Category Archives: Checkpoint

Checkpoint: Left 4 Dead 2


checkpointlogoThis column originally ran on November 20, 2010. This was the final Checkpoint — we brought the band back for one last hurrah with a slightly different format.

Four new poor bastards have joined the fray.
Four new poor bastards have joined the fray.

Characters

Left 4 Dead 2 introduced a new group of survivors to the mix: Nick, Coach, Ellis and Rochelle. With the new characters came new personalities and interactions, but was it an improvement over the original?

Chris: I know people are hesitant about change sometimes, and gamers were tied to the original group because its what introduced us to this world, but I honestly don’t feel like the new survivors were as good as those from L4D1. Less personality, fewer humorous exchanges, and Rochelle is a damn waste of space.

Shaun: First of all, if you can get past her ridiculous B-movie screaming, Rochelle is awesome. Secondly, while the first group holds a special place for me, I honestly didn’t have any problems with the second group. I felt like they each had their own personalities and nuances, and most of the characters had some hilarious moments (Ellis recalling stories about his buddy Keith and Coach singing “Midnight Riders” tunes stand out).

Shaun: There was actually some sort of character development through the different campaigns. In Dark Carnival, you learn of the characters love (and lack thereof) for the Midnight Riders; in Dead Center, there is commentary on the famous race car driver whose car the group is using to escape the mall. In the original L4D, you learn that Francis hates…everything. Funny, for sure, but it fails to give us any meaningful insight into the character.

Lee: I did not have a problem with any of the new characters. There were the three who were all right (Coach, Ellis and Nick) and the one who got under your skin. It was just like Left 4 Dead, but replace Francis with Rochelle. I do not think either set of survivors were very well developed. We just showed up with them and took off. In terms of improvements over the original, the only person who stands out is Nick. He was the only criminal (unless you have suspicions about Francis) in the bunch. Yet he realizes he has to put aside his pre-apocalyptic life to survive. I think his character is the most believable.

Shaun: “Every lady’s crazy when her Daddy’s not around! NAH-NAH-NAH-NAH-NAHNAHNAHNAH!” Highlight of character development highlight of the entire series. And why does everyone hate Rochelle so much? She’s a reporter, so she knows how handle a gun (she’s probably covered wars, you know), and she’s got some sass. I will give it to you, though, that it’s nice to see someone react like Nick. There is no way a zombie apocalypse is happening and everyone still alive is noble. Someone is going to cash in on that.

Chris: You’d think I would like Rochelle more, considering all of her Anchorman references, but I don’t. At all. Her AI is the worst of the four, and she just comes across as…bland. No personality. Maybe it’s because Nick and Ellis are so different, but she doesn’t hold up well. She’s more boring than Bill.

Shaun: True, except for the part where you forgot that Bill is actually the best character in the entire series.

And this is why you shouldn't go to carnivals.
And this is why you shouldn’t go to carnivals.

Story

Like the original, L4D2 uses character interactions and pieces of scenery to tell most of its story, rather than an overarching plot. Still, what was your take on what little we know about this world full of infected?

Shaun: This is a complaint of the original L4D as well, but for me, I feel like the series really drops the ball when it comes to storytelling, especially considering they already have everything they need to really flesh out the world. Portal, another one of Valve’s games (arguably their best), does a great job of telling a story in-game using only the narration of an evil AI and writing scrawled on the walls. Half-Life 2 and their subsequent episodes stand as the pinnacle of character investment in their creation of Alyx. In the L4D series, we merely get the skeletons of characters and plot. I can appreciate the developers taking a hands-off approach to the narrative (if we were to discover midochlorians caused the zombie outbreak, I burn someone’s house down), but would love more rewards for fans willing to go an extra step to flesh the world out, whether it’s documents, meaningful interactions with side-characters, or occasionally more introspective dialogue.

Chris: There are elements of that in L4D2. The CEDA posters, the messages in the safe rooms or on the walls in other areas, strategically placed piles of bodies. But you’re right that Valve has done it better elsewhere.

Lee: I wasn’t upset about the lack of story. Sure, there is a huge hole where a story should be, but think about what a zombie apocalypse would actually be like. Do you think we would get anything out of news stations? No, because we all know the news is controlled by the government, and they would be trying to keep order. Valve does a good job putting you in the shoes of an actual survivor. You are scared to death and not very knowledgeable about what is going on. You, like your character, just need to shut your mouth and gun down some God-forsaken zombies.

Shaun: I have poured a significant amount of time into L4D 2, and other than Ellis’ friend Keith, I have yet to hear about anyone else in there characters’ pre-zombie apocalypse lives. Did no one have any family or friends? Does anyone have any motivation other than just simply trying to survive. Was Coach actually a coach of anything? I’m sure there is some information out there on this, but if I have not found it in my time with the game, I feel like it is a bit too deeply buried.

Lee: Sorry, Shaun. We keep that kind of information in books (cough, cough, the instruction manual).

Chris: I think it speaks to how solid the gameplay is that the lack of overarching plot isn’t a problem, or at least a major one. Would I like to know more about the world and how the characters fit into it? Absolutely. But it doesn’t preclude me from playing the game over and over.

The continued infection has not been kind.
The continued infection has not been kind.

Gameplay

New guns, melee weapons, adrenaline shots, new specials and frenzied finales. L4D2 took the basic formula of the original and expanded it in just about every way.

Chris: Left 4 Dead 2 returned many familiar mechanics from the first game in the series, but introduced new ones at the same time. For example, the special infected doubled in number with the addition of the Charger, Spitter, Jockey and the walking Witch.

Shaun: I hate the way L4D 2 handled specials. I actually love the new specials, the variety they bring, and the different methods they use to attack a group. What I hate is their durability (compared to the original), and their frequency. In the original, the formula was pitch perfect; specials were common enough to remain a threat, but provided enough of a lag between attacks to build tension and make each encounter feel significant. In 2, it’s just a gamut of specials at all times; the intensity you felt in 1 is quickly overrun by frustration.

Chris: And that’s pretty much my biggest complaint with this game. Look, maybe the rate of specials was a little low in L4D1. I could see that. But the answer wasn’t a constant stream. Hell, in the main mall level of Dead Center, we once saw three Smokers at once, each incapacitating someone. We’ve seen multiple Hunters at the same time. And these aren’t finales we’re talking about — just run-of-the-mill parts of regular levels. You’re right: The formula from the first game created some strong pacing, allowing players to address each special that threatened the team. That’s no longer the case.

Lee: The second game was really ramming us hard with specials. It really seems like the world is losing the war against the infected. Now we see more, they have evolved (some into common animals, like the octopus) and they just don’t stop coming. Now, anyone who has played Left 4 Dead for an extended period of time will know the game can glitch out every now and then. I think that is the root of your tri-Smoker problem. I agree, it can get a little ridiculous, but some part of those overwhelming odds make the games fun. If the game was just a repeat of Left 4 Dead, we as consumers would feel cheated. Ramping up the difficulty on some of parts of the game made it a little more intense than the original, which has become difficult to lose on the Advanced difficulty.

Shaun: Ramming us hard? Subtle. It’s the same problem RE5 faced in its later levels. More is better, until you reach the point that it’s too much. And maybe the increase in specials is organic to the state of the world or story they are trying to tell, but it still disrupts what was a very delicate balance.

Chris: And the old adage about not fixing what ain’t broken seems to apply there.

Shaun: Even though the engine is broken, I did enjoy the other new features. Melee weapons are a nice way to deal with close encounters, and adrenaline shots and defib units offer another layer of strategy to inventory management. It’s not enough to keep me from going back to the original, but it’s a step in the right direction.

Lee: My favorite new weapon has to be the combat shotgun. It provided me with the damage of a shotgun and the accuracy of one of the rifles. It was a marriage of qualities I wanted to see in a weapon, and I was a big fan. The melee weapons were nice, but how often do you expect to find a samurai sword during the zombie apocalypse? Fire axe – okay, chainsaw – hell yes, crowbar – I guess, machete – I don’t really think these are that common, samurai sword – are there really that many samurai dying in the zombie apocalypse to drop these everywhere? Yeah, not really believable, but still a good addition.

Chris: Melee weapons were a nice addition, but I didn’t find myself using them much. Rolling around with dual pistols (handy when you’re down) or the magnum pistol (satisfying power for a secondary weapon) was always preferable. Slicing a zombie in half was fun the first few times, but when all the common infected do is run behind you, melee becomes less effective.

Shaun: Some of the finales were altered this time around. For example, in Dead Center, you have to fill up a car with gas tanks lying around the mall (you know, because you can regularly find gas tanks chilling in the corners of shopping centers), and in The Parish, you have to race across a bridge while killing infected along the way. What did you guys think? Personally, I loved the intensity of grabbing gas cans and the strategy involved in filling up the car, but the bridge was too helter skelter for me. Plus, a Tank punched me off the side one too many times.

Chris: And in The Passing, you had the unique experience of … grabbing gas cans. I understand the need to force survivors out into the open, and the fuel mechanic works for that, but it would’ve been nice if the DLC did something unique. I’m glad The Sacrifice went in a different direction, even if it did reuse that finale map.

Lee: I like some of the new finales, others can go die. I didn’t like the scavenger aspect of Dead Center, probably because the computer is a complete idiot. That mechanic was slightly better for The Passing, but not much. I do like what they did with The Sacrifice because it finished off the story of Left 4 Dead (at least I hope they don’t introduce somebody to replace Bill). Other than that, there were times when I thought sending two Tanks at us was unnecessary, especially on higher difficulties.

I'VE MADE A TERRIBLE MISTAKE
I’VE MADE A TERRIBLE MISTAKE

Audio/Video

Audio design might not be the first thing that comes to mind when you think of the L4D series, but the subtle cues and ambiance are an important part of the experience. So are the graphics, which got a boost in this game.

Chris: One of the most clever designs from the first game was the use of audio cues to warn Survivors about approaching Specials. Not only did each creature have its own noise, but a short piano riff unique to that Special played with it. Problem is, in L4D2, the new Specials get cues with a southern twang to them, making the old ones sound out of place, almost jarring.

Shaun: The audio is definitely one of the game’s strengths. Everything from the screams of the horde to the blasts of the shotgun sound incredible and contribute to the immersion of the atmosphere. The cues sounding dissonant seems like it would be a problem, but I never really paid enough attention to them. To this day, I couldn’t tell you if the twinkling of the piano is a witch, a hunter, or an alarm to let you know you are close to the safe room.

Lee: I can agree that the new music was a shift. In Left 4 Dead, the horde is preceded by some distinct music. In the sequel, that music will change depending on the level you are in. Do you know how hard it is to hear that music when you are rocking the faces off some zombies in the carnival? That music is so low you have to ask the witch to stop crying for a second just so you can check. The original music cues would have made a more seamless transition, with differences only for the new special infected.

Shaun: Graphically, the game was pretty much more of the same, which is not a bad thing. The artistic design remains intact, the visuals look a bit more polished, and the increased zombie dismemberment was as enjoyable as it sounds. I did like the environmental influence of New Orleans, though. The Southern flavor of The Parish and the swampy swamps of Swamp Fever provide a nice contrast to the very urbanized locations of the first game.

Chris: If nothing else, being able to shoot holes into infected or blast away limbs gave the game more authenticity. Felt more real than every zombie being blasted back by a shotgun and then fading into the ground.

