My Gaming Radar: 2017

First, I should say that this is not necessarily just a list of unreleased games that I’m excited about playing in 2017. The stack of games I’ve bought but haven’t played yet is bigger than my bank account, so my immediate gaming future will be spent catching up on some of those, and I begin my list with those that I actually plan on playing in the next few months. I couldn’t hope to get through the entire stack, even if I had several months off (sorry, copy of Secret of Evermore that I’ve had for almost twenty years!), so I’m just going with recent-ish purchases.

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Aside from that, yeah, these are some games that I am very excited about and are scheduled to be released in 2017. It’s a long-ish list already, so I’m excluding games that I’m only passively interested in (sorry, Ni no Kuni II, I still have to finish your predecessor), games that I’ve already played in some form (like Final Fantasy XII or Dragon Quest VIII), games that I’ve started and am still playing (The Division, Rock Band 4, GTA V, etc.) and games that are only rumored to be coming out (like, well, half of the games for Nintendo’s Switch). I’ll conclude with games that I want to see announced this year, because if anyone reads this and gets that far they deserve to be rewarded with even more text to half-read and zero-enjoy. You’re welcome!

Final Fantasy XV

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This game was in development for so long that I hadn’t even thought about it in years. Real, literal years. But when I got an email about pre-ordering it, an old familiar excitement rushed through me. Final Fantasy games have changed a lot over the years, but I haven’t hated any of them, even if some are less memorable than others. And some, like XII, are high up on my favorite-games-of-all-time list, so I am very excited to play this one. I’d been waiting for winter break to start it because playing narratively immersive games is hard for me during the busy semester, so I should get to it before I’m out of time and up to my neck in all kinds of work again. I know very little about it, because I tend to avoid reading previews and reviews on games that I am very excited about, to avoid getting too hyped or running into spoilers, but it looks gorgeous from the few screenshots and videos I’ve seen. I just hope the combat is fun, like it was in XII.

Life is Strange

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This game seems pretty easy to consume in small chunks, so I will likely save this for the middle of the semester, when I can guiltily sneak in only 20-30 minutes of gaming every few days (if I’m lucky). I’ve heard lots of good things about it, and I have very much enjoyed other recent games that have more of a focus on narrative than mechanics. It also came up in a presentation I attended, about using video games in literature courses, so I am curious to play it with that in mind and see how I might fit it into my own future courses.

The Last Guardian

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Okay, full disclosure: I own both Team Ico’s Ico and Shadow of the Colossus but I have yet to beat either of them. Or, well, play either of them for more than five or ten minutes. But I will! Some day. Some distant, distant day. I am determined to break that habit with The Last Guardian, which I never thought I’d see released at all. I enjoy big, mainstream games as much as the next person, but sometimes I need these smaller, quirky games to remind me of the vast spectrum of what video games have come to be. Also, that bird-dog better not fucking die, man. I’m telling you right now, Team Ico, despite the game already being complete!

Paper Mario: Color Splash

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Now we’re getting into the games that I will probably have to save for summer break, but I am still very excited about games like Paper Mario: Color Splash. The Paper Mario series has followed the Nintendo tradition of refining and perfecting a solid formula rather than reworking and trying to revolutionize new entries. The upside to this is that you end up with some of the best games on any platform, but sometimes it can feel tiring after a while (lookin’ at you, Animal Crossing). It’s somewhere between the two for me, with regards to Paper Mario, so I’m both expecting a high quality, thoughtful experience with Color Splash and hoping for something different enough to make it feel like a very new and different game. But the cute style and odd humor will win me over, either way. Paper Peach is still on my list of tattoos that I might get eventually.

Dead Rising 3

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The first Dead Rising game was, I thought, flawed but fun, and the second improved a bit on my main area of complaint (the whole ticking time-bomb structure). Even if I don’t get into the story or characters in this third entry, I’ve always loved exploring the detailed environments and the many ways with which to dispatch the undead. The previous entries did an impressive job with the last gen hardware, considering how good the games looked and how many objects were on screen at once, so I am excited to see how the Xbox One’s horsepower lends itself to creating an even more chaotic and inspiring world.

Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare

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I don’t have much to say about this one. I’ve enjoyed most of the Call of Duty games and I get around to playing them when I can get them for pretty cheap (I don’t play online so I never feel very rushed). I expect that this will be a solid, fun, short experience.

Halo 4

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Man, I loved Halo 3. I played it online, a lot, and I had tons of fun with the video editor. I don’t know why it took me so long to get around to buying the fourth game, and I don’t expect I’ll get online with it this time around (having the right set of friends being into a game at the same time helps, I think), but I anticipate some epic, cinematic science-fiction battles.

Battlefield 1

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I have a lot of FPSs to catch up on, it seems. Battlefield 1 looks gorgeous and I’m curious to see how they handle the World War I setting. Like many people, I picture that war as being very slow and bleak, but the videos of Battlefield 1 make it look very fast and flashy. For as much cynicism that this  disparity had generated early in the game’s development, it sure has gotten a lot of good press post-release. So I might try and get to this before summer, if I can.

Titanfall

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I never bought into the hype for this game, but it looked good enough to buy at a hefty Black Friday discount, so I’ll play it before I forget about it and it’s doomed to the probably-won’t-play-for-years pile.

Street Fighter V

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Fighting games are super easy to play casually, so I’ll probably play this game (and the next entry)  sporadically throughout the semester. I was pleasantly surprised by how much I liked Street Fighter IV, so I expect this one to be at least as good.

Mortal Kombat X

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I don’t remember the last time I played a Mortal Kombat game regularly, but with fairly strong buzz and a roster of DLC characters that include some of my favorite cinematic villains, I couldn’t pass this one up. Even if I don’t get into it half as much as I did with the first few MK games all those years ago, it will be nice to revisit the characters (and have a current MK game laying around for social gaming gatherings).

Dragon Quest VII: Fragments of the Forgotten Past

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Oh, man. Ever since Dragon Quest VIII enthralled and enchanted me over ten years ago, I have been waiting anxiously for another Dragon Quest experience like it. With no proper sequels released on home consoles, I made do with the Nintendo DS remakes, which were great, don’t get me wrong, but they didn’t have the same vastness and sense of exploration that VIII did. I don’t expect Fragments of the Forgotten Past will satisfy that sense, but I love the series so much that I will eat it up anyway. It will at least keep me satisfied until…

Dragon Quest XI

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Okay, so, very little has been released about this entry in the series, leading me to doubt it will be out in 2017, but that’s what it’s listed as so I’ll hold out hope. And my hopes are high, given that this will be the first single player game in the main series to be released in the US since, well, VIII. And the few screenshots that I’ve seen look absolutely stunning. I hope they maintain the old-school RPG gameplay, which is a staple of the series, and don’t try anything too revolutionary. Still, just seeing a new Dragon Quest world rendered with the power of the PlayStation 4 is going to make waiting hard. But I will, and I’ll probably self-impose a blackout on reading any press about it, starting — now.

Resident Evil 7

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Resident Evil 7 comes out just two weeks after the semester starts, which means… well, it means I’m going to have to play fast to make it through it before I get too busy. Waiting is not much of an option. Not only am I a big Resident Evil fan, but this game looks like it goes back to the series’ horror roots in the best way. I haven’t decided whether I’m going to play it in VR or not yet. The screen tearing and jaggies in the “Kitchen” demo worry me a bit, as does the fact that some VR games make me nauseous after a while. I’ll probably start out in VR and see how it feels. The graphics and lighting in the regular demo are spectacular, though, and I can’t wait to see where the biological agents come into play, as so far they’re playing the whole ‘inbred, rural serial killer’ thing up, but that is almost certainly a front. Like the mansion in the first game, I’m sure there is some underground or off-site facility where mutant/zombie stuff happens. As disappointed as I was that Silent Hills was cancelled, I like that Capcom seems to be embracing the same kind of tone and style for this new Resident Evil.

Outlast 2

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Another embarrassing admission: I still haven’t beaten the first Outlast game. I died a few times in a row when I got to the basement, and I just wasn’t equipped to deal with that level of repeated tension and anxiety, so I put it aside. I’ll have to get back to it, because as a horror fan I loved the premise and atmosphere, and the sequel looks so great. The cornfield setting is especially exciting for me, because I live and go to school in a city surrounded by corn. I’m even trying to think of a way to bring it into the classroom, too, since my students will be well acquainted with corn field and their creepiness, so we can analyze setting and its effect on different audiences.

Horizon Zero Dawn

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I don’t know much about the plot for Horizon Zero Dawn, other than it’s a sort of post–post-apocalyptic reclamation scenario (right? I might be remembering incorrectly). But the video they showed at E3, and the screenshots that I’ve seen have been stunning. I’m all about large, colorful, luscious landscapes, and this game looks to have that in spades. I’m all for new female lead characters, too, so I’m hoping she is cool and memorable.

Ace Combat 7

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I’m cautiously optimistic about Ace Combat 7Ace Combat 4 is one of my favorite games of all time, but since then the series has disappointed me to various degrees, with the last game I tried playing (Assault Horizon) being the worst of them. Having said that, 7  probably wouldn’t even be on my radar if it weren’t for the fact that it’s going to be fully compatible with the PlayStation VR. Will I get sick and want to have a real barf bag handy in my virtual cockpit? Maybe. But it just might be worth it. I just want the controls to return to the days of the fourth and fifth games in the series. Please. Pretty please.

