PS5 and the Majesty of a New Generation

Welp. It’s finally here. After all of the hype and anticipation, I received my pre-ordered PlayStation 5 on release day, luckily enough. I have to say, one of the things I failed to mention in my post about previous console launches is the insidious worry that the coveted console that you have been waiting months for… might not live up to the hype. In the yesteryears of gaming, that wasn’t much of a concern. The leap in graphical and audio presentation alone between console generations was enough to satisfy an excited enthusiast such as myself. You didn’t move from an SNES to an N64 and think “eh, this is okay, I guess.” But starting with the PS3/Xbox 360 era, there was a valid concern that your shiny new console might just be a slightly faster, barely more powerful version of the box you’ve been playing on for the last half decade. The question many people would ask going into a new generation is “is the upgrade worth it?” And that question is difficult to answer when virtually no one has played the new machines, not to mention the fact that the earliest games on the platform surely don’t showcase its true potential (unless you’re Nintendo and you release genre-defining games right off the bat).

I don’t want to give the impression that this was a huge concern for me. I’ve yet to become the old, cynical gamer that constantly and needlessly asks “do we really need this?” about every new console or feature. I hate that question, in fact, because it’s an exercise in futility. We don’t “need” any new video game or console. That question seems often to be used as a rhetorical way of saying “I don’t want this new thing,” but it attempts to elevate it beyond a “want” and to include others in the assessment. I see it very often with movie and video game remakes or reboots. People will say “Ugh, do we really need a reboot of Jurassic Park?” Again, what they really mean is “I don’t want a reboot of Jurassic Park,” but that rightfully sounds selfish and petty, so reframing it as a problem that “we” are all facing softens the blow a bit. “We” seem to only “need” reboots of things that we like or approve of. One person may “need” a remake of Chrono Trigger, one may not. It’s a ridiculous argument that never serves anyone, but somehow it seems to have become a staple in discussions about new consoles.

I’m used to it from people outside of gaming. Friends, family members, people who don’t keep up with gaming and aren’t champing at the bit to spend hundreds of dollars on a new console frequently ask “is it worth it? Does it really do more than the console I already have? Why do I need to upgrade?” This generation, however, I have been surprised to hear these kinds of questions from a lot of people in the gaming industry and fan communities, though. On podcast after podcast, I hear hosts saying they probably aren’t going to buy one of the new consoles, or they wouldn’t get one if the company they worked for wasn’t providing them with one for review. On a pre-launch discussion episode of the GamesIndustry.biz podcast, the hosts were pretty much unified in how underwhelmed they were about the upcoming generation. The question “do we really need new consoles?” was asked specifically, and the person asking pointed to the recent spate of excellent titles, particularly on the PS4, as evidence that the current generation still had legs. Isn’t that how console generations work, though? Aren’t the best games always released at the end of a lifecycle? How long do we wait before taking the next step? Do we expect platform developers to wait for their competition to take that step first? They continued, lamenting the fact that there was nothing that truly screamed “next gen” about these consoles, other than the Quick Resume feature on the Xbox Series X.

I understand I am on a bit of a soapbox here, and I apologize for the rant. I was just struck by how loud the discourse seemed this time around, and it certainly contributed to the worry that maybe these consoles weren’t going to be as amazing as I wanted them to be – as much as it pains me to admit that the opinions of others was swaying my own, however slightly. So, regardless, I was somewhat worried that I would get my PS5, set it up, hit that power button… and be utterly underwhelmed. As with all of the other anxieties described in my previous post, this concern was quickly and thoroughly dismissed.

Before I get to gameplay or interface, let me set the scene and describe the ritualistic receipt of a new, divine device of fun made manifest. As my previous post probably illustrates, these launches are cherished events for me, and I treasure every moment. First, I have to comment on the unit’s size (okay, yes, that is what she said, now let’s move on). Again and again, I saw reports of how gargantuan the PS5 was. On social media and podcasts, gaming journalists reported that it was even bigger than they’d expected. Upon opening the exterior delivery box and removing the PS5 box itself, I was… not blown away by its size. It was heavy, yes, but if the box was any indication, the hype surrounding its hugeness seemed overblown. It was definitely bigger than the PS4 box, which I remember being surprisingly slight, but it wasn’t the mammoth I was expecting. The PS3 and original Xbox were pretty big systems, too, and their boxes were large, so this wasn’t the first chonky gaming console I’d seen. Bellatrix, my curious and much beloved kitty, hopped up to investigate what was stealing my attention away, so you have a sense of the PS5 box’s size in comparison to her. She is a small cat, less than ten pounds.

Also, I would be an absolute monster if I didn’t share this very important outtake of Bella’s impromptu photoshoot:

I mean…

Blep.

Anyway, so the exterior box didn’t exactly reinforce the “thick boi” reputation the system had gained. Pulling the system out of the box felt, as always, magical. As I gently removed the protective plastic wrapping, the size began to make more of an impression. Or did it? It certainly felt big, even outside of its weight. But when I put the system on the outer box, it again seemed smaller. And when I put the controller on top of it, it seemed absolutely average sized. Huh.

This trick of the eye, I would guess, is by design. I’m no artist or visual designer, but I imagine the curve of the upper and lower “blades,” the use of contrasting colors, and the tapering of the inner dark face from right to left were all done to trick the eye into thinking the system looks smaller than it is. I was very excited to find that it fits into my entertainment center, and planning out a new configuration for the systems connected to my TV was also weirdly exciting. I moved my PS4 Pro over a couple of slots and am leaving it hooked up as a dedicated PSVR system, and once I get an Xbox Series X I will disconnect my Xbox One and replace it with my 80GB PS3, giving me full access to the entire history of PlayStation games between the PS3 (fully backwards compatible with PS and PS2 games), PS4, and PS5.

One of the most important components of a new console launch is the controller, and I was very pleased by how good the DualSense controller felt in my hands. I don’t seem to be as picky about controllers as others, but I certainly have had my favorites. I thought the DualShock 4 was a much needed improvement over the previous PlayStation controllers and I was perfectly happy with it, but as soon as I held the DualSense I felt good about the prospect of holding it for many hours to come. The weight, the texture, the joysticks, and the clear buttons and directional pad, made this feel like a shiny new toy all its own, wholly separate from the console. The joysticks feel especially good, though that may just be the newness of the rubber coating. I am a little worried that they will wear away like the DualShock 4’s did, and I will be far more nervous about cracking these open to replace the sticks if I have to.

As I was connecting the system I noticed a fun little detail about the textured interior of the blades:

The setup process was mostly painless, though transferring my old game files was an ordeal. Before I get there, I want to say that I was very pleased with most of the setup process. Once I connected the PS5 to my network, it pulled over my profile and settings from the PS4 effortlessly. I also thought it was cool that it asks you to insert a game disc so that it could install the game and be ready to play by the time you get everything finalized. The fact that you could just check boxes for the games that you have installed on your PS4 to be copied over to your PS5 seemed amazing, but it proved a little too tempting. I almost checked a bunch of boxes, because if it was that easy, why not just copy them right over? Well, I thought twice and scaled back to just games I knew I was going to play: Grand Theft Auto V, The Dark Pictures Anthology: Little Hope, Telling Lies, The Castlevania Anniversary Collection, a couple of the Jackbox games, and That’s You. In total, it was still over 200GB, and that should have been cause for reconsideration, but I stupidly went ahead with the transfer. Well, it took over twelve hours and within the last hour or two there was an error that prevented the Jackbox games and That’s You from being transferred, but other than that it went fairly smoothly. I only found out later that Sony has you use your home network to transfer profiles and game files because it helps prevent data caps from being exceeded (because you’re not downloading several massive game files from the internet). Fair enough, but it’s definitely a slower process.

Once everything was transferred over and I was able to log in, I was again pleasantly surprised by how intuitive the interface was. It’s a more compact, contained version of the PS4’s (and PS3’s, really) horizontal access bar design, so having that previous experience probably contributed to the sense that everything just felt right and made sense. There are several features I was pleasantly surprised by, and one (well, a lack of one) that I was not. The Remote Play feature, which allows you to play PS5 games on a PS4 system, is cool, though I don’t know how often I’ll use it. I also like that you can set things like difficulty, perspective, and performance/resolution in the system itself, and that they will automatically carry over into compatible games. Again, I’m not sure that I’ll use any of them very often, but it’s neat that they’re there. Perhaps even more surprising, and something I personally appreciate, is the ability to set the system to avoid spoilers. How cool is that for people like me, who hate spoilers? The feature that I was sad to find missing was a lack of support for themes. I remember an announcement from Sony not too long ago where they said they would not sell themes on PS5, but that any themes you purchased before they stopped selling them would still work. Maybe they just meant they would still work on your PS4, not your PS5, but I am very disappointed that I’m not able to use the incredibly beautiful Persona 5 Royal dynamic themes I fought so hard to get by platinum-ing the game and pleading with Atlus support for over a month. I’m hopeful they’ll find a way to integrate old themes with the new interface at some point.

Okay, I’ll probably have separate, more thorough posts for specific games later, but I want to talk briefly about a few, including the pack-in game Astro’s Playroom for a bit, because it’s a real showcase for the system’s features, particularly the DualSense’s haptic feedback. It can be difficult to explain how different and more specific the DualSense’s rumble and trigger pressure is than other controllers. To say that the rumble feels different when your character is inside a ball and rolls over different surfaces doesn’t adequately convey much. Previous controllers used variable speeds to make rumble feel different for different things. I remember vividly that in Metal Gear Solid for the PS1, one of the earliest games to use the first DualShock controller, when a helicopter was taking off the controller started vibrating lightly, and as the blades rotated faster the controller vibrated more and more. You could tell, however, that the vibrations were coming from the grips of the controller, where the motors were, and that remained true through the DualShock 4. The vibrations in the DualSense are so fine, though, that the sensation seems to come from various parts of the controller, even traveling throughout, including the triggers (since some of the sensation works in concert between the rumble and the haptic feedback).

Again, none of this really helps to truly describe the feeling. The game is designed to introduce you to a multitude of environments and situations that create different sensations, and there were a few that really made me perk up and realize the potential of this controller. The first was rain. I had been running around an early level and, sure, I could tell the difference in feedback as I ran across different surfaces. But when I first entered an area with rain, I was, as the kids say, shook. It felt like rain drops were impacting the controller. And when I moved to an area with heavier rain, the invisible drops on my controller also seemed to increase in size and intensity. This was more than simply “rumble.” Later, there are sections where your character is in a monkey suit and you have to climb upward. There are certain handles you can grab onto after a jump, and they zip you along a serrated track. I was again shocked by how much it felt like my controller was a real version of those virtual handles, because the sensation I felt seemed like exactly what I would expect if I were really zipping along that track. I could feel the bumps, the force of movement, and the sway when I stopped. I should note, too, that the controller’s built-in speaker seems leagues ahead of the speaker built into the DualShock 4.

With many of the haptic experiences in Astro’s Playroom, like the serrated track, I couldn’t tell how much of the experience was the feedback and how much was the sound, because they complimented each other so well. In the parts of the games where your character is in a frog suit, for example, you use the triggers to compress the spring under your character, then release to bounce away. As far as I can tell, three things happen when you do this. First, the trigger resistance is adjusted so that it feels harder to squeeze than usual. Second, the controller is vibrating slightly to give the sense of a spring tensing up. Third, the speaker projects the sound of a spring being compressed. This all sounds simple, probably, but it comes together so well that it truly does feel like your controller is making something spring forth. Speaking of the speaker, I also tested the controller’s built-in microphone and speaker for chat, which is something I had low expectations for. It worked shockingly well. I tried it with two friends, one of them for almost four hours, and it was almost as good as using a chat app on your phone (with speakerphone on, of course).

