Why I Love: Iji

Rise of Indie

I’m going to skip a bunch of games to talk about this game, and then we’ll head back up to where we were before.

I grew up playing indie games.  I remember playing Jumper and Jumper 2 by what is now Matt Makes Games.  I remember scouring the internet for Mario-clones and playing bullet hell games like rRootage and Tumiki fighters.  I remember being hyped for Jumper: Redux because it had multiplayer.  I was curious how big indie games were going to get.  Well, as we know now, they’re everywhere, but I really feel like there was that second surge of indies that, for me, started with An Untitled Story (also Matt Makes Games) and Iji.

Iji is a free, side-scrolling shooter made by Daniel Remar.  The protagonist Iji is a young woman on Earth where an alien invasion is taking place.  She is turned into a cyborg to give humanity a fighting chance against the aliens.  However, as you go through the game you learn more about the aliens.  You decide how to approach the invasion.  It’s up to you to bring peace or death.

Iji proved so many things to the indie world.  It proved there were great stories and lore in indie games.  It also showed a great system with the level up of skills that affects the way that you play through the game.  You can choose between two different weapon technologies (or really, both if you want).  There are exciting secrets that you can find if you were cheeky enough.  And, there is also a bit of a “choices matter” element to it as well.

I also love that it is kind of a balance between classic side-scrolling shooter and metroidvania.  Your choices for your skills can determine if you can reach specific places.  Hm.  I guess that is just like a normal game these days like Dishonored or something, but still.  It’s really well done.  I’ve never had problems with glitches.  It’s fun discovering different weapons and enemies.  The world felt very new because this deep world wasn’t as common in the indie world back then.

Let’s be honest, a lot of indie games back in the days didn’t have super amazing graphics.  I think that never having the most amazing computer until later in my life taught me that graphics don’t matter that much.  They are always icing on the cake, and a cake without icing can be very delicious.  Having the option of icing and what you can do with it has the potential of deliciousness though.  

Indie games and growing up with games on the SNES also taught me one more thing: how graphics can represent things.  These days graphics try to be real.  They try to literally be the thing that they are supposed to be, but back in the days you had to create a representation.  The graphics had to make you feel like it was the thing without completely looking like it.  And limited graphics really weeds out those who can’t do it.  Iji does whatever it needs to make it feel like what it needs to show.  I don’t need perfectly detailed Tasen aliens to know what they look like, because Daniel already got the feeling down and that is a beautiful thing.

Also, the music.  The music is amazing.  The entire soundtrack is so strong.  The very first sector’s song, Kinda Green, nails that perfect feeling of waking up in a changed world with changed abilities.  The beginning is soft, with a repeating background and a soft melody.  After two minutes, the music kicks it up with an electric guitar, but it’s still not too intense.  It’s still a slower melody.  The music feels just as apprehensive as Iji’s attempt to approach this new life, but she’s now on her feet and she knows she has to move on.  The soundtrack’s increasing intensity keeps up with Iji’s emotional ride as she has to go through the story and as you go through the game.

The sounds are all fantastic as well.  The different weapons and their crazy effects feel bright and new.  The small particles of debris and rockets flying around.  Every sound just brings more environment to what is now Earth under fire.  I also absolutely love the short lines Iji says as well.  It helps her feel alive, human, and malleable.

Iji is #55 on the ULTRA list.  There are a few indie games that are higher on the list, but Iji is such an amazing game I still recommend to anyone looking for something to play.  I am a very emotional person, and so stories and characters are always a strong point for me.  I also loved that the protagonist is a female who isn’t sexualized or has some sort of romance.  She just is.  

Iji is also very high on the list because I feel like it opened so many doors to understanding video games and that is very important to me.  It accomplished so much and did so much for me as a gamer and I can only show thanks for it.  Just like with films, I feel like the ones that help us become better people or better at understanding people tend to resonate the most with me, and Iji has done that.


If you want to play iji go to Remar’s site here!

We’ll see you next time on ULTRA!

Why I Love: Final Fantasy V

Ancestry

I played Final Fantasy in order.  As fun as the first four are, they haven’t aged too well.  Each one brought strengths to the table, and I feel like Final Fantasy V is the culmination of what they’ve learned.  Let’s take a walk through Final Fantasy’s life up to this point.

