04 June 2012

What IS Fun: Part I

I've been thinking about good games and good stories and trying to come up some examples of games that hit both criteria for me.  I found this useful not only to make myself think about what exactly a good game is, but to give you as my readers a bit more of an idea of where I am coming from in terms of my attitude towards games.  I tried to pick one example from each "era" of gaming I have personal experience with.  Obviously MMO's are only going to be a part of this equation, but again, I think the overall exercise is useful.  I told myself that in compiling this list that I would just be "going with my gut."  When I think of a period of gaming, what is the first game that jumps to my mind as the one I enjoyed most?  I think it is these sort of first impressions that really give the best feeling for something, rather than second guessing yourself.

The NES/8-bit Era

While I did have an old Atari 2600, let's be frank, games didn't really have stories at all back then.  So let's begin with the era of the old Nintendo Entertainment System.  This is where video games really "came of age" for me, and perhaps as an industry all to themselves.  Stories were still relatively simplistic at this juncture, due to hardware limitations, but console RPG's were already emerging, led by the competing Final Fantasy and Dragon Warrior franchises.  My choice here for the game that was the most fun for me is going to sound familiar but at the same time shocking.  It is a franchise you would expect, but not the game you would expect.

The Legend of Zelda franchise is one of the most notable in gaming, but The Adventure of Link is widely viewed as the weakest example of the series.  Count me in the minority, but I strongly disagree.  I enjoyed the side-scrolling action sequences, the challenging dungeons, and the overworld puzzles.  It was such a departure for the franchise, and Nintendo quickly returned to its "top down" roots in the next installment, but I will always enjoy this particular game.  Maybe simply because it is the "odd man out" in the Zelda series, but this game was just a lot of fun for me.  The story was typical Zelda yet not.  While Ganon loomed as the ultimate threat, he was not the enemy you truly faced.  I always enjoyed that little twist as well.

Funny story:  Anyone who owned (or still owns) an NES knows how... cranky the games and the console can be.  I will never forget blowing into cartridges, blowing into the machine, wiping down the contacts with rubbing alcohol laden Q-Tips, etc.  But one time when I popped this game in to start over from scratch, something glitched.  Link has three "stats" in this game... Attack, Magic, and Defense.  Well, somehow the Attack stat glitched and I had maximum attack power from the very beginning of the game.  I was one-shotting Darknuts and slaughtering bosses from the first temple on.  While this did eliminate much of the challenge of the game, it remained highly enjoyable... and amusing.  It was just a little something that has always stuck with me.

The SNES/16-bit Era 

I actually "sat out" much of this period in gaming as it was happening.  My parents didn't like having the NES in the house and so when the new console came out, they put their foot down and did not get one for us.  So much of my experience with games from this period comes from versions ported to later consoles or ROM's I've played on my computer.  That said, there were obviously some fantastic examples of gaming in this period.  Many of the franchises we still love today really "found themselves" during this time.  My pick here is somewhat of a no-brainer and unlike my previous choice will not come as a surprise to anybody.

Yeah nothing unexpected here.  Chrono Trigger did a lot of things right that I appreciate even more as time goes on.  Time travel is always a convoluted story telling mechanism, but this game's approach isn't that hard to follow.  The story itself is very well done, especially considering the hardware limitations.  And the game is just fun to play.  There are many characters, some you are forced to use for certain segments, but eventually you can essentially mix and match them all.  The battle system is one of the early uses of the "active time" concept.  But perhaps the feature I appreciate the most is the way it handles "random encounters."

In most RPG's up to this point, random monster battles are just that... random.  Every step your character takes on the map there is a random chance that a battle will occur.  It could be every ten steps, hundred steps... or every other step.  This can get downright frustrating.  Chrono Trigger does away with this and places the monsters on the field of view.  Some are easy to avoid, others are not, but it gives you as the player some choice in terms of how much combat you want to participate in.  Obviously you need to do enough to keep your characters at the appropriate power level, so it is not as if you can skip combat entirely, but I found this very refreshing as I had grown very weary of the random nature of most RPG's at that time.

The N64/Playstation Era

Like many other gamers this was the period where I had to give up my rather single-minded infatuation with all things Nintendo.  I largely ignored Sega and other console offerings up to this point.  But Nintendo's decisions involving the N64 were just so atrocious that you almost had no choice but to look elsewhere.  Thankfully Sony did many things right with the Playstation and the rest is gaming history.  As with the 16-bit era there are so many great games here to choose from, and I am sure my choice here is going to be met with varying levels of astonishment, but there really is only one choice here for me as it remains one of my absolute favorite games to this very day.

The Final Fantasy series is one of the most venerable in the RPG genre.  The original title stems from the fact that Squaresoft was on the verge of going out of business and it was to be their "final" release.  Well the stunning success of that title changed everything and today it is one of the most beloved RPG franchises.  Seemingly every RPG fan has their favorite amongst the series, with the (utterly overrated) Final Fantasy VII always ranking near the top of the list.  The fourth and sixth installments also have a fair number of followers.  Not so for my favorite, Final Fantasy VIII.  But it is without doubt not only my favorite in the series, but one of my favorite games of all time.

First off I relate very well to the story and the main protagonist, Squall.  He starts out as a rebel without a cause, but quickly finds out there is much more to life.  Secondly I love the battle system.  This is something you either loved or you hated, and the majority of people hated it, but I loved it.  I spent months playing the card mini-game, drawing magic from monsters, and turning my characters into nigh unstoppable powerhouses.  It is a rather obtuse system on the surface, but once you figure it out, it is so elegant.  Yes Zell's "Armageddon Fist" was the most abused thing in the game, but for me, nothing was more fun than Squall with Auto-Haste, Aura, and some extra strength and speed boosters.  Battles were over faster than you could say "Renzokuken."

I don't want this to turn into a HUGE wall of text, so I'm going to split this post up.  Next time I'll tackle the previous two generations of console games and get into some of my PC gaming picks.  I hope you're enjoying this little "stroll" down gaming memory lane.  What are some great gaming memories from your past?  Ever have something like my Zelda 2 glitch happen to you?  Let me know in the comments!

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