I played a lot of Astro’s Playroom by myself, but I had a couple of friends over (hi, Amy and Russell!) the day after I got it, so I was able to watch them play it as well. I’d tried to not make a big deal of the controller beforehand, but they had heard tell of the hype surrounding it so I was worried that they would be like “meh, it’s not that cool.” When Russell ran into the rain area, he exclaimed much like I did and handed the controller to Amy, who seemed equally impressed. Controller function aside, I had such a great time playing Astro’s Playroom with them. The game is filled with so much creative charm and love for PlayStation’s history. Many of the levels are made up of actual PS components, so as you explore you might see a PS1 controller port in a wall, or a PS2 memory card or HDD plate acting as a platform, or any number of cooling fans churning away in the environment. You also collect “Artifacts,” which are just consoles and accessories from past PS generations, and the level of fidelity and detail on these models was pretty amazing.

Each level is based on a different PlayStation generation, and the nostalgia triggered by hearing the startup sound of an old console is powerful. There are also little groups of Astro Bots in each level reenacting scenes from some of PlayStation’s most historic games, and spotting a new one at every turn was so exciting. Maybe all of this nostalgic magic affected me, because handing the controller back and forth with Amy and Russell truly made me feel like I was a teenager again, huddled in front of an exciting new PS1 game with my friends, taking turns playing and frequently interrupting with a “ooh, go there and check that thing!” or “maybe there’s something if you go around that corner there, you see it?” We raced around, explored the lovingly crafted worlds, got some trophies for being silly, and it was just a genuinely good time. For a free pack-in game, I think we were all thoroughly impressed.

I was very close to getting the platinum trophy for The Dark Pictures Anthology: Little Hope on PS4, so I decided to see how the PS5 handled a backwards compatible game that had yet to be patched for optimization on PS5 by playing my final run of the story on my shiny new machine. I’d say the results were mixed. I had a hard time determining if the game looked better at first. I thought it did, slightly, but I couldn’t tell if that was a placebo affect because I wanted them to or thought they should. When I saw the first demon, however, I was certain that I could make out loads more detail in the character models. The demons looked very dark and shadowy on my PS4 Pro and I thought that might have been a design decision, but on the PS5 I could make out way more detail and finer features. The framerate was also noticeably improved in the PS5 version. It was especially apparent in segments where something was scrolling on screen, like the heartbeat sections. I could tell almost immediately because I had played through the game six or seven times on the PS4 just prior to getting my PS5, and I doubly confirmed it when I went back to the PS4 version. On the downside, the game crashed several times and even corrupted my save file when I was nearing the end of my run, which is why I ended up returning to playing it on the PS4.

PS4 version shown

Lastly, I am around eight or nine hours into Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, the PS5 version. As usual, I’ll probably dedicate a whole blog post to this game later so I’ll save comments about the game as a game and just focus on how it looked and ran on the PS5. I can’t compare it to the PS4 version, obviously, but I have played the previous two AC games extensively, so I almost immediately noticed the improved framerate. Look, I have long been one of those people who love to say that I don’t see the big deal about 60fps. And, truthfully, I’d never been impressed with any of the 60fps videos I’d seen. Between these three games, though, I can see why people prefer it. It really is noticeable, so while it doesn’t magically make a game look better, it is a really nice bonus. In terms of fidelity, this game is unsurprisingly beautiful. At first, it didn’t seem like much of an improvement over Origins and Odyssey, though, because those were also notably gorgeous games. In those games, however, if you looked close enough you could pretty easily spot a muddy texture here or there, or some aliasing on a wave or blades of grass. I have yet to notice much of that in this game. I’m sure it’s there somewhere, but the times that I’ve stopped Viking-ing to just appreciate the setting, I’ve been impressed with how crisp and smooth things look.

It’s been a week since launch day, and I have plans to try Grand Theft Auto Online, Spider-man: Miles Morales, and Bugsnax soon, but overall I am thrilled with my purchase. Despite all of the apparent doom and gloom about these consoles not feeling “next gen,” I am very happy and impressed with my PS5. I know it’s only been a week, but the little things still excite me. Moving through the menus feels fresh. Picking up the controller feels sweet. The startup sound is tinged with magic. Console launches are so rare and I am grateful each time I get to participate in one. The pundits can fret all they want over whether or not we “need” a new generation. We got one, and I am loving it.

That New Console Smell

The next generation of PlayStation and Xbox consoles is arriving in just over a week, and I am finally allowing myself to feel the excitement. They’re really almost here. Wow. I was not able to secure an Xbox Series X preorder but I was lucky enough to snag one for the PlayStation 5, and I have obsessively been checking its status every day to make sure it doesn’t mysteriously get cancelled. Is that silly? Yes. Am I going to keep doing it until I get a notification that it has shipped? Also yes.

Getting caught up in the hype of a new console has me reflecting on my history with getting consoles at launch, so I wanted to write a retrospective before reliving the process with the PS5. The first consoles we had at my house (Atari 2600 and Balley Astrocade) weren’t technically mine, and the first two consoles that were mine (NES and SNES) were purchased months or years after launch. The first console I got at launch was the Nintendo 64, and I can already spot some similarities between my experience then and my experience now.

The level of hype surrounding the N64’s release can’t be understated. Although Sega had carved out a nice slice of the market for itself by the mid-90s, Nintendo had been the industry leader for over a decade and their development teams had made some of the best and most iconic games of the 80s and 90s.I had a subscription to Nintendo Power at the time, and for months they had been trumpeting the “Ultra 64,” a console that mainstream media outlets were covering as a “hot toy” going into the 1996 holiday season. A huge part of this hype, of course, was the transition from 2D to 3D graphics, and I am still struck by the fact that there has not been (and may never be) a shift in the gaming scene as big as this. Aside from the obvious gameplay implications, this shift made people look at video games as more “sophisticated” or “high tech.” Early video game consoles were meant to be taken seriously and were marketed at adults, hence the use of the word “computer” in many of the product names. In the 80s, Nintendo had marketed their products more in line with toys, and that became the norm for a decade (I would argue we’re still struggling with this misconception to this day).

With the N64, Sony PlayStation, and Sega Saturn, adults who had dismissed games as primitive and childish suddenly took notice, as these machines seemed capable of producing graphics and effects that seemed more realistic and allowed for more “mature” themes, in line with games that might be found on the PC. I’m babbling a bit, but my point is that I and other Nintendo fans were not the only ones making a big deal out of this system. Another component that contributed to this hype was the previews of Super Mario 64 that Nintendo had been circulating. When Toys “R” Us installed demo kiosks where you could play Mario 64 in their stores, I went every chance I could get. If no one had claimed the spot, I would jump on the alien tech-looking controller and lose my mind over how good it felt to run, jump, and punch goombas as Mario. If someone else was at the lone kiosk, I would skulk about, peeking around shelving units like a possessive creep, muttering “get your filthy, sticky mitts off my Mario” to myself. Okay, I didn’t actually do that, but I might as well have. After playing that demo, I wanted nothing more in the entire world than an N64 and Mario 64.

Growing up in a lower-middle class family meant that money was almost always tight. My sisters and I never got expensive gifts outside of birthdays and Christmas, and even then we would often have to plead our case for why we absolutely, unequivocally needed it, because we knew we’d inevitably be hit with questions like “why can’t you settle for this cheaper thing?” or “do you really need this? You’ll probably just get over it and be on to the next thing in a month.” With how many times I had to convince my parents that some expensive thing was worth the price, it’s no wonder I ended up in the field of rhetoric. Sometimes, if a thing was expensive enough, we had to use the nuclear option: suggest this gift would be our birthday and Christmas present, combined. Because the N64 was $199 and Mario 64 was sold separately for $60, I had to deploy this strategy, and given that my birthday is in mid-November (prime console launch time), the timeline worked out nicely.

Once my parents were sufficiently convinced of my dire need for this console, my dad took me to Toys “R” Us and the entire ride there I was asking questions like “what if they don’t have enough?’ and “what if someone grabs the last reservation slip (I think the terminology at the time was “reserving” a game and not “pre-ordering” it) right before we do?” They had plenty of slips for both the system and the game, but in the days leading up to release, I continued to pepper my dad with questions about what we would do if they we showed up and they said they had no record of our reservation, or if they simply said they had run out of units before we arrived (which is why I insisted we leave for the store as soon as my dad walked in from work). We did, and as we waited at the customer service cage where you picked up reservations, my anxiety grew. The woman there took our slip and disappeared into the back area. I was convinced she would return empty handed, or maybe with just the game and no console. She did not. She returned with a shiny, new N64 and a copy of Mario 64 and I was so excited I could hardly stand it. I gazed longingly at the game preview thumbnails on the back of the box in the car on the long drive home, and took an immense amount of joy in unboxing and setting it up and playing Mario 64 for hours that night. It’s been 24 years (almost exactly, as of last week) and I still have the console, the box it came in, and the receipt.

The next console I got at launch was a PlayStation 2, though I wasn’t lucky enough to get one on launch day in 2000. The demand for this console was, like the N64, massive, and it was months after launch before you could reliably find a PS2 box on store shelves. I worked in a record store at the time, so this was the first time I was able to buy a console myself, but every store I called at and after launch was sold out, always, and they never knew when they were getting more in. I became disenchanted at some point, feeling left out and like I was way out of the loop (even without social media, which would have only inflated that feeling greatly).

Then, one day in March, I was hanging out with my friend Ron. He was saying he read that Sony had made a big push and sent out a load of new units to retailers. I wasn’t great at saving money when I was 18 but I had just gotten paid, so I happened to have enough money to get the console and one game. Charged by this news, we decided to call up every retailer we knew of to find an elusive PS2. We called two Best Buys, two Circuit Citys, three Toys “R” Uses (pluralizing proper nouns is weird), Walmarts, K-Marts, Electronic Boutiques, Babbages’s, GameStops, and any other stores that we could think of that might carry them. With each call, we were told they were once again out of stock. A couple of them said some version of “we just sold our last one.” Our hopes dwindled. We began self-consolation. “Maybe they’ll get more next week.” “We should have known. We’ll get one eventually.” We ran out of stores to call. We tried to brainstorm more. “Isn’t there a Kay Bee Toys in the mall?” “Stratford?” “No, Woodfield Mall.” “Maybe?” We never went to Woodfield Mall because it was far and it was usually very crowded, so even if they had a console, I was sure it would be sold out. I called anyway.

“Hi, do you have the PS2?” “Yes, we do.” “Oh, uh – like, in stock? Right now?” “Yes, we have one left.” “…oh my god. Can you hold it for me?” “I’m sorry, we don’t hold things, but if you get here soon I’m sure you’ll get it.” I thanked him and hung up, and if my memory is not mistaken, Ron and I literally hugged and jumped up and down. That’s how I remember it so that’s just how it is now. We hopped in my car and sped (drove slightly, safely over the speed limit) to the mall. Think back to the N64 story. Can you guess what we were asking each other during the entire drive? “What if someone buys it?” “What if we see someone walking out with it in their hands as we walk up?” “What if they didn’t actually have any and he was mistaken?” Once again, however, my fears were dismissed when we arrived and saw the beautiful, minimalist blue box on a shelf behind the register. Something in my mind was still nervous, sure it was a display box, but I approached the man at the counter, asked for the PS2, and he turned and grabbed the box. He sounded like the same guy from the phone, and I remember him smiling at how obviously giddy Ron and I were to get this thing. I bought a copy of Quake III Revolution with it, and on the way to my house we stopped and got McDonald’s to celebrate. Getting fast food after a console purchase would become a tradition for us. We got back to my house and placed the hefty blue box on a pillow between us while we ate and talked about which games we were excited to play.

