There were a ton of cool games that came out in 2017. I wasn’t anywhere close to playing everything that I wanted to play. Around November of last year, I sat down and wrote a list of games from the year that I wanted to complete or at least try, and Hollow Knight ended up getting the priority because I thought I could knock it out quickly. My expectation turned out to be totally wrong. Hollow Knight ended up being an epic experience that drove me deep into unraveling its secrets. It’s one of the best games that I’ve played in a long time, so much so that it actually took me a few months before I decided I was satisfied enough to move on.
Hollow Knight is the story of the fallen, subterranean kingdom of Hallownest, whose citizenry was composed of a wide range of sentient arthropods, principally a beetle-like race that are simply called bugs, but also spiders, mantises, moths, and maggots. In the distant past, Hallownest was a utopic nation that was beset by a strange infection that drove many of its inhabitants into violent insanity. Life has seemingly continued on at the fringe of the once great civilization, but the infection continues to slowly spread into this periphery. Upon this desolation enters the quiet, wandering Knight, who is drawn to the surface city of Dirtmouth, which serves as the entrance to Hallownest. From there, the player journeys as the Knight down into the kingdom’s ruins to discover and thwart the source of the infection.
Hollow Knight joins the huge pile of games that take their inspiration from Metroid’s large contiguous side-scrolling worlds. In the past few years, there’s been so many games coming out that use the Metroid formula that you would think Hollow Knight would have a hard time standing out, but I think its been fairly popular. Part of the reason for that is that its other big inspiration is Dark Souls. Mostly this is seen in how it takes place in a world built on the ruins of a once great civilization that fell to decay and madness and relates the ancient history of this culture through purposefully cryptic means. Fortunately, while the games that influenced Hollow Knight are clear, I found that this game managed to create its own identity and introduced enough of its own ideas that it didn’t feel like a cheap attempt to recapture the nostalgia of its inspirations.
For the most part, Hollow Knight is a fairly straightforward hack and slash game. Most of the game’s challenge comes from studying the enemies and bosses and then building a strategy around their strengths and weaknesses, very similar to how you would approach a Dark Souls game. It has an ethos that I describe as the best offense is a good defense. You must learn and understand enemy attack patterns so that you can identify when you have an open window to attack safely. If you attack carelessly, you will get utterly steamrolled.
While the Knight’s moves are fairly standard (slash left, slash right, dodge, charge attack, etc.), there were two aspects of his abilities that I particularly liked. The first was the way healing works. The Knight heals by casting a spell that must be charged first. He is immobile while charging the spell, and if he takes damage, the spell gets interrupted. This adds an additional layer of strategic depth to the game, since its important to understand when and where its ok to heal. The player needs to understand the enemy attack patterns well enough to know when they have an opportunity to safely heal and where to position themselves so they’re unlikely to get hit. The other thing that I really enjoyed is that the Knight can slash downwards while in the middle of a jump. This can be used to attack enemies beneath the jump, and the Knight gets a little bounce when he does this. Bouncing from enemy to enemy like this is a lot of fun, and the air time can be used to evade certain complicated attacks. Sometimes, it also allows the Knight to reach some hard to get to places that hold secrets. I love games like Duck Tales and Shovel Knight that have bouncy pogo moves like this.
The world of Hallownest was fun and interesting to explore and is dense with secrets to uncover. The exploration aspect of the game is probably what resonated with me most about Hollow Knight. Each area of the map feels visually distinctive and presents challenges and enemies that mostly feel very unique. Around the same time I was playing Hollow Knight, I was also playing Metroid: Samus Returns on the 3DS. While I kinda like that game, I have to say that everything in it just sort of blurs together. The levels and bosses I’ve played feel rather same-y and don’t leave much of a distinctive impression.
Meanwhile, I can easily recall most of Hallownest, because Hollow Knight does such a good job of creating a varied world with unique places to explore. My favorite area is Deepnest, the dark and deeply terrifying caves on the border of the kingdom that are overrun with a race of hostile spiders. Second would probably be the mysterious Ancient Basin, where the secrets of Hallownest’s godlike ruler can be discovered. I also have to mention that the White Palace has my favorite music track in the game, a somber melody that conveys the weight of the tragedy that struck the kingdom, and the area is also intensely and satisfyingly challenging.
Hollow Knight has a few different endings, but essentially there are just two. It has a few “normal” endings that are quite similar, and then a secret “true” ending that requires a great deal more effort and secret hunting to unlock. I went into Hollow Knight knowing this, but I expected that I would only bother to get the normal ending. As it turned out, I was so enamored by the game that I committed myself to unlocking the secret true ending. This was a bit fortunate as there is a significant amount of content in the game that you would only see if you went out of your way to get this ending. I’m talking about huge areas that you would never find if you only followed the path that the main story directs you through. But I have to be honest, I had to consult a guide to figure out the requirements to reveal the secret ending. There really is not a whole lot of explicit hints in the game that would give you strong suggestions as to how to unlock it. It took me roughly 30 hours to complete the game, but if I hadn’t used a guide, I could easily see it taking double that time to find the items needed to see the complete finale.
That said, it was totally worth it. Not only are the secret areas really great parts of the game, but I found the “normal” ending to be a bit anticlimactic. I felt it didn’t really do justice to the epic quest that preceded it. The secret ending, on the other hand, has a new final boss fight that takes place after the original final boss. I felt that the secret final boss was way more exciting and formidable and easily a major highlight of the game for me. In addition to revealing the true final boss, I just felt that the secret ending gave a bit better closure to the story. The normal ending would have felt rather abrupt and confusing without the extra context of the lore found in the secret areas. I really wish that they would have made the normal ending a little more worthwhile, seeing as that’s the only ending most players are likely to see.
Hollow Knight was a game that I was excited to play due to the strong word of mouth I had heard. There’s lots of popular games that I’m pumped to try, but sometimes I end up being let down by my high expectations for them. Often when this happens, I question whether gaming is still something I’m passionate about. But sometimes a game totally surpasses any expectations I had and reinforces the affection I have for gaming as a hobby. Hollow Knight is definitely that type of game. I had started out hoping to complete it quickly, but realized that I couldn’t do anything less than master it.
