging a game’s length, because generally, that would double the length of a game bare minimum.

That’s a problem that most people don’t seem to consider: where does the metric of calculating the time it takes to complete a game come from? Most people game at different skill levels – not to mention the fact that most gamers excel at some genres better than others – so how is the average time it takes to complete a game determined? It always just sort of struck me as arbitrary. I’ve taken more than the average time to complete a game on a blind-run than what the developers expected and in some cases, I’ve managed to finish in less time. The whole concept of measuring time in video games just strikes me as an inexact science and it makes me wonder about those people who demand such large games. Do they keep track of the time they spend with the game meticulously or do they just take traditional timekeeping methods – be they in-game or on the console itself – at face value? I suppose that this would bring video games more in line with books, as people have different reading levels and often read at different paces based on the material. Unfortunately, they’ve also got a much more uniform tangible length, in the form of pages. Sure, at times, you can say a game has a certain number of “levels” or “chapters”, but considering how these vary from game to game (not to mention, segments typically get longer as games themselves go on), it still comes across as an inconsistent way to measure a game’s true length.

I guess my main issue with the whole argument that every game should last a certain amount of time is that, as a rule, I’m more concerned with the quality of the time I’m spending on a game as opposed to the quantity. I’m often much more enamored with games that grab my attention for 5 hours over anything that just becomes a 500-hour trudge for the sake of “getting my money’s worth”. Granted, those are my priorities – but I just can’t wrap my head around to idea of demanding that a game takes up a certain amount of time instead of just giving players a certain amount of enjoyment. Of course, these days I seem to be gravitating more and more towards smaller games in general. Considering the fact that I’m a retro gamer at heart in the first place – I doubt I’ll ever see anything after the 16-bit era as gaming’s “Golden Age” – shorter games remind me of the good old days. In addition to that, a lot of the games I find myself enjoying the most tend to retro-style throwbacks anyway and those games are generally shorter than AAA extravaganzas. Oftentimes, I think the best thing I can ever say about a game is that it leaves me wanting more. That’s probably the main thing I keep in mind when gauging just how much I enjoyed something: it all comes down to whether I feel satisfied upon finishing it. Whether I just want an expansion, a straight up “level pack” sequel or some kind of spiritual successor from the same developers, it’s always a good sign.

This article may come across as a defense for some of the admittedly scummier tactics that publishers and developers – but mostly publishers – use to milk their consumer bases for all they’re worth. I’m by no means defending practices like selling a $60 game entirely on additional paid content. There just has to be some happy medium between companies demanding full price for an incomplete experience and gamers demanding that a game provide at least a full 168 hours of content before they consider buying a game at half price. Neither extreme really feels all that viable for the industry as a whole and as development costs continue to balloon, concessions need to be made at both sides. Of course, as I said, I’m not really that big on AAA blockbusters, so I’ll probably be fine either way. I’ll stick to getting ripped off by shorter games, thank you.

Under Reconstruction – Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest

As I’m posting this around midnight on All Hallows’ Eve, the witching hour as it were, it feels only fitting that I’m reviving a series I’ve not seen for a couple years. What better treat for Halloween than one last revival for the year? While Sum of Its Parts may have been more fitting given the day, Under Reconstruction always felt like an interesting concept. Taking a look at the odd one-offs, the quirky experiments and the black sheep games in popular series and reimagining them in a way that would improve their standing, while maintaining their unique identities in the process. I guess it would be scarier if I just decided they should be reworked to completely represent the rest of their franchises, but where’s the fun in that?

As I’ve only written one of these articles before, I’ll be making some changes from the previous article. Quite simply, I went far, far too in-depth in the last article, which may have contributed to my abandonment of the concept. Looking back at the previous article, I was clearly going for of a mini-design document style, which decisively hurt the flow of the entire thing at times, forcing it to be confined to sections and sub-headers. This time around, Under Reconstruction will be going for more of a “broad strokes” format, effectively going for the gist of what I’d want to see in a remake of the game in question. Hopefully, that’ll make this more viable as a recurring series, which honestly, was the original point of the first article. So, if you’re expecting another set of in-depth treatises on how to remake an old video game few people remember and fewer people liked, I’m afraid you’re going to be disappointed with this one. As for anyone else still reading this, let’s continue.

If you haven’t already guessed from the title, this article is going to be focusing on the second Castlevania game, Simon’s Quest. While Simon’s Quest is generally considered among the weaker entries in the series, due in no small part to a parody review video from one James “Angry Video Game Nerd” Rolfe, its place of importance within the Castlevania franchise is still unquestionable. While the original Castlevania was essentially an arcade-era platformer in the same vein as Ghosts ‘n Goblins, Simon’s Quest took a far more exploratory approach to its games – best resembling Nintendo’s Zelda II: The Adventure of Link. Due to this shift in priorities, some consider it to be something of an “ur-Metroidvania”, the style of gameplay associated with Symphony of the Night – which in turn, is considered by many to be the best game in the series. Of course, SotN and SQ handle exploration in almost entirely different ways, but by now, the connection has been made. Simon’s Quest isn’t the worst game in the series by any means, but it suffers from its mechanics – to the extent where the following game simply refined the mechanics of the original game and the series would follow on this path until the 32-bit era. Considering we’ve seen several remakes and reimaginings of the first game, why not give the second a chance to shine, especially given the fact that platform-adventure games in general have become substantially more refined?

Gameplay

The best games I can think of that took inspiration from Simon’s Quest would have to be the first two Shantae games from WayForward. As such, they seem like a good place to look for inspiration when refining mechanics for the remake. For starters, throw out the lives system. It was an odd mechanic in general, especially considering the fact that the only way to replenish them was through getting a Game Over. Most of the platformers that focused on exploration that came out after SQ had done away with the lives system, so it only makes sense that a remake would do the same. Having said that, I would keep the pitfalls in the game, as they emphasize the platforming elements in the game – just have them do about as much damage as an enemy instead of costing a life (you know, because they won’t exist anymore). Having said that, any Simon’s Quest remake should bring back the day/night mechanics, but do a straight fluid transition between the times of day, rather than doing it with a textbox and a slow-paced transition every single time. The original Shantae also made use of the day/night mechanics and handled them perfectly: just a quick palette and music swap. I’d suggest incorporating the classic texts for the first night and day transitions respectively, but make them background elements: don’t interrupt the flow of gameplay.

Simon’s Quest had a simple leveling system in it, and frankly, I’d just bring this back unchanged. Keeping the level cap at six and allowing for significant stat boosts based on experience points would be an interesting concept – effectively bridging the gap between the sometimes-ridiculous RPG-style leveling associated with the Metroidvanias, while still rewarding players for facing down enemies unlike the Classicvanias. Keeping the amount of experience points that can be earned in specific areas is another element I’d keep from the original NES version, simply because it would force progression. Likewise, the way the game handled equipment – including upgrades for existing weapons – is also well done. Granted, in this case, I’d suggest allowing players to shift back to weaker versions of the powered-up weapons, for the sake of adding some measure of optional difficulty. I’d also suggest adding both the Axe and the Cross Boomerang to Simon’s arsenal of sub-weapons, not only because their absence struck me as odd, but because they could allow for new obstacles and gameplay mechanics. Simon’s Quest also had multiple endings, based on how quickly the game was beaten. I’d definitely keep those mechanics: considering the fact that the game is said to be a prototype of the future Metroidvanias of the series, it would only make sense to include something that rewards quick completions, consider that’s a hallmark of the sub-genre‘s namesake.

The game world itself, on the other hand, needs to be significantly overhauled. The only thing I’d consider worth keeping from the original release would be the literal setting, which sufficiently depicted the kind of countryside and towns one might expect to exist alongside a literal demon castle. While researching for this article, I looked up a full map of the game’s overworld, and it’s literally a straight line. Some verticality and branching paths would be appreciated, especially considering how much of a role these elements would play in future games in the series. In a game like this, non-linearity seems like it should be the focus and as such, keeping the linear design of the original overworld seems like a mistake, especially considering the fact that the game managed to take a non-linear approach in the first place. The various areas were lined up in a random order, forcing playing to backtrack between both ends of the map to progress. Adding additional paths and shortcuts could make things much more interesting from a gameplay perspective.

Then there’s the case of the Mansions, which effectively acted as “action stages” or dungeons within the game. Each housed a specific relic of Dracula’s and they ended up being the parts of the game that best resembled the first game in terms of gameplay. However, they would generally focus more on cryptic puzzles rather than platforming gameplay, something I’d probably change if the game were remade for modern audiences. The best examples of how I’d like to see an SQ remake handle the Mansions would be the mini-dungeons in a later Castlevania game, Portrait of Ruin. The segmented areas in Aliens: Infestation are another good example of what I’d like to see. To put it simply, each mansion would essentially be a miniature Metroidvania map, roughly the size of a single area in the major Metroidvania-style Castlevanias. Another point about the original Simon’s Quest that was disappointing would have to be the lack of bosses. There were only 3 bosses in the game: Death, Carmilla and Dracula himself – and they were all fairly underwhelming. Given the fact that there are so many iconic bosses in the Castlevania series, it would be easy enough to pick some additional bosses for the game. Likewise, I’d suggest expanding on the existing bosses as well – it’s not like there aren’t several other incarnations of those three to draw inspiration from. Speaking of expansion, increasing the number of mansions overall would probably be a good idea: it’s not like the Prince of Darkness only had 4 body parts and a ring. Expanding the mansions to 8 would probably be a good number thus allowing for a much more ornate game world in general. Better yet, these new mansions could easily justify my proposed redesign of the overworld – these new Mansions could be hidden along alternate paths from the standard straight-line design of the original game, thus allowing this new version of Simon’s Quest to feel more like an expansion than a total reimagining. I’d also suggest giving each mansion a theme to focus on, which would allow for more cohesive level designs. I’m not talking about silly things like “make one Egyptian-themed”, but giving each mansion a unique obstacle to center its design around would probably make things was more interesting.