The Nintendo GameCube came out later that same year (2001), just two days after my birthday. My parents had been divorced for a while by then, so I rarely asked for big ticket items for birthdays or Christmas. I was working less at the record store at that point, and I had a bill to pay, so money wasn’t as readily available as when I splurged on a PS2. I really wanted a GameCube, though. I loved my PS2 but that magic Nintendo nostalgia is a hell of a drug, and I was definitely caught up in the hype around “Project Dolphin,” as it was once known. Nintendo threw a prerelease “party” (really just a showcase) in Chicago, and Ron and I somehow got tickets to go. It was in a very shady part of the city, and we got lost and were pretty sure drug dealers tried to approach our car to sell us something before we sped away. When we made it to the event, there were cosplayers, Stuff Magazine staff handing out swag, and lots of games. We tried out Super Monkey Ball, Godzilla: Destroy All Monsters Melee, Eternal Darkness, and more. I still have some of the swag from that event.

As the GameCube’s release neared, I grew sad at the idea that I might not have the money to afford it. Or, if I could, I’d have to wait at least 2-4 weeks after I bought it to afford a game or two. I decided to ask my mom to split the cost with me, for my birthday. I was surprised when she agreed, but I was still nervous that I wouldn’t be able to get one because stores would be sold out. Because, of course I was. And a few stores were, indeed, sold out, but I was able to find one at a Target near my house. I really wanted a black version, the alternate to the main color it launched with, purple, but they only had one purple console left. Beggars can’t be choosers, as they say, so I bought my little purple “l(a)unch box” on my way to work at the record store. I called Ron, who lived just a few blocks from the shop, and he rushed over to check it out and hang out with me. We got fast food to celebrate and I went to our neighboring store, Microplay, and bought Star Wars Rogue Squadron II: Rogue Leader and Super Monkey Ball. We ate, marveled at how small the discs were, and talked about what the next Zelda or Mario game might be like.

The Nintendo Wii was yet another console released around my birthday, and its 2006 launch is probably my favorite and most eventful. As you might have noticed, if you’ve read this far, I have never camped out for a console. I’ve either preordered or gotten lucky at or around launch. I realized this before the Wii’s launch and wanted to change this sad fact. Camping out sounded so fun! Also, most stores weren’t offering preorders for the Wii. Still, at the time, most people I told I was going to do this thought I was an idiot. A sad, nerdy idiot who was going to wait outside for hours, all for a console that no one wanted.

“What!?” I hear you say in dramatic exasperation. “But the Wii sold millions! Everyone wanted it!” First of all, please lower your voice, you are causing a scene. Second of all, the buzz around the Wii before launch was mostly very negative or, at best, highly skeptical. The Xbox 360 and PS3 promised high definition graphics, multimedia capability, and robust online systems. The Wii was far less powerful and did less, and if you read gaming websites, listened to early gaming podcasts, or checked in on various blogs or message boards, people did not have high hopes for the Wii. As they seemingly have since the days of the N64, people wondered aloud if this would be Nintendo’s last console release. Many seemed sure the Wii would fail with Nintendo’s “blue ocean” strategy failing to find the broad audience that they had intended it to.

We know how it all turned out, of course. Within just a couple of weeks, those same people were asking me how to get a Wii because they’d heard it was the hot Christmas “toy” in 2006. But those people did get in my head, and I wondered if lining up for the Wii the evening prior was silly. Would I be the only person in line? Would I be waiting for hours for no reason? Well, to alleviate that, I recruited our old friend Ron, who jumped at the chance to also get a Wii at launch. I lived in Alabama at the time, so we made plans for me to drive up the day before release and drive by the local Target that evening. If people were in line, we’d wait. If not, we’d come back later.

The drive from Montgomery, AL to Streamwood, IL takes about 12 or 13 hours, which I did without sleep. I arrived around 6pm, if I remember correctly, and after greeting his parents and unloading my luggage, Ron and I decided to drive to Target. The more we had talked about it, the more certain we were that there probably wouldn’t be anyone in line at that time, so we didn’t bring any equipment or anything. We pulled up and saw six people, clearly in line for the Wii. We were stunned and hurried back to his house to get everything we might need for a 12 hour campout. We were in a panicked rush because we were convinced 30 more people would show up in the fifteen minutes it took us to grab stuff and get back to the store, so we just grabbed some basics – a couple of blankets, some drinks, and some snacks. When we returned, no one else had jumped in line, so we set up camp as numbers six and seven. It may not come as a surprise, but throughout the night we continually wondered how many units the store would get and worried that it would, of course, be just five. Let me share a picture of the store from Google Street View:

That’s exactly where we lined up. See that low, concrete curb in front of the trees? We thought that would be an okay place to sit. For twelve hours. In a Midwestern November. After our asses began to harden into cubes of pure ass-ice, we had to make a change, so Ron ran home and got us sleeping bags and camping chairs, which helped. The temperature was still hovering around freezing, but we distracted ourselves by making separate runs inside the store, tossing a football around (until I jammed one of my frozen fingers), watching Jackass Number Two on Ron’s laptop, and getting food from the McDonald’s across the street. Our friend Gari also stopped by with more fast food, which was a nice distraction. But the night moved fairly quickly until around 1am. An hour later, Ron suggested we take turns napping in the car to pass the time, so I agreed and went first, at 2:30. I awoke at 4am to a call from Ron, letting me know it had started sleeting. I came out and Ron went in. It was so cold. Even with layers of clothing, a coat, a sleeping bag, and a hat and gloves, I was freezing. In the 1UP.com blog post I wrote about it at the time, I said “The snow was big and wet, although it wasn’t sticking to anything for too long. I pulled the sleeping bag up around me as much as I could, and pulled my hat down as far as it would go. It was still cold. Mainly because the cold snow/water on my sleeping bag would touch my neck or face every now and then, sending chills throughout my body.”

That’s me, far right and freezing.

I also tracked the number of people in line in that blog post, and reported that for most of the night there were 15 of us in line. By the time Ron woke up (and made another McDonald’s run), at 5:30am, there were around 25-30, at 6:45, around 35, and by 7am (when store employees came out to give us tickets and explain the situation) there were 45 or more people. The store director that came out said they only had 39 consoles, so several people (and the people that arrived later to try and just walk in and buy one) were turned away. After we got our tickets at 7, we were free to leave and come back at 8, when the store opened, so we packed up our stuff and dropped it off at Ron’s house before coming back to wait in the car. We were in and out in less than ten minutes once the store opened.

Ron picked up The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess, Excite Truck, and Tony Hawk’s Downhill Jam. I picked up Twilight Princess and Trauma Center: Second Opinion. Once we had our hard-earned loot, we hit up a Wendy’s for the traditional celebration meal. I specifically remember getting a vanilla Frosty, which was a new thing at the time. Ron had sung its praises but I’d never been willing to try it because, uh, chocolate, duh. But to mark the occasion, I figured getting a vanilla Frosty to commemorate our shiny, vanilla-colored consoles was appropriate. We headed back to Ron’s place, enjoyed our feast, unpacked our systems, made our Miis, and then tried out each game. We were weirdly excited by the blue glow of the disc slot. I was in the first 20 or so minutes of Twilight Princess when I completely crashed. It was a long, cold, glorious night.

It wasn’t until the PlayStation 4, in November of 2013, that I bought another console at launch (the day before my birthday, of course). This experience wasn’t as exciting or eventful, in part because I preordered it as soon as anyone had the chance to do so, and didn’t have anyone to share the experience with at the time. I received the package on the day it was released, set it up, was impressed by both the new controller and the interface, spent a lot of time checking out the livestream apps (I think it was Twitch and… something with a D), and tried out Killzone Shadow Fall and Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag.

Four years later, in March 2017, I once again decided to camp out for a console. This time: the Nintendo Switch. The Switch and the Wii’s launches were similar in that the consoles were so different than what many had expected that the hype around them was mixed, at best. Because of this, I had no idea what to expect in terms of a line, but when I drove by my local Target at 9pm the night before release, no one was lined up, so I went home and took a short nap. I woke up at 11pm and packed up what I thought I might need for the night: a camping chair, a phone charging thingy, a book, and a blanket. It was March but still cold, so I prepared for freezing temperatures. I drove to Walmart at 11:30pm for snacks, because they are open 24 hours, and as I was walking in it dawned on me that they might be selling the Switch at midnight. Sure enough, I made my way to the back of the store to find a pretty lengthy line. I got in it and waited the half hour, only to be three people short of getting one. I wasn’t too disappointed, though, because I had planned on camping out anyway. I got my snacks and drinks and headed to Target. I was the only person there.

I was able to take plenty of pictures with my phone, and many of them have captions because I sent them to friends on Snapchat. One of these captions informs me that it got down to at least 20 degrees, and I do remember it being very cold most of the night. I spent some time in my car, but because random overnight Target employees kept showing up and making me think they were going to steal my coveted first (and only) spot in line, I spent most of my time outside. I read Anna Anthropy’s Rise of the Video Game Zinesters, played Pokemon GO (the Target was a PokeStop!), and for the first time ever, peed in a fast food cup (I had gotten food on my way from Walmart to Target). I wasn’t proud of it, but I did what I had to. When I first decided to try sitting in my car to warm up, I also set up my chair like a scarecrow to ward off the car that drove by every hour or so. It wasn’t until around 5am that someone else showed up: a young woman and her mother. She was getting the Switch for her boyfriend, as a surprise. We talked for a bit, which was nice. At around 6, other people started showing up. There was a younger guy who was, if I remember correctly, an NIU student, and a guy that was older than me. We chatted as a group about classic Nintendo games, what games we’d like to see on the Switch, and then just video games in general.

Many more people showed up right before 7am, when they handed out tickets (as they had for the Wii). I think I estimated there to be around 25, at the time, and I want to say the store got like 22 or 23 units. I was originally planning on getting the black version, but when the store director came out to distribute tickets he said they only had like seven of the blue and red versions, so I decided to get that one on a whim, heh. With the console, I picked up 1-2-Switch, a pro controller, and the special edition of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. I got celebratory McDonald’s on the way home, then unpacked everything and chronicled it with pictures.

I camped out at the same Target with my friend Tab for the SNES Mini console, but I don’t know if that counts and I’m sure this is already too long, so I will spare you the details. I’ll just say that it was nice to have Tab there, it was cold (again), and we were first and second in line.

I won’t have the opportunity to camp out for the new consoles. I have a preorder for the PS5 and my local stores have said they are not allowing camping due to COVID. There is a new angle of anxiety in getting consoles now, with the mad scramble to beat fans, bots, and scalpers to a preorder click before the online orders disappear. It’s less taxing than camping out in the cold, but it’s also less fun, and it feels less fair. Maybe fair isn’t the right word. But competing with just the people in my area for a couple dozen units seems easier to navigate than competing with thousands of faceless strangers across the internet. I missed out on an Xbox Series X preorder and have been refreshing retails sites every day since, with no luck. I’ll have to try on launch day, but I’m already expecting to be disappointed.