Red Dead Redemption 2

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Rockstar is so secretive about their games that I can’t even predict whether this will really be released this year or pushed back to spring 2018, but it seems slightly more likely that the former will actually happen. I loved Red Dead Redemption far more than I’d expected to, and Rockstar went so far above and beyond with Grand Theft Auto V that my hopes are apologetically high for the sequel. I’m hoping it’s set up like GTA V in that there is a fully fleshed-out single player campaign and then a vast and full-featured open-world multi-player mode as well. I’m ready to ride or die either way.

Star Trek: Bridge Crew

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Okay, so the screenshots released for this game aren’t exactly inspiring. In fact, they look pretty generic and, well, crappy. BUT! Star Trek! In virtual reality! I won’t be too worried about the graphics being sub-par (I might even welcome it, in VR) if they get the gameplay and simulation parts right. My favorite Star Trek game is the SNES version of Star Trek: Starfleet Academy – Starship Bridge Simulator. I loved being in the role of a cadet making their way through the academy and, eventually, getting my own ship and rank. This game sounds like it could potentially be a spiritual successor to that game, so I am hyped for it. I’m not sure it will start in the academy, but I hope so. Either way, I’m definitely excited to give this a shot. It might be a dud, but at the very least it will be a neat novelty game for the VR.

Mass Effect Andromeda

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Is this the game I’m looking forward to most this year? Maybe. Probably. Maybe. The Mass Effect series is among my favorites, and this game looks pretty spectacular so far. The only thing keeping me from being more certain about its status is the cast of characters. The other Mass Effect sequels had the benefit of returning, beloved characters. I’m sure BioWare will conjure up yet another complex and lovable/hateable (in a good way) crew, but I don’t know anything about them at this point, so… I’m purposefully being wary. I’d rather be pleasantly surprised than disappointed. Anyway, I hope away missions to planets makes a return, like the Mako missions in the first game. It would be even better if it were expanded on and you could land on any terrestrial planet. With games like No Man’s Sky and Elite: Dangerous it seems like an obvious direction to take, but once again I’m not going to get too hopeful. Regardless, I love BioWare and I love Mass Effect, so my life and free time are theirs once this comes out.

Nintendo Switch

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Aside from what Nintendo showed at E3, I haven’t heard much about the gaming line-up for the Switch, so I don’t have much to go off of. There’s supposed to be a new Mario game ready for or near launch, duh. And there will eventually be a new Mario Kart, Mario Party, Metroid, etc. I’ve never been big into mobile gaming, so that part of the design is passively interesting at best for me. I am also a little disappointed (but not surprised) that the core system is not likely to be much more powerful than last-gen consoles. But, at the end of the day, it’s a new Nintendo console that will have new Nintendo games… gimme dat.

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

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Okay, one last shameful confession before we wind things down: I bought The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess with my Wii at launch. I was super excited for the series’ return to darker and more realistic visuals. I played it for an hour or so and then didn’t touch it again for four or five years. At that point I felt dumb and guilty for never having given it a chance, especially given how much people seemed to like it. So I picked it up, played for seven or eight hours… and stopped. Again. I can’t let that happen again, so I am determined to play the shit out of Breath of the Wild, which looks colorful and fun and pretty wonderful so far.

NES Classic Edition

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I have been trying to get one of these since it launched. It seems Nintendo is up to its old tricks, limiting stock and using the resulting madness to fuel sales for months. It works, of course, but I wanted one before it was the ‘it’ thing to grab. I have many of the games loaded on it, but for those that I don’t, and just to have a slightly up-res version of the NES with classic controllers, I want one. Badly.

Other Wishes

Very briefly, here are some non-obvious games I’d love to see announced or released this year. First up is Bully 2. It’s not that I loved the original more than any game ever, but I did very much enjoy the world and characters, and the fact that a sequel seems like a given and seems to constantly be rumored to be coming, I want it more and more every year. Maybe this year.

Second is Mother 3. After Nintendo’s surprise release of EarthBound Beginnings for the Virtual Console, my hopes for a US release of Mother 3 went from ‘never gonna happen’ to ‘any day now’ instantly. I was so sure they would have announced it last year, on the tenth anniversary of the Japanese version’s release. I lost some hope when it wasn’t, but it still seems like it has to happen at some point… I really hope it’s this year.

What else would be cool? A new Knights of the Old Republic game, thought it seems highly unlikely. A Star Wars VR game. A remake of Final Fantasy VIII, which seems highly likely (but not for another few years, probably). A new, real, huge Animal Crossing. A new Civilization Revolution would be nice, but is doubtful. And, of course, a Chrono Trigger/Chrono Cross sequel or remake, as unlikely as it is.

Even without these dream games, 2017 is already shaping up to be a pretty decent year for video games. I look forward to E3 in the spring and how that might change things. Until then, I have an endless stack of games to get to.

My Year in Gaming: 2016

I am on winter break for the next few weeks, so I’m determined to squeeze a few blogs out before the madness that is spring semester consumes me once again. I’m starting with the obvious: a look back at my experiences with video games in 2016. This outgoing year has been pretty terrible for me, in several ways, but there have been some pretty great games that have provided little shining pockets of joy in the otherwise dismal abyss.

Fallout 4

Yeah, I started playing it in 2015, but I played it into 2016, when I finished it. I can understand why some people were underwhelmed by Fallout 4. Given that Fallout 3 was my first experience with the series, and its vast, dingy, irradiated world snared and enthralled me in a way no other had, its follow-up couldn’t possibly provide the same sense of excitement and wonder that comes with a newly discovered universe.

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Having said that, it was a really great game and I had a lot of fun with it. The narrative itself was interesting enough, and I did enjoy building relationships and outposts, but wandering the Wasteland provided the most enjoyable memories for me (as it did in Fallout 3). I saw Star Wars: The Force Awakens while I was playing, so I couldn’t help but feel a bit Rey-like as I roamed around with Curie, my spherical robot companion, scavenging from old machines and kicking ass. Curie’s love of science, thirst for knowledge, and cute accent made her an obvious choice for a romantic partner, so I was happy that they included the side quest where you can transfer her mind into a human body. I don’t think Rey would do that with BB-8, but I won’t speak for her.

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I also spent a lot of time building my mansion on that isolated, enemy-free island. The building system isn’t perfect, but it was fun to mess around with, and near the end of the game I was more than happy to spend another handful of hours collecting materials for my ultimate base of operations. I had a game room, a dining room, a home theater, and a deck with a bar, a jukebox, and lawn chairs surrounded by palms and facing the sea. It was a nice way to finish off my quest.

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 Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture

Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture was a short, quaint experience, and most of my enjoyment came from imagining these people’s lives prior to their disappearances. The movement speed was infuriating, yeah, but the graphics were impressive and I loved the little details in many of the houses or yards. I do wish more of the doors were unlocked, but whatareyagonnado? The rural English countryside called to mind the sci-fi novel The Day of the Triffids, which added an odd sense of eeriness. I liked it.

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Rise of the Tomb Raider

The Tomb Raider reboot was not my first experience with the franchise, but it was done so well that I felt the same kind of magic that I do when I’m discovering a game or series for the first time. So, as with Fallout 4, I didn’t have the same kind of awe-inducing experience with its sequel, Rise of the Tomb Raider, but I did feel like it was a better game, even if only marginally. The controls are fluid and intuitive, the graphics are gorgeous, and exploration is fun and rewarding. I was occasionally distracted by Lara’s hair, because the way they rendered the surface layer of hairs individually meant that it sometimes looked like she was wearing a wig, but that was only one of a few minor complaints. I did not have much of a crush on old-school Lara, but I definitely find myself attracted to the new version. Her strength and determination, with a healthy dose of vulnerability, make her a wonderful character, worthy of obsession.

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Day of the Tentacle (Remastered)

I have fond memories of Maniac Mansion for the NES, but as a ‘console kid’ I never got around to playing the PC-exclusive sequel, Day of the Tentacle. The newly remastered version gave me to the perfect excuse to finally check it out, and I wasn’t disappointed. While it does feel a bit dated, being an old-school point-and-click adventure, much of the humor and charm seems to have held up surprisingly well. It might be too quirky and tongue-in-cheek for modern audiences, but it was a fun flashback to a simpler time for me. My hope with games like this is that it will be successful enough to merit similar releases, so I have my fingers crossed for a remastered Maniac Mansion, as unlikely as that seems. I really loved that game.

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Miitomo/Pokemon Go

I lump these two together because, like many mobile games, they feel less like full games and more like mini-games to me. That may be unfair, but that discussion is for another blog. I liked Miitomo quite a bit, but its charm is almost wholly dependent on having others to play it with, and everyone I knew abandoned it within two or three weeks of release, leaving me to answer questions for an audience that didn’t exist. Before I eventually joined my friends in jumping ship, I tweeted “I like Miitomo enough, but I can’t help but wish it were a mobile Animal Crossing game.” The app seemed almost like a teaser or demo for a proper Animal Crossing game, so it just made me want the full experience. Nintendo announced that very thing not long after that tweet, but I maintain caution in my optimism. Can Nintendo (or their development partners) squeeze the entire AC experience into a single mobile app? If not, what will be sacrificed? How easy will it be to find new villages to visit? How many people can live in the same village? Will the villages be larger than what we’ve come to expect? I have a lot of questions, and I am still hoping for a new and radically improved iteration for the upcoming Switch, but I will almost certainly pick up the mobile version when it finally hits.