Finally, we come to the game’s towns. Perhaps the most unique element Simon’s Quest introduced to the Castlevania series – as the concept wouldn’t be revisited until 2008’s Order of Ecclesia. In the original version, players would be able to buy items and talk to the townsfolk for information, which wouldn’t always be true …or coherent, for that matter. When accounting for modern game design, using the towns as save points and areas to heal seems obvious. I’d consider also using them as warp points, allowing players to travel to areas they’ve previously visited with no issues, but that’s strictly my preference: backtracking can be a nightmare, especially when the game map is literally a straight line. As for the townsfolk, I’d keep things cryptic and allow some of them to lie, like in the original game. Just please make sure that their speech isn’t translated into gibberish this time around. Hell, maybe add in some sidequests between towns, that could help to expand the game’s world even further. Again, I’d look to the second and third Shantae games for inspiration when reimagining the towns. Giving different layouts and themes to each town would be helpful, but at the same time, keep the vertical layouts in the new version. Likewise, I’d also say to maintain the various obstacles – both the pitfalls and the zombie attacks at nightfall – in the new version, it definitely mixes things up.

Presentation

Of course, when it comes to remaking a game, gameplay is only half the equation. Presentation is also important. A subtle balance must be achieved: the game must simultaneously appear new to draw in those who played the original game, while at the same time maintaining enough key elements from the source material to be recognizable as an actual remake, rather than an outright reimagining with nothing in common with the original. At the same time, the game also has to be able to draw in those not familiar with the previous release, effectively making sure that it can appeal to those familiar with later iterations of the series or even those completely unfamiliar with the franchise in question. It’s a precarious balance that is too difficult to really look into clinically, but I’ll do my best to keep it in mind when discussing the aesthetical content of the game.

For starters, we have the game’s story. After defeating Dracula in the events of Castlevania – which have been told a million ways a million different times – Simon Belmont retires to a simple and peaceful life for the next seven years. However, upon his death, the Prince of Darkness placed a curse on the young vampire hunter, cursing him to an early grave unless the lord of vampires was resurrected at Belmont’s own hand. To make matters worse, Dracula’s minions are once again terrorizing Transylvania, leaving mayhem in their wake. As such, Simon gathers his legendary whip – the Vampire Killer – once more. He begins a quest to revive the dark lord, only to kill him again, ending his reign of terror once and for all. …Or for the next hundred years, whichever comes first. There’s really little that needs to be added to make SQ’s backstory work, all the framework is already there. At best, I’d probably suggest making references to all the different incarnations of Simon’s original adventure throughout the game. After all, the original Castlevania’s story had been touched upon in a multitude of different ways – hell, one version even had Dracula abduct Simon’s bride on their wedding day – so it would be somewhat interesting to hear of the various legends of the storied vampire hunter as told by various townsfolk, relying solely on hearsay, rumors and tall tales.

I’m usually pretty flexible when it comes to graphics in games. It has been awhile since we’ve seen a game done in the 32-bit SotN Castlevania pixel art style and given how well that allow the graphics of the original Simon’s Quest to translate into a more modern environment, that would probably be ideal. If they use Castlevania: The Adventure ReBirth as a design guide, the game could end up looking gorgeous. Hand-drawn 2D, similar to the Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap, could be an interesting take as well, though that would probably be prohibitively expensive. In all seriousness, 3D graphics in a 2.5D game would probably be the most cost-effective choice, but it would probably harm some of the game’s readability, unless Konami (or whatever developer they’d put in charge of such a project) takes extra care to make the game look gorgeous and decipherable at the same time. While everything was properly visible in Dracula X Chronicles for the PSP, the character designs looked a bit weird at times. Hopefully, if a SQ remake went the same route, we’d get something much more visually appealing, while making sure not to sacrifice clarity in the process.

I’d have to say that my personal favorite aspect of Simon’s Quest would be the game’s soundtrack. With that in mind, I’d keep all of the compositions from the original game in a remake – which Konami outright avoided with Castlevania: The Adventure Rebirth. I would, however, love to see Konami take songs from other Castlevania games and incorporate them into a remade soundtrack – especially if they go with more obscure tracks like in ReBirth. Original compositions would be nice too, but considering it’s a remake, I’d definitely prefer going with other classic songs. Choosing a musical style is a bit more difficult: my ideal pick would be symphonic metal, similar to the Dracula X Chronicles soundtrack, allowing for both an orchestral sound that would fit with the game’s setting, as well as a strong melodic component. Of course, I’d love to hear a new chiptune arrangement of the soundtrack as well, but I’d be happy if they just included the original NES and Famicom Disk System versions, as well as older iterations of any new tracks, as bonuses. They should definitely implement the ability to swap out different versions of each song, sort of like how DXC let you customize which songs played in which stages during gameplay.

Finally, we come to the project’s scale. Ideally, we’d be looking at this as a downloadable game – with a manufacturer’s suggested retail price between $10 and 20 at launch. Nothing too extravagant, after all, this is meant to be a faithful adaptation of a game for the original Nintendo Entertainment System. The best game I can use as an example of what I’d expect out of a Simon’s Quest remake would probably be 2013’s Ducktales Remastered: Capcom and WayForward took the basic format and layout of the original game, expanded on it – both lengthening existing stages and adding entirely new ones – tightened up the controls and provided updated visual and audio. If Konami did something similar with a Castlevania II remake, it would probably end up being a winner. Traditional Castlevanias fell to the wayside in the wake of the Lords of Shadow series and we’re still waiting on Bloodstained, Koji “IGA” Igarashi’s spiritual successor. Metroid-likes and Castlevania tribute games are a pretty profitable niche among indie games, so it would only make sense for Konami themselves to capitalize on a void they created.

This brings the second entry in the Under Reconstruction series to an end. The new format leaves a few gaps in the overall design document aspect of the article, but I think that ends up working to its advantage. After all, it leaves a lot more to the imagination. Personally, I had fun writing this, so hopefully I’ll be able to think of more topics for more of these in the future. More importantly, what do you think? Would you like to see a remake of Simon’s Quest? Do you think the changes I suggested are too extreme or not extreme enough? Sound off in the comments below.

The Fear of Luigi

Things are looking up for Nintendo at the moment.  The Nintendo Switch has pretty much had the most successful launch anyone could expect, with critical reception and third party support going better for a Nintendo console than they have in a long time.  The Switch hasn’t even set off a wave of anti-popularity backlash like the Wii did.  The Nintendoomed meme has officially regained its full irony status.  It’s as if the last four years never happened.  But that’s what I want to talk about, the last four years…

Now some of my more observant readers who can do basic math may be wondering why I said the last four years.  After all, Wii U launched in 2012, five years ago.  The second it came out, or even the second it was announced, the world turned on Nintendo and their confusing Fisher-Price Wii add-on, right?  Not exactly.  While the Wii U’s launch certainly wasn’t the explosive success that the Wii and Switch enjoyed, it wasn’t bad either.  Wii U sold a decent amount during the 2012 holiday season, and if it had kept on track it wouldn’t have been a huge success, but it would have been a reasonably sized one.  Things didn’t go wrong until 2013.  On February 14th, 2013 it was revealed that the Wii U had sold only 55,000 units in North America during January 2013.  This was a pathetically low amount, and marked the start of disastrous console sales numbers that the Wii U never recovered from and that would cast a dark cloud over Nintendo for years to come.

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Hot buttered popcorn, what a curse!

You know what else happened that exact.  Same.  Freaking.  Day?  The Year of Luigi.  On February 14th, 2013 Nintendo announced that in honor of Luigi’s 30th anniversary, the year 2013 would be dedicated to the second best green Mario series character (Yoshi being the first, of course).  Luigi marked the year that sent Nintendo into a dark age.  The Year of Luigi was the year of what can best be described as a curse being inflicted on Nintendo.  Luigi is the symbol of every bad thing that happened to Nintendo from 2013 to 2016, and the poor Wii U never recovered from the darkness of that year, that specific day.

Well, is it really fair to blame Luigi for all of that?  It’s not like 13 is renowned for being a lucky number.  But let’s look at some of Luigi’s other big years.  1983, the year he debuted?  The North American video game crash hit in full force.  1993, 10th anniversary?  Worst year for SNES in its console war.  2003?  For Luigi’s 20th birthday Nintendo fell into third place in a console war for the first time ever.  2008?  The year of Wii Music’s E3 and the height of fears that Nintendo had abandoned their fans.  In addition to anniversaries, Luigi was the star of Nintendo’s big launch game for the GameCube, the worst selling Nintendo console until he cursed Wii U.  When did Nintendo 64’s launch hype wear off and set Nintendo on course for their first console war loss?  Early 1997, the same time Luigi made his first appearance on the system in Mario Kart 64.

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He knew exactly what he was doing.

When we look at the evidence, it’s clear: there is and always was something ominous about Luigi, a kind of darkness inside that is inexplicable and frightening.  Luigi’s insecurity, envy, cowardice, what have they been molded into inside the mind of the tall green plumber?  Is Luigi the sympathetic, comedic figure he is often portrayed as?  Is Mario oppressing Luigi by saving the world at great personal risk as a grand manipulation to make sure his brother never gets the glory?  Or is he protecting us, knowing what would happen if Luigi got the glory and power that his twisted heart desires?  I haven’t seen the true form of Luigi, I don’t know his real motives, but I… can feel them.

There is a bleak dryness inside and around Luigi.  A constant feeling of despair and dissatisfaction that eats away at you, distracts you, makes you unable to fight the darkness overlaying you, your view of the world.  Luigi knows he can’t do what Mario does, and it consumes him, he is a being of jealousy and bitterness.  But he has other talents, he can do things that heroes like Mario and Yoshi could never do, and would never want to do.  He manipulates people, makes them feel sorry for him.  Mario risks his life again and again for the sake of others, yet Luigi has a sizable percentage of gamers convinced that he is the victim because he does not receive as much credit as his brother.  The fear Luigi demonstrates, it isn’t real, it is a psychological manipulation technique.  Luigi puts others on edge, plants seeds of anxiety in them.  Luigi makes everyone around him weaker, and less able to counter the darkness he sows.

