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Izzy's 2020 year in review...gaming took a bit of a backseat

Posted: Thu Jan 07, 2021 1:25 pm
by isthatallyougot
Ok, let me try to do this thang, little by little. The last 2 or 3 months I haven't really played anything, but I did play a fair bit earlier in the year. Life took some turns, and I found myself setting gaming aside for better things, but I still want to share what I played in 2020. Hope you guys enjoy.

As always, I'll start off with the games that were replays for me:

NHL Faceoff '98 (PS1) (replay)

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The PS1 was home to some exciting competition on the sports-gaming scene, and much of the influx of new blood came from Sony's own 989 Studios. They were primarily known for shaking up the virtual gridiron with NFL Gameday as a viable alternative to Madden, but they also had some other interesting sports offerings, including the NHL FaceOff series. I have always thought hockey translated really nicely to the format of video games with its quick and fluid action, and 989 brought a really fun take on this sport to Sony's premiere console.

The only entry I ever played was '98, but I played the crap out of it back on the PSX. The action was lightning fast, and thankfully you could turn down the speed as the default (50 out of 99) setting was just comically fast in my opinion. But even at a slower setting, things were very snappy and full of action. The highlight of the game was the thunderous checks that would rattle the boards (and your man) in a very satisfying manner or hip checks that crushed your opponent, giving you back possession of the puck . The skating and movement felt really great - suitably slippery and snappy, and there were a wide array of controls, especially given the age of the title. There are plenty of stats that are tracked throughout the season, and being able to edit lines offered some additional strategy. And, despite the variable difficulty settings, there is a very nice challenge, even on the the lesser difficulties. I remember winning the Stanley Cup when I was younger, but I've been challenged more than I was expecting on the revisit to this virtual ice.

On the down side, injuries happen too frequently and can be devastating if you lose a key player for the season early on. They can be turned off, but that removes some of the challenge, unpredictability and realism. And you can only play in a single season mode in this version of the series. There's no franchise or trading between teams, but if you're going to play a full season, there's still plenty of gaming to be had. Finally, the PA announcer could either be enjoyed in his over-the-top delivery or seen as a nuisance depending on your point of view. Overall, though, this game holds up wonderfully all these years later. I had a great time, and it's still worth playing today if you don't care about current rosters. Just as fun as it ever was. 5/5.

NHL '94 (Genesis)(replay)

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Some games are just laced with nostalgia because you gave them so much time and enjoyed them so deeply. But that nostalgia can sometimes betray you due to a flavor that is limited and reflective of a particular time and place, a point where everything, including yourself, was different. So it's always a risk to go back in time to something you really enjoyed because those memories can be sullied, leaving you to feel a sense of loss and disappointment, even questioning your sense of reality. Thankfully, there are also many experiences which are able to transcend time and circumstance, remaining enjoyable through the passage of life. NHL '94 for the Genesis is such an experience, and I picked it up again in 2020 after a long hiatus.

I wasn't the biggest gamer in the world during the time of the Sega Genesis, but there were a handful of titles that captured my interest enough that caused me to devote a fair amount of time, and NHL '94 falls into that category. It does a really good job of feeling like a continual struggle to control - due to the delayed and slippery responsiveness, giving that on-ice feeling. In addition are passes that require precision and aren't always received cleanly and little poke-checks (along with the more thunderous variety) costing you possession constantly. You're always trying to nudge things for an opening, and that feeling remains present all these years later. Finding that brief window of space and making the on-time, on-target pass for the one-timer into the back of the net to hear the siren wail is ever-satisfying. There is just something special about this aged sports title. In fact, people still play it regularly online (and off) today. (You can even get updated teams and rosters - not that it's relevant to the original game as released.) It was one of the earlier titles that I can remember that felt like it was doing admirable work in capturing the feel of the sport and league it was trying to emulate - all due respect given to Tecmo Super Bowl and maybe a handful of others.

It would have been nice if there were a season mode, as this release only has single match and playoff options, but there aren't really too many complaints. But the actual on-ice hockey - the gameplay - is still as fun as it ever was. There are plenty of little touches to appreciate from the variety of goalie saves to the organ music to the little kid that likes to bang on the glass. It's just a fun and charming title of a bygone era. I had enough fun on this revisit to play through the Stanley Cup Playoffs a couple of times, and I'm considering finding some online leagues and/or matches for that extra exciting human-competition element. 5/5 then. 5/5 now.

Re: Izzy's 2020 year in review...gaming took a bit of a backseat

Posted: Fri Jan 08, 2021 10:58 am
by canedaddy
Love NHL 94! Right up there with NHL Hitz.

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Re: Izzy's 2020 year in review...gaming took a bit of a backseat

Posted: Fri Jan 08, 2021 11:28 am
by isthatallyougot
canedaddy wrote:
Fri Jan 08, 2021 10:58 am
Love NHL 94! Right up there with NHL Hitz.

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I never played NHL Hitz, but I always heard it was great.