The year 1998 was a great time with a huge number of seminal games seeing release, such as Half-Life, Ocarina of Time, Resident Evil 2, and Metal Gear Solid. Of course, this means that a lot of classic hits will see their 20th Anniversary in 2018, a realization that dawned on me when Epic announced that Unreal Gold was going free on both GOG and Steam to commemorate its May 22, 1998 launch date. I had a blast with Unreal back in the day. I still have my original CD, but I was super excited to snag the download version for free. For those who are old time fans of the game or if you’re just curious about this highly influential PC classic, LGR did an excellent Unreal retrospective on Youtube that I think is well worth a view.
Before Unreal’s release, Quake II was basically the king of PC gaming, and Epic Games fully intended Unreal to be a “Quake Killer”. And they weren’t just making empty smack talk, either. Unreal ended up being an amazing game for its time. The graphics were well beyond anything that had come before, as enshrined by this now infamous magazine cover:
That might look laughable today, but in the late 90s, the visual splendor of Unreal completely warranted this kind of hype. And it used those graphics to create an alien world that had a level of atmosphere and immersion that was clearly raising the bar for video game settings.
Unfortunately, I feel like Unreal’s challenge to the computer gaming throne was really very short lived. Just a few months later, Half-Life came onto the scene, and while it’s graphics engine didn’t quite have the bells and whistles of Unreal, it quickly became the biggest game to play for a variety of other reasons. Honestly, I feel Unreal, as a game, has always been an overlooked masterpiece. It spawned the Unreal Tournament spin-off series, which was massively popular around the turn of the century, and the Unreal Engine, which has powered a ton of games over the years. But people hardly ever talk about the game that started both of these things, even though its stands well on its own.
Unreal is currently free on GOG and Steam for, I think, the next day. I will warn anyone who is interested that you can run into problems playing on modern PCs. Personally, I can’t boot it up using the software renderer, I have to use Direct3D instead. This was a bit odd to me considering that other old Unreal Engine games always crash in Direct3D mode on my machine, necessitating the use of the software renderer. When I run into issues with old PC games, I always seek help from the PCGamingWiki. Their Unreal page has a good list of mods and fixes that go a long way to getting this game running up to snuff.
Last week there was a major trending topic on Twitter called GameStruck4, where users would post the 4 games that defined them the most. I thought this was pretty cool, but I don’t really use Twitter, so I decided instead to blog about it here.
A few years ago, I compiled a list of the 30 games that were most valuable to me. It’s currently available on the About page, if you care to take a look. Naturally, I used this list as a starting point to figure out what these four should be but narrowing it down to just 4 games was quite difficult. This was of course the reason that the original list contained such a large number of games, instead of, say, being a top 5 or a top 10 list. In the end, though, I’m fairly happy with the four I selected. I think they are a good representation of what has lead me to make gaming a significant hobby of mine.
Super Mario Bros. 3
This is probably the game on the list that is most obvious and obligatory. This is really the game that started it all for me, as it cemented that gaming would be a lifelong interest of mine. I believe I started gaming on the old NES around the age of 4, and even as a young child, it had a big impact on me. I think this game resonated with me so much because the vast and inventive world of Super Mario Bros. 3 was very successful at stoking the fires of my young imagination. Crude as the game may seem today, it was incredibly immersive to me at the time. It offered an entire fantasy world to explore, filled with tons of creative levels and enemies and some amazing secrets. The ability to explore strange and interesting worlds is one of the key things that has attracted me to games ever since.
Final Fantasy VII
When Final Fantasy VII came out, it was a huge game that swept up a ton of people, myself included. This was the first RPG that I ever played, and it drove me to become interested in story-driven games. For me, Final Fantasy VII was a “right time” kind of situation, and I’ve written before about why I think that game resonated with an audience of a certain age. While my interest in gaming may have its roots in Mario, FFVII is a big factor in why I continued to stay interested in gaming as I got older.
While Super Mario Bros. 3 made me interested in immersion and exploration and Final Fantasy VII made me interested in story, Deus Ex managed to offer all of these things. If you’re not familiar with Deus Ex, your first impression might be that it is a straightforward first-person shooter of the type that was super common on the PC in the late 90s/early 00s. The reality is that Deus Ex is really more of an RPG, placing a heavy emphasis on story, non-linear exploration, dialogue with NPCs, and side quests. While action games of the time like Quake and Unreal were about moving through a level and shooting at everything that moves, Deus Ex took the RPG approach of allowing players to tackle objectives through means other than violence.
I loved exploring the world of Deus Ex, and the game became an obsession of mine for a good while. But on a more personal level, it led me to become interested in the field of nanotechnology (a primary topic of the game’s story), which then led me to interests in materials science, biotechnology, and eventually surface science, fields which have formed the foundation of my career. With that in mind, Deus Ex may be the game which has had the biggest impact on my life. The profound realization that a video game has had a such a major influence on me gives me goosebumps.
Also, the main menu music is pretty kickass.
Final Fantasy X
I had some reservations about putting this game on the list. For one, I was concerned in selecting two games from the same series. But also, I was concerned by giving such high merit to two games that aren’t even my favorite of the Final Fantasy series. But after thinking about the criteria of the list (the games that best define you), Final Fantasy X was a clear choice due to one specific event that it created in my life.
I have a sister that is over a decade younger than me, and because I moved away and went off to college when she was very young, I’ve often been afraid that we haven’t connected as well as siblings should. But one summer when I was home from school, I started to play Final Fantasy X (this was my second playthrough of the game). She happened to catch me playing the intro and became enamored with the story and characters. We ended up spending the next few weeks playing through the entire game together. Really, I was the one playing, while she watched on and talked about it with me. I don’t think she was ever really into story-driven games, but she got really into the world and characters of Final Fantasy X. It eventually became one of my best memories of spending time with her.
Final Fantasy X, as well as the rest of these games, led to an epiphany I had about gaming as I grew older. Gaming, like any hobby, isn’t purely just a form of idle recreation and escapism. Our hobbies, whether they be gaming, blogging, sports, music writing, whatever, are tools we use to explore ourselves as human beings. They aren’t just a means of staving off boredom in an age when humans have too much free time. They enlighten us about ourselves, help us forge new connections with others, and create new memories, both shared and deeply personal, that advance us as people.