Lee: I remember watching a special on how Valve wanted to create a different atmosphere for the second game. They did not want to have a Left 4 Dead repeat, but wanted to show the progression of the infection. They changed the common infected eyes so they would glow a little. It was a small change, but I think it showed how much thought they put in to the smaller details.

The road to madness.
The road to madness.

Final Verdict

Shaun: Due to the controversy of the sequel coming so quickly after the original’s release, the obvious question regarding L4D2 is whether or not it even needed to happen. Did four new so-so specials, an overly aggressive AI director, melee weapons, and five new campaigns justify a full-on sequel?

Lee: I think the real question is, “Will we make money by putting out this sequel?” I can tell you, they got my money. And I do not feel ashamed that some kid in a Third World country will go without dinner for a month because I decided not to send in my 200 quarters to some fat white guy parading around starving children. I would rather solve the fake zombie problem.

Chris: There was enough new content that a sequel was justified. Maybe not one with such a quick turnaround, especially when so little had been done to support the first game. Still, as a standalone product, I vastly prefer L4D 1 over 2. The game’s balance and open-ended finale maps gave you the opportunity to work as a team to conquer each obstacle as it came at you, as opposed to being force-fed objectives just to add some artificial difficulty (cough gas cans cough).

Shaun: Theoretically, I wanted to like the changes; variety in gaming is very important, and while I prefer 1, my ideal vision of the sequel is not a simple rehash. Still, I felt like the focus on changing the engine was higher than it should have been, and some of the alterations to the formula (the bridge finale) were not well implemented. For the inevitable third entry, Valve should continue to change things up, but focus on the things that make the game work so well. Covering one player while they transport soda for a short distance is great. Running frantically across a gigantic bridge? Not so much.

Left_4_dead_2_logoCheckpoint is a series of discussions run by Chris, Shaun and Tech Guy back in their college newspaper days. For more entries in the series, click here.

Checkpoint: Castle Crashers


checkpointlogoThis column originally ran on April 6, 2010.

In 2008, the makers of Alien Hominid brought a four-player frenzied experience to the Xbox 360. Castle Crashers didn’t get a huge marketing campaign, but word quickly spread about the title and its quirky but addictive gameplay. Checkpoint takes a look back at the colorful brawler, and we discuss our love/hate relationship with Corn Boss.

And so it begins.
And so it begins.

Hero Mettle

Lee: These days, we see a lot of companies abandoning simplicity for graphics. The 2-D side-scrolling games were long thought to be dead. We were pleasantly surprised when Castle Crashers came out. Its return to a style similar to games created in the halcyon days of our youth did not go unnoticed.

Chris: This was one of those games I hadn’t really heard much about before it dropped on the XBLA. But it quickly got a lot of buzz, and it had four-player co-op, so I took a shot. As soon as that title music cued up, we were already hooked.

Lee: I’m not sure there is a game with more epic title music.

Shaun: The introduction follows a pretty typical premise that every single Mario title ever has used — the Princess(es) get kidnapped, and you set off to the rescue. It’s pretty apparent early on, however, that CC sets itself apart with its humor. It manages to be pretty epic, but it does not take itself too seriously.

Chris: Yeah, humor and pacing. They don’t screw around with the setup — it’s a quick visual thing, with barely any text in the game, and away you go. Time to be a hero.

Lee: The story was pretty basic. Evil dude jacked your princess, and you have to chase him down. The saga takes you through multiple levels where you have to battle unique bosses.

Chris: Really, considering there’s barely any writing, there’s still a pretty effective story here. There’s still some giant question marks (what is wrong with these deer? Where did we learn how to fly on the last level?), it didn’t hamper the experience at all.

Shaun: The insane aspects were great. Most of the developments didn’t make sense, but were awesome nonetheless. We just get done fighting pirate ninjas, and then aliens abduct us….okay, cool.

Lee: And over the course of your adventure, your characters bond and learn how to fight as one. It was family-friendly.

Shaun: Yeah. Family-friendly except for all of the violence and defecating jokes. The violence was great. Constant diarrhea…less so.

Lee: Sometimes things do not have to make sense to be fun. I think the lack of storytelling was one of the better parts of the game. You did not have to be told what was going on, you just knew.

Shaun: I normally am an advocate for gaming as a storytelling medium, but in this case, I agree that less was better. There was kind of a story with the limited cutscenes, and that was enough for me. Except for the ending. That was just weird.

Chris: I mean, Castle Crashers probably tells a better story than Final Fantasy VII.

Lee: Oh BURN. And your characters probably had more emotional development.

Chris: Think about the tense expressions on their faces before they dueled to kiss the princess at the end of a level. That’s more emotion in one scene than Cloud has in the entire game. Unless “crying” is an emotion.

Shaun: My turn: and there was one hundred percent less wrist cutting. Okay, I’m good.

Lee: I would say 205% less wrist cutting if you count the cutting I did while playing FFVII.

Chris: And that, folks, is a scientific number.

Shaun: Anyway, it did make me sad to see how many soldiers were killed throughout the course of the game….especially all the ones that died in the rescue attempt by failing to fall on the cake. You look around at the corpses of your cavalry, and think “well, we probably could have planned that better.”

Chris: Yeah, one of them lands on a roasted ham instead of a cake. You wonder if he was ever taught which objects were soft and which weren’t. Not the most critical part of training soldiers, but then again, it was important this time.

Lee: Meh, peons are born to die. They should have been wearing red shirts. I was saddened when my deery companion left me after running through that very empty sawmill.

Shaun: In the end, you saved four princesses and lost a kingdom’s worth of soldiers. Happy endings for everyone.

Three of the toughest warriors...and the cutest tiger you've ever seen!
Three of the toughest warriors…and the cutest tiger you’ve ever seen!

C-C-C-Combo Maker

Chris: The gameplay in Castle Crashers wasn’t exactly anything new, although there were some refinements to the classic brawler formula. Combos and RPG-like leveling up, for example. Still, CC succeeds because the gameplay is fun, bottom line.

Shaun: It’s hard to see why it took this many years for a good 2D sidescroller to be released. CC takes the classic gameplay and infuses it with modern sensibilties, making for gameplay that is easy to pick up, addictive, and manages to have surprising depth.

Chris: It’s the subtle things that make CC work. Your magic gets stronger as you put more points into that ability. Gradually, you get faster if you put points into agility. Weapon changes are both funny and stat-boosting.

Shaun: My sister just goes around mashing the heavy attack button, and does fine, while someone with more practice can launch an enemy into the air and proceed to do an endless air combo against the edge of the screen until they die.

Lee: I think one of the best parts of the game was not needing your feet. I spent about half of that game in the air hitting people.

Shaun: Everything is also very nicely balanced. With the exception of Agility, each category has relevance, and a reason for putting your hard earned points into it. And they created a magic system worth upgrading, which is not always the case with games like these.

Lee: The first time I played I chose green. That guy got to play around with gas, which was okay. The best part was when I got upgraded magic and got to launch myself into the air. It looked like I rocketed upward on a cloud of vile human fog.

Chris: For me, I started out with lightning, which meant rolling around like the emperor and zapping people like they were Samuel L. Jackson. Hell, I could have used a lightsaber if I’d wanted.

Shaun: Well, since I didn’t choose my guy based on who executes the best potty jokes, I went with the fire guy. Being able to trap the opponent in a stream of fire was spectacularly satisfying.

Lee: What are you talking about. Fire is the filthiest of all jokes. Just look at Dale Earnhardt.

Shaun: Unless by saying “fire” you mean “wall,” you are incorrect. Oh, and now I feel bad. There it is.

Chris: See, that’s what you get for having feelings. Even though a majority of the characters were pretty much palette swaps, and they all had pretty much the same basic light and heavy attacks, the magic set them apart enough to where you were interested in replaying the game with new characters.

Shaun: Right. Actually, I think my first character was ice. He was okay. Good for a support character if you are playing with three other people because he can freeze the enemy, but so-so overall.

Chris: There’s something to be said for the bosses in Castle Crashers, too. Most of them presented a pretty strong challenge, especially until you learned their attacks.

Shaun: That damn aqua catfish was one of the worst. By that point in the game, you’re not very strong, and you have to time it just right for the cannon to daze him.

Lee: If you had the boomerang, that dude was easy.

Shaun: Well, thank you for undermining my whole statement.

Lee: I was a fan of the one-eyed armored dude. He died just like the Terminator.

Shaun: Yeah, that reference was nice. One of the best parts.

Chris: I liked the epic fight at the wedding. Church organs make everything better. Church organs that double as a multitude of cannons…that just takes the cake. The wedding cake.

Lee: No, I’m pretty sure we crushed that cake.

Shaun: And it was delicious.

To those not in the know, this probably doesn't make much sense.
To those not in the know, this probably doesn’t make much sense.

Weapon of Choice

Lee: The weapons and pet systems were fun. Weapons would give you bonuses to the stats you had. Pets would give you special abilities. It was a simple concept that doubled as a way to insert more humor into the game. You could kill people with a fish.

Chris: Even though most of the pets weren’t worth much, they were still fun. Personally, I liked having an owl follow me around and bring me fruit. Not to mention it was handy in a tight spot.

Shaun: I liked the giraffe. Because I like giraffes.

Lee: I liked the zebra, but I do not remember why. Maybe he looked like he had a mohawk.

Shaun: It definitely added another layer to the game’s surprising complexity. Weapons could be chosen with stats to cover a character’s deficiencies, and pets were a nice bonus that could be very helpful at times. The ram can give you a second of breathing room in a confrontation, and there were animals that could even help you find secrets hidden in the levels.

Chris: Plus, the ram was insanely helpful in winning those duels for kisses. That was the most important part of the game, after all.

Shaun: Rams…and the ability to electrocute the other players for three straight minutes. Get trapped in that and it’s over.

Lee: I think I got to kiss a princess once. I was purposely letting Chris die the entire boss fight just so I could get some sugar.

Chris: No wonder the game seemed so hard to me. I liked the items, too, even if they weren’t all that important. The bow and arrow was pretty much useless without any points in agility, but fun to mess around with. Sandwiches made you 5x bigger, which is a good lesson for kids. The shovel could dig. The horn…well, you used it once. Still, overall, it was another way of keeping things fresh.

Lee: I kept someone fresh when I shoved him off a cliff with a shovel.

Shaun: That might have been the best single moment of the game.

Chris: I mean, he was made out to be French. So we were shoveling him off that balcony for the sake of freedom.

Shaun: For America.

Lee: Shoveling him just like every other French man has been shoveled.

Chris: We would be remiss if we didn’t mention the best boss fight in the game: Beach volleyball.

Lee: I do not think we ever lost that one. We did have a blowout once. The only thing it was missing was independently bouncing breasts.

Chris: I think we got a shutout once. 10-0. Half of that was because you could just knock down their frontline players, which isn’t exactly how volleyball works but I approve.

Shaun: I would play a full game of that volleyball (editor’s note: You can in the PS3 version due later this year). That was some of most fun I had in Castle Crashers. First of all, it made no sense. Second of all, it was amazingly entertaining. The fate of the world rested on that volleyball match, and it was so easy. Hit it out of your section so it hits the ground on your opponent’s side. That’s it.

Chris: And they played volleyball with honor. When the enemy soldiers lost, they brought you the map you sought. Even though you didn’t know you were seeking it.