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The darkness within will claim you.

So what is Luigi truly capable of?  What is his ultimate goal?  I don’t know, deciphering the shadowy depths of this horrifying mystery is impossible.  Maybe Luigi wants everyone to be as miserable as he is, viewing himself as an evangelist for gloom and despair just as the Joker views himself as an ambassador for chaos.  Maybe he wants to use vague, creeping fear and hopelessness to do what Bowser’s minions never could and defeat Mario, taking his spot as Nintendo’s brightest star afterwards.  Maybe Luigi is an eldritch abomination who adopted the form of a green Mario and its intention is no more coherent than making children hallucinate a show about screaming puppets.  Whatever he is and whatever he wants, the curse of Luigi is a danger that we can no longer ignore.

So, what can we do about it?  How can we possibly combat the shadow of Luigi that hangs over Nintendo like the Sword of Damocles?  I wish I knew.  There are things beyond human control, beyond human comprehension.  Humanity lives at the mercy of the type of darkness that Luigi exudes.  We can only hope that our brush with him doesn’t cause complete madness, that his indecipherable whims don’t call for the total destruction of all that we hold dear.  Let’s hope that Mario can keep the darkness within his brother under control, but we’ll never be truly safe.  No matter what happens, we are destined to live in the fear of Luigi.

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We’ll never be safe.

Disclaimer:  This article is completely serious and absolutely not a creepypasta style parody written for Halloween.  The author really thinks that Luigi is a real life incomprehensible force of negative emotions while still viewing Nintendo as a video game company that makes the games Luigi stars in.  He is 100% serious when he blames Luigi for Wii U’s sales failure, the North American video game crash, Wii Music, and Trump being appointed president.  This is both serious and not at all related to the author being an only child who rarely encountered Luigi in classic Mario games and just never got why so many people love him so much.  Despite this being completely serious, he for some reason wants you to know that he wrote a similar Halloween article in the past accusing Mario of being a sociopathic attempted murderer, so it’s not just him picking on Luigi for the aforementioned reason that has nothing to do with this at all.  He will neither confirm nor deny wishing you a happy Halloween or knowing what Halloween is.

 

Invasion of the Franchise Snatchers

I can’t tell if I’m late to the party on this topic or just on time. Lately, we’ve been seeing a great deal of backlash, pitting “core gamers” against the casual market. Perhaps the most prominent example of this we’ve seen lately would be the journalistic backlash against Cuphead – a game that blends a 1930s cartoon aesthetic with unforgiving gameplay inspired by games like Contra and Gunstar Heroes. Cuphead was originally considered an indie darling by gaming journalists en masse. Unfortunately, once the game was available in a near-final state, the sweet words of the mainstream press turned sour. The impetus for this turnaround was a humiliating video of a journalist failing to make any meaningful progress in the game – to the extent where even completing the tutorial seemed a Herculean feat – and this posting was mocked by core gamers in general. This would lead to mockery from the gaming community at large and be followed with articles on many websites bemoaning the game’s difficulty, asking why there needs to be so much focus on gameplay in video games. The Cuphead fiasco wasn’t the first major scandal to illustrate this disconnect between the two groups and it most certainly won’t be the last. A similar, but opposite reaction came from Ubisoft’s decision to include a new mode in the upcoming Assassin’s Creed: Origins called Discovery Tour, which removes combat and even story progression, allowing players to roam through the game’s recreation of ancient Egypt with little to no actual interactivity. The reactions were mirrored: gaming journalists applauded this move as brilliant, while hardcore gamers considered the entire concept disgusting. The sheer chasm that has formed between the enthusiast press and the enthusiasts themselves is staggering, to put it mildly.

Like I mentioned earlier, I’ve seen several articles from the press about why games should be easier, “more inviting” and less gamey. I’ve seen significantly less in the way of major think pieces from the enthusiasts themselves, defending the practices that have long since decried as “elitist gatekeeping”. As such, I’ve decided to throw my hat into the ring. I’m not arrogant enough to believe that this article will make any sort of an impact on the industry overall, but considering I typically just write these blogs to amuse myself first and foremost, it seems like an interesting topic to tackle. Most times, the motivations of the so-called “gaming elite” have only been viewed through the lens of their detractors. After all, what’s so bad about broadening a game’s audience? That just means more people can play the game, right? Where’s the downside?

I can only speak for myself on this topic, I’ll never claim otherwise, but for me, history is what makes me so wary of these continued calls to make everything friendlier to the mainstream marketplace. I’ve seen so many games in my years as a gamer go from promising niche titles, clearly meant for a small but dedicated audience, to the same homogenized trash that litters the entire media – all in the name of “broadening the game’s appeal”. The best recent example that comes to mind would be Dead Rising. The first game was generally lauded for its high-stakes difficulty, necessitating restarts in order for all but the most dedicated players to complete the game. The second game streamlined the gameplay, toning down the difficulty at the cost of the first game’s unique levelling mechanic – in the first game, experience points would be kept between playthrough attempts – thus allowing the game to remain balanced in a much more inviting way. The third game attempted to tack on an open-world environment, to the detriment of the franchise’s trademark strict in-game timer, but otherwise managed to maintain other key elements of the franchise. But the worst was yet to come: the fourth game effectively stripped Dead Rising of anything even remotely resembling the first game – an incredible feat considering Frank West returns from the first game as the playable character, albeit in name only. The timer was completely removed, the inventory was much more forgiving, the psychopath boss fights and survivor rescuing mechanics were completely removed despite being franchise staples and the gameplay was dumbed down to a shallow parody of a standard action game. But hey, who cares if a series completely ditches its roots, just so long as it attracts a larger audience, right? Oh, turns out it didn’t even come close to Capcom’s projected sales target. Whoops.

There’s this pattern when it comes to both modern series and long-runners that find their way into the modern era. Truthfully, “modern” feels like a bit of a misnomer: this trend has been going on since the previous console generation at the bare minimum. I’ve got it down to a pattern: a new intellectual property based around some niche aspect in video gaming manages to far outpace the meager expectations such a game would have, so the game itself gets some mild tweaks and a larger audience is expected for the next game, leading to a bigger budget all around – particularly when it comes to the game’s marketing. When that game – or one of its sequels that emerge when the strategy succeeds – manages to fail to reach the dizzyingly high expectations the publisher has set for the game, rather than tampering down expectations and working from a more reasonable budget like earlier games, most publishers will decide instead to dilute the original core concepts of the original game to the extent where this new entry will be totally unrecognizable. It happened with Dead Space 3, which shoved microtransactions and forced co-op into the game, turning the once-fledgling survival horror series into another braindead action-shooter. Resident Evil 7 has managed to redeem the series’ faltering reputation, which was nearly destroyed in the previous game. While Resident Evil 5 essentially threw out the franchise’s survival horror roots, it performed well. Resident Evil 6, on the other hand, attempted to appeal to the fans of every style seen in any mainline series entry and ended up with a scattershot game that ended up appealing to no one, reflected by the fact that it missed its sales target by a significant margin.

The worst part about this trend is that we’ve actually seen evidence to the contrary with the regards of the effectiveness of shaving down the unique traits of a gaming franchise. When 2K Games decided to bring back XCOM, they originally intended to transform it from real-time strategy game to a generic first-person shooter. Needless to say, the fanbase was vocal in their displeasure with this shift. 2K relented, deciding to create both their planned FPS title – eventually released as a spinoff titled The Bureau: XCOM Declassified – as well as a brand-new RTS title – XCOM: Enemy Unknown – due to fan outcry. The latter came out first and managed to earn enough sales and acclaim to justify making a sequel, while the FPS spinoff was promptly forgotten soon after its release. As much as I don’t really care for RTS games, I wish more companies had heeded the lessons 2K Games learned from the XCOM franchise.

To put it mildly, whenever I’ve seen “professional” gaming journalists discuss making games welcoming to a wider audience, this is the phenomenon that comes to mind. It never stops at a few tweaks to make things simpler to those not familiar with the series, the endgame always seems to be sapping a beloved franchise of everything and anything that made it unique in the first place and replacing it with the same bland drivel that marketing departments all over the world think Western gamers crave. Video games apparently stopped being about crafting fun experiences and became more about checking off all the boxes that focus groups supposedly crave.

I think the worst part about all of this is that the gaming journalists in question are working from a flawed premise in general. This might come as a shock, but not every video game is intended for every single player. Hell, I’ll probably never be a fan in any capacity of the Final Fantasy, Uncharted, Metal Gear Solid or Pokémon series – but changing them to appeal directly to me isn’t going to do anyone any good. All it’ll end up doing is alienating the fans that loved it in the first place and what are gaming companies left with? Best case scenario, people will buy the first retooled iteration in droves, but after that? You’ll be lucky if the true believers still manage to buy your game: clinging to the desperate hope that if they keep the series alive, maybe, just maybe, the developers will make a new entry in the series that lives up to the best the franchise had to offer. It’s a sad proposition: supporting terrible games with the minute hopes that the series will return to glory, when 99 times out of 100, companies just end up tossing them by the wayside once they fall short of whatever obscene sales target the publishers expect to reach.

In the end, I suppose this is just another symptom of the modern video gaming landscape. Everyone appears to expect that AAA gaming is the only way to make money, when in reality, it seems like games with smaller budgets manage to make more money more consistently. A recent example would be Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice from Ninja Theory. A game that was made with a lower budget and sold at a lower price point, yet managed to make its developer enough of a steady profit that they decided to donate a day’s worth of sales to charity. I don’t know what exactly is causing companies to kill themselves over creating bloated abominations that try so hard to appeal to everyone, they end up appealing to no one. I don’t know particularly what it will take for more companies to reconsider this strategy, but something tells me it’ll be something extreme and nothing good for the health of the industry.