Miitomo

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As for Pokemon Go, I still jump on daily, if even just to get the daily catch bonus. I can’t possibly say anything that hasn’t already been said about it, but I was as blown away by its success as anyone else. I knew it would be big, as many people did, because it’s Pokemon, but the amount of money it’s brought in is unreal, and I wonder how its success will shape Nintendo’s use of the brand in the future, or their focus on mobile gaming in general.

Firewatch

Firewatch is one of those short and rewarding games that make you grateful for the indie movement and the power that digital distribution has afforded it. While I do wish the early narrative sections could have been more interactive, and that the choices you made throughout the game would have really made a difference, I was beyond pleased with the game’s story and how it handled tone and pacing. There were some scenes that were quite powerful, in part due to solid voice acting and writing. It’s games like this that help build a stronger and stronger case for games as art.

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 Dying Light

Not a 2016 game, for others, but it was for me. The Dead Island games had some definite faults, but I enjoyed the experiences they offered, so I was excited for Dying Light, which feels like a sequel. Dead Inland, maybe (I’m sure someone’s made that joke already, right?). The new climbing mechanics were a bit clunky, but added some welcome depth to exploration. One of the things I liked a lot about the Dead Island games was the attention to detail that the developers put into almost every room, hallway, and outdoor area. They did a nice job of creating believably abandoned environments, with objects scattered with care and consideration. I was, however, disappointed to discover that one of the small details had been taken out. There was, when the game released, a set of magnets on a refrigerator in an apartment in your starting base that were taken from an animation group called the Clock Crew, of which I have been a member since 2001. Virtually no one has heard of the group, though, so it was a shock when someone posted a screenshot of the magnets, and I was excited to see them in person. Unfortunately, for whatever reason, the developers removed the magnets in a patch, and now they are just colored shapes. Bummer.

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 NBA 2k16

NBA 2k16 does something very interesting and uncommon with race, especially in video games: it forces your created character to have black features (because he is a member of a black family). It’s a bold and important choice, especially given the industry’s general focus on white characters. I can’t think of another game that does it. Unfortunately for me, I was unaware of this design choice, so I tried my best to make my character look like me (as I usually do with character creation), wondering why the physical traits were so limited in the creation mode. Because the physical options didn’t quite match up with my real features, the resulting ‘me’ was ugly, or as I tweeted at the time, “Jesus, my NBA 2K16 character looks like he crawled out of some swampy hole to ride hogs and smoke meth.” I quickly realized, in the first cutscene, that my character was supposed to be black, but I didn’t feel like redesigning him, so I just left it. My in-story nickname, “Freak,” was apt, anyway.

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As for the game itself, it was sort of a rude awakening. I hadn’t played a basketball game in like ten years, maybe more, and I was always a fan of the more arcade-y types (as I remember older versions of the 2k series being). It took me a while to get the hang of shooting, and I still think three pointers are more difficult than they need to be. I felt like an inept old-timer because I thought the game was too hard to master, but I’ve since had three students who play the game frequently agree that it is a difficult game to learn and almost impossible to master. So that made me feel better. A little.

Rock Band 4

Another game that I was late to the party to; I’ve spent a lot of time playing Rock Band 4 this year. My experience with transferring old Rock Band legacy DLC over makes writing about it almost painful, but I did end up getting into the game pretty heavily once everything was settled. I do wish the character creation was more robust (like, a lot more robust), but I was so happy to finally be able to create band members to join me on the road. I created, to the best of my ability, Rey from The Force Awakens (on bass), Jyn from Rogue One (on drums), and Schala from Chrono Trigger (lead vocals). I’ve played the hell out of it on guitar, and I plan on doing the same with the microphone and drums, when I get more time, but with so many songs (I’ve bought an obscene amount of DLC) I can’t imagine I’ll get tired of it anytime soon.

Assassin’s Creed Syndicate

Yep, another 2015 game that I was late in getting around to playing. And I’ve already blogged about this game, but I will briefly rehash my love for it. I know that Ubisoft pumps Assassin’s Creed games out at an annoying rate that waters the brand down like a glass of soda with too much ice, and I agree with the sentiment that longer development time usually equals better games… but I can’t deny that games like Syndicate or Black Flag are some of the best games I’ve ever played. Each game in the series seems to refine rather than revolutionize, and that can be frustration for fans expecting something new and exciting, but man are these some pretty games. Even writing this, I am fondly flashing back to the architecture of Victorian London in Syndicate and the beauty of the Caribbean seas in Black Flag. Also, I developed a bit of a crush on Evie, so I’m sad that we probably won’t see her again. But I liked this game a ton and am very much looking forward to what the next game looks like, given the extended development time.

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EarthBound Beginnings

This game was originally released on the NES in Japan as Mother, a prequel to the US’s EarthBound (Mother 2), one of my all-time favorite games. I was beyond shocked and excited when Nintendo decided to release it here as EarthBound Beginnings, and it gives me hope that they haven’t given up on the prospect of releasing Mother 3 here. Anyway, Beginnings is a lot like its sequel. So much so, in fact, that EarthBound feels like a retry rather than a true sequel. I recently read an interview with Shigeru Miyamoto from 1998, where he suggests that some of Nintendo’s early SNES games were just that: realizations of games that they’d wanted to make on the NES but didn’t have the processing power. So it makes sense that Super Metroid is essentially a beefier, prettier version of Metroid, and EarthBound is a beefier, prettier version of EarthBound Beginnings. Which means, of course, that I highly enjoyed it, though there was one innovation from EarthBound that I very much missed: the exclusion of random battles. It’s far more annoying to explore a new area freely when you’re plagued by random battles with sometimes difficult foes. Still, this was a fun playthrough that made me appreciate EarthBound even more.

Abzu

I hadn’t heard of Abzu until just before its release, when I saw a trailer for it and was immediately drawn in by how pretty and soothing it looked. I bought it and was not disappointed, as it is a low-stress game that rewards exploration but doesn’t force it. It is pleasing enough just to swim around and observe the ecology, and I’m excited at the prospect of having future students play it and create their own narrative, as the game only gives you only fleeting hints about it.

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No Man’s Sky

To say I’ve written ‘at length’ about No Man’s Sky is an understatement, so if you want more of my thoughts than you can handle, look no further than the Captain’s Log section of this site. I will say briefly that I understand, to some extent, why some people were disappointed at the launch version of NMS, but ultimately I still ended up loving it in spite of its flaws. I love exploring new worlds and systems, naming things based on themes, wondering if/when someone will run across my discoveries or if/when I will stumble on theirs. I have yet to play the latest update, with base building and mobile freighters, but I am looking forward to getting around to it… eventually.

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PlayStation VR

I’m just going to lump all of the PS VR games in this one section, because this blog is already too long and many of them are short, small experiences (and I blogged at length about my excitement for the system itself). My experiences have been mixed, I’d say. While some games, like Job Simulator and Arkham VR don’t seem to suffer from an obviously lower resolution, other games, like the Resident Evil 7 “Kitchen” demo and Perfect, do suffer, to the point that there is some tearing and jagged edges that become distracting. Arkham VR really shows what the system can do, though, and it’s the game I insist people try at social gatherings. No one has been disappointed in it, either. I never thought I was afraid of heights, but standing at the edge of the Iceberg Lounge makes me sweat, quite literally. And Rocksteady’s loving attention to detail and respect for lore shines through, as usual.

Batman™: Arkham VR_20161014073954

PlayStation Worlds suffers from the ‘left drift’ for me, so I haven’t played more than a bit of it. Stationary games don’t give me much of a problem with queasiness, but some of the games that involve movement do. Here They Lie is a good example. You start out in a moving train, and you can both walk around and look freely around the world. I don’t know if it was a combination of all of the different movements, but it definitely made me feel sick. I’ve read that these feelings go away after a while, with more experience in VR, so I hope to come back to those games later.

Job Simulator_20161211215622

Resident Evil 7 Teaser: Beginning Hour_20160623023459

Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes is not a PS VR exclusive, but it’s one of my favorite games on the system. It’s tense — duh — and can cause some uncomfortable snipping at people you otherwise like and respect, but it’s all in good fun, and the feeling of disarming a tricky set of switches with just a couple of seconds left is incredible. Until Dawn: Rush of Blood is fun and the sense of movement is something you have to experience to fully understand how crazy VR is. I watched two people play it before I started it, and I still wasn’t prepared for how weird it felt to be moving in the game and not in real life. When the roller coaster car stops in the game, your brain tells your body you’re stopping in real life. It’s bizarre but great.

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Until Dawn™: Rush of Blood_20161213212337

There are other games and demos to talk about, but I’ve probably gone on long enough. I do want to mention the non-gaming experiences, though, since it’s one of the aspects of VR that I am very interested in going forward (and not just for porn, but we’re all curious about that, right?). The videos I watched in a few different apps were mostly disappointing. I understand that the resolution is halved due to splitting the image, but the videos still seemed to be a lower quality than I expected. I don’t know if it’s the headset or the hardware the video was recorded with, or compression, or what, but I hope it’s not the ultimate fate of VR video on the PS VR. The videos (be it of a shark swimming near me or a supermodel lounging on a speedboat) just didn’t fully trick my brain into thinking they were real, as some of the games did.

