Five Things We Hope to Learn from The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

Tuesday, November 8, 2011 at 10:00 am


The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim -- putting the "fan" back in "fantasy."

Oedipus has survived for millenia as a dramatic figure, because the story of his life is so compelling. In Oedipus's search for a cure to the plague of Thebes, we see our own compulsion to uproot the evil and misery in life. In Oedipus's discovery of the horrible truth that he killed his own father (ANCIENT GREEK THEATRE SPOILER ALERT), we recall every time we've accidentally brought ruin upon ourselves. And when Oedipus leaves town, once a beloved king, now a blind exile, we recognize that even the mighty may fall.

As a gamer, the Nintendo 64 Kid holds a similar place in my psyche -- he is an archetype, a figure who reflects my own thoughts, emotions and dreams. When I see N64 Kid's complete rapturous meltdown because he's received a gaming system, I understand the yardstick by which my excitement about future video game releases can be measured.

I was pretty stoked about LA Noire, maybe 0.4 N64Ks (if one N64K denotes a level of excitement equal to that of Nintendo 64 Kid). And I clocked in at about 0.65 N64Ks in the days leading up to the release of Deus Ex: Human Revolution. But I think now I may be approaching 0.8, 0.9 N64Ks of exhiliration... I may even pull a full-on 1.0.

Guys, I'm really excited for Skyrim. And I'm not alone -- fans and reviewers not lucky enough to have snagged an advance look at Bethesda's newest Action-RPG smorgasbord are wildly speculating about what the game will be like. And so, here's my own speculation -- five things that, Nine Divines willing, we will learn from Skyrim.

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Five Things We Learned from the Internet About Video Games and Comedy

Tuesday, November 1, 2011 at 12:00 pm
The internet thinks these guys are comedic gold; though we can probably agree this was not Bethesda's original intent.

One point that has been raised in the past concerning video games is that they generally err on the side of being humorless. Luckily, there are notable exceptions -- classic games like the ridiculous Space Quest series come to mind, and recent offerings like the Portal games prove that it's quite possible to produce a gaming experience that is both emotionally satisfying and deliberately funny.

But while it's true that humor is certainly a part of some great games, it's also worth admitting that many games do seem rather devoid of any considerable levity. You, as the player characters of these games, trudge along and accumulate headshots or gather magic crystals or make arrests with nothing in the way of lightheartedness except perhaps the occasional smug joke at a fallen enemy's expense.  So does the prevalence of these types of games mean that gamers are uninterested in humor? That we would rather take ourselves too seriously than have a laugh?

Not necessarily.  There's a compelling case to be made that even the most dramatic games have the potential for uproarious comedy -- that's one of the massive perks of the medium. Heavy Rain can be a chilling meditation on love, control and evil, or, if played in a certain way, it can be a gut-bustingly funny series of skits on people miserably failing to do simple tasks (or doing them comically slowly). A dark tone set by a game requires the gamer's cooperation, because a gamer can turn any game into a farce by finding humorous glitches, awkward gameplay, or simply by playing the game extremely poorly.

YouTube offers ample proof that video games contain some of the weirdest, most unexpected comedy of our generation. And here are five prime examples.
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Five Things We Learned From Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell

Tuesday, October 25, 2011 at 5:00 pm
Splinter Cell -- it's about to get subtle up in here.
Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six
is a classic game that we covered a few weeks back, concerned primarily with an elite government squad that operates with total subtlety and efficiency. The existence of Rainbow is known only to the highest ranks of officials, and in carrying out their orders they act with both decisiveness and a high degree of caution.

Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell is about a dude who is so fucking subtle that he makes the highly-trained, low-profile operatives of Rainbow Six look like drunk cowboys with six-shooters. His name is Sam Fisher, and he is stealthy from the moment he wakes up to the moment he goes to sleep. And we're not sure if he ever sleeps.

Splinter Cell is about an international crisis sparked by a coup in the Russian border state of Georgia, and the new head of state's nefarious plans. Figuring out what this shady figure wants and defusing the plot before something awful happens is going to take an operative who is so subtle that when he makes a joke, you don't laugh at it until days later. So sneaky that he makes the best cat burglar in the world look like a loud trombonist in a shitty high school marching band. So awesome that he's voiced by Michael Ironside.

Sam Fisher is the perfect man for the job, and sneaking a mile in his shoes teaches us many things about life, love and silent takedowns.

