Final Fantasy VII: Remake

I cannot believe this game was worth the wait. The original Final Fantasy VII is one of my all-time favorite video games. It felt like a game that was mine even though it’s one of the most popular video games ever released on the original PlayStation, which itself is one of the most popular consoles of all-time. It’s not a niche title. But I followed its development in gaming magazines, and because my PlayStation belonged to me and not my brother (unlike our Super Nintendo, which we had to share), Final Fantasy VII felt like my game. I got lost in its story and characters and gameplay and I’ve played it through multiple times and purchased it on multiple consoles.

There were rumblings of a remake since the early 2000s when Final Fantasy VII was used as demo fodder, and over the years Square-Enix has kept the property alive with sequels and spinoffs like Advent Children, Dirge of Cerberus, and Crisis Core. But what the fans really wanted was Final Fantasy VII: Remake–a game that would give them the Final Fantasy VII story they loved but with the polish of modern graphics since FF7 was rendered with blocky, cartoonish character models due to the technical limitations of the programming. Final Fantasy VII: Remake was officially announced in 2015 and it was finally released on April 10, 2020. Or, should I say, the first episode was released, since Square-Enix decided the game would be too massive to release in a single installment.

Now that I’ve beaten it, I’m kind of in awe of what Square-Enix and the developers accomplished. Without spoiling anything, Final Fantasy VII: Remake walks the line between a trip down memory lane and a completely new experience. It’s a “remake” in the sense typically reserved for movies–they took the original story and used it as a launching point for a new adaptation. This isn’t just a remaster or polished graphics. This is artistically a new and daring thing. Even the things that comically don’t work (looking at you, Barret’s character and dialogue) still kind of work and are part of that original Final Fantasy VII charm. Throughout my time playing Final Fantasy VII: Remake, I kept wondering: okay, when is this going to fall off the rails? When’s the inevitable disappointment? Instead, I was intrigued every step of the way.

Is it a “perfect” game? That’s hard to say. I’ll put it this way: I really have no interest in trying to conquer it on the harder difficulties (I beat it on Easy because I wanted to enjoy it for the story) because that’s not the kind of video game I enjoy. I don’t like working to become good at video games. And if I can’t beat the game on hard, I’ll never collect all the trophies, so do I really want to go back and just do more combat stuff? The combat is solid for what it is; I’m very impressed at how they mixed action-RPG fighting with menu-based combat. But do I really want more of that? How many Final Fantasy VII: Remake trophies do I want to get when I know that hard would be a serious uphill climb? And yet part of me is tempted to do it! I had so much fun with this game that I’m a little hungry for more and the only things that are kind of pushing me away are 1) If the hard difficulty makes the game not that fun; 2) Thinking about all the other games in my backlog. So that’s kind of what I’m toying with right now, but based on my first play-through, I loved Final Fantasy VII: Remake. It can’t replace the special place I have for the original, but it surpassed my highest expectations.

Wednesday, April 22nd, 2020 videogames No Comments

Super Mario Bros. 2

I figured I could squeeze in one more game before Final Fantasy VII Remake came out, and I was right! Granted, I made liberal use of the Nintendo Switch’s rewind feature, but whatever. I’ve beat the game normally before and I was seeing if it passed the nostalgia test. It did not. While Super Mario Bros. and Super Mario Bros. 3 are still amazing games, Super Mario Bros. 2 (a remake of the Japanese game Doki Doki Panic for the West when Japan and Nintendo of America decided that the real Super Mario Bros. 2 would be too difficult to American gamers) is kind of a chore. Its central gameplay feature of picking things up and more verticality in the level design doesn’t make the game feel more fun, or, more importantly, more like Mario. Mario is about power ups and in later iterations, collecting with assorted platform challenges. Super Mario Bros. 2 isn’t the worst, but it’s a game I really have no interest in ever revisiting even though the music and graphics are fun.

Thursday, April 9th, 2020 videogames No Comments

Super Metroid

I thought replaying this would be a nice way to kill time in the lead-up to the release of Final Fantasy VII Remake, and well, it’s still six days to go until Final Fantasy VII Remake. As for Super Metroid, it wasn’t as fun as I remembered it, but I think I had been a bit spoiled by Samus Returns, which allows you teleport around the map rather than requiring so much backtracking. I still like the sense of exploration Super Metroid provides, and I think it’s particularly good-looking 16-bit era game, but I’m not sure if I had as much playing it as I’d hoped. The controls, at least on the Switch controls, could be a bit finicky, and the amount of back-tracking made the game feel artificially longer. Obviously, it’s a Super Nintendo classic for a reason, but it was my mistake to play a game like Samus Returns directly before playing a game that preceded it by a good 23 years.