Reflecting on my history with console launches has revealed a couple of patterns to me. One, not surprisingly, is anxiety. Whether it was securing a preorder and then worrying it wouldn’t be honored, or camping outside a store and then worrying that they would run out or someone would cut in line and get your console before you, there has always been a level of concern that (I think) shows how much these consoles mean to me. And it’s something that hasn’t gone away. That PS5 preorder I mentioned? I check almost every single day to make sure Target hasn’t canceled it. Why would they? I don’t know! But I worry. The other pattern is in the rituals that come with the post-victory glow. Getting something delicious to eat. Staring at the shiny new box as I (or we) eat said deliciousness. Gently (probably too gently) unboxing the unit and marveling at its sleek design. Taking a moment to appreciate that new console smell. This is a long post and I’ve gone over what seem like a lot of launches, but if you look at their release years, these things don’t happen very often. They are rarities, and when they generate magical memories, they become important parts of our identities as gamers. That is why I wanted to chronicle my journey here, and why I am looking forward to the next generation and many more to come.

Phasmophobia and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Ghosts

It’s spooooooky season! I hope you heard that in a sufficiently spooky voice in your head. I’d say you can imagine my voice but you probably don’t know what I sound like, unless you know me (hi, Amy!). Just trust me: I sound very spooky. Okay, no, I don’t, but you don’t have to know that. What was I talking about again? Oh, right, it’s spooky season and I’ve been celebrating with horror movies and video games all month long. In addition to finishing Days Gone, I’ve been playing Castlevania from the Castlevania Anniversary Collection and, more to the point of this post, a little Steam early access game called Phasmophobia.

Phasmophobia is a 1-4 player co-op game where you and your team investigate an empty house to figure out what kind of ghost has been causing a ruckus. Yes, I said a ruckus. A ghostly ruckus. There are different kinds of ghosts, like poltergeists, demons, spirits, and yurei, and each has different strengths, weaknesses, and clues that they leave behind. You have several tools that “real” ghost hunters use, like EMF readers, thermometers, UV flashlights, and more, and you use these tools to detect the traces unique to each ghost. You might catch a spooky handprint on a window with the UV flashlight, freezing temperatures with the thermometer, or some demonic scrawls in a spirit book you left on the floor of the room you suspect is the specter’s “spot.” Once you collect three clues, you can narrow down which ghost you’re dealing with and get the fuck out of there.

And you will want to get the fuck out of there, because while the ghost may be harmless when you first arrive, after you and your team poke around too much, calling the ghost’s name or setting up gear, it gets angry. It might simply try and spook you by knocking something off a shelf, making the lights flicker, or lightly tapping a key on the family piano. Eventually, however, it will enter a “hunting phase,” where your flashlights will begin to flip out, all external doors will slam and lock, and the ghost will search high and low for a victim. You communicate with team members via walkie talkie, so if a team member dies you might not even know it unless they don’t respond to your calls or you come across their dead, sometimes twisted corpse. I have been playing with my friends Tab and Ron, and here is an example of Tab’s corpse:

What’s that? Are they looking under the car for some keys they dropped? No. They are dead, folded in half by a ghost. I have played a lot of horror games in my time (*strokes long, white beard, indicative of great age and eternal wisdom*), but I have honestly never been so scared playing a game. Okay, maybe that one time, but I was a child. I am a full grown man now (in body, anyway). I served in the military for six years, trained briefly with Marines on a deployment to the Middle East, and live on my own in a very old and creepy house – and yet, when I am alone in a dark room, holding a small glowing radio that’s hissing static, and I whisper “where are you?” only to hear the radio immediately chirp “behind,” followed by a loud hiss whooshing by my ears, I get chills and almost projectile vomit from fear. Okay, the second part was an exaggeration, but this is legitimately the first game to give me chills. Mr. X? Psh. Pyramid Head? *yawn* Betty Brown, formerly of the Ridgeview Road House? *shudder*

At the time of this writing, I have played this game for 61 hours, and while we’ve certainly gotten better at the game and are less scared, we are still very often scared out of our wits. We strut in bravely, thermometers and flashlights in hand, and as soon as we hear a low gurgle accompanied by heavy footsteps, we run as fast as our slow, janky legs will carry us. The game is janky and unfinished, but it’s still a blast to play with friends. And more than almost any other game, I really do feel like friends are necessary for this. Can you play by yourself? Yes. I tried just such a thing, early on, before I knew the stench of my own solitary fear (I’m not even kidding, my sweat seriously stinks when I play this game. My gym sweat? Not bad! Phasmophobia sweat? Like a skunk that shit the bed. Ladies, I am available *kissie emoji*).

It takes a long time to make money at first in this game, so after a play session with Tab, I decided I would try a solo run. I gave myself an actual pep talk before I went in. “It’s just a game. You won’t lose anything if you die. You’re not risking anything. You don’t even believe in ghosts! Just do it. It’s. Just. A. Game.” So I stupidly went in this dark, empty house, all by my dumbass self, and after about two minutes I was in a darkened laundry room. It was cold so I knew the ghost was there. I needed to set up some equipment before I left. I would just make this one trip, I told myself. It’ll be quick. I found a shelf to place a remote video camera and began positioning it when the door to the room slammed and I heard a very loud “HHAAAHHH” move right through me. My heart leapt through my fucking chest, I almost choked, and I straight up closed Steam. Nope.

Let me talk you through a few pictures. First up is a ghost that killed me, stalking Ron. When you’re killed, you return as a spectral form, though you can’t do all the fun stuff that the evil ghost can. You can basically just follow your friends around and ask eerily “why didn’t you save me?” even though they can’t hear you. In this game, I died and watched Ron stand outside the front door, trying to call in and get the ghost to respond. He made the mistake of stepping just a smidge over the threshold, though, and the ghost seized its chance, shutting the door behind him and immediately entering its hunting phase. Ron couldn’t see the ghost but he could hear its heavy boots and gross, ghosty throat gurgles behind him. I, however, could see the whole thing. The ghost, an old man, jaw broken and half hanging from his face, wielded a machete and chased Ron to another room, where Ron was actually lucky to escape.

I don’t have a lot of great screenshots of ghosts because when they do appear as visible in the game, there is a good chance you are either about to die or you just shit your proverbial pants and the last thing on your mind is reaching over and hitting fn>F12. We were determined to get a picture of the ghost once, though, so we hatched a plan. Closets, we deduced, are safe spaces. If you hide in a closet the ghosts don’t seem to kill you, no matter how angry they get. So, in one house, Tab hid in one closet while Ron monitored the ghost’s location from the team van. I opened a different closet near Tab’s so that I could run in and hide once I snapped a pic of the ghost, then I waited in the hallway, camera in hand, as Tab spoke to the ghost to anger it. We were both nervous and jumpy. Finally we saw lights flash and I heard the telltale ghost sounds, but I didn’t see the ghost so I freaked out and ran for the closet. Immediately I knew my mistake. I saw it before I even stepped in. The ghost was in the closet. In leaving the door ajar, I apparently left it wide open for ghostly tenants to hop in and scare the ever-loving shit out of me. As you can see from the picture in the top right, I did get the photo, though.

This next picture was taken tonight. Ron and I were playing, and we narrowed the ghost’s room down to either a bedroom or the adjoining bathroom. We had set up some equipment but we didn’t have much in the way of evidence. We gingerly wandered back into the room to look for stray fingerprints or a polite “DIE DIE DIE” written in the spirit book. We entered and as soon as I spun around the lights went out and we heard ol’ groany. Our characters’ hearts began thumping loudly (as they do when a ghost is very close), and without thinking I snapped a picture, hoping to catch a glimpse of something before my head was twisted around the wrong way. We hauled ass and made it out alive, but check out the shot I caught:

One of our favorite things to do now is play “roulette.” We need a catchier name for it. Ghost roulette? Spectral roulette? Roulettemeoutofhererightnow? We’ll figure it out. Anyway, this is a game I suggested a few days ago and we’ve played it twice so far. The first time we played, we located the ghost before starting, but it’s not necessary and we didn’t do it the second time. Basically, we only bring in photo cameras and maybe a flashlight to toss on the floor so we know when the ghost is hunting. We pick a room, each stand in a different corner, then take turns saying things to the ghost. Last person standing wins. Even though it’s more predictable than a normal round, it’s still very scary. I have also suggested we play a version where we take turns running through the house (in the front door and out the back), calling the ghost’s name the entire time. If the back door locks and you can somehow escape the ghost, you get to try again. I also think it would be fun to each stand in a separate room when we play roulette and only say something once every full minute. That way, if one of us died it would be at least three full minutes before the others realized it (because the dead person wouldn’t say their line), and three minutes is more than enough time for a ghost to start a second hunt.

Okay, I think I’ve babbled on enough about this game, but it was a very fun and unexpected surprise, and the absolute perfect game for the Halloween season. I’m sure our interest will drop off eventually, but I’m already looking forward to our next session, and I can’t wait to check the game out once it gets out of early access and the developers have implemented all of the features they’re planning. Until then, I’ll just be here, in the dark, speaking in a hoarse whisper into my glowing hiss box: “Where are you?” “Are you a girl?” “Can I help?” “Are you single?”

Of X-Wings and Zombie Things

With new consoles and big games on the horizon, I’m feeling an urge to write about the games I’m playing before I end up with a big, multi-game post again. I want to chronicle my PS5 launch experience, and so many big games like Cyberpunk 2077, Spider-Man: Miles Morales, and Assassin’s Creed Valhalla are claiming space in my brain, so I want to share my thoughts on the two games I’ve been spending a lot of time with recently: Star Wars: Squadrons and Days Gone.

Star Wars: Squadrons

Although I missed out on the X-Wing Vs. TIE Fighter game(s), I have mostly enjoyed the space combat components of many of the Star Wars games I’ve played. It’s not exactly “space,” but one of my fondest Star Wars video game memories is playing the Hoth level of Shadows of the Empire over and over and over again, and I played the hell out of the Rogue Squadron games. So I was all in when the trailer dropped earlier this summer, and I couldn’t believe the game was going to be out so soon after the announcement. And at $40? It seemed too good to be true! “Wait,” I thought. “It really does seem too good to be true.” And thus began the doubt. Was it going to be too short? Too niche? Too technical and inaccessible? I was nervous.

Well, as a wise little alien once said, “fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering.” That alien was Yoda and, as usual, he was wrong. My fears were not only unfounded, they certainly did not lead to suffering. I really love Squadrons and am still playing it when I have time. The gameplay is not nearly as dense and technical as I thought it might be. It’s not as loose and arcade-y as most of the other Star Wars flight experiences, sure, but I actually prefer this type of flying. I think I’ve complained about this before, but I dislike flight games where you control a point out in front of your craft. As much as I loved the Rogue Squadron games, they controlled like that. When you tilt your controller in these games, the “nose” of your craft points in that direction. It feels unrealistic and unsatisfying to me. I much prefer games where you are controlling a point in the center of the craft. This allows for more realistic turns and you can do an actual barrel roll, as opposed to what would essentially be a corkscrew.

So, for me, that was the biggest win for this game: it feels good to play. Do I have to flip switches and monitor gauges? Yes, but there aren’t that many and it was very easy to pick up. It feels so cool to divert power to engines to increase the speed of my X-Wing toward a Star Destroyer, switch to weapons systems to launch a volley of blasts toward a shielding subsystem, then immediately cut to shields to make an escape. Well, try to make an escape. I’m often so determined to do as much damage as I can that I end up being destroyed before I can get safely away, heh. I was also a little nervous about the first-person perspective, as I usually prefer seeing the ship I’m flying, but I ended up really liking that, too. Again, my fears were unfounded. While I would like some kind of replay feature, where you see your ship and all the cool stuff you did from a third person perspective (like in the Ace Combat series), I found myself enjoying the cockpit view very much. Another one of my favorite experiences in the game is lining up a perfect shot on an enemy, unloading, and then bursting through the fiery remnants. I doubt it would be so thrilling in third person.