Turn Based #3: X, Shrugs and Rock ‘n’ Roll

SNES Master KI: Welcome to another installment of Turn Based! Today we will be tackling probably the most heated topic between myself and Professor Icepick that this series has covered so far. Ever since the original Mega Man X started the trend of new Mega Man series that coexisted with the original, people have argued over which was the best. The biggest battle in that area remained the original Mega Man series vs the X series, and Icepick and I are on opposing sides of this battle. Icepick will be representing the original Mega Man series, and I will be representing my beloved Mega Man X series. Since original came first I’ll let Icepick make the first actual argument, time for the battle where there can be no winners to commence! Who will win?

Professor Icepick: It’s easy to discount the Classic series as being “outdated” or “archaic”, but it’s obvious that it is the starting point for one of gaming’s most beloved franchises. If not for the humble release of the original Rockman on the Nintendo Famicom on December 17, 1987, the series wouldn’t exist whatsoever. Likewise, to this day, the best-selling MegaMan game of all time is MegaMan 2 on the NES, a feat which the franchise has yet to top. Classic is the most endearing branch of the MegaMan franchise, managing to claw itself back to relevance after over a decade of inactivity. Scoring not one, but two retro throwback games — before they were even cool! — as well as several spinoffs and appearances in various other forms of media, MegaMan Classic’s importance to Capcom, platformers and video games as a whole, cannot be understated.

KI: The thing is, none of that really addresses which series makes for better games. I don’t deny that the original Mega Man is the reason the series exists, but that’s true by definition of anything that has a spin-off series. Not to imply the quality gap is as large for the Mega Man games as it is for the example I’m about to give, but the Tracey Ullman show is why The Simpsons exists. The original Mega Man games are important and great games in their own right, but in my view, they were building up to something.

Mega Man X is, in my opinion, a colossal increase in quality on the level of Nintendo’s Super Nintendo sequels to NES games. Unlike the other Mega Man subseries, which are doing their own thing for the most part, MMX is an evolution of the original that shows what Mega Man can truly be. Everything the original series accomplished led up to it undergoing a super powered evolution into the SNES Mega Man X games.

Icepick: And that’s the problem, isn’t it? You’ve often told me that you consider the first game in the MMX sub-franchise to be the best by far, correct?

KI: I never said it was the best by far, it’s actually pretty close between the first four Mega Man X games. I believe that those four games, any one of them, are better than any game in the original Mega Man series. Mega Man X5 and X8 can also hold their own against many of them. Yes, there are two bad ones, but that doesn’t change the quality of the other games.

Icepick: That brings up another issue, MMX had spinoffs of its own: the Zero quadrilogy and the ZX duology. Personally, I prefer the gameplay in those two games over the X series in general. Which is where a major problem lies: through these six follow-ups, the X series lost any sense of cohesive identity. The Zero/ZX games are closer to the X series than any other branch of the MegaMan franchise in general. Therefore, while Classic can offer me something unique, I’m given the choice between the X, Zero and ZX series for that particular style of gameplay — and I’m always going to choose between the latter two series over the former.

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MegaMan’s been fighting animal-themed robots since before X was created!

KI: Zero and ZX have more differences from the X series than the X series does from the original. They may be more similar in setting, but the character customization, action-RPG and Metroid-like inspired gameplay completely changes the feel. And of course, you aren’t playing as a traditional Mega Man in those games, X played like Original with a couple new abilities, there was nothing from Original that you were missing. I’d almost argue that Mega Man series come in pairs, with Original/X, Zero/ZX, and Battle Network/Starforce all having the same basic gameplay philosophy, and Legends… well, it would probably need a third game before it got a sequel series.

Like I said, the X series plays like a (in my opinion) superior version of the original series, which is why the argument over them in the most prominent among the fanbase. I think for the purpose of this debate, we should limit our focus to the original and X series.

Icepick: Fair enough. However, when looking at both series in general, one must also account for overall quality. You casually mentioned this earlier, but X6 and X7 are generally considered to be among the worst games in the entire franchise, with dips in quality so severe, that no game in the franchise — not even the 1987 original — has as extreme of problems. Meanwhile, while you point out that MMX is generally considered the best game of the side-scrolling MegaMan series by many, the 11 mainline Classic games (yes, I’m counting MegaMan & Bass, if only because Capcom did in MM9) maintained a certain level of quality.

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See? 9 previous defeats show up in MegaMan 9! MegaMan & Bass was canon!

Many people hold the MegaMans 4 through 6 in low regard simply due to being “repetitive”, yet anyone who’s actually played them won’t hold that against the game’s inherent quality. MM7 is a weak entry in the series, but given the fact that it was developed in a mere 3 months, makes it amazing given the level of quality Capcom managed to achieve in a severely below-average development cycle. MegaMan 8 was experimental, finally taking into account the criticisms of the later NES era, only to have it explode in their face — delivering a game that managed to achieve mixed reactions. And that doesn’t even take the Game Boy games into consideration: which slowly evolved from portable cash-ins to some of the best games in the entire series.

KI: I don’t think you can give Mega Man 7 a pass for being made quickly. Who knows what the developers of X6 and X7 went through (X6 took less than a year and X7 was trying something completely new to the series). The original Mega Man games may not have lows as dramatic, but 1, 4, 6, 7, and M&B, I would say X5 and X8 (the mid-tier X games) easily beat those. I’m not holding repetitiveness against 4 and 6 for the record (and 5 is a great game), 4 had bland level design regardless of context and while 6 is my favorite of the ones I listed, it didn’t have great levels and was really easy. And you probably shouldn’t bring the GB games into this, remember the first two? They poke a big hole in the classic games never reaching truly bad quality.

So basically, I think the highs and mids of the X series are better than the original, and the lows being worse is pretty insignificant.

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The best Mega Man game in 20XX and beyond.

Icepick: The thing about the first two GB MegaMan games is that both were outsourced to outside developers. The fact that the team from Dr. Wily’s Revenge (the first Game Boy game) were able to come back from that and make IV and V, among the best in the entire series is telling. Meanwhile, X6 was built with the same team, using the engine from X5 — which itself was tweaked from X4 — and managed to create an abomination of a game, where the only redeeming factor would be its soundtrack. Yes, Capcom made Sonic ’06 before Sega — and worse yet, they didn’t even make it from scratch.

KI: But if you count GBIV and GBV, then you have to count other games from the same developer. X6 may have been from the same team, but they were clearly rushed and who knows what else went wrong. My only point with that is that we can’t give 7 a pass for being made quickly. But I think we’ve been avoiding the flame based elephant ancestor in the room for too long. I’m assuming you disagree with my assertion that the gameplay in the first four X games significantly surpasses the originals, correct? We should probably get into which series plays better when you compare the best games.

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He’s in the room, we can’t just ignore him.

Icepick: It’s been argued that the Classic games are more difficult than the X series in general. Frankly, I consider that a plus. Maybe, it’s the “hardcore gamer” in me talking, but frankly, I love a good challenge: which is part of the reason I prefer the aforementioned Zero and ZX series over the X series. Indeed, among the side-scrolling MegaMan sub-franchises, X is generally considered the easiest of the bunch.

KI: I’ve really never heard anyone argue that. Both series vary in difficulty from game to game to a significant degree. If we’re going into hardcore signaling though, the X series has more complex gameplay mechanics than the original and much more incentive to fully explore levels. Indeed, if you really want to make the game as hard as possible, you can do minimalist runs in the X games and it will affect you a lot more than it would in the original games. I’d also argue that the only times the X series really feels easier is when it avoids situations where exact tip of a ledge jumps screw you up, since you can accelerate and essentially grab ledges in the X series.

Icepick: Didn’t you once say that the platforming in Classic felt “cheaper” (i.e. more difficult) compared to the X series, due to the Classic having less abilities than his futuristic counterpart? Likewise, you’d also have to consider that X’s difficult is split between doing “minimalist runs” and “100% runs”, which run counter to one another: much of the difficulty in the X games are paradoxical. Going out of one’s way to find the hard to reach power-ups irreversibly powers up X, thus making the rest of the game easier.

KI: The X series has levels designed around the greater powers, and most of the powerups just bring you up to original Mega Man’s strength level (maxing out health gives you what you start with in original games, sub-tanks are basically E-tanks). The X level design removes the parts I felt were cheap, but adds new challenges (vertical sections relying on the wall climb being the most prominent example). I only mentioned the minimalist runs as a choice people have if they really want excessive difficulty, the games are not balanced around them and games like X3 and X5 can be pretty challenging even when you get everything.

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X may have more abilities, but the level design can keep up.

Moving on from difficulty for a second, I’d just like to point out the massive quality of life upgrade in the X games. Every X game has shoulder button weapon swapping, you can leave already completed levels whenever you want, picking up weapon energy automatically goes to the weapon that needs it the most if you don’t have a special weapon equipped. These all show up in most post-X1 original games, but the latter two have to be paid for or found. Doing that for QoL features that don’t make the game any easier, just more enjoyable to play, infuriates me.

Icepick: Honestly, I never really minded the lack of the ability to exit cleared levels in Classic games: in most cases, there weren’t collectables hidden in each stage, which made repeat visits kind of pointless in the first place. All the same, these feel like minor criticisms in the grand scheme of things.

Circling back to an earlier point you made, I disagree with simply claiming that X and Classic are strictly linked. In fact, I’d argue that the Zero games definitely had more of an impact on the later games in the franchise, due to their shift from a darker future than the setting of the Classic series to a post-apocalyptic wasteland. The point is, Inafune wanted to end that series at X5 and it looks like Capcom didn’t have any ideas on how to progress afterwards, thus leading the franchise to lose its identity in an effort to stay relevant.