Lee: Well, I don’t think it would be a stretch to imagine people could read your mind in that game.

Chris: If they could, they would have seen the unfettered fury in my mind and run away screaming, not attacked me in droves.

Lee: I also was a fan of Corn Boss. You could actually eat parts of him.

Shaun: I was an anti-fan of the corn boss. He just frustrated me because the battle was unnecessarily long.

Chris: Yeah, that battle was fun until he got four times faster when his health got lower. Then you got about three milliseconds to hit him before he went back underground. But you can’t argue with a guy named Corn Boss.

Lee: And his corpse can’t argue with you.

...or this.
…or this.

Frank Castle

Shaun: The colorful bosses and unique style all contributed to the title’s superb pacing, but so did the length of the quest. It was long enough to justify the purchase, but you could knock it out in a dedicated afternoon if you really wanted. Further playthroughs are encouraged thanks to the leveling system. In short, Castle Crashers is just a really solid game that can keep you busy for a very long time.

Chris: Considering this was an XBLA title, and especially considering the price, Castle Crashers was very good. It wasn’t revolutionary and it was barely evolutionary, but it was fun. When you think about it, shouldn’t that be most games’ primary focus?

Shaun: It’s the lesson that Sonic finally learned after a decade of sub mediocrity; instead of trying to reinvent, sometimes it’s better to just stick with what works.

Lee: The fun scale was very high on this game. Despite some shortcomings it was the most fun I had with a side-scroller in a long time. I will keep returning to this game every once in a while because of that experience.

Let's just say you're not super-powerful at the start of the game.
Let’s just say you’re not super-powerful at the start of the game.

Outtakes

Shaun: I only won one duel…and that was because everyone else threw the match so I could kiss the princess at the end that was actually…well, what was that, exactly?

Chris: Your mom.

Lee: She was beautiful on the inside.

Chris: Rainbowy beautiful.

Lee: Flaccidly beautiful.

Shaun: Good. Mom joke. Just great.

Lee: That princess was your mom?

Chris: I went for the high-brow approach.

Lee: Wait, why did you want to kiss your mom?

cornboss

Checkpoint is a series of discussions run by Chris, Shaun and Tech Guy back in their college newspaper days. For more entries in the series, click here.

Checkpoint: Final Fantasy VII


checkpointlogoThis column originally ran on February 23, 2010.

The year was 1997. America was waiting for its next great RPG, one that would catapult the genre to new heights in the country. Instead, it got Final Fantasy VII, which confused a lot of people (wasn’t this series just on III?). To commemorate the recent release of Final Fantasy XIII, Checkpoint takes a look back at Cloud’s misadventures, and we try to fathom why some call this the best game of all-time.

Final Fantasy VII had some good characters...and Cloud, Cait Sith, Vincent...
Final Fantasy VII had some good characters…and Cloud, Cait Sith, Vincent…

Arch Deluxe

Lee: Final Fantasy VII was Square Enix’s first time stepping into the world of CD games with the main series. The result was a three-disc saga of trials, tears and SEPHIROTH (more on him later). It was a good game, but it was not without its flaws. Let’s start with the story.

Chris: This was the first game in the series that really focused on telling an overarching story, as opposed to a more confined tale with character-driven plot points. Overall, I’m not sure that’s a good thing.

Shaun: Well, if the story wasn’t so damn convoluted, it could have been. And at times, the narrative is strong and engaging. It’s just some aspects were so unnecessarily complicated that it somewhat ruins the experience.

Lee: I didn’t have a problem with the story. Then again, I don’t need everything to fit perfectly to have a good time. I can fill in the blanks with my own imagination.

Chris: Well, lucky you. For the rest of us, trying to figure out why exactly we should care about Cloud’s whining and lying and when exactly Sephiroth shows up is more of a chore than a delight.

Shaun: When the most cherished and highly praised scene involves a guy scewering a main party member, except it’s not really the bad guy, it’s another bad guy pretending to be that bad guy, it’s problematic.

Lee: Wouldn’t you be crying if God cursed you with that hair?

Chris: But Shaun, the bad guy who wasn’t the bad guy posing as the bad guy could stand in towering flames while staring at you with his steel-blue eyes. That’s important story right there.

Shaun: Although, Square has a knack for creating completely nonsensical end bosses, and I guess angel horse Sephiroth fits in that category. I did like the scene where you beat the hell out of ol’ Sephi with Omnislash, though. That was great.

Chris: Right. Although why Sephiroth had to be shirtless was beyond me. Then again, you could argue that scene was also in Cloud’s head.

Lee: Actually, that scene pretty much meant the final boss was a pansy.

Shaun: Guys, did you see the boss fight before that? His shirt just got shreaded in the chaos. That, and it’s much more metrosexual to have your shirt off during epic fight scenes. He’s just fashionable, that’s all. Always fashionable.

Lee: Long girly hair = gets caught in plane turbines. Not exactly fashionable if you are dead.

Chris: Okay, I’ll just admit this now and let my street cred forever hold its peace: the first time through this game, Aeris dying made me sad. I didn’t cry (showed you, Tidus!), but it was sad.

Shaun: Well, part of the problem was that unless you sucked at playing games, chances were she was actually part of your core party. You lost not only the character, but the party member.

Chris: And the only healer worth anything. Yes, everyone could have healing materia. Not the same.

Shaun: That’s why it was so ballsy so kill her off. We make fun of it (because some people make it up to be the greatest scene in modern entertainment), but it was an excellent scene, and took some guts on Square’s part. Never before had they killed such an important character halfway through the game (and they stayed dead).

Chris: Yeah, as poignant as, say, Cyan’s family getting killed in VI was, this was much different. An unexpected time, an important character, and they set you up for it the whole way. Unless you were Lee and dated Barret.

Lee: I dated the hell out of Barret.

Shaun: And I can’t even begin to attempt to describe the scene with the brain-dead Clouds. Apparently they are inside…his head? His psyche? Sure, Square. Whatever you say.

Lee: That was the lifestream helping Tifa see inside Cloud’s thoughts.

Chris: So Aeris was trying to help Tifa understand women?

Lee: Yep. One point I wasn’t pleased with was the end of the first disc. You do all that work to get someone to like you, and then he watches another party member die. Damn you Barret! That ride was for nothing!

Shaun: Overall, I would still say it’s one of the better stories from the series, but there are moments that fanboys squeal about that are either silly or plain don’t make any sense.

Chris: Like the entire ending.

Shaun: Yeah, what happened there?

Chris: Okay, so here’s what I think. I think some green stuff stopped the meteor they were all worried about. I think Red XIII had kids. And Marlene survived. That’s it. That’s all we got.

Even a mega-company like Shinra can't manufacture character development, Cloud.
Even a mega-company like Shinra can’t manufacture character development, Cloud.

Compunction Junction, What’s Your Function

Shaun: And I think the fact that you no longer have a dedicated healer brings up an interesting point. While the character designs were pretty solid, the battle functionality of all of them was not. Yuffie? Sucked. Cait Sith? Sucked harder. And Vincent Valentine had the worst Limit Break ever.

Lee: I didn’t mind Yuffie that much. She had her second to last limit break, which was like Omnislash.

Chris: I kinda wish Vincent had turned into a giant mech instead of a demon. I think it would have made the game…no, not better. Something.

Lee: Robotier?

Chris: Gundamier.

Lee: Mecharific.

Shaun: Yeah, but as it was, an uncontrollable, existential Frankenstein monster was not cutting it. And yes, he was existential.

Lee: That’s why I had him with his shotgun and the double cut materia.

Chris: As much grief as Yuffie gets from most folks, I didn’t hate her. I never used her, mind you, but I could at least tolerate her. I just can’t understand for the life of me what Cait Sith was supposed to be. Yes, I know, he was the one non-corrupt guy in Shinra. Doesn’t help the actual character that goes around with you.

Lee: I would have to say my favorite character was Biggs. He lives on in my heart. That’s why I was dating Barret. I was just sleeping with him to get more information about the love of my life.

Chris: At least he goes out like a pimp in this game, unlike in VI. “Hey what’s this laser Tritoch is spewing augggggggggggh.” Done.

Lee: Or Chrono Trigger. Going back to the torture room. Thanks for playing.”

Shaun: Red XIII was probably my favorite. An awesome looking dog with a neat name and decent combat potential.

Chris: I always imagined Red XIII with a British accent. Maybe it’s because of how proper he talks when you first rescue him. But the idea of him with a monocle always amused me.

Shaun: You know, I see it now that you’ve mentioned it.

Lee: I didn’t really pay attention to what he said. Those captions were really subtitles, and you don’t get those in real life.

Shaun: Well, he’s a DOG, Lee, what do you expect?

Lee: Dogs don’t have fiery tails. The end.

Shaun: Some do. It depends. Largely on whether or not you set them on fire, but still…

Chris: He’s right. Think about Charmander. Fiery tail. Clearly a dog.

Shaun: Great, now we have to deal with PITA. I think that’s them on the phone.

Lee: My GOD, we haven’t talked about King Pimpmaster III. Cid Highwind. That guy was one of the best characters.

Chris: And smoking in a video game? Gasp!

Shaun: Yeah, Cid was solid. Interesting character and great for the party. And his lance was sweet.

Lee: Aside from the Whine Master, Cid probably drove the story the most. How do I get to new areas? Ask Cid. Airship not going fast enough? Cid’s got your back.

Chris: Dude just rolls around in his airship, lighting up and firing missiles.

Lee: I didn’t really care about the remaining characters. Tifa was okay, but using a slot machine to determine whether or not I do damage with my limit break reminds me of the Gambling Fiasco of ’87. Not a big fan of that one.

Chris: I was okay with Tifa’s character, even if her character model was ridiculous. She owned a bar, beat up enemies with her fists and didn’t play the archetype female lead character.

Shaun: At least they scaled her back a bit in future sequel type things. I actually really like her character when she is not Dolly Parton.

Lee: She wasn’t terrible, but I didn’t use her in the end game until I was forced.

Shaun: Cloud was not the worst character in the game, but the older I get, the more annoying I find his attitude to be. You just…want to shake him. Wake up! Stop whining and go save the world! Unless Sephiroth drowns in your tears, your crying isn’t helping anything.

Chris: Man, I just pictured Sephiroth slipping and falling face first into a small puddle of Cloud’s tears and drowning, and it made my day.

Lee: I am currently laughing out in the open air.

Shaun: Well, good. It’s a good thing when the struggle between the title’s protagonist and antagonist evokes that much ridiculous hilarity.

Chris: Look, Cloud was a good fighter. Of course, that was about as much character depth as he had, so I guess he’d better be good at it. Unfortunately, he makes for a tepid, boring, boorish main character. I blame Cloud and his unfathomable popularity for Squall. And for Tidus.

Shaun: And if you play Crisis Core, it only drives this fact home further. It actually makes him worse. You know, Zack was likeable. Arrogant in the beginning, but likeable. I guess that’s what we call a “character arch.” Why couldn’t Cloud have been like Zack? Ha, whoops. I guess that’s actually the existential question the whole game is based around. My bad.

Lee: I’ll be honest, that part of the game confused me. I would probably have to play it again to keep track. Was Cloud just a clone the whole time? Did any of that really exist?

Shaun: He thought he was Zack, who was a hero. That’s pretty much it. He just believed it so hard with his estrogen that it became his reality.