Saturday, April 4th, 2020 videogames No Comments

Metroid: Samus Returns

I finally got around to playing Metroid: Samus Returns (despite having bought it when it was released in 2017), and for the most part, it’s exactly what I want from a Metroid game. I like the exploration and gaining new abilities that then unlock new areas and make Samus more powerful. The Metroid formula works, and while I have no idea why Nintendo treats one of their marquee titles like an afterthought (my working theory is that unlike Mario and Zelda, Metroid wasn’t created by Shigeru Miyamoto), but the franchise formula works whether it’s in 2D or 3D. Metroid is also a great title for the 3DS since you can always have your map screen ready to go and it doesn’t take up space on your gameplay screen.

The one part of the game I really don’t like are the boss fights. There are various qualms I have with the game overall–the different areas aren’t visually distinctive; the enemy types are repetitive, the mini-bosses get to be kind of tedious–but none of them are as bad as the boss fights. Near the end, you’ve got three really tough boss battles, and some people live for those kinds of challenges. Those are people who play Dark Souls and Bloodborne and I am not among them. I do not want a game to punish me. I do not want to work to get really good at a video game. I want the video game to make me feel empowered rather than banging my head against a wall as I struggle to succeed. I managed to fell all three bosses, but not before I finally had to resort to a strategy guide to figure out how exactly they needed to be defeated.

The boss battles didn’t ruin the game for me, but they did make it a bit more tedious and take me away from the parts I enjoyed the most. All that being said, Metroid is one of the best franchises Nintendo has ever made and it’s insane that we’re still waiting on Metroid Prime 4.

Friday, March 20th, 2020 videogames No Comments

Batman: The Telltale Series – The Enemy Within

I didn’t expect two of the best Batman stories in recent memory to come from Telltale, but here we are. From a gameplay perspective, The Enemy Within feels like a step back. They ditch the detective stuff and narrow the canvas to put Bruce Wayne/Batman in the crosshairs of Amanda Waller. But where The Enemy Within makes a genius turn is what they do with Joker.

For some, the game’s approach to Joker may seem like sacrilege. Joker is traditionally (or at least since the era of Frank Miller, Alan Moore, and beating Robin to death) the chaotic arch-nemesis to Batman’s quest for order. Telltale turns this story on its head in plenty of ways. For starters, it makes Harley Quinn the dominant member of the relationship, which is fascinating in its own right. Then it has “John Doe” (aka Joker) eager to be Batman/Bruce’s friend. Basically, they attempt the tricky balancing act of making Joker as sympathetic as possible while still making him dangerous, and it works! You really feel for John and think that you might be able to save him.

Batman typically doesn’t have that kind of emotional investment in a villain before. It’s usually reserved for Harvey Dent, but leaning into the similarities between Joker and Batman to show them not as polar opposites but, to use the game’s phrase, part of the “same stitch” makes for a fascinating relationship that really goes in a fresh direction. The recent iterations of Joker in popular culture–Heath Ledger and Joaquin Phoenix (no one cares about Jared Leto’s take)–have been about how Joker is a reflection on the world or society, respectively. By leaning into Joker’s relationship with Batman and making The Enemy Within a kind of origin story, the writers came up with something exciting and new.

While I don’t think they quite stick the landing on the Joker/Batman story, they do find it with the Bruce/Alfred relationship and doing what some of the best Batman stories do: questioning the character. While I’m not surprised that I was in the minority in the choices I made at the end, I think it was some smart writing to really test what’s important to Bruce: his family or being Batman. Some stories seek to reconcile the two, but I liked how The Enemy Within showed it as a fracture.

If you’re tired with the same old Batman stories, I highly recommend checking out what Telltale did with the character.

