Backlog: What the Hell is This? Edition

Original image courtesy James Gregory Walsh

Original image courtesy James Gregory Walsh

Some of you may recall my "complaint" about the icy weather in Portland last November. Those were the halcyon days, when my first-world problems amounted to a half day of ice. Had I been forewarned of February's massive snow storm (massive for Portland anyway), a quasi-blizzard unseen in Oregon since 2008, I would have shut my mouth pleaded mother nature for her benevolence.

So, yeah: It's snowing here in Portland, and as I type this introduction I'm watching flurries bring over four inches of powder to my front door.

Nick, Doug and Tyler chime-in with their notable gaming experiences this past week. If you're in the Portland area I suggest you snuggle under an 89% pure virgin wool blanket, pour a cup of imported organic mate, spin a Bon Iver record and read the gaming adventures of three strapping gentlemen. -- Aaron Thayer

Nick

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First, some bittersweet news: Today was my last day at Nintendo of America. There’s not much of a story to tell here; I simply put in my notice a couple of weeks ago once I determined my career aspirations were leading me in a different direction. It was a brief, strange trip, but I’m glad I gave it a shot. I learned a good deal about the games industry and about myself in the few months I spent in Redmond, so I feel I’m parting ways on a positive note. I’m excited to be able to share more about what’s next in the very near future, but for now: videogames.

I was lucky enough to grab a copy of the collector’s edition of Bravely Default on Wednesday. Creepily skimpy outfits and teeth-grindingly maudlin voice acting aside, there’s a really engaging game here. I’m most impressed with the surprisingly progressive design that underlies every bit of this game, whether it’s the clever use of StreetPass to rebuild the town of Norende (and, in essence, to unlock better items from the traveling merchant) or the amount of control the player has over the battle system. Being able to speed up combat by 400% makes grinding a rapid-fire joy instead of a chore; by the same token, it’s wonderful to be able to turn off enemy encounters altogether when you find yourself stranded in a dungeon with low HP. So yeah, I’m digging it. I hope it keeps delivering.

At the other end of the Square Enix quality spectrum is Final Fantasy IV: The Complete Collection, the PSP re-release of Final Fantasy IV bundled with its WiiWare sequel, The After Years and some new piece of narrative glue that’s being billed as an “Interlude.” I picked it up for my Vita during the Final Fantasy sale on PSN, and after a few hours with it I feel pretty confident in making this declaration:

Final Fantasy IV is a shitty game.

That was kind of jarring for me. The first RPG I ever played was Final Fantasy IV, and it quickly became my go-to rental on my Super NES. (Remember renting games in the 16-bit era? I loved loading other people’s save files and messing around with them.) Final Fantasy was seemingly imbued with something intangible and wonderful, something to offer that virtually nothing else had: a story. It was a watershed moment for seven-year-old Nick along with countless other children of the SNES generation.

Twenty years later, it’s clear that FFIV is a game of severe limitations, painful linearity and brain-dead combat.

Sure, a ton has changed in the past 23 years of game design, but its contemporaries -- let’s take the open-ended, combat-focused Final Fantasy V and the highly linear and narrative-focused Final Fantasy VI -- still stand up as engrossing and highly playable games.

But to a seven-year-old who’s never played an RPG, Final Fantasy IV hinted at the possibilities that laid dormant within the gaming medium. It offered a tantalizing glimpse of the complexities afforded by computer-driven entertainment, and -- again, we’re talking about a kid here -- it proved that it was possible to establish an emotional connection with the player.

I’ll always look back fondly on my time with Final Fantasy IV, but some memories are best left in the past.

And since this is the Internet and I love stirring the pot, here’s your new, definitive list of the best-to-worst entries in the single-player Final Fantasy series: VI, V, VIII, XII, X, VII, IX, I, III, IV, XIII, II. You’re welcome.

Doug

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To begin this new year right, I need to finish off last year’s remaining scraps. I set myself the goal of completing one of the single-player games I have, and after spinning a big wheel, the winner wound up being Grand Theft Auto V. Over the last few weekends I have spent a ton of time going through missions and heists, and I think I’m in the home stretch. A cursory glance at the stats screen would confirm that. It’s been interesting, and really technically well done, but it never quite hit the highs of other Rockstar games from this generation. The story isn’t as engaging as Red Dead Redemption’s, and the world and openness doesn't provide the impact that Grand Theft Auto IV did. I’m really enjoying the time, but it’s becoming clear that leaving this game off of our Game of the Year list in December was not a mistake.