Chris: And really, the fact that they had to make an entire spinoff on a different system 11 years later just to explain said major plot point is…well, it isn’t good.

Shaun: You know, the sad thing is that when you’re not running dumb errands for Aeris, Crisis Core actually has a better story than VII.

Lee: Okay, what was the Crisis?

Shaun: The crisis was the core of everything. I actually really don’t know.

Chris: We’ve missed talking much about a couple characters. I liked Barret, and his whole dad angle actually was pretty good. Vincent and his dark, emo, vampire ways never really did much for me. Although at least he didn’t sparkle.

Lee: I just assumed Vincent was a television actor who lost his memory and transferred his starring role to his real life. Everything that had to do with him was actually a prop. Lucretia was just an animatronic robot left on set.

Shaun: I think that should have been the plot for Dirge of Cerberus. God knows it would have been better than the plot they actually used. Something about Genesis, I’m not really sure.

Chris: I think Dirge of Cerberus should never have existed. That saves both problems.

Shaun: Well, you and pretty much all of the gaming industry. I like Reno. Why couldn’t Reno be in the main party.

Lee: Hojo.

That's right, kids. Clothes aren't flammable. Go have fun!
That’s right, kids. Clothes aren’t flammable. Go have fun!

Limit Breaking the Habit

Chris: Let’s talk about gameplay a bit. This is classic turn-based RPG material here, and while I rip on most parts of this game, the combat isn’t part of that. It did a lot of things right.

Shaun: Well, the classic turn-based system was really finely tuned, and moved pretty briskly at the time. Also, I loved the materia system. It’s similar to leveling up with weapons using AP points, but it was addictive and well implemented.

Chris: The materia system was pretty solid. Balanced. It let you customize your characters to an extent, without making them all too similar (one of the few complaints I have about IV or VI). Limit breaks and the vastly different weapon types everyone used helped with that as well.

Lee: I was a fan of the introduction of limit breaks. If you wanted to sit back for a bit in the middle of combat, you used a limit break and watched the shiny scenes.

Shaun: Actually, that was one of my only complaints, and it was not something that has ever really been addressed. Yes, Limit Breaks and Summons are shiny and cool, but when you summon Bahamut for the 500th time and still have to sit through the whole animation, it becomes tiresome.

Chris: And Knights of the Round…ugh. Look, it was cool the first few times. But then…

Shaun: That animation lasted for about 80 minutes. I could go to the DMV and come back and it would only be about halfway done. Combine this with two mimics and you have an ability that can kill anything, if you live long enough.

Lee: I never got Knights of the Round. Damn Chocobos didn’t want to pop out a blue one.

Shaun: Worth it. Kind of. Depends on how much you like your free time.

Chris: Lee hates it. Like most things.

Shaun: You’re better off with Ifrit then, Lee. Ifrits almost as good.

Chris: What about Sephiroth’s limit break of sorts? Supernova? Huh? Anybody like that? Supernova?

Shaun: I didn’t like it much when I was eating it.

Lee: Yeah, Supernova was a little ridiculous. Especially if he did it twice. Where did all the other planets come from?

Chris: Let’s just get one thing straight. Any attack that destroys half the solar system but can’t ever kill your party is NOT an awesome attack. You can’t implode Jupiter and then do 94.6% damage to your party’s HP. You can’t. I don’t care that it could cause every status effect in the game. You can’t.

Shaun: Maybe it was just a trick. Sephiroth was just a magician, that’s all. A big, horsey, angelic magician.

Chris: Yeah, and he did that trick where he wasn’t even in Disc One! What an awesome villain.

Lee: Sephiroth is sort of a magician. He made his nipple rings disappear before your fight. I KNOW he had them.

Shaun: Well, my problem was how it kind of ruins the plot if you think about it. So, the big threat in the game is a meteor coming and damaging the earth…but Sephiroth just called on this thing that obliterated planets and landed here. Wouldn’t this classify as worse than a meteor?

Chris: Exactly! I just can’t figure out for the life of me why people don’t understand this.

Lee: I agree with that. He could extinguish life on other planets, but not the one we were on. And didn’t he want to leave Midgar for other planets. That is difficult to do if you blow up the other planets.

Chris: Oh, and one more thing: Why in the holy hell is that version of Sephiroth called “Safer Sephiroth”? He melts the freaking solar system! It takes all of the awesomeness of One-Winged Angel to keep this from being the worst thing ever.

Lee: Wasn’t it Seraph Sephiroth? Or was that another of his 50 versions?

Shaun: Seraph Sephiroth is redundant. From this day forth, it is Safer Sephiroth to me. It’s a trick used to goad Cloud into thinking the coast is clear. “Oh, it’s cool guys. This Sephiroth is safer than the one that killed my girlfriend. The coast is clear.”

This explains so much. Wait, no it doesn't.
This explains so much. Wait, no it doesn’t.

Un-Better With Age

Shaun: The thing is, the characters, especially Cloud and Vincent, have aged poorly, as has the story. The only thing that helps this game endure is the gameplay. This is one of the best examples of turn-based in a genre that will probably be obsolete for the most part pretty soon. Every new Final Fantasy wants to create faster and more streamlined encounters. XII was real time, and in XIII, you are more like a general issuing roles for your party. Both advances are fun, but I miss turn-based sometimes.

Chris: Even though I’m a much bigger fan of active battle systems (i.e. Tales series), a good turn-based system can still pull me in. X had a good one — quick, flexible, engaging. Valkyria Chronicles had a good one, although that’s more of a tactical RPG. It’s still possible.

Shaun: As far as how its legacy went, I can sum that up fairly easily: not well. Other than Crisis Core, which has its fair share of problems, nothing from this compilation has been worth anything.

Chris: No. The original game is good. Great, even, despite all of its problems. But the idea that Final Fantasy VII is the best game of all time is insulting to the entire industry.

Shaun: VII is not the best game of all time. It’s not even the best game in the series. In my opinion, it’s not even the second or third best in the series.

Chris: And the clamor for remakes and sequels and spin-offs have resulted in a lot of crap outside of CC. Even Advent Children wasn’t that great.

Shaun: Advent Children had some cool scenes, and made Tifa likeable to me, but was not a complete film at all.

Lee: Wasn’t a big fan of “Hey Kids, Sephiroth is back.” But why? Because we want more fans.

Shaun: Yeah. They revived him in a way that made me less angry that just bringing him back from the dead and creating zombie Sephiroth, but it still didn’t need to happen.

Chris: Let’s see. VI is better. X is better. XII is probably better. I’ll reserve judgment on XIII until I actually play it. IV is better. VIII is not better. IX is better. That puts VII at least sixth. For those of you keeping score at home, that’s “average” even within its own series, let alone the greater gaming community. VII was extremely influential to the FF series as a whole, and it brought an entire generation of gamers in the States into the RPG genre. It also introduced a new side of PC gaming. But it doesn’t stand up on its own as a game.

Shaun: Yeah, pretty much sums it up. That does not mean it’s not a great game, and it was certainly important…but its praise is a little undeserving. A lot undeserving.

Lee: Well, if you have never played another Final Fantasy you might like this game more.

Shaun: That’s true. It caters to an audience that may not classify themselves as fans of RPGs.

Lee: I enjoyed playing it. But I haven’t replayed since that first time. And that was probably nine or 10 years ago.

Shaun: Just recently, I decided to download it on my PSP and play it again. I have a feeling it’s not going to age well, but at the same time, I am anticipating a fun time. I think that is a more appropriate legacy than anything. Overblown, and sometimes silly, but ultimately a fun entry in the franchise.

SPOILERS
SPOILERS

Outtakes

Shaun: I’m sure Twilight Tweens love this game.

Lee: They are called Twihards.

Chris: I mean, when Sephiroth is shirtless at the end there, he’s almost like Taylor Lautner, right? …I’m embarrassed that I even know that guy’s name.

Lee: Who?

Shaun: He’s better than Robert Pattinson.

Lee: Who?

Chris: He’s like the male version of Taylor Swift.

Lee: Oookay. I think I know who that guy is.

Shaun: No! Taylor is so much better.

Lee: Taylor is a guy’s name.

Chris: I can totally imagine Cloud singing You Belong With Me to Sephiroth. For hours.

Shaun: I’m thinking more Teardrops on my Guitar. And Cloud sitting under a lone tree on the top of a hill and sobbing onto his acoustic guitar. Taylor was the best part of Valentine’s Day, I’ll tell you that. The movie, not the day.

Lee: Hold on! You saw that movie and didn’t check your balls at the door before you entered this chat. I don’t even know you anymore.

Shaun: I didn’t check my balls…at the door? Before the chat? The mixed metaphors are confusing me.

Lee: You had me thinking I was chatting with a man. I could have been hitting on you this entire time.

Chris: Cloud probably loves Crossroads.

Shaun: And Lady Gaga. Who am I kidding, Lady Gaga is great.

Chris: I bet when he’s not off pretending to be Zack, he sits in his dressing room, puts on a blonde wig, and calls himself Hannah Montana. But when the wig is off, he’s a completely different person!

Lee: But he’s actually Miley Cloud, and his friends just can’t figure it out because he goes the special school.

Shaun: This sounds like Final Fantasy VII-2. And in real life he thinks he’s Miley. Double the identity crisis, double the fun. And he has the best of both worlds.

Chris: I bet if you took away Cloud’s hair gel, he’d look like Jewel. And sing in a whiny voice like Jewel.

Lee: You can’t take away his hair gel. That is half of his character.

Shaun: And Vincent bares a striking resemblance to JC Chavez. You could probably form the entire group of N’ Sync out of VII characters.

Shaun: Sephiroth is Justin Timberlake. Cait Sith is Lance Bass. It’s perfect.

Chris: But…Lance Bass voiced Sephiroth.

Shaun: Ha! Forgot about that. What happened there? That’s worse than Jesse McCartney voicing Roxas.

Chris: I don’t know. But it explains so much.

Lee: And Justin Timberlake voiced Yuffie.

Shaun: At least Jesse McCartney is not playing Prince Zuko anymore. What a disaster that would have beeen.

Chris: Right. You might as well cast Jeff Goldblum as Aang then.

Lee: WTF?

Shaun: Ah, that was good. What an obscure thing to say. I love it. Obscure, and yet perfect.

Lee: I just died a little on the inside.

Chris: I GOT A FEELIN’

Lee: THAT TONIGHT’S GONNA BE THE WORST NIGHT

Shaun: Lee, that’s not how it goes. I appreciate your enthusiasm though.

Lee: I’ll probably be dreaming of Jeff Goldblum now. I hope you are happy.

Chris: Imagine him with a shaved head and a blue arrow. It’s hilarious. Wait, by “hilarious” I meant “haunting.” My bad.

Lee: Can I imagine him getting eaten by a T-Rex. Yes, yes I can.

Shaun: Jeff Goldblum was the main character of a movie where people thought they were dogs. And so did he. ANd it was this mental thing.

Lee: But it has to be an Eagle-T-Rex.

Shaun: Probably the worst movie I have ever seen.

final-fantasy-vii

Checkpoint is a series of discussions run by Chris, Shaun and Tech Guy back in their college newspaper days. For more entries in the series, click here.

Checkpoint: Super Mario World


checkpointlogoThis column originally ran on February 23, 2010.