Squadrons isn’t quite as pretty as Star Wars Battlefront II, and it certainly doesn’t offer as much variety in terms of locales and ships, but there were still plenty of times I found myself in awe, scraping the hull of a cruiser with my TIE Fighter or rounding an asteroid to see a shattered Star Destroyer with beams of the nearest star cutting through my cockpit window. I’ve completed the story and played a handful of fleet battles, but I haven’t had as much time as I’d like with this game. With the new consoles, Cyberpunk 2077, and Assassin’s Creed Valhalla coming soon, I don’t know when I’ll even have time to return to it. But I really liked it and I can’t wait to get back to it at some point.

Days Gone

One of the reasons I haven’t had as much time to play Squadrons is because I started Days Gone earlier this month, and I have been trying to knock it out before November hits. It’s a much bigger game than I expected, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It had a lot of negative press when it came out, but as we know by this point, often the negative (or positive) hype around a game has little to do with any given person’s enjoyment of said game. Gaming culture can be toxic, and tainting a game’s reception because of some predisposed perception of it (or its developers), without having played it, is just one example of that toxicity. It’s certainly not a perfect game, and seemingly could have used a bit more polish, but overall I am having a lot of fun with it.

Part of my enjoyment might be coming from my love of zombie games in general, and this game has elements of Left 4 Dead, Dead Island, and I’d argue there’s even a little Resident Evil influence in there. All of that zombie goodness takes place in an open world where you help to build up outposts, earn money to improve your motorcycle (mount), and go out on exploratory missions and tasks. This is My Type of Game™. I didn’t really think I’d be too into the idea of a motorcycle as a mode of transportation, but once I was able to start modding and customizing my bike, I was in. Throw in a custom Horizon Zero Dawn paint job and I was soon dreaming of how to quickly gain experience to unlock even better mods. I like games that have horses but to be honest, I rarely use them. I typically prefer to explore on foot. Throw in the fact that a loud motorcycle would attract the terrifying zombie hordes and I fully expected to leave my bike behind 90% of the time. Nope. I am almost never without my bike.

“Dude, where’s my bike?”

Speaking of the hordes, they aren’t quite as massive as I was expecting, but they are about as terrifying. Given the damage that just a few infected can do if they get to you, I knew I would never survive a close encounter with a few dozen or more of the rabid sonsabitches. So I steered very clear whenever I caught a glimpse of one. And then I found my first cave in the game, and if you’ve ever played a video game you know that caves are Where It’s At. There had to be something good in there. So I crouched low and started sneaking in, casting my flashlight about, watching for spookies. I got pretty deep before turning a corner and swinging my light toward a huddled mass of heaving infected, hunched and breathing heavy. They whipped their collective heads toward me and it was like that scene in Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest where Jack Sparrow is running from the big group of cannibals. I busted ass out of the cave and hopped on my bike quicker than you can say I am Legend: The Video Game. Later, when I was slightly more proficient in combat, I found a NERO camp under a railroad bridge. NERO camps are exciting because once you power them up and get inside, an injector that permanently increases a stat awaits. So I hopped off my bike and got to work on finding gas for the generator when I spotted a horde… above me, in a car of the train stopped on the bridge. I backed away slowly, but then I noticed there were explosive barrels, crates, and gas cans placed at seemingly strategic places around the camp. Could I take out a horde this early? I could just time my shots and take out a few chunks, then clean up the rest… yes, I thought, and decided to go for it. I positioned myself in the road below, shot a few of them to get their attention, and as they spilled out of the car, dozens of arms and legs clamoring over each other, I lined up a shot with a gas truck. I pulled the trigger. *Click*. *Ting*. Nothing. I hit it but it didn’t explode. Uh. Uhhh. They’re moving so fast, they’re going to get *click* I shot again. *BOOM* Huge explosion. But I was already jumping on my bike. I was two seconds too late with the second shot. The truck took out a handful, but the rest were already on me. I managed to get away but not without a few swipes to my bike.

I did take a horde out, eventually. I found one on the edge of a swamp and it seemed smaller than the others. I decided to see if I could thin its numbers with explosives, then run away and come back with more. I parked my bike facing away, then threw two Molotovs and two pipe bombs before the horde could react. It was perfect. Each pipe bomb took out 4-5, and the Molotovs looked like they got 2-4 each. I zoomed a short distance away on my bike as they chased me, but they quickly gave up and started ambling back to their original spot. I returned and did the same thing, and when I rode away this time I made sure to guide the stragglers a little farther than the core. When the core turned back I took out the stragglers with silenced guns, then went back to the very small remaining core and was able to just melee them. I don’t imagine I’ll get that lucky with the rest of them, but I felt pretty accomplished with the 45+ ears I’d collected.

It’s these types of events that really win me over in open world games. The outpost building, bike modding, and side quests mentioned earlier are key, too, but when there is enough freedom and flexibility in a world to allow for unique approaches to solving problems, I am 100% there for it. I love that if me and ten of my friends played this game (lol I don’t have ten friends – hi, Amy!), we would all probably have very different stories about taking down our first horde. I’m not finished with the story yet, but I think I’m pretty far. The story has been pretty decent, but even if they completely botch the landing, I can safely say that I enjoyed my time with the game and am looking forward to finishing every side quest, collectible, and mission. And then it will be… Days Done. Get it? Instead of Gone? Done? Okay, I’m out.

Paper Mario (and More-io)

The dawn of the next generation of consoles is upon us. Last week, the PlayStation 5 preorders went up, this week it was the Xbox Series X/S. I was lucky enough to secure a PS5, but I haven’t had any luck getting a Series X. I was late in trying for that one, though. For the PS5, I suspected Sony would pull another “and preorders are open now” deal, like they did last generation, so after their Showcase Event I and several of my gaming scholar friends formed an alliance to scour the various retail sites for any sign of a preorder opportunity. After the event, Sony said that preorders would begin “tomorrow,” but having been present for a few modern console launches, I had my doubts, and when rumors emerged that some retailers would open preorders that day, the alliance went into action, refreshing page after page. About an hour after the event, I noticed Target’s PS5 landing page changed to a less marketing-oriented page to one where you could preorder PS5 games. I knew that meant something was about to happen, and my guess paid off. Within minutes the preorder link went up. As I was excitedly typing my payment information in, I used Siri to call one friend and tell them the link was live, then when I submitted my order, I sent a link to the rest of the alliance. All but one of us got one. It was an exciting victory. I only decided on a whim to get an Xbox Series X, so I was hours late in trying for one of those preorders. I ran into some of the widely reported issues where I was able to get one in my cart on the Best Buy site but then it would empty my cart and say “whoops,” basically. And Target almost let me get one as well, a few times. But alas, I have been refreshing all of the main sites every now and then since yesterday and have had no luck. It’s cool. It was going to be a Christmas present to myself, so as long as I can get one before then I’ll be fine.

Super Mario 3D All-Stars

As close as the next gen is, we won’t be there for another month and a half, so let me continue my periodic rambling about what I’m playing in the now. Did I just say “in the now”? Ugh. I want to punch myself in the face. Speaking of punching myself in the face, I recently got Super Mario 3D All-Stars and tried a bit of Super Mario 64 for the first time in… too many years. The last time I played it was probably around the time the game came out. Let’s not do the math because my birthday is coming up and I’m old. Keeping with the theme of feeling old, my experience with this port (which was surprisingly crisp and good looking) highlighted how kind the fuzzy filter of nostalgia is. In my memory, the controls in Mario 64 were so smooth, responsive, and precise. I remember feeling so amazed at tilting the joystick forward just slightly and Mario tiptoeing, or spinning it in circles and watching him respond in exactly the same motion.

Now, in my defense, at the time all of that was pretty groundbreaking. It felt precise and responsive compared to the few 3D games I’d played. Now? Oof. I mean, it’s not at all terrible. But between the less-than-perfect feeling movement and the terrible camera (which, again, what did we have to compare it to at the time?), it was kind of painful revisiting this gem. I can’t wait to play Super Mario Sunshine, because I loved that game when it came out and expect it to feel much better, but I think I’ll tuck Mario 64 back into the dusty, warm recesses of my memory and leave it at that.

Paper Mario: The Origami King

Speaking of Mario, I finally did the thing! I played a Paper Mario game at launch! I spent over 50 hours playing Paper Mario: The Origami King and I loved most of those hours. [some spoilers ahead] The biggest draws of the series for me have always been the bright, cute art style and character/environments, witty writing and humor, and generally just seeing familiar Mario characters in big narratives where they really get the chance to shine. Those elements were all here, even if there wasn’t as much papery Peach goodness as I’d have liked. Kamek was a standout in this entry and had some of the best lines, and I loved Bowser’s role in this one as well. Something I realized with this entry: Mario is the character given the least amount of personality in these games. The designers seem to get the chance to expand almost every other character’s personality, including minions like Bob-ombs. Mario is reduced to a silent protagonist, probably because of the series’ JRPG roots.

Much has been made of the combat system, and I have mixed feeling about it. Some people seem to love it, some people seem to hate it. I thought I liked it more than I’d expected to, until I encountered some of the more difficult combat puzzles later in the game. I was so excited when I got to the gameshow level… until I realized you essentially had to solve combat puzzles to win points. There were also some boss fights that had particularly frustrating aspects related to the puzzle grid. It wasn’t bad enough to ruin the game for me, and most encounters were either fun or just passable. I would just absolutely love a return to party-based, RPG-like combat. We won’t see another Paper Mario game for some time now, I guess, but I’ll have my fingers crossed anyway.

I am Setsuna

Another game I’ve recently spent a significant time with is I am Setsuna, a game that I’d heard several versions of “if you like Chrono Trigger, you’ll like this game” about. I’ve heard that before, many times, and I’ve almost always been let down. I am Setsuna is not so close that you’d mistake it for a cousin, but it’s definitely the most Chrono Trigger­-y RPG I’ve played, from the active-time battle system to the mysterious scythe-wielding enemy/friend, to the dual and triple tech-likes, and more. One of the things I really liked about this game was how simple and direct it was. Areas were small and contained, you could virtually never get lost, yet with the inclusion of an overworld it felt like you were traveling over vast distances, like the JRPGs of old. I didn’t have to think very much while playing this game, and while that might be a complaint for some other RPGs, I welcomed it here. This felt like a short(ish), simple(ish), straightforward old school RPG. A proverbial cup of hot cocoa with whipped cream and marshmallows. A sweet reminder of simpler times.

Hi, Amy!

Things that were not so sweet, though: the archaic save system. Yes, okay, I get it: there was a real dedication to being old school here. But when you spend two hours grinding and unwittingly wander into a new enemy that wipes you out in two turns, and you’ve lost two hours of your life because of that dedication to old school design, you begin to see why autosaves are actually pretty great. I also did not love the character models. The character designs were great (in their avatars), and I absolutely loved the environment art. Some sections literally looked like paintings. But then to contrast that with chibi-like characters with oversized heads and hands and absolutely no feet? Blech. Hrk. Other gagging sounds. It was something I hated about the original Final Fantasy VII, and while it’s not quite as bad here, it still made my skin crawl. You may be Setsuna but you need to put Some-shoes-on your feet. Wait, that didn’t work. If you say it out loud it works better. Except they don’t have feet to put the shoes on… you know what? Let’s move on.

