It has been a time, hasn’t it? This quarantine business seems to make for a great time to catch up on blogging and *gasp* maybe even start posting more regularly again. Up to this point, however, I have had to transition the course I’m teaching to online, play Animal Crossing: New Horizons and… well… I guess mainly just those two things. So I aim to follow through and use the coming weeks to produce more blogging content. I’m still mostly doing it to track thoughts about games I play, but I also just like doing it. Plus, I passed my dissertation prospectus defense recently and I might start using this as a place to work out some ideas (my dissertation is on Japanese video games as cultural products). I mean, I kind of do that when I write about the Japanese games I play anyway, but maybe I’ll post more explicitly analytical stuff.
As for this entry, it’s your run-of-the-mill catch-up blog. I’ve played more than what is listed here, but I am skipping my ongoing multiplayer adventures with Stardew Valley and Red Dead Redemption 2, and games that I have yet to play much of, like Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle. And though I have spent 115 hours in New Horizons since its release just twelve days ago, I am still entrenched in it so I will post a more thorough, standalone blog about it later. I feel I absolutely have to write this post now, because I picked up my copy of Persona 5 Royal yesterday, Resident Evil 3 comes out tomorrow, and Final Fantasy VII Remake lands in a week. I can’t imagine not wanting to dedicate a post to each of those, so let’s quickly cover some ground before I start down that path.
It seems a shame to quickly cover Yakuza 0, though, because I spent so long with it and loved it so much. I had originally planned on dedicating a chapter of my dissertation to both the Yakuza and Persona series, but to appease my committee, who thought my scope was a little too ambitious, I yanked Yakuza and am just going with Persona, since I have already played most of those games. Still, in the last year I’ve collected every mainline Yakuza game in preparation of studying them, so I decided to play them anyway. I chose them for study because they are set in modern Japan and have a reputation for being “very Japanese.”
And “very Japanese” they are. Japanese games that are exported to the West have a history of downplaying or outright erasing cultural markers to make them more palatable for a global market, but recently that has changed. Yakuza 0 (and the rest of the games in the series, I presume) proves that, highlighting numerous staples of Japanese culture: karaoke, sushi, takoyaki, the yakuza itself, video games, English loanwords, fishing, and much, much more. So it makes for a valuable text in terms of games that reflect Japanese culture, but that’s not why I loved it. I probably don’t have the time or space to dedicate to everything I liked about it, in fact, because there is so. Much. To do. There are minigames for singing karaoke, hitting balls at the batting cages, bowling, racing cars, crane games, actual Sega arcade games, card games, dice games, dating, and more. Just when I felt hooked in the story, which is superbly written and impressively voice acted, I’d find myself trying a new minigame and spending hours on it.
My favorite was managing the Sunshine Club as Majima. It seemed a little overwhelming at first, and I never would have expected to spend so much time on it, but I could not stop myself. I liked recruiting and training new ladies, managing customers in real time, facing each bizarre club owner, and the drama that unfolded at every step. There are also many simple moments I loved in the game. Like when you go to a telephone club to talk to and possibly meet a girl, and Kiryu, a stoic and seemingly Very Serious Dude, yanks the telephone receiver dramatically to answer before bringing it to his ear with an excited flourish and saying “moshi moshi.” Or the ways either character excitedly interjects and sings along when someone else is doing karaoke. Or Majima’s masterful manipulation of a rowdy customer in his introductory cutscene. There are lots of little things to love about this game. There are problems, too, like the use of queer/trans people as the butt of jokes, but that’s par for the course with many Japanese games, unfortunately, and it could have been worse, to be fair. In the end, I was pleasantly surprised by how much this game enraptured me.
Luigi’s Mansion 3
I remember playing the original Luigi’s Mansion at a pre-release party for the GameCube and being so impressed with the graphics and physics on display. The newest entry in the series isn’t exactly breaking any ground in the graphics department, but there is enough style in the environments and creativity in how you use your ghost vacuum that it still stands out, in a way. It is a very cute game and not very challenging, so it made for a nice, relaxing experience. After that initial preview session of the first game, I never ended up buying it, so this was my first Luigi’s Mansion game and I can definitely see the appeal. As a fan of spooky stuff, even if it’s on the cute or silly side, I will probably go back and check out the last two games as well, at some point.
Call of Duty Modern Warfare
I have always liked the single player Call of Duty campaigns. I mean, there are annoyances, like how the sound mixing always seems to be intentionally bad to simulate the noise and confusion of the battlefield, but overall the campaigns I’ve played have always been very slick and highly produced, making for a fun and exciting experience. That was the case with this remake of the first Modern Warfare, in spades. I confess to not remembering the first game’s plot all that well, but so much of this version seemed fresh and new. The controls were as tight as ever, but one of the things that really stood out was the gameplay variety from mission to mission. The developers have been mixing different mechanics in missions for a long time, but it felt more fluid and natural than ever in this game. Switching from ground combat to drone strikes, or support sniping to trap setting was quick and easy, which made so many of the missions feel varied and fast paced but not needlessly stressful. In previous games, there would be like two or three missions where I’d think “I want to play that again right now,” but in this game I felt that way after most missions. The game deals with some pretty bleak aspects of war, and although there is some fair criticism about gamifying warfare, I also think games like this can be effective rhetorical vehicles for provocative topics that are rarely experienced with much immersion. It can also be used to gloss over or misrepresent actions and events, of course, as this game does, but that didn’t affect my enjoyment of the stellar gameplay and level design.
Ace Combat 5: The Unsung War
As much as I loved Ace Combat 04 way back in PS2 times, I bought and never played more than a couple of missions of its sequel, The Unsung War. I don’t remember why. It has many of the traits that made its predecessor so good, most notably its controls, so I can’t fathom why I didn’t dive in with every expectation that it would be great. My preorder of Ace Combat 7 came with a digital copy of this game for PS4, slightly more polished, and I finally decided to give it a shot. And, to the surprise of few (meaning, uh, me, I guess), I loved it. Granted, the graphics are rough, even with polish. The ground in particular is a blurred mess at the best of times. But the controls, story, and character interactions were about the same that I fell in love with in 04. The addition of a strong female character, Kei, was cool enough, but she is voiced by Karen Strassman, who also voiced Aigis in Persona 3, which made it even cooler. I loved her work with Aigis, so it was nice to have her as a wingmate on every flight.
Creed: Rise to Glory
Maybe I’m breaking my own rule by writing about Creed, because I haven’t finished it yet, but I always feel compelled to write about VR games because my experiences with them are usually unique to the platform. Such was the case with Creed. The way the game is set up, after the initial story introduction you go through a training session that consists of several microgames (swinging your arms to run on a treadmill, punching a ball and dodging when it springs back, hitting precise points on a punching bag, etc.), then you go on to a fight if you score high enough in training. I completed three training sessions and three fights. While there is certainly something missing in games that simulate fighting (impact, for one), this was a pretty visceral experience. My brain wasn’t tricked into thinking it was real, but I did find myself ducking, weaving, and punching with more ferocity when I felt like I might be in trouble or at risk of getting knocked out. By the third fight I was, to be honest, pretty tired. Sweat was beading on my forehead. But I felt so good about winning the first two fights that I really wanted to try my luck on the third fighter, who actually looked really tough. And he was. I found myself blocking a lot more, only going for combos when it felt somewhat safe, and I still managed to almost get knocked down a few times. I knocked him down once but he was still coming at me with fierceness. I started to feel like I was going to lose. The sweat was more than beads now. I was getting demolished and I began feeling desperate. I finally caught him in a combo and he staggered. I reacted instinctively and quickly stepped toward him to unleash as many hard and fast punches as I could. There was no coffee table in between us in the ring, but there certainly was a coffee table in my living room, and despite it being a good two feet away when I started playing, I stepped into it – hard – when I pounced on my opponent. I won the fight, knocking him out, but I had a small gash and a large bruise in reality to show for it, not to mention sore arm and back muscles the next day.
Focus on You
This VR experience was not quite as visceral. I hadn’t read much about Focus on You, but it was described as a dating simulator in VR, and I mistook it for being Japanese in origin so I thought it might be important to look at as an example of the popularity of dating games in Japan. The developers are Korean, though, so it was not a game I could use for my dissertation. Still, I won’t deny that I am a fan of dating games (although I haven’t quite gotten into the longer, more text-heavy dating “novel” games), so I tried it just for fun. It’s not a bad game, I don’t think, but it’s a very minimal experience. You court a single girl, in only a few encounters, and none of it was particularly compelling. I would love to see them continue working on the idea, and maybe eventually they or someone else could release more fully-featured dating sims, but overall it was pretty disappointing.
Assassin’s Creed III Remastered
Speaking of disappointing – ooh, diss – I was confounded by how sloppy and buggy the remaster of Assassin’s Creed III was. After playing and loving my first AC game, Black Flag, I went back and played AC, AC II, Brotherhood, Revelations, and, later, Syndicate, Origins, and Odyssey. My affection for all of those games ranges from “really liked” to “loved,” so I’ve always had the remaining games on my to-play list, even though III and Unity both have reputations for being quite buggy and broken. Well, I thought, surely they must have ironed out the wrinkles and straightened the kinks in a high profile remaster. Nope. Very early in the game I encountered a bug where the scene transition music kept playing, drowning out all other music and sounds. I didn’t realize what was happening at first. I just thought they’d chosen very somber, ambient music for exploration. Then I entered a cutscene and I couldn’t hear what the characters were saying over the droning horns. When I looked it up on the internet, I found threads confirming that it was a bug… threads dating back to the release of the original game. This was a known bug that not only went unfixed in the original release, it went unfixed in the damned remaster. And that wasn’t the only one; it was just the first I ran into.
Having said that, some of what I love about the AC games was present, though it was hard to go back to what now feels like rather clunky combat mechanics after playing the newer entries, and the enemies seemed abnormally dull. There is some interesting storytelling with American Indians, though, and I would love to someday do some research and write a paper about the various depictions of Native people in video games. I can’t say I didn’t have some fun with this game, but overall it’s very clearly my least favorite in the series.
I don’t want to end on a down note, so I will briefly say that I am so excited for the very small window of gaming that we exist in at the moment. The world is in turmoil, yes, but Animal Crossing New Horizons, Persona 5 Royal, Resident Evil 3, and Final Fantasy VII Remake are among my very most anticipated games of the last few years, and they’re all coming out within three weeks of each other. New Horizons, P5R, and FF7 are sure to be massive, massive games, too, and if I play RE3 as many times as I did RE2, I have a very full, very exciting, and very nerdy couple of months ahead of me. Insert smiling nerd emoji here.
I see lots of people on Twitter posting their top ten games of the last decade, so I wanted to do something here, where I have more room to say a little something about each game. So I made a list of games I loved from the last ten years, then when I thought about having to whittle them down to ten and order them, I groaned. Then I wondered why I had to do that. This is not a print source, where I’d have limited space, nor do I represent an online outlet where my ordering of them matters much. So, you know what? I’m just going to write about all of them. How do you like that? What’s that? You’re not evening reading this long, boring blog? Well then how did you just read that sentence? Got ya. Check and mate.
I’ve written about several of these games already, so I will try and be brief, but I love revisiting the warm and fuzzy memories associated with some of my favorite games. I’ll probably post an ordered top ten list on Twitter, but the list below is not in any particular order.