DOOM

I won’t claim that DOOM is complex and deep. It fully embraces its old school, run-and-gun roots, and that’s not a bad thing. It’s fast, smooth, and beautiful, and it provided some much-needed stress relief after the election results came in. Is it repetitive? Sure. But it’s fun and rewarding, and I look forward to the new Quake as well.

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The Division

I only just started playing The Division last week, but I’ll throw out a few thoughts about it since it’s still 2016. I was surprised by how shallow the character creation was, given that it bills itself as an RPG. The gameplay is overwhelming at first, because there is a lot going on on-screen, but I’ve gotten the hang of it pretty quickly. I like the idea of building an HQ and the assortment of side quests look fun, so I can’t wait to start doing those and building my base up. I’m not sure I’ll end up playing online with anyone except my friend Tabitha, but I can see myself getting hooked on leveling up and customizing my character’s load-out and clothing.

Tom Clancy's The Division™_20161227062020

I’ve been traveling and visiting family this month, so I haven’t been able to do as much ‘catching up’ as I’d have liked, but I’m getting there. I was going to throw in some thoughts on games I am looking forward to playing soon, but I’ve already written far more than I’d planned, so I’ll just do a different blog on that. Stay tuned, non-existent readers!

Gaming Memories: Death Peak

One of the reasons I started this site was to archive some of my personal memories with video games. Memory is a fleeting thing, so it brings me pleasure to not only relive choice gaming experiences, but also to record them in some way. This, my first entry, will be about my favorite game of all time, Chrono Trigger. My memory of receiving it as a gift is under my Top 20 page, but there are plenty more to go around.

chrono3

The weather here in Illinois has been unseasonably warm lately, but when I left class earlier tonight it finally felt like November. Every year, around this time, I have flashbacks to my first time with Chrono Trigger. I got it as a gift 21 years ago today, actually. It’s hard to believe it’s been so long.

chrono+trigger-+trial

As the weather got colder that year, I was grateful to have something so engrossing to entertain me while I kept toasty inside. The snow fell early and hard, and I remember it coinciding with my arrival at Death Peak in the game. Death Peak is a large, snow-capped mountain with ravaging winds that you must traverse with the game’s supporting characters in your quest to revive Crono, the main character (or yourself, if he is an avatar for the player). The constantly falling snow whips in every direction, and the frequent gusts will blow you off the mountain if you don’t take cover behind a tree or outcropping. I’ve always had an active imagination, so I fully embraced this mini-game, mentally huffing and puffing as I made my way from frigid shelter to frigid shelter.

I first truly realized I was in love with the game as I trundled home from school the day after starting up Death Peak. In a coincidence cooked up by serendipity, there were two or three feet of fresh snow on the ground and gusty winds pelted my face with newly falling flakes. I took the city bus home at the time, so I had about a mile to walk to get to the stop. The sidewalks were unshoveled, so I decided to cut across the long, broad fields of a local high school. The wind bit my cheeks and my eyes welled with tears as I dragged my snow-crusted legs through the drifts. I remember feeling like I was on Death Peak. There were no trees to hide behind, but my imagination conjured up the swooshy wind sounds and the epic soundtrack as I squinted against the blinding storm. I wasn’t on my way to rescue anyone, only to return to the warm, dry shelter of my living room, where I could huddle under a blanket and return to my quest to save myself (as Crono) from death. It was all I could think about, and all that I wanted to do.

It’s a simple memory. There’s not much to it, really. But it lives on vividly in my mind, and I treasure it deeply. I’m playing Chrono Trigger again right now, actually, and the warm places in my heart are being rekindled all over again. I’m sure the snow will be falling again soon, in real life. Bring it on.

Finally, (Real) Virtual Reality

As we’re entering the time of year where lots of games are released, big and small, there is much to be excited about. I just received my copy of Paper Mario: Color Splash, which is definitely cause for celebration for this Paper Mario fan. The Dragon Quest VII remake was recently released, too, so I’m excited about picking that up. The Last Guardian is (finally) coming out in December, Friday the 13th: The Game should (hopefully) be out in the next month or so, Final Fantasy XV will soon be a reality, and Battlefield 1 seems worth checking out. There is one thing that I am easily the most excited about, though: PlayStation VR.

PlaystationVR

I’ve been following the new virtual reality movement since the Oculus Rift was a KickStarter, and I’ve read several of the previews of the different VR systems present at this year’s E3. While I’d love access to some of the more independent and experimental PC titles that will likely show up for the Oculus, I just don’t have the money for the headset and a new computer that could handle it. The PS VR is in my price range, though, and it seems capable enough. I’ve been skimming reviews and editorials about some of the VR units in recent months, and I almost get the sense that the technology is already being taken for granted. I get it. Due to the consumer interest in the Oculus when it was introduced as a concept, the market has quickly become crowded with competitors and could soon be flooded and confusing (if it isn’t already). For me, though, I find it hard to fathom this technology becoming old hat so soon. Why? Well, it all started in the early 1990s…

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90s VR Experience

Thanks to the increase in households with PCs and the rise of the Internet and web culture, technology was booming in the early-mid 90s. It’s no surprise, then, that the first wave of commercial virtual reality experience popped up then. I was just past ten years old at the time, and my love for video games meant I was ready to throw my time and money away on any VR experience that I could. Luckily for me, living in Chicago meant that I had easy access to what used to be the North Pier mall, which my family would visit pretty frequently. The mall had a BattleTech Station, which housed two sets of ‘virtual reality’ pods — one set for the game BattleTech, and the other set for a game called Red Planet. Both games used similar pods, which were made out of wood with a door that slid shut, leaving the player seated in darkness with a monitor, joystick, throttle, and a bunch of lights and buttons that were merely for effect.

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BattleTech Pod

While not the headset-oriented VR that we’re accustomed to, these pods provided an immersive gaming experience like no other that I can think of for their time. One round of either game was, if my memory serves me correctly, $8 for kids and $10 for adults, meaning that our family of five could usually only afford a round or two. BattleTech was, of course, the more popular of the two, but we only played it a few times. It was fun, but my family members struggled to control their giant mechs (a couple of which I owned in toy form because they were pretty damn cool looking).

batltech1

The game we heavily favored and had tons of fun playing together and with strangers (there were eight pods, so any stragglers would be placed with us) was Red Planet, a game where you raced spacecraft in mines on Mars and took your opponents out with your ship’s mining beams when the opportunity presented itself. I was pretty good at the game and excitedly collected the print-outs of our win/loss and kill/death results after each match. I chose the handle Predator because, well, I was really into the movies at the time. I probably still have a score sheet tucked away somewhere because I loved that game so much that I felt it necessary to squirrel them away for some reason.

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Red Planet

 

Not long after the BattleTech Station opened, another station opened nearby. I don’t recall the name, but they offered people the chance to play an early version of what might look more like today’s virtual reality experience. You wore a headset that displayed the digital world directly in front of your eyes (they must have projected them into your eye like the new sets, right?), and you held controllers in your hands as you stood on a raised platform circled by a guard rail.

VR Standing Station
More 90s VR

Okay, so maybe it was only slightly like today’s VR experience. I don’t remember what the game I played was called, but I remember that the world was made of rudimentary geometric shapes and had a checkered floor (a popular choice in many a PC game at the time, too). I started out on a platform and had to descend stairs to find my opponent (a stranger, as this was a two player game). We exchanged gunfire and were supposed to use the columns and walls for cover, but with the level being surrounded by moving clouds that stretched out into infinity, and slow character movement, it was all a bit disorienting. I remember feeling underwhelmed by it, especially given its $15 per-session price tag.

VR Standing

As disappointing as my first ‘real’ VR experience was, I still had high hopes that the technology and games would get better and cheaper. My dreams were (marginally, at best) answered when Nintendo came out with its Virtual Boy in 1995. I couldn’t convince my parents to buy me one, but I rented one from our local Blockbuster (phew, this blog is making me feel older with every reference) as soon as they were available, with plans on getting one for myself eventually (it would take five or so years). If you haven’t seen one, the Virtual Boy was a headset that sat on a stand instead of your, well, head, and it used a standard game-pad as a controller.

SONY DSC

Some reviewers complained about neck strain, having to lean down to play it, but I never experienced that (perhaps due to my young age and sturdy, youthful neck… or not). Another complaint was eye strain and headaches due to the fact that games were rendered only in red light. I never experienced those effects either, but again, I was young. I didn’t so much mind the red, and I was encouraged by Nintendo’s promise to introduce green and blue lights soon, increasing their graphical spectrum greatly (due to color mixing). The system sold poorly in both the U.S. and Japan, though, so Nintendo stopped supporting it far earlier than expected.

virtualboy

As excited as I was about the Virtual Boy, and as fun as I found games like Mario’s Tennis, the system still didn’t quite deliver the kind of virtual reality seen in movies like 1992’s The Lawnmower Man. Not even close. And with Nintendo’s failure to spark interest in the market, Sega’s cancellation of their own VR headset, and a rapid loss of consumer interest in the kinds of experiences I’d had with the standing VR set and the BattleTech Station, virtual reality died out almost as quickly as it had popped into the consumer consciousness.

But that was 20+ years ago. Gaming PCs and consoles can produce graphics not even conceivable by many of us back in the early 90s, and, from what I hear, the new VR headsets really do make you feel like you are in another world. So, despite some of the cynicism and trepidation surrounding PlayStation VR — at least from some corners of the gaming world — I am incredibly, irrevocably excited. I have been waiting for something like this for most of my life, quite literally. Maybe it won’t be perfect, and maybe the Holodeck is still a decade or two (or three) away, but that won’t stop me from strapping that headset on and fully appreciating just how far we’ve come.