KI: Later original games gave you incentive to revisit levels, especially 7, 8, and Bass. I’m not sure what you mean by Zero having a greater impact on later games as a counter for original and X being linked, it seems to support my point. And regardless of what happened behind the scenes or the later context of the X games’ identity, it doesn’t change the games themselves.

Icepick: And yet, I’d argue it did. X6 and X7 had no idea what they wanted to be, attempting to continue from X5’s attempt at closure. X8 may have rebounded, but by that point, the damage had been done.

KI: But we’re comparing the games that exist. After Mega Man’s hibernation finally ends, there’s a good chance that we’ll just get a new series or reboot, so there isn’t much impact on the future. I don’t think X6 and X7’s problems came from the story, the story was a mess, but neither original or X depend on story. X6 was rushed and X7 tried to do something new in gameplay that was much more the fault of the sixth generation’s antipathy towards 2D console games than any story issues. And it definitely doesn’t change the first five X games in any way.

Icepick: Maybe, but the point is that we’re only comparing games that presently exist. And considering the fact that an entire quarter of the X series is substantially worse than even the weakest Classic entry must be taken into account.

KI: But we were comparing the best examples in quality at this point. My stance is that half the X series is better than anything in the classic series, and another quarter is better than a majority of the games in the classic series. You can use statistics and fractions to make any point you want when the numbers are this low (80% of people know that), I’d say that two below average X games are better than almost two thirds of the classic series.

Icepick: Personally, I always found X2 to be utterly forgettable. Falls right out of my head the second after I’m done playing it or watching a playthrough. X3 had promise, but ultimately its version of Zero was a let-down. X4 is my favorite game in the X series for obvious reasons. Having said all of that, I think that saying that two-thirds of the Classic franchise are inferior to the outright “mediocre” X games is an overstatement. But I think it’s time to wrap things up.

KI: Well, we’re probably not going to reach a conclusion, which is expected. No shouting or the text equivalent this time though, so that’s progress. I think we should each make one last statement on why we feel our preferred series is superior, without arguing against each other’s. Want to go first for chronological reasons?

Icepick: That seems fair.

The point is, Classic’s definitely the more important of the two franchises, no matter what’s been said. Likewise, just due to the interesting turns the series has taken when ditching the 8-bit aesthetic — MM7, MM8 and MM&B were all experiments in their own right — I feel like the Classic series also has more potential when it comes to adapting to modern gaming conventions. Most fans of the X series want a strict throwback to either the SNES or PS1-era games, which the unjustified backlash against MM10 likely means that any future installment in the Classic series will attempt something new. MegaMan Classic adapted in ways that the X series only wishes it could, as shown by the poor reception to X7.

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The worst part is, this isn’t even the first MegaMan game with a shmup section.

KI: The X series is simply better designed than the Classic series. It has every gameplay strength the classic series has, added a couple huge new features (the dash and wall climb) that were implemented perfectly, and polished the game with quality of life enhancements and reasons to fully explore levels. The original style X games are considered the best because they essentially perfected the Mega Man formula, nothing since has matched them from any Mega Man series. I’m sure that in a perfect situation a team could pull a Super Mario Galaxy and make a new type of MMX game that surpassed the SNES ones, but as of right now I believe the X series has the four best Mega Man games, period, and two more that are high tier. It comes down to the games, and games come down to gameplay, and the X series has reached highs in that that no other Mega Man series, and very few video game series at all, have achieved.

As per usual, KI and I have come to yet another stalemate. I don’t honestly foresee any of these articles ending any other way, but that’s not a problem: Turn Based is more about discussion than changing opinions anyway. But what do you think? Did X improve on its predecessors or are the old ways the best? Feel free to sound off in the comments. — Professor Icepick

2017: Reclaim Your Happy Ending

The state of gaming goes up and down, the state of everything does. As much as I love the idea of the Earn Your Happy Ending trope, it’s obvious that in real life, nothing is ever stuck in a permanent state, positive or negative. But that’s not an easy thing to accept. After Nintendo, platformers, linearity, and 2D games made a comeback in the seventh generation, especially the second half, I desperately wanted to keep what we had gotten back. But even though the game releases in 2013 were incredible, it was clear that night was on the horizon. While trying to convince myself it wasn’t happening, I saw what I loved in gaming go into free fall from 2013-2016. Sure, there were still good and even great games released, but fewer and fewer ones that were what I really wanted. No matter how much I wanted things to freeze the way they were, that didn’t happen and a mix of denial and gloom descended over me (considering how the internet reacts to everything, I have no way of telling if this happened to other people or if that’s just how the gaming community would have reacted anyway).

But you know the good thing about nothing staying the same? After enough time, things also get better. As some of my previous article this years have shown, I’ve seen some very positive developments and trends this year for gaming, especially parts of it that I care about which were slumping in previous years (Japanese games, Nintendo). Even before this year started, the announced games gave me a feeling of true optimism for the first time in years (see my part of the 2017 top 10 lists). While not every game on that list delivered or is making it out this year (same as every year we’ve done those lists), those are more than made up for by both ones that personally surprised me and that were surprise announcements made after the year had started. 2017 for me has made gaming a phoenix rising out of the ashes, both in releases and announcements for 2018 and beyond.

As shown by the previous articles, there are many reasons for this. But why are they converging in the same year, and why have some frankly miraculous things happened against all odds? I always thought Switch had the potential to repeat the history of the original Wii, but I was never certain until it happened, and there are things I never would have guessed in my wildest dreams (Bethesda’s strong commitment, did they make a single game on a Nintendo system before Switch?). Nier went from being a critically-panned example of how JRPGs have cooties in 2010 to a cult classic to… a multi-million seller that already has Square-Enix hiring for its sequel and saying it has franchise potential!? Crash Bandicoot: N. Sane Trilogy became a mega-hit out of nowhere and along with Mario’s triumphant return could easily spark a resurgence in retail platformers. After pleas for SNES Remix were ignored during the dark days, we not only get SNES Classic, but it has a never before released game on it! So many franchises I missed that hadn’t been seen since 2013 or earlier either returned or had games announced in 2017.

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He’s cool again, no matter how dark his souls apparently became.

So the question is, why? Well, I can’t explain exactly what happened, but I do have a few theories to explain some of it. For the Nintendo stuff, it isn’t hard that hard to figure out. After their big push to turn Wii U around in 2014 didn’t work (E3 2014 just gives me a creepy aura of false hope these days), they went into cocoon mode. The Switch’s formal reveal in 2017 was their chance to come back, to show that they were still the strongest publisher in gaming and that they were not going to become a mobile focused developer (I’ve almost forgotten their mobile games exist in recent months), to prove that they could still make a successful console and that the original Wii wasn’t a fluke. They did it, and achieved things they had been trying for so long that nobody ever expected them to actually happen. Switch didn’t have a post-launch drought, they finally did it! With the delay of learning to make HD games behind them, Nintendo has been releasing and announcing Switch games at a rapid-fire pace. Not only that, there’s been a strong emphasis on giving fans what they had been asking for, which is miraculously working this time. Open world Zelda, sandbox Mario (with enough actual platforming that I’m not upset), Xenoblade and Splatoon sequels faster than anyone thought possible, Metroid Prime 4, mainline console Pokemon. And after I got scared they would minimize platformers because people complained about them on Wii U, they announced a new Kirby and Yoshi at the same E3. Switch is on track to become the best Nintendo system since SNES, and if it keeps it up, maybe, just maybe…

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And all the doom and gloom was simply switched off.

I don’t have as many guesses for the other positive developments, but I have some general theories. Japanese companies as a whole seemed to have trouble adapting to HD, not just Nintendo, so that could explain boosts to companies like Capcom and Square-Enix. PS1 and PS2 nostalgia kicking into high gear could be why Crash N. Sane Trilogy sold so insanely well, and bodes well for Japanese games in general, since they dominated those eras. PlayStation 4 and Xbox One took a while to get going, just like their predecessors, and we’re past that hurdle so their best days have started. I can’t think of much rationalization for long running Japanese series getting so much more western attention all of a sudden, but as long as it’s happening, I’ll gladly take it.

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I didn’t hype it, I didn’t play it, but if one person calls it weeb garbage, I’ll raise hell!

So, there’s my self-therapy session for the day (hey, not like there are tons of readers for me to focus on instead). But I’m not just trying to trick myself into being happy, 2017 really has been an incredible year for gaming in both releases and announcements. No one can ever say for sure what the future holds, but I think we have landed on the bright side of the coin, and hopefully we will stay there for many years to come. We need gaming now more than ever, and 2017 has been more than fulfilling that need.

Top Ten Sony Franchises in Need of Sequels

There are plenty of publishers out there with huge vaults of beloved IPs that sadly have no guarantee of ever again seeing the light of day.  Capcom, Konami, Sega, Square-Enix, and I think there’s a playing card company who makes games or something.  But there is one company who rarely gets mentioned when this topic comes up, but really should.  Yeah, the one in the title.  Sony actually has a vast collection of quality series, and their annoying habit of throwing series under the bus once they have three games has led to a lot of unjustly hibernating franchises from their camp.  Although not technically a Sony series, the recent revival of Crash Bandicoot has pushed this to the forefront of my mind recently. I’ve decided to rank the top ten absent Sony franchises that need sequels.  To qualify for this list, a game or series needs to have never had a new incarnation in its main series on an HD system.  Meaning HD remasters and cameos in Move mini-game compilations or Smash Bros. clones don’t count.  So, let’s jump in.  I’ll disclose that I’m not an expert on some of the lower ranked series, but everything on this list at least deserves a chance.

10.  Vib-Ribbon

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The only game on this list that I haven’t played, in large part because the original release never left Japan, I was still fascinated by this game simply from reading previews of it.  Vib-Ribbon is a very simple rhythm game, with its hook being that you can use music CDs to create levels in the game based on any song you want.  Now imagine being able to do this with digital music files or streaming sites, and you can see how much potential this concept has on an internet enabled system.  The original may have finally gotten a worldwide release, but there’s so much more a completely new game in the series could do.