Madden NFL '06 (PS2) (REPLAY)

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Being a huge fan of the NFL, I've always been drawn to representations of the sport in this hobby I love. I remember dreaming of a genuine NFL game before Tecmo Super Bowl arrived on the scene and showed everyone how it's done. (To be fair, the Atlus-developed "NFL" released in 1989 on the NES had the league license, but it was *no* TSB.) It wasn't too long before there were plenty of offerings showcasing the league in digital form. While many were interesting and some were really fun, like the aforementioned Tecmo Super Bowl, it wasn't until Madden NFL came along that there was a real push for authenticity in terms of replicating the fundamentals of the actual sport. In fact, John Madden said before contributing to the product, "I'm not putting my name on it if it's not real." And there were plenty of gamers who were fans of the league that appreciated these attempts at a realistic depiction of the sport they loved. This energy built to really grow the product, and it became a mainstay of sport gaming enthusiasts.

Like any creative archetype that is consistently expressed, there will be ebbs and flows in terms of quality. For me, however, the pinnacle of the Madden franchise is still the PS2 era offerings - an era where franchise mode was more than an afterthought, before the age of micro-transactions, before NFL exclusivity eliminated the benefits of competition, and before EA had cultivated an impossibly bloated and broken game engine. And in this unusual year of real-world sports scarcity, I found some comfort in revisiting an old favorite in the form of Madden NFL '06. While PS1 Madden was good, I still remember how excited I was the first time I saw a video of the Rams and Titans prior to the initial Madden offering on PS2. I almost couldn't believe how great the players looked. Gone were the indistinct low-poly models of the previous generation, giving way to crisp, large, wonderfully animated fields full of realistic (relatively speaking) looking NFL players. I couldn't believe my eyes, and I knew I would get it immediately. In fact, the game ended up releasing before the console itself - hitting the streets earlier than the planned simultaneous release on October 26, 2000, and I remember buying it without a machine to play it on for a couple of days. I sat there obsessively thumbing through the manual and just staring at the cover in anticipation of the hardware being released.

So is Madden '06 still great through the lens of 2020? In a word, yes. It gets the fundamentals of football right. Play action sucks in the linebackers, especially in the right circumstances when you've been running the ball well and in typical running down and distances. Throwing while running or out of the pocket is less accurate. Stepping up in the pocket is usually the best way to buy time to throw. Bigger, stronger guys fall forward with contact more often. There are plenty of nuances that indicate an understanding of the basics as well as finer points of NFL football. Overall it's just a pretty faithful recreation of the sport. For the time, and even today, I find the animations to be very nice, if somewhat limited in scope. There is a deep franchise mode that makes building a team over a long period really satisfying. There's really a lot to love here, and I very much enjoyed revisiting this old classic.

There are some things that do detract from the experience, however. As animation heavy as it is, those scripted motions can remove the sense of control as things play out. The running game often just results in players "pinballing" off each other at the crowded line and comes off as very inelegant in appearance, and not representative of how the chaos at the line of scrimmage happens in real life. The artificial intelligence is very poor and not very fun. Its "intelligence" amounts to causing more fumbles, penalties, poor routes by your receivers, dropped passes and teleporting defenders rather than any real improvements in strategy or execution. And even on the highest difficulty, you can trick or "cheese" this poor excuse for A.I. So in the end, you're left looking for a human opponent to satisfy the desire for the chess-game of football. Also, although it's not fair to compare every game against every other game, it's too easy to make direct comparisons to other NFL games, and in that comparison Tecmo Super Bowl is still more fun, and NFL 2K5 is more fun as well as being very realistic in its own right. This is not a criticism of Madden necessarily, but in a game beholden to a recreation of a real world activity, it's hard not to compare with other examples.

Madden on the PS2 still has a great deal to offer though. I love that its roots are in embedded in Electronic Arts founder Trip Hawkins' love for Strat-O-Matic baseball - a game that is very dear to me. Hawkins at one time said about his founding of EA, "The real reason that I founded it was because I wanted to make computerized versions of games like Strat-O-Matic". So its birth is rooted in a love for simulation sports, and that is incredibly special to me. And despite the a.i. being disappointing, you can still have some fun with some slider tweaking and some self-imposed "house rules" but the real fun is in sitting down with another human player for the potential of some genuinely exciting strategy and action, and in that form it is as still as good as it ever was. Overall, Madden '06 is still a great game of gridiron fun, and I had enough fun to play through a few seasons of franchise mode, even all these years later. Revisiting this old classic only confirmed how great it was. 5/5.


Rocket League (PS4) (Replay)

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I seem to always get sucked into Rocket League. It's just so easy to pick up and play for some quick fun, and when I don't have anything particular in mind, jumping in is a low-resistance good time. So I played a good chunk again this year. Still great and incredibly absorbing. Not much needs to be said. If you've played it and love it you get it. 5/5.

Re: Izzy's 2020 year in review...gaming took a bit of a backseat

Posted: Sat Jan 09, 2021 9:41 am
by crimson_tide
I appreciate the sports representation, izzy! I am not a sports gamer generally (I mean Tecmo Bowl is Tecmo Bowl and all) so I have no clue what's happening in the field. I do remember loving a Genesis NHL game. Might have been 94...and also, I somehow don't own Rocket League. I think whatever month it was free, I didn't claim my PS Plus games because I was gallivanting with my new girlfriend at the time (now wife) and was so smitten with her I just didn't bother. Oh well, I think it's always on sale cheap :P .