In 1990, the NES was reaching the end of its lifespan. Resurrecting an industry was one thing, but the public wanted to know what Nintendo had up its sleeve next. The answer: A brand-new system bundled with a revolutionary platformer that featured a familiar plumber. While we wait for Super Mario Galaxy 2, Checkpoint takes a look back at Mario’s journey into Dinosaur Land.

What makes cover art great? Is it Mario's determination, or Yoshi's...uh...
What makes cover art great? Is it Mario’s determination, or Yoshi’s…uh…

One Giant Leap

Chris: Super Mario World was the natural progression we were all waiting for. Franchise series on a new system? Check. Expanded gameplay on a great game (SMB 3)? Check. Yoshi? Check.

Shaun: Not a dream sequence? Check. Just like Super Mario 64 made me obsessed with procuring a Nintendo 64, Super Mario World made me realize that Super Nintendo was way better than Sega’s Genesis. Although a year later my parents would buy me a Sega with Lion King and begin a long chain of disappointment.

Lee: As Luigi’s first excursion into a new world, the creators couldn’t have done much better. A couple of new power-ups — Yoshis included — new level designs, and some pretty kickass bosses.

Shaun: I think it’s worth mentioning that the implementation of Yoshi was one of the single greatest aspects about that game, especially back then. It was an almost indestructible dinosaur that could eat everything. And Mario rode on it. It was one of many new ideas that would revolutionize the genre.

Chris: Everything just felt tighter here. As good as the simple two-button gameplay was, adding the spin jump, the ability to store items, etc. made for a much more complete experience.

Shaun: The whole first world was so compelling because it kept introducing new gameplay ideas and features that were never seen before. Every level was exciting because you didn’t know what you would find.

Lee: And they were able to combine elements from the three previous Luigi games. Super Mario World could sidescroll, go up and down, go backward, make you go underwater, and toss you in a pit of spikes.

Chris: Right. So many more ways to die than just pit or Goomba.

Shaun: Yeah, Luigi was there for moral support. Sent letters from home encouraging his brother.

Lee: If by moral support you mean showing his older brother how much portly inadequacy he truly has, then yes, moral support.

Shaun: And such a variety of enemy types as well. The caterpillars that couldn’t die, football players, and giant Bullet Bills come to mind.

Chris: I’ll be honest, I never really understood the football players. Not just why they were there, which was baffling enough. But also why they jumped like a frog and clapped their hands in the air.

Lee: Look, they were just practicing for the big game. Luigi was like one of those practice dummies. They were also trying out for the cheer squad.

Shaun: Exactly. They weren’t even actually evil. Just pumped up on steroids and preparing to win. You know how that goes.

Lee: Roids ruined the game, man.

Shaun: Roids ruined Luigi’s face, too.

Chris: Apparently it wasn’t enough that they ruined baseball. Now they went after Super Luigi World.

Shaun: Next stop…

Lee: Pleasure town?

Chris: DRAGON BALL Z

Shaun: …something bigger than Super Mario World. I messed that up, but I couldn’t think of anything.

Chris: We noticed.

Go ahead, Mario. There's only a couple possibilities in there.
Go ahead, Mario. There’s only a couple possibilities in there.

Taking Inventory

Chris: Anyway. SMW was also important because of all the new level elements. New underwater stuff, tons of new regular platforming additions, and the ability to take to the skies in a new way.

Shaun: The cape changed my life. Being able to fly without a stupid looking raccoon tail was baptismal for me.

Lee: Yeah, not so much for me. The cape was a good upgrade, but I missed my Tanooki Suit. You just don’t get to change into statues these days.

Shaun: Oh, of course, but I will always miss that suit. It’s a staple of Mario to always disappoint by omitting the Tanooki suit.

Lee: Overall, I think the items were a downgrade. You got so few when compared to Super Luigi Brothers 3.

Chris: I enjoyed the cape, if for nothing else than how you could spin around on the ground and hit things with it. But the best for me was being able to divebomb enemies from the sky. Mario sure showed the Taliban.

Shaun: Oooh, terrorist joke.

Lee: Come to think of it, those Goombas did chase you down and try to kill you with their own bodies. Super Luigi World was a political commentary way ahead of its time.

Shaun: You know, you have a good point Lee. About the items, not Mario being an allegory for terrorism in the modern world. I’m sitting here trying to think of all the great and unique items in SMW, and I’m having a difficult time. They were definitely not as unique and did not stand out as much as the ones in SMB 3.

Chris: Outside of the cape, the standard mushroom, and an uninspiring fire flower, that was about it for the items. Granted, I feel like there’s too many nowadays, but it was definitely a step back from SMB3.

Shaun: At least there was no Bee Suit.

You know, this is exactly what I thought front-row seats to Nine Inch Nails was like.
You know, this is exactly what I thought front-row seats to Nine Inch Nails was like.

Leveling the Playing Field

Chris: Even though the items took a step back, the levels definitely went in the right direction. Secret stage exits made the game so much better.

Lee: No, dolphins made the game better.

Shaun: True. Those factored heavily into replay value, until you found out that you get nothing for completing the world except a star by your profile. I was hoping for dynamite or something. Or a secret boss. Or permanent invincibility.

Chris: You’re the same guy who gets achievements just to watch his gamerscore rise. Suddenly rewards are important?

Shaun: The points are the reward, Chris. I tell you what, if completing the world gave me 50 points, then I’m sold.

Chris: Well, that little star is the reward. Although permanently being invincible would mean permanent star music, which I would be okay with. More importantly, secret exits bumped up the exploration something fierce, especially in ghost houses and the infamous star road.

Lee: Completing the world did give you points. They were super secret Luigi points. You don’t actually get to see them, but they are there. How does that make you feel?

Shaun: If the points are Luigi points, I would vomit a little bit, but super secret Mario points are pretty enticing. What a great addition the Ghost Houses were, though. On par with the castles as the best designed levels in that game.

Lee: Sorry, those coins give you cancer. I didn’t like the one bridge level where you had dive bomb underneath the goal to get the secret one. Not easy for pre-teen synapses.

Chris: I loved that idea for a secret exit. They tricked us multiple times, and I enjoyed the abuse. The star road levels made especially good use of that, particularly the shorter levels when you had to figure out just what they were looking for.

Shaun: I don’t recall that one specifically, only the jubilation that comes from having a hunch where the secret was, and then being correct.

Chris: Luckily, they kind of threw you a bone by making the stages red instead of yellow on the world map. That way you knew to go back and take another look around. I kinda felt like that was missing from New Super Mario Bros. Wii.

Lee: Agree. Personally, I wasn’t too happy with the secret exits in the Forest of Illusion. You found the secret, go back to a previous level.

Chris: Yeah, but I felt appropriately messed with there. I like that they managed to convey the sense of being lost in a forest into something so simple.

We can't really blame the Thwomps for being unhappy.
We can’t really blame the Thwomps for being unhappy.

The Net Result

Chris: We would be remiss if we didn’t mention the Koopa Kidz Bop — er, the Koopa Kids. I like that they had their own identity, and after beating them you got the little scene with putting a flag on the castle. Or destroying the castle. Or painting over it.

Shaun: My favorite part of SMW was the boss battles. Although the bosses have grown more sophisticated and shiny over the years, I think they reach their peak here. Every one is interesting and unique, and the final boss battle is epic, especially once you actually figure out how to kill the clown craft. Which, for me, took a while.

Chris: Yeah, I like that they didn’t hold your hand there. You figure it out or you die. And there’s epic lightning in the background, with great music. Good times.

Shaun: Not only were the boss fights themselves great, but the build up to their showdowns were extremely fun as well. There were conventions introduced here (two sided gates, level-long spikes) that were never seen before.

Lee: Luigi got really creative when he was breaking down those walls. My favorite was Ludwig von Koopa’s death. It actually changed the overworld map.

Shaun: Oh, yeah, that was pretty great, too. There were so many little touches that made the game so stellar. It’s hard to believe that Miyamoto was disappointed with the end result because production was rushed. Maybe looking back now you can find parts that suffered from the deadline, but it was impossible to tell at the time. With that said, it’s a little scary to think what he would have done had he got all the time he wanted with it.

Chris: True. Maybe the game would have been even more stellar. Then again, I wonder if that mentality set the stage for all the delays we’ve come to expect from Nintendo mainstays. I mean, it wouldn’t be a Zelda game without a two-year pushback on a release date, right?

Shaun: Exactly. I expect the new Zelda for the Wii in 2015.

Lee: What could Miyamoto have done with more time? Hopefully he was thinking of power-ups, but did he want more levels? More bosses? I think the game had a good pace to it, and ended pretty epically. Why change that?

Chris: Maybe it was more levels, kinda like the whole missing Light Temple thing in Ocarina of Time. Either way, I think you’re right. For me, Super Mario World was pretty damn good. I don’t know exactly how to rank it in the 3,260 Mario games that have come out, but it’s up there.

Shaun: For all of its importance to the series and to gaming in general, it goes number three for me. Number one is Super Mario 64, which pretty much established all of 3D gaming, and Super Mario Bros. 3…because it’s perfection.

Lee: Other than Super Luigi 64 missing its title character, I would have to agree. It was a great step forward with gaming, but Super Luigi World did so much with so little. It was an incredible game for the money, and I will keep playing it long after games have gone holographic, or whatever the next step is.

Chris: For some reason, I was never a huge fan of 3. Great, great game, don’t get me wrong. But I’d probably put SMW around No. 3 as well, behind the original SMB and 64 for their importance to the industry. Super Mario World helped usher in the 16-bit era and established the SNES from the get-go, even if I had Street Fighter II first instead.

supermarioworldCheckpoint is a series of discussions run by Chris, Shaun and Tech Guy back in their college newspaper days. For more entries in the series, click here.

Checkpoint: Link to the Past


checkpointlogoThis column originally ran on February 16, 2010.

Back in 1992, Nintendo brought one of its flagship franchises into the 16-bit era by releasing The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, which some would call the best game in the series. Checkpoint takes a look back at the adventure of a boy who just wanted to stay in bed before some girl started talking to him, and wee debate whether LttP is better than Ocarina of Time.

"The best of Super Nintendo." They're not wrong.
“The best of Super Nintendo.” They’re not wrong.

A Connection to What Once Was

Chris: For me, this was the first Zelda game I ever played. I went back later and played the original, but this was it. My main man.

Lee: My first Zelda game was Link’s Awakening, but that doesn’t even compare to this game.

Shaun: My first was Link’s Awakening too (which for nostalgia reasons I still prefer), but that game is only a small taste of the experience in LTTP. The title was truly years ahead of its time.

Lee: The story was pretty basic. You get called upon to collect items from various dungeons while working toward rescuing the princess. Seemed simple at first.

Chris: Yeah, and the intro did a good job of pulling you in. You’re in bed on a stormy night. Your uncle’s charging off like a pimp/dumbass. You get a telepathic message from some hot chick. Ready go.

Shaun: Simple, but very effective because of how epic it made everything feel. Starting the in the pouring rain, escorting the Princess to the church, finishing what your uncle started. It really immersed you in this world from the very beginning.

Lee: At the time, you didn’t know your uncle would take it like a bitch. Then again, we still don’t know what happened to him. He may have fought Ganon and sent him to the Dark World in the first place.

