Yearning For The Past

Nintendo has made a habit of banking on nostalgia. For the past few years, nearly every single one of their games is firmly rooted in the past. Mario has been refining Super Mario Bros 3 since the New series launched on Wii and Super Smash Bros. is basically a celebration of everything old.

Yoshi’s Woolly World is, essentially, a touched up version of the classic Yoshi’s Island on SNES. Instead of falling head over heals, though, I find myself indifferent. Every chance I get to play the game, I end up bored after 8 levels.

That isn’t to say the game is bad; far from it, actually. It’s a well crafted and hyper polished adventure, but it lacks creativity. It lacks soul; there is no passion and the game coasts along at a lethargic pace.

Is that a bad thing? Honestly, I cannot answer that. For some, the deliberate speed of the game is what makes it enjoyable. My sister finds the game very captivating, despite being easy for her. She loves that nothing is thrown at the player that requires dexterity or mastery of the game mechanics.

As for me, I only seem to find entertainment in the graphics. The game is a sight to behold. Nintendo have truly gotten a grasp on HD graphics and I’m curious to see what the NX might bring to the table. That doesn’t dismiss how humdrum Woolly World is.

It sure is nice looking, though.

All of the cool concepts you remember from Island are in this game, minus Baby Mario. While a lot of people would call that a plus, it’s a huge detractor in my book. Baby Mario was annoying, sure, but he served a purpose; it gave you a goal.

You didn’t want Baby Mario crying because it would drive you up the wall. With him not being a factor, you tend to recklessly fly through the game with no concern for death. Yoshi changes from cautious guardian to senseless traveler.

It really doesn’t help that each boss encounter is phoned in. I haven’t seen a collection of enemies so meaningless in some time, but not a single boss battle in Woolly World is even remotely interesting. They all follow the well established 3-hit formula to a tee. Even the bosses with a cool theme (a shy guy frozen in ice) end up being boring slogs.

Mostly, I end up feeling sad. If I don’t like a game, I tend to get angry and a little rash, but Woolly World just makes me depressed. I want to enjoy it’s cute exterior and finely tuned mechanics, but I can’t sustain interest.

Level 5-6, titled “Up Shuttlethread Pass“, is what really brought this full circle. It’s theme song is immediately nostalgic and evocative while being entirely new. It sounds almost like it is being played on an old phonograph player; I basically picture the entire scene in black and white.

It makes me yearn for my youth. I remember powering up Yoshi’s Island for the first time in 1st grade, sitting in front of my 27-inch RCA CRT and being blown away at how different the game was from Super Mario World.

What was with SNES and sports themed enemies?

There once was a time when Nintendo was willing to take risks with their franchises. Nintendo EAD could have easily churned out another average Mario game and called it a day, but they decided to focus on his new sidekick.

In turn, the entire dynamic of the game changed. No longer was everything based on physicality and secrets; Yoshi had the ability to stock ammo and explore his world without a time limit.

Not wanting to entirely ditch power-ups, Nintendo created a whole new way to experience Mario’s various abilities; transformations. Yoshi was able to become a helicopter and a mole and see a completely unique aspect of the levels.

In addition to that, there were also puzzles involving rolling blocks, hidden coins, soft dirt platforms and fuzzy seeds that intoxicated Yoshi (somehow). It was unlike any game ever released at that point. It’s art style was also wonderfully realized and brought to life with imaginative music.

For a child 7 years old, it was fundamentally like looking into a new world. It grabbed me with it’s cartoony style and kept me hooked with it’s innovation. It expanded my mind to different gameplay; I now didn’t expect the same thing from Mario with each iteration.

Sadly, it seems Nintendo never fully realized what made Yoshi’s Island so special. Each new game has tried mixing up the visual style instead of expanding the mechanics. The closest we’ve ever gotten to a truly progressive sequel was Yoshi’s Island DS. That game worked because it kept the original foundation and tinkered with some changes.

The game feels weird on Wii U. I can’t understand the screens side by side.