There was a time I believed I would someday grow out of gaming. That hasn’t happened yet, but maybe it will eventually. For the most part, I don’t really regret the time I’ve spent on games, for the reasons I’ve shared above. I think back to playing Super Mario Bros. for the first time and how amazing it seemed, and then I think about what games are like today and how much they’ve grown and changed. It’s really been incredible to be able to watch this evolution. I hope everyone else can feel the same way I do.
When going through my archives, I noticed this old post about Donkey Kong Land had been mysteriously deleted and was no longer available on the site. I actually really liked that post, so I’m restoring it from my Google Docs backup. I’m being lazy and assuming the backup is the final draft without any proofreading, so I’m hoping there aren’t any embarrassing typos or errors.
Long before Rare revived the Donkey Kong character with their watershed, Silicon Graphics-infused Donkey Kong Country, Game Boy actually got a pretty rockin’ renewal of the classic arcade game in the form of 1994’s Donkey Kong. DK94 (as its commonly distinguished today) was an amazing game that stood out among platformers at the time with a fairly unique focus on puzzle platforming in creatively condensed level designs. Despite being a legendary DK title today, at the time, it was quickly overshadowed by the SNES release of Donkey Kong Country which appeared later that year. DKC’s impact on the gaming landscape was immense, and the the series it spawned went a long way toward keeping the Super Nintendo not just relevant but dominant until preparations were finished for the N64’s release. Rare would churn out two infamous SNES sequels in the same number of years, but perhaps less known is the series of similarly annualized Game Boy Donkey Kong Land games which have faded into obscurity behind the DKC trilogy, as well as the beloved DK94. Fortunately for gamers though, both the SNES DKCs and Game Boy DKLs have recently made a return via Virtual Console for Wii U and 3DS.
The big hook of Donkey Kong Country is, of course, the use of CG pre-rendered 3D sprites and environments that were widely regarded as “tubular” in the dialect that dominated the mid-1990’s. In an age when real time polygonal graphics were still very crude, the pre-rendered graphics of DKC were colorful, detailed, and well-realized and were made all the more incredible by being available on the Super Nintendo machines that had been available for years. Rare was a company that was well-known for its technical wizardry and revitalizing gamer’s admiration for the capabilities of the SNES hardware simply wasn’t enough for them, and, consequently, 1995’s Donkey Kong Land, a monochrome Game Boy game sporting the same pre-rendered 3D graphics as its console parallel, was concocted.
Donkey Kong Land is contradictorily both one of the most impressively designed and most poorly thought out games to come out during the long lifespan of the portable platform. Rare largely succeeded in bringing its impressive pre-rendered graphics to the handheld, but it came at a huge cost. The simple truth is that the tiny, dimly lit, monochrome, low-res, heavily motion blur-afflicted LCD screen of the system complimented the intricately-detailed DKC-style exceptionally poorly. The level of detail is such that it’s just hard to tell what’s happening on screen sometimes. This may not be as apparent on the 3DS VC releases, as the 3DS features a far brighter and crisper screen than the old brick, but the complex grayscale shading of the pre-rendered graphics just makes everything sort of blur together in many scenes. This is easily the most commonly cited criticism I’ve heard against the game.
When I originally played this game around the time of its release, I was definitely amazed by the graphics, but there was something off about them that I couldn’t quite put my finger on until the underwater sections in the second world. I think those underwater levels are actually some of the hardest to follow because of the busy visual design, and they were also the point I finally realized that the graphics were just too elaborate to display clearly on the primitive Game Boy LCD. Back then, my young brain couldn’t immediately comprehend how something could be a technological leap but also a hindrance. Today, I feel like so many people are cynical toward advances in video game technology, insisting that we’ve hit a point of diminishing returns, but back in the ‘90s we were exhilarated by the rapidly advancing state of hardware. Sometimes, it was hard for us to grasp that there would be missteps along the way of progress, and more technically sophisticated graphics weren’t always better by default. I think Donkey Kong Land first provided that realization for me.
While I agree that the graphics were a hindrance, I don’t want to give the impression that they completely ruin the game. When first playing it, I remember I eventually adapted my eyes to focus such that I could keep up with the action more easily. Actually, I think the game has some far bigger problems than graphics. The game has an incongruous difficulty level for the platform that I think is its real flaw. The platforming in this game requires very tight maneuvers which can at times be unfairly arduous, since due to the size of the Game Boy screen, you can’t see very far ahead of the character. You don’t really want to be running because its easy to bump into an enemy you haven’t seen yet, but many of the jumps require you to be at the elevated speed to successfully land. To exacerbate the issue, the collision detection is often unpredictable. Often times, you’ll feel as if you’re about to land a jump but slip through the edge of the platform, or you’ll get struck down by an enemy you could’ve swore you landed on top of. I think this kind of graceless platforming design is a far bigger issue for the game. Also, to top it all off, the save system really does not compliment the portable experience very well. In DKL, the save screen is only accessed after collecting all four Kong coins in a level. Collecting the coins is fairly easy in the early goings, but in the later stages, you often go a fair few levels without finding all of these collectibles, meaning your cut off from saving. Such extended periods between saves just aren’t suitable to an on-the-go experience (which is the on-going theme of this game’s design).
With all that said, I do think Donkey Kong Land has some strong points. Although only really explained in the manual, the story has always struck me as somewhat clever. Although you ostensibly fight the Kremlings and K. Rool, the actual villain seems to be Cranky Kong who, out of jealousy for the success of DKC, schemes with the Kremlings to create an 8-bit challenge for Donkey and Diddy that has the banana hoard on the line. Consequently, DKL features an entirely new set of levels divided across 4 worlds: a pirate ship, a sunken ruin, a mountain, and a city. Several of these levels have themes, enemies, and gimmicks that I’m not sure have been done in other DKC games. For instance, there are levels that take place up in the clouds, on construction sites, on mountain cliff sides, etc. For all of its flaws, there’s a fair bit of originality on display in the game. And of course, on top of all that, the music is excellent. (David Wise was credited as a composer.) When replaying the VC release, I realized just how many tunes that have been stuck in my head for years were heard from this game.