Re: Izzy's 2020 year in review...gaming took a bit of a backseat

Posted: Sun Jan 10, 2021 9:06 am
by isthatallyougot
crimson_tide wrote:
Sat Jan 09, 2021 9:41 am
I appreciate the sports representation, izzy! I am not a sports gamer generally (I mean Tecmo Bowl is Tecmo Bowl and all) so I have no clue what's happening in the field. I do remember loving a Genesis NHL game. Might have been 94...and also, I somehow don't own Rocket League. I think whatever month it was free, I didn't claim my PS Plus games because I was gallivanting with my new girlfriend at the time (now wife) and was so smitten with her I just didn't bother. Oh well, I think it's always on sale cheap :P .
Thanks crim! And love >>> games, so it's all good. :) Actually I just remembered after I got back, but I just spent a month in Brooklyn (Cobble Hill), and I thought after the fact that I should have let you know and looked you up. (I think you're in Brooklyn, right?) I'd have loved to meet the real crim - if you weren't terrified of the virus. :P

Anyway, here's the last couple of replays from my 2020. Just a reminder for those who bother to read my reviews, I don't consider replays for my year-end rankings. I realize SOTC may be a remake/remaster/whatever, but it's a faithful enough version to the original that I consider myself to have already played it. So, no matter how much I love a game I have replayed, it isn't eligible for my rankings.

On with the list:

The Last of US (PS4) (replay)

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I think that The Last of Us, along with all the other (relatively) recent post-apocalyptic content on offer within books, movies and other games, shines a mirror upon an unconscious understanding that the state of the world and global society as we currently know it is probably the exception rather than the norm for humanity. We know deep down that the relatively peaceful facade of our globally connected society and small world we live in is always teetering precariously on the cusp of collapse due to myriad potential reasons, and we see this unconscious awareness bubbling up in the form of our art. In the case of The Last of Us, it is a fungal pandemic that rolls in from the sea and washes away our castles of sand.

We see this scenario play out through the eyes of two primary characters in Joel, a hardened survivalist who lost his daughter at the outset of the apocalypse and witnessed the world change in the blink of an eye, and Ellie who grew up in this chaotic struggle for survival and knows nothing else, aside from some whispers coming through some relics of the past. And as good as the gameplay can be at times - which I'll touch on later - this game is primarily driven by the narrative surrounding the relationship between these two characters, and what a dynamic and profound connection it turns out to be because of what each of these characters represents on the larger stage of human drama.

Without going into great detail, Joel was destroyed by the loss of his own daughter at the outset of societal collapse. It ruined him completely and calcified his heart, forming a buffer against any emotional connection, something we witness throughout. He's, ironically, not that dissimilar to the fungal zombies that roam the world, only functioning on a superficial level. He survives on a biological level, but he died inside long ago. And to be fair, it's an understandable response to a world in which life is incredibly fleeting, even more so than in the pre-collapse world from which he came. Embracing anyone from the depths of your heart has its consequences, and especially so in the fragile world of The Last of Us. So he becomes a soldier of sorts, marching forwards with instincts perpetuating his biological survival while never really living in any meaningful way. Yet, he wants to genuinely live as evidenced by his stubborn struggle to hold on.

Ellie, on the other hand, has known nothing other than a world where everyday survival is a terrible struggle and fraught with constant peril. But we're all born human, and she hasn't lost her humanity to the bitterness of the world yet. She carries the intrinsic hope and optimism tightly woven into youth, and she's very much alive. And in some ways, she's more alive than most people who came from the better circumstances of the past. In the absence of any real sense of safety, she is naturally tuned into the moment, and capable of an innate vulnerability, born from a magnified uncertainty relative to the previous "normal" world. She lives and dies with every breath, and yet still craves the sense of family and community that is born into us all.

As these players cross paths, the dynamics of these two characters may make for an interesting tale without any further layering. However, Ellie brings something unique to the tale in that she is immune to this fungal infection. This immunity makes her an absolutely essential chess piece in humanity's quest for ongoing survival. She provides a hope for all, and Joel is tasked with bringing her to a location where she can be studied in the hopes of finding a cure. And although no cure is guaranteed, she is most certainly a beacon of light towards that end. This aspect of Ellie gives her added weight as her meaning to both the human race and to Joel personally form the crux of the climactic conflict.

Of course, all who have played this game know that Joel ultimately chose to save Ellie over allowing experimentation on her, as these experiments would have apparently killed her, whether or not a cure was ultimately discovered. Whether Ellie knew this or not is left open to interpretation, so this becomes more of an examination of Joel from my perspective. Joel had come to view Ellie as a surrogate daughter and was his reason for really living. It took time for him to let his guard down and let Ellie in, but once he did there was no way he was going to accept losing another daughter, and he ultimately chose to kill dozens on the way to saving her, not to mention the potential of losing a cure and the impact that would have had on humanity at large. I know there are many interpretations available for this story, but for me, Joel is a clear villain who prioritizes his own needs over that of the larger human family. And while you could say that most of us fit into that mold - living for our self day to day, few of us knowingly place our desires so obviously and blatantly ahead of *all* our other fellow humans. Of course you could argue that Ellie's worth as a cure is an unknown, but it *is* a reasonable hope, and to take that away is gross self-interest in my view, leaving me no other view of Joel than that of an enemy to humanity as he callously prioritizes the needs of the few (the singular even) over the many. How much worth can you assign to your connection to another person? It may be intensely important to you, but is it worth giving the middle finger to all other members of your species? But this dynamic between Joel and Ellie is what gives such impact to the narrative. Not only were they meaningful to one another, but their relationship held the potential for much larger meaning to all of society. Regardless of interpretation, however, I found the story to be quite enjoyable, and certainly of a higher quality than is found in many games.