Every other title, from the disappointing Yoshi’s Story right up to Yoshi’s New Island, have gone backwards in terms of progression. Instead of trying to find a new way for Yoshi to interact with his surroundings, Nintendo has relied on gimmicks. In New Island, Yoshi has giant eggs; in Woolly World, everything is made of yarn, etc.

Maybe the whole problem with the Yoshi series is that our youth keeps reminding us of how great the idea can be. When given something so different and so well done, it’s hard to ever repeat that success.

Mario has maintained popularity over the years for being so boldly different with each game, up until the New series started coming along. Now, Nintendo could only inject new life into the franchise by handing it over to the players (Super Mario Maker is awesome).

Could Yoshi be saved by the same gamble? I don’t believe so. Yoshi’s Island felt handcrafted and thought-out; not a single level repeats a mechanic to the same extent. Each new element may come out of nowhere, but doesn’t appear out of place stacked next to Yoshi’s repertoire of moves. Level design wasn’t the only aspect that made Yoshi’s Island, unlike how a Mario game can function solely from it’s arenas.

Whatever the cause, I just cannot enjoy Yoshi’s Woolly World. I may love my amiibos to death, but the game doesn’t do anything for me. Well, it does make me sad, but that’s not the best thing to say about a game.

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Survivor’s Guilt

Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain is an exceptional game with a shockingly awful story. Fans of the series are disappointed that many questions are not answered (or even brought up) and that the conclusion doesn’t really mesh with the Metal Gear canon. It seems that Kojima’s shift to open-world has put the plot on the backburner in favor of making an expansive and rewarding gameplay system.

That being said, there are a lot of individual moments that I truly enjoyed in the Phantom Pain. I like what the ending stands for and I’m really fond of the exploration of child soldiers in the modern world, but the side plot that focuses on Paz is probably the best of the bunch.

While Snake feeling remorse over the loss of Paz doesn’t make much sense for his character, it’s only after beating the game do you begin to understand the majesty of this side story. Since Venom Snake is actually the medic from Ground Zeroes, his guilt over being unable to save Paz makes sense.

Venom Snake may barely remember he is the medic, but his true identity can never be erased. He was there, staring at Paz as she blew up in his face. He even shielded Big Boss from the explosion and nearly died in the process.

You can’t even tell he had a different face!

Having lost his arm and identity, Venom Snake is left confused and alone. He doesn’t say much, constantly has people trying to kill him and bonds with a quiet woman who then leaves him. Worrying about Paz seems too minuscule in his life, but it’s very touching.

Throughout the course of the game, you can undertake side-ops missions that have you rounding up some of your soldiers from the MSF days. These guys were with you when Big Boss was taking on all the AI pods and saving the world from Paz and ZEKE.

The medic may not truly know that Paz was a traitor, but his mission with Big Boss to Camp Omega had one clear goal; bring Paz and Chico home. Even if Kaz and Boss’ intention were to extract information from them, they weren’t supposed to die in that plane.

The final revelation of Ground Zeroes turns out to be that Paz had a bomb implanted in her. Venom makes the call to extract it fast and proceeds to cut her open without anesthetic. It’s a tortuous scene that doesn’t make sense at first, but comes full circle with this side plot in the Phantom Pain.

The medic is guilty that, not only did he inflict more pain on Paz, but that he lived through the terrible ordeal. She was blown to pieces, but he is still alive and well. He cannot deal with the fact that he lost a patient that was so crucial to Big Boss’ plan.

It wasn’t for a lack of trying, though.

As such, when you gather up your soldiers from MSF, you are given memento photographs that showcase some of the best moments of Paz’s time with MSF. Things like her sun bathing, throwing a birthday party and singing with Kaz and Professor Galvez; it’s all really touching and helps to detail the internal struggle she suffered by being forced into hijacking ZEKE.

When you reach chapter 2 of the Phantom Pain, Ocelot informs you that a very important patient is waiting on the medical platform. When you go to inspect, you are dumbstruck to find Paz sitting on the bed. You saw her die with your own eyes; how is she still there?

