Last time on TMA Mondays, I gave a list of 5 Good Games that have had negative effects on the industry. Upon reflection, I realize that perhaps my points may have been wrapped up too briskly with very little context on where I was going with the article.
To make a few things clear, the topic was meant to focus on recent games from the last and early current generation of consoles; ones that we can easily trace their inspirations on the games made today. If I had to state an exact time frame I was going for, I would estimate from the launch of the Xbox/Gamecube/PS2 to the starting years of the 360/Wii/PS3 life cycles (so roughly 2001-2007).
What compelled me to write this was a desire to point out a few of the overbearing trends that seem to have such a firm hold on what the video game industry thinks are the “in things” these days. We’re at a point where graphical technology is almost as good as it can get already, which means games for new consoles will have to focus more and more on their own aesthetics, themes, narratives, and game mechanics, and I just don’t want to see a whole new video game generation stagnate and bomb because games start looking all the same.
For those of you asking what I would have developers do, well to be perfectly clear, I am in no way against looking at our recent past for inspiration moving forward. So, to counteract my previous list, here is another: 5 Games that weren’t exactly trend setters, but still developed a cult following with unique traits that the industry could stand to learn a thing or two from.
Super Mario Sunshine
This one goes out squarely to the people at Nintendo, specifically the ones making Mario games. No, Super Mario Sunshine was not the best Mario game. It was however, in my opinion, the most original. Chris actually wrote up a retrospective on Sunshine, commenting how it was one of the only Mario games not to take place in the Mushroom Kingdom, and had level designs that took a much needed jump away from the typical meadow, water, lava, ice, dessert, cave, and haunted house tropes every other installment of the main series has succumbed to like they’re going down a chekclist. Sunshine also gets kudos for finally taking off the training wheels (if only for one game) and actually opening with a plot that cannot be summed up with “Princess Peach is kidnapped…again.” (Yeah, she does get kidnapped eventually, but for once, it’s not the main crutch of the story.)
Of course, we all know why this game wasn’t as famous or successful as every other Mario game. No, not because F.L.U.D.D. was occasionally sketchy to control, or because 3D underwater swimming levels still suck no matter what game you’re playing. No, Sunshine got the shaft because it DID take risks and DID make those changes that I listed above. Now, I loved both Mario Galaxy games as much as the next platforming fan, but even I started to notice as the games progressed, that it felt less like “Mario in Space” and more like “Mario in the space version of the Mushroom Kingdom.”
Look, Nintendo, I know fanboys weren’t all too pleased with this game, but you shouldn’t listen to fanboys every single time. You should listen to me. Fanboys are crybabies who whine because Mario had to carry a super soaker and didn’t get to stomp any Goombas. I for one saw the value in a game that, flaws and all, was a refreshing new take on a series that drastically needed it. I don’t know about anyone else, but I am holding up hopes that the next Mario installment for the Wii U does something crazy again. Like Time Travel (Stone Age, Greek, Medieval, Renaissance, Western, Sci-fi Future versions of Mushroom Kingdom? Come on, that’d be fun), or, how ‘bout this: Mario and Luigi actually manage a plumbing factory that is sabotaged by Waluigi (seriously, give that guy a legitimate villain role already).
Final Fantasy X
After a New Years nightcap and a heated battle between the east and the west/story and gameplay, Midnight of January 1st 2012, my otaku friend finally accomplished the ultimate: he got me to cave and play my first Final Fantasy game. So we blew the dust off his PS2 and inserted FFX, and after I spent the first several hours whining and moaning (mostly just in spite of my friend) about how horrendous looking Tidus’ outfit is and how the last ten years have taken a serious toll on the game’s voice acting (Sorry all you FF fans who thought the voice work was revolutionary for the series, but go back. It has not aged well), the game… is actually pretty good. I’m about 20 hours in now, and I’m liking it so far. The plot is very quest-oriented and has a diverse cast that is well developed. The gameplay is turn-based strategy with random encounters, and while that style of gameplay started to grow old for me back in the day, I find myself enjoying the strategy part of it a lot here. As for the highly-coveted Blitzball minigame, while not my cup of tea, I still value its existence in the plot as it breathed a lot of personality into the world and the characters.
This may just be a guess, but around the point Pokemon became this huge hit in the late 90’s and pretty much owned the turn based strategy genre, spawning dozens of hashed out clones, that could be contributed to why turn-based RPG’s started to lose their muster a bit in the last generation and why Square Enix has been so fixated on trying to develop new and interesting combat systems with their latest installments, rather than focusing on what they used to do so well, which was create unique, yet cohesive, quest based stories with endearing characters and gameplay that favors using your mind over your thumbs.
The following plea comes from the request of my friend, a dedicated follower of JRPG’s for years.
Square Enix, we get it. You have proven to us time and again that you can make games look pretty. You can also make RPG combat as fast-paced and interactive as we can possibly ask for. Great and great. But your narratives in recent years have been everywhere from unmemorable mediocrity at best, to overbearing incomprehensible disasters at worse. You actually had something real special going with FFX. We would gladly go back to turn based combat and random encounters if you gave us another story worth playing through.
The same goes for all other developers. Turn based RPG’s don’t all have to be shallow Pokemon knock offs. They can be clever. Paper Mario and the Thousand Year Door was another good one. In fact, I like that one more than its real-time platforming-esque sequel for the Wii.