Persona 5 (PS4, 2017)
I have written pretty extensively about my love for Persona 5, but it’s hard to overstate my adoration of so many facets of it. I love the art, I love the characters, I love the world, I love the music, I love the combat… I just love it. I now have a tattoo of Ann, and I hope to get more characters in the future. I would love to get a whole back piece based on characters from Persona 3, 4, and 5, but that’s a big decision and a lot of money, so I doubt it’ll be any time soon. Anyway, I am very excited to play through the game a fourth time when Persona 5 Royal comes out in just a few short months. I’m sure I’ll have even more to say then, so clear your calendar of all important and unimportant plans so that you can read it.
Horizon Zero Dawn (PS4, 2017)
I have yet to replay Horizon Zero Dawn, but I think about it often. Aside from being one of the most beautiful games I’ve ever played, it has some of the most satisfying combat as well. It’s perfectly balanced between complex/deep and straightforward/accessible. Every time I’d enter a new area and see a new type of robo-dino, I’d feel nervous about engaging them, certain I’d get my ass kicked. And I did, a few times. But I quickly learned to sneak carefully, observing the enemy’s movement, analyzing its armor and weak points, then using the right tools to strike at the right moment. It was almost always thrilling. A sequel is a given, and I assume they’re developing it for the upcoming PS5, so I can only imagine how gorgeous it’s going to be.
Mario Kart 8 Deluxe (Switch, 2017)
I have been such a huge fan of the Mario Kart series since its debut on the SNES, and Mario Kart 64 was one of my favorite games of all time for years. Mario Kart 64 doesn’t age very well, sadly, but Mario Kart 8 plays like my memory of 64 likes to pretend that the older games do. It’s smooth, precise, and the balance between chance and skill is *chef’s kiss*. And with four different Princess Peach’s, I’ve never had a problem getting my favorite racer. It’s also still exciting to play the Hyrule level, and I very much hope that the next iteration of the series takes a cue from the Smash Bros. games and expands the roster to other first party Nintendo games and, eventually, maybe even third party games.
Dragon Quest XI: Echoes of an Elusive Age (PS4, 2018)
Dragon Quest VIII has more warm fuzzies in my memory than XI, but I think XI is the better game. It has much of the same charm and style of previous entries I’ve played, and I grew to adore the cast in this installment, even more than I loved the ragtag group in VIII. DQ XI takes what I love about classic JRPGs and continues to smooth the rough edges, like grinding, and further perfects the formula. I got the platinum trophy for the game on PS4 because I just didn’t want to stop playing, and I loved every second of it. I recently got the definitive edition for the Switch and though I probably won’t get to play it anytime soon, I’m excited to experience that world and those characters again.
Doki Doki Literature Club! (PC, 2017)
As I said in my blog on this game, I don’t want to give anything away by saying too much, but this game surprised me and plays on established genre tropes in a way that is so exciting and refreshing. It’s a free game on Steam, so I always want to tell people to go and play it, but it’s tricky because I don’t want to say why. Either way, I really loved my time with it, and I’m hopeful for an expansion on that universe sometime in the future.
Gone Home (PC, 2013)
Every time I revisit Gone Home, I’m struck by how great it is. I don’t know how I seem to forget. I think it’s because it is such a simple, straightforward experience, but there is so much meaning packed into its narrative and world building that it’s easy to be fooled into thinking it’s a pretty standard ‘walking sim.’ It’s not, though, and I love both its story and the way that it’s told. The way it builds atmosphere and tension through sound, music (or lack of), and snippets of monologues, is among the best in narrative games, I think. And I just really like exploring big, empty houses.
Emily is Away Too (PC, 2017)
So much of my affection for this game is tied to the nostalgia that its AOL Instant Messenger interface and gameplay evoke, but I also think there is a very obvious attention to detail and affection for game making that went into it, and it shows. The first game, Emily is Away, was also great, but the sequel really struck my emotions in a powerful way. Its developer, Kyle Seeley, is working on a new entry, Emily is Away ❤, based on early Facebook interface, and if his tweets are any indication, the release isn’t too far away. I’m super hyped.
The Witcher III: Wild Hunt (PS4, 2015)
I was late to the Witcher party, so to speak, so after having heard so much about it before even starting the game, I don’t feel the same kind of personal connection to this game as I do with other games on this list. Even still, I loved not only the core game, but the DLC as well. I am usually disappointed by DLC, but The Witcher III has maybe the absolute best DLC I’ve ever played. The world that CD Projekt RED built is so grim and beautiful and exhilarating to explore, and the cast is captivating. I just finished watching the new Netflix show, which is great, so I have the itch to play it again.
Tomb Raider (Xbox 360, 2013)
I have to admit, I didn’t love the original PS1 Tomb Raider games. I liked the idea of Lara Croft more than I did the clunky platforming and chunky graphics. So I was pleasantly blown away by how great the 2013 reboot of the franchise was. Lara Croft was a richer, more nuanced character, tough and strong but also vulnerable and human. Plus the game is gorgeous, the exploration is fun, and I very much enjoyed the stealth and limited combat. I could have used more actual tomb raiding, but for an introductory tale I completely understood why they held back on that aspect of the game. I loved each of the sequels less and less, but I have high hopes that the next entry will build on the new formula in a meaningful way.
Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag (PS4, 2013)
I got this as a free game with my PS4 at launch (I think it was a buy three games and get one free deal?), and my expectations were bracketed by the fact that this was a last-gen game that was ported to the next-gen systems. Despite that, I was immediately blown away by the beauty with which the Caribbean seas and tropical locales were rendered, and I fell deeply in love with the experience of sailing the seas with my own ship and crew, singing shanties, diving for treasure, and demolishing enemy ships. It was the kind of game I would play for hours only to lay in bed thinking about what I would do the next time I played. I have a feeling the mechanics and graphics will only stand the test of time for so long, so revisiting it after playing the newer entries will probably be at least slightly disappointing, but nothing can erase the magical memories of the weeks I originally spent with it.
Assassin’s Creed Odyssey (PS4, 2018)
I loved Black Flag so much that I went back and started playing the original games, and I’ve played all but a couple of the mainline entries by this point. Having said that, I feel pretty comfortable saying that Odyssey is probably the best in the series. Objective assessment aside, I subjectively loved it as well. I didn’t have the same kind of magical tingly feeling that I did with my time playing Black Flag, but it was pretty close. The game is huge, beautiful, and I liked Kassandra, the main character, more than I did probably any other AC protagonist (though I still have a soft spot for Evie).
Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown (PS4, 2019)
This is another game that tapped into my nostalgia pretty hardcore, because it is in many ways a throwback to Ace Combat 04, which is one my favorite games of all time, and one that I spent many, many hours playing back in the day. The return to form made it impossible for me to not love it, even if there are a couple of things that show how small of a budget this game had. It received strong reviews, so I’m hoping that sales were good as well and Namco decides to invest a little more heavily in a next-gen sequel that looks as mind-blowingly amazing as AC04 did when it came out on the PS2.
Resident Evil 2 (PS4, 2019)
The original Resident Evil 2 was also one of my favorite games of all time, so I was very nervous but excited about this remake. I was excited because even if it was a one-to-one remake with better graphics, I would have been happy. But nervous because what if they tried to change things or made it action-heavy like the more recent entries in the series? Well they did make some changes, but for the better. They were subtle but made the game feel very fresh, even in 2019. The RE Engine is amazing, and it allowed the devs to make this a game with some of the most incredible lighting and textures, and it really brought the streets of Raccoon City alive. The gameplay, voice acting, story, and (of course) Mr. X were all also wonderful, so it’s no surprise that the upcoming Resident Evil 3 remake is at the top of my most anticipated list for 2020.
Fire Emblem: Three Houses (Switch, 2019)
This was my first Fire Emblem game, and I was worried that the strategy elements might be too hard or overwhelming for me, given that I don’t play many games like it. I had nothing to fear, though, because the combat was fairly easy, which allowed me to focus more on some of the social and academic systems, which I really liked. And how could I not love such a vast and varied cast of characters? I like so many of them, but Edelgard and mah girl Petra were my favorites. It’s a very long game but I played through it twice just to see two different story paths, and I didn’t regret a second of the time it took to do so. Do I wish that the game didn’t look like a glossy 3DS port? Yes, of course. But that just makes me even more excited for the next installment, which I’m sure will be developed natively for the Switch.
Grand Theft Auto V (Xbox 360, 2013)
I still play Grand Theft Auto Online, so I was kind of shocked remembering that this game came out in 2013. 2013! And it still looks great (the PS4 port does, anyway). Say what you will about the story and characters and such, but Rockstar, like Ubisoft, is phenomenal at creating open worlds that feel organic and dynamic, so most of my favorite times in San Andreas happen when I’m just messing around, launching my Batmobile off of rooftops, or pushing around random cars in bulldozers with friends, or screeching to a stop next to a car illegally parked in a handicap spot so that we can destroy it with bats or gasoline. As long as Rockstar keeps spending time creating intricate, organic worlds, I’ll keep coming back.
Dead or Alive Xtreme 3 Scarlet (PS4, 2019)
Okay, yes, this is a game about a bunch of scantily clad fighting ladies with unrealistic proportions playing volleyball and collecting bikinis, but I won’t deny that I had a ton of fun playing it. The volleyball in particular was very satisfying, and given that I like collecting things in games that I enjoy, I found myself trying to collect every bikini for every player. And I won’t sit here and make any excuses for liking a game with half-naked women in it, but I will say that I ended up really liking Momiji and do you think she likes me? Should I ask her out? Do you think I should try and be friends with her friends first? Okay well somehow I ended up being creepy about it anyway.
Red Dead Redemption 2 (PS4, 2018)
Much of what I said for Grand Theft Auto V holds true here. I played and liked the single player story, but most of what I really loved about this game was the open world and my ability to interact with it in a multitude of ways. Doing a mission where my posse robs a bank and escapes the law is fun, but the memories that will stick with me are being out in the wilderness, cooking meat (from a wolf that attacked me) over a fire, feeding my horse some peppermint after a long ride through a dusty canyon, stumbling into an expansive cave system that seems too large to even exist… things like that. And I just started playing Red Dead Online with a friend, and so now it’s fun to share some of that same experiences with a friend, and the griefing is far less prevalent than I’d expected. So I see quite a bit more of this game in my near future.
Super Smash Bros. Ultimate (Switch, 2018)
Super Smash Bros. Melee was one of the finest, most well balanced fighting games in history, and I think the fact that it has had such a long life in the competitive circuit attests to that. But the balance that I mean, and the balance that makes me love the game, is not so much the technical, professional kind, but the kind that allows for almost anyone to pick the game up and play it, with its simple two button design. It’s so simple and allows for all kinds of very easy moves, even if you don’t commit to learning a bunch of combos, but it has the ability to be deep and lets you learn combos and defensive moves and more, if you want to. And Smash Bros. Ultimate is the, well, ultimate version of the game. It restores much of the balance that was a bit lost in the last version, and it has such an incredible roster of characters, levels, and music, from such an impressive array of games and companies. I am not very good at the game, probably, but I sure played the hell out of the single player, and I would love to play it casually with friends at some point.