At first, even the player is at a loss for answers. There is no conceivable way she lived through that incident. Unlike her falling into the water at the end of Peace Walker, Paz was torn asunder by a bomb. There is really no other definitive way someone could die.

As you bring the photographs back to Paz, it starts to become clear; this is an illusion in Venom’s mind that is materializing from his guilt. He has a classic case of survivor’s syndrome; he feels that he should have died in that explosion those 9 years ago.

The ending also has him relive the moments that ripped Paz out of this world. He sees her extract the bomb from her stomach and throw it on the bed. He tries his best to run for her and shield her from the blast. Nothing he can do changes the outcome; Paz is gone and Venom’s past life is over.

When he awakes from his delusion, Venom looks to the sky and realizes that life goes on. While he might have been able to do more, what happened is over. Paz understands that he tried his best, just as she did with Skull Face and Cipher.

More so, the medic comes to terms with the fact that he is now Big Boss. Though he never asked for the responsibility or the notoriety, the medic is Venom Snake. He is the Big Boss that the world will get to see. He will exist to increase the legacy of the hero he pledged allegiance too all those years ago.

With that revelation comes the image of a floating morpho butterfly (Morpho being the name of the pilot from Ground Zeroes). As Venom looks at it, he sees that Peace is written on the exterior of Mother Base. That was truly what Paz wanted and it is precisely what Venom will fight to give the world.

In a game whose story moments are so scattered and disconnected, this side plot does more to elicit emotion and understanding then anything else the game throws at the player. Not only that, but in a title dedicated to absolute player freedom, this quest has no alternate outcome; you have to face the fact that a character you may have bonded with is gone.

Much like life, shit happens. What defines a human is how they deal with the aftermath of a tragedy. What they give to life in their worst hour is how they will be remembered. Venom isn’t going to let anymore of his men die, not without a fight.

Pain and Disorder

Tragedy strikes without warning. Life can be sunny and carefree in one instance and suddenly become bleak and hopeless. While most people can accept the obstacles that life throws at them, others have an exceedingly difficult time dealing with loss.

Disorder deals with one such individual. A young boy loses his younger brother and vanishes into his mind. He removes himself from life and wishes to be gone. He just can’t accept that his brother is no longer with him. He suffers from some mental illness, be it depression, bi-polar or schizophrenia.

I’ve had a long battle with depression. It conquered me for years before I even admitted I needed help. As a child, you don’t even see the symptoms before you. Your mind is so devoid of routine that you grow content with the negative patterns. I believed that I was supposed to be a miserable individual.

What really reignited the fires of despair was the death of my aunt. I have gotten over her passing, but my world was torn asunder in that moment. I lost my faith, I began to question even the most basic tenets of happiness and I withdrew from my friends. I didn’t feel worthy enough.

Disorder represents this, albeit in short text blocks. Your character truly does not see redemption for himself, almost as if he caused the death of his brother. When you are wallowing in the depths of misery, even the slightest problem becomes your own.

What works exceptional in the game is how both misery and happiness are combined. Humans are not one dimensional beings; we often need sadness to cope with certain events. If we shrugged off death as some random occurrence, we may have never evolved as a society.

Often times, being somber is what helps us see a different solution. When you are perpetually happy, you tend to overlook the sadness that may exist in someone’s heart. It becomes difficult to understand why they aren’t feeling elated at every opportunity.

Not everyone suffers the same tragedy. For some people, their lives may be devoid of loss. While we all eventually die, one can be born into a young family. You may not lose a grand-parent until you are well into your 40’s.

If that is the first time you experience death, how do you cope? A game like Disorder shows that no matter the age, we all wish to have done something differently. Be it we sacrificed ourselves or took a different course, we all want a second chance.

Now, I do believe the game is a bit vague for it’s own good. To best empathize with someone, we need to know their full story. Disorder drip-feeds it’s narrative with vignettes. You will only learn more of the plot after getting through some platforming sections.

You never do quite see the full truth. Even the two endings give vastly contrasting ideas of what may have transpired. Without that deeper connection, Disorder comes off as not brave enough. It wraps itself up in mental illness, but makes no statement.

