Category Archives: 2004

#88: Fire Emblem

Format: Game Boy Advance Genre: Tactical RPG Released: 2004 Developer: Intelligent Systems

Fire Emblem makes it onto the list not just because it’s an excellent game – it’s easily one of the best ever GBA games – but also because it’s one of the few games I’ve played that really makes you care about what happens to the characters. And considering that for most of the game the protagonists appear as barely animated cardboard cut-outs with reams of text scrolling beneath their alternately grinning/puzzled/frowning faces, this just goes to show you don’t need fancy graphics to make you invest your emotions in game characters.

Having said all that, I found it a little difficult to warm to the characters at first – the dialogue has a habit of being either very twee or wilfully contrived (see the screen below to get an idea of what I mean). Still, I eventually got used to it, and after a while I just came to accept the fact that everyone in the Fire Emblem universe just happens to say everything very earnestly. (I’d like to see a sequel set in England where everyone automatically assumes you’re being sarcastic no matter what you’re saying – it would be a bit like The Inbetweeners but with more knights on horseback, and every conversation would be interspersed with comments about the sexual prowess of someone’s mother.)

In terms of the story, there’s nothing particularly original. It starts off as the usual Japanese RPG fare – young girl leaves home village to defeat great evil, meets various companions along the way (who all happen to have differing but complementary special skills), discovers that – SHOCK HORROR – she’s actually a long lost princess, a larger plot is revealed involving an evil wizard and dragons, you’re tasked with finding an ancient…zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.

"Verily, yay and forsooth!"

So far, so dull, but despite what I said about the twee dialogue, it actually does a pretty good job of conveying the various personality traits and flaws of the many (many) characters (around 40 characters become available in total). And this is where it gets interesting. Every single character has his or her own plot arc, and their story changes according to what happens over the course of the game, resulting in multiple endings. Each character has around three other characters that have a strong relationship with them (for example, perhaps they have a love interest, a father and an old friend within the group), and each level is bookended with little cut scenes showing how the various relationships that character has are developing.

BUT – and this is the clever part – when a character dies, they stay dead for the rest of the game. So if your favourite character’s love interest perishes on the battlefield, you’ll never get to find out what would have happened between them, and instead the survivor will go on to pine for their lost love.

Kent was furious at his name, but nowhere near as livid as his brother Herefordshire.

Of course, there’s nothing to stop you turning off the game and loading up a previous save point in a bid to prevent the death of this particular character, but sometimes it’s incredibly difficult to save them. If you’ve made a bad tactical decision in terms of the characters you’ve brought along on a particular mission, or if you’ve left yourself in position where you can be easily surrounded, the only option might be to restart the level. But restarting is incredibly time-consuming – some levels can take about an hour to get through – so you’re left with a dilemma: do I try to save this character, or should I push on without them?

The first time a character died, I instantly restarted the mission – there was no way I was going to lose someone, obviously. I mean, what kind of person leaves a man behind on the battlefield? And anyway, I was determined to get through the whole game with all of my characters intact. The second and third times too, I restarted the level to avoid leaving someone behind – but after that things changed.

Oooh, look at the horsey's pretty wings! Shame it can take about as much damage as a tin-foil helmet.

The game’s difficulty level quickly begins to rise, and often you’ll be ambushed by hidden enemies, giving you little chance to protect your weaker characters. On one such occasion, my thief, Matthew, got caught in the crossfire when several enemies popped up in a room I thought was clear. I tried reverting to an earlier save point, but it was impossible to save him, and I was left with the unappetising prospect of restarting the entire level, which had taken me nearly an hour. Shamefully, I started to think I could probably do without a thief – I mean, he was pretty useless in battle, and I had plenty of keys for opening locked doors. But what about Leila? Surely I couldn’t sacrifice Matthew, her soul mate?

And this is where the game really starts to get you – when you’re holding the lives of these characters in your hands, suddenly they seem more than mere cardboard cut-outs.

This wizard's speciality is concocting hair-dye potions.

Eventually, with a twinge of guilt, I decided to continue on without Matthew.