Final Fantasy
I played through some of this on mobile, and then I played through the whole game on the GBA collection.  I tried to play through this with the idea that turn-based RPGs were not overflowing with games.  You know how in a lot of RPGs, especially JRPGs, there are monsters where they just change the color palette and call it something different?  For some reason I LOVE that.  With less limitations on space, that could be more of a lazy thing nowadays.  It might be because I studied biology and simple things like that can mean crazy histories within a species.  I always imagine what it took to reach that point in the video game world.  I think that sort of “imagination running” keeps video games so alive to me.

The first game doesn’t really do a good job of telling you where you’re supposed to go and what you’re supposed to be doing, especially in the GBA version where there are bonus things to do that I thought were part of the original game but were totally not.  It’s an annoyance now, but it’s also nice to see the gaming world how it was back then when game guides were totally a thing.  Calling friends or those help lines were really a thing back then!  Without them, you’re forced to explore every bit of world to try and get you where you need to go, which would be a lot more fun if there were more things to find.  Haha.

That takes me to one more point.  Back then, I don’t know how many people actually owned a lot of games.  Remember when constant sales weren’t a thing?  Remember when games costed a ton?   So having a game last really long, whether through wandering around or grinding (or both at the same time) is actually fit for the time.  Or you can …go outside and stuff.

Final Fantasy II

This was also played on the GBA collection.  The proficiency system.  I love it.  It might not be the best thing ever, but that mechanic was enjoyable to me.  They don’t really use this system that much up to V, but they were definitely exploring their way through RPGs and I think this is a nice result of that.  It could have been worse. 

There were also more people of significance.  People that apparently meant something.  …my memory is very fuzzy concerning story.  It still wasn’t as significant as Final Fantasy games now.  

But I still liked it!

Final Fantasy III

I played this one on…PC.  A billion classes.  Okay, not a billion, but there are a lot more classes, and this is when Final Fantasy decides they can do whatever the world they want with making more classes.  That’s okay with me!  You can pretty much do that with all the characters too.  That was kind of…strange to me.  But this was still a fun experience with understanding how we can go about leveling these classes to benefit the party as a whole.  Also, on the 3D versions, the chibis are really cute.  I really like the battle theme in this one.

Final Fantasy IV

This is where story and characters start getting into being…well, a story and characters with meaning.  I was actually invested in the characters and the world.  It was still a bit confusing at times, but a lot less so than the first game.  At least I had more motivation to see what would happen next.  I played that remake one on PC, so I think this has the time-based battles.  It was kind of difficult to adapt to after three games in regular turn-based style, but I think it’s worth the change.

Final Fantasy V

V is most of these things combined.  Unfortunately, I had to play the fuzzy version on Steam, but it didn’t affect things too much.  It had a good story and characters that I really liked.  The classes could be interchanged and I could still customize them to what I wanted my party to be like.  It still keeps a good final fantasy feel.  A lot of the emotion I get from playing V is because I went through the journey of the first four, and we can look and see how far we’ve gone.  Especially in franchises, the games do not exist in a vacuum.  The journey beforehand most definitely affects the way we see the games when we play them.  

That being said, I think it’s arguable that Final Fantasy IV should have a spot on the ULTRA.  It sits in my Honorable Mentions right now, and it is the first game to actually start that list.  I’m not as knowledgeable on game design of turn-based RPGs as I am with other games, but I really think the turning point for Final Fantasy started with IV.  V is proof that the developers can build on what was learned in the past, even if a game didn’t turn out to be perfect.

I think the thing that companies struggle with today is learning from previous mistakes.  Some really have become executive amalgamations for the money, and although developers deserve pay, it can degrade game quality by quite a bit.  Even worse, it may break down the morale of those wanting to make games that did their best only to have it shot down by the decision makers.  

Humans can’t really improve unless they make mistakes, and we can’t move on from our mistakes if we cling to them.  As consumers, we have a direct connection to video games that makes us extremely powerful.  It is good to take action when a game dares to siphon the money out of us, or does something absolutely terrible design-wise.  We also have the power to do some bad things to companies, like holding grudges for…well, ever.  Companies may not be our friends, but they really can’t get better if we don’t let them.  Thankfully, the vocal minority is the one shouting and claiming unfair designs or things like that when things are actually okay.  I think sometimes we need to take a few steps back and remember that companies consist of human beings who have motives and dreams of their own.  They’re dreamers, perhaps even more so than us in this industry, because they actually make the games, and yet we hold the power of the industry.   