I had an amazing bit of experiential gameplay and storytelling in my playthrough of Formula 1 2013 recently. To recap: I started playing the career mode in the fall using the Scuderia Toro Rosso-Ferrari machine, with dreams of jumping to Red Bull Racing in future seasons. I got about halfway through the season before putting the game on the back burner, but while my experience was fun, my results were mixed. I’m currently sitting tenth (out of 22 drivers) in the points standings, which is amazing considering how bad the Toro Rosso wound up being. Even though Formula 1 cars are by and large all the fastest racing machines on the planet, there is a difference when going up against a race full of them. The STR wound up being an absolute pig, difficult to drive and hard on its tires. I kept driving well through the first half of the season, but the results were spotty and I was beginning to get frustrated. Qualifying would go well, but I’d slip back through the field. Speed was there, but it was hard to show it.

Then, before the Belgian Grand Prix, my character got an in-game email with a contract offer. Sauber wanted me to join their team as the new second driver. Oh, cool! In previous F1 games those emails come early from the lower teams, but I’d still have time to impress a better team for next year. It’s a nice backup deal just in case I couldn’t get a better offe...

I read the email again. “You have to respond quickly because they want you to join the team immediately.” Wait. Immediately? Immediately. They wanted me to switch teams mid-season. It’s become rare in contemporary F1 but has happened, though I’d never seen it in one of Codemasters’ F1 games. I was pretty surprised by this revelation! So I took the contract and jumped ship.

The difference between the two cars is night and day. While the Sauber is hardly the fastest in the game (by my estimation it’s fifth), it's only behind the four biggest teams (Red Bull, Ferrari, Lotus, and Mercedes). And I’d be joining the team at one of my favorite tracks, Spa-Francorchamps, for the Belgian Grand Prix? Awesome. I didn’t qualify terribly well thanks to mixed weather, but I jumped through the pack in the first laps of the race. Even better, I wasn’t destroying my tires to do so. Tire wear is incredibly important in F1 2013, and the Toro Rosso was particularly hard on tires, while the Sauber is quite easy on them. I found myself coming into the pits to change tires earlier than scheduled in the Toro Rosso, but right on time with the Sauber. I jumped up to second before the first pit stop, started reeling in the leading Red Bull, and for the first time in F1 2013 took the lead of a race.

I wound up winning the race, and it was a heart-pounding, nerve-jarring effort. In F1 2010 and F1 2011 I won a lot of races, but this was definitely hard-earned -- and contrasts with the previous struggles I had in the previous team. The end of the season in F1 2013 includes tracks I enjoy and am fast at, so I hope to see more success and line up a move to an even better team for the second season. It feels good to have hope once more.

In other news, I made the decision to get WWE 2K14 finally so expect something about that soon!

Tyler

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Remaking games can be a tricky thing. The lack of linearity and evolution of technology means that legacy titles sometimes don’t age as well as other media do. Sure, the 16-bit era had Super Mario World and Sonic the Hedgehog, but it also had Earthworm Jim and Aero the Acro-Bat. Castle of Illusion Starring Mickey Mouse (yes, that is the full title) lies somewhere in the middle of that spectrum.

Originally well-received on the Sega Genesis (Mega Drive to you non-Americans), the remake's visuals are handled well enough that it’s easy to forget it’s a twenty-three year-old game. However, Mickey brought back some vestiges of the past best left forgotten. Level design obscures secrets rather than encouraging exploration; hit-boxes are unclear and lead to frustrating death, and the floaty controls make platform traversal difficult to judge. All are minor problems in their own right, but together they weaken a package that is somewhat reliant on nostalgia.

This may come across as a backhanded compliment, but Castle of Illusions’ short length is an asset more than a hindrance. The game can be completed in an afternoon, with extra time spent finding all the collectible trinkets. While it lacks the ambition of other recent platformers, DCoIsMM is a worthwhile trip down memory lane. Unfortunately it’s the last from Sega Studios Australia as the developer closed last April. Sega will need to find another team if they want to remake World of Illusion starring Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck and take the prize for longest title of the year.