Stardew Valley (Switch, 2017)
Oh, man. My adoration of Stardew Valley seems to grow more and more intense over time. I wasn’t even all that interested in it at first, because I thought it might be too stressful having to get enough work done before the end of the day or season. But one of the lovely things about this game is that you get what you give. You certainly can put in a lot of work and try and accomplish things rapidly, or you can take your time and just spend your time having fun. The game doesn’t really punish you much, so I ended up pushing myself to get a lot done, but feeling very rewarded instead of pressured. I also love the retro graphics, the soundtrack is amazing, the characters and their backstories are memorable, and the little nods to Chrono Trigger are cherries on top of a fun, delicious sundae.
Dragon Age Inquisition (PS4, 2014)
So Dragon Age: Origins gave me more warm feelies than Inquisition, but I still thought the latter had much of what make Bioware games so magical and memorable for me. The sense of building a character much like me, gaining power to stand against impossible odds, developing relationships along the way, and finding someone to romance. The romance aspect is a big part for me, though, and I have to say that I was slightly disappointed in my options in this entry. Morrigan was absolutely my top choice in Origins, so the fact that I couldn’t romance her here was sad, and my second choice, Sera, is a lesbian so she had no interest in me. I ended up with Cassandra, who was okay, but she’s no wild, wicked, dragon-blooded witch, I’ll tell you that.
Fallout 4 (PS4, 2015)
I feel like a broken record, but Fallout 3 was really the game in this series that won me over and maintains a special place in my heart, but I also loved my time with Fallout 4. Part of what I loved about the third game was the sense of isolation and lonely adventuring in the vast, open, broken landscape, so when I realized that the fourth game had a companion system I was a little wary about how that might affect my experience of wandering the Wasteland. As luck would have it, however, I had just seen Star Wars: The Force Awakens and was completely smitten with Rey and BB-8, so having Curie (a similarly spherical, robo companion) follow me around was actually very nice and made me feel like Rey. And the fact that Curie was charming and smart and funny made it that much more interesting, and then helping her to become human and romancing her was the ultimate payoff. Am I saying that I would turn BB-8 into a human and be his boyfriend? No, you monster, what is wrong with you? He’s a sweet little bb.
Final Fantasy XV (PS4, 2016)
Man. Final Fantasy XV did not sound all that attractive to me on paper. So I’m a dude taking a road trip with three other dudes? And this is a Final Fantasy game? A series which has had some amazing female party members that I still love? And they won’t be in my party. Okay. Got it. Sounds terrible. But it wasn’t! It was pretty great, actually. I actually ended up really digging the dynamic of the four guys, and although I would have preferred she be a permanent party member, I really liked Aranea and enjoyed having her as a temporary party member. The world was so beautiful, too, and I actually found the combat to be one of the most enjoyable in the series. The story itself was a little confusing at times, but the ending is pure melancholic beauty.
Injustice 2 (PS4, 2017)
Seeing as how I don’t play fighting games with friends, because I am a friendless loser (hahaha, just kidding… unless…) the only way for a fighting game to make it onto my list is to have great single player content. And both Injustice games have excellent single player content, with great stories, lots of solid fights, and in the case of the sequel, tons of unlockable gear and customizable equipment. I had way more fun than I thought I would unlocking new costumes and accessories, and the graphics and effects are so good. I like just collecting cool costumes and, like, looking at my characters. As a fan of the DC universe and simple, straightforward fighting games, I had lots of fun times with this game.
Mass Effect 2 (Xbox 360, 2010)
When BioWare announced that they were not working on a new Knights of the Old Republic game, and instead were working on a new, original sci-fi RPG, I can’t say I wasn’t disappointed. I loved KotOR and their follow-up, Jade Empire, and though it was developed by Obsidian I also really loved KotOR II: The Sith Lords. ”Why create a new universe and characters when you have the Star Wars brand?” I wondered. But I ended up adoring the original Mass Effect, and its sequel was even better. The storyline of becoming the first human Spectre, the terrifying Reapers (and the sound they make), commanding your own ship and crew, finally getting a chance to romance Tali, moral decisions carrying over from the first game… it was all so great, and if they release the long-rumored HD remastered trilogy set, I will almost certainly play through the saga again someday.
Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain (PS4, 2015)
Once again I feel like I’m seeing a trend in some of my thoughts on these games. Several of them, this one included, begin with some variation of “I didn’t think I was going to like it, but I did.” I loved the previous Metal Gear Solid games, but the concept of an ‘open world’ entry in the series was very concerning. And while the narrative experience in MGS V didn’t have the same impact as previous entries in the series, probably because of my many sidetracks and wanderings, I ended up really fucking hooked to the gameplay loop. Part of it was, of course, the old “here’s a base to fix up” move. I love that shit, so I found myself doing mission after mission to collect money, personnel, and equipment for my base. And you get D-Dog to come home to? I also found Fultoning things and people out of places a ton of fun, I came to appreciate the 80s songs I could play on my Walkman, and despite the problems inherent in her depiction, I really liked Quiet. I walked away from MGS V shocked both by how different it was than previous MGS games, and how much I liked it.
Rock Band 3 (Xbox 360, 2010)
Frickin’ Rock Band, am I right? I still get angry when I think about how Activision flooded the market when they got the Guitar Hero IP, leading to oversaturation and players and developers (mostly) abandoning music rhythm games. The first two Guitar Hero games, along with the Rock Band series, provided an experience like few others. You played with plastic instruments, sure, but they gave you a real, tactile sensation of rocking out to so many awesome songs, familiar and not. They eventually let you create your own character and band, and embark on a tour, features I was very excited to see develop in later installments… that never came. Rock Band 4 was solid, but Harmonix was open about the very limited budget the game had, which probably explained the shallow single player experience. So Rock Band 3 was, for me, the pinnacle of the series. Whether I just wanted to chill and play guitar on random songs or get out some aggressive energy on drums, I was set. And don’t get me started on playing with friends. One person on guitar, one on bass, one drumming, and one singing? Such a magical experience. Even writing this is making me want to pick up the ol’ plastic axe once again.
Batman: Arkham City (Xbox 360, 2011)
I am a huge Batman fan, and this game is a huge love letter to huge Batman fans. The first game to successfully pair a super hero with an open world, it really captured what many of us imagined the Batman experience to be: being overwhelmed with crimes occurring in multiple places, solving mysteries with a keen eye and a few gadgets, dropping down from the shadows to thrash a group of thugs and zipping out again, and coming face to face (or face to Two-Face) with members of the infamous Rogues’ Gallery. And Solomon Grundy! The story is such an excellent Batman tale, too, subverting expectations and shocking us in the best ways. Arkham Knight may be superior in some ways, but Arkham City holds a special place in my heart.
Jurassic World Evolution (PS4, 2018)
I haven’t played very many sim or tycoon games, but I love Jurassic Park a ton, and the screenshots for this game looked like the closest approximation of the Jurassic Park experience that I’ve seen over the years. I was still very hesitant going into it, and I didn’t buy it right away. Would it stress me out? All of the building and managing? I just wanted to hatch and take care of some dinosaurs, I didn’t want to worry about customers or money or any of that. But then I read that you could drive a gas powered jeep around your parks, and you could fly a helicopter around to take photos or tranquilize/medicate your dinosaurs. That pushed me over the edge and I bought the game, still uncertain about how long I’d be able to stand the pressure of having to make a park that performed well and didn’t just house rad fucking miracles of modern science. To my great surprise, I actually enjoyed the management aspect of the game, even in intense situations, like when a predator broke free from its pen, a pen of herbivores got sick, and a huge storm hit my island, breaking fences and taking out power, all at the same time. It was stressful handling it, yes, but it was so rewarding when everything settled down and I had control of the park once again. They recently released DLC that allows you to recreate the original Jurassic Park on Isla Nublar, so I might very well be returning to the game again soon, and I’m excited.
Until Dawn (PS4, 2014)
I grew up with horror films, and I still love the genre. Until Dawn is 100% a playable horror film. Even in its sometimes cheesy lines and stilted acting, it reminded me of so many classic slashers and scary movies set in cabins in creepy woods. It pays homage to lots of specific horror movies and tropes, and the author of the narrative brings in elements of his own horror movie, Wendigo, to add an element of surprise to the formula. The game is also gorgeous, rendering its human characters among the best in all of gaming. I also grew fond of the cast, and how many games have Academy Award winners’ (Rami Malek) likenesses in them? Though some of the decisions and consequences were, shall we say, suspect, I enjoyed playing the game multiple times to try different paths and save or kill different characters. I haven’t loved the follow-ups from the studio, but my affection for this game has me hoping they’ll produce similar caliber experiences in the future.
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (Switch, 2017)
I sometimes hesitate to call myself a Legend of Zelda fan, because there are quite a few more Zelda games that I haven’t played than those that I have. But the original Zelda games for the NES, and Ocarina of Time were formative parts of my gaming history, and, uh, I have a fairly large tattoo of Princess Zelda on my arm. And it’s specifically the Zelda from Breath of the Wild, because she is strong, smart, sassy, and my favorite version of her in all of the games I’ve played – and the ill-fated animated series (though she was pretty cool in that, too). Her aside, it took me a while to appreciate this version of Hyrule, but the more I uncovered bits of story and history, the more I saw a seemingly large, empty world as a living tomb, a once great kingdom now overgrown with trees and moss, ghosts of the past haunting its ruins and shadows. Add to this a simple but classic Zelda story, and eventually I found myself in love with the world, the game, and my adventures within them.
Persona 4 Golden (PS Vita, 2012)
Maybe it’s fitting that we begin and end with a Persona game, because I’ve played three of them in the last two years (and the dance game associated with each) and I have fallen in love with the series because of them. So it’s safe to say it’s impossible for me to look back at this decade of games and deny how much they’ve defined my experience as a lover of games. In terms of gameplay mechanics, combat, and interface, Persona 4 Golden and Persona 5 are very similar, but one of the things that makes each Persona game special is its characters, and as with 5, I grew to greatly admire my friends and party members in Golden. Chie and her love of kung fu, Yukiko’s traditional Japanese grace and contemporary attitude, Kanji’s closeted queerness, Rise’s adorableness, and more. If every Persona game going forward has the same gameplay but with new locations and characters, I would be totally happy. The ability to play a character in long, elaborate, multifaceted drama with a cast of colorful characters will never get old.
I just finished Thimbleweed Park, so while this blog will mostly be dedicated to the woman named in its title, I would like to open with some general thoughts on the game. Since its release in 2017 I’ve continually heard/read that if I liked Maniac Mansion, I’d like Thimbleweed. They were, after all, created by the same core developers and share much of the same design in terms of gameplay, art style, and writing. And I was indeed a fan of the 1990 NES version of Maniac Mansion. It didn’t make my top 25 list because, well, I was eight years old when I first played it and I wouldn’t beat it until years later, as an adult. While it was difficult, I loved the colorful art style, the ability to choose from a roster of characters, the weird and mature(ish, for a 1990 NES game) humor, and maybe most of all, the music.
So it’s probably no surprise that I also loved Thimbleweed Park. It is, as far as I can tell, as close to a sequel to Maniac Mansion as they could get without getting into legal trouble. I was especially impressed with how it maintained so much of the charm of those late 80s/early 90s point-and-click adventure games while using clever plotting, sequencing, and checkpointing to pave over what made the older games frustrating at times, like dead ends and the ability to miss required items. I still prefer direct input movement in games, because sometimes navigating a point-and-click game world can be annoying and slow, especially when you have to backtrack or you get lost, but I suppose there is an attractiveness to the faithfulness of the old school control scheme. For some, anyway.