Wednesday, March 18th, 2020 videogames No Comments

Batman: The Telltale Series

I’m awfully mixed on Telltale games. On the one hand, it feels like other game developers should steal their schtick and give more dialogue and player choice in story-driven games (to the credit of BioWare folks, Mass Effect was doing this before Telltale came on the scene). On the other hand, I’ve had mixed feelings about the games I’ve played from them. The Walking Dead: Season 1 was very well done, but suffered from being in the nihilistic universe of The Walking Dead. Game of Thrones, like the show, started out strong before being pretty awful by the end. And while people raved about Tales from the Borderlands, I couldn’t even bring myself to finish it. But since Batman: The Telltale Series was a free Xbox Gold download, I decided to finally give it a shot, and I’m glad I did.

Once you set aside the poor production values of these games (for all the artistry in the character models and gameplay, the graphics are glitchy as hell; this game came out in 2016 and since that time no one thought to patch it so that textures aren’t blurry or that the smoke from Gordon’s cigarettes looks right), the storytelling conceit of letting your dialogue options and actions guide the story works because Telltale forces you into difficult conundrums. It was incredibly smart to make the biggest conflict of a Batman story not external, but internal–what you do as Bruce Wayne matters just as much (if not more so) than what you do as Batman.

I also really like the big narrative swings this game makes. I won’t spoil anything, but Telltale was willing to throw out a lot of canon and predictable beats to really force Bruce/Batman into some difficult positions. This is trickier than their other games where they’re creating a character from scratch. A Batman fan knows how Batman is supposed to behave, but Telltale managed to work that into their thinking so that you’re not simply going “What Would Batman Do” (WWBD) with every choice. You have to decide what kind of Batman you’re going to be: the symbol that inspires hope or the symbol that inspires fear. It makes for a great storytelling device and helps separate this Telltale take from the Batman comics, movies, TV shows, and previous video games.

I’m now very excited to fire up Batman: The Enemy Within and I’ll be sure to let you know how that goes.

Tuesday, March 3rd, 2020 videogames No Comments

LEGO Harry Potter Collection

So here’s the thing about LEGO video games: they’re all the same. Traveler’s Tales slaps a different licensing coat of paint on, maybe adds one unique gameplay element, and that’s it. I can’t imagine buying every iteration of the games they make. But that all being said, these games can be very relaxing in that they’re not very demanding. They’re very cute (especially the ones before they added voice acting so the characters just make faces and noises), silly, and comforting.

For the past few weeks, I’ve been playing LEGO Harry Potter Collection on Xbox One, and it was exactly what I wanted. There were loads of collectibles to pick up (I’m a 100% addict as long as no skill is involved in getting to 100%; I’ll find your collectibles all damn day if it doesn’t mean I have to complete a time trial or make some show of dexterity), I was going through the Harry Potter story that I enjoy, and it was just a good way to unwind. It’s not a game to make me mad or where I’m competing with other people. There’s no rush to get through it. I simply pick it up, play some levels, find the collectibles, and complete the achievements.

I’ve now got a little over a month before Final Fantasy VII Remake hits, so I can probably squeeze in one more game before then. It’s just a matter of deciding which one because the backlog is out of control.

Monday, February 24th, 2020 videogames No Comments

Disney Classic Games: Aladdin and The Lion King

It’s fascinating to play these games as an adult and also with the benefit of a rewind button. If I can take you back to the early 90s when these games were released, the way games had longevity was through difficult. When arcade games were difficult, it was a financial transaction. You pump in quarters to keep playing. But when home console games were difficult, it’s so that parents wouldn’t feel ripped off while game developers inflicted sadistic gameplay on kids. If you were a tenacious child, then coming home after school every day to see if you could get past the “Cave of Wonders” or “I Can’t Wait to Be King” was how games worked. You would get destroyed again and again with only a limited numbers of lives and continues and checkpoints. The underlying message for kids (if these games have a message): be perfect or die.

Playing them as an adult, it speaks volumes that even with a rewind button to speed things along, these games are still punishingly difficult. Some if it is because of poor design like weak object detection (like getting hit when you weren’t touched by an enemy) or platforming that doesn’t reach the gold standard set by the Mario games. But ultimately, with Aladdin and The Lion King, you have two pretty typical games of the era: they were tie-ins, they were brutally difficult, and, credit where it’s due, they’re beautifully animated for their era. Carrying that Disney license ensured that the games didn’t look bad even if their gameplay felt designed to upset and anger children.