Two sequels would follow DKL, both released across the two subsequent years that followed the original. Honestly, I never played the sequels when they were originally released, but after having a go at the VC releases, I’ve gained a greater appreciation for the first DKL. The sequels are unlike DKL in that they are actually just miniaturized versions of their DKC counterparts (Diddy Kong’s Quest and Dixie Kong’s Double Trouble!). As far as I can tell, the levels in these games are Game Boy-ized facsimiles of those found in the console games, very closely similar in layout and design with some small changes made to accommodate for the differences in hardware. Definitely, the lack of originality was a bit of a bummer in light of the completely unique DKL.
More interestingly, however, is that the graphics are greatly simplified from Donkey Kong Land. The backgrounds are not fully computer rendered and instead have a “penciled in” quality to them. This definitely raises the visibility of the on-screen action, and, presumably, that was the intention. I have some doubts, however. It’s not just the backgrounds that have been “reduced,” the sprites also have this sort of lower quality feel to them. I think its easy to see what I mean when you compare the KONG tokens, as I’ve demonstrated below. I’ve always wondered if the real reason for the changes to the backgrounds was that Rare appropriated a lower budget to sequels. These games came out in the years just before Pokemon dropped, and I’ve heard that Game Boy sales were in a slump during that period, so Rare may not have wanted to invest as much effort into the platform.
As I close out this post, I’m sure I may leave some readers with a difficult impression as to whether the 3DS VC release of DKL is worth playing for those with no prior experience with the game. That’s a difficult question to answer. The massively superior 3DS screen alleviates many of the problems with the difficult to discern graphics that had to be endured on the far less crisp Game Boy display. But the erratic and fickle difficulty design, of course, still remains. Think about it, though, I realize that the first SNES DKC also had this aspect at times. Ultimately, I think fans of the SNES DKCs who might have never played this version but are looking for something new to sate their nostalgia will enjoy this game. It does put more than a few of its own twists on the DKC formula, and the availability of save states on the 3DS VC will definitely provide a less stressful alternative to the game’s original save system. Unfortunately, I think those without much affinity to the series will not gain as much fulfillment from this game, especially if they haven’t played the SNES counterparts which are superior and without question better games to check out first.
As I’ve discussed before, I’m a huge fan of Crash Bandicoot, or at least the games that came out for the original PlayStation (Crash 1, 2, 3 and especially Crash Team Racing). After that time, I sort of fell off with the series, and I know its quality has seen ups and downs. I was super excited to see the Crash Bandicoot N. Sane Trilogy announced for PS4, which collects modern remakes of the original trilogy of games. I’ve been playing the first game in the collection off and on since it’s release for over six months now and finally managed to beat it. It’s matches surprisingly well with how I remembered it, and the remake is an excellent recreation that stays true to the original.
In a lot of ways, Crash Bandicoot feels like a half-step between the types of games that existed on machines like the Genesis and the SNES and more advanced games of the time period like Mario 64, Bnajo-Kazooie, and Spyro. I think most people who have played Crash have realized this at one point or another. Crash doesn’t make as good use of the third dimension as something like Mario 64 does. While those other games are about adventuring and exploring in these big open environments, Crash is really still about getting across a level from the starting point to the finish line in a rather linear fashion. The player primarily moves forward into the screen without a whole lot of space to move horizontally or vertically. Truth is that while I love those old Crash games, they’re really not as innovative as they could have been, they simply extrapolate games like Sonic the Hedgehog or Super Mario World into the third dimension. But while playing the remake, I realized that this is especially true for the first Crash game, because a lot of the levels (and I had completely forgotten there were as many as there were) are played from a sidescrolling perspective, barely making any use of the third dimension at all.
Crash Bandicoot is also a much harder game than I remember. One issue with this game is that it’s really hard to understand Crash’s position in three-dimensional space, making certain jumps and enemies harder to deal with than they should be. There were plenty of times when the collision felt off, like I would die from touching a hazard but to me it didn’t look like I had even made contact with it. I don’t think I noticed this issue with the original game, but that was probably more because 3D gaming was completely new at the time. I chalk this up to the fact that you can’t move the camera in the game. It always sort of floats behind and above Crash, and since you can’t reorient it like you would in other games, you have no tool through which to better gauge distances you might not understand so well.
But more than that, I think the game is just hard at a core level. I personally had no memory of the game being this hard. Really, it’s just certain particular levels that stand out, while most of the rest of the game is fine. The Road to Nowhere specifically stood out to me as being absurdly over-the-top in terms of difficulty. It took me well over an hour (maybe two) just to get through that one. I learned that for the remake the studio altered all three games to have similar physics as the third game. I think what this essentially means is that they made Crash move and handle like he does in Crash Bandicoot 3, so that it would feel consistent across the entire package. I think this may have ended up making the first game harder, since it was built around a more forgiving method of determining when Crash successfully landed on flat ground. There are several articles and discussions out there which explain this better than I am, fortunately.
Difficulty aside, so far this package has been a really great way to re-experience Crash Bandicoot. (I say this having only played the first game so far.) Crash Bandicoot was always a stunning game to look at, and I think that the graphics of the original game have held up fairly well over the years for a PS1 game. When Uncharted 2 launched, Naughty Dog really became known for their powers at creating amazing graphics, but I think they’ve always had a visual edge over their competitors. The Crash Bandicoot series always made amazing use of colors at a time when most PS1 games were very dull to look at. And Crash himself is an extremely expressive character that is incredibly well animated. I always felt that the exuberant animations of Crash Bandicoot in that original game always gave him a level of personality that characters like Mario and Spyro and Banjo never had.
The new remastered collection completely rebuilds the games from the ground up, and I think they’ve done a good job of making a game with graphics that are up to modern standards while still recapturing the style and feeling of the original Crash Bandicoot. They’ve stayed fairly true to how the games were meant to look. Aside from staying true to the original, the game is just great to look at, having some of the best graphics I’ve seen from 2017.
I think this playthrough has really solidified Crash 1 as a game I think I love so much mostly because of my own personal history with it. I still think it’s a good game, but someone who doesn’t have a connection with it will probably bounce off it as its nothing particularly special. It has some great character to it, but, particularly later in the game, some of the levels can be maddeningly difficult, while others feel rather bland. Truthfully, I don’t think I’ve ever really harbored any illusions about Crash 1, though. I think I’ve always kind of known that it wasn’t a truly amazing game, and that its popularity was mostly boosted because it was supposed to be Playstation’s competitor to Nintendo’s Mario.