Okay, having said all of that, let’s get to the point of this entry: the wonderful Delores Edmund. Delores is, arguably, the main character of the game. Her contentious relationship with her wealthy uncle, Chuck, is the focal point of the narrative, and her absolute readiness to buck her uncle’s expectations of her in order to follow her dream and forge her own path is one of the reasons I love her. Her father is unwilling to stand up for her, and her uncle is aggressive in his demands that she take over his factory and business for him when he dies, but through her own mastery of programming she gets a job offer from the video game company Lucasfilm – er, I mean MMucasFlem – and leaves behind a life of luxury and privilege in order to make video games.
That determined, independent, strong-willed attitude was immediately endearing, but Delores is not a brash, aggressive character. She is strong-willed, yes, but she is also caring, friendly, and diplomatic. You know what else she is? A huge, gigantic geek. Aside from the previously mentioned programming skills, she is a math champion, Tolkien lover, Alien fan, and Trekkie (“I want to live on the Enterprise!”). She also loves Star Wars, though, and thinks, as I do, that “Revenge of the Jedi was a much better name.” She has beaten every game at the local arcade, still holds many of the high scores there, and eagerly awaits her copy of a video game magazine every month. She also has an affinity for action figures, is actively trying to cut down on new figurine purchases, and she “loves [her] books,” including science fiction titles and Nancy Drew mysteries.
Plus, just look at her. With her pink shoelaces, red hair, nerdy glasses, side ponytail, and messenger bag, not to mention the goofy dance she does when she finds out that she got the job of her dreams, she is peak geek chic. She is voiced by Elise Kates, who plays her with a steady and nerdy, cute style, making her sound at once self-assured and somehow also a touch naïve. Maybe naïve is not the right word. Maybe she sounds, idealistic? Hopeful? Regardless, she is absolutely a person I would 100% get along with and love to be friends with, and if I lived in the fictional town of Thimbleweed Park and was lucky enough to catch her eye, I would totally love to take her on a date to the arcade, where she would probably demolish me at Meteor Menace. Then we could take a stroll to the S&D Diner, where we’d get anything but the hot dogs. Or hamburgers. Or, well, maybe we’d just skip dinner altogether. Either way, Delores is a radical lady and I have no hesitation in calling her my latest video game crush.
I’ve felt pretty fortunate lately. For the last handful of years I’ve always been behind on new releases, still catching up on games that came out months ago while reading about the latest, most exciting releases. I was able to catch up at some point, so I’ve actually been playing new games as they release these last few months, and it feels nice to do something as simple as tweet a screenshot to a game that people are actively still engaging with.
That’s not to say I don’t have a backlog. I do, and its shadow is long and looming. I chip away at it, when I can. I’m getting ready to start the Assassin’s Creed III remaster, in fact, which will check another game off of ye’ olde list. But I also keep adding to the stack, stretching the shadow out ever longer. I’m probably not alone in this, but I sometimes fantasize about retirement and how I’ll not only have time to travel and read books ‘for fun’ again, but I’ll also have time to actually sit down and start methodically working my way through all of the many games I bought and never got around to playing. And there are a lot of them. If I glance at even just my Nintendo Switch games, I see Civilization VI, Disgaea 1 Complete, Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney Trilogy, Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle, and Octopath Traveler. That’s like half the games I own for that platform. I just realized that and now I’m even more shook, as the kids say. Well, they don’t say it like that, but… you know what, let’s move on.
So the list is long, but where did it start? I’m a casual collector, so I have Atari 2600 and NES games that I haven’t played, but I bought them years after their release, so they haven’t actually been on my backlog for that long. My family didn’t have much money growing up, so new games were rare and I played every game I got, even if I didn’t much like it (looking at you, ESPN Sunday Night Football). Even when I got my first job, during the late N64/PlayStation era, I was careful with what I spent my meager paychecks on. It was somewhere in this period when it began, though. The list.
Secret of Evermore was released for the SNES in 1995, the same year Chrono Trigger, Final Fantasy III, and EarthBound made me fall in love with JRPGs. I’d received Chrono Trigger as a gift, I repeatedly rented Final Fantasy III, and I was lucky enough to find EarthBound on clearance at Best Buy, so a brand new JRPG just wasn’t in the budget for that year. No, it wasn’t until a few years later, with the money from my first job, that I excitedly bought a copy of Secret of Evermore, having waited since its release to play it. I was so in love with Chrono Trigger that this game, being from the same publishers and having similar promotional art, seemed like a perfect game for me.
So how did it end up on my backlog? I had been excited to play it for three or four years, I spent a fair chunk of money from a meager paycheck to buy it, and then… I didn’t play it. Ever. It’s been 20 years and here it sits at the bottom of an ever-growing stack of games that I have bought and want to play. To start, I think it had something to do with the fact that by that point I’d had both an N64 and a PlayStation, and while it’s easy to slip into a classic 2D 16bit game now, at the time it felt less exciting than Final Fantasy VIII or Chrono Cross. Then, in that same year, news of the new Nintendo and PlayStation consoles started spinning up, so I got caught up in the excitement of that, which made sprite-based games even less enticing and easier to hold off on playing until I ‘ran out of things to play.’ I should have known that day would never come.
Once I got a PlayStation 2 and, eventually, a GameCube, it was over. I had a job (at one point, two) and no bills, so I bought a lot of games that I was excited about, even if I had more than I could play at the time. The most egregious was Star Wars Rogue Squadron III: Rebel Strike. I’d played and loved the first game in the series on the N64, and Rogue Squadron II was the very first game I bought for my GameCube at launch. I was in full Star Wars obsession at that point, and in the third game in the series you could pilot ground vehicles like an AT-ST for the first time. An AT-ST! That was so exciting at the time. And so I bought it and, of course, never played it.
There are more of these kinds of examples, and there are other stories where I’d buy a game because it’s cheap or I’ve heard good things, but it’s situations like these, with Secret of Evermore, that make the backlog a painful thing, because the further I get from older games, the less fresh and influence-free my experience with them will be. When I play Rogue Squadron III it will have been after years of newer, probably better Star Wars games. This blog is not an attempt to solve this problem, nor do I have the desire to go through every game on what is now an extensive list spanning five console generations. This was mostly my way of excavating the earliest fossil in the pile and attempting to answer that question of “how did I get here?” But, you know what? I did just begin my winter break, and writing this entry has made me determined to play Secret of Evermore at long last. It’s about time, I think.
I don’t love doing long blogs that cover multiple games, but I’ve had the fortune of playing several games over the last couple of months, and the misfortune of not having as much time to write about them. So, here we are. Because this is in large part my way of tracking my own thoughts about games, I should put a general spoiler warning out there, in case anyone happens to read this and has yet to play any of these games, particularly since some of them are very new. I’m not used to writing about newly released games, so yeah. The screenshots are especially potentially spoilerific. Having said that, it feels good to be “caught up” with my recent backlog enough that I can actually play new games and be active in the conversations around them. I’ll have to go back to playing specific Japanese games for my dissertation soon, but I’m giving myself until the New Year for that. So, without further ado, I begin with a couple of games that I didn’t finish.
Ghost Recon: Breakpoint
I haven’t played a Ghost Recon game since the GameCube days, but my friend wanted to play this co-op and I liked the idea of getting back to some multiplayer action. The story didn’t quite hook me, and as with the Division games, I wished there were more character customization options at the start, but I did have a fair amount of fun in my time with the game. Sneaking around in my tiger stripe camo, crawling through mud and resting behind a tree stump to line up the perfect shots on two unsuspecting enemies never got old. What did get old was clearing out enemy strongholds. It was fun enough the first few times, but after playing games in the Far Cry and Assassins Creed series’, it felt a little uninspired after a while. The lighting and environmental effects made traversing the map visually stimulating, but when I was playing alone I found exploration less rewarding than it was in other open world games. There were a few times in particular when I’d see something mysterious on the map, spend a fair amount of time carefully making my way to it, only to discover that it was blocked off for a later story mission or something. I didn’t dislike the game, but with so many games to play, I moved on without much regret.
And Borderlands 3 is what I moved on to. I played and liked the first two games in the series, but I wasn’t rushing out to buy the third. I think I got the first two on sale, but I’m generally not much of a looter shooter fan. Having said that, I like playing games like this with friends, so the previously mentioned friend and I played this for a while after giving up on Breakpoint. Having not played the first two games for such a long time, the first thing that struck me was how crisp and vibrant the graphics were. The smooth controls that I remember made a return, so running or driving around from battle to battle was fun enough. The humor was, as expected, hit or miss, but overall it was a fun, lively world. But, as with Breakpoint, I eventually got bored, especially when not playing with my friend, and since we both had other games to move on to, we gave up on completing the story after a while. I can see myself going back to it someday, though, maybe.
Night Trap: 25th Anniversary Edition
I was only ten years old when Night Trap came out, but my former diehard Nintendo fanboy self didn’t own any Sega system, let alone a Sega system add-on like the Sega CD. I have to admit, though, reading about a game with real video of young women running around in nightgowns was certainly something that ten year old me was, shall we say, curious about. The game’s role in the 1993 senate hearings on violent video games only increased my curiosity, but as you might have guessed by its inclusion in this post, it wasn’t until this year that I would get around to giving it a shot. I picked it up when Limited Run Games released a physical copy for several systems, but I didn’t get around to playing it until this past Halloween.
And, oh boy, was it not a fun experience. I mean, on one hand, it was very campy and dated and I love things that are really obviously from a specific time period because they’re fascinating time capsules that offer a much more authentic view into the styles and culture of a time than you might see in a modern throwback TV show or movie. On the other hand, it’s a frustrating mess of a game that is impossible to really enjoy in terms of the video content because the core mechanic is not watching the screens on which action is happening, so that you can trap the many, many enemies that are trying to sneak into the house on other screens. For some of the traps you have to spring, you only have a 1-2 second window, and if you miss it, it’s game over. I had waited so long to play it, though, so after making several attempts on my own, I eventually gave in and used a guide to beat it a few times. I think the core concept of the game is interesting, and if they had spread the story out enough so that you weren’t constantly having to miss narrative progress to trap enemies, it could have been a lot of fun. With the recent revival of the FMV genre, I would very much love to see a remake of this game, set in and satirizing the 90s.
Speaking of games I played for Halloween, I was very surprised by how much I liked Alien: Isolation. The game is a masterclass in atmosphere. From the persistently mindful use of lighting, to the accurate sound effects, to the appropriately retro futuristic technology, this game truly feels like it’s a part of the same universe as the films (particularly the first few). If I’m ever lucky enough to have the chance to design my own class on adaptations, I would seriously consider pairing the first Alien film with this game.