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Five Things We Learned From Secret of Evermore

Tuesday, October 18, 2011 at 1:00 pm


Secret of Evermore -- not just a cheap attempt to ride the coattails of success.

Everyone who played the SNES game Secret of Mana was taken in by its epic tone, whimsical scope, and addictive gameplay. It rightfully achieved a place as one of the best games of the 16-bit era, and fans eagerly awaited some form of follow-up.

Secret of Evermore was not that follow-up. It incorporates the same general gameplay style and was titled similarly to cash in off of Mana's success -- but that's all.  It doesn't deal with the Mana Tree at all. None of the characters are back. The tone is seven to eight times more whimsical. And the sword you get in Secret of Mana is a sacred weapon to be used against the grandest form of tyranny; the game is called Seiken Densetsu 2 in Japan, which means "Holy Sword Legend 2." Secret of Evermore could hardly be called a "Holy Sword Legend," and as such, many fans who bought it expecting a direct sequel were disappointed.

But if you can get past the longing and nostalgia-ridden fury that the sight of those beautiful Mana-like ring menus fills you with, Secret of Evermore is a good game in its own right. Maybe even a great game. And it taught us entirely distinct things from its distant cousin Mana.

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Five Things I Personally Learned From Pictures of Old LCD Games

Wednesday, October 12, 2011 at 11:00 am

Handheld LCD Games -- where the artful rendering of the game's title on the front of the machine is more entertaining than the actual game.
So the title of this post doesn't exactly have the "reach-through-your-monitor-and-slap-you-in-the-face" zing that comes with describing a universal experience.  We did learn things collectively from video games, and it's always a nostalgic and almost uplifting experience to explore the impression that gaming has left on all of us over the years.  You may mention the noise that occurs in The Legend of Zelda: a Link to the Past when a guard notices you (something like a fat coin purse being thrown into a shrub), and someone's face will light up.  Or you'll speak with disgust about that one Goldeneye multiplayer match when you were killed by a crouching Oddjob slapping you, and someone will groan in sympathy.  It's a wonderful affirmation: we are not alone.  The awe of being young and discovering gaming lives on in us as a community.

This article, however, is not about that sharing of a beautiful communal memory. This article is about my personal reactions to goofy LCD handheld games that I found images of on Google.

To be clear -- I have not played these games. I believe that from cursorily looking at these games I have learned much of what they can impart. And there are certainly things to be learned (and, indeed, fondly remembered) concerning this oft-overlooked form of video game.

Will you follow me down this road, oh reader?

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Five Things We Learned From Mario is Missing!

Tuesday, October 4, 2011 at 11:00 am


Mario is Missing! -- Note: the cover art here is 200 to 500 percent more exciting than anything that occurs in-game.

Every so often Mario, like a nervous, sweaty, uncomfortable dad sitting his kids down to give them "the talk," tries to teach us something. He doesn't like this, and neither do we. He feels that it's his obligation. And it's not that he teaches us about jump stamina or koopa murder. He does that all the time, and we all love it. No, no, no. Sometimes he tries to teach us other stuff. Like, real stuff.

There are several self-consciously educational entries in the long list of Mario games. Mario desperately tries to get your WPM count up so you can land some kind of halfway respectable job in Mario Teaches Typing. In Mario's Time Machine, instead of going back in the titular machine and killing Hitler (or at least Mussolini) like anybody with a soul and a time machine would do, Mario just goes on a painfully informative scavenger hunt.

Perhaps there will be a time when we discuss more in depth those two attempts to educate gamers using Mario lore as a cover. But right now, we're going to focus on the SNES version of Mario is Missing!

Mario is Missing! is essentially an hours-long lecture about geography and world history given by Luigi. If you completed this game as a child, you either had an immense yearning to become an anthropologist at an early age or you had a gun to your head. You do have to hand it to Mario is Missing!, though -- it did teach us a lot. Sometimes it taught us things it wasn't even trying to teach us.


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Five Things We Learned From Shadowrun

Tuesday, September 27, 2011 at 11:00 am


Shadowrun is, at least in part, about the future of sunglasses fashion.

Some visions of the future are nice. There are floating cars, robot butlers, and steak dinners in pill form. Imagine -- a pill! With a steak in it!