That said, I’ve always felt its sequels were far better and much more worthwhile games. As I finish the first game, its only made me more look forward to starting the second game, which I hope will be much more fulfilling. Actually, I don’t have a lot of experience with Crash 2. Back in the day, I only ever owned Crash 1 and Crash 3, and I rented 2 a few times. I’m excited to finally have a real playthrough. I know it’s a lot of people’s favorite game in the series.
I guess I’m a fairly big classic Sonic fan going back to the games on Genesis. It’s hard to say that because the series hasn’t been on a good trajectory since then, but I still think highly of those old games. However, after a long wait, I’ve finally found a reason to be excited about Sega’s old mascot again. Sonic Mania has basically beat all reasonable expectations and finally delivered something we’ve all wanted for a while: a classic Sonic game that not just evokes our memories of those old games, but builds on them in a meaningful way to move the series forward.
Sonic Mania bills itself as the true sequel to Sonic and Knuckles, ignoring the existence of Sonic the Hedgehog 4 that was released a little while back. In practice, it’s not entirely a full sequel. The game possesses a combination of remixes of old zones collected from the best of the Genesis games to brand new zones crafted specifically for Mania. I will say the mix leans more toward revisiting older zones rather than newer zones. I found that rather unfortunate as I hate it when game series start focusing more on trying to relive older content rather than moving forward with brand new stuff to experience. (Final Fantasy has become an egregious offender of this.) But, on the other hand, Sonic Mania does a good job at picking the best of those old levels to bring back with favorites such as Chemical Plant Zone, Oil Ocean Zone, and Hydrocity Zone. Probably my least favorite zone is the one they start off with, Green Hill, which I just honestly think has become perfunctory and played out.
To be honest, though, as I played the game more and more, the fact that they brought back so many old zones started to bother me far less. The levels in Sonic Mania aren’t mere facsimiles or even remixes of their Genesis counterparts. They are entirely new interpretations of those levels which just copy the aesthetic design and some of the iconic elements of those levels. Otherwise, the level layouts are almost entirely new and even feature new gameplay elements that were absent before, but still manage to mesh will with the theme of each zone. For instance, Chemical Plant Zone now features pools of a gelatinous colored substance that bounce the player around based on their color. Sonic can hit switches that drops chemicals in these pools and changes the color of the substance and the height of the bounce. Really, I thought they just did a good job with breathing new life into these levels and not just overly relying on nostalgia to make them appealing. And of course, the new zones turn out to be excellent additions, themselves.
One thing that really stood out to me in this game were the boss battles. I think the old Sonic games always did a really good job at having exciting boss battles, and Sonic Mania continues the tradition. It’s actually one of the few things that I think Sonic had over Mario at the time. To be honest, I don’t think any of the 2D Mario games have had particularly interesting boss fight. I think the Koopa Kids are cool as characters, but when you fight them, they’re always really simplistic. Meanwhile, Robotnik always had really interesting and memorable contraptions to go up against. Another thing is that I’ve always found that those boss fights made me appreciate how Sonic games used the collectible rings as a health system. There is a ton of tension in those Robotnik fights when you find yourself down to one last ring and every time you take a hit you have to scramble to get that final ring/safety net back.
The music in Sonic Mania is really bang on. Those old games always had great music, and Sonic Mania takes that legacy and just really steps it up. It has great remixes for the old zones they’ve brought back, but also the new zones have amazing new tracks specifically composed for them. Personally, I think the theme to Chemical Plant Zone is probably one of the top 5 video game tracks of all time, and the remix they put together for its appearance in this game is also amazing, although perhaps not my favorite remix of that specific track. They’ve also brought back Sky Battery Zone from Sonic and Knuckles and I’m a huge fan of its background sound and the Mania remix, as well. Of the new zones, Studiopolis probably has my favorite track. The original soundtrack is something that I’ve been listening to separate from the game, and that is something I rarely do these days. Unfortunately, they haven’t released the soundtrack for download or on Spotify, something I really wished they’d do. Right now, I’m stuck listening to a SoundCloud playlist because that’s the only place I can find it.
(Just before I posted this, I found out that they had added the OST to the major digital music stores this week. Unfortunately, Green Hill Zone and Chemical Plant Zone were removed due to presumable rights issues. The lack of CP Zone is a huge bummer.)
Sonic Mania is now probably my favorite Sonic game. That’s saying a lot since I grew up with the Genesis games, and this newcomer must contend with the nostalgia of those fond gaming memories. But to be honest, there are just parts of Sonic 1, 2, and 3+K that I just really don’t like. There are specific zones and sections that I find I just really hate having to play through. Like in the first game, I really hate those slow-moving platforms you must ride across the lava in Marble Zone. I also really hate those elevator blocks in Spring Yard Zone that will kill you if you try to jump through them too soon. Sonic and Knuckles has the tedious Sandopolis Zone, the only zone in the entire series where I consistently run out of time in, and Sonic 3 has those awful bouncy cylinders in Carnival Night Zone that I could never figure out when I was young. (I would literally spend minutes just mashing randomly on the buttons until I finally lucked out and got through those things). Sonic 2 is probably the Genesis game I have the least complaints with. In the case of Sonic Mania, however, I really think I enjoyed all the zones and acts the game had to offer. It was a great experience from start to finish.
I love Picross. But I also kind of hate Picross. Picross is Nintendo’s version of nonograms, a type of pencil-and-paper puzzle similar to crosswords or sudoku. That might sound boring at first, but there’s something about nonograms that make them more interesting in video game form than crosswords or sudoku. Perhaps it’s the Nintendo touch, but it might also be that the relative complexity of this type of puzzle makes it work better in an electronic format.
Picross starts with a square grid of unfilled tiles with each row and column bordered by a series of numbers. The idea behind picross is that you fill in uninterrupted blocks of tiles in each row or column based on the numbers that line the grid. So if a row has a 3 5 next to it, that means you need to fill in a string of 3 tiles followed by a string of 5 tiles with at least one unfilled tile in between these strings. The trick is that the tiles you fill in for that row or column must be consistent with the requirements of the columns or rows that run through it. The game is called Picross because each puzzle should make a crude pixelated image when the tiles are filled in correctly.