That’s the weirdest thing about the way these games play. As an adult, I would never want my kid to play a game like this. It’s fine for me with the nostalgia and the rewind button and all that. But there’s really nothing rewarding happening here. Sure, the Mario games have their level of difficulty, but what’s always made the Mario games stand apart is that they feel, on some level, fair. Even as a kid, you know that if you missed the jump or got struck by an enemy, it was kind of on you. And especially once you reach Super Mario Bros. 3 or Super Mario World, the games offer ways to be more forgiving without completely nerfing the experience.

Aladdin and especially The Lion King really hate the player. They almost feel like a cruel joke played on every child who loved the movies and then gets introduced to some of the most punishing levels the designers were able to concoct. And again, I get the business decision: Parents are the ones paying for these games and a game that can be beaten in a weekend makes for unhappy parents. But look at the puzzling element added to The Lion King and tell me that’s a game for a child. I’m a grown-ass man and I was repeatedly checking YouTube to figure out how to advance (I had less of a problem with that on Aladdin, although the boss fights still gave me trouble).

The Disney Classic Games collection is a funny little nostalgia box that really leans hard into “nostalgia” because any realistic recollection of these games has to acknowledge their unforgiving difficulty. With the rewind button frequently in use (although it can cause the game to glitch something awful by basically losing control of your character), the games are manageable, but they’d probably only be considered “fun” by masochists.

Sunday, January 12th, 2020 videogames No Comments

Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night

Talk about starting the gaming year off with a disappointment. I got stuck on an early boss, switched over to Zelda, and then came back to this one and still got whomped. I read strategy guides and I read about difficulty, and this just the kind of game I don’t like playing. I was hoping for a return to Castlevania: Symphony of the Night with some better graphics, but it oddly has less charm than the PlayStation classic and feels more cumbersome. It always feels like I’m playing off-brand SOTN even though it’s from the same creator.

I guess I could really grind it out on this boss battle and see if the game eases up, but how much time do I have to invest to beat this one guy? Also, it’s not like I’m getting any closer to beating him. He knocks me out pretty quickly, and part of the appeal of these Metroidvania games is that they unfold with exploration. I’ve now hit a wall and rather than dump more time trying to make the best of Bloodstained, I’m moving on to something else. Bummer.

Friday, January 10th, 2020 videogames No Comments

The Legend of Zelda

I did not have a Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) growing up. The first console we ever got in my house was a Super Nintendo, which we loved very much (thanks, Mom!). But that didn’t stop me from playing NES games over at friends’ houses. However, one game I never really got to play was The Legend of Zelda, which makes sense. While the Super Mario Bros. games allow for multiple players or you can switch off lives and levels, Zelda is a big, expansive game of trial-and-error. It’s a game the begs you to get lost in it, to dig out some graph paper, and to record the location of every secret treasure. It’s a game that demands you get together with your friends who are also playing it and figure out the location of the secret rooms and how to get into various dungeons. Before social networking became a thing, the social element of Zelda was essential (it was either that or pick up a strategy guide).

As a kid, I can imagine that playing The Legend of Zelda was a blast, but I am now an adult. The game is part of the NES Classics lineup on Nintendo Switch, so I decided to finally play through it. However, since my free time is more finite and all my friends aren’t playing a game from 1986, I decided to take a couple shortcuts. First up, I happily used an online strategy guide to help direct me in making my way around Hyrule. Second, and what I’m sure others will declare as blasphemous, I made use of the rewind feature when enemies started raining a beatdown on me. I regret nothing. I wanted to play the game, but I also realized that there was no way in 2019 for me to play it as originally intended unless I forsook other responsibilities like “spending time with my wife” and “my job.”

And having beaten the game (or at least the first quest; I don’t really see the point of completing the second quest), it’s no surprise why the game is a classic. I actually felt a little sad that I didn’t get to play this game when it came out because I can easily see getting lost in making maps and talking about how to beat dungeons with friends. That’s the communal aspect of video games that’s kind of lost right now and has kind of wandered over to “solving” TV shows like Lost and Westworld. Now the community of video games is who can you beat and how badly you can beat them rather than a small group of young friends coming together to get to the end of a quest. As an adult, I’m no longer the target audience for a 34-year-old video game, if that game has any large audience at all. But I’m grateful for the experience of having played it, shortcuts and all.

Wednesday, January 8th, 2020 videogames No Comments