Narrative examination aside, there are other things to praise in The Last of Us. Of course, coming from Naughty Dog, this game is gorgeous and a real technical achievement on the PS3. I remember hearing stories of the game killing systems for some, and my own machine roared loudly at times as it struggled to tackle the hardware-stretching code. (Even my PS4 was louder than usual playing this remastered version.) The visuals of society's picked carcass are impactful and do a wonderful job placing the player in the shoes of the protagonists and their fight for resources and survival. The remnants of the world gone by are evocative, giving an added melancholy to some already harsh conditions. And the gameplay is also enjoyable, if not always realistic. There is plenty of tension as you seek to evade the desperate remnants of humanity along with the mutants of the new world. Sneaking and stealthy dispatch of foes along with efficient utilization of resources make the experience wonderfully involving, especially on higher difficulties where you find yourself barely scraping by in terms of acquiring armaments and healing resources.

On the down side, the ai often behaves in unbelievable ways, as Ellie and other members of your crew can appear functionally invisible to the same enemies that are highly attuned to player presence. Seeing some of these encounters play out can remove the sense of realism which can draw you out of the experience, if only a bit. It doesn't happen always, but it happens often enough that it is worth mention as a negative. I also found the forced walky-talky sections to be frustrating at times as you felt the loss of a sense of control. Sometimes you can sprint, sometimes jog, sometimes fast walk, sometimes only walk slowly. It wasn't always clear why the restriction was the level chosen, feeling arbitrary at times. I felt as if I were not in charge of the character I was playing as much of the time which brings me to another point. Games like this that are heavily cinematic often make concessions towards that end, and there is a real tradeoff in doing so. In telling such a tight and limiting narrative, you are bound to remove some sense of agency, and that is the cost often paid in games of this nature. We see it many times in The Last of Us, but the one that stands out most to me is the conclusion where you are forced, as Joel, to kill a doctor holding Ellie for research in order to rescue her. I, as the presumed embodiment of Joel, would not have taken lethal action here, and even tried shooting the doctor in the foot which hilariously killed him instantly. But that only stands to reinforce that this is a story where you are more of a witness than an active participant. It's not inherently bad design, to be fair, but if you naturally form any sense of connection to your on-screen avatar, you will be reminded that this connection is false here.

Criticisms aside, I thoroughly enjoyed The Last of Us the first time I played it at launch, and I enjoyed it just as much the second time around. The work on offer here offers an incredible attention to detail visually, is fun to play, and has an involving narrative with some very well-acted characters. I enjoyed it enough that I could envision myself playing a third time at some point in the future, and that is surely a mark of a game you love. One of Naughty Dog's best, and a wonderful game in general. 5/5.


Shadow of the Colossus (PS4) (replay)


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After playing ICO on its launch in 2001 on the PS2, no one could be sure what would follow in Fumito Ueda's 2005 sophomore effort as game director, Shadow of the Colossus. Would the director prove to be a one hit wonder ("hit" creatively speaking), or was there some greater substance to be mined from fertile ground of a genuine creator? His first offering was so unlike his contemporaries, and for those who loved it, that was a big part of its appeal, but that unique flavor also kept the title in the shadows of more mainstream gaming. Would the same design restraint, subtle narrative and haunting atmosphere return in this follow-up, or would he abandon his artistic principles in the face of ICO's commercial failure, either by force from those funding him or through disappointment at not finding an audience initially? Would this be a sequel or a prequel, or an altogether new creation? For fans of ICO, there was a lot of uncertainty leading up to this game's release, both in terms content and creator. So did Shadow cast its own and present gaming with a legitimate new colossus, or was it destined to live under the one cast by its predecessor?

Any doubts about the type of experience Shadow of the Colossus would offer were answered almost immediately. The soft and mysterious lighting, otherworldly atmosphere and minimalist approach were evident very early on, and that came as a sigh of relief back in 2005 for someone who really loved ICO and was concerned that Ueda might have been forced down another path in order to maintain his presence in the industry. After a brief introduction showing a young, horse-riding man (Wander) deliver a young woman (Mono) to an altar in a temple, we are greeted by a booming voice from above (Dormin) that promises resurrection for the (presumed) loved one if certain tasks are completed. In order to see life breathed into Mono again, a variety of Colossi that roam the land would have to be found and slain. Do that, and Dormin promises Mono's return.

With that simple premise, we are off to explore the land to find these giants and attempt to restore the girl. Upon exiting the temple we encounter Ueda's design elegance immediately. We find ourselves in a vast natural landscape. and per Dormin's instructions in order to locate the next colossus to fell, we simply raise our magical "Ancient Sword" and position it within the light until the rays emanating, or reflecting, from it converge to a fine point. That point is the direction we follow in order to take on our next quest. This natural and cohesive integration of subtle guidance is just one of many thoughtful and elegant examples of Ueda's brilliant design. We are guided with an gentle and subtle hand that is never intrusive or reminds you that your are playing a game.