Chris: Maybe he turned into Ganon. You don’t see him again until the ending, when Link’s Triforce magic turns everything back the way he wants.

Shaun: That’s okay, though, because it’s not The Legend of Uncle, as fantastic of a game as that would be. The stakes were established from the very beginning, and it was up to the purple haired hero to save the day from forces that seem indomitable.

Chris: Speaking of which, this is the only game where Link acquires the full Triforce, which I think is exceedingly important.

Shaun: In the overarching narrative, it is a watershed moment. Especially if you buy into the “Split Timeline Theory.” One day I will write a whole thing explaining that theory, and where each game falls. Today is not that day.

Chris: Thank goodness.

Lee: Save your time for curing cancer.

Shaun: Priorities, Lee. The subplot with Agahnim is fantastic as well, and perfectly established the beginning and end of one of the acts. You vanquish what the game characters think is the main threat, only to open a whole new can of calamity. And then Link is a bunny. An exceedingly cute, useless bunny.

Chris: Yeah, and the best sequence in the game might be the combination of getting the Master Sword, hearing Zelda cry out for help, charging into the corrupted Hyrule Castle with your new sword, and taking on Agahnim with the Bug Catching Net. Outstanding.

Lee: Things were a bit difficult if you didn’t pick up the Moon Pearl before killing Agahnim. Get transported to the Dark World. Ahh, bunny time! How am I supposed to get back?

Lee: Considering the final product, I wouldn’t call it wasted effort.

Chris: Admittedly, that’s one of the few negatives about this game. Why not do a short, separate thing for the Moon Pearl? Why on earth is it the dungeon treasure in the tower? You get that and you’re like, “Uh…okay?” Then you get knocked off the platform 300 times by that worm guy and you wish you had something useful. Like a gun. Not the Moon Pearl.

Shaun: The plot was so multilayered, with so many threads weaved into it. Not many games at this time wasted effort in constructing such rich plots.

Chris: Link to the Past manages to keep explaining the story even though there’s not a lot of dialogue, which doesn’t seem possible until you see the execution. Coupled with Link being the classic silent protagonist, you really get a lot of space to experience it through his eyes.

Shaun: The dialogue is sparse and the exposition minimal, but the story manages to resonate with players to this day. You literally take some useless boy, traverse through two parallel worlds, and kill an evil pig. Then get the Triforce. I miss the days when silent protagonists weren’t seen as a point of criticism.

Lee: When you think about it, what was Link supposed to say? “Get out of my head, I’m sleeping!”

Shaun: “Go to hell, you swine.” Really gruff like.

Chris: He could assert himself for once instead of saving everyone for the 140th time. Of course, it was still early for him. He had no way of knowing what was to come in the next 15 years.

Shaun: Or like “I smell bacon.” In my head, Link is like John McClane.

Chris: I can see the resemblance.

Lee: Bruce Willis stars as Link in The Legend of Zelda: I Smell Bacon.

Shaun: Now is that a movie, or what?

Chris: It’s something all right.

Lee: “Hookshot? What the hell does this thing do?”

Chris: Maybe it’s because we’ve seen permutations and variations of it since then, but Link to the Past’s story was always one of my favorites. Back then, it was original, simple, and effective.

Shaun: Yeah, that’s true. Although OoT is a much deeper story, it’s hard to argue that it seems like nothing more than a fancy reboot of LTTP’s plot.

Even back then, Zelda didn't help with anything.
Even back then, Zelda didn’t help with anything.

Bad Day

Lee: I enjoyed how the story utilized every section of the map. There were few places where you went just to explore. Everywhere else was necessary to do something.

Shaun: It really did encourage you to seek out all corners of the map. Everything was interconnected somehow. Sometimes it’s easy to forget that this game’s predecessor was side-scrolling. Thank god they didn’t keep that up.

Chris: Not to mention the parallels between the two worlds, which had you exploring every nook and cranny even further. Like an english muffin.

Shaun: I often explore every nook and cranny of my english muffin.

Lee: I am not sure Link has the best luck in the world. Sahasrahla just stood in a cave all day and night waiting for Link to show up. Link had to figure out a Rubik’s cube, solve the Da Vinci Code, and find his way out of a Tesseract just to get to that desert cave.

Chris: Exactly. If Link had been born a few years later, none of this would have happened. You think Zelda’s going to ask a 6-year-old to save the world? …Well, she might. But more likely, this game would have been A Steve to the Past, and the protagonist would not have been as strong.

Shaun: And Uncle to the Past would have been a damn failure, because he introduces his stomach to a sword in the first five minutes. LTTP definitely set the standard of introducing side characters that don’t really help at all. There is no Midna here to construct bridges or antagonize Link constantly. Although in order to have Midna, you need Wolf Link. No thank you. I’ll stick with bunny Link.

Chris: Plus, they have a guy whose sole purpose is to screw with you. “I just cut your magic in half! Vwee hee hee!”

Lee: The point is, Link’s main job in that game was solving puzzles. His sword and shield were just tools he would use to get him to the next dungeon. Then he had to use a half stick of dynamite, a roll of babies, two half-eaten pancakes and a DAMN MONKEY NAMED KIKI to get through the front door. MY RUPEES, I’VE FAILED YOU.

Chris: That’s true. You can’t beat the game without that monkey. Or the Moon Pearl. Or the flute.

Shaun: MacGuyver stars in Link to the Past: I’ve Failed You My Rupees. Wait, what is a roll of babies?

Lee: Babies in a roll.

Shaun: Like, a bread roll?

Chris: Think of it as a bunch of babies on the ground rolled up like carpet and then tossed in a truck.

Lee: It’s like a roll of toilet paper. Wait, I think they are the same thing.

Shaun: Oh, gotcha. The toilet paper comparison did it for me. Thanks.

Chris: Anyway. I love the gameplay in LttP. You run around and use a bunch of items, your sword can shoot beams when your hearts are full, and there’s a great mix of fighting and puzzles.

Shaun: Ah, back when this formula was innovative. To be fair, even though it has been done to death in the last ten years, it’s hard to find a Zelda where it was done better than this one. Everything is so balanced, and there is a purpose for everything…

Enjoy it while it lasts, kid. You won't see the whole thing again.
Enjoy it while it lasts, kid. You won’t see the whole thing again.

We’re an Item Now

Shaun: …except the Cane. That was a piece of garbage. It’s not like Twilight Princess, where you have an inventory of 500 weapons, most of which pointless outside of a single use. Ah, a wand that controls owl statues. Thank god for this. Now I have access to the five statues in the entire world. Don’t even get me started on the ball and chain.

Lee: You have a wife?

Chris: And as cool as the spinner was, it was barely useful either.

Shaun: The fire rod though. That was good. The story of fighting with chickens ends with me and the fire rod. They just burned and died. No retaliation from the chicken nation. Just a sad, sad acceptance.

Chris: That was okay. The cucco retaliation freaked me out the first time anyway. It really taught young me about consequences for beating them senseless with bushes.

Shaun: The hookshot was the best invention in the last 20 years.

Lee: No thank you. I liked the magic cape. Turn invisible for no particular reason. I’m down with that.

Chris: The hookshot never went BOING like it was advertised. I mean, that’s probably a good thing, but still. They said BOING like four times in a minute when you got it.

Chris: Still, it did everything the boomerang could better, except go diagonally, and you were invincible while it was extending. Great item.

Lee: And it pulled you over great distances. I’m surprised Link didn’t tie his sword to the hookshot and shoot it at Ganon’s head. That would have been an epic ending.

Shaun: See, that would have been really ingenuitive. God, Link is dumb.

Chris: Just imagine the look on Ganon’s face. Yes, the ingenuitivitynessocity would have been pretty stellar.

Lee: Hookshoterrific.

Chris: For me, I always liked the fire and ice rod. Simple, but effective. Freezing. Fire…ing. You could do it all.

Lee: I also was a fan of the sword upgrades. They gave you a sense of evolution. Regular, blue, red, gold. I AM getting stronger.

Chris: My only problem was that the Magic Cape made the Cane of Byrna completely useless. Why be invincible and visible?

Shaun: How about invisible and invincible.

Lee: You can be both?

Chris: Shaun, if I was invisible, then I could just watch you in your room.

Shaun: God that’s a creepy song. No, I was just posing the question. The point of Checkpoint is to make you think, Lee.

Chris: You know what else was useless? The Book of Mudora. You had to dash into the bookshelf just to reach the thing, and all it did was translate text. Once you got to the Dark World, it was pretty much useless. Still, it speaks volumes (get it?) that there’s only one or two iffy items in this game, compared to later in the series.

Shaun: Favorite item that never made it into the 3-D games. Pegasus boots. That was a game changer for me. It made exploring the world so much easier.

Lee: The Pegasus shoes did make it to Majora’s Mask. They just called them the Bunny Hood.

Chris: Yeah, but they were still different. Although I liked them both. For me, the ability to keep hammering the button to run in place was very important.

Shaun: Yeah, and it’s a dash attack, not just Link in fast forward. Imagine how an awesome dash attack could have been implemented into Twilight Princess.

Chris: Especially if you had control over it whenever you wanted, not in scripted moments.

Shaun: Exactly. But alas, it was not to be. It is significant, though, that we keep going back to conventions from LTTP that we wish were in other Zelda’s.

Lee: Actually, the iron boots had the same effect when you walked from one edge of the map to the other. They broke apart and turned into the Pegasus boots. Try it out some time.

Shaun: Maybe I will. I also heard there was a pistol in the game. If you take cartridge and choke on it, the cartridge falls apart and there is a pistol. Ta-da! Try it. It’s super secret.

Chris: I would’ve liked the magic dust more if Link had used it like Sheik to make improbable escapes in the cloud of smoke.

Lee: I am upset because there was no “kill that damn gouging giant Zora” item. Seriously, I have to empty my bank account and get a second mortgage on my hut because I don’t know how to swim?

Shaun: At least Link could swim in this one, though. One of the more simple, yet critical, additions.

See, we told you not to do drugs without the Moon Pearl. Now look what happened.
See, we told you not to do drugs without the Moon Pearl. Now look what happened.

Know Your Place

Lee: This game is the best Zelda game, and ranks highly on my list of all-time favorites.

Shaun: God, this is hard. It’s not my favorite. That’s OoT. But it’s probably the most important Zelda, as well as one of the most influential Zeldas of all time. Personal list, it’s number three. Importance in industry? It has to be number one. The original was hugely important, but was only a shell of what LTTP is.

Chris: See, I disagree with both of those. It’s higher up on my favorites list, probably number one, but I’m forced to admit that Ocarina of Time was way more important to the industry. It set the standard for 3-D gaming with Z-targeting and set the stage for the rest of the series.

Shaun: Yes, but OoT borrowed heavily from LTTP. Actually , in almost every department: story, items, gameplay…the list goes on and on. Important for 3-D, but LTTP built an entire generation of gaming, and its effects are apparent today.

Lee: Well, you’re both wrong. Link to the Past was the best. The end.

Shaun: Good. Good resolution.

Lee: THE END, SHAUN

Chris: I’m torn on this because I’m usually the one making the “OoT was a shinier LttP” point. So it’s tough for me to disagree too much. Let’s just say that LttP influenced OoT, which had an impact on 3-D gaming, so in theory it was all Link to the Past’s doing. It speaks well for the Zelda franchise that so many people have different picks for best game or favorite game. There’s a lot of quality titles to choose from.