And then, a couple of levels later, Rebecca died. Again, I had to decide whether to save her, and again I decided that it just wasn’t worth playing through the whole level again – but the decision was easier this time. And so it continued: more and more characters started dying as the levels got harder and harder, and sometimes I’d attempt to save them, but other times I’d leave them behind. I realised that the stronger characters could actually do most of the fighting and, if anything, these weaker characters were more of a hindrance. As time wore on, I reached the stage where I barely felt anything when a character died, and instead I’d just focus on securing victory at whatever cost.

And it’s at that point that it hits you: when did I turn into this heartless bastard?

Don’t be fooled by its cute good looks, Fire Emblem is a masterclass in emotional trauma. The game does its utmost to make you really care about the fates of each and every character, then makes it almost impossible to win without sacrificing some of them, leaving you with no option but to blunt your feelings towards these doe-eyed innocents and adopt a sort of ruthless Machiavellian-general persona. I swear by the end I was developing a thousand-yard stare as I sent yet another pink-haired teenager to the slaughter… Sort of puts me in mind of that poem by Siegfried Sassoon:

If I were fierce, and bald, and short of breath,
I’d live with scarlet Majors at the Base,
And speed glum heroes up the line to death.
You’d see me with my puffy petulant face,
Guzzling and gulping in the best hotel,
Reading the Roll of Honour. ‘Poor young chap,’
I’d say—‘I used to know his father well;
Yes, we’ve lost heavily in this last scrap.’
And when the war is done and youth stone dead,
I’d toddle safely home and die—in bed.

Yes, GBA Fire Emblem certainly made for some sober but compelling bus journeys.

Lewis

(Screenshots from http://uk.gamespot.com)

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Filed under 2004, Game Boy Advance, Intelligent Systems, Tactical RPG

#85: Sega Superstars

Format: Playstation 2 Genre: Party Released: 2004 Developer: Sonic Team (Sega)

When I was teaching in Japan, I lived in the party house. Whereas most of my fellow assistant language teachers (ALTs) were living in one-room apartments, by sheer luck I was placed with a school that owned a two-bedroom house, so naturally I ended up playing host to lots of parties (thankfully, I had very understanding neighbours).

The Japanese cover art for Sega Superstars.

I loved my house. When I first arrived, my supervisor couldn’t stop apologising about it: she kept saying sorry for how old it was, and how the school was sorry that it couldn’t get me a new apartment, and there’s me thinking, “Blimey, I’ve got a house, woohoo!”. Of course, it wasn’t all brilliant – although I loved living in a traditional Japanese house with wooden walls and tatami flooring, this meant there wasn’t much in the way of insulation, and it got so cold in the winter that my olive oil actually froze solid in the kitchen.

But the fact that I had so much space more than made up for the lack of creature comforts, and as an added bonus I had cupboards full of random stuff that had been left by previous residents. As well as piles of books and suspicious looking bottles of spirits, I inherited a huge collection of Friends episodes taped off Canadian TV, as well as about a year’s worth of Hawaiian local television broadcasts (which were strangely compelling).

I don't fancy the bloke on the left's chances.

But the main plus to having a house was that fact that I could invite people over without any worries about fitting them all in, and I played host to a fair few parties: as well as my birthday, I held the Festivus (for the rest of us) after-party at my house, we shaved off Matt G’s massive ginger beard for charity (and everyone turned up at my door with fake beards), and of course there was the legendary Halo 2 gaming night. But whatever we were doing, we always seemed to end up playing Sega Superstars sooner or later.

I first saw Sega Superstars at the Tokyo Game Show in 2004: the game is basically a collection of twelve Sega-themed minigames, all of which are played using the EyeToy. To be honest, not all of the minigames were up to much: in particular, I remember the game based on Billy Hatcher and the Giant Egg was almost unplayable (what do you mean you don’t remember Billy Hatcher? Come on, surely everyone remembers Billy Hatcher? No? OK, moving on…). However, most of the games were pretty good fun, and a few were absolutely brilliant.

"Take that evil undead!" The zombies were as surprised as anyone when the 100-ft-tall Japanese woman loomed over the hill.