I think like most people in the U.S., I was introduced to Picross through Picross DS. I have to confess something now. I have a secret dark history with the Picross series, specifically, Picross DS. There were a few weeks of my life that I was maybe a little too hooked on that game. I would sit down after coming home in the afternoon and open up my DS and tell myself that I would only play for fifteen or twenty minutes, but before I knew it, hours would go by and the entire evening would have evaporated. I would complete one puzzle and would tell myself, just one more!, and keep going and going. I guess the dopamine rush I would get from solving each grid just made me not want to stop.
Eventually, I sort of triggered on the fact that spending so much time with the game was probably unhealthy. I considered just throwing the game in the trash to deprive myself of the addiction, but I ultimately decided this would be wasteful. I distinctly remember pulling the game out of the DS and sticking it back in its case and then burying it deep within my closet so that it would be hard to get to. And with that, my obsession with the game just sort of dissipated.
Since then I’ve been more successful at playing new Picross games, although I haven’t played them all. I’ve been able to avoid falling down the rabbit hole that I did with Picross DS. But each time one comes out, I still get a little suspicious that it might make me fall into the old habit. I especially liked Picross 3D and a few of the Picross e games that were released on 3DS. Pokémon Picross I thought was interesting, but I’m not a big Pokémon guy and didn’t really feel the need to pay to unlock the full game.
The latest Picross game that I’ve hopped on board with is Picross S, recently released on the Switch. Unlike games like Picross 3D and Pokémon Picross that attempted to inject new ideas into the series, Picross S is a fairly standard expression of Picross. There are two modes, standard picross and mega-picross, each which I think have 150 puzzles a piece. The standard mode is Picross according to its most basic ruleset, while the mega-picross mode changes up the formula by having hints that span adjacent columns or rows. Mega-picross has been featured as a side mode in previous editions, but I think this game has the largest collection of mega-picross puzzles in the series yet.
To be honest, even though I’ve been a picross addict in the past, something about this version just wasn’t doing it for me. The standard version of Picross just felt rote and boring. I got fairly deep into this mode before realizing that I just wasn’t really enjoying it all that much. My guess is that my lackluster feelings are more a result of me burning out on Picross and less a result of the quality of work they’ve done on this game.
As the monotony of the standard mode set in, I turned my attention to Mega-Picross mode and……wow, I got more than I expected out of it. Mega-Picross has been featured in some of the past editions, but I don’t think it has ever been given equal focus to the standard mode like it has in Picross S. It’s always really been a side mode. Personally, I’ve never really messed around with this variant of the game much. I guess I’ve really just been too lazy to learn it. The new rules can be quite intimidating at first. But after really taking some time to understand how it works, I could immediately feel myself getting hooked again like old times. The new dimensions of logical reasoning this mode adds were a real shot in the arm for the Picross formula.
Picross S is a good package. With just standard picross and mega-picross, it’s far from the most innovative or ambitious title in the series. While other releases (with the exception of Picross 3D) were also heavily focused on vanilla picross, they did try to introduce new side modes and mechanics to experiment with the formula. But Picross S fortunately makes up for its lack of adventurousness with just a lot of content. I don’t think any of the picross games on 3DS delivered this many puzzles for $8.
Honestly though, I don’t think I’ll be going back to anything that is simply vanilla picross. It’s just gotten old to me. While mega-picross has been satisfying, I think it’s time they come up with another major reinvention of the game like they did with Picross 3D. Hopefully, picross will see as bright of a future on Switch as it did on DS and 3DS, and we will see something revolutionary materialize.
Halloween has come and gone, but I’m not done yet, and here’s the epilogue to Halloween Gaming 2017. Night Trap is a sort of interactive movie released for Sega CD way back in 1992. It’s kind of a legendary game, not because a lot of people played it, but because it was one of the focal points of the 1993 congressional hearings on video game violence that directly led to the formation of the ESRB. I missed out on the Sega CD, but fortunately, Night Trap finally saw re-release this year for its 25th anniversary.
In Night Trap, you take the role of an unseen systems controller for the Special Control and Attack Team who have been investigating mysterious disappearances occurring around the lakeside winery of the Martin family. An unnamed SCAT operative managed to hack into the house’s video security system to discover footage of guests being unwittingly captured by a complex series of traps laid throughout the home. To make a short story shorter, the Martins are essentially vampires and constructed the various traps in the winery to capture victims for eventual exsanguination.
As the game starts, SCAT is preparing to catch the Martin’s red-handed as they welcome a new set of victims, six high school girls and one tag-along little brother, for a weekend stay at the lake. As the control operative, your job is to watch the hacked video feeds coming from the house and use your override of the traps to protect the guests if necessary. Things get complicated as the augers, mysterious men clad in black from head to toe, begin to invade the house and attempt to capture and drain the guests’ blood for themselves.
The goal of the game is to essentially capture augers and protect house guests. The player has eight video feeds spying on different rooms of the house and must look out for auger activity by switching between these feeds. When an auger on the screen comes near a trap, a blinking bar at the bottom of feed changes from green to yellow to red. When it lights red, the player can set off one of the house’s traps and eliminate the auger as a threat. Eventually, you begin to memorize where the traps are, and don’t need the assistance of the indicator as much.
In the early parts of the game, the augers merely move from room to room searching for the Martins’ secret passages. They stay away from the guests and don’t threaten them directly. However, if the player lets too many of them escape out of sight, the SCAT commander will interrupt the connection and explain that the mission has failed. Later in the game, Augers begin attacking guests directly using a strange device that they hook to the victim’s neck to draw out blood. The player must closely watch for these confrontations and use the traps to save the victim. If any house guest is killed by the augers, the game ends. In addition, sometimes the Martins will change the color access code to their security system, so the player must pay close attention to them as well, and change the access code when the Martins attempt to break the connection.
In parallel to the action with the augers, there are several scenes with the house guests and the Martins which advance the plot. The game’s storyline is not particularly serious or complex. It’s a fairly cheesy affair that to me just screams that it’s a product of the late eighties/early nighties. Nonetheless, I did find it amusing and wanted to keep up with what the cast of characters were doing.