Yeah, we didn't talk about this somehow. Our bad.
Yeah, we didn’t talk about this somehow. Our bad.

Outtakes

Shaun: The boss battles were really great, too. We never mentioned those. Aside from tying the Master Sword to the hookshot.

Chris: I mentioned the worm guy. But yeah, we f’ed up. It’s kinda like some people kept getting way off topic or something. Noooo, never mind.

Shaun: It may be the greatest final boss fight in the series. Low on gimmicks. Just you, Ganon, and backwards controlling segments.

Lee: I mentioned Link struggling with his own inadequacy. That’s kind of a major boss.

Shaun: That’s true. And we talked about the uncle. He was kind of a boss! Patronizing doesn’t really come through in text.

Chris: Damn, that means we didn’t talk about Ganon’s TRICK OF DARKNESS either. What a clever bastard. EN GARDE

Shaun: Yeah. That was backwards controlling, right?

Chris: I don’t know. At the time, en garde seemed kinda cool, but now when I think about it it’s just sad and funny. A giant blue french pig?

Shaun: Terrifying.

Lee: And Ganon wasn’t just a pig. He was a bat and three Agahnim’s all rolled into one package.

Chris: And a Swedish chef.

Shaun: His pitchfork was three times bigger than Link, too. Maybe it wasn’t a pitchfork. Maybe it was just a regular fork. Because he was planning on cooking Link. Swedish style.

linktothepast

Checkpoint is a series of discussions run by Chris, Shaun and Tech Guy back in their college newspaper days. For more entries in the series, click here.

Checkpoint: Star Fox 64


checkpointlogoThis column originally ran on February 8, 2010.

The Nintendo 64 was the console of dichotomy. There was a huge, gaping divide between the haves (say, Ocarina of Time) and the have-nots (say, Superman 64). One game most industry fans would put in the “have” column is Starfox 64, the simple tale of an animal and his animal crew taking on other animals in space. Checkpoint takes a look back at the furry galactic drama, and we discuss what made such a simple concept work so damn well.

It's a busy cover, but it gets the job done.
It’s a busy cover, but it gets the job done.

Going off the Rails on a Crazy Arwing

Shaun: At it’s core, SF64 is a basic on-the-rails shooter, but its level designs are so excellent and diverse that every stage is unique and addictive in its own way. Between all the action taking place onscreen and the numerous emblems and secret shortcuts, SF64 was actually a very deep experience.

Chris: There were plenty of rail shooters in the 2-D era that were pretty good, both on systems and in the arcade. But Starfox 64, while essentially a remake of the SNES one, is definitely deep. There hadn’t been a rail shooter with that much replay value before.

Lee: And really, it wasn’t House of the Dead style. You didn’t have to stay in one place and take it from a zombie. Fox McCloud had an entire screen to maneuver around on, and that added depth to the game.

Shaun: I would replay the same paths multiple times just to get the best score possible, which I think I got once or twice. High scores really revolve around the ability to charge shots, and deploy them at the correct times at the correct targets. Well placed shots could take down whole fleets of oncoming enemies, resulting in high multipliers. And because your ship is on the rails, you really only have one chance per stage to get the shot right. It’s surprisingly complex and addictive.

Chris: I think that added to the tension. That and your partners on the intercom, which added a much-needed sense of urgency. But yeah, if you missed a couple key spots, Slippy’s ship was going in the docking bay. And then you were down a wingman.

Shaun: No one cares about Slippy though. At times, I shot him down myself so I didn’t have to listen to him talk.

Chris: Everything about the level design kept you coming back for more. Secrets, warps, shaving off seconds on your time, getting the most points, plowing through the critical spots more efficiently (especially in Corneria, the first level)…

Lee: I never played for the score. It was about shooting bad guys in space as a fox. It is hard to top that concept. What could be better than cuddly creatures tearing a hole through an enemy armada?

Shaun: The pacing was very dynamic. Some levels included huge wage of lava that had to be dodged, or meteors flying at the windshield. In other levels, Fox would drive the Landmaster. And, of course, the best levels of the game, free for all flight in a showdown to the death with Star Wolf.

Chris: Absolutely. And while I enjoy the first showdown more, the one just outside Venom is definitely the best because it’s probably the hardest mission in the game. That or Sector Z. You go in there against Wolf and Co. with the basic lasers or a wing clipped, and you’re going to have a hell of a time.

Shaun: Those battles were just epic. There’s not a whole lot of story in SF64, but what they have is actually quite good, and it gives the fights a great context.

Chris: Simple, but effective. Your father is deaaaaaaaaad. Another crew betrayed him. The galaxy needs your help. Your crew may or may not help you. Are you a bad enough dude to save the president?

Lee: I was never a big fan of the dogfight levels. You just stayed and fought in one area. There really wasn’t a stunning environment to play through. I preferred the scrolling stages. Dodging pillars, fighting head-on, etc. That kept me coming back for more.

Chris: I’d agree with that if there were more than a handful of those dogfights. As it is, I think it’s a great break to the pacing and the frantic action makes for some of the better moments in the game. The stage with Bill is a particularly good one, and he’s actually a dog.

Shaun: Another aspect of the game done really well is the boss battles. Not only is each one unique in form, but the bosses themselves are memorable.

Chris: If nothing else, the bosses are a good peak for each level. After a while when you learn their weaknesses, it’s not quite as good, but they’re still fun.

Shaun: My question is how have we gone this long, especially in a section talking about gameplay, without bringing up barrel rolling? It was a fundamental part of the controls, as you were a dead fox if you didn’t master them, but…it’s barrel rolling.

Chris: Really, it only succeeded because Peppy sold you on it so hard, and because it was so effective. There’s a couple times where they bust out the old-school 2-D hundreds of lasers attack, but instead of just dying and putting in more quarters, you have a way out besides miraculous dodging.

Shaun: It’s like SF64′s legacy. But yeah, Peppy’s insistence on Fox doing one is probably more responsible for that.

Lee: Yeah, you had to use all of Peppy’s wisdom if you wanted to make it through the game un-dead. Boosting, barrel rolling, and getting help from others was emphasized in this game. In fact, I don’t think I have played another game with such a great emphasis on midair maneuvers.

Chris: Peppy’s wisdom was more useful than Zelda’s. Although that doesn’t take much. Dumb broad.

Shaun: All these mechanics really helped Starfox become an all-time classic. It feels and plays better than the technologically superior Rogue Squadron games, despite the obvious limitations in horsepower.

No, Peppy. Don't even finish it. We already know.
No, Peppy. Don’t even finish it. We already know.

Let’s Go Team

Shaun: I don’t really know what to say about the characters. Important? Yes. Iconic? Undoubtedly so. Annoying? As all hell.

Lee: Well, let’s start with the title characters. “Star Fox” was the name of a four creature mercenary team. They travel the system looking for jobs to pay for whatever it is they do in their downtime (hopefully it doesn’t have anything to do with conventions). Fox McCloud is the leader of the team.

Chris: Thank you, Wikipedia.

Lee: Snap.

Chris: Even though we’d consider these guys stereotypes now, the balance worked pretty well. The leader who plays it straight, the grizzled veteran, the cocky loner, and the dumbass frog.

Shaun: Ah, the dumbass frog. Most. Common. Archetype.

Lee: Haven’t you ever played Chrono Trigger?

Chris: Think about it. Slippy, Frogger…uh…French people…

Shaun: Slippy is definitely a huge metaphor for French people.

Chris: Because of his demeanor or his name?

Shaun: Both.

Lee: You know, I thought those cigarettes were just decorative.

Shaun: The cast works, and you can’t say they were not entertaining, but…there were times I would rather shoot them down then listen to their quips.

Chris: Yeah, every now and then they’d become a bit bothersome. Each of them had their own way to be grating, although only one infuriated based on existence. And it didn’t help when they were constantly in need of help. But it never mattered. You’d think from talking about it that this dynamic was horrible, but somehow it all worked perfectly.

Shaun: I would say their dialogue is equal parts hilarious and grating. But worth it for the hilarious.

Lee: I think the inability to escape their constant quibbling was what made it more hilarious. You are trying to take on a giant boss and a little frog’s head pops on the screen and says, “FOX, we are out of toilet paper!” or something else equally ridiculous.

Shaun: Those animal parents should probably get a little more creative in naming their children. You name your falcon son Falco? Even worse, the titular fox is named…Fox? If this is the standard, there must be 5 million Fox’s in this animal kingdom. In space.

Chris: Right. I mean, his dad’s name is James. There are acceptable alternatives in the family. Then again, James was dumb enough to trust a fat pig and get himself killed, so…

Lee: That’s what you get when you give up and don’t trust your instincts.

Shaun: God, that pig was fat.

Chris: YOU CAN’T BEAT ME…I’VE GOT A FATTER SHIP. Er, better. Better.

Shaun: Fatter.

Chris: I also like that Star Wolf’s team was made up of the exact opposite of yours, pretty much. Again, you’d think this would be cliched, but it just works. An evil rival dude, a mercenary, the cousin of the final boss, and … some gecko.

Space. The final frontier. For animals.
Space. The final frontier. For animals.

Between the Lines

Shaun: We already touched on the bosses, but something should be said for Andross. He managed to be pretty terrifying for a disembodied head.

Chris: Yeah, and the fact that he can melt his face and turn into a robot is kinda disturbing.

Lee: It was kind of disappointing, too. Great, another evil robot overlord in space. Who didn’t see that coming? That’s what robots do. They wait for humans to develop better space travel, take it over, and build an empire in the far reaches of some dark system.

Chris: Nobody ever really explained Andross, but it was okay because the game implied he was evil and the terrorists have to die. Still, I’m not sure how a floating severed head could A) take over the galaxy, or B) reproduce.

Shaun: He’s Andross, guys. He just is. We cannot comprehend his greatness. Or his origin story. He has powers that we simply can’t understand, powers that can only be breached by a fox flying a spaceship.

Lee: Well, Chris, I can help you with the second question. You see, the papa head does a barrel roll for the mama head. Then, he uses the boost to get through. Once there, he trusts his instincts until he releases cocky little freaks. Then he tells the mama head her father helped him like that too.

Shaun: Wha…?

Chris: GEE, I’VE BEEN SAVED BY (a) FOX. HOW SWELL.

Lee: The papa head needs to remember to use bombs wisely.

Shaun: I was going to make a comment about nothing being able to survive a fox in a spaceship, but then…what do I say to that?

Chris: Right. And sometimes you can try a somersault.

Shaun: You got your sexual innuendos in my Starfox, and I don’t know what to do about it.

Lee: SHAUN, THEY’RE ON ME. I’M GETTING CARELESS.

Chris: Well, half the dialogue is innuendo, after all.

Shaun: Yeah, of course. There’s a lot of sexy going on between Slippy and Peppy.

Chris: TAKE CARE OF THE GUY BEHIND ME, FOX

Lee: AAHHHHHHH

Chris: SOMETHING’S WRONG WITH THE G-DIFFUSER

Lee: YOU’VE BECOME SO STRONG

Shaun: Great. Really great. Good job guys.

Chris: IT’S FOOLISH TO COME AGAINST ME

Lee: USE THE BRAKE

Chris: MAKE WAY FOR KAT

Shaun: I would if I could. How do you guys remember this much stuff? I remember, like, three lines, not “it’s foolish to come against me.”