Gaming and Grad School

The fall semester started for me a few weeks ago, and while I have plenty of feelings about it (for better or worse), I wanted to write a little about gaming and grad school, from my own personal experience and perspective.

Grad School

Well, it’s not grad school as much as it is just college, really. I was mostly lazy and disengaged as a high school student, but in college I became incredibly focused and determined to do everything I could to succeed. And at first, it was easy. I wasn’t working while I was getting my associate’s degree, so I was able to play games occasionally and still get my work done. I actually had a system where I would reward myself with game time, only allowing myself to play when I was done with a particular assignment. During the last two years of my undergrad coursework, though, that became impossible.

Well, impossible isn’t the right word, and that’s the reason I’m writing this. I’m sure there are people who have taken five courses in a semester and been able to continue their gaming habit, at least in part. I was not one of them. I wanted to do well in my classes, and the courses I was taking demanded a lot of reading, research, and writing. My life revolved around my work. I didn’t think of “free time” as free, so much as time I had to read or prepare for my next class.

And it paid off, I suppose. I graduated with a 3.9 GPA and I got into the only grad school I applied to. At that point, I hardly felt like a ‘gamer’ anymore. I hadn’t played games regularly in a couple of years, and when I spent time on my winter or summer breaks playing games it was mostly catching up with titles I’d missed out on or squeezing quick sessions in between doing ‘normal’ things, like road trips and running outdoors. It was at this point, one year into graduate school, that I realized that I was losing my favorite hobby. Or, I should say, I had lost it.

There was a notion that maybe it was ‘about time.’ That maybe this was part of growing up. I’d read about professionals that had eventually had to give up gaming because of work or demanding family lives. Maybe it was my turn to become the guy who “used to play games.” I knew, though, that much of this way of thinking comes from cultural norms and expectations, and I’ve always tried to be aware of and fight against societal pressure. It’s my life and I shouldn’t have to lead it to please other people. So I began to get angry. I’ve played video games since I was a small child, I have owned and obsessed over numerous consoles, I have kept regular gaming blogs, I have tattoos of video game characters on my body… so why should I have to give it all up because a portion of my peers think it’s juvenile or wasteful?

But it wasn’t just about peer pressure. Rarely have I heard anyone openly criticize my hobby to my face, or question its value. Like many cultural norms, that stuff bleeds through our cultural output, though. How do you make a middle-aged man look like a ‘man child’ in a movie? Have him play video games with his friends. I was in grad school, so shouldn’t I be doing more important things? Shouldn’t I be networking or working ahead or trying to get published?

And I think that is a large part of the anxiety that comes with wanting to keep up with a hobby like video games in grad school. It feels to me like I should always be making good use of my time, because there is always something to be done. Reading a novel for next week’s literature class. Translating poetry from Middle English. Reading two chapters and an academic journal article for this week’s linguistics class. Lesson planning. Answering student emails. Teaching. Grading. Proposing, outlining, researching, and writing three 20-30 page term papers almost every semester. Coming up with proposals for conferences. And how about social commitments? Family events? Time to exercise?

Doing anything for pleasure becomes a torturous self-interrogation. If I mention reading to friends, I have to clarify whether I’m “reading for school” or “reading for fun.” During the semester, how can I read a book for pleasure when I have more reading than I can keep up with for my classes? And when that extends to video games, it’s even worse. Somehow, reading a book for pleasure feels more productive and less like you’re cheating on your diet of homework and more homework.

So for my first year in grad school, I resigned to waiting for the breaks between semesters to play games. I would “catch up,” though that was a lie because I would only get through a small fraction of the games I’d been wanting to play. I stopped following gaming news, too, because why tempt myself with games I can’t play?

Somewhere between my first and second year of grad school, I found what I thought was a perfect solution: I would study video games. I was taking film courses for my English degree, and I realized that studying video games as a form of literature was virtually the same (or it could be). Of course the crux of many film-lit courses is the adaptation, and video games don’t have the same history of adapting literature into a new form, but many scholars seemed to have been actively moving film study away from its adaptation focus for decades, trying to fully embrace studying film as a storytelling medium on its own, not exclusively tied to written works. So, if we can do it with film, why can’t we do it with video games? I was determined to try.

So in my second year, I began studying ways to bring video games into the classroom, and was able to use that to work gaming into my work. Kind of. I incorporated Minecraft into the composition classes that I taught, so I was able to play at least a few hours of that each week. It was fun, I admit, but not the same as choosing a game I want to immerse myself in, like an RPG, and spending some time getting lost in a virtual world. It was fun but not necessarily relaxing.

And then I started my third year of grad school, my first year as a PhD candidate. I told myself I would do more to carve time out to play games during the school year. Not only were they an important part of my identity, they were also a source of joy and relaxation in what can feel an oppressive blanket of stress. I felt like I was procrastinating too long at doing things like homework or lesson planning, and if I could just focus more and work harder, I’d have more free time to play games.

If only it were that simple. That year, last year, was tough for me. I ran into a serious conflict with my school’s housing office (and then, in the same dispute, the bursar’s office), which made me not only angry and bitter toward the school itself, but also unappreciated and taken advantage of. Couple that with my first encounter with a spiteful and unprofessional professor, among the aforementioned grad school stressors, and video games again became something that was just not in the cards for me.

I played a lot of games over the summer, which was nice. I was finally able to play some of the games I’d had my eye on during the school year. And I am again determined to fit games somewhere into my life while teaching and furthering my studies, but who knows how long it will last. I’ve been playing on weekends and some weeknights, but even now, before the semester really picks up speed, I feel guilty and somehow judged by a faceless audience. I can imagine their thoughts. “How can he afford to waste his time like that? Doesn’t he have better things to do? Doesn’t he want to be successful, like his peers? They probably get all of their work done before doing stuff like that.” Or I feel like they might think I’m being juvenile and selfish for even wanting to enjoy a hobby while going to grad school. It’s supposed to be tough, right? Why can’t I just wait until I’m done and graduated before getting back into gaming?

Maybe I should just wait, and maybe I am making a bigger deal out of this than it deserves, I don’t know. I just know that life is better with video games, and especially with video gaming free of anxiety phantoms hovering over me, making me feel guilt and shame for doing something that I get enjoyment out of. I don’t have a concrete solution, and I know all of the advice I might get (make a time budget, give myself one whole day a week to play games, reward study time with game time, etc.). I just wanted to write about it, since it’s always on my mind and will probably affect the frequency with which I update this blog. Maybe I’ll write up something more cohesive and less rambling later, when I’ve figured something out. Until then, I have some guilt-ridden No Man’s Sky to get back to.

 

Adventure Awaits

My copy of No Man’s Sky will be delivered to my doorstep in less than a week, and I am finally allowing myself to get excited. I’ve been looking forward to it for many months now, but when I feel the tendrils of hype planting themselves too deeply over something, I tend to pull back and avoid all or most news/discussion of whatever it is that has me excited. I want to avoid spoilers, of course, but it’s also about keeping my expectations in check. In the past, the more I allowed myself to dive completely into coverage of some anticipated thing, the more likely I was to get burned by disappointment. Even if something was only slightly less good than I’d expected, I felt massively let down. So, to save myself from that possibility, I’ve learned to avoid, avoid, avoid.

No Man's Sky

I think the release of this game is close enough to allow myself to start getting worked up again, though. And I’m starting by copying an idea that my good friend Tabitha came up with over at agamerssoul.com. She’s set up an “Explorer’s Log” where she is going to document her adventures in No Man’s Sky, as we’ve talked about doing since our earliest days of discussing the game. I’ve done the same on my own site. but I decided to call it “Captain’s Blog,” after the classic Star Trek phrase. I’m still trying to decide how to handle it, since apparently Wix only allows for one blog on each site, but when I figure out I’ll post a little introduction entry explaining my approach to the game and stuff.

 

War Never Changes

I just finished reading Blake J. Harris’s Console Wars, about Sega’s war with Nintendo for dominance in the home console market during the Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis era, and my mind is tingling with nostalgia.

Mario and Sonic

Like many videogame-loving kids during that time period, my parents were only willing to buy me one console (and only after months of pleading and a hefty price drop). Having been a proud owner of an NES, the choice for me was clear, especially because, as the book points out, Sega didn’t really start offering much to entice players to switch allegiance until the Sonic games came around. So I was team Nintendo all the way, a willing participant (or consumer pawn) in this ‘war.’

There were times when my loyalty wavered just a bit, though, and the Mortal Kombat blood debacle was one of them. I was used to playing the arcade version of the game at a corner store near my house, and the idea of a watered-down, blood-free version did not sit well with ten year old Joey. I also remember gazing longingly at the screenshots of the Genesis version of Jurassic Park and wishing my SNES version looked as gorgeous.

Genesis

Jurassic Park Gen

SNES

Jurassic Park SNES

There’s something to be said for the SNES version of Jurassic Park combining third person overhead segments and first person interior segments, especially given that the latter made good use of the SNES’s Mode 7 capabilities. But when you’re eleven years old and in love with the superb special effects of the Jurassic Park movie, you want your digital dinos to look as close to the ‘real thing’ as possible, and Genesis delivered in that department.