The House of the Dead game was the one that initially drew us in at the Tokyo Game Show booth, and it also proved to be one of the best on the disc. There wasn’t much to it really – just whack the zombies as they amble onto the screen – but it was compelling, and whenever we had a party, this was always one of the first games to be played. The other big hit with party guests was Virtua Fighter, where you had to punch and kick your computer opponent, occasionally raising your hands to block. This one was a constant source of hilarity for onlookers, and it led to several ‘near miss’ incidents involving wildly mistimed kicks and desperately fragile paper screen doors.

The control system wasn’t perfect though – often the EyeToy found it hard to tell whether you were punching or blocking, which led to some frustrating losses. The Space Channel 5 dancing game suffered particularly from this: the dance moves required pinpoint timing and accuracy, but sometimes the game just wouldn’t register your move, making it all but impossible on the higher levels. This was a real shame because along with HOTD and Virtua Fighter, Space Channel 5 was one of the games people often requested.

This was actually one of the weaker games in my opinion - you were simply required to move Sonic around a tunnel by waving your arms.

I know I moaned about Kinect earlier this week, but it would be great to see an updated version of Sega Superstars released for Microsoft’s system. I have such fond memories of this game that it would be fantastic to play it again, and playing it on Kinect would (hopefully) eliminate all of the annoying flaws of the original, whereby the EyeToy would struggle to disentangle your impressive kung-fu moves from the outline of the sofa behind you. Having said that though, Sega Superstars was undoubtedly the best EyeToy game out there, and although many of the games were fairly similar to previous EyeToy offerings (in particular, HOTD was almost exactly the same as that ‘whack a ninja’ game from EyeToy: Play), the slick presentation and the use of Sega characters really made it stand apart.

Still, regardless of whether it was any good or not, Sega Superstars made my life better because it reminds me of all the fantastic times we had in my little wooden house in Japan: the party house.

A scene from the 'Wear An Engrish T-Shirt' party (I think Laura's T-shirt says 'Let's Playing In The Dramas'). I've just been given the underwear as a present.

Two years after I left Japan, my successor, Eben, got in touch to bring me the sad news that the party house was scheduled for demolition. In the end the school had decided it was costing too much to maintain, and Eben was left with the sad task of sifting through all the many years of ALT detritus left in various cupboards and crannies around the house, selling what he could and binning what he couldn’t (history doesn’t record what happened to the Hawaiian local programming). I was pleased to find out that Eben had continued the tradition of partying in the house, and he was just as devastated as I was to find out it was going to be knocked down after he left – he even offered to send me a piece of the roof as a memento.

It’s sad to know the party house is no longer with us… but the good times were fun while they lasted.

Lewis

(Screenshots from puolenkuunpelit.com)

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Filed under 2004, Party, Playstation 2, Sega, Sonic Team

#82: Burnout 3: Takedown

Format: Playstation 2 Genre:Racing Released: 2004 Developer: Criterion Games

Now we’re getting near to the end of our list of 101 games, a few people have been asking me whether I’m running out of games to talk about. Far from it – in fact the tricky part is trying to work out which games to leave out. Between us we’ve got a list of about 45 ‘possibles’ for inclusion, so over half of them won’t make it past the audition.

From the very beginning though, Burnout 3 was a definite for the list. In fact, I even mentioned it on the first ever post as one of the ‘two or three [racing games] that I’ve really enjoyed” and that “rank up there as some of my favourite game experiences”. Nothing has changed in the two and a half years since I wrote that post: Burnout 3 is still one of my favourite racing games of all time. (Blimey, two and a half years, have we really been writing this blog for that long? It was only meant to take a year!)

As the subtitle suggests, the key gameplay element of Burnout 3 is ‘takedowns’ – ramming other cars off the road to earn ‘boost’. Whereas the first two games in the series put more emphasis on other ways of earning boost, like powersliding and driving on the wrong side of the road, Burnout 3 focused firmly on the takedown mechanic, and was a helluva lot more fun as a result.