Every piece of media doesn’t need to have an opinion; sometimes getting the mind firing is enough for some people. Whose to say that Disorder won’t ignite a person’s passion for psychology? Having played both this and Depression Quest, I feel Disorder makes the subject matter more approachable for people not interested in reading text.

Mental illness is something that might be more prevalent in gamer culture then we realize. Instead of shying away from discussions, we as a collective whole should be thinking of creative ways to display the effects of such a disease.

If nothing else, gaming allows one to experience another point of view. Film can only showcase what one person does in a given situation. Gaming gives the player the ultimate control and asks them to interpret what they see.

Disorder isn’t a perfect game, but it certainly earns the right to exist. I can only hope that someone else sees what chaos depression can reap and looks to fix that within their life or their loved one’s.

Walking Dead: Season Two – Quick Thoughts

I wasn’t one of the many that were blown away by the first season of Telltale’s Walking Dead. I thought that Telltale hit on to something great, but that their current technology didn’t match the vision they had for interactive storytelling. The season wasn’t always sublime, but Telltale showcased some great writing and retained enough gameplay elements to make a standout title in the 2012 landscape.

It was also quite a big bonus to have a game where female characters were written as actual characters. Clementine is also the first real example I can find of a child in a video game that isn’t a liability. So much social progression from a game about people killing each other over food and shelter. Now I get why Tool sounded so somber with their song, “Right in Two.”

Upon seeing the initial trailer for Season Two, I figured  Telltale was going to improve. The only vision I had was that Clementine would be alone, lost and sorrowful. That is pretty much how the season kicks off. Placing players in control of a character they tried desperately to save the first go around is genius. Now her safety relies squarely on you, instead of being a mediator with another human.

OH MY GOD! MEDIATE BETTER!

Depending on the choices you make during Season Two, Clementine can become the very epitomose of a selfless hero. She is courageous, observent, kind-hearted and always willing to help. Even when the adults cower in fear, Clementine can hold her own. All those lessons from Season One definitely paid off.

The story is much darker in Season Two. Every event is nearly like treking through the Valley of Death. That so much emotion can be wringed from a simple premise shows how well Clementine was written. Gamers are willing to see her tale to the end and would never wish anything bad on her. That is quite the accomplishment for a character who isn’t even real.

For all the strides that were made in making the narrative more dramatic, Telltale took a step back in gameplay. Focusing more on QTEs and action, Season Two pretty does away completely with puzzles. There is one instance where Clem has to turn off a turbine and it just stands as rather silly. How can adults not figure out to take the key and twist it?

There also aren’t any hub areas to redezvous at. Some gamers may enjoy the brisker pace, but I liked having centralized areas to gather my belongings. It was also nice to take a break every now and then and learn about the characters you were helping. You get stripped of that in Season Two, making most of your decisions based on logic rather than emotion.

Logic dictates you return the bag. You’re also not a douchebag…

This leads to the game feeling more fomulaic than before. You do make snap decisions, but only get around 30 seconds to let anything sink in. Then you’re quickly running to the next area where you get a few minutes to breath and are thrust into more action. I suppose there is something to be said of Season Two not wasting any time, but people need time to ingest what they have done.

The big trade-off is that Season Two is far harder to put down than the first season. Since you can finish every episode in a little over an hour, you end up not wanting to stop. You’ll never hit a brick wall or get stuck and you can quickly bang this out in a day after work (or school).

But that also leads to the side characters getting little to no extra development. Clementine is the most well rounded of the cast and a returning character from Season One adds some truly difficult moral dilemmas to the mix. All of the new characters feel mostly forgettable and don’t offer much in terms of sympathy or weight.

I won’t say that a life is worth wasting, but if I only met you 20 minutes ago and I’m tasked with picking between two people, I’m going to go with the one who seems more beneficial. It would be the only way to protect my sanity in such dire straits.

The final episode’s conclusion definitely stands taller than the first season. Instead of having one set-up finale that everyone will play out, you now get to make some actions that will determine who you end up with (if anyone at all). They are all confined to that last scene (which seems to be an ugly trend in these types of games), but your actions are now more of a reflection of your inner concious more than your ability to follow a script.