Aside from spurring a stroll down memory lane, the book prompted me to reflect on my experience as an observer of an ever-changing home console scene. In the late 70s (not that I was alive yet), Atari was huge. Untouchable. Until they weren’t (and they really, really weren’t). Nintendo owned 95% of the home console market during the NES’s reign in the mid-late 80s, and they too seemed invincible, until they weren’t. I would argue that they ‘won’ the SNES vs Genesis war, but not before losing a huge portion of the market to Sega. It seemed unimaginable that the generation after that would be anything but Sega vs Nintendo: Round 2 (well, Round 3, technically), but Sony changed everything with the introduction of the first PlayStation. The Sega Saturn was not very powerful and didn’t have much support in the software department, so it basically came down to Nintendo’s N64 and the PlayStation. The likely victor seemed obvious at the time. The N64 was (arguably) twice as powerful, produced 3D worlds that really felt expansive, had an innovative controller that introduced sensitive joysticks and rumble, launched at $100 less than the PlayStation had, and Nintendo’s first party games remained among the best on the market.

But they lost. It’s a fact we take for granted now, but it bordered on unbelievable at the time. It wasn’t Sega that slayed Nintendo, it was Sony who knocked them both down to size. Sony, who (as the book describes in some detail) had been on the verge of handing their original PlayStation design over to Nintendo and, later, Sega, before dumb corporate politics got in the way. But how? Well, Sega had a lot to do with it. Nintendo had an iron grip on the industry in the 80s and placed strict restrictions on how many games developers could release, and then monitored the quality of these games closely (which saved the market from collapsing in a heap of crap, as it had done in the 70s). To convince those same developers to make games for their Genesis, Sega promised far less restrictive control. While it didn’t help them outright win their war with Nintendo, it did change how business was done in the market and freed developers to seek more than one place to publish their games. While Nintendo failed to learn from this, continuing with expensive (but tightly controlled) cartridge manufacturing, closely monitoring third party output, etc., Sony capitalized on it and made their console easy and cheap to develop for, welcoming companies to produce games more freely than Nintendo had. This quantity over quality approach eventually resulted in a glut of poorly made, ugly, or buggy games, but PlayStation owners enjoyed the freedom of a vast library of games which Nintendo just did not have. And of course there was marketing and the perception that the PlayStation was for adults and the N64 for kids, and plenty of other of factors that contributed to the outcome. But Sony won in a big way.

They won in an even bigger way with the PS2, leaving Nintendo’s GameCube and Microsoft’s newly-christened Xbox to fight for second place. But in a huge upset the following generation, the Xbox 360 dominated against the PS3, and Nintendo’s Wii outsold both of them quite handily. In the current generation, it’s all mixed up again. Nintendo’s Wii U is a distant echo, and the PS4 is once again Sony’s claim to home console dominance.

I probably didn’t need to regurgitate all of that, but it’s, in part, what’s been running through my head lately. It’s been hard to determine which console or company will be the victor of any particular generation’s ‘war.’ But what really struck me is this: going all the way back to the NES versus the Sega Master System, consoles seemed to offer something noticeably different than their competition. SNES games looked different than Genesis games. You’d never mistake an N64 game for a PlayStation game. GameCube games were distinct from Xbox games. With the Xbox 360 and PS3, the lines began to blur, and now it seems as if having a home console that boasts any kind of obvious technological advantage is increasingly unlikely. The Wii changed the landscape a lot, forcing Sony and Microsoft to invest in exploring motion control and other avenues of expanding gameplay beyond the controller. So is this generation going to be defined by PlayStation’s virtual reality and Microsoft’s augmented reality? What about next generation?

Microsoft’s openness to cross-platform play with the PS4 was shocking, but could it be indicative of something more? Research and development of console hardware is incredibly costly, but game publishing is lucrative. Could Microsoft plan on moving strictly to Windows gaming in the future, developing and publishing games for the PS4 on the side? I know that people say similar things every generation (Nintendo has been on the verge of giving up the hardware game for 20 years, according to these people), but it’s becoming increasingly hard to not only imagine how consoles from two companies will define themselves in relation to one another, but how they will differ from a moderately priced PC. Those distinctions were easy to make in the past, but other than peripherals or interface or services, I have a hard time believing the next Xbox and PS will be very different at all, in terms of hardware. And if I were looking at having to invest hundreds of millions of dollars to keep up in that race, only to potentially ‘lose’ another round, I might think about other, less risky avenues to stay in the market.

This is all amatuer speculation, of course, and this generation still has plenty of potential surprises in store, I’m sure. But it’s fun to think about this stuff. And you never know what will happen. You might not have ever convinced 12 year old Joey that he would one day buy Sonic Adventure 2 for a Nintendo console, or buy an issue of Nintendo Power with Sonic on the cover, or play a Nintendo fighting game with Sonic as a playable character, or own a Sonic figure with a Nintendo copyright stamped on the bottom. But here we are. What a time to be alive.

Nintendo Power Sonic

 

Farewell, Xbox (Petty Squabbles with a Giant)

This has the distinct possibility of running away with me, but I really will do my best to keep it short. Ish. Short-ish, because there’s a lot to tell.

XBox-Live-Support

Essentially, I bought a song bundle for Rock Band 2 in 2009 and was unable to download it on my Xbox One to play it in my newly purchased Rock Band 4. I am, according to all available sources, supposed to be able to access all previously purchased downloadable content for the game as long as it’s on the same family of consoles (which it is, with both being Xbox). All of the other songs I’d purchased on the 360 downloaded just fine but this specific bundle did not, so I figured there must be some kind of problem with the content or my account.

After speaking with three online chat representatives, one phone rep, a series of Xbox Twitter support reps, two Xbox Support Forum reps, and the game’s publisher (Harmonix, via email), their ultimate conclusion is that I must be lying (or humbly mistaken). I’ll break it down:

Chat rep 1 (Reyan E., July 5): He had me check my Microsoft account purchase history via web browser, but when I revealed that it only went back to purchases made after 2013, he asked me to check the same information through my 360. I didn’t have access to it so I told him I’d check it later in the day and contact them back.

Chat rep 2 (Leo, July 5): I informed him that my 360 purchase history shows the same information that my browser-accessed account does: it lists them as “recent” purchases and only goes back to 2013. He told me that I should contact Harmonix because “all the songs are coming form the Harmonix servers and we do not have a direct access to it.”

So I emailed Harmonix support (July 5) and explained the situation. They responded with: “Unfortunately if Microsoft can not confirm the Export Licences have been previously purchased on your account, under the same GamerTag which you are using for Rock Band 4, then there is nothing further we can do. Harmonix has no way to reference any personal information stored in your first-party account, as this information is handled exclusively by Microsoft.”

Chat rep 3 (Jake G., July 6): After again asking me to check my purchase history in a few different ways and confirming that I can’t see it (or other DLC I purchased around the same time), he instructed me to delete my profile on my Xbox One, reset my console, and reboot my router and modem before reloading my profile and attempting to download the material again. “I can assure you that everything will work fine,” he said. I expressed doubt because if it was indeed a DNS issue then I wouldn’t have been able to download the other songs: “It seems weird that I would be able to download the other songs and not this set, but I’m willing to try anything at this point,” I said. But he assured me, “I’m very positive that this process will resolve the issue that we have today,” and added “I will also make sure to send you follow-ups through email moving forward.”

Side quest: rebooting my router caused it to experience a hardware failure, so it was completely unusable. It was still under warranty, so I was able to get a replacement sent to me by the manufacturer, but I had to wait for it to arrive before trying the last step of Jake’s fix. The router arrived July 11th and I tried loading my profile and accessing the content on my Xbox One the next day. It didn’t work. At this point I was getting frustrated at having to constantly provide the same information and being given solutions that didn’t work, and having to replace my router in the middle of it didn’t help. I was feeling betrayed and disappointed, but I wanted new songs for Rock Band 4 so I (perhaps foolishly, in hindsight) bought $60 worth of new downloadable songs for it. We’ll come back to that later. After a busy few days of doing other things, I got around to calling Xbox Support, hoping that speaking to someone might yield better results.

Phone rep (MJ, July 19): It was around a 45 minute call, during which he asked me to check my purchase history again, checked it on his end, and consulted an “escalation team.” They concluded it was a backwards compatibility issue.  I calmly disagreed, because it has been available for purchase on the Xbox One since October 2015, thus people have been able to download it and play it on both systems since then. He insisted that it must be the issue and said that their engineers would be working to fix it. Less calmly (especially because I began the conversation politely and meekly saying that I was becoming frustrated by this whole ordeal) I disagreed, because I was able to download and play other songs that I had accessed on the 360 just fine, and if it were an issue with compatibility I would not be able to access any of the songs. He again insisted that it was an issue of compatibility, at which point I became enraged. I didn’t curse or yell, but I took a few breaths before explaining that I was staring at the content in the Xbox Live store on my Xbox One as we spoke, and it was available for purchase, and if I purchased it right now I would be able to play it like other people have been doing since October of 2015, and that if it were a compatibility issue that would not be the case. He took a few breaths of his own before again saying it was a compatibility issue, so I asked him if there was someone I could speak to elevate this or complain to that it wasn’t being resolved. He told me I could go to the Xbox Support Forums to complain.