In Burnout 1, filling your boost meter was an arduous task, but Burnout 3 was happy to throw boost at you like the US government throwing money at an ailing investment bank. This meant that every race whipped by at blinding speed as a sucession of nail-biting bumper-to-windscreen encounters with rival cars – and in the brilliant ‘Road Rage’ game mode, the game abandoned all pretence of racing entirely, instead encouraging you to take out as many opponents as possible within the time limit.

However, it’s the inspired inclusion of ‘aftertouch’ that really makes this game. Whenever your car gets ‘taken out’, the pounding soundtrack is replaced by an insistent heartbeat and the game switches to slow motion as your car pirouettes through the air. But, brilliantly, you still have the power to move your car – ever so slightly – while it’s spinning across the road, giving you the ability to gently nudge the wrecked chassis directly into path of your oncoming rivals, or even in front of the git who took you out in the first place.

Aftertouch came into its own in the utterly fantastic Crash Mode, where the aim was to cause as big a pile-up as possible. Playing Crash Mode with a bunch of mates was good for hours of entertainment – and interestingly, it’s one of the few multiplayer games I can think of (certainly in the pre-Wii era) where my female friends enjoyed playing just as much as the guys did.

Who’d have thought the gender divide could be bridged by multi-lane car crashes?

Lewis

(Screenshots from www.gamefaqs.com)

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Filed under 2004, Criterion Games, Playstation 2, Racing

#26: Katamari Damacy

Format: Playstation 2 Genre: Miscellaneous Released: 2004 Developer: Namco

Katamari Damacy is like some sort of gaming Prozac – every person I showed it to walked away with a smile on their face and a spring in their step, no chemical aids needed. It’s like concentrated happiness pressed onto a disc, ready to explode out through televisions worldwide in a giddy dissemination of the gospel of cheerfulness. And it’s utterly bonkers.

Katamari Damacy Japanese box

Let’s start with the plot. The King of All Cosmos (the enormous bloke with a crown further down this page) has gone on a bit of an alcohol binge and accidentally knocked the stars and moon out of the sky. As you do. For some reason he decides the best plan of action is to get his son, the diminutive Prince, to roll up loads of junk from planet Earth with a sticky ball called a Katamari in order to replace the missing stars. Unfortunately, I couldn’t make out much more of the plot than that (I played the Japanese version of the game – it was never released in the UK), which is a shame because if the dialogue between the Prince and the King was as joyously insane as the rest of the game, it would have been a real treat to read.

katamari damacy building

My favourite part about Katamari Damacy is its fantastic sense of scale. You start of the game with a tiny, 5-cm Katamari, and you find yourself picking up things like paper clips and LEGO bricks while dodging rampaging mice. Gradually, as your Katamari gets bigger, you find you can pick up larger and larger objects, and there’s a joyous moment in each level where the things that have been chasing you – be they mice, bears or circus elephants – suddenly turn tail and run as you bear down on them with your enormous sticky ball of doom. Eventually, by the time you reach the final level, your Katamari gets so big that you can actually pick up entire skyscrapers – possibly one of the most satisfying gaming pay-offs of all time. I found myself  compulsively replaying the final level again and again in order to make my Katamari as big as possible – to the point where I could pick up the islands themselves.

katamari damacy pencil

There’s a wonderful attention to detail throughout the game. As I was living in Japan at the time, it helped that I could recognise some of the more esoteric objects, such as the giant kotatsu early in the game and the maneki neko that seem to crop up everywhere. The items seem to get weirder and weirder as the game progresses, and some of my favourite ones crop up in the later levels, including a delightful Ultraman lookalike and even the Japanese god of thunder, Raijin, who’s hiding out in a cloud on the last level.

The actual physics of the ball are ingenious – if you pick up an awkwardly shaped object, such as a pencil, the ball reacts accordingly, making it difficult to roll in a straight line. The game could never be described as difficult, but moving the Katamari efficiently through a level requires just enough skill to make the game rewarding – and utterly addictive.

katamari damacy king

However, the highlight of the game has to be its fantastic soundtrack, which features everything from J-rock to jazz. Turn up the sound on your PC and click on the intro video further down the page – you’re in for an aural treat. Not to mention a visual feast of dancing pandas, singing ducks and rainbow eruptions…

And I guarantee that you’ll be humming the theme tune for days afterwards.