Okay, so this game came out in 2008, a little after my aforementioned cut-off date above, but since it’s an indie game that released on the launch of Nintendo’s online network, WiiWare, I think it still counts. Lostwinds is a 2D puzzle platformer, a simple tale about of a boy named Toku on a trek to save his village from an evil spirit polluting the land, all the while aided by a wind spirit named Enril.
While Toku is controlled normally by moving left and right with the analog stick, the wind spirit Enril is controlled with the Wiimote. Having a player interact with two separate characters simultaneously in and of itself is unique, but where this game really shines is how it uses the Wii’s technology to manipulate the winds as a means of platforming. Eventually, Enril learns to manipulate the other elements to solve puzzles: fire, water, earth, you name it.
Last week I mentioned how difficult it was to find a truly worthy motion control experience with depth. Lostwinds, and its sequel Winter Melodies, were the kind of Wii experiences I’ve been looking for. It is the perfect example of a game that makes the most of what the Wii has to offer. Meanwhile, it also looks great and sounds great. Pretty short, but it’s cheep, so it balances out. Any Wii owners out there who have yet to check this out, I highly recommend it. If more motion games played like this, than I’d be way more inclined to believe the industry when they say that motion gaming is here to stay.
Super Smash Bros.
The series that needs to no introduction (because Chris and I may have mentioned it a couple hundred times already), Super Smash Bros. succeeded in completely innovating the fighting game genre. It replaced health meters with damage meters, one-on-one with 4 player battle royales, flat battle maps with a wide variety of unique terrains, and button mashing combos with special moves that are easy to learn but hard to truly master.
The series’ second installment, Super Smash Bros. Melee, went on to be the best selling GameCube game every single year of the console’s life cycle, so by no means was the series unpopular. It had a huge following, so why did this style of fighting games never really expanded to other series, save for official sequels and a few failed attempts? I guess it depends on whether you think SSB is successful do it’s innovative gameplay or because it is a love letter to Nintendo fans with its all star cast spanning 20+ years of video game icons. I want to believe it’s a combination of both.
If another game, movie, or TV series has a strong following, and someone made a polished SSB style fighting game around it, I am positive it will sell. (Here are some ideas of franchises that would work almost perfectly.)
And the Number One Game I would like to see more of is…
Ratchet and Clank
Last week, I mentioned how one of the gaming trends I am sick of this generation happens to be dark gritty shooters staring power armored space marines. Sci-Fi has always been the most popular theme in video games, and it probably always will be. In video game’s origins, it took the form of classic arcades like Asteroids and Space Invaders. Now it takes the form of these juggernaut hits like Halo and Gears of War that tout themselves to be these dramatic space operas with huge open conflicts and “realistic” human characters. All the while the industry has become too naïve to realize that Dark Sci-Fi has become the most formulaic and cookie cutter theme in video games.
But you know what I am not sick of? Whimsical sci-fi platformer-shooter hybrids staring power armored space Lombaxes and their diminutive sarcastic robot partners. Ratchet and Clank make the top of my list of games we need to see more of because they represent a surviving franchise in a style of games that has been all but forgotten in the modern day. In comparison to the other sci-fi universes out there right now, the series’ anthropomorphic characters and very Pixar-like art style and animation make it stand out severely. However, if this franchise started on the Super Nintendo, alongside big Sci-Fi icons of the time like Fox McCloud, Samus Aran, and Mega Man, it probably would have fit right in.
Around the late 90’s/ early 2000’s as platforming adventure games started to make a permanent jump from 2D to 3D, we saw a ginormous slew of new cartoon/animal themed characters launch for all consoles. Unfortunately, due to a combination of gamers getting older and the hardcore trends that the industry introduced to optimize this change, many of these new characters were lucky if they got a whole trilogy of successful titles before they were promptly upstaged by these ultra famous mega hits (like the games I mentioned last week).
So, while Jak, Sly, Banjo, Conker, and Rayman were all left behind in the last two generations, Ratchet’s creators at Insomniac Games endured and moved on to make a whole new trilogy for the PS3 anyway (keep in mind, they were doing this in between making a whole other series that the industry did want, a dark gritty sci-fi alternate WW2 history shooter in Resistance). Graphically, the games’ cartoony characters and art style translated on an HD system to be one of the most vibrant and colorful instances of world building I’ve seen. While the tone of the Ratchet and Clank games has always been pretty lighthearted and witty, I can’t stress enough how pulling off truly clever and well timed humor like this game does is light years harder than writing Oscar bait war dramas like Mass Effect.
For the record, I am not saying that they just need to keep making more Ratchet and Clank. I felt that series was capped off perfectly fine with 2009’s A Crack in Time. Insomniac has done their part. Let them move on to work on Overstrike. No, what I’m saying is that all those other cartoon/animal platform adventurers that were left behind in the last generation need to catch up. Sly Cooper is getting a revival this year. That’s great. I hope Jak and Daxter is soon to follow. I hope Rayman Origins, which came out this holiday, sells well enough so Ubisoft will give Mike Ancel the go to finally make Beyond Good and Evil 2. I’d love to see Banjo-Kazooie have a comeback. I pray every day that Crash Bandicoot will be passed down to a competent developer that will finally know what they’re doing.
Maybe Sonic will finally…um…actually him I have given up on. Sorry, he’s just hurt me too many times in the past.