Return of the Obra Dinn

I have been so excited to get this game since I saw the first trailer. The art style, reminiscent of very old school PC games, is so unique and cool that I was almost all-in for that reason alone. When you add the premise – that you are an investigator tasked with exploring a ghost ship to determine the identity and cause of death of every former passenger – I was sold. I’ve played about eight hours at this point but I think I’m going to put it aside. It’s not that I don’t like it. I think it’s rad and it definitely allows you to do the detective work without holding your hand or giving you much help. That means that it requires patience, though, which I don’t have much of at the moment. When you come across a new corpse (or some indicator of a former corpse), you get to see a 3D model/flashback of that character’s death. From this snapshot and any other clues you might have gathered, you have to determine the person’s name, cause of death, and (if applicable) killer. It’s rarely obvious, and in most cases you have to recall the smallest of details that were in no way highlighted in a different memory you may have viewed hours ago. If you’re looking for a challenge and the reward that comes with truly solving some mysteries on your own, that complicated process is really cool. When you have a stack of games that you’re trying to catch up on before the next generation of consoles lands, it can be a bit anxiety inducing. So I would definitely recommend it to people, and I will almost certainly go back to it someday, but for now I think I’m going to move on to some spooky games (like Days Gone and some classic Castlevania games) to celebrate the upcoming Halloween season.

End of Summer Snippets

Well, the nights are getting cooler, the days are getting shorter, and I can already smell the scent of pumpkin spice on the veritable breeze that is social media bandwagoning. I love summer and will be sad to see it go, but I am trying to look forward to the nice things about fall. The beautiful autumnal leaves, the opportunity to make various chilies and stews, and I will, of course, once again embrace the spooky majesty that is Halloween by attempting to watch a horror movie every day in October and playing various scary games (I just picked up the Castlevania Anniversary Collection on PS4, as a matter of fact). I’m getting ahead of myself, though, as this blog is a look back, not forward. I’ve spent a ton of time with some big games this year, like Yakuza 0, Persona 5 Royal, and Final Fantasy VII Remake, so with this last month I’ve mostly been poking around and dabbling with shorter games. As has become habit, I wanted to share my thoughts on what I’ve been playing before the list grows longer than I can manage. Some [SPOILERS] throughout, if you care.

Secret Little Haven

I’ve professed my love for the Emily is Away games, and apparently I have a thing for throwback Internet/instant messenger games because I found this game to scratch that same nostalgic itch. The narrative unfolds through instant messenger chats, like the Emily games, but unlike those games Secret Little Haven is more firmly rooted in what seems to me to be the memoir genre. Both games’ developers would, I imagine, point to real life experiences from their past as influences for their games, but while the Emily games center on a more ‘universal’ experience of online flirting/romance, Haven is more narrow, centered on a young trans girl exploring identity through pop culture and finding community in online spaces. So, while I enjoyed the game on a subjective level, I also think it’s an important and interesting game to look at when considering games as a unique medium for memoir or just a rare example of a trans narrative in games. Also, the protagonist finds personal inspiration in a character from what appears to be a fictional version of Sailor Moon, which made me want to see/hear/read/play more stories of people discovering important aspects of their personalities through pop culture characters. I feel like that’s something that’s downplayed or thought of as ‘childish,’ but I have to imagine it’s more common than people let on.

Hatoful Boyfriend

This game started out as a joke Flash game, and it doesn’t seem to have evolved much beyond that. That’s not really a harsh criticism, because I don’t think the game was ever meant to be some deep, highly polished masterpiece, but it’s hard to avoid commentary on its bare-bones presentation. It was very weird and did show some cleverness in its awareness of the tropes in the visual novel genre, though. I only played through one ending and chose to pursue Nageki, the melancholy mourning dove.

Arcade Spirits

This game tapped directly into a very nerdy vein for me. I mean, it’s a dating sim about gaming. Uh, yes, please. The writing and characters were very charming and the story was far more involved and lengthy than I’d expected. I did wish there were more in the way of illustrations/animations (particularly in terms of player character design), but as an indie game I don’t exactly hold it against the devs. The writing was the highlight, anyway. Still, I loved these characters and this world so I would kill for Dream Daddy levels of art production. It was hard to ultimately determine how much impact on the story my choices had, but I was so invested in the world that I found naming our big public event (Funplex Alpha 3) and eventual independent arcade (Quarter Up Arcade) so much fun. I chose to date Naomi and she was a no-brainer for me. A smart, capable, nerdy girl in glasses who is passionate about video games? *swoon* It says on the official site that they’re working on a sequel, called Arcade Spirits: The New Challengers, and though I don’t expect it’ll be out anytime soon, I am already hyped for it.

NBA 2K20

As was the case with NBA 2K16, I got this game free through PSN, but this time around the story mode didn’t hook me as deep. I played through a few games, cutscenes, and minigames, but ultimately I didn’t love the feel of the gameplay. I’m happy to have it and might return to it to mess around with some friends eventually, but I wasn’t altogether too impressed with this entry in the series.

Rage 2

Speaking of not being too impressed, I also started Rage 2 recently and, well, you’ll be surprised to read that I was… not too impressed. Granted, I’m not terribly far in the game, but so far the only thing bringing me back is that sweet, sweet id gunplay. I have such fond memories of some of the older Quake games that this old-school-esque gameplay feels comfortable and cozy. Unfortunately, many of the other gameplay elements, like level design and animations, also feel dated, but in a negative way. When they showed the trailer at E3 a couple/few years back, some people complained that it looked too similar to Borderlands. At the time, I thought it was premature to make that claim and figured there is room for various takes on a neon-tinged post-apocalyptic Mad Max-style open world. And maybe there is, but Rage 2 ended up being way too similar to Borderlands for my liking, and it makes any weaknesses that much more glaring because there is a critically acclaimed series to make direct comparisons with. I’ll keep playing because the gameplay is fun, but I’ll probably move on before finishing the story.

GRIS

I beat GRIS in a single sitting and it is just such a simple and beautiful game. It would make an excellent game to play with a class and discuss game design. It takes advantage of universal platforming knowledge and only complicates it beyond that in the slightest. The mechanics are minimal, which frees the player to just take in the gorgeous art that makes up the world. One of things that impressed me the most was how singular the world seemed to be. It didn’t seem like a series of screens with individual elements that had been placed here and there to make environments. It seemed like one gigantic canvas, each element drawn as a part of the whole, and you are a small blip that is just moving along as the camera sometimes slowly zooms in or out to reveal just how interconnected everything is. It’s hard to explain. I guess I might say that most platformers (because the individual platforms/assets are obviously separated from the background) seem like a series of ‘screens’ or small paintings, whereas this game seems like one gargantuan painting that you are navigating slowly but surely. Either way, what a moving story told almost exclusively with visuals. I think the only word in the entire game is “HOLD.”

The Last of Us Part II

I swear I usually finish games. Like, it’s a thing. I don’t like starting something if I have no intention of finishing it. I have finished some games that I really, really did not like. And yet this is the third game thus far that I have given up on. I do plan on going back to it, eventually, but I just didn’t feel like I was in the right emotional space for it at the time. I played for maybe 6-8 hours, and I liked what I played enough. It is, as you have probably heard/seen, a beautiful game. The subtleties and nuance in the acting performances were most impressive to me, and I look forward to seeing how the story plays out, but some of the implications about where the characters are going to be led were a bit heavy for me at this time. So maybe I’ll write a separate blog sometime down the line, when I finish it.

Ghost of Tsushima

I saved this one for last because, well, like literally every other person who’s played this game, I have a bunch of pictures that I am going to force upon you. I was so pleasantly surprised by Ghost of Tsushima. I thought the E3 trailer from last year looked pretty cool but it didn’t seem like my kind of game. I suppose because everyone seemed to assume it would play like a Souls game. I preordered it after a more recent gameplay trailer, because the open world looked beautiful and fun to navigate. It was, but the combat honestly ended up being my favorite thing about this game and kept me coming back. I wandered deep into a harder section of the map almost immediately, so I had virtually no skills to survive one particularly neverending group of enemies that kept killing me over and over again. Out of sheer stubbornness, I kept trying to best them, though, convinced I could pull it off. I could not, it turns out, but that practice against so many difficult foes made me very good at dodging and parrying early on, so once I started gaining abilities and stances, I felt unstoppable.

Before playing I was convinced I would choose the stealthy approach. Years of Assassin’s Creed and Metal Gear Solid games have prepared me for the art of the sneaky sneak. But, no. I enjoyed combat so much in Ghost that I would actively seek out large groups of enemies at every turn, to engage in the fast dance that was slicing my way through their ranks one parry at a time. Did I get myself into trouble and die? Sure, a few times. But more often I would stroll up to a camp of two or three dozen Mongols, as brazen as can be, and walk away soaked in the blood of my enemies mere minutes later. It was such a visceral thrill. Aside from that, yes, the game was gorgeous and I loved taking a million pictures in photo mode. I also liked the story and characters quite a bit and, as a fan of Ubisoft’s open-world games, I loved traveling around the world and writing haiku, chopping bamboo, collecting sword kits, and more. In a year with Persona 5 Royal and Final Fantasy VII Remake I don’t think this is my game of the year thus far, but it’s close.

Diss Bits: Punch Line and Trans Representation

I said recently that I wanted to start using these posts as a way to work out some thoughts as part of my dissertation work, and I just finished reading a chapter that contributes something to my previous thoughts on the game Punch Line. In those thoughts, I stopped short of calling the game a queer game or the protagonist a transgender character. After thinking about it more and discussing it with a friend, I began to think it probably was at least in part an allegory for the trans experience, intentional or not. As a refresher, from that post: “Yuuta is a man’s spirit in a woman’s body, presenting as a man (and voiced by a woman). It’s a little convoluted. He was a man, and because of an event in the game, he ended up swapping spirits with a woman, who swapped spirits with another man. In the end, a plan does emerge to return Yuuta to his original body. So, technically speaking, Yuuta is not a trans character, but I think it’s interesting and important that the main character of this game is, in an abstract (or symbolic) way at least, trans.”

If Yuuta was intended to be a character that represented the trans experience, I later thought, does that suggest that the Japanese see transgender people as the soul of one gender in the body of the opposing gender/sex? So Yuuta would be a trans man. The spirit of a man “trapped” in a woman’s body. Let’s ignore the performative part of his gender because it only complicates things and is more superficial than his lived gender.

I thought I remember coming across this idea of a gendered spirit trapped in an opposite gendered body in another game, in which they explicitly state that, but I can’t seem to find it. I thought it might have been Catherine: Full Body, and it might just have been, but I skimmed through the hundreds of screenshots I took of that game and I couldn’t find any line of dialogue that stated that. Regardless, I just ran across it in Mark McLelland’s chapter in the book I’m reading, Popular Culture, Globalization and Japan, titled: “Japan’s Original ‘Gay Boom’.” In it, he says “The category most commonly used to describe postwar danshô was ‘urning’ (ûruningu), a sexological term that had been devised by German sexologist and homosexual Karl Ulrichs (1825-95) to designate a ‘female soul in a male body’ and which had achieved widespread currency in prewar sexological writings” (161). McLelland is introducing this concept to describe the Japanese gei bôi, who are more akin to femme gay men rather than trans women, but I think the fact that the phrase and concept were so popular in queer communities so long ago in Japan is significant and might support my previous idea that many Japanese people see trans people differently than people in the West: as simply one ‘spirit’ in the body of another.