The problem with Night Trap is really that there is the way you want to play Night Trap, but then there is also the way you have to play Night Trap. I really enjoyed following the plot involving the actual characters, but my ability to focus on these scenes was continually being interrupted by the need to switch to other rooms so that I didn’t miss any opportunities to trap augers. So you’re left in the position of choosing between whether you will watch the story threads play out and hit a point where you can’t progress further in that playthrough because you missed something important, or your ignore the plot development and simply focus on the stuff that is required to move forward, such as capturing the roaming augers or listening for changes to the code.
Really, Night Trap is a game that the player is probably meant to replay multiple times, and probably fail on most attempts. When played this way, there would obviously be more opportunity to see all of the scenes in the game. In a way, that makes sense for the time Night Trap was released. People bought fewer games on average back then and games tended to be shorter, and so each game had to offer a lot of replay value to keep gamers occupied for longer periods of time.
There is another reason that Night Trap requires so much replay: Night Trap is hard. Particularly, the second half of the game gets quite hectic, and there are a lot of do-or-die moments that are easy to miss. This leads to frequent abrupt game-overs. You have to play the game quite a few times to correctly get down the sequence of where and when you need to set off traps. From start the finish, the whole thing takes roughly 26 minutes, but there is only a single save spot at the halfway point (at around the 13 minute mark). I’m not sure if this checkpoint existed in the original version, so it may have been even harder then. I’m glad there’s not frequent checkpoints, because that would make it harder to see all of the scenes. But I think at least one more checkpoint toward the end of the game before the final confrontation with the Martins would have been appreciated.
Night Trap isn’t a particularly scary game. I think the game was originally intended to have the atmosphere of a horror movie, but this didn’t pan out for various reasons. The My Life in Gaming Youtube channel did an excellent documentary on the game which revealed a lot of interesting facts about its production. Originally, the set was intended to be darker and more grim, but it seems like they had to make things brighter and more colorful so the image wouldn’t become excessively pixelated during the digitization process. And despite its place in video game history, it’s not particularly violent. It’s crazy to think that this game was held up at one point alongside Mortal Kombat as an example of video games corrupting American youth. Compared to the over-the-top gore of Mortal Kombat, Night Trap is incredibly tame.
Overall, I enjoyed Night Trap. But to enjoy it, one has to have a lot of patience with it. I doubt it’s for everyone. The people who made this game were trying to do something completely new with the use of live action video, which I can certainly appreciate. But it’s definitely good to have an easily accessible version available now so that everyone has the option of trying out this important piece of video game history.
White Day: A Labyrinth Named School is a recently remastered horror game for Steam and PS4 that was originally released on PC in 2001 in Korea. No official English version had existed until the remastered edition that was released this year, but there was an unofficial English fan translation that managed to garner a strong cult following. This was my first time playing White Day, but for years now, I’ve heard tales of it being the scariest game ever made, so it’s been something I’ve been meaning to get around to for a while.
Hee-Min Lee is the new kid at Yeondu High School (frequently referred to as Y High School). One day during school, he finds the lost diary of So-Young Han, the girl all the boys crush on, and decides to sneak into school that night to return the diary to her desk along with a gift of candies. Alone in the school, he suddenly finds himself locked in the building, and while creeping around looking for his way through, witnesses a student being captured and brutally beaten by the janitor. Hee-Min soon realizes that the patrolling janitor is not the only danger lurking within the dark corridors of the school, rather the entire place is haunted by a menagerie of ghosts born from its shadowy and tragedy-stricken past.
Like the previous two horror games I reviewed, White Day is another run-and-hide game. The main threat of the game, the janitors which patrol each school building, spend their time searching for the player, while the player attempts to evade their detection. When caught, there’s no other option than to simply try to outrun the adversary and find a hiding spot. What makes White Day a little unique is its age. These run-and-hide horror games have really only become popular since the release of Amnesia: The Dark Descent, but the original version of White Day was released in 2001, meaning it significantly predates the current trend.
Despite the fact that the place is haunted and guarded by a psychotic crew of custodial staff, the students of YHS seem to really like to sneak onto school property after hours. Hee-Min frequently crosses paths with three other female students who are on their own missions in the school. In addition to So-Young, there is the brash and suspicious Sung-A Kim and the timid and bookish Ji-Hyeon Seol. Interactions with these girls are a big part of the game, because the dialogue choices the player makes will have an impact on the ending (as I found out maybe a bit too late).
The ghost encounters at Y High School often play out like a puzzle, and usually require the player to already be in possession of certain items or documents to survive. Thoroughly exploring the school is critically important in White Day, as scattered about are tons of documents, from faculty and staff notes to rumors to ghost stories, most of which contain snippets of information that are needed to solve these puzzles. In addition, many ghost encounters require the player to be in possession of specific key items to even be able to initiate or complete the encounter. Via the ghost stories and objects the player receives, the game does a fair job of giving color and lore to each ghost.
This, however, leads into one of the biggest flaws I found the game to have: there are a few out-of-nowhere deaths. For instance, I specifically had trouble with one enemy toward the end which requires a specific power switch in the school to be flipped beforehand, or else there’s no way the enemy can be defeated (and at a certain point, they will perform an instant kill on the player). As far as I can tell, there’s no way to know that this switch needs to be flipped until you fight the enemy and see the instant death sequence. There’s a few instances of this, where the player needs to die to certain enemies at least once before they have an idea of what they need to do. Fortunately, the game is pretty good about checkpointing right before you initiate these no-win encounters, so it’s not a huge setback, but it can still be confusing when it happens.
Going back to what I said earlier, White Day was introduced to me long ago as “the scariest game ever made”. As it turns out, this was…………a significant exaggeration. When the original version of this game was released in 2001, I could perhaps see this maybe being the case, but even then, it has easily been surpassed in the many years since. I think perhaps a lot of this may be due to the fact that it was a game where the player is mostly defenseless released in a time when survival-horror games were still mostly focused on characters that carry guns. Still, even though it might not be the scariest game ever made, it definitely has a very thick and moody atmosphere, and most of the monsters and spooks the player encounters in the game are definitely creepy enough to leave an impression.
In particular, White Day really excels in sound design, and the sound effects and music go a long way to elevate the nightmarish atmosphere that pervades the school. There’s a handful of music tracks that seem to play randomly through the course of the game, and I felt they all really nailed the sinister feeling the game was going for. This one in particular really struck a chord with me.