I think my only real complaint is that the pacing near the end is a little frustrating. It’s from a British developer, but it does the thing that a lot of Japanese games do, where it keeps leading you to believe that the game is almost over, only to pull the rug out from under you and give you another challenge. In my experience, that move is effective once, maybe twice if you’re careful and one of the challenges is short. But when each challenge stretches the game out longer and longer, it starts to feel frustrating and makes me want the game to just end. This game isn’t as guilty as others (*cough* Death Stranding *cough*), and ultimately it didn’t overshadow the incredible achievements in the rest of the game. One of those achievements is respecting the alien and making it as formidable as it is in the early movies. It is truly tense and terrifying when the alien is nearby. In one area, I knew the alien was crawling around in the vents above me, searching, but I didn’t know hostile humans were also nearby. I sneaked over to a terminal and began stealthily reading an entry, when, well, I captured a video of the encounter:
The way this scene played out was quintessential Alien. Just when you forget about the alien, just when you let yourself get distracted by a strange woman hacking a terminal, hisssssss. Ya dead.
The Outer Worlds
As a fan of Fallout 3 and 4, I was of course excited that a Fallout-like game was coming from the developers of Fallout: New Vegas and Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords (which I loved). And it really, really feels like a Fallout game, down to the retro corporate propaganda posters and artwork. That’s not a bad thing, but it is inescapable. Weirdly, it felt like a kind of mashup of their experience with both BioWare and Bethesda licenses, because while the gameplay and style is certainly Fallout-esque, the party system and planet-hopping are straight from their work on KotOR II. So, in short, I was here for it.
While the game isn’t as engrossing and immersive as a Fallout game, I enjoyed the more compact, punchy story, and I loved having my own ship and a crew. Parvati was my favorite, so I almost always had her in my party. I did miss a romance system, even if Parvati was off the table. I would have totally made a play for Celia Robbins, if I could convince her that she’s too good for that dumb merchant she was swooning over.
The game is stylized, so it doesn’t quite have the same realistic sci-fi wow factor that the Mass Effect games did, but I think it gives it a unique personality and will allow it to age more gracefully than the Fallout games tend to. I think they did a nice job of making the planets look unique and interesting, though I wish there were more to explore. The Outer Worlds doesn’t really break any new ground, but it’s a good, fun, safe game.
Phew. I just finished Death Stranding a couple of days ago, and I ended up playing it for over 75 hours, so my brain is still a little addled. From Hideo Kojima’s split with Konami, to the bizarre reveal trailer, to the celebrity cameos, this game was hyped to hell, so I did my best to avoid most discussion of it. It was everywhere, though, so I can’t say that I evaded the hype with 100% success, but its launch was (as is becoming normal for AAA titles) beset by a loud seeming-minority of people that absolutely hated it, which clashed with what seemed to be a fairly positive critical response overall. So I went in not knowing what to expect, really, and I was wary about making any judgments about the game until I was a good 20 or so hours in.
There is a lot I could say about this game’s themes, characters, and messaging, but I’m going to keep that commentary brief (partly because this would be a massive post if I didn’t, and also because I plan on including some of it in my dissertation). So I’ll just say that Kojima is a very ambitious, visionary game director, whose love for Hollywood is apparent in how he tells a story. He tries to rely on style and visuals to tell the story, like, say, Stanley Kubrick did, but he seems to always pull back and use endless exposition as a crutch. The visuals in this game are phenomenal (the Decima engine is amazing), and I appreciate the chances that Kojima is taking with the narrative, but there’s not much denying that it’s sloppy and redundant in places (like the incredibly long and drawn out end sequences that I alluded to in my discussion of Alien: Isolation).
Okay, having said all that, I still really loved this game. As I said, the visuals are stunning, and more specifically, the geology and various landscapes are amazing. Furthermore, the walking mechanic works really well because the landscape is mapped so well that your feet land where they should land, instead of on invisible planes. This made navigating the map an immersive and visceral experience for me. This was most obvious during my journey to scale the highest mountain in the game. I wrote previously about my experience climbing Death Peak in Chrono Trigger, and even in that 2D game I felt a weird sense of accomplishment at braving the elements and overcoming environmental diversity to reach the top of a snowy mountain. The same can be said here, though there was much more working against me.
I should also point out that I didn’t have to climb to the top of the mountain. I was in the area, though, and it seemed like a fun challenge. Could I even do it? It was quite steep in places, and snow in the game quickly erodes most equipment that you’re carrying, so I probably couldn’t rely too much on that. Welp, I decided to give it a shot, so I strapped a couple of ladders, climbing anchors, repair spray, and an extra pair of boots on my back, and I set off on what looked like a safe enough route.
It snowed almost the entire way up, so one by one, my pieces of equipment started decaying and becoming unusable. Sometimes I could climb pretty steep inclines, but this was before I had gloves or level 3 boots, so I spent a lot of time zig-zagging through deep but somewhat level snow. The storm increased in severity, and plodding through the snow began to take a serious toll on my stamina. It dwindled, dwindled, I would rest a little or drink some water, but I had to keep moving to keep from freezing and to protect what remained of my equipment. I slipped a few times, lost some cargo at one point, but I kept picking myself and my gear up and trudging along. Each time I thought the peak above me was the very top, I’d crest it and see that there was another to be won just a short distance away. I made it, finally, as evidenced by the screenshot below, but my stamina was shot, most of my gear was destroyed, and I wasn’t sure I had enough water or equipment to make the descent.
Lucky for me [/sarcasm], a whiteout hit as soon as I began my descent, which meant I could barely see what was around or below me. I would plant an anchor and drop a rope, only to slide down into nothingness, hoping to find footing. I did, and I made it to the bottom having only faceplanted a couple of times, so when I finally reached a Bridges post I was on the verge of collapsing but filled with a sense of achievement and adventure. It was moments like these that made me love this game. The characters and stories and all that were varying degrees of weird and fun, but this, for me, was a game about adventure and overcoming all kinds of trouble. I really dug it.
Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order
I’ve only just started Fallen Order, but I wanted to leave my thoughts about the opening sequence before they fade or are subsumed by the rest of the game. I think it’s especially noteworthy given how similar but different it is from Death Stranding. Both games are very cinematic, but where Death Stranding ends up not fully trusting its audience to pick up on visual cues, the opening of Fallen Order is rife with them, and they subtly tell a whole story that connects previous events in the Star Wars universe with the game. There is no overt narration or pre-game text that explains the characters or settings, but we get small snips of dialogue or background animations that do that for us, making for a very natural feeling mix of visual and audio storytelling. The game uses a guided camera at specific points to draw attention to the background, and if you hold a second to take it in, you’ll see Republic cruisers, a droid control ship, and lots of Separatist artillery. If you’re familiar with the prequel trilogy of movies or the animated Clone Wars features, the game doesn’t need to say anything: you can deduce that the Clone Wars are over and both the Separatist droids and Republic clones are, like their ships, out of commission. This is confirmed by the appearance of Stormtroopers, placing this somewhere after the execution of Order 66 and (probably) before the events of A New Hope, when all Jedi have reportedly been wiped out. And this is all conveyed without the game saying “hey, just so you know, this game takes place…” Which is really cool, I think.
Other than that, as I said, I’m not very far in the game, but I can feel myself getting hooked. Wielding a lightsaber feels, looks, and sounds great, I love that I get to travel around on a ship with a crew (callback to The Outer Worlds), and the environments of the only two planets I’ve been on so far are very detailed and Star Wars-y. The Second Sister, who I’m assuming is the main villain, seems super cool. My character feels a little float-y, which I never like as much as precise movement, but I will hopefully get over that if the rest of the combat is solid. I’m also marathon-ing all of the Star Wars movies and TV shows and reading the newly released Star Wars: Resistance Reborn, so I feel like I’m in the midst of another Star Wars Renaissance. I’ll probably post more thoughts on the rest of the game later, but for now I have a prospectus to write. Dang it. May the Force be with me.
Just about five years ago, in November of 2014, a beautiful, custom, pink DualShock 4 was bestowed upon me for my birthday, by my ex. Pink has been my favorite color for most of my adult life. I didn’t care much for it as a kid, but that changed in my teens. There was a period during that time where my friends and I played a ton of multiplayer Mario games for the N64, and because Princess Peach was my chosen character in almost every game, I eventually gained the nickname “Peach.” It didn’t last long, and other than a somewhat amusing anecdote involving my English teacher hearing that he should “call me Peach,” the name faded. The association and my love for the character didn’t, though. As such, a friend gave me a light pink paperclip that reminded her of me, which I clipped on my student ID and wore around school. I liked looking at it, and at some point I realized that the color was so much more pleasant to look at than black or silver, my two favorite colors at the time. Thus began a pink-tinted love affair that resulted in the purchase of pink pens, folders, phones, blankets, Nintendo DSs, headphones, various other items, and, yes, video game controllers.
This DualShock 4 controller wasn’t the first. Microsoft released a powder pink controller for the Xbox 360, and I snapped it up as soon as I could. It was my primary controller from that point on, and I used it until it, for whatever reason, just stopped working. This controller wasn’t the last, either. Though I rarely use my Xbox One, when I saw that the Xbox Design Lab was having a sale on their custom controllers, I grabbed a pink controller of my own design.
But this DualShock was special. I have, by far, put more proverbial miles on this controller than any other. I’ve had favorite controllers going back to the red N64 controller I bought alongside Castlevania 64, but I ended up either wearing them out or not quite investing the same amount of time in games as I have with my PS4. I’ve played a ton of games on this console, and spent a ton of time on those games. I got my first platinum trophy within a year of getting this controller. I was never much of a trophy hunter, but when that platinum trophy popped after my fourth playthrough of Until Dawn, I realized I could use achievements to extend the life of games that I didn’t want to stop playing. So, with my beautiful pink controller in hand, I got platinum trophies for 19 games, including massive time-vampires such as Final Fantasy XV, No Man’s Sky, Dragon Quest XI, Persona 4 Golden (after two full runs), and Persona 5 (three full runs). I tilled fields, mined the earth’s depths, and started a family in Stardew Valley. I collected every Riddler trophy and punched every villain face in Arkham Knight and Arkham City. I even got a few Victory Royales in the months I spent playing Fortnite. This time wasn’t wasted. It wasn’t for nothing. I have vivid, warm memories of my time with many of these games, some of which I’ve chronicled right here on this site, and I’ve spent time with my closest friends. Five years of magical memories.
During those five years, like former favorite controllers, this one broke down after repeated use. The DualShock joysticks are notorious for the rubber wearing down and tearing off. When it began happening, I was nervous about the idea of cracking it open to try and repair it myself. The only time I’d tried repairing gaming hardware was when my PS2’s disc drive broke and, well, I kind of just broke it worse. But I didn’t want to leave this controller behind. If I didn’t try and fix it, I’d have to stop using it anyway, so I did lots of research, bought the tools, and very, very carefully opened it up and replaced the sticks. It worked, and I ended up having to do the same procedure five more times over the years. I also had to transplant a newer battery from a different controller into this one when it started losing the ability to hold a charge. Like a well maintained classic car, I put a lot of work into extending this controller’s life.
But, as with most things, sometimes you have to know when to say goodbye. One of the controller’s smallest, most delicate parts – the springs inside the triggers – have worn down. The triggers still work, somewhat, but not completely. Neither of them have the full range of context sensitivity that they should, and the right one in particular has to be pulled all the way in for it to work with some games. I could certainly transplant springs from another controller, as I did with the battery, but I think it’s time to move on. We’ve had a great many hours together. Because the company that made it (Colorware) offers a range of colors for the front, back, and buttons, along with different texture options, it’s very likely that this controller is one of a kind. The glossy, pearlescent face is so beautiful, and the matte, soft pink of the back is both gorgeous and offered the perfect grip. It’s so lovely. I can always have another made, of course, and maybe someday I will. But I’ll never have this specific, singular controller again.