With that in mind, I would go back and revise my previous claim that I can’t call Punch Line a queer game, or Yuuta a trans character. I would argue now that they are, regardless if the developers meant them to be or not. I think there’s sufficient textual evidence to back that up, plus now I know that the concept of ‘spirits’ (probably not in the literal sense, though that’s worth investigating, too) is a popular way for Japanese people to understand gender, which makes me think that the game’s depiction of genders being swapped is not at all an accident.

Obviously I need to do more research specifically on this issue, but because my dissertation will probably only briefly touch on queer representation in Japanese games, I’ll have to wait on that. It’s something I’m very interested in, though. As I’ve said before, Japanese game developers have a complicated history with queer representation, and I think it bears a much closer examination than we give it in our mainstream discussions. Hopefully someday I can get around to doing some of that work. For now, the dissertation.

Regret

This is not a video game post. So, no, I won’t be talking about my regret for ever having played Myst or not placing higher in the 1994 Blockbuster World Video Game Championship regional finals. No, this is a post about plain ol’ regret. More specifically, I wanted to write about my own relationship with regret. Nothing too specific, so this is also not some kind of private journal entry, but I came to a realization about my history with regret recently and wanted to write it down for future reference. I’d hate to… regret not sharing it. Eh? Eh? No? Well, damn. Now I… regret making that joke okay okay I’m sorry, I’ll stop.

For much of my younger life, my teens and early twenties, I was the type of person who loved to proclaim that I wouldn’t change a thing about my past because, if I did, it would probably change who I was in the present and I didn’t want that. You know the type. “No regarts.” Which, looking back, was kind of weird, given that I was often deeply unhappy with certain aspects of my life. I think it might have been rooted in a fear of losing myself, of becoming someone unfamiliar. I clung to an authentic “me” that I was proud of, even if I’d wished I was better looking or smarter or more charming or whatever. I feel like many of us struggle to define ourselves in those years, trying new things and experimenting to find the “us” that we subconsciously want to be. So to imagine throwing all of that hard work away by hypothetically changing something in the past felt scary.

Later, during some of my most serious bouts with depression and anxiety, I regretted everything. I would find myself dwelling on the past often. What if I had asked that girl out? What if I had stood up for myself that one time? What if I’d actually tried to do well in high school? My regrets were both broad and specific. I might wish I had been more, I dunno, outgoing. Or I might wish that I had been more clear about my feelings when making a sad attempt at asking Amy out in my first semester of college. Either way, I’d wish something had been different. It makes sense, right? I was so unhappy with how things were that I would have gladly risked any changes to my present state by making changes, big or small, to the past. Any bit of happiness, even if just a brief moment years ago, seemed completely worth it.

I’ve been in therapy for a little over a year at this point, and one of the most useful aspects of the process, for me, is introspection. I “did the work,” as my therapist says. And when I thought about regret, and how my relationship with it has changed over the years, I realized that it used to be toxic (in both previously mentioned ways). But over this last year I think I’ve come to find a healthy balance to my regrets. I can’t change the past, of course, but while I may not dwell on it and actively wish I could change it, I can still look back at my regrets and admit to myself that maybe I do wish I’d done things differently. Instead of wallowing in sadness and anger about it, though, and wishing I actually did do things differently, I ask myself what I would do if that thing happened today. I can’t fumble my way through a relationship proposition with Amy from college again, but if I happen to be attracted to a woman now, instead of being indirect and coy about my feelings, I would be direct and open. If someone does something that makes me uncomfortable or crosses a clear boundary, instead of avoiding the subject and just hoping that they’ll “get” why I’m upset, I’ll tell them. I still allow myself to regret things, but only if I learn from them. I did something I didn’t like? Don’t do it again. I wish I would have done that one thing? Do it next time.

I’m not deluding myself by believing that my relationship with regret is perfect, even now. I’ll continue to make mistakes, even some of the same I’ve made in the past, and I’m sure I’ll find myself in a position where I dwell on a particular regret for too long. But I feel much better about my past, my present, and my regrets than I used to.

Gaming Memories: Faxanadu and the Filthy Sword

“Daggers and wingboots, mantras and monsters await you,” the cover to Hudson Soft’s 1989 NES game Faxanadu claims. Since it’s Father’s Day here in the US, I figured I would share a dad-related gaming memory. I haven’t spoken with my father in about 18 years. I’m not upset about it and this blog is not meant to be a confessional, but it’s difficult to separate such facts from stories like this one.

Source: http://rarity.club/games/NES/Faxanadu

It was probably 1990 when we got the game. I had finally convinced my parents to buy me an NES after raving about it for months. It was the Super Mario Bros. 3 bundle that came out, I believe, not long after the launch of that game. Given these dates, I was probably just turning 8. I had spent many days over at my neighbor’s house playing on his NES, so it felt so amazing and exciting to finally have my own console. I could play single player games! I could replay some of my favorites, like Jaws and Contra! I could die over and over and over (and over and over and over) in games like Friday the 13th and Castlevania! I could almost shit my pants before quitting A Nightmare on Elm Street!

I loved the original Zelda games on the NES but I found the turn-based combat of Final Fantasy to be too slow and confusing, so when we looked at Faxanadu’s box in some store one day, it seemed like the perfect marriage of the two games to my young mind. There were swords and magic, yes, but you could also run around and slash at creatures to your heart’s content. I have a very specific memory of staring at the back of the box and thinking “yes. This is a good one. I want this.” That thought didn’t always lead to a good game – sometimes you’d buy or rent a game that had great box art and was a total dud. But this game sounded mature, epic, and the graphics were great, which was a big deal to me. I was pleasantly shocked when my dad read the back of the box and carried it to the front for purchase. How did I get so lucky? I so rarely got games and was well acquainted with “no. Put it back.” We rented games, sure, but a game purchase was a big deal. I was so excited to get those wingboots, whatever the hell they were.

When we got home, my dad called Eddie and Jerry, two of his friends, over to the house. They were pretty high energy and usually friendly to me. My dad had told them all about the game and wanted to play it with them. I was a little confused because this wasn’t exactly a normal occurrence. I asked if I could play and my dad said that I could watch. It was “their turn to play games.” So I watched them play, taking in all of the exciting things I had imagined when I’d read the box. The music in particular was amazing. The graphics were great. I loved the concept of starting at the bottom of a great, expansive tree and climbing your way to the top. It felt torturous having to just watch. Even when I played on my neighbor’s console, we shared play time, handing off the controller when one of us died. They handed the controller off to each other, but when I did the annoying kid thing and asked to play a second time, I was told “no” more firmly. “This is a game for grown-ups. If we let you play you’ll just die and mess up our progress. Just be happy watching.”

Source: https://www.thevintagegamers.com/2017/06/faxanadu-for-the-nes/

I’d felt particularly wounded at that. I was eight years old, so maybe I was being childish, but I remember feeling that the situation was supremely unfair. “It’s my console,” I recall pouting. “And who paid for it? Who paid for the game? You want me to take it back? You have to learn to share,” he said. Maybe he realized that commandeering someone’s things and then claiming that “they need to learn to share” is a wholly masculine, very American sentiment. Probably not, though. He was a bit of an idiot.

So I sulked and pouted as I watched them fumble their way from screen to screen. Eventually they got to a fountain, and when they later returned to it the water had stopped flowing. There was a door nearby, blocked by something that looked like it needed to be unlocked. The fountain seemed key in some way, but they couldn’t figure it out. They left, came back, went and spoke with some NPCs, came back, traveled almost all the way back to the beginning of the game, came back. They just couldn’t figure it out. They weren’t making any progress so I asked again if I could play. My dad used his annoyed voice and shut me down again, so I sat back and stewed while they kept wasting time, running back and forth, wondering if they had missed an item or the game was broken. Eventually they took a smoke break and were talking about giving up. One of my dad’s friends said “why not let the kid try?” And, of course, when someone else suggested it, he relented and acted like he was doing me a great honor, letting me play my own console. I sat down and picked up the controller.

Source: https://www.mobygames.com/game/nes/faxanadu/screenshots/gameShotId,559167/

Okay, look, this isn’t some story about how much of a wiz I was at video games. I didn’t wrinkle my brow, push up my non-existent nerd glasses, and puzzle the hell out of the game until I found the secret and won the day. I just wanted to wash my sword. Most of the details of this memory are fuzzy and pieced together, but I very clearly remember saying that I wanted to wash my sword. So after jumping around and killing a few enemies to get the hang of things, I declared that my sword was dirty and I needed to clean it. I went back to the fountain and started jumping around it, stabbing at it with my sword. “Hey, look, I’m washing my sword,” I said to them. Yes, I understand this story makes me out to look like a bit of a dense, slightly moronic child, but I’m just speaking the truth here. They could care less about my sword cleaning endeavor. “Okay, wow, cool,” my dad said without looking at the screen. I was annoyed for a brief moment, but then I remembered I had the game all to myself and regained some slight semblance of joy. This is exactly what I’d wanted, after all. Then, as I jumped around the fountain like a mindless idiot, I pushed a block on the top of the fountain and bright blue water came gushing out, triggering a ladder to release under the door. I did it. I did it! “He did it!” Eddie said! “Good job, kid!” “I was just washing my sword!” I said, grinning like I was half the age I truly was.

“Move over,” my dad said, and reached for the controller. “I thought I could play?” I said, visibly confused. “You had your turn. It’s our turn again.” “But I just –” “Come on, move. You can play this later all you want. Go.” And I went, taking a valuable lesson about family and respect with me.

Source: http://rarity.club/games/NES/Faxanadu

Featured image source: https://www.sportskeeda.com/esports/10-under-the-radar-nes-gems-that-should-be-remade-now

Whispers from a Forgotten Past: Final Fantasy VII Remake

There probably isn’t much that hasn’t been said about Final Fantasy VII Remake, but that’s okay. I’m not here to make some grand, unique contribution to the conversation. I have a lot of thoughts, though (and even more screenshots), and I want to start sharing as I often do – with a bit of personal history. This game, more than almost any other, requires it, I think. I should, of course, give a pretty explicit [SPOILER WARNING] for those who haven’t played it yet.

The original Final Fantasy VII came out in January of 1997 to much pre-release marketing and post-release fanfare. I wouldn’t get my PlayStation console until the end of that year, mainly for Resident Evil 2, so I was in a bit of a rough spot. In the year or two prior to FFVII’s release, I had fallen deeply in love with JRPGs. After Chrono Trigger sucked me in, I sought similar games, and Final Fantasy III (VI) had a similar art style (in my young mind, with not much to compare them to, anyway) and was made by the same company, so it was a logical follow-up for me. Like Chrono Trigger and EarthBound before it, it entranced me. I loved the characters, the story, the systems, and, of course, the music. The title sequence and opening scene is still one of my favorites of all time, and its score is a big part of that. I played all of these on the SNES, of course, and like a devoted Nintendo fan I dutifully pre-ordered and picked up an N64 on day one.

So when the hype for FFVII began to spread like wildfire, I was a little sad. A little bitter. A little without the ability to adequately convince my parents that I needed a second video game console (until later that year, as mentioned). I had to suffer through hearing how incredible and amazing and groundbreaking and massive this fantastic JRPG and follow-up to my beloved FFIII was. I wouldn’t play it until the following year, and to this day I have to wonder if playing it at launch would have allowed me to appreciate it more. Don’t get me wrong, I liked it. It really was massive, the cinematic cutscenes were rad, and the music, again, was top notch. I found such joy in seeing callbacks to previous games, like the moogles and chocobos. But I absolutely hated the character models, especially because the environments were so much more realistic and not bizarrely proportioned. Overall, I didn’t love it like so many others had, and since then it has occupied the middle of my list of favorite Final Fantasy titles.