9. Omega Boost

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To be honest I didn’t play this game very much (look, no one wants to do a top 7 or 8 list, I needed 10 dammit!), but the genre alone makes me want it to get another chance.  Rail shooters where you control a character instead of just a reticule are a rare breed, and Omega Boost is a well-liked entry in that genre.  I can’t give a huge amount of details on what I’d want the sequel to be like, but a flashy mech rail shooter with PS4’s power could easily be an enjoyable experience.  Give this game the second chance I haven’t yet, Sony.

8. Wild Arms

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Yes, I actually have finished a game in this series.  Of course, this series has several games, but still.  Wild Arms combines turn based combat with Zelda style items and puzzles, something I wish more turn-based RPGs would do, it does wonders for avoiding monotony.  With fantastic music and a fairly unique Wild West/steampunk setting, Wild Arms is one of the better RPGs on the PS1, and what I’ve played of the first sequel seemed even better.  Wild Arms managed to survive multiple generations in its true form, which already puts it ahead of the curve for Sony series, so I think there’s plenty of justification for giving this series another chance.  Maybe crossover with Wild Guns, no one can keep their names straight anyway.

7. MediEvil

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While this may seem like a generic 5th-gen platformer at first sight, MediEvil is actually an interesting genre hybrid.  Platforming, adventure game style puzzles, melee combat that’s pretty involved for a game of its time period and RPG elements, there aren’t many games exactly like MediEvil.  While it definitely shows its age in some places, the game is certainly playable.  But with melee action games having made colossal strides since the 5th generation, there is a huge amount of potential locked away in this game and its expensive sequel, which was never rereleased on PSN, unfortunately.  As long as it took inspiration from the right games, a new MediEvil could be a fantastic addition to PS4’s library, and fill a seldom used niche these days (horror themed game that isn’t bleak or ultra-violent).  Sony, we need MediEvil: Dan of the Third Day!

6. Alundra

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Back when almost all role-playing games on consoles were JRPGs, there was an obnoxious trend to call every single action-RPG a Zelda-style game.  These games often had clunky combat that was practically turn based and barely any puzzles, which meant I was usually disappointed when I played the “Zelda-style” game.  Alundra, though, has thoroughly earned the label of Zelda-like.  Alundra is intensely difficult in both combat and puzzles, has a sometimes crushingly depressing story, but is a huge and satisfying game.  The gameplay is very similar to the 2D Zelda games with the addition of a platforming element, and that is definitely a good thing.  I haven’t played the sequel, which is apparently vastly different and much less well regarded, so I’d say Sony should just give us a direct sequel to the first game.  Even without Working Designs around to translate it, a worthy sequel to Alundra would be a dream come true, and not the bleak, prophetic kind the game features.

5. Ape Escape

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I’m half convinced the right analog stick on the original analog/DualShock controller was added solely so Sony could claim it had more stuff on it than the Nintendo 64 controller.  I can understand why Sony didn’t want to use it much, it couldn’t be easily replaced by the d-pad on a non-analog PS1 controller like the left stick could, and no one wants to require accessories.  Still, waiting almost two years for anything to use the right analog stick (at least in a meaningful way) is pretty bizarre.  But at least the first game to require it was a good one.  Ape Escape is a fairly standard 5th-generation collection based platformer, with its hook being that you can aim your weapons and items while moving normally thanks to the right analog stick.  The collectables (escaped apes) all need to be caught by using a right analog stick controlled net, so the gimmick definitely gets used enough to justify the controller requirement.  The sequels never felt quite as tight in gameplay as the original Ape Escape, but they aren’t bad games and there’s no reason a new game couldn’t match the original.  This barrel of monkeys has been sealed too long, it needs to be opened again.

4. Skyblazer

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That’s right, even in an article entirely dedicated to Sony, the Super Nintendo still manages to crash the party.  The only pre-PlayStation game on the list, Skyblazer is a hidden gem on SNES that has needed more attention for decades.  Skyblazer can best be described as MegaMan, MegaMan X specifically, with melee combat and a magic based setting.  You jump, punch, and wall climb your way through levels, some of which you can choose the order of, and kill some great bosses to get special moves from them.  The game is begging for a modern big budget character action game/platformer hybrid, Skyblazer with the budget and scale of God of War could be absolutely amazing.  I’m not expecting this game to ever actually get a sequel, but that hasn’t stopped some other games I loved, so there’s always hope.  In the meantime, if you haven’t played this game, try to track it down, a growing cult following is the first step to a series getting a miraculous sequel.

3. Jumping Flash

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Is the robotic rabbit you play as in this a jackrabbit?  Was I missing a reference pun this whole time?  Either way, Jumping Flash was ahead of its time and holds up amazingly well considering.  Before Quake or Super Mario 64, Jumping Flash is a first person fully 3D platformer that showed up with PlayStation 1’s western launch in 1995.  Controlling a projectile and rocket equipped robotic rabbit, Jumping Flash and its very direct sequel (can’t say anything certain about the Japan only third game) are quality platformers that manage to still play well today despite how many opportunities there were to screw things up in hindsight.  With DOOM 2016 hopefully igniting a resurgence in non-realistic, action based first person shooters, now would be the perfect time for Jumping Flash to return.  The game’s signature gigantic jumps combined with dual analog shooting and current-gen draw distance make me salivate.  This is another long shot (well, most of this list is), but a new Jumping Flash would be a… no, I’m not making that song reference, it would just be painful.

2.  Parappa the Rapper/UmJammer Lammy

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See, not everything in the top five is a platformer!  In 1997, I was extremely loyal to Nintendo, the playground “my system can beat up your system!” kind of blind devotion.  Despite hating everything PlayStation related on principle, Parappa the Rapper was so unique and charming that I still wanted to play it.  I actually rented a PlayStation just to play it (the system or game was defective and I had to return it the same day, that didn’t help my system war issues).  By the time I got over my one company mindset and actually got a PS1 of my own, the sequel/spiritual successor Umjammer Lammy had been released, which I loved even more.  I didn’t love Parappa 2, but the PS1 games have some of the best music and characters of all time.  The gameplay needs some work, which is precisely why we need a new game!  Describing exactly what happens in the games feels like a disservice to anyone who hasn’t played them, but if you have played them before, I guarantee you remember them.  While I’d prefer Umjammer Lammy 2 (Parappa had his chance and I just like Lammy’s music style better), any return for these paper pop stars would be incredibly welcome.

1. Jak

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The newest game on this list, the Jak series got a decent amount of attention in its heyday, but I think it still deserved more.  For one thing, are you wondering why I said Jak instead of Jak and Daxter?  That’s because Jak 2 dramatically improved the series and never got the credit it should have.  Yes, it’s darker and clearly took some influence from Grand Theft Auto, that doesn’t change that the gameplay is dramatically improved from the original’s fairly generic collect-a-thon style.  Jak 2 and 3 have tons of variety, some of the best platforming of their generation, and great stories that are not just angsting.  Jak 3 may have resolved the story arc of the trilogy, but it also set up a new story arc that was never given any games.  Naughty Dog became obsessed with realism (which apparently makes dark tones okay while Jak is nothing but an edgelord) and auto-platforming while the Jak series got nothing except lower profile sequels of varying quality that never advanced the story in any real way.  I don’t know if we’re ever going to get Naughty Dog back to their platforming glory, but someone needs to make a real Jak 4, fans of the series have waited way more than long enough.  I’m still furious that Naughty Dog taunted fans of the series by saying they almost made a Jak 4 but canceled it to make The Last of Us (and that they planned to make it play like Uncharted), Jak is number one on this list not only because it’s my favorite series listed but because I feel that Sony genuinely owes its fanbase a new game.  People have been shown to still really love Crash, a 3D Mario platformer is getting more hype than anything in its genre has in at least a decade; it is time Sony, give us Jak 4.

So there you have it, ten Sony franchises that deserve their chance to shine and bloom in HD.  Who knows if any of these will actually get that chance, but it’s not impossible (Sly Cooper not qualifying for this list was a pretty big surprise).  I don’t know why Sony is so inclined towards throwing series away once their generation and/or trilogy is over, but they have a surprisingly rich staple of franchises that could give them the true exclusives needed to make their library stand out from Xbox and PC.  As Crash N. Sane Trilogy shows, PS1 era nostalgia has arrived and PS2 era nostalgia is around the corner, take advantage of this Sony, and give these series the sequels they deserve!

Of Axioms and Idioms: Win Dumb, Lose Fun

Out of all the series I’ve been writing on this site, I’ve got the most ideas by far for the Of Axioms and Idioms series. Kind of sad considering it’s among my newest, but at the very least, it gives me topics to write about. This is one of the earliest ones that occurred to me when I decided to start this little recurring series, so this article has honestly been a long time coming. That’s the best thing about this series: since it mostly relates to my tastes and opinions, it’s kind of difficult for any of them to really become irrelevant. Feel free to stay tuned for the next one, where I discuss how those new-fangled 32-bit consoles aren’t all they’re cracked up to be.

The topic I’ll be discussing in this article is a little difficult to explain, but I’ll try my best. Put simply, when I win, I like knowing how I did it. Think of my reactions to gaming across two separate axes: whether I win or lose and whether I understand what’s happening in the game itself. The ideal is obviously for me to win and understand why I won. Losing but understanding why I lost is also fine, that just adds to the thrill of the hunt in my opinion. Losing and not knowing why is generally good as a first step, but hopefully it will eventually lead to an understanding of just how the game in question functions. A first step, if you will, in my process to figure out how a game works. Which brings us to the last possible outcome: winning without knowing how. It drives me crazy, I hate it so much.