When I hung up with him my hands were literally shaking with anger. I am not a confrontational person, especially because many times I question myself and wonder if I might be in the wrong, but in this case I was certain that I was right, so being repeatedly asked to provide proof (that seemingly doesn’t exist) or given fixes that just waste my time and don’t work, I felt defeated and powerless. I was being denied any actual solutions and I couldn’t do anything about it, aside from posting about it on Facebook to my meager 275 friends. After the call, the same day, I tweeted:

The Xbox Support Twitter team responded with “@Losperman We’d be happy to help, though we could use more info. Could you please follow & DM @Xboxsupport with your Gamertag? ^EZ”

They directed me to yet another site where I could check what content I had previously purchased using my Xbox 360 and asked me to send them pictures of what I saw. I showed them these:

…along with a screenshot of the last item shown on my Microsoft “recent purchases” page, which was in 2013. The first picture above shows “All” of my Xbox 360 purchases, which you’ll note is completely empty. The second picture shows what appears when I click on the “Full Games” category. This does indeed show games that I bought on the 360 going back to the very first game I purchased. So already it seems like there’s an issue with their record keeping. If I look at “All Items” (first picture), the games that show up when I look at “Full Games” should be there, but they’re not. Likewise, when I click on other categories like “Avatars,” “Game Demos,” and “Gamer Pic,” items that I purchased dating back to when I first got my 360 show up. There is one category that shows nothing, though, and that’s picture 3, “Game Addon,” aka DLC. I purchased quite a lot of DLC with my Xbox 360, including all of the Rock Band songs that I was successfully able to access on my Xbox One. Some of the DLC that fails to appear on that site shows up on Microsoft’s billing site, which I’d sent them a screenshot of. So there is direct evidence of their record keeping being sketchy. The Microsoft billing site shows that I bought some Rock Band songs after 2013 and I can access them on my Xbox One, but this site shows that I never purchased any DLC on my 360, for Rock Band or otherwise.

They suggested that I might have bought it under another account. I explained that I only have one account, and I used Microsoft Points to make the purchase, which are tied directly to my account.

They replied with: “Since the items that you are looking to download did not show up on that list it would be best to contact our phone/chat team for more support.”

Yes. They referred me to the team who led me to tweet my frustration in the first place.

In the end, they concluded: “We can definitely take down all the info you’ve provided to make sure we are keeping an eye out for any other possible solutions, we just did not want to promise anything we couldn’t follow through on.”

This response was probably the apex of my already exceedingly breached anger and anxiety. After speaking to three chat reps, a phone rep, and four Twitter reps (direct messages were signed with initials), their response was that they would “keep an eye out for any other possible solutions.” There is a possible solution that they can enact. They can give me a code for the DLC that I purchased. But they would only do that if they believed that I’d actually purchased it at some point. If they believe I’m lying and trying to get $18 worth of DLC from them for free, they would keep asking me to find proof, despite their own web sites proving inconsistent in being able to help me do that. So I tweeted:

A rep DMed me after that, saying “Definitely not implying you are lying or anything, truly hope you don’t feel that way.” But how can I not? If they believed I was telling the truth and I had actually purchased the content and just wasn’t able to access it on my Xbox One, they would give me access to it by crediting my account with it or providing me with a code that would allow me to download it. I’m not asking for anything more. If I get pickles on my Big Mac, despite asking otherwise, I don’t ever bring it back, and if I do I don’t demand for them to throw in a free order of fries because they messed up. I don’t like being ‘that guy.’ I hate being the source of someone’s annoyance or embarrassment. But if I didn’t get a Big Mac that I ordered, I would ask for it. I would expect it to be provided for me if I paid for it. If I was told they would “keep an eye out for it,” I’d be pretty upset. And I am.

At the beginning of this series of DMs on Twitter, I posted a thread at the Xbox Support Community, where the phone rep suggested I go to complain (http://forums.xbox.com/xbox_support/xbox_one_support/f/5574/t/2187543.aspx?pi7962=1). I explained the situation and detailed my grief, ending my post with “I apologize for the lengthy post, but as I said, I am incredibly frustrated with how this has been handled and I’m not sure where I can go to vent, since it doesn’t seem like my issue is going to be resolved.” After a community member tried to offer help, a staff member actually responded and after the other reps had repeatedly danced around directly claiming that I did not own the content, she said it outright: “Unfortunately, if you are unable to locate Peal Jam’s Ten DLC in your purchase history that would indicate that you may not own said content.”

She suggested, like one of the Twitter reps, that it might have been purchased under another account on the same console. I explained that it almost certainly wasn’t, due to the reasons I’ve already stated, and pointed out that there is plenty of content that I bought prior to 2013 (when my recent purchase history ends, according to their records) that I can access fine, so the logic that the content not being on that list means that I don’t own it doesn’t hold water.

A different staff member responded and asked me, again, for the maybe twelfth or fourteenth or twentieth time, to check my purchase history. If it was there, he said, I would have to go to Harmonix’s support forum and ask for help. If it wasn’t there it “would indicate your Xbox Live account may not own the appropriate license.”

If you’ve read this far, or even skimmed, I hope that you can understand how maddening it might be to have that be their final resolution. If my official Microsoft purchase history, which only shows me purchases made in and after 2013, doesn’t show me something that I bought in 2009, then I must not own it. With that logic, I don’t own the games and DLC that I purchased prior to 2013 and have already transferred to my Xbox One.

The insinuation is pretty clear: I’m either an idiot who somehow mistakenly bought DLC for myself under another person’s account (that I don’t have access to), or I’m lying about having ever purchased the content and am just trying to get them to give it to me for free or perhaps trying to get them to just give me the funds to buy it again. Either way, I want to do some math really quick.

I own an Xbox, an Xbox 360, and an Xbox One. I bought them fairly close to their release windows. The original Xbox was $300. The 360 Elite was $479, but I got it on sale for around $350. The Xbox One bundle I got was $400. Total spent on consoles: $1,050.

Not counting controllers that came with the systems, I own two Xbox controllers, four Xbox 360 controllers, and one Xbox One controller. In each case the controllers were around $50, but I might have gotten a couple of them on sale (though controller sales are much more rare than game sales), so I will put them at $45 each. Total spent on controllers: $315.

I have 19 Xbox games, but I am pretty sure I bought four of them used. I won’t count those, because the money I paid probably didn’t go to Microsoft. So I have 15 games, and they were $50 brand new at the time. I probably got some on sale, so let’s just say $40 each. That’s $600. I own 89 Xbox 360 games, which is not surprising when you consider that it was one of my favorite consoles of all time. By that point I very rarely bought used games because I became tired of GameStop and its tactics, and I liked the idea of supporting game developers. And I discovered Amazon.com. I do remember buying one of them from a pawn shop, but I’ll play it safe and say I got four used. That’s 85 games, brand new. Games were $60 at this point, but I got a lot of them on sale. So let’s say $45 on average. That’s $3,825. I bought some collector’s editions on day one, though (the Batman: Arkham games, Gears of War 3, all BioWare games), and some of them were $100 or more. Let’s play it safe and say I bought eight CE games, and I paid an extra $30 each for them. That’s an additional $240. In total, that’s $4,065. I own five Xbox One games. I paid full price for all but one of them, which I got on sale for $35. So that’s $275. I bought the full band kit for Rock Band and Rock Band 4. In both cases I paid the same, actually: $170. If I subtract the estimated $45 for each game, that’s $250. In total, I’ve spent around $5,190 on games across three platforms.

Downloadable content is much harder to guess. I’ve bought a few avatar accessories, wallpapers, downloadable games like Uno, the Penny Arcade games, and Pac-Man: Championship Edition. I’ve bought a lot of Rock Band songs. A lot. Aside from the Pearl Jam songs that started this whole thing, I’ve bought more than an album’s worth of Foo Fighters songs, No Doubt’s Tragic Kingdom album and additional song pack, song packs from Nine Inch Nails, Smashing Pumpkins, David Bowie, Queen, and more. And, of course, there’s the $60 that I mentioned earlier, just a few days ago. In all, I’d say $500 is a very conservative figure. But I want to be fair, so I’ll go with that.

And let’s not forget Xbox Live membership. I don’t recall jumping on board with the original Xbox, but I got a Gold account right after getting my 360 and have been an active member since with virtually no gaps. So that’s $50 a year since 2007, or $500.

Consoles: $1,050

Controllers: $315

Games: $5,190

Downloadable content: $500

Xbox Live: $500

Total: $7,555.

This is not including tax, and not including other Microsoft products, like operating systems, Office, PC games, etc. On Xbox products I’ve spent $7,555. At least. So for Xbox Support to consistently act like I must be mistaken in having purchased this or, worse, like I’m lying and trying to get free downloadable content, is repulsive. That might be a strong word, but I choose it decidedly. I can’t explain why their system of record keeping does not allow me to see purchases I’ve made before 2013. Neither can they, as they have offered no explanation for that. So it comes down to my memory and the logic surrounding why I would have been the one to purchase the material, and them claiming that I must surely be mistaken if I can’t currently access it.

Their fix, you’ll remember, is not a fix at all. It’s that they’ll “keep an eye out for any other possible solutions.” Like the rep who promised two weeks ago that he would follow up with me and has failed to do so, I doubt I’ll hear back from them.

These last few days have been rough. The anger and helplessness that I feel distract me even when I’m not actively thinking about it. I’ve spent hours chatting, emailing, talking, messaging, and posting about this and I have nothing to show for it. I’ve been fighting for $18 after having spent over 400 times that amount on Xbox products. These are hours I’ll never get back. For what?