How could I not be excited for a remake, though? Since playing VII I have played every mainline FF game, plus a few of the spinoffs and one of the MMOs, and I have loved most of them. Some of the elements shared between games – summons and chocobos and moogles and airships and such – have become woven tightly into the fabric of my gaming identity (and, in the case of moogles, inked right into my skin). So any new FF game is cause for celebration in my mind. But people have been asking for a FFVII remake for years, and I was always curious about how Square would pull off such a feat, so I did end up getting more hyped than expected for this game.

I’m sure if you’ve gotten this far you’re thinking something like “uh, okay, can you just get to the point?” or “why do we need all of this context? Just show me the pretty screenshots,” or “oatmeal raisin cookies are better than chocolate chip cookies,” and with that last thought you are absolutely out of line and have ruined any semblance of credibility you might have had so I will be dismissing any further criticism from you.

The reason I wanted to share so much of my backstory is that it mattered more to me and my experience with this game than I would have imagined. I’ve had strong emotional ties to FF games and characters and stories, but I wouldn’t have claimed the same for my time with the original FFVII. But as the game booted up and “The Prelude” played, I felt strange stirrings of nostalgia. With every familiar shot – Aerith on the street, a high view of Midgar, Cloud looking up at a Mako Reactor – I felt my eyes tingle with the threat of tears. The moment it really dawned on me that I was nearly choking on nostalgia was when I heard “Mako Reactor 1” play out as I made my way through the game’s first chapter. The previous cues, visual and audio, had prompted some nostalgic whispers, but this track really made everything swell forth. I remembered the small apartment in Chicago that my family lived in at the time. Just off Belmont and Laramie, right behind Jade Dragon Tattoo, where I told myself I’d get my first tattoo. It was the end of my freshman year at Lane Tech High School. An unusually warm spring. We didn’t have an air conditioner so we had the windows open and box fans puttering along. I played on one of those big, old, floor TVs. My family was falling apart. I was depressed but excited for summer. I thought I might get to go to summer camp and maybe, just maybe, have my first kiss with my first “real” girlfriend. I made nachos with too much cheap cheese and Kool-Aid with way too much sugar. We had an infestation of giant ants with wings near a window in our living room, so occasionally one would smack me in the face when I was playing late into the night. I had dreams of becoming a rock star.

It might seem dramatic, and maybe I’m expanding on what were much briefer flashes of memory and emotion, but all of this sprang from just the opening scenes of the game. These characters, this music, this story that I had once felt was just pretty okay and not nearly my favorite, suddenly they meant everything. They are and were a part of my life. A more important part than I’d realized, I guess. I’m not trying to overstate anything. I understand that this is just one of many, many games I’ve played, and it does mean less to me than, say, Final Fantasy III or VIII. But I don’t know that I’ve ever had such a strong nostalgic reaction to a game before. It might be because I haven’t played the original in, what, 22 years? Whereas with games like Chrono Trigger and EarthBound, I play them every so often so the nostalgia is tempered. One core reason for starting this blog was to chronicle some of my gaming memories, so I wanted to share this as well.

After all of that, you might be sleeping. Or you’re still fuming over my justified criticism of your taste in cookies, you absolute monster. So let’s get to the game itself. In short, nostalgic kick in the feels aside, I loved it. This is not a review so I won’t go through all of the systems and every facet of the story, but the combat was fun and pleasantly reminiscent of FFXV. And like FFXV, I wish there were more summons. The six that I have (and I think there might be one more?) are pretty great, but I miss the days of having a healthy number of dazzling magical beings to call to my side (yes, this is just the first installment, I know). I also wish there was a dedicated photo mode, but I was able to capture some decent shots. Like this little gem:

I mean look…

…at that face.

Speaking of faces: damn. The characters in this version look so good. It seems like they may have cut some corners on some other visual assets, because there were some less-than-crisp textures here and there, but the faces, eyes, hair, clothes, skin textures… all looked stellar. I was also impressed by the work they put into mouth movement, to make them match the English voices. I appreciated that even more after watching Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children (for the first time, despite owning the special edition DVD since the day it was released *nervously sweating emoji*), where a lack of regionalized facial animation meant some truly awkward looking and sounding lines.

One of my absolute favorite things about this version is how much they expand on the characters and really round them out. I haven’t played the original in a very long time, true, but I feel like I know these characters more and have a deeper connection with them after this game, compared with how I felt after the entirety of the original game. The writing, voice acting, and animation brought so much life and energy to the smallest of interactions. FFVIIR’s writer, Kazushige Nojima, recently said that he wanted to make Cloud a more complex character in this version, not so “lame.” I think they pulled that off. In the original, Cloud felt a little like a brat. He comes off as cold in this version, but not exactly bratty. More distant, jaded, hesitant to trust, maybe. I also love how they built out Barret, Tifa, Aerith, and even Biggs, Wedge, and Jessie. They are not only cool, full characters on their own, but their interactions with Cloud and the rest of the party are important and help to further develop those characters, too.

I probably won’t write much about this game in my dissertation because it takes place in a fantasy setting (and I’m looking at Japanese depictions of real places), but I did think there was a lot of cultural stuff ripe for analysis. This is already running long so I will just briefly discuss one: the controversial Honeybee Inn scene, where in the original, Cloud is dressed like a woman and some insensitive, homophobic remarks/suggestions are made. Japanese games have a complicated history with queer representation. They have, for a long time, been more willing than big Western developers to include women and queer characters in prominent roles in games, but this increase in inclusion has meant an increase in problematic representation as well. I think it’s important to note that much of the criticism of Japanese games and their portrayals of queer characters comes from a Western perspective, with a Western sense of what is “right and wrong,” or “good and bad.” Having said that, I am not defending every warped depiction of queerness in Japanese games. There are plenty of examples of (usually) gay male characters that are used to create fear in straight characters, or are made to be over-the-top, clownish caricatures that are problematic in any culture, I would argue, because regardless of audience they remove or lessen the humanity of these characters and create an unrealistic trope which real queer people are then unfairly expected to mirror.

That said, I have noticed a trend in Japanese games where queerness and queer characters are treated with increasing respect and realism. From the explicit statement of LGBTQ+ support in AI: The Somnium Files, to Atlus’s inclusion of a new, datable trans character in Catherine: Full Body, their acknowledgment of the issues with queer representation in Persona 5 and their edits in Persona 5 Royal to correct such issues, to overt discussions of gender and identity in Punch Line, to, well, the new Honeybee Inn scene in FFVIIR. In this scene, I was waiting for signs of Cloud’s refusal to participate in the dance or makeover, but he is all in and the entire scene is big, exciting, and fun. Cloud expresses a desire to not talk about it afterward, but given his stoic, guarded nature, they seem to have made it more about his discomfort with being in the spotlight and not his dressing as a woman. Andrea, a queer-appearing character, even makes a comment that “True beauty is an expression of the heart. A thing without shame, to which notions of gender don’t apply.” This echoes some of the remarks made about gender in Punch Line, and seem to align with a Japanese sense that gender is something that is, for lack of a better word at this point in my studies, spiritual, rather than cultural, psychological, or scientific. None of this is to say that any of the examples I’ve given are perfect in their representation of LGBTQ+ characters, and of course this is coming from the perspective of a straight man who is still learning much about queer representation in media, but I was happily surprised by how well they pulled this scene off.

Speaking of true beauty, however, you know I have to comment on the classic debate among old school FFVII fans: Tifa or Aerith? Who is more worthy of Cloud’s romantic attention (or the player’s, for that matter)? I never really had much of a horse in that race. I never really developed a crush on either when I played the original game, in part because their character models looked like plastic dolls that had been mostly melted and then put back together by a near-sighted Popeye fanatic. With the new character models and expanded personalities, though? A much more difficult choice.

I chose Aerith as my date in the Gold Saucer segment of the original game, and I figured I would probably go with her in this one as well, to stick with the choice the narrative seems to want me to make. But in the scene where I could choose to help either of them up after a fall, fully knowing that this choice was significant and would probably affect the story down the line, my gut instinct was to help Tifa. Don’t get me wrong, I love this version of Aerith. She is funny, kind, optimistic, powerful, and quite beautiful. I would 100% offer to be her bodyguard (even when she clearly doesn’t need it).

But Tifa… I don’t know. I guess I really connected with the indecision and sense of powerlessness that she so often seems to struggle with. She is clearly a badass and has some really kickass scenes where she’s, well, kicking ass. But from the beginning she’s dealing with the mixed emotions that come with seeing her childhood best friend (and crush) back from war, but seemingly different and with some pretty clear memory issues. Yet she doesn’t express this to Cloud. She represses it to focus on her role in this revolution against Shinra. Maybe not the healthiest approach, but I can relate. And, like Aerith, she too is gorgeous.

And so it seems in the next installment(s) Cloud will be forced to choose between the safe comfort of his childhood friend or the exuberant warmth of this bright new girl. As for me, I have a new crush: Jessie Rasberry.

I mean, no question. As with the other characters, she is fully developed with an interesting backstory, in which she came to the big city to be an actress but ended up joining a militant group trying to take down Shinra in order to enact justice for her father. So we see that, like Aerith, she has this cheerful, flirty persona that hides a serious side that fights for justice and is willing to sacrifice everything to help others. And, again, like everyone in this damn game, she is breathtakingly beautiful. Not to mention, she throws herself at Cloud! How was he able to resist! I mean, look:

Where is the “yes, absolutely, 100%, what time should I be there, I will do anything, please” option!? Look at how she’s looking at him! Sorry, I’m yelling. I just can’t understand how Cloud could so casually cast her aside. “But she’s so desperate!” I hear you shriek between disgusting mouthfuls of oatmeal raisin cookies. Well so am I! Even if I weren’t, though, come on. She is a catch. She’s cute. She’s tough. She’s talented. She’s dressed like a knight ninja. And:

I will hear no further arguments. Jessie for life. That headband in the ending cinematic better fucking mean she’s coming back in the next game.

Okay, this is approaching the length of a bad fantasy novel, so I need to end this. I have many more thoughts, but I just want to comment on one final thing: the Whispers, of which Barret says:

I took the Whispers to be symbolic of the struggle that must have come with remaking such an iconic game. Video game development is part business, part art, and I’ve heard many creative-minded developers (including some from Square) express no desire to revisit old ideas. They want to create new worlds, characters, and stories. So for them to return to such a venerable game, they must have faced immense pressure from within and without to both stick to the old formula and shake things up. These Whispers seem to represent that struggle. They, and maybe fans, want something new and exciting to happen in this familiar world, but they also kind of want what they know they already love. So, for most of FFVIIR, we get the safe, the recognizable. Prettied up, expanded, bulked out… but mostly the same. But when you defeat the Whispers at the end of the game, that would suggest that these safety nets, these shackles of the past, are no more, right? If so, and we’re looking forward to games that deviate in some ways from the original game (like Aerith surviving? Or Sepheroth joining your team to face a greater foe, à la Magus from Chrono Trigger? Or Cloud ending up with Jessie because she’s clearly the best choice, no more arguments?), I am so excited for what the future of this series might bring. I guess you can call me a FFVII convert.