Hasta luego, amigo.

As for the other individual episodes, none really stand out. Episode  Two is perhaps the most meaty and exciting, but everything just moves so fast that the events begin to blur together. With some more time dedicated to fleshing out the supporting cast or some tougher moral choices, I feel like Season Two could have surpassed the first in every conceivable way.

Hopefully with Season Three, Telltale will remember that human interaction is more important than drama. Even some puzzles would go a long way to making my actions feel more worthwhile. As in real life, everybody just wants to be heard. There are more stories and emotions to cover than simply death.

Instead of sticking strictly to inflated drama, maybe we can get an episode where nobody dies next time? How about a big puzzle that takes the entire episode to finish. I like the idea of that.

Something like this was perfect. More of these scenes.

Thoughts of Death

When it comes to media, I try to be as objective as possible. Obviously I’ll berate something if I dislike it or cheer when I’m captivated by something, but I usually go into things with an open mind. It pains me when television shows lack quality, but then hit so close to home that I can’t openly talk about them.

Still, last night’s episode of “Glee” really did a number on me. The plot of the episode had the show’s main antagonist, Sue Sylvester (played by Jane Lynch), dealing with the loss of her sister. Her sister had been afflicted with Down syndrome, but managed to make it past 40 years of life.

Sue explains to her rival teacher, Mr. Shue, that she was hopeful. Her sister, Jean, lived past 35; a year her doctors claimed would be her last. Then she got up to 40 and 45 and everything seemed great when she turned 50. Sue was shocked that everything was perfect the night before. Then she got a call in the morning and she heard the horrible news.

Why this hits so close to home for me is that I experienced a similar loss in my own life with my aunt. While my aunt didn’t suffer from a lifetime illness, when doctors diagnosed her with ALS, my family really didn’t know what to say. She was given 2 years to live and we all felt terrible.

Those 2 years weren’t easy, either. My aunt was a small ball of energy. We used to laugh about her height (a meager 4′ 10″), but she definitely could knock you out if you pushed her. She was a very lovable and quaint person, though she had a wild side when she felt it. Seeing her deteriorate was like watching any natural disaster and feeling helpless.

She first began to lose feeling in her legs, eventually losing the ability to walk. Next came her arms and those, too, lost function. Her voice began to go and along with that, her ability to hold up her head. It was essentially like having “locked-in” syndrome and she cried at nearly everything.

When she wanted to say something but couldn’t, she cried. When my uncle tried his best to speak to her and help her communicate, she got frustrated and cried. He learned how to use a very interesting vision based keyboard, but she never fully grasped the idea and would give up, much to my uncle’s dismay.

The saddest part, for me at least, is how her memory never faded. My uncle obviously had a lot on his mind, but my aunt didn’t forget my birthday. Of all the hardships she was facing, she still had that love in her heart and the retention of an elephant.

On “Glee”, Sue says to the Glee club something that I often say to myself.

“Jean was the nicest person I have ever known. As you can all tell, I’m probably the meanest person you’ll ever meet. Why wasn’t it my time?”

I may not have fully known my aunt, but she was easily one of the warmest and loving people in my life. Losing her was awful to me and all I can think about is how selfish I am. I remember the times in my school life where I was mean to my fellow classmates. I remember how awful I’ve treated some women in my life.

I think of how ungrateful I was for my mother’s love during my youth. I can’t escape how terrible I’ve treated some of my friends with my own headstrong attitude. What I really don’t understand, though, is why my aunt had to die.

I’m not going to spin this religiously, either. I am not a religious man, though that is mostly due to my aunt’s passing. Still, when evil persists in the world and good is taken out, what is the greater purpose?
So while last night’s Glee may not have been a good episode, it definitely is one that got me thinking.

Life is indeed awful, but I hope that by opening up a small bit to the community, that I can learn to grow and move past my inner doubts.

If nothing else, know that I never intend to harm anyone with my comments.