The best kinds of companies build on previous games and know what they should improve on by themselves.  I see this in Square / Square Enix as they go along Final Fantasy.  Mistakes will come.  Sometimes there will be such mistakes that really knock a franchise off its course, but I think proper experimentation and getting themselves back up are what makes companies even stronger (if the executives are willing to part with the money again to try).  The best companies don’t necessarily look for what players want, but what they need in order to have fun.  We see this in some of the best designed games out there where fun is brought to the table in a way that gamers don’t realize they wanted.  Although the early days were rough, Final Fantasy V (and yes, IV,) are good examples of that.

I love the far and wide opinions of the Final Fantasy series and how different people like different eras.  What are your favorite eras?

Final Fantasy V is ranked 125 on the ULTRA.  We’ll see you next time on What I love!

Why I Love: Harvest Moon 64

Labor of Love

You know what is strange about Harvest Moon?  Playing the game as a younger person who hasn’t done heavy farm-related labor.  It’s weird then that we enjoyed playing Harvest Moon so much.  It’s like pretending to work, and I guess that really is why these kinds of simulation games are so fun.  There’s all the reward in doing well, but there’s no major threat if you do not succeed.  

Harvest Moon is a farming game.  For the longest time it was the farming game.  The SNES was very good, but it was the N64 one that really put it on the map for me.  Lifestyle simulation games tend to have the core gameplay loop of working to earn money to buy better tools to work more efficiently.   I think it was this game that really introduced to me the gameplay in video games where we set goals for ourselves in order to become better versions of our video game selves.  The independence in what we’re allowed to focus on to earn our money gave freedom in what little we could do as youngsters.  I could choose to plant specific types of plants that I enjoyed eating in real life, or I could focus on growing a ton of animals.  I can talk to townspeople and gain a better relationship with them.  

I liked the progression of almost everything in the game.  I like how your person gets better tools as they use certain tools over and over again.  In the beginning your farm is pretty much a mess and you have to clean it up with what little you have, and you don’t have a lot.  You’re just a young man who inherited a farm.  That sort of building up experience is something I always enjoy.  I mean, I guess that’s how it is for a lot of these games.  Hm.

In Harvest Moon 64 there’s also a weird sense of exploration as you try and find out how much things are sold for or other strange mysteries you can find around town.  I think a lot of simulation games that have a little bit of the supernatural or fantasy always have a lot more character to them.  They can always add their little twist to things and makes the wonder of what is out there that much more satisfying.  What I suppose I am trying to say is that even if we know a lot about the thing the game is trying to simulate, there are other things it can surprise us with.  

The graphics are also very appealing.  The smooth little, almost claymation-looking, characters are always fun to see, and the animations are run in a way that is very smooth.

I have one personal complaint.  I feel like the days are really quick in this game.  Perhaps it’s because when I was a kid I was a lot less organized with my in-game time, but it felt like I could barely squeeze in all I wanted for the day.  I suppose I’m still not the most organized, but at least I knew my limits and how to maximize my time.  Hm, if you’ve played the game, what do you think?

I admit that a lot of the reason why Harvest Moon 64 makes this list is because it was my first major step into simulation games, but it really is a fantastic game by itself.  A game that can make work so fun surely deserves something. This is a game that can make nearly every loop of it’s grind to get better at farming enjoyable, and that is a huge reason why this game is on this list.

And that is #126 on the ULTRA.  I admit that there is a ton of bias on Harvest Moon 64’s spot on this list, but that is why this is the Ultimate Loosely-Thought Ranked Analysis.  Much of this list is based on game design, but it’s also emotionally close to me.  That’s how it was set outright, and I think it would be right that your lists also contain things that you are just really close to personally.  I’ll see you next time on “Why I Love!”

Why I Love: Spelunky

Madness in Simplicity:

This one might be a bit controversial.  Spelunky ranks high on many gamers lists, and yet here we are at number 127 and we’ve already hit it.  I feel a bit guilty, but for me, this is where it is.

I am not very good at games on the farther end of the spectrum of rogues.  Spelunky leans fairly heavily into roguelikes rather than roguelites.  Roguelikes tend to require an increase in skill, and that’s hard for me.  Ha!  You don’t really add too much to your next run, if at all, so your survival depends on skill and your previous knowledge.   So, if I’m getting so stressed out about a game, how did it get on my top twelve games?  It’s here because I love the chaos.

I started Spelunky with the free indie version, so I admit that most of my Spelunky experience was with that one.  Spelunky is a 2D platformer roguelike that has you spelunking in caves and looking for loot.  Do not let its cute appearance fool you.  This game is mean.