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They say a picture’s worth a thousand words. I’m pretty sure that whenever I make a picture, half the words are just the slurred moans of the damned.

It’s funny just how many of these ideas seemed to be inspired by my reflections on the Ys series. The topic came to me while I was reflecting on the differences of Ys VI and its direct predecessor Ys V. Despite the 8 years between the release of those games, they shared many similarities: in setting, in gameplay mechanics and even in my experiences while playing them. In both games, I beat the final bosses on my first attempt. Of course, how I came to the conclusions of each game were completely different. In Ys VI, I understood exactly what I needed to do to beat the final boss, the strategy I needed to follow to avoid losing and it worked out well, taking what I’d learned throughout the game and applying it within the context of a “final exam”. The end of the game just felt satisfying, even if I found that the game’s final challenge lacked difficulty. Ys V, on the other hand, I just sort of randomly beat the final boss. To this day, I still don’t know what strategy I had to use to beat it. I essentially just spammed jump slashes and won. It’s demoralizing to even look back at the video archive I have of it. There was no rhyme or reason behind my victory. Granted, I didn’t really have that much fun playing the game altogether, so my reaction was more one of relief than triumph. In retrospect, my victory felt accidental – and frankly, that’s never a good sensation.

Of course, this wasn’t the first time I remember feeling cheated by something like this. Way back in 2011, I attended PAX East, as I was living in Boston at the time. I generally just went to play demos for upcoming games that had interested me, and among them were two upcoming fighting games: the Mortal Kombat reboot and indie-darling Skullgirls. I played Mortal Kombat first – to the extent where I made a beeline for the booth the second I arrived at the convention, and there was a big line for it – and had a blast. Even though I got my butt kicked, I completely understood what was going on and decided that it would definitely be worth learning the various mechanics and techniques in full when the game released. Skullgirls, on the other hand, had a fittingly sparse booth, with absolutely no line. I got in one match …and I ended up hating it. I won, quite easily, but I didn’t honestly feel any challenge. The victory had no impact, I essentially won easily on a lark and I ended up hating the game for it. It got so bad that, for quite some time, I openly pointed out just how much I hated the game and almost ignored it completely upon its release, deciding to only play the demo on Xbox 360 at a couple of my friends’ requests. The final product was good and to this day I still love it, but it’s just amazing how much of a turnaround my opinion on the game changed from that initial gut reaction. Granted, when I first played the game, it was only beginning to reach a development stage that would eventually resemble the final product, so clearly an insane amount of work went into the game between my first impression and the original public release.

I suppose this last example only really applies as a technicality. I loved the original Dead Rising, even if I only got to it a few years after its initial release, around the time that Capcom was hyping up the release of the sequel. Regardless, my first attempt at a playthrough was disastrous at times. It eventually got to the point where I simply became unable to progress any more. So, I decided to restart the game …only to find that all of the experience levels and new abilities I’d earned on my first attempt had stayed with me the entire time, allowing me a much easier time of progressing through the game once again. Turns out that was Capcom’s intention from the beginning: trying to beat the game on a single run is a challenge that should only be attempted by the most hardcore Dead Rising fans. This had the bonus effect of also allowing players to learn from any mistakes they might have made during previous runs. This replay mechanic allows players to hone their skills and avoid missing out on the game’s main storyline or side missions, teaching them how to better manage their time through the tried and true method of trial and error. While I think the second game managed to strike the perfect balance between accessibility and challenge, the first game’s take was so clever, I can’t help but still love it. Then I think about what’s happened to the series since: Dead Rising 4 is nothing but a bland generic action game, which stripped out any unique elements from the first two and replaced it with the ability to take selfies with zombies.  I’m almost certain one of those drinking bird toys could beat it.

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Oh yeah, I definitely believe this was your first run. No question.

In the end, I suppose this all extends from how I view video games as a whole. Much like how someone who likes doing crosswords or solving math problems in their spare time, I prefer to think of most video games – or at least the ones I enjoy – as puzzles, challenges to be solved and completed. As such, I like winning at video games with seemingly no rhyme or reason behind it as much as a mathematician would enjoy solving a math problem by just guessing the answer at random or a crossword enthusiast would like solving a puzzle by just writing the letter Z everywhere. For me, there needs to be a logic behind any achievements or victory: if I’m just going to randomly win based on nothing, I don’t really see much of a point in putting any form of input into it. I might as well just be watching a Let’s Play at that point – how much of a difference is there between watching someone play through a video game and playing through it yourself when it almost feels like victory is assured from the beginning? I’m afraid I can’t get much out of a game if there’s no struggle, nothing to strive for, no challenge to overcome. At that point, I feel like I might as well be watching a movie. If it feels like I don’t need to earn whatever victory condition is set before me, even in the most rudimentary way, it just ends up feeling patronizing and turns me off.

You’d probably expect this opinion of mine to manifest into a hatred of the trend of “hand-holding” in modern game design. Honestly, you’d be wrong. The thing is that, even at its most blatant, hand holding shows the player everything they need to do. Outside of the most extreme cases, it doesn’t just automatically win the game for them. Even in those rare cases, there’s usually some kind of a caveat, even outside of my own personal “you’re only cheating yourself” perspective. Maybe it doesn’t actually count the stage as beaten, like the Super Guide in various Nintendo platformers: putting a little asterisk there to twist the knife and remind the player to go back and complete the level when their skills have improved to the point where they can do it without help. I’m not going to lie, there are times where forced “hand-holding” is detrimental to game design, but I can’t recall any case where it outright tears out a victory condition and replaces it with “yeah, sure, whatever”. Frankly, I find that way more annoying than every arrow pointing towards the next objective or any sidekick whose sole purpose is to constantly reminds players of various things they either learned in the tutorial or just instinctively knew in the first place.

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Behold, the White Kong of Shame.

This might actually be a pretty big part of the reason why I’ve always liked fighting games, ever since I first played Street Fighter II on my cousin’s SNES when I was really young. At their core, fighting games end up coming down to strategy. A good grasp of the fundamental concepts behind the fighting game genre takes people further than being able to do a pretzel motion ever could. Psychology matters far more than all but the most basic of executions: I can’t even count how many easy wins I’ve thrown away simply because I wanted to finish off someone with a flashy technique, when I should’ve just punched them and been done with it. In fighting games, every loss is merely a new learning experience and every hard-fought victory is simply a crystallization of all that learning. Most importantly, in all but a few fighting games, there’s never any case of winning or losing for no reason – all is laid bare when fighting games are approached from the proper mindset. Adapting to one’s opponent or learning how to play the game in general is more important than a thousand Raging Demons or Deadly Raves, believe me.

I guess I should consider it fortunate that there aren’t that many games where players can simply win “by accident”. It’s to the point where I can’t even think of any more off the top of my head, aside from the one I mentioned earlier in the article: Skullgirls doesn’t count, that was pre-release build. Yet, I’ve heard many a claim that it is the opposite – losing for inconsistent reasons – that is a true scourge of gaming. While I’d argue that win and loss conditions, not to mention the rules of a game in general, should remain consistent, I’d still say that the worst thing that a game could do is allow victory for seemingly no reason. In my opinion, the existence of a failure state is what makes a game “a game” and by extension, fun. I’ve yet to meet anyone who thinks that winning at a game is more important than knowing how and why they reached that conclusion. I’d have to say that I’m not sure what I’d be able to say to them. In the end, video games are more about the journey than the destination for me.

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“The game is fun. The game is a battle. If it’s not fun, why bother? If it’s not a battle, where’s the fun?” — Reggie Fils-Aime

So, what do you think? Do you find it infuriating to win in a game while never really knowing why? Or do you feel like it doesn’t matter, as long as you’re winning? Does it matter to you whether you know why you won or lost in a video game? Feel free to sound off in the comments below and let me know what you think.

Turn Based #2: Dead on Revival

Professor Icepick: Hello, and welcome to another installment of Turn Based. I’m Professor Icepick and today we’re going to be discussing bad games in established series. Specifically, is it possible for an individual game to be so bad that it effectively renders its series “dead”?

To clarify, we’re not talking about cases where the financial flop of a game manages to kill a company or forces the franchise in question to be put on hiatus for the foreseeable future. However, I will be counting cases where terrible games have had a delayed effect on killing series: ruining the sales of a follow-up, regardless of quality, and leading the series to its doom, simply because the bad game in question did end up killing it.

Now, since we originally came up with this topic, the existence of Bubsy: The Woolies Strike Back — a new game from one of gaming’s most infamous series of all-time — has definitely weakened my position, so I’ll be taking a backseat this time around. As such, I leave you in the hands of my capable opponent to get things started.

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Seriously, who wanted a sequel to this?

SNES Master KI: So my basic position is that there is always hope for a series no matter how badly an entry in it is received, for one simple reason: if people care enough about a series to be upset that a game ruined it, people care enough for it to get a sequel. Apathy is the only thing that can kill a series, hatred will cause an equal but opposite reaction in most cases, hence the saying that there is no such thing as bad publicity.
Since Bubsy’s revival pretty blatantly let the cat out of the bag in that regard, I almost feel like we should move on to the other side of this topic, but I’ll give you a chance to argue this first, if you don’t think you’re just kitten yourself.

Cats.

Icepick: Ha, cat puns. I’m more of a dog person myself. You do bring up a good point about apathy, but that is probably your ultimate undoing. We’ve definitely seen cases in the past where apathy can kill franchises, but the exact opposite of love for a property isn’t hate, it’s apathy. Hate implies that you still care, while apathy implies that you’ve given up all hope on that property. A bad game, a game that the fanbase generally hates, can definitely drive its fanbase to apathy. After all, the “hive mind” for a fanbase is simple enough to manipulate. Create a game bad enough, and they’d be willing to give up on the whole thing to avoid enduring another similar disappointment.