The world feels incredibly vast in its wide open spaces - much larger in sensation than it is in reality, which I found to be fascinating. And this brings me to another element of Ueda's work that I find particularly impressive. He understands how to allow his creations to breathe. There is room to reflect and soak in the experience since he isn't constantly inundating you with rapid-fire changes and hyper-stimulation. You have a real opportunity to inhabit Wander and link yourself to the world, especially if you take your time and connect with the game's natural rhythms. On the path to the various colossi, there are gorgeous landscapes and little remnants suggesting an ancient world or society. Everything is saturated with a sense of mystery. And as you move through the world, it's easy to imagine and write your own little stories of what might have been. This openness highlights Ueda's understanding of the value of negative space and the value it brings in strengthening what you do want to emphasize. His approach to craft makes me think of him as a brilliant jazz composer or musician that recognizes that the spaces between the notes are just as much the music as the notes themselves, and that approach is particularly lacking in this medium.

Another of Ueda's strengths, in my view, is his delivery of narrative. He is always willing to give a taste of things, but he never relies upon heavy or clumsy exposition to crush the mystery or deaden the experience. We know all we need to know in order to proceed, but we are left to fill in the blanks on our own. And within those vacant spaces, he invokes the imagination of the participant, asking the player to engage more fully with the experience which adds a great deal of power to his stories. As we work out our own interpretation of things, the worlds he creates come to live within our own minds rather than simple 1s and 0s, giving them an impact they otherwise could never achieve. He worms his way deeply into our curiosity as he stubbornly refuses to create certainty regarding the characters and the world they inhabit. But there is always just enough to bite onto. For example, in Shadow, there are very clear suggestions connecting things to ICO as evidenced by an ending that - without spoiling things for any who haven't played - likely places this as a prequel to that game. And part of what I love about Ueda's trilogy as game director is the idea that all three of these games are within the same universe. So many little clues keep me spellbound and regularly reflecting about all the possibilities.

Another aspect of Ueda's work that always keeps me engaged is the exploration of myriad themes. Because they're so ambiguous, many interpretations of his creations are always available, and I always find myself exploring those possibilities while playing. The first potential theme that struck me on this play-through of Shadow was the idea of rejecting nature (refusal to accept Mono's death) bringing about a curse. For me, I certainly think that our rejection of nature is often accompanied by dire consequences, and I really felt that theme coming through. And on the topic of death and letting go, I found quite a bit of grist for the mill within. Wander was willing to sacrifice anything for his goal of reviving Mono as reflected by his response to Dormin's warning that the price he would pay may be heavy. He simply responded, "It doesn't matter", and he certainly overcame great challenges to achieve that end, but as with all lives, sooner or later it all unravels and we must face failure and death. I found myself embodying the sorrow and frustration Wander must have felt as he tried in vain to make his way to the girl at the alter at the conclusion of things. I knew it was impossible to make it there, but I refused to be sucked into the pool for a *long* time because of all I/he had done to bring about her resurrection. Seeing all you have worked for right there on the precipice, and knowing that seeing its fruition is going to unravel for you was powerful and relatable imagery, and I couldn't help but act as I imagined Wander would. I needed to reflect his pain. The theme of death and karma also makes its appearance via Wander as he travels through a tunnel of light after succumbing (dying) to the shadows after slaying each colossus. And finally, after accumulating sufficient negative karma, we see him reborn in a cursed state in the finale. There are so many themes that I always find within Ueda's creations, and this is but a small sampling.

The music was also a brilliant standout that made an appropriate and epic appearance while fighting the colossi, but otherwise staying off-stage. The soundtrack for all three games in this trilogy really add to the totality of the experience and are very befitting of the overall mood. I honestly don't know who the composer was for each piece in any of the series, but the work has always been brilliant.

There are some minor issues worth noting for me. Visually, I thought this remake looked very nice, although I think I prefer the softer edges and lighting of the hardware-constrained original. Sure, it may be due in large part to those technical limitations, but the original release benefited in many ways from those constraints. That's not a criticism of this remake, as it's gorgeous, and in some ways more attractive, surely in terms of detail. The controls have never been the focal point of Ueda's games either, and while functional, I'd never say that I am enjoying myself because of refined mechanical interaction. The camera could also be problematic, especially on the final colossus in spots. In that fight, it's already hard to see because of the lighting and rainy weather, but then when you add in a troublesome camera, and you can find yourself falling to the bottom of this massive creature, having to ascend all the way to the top again, and that can lead to some frustration. And if for some reason you aren't sure how to tackle a colossus on your first run through the game, the epic music can shift from feeling appropriate and epic to comical or mocking as the fight drags on longer than it should.

All things considered, Ueda is one of my favorite creators in the industry. I really appreciate creators that value subtlety and appeal to the imagination of the audience as integral to their creation, and Ueda does this as well as anyone in any medium. Shadow of the Colossus is one of the legends of gaming, and replaying this remake only cemented its mythical status with me. 5/5.