You can jump around, crack your whip, throw ropes, and plant bombs, all in a futile effort to survive and rob the cave of its delicious golds.  The enemies are fairly standard.  Spiders that drop on you from above.  Bats.  Frogs that jump around.  There are shops where you can buy items to help you further in your quest.  It all seems simple, but you can only take a few hits before you die.  Oh, and getting more life is very difficult and involves saving lost people, which is difficult in itself.

The chaos ensues when you realize that this game is randomly generated and all these things smash together.  They kind of mesh, but they definitely get smashed together.  Each enemy has fairly simple, but interactive functions.  Man-eating plants, which eat you and kill you with one touch, can also eat other enemies if you throw their unconscious bodies at it.  The function of the plant is very simple: one-shot anything that comes in contact with it.  This would be too simple if it wasn’t for the fact that the function works with almost all the other enemies as well.  

There are venomous snakes that spit which can kill other enemies that get in their way.  Traps meant for you are just as deadly to the enemies that run into them.  It’s this wonderful salad of things that are thrown together in each of the different environments that really makes this game shine.  The chaos of it is just beautiful.

The game is exciting  because you master each of the different obstacles and frequently run into mixes of them and they put your skills to the test.  I keep pushing myself to get better and to delve further.  

If you really want to see what I’m talking about, you can check out the classic for free here!
I encourage you to try the HD version when you can.  It works with Steam’s remote play thing too.

Every piece of Spelunky fits in chaotic perfection and is a huge contributor to the execution of roguelike.  Spelunky is currently ranked at number 127 on the ULTRA.

Lastly, I love the original song for the first cave area in the classic one.  That’s what I hear every time I think of Spelunky.  Ah…

Update: The link wasn’t correctly placed on the word “here.” It is now fixed. Sorry about that!

Why I Love: Axiom Verge (and New Super Mario Bros.)

Performance of Another World:
You’re probably wondering why New Super Mario Bros. is there.  …because it’s #130.  However, it is on my Top 12 because it is very well executed, but I don’t feel the need to really reach out to exclaim something unique or something I love about it.  It’s just really well done Mario.  

Let’s take a small bit of time to talk about #129, Axiom Verge.  

Axiom Verge is a sci-fi, side scrolling, metroidvania game.  It’s well executed and it’s fun to play.  And now I’m going to do that thing where I said that and I’m going to direct your attention to something random.  I really like the feeling of the world of Axiom Verge.  You’re thrown into a completely alien world where your character is also confused by said event.  

But…a lot of video game worlds feel different, so what gives?  I think Axiom Verge does a particularly great job at making a game world feel foreign.  The way the world works, sounds, and looks is just so weird, but not incoherent or entirely simple.  There is enough dialogue sprinkled throughout that makes enemies feel like something you’re interrupting.  There are environments you feel like you are invading.  You really feel like you do not belong there, and it works fantastically well in a story setting of, “Where the world am I?”

Like any metroidvania, you collect items that add to your places you can reach and things you can interact with in the game.  They have some really neat ideas that I could see being in a Metroid game.  I think the presentation and the visuals really pull off the, “this game is different” feel.  I mean, if we skeletonize what abilities can do for us we can always wash it down:: movement abilities, reaching abilities, and changing perspective to name a few.  It is very enjoyable to see how Axiom Verge handles these in fun, unique ways.

I’ll be honest, I could melt this game down and I can just state it as a Metroidvania game.  It’s just very well executed like how New Super Mario Bros. doesn’t bring huge changes to the table.  (Ah, I’m sorry colossal and mini mushrooms.  I love you mini mushroom.)  They’re just very well done.  

The only negative thing is the same negative thing I have with most metroidvania games.  Traveling around the map can be a pain.  This is a common case for most metroidvania games even when they have some sort of fast travel, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t an issue.

Oh yeah, I said the world of Axiom Verge sounds different.  The soundtrack is very Metroid-ish.  They give off that same vibe of the unknowns of space, but there is a track that is so unique I just stopped moving and listened to it a bit when I first went in.  Love it.  If you play the game, you’ll know which one it is.  (Or I guess if people really demand it, I can send them a link.)


IT’S FUN, and the pixel graphics are gorgeous.  I guess I’ll say that about pretty much every game here.  XD

If you have it in your Epic Games pool of games you’ve grabbed for free, or you really like metroidvanias, I would recommend trying it out!  There is a prequel that is coming to the Switch as well.