“Uh, it’s just a controller, man,” you might be saying, especially after all of this. And I guess it is. But maybe it’s about more than just knowing when to let go of a beautiful, pink, sentimental controller. The pink ribbons of twilight will fade and night will come. But the morning sky will bring an abundance of color, if we have the patience to see it.
Between writing a syllabus and assignments for a new class this semester and reading for my dissertation prospectus, I haven’t had much time to blog about what I’ve playing these last couple of months. I want to, but there’s nothing like “writing for fun” to trigger anxiety about the fact that I should be writing my prospectus as we speak. Well, I speak. Well, I write and you read. Well, I don’t have any readers so I just write NEVER MIND JUST SHUT UP JOEY. Ahem. Please excuse me. As I was saying, since I haven’t had much time to write individual blogs about what I’ve been playing, I wanted to write a catch-up blog before my thoughts about these games began to fade. I’m leaving out games that I’ve replayed recently, like Super Smash Bros. Ultimate or Arkham Asylum and Arkham City.
Untitled Goose Game
Wow, this little game really blew up, didn’t it? Chrissy Teigen is playing it, Blink 182 mentioned it at a live show, it’s all over social media — I’m not sure I could have predicted that this would be the next game to breach popular discourse outside of typical gamer threads. But it deserves it, I think, because it executes well on its quirky and cute concept. It’s a pretty short game, but it invites a lot of experimentation and messing around, which could extend playtime. I don’t know why I’m being so clinical here. There were lots of fun and adorable little moments in the game. My favorite was when my objective list told me to “get dressed up in a ribbon.” I saw a ribbon in a woman’s garden, but almost everyone in this game seems to hate me, so how am I supposed to get this cranky woman to put it on me? I mean it’s already on her goose statuohhhhh. Once I saw what I had to do, I had to distract her by dragging her paint brush across the yard, then when she was retrieving it I dragged her goose statue into the neighbor’s yard, and before he could throw it back to her I waddled back to where the statue used to be, crouched in place, and the woman found the ribbon and popped it on my neck. Then, of course, I honked at her and started running around her yard to get away from her and continue my goosely gallivanting.
These next few games are all VR games I’d been waiting to try with others, so when my friends came to stay with me for the weekend I finally got a chance to try them out. I’d heard so many great things about Tetris Effect, but like many VR games, you kind of have to experience it for yourself. This game was much the same. It’s “just” Tetris. Like, that’s all you need to know to play it. No fancy new mechanics, no weird gimmicks. But the presentation is what makes it such a new and unique and kind of mind-blowing experience. I’ve only tried hallucinogens once so I’m no expert, but I imagine this game is reminiscent of a really wild trip. The visuals and music and texture, if I can say texture, of the levels is crazy and beautiful and, surprisingly, not distracting. I didn’t get many screenshots from my time playing it, but I don’t think it would matter much if I did. My friend watched on the TV as I played, but it wasn’t until he put the VR headset on and tried it himself that he was like “wow.” Combining the hypnotic, rewarding gameplay of Tetris with stimulating, beautiful visuals is a singular experience that I would recommend to anyone who has the PSVR.
This is another VR game that I’d heard lots of positive things about, and like Tetris Effect it lived up to its reputation. I was a little skeptical about whether or not it would feel like I was actually holding a lightsaber, because I imagine them to have a little heft to them, but once I was in and slicing away, my brain was convinced that they were real. It’s definitely a lot of fun to slice through the various blocks to the beat of some pretty decent music, but I will say that some levels are confusingly difficult. Different levels have different requirements to beat them, and one of those requirements is getting to a minimum score. There are two levels that I can complete without missing a single block and still not reach the minimum score. Maybe I’m not hitting the blocks perfectly, but I don’t feel like there’s much in the game to teach you how to get better at hitting them. It’s not a huge problem, and the game is still fun, but it was a source of frustration for me and my friends. I can’t wait to get back to playing it, though, even if all of the squatting to duck under oncoming obstacles left me with sore legs the next day.
I had one friend in particular that has been recommending the non-VR version of this game since its release. I wasn’t opposed to it, exactly. The mechanic of only allowing time to move when you did sounded interesting, but I guess it just didn’t catch my fancy enough to get me to check it out. Playing it in VR seemed like a worthy venture, though, and it was surprisingly addictive. The game makes you feel like the ultimate badass by choreographing scenarios that make you feel like you’re really juggling guns, dodging helicopters, and punching out the onslaught of blocky, red bad guys. It was a fairly short game that we beat in just a few hours, but it is definitely a cool VR experience to check out.
Erica is an interesting experience, and I hope more companies take chances on projects like this. It’s not perfect. It’s not going to win many awards for its filmic or writing components, but it merges film and interaction well, making each choice seem like it makes perfect sense in the narrative. I played through the game twice but I’m still not sure I have a full grasp of the story. I don’t know if that means the writing is sloppy or that they’re purposely encouraging multiple playthroughs, but it was entertaining enough in both runs.
Catherine: Full Body
I played the original release of Catherine, on the Xbox 360, and I liked the story but not so much some of the punishing puzzle levels. Most of them were easy enough to beat on the first try, but having to replay a level that might take ten or more minutes again and again always rubs me the wrong way. So the fact that this release made the puzzles easier, added a bunch of new story content, and revamped the visuals, won me out. I played through all three romance options, and I really liked the new character, Rin. I gave a general spoiler warning earlier, but I should again mention that I will be discussing some serious spoilers here.
I could (and might) write a separate blog post about the way the game treats sex/gender, but I can’t talk about this game without at least mentioning it a bit here. When I played the original, one of the things that I liked was that it was attempting to deal with mature, real issues like infidelity, albeit in a goofy, anime-esque way. In this version, they really lean into issues of sex, gender, and societal norms. While they certainly stumble (by not using Rin’s new name in the credits, the main character’s initial response to her revealing her true identity, and more), I also appreciate that they do try to push a positive, accepting message about this new, trans character. They could definitely have done better, but it seems that discourse around games like this is always so polarized – it’s either totally condemning or totally defensive. I think Atlus deserves both here, especially considering the fact that representation matters, and very few games include trans characters period, let alone those that are depicted in a positive light. Again, I agree that Atlus has had some problems with depictions of LGBTQ characters in their previous games, but I feel like this game shows a purposeful attempt to get things right – even if they stumble along the way.
The Dark Pictures Anthology: Man of Medan
I am a huge fan of Until Dawn, and while some of Supermassive Games’ follow-up titles haven’t impressed as much, Man of Medan looked to return to the same great formula they established with Until Dawn. This game was not terrible. I still very much enjoy playing interactive horror games. The graphics are excellent and create a spooky atmosphere, and I liked the story setup. But some of the acting was less than impressive, and because this particular story isn’t an homage to b-level teen horror, as Until Dawn was, the lackluster acting seems less appropriate. My real gripe is with the writing, though. My friend and I played through the game twice but we couldn’t quite find a third act. In our first playthrough (again, spoilers), we got to a part in what seemed to be the middle act, where we had to fix a radio to call for help or to find a part to fix our ship so that we could escape. I missed a context prompt and broke the part to the ship, so as we fled to the upper levels of the ship we figured we were either dead or would have to do something else to escape. But, well, when we got aboveboard there was a helicopter approaching to save us. Uh, okay? So how did we resolve the conflict? And why give us those obstacles when they apparently don’t matter? It all seemed pretty arbitrary and made some or most of our choices feel cheap or inconsequential. It left us feeling disappointed, because we both loved Until Dawn and we want Supermassive to keep refining these experiences, but this particular entry seemed rushed and unfinished, or at the very least unpolished.
Fire Emblem: Three Houses
Last, but most certainly not least, I’ve spent an absolute ton of time playing Fire Emblem: Three Houses. 275 hours and two extensive playthroughs of both Black Eagle House routes, to be exact. I could/should probably just give this game its own blog post, because I have a lot to say, but as I mentioned, I have a lot of reading and prospectus writing to do so I’ll just slap it in here at the end, where I can ramble to my little heart’s content and post a bunch of pictures.
I’d never played a Fire Emblem game before Three Houses, but I’ve wanted to for a while. The appeal was the romance mechanics I’d heard so much about. I love me some good dating mechanics. What always scared me away was the strategy aspect. I’ve only played a few strategy games in my life, with mixed results. Some of them were completely engaging and rewarding, and others were overly dense and intimidating for a beginner. But Three Houses was getting lots of hype, and while I am usually pretty inoculated against hype, something about this buzz got me right in the impulse buy. I ran out and got it the day it released. It probably goes without saying, but I’ll be mentioning some major [SPOILERS] ahead.
I played it on Normal and Casual difficulty settings because I was afraid that, if it was as intense as some of the other strategy games I’ve played, I’d lose important characters and have to reload more often than I’d like to, to undo critical mistakes. I will say that I probably could have played it on Hard. The grid-based battles reminded me of the strategy mechanics in Suikoden II, so they were pretty straightforward. Early on, I went into each battle carefully zooming out and surveying the field, planning several steps ahead, adjusting for terrain and enemy types. I mostly employed a strategy of luring enemies into situations that were advantageous to me, so for a while combat was a fairly lengthy affair. But eventually I realized that if I matched our units well enough, I could just one or two-shot most enemies, so I began rushing in and striking fast and hard. Late in the game I very rarely lost characters, and by my second playthrough death was something I almost never thought about.
As for the story, I completely loved what I experienced of it (I can’t exactly claim any expertise on the Blue Lions or Golden Deer storylines). I can see why someone would play through all four major story paths, too. On my first playthrough, I chose to side with Rhea because she was very kind to me, everyone loved her, and, well, she seemed like she was supposed to be the good guy. It was a difficult decision to make, though, because I chose to join the Black Eagles House because I liked Edelgard. So to have to choose between the two was pretty difficult. The new characters under Edelgard’s command (when she showed up to challenge Rhea in the tomb) seemed so cocky and malevolent, and Edelgard herself did little to explain her sudden and violent actions to me, so my decision to stick with Rhea and the monastery seemed like the “right” choice. From there, Edelgard seems (from your perspective as Rhea’s defender) to be a cold, calculating, stubborn leader, so I never much questioned if I had taken the right path.
But during my second playthrough, I chose Edelgard over Rhea, and doing so revealed a whole new side to Rhea. While Edelgard had no qualms about engaging in large-scale combat in my first playthrough, Rhea callously sacrificed innocent lives in her quest for revenge for your “betrayal.” I began seeing her earlier actions in a different way, driven by a desire for control and power, and not the benevolence that I once believed her to embody. And when it came to light that my character was essentially an experiment, created by Rhea for selfish reasons, I felt strongly that this second playthrough was the actual “right” one. But I never would have known that if I’d just played through the one storyline! The fact that these two stories can stand on their own yet also affect each other so significantly shows how great the writing for this game is on the macro level. On the micro level, too, I was impressed by how every single character had their own voice and linguistic profile. Also, the voice acting was excellent. I was so excited to hear so many Persona voice actors all throughout the game!