Re: Izzy's 2020 year in review...gaming took a bit of a backseat

Posted: Sun Jan 10, 2021 6:54 pm
by Phaseknox
I replayed The Last of Us last year as well, it’s one of my favorite games. I’ll undoubtably play it again at some point along with The Last of Us Part II. Speaking of which, I’m curious to hear your thoughts on TLoUP2 when you play it.

Re: Izzy's 2020 year in review...gaming took a bit of a backseat

Posted: Mon Jan 11, 2021 10:38 am
by isthatallyougot
Phaseknox wrote:
Sun Jan 10, 2021 6:54 pm
I replayed The Last of Us last year as well, it’s one of my favorite games. I’ll undoubtably play it again at some point along with The Last of Us Part II. Speaking of which, I’m curious to hear your thoughts on TLoUP2 when you play it.
Who knows when or if I'll ever get to it, but I'm surely interested.

Ok, no more replays. On to the countdown in this unusual year, both personally and well, ya know.

#23 Interactivity: The Interactive Experience (PC)

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Interactivity: The Interactive experience is a game that reminds of Portal and Stanley's Parable in that there is a narrator that is perhaps malicious and certainly mischievous, I suppose. You enter an interactive exhibit dealing with levers, valves and buttons and are guided by digital kiosks on panels throughout the various displays. There is some mild puzzle solving that must be accomplished in order to progress to ultimately reach the star of the show, the button. It's a giant red button that is roped off and highlighted - most tempting indeed. However we are urged by the ai prompts coming from the panels that we must not push the button - not even think about it. Of course, we're going to try and push it, and in doing so, we witness changes that lead to subsequent runs in an effort to push the button again, resulting in more changes. In concept, I thought it was fairly interesting, but the controls were overly finicky in places, with one case of a narrow timing window to pull down four levers before they reset that resulted in more frustration than fun. It was cool seeing the museum setting change, and there was an ominous feeling that developed as you made progress that, unfortunately, resulted in a let-down of a payoff at the end. It's not horrible, but I can't really recommend it. It's not very long, but it wasn't really worth my time. 2/5.


#22 Please Follow (PC)


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I really love low poly. There's something special about it where it shows you just enough, leaving your mind free to fill in the gaps. And low poly horror is fantastic. So I always like to give games in this realm a chance. I gave an opportunity to a game called Please Follow that fits in this category. The blurb on the game page said, "In the official timeline, a lone surviving soldier ventures into the tunnels dug by the opposing forces. Deep inside the bowels of the battlefield, they come into contact with a presence that will open their mind to worlds and events better left unseen." As I made my way underground, I found some writhing worms with sharp teeth and some "dirty drains" that needed filling with some unknown liquid. There were a few puzzles and the visuals and sounds were interesting. I just wish there was *more* to it. It was very brief, and just not enough to pass as a worthwhile experience to recommend in my view. It was part of that massive itch.io bundle from earlier in the year, so I paid next to nothing for it. I do hope the developer continues exploring the low-poly atmospheric style of experience. There is certainly potential here, but this was more of a demo than a full game in the end. If there was more to enjoy, I would have been more forgiving or even enthusiastic, but as it is, it's a 2/5 for me.

#21 Finny the Fish & The Seven Waters (PS2)


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One of the things that made (makes) the PS2 so great is its diversity of software. It existed in a time before there was such a formulaic feeling to so much of what is produced. There was a very experimental vibe and scene within the development community, and gamers benefited greatly. Being an aficionado of the unusual, I'm always interested in dipping my toes into hazy waters, and this year I decided to swim with Finny the Fish (& the Seven Waters).

I knew nothing at all about the title going in, so I was open to being surprised. In the beginning you encounter another underwater character that is sort of a guide or guru that walks you through a brief tutorial, teaching you moves like jumping out of the water, or up the rocks of a waterfall to get over obstacles into other pools, how to eat other fish - something that must be done regularly do survive, how to break lines or capture lures if a fish you bite turns out to be a trap, and so on. There were plenty of reasons to seek out all the fish and capture the lures as the game keeps an encyclopedia of your achievements. In concept, I was interested.

Once the game proper had begun, I was free to swim around and encounter other characters that might have objectives for me. The first thing that struck me was how cheesy the voice work was, but it was fine in the so-bad-it's-good sort of way. More problematic was the navigation itself. Being unable to move the camera with the right stick caused a significant amount of frustration as the in-game camera was quite poor. And sometimes when jumping between bodies of water, I found it very disorienting, despite the presence of a mini-map in the bottom corner of the screen. I just couldn't establish which way to go, and this became troublesome for a quest which involved fetching something for a character and being on a timer to return it before it "spoils". It just resulted in pure frustration to me because you were quite far away and separated by numerous bodies of water, so I would jump from one pool to the next which completely disoriented me when landing, resulting in me jumping back into the pool I had just come from, making completion of the task very tedious.

Graphically, it looked good, and it felt good and was fun to swim around and consume other fish. The presentation was enjoyable, despite its cheese factor. There is some depth where you can upgrade your health and jaw power with "scales" you find, and the idea of filling up an in-game encyclopedia has its appeal for me. It had a good deal of potential. However, the problems blunted any joys on offer. There are other problems, but when the camera is so frustrating that it removes the sense of control, there's just nowhere to go. The basics aren't good, and I didn't want to keep playing. It's a shame, because if that issue was remedied, I would have certainly liked to see all that Finny had to offer. But I can't recommend it. Finny flopped. Catch and release. A 2/5.