For what, indeed. Part of what’s been making this such a trying time is the questions that tangle throughout my brain at all times of day. Why is this a big deal? Is it even worth it? Would other people fight over something so small? Are you being petty? Is this trivial? Are your friends judging you for this? Maybe you should just drop it.

But I can’t. Sure, it’s only $18. But Microsoft makes a lot of money from people like me, and when we buy things from them we enter into an agreement. I give them money, they give me something in return. In this case, I gave them $18 for access to digital material across platforms. I’m not getting that, and my time is being wasted every time I am told to check my purchase history again and again, and never given an explanation for why my purchase history is incomplete on their end. As I said previously, I was never expecting a “we’re sorry, here’s a gift card that will cover the content and then some.” I didn’t want a handout, I just wanted what I paid for. I still don’t want any extras. At this point I don’t even know if I want the damn content that I was fighting for. After spending years supporting a company with my money, time, and public opinion, it’s physically painful to be treated like this. I feel sick when I think about it too much. I get headaches. I’m not being dramatic. I’m not a hypochondriac.  It’s just what life has been these last few days.

In my response to their message in which they said they’ll “keep an eye out for any other possible solutions,” I told them that I won’t support their products until I get a resolution. I have been a gamer since my earliest memories, and I have almost every home console ever released. I may have had favorites, but my allegiance has always been to myself and my desire to experience it all. I don’t see why I should support a company that doesn’t support me. I was planning on buying another $50 worth of Rock Band DLC this week but I’ve been holding off. I think I’ll pass. And I’ll pass on new Xbox One games, and Xbox Live, and HoloLens, and their next console. They can keep their $18 if they truly feel it’s worth it.

This Magic Moment

When I was writing my top 20 list for this site, I was constantly wavering between games that I thought were objectively great and games that I had a special, personal experience with. I struggle with that every time I make a list or share my favorite video game/movie/book with people, and I’ve been thinking about it a lot as I make my way through Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate.

Syndicate

So far, Syndicate is as good as I’ve come to expect from an Assassin’s Creed game. The graphics and dedication to environmental detail is superb, the controls are fluid and intuitive, and the combat feels like a well-choreographed dance (when I get in the groove, anyway). With two years and as many AC games between it and Black Flag, it should be a better game. It is, arguably. The graphics are a bit better, the interface is slightly improved, there are some new features. It’s not hitting me as hard as Black Flag, though. I can play Syndicate for a couple of hours and be satisfied with putting the controller down. With Black Flag, I didn’t want to stop playing. Like, ever. I would play for hours, convincing myself I needed to sleep and maybe shower before jumping right back to my swashbuckling adventures. I thought about playing it when I wasn’t playing it. I dreamed about it. I was legitimately sad when I approached 100% completion.

So what is it that’s so different? Black Flag does have the advantage when it comes to setting. As gorgeously rendered as Syndicate’s Victorian London is, it’s, well, Victorian London. Dim, dirty, and drearily urban. Black Flag had some urban areas, but it was the vast, bright, sparkling Caribbean seas and islands that I most vividly remember. I could do all of the same building hopping and street stalking I can do in Syndicate, but then I could hop on my very own pirate ship and sail into the eye of a vicious tropical storm.

AC Black Flag

But can setting really impact my experience with a game that much? It could also have been when I played Black Flag, which was the winter break just after buying my PS4 at launch. So it was an exciting time, because I had time to devote to games and Black Flag was one of my first of the new generation of consoles. Sometimes I can feel pressure to rush through as many games as I can during the breaks between semesters, but I only had a few PS4 games so I gave myself plenty of time to dedicate to playing them. How much does this ‘right place, right time’ factor affect my reception of games? A lot, I would venture to guess. When I reflect on games that I’ve had a strong reaction to (Dragon Quest VIIIFallout 3Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic), I remember the actual act of playing them in addition to the games themselves. The time surrounding their playing seems special in some way. There was a sense of freedom and excitement, despite what my life was like surrounding the game. If I had played any of them, or Black Flag, at a different time, with different expectations/priorities/distractions, would I have become as invested? It seems impossible to know, but the logical part of my brain says that I probably wouldn’t have been ‘pulled in’ or immersed as deeply in some situations. I probably would have liked them, sure, but if I hadn’t had hours to spend playing Dragon Quest VIII while I was on leave, or Fallout 3 when I was job hunting, or Black Flag when I was on break, I probably would not have become as obsessed and overwhelmed by the worlds they presented me with.

Much of this is pointless, I understand that. Who really cares what makes a game a favorite? But it’s interesting to think about, and I do so pretty often, especially as I age and talk with younger gamers about experiences they might not be able to fully appreciate (the transition from 2D to 3D games, for instance). Someone could play Mario Kart 64 and Mario Kart: Double Dash back to back and make the obvious judgement that Double Dash is a better game. It’s a much smoother experience, thanks to improved frame rate, the graphics are much improved, there is more diversity in the gameplay, etc. And I would agree with them. Double Dash is a better game. But there is too much magic surrounding the time I spent with Mario Kart 64 for it to be that simple. I liked Mario Kart 64 more in the moment. If I hadn’t played it when it came out and played it just before I tried Double Dash, I’m sure I would had a completely different opinion of it.

Mario Kart 64

I don’t have a point that I’m working toward here, I’m just sort of talking (or, uh, typing) to myself. The question that often spawns these types of thoughts for me is “what is your favorite game of all time?” Will any game ever unseat my current favorite, Chrono Trigger? I have played better games, probably. I will play better games. But time and nostalgia and that nameless sense of timeless magic will likely prevent me from ever ‘liking’ a game more.

 

The Little Things

I’m not quite as old as dirt, but sometimes it feels like it. In my thirty or so years of playing games, I’ve built up a cache of experiences that I draw from every time I play a new game. It’s not a conscious or purposeful thing. I don’t play games to snidely compare them to others like them. It just happens. Sometimes it’s inescapable comparisons of ‘big’ things, like gameplay, mission structure, or premise (think Grand Theft Auto and Saints Row, or BioWare and Bethesda games).

Sometimes, though, it’s the little things, and these are the things that catch me off guard and make me think about how far games have come in terms of graphics, design, and narrative. Given the casual, personal nature of this site, I want to write about some of these moments as they happen. I don’t feel like they warrant much attention, but as the whippersnappers say, ‘I do what I want.’ So this will be the first in a series of such observations and commentary.

Having said that, I’ve been playing a lot of Dying Light lately, and I’m enjoying it pretty thoroughly. I’m a fan of Dead Island, though, and this is basically Dead Mainland, so it’s no wonder I took to it so easily. Early in the game I was running around, bashing zombies repeatedly in the head with underpowered melee weapons in the bleak urban setting, when I decided to cut across one of the few grassy areas on the map. As much as the game is designed to encourage constant movement, I had to pause at the top of the hill to admire the grass and other plants.

Dying Light Field
Dying Light – Field

I don’t know if Dying Light has the most beautiful digital greenage ever, but it’s pretty dang pretty. There is a diversity in terms of size, color, and type, and the placement makes it feel like it’s fairly realistically wild, with clumps and gaps placed where it seems they should be. A static image like this does it little justice, though, as the movement of the plants as they sway adds a lot to their realism. It’s oddly calming to behold, despite leaving you utterly vulnerable to the zombies ambling around you.

After admiring the lively field for a few moments, I moved on, but my mind kept working it over. One of my first thoughts was how, as beautiful as it was, it was still far from where it would need to be to exist as a realistic simulation in terms of an immersive virtual experience. I’m hoping that the new wave of virtual reality ‘experiences’ takes off and ushers in a new era of gaming (and general entertainment), but how long will it be before I can bend over and handle a single blade of grass, pulling and tearing it realistically, zooming in to observe individual cells? How long before leaves bounce and twist according to actual laws of physics and the variable wind patterns instead of pre-programmed swaying motions? When will I be able to pluck an apple from a tree, extract the seeds and plant them in fertile soil to grow a new tree that looks different than the last, all in a virtual world where this isn’t some core piece of gameplay? To create a truly realistic virtual reality, it’s these kinds of details that would have to be addressed. But that seems so far away, right?

At this point I was back to hacking at zombie faces in the game, but the thread of thought continued. How far we’ve come. My first memory of an open field in a 3D game was my first steps on Ocarina of Time‘s Hyrule Field.

Ocarina of Time Hyrule Field
Ocarina of Time – Hyrule Field

Stepping out into this field felt magical at the time. A real world in three dimensions. Grass, trees, mountains over the horizon. When compared to recent games, of course, it’s bland and bare, closer to the wastelands of a Fallout game than a lush and realistic field. The ‘grass’ is blurry dabs of color stretched over a flat canvas, and trees are likewise flat images pasted together to give the appearance of branches and leaves.

Hey, I’m not griping. At the time this was breathtaking, and some of gaming’s top designers worked on this. But we really have come a long way in terms of not only graphical capability, but artistic cohesion when it comes to piecing graphical elements together to make a realistic world for players to traverse. If we’ve come this far in twenty years, what will another twenty do? Maybe, just maybe, I’ll live to see a virtual world where I can pull those individual blades of grass or plants those apple seeds that I got from crushing a newly plucked apple from a tree. That would be pretty neat.