I have to say, I was surprised by how unimpressive the graphics were, though. Unimpressive might be putting it kindly. The characters are stylized, so I suppose I wouldn’t have expected them to be all that sharp and crisp. When I saw that many of the backgrounds were just blurry 2D renders, folded/stretched to give the appearance of a 3D space, however, combined with many of the corner-cutting steps they took (like just superimposing characters in front of existing fishing pole assets to make it look like they were actually fishing), I couldn’t help but wonder if this game was originally intended to be a 3DS game that they decided to upgrade to the Switch. I still loved the game, and the characters look great, but I can’t deny that I kept hoping that the next game looks better.
One thing I think they really nailed was the balance between the three major mechanics: battles, stat management (instruction), and social. I never felt like any of them went on for too long, so I always looked forward to every new event. I thought I was going to be overwhelmed by stat management but they really do a good job of making it simple enough that you can succeed with minimal forethought, but deep enough that you could be super effective if you spent more time planning and going through every character’s progression paths.
Okay, I should wrap this up. Still with me? No? FINE. Be that way. Anyway, I would love to go through every single character and share my thoughts (because boy do I have some), but ain’t nobody got time for that. Instead, I’ll just mention some of my favorites, plus, of course, my romance choices. In my first playthrough I didn’t fully understand how best to recruit people until it was too late, so I only ended up recruiting a few students from other houses. In my second run I got everyone, though my party almost always consisted of all ladies. In part because, well, aesthetics, but the women seemed to generally be my best warriors, too. Bernedetta could be annoying sometimes in conversation, but on the battlefield she was an incredibly effective bow knight for me. I really liked Dorothea’s personality, and she turned out to be a wildly powerful black mage (gremory) as well. Annette and Lysithea were similarly liked and equally as powerful. Having that trio in my second game was so useful against monsters and heavily armored units. They were really awesome. Flayn was funny and nice. I wished I could recruit Hilda. Claude seemed cool. I didn’t necessarily need Shamir, because Bernedetta more than sufficed as my mobile archer, but dang if Shamir isn’t a sexy badass. She ended up being a little too stoic and stony for my tastes, but I really love her design and capabilities.
Ingrid ended up being a big favorite of mine, especially after recruiting her and getting to know her better in my second run. Plus she was an absolute terror on the battlefield. On my first playthrough I wasn’t able to recruit her, and when I came face-to-face with her in battle she one-shot killed one of my characters. Once she was on my team, I quickly made her a falcon knight, and she brought her fierceness down upon anyone I needed demolished. I liked her backstory, too, and after seeing her fight and getting closer to her character, I eventually decided she would probably be my choice for a romantic partner if I ended up playing through a third time.
Speaking of romantic partners, let’s get to my two choices. It’s difficult to say if I would have ended up with Edelgard in my first run if I had chosen to side with her over Rhea, but I chose her in my second game, regardless. I mean, her character design is totally eye-catching. She has such sharp, bold features, and she looks great in her emperor or academy uniforms. So, yeah, she’s beautiful, but she was also magnetic and such a commanding presence, especially when I got to hear her reasoning and see her inner turmoil over the decisions she has to make to oppose Rhea and attempt to reunify Fódlan. She’s smart, cunning, and absolute in her determination to do what’s best for her empire. I was more than excited to enter a romantic partnership with her and rule by her side.
But… well… Petra. Petra came out of nowhere and stole my heart faster than you can say Phantom Thieves. When I first saw her, I was under Edelgard’s spell, so I thought “she’s cute” and moved on. But the more time I spent with her, learning about her backstory as a warrior princess with an entire kingdom’s future resting on her decisions in the coming battles, hearing stories about her homeland, listening to her adorable yet earnest attempts to master a new language, the more I realized I was falling for her. I seemed to gravitate toward strong warriors, and she was my right hand woman on the battlefield in both playthroughs. She was fast, agile, and deadly with a sword, but she eventually mastered some powerful black magic and was a total force to be reckoned with. She was also easily one of the kindest and most compassionate characters. In fact, I think she balanced ferocity and battle-prowess with empathy and humanity like no other character. This balance, along with her incredible skill, her sense of humor, her impressive history, and her unparalleled beauty, is what made her far and away my number one choice for romantic partner. I was so happy to be by her side at the end of my first game, and I even felt myself flush a little when pulling her screenshot for use in this blog. Laugh at me if you will, I can take it. I’ll probably end up repeating much of this when I post the inevitable crush blog about her, because Petra is definitely one of my all-time favorite video game romances. She’s the best.
Okay, phew. We made it. That was quite a trip. I hope to keep writing throughout my dissertation process, if I can, even if it means posting more academic stuff and less “fun” observations and thoughts. Then you’ll be bored by the length AND the content! But seriously, there are some very big games coming up, so I look forward to playing them and – hopefully – sharing my thoughts. Thanks for reading.
I’ve been meaning for a fair while to write a blog about my gaming tattoos, but my problem is that, uh… I can’t stop getting them. So every time I sit down and think “time to write that blog,” I remember that I have a new design in mind for a few months from now. Oh, and one for a few months after that. And I’ll probably get one when… Ultimately, I’m working on a “piecemeal” sleeve, which is basically a sleeve of various tattoos that aren’t necessarily connected (though usually there is a “filler” between them that brings the disparate pieces together). So I still have a few small-medium designs that will fill the gaps on that arm, and then some tiny-small designs to act as filler. I’ll share those at the end, but because I’ve been collecting these for some time, I guess I want to start at the beginning.
[Cue nostalgic 8-bit video game music]
[Cut to a younger Joey, age 16, doodling in a notebook]
[Joey turns to camera, slightly surprised and bemused]
“Oh, hello. I’m Younger Joey. And I thought this was a good idea but now that I’m writing lines for my younger self, I realize how absolutely dumb this is. Let’s go back to normal writing, like a normal person.”
Ahem. I’ve wanted a tattoo or two since I was a teenager. I used to doodle ideas of what I wanted my first tattoo to be, including (as you might imagine of a 90s teen), band logos, a scorpion, my astrological sign (Scorpio, and yes I had a pet scorpion and a silver scorpion ring and many other scorpion-related things, I WAS 16 OKAY), something with Freddy Krueger, video game icons, and more. It wasn’t until I joined the Air Force when I was 20 that I decided to actually go through with it. I was getting a decent-sized, steady paycheck, after all, and there were several tattoo shops of varying quality around Keesler Air Force Base, where I did my technical training. My first tattoo was not gaming related, however. I had a fresh new notebook that I was doodling ideas in, and there were several video game designs (an NES controller, Pac-Man and ghosts, a Tri-Force, and other now-cliché concepts, I WAS 20 OKAY), but it wasn’t until about a year later that I got my second tattoo, a Starman Deluxe from EarthBound.
Let me pause here and apologize for a few things. First off, I am not photographer, and some of these pictures were taken by me. The non-photographer. I mean, I’m not even, like, a decent Instagram picture-taker. So please excuse the bad lighting, posing, focus, etc. It’s hard to take pictures of your own tattoos, man. Second, some of these pictures are fresh, meaning I took them immediately after the artist finished, so they are puffy, raw, and maybe a little bloody. Having someone scrape a violently vibrating needle across your skin for a couple of hours will do that. Lastly, I must apologize for my skin. I know that some sections of my body look like paper-thin sheets of slightly hairy pig skin stretched over a sack of moles and blemishes, and I’m okay with that. So just overlook it, alright?
Where were we? Ah, yes. I deliberated for a long time about which video game tattoo would be my first. I spent hours scanning through hundreds of images from some of my favorite games. Because I’d only had one tattoo, and I wasn’t planning on getting all that many more, I felt like this tattoo had to pack a lot of meaning into a relatively small space. I decided on a Starman Deluxe because EarthBound is one of my favorite games of all time, and the art design from that game seemed to me to be a lot more tattoo-friendly than, say, Chrono Trigger, my favorite game of all time. There are many great characters and enemies in EarthBound, but I landed on the Starman Deluxe because, well, it’s a badass robot from space with shoulder spikes. Plus the Starmen (Starmans?) are pretty iconic, and given the number of classic rock references in the game, I have always assumed they were inspired by David Bowie’s song “Starman,” and I love David Bowie. So it all just kind of made sense.
Then, after six years and four non-gaming tattoos, I got my second game related tattoo – uh, yet another EarthBound tattoo. I know! I know. I love a lot of different games, but after getting the Starman Deluxe I really wanted to get the four main characters from the game, too, so they were always near the top of my list of tattoos-to-get. I like that they all have a distinct look, there are multiple colors going on, and my artist (Brian at Spider Tattooz in Sycamore, IL) actually honored my request to do them in their original pixel form. I don’t think I quite appreciated at the time how difficult that is to do, but since then I’ve had several artists compliment them and reveal that it’s a really tricky thing to pull off. So I am very happy with them, and I think they are holding up nicely (unlike the Starman, which you can see is already starting to fade a bit, sad face emoji).
By this point I’d realized that I probably wanted a few other video game tattoos on that arm, so I began collecting pictures and ideas to make a piecemeal sleeve. I made a folder on my laptop and filled it with characters, logos, symbols, etc. from my favorite games, and after yet another couple of non-gaming related tattoos, I made an appointment to get my next tattoo from my current artist, Erin from Proton Tattoo in DeKalb, IL. I’d looked up her work and really liked a thick-lined Link from The Legend of Zelda that she did, so I felt that she was the right person to do a Princess Peach tattoo, which I’d been looking forward to getting for years. It turned out that her handle is Sweet Peach Parfait, and, as she informed me as we discussed the design, the “Peach” was for Princess Peach herself. Serendipity at its finest. I gave her these three pieces of official artwork and asked her to make a design based on her own personal style.
And here is what she came up with. She went with a bust framed by a heart, and she added a flower because those are kind of her thing.
Princess Peach was my very first favorite video game character. Granted, I hadn’t encountered all that many unique characters by the time I’d played Super Mario Bros. 2, so I hadn’t really even thought of who my favorite characters were, but in that particular game she was a clear winner for me. She wasn’t as fast as the other characters, and maybe you had to try a little harder to pull up vegetables, but I loved that she could hover using her dress. Later, when I fell in love with Mario Kart 64, Peach was again my go-to character. So much so that I became irrevocably tied to her among my close friends, and would then always choose her when playing Mario Party, Mario Tennis, Mario Golf, or almost any of the party-based Nintendo games. I was so happy with Erin’s work on this tattoo that I decided that I would go to her for my next tattoo as well, which was:
Ann, from Persona 5! I gave Erin the pictures above and again asked for her to come up with whatever she thought best, and she went with another bust coming out of a geometric shape. This time she went with an oval, which she filled with a beautiful teal that contrasts so well with the red of Panther’s Phantom Thieves outfit. I couldn’t believe how good it looked when she was done. I think even she was impressed with her own work, because she commented that it looked like she slapped a sticker on my arm. I saw someone on Twitter post a picture of their Ryuji tattoo, so I decided to comment on it with a compliment and a picture of my Ann tattoo, and Erika Harlacher (Ann’s voice actor in the game) actually liked and commented on it! How cool was that?
It was, Dear Reader, exceptionally cool. Insert the cool emoji here. The one with the little sunglasses. Cool. Like Ann, who was my bae in Persona 5, a game with incredible style and a million tattoo-able characters (some of which I plan on getting in the future). Interestingly enough (to exactly one person – me), I got that Ann tattoo exactly a year ago today. And it was at that time that I’d decided I wanted to stick with the theme of video game ladies as the primary components of my sleeve, so the next tattoo I got was Chun-Li, my oldest video game crush and the subject of a previous blog of mine.