Okay, so that was more than a bit of time for Axiom Verge.


Thanks for reading ULTRA.  We’ll be back with more things tomorrow!  Also, there is another Summer Games Fest showcase tomorrow, and I’ll report that too.  Stay safe!  Take care of yourselves, and we’ll see you in the next game!

Why I Love: Slay the Spire

Minimizing Randomness:
(This is an archived post from 2020, May 11)
It is that time of the day again.  It is that time of the feeling again.  We’re back at ULTRA to talk about why we love video games.  Looking at as much of the good as we can and as little as the bad.  We do not deny the bad, but especially now, we should be positive. 

AN ANNOUNCEMENT: I’d like to do the entire list of ULTRA.  We’ll be starting at the very bottom, and making our way to the top.  I will be skipping ones I’ve done previously (with a remark to let you know we passed it). Remember that every game on this list has made it to the Top 12 Games list, so they’re all delicious.  This also means we might do a number twice because something has been moved down a number because I inserted a game, so if that happens you know what occurred in the numbering.  However, also keep in mind this is all my opinion, and I am sorry if your game doesn’t make it to the list.  Okay.  Here we go!

At #131, we have Slay the Spire.  Slay the Spire is a turn-based, roguelite, deck-building RPG.  The graphics are soft and endearing.  It’s a fantasy world where you must climb a mysterious spire and fight monsters.  It has four characters each with their own types of cards and very different playstyles. The roguelite genre makes it different every time you play.

Most deck-building games can be frustrating because of the computer AI being unusually lucky, but Slay the Spire counters that with something I don’t often see.  You can usually see what your enemies are going to do the next turn, so you can plan your attacks.  This makes replaying, because this is a roguelite and you will die, very rewarding.   Your understanding of the enemy gives you a huge advantage because you know what their strategies will be and you can be ready the next time.  Their moves are not always the same for many of the enemies, but a general strategy.  The same EXACT thing every time wouldn’t be very good for a roguelite.

After every match, you get loot and sometimes cards.  These can be potions to buff you for a turn, an extra card for a later fight, or being able to run from a fight.  

Card games are difficult to balance, because they often contain randomness and luck.  Cards in games like Hearthstone are usually based on luck.  This results in kind of a gambler’s high when you win, rather than the happiness you get from winning because you achieved something.

Slay the Spire minimizes this in many ways.  One was already stated, where you are generally given an idea of what your opponent or opponents are going to do next.  The second is with the small starting deck.  This means that the cards you choose to add to your deck are mostly the ones you want.  There are even a few opportunities to take out cards as well.  When you run out of cards in your deck in battle, all the used cards are shuffled back in and you start over.  This combined with the fact that you can choose to not accept any new cards after battles means that you can minimize situations where your deck gets too stuffed with cards you had to put in your deck.  

The third thing that Slay the Spire does to minimize randomness is choosing the risk.  Before you start the floor of a dungeon, you can see a map with all the different forking paths of where you can go and the events on those paths.  For example, path one has a monster, a monster, a rest site, and then an event.  Meanwhile, there could be a path with a monster, a monster, a rest site, and an elite monster.  You choose your risk and reward.  With my stats now, can I take the risk of fighting an elite monster and getting good loot?  Usually the higher the risk, the greater the loot.  After every battle, you see the map again, so choosing a different fork in the road by the time you get there is also an option.

One last thing is if you die but you made it rather far, your next run will be given a small boost of your choice.  Sometimes that is max HP, an extra card, or other things.  This way your previous run wasn’t all for naught.

Slay the Spire minimizes the output randomness, randomness AFTER a choice by the player, by laying this out before you and giving you a chance to decide what you want with what you’re given.  However, there is still output randomness.  It’s still a card game.  There are still times where it really feels like luck, and that kind of disruption is not exactly joy-inducing.

With all the minimization, Slay the Spire ends up being a really addictive card game.  I have had runs where I feel like I won because I managed my deck and chosen paths wisely.  There were moments where I almost died, but then I was saved by the fact that I denied taking a card to reduce unnecessary draw.  There were also times where I chose a path where I knew that the chances of me living was very low, and so it didn’t feel like I was “unlucky.”  I took the risk and the consequences with it.  I feel like most card-games should include things about minimizing the output randomness you receive in the future, and Slay the Spire comes built with features for that.  This game is really fun.  I personally set it to quick mode so all the actions are done faster.  You still get to see the animations, but it’s sped up.  
This game definitely got me hooked.  I would recommend it to anyone who likes roguelites.