“Naaaaaaaaaaaa NaNaNaNa Na Na Na Na Katamari Damashiiiiiiiii”. Damn, that’s in my head now.

katamari damacy large ball

Katamari Damacy made my life slightly better simply because it never fails to cheer me up – even just writing about it has made me positively smirk-happy.

Everyone should play this game at least once – its combination of bizarre humour, fantastic music and addictive gameplay make it one of the best games ever released for the PS2. It’s just a shame that Namco never released it in Europe… Come on Namco, don’t we deserve a bit of happiness too?

The bizarre game opening, featuring the signature tune, “Katamari On The Rocks”.

A sample of gameplay from the US version of the game (I finally get to read a bit of the dialogue between the King and the Prince – and it’s just as bizarre as I supposed).

Lewis

(Screenshots from www.whattheyplay.com and www.ign.com)

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Filed under 2004, Miscellaneous, Namco, Playstation 2

#19: Halo 2

Format: X-Box Genre: First-Person Shooter Released: 2004 Developer: Bungie

It was a tough call to choose which Halo to include here. I ruled out Halo 3 early on, simply because it didn’t have the same impact on me as the first two, even though it’s an excellent game. Halo 1 very nearly made it: I was blown away when I first played it at an X-Box launch event, and driving a jeep in co-op mode is right up there among gaming’s all time top moments. It’s sort of like taking a drive into the country with a friend, only the friend is in control of a gatling gun and keeps shouting at you for driving off cliffs.

halo-2-box-art

In the end though, Halo 2 was the clear winner, chiefly because of the enormous amount of fun I had playing it on local multiplayer. I don’t care what anyone says, playing games against people in your own living room will always be miles better than playing over the internet – the only downside being that you have to actually get the people there in the first place. Oh, and in the case of this game, a link cable, two massive TVs, two X-Boxes, two copies of Halo 2 and eight controllers.

halo 2 ghost

But, after weeks of careful planning, this was exactly what I managed to do in Japan back in June 2005, as documented on my blog An Englishman In Nyu-gun. It took some effort to get all the various bits together, especially in X-Box-starved Japan, but it was worth it – by the end of the evening my face hurt from grinning so much. Nothing really brings out the smiles quite like shooting your friend in the face with a rocket launcher.

Eight-player Halo 2, June 2005

Unfortunately, I’m unlikely to experience such a local eight-player gaming fest again. The sheer logistics involved in getting so many people and so much equipment together – not to mention the fact that most people I know don’t have the time they once did to dedicate their lives to the cause of video games – means that this event was probably a one-off. But gosh darn, what a night it was. 

halo 2 split screen tank

Special mention must go to the Zanzibar map with its alien ferris wheel (at least I presume that’s what it is), but my favourite map will always be Coagulation, which is based on the Blood Gulch map from the original Halo. The fact that it has two Banshees opens up the possibility for airborne chicken runs (first one to pull up loses), and its combination of wide open spaces, rocket launchers and sniper rifles makes for some highly entertaining skirmishes.

halo 2 jeep

The only downside of this map is the lack of energy sword – officially the most cheaty and frustrating (if you’re on the wrong end of it) yet hugely entertaining weapon in the whole game. Our gaming session that night was frequently punctuated by howls of frustration as some cheeky young cub went round dispatching all and sundry with said sword, only for the rest of us to unite in an almighty virtual bundle against the miscreant. He who lives by the sword, dies by the sword, etc. etc.. Although he’s just as likely to die by plasma rifle in this instance.

Damn, all this reminiscing has made me want to play it again. Anyone got a couple of X-Boxes and a bit of spare time?

(And a link cable, two massive TVs, two copies of Halo 2, eight controllers, an understanding wife, a babysitter, etc. etc.)

Lewis

(Screenshots from http://www.ign.com)

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Filed under 2004, Bungie, First Person Shooter, Xbox