Once again, I gave Erin the above images and she produced a breathtaking bust framed by a new geometric shape. This might be my favorite tattoo, in terms of aesthetic. It has the thick black outlines that she loves to do, but the delicate line work on Chun-Li’s eyes, nose, mouth, ribbons, etc. always makes me happy that I chose to get this one on my wrist, where I frequently catch glimpses of it. I love the mix of pink, blue, and yellow, too, though I do have to say that in terms of pain, this was one of the worst spots. It swelled a lot. My wrist looked absolutely pregnant when I unwrapped it later that night. It did not, sadly, produce any little baby street fighters, however.
I got my next two tattoos as a part of the Halloween sale that Proton puts on annually. Among the designs that I’d given Erin for future tattoos was a Bob-omb, from the Mario games. For the sale, she posted a whole sheet of Nintendo designs that she’d drawn up for the occasion, the Bob-omb and a Boo among them. I loved the Boo, so I really wanted to get that, but I also wanted to get an original design she made for the sale, which was the Prince from Katamari Damacy rolling a jack-o-lantern. Because, well, it’s the Prince from Katamari Damacy rolling a fucking jack-o-lantern. She was generous enough to allow me to get both designs, which was awesome. Prior to these, I’d always gotten tattoos that I had some kind of personal connection to, so these were the first I got just because I liked the way they looked. I mean, you could count Boo in with my personal history of Mario games, but that’s not why I got it. And that’s okay with me.
The next two on the list were also done on the same day (as each other, not the previous two), and one of them was the previously mentioned Bob-omb. I gave Erin a simple Bob-omb design and she went all out and added text, a bright explosion, and an old-school comic style. It is eye-catching and because of its central location on my arm, it really pulls everything together visually. That central location is my elbow pit, sometimes called “the ditch.” And let me tell you, it hurt like “the bitch.” That didn’t quite work but just go with it. But seriously, it hurt so. Bad. I got the other tattoo first, on the back of my wrist, and as she was doing it I remember thinking “this isn’t so bad. It hardly hurts. It’s more like a minor annoyance.” When she was tattooing my ditch I remember thinking “I might die and defecate at the same time, holy balls, can I just bite on something, does she have something I can bite on, is that weird, has anyone had a heart attack from getting a tattoo, I think I might have a heart attack and die and defecate, shit.” Or something along those lines. For, like, an hour and a half. It was fun. But worth it! It ended up not healing well, because I unconsciously bent it a little in my sleep on the first night and the scab formed weirdly because of that, but I’m going in for a touch up soon.
The other tattoo I got on that day, at long, long last, was a Chrono Trigger design. As I mentioned before, the art style of the game is such that there aren’t many symbols or icons or designs that would make a unique tattoo, so I wanted to get a character. And, since I was filling this arm with ladies, I went with the villain Flea. “Flea!?” I hear you gasp, mouth agape and fingers gently fanned out on your chest. “Not Marle? Or Lucca? Or Ayla? Or, one of your favorite characters, so much so that you’ve considered naming a future daughter after her, Schala!? I thought I knew you, man.” Well, it does sound like you know me, mysterious and fictional person who I just invented, but I went with Flea for a few reasons. First, I loved her character. She was so flirty and fun and I wished I could recruit her to my team instead of having to kill her. Second, I love her design. In a tall, dark tower filled with bats, skeletons, and three heavy metal edgelords (Magus, Slash, and Ozzie), she’s out here in white and pink, with a high, perky ponytail. Third, she has one of the best lines in the game. When Frog tries to out her as a man, despite her presenting and identifying as a woman, she says (in the SNES translation), “Male, female, what’s the difference? Power is beautiful, and I’ve got the power!” I also think the issue of her gender is interesting and perhaps historic, but that’s the subject of a future blog.
This brings us to my latest video game tattoo, one that, as a huge Legend of Zelda fan, Erin was pretty excited to do: Princess Zelda. Like Chun-Li, I wrote a blog about my love for the character, and also like Chun-Li, she is now my favorite tattoo. It’s difficult to choose between them. They share a level of grace and smooth detail, and I am honored to have them on my body forever. This was the largest of the pieces that Erin did, and it’s in a sensitive spot, right on the inside/back of my bicep. The colors are so bright and crisp, the lines are elegant, and she added one of those flowers that she loves – this time, a silent princess flower, which is obviously so perfect. I completely love it. Now I do that obnoxious thing where someone flexes their bicep and kisses it, but I’m just doing it to give Zelda a little smooch. I’m just kidding, I don’t do that. Because I just thought of it. So now I will probably start doing it. Forever.
People get tattoos for all kinds of reasons. For some, they are showpieces – reflections of their personalities through art. I won’t deny that I’m not super flattered when someone compliments my tattoos, but I mostly get them for myself. They are a celebration of the things that I love. I like looking at them, even now. I am planning on going in for another one or two in a couple of weeks, and I have several more planned. I was going to write about those future tattoos now, but this is already woefully long, and I like the idea of posting an update blog in a few years, when the sleeve is totally done. Until then, thanks for reading, Dear Fictional Reader, who I am fantasizing made it all the way to the end of this blog.
In my discussion of Dead or Alive Xtreme 3: Fortune, I called Momiji a new video game crush, and having recently played the newly released Dead or Alive Xtreme 3: Scarlet, I figured now would be as good a time as any to write an official entry about her. Momiji is not an original Dead or Alive character, but the team behind the DoA games – Team Ninja – also made the Ninja Gaiden games, where Momiji originated from. She is the apprentice to that series’ protagonist, Ryu Hayabusa, so her ability to kick serious ass should be apparent.
I haven’t played any of the newer Ninja Gaiden games, though, so my only video game experience with Momiji is in the DoA volleyball games. I realize that saying I have a crush on a character from a series known for scantily clad, heavy-chested, anime-esque girls probably sounds a little skeezy, but I’m not normally into the “big tiddy anime girl” archetype. Does Momiji have an incredible body? Yes. But what made her stand out was her attitude and personality. Most of the women in these games come from fighting games, so they are hyper-competitive and, at times, harsh in their criticism of teammates. There were certain women, like Nyotengu, who would openly berate you for missing a shot, even when they themselves had made several mistakes. Momiji, on the other hand, was kind, supportive, and sweet as a partner. I was so conditioned by the other players to expect some snarky or snide comment when I missed a block or dove for a ball too late, so when I first played with Momiji and she had nothing but encouraging comments for me, I was taken aback. In a way, she reminds me of Chun-Li: strong, skilled, dedicated to her training, but somehow still sweet, carefree, and capable of having fun.
Given the similarities between Momiji, Chun-Li, and the next character I plan on writing about (my special lady from Fire Emblem: Three Houses), I’m starting to wonder if I have a type. This “crush” series might prove enlightening in that way, so maybe after a certain number of entries I’ll write a summary of what my choices say about me. Or maybe that’s too personal, not game-centric enough. For now, I’ll just conclude by saying that Momiji, my shrine maiden ninja, with her elegant high ponytail and twinkling hazel eyes, has a part of my pixelized heart.
I attended my first Conference on College Composition and Communication (CCCCs) this past April. As the largest conference in a crowded field, it is a pretty big event. It’s basically the E3 of composition conferences. Part of what makes it so big is that there is a lot of overlap with other fields, like rhetoric and my area of interest, game studies. So I was very excited to attend a panel called “Performing Games/Performing Composition: Playing, Imagining, and Creating Embodied Rhetorics in the Writing Classroom,” one of the few video game-centric panels at the conference. The panel itself was a mixed bag, but there was one moment that really struck a chord with me. During the Q&A portion, one attendee framed their question with “Video games are supposed to be fun…” And, after furrowing my brow and biting my tongue, I tweeted:
It’s not exactly a new sentiment, and I’ve ranted about it with friends before, but I guess the reason that it bothered me was its source: a video game scholar. If a person who never plays games is under the illusion that video games are supposed to be fun, that’s one thing; but when someone who (I assume, to be fair) studies the medium seriously and academically says it, it tells me that the problem with society not taking video games seriously as art might not be constrained to non-gamers.
Fast forward to two weeks ago, as I cracked open issue 315 of Game Informer magazine. In his editorial about the upcoming handheld system Playdate, editor-in-chief Andy McNamara says “Games are supposed to be nonsense. Games are supposed to be fun.” Then, on last week’s What’s Good Games podcast, episode 116, host Andrea Rene says “games are supposed to be fun,” in discussing the controversies surrounding the upcoming Call of Duty: Modern Warfare’s violence and realism.
I don’t know that either Andy or Andrea would actually argue that all video games are supposed to be fun, so I’m not about to read too deeply into their individual statements, but I couldn’t help but be struck again by how common this notion is. It’s not just non-gamers that seem to believe it – it’s professionals that people trust to have expert insight or an educated opinion. Again, I’m not slamming any of these people individually, but I think the fact that it’s not an uncommon refrain, even from prominent proponents of the medium, means something is wrong with how we talk about it.
I’ve taken several graduate courses that covered the history of the film industry, and in each class I found myself noting how similar the film and video game industries are. They are both industrial, collaborative art forms, there was an element of spectacle to them early on, and neither was widely considered a serious art form for decades. With film, it wasn’t until André Bazin and others began writing about movies in a serious way in the 1950s and 60s that critics and scholars began studying movies as texts, with authorship, meaning, and relevant cultural markers. Even western movies, once thought of as cheap, shallow entertainment made for kids, received serious study, elevating the genre’s status in the process.
I don’t think video games have reached that point yet. Popular film, in its first few decades, was “supposed to be fun.” It was meant to captivate and astound, to entertain and bewilder. Now, after years of both refinement of the form and criticism of it, very few people would argue that film is not a serious art form, and (I would wager) few people would claim that movies “are supposed to be fun.” A Clockwork Orange isn’t “fun.” Brokeback Mountain isn’t “fun.” Schindler’s List isn’t “fun.” Movies aren’t “supposed to be fun,” and we’re okay with that. We don’t expect them to be. So when will we become okay with that for games?
The reason this matters is not because I love video games and want to feel better about playing and studying them. There is a certain guilt in studying something that so many people view as a juvenile waste of time, sure. But in the last few weeks we’ve seen, yet again, news commentators and armchair social activists turn their attention toward violent video games and their (mostly fabricated/exaggerated) influence on people. It’s been a long time since we as a society have allowed the same kind of allegations to be lobbied at other art forms. But for many, video games are still meant for kids and teenagers, and when we casually claim that “video games are supposed to be fun,” we don’t exactly shift their reputation away from that and toward being taken seriously. Gamers want games to be called art and want them protected as such, but they don’t want them to “be political,” which art inherently is. It’s those same kinds of gamers that would hear a prominent games scholar or personality claim that “games are supposed to be fun” and feel vindicated for their belief. After all, “fun” games don’t have politics, right?
I might be making a mountain of a mole hill, but words have power, and if serious game scholars, critics, and commentators choose their words loosely, video games will continue to be considered an immature, unevolved art form, and game developers (both AAA and indie) will feel less inclined to use games to explore all aspects of the human experience, as other art forms do – and, more immediately, politicians and exploitative media outlets will continue to get away with making baseless claims about a diverse art form with which they have very little experience.