KI: You’re underestimating how much people hate things. A game that could potentially kill a series won’t cause apathy, it will cause hatred. No one will ever stop talking about it. Even if the fanbase wanted to ignore it, they wouldn’t be able to. Imagine if Nintendo made a Mario platformer that was as bad as Bubsy 3D. I know my response wouldn’t be apathy, I don’t think that would be many people’s response. And even if I wanted the response to be apathy, trolls would never let people forget about it. People would remember it forever, and no matter how bad it was, someday, the owner of the IP would want to try again. A bad game, especially in a series with a large fandom, doesn’t cause apathy.

Icepick: You’ve got a good point there. It seems like in many cases, the worst thing for a series’ health is to grind their audiences down with similar games, rather than just killing them with one big stinker. But, in terms of large fandoms, Rock Band and Guitar Hero weren’t above death. Prior to the bold new decision of making a game based around World War II, people were chanting for Call of Duty’s demise, to the extent where Activision had to pack-in a remaster of the game that made the series popular in the first place to drive sales.

People are getting sick of franchises that started as recently as last generation, and the diminishing returns aren’t just present in the games’ sales, the quality appears to dip as well. Hell, I consider myself a huge fan of the Dead Rising series, but the fourth game makes me hope that Capcom lays it to rest, simply because I’m afraid of the horrors they may unleash on us next. Not even the massive shift of 3 caused that kind of reaction out of people, but I’m certainly not alone.

KI: People chanting for the death of a currently active series isn’t the whole picture. Sure, if they kill off the series for the present, it probably wouldn’t cause a huge outcry. But this is about the long game. Let’s say Call of Duty completely burns out, the series stops, whoever is making it now gets sold for two crayons and a carton of chocolate milk. No one seems to care for years.

Then, it’s 2027. People who grew up playing Modern Warfare are the nostalgia panderer’s prime target. Whoever owns the franchise is going to capitalize on that. Fandoms don’t stop series from dying, but they stop them from staying dead. If the fans of something huge are still alive, it’s almost certainly going to return at some point.

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The childhood of the future.

Icepick: I’m not so sure about that. After all, fans of Castlevania appeared to give up on the series after Lords of Shadow 2 and the departure of Koji “IGA” Igarashi, who had been running the series for many years. Even before his spiritual successor Bloodstained was announced, Castlevania’s video game days have seemingly been numbered. All we have to show for it now are various pachinko machines and a critically-acclaimed Netflix TV series. Revivals don’t necessarily have to remain within the original medium to exist. If Call of Duty does fall, I could it see it coming back in 10-20 years as a television miniseries, or maybe even a movie.

KI: Lords of Shadow 2 is only three years old, that’s not nearly enough time to say people truly gave up on it. I also think the rumored Switch Castlevania game is very likely to happen, but even if it doesn’t, there’s plenty of time for nostalgia to make people forget all bad experiences with the series and demand it return. This leads to a question I had already wanted to ask, what is the most popular franchise you can think of that hasn’t had a new game in at least 15 years?

Icepick: Does Kid Icarus count?

KI: No, last game was five years ago. It shows even 15 years doesn’t guarantee death, I said 15 to make it easier.

Icepick: What about MegaMan Legends?

KI: Subseries. IPs can certainly be radically different when they return, but MegaMan falls under one umbrella, only seven years since we got one.

Icepick: Fair enough. Golden Axe: Beast Rider and Sega’s Altered Beast revamp both seemed to kill any enthusiasm for either series. Though, your mileage may vary on the latter.

KI: Those were already revivals, though. Golden Axe had already had a badly received spin-off that killed it for quite a while (Golden Axe: The Duel) and I don’t understand why anyone wanted Altered Beast back to begin with, but Bubsy coming back makes it hard to argue. I still think both games could get something within 15 years of those failed attempts. But as demonstrated, sufficiently popular games/series almost inevitably get some attempt at revival. There are literally dozens of games that got sequels no one would have ever expected or at least been confident of in the last decade, IP death is never permanent.

Icepick: I’m just not so sure about that. We’ve seen several series fall by the wayside, with no clear path to resurrection. At this point, it just feels like we’re splitting hairs. Should we get back on topic?

KI: Yeah, it would take decades for either of us to actually prove our hypothesis. Let’s move on to that other topic I mentioned earlier, I’ll let you speak first this time.

Icepick: I personally do think that there are cases where games should have killed series. Bubsy 3D would be my chief exam-PAW-le. There are others, but I think it’s best to state my reasoning: if a game’s quality declines and offers nothing worth developing further, then there’s really no point to continue the series. At best, you could consider a reboot, but at that point, it might almost be better to explore new concepts with new intellectual properties behind them. MegaMan 10 being the last game in that series (at this moment in time) led to Shovel Knight, a game that blended mechanics from numerous 8-bit games to create something truly amazing.

KI: For the first point, Bubsy was never good, so I don’t think it’s really relevent. Bubsy 3D shouldn’t have killed it, the first game should have. The reason to revive a series is to bring back what was great about it, so there wasn’t much claws for reviving Bubsy. For the second point, I don’t think anyone who worked on Shovel Knight actually worked on MegaMan, I don’t think MegaMan continuing would have prevented the talent behind the game from making it. There’s only one game I’d say MegaMan’s hiatus directly caused, and I think that would be a Mighty weak game to use for your argument.

Icepick: Regardless of Bubsy’s inherent quality, 3D is considered among the worst games of all-time, well beyond the scope of all of its predecessors. As for MegaMan’s absence leading to other games, it certainly increased the profile of Inti Creates, the staff behind the Zero and ZX series, not to mention the latest games MM9 and 10. They managed to leverage that into popularity for Azure Striker Gunvolt, yet another spiritual successor.

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Not quite a Blue Bomber, but you can hardly tell the difference!

To bring up a different shade of blue, there’s the Sonic the Hedgehog reboot, charitably dubbed “Sonic ’06” to save face. If we printed our all of the thinkpieces written in the past decade about how it’s time to put the Blue Blur on ice permanently, we’d both be crushed by the weight.

KI: Sonic is a shining counter example though. After failed attempt after failed attempt after failed attempt to make Sonic games good again, Sonic Colors finally did. If they had given up, we wouldn’t have Colors, Generations, Sonic 4 Episode 2, Lost World, Mania, or Forces. Going back to Bubsy, while Bubsy 3D may be worse than the earlier games, there was still no reason to revive the older games. Since we both want MegaMan to come back, I’m not sure where you’re going with that topic.

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If at first you don’t succeed, fail again and again until you finally do.

Icepick: You seemed to be implying that MegaMan’s absence only led to a certain failed “Comcept”, when it was really a mixed bag. The point is, series can run their course and sometimes it’s better to get a fresh start as opposed to trying trying to redeem something that’s clearly a lost cause.

KI: But the people who made the good games didn’t have access to MegaMan after a certain point, they didn’t choose to make a clean break, they had no choice. There’s no reason to believe Inti Creates making MegaMan 11 or MegaMan ZX3 or my holy grail would have led to a worse result.

Icepick: The point is, losing the MegaMan license was a net positive for Inti Creates. They were able to step our of Capcom’s shadow and parlay that into original IPs and other licensing deal, most recently Blaster Master Zero from Sunsoft. To bring us back on-topic, are there no franchises you see no point in reviving.

KI: There are plenty of franchises I see no point in reviving, but not really any that I liked to begin with. Even if the developer made a better series later, I’d rather have both. I get very enthusiastic about Donkey Kong, Kirby, Yoshi, and Wario platformers, even if Mario platformers are clearly what I love the most.

Icepick: The point is, eventually, the majority of series eventually hits a wall. If they’ve already hit their clear apex, why continue?

KI: The apex game will never be new again. Playing a game for the first time is special, and I don’t want to lose that experience in series that I love. Besides, you never know for sure what the apex is, Super Mario World was my favorite up until Super Mario Galaxy 2 almost 20 years later.

Icepick: Surprised you didn’t bring up Yoshi’s Woolly World. The point is that the height of any game series is only visible in hindsight. Why should series that are clearly well past their prime continue, while perfectly good series are snuffed out?

KI: But we don’t know that a series is truly past its prime, you just brought up Wooly World, released after 20 years of Yoshi platformers that never came close to Yoshi’s Island. As for why some series should continue and some shouldn’t, it’s usually not a choice between them, developers are usually a big factor and individual developers rarely have a huge stable of IPs to choose from. Saying I don’t want any series I like to end is an idealized statement, it’s what I want, but I’m not saying I expect every single one to flourish. However, recapturing the magic of a once great series is still a completely valid reason to make a sequel.

Icepick: Regardless, many IPs lack the ability to maintain their existence indefinitely and frankly while many companies simply choose to put their series on “indefinite hiatus”, the point is that some series just have limited potential in general. Clearly, there are many exceptions, but limitations must be kept in mind in general. Shall we move onto final thoughts?

KI: I feel like we moved away from the original point, it wasn’t whether some series should end, it was whether a game can be bad enough that the series should end because of that. I maintain that there is always hope, even if it’s a reboot 10 years later, for a series to reclaim what once made it great.

Icepick: Personally, I still think that considering the fact that we’ve seen many series go inert after a poor follow-up, it’s entirely possible for a game series, even one that’s very beloved, could be ended completely at the hands of a poor game. I’ve proven that bad games can put long-running series into statis and that ignored series can effectively end up dead due to complete activity, so I think I’ve more than proven my point here. Sufficiently bad games can definitely kill even the most beloved series.

KI: Series going into stasis is never something I argued, I said they shouldn’t and often don’t permanently kill a series. I still haven’t seen evidence of a bad game killing a truly beloved series, after years of alarmist claims Metroid just made a big return. Sonic, Tomb Raider, Yoshi, Doom, (almost certainly) Crash, the big series always find a way back, often as good as before.

As expected, once again, we decided to agree to disagree on this topic. What do you think? Do you think that a bad game can stop a long-running series cold or that we should never say die? Feel free to let us know in the comments.Professor Icepick