Thanks for reading!  Hopefully I will be posting these more often to get through this large list. We’ll see you again soon on ULTRA! 

Why I Love: The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind

(This is a post from the archive.  Originally posted on 2019, August 7.  I have edited the ranking to match the current ULTRA rank of 2020, May 15.)
From the very beginning, Morrowind gives you the sense of wonder and adventure.  The first notes of music coming into the menu is a soft drumming.  The melody that introduces you to the game is not played by a trumpet, a violin, or a piano.  It’s not a grand instrument.  It’s a harp.  After the intro, the music swells and becomes more and more grand.  The sense of a growing adventure is a constant feeling in The Elder Scrolls series, and I feel like Morrowind does it best out of the series.

This is a game that was introduced before worlds got really big.  I mean, there were a good amount of big worlds already, but not so prominent as today, where I feel like every game is getting ludicrously big.  Morrowind isn’t just a grand adventure, it feels like a grand adventure.

You start as a nobody without much of a past.  I don’t know, maybe you have amnesia like in a ton of other games.  You’re also treated like an outsider.  The interesting feeling about Morrowind is how learning about anyone in the game can be something of an exploration.  Your reputation with the different NPCs feel important.  They’re not just quest givers.  They have lives, and your adventure is changing things on the island of Morrowind.  You grow out of that outsider label, and you really feel that as you progress through the story.

Learning the lore of the island of Morrowind enhances your experience of your adventure and main quest on the island.  Remembering names, people, and places all came in handy for me and it helps me in knowing who to trust and who I shouldn’t trust.

There’s something grounded about the way The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion and Skyrim feel that Morrowind doesn’t have, and I mean that in a good way.  Oblivion and Skyrim are placed in a more traditional fantasy feeling.  Everything is so strange and new in Morrowind.  The creatures, characters, and enemies you fight all feel very new.  The traditional fantasy monsters are actually rather lacking.  Instead, you get all these weird creatures like scamps or grub-like kwama.  I know the other games have strange creatures (and scamps) as well, but, especially in Skyrim, much of the time you’re fighting dragons, spiders, trolls, and wild animals.  While that’s fun, I am never surprised to see something like that.  In Morrowind, everything is new and it drove me to find out what else was out there.

Unrelated to the sense of wonder, there are a couple of things that also helped my loving of Morrowind.  I really like the infinite progression system.  It doesn’t get wonky like Oblivion if you level a ton.  I also like the simplicity of the pause screen, where you can see the map, character attributes, and inventory all with one button.  No needing to navigate much really. 

Of course, the music by the marvelous Jeremy Soule is absolutely fantastic and helps with that amazing feeling of an adventure that just grows in scale.  

Few games can reach the intensity of exploration and learning lore that Morrowind did for me.  They exist though, and perhaps I’ll talk about them later.  And unfortunately yes, Morrowind’s graphics haven’t aged particularly well, but if you’re willing to let some imagination fill in those polygons, you’ll be fine.  This is just my experience, and I really don’t know how your experience will be like, but I feel like it’s important to sometimes feel unknown and let yourself be amazed by a new world and more importantly, enjoy it.

As of writing editing this (2020, May 15) on the ULTRA, The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind is rank 38. The ULTRA consists of all the alumni from the 12 games list. Thanks for reading this!  I hope you take the time to love games despite their faults.  

See you next time on ULTRA!

Why I Love: Donkey Kong Country 2: Diddy’s Konquest

What Does Music Feel Like to You?:

(This is an archived article from July 18, 2019. Some things are updated to reflect the current state of the ULTRA.) If you browse video game music, it’s sure to come up.  The music from one of the rather difficult levels in Donkey Kong Country 2, which I will say as DKC2 from here.  It will pop up.  The elements that I’ve spoken of from Donkey Kong Country 1 are in its sequel and they’re still absolutely fantastic.  The disparity between the two playable characters and what they can do is even greater, the bonus levels (and levels themselves) more organized, and the graphics even cleaner.  

But I’m not going to talk about any of those.  I’m just going to talk about music and how music defines what itself looks like.