Re: Izzy's 2020 year in review...gaming took a bit of a backseat

Posted: Tue Jan 12, 2021 10:46 am
by isthatallyougot
#20 Super Dodge Ball Advance (GBA)

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I never had the privilege of playing the NES version of Super Dodge Ball, but I know it has a following who praise it as a very good game. And having had the real life experience in school - which I always thought was great fun, I found myself curious to finally see what this series was like, so I picked up Super Dodge Ball Advance, the 2001 GBA release. From the main menu, you have the options of Special, which is a league where you try and climb to the top against 10 other teams from a seemingly random set of nations. Why is Holland thrown in there? Nothing against the Dutch, but it seemed a pretty random inclusion. Besides that main mode, there is an exhibition mode and a versus mode, that would have to be played with the link cable. I spent the bulk of my time in the tournament/league mode, so that will inform my opinion.

So what did I think of it. Well, I thought it controlled well enough. You can pick a formation for your team of dodge ball players and while on the court you can employ a few different strategies. The most obvious is that you can make a direct throw at an opponent to try to damage them - all players have fighting game style health bars, and when they reach zero they turn into an angel with wings and float off the play field. Of course, sometimes your opponent will catch the ball (as can you), and you will fail to make any damage. But if you do connect, a number representing the amount of the hit will appear overhead, and there is a pretty wide range of hits from as little as 4 points to upwards of 60. In addition to the basic attack, you can pass the ball around the edges of the play-field on your opponents side to players who are not permitted within the lines of play. This can give you a closer distance for a shot attempt, or you can employ a team attack where you signal a teammate to make a running jump from the half-court line. If you time it well, you can get a special attack, of which there are quite a few variants, that does a significant amount of damage and changes the appearance of the ball into a flashy fighting game type of special move. You can also sprint towards your opponent before releasing the ball, and if timed well you will also have an opportunity at a more significant hit. And if opponents find themselves on your side of the court, you can hit them with impunity, as they are unable to block when not on their own side. The timing of combat was fairly simple, and the game was pretty easy, but there was a nice ebb and flow to the movements of the ball and teams, and a pretty fun rhythm developed while playing.

So, would I recommend it? Well, the main meat of the single player doesn't really take very long to beat, although to be fair, there are additional difficulties and teams to unlock, but I don't feel it would have really given the core gameplay much in the way of extra legs. There just wasn't enough depth to really warrant significant investment. To be fair, that criticism may soften had I spent time in multiplayer, where I assume this game would have put its best foot forward. Although playing multiplayer on the GBA in this day and age is a bit of a unicorn event. It's by no means a bad game, but it just doesn't have the content or the depth to justify an enthusiastic endorsement. Maybe if you and a friend have the GBA link cable, it would bump things up a point. But for me, it's a 3/5.

#19 Fall Guys (PS4)

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I generally don't favor the multiplayer experience for my gaming time, but there are exceptions. I've really loved Rocket League as well as PES (Pro Evolution Soccer) and some NFL games over the years. But sometimes a multiplayer-centric title becomes a sort of phenomenon, catching most everyone's attention, and if it's free, well, it's hard not to at least give it a look for the sake of curiosity. Such is the case with Fall Guys, a whimsical appearing battle royale sort of game where you try to be the last bean/weeble-wobble/tic-tac - I don't know what you are, lol - standing. There are a variety of events that gradually weed out the competition, ranging from races to stay-on-the-platform type challenges, among others. It does have a chaotic feel, especially in tight quarters with all the beans jostling into each other and getting knocked over or out of the stage via the bumping chaos and the environmental hazards. It's colorful and light-hearted in appearance, and it is humorous to see all these funny, rounded beings racing frantically to be the winner. But, it just didn't have any sort of staying power for me. It reached a peak of mildly entertaining at best and a nadir of annoying and/or boring. In the handful of competitions I entered, the best I did was finish in second as I watched the bean right in front of me grab the crown. I didn't love or hate my time with it, but it just wasn't that compelling for me. In the end, it's a soft 3/5 in my estimation.

#18 Super Mario Land 2 : 6 Golden Coins (Gameboy)

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I never owned an original Gameboy, but I've always loved Mario and I wanted to see some of his adventures on this classic handheld. So, I picked up Super Mario Land 2 : 6 Golden Coins and started jumping and shrooming. I will say that despite the limited color palate, there were some interesting stages both graphically and thematically which provided some unique settings for the conventional Mario platforming. There were both land and the oft-disliked underwater sections to contend with, and I thought traveling to outer space was a nice variation on the typical Mario backdrops. The basic structure of the game entails navigating an over-world map to various locales. In each themed locale you run through a variety of stages until eventually defeating that location's boss, granting you one of the titular 6 golden coins. Upon gathering all six coins, you make your way to Mario's palace to battle the premiere appearance of a series icon that I won't spoil despite how old this game is. It was nice to see the origins of this familiar character though, and it added a bit of extra interest to this Mario outing. The controls were tight like always and the running and jumping was satisfying, however there was a fair bit of slowdown which marred the otherwise-excellent feeling controls. Also the game was really short and pretty easy for a Mario platformer. Granted, there are extra levels and areas to discover, but the overall feeling was of a bite-sized adventure. As much as I love Mario, I can't say this is one of my favorite entries in this long-running franchise. It was fun, but didn't approach the heights of the best this character has to offer. It was a lukewarm experience. You could do worse, but Mario can and has done much better. 3/5.