Chris: Because I love this game and all of the lines in it. I can probably do half of it just off memory.

A hurry? For what, a crappy Gamecube game where you have a staff?
A hurry? For what, a crappy Gamecube game where you have a staff?

Staff Infection

Chris: Anyway. Considering the flops that have happened since SF64 (although Command was okay), the series needs to head back to its roots, right?

Shaun: Definitely. I don’t know what’s so hard about staying faithful to a formula that garnered so much success in the past, but I want a sequel to SF64 much in the same vein as its predecessors. For the love of God, keep Fox in the ship.

Chris: I don’t know if it’s ever going to be possible to recapture the same corny but fitting dialogue, but they certainly haven’t tried very hard. I just don’t understand why Nintendo seems so intent on ruining some of its flagship franchises. Why oh why is it so hard to make another good rail shooter? Why has it taken 300 years to get a Kid Icarus sequel? Why does Sonic suck so muc– wait. That’s not their fault.

Shaun: Well, that’s my problem; it’s one thing to abandon it if you tried it and it failed, but why just drop it cold? The humor, the gameplay — it all went out the window.

Lee: Yeah, they should make a Star Fox 65 with the same voice cast and the same lines as the original game. It should include the same levels, upgrades, enemies and bosses as well. Meh, might as well just play the original.

Chris: Hell, I’d probably play that. Uptick the graphics, include a couple new challenges, bring back the original voices — hell, I’d buy that in a heartbeat. I mean, there were a few stages in Assault that didn’t suck, but it wasn’t enough to redeem the whole game. Not by a long shot.

Shaun: They could do a sequel some real justice, but instead, we are stuck with Fox swinging a pole with a another fox who is trying to sexy, which is very creepy.

Lee: Not sure she was a fox, but I get your point. Adventures was not a game that made us look forward to more Star Fox. However, it did succeed in making us want to play the original.

Shaun: And while it seems natural to include some kind of Wii remote motion control in a sequel, I hope it is kept to a minimum. Shaking to perform a non-critical air maneuver is acceptable. Navigating the Wii-mote like a spaceship is most certainly not. It’s more like the worst idea ever.

Chris: Waggling to do a barrel roll is unacceptable. You press Z or R twice. I don’t care if those buttons aren’t on a Wiimote. Z or R twice. That’s it.

Shaun: Of course, but that’s a critical move. It’s like the most critical. But you could shake it for…something. Kind of like in New Super Mario Bros. Wii.

Lee: I can see us pointing at the screen to launch a bomb at a certain enemy. That would be acceptable.

Chris: I’m just petrified of the idea because shaking it for a barrel roll seems like the perfect fit in Nintendo’s stupid motion control world, doesn’t it?

Lee: Shake it to throw the blue toad to his god forsaken final demise in a pit of spikes filled with lava?

Shaun: As organic as it is for Metroid to control by aiming the remote at the screen, this feature really prevented me from playing through Corruption. I just didn’t like it, and I hope they don’t try to do the same thing for SF.

Lee: Myes, very organic.

Shaun: Do you mean throw the blue toad in lava, or shake the remote to have the blue toad save the day. Twice.

Chris: So basically, we want a brand new game that’s exactly like Starfox 64. I’m not sure if that’s a testament to how great that game was or how bad its follow-ups have been, but either way it works.

Shaun: Well, pretty much. I’m fine with innovation, but yes, it needs to follow the formula established in Star Fox 64. Include new ways to shake up the pacing, new abilities, blah blah blah, but don’t reinvent it at this point. SF is definitely one of NIntendo’s franchises that does not need to be radically changed. One true sequel would be nice.

Lee: Starfox 64 may never be duplicated. Let’s not forget, we were different people when we first played it. There might be something we can’t get back from those halcyon days when everything was magical and talking animals kicking ass in space was good gaming.

Shaun: Maybe, but I would hope they would at least try.

starfox64Checkpoint is a series of discussions run by Chris, Shaun and Tech Guy back in their college newspaper days. For more entries in the series, click here.

Checkpoint: GTA San Andreas


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This column originally ran on February 1, 2010.

Since the exploits are much harder to pull off in real life, the Grand Theft Auto series has always held a special place in our hearts. After all, it’s pretty difficult to kill drug dealers, hijack cars and bunny hop 100 feet on a bike without some severe consequences (of varying scale). Checkpoint takes a look back at their favorite GTA game in the series, and talks about why CJ was the best protagonist in town.

GTASA01
This isn’t how I remember the Brady Bunch looking.

Pedaling the Peddlers

Lee: Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas started you off with CJ, the reluctant main character coming home for his mother’s funeral. Once out of the airport terminal, he is thrown into the wonderful world of stealing cars and killing drug dealers. And by God, he killed those drug dealers dead.

Chris: For those who played the game incorrectly, “drug dealers” meant “everyone.” Everyone was peddling that stuff, and had to be stopped. The prostitutes were committing two crimes at once, so they were the first targets.

Lee: I’m not sure prostitutes even sold themselves. They probably brought the customer to the hotel room only to deny him or her sex and try to sell them smack.

Shaun: You have a nobody who works his way up the ranks through crime. If only they didn’t do that for every single GTA game. At least this is the only part of the story that retreads previous staples. The plot actually does a good job of separating itself from the other entries in the series.

Chris: I didn’t really buy in to what was happening in the beginning until we got control of CJ. When the game starts and you find out the main character’s mom died in about three seconds, it’s tough to be attached.

Shaun: For my money, it’s the best GTA plot, and it came at a time when I wasn’t tired as hell of the series’ repetitive formula.

Lee: CJ was forced into several ridiculous situations, and he always came out on top. And drug dealer blood on your tires didn’t hurt your chances for success, either.

Chris: If nothing else, the plot works in the framework of what you’re doing, especially because we hadn’t seen most of it yet. You’re working on your own agenda while doing dirty work for Samuel L. Jackson, and build your way up from the very bottom.

Shaun: For once, I actually felt compelled to stop going on killing sprees and get through the plotline. It wasn’t exactly deep, but it was always interesting, and kept my attention.

Lee: I wasn’t fond of the first city’s missions. Gang violence doesn’t really float my boat. Once out of the city, the missions really blossomed into the fun they could be.

Chris: Right. And besides, you could just do the gang takeovers later on, which were much more fun. A few city blocks of carnage just to turn it over to your side.

Shaun: I did enjoy later missions much more, but the early missions helped build credibility for the story, and allowed me to become invested in the characters. CJ could run over hookers and grandma’s carrying groceries for their children, and yet I sympathized with the guy.

Lee: I was a fan of how the story escalated. You start out with nothing, move on to own your a garage, a casino, work for the government, and fly a hover jet. CJ’s world really expanded.

Chris: GTA has always thrived (and/or suffered) because of its simplistic design when it comes to the story stuff. It usually involves revenge, and you can fill half the time by going on “kill this person”-type missions that don’t have any huge outcome other than pleasing whomever you’re using to get something at the time.

GTASA02
Too bad going to half these places will make the military angry at you.

A Whole New World

Lee: I enjoyed the three-island structure of the game. Two areas of the map are blocked off. If you want to be adventurous, you get four stars (the equivalent of getting the S.W.A.T. team called in). They kept you on each island long enough to learn where everything is. I still know how to get around those cities. In GTA IV, you actually need that GPS. In San Andreas, the map marker was a guide, not a trail.

Shaun: I just loved being able to ride through the countryside, especially on the motorcycles. I spent hours just finding high cliffs to ramp my vehicle off.

Chris: Yeah, there’s something to be said for the city being big enough to explore thoroughly and not feel repetitive, but not so big (and with so many dead-end routes) that you can’t just drive around where you want. GTA IV’s New Yorkish city certainly has its advantages, but I’m not a fan overall. I liked San Andreas’ better.

Shaun: Being able to actually swim was a nice feature. Why it took so long to implement, I don’t know.

Chris: I never understood why no one else could swim, but it was always hilarious. When cops were chasing you, you could just lure them off a cliff and they would kill themselves.

Shaun: Too fat.

Chris: Yeah, but they didn’t sink. So apparently they were fat and buoyant.

Shaun: The worst recipe for swimming. Truly.

Lee: Fat is buoyant, but the way it sits on your body, you end up floating face down with no ability to roll over.

Chris: Now it all makes sense. GTA was preaching real life in a fake L.A., and we just didn’t know it.

GTASA03
Look, it’s okay. She was a hooker. Obviously.

Increased Strength

Shaun: My favorite aspect of San Andreas was the ability to level up skills. Making CJ fat was lame, but improving my driving so I didn’t slide all over the road was great.

Lee: You should go to the gym at the earliest opportunity. Leveling up your muscle may take long, but the results last the rest of the game.

Chris: Plus, if you don’t like the way your workout is going, you can just kill everyone in the gym.

Lee: I hit the gym, covered CJs face with an outlaw’s bandanna, and did the burglary missions first. All you had to do was cap the resident of the house and you would be that much closer to unlimited sprinting.

Shaun: The ability to improve the character was another layer of addictive, and it was a shame to see they got rid of it in the newest GTA. They axed it for realism, I understand, but I still don’t support it. At this rate, in GTA V, one bullet kills, you will spend three months real time in a hospital for injuries, and if you die, it’s game over. Restart!

Chris: Personally, I liked being able to get better on the bike, but when you first started it was like you were a 2-year-old. No coordination, and if you went more than 3 mph you crashed like a bitch. Kind of like Speed, but in reverse and without Keanu Reeves.

Shaun: The bike was fun, but it’s limitations were disappointing. When I got run over by the police when trying to escape from a robbery with a bike, I pretty much called it quits.

Lee: Bunny hopping two inches wasn’t impressive, but doing it 10 feet in the air over cars was wonderful. The game was more cartoony than real, and I think that aspect made the game better than GTA IV. I don’t want too much realism when I am killing drug dealers.

Chris: I’d agree with that. There’s a few ways where the realism of IV is an improvement, but overall San Andreas was much more enjoyable because of that blur between reality. Let’s face it: It kinda makes more sense that way. At least you can explain how one person can take on an entire city that way. Niko…we just assume he had military training or something, and apparently that’s enough.

Shaun: Apparently “military training” doesn’t cover walking into traps 500 times. “So, the last 20 drug deals went south, sure, but I have a good feeling about this one.” Cue ambush.

Lee: CJ wasn’t supposed to be prepared for anything he had to face. No military training, no possessions; just the gun in his hand and a pocketful of dreams. Assuming you gave him pants to wear, and actually had a gun.

Chris: I think San Andreas best matches up with what the GTA series stands for — a lampoonish look at crime that puts the player in almost complete control of a sandbox world. When that sandbox is underdeveloped because of the technology of the time (GTA 3 and before) or too restricted because of all the new refinements (IV), it doesn’t match up with the open-world experience that seems to have been the goal. Besides, San Andreas fits best with the way I like to play GTA games, which is “the hell with the missions” and “screw around in the town.”

Shaun: And that open world is what’s so impressive about San Andreas. It was miles and miles of interactive territory. I remember thinking how ridiculous it was that the developers could fit in this much distance. Between the variety of missions and sheer size of the cities, San Andreas was the pinnacle of the series.

Checkpoint is a series of discussions run by Chris, Shaun and Tech Guy back in their college newspaper days. For more entries in the series, click here.