That being said, the main foe of the game, the prowling janitors, can be a mixed bag. They definitely are the prime driver of tension throughout White Day. Their presence is always telegraphed by the silence-shattering jangle of their keys or the creepy tune they whistle. It’s definitely an alarming experience when they enter close proximity. But the janitors can also just become a nuisance sometimes. There were a few situations where I had to stay in my hiding spot for just too long a time while I waited for them to leave the area. Sometimes, you’ve just got to make a break for it and try to outrun them and get to another part of the building, but other times you can’t leave the area where you’re at because there’s an important puzzle that needs to be solved there.
White Day has multiple endings and I think I might have gotten the worst one of them all. Reading over online guides, it seems that the ending changes based on a few key dialogue choices the player makes when talking to the girls. I guess if you only intend to play through this game once, these multiple endings can be a bit annoying, since it seems to me like you would need a guide to get one of the better ones. But it certainly adds replay value to the game, especially if you want to tackle the harder difficulty levels. I’ve read the game has additional content on the higher difficulty levels, which I think further helps to create incentive to replay.
White Day might not be the scariest game ever made, but I think it’s still highly worthwhile for horror game fans. The game has easily been surpassed since 2001, but I think the remastered version available on Steam and PS4 presents a package that has aged reasonably well. I’m certainly grateful that we’ve finally received an official English version.
Last year, I did three posts for October, but I had actually meant to do four. I had been meaning to finish off my Halloween series of reviews with some words on Soma, but, unfortunately, I just wasn’t able to finish the game before Halloween ended, so I decided to hold off until I started doing spooky games again in 2017. Fast forward a year, and I boot up Soma again to realize that I was only like 20 minutes away from the end of the game, which was much closer than I had thought. Had I known that, I would have just powered through and completed it last year………. hindsight is 20/20.
Soma is the story of Simon, a terminally ill man from the modern day who agrees to have his brain scanned as part of a medical experiment. Upon waking from the scan, he finds himself not in the present day, but flung a century into the future to the abandoned and decaying deep sea station, PATHOS-II. He soon discovers that the WAU, the biological computer which maintains the facility, has gone awry, and in its misguided attempt to preserve the life of the crew has created a number of deranged cybernetic monsters which now roam the facility. As Simon contends with the threat of the WAU and its creations, he sets out to discover the ultimate truth of the new world he has awoken to and the ultimate fate of humanity.
Soma is a run-and-hide style of horror game, similar to the studio’s other infamous horror title, Amnesia: The Dark Descent. Simon has no real way to fight back against threats, and instead must make use of stealth and evasion to steer clear of dangerous encounters. Unlike Amnesia, however, Soma puts considerably less focus on handling the enemies, and a far greater focus on story and exploration. It’s one of those games where there isn’t a lot of interpersonal interaction, but instead most information is relayed in the past tense via computer terminals, written messages, and something akin to audio logs.
To be honest, most of the horror in Soma isn’t really derived from the threat of the wandering enemies. Rather, it’s the bleakness and existential nausea of Soma’s plot combined with the oppressive and alien atmosphere of the deep sea that makes the game unsettling. It’s less of a horror story that focuses on mysterious physical threats (like zombies or monsters), and more a kind of cerebral horror that is focused on questions that rattle the comfortability we have with our own human existence It’s more Eraserhead than Friday the 13th.
As a consequence, I’ve read more than a few opinions that state that Soma is best played with the enemies turned off. There exists a popular mod on Steam that basically makes all the monsters disappear, allowing the player to fully engage with the atmosphere and story without any distraction. Personally, I played through the entirety of the game with the monsters fully functional, and I found the encounters with them to be a mixed bag. There were a few that were really exciting, but there were just as many that I thought were rather menial. None of them were particularly hard to handle, save for one that I found unusually annoying. I recommend new players start the game with the enemies on, but if they become too much of a nuisance, just download the mod and turn them off. Don’t let them stop you from enjoying the things that the game truly excels at.
And the things that Soma excels at, it really excels at. There are tons of games that are set in sci-fi settings, but few games that really create stories that contend with the best sci-fi literature and film out there. It’s often said that sci-fi is best used as a tool to frame questions about the nature of human existence, but few games actually tread into this territory. Games like Halo and Half-life really just boil down to power fantasies of humans taking on overwhelming alien invaders. They don’t make the player actually question the world in ways they’ve never done before. They’re basically popcorn flicks like Independence Day. But Soma really digs deep into the ideas that it wants to explore. It’s the video game version of Blade Runner or 2001: A Space Odyssey.
PATHOS-II is also just incredible to explore. At a technical level, the graphics in the game are far from the most sophisticated, but the team behind the game made up for it with an incredible use of lighting and their own aesthetic design. The picturesque quality of so many areas had me constantly hitting the screenshot button. These environments do a great job of evoking disquiet and wonder. My favorite moment in the game is one in which the player character is trekking on foot across the bottom of a dark abyss filled with strange deep sea creatures, and I was just left in awe by the sheer alienness of the experience.
Finally, I have to talk about the ending, but I’ll keep it spoiler free and merely offer my reaction to it. At first, I found the final sequence of the game to be incredibly anti-climactic, and I wondered if I had gotten a bad ending. But after the credits were over, there was a significant playable section that made me reflect on how the game had ended before. Lots of horror games have multiple endings, often times some are considered “good” and others considered “bad”. As far as I know, Soma has one ending, but it could be considered both the good and bad ending. It’s definitely a troubling ending that drives home the ideas and themes the game focuses on. It goes back to how I can’t stress enough that this is a story-driven game first and a survival horror game second.
Soma has received an enormous amount of acclaim since its release, and I can definitely understand where all that’s coming from. It’s an exceptional storytelling experience that synthesizes an intricate and thought-provoking sci-fi narrative with a dense and immersive atmosphere. But the monsters in the game definitely feel vestigial to the whole experience. It’s unfortunate that they couldn’t make something more out of this aspect of the game, but, on the other hand, the fact that the monsters are so disposable means that players who choose to turn them off aren’t going to have a compromised experience. Definitely, Soma has become one of those games I feel I can recommend easily to anyone.