If you’d like, do a little experiment with me.  Choose a game where you know the music well and you know the game well.  I don’t want to ruin a new game with this.  Then choose a song from another game and play that instead of the default background music.  Does it sound weird?  More importantly, does it change how you approach and feel the level?  You already know what the level is like, but changes everything.  I feel like that is what DKC2’s music does for the game and in a very good way too.

DKC2’s levels are vibrant, beautiful, and very well designed, but Rare, and even more specifically, David Wise the composer, pushes this by going outside what we can see.  It is clear what the level designers wanted us to feel and what the artists wanted us to play through.  

We’re going to use the very first level, Pirate Panic takes place on a pirate ship.  The enemies feel pirate-y.  The ship very much so as well.  However, what makes us feel most pirate-y is the music.  I’ve provided a link below for the music.  The beginning of the song does what a lot of good cinema does.  It has establishing ambiance.  You’ll see this in a lot of manga and anime films, especially in Studio Ghibli films.  The camera will cut to a plant dripping water, or to a couple of rocks.  Perhaps a busy street, but with the focal point being the environment, not anyone in particular.  David Wise does this in the first level with the creaking of the ship.  Then the music makes the pirate ship feel and look like the open sea.  It is upbeat and ready to sail, very much like the players as they set out on the first level.  The fairly high difficulty of the series hasn’t set in yet.  The rocking of the ship continues and is actually really loud in the song.  It makes the whole level feel like a living, breathing thing.  I mean, the level is literally rocking up and down, and the music further emphasizes not only the feel, but also the look.  

I’m really against spoilers.  I’m sorry that I’m going to talk about one.  I will separate the spoiler section with large dashes so it’s easily avoidable.  This takes place about 40% into the game.

SPOILERS START

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In Bramble Blast, which features David Wise’s Stickerbrush Symphony, the emphasis is on the vastness of the brush.  It starts with a repeating set of notes and that set of notes is repeated throughout the song.  The repeating and overlapping melody notes puts emphasis on the repeating and ever expanding brush that we see all throughout the stage.  The whole stage even feels like you are wandering and almost aimless.  The level is a maze.  The repetition of notes and the reverberations of the melody take that visual and step it up in a way that cannot be done with only one of the senses.

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SPOILERS END

It is this cohesion with music, visual, and level design that really brings DKC2 to the top of the series for me.  It is the biggest reason Why I Love Donkey Kong Country 2: Diddy’s Konquest.

Donkey Kong Country 2: Diddy’s Konquest is ranked at number 17 on the ULTRA. The ULTRA consists of all the alumni from the 12 games list.

Thanks for reading, and I’ll see you next time on Game Praisers!

Why I Love: Medal of Honor: Frontline

The Theatrics of Battle:

Medal of Honor is one of the FPS franchises that dominated the early 2000s.  The first in the series came out in late 1999, but the sequels exploded in popularity and I remember playing LAN games with friends.  We’d make strange rules and battle using them.  We played a mode we made up in Allied Assault where we could only use sniper rifles without using their scopes and we had to reload after every shot.  We called it “Revolutionary War.”  It was good fun.

But that is not what this is going to be about.  That was just me rambling.  Medal of Honor moved to the PC in Allied Assault.  It continued on consoles in Underground and then Medal of Honor: Frontline. 

We’re going to talk about that one thing that you know that I know that you know that I’m going to talk about.  I’m going to talk about “Your Finest Hour” when the Normandy landings take place.

This is the first level in the game.  Medal of Honor’s first two games are also created by Steven Spielberg, the director of the fantastic World War II film Saving Private Ryan.  Frontline continues that trend of being like that film.  The long anticipation getting to the beach is very memorable.  All you see is that horizon and you know that it’s deadly.  After your boat gets hit and you walk up to the captain, the sound effects in this game blare off.  I mean, they really, really go off.  Bullets, bombs, airplanes, and the screaming of men flood your ears.  


I actually went back to listen to players playing the level.  I thought to myself, what makes this scene so intense?  Why does this feel so much more intense than say, most of Modern Warfare 2’s intense firefights?  The intensity of the moment would be completely different were it not for the thing that makes Medal of Honor and Call of Duty scenes so hectic: allies.

I don’t mean the allies you have in games like Mass Effect or Uncharted.  The thing that sets missions like the Normandy scene differently is that, especially in the beginning of the game, you’re not really set out to be a hero.  You’re a lieutenant, yes, but you can get killed just like any of those other NPCs who are screaming for their lives.  At least, that is the intended premise.  You don’t have a super ability or unusually convincing charisma.  You’re just another man with a gun. 