But if science fiction authors and futurists are to be believed, the nice, happy future is sort of a long shot. Judging just from the ratio of dystopias to utopias in pop culture depictions of the future, odds are about five thousand to one that instead of robot butlers we'll have robot masters, and instead of steak pills we'll have pills that violently awaken us from our drugged slumber to make us aware that we are living in a big goo-egg with cords coming out of our spinal column, our life force used as an energy source for those robot masters we mentioned. And don't even get us started on the floating cars. Do you have any idea how much it takes to insure a god damned flying car?

Shadowrun, a dark cyberpunk thrill-ride for the SNES, was derived from the popular role-playing game of the same name. The setting is Seattle in the year 2050. You are essentially a weird-looking future version of Jason Bourne: you wake up near-dead with no memory of how you got there and no idea why people are trying to kill you. It's up to you to put the pieces together and fight the dragon.

Oh yeah. You fight a fucking dragon.

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Five Things We Learned From Diddy Kong Racing

Tuesday, September 20, 2011 at 11:00 am


Diddy Kong Racing -- adding some kooky spice to the racing game genre.

What comes to your mind when you think of zany video game characters all racing against each other on obstacle-filled courses with bananas playing a prominent role in the proceedings? Mario Kart, naturally. Mario Kart, in terms of wildly unrealistic, mischievous competitive racing featuring your favorite video game characters, reigns pretty damn supreme.

But according to our good, infallible friend Wikipedia, there is another goofy, cartoony racing game on the top ten list of all-time best-selling titles for the Nintendo 64, one that may not come to mind immediately but features many of the elements of Mario Kart. And, we dare say, even more.

That game, of course, is Ocarina of Speed: Zelda Go-Kartz.

Just kidding. Though that would be awesome. The game is Diddy Kong Racing.

Diddy Kong Racing takes the franchise racing formula and turns it up a notch. There are hovercrafts, nerdy turtles, and an evil mystical pig from space. And that's to say nothing of the vaguely far-East elephant genie handing out golden balloons. We learned so much from this extra notch's-worth of content that our young minds couldn't really make sense of it all.

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Five Things We Learned From Hitman: Codename 47

Tuesday, September 13, 2011 at 1:00 pm


Hitman: Codename 47 -- or, as it is known in its Czech release, Hitman: Revenge of the Furious Bald Man

If you are ever in a heated argument with someone who thinks that video games are nothing more than evil, morality-destroying killfests, you can bring up a multitude of games to counter their position. You could talk about Shadow of the Colossus, which makes a compelling case that violence, even in service of something as noble as love, can corrupt the soul. Or you could bring up puzzle games -- only the sickest of the sick could see anything shady in Tetris.  If you're really grasping at straws you could go with, uh, Heavy Rain? Sure, there's some violence, but much of the game is using your awesome sunglasses from the future to make your office prettier.

But please, whatever you do, don't bring up Hitman: Codename 47.

At a time when the tone of the next generation of video games was being decided, Hitman was an unabashedly bloody entry into the Eidos canon. You, as the titular Hitman, go on what could charitably be described as a hellish quest to end human lives.

But just because it is an anti-gaming crusader's dream doesn't mean Hitman is without merit. In fact, our favorite steely protagonist taught us a lot while hunting down his targets.

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Five Things We Learned From Disney's Magical Quest

Tuesday, September 6, 2011 at 1:00 pm


Disney's Magical Quest -- the sultan outfit lets you know how magical it is.

Disney has a twin association in the minds of many modern consumers. On the one hand, it has become a gigantic corporation with hands in a multitude of media pies. Its attempts to connect with the children of the world are often soaked in visible pandering, and in the eyes of the latest Disney-backed stars and starlets you can sometimes see the bleak souls of the marketing team behind the scenes.

But no matter how many cryogenically frozen moguls they hide or racist movies they try to explain away, the fact remains: Disney has created (and will likely continue to create) some of the greatest family-friendly icons in the history of modern entertainment.

Just look at Donald Duck! On paper, sure, he's just an incomprehensible, furious water fowl. But in practice he is one of the more adorable, hilarious little dudes you will ever come across. Or Goofy? What is his deal, anyway?

But of course the crown jewel of the Disney canon is Mickey Mouse. And Disney, being the calculating mega-company it is, of course would want to insert Mickey into as many video games as possible.

One of the most memorable is Disney's Magical Quest starring Mickey Mouse, where Mickey has to rescue his dog Pluto from the clutches of an evil autocrat. And, damn it, Disney taught us many things in this classic game.

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