Re: Izzy's 2020 year in review...gaming took a bit of a backseat

Posted: Wed Jan 13, 2021 11:02 am
by isthatallyougot
#17 This Strange Realm of Mine (PC)

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This Strange Realm of Mine is a game that I picked up as a part of that huge itch.io bundle a while back. And there are so many games in that bundle that it's impossible to decide what you might be interested in, so I've just picked up a game here and there without too much thought. This turns out to be a game likely made by a small team or maybe one person - I'm not sure. (It's on Steam as well.) It's got sort of a Minecraft aesthetic (for much of the game), although it's a shooter with lots of philosophical ramblings about the nature of existence woven into the experience. It felt like it must have been a pretty personal project as it gave off the vibe of being something meaningful to its creator(s). Whatever the case, it was an unusual mix of elements. The visuals were fine. I have no aversion to simple and/or blocky graphics. It's more about art style and tone for me. The audio was decent with nothing making a particularly strong impact. The shooting was serviceable, but certainly not top shelf. It worked, and that's about all I can say. (I rebound the controls via Controller Companions for PC - there's no in-game option for controller input.) The atmosphere was pretty decent. I enjoyed some of the existential musings. They were mostly familiar notions to me, but the type of reflections presented here are not that common to this medium, and that gave an unusual flavor to the whole experience. Most of these ideas come in the form of interactions with in-game characters that you meet on your journey in a variety of different settings. Along the way, the main character comes to a sort of realization - or many realizations - about the nature of existence and the idea of the self. Despite the inclusion of some subject matter that you don't usually find in video games, there wasn't much that stood out here though. It was worth a play-through I suppose, but it's not anything that would stand out to most, unless some of the philosophy was just totally foreign to you, and in that instance it might make more of an impression. In the end, it's a 3/5.

#16 The Space Between (PC)

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The Space Between is a short indie adventure dealing with the concepts of intimacy, identity, connection and loss/death. It uses a wonderfully fuzzy, low-poly aesthetic that does a good job helping to convey the terror in the close examination of these concepts through the eyes of a small cast of characters. The visuals along with the wonderful sound design - musically and in terms of effects - combine to form a particularly impactful mood that was properly unsettling in tone. This wasn't a long experience, and there were some frustrating elements in terms of navigation in a few spots, but the atmosphere is very memorable, and I'm glad to have given it the short time it requested. If you're in the mood for a bit of a surreal, and potentially disturbing, experience and have a little time to spare, it's worth looking into. 3/5.

#15 Out of This World (Genesis)

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When I was a young guy and had a Genesis, I would often take chances on games by renting them - something I still kind of miss. I would browse around whatever store's selection and see what caught my eye. Sometimes it was pure garbage, but in retrospect kind of a refreshing and experimental "garbage" relative to much of today's homogenized gaming landscape. And sometimes it was a great surprise. On one occasion, I remember being seduced by the box of a game called Out of This World. The cover art and in-game visuals on the back of the box were very enticing and different than most things I had seen. It stood out, and so I rented it.

When I finally got around to playing it, my expectations of it being something "different" were confirmed. The cinematic intro, graphics, audio and overall presentation were very unique. It had a very mysterious flavor and seemed to be cutting edge tech to my inexperienced mind. It seemed like it was from the future. And it engendered great curiosity in me. I was so excited to be playing something so different. But as I played, a bit of that enthusiasm did wear off. As much as I enjoyed the flavor of this adventure, I became frustrated with the trial and error gameplay, the unforeseeable quick deaths resulting in having to replay sections over and over, and as much as I loved a great deal of what it was doing, I never was able to complete it during my rental, and never rented it again.

Fast forward to the present, and I thought I'd give it another try since I had it on PSN. And my experience has been largely similar. I still love the presentation. And I love that the narrative is more environmental than expositional as much now as I did then. For me, "show" should always do more of the heavy lifting than "tell", and Out of This World is wonderful in that regard. But the controls were still cumbersome and felt imprecise much of the time. And repeating sections that you already know how to navigate over and over again is really tedious at times. It doesn't have that addictive element on the gameplay side of the equation that makes running through the same territory over and over satisfying. There's little to no variation in how things play out when returning through sections you have to go through numerous times. And, in the end, I didn't want to finish it this time either. This would be a game better served to play on an emulator with save states. So while I'm incredibly impressed - then and now - with much of what this game has to offer, it never reached the heights promised in my view. I did ultimately watch a long-play on Youtube to finally see the remainder of this brief experience, so I at least had a long overdue sense of closure here. A tantalizing 3/5 that I really wish lived up to its moniker in all regards.

Re: Izzy's 2020 year in review...gaming took a bit of a backseat

Posted: Wed Jan 13, 2021 5:13 pm
by jfissel
Nice in-depth write-ups, izzy. You always amaze me with how well you can translate your thoughts and emotions (and sometimes my same thoughts and emotions) into coherent sentences. ;)