So, initially at least, when you first get off that boat, that onslaught of sound is frightening.  The outright destruction is shocking.  I mean, for the most part, this is not an experimental game, so the likeliness of you not being the main character is low.  We get that, but in the moment?  Hrm… all we see and hear is your allies under stress, in danger, and being slain.  Oh, and we’re just like them.

I think that kind of joint vulnerability makes games feel like those wars and I believe it is one of the reasons why World War games tend to feel intense.  In those games when your people were getting overwhelmed, there is no capital ship flying above from where we could call down the thunder.   We don’t have lightsaber skills or magic to fight back.  If we’re overwhelmed, that’s it.  If our allies are dying, that’s it.  

I understand how some gamers really want that “immersiveness” in video games, but I think there is also a certain amount of responsibility to let yourself be immersed as well.  If little things are not right or not fulfilled, we can let them ruin the game.  We also have the power to run them over with our imagination as well though.  This is not to say that the developer doesn’t have a responsibility to fulfil immersiveness.  So how did EA  deal with it?  If you look back at gameplay of Medal of Honor: Frontline, there actually aren’t that many men on the beach.   But how many men did it feel like were on the beach?  A lot of good game design is not about what is actually there, but what feels like is there, and Medal of Honor: Frontline’s first mission performs this very well.

The rest of the game is also very good fun, and we cannot forget about the great multiplayer.  The music by Michael Giacchino is some of the best in any video game.  Those songs combined with the events in the game can move you to tears.  Alas, a major bad thing about the game is the fact that it can be difficult to obtain.  You can get it for PS2, Xbox, or Gamecube if you still have those working.  A remaster is available on Playstation Network, which may be the easier option.

If you really like World War II FPS games, I can definitely recommend this treasure.  Right now it is number 128 on the Ultimate Loosely Thought Ranked Analysis, or ULTRA.  A reminder that the games that make it on the list were on my Current Top 12 Games list at one point before they graduated to the ULTRA, so most of the time they’ll be worth playing if you’re interested.  Thanks for reading, and I’ll see you next time on Game Praisers!

Why I Love: Star Fox

(This post is from an archived post from July 17, 2019.)
Why I Love is a series about my favorite games. These are just my personal opinions. I just would like to share why they are so enjoyable to me.

There is something endearing about Star Fox’s polygons.  There are little to no textures at all on any of the ships or buildings.  I think this ambiguity kind of left room for me to imagine the textures, and by textures I mean nightmares.  I don’t know why but those shapes gave me so many nightmares.  I think it leads back to the fact that the enemies in Star Fox get up in your face.  I mean, they seriously get obnoxiously close to the screen.  Some of them just… man, it’s so uncomfortable.  

Keep in mind that Star Fox is one of the earlier 3D, behind-the-ship shooting games.  I think there was a lot of experimentation going on.  With the little hardware available and the new SuperFX chip working itself to death, there really wasn’t that much space of what they could put in there, but they really created a variety of things using just shapes.  Portraying thrusters with glowing yellow, orange, and red, is a great example of the maximum they could put in, and yet the ambiguity brings it to life again.  Enemy ship designs are very strange, even for a sci-fi game.  It’s those unknowns that, when brought to the N64 and beyond, create designs for ships that probably wouldn’t have been done if it weren’t for the limitations of what Nintendo had then.

The claustrophobia the enemies bring when they close in on you and the screen makes you very, very uncomfortable.  I don’t know if they intended this, but I feel like it helps bring the natural idea of flying a ship with that discomfort.  When you’re flying an aircraft anything you touch could cause major damage, and so the willingness of enemies to be up in your face kind of reinforces that idea that “Oh my gosh that thing is- Ahhh!”  is the kind of feeling you want.  It’s a weird, and kind of misplaced, thing where because sometimes you’re not in first person, you get that same feeling of running into something without them actually running into Fox himself.  I’ve never leaned back in my chair so many times in a game.

I love Star Fox because it works with limitations.  It is when you do that with a game, or any creative product really, that it reaches new heights.  Working with limitations means being creative, being strange, trying new things, and working smart.  Nintendo does this all the time, and it is one of the reasons why I love Star Fox on the SNES.

As of writing this, on the Ultimate Loosely-Thought Ranked Analysis, or ULTRA, Star Fox is number 106 (as of May 13, 2020) it is now number 128 due to additional games to the list).  The ULTRA consists of all the alumni from the Top 12 Games list.