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Currently playing

Animal Crossing proves we want to capture gaming experiences

I am a self-confessed Animal Crossing fan. I’ve played every single game since I tentatively imported the Gamecube version from America, uncertain (like many other gamers in Europe) that such a niche game (as it was then) would ever make it here.

Despite years of playing the series and considerable knowledge of what I might expect, I was certain that Animal Crossing no longer had the power to captivate me again. The only complaint I can level at the series is that it hasn’t changed too substantially from the game I first played back in 2002. I had retread that same, trite introductory tutorial so many times it had become painful to redo.

My hopes weren’t high, so I was pleasantly surprised that the game had changed enough to offer something a little newer to veterans like me. Crucially though, social media has really come into its own for this title.

Celebrating the opening of the dream suite.Pondering while wearing Majora's Mask.

Social sharing

The stand out feature of Animal Crossing: New Leaf is the ability to take screenshots of your game and upload instantly to the web. Animal Crossing has always been a social life sim, but it’s even more impressive now watching thousands of others progress daily together on the hashtag #ANCL.

It’s a fascinating window into others little moments of progress, and a great (largely spoiler-free way) to discover new things about the game. It’s also the perfect compliment to the cooperative nature of series, sitting alongside the ability to explore and visit other peoples towns.

I find myself watching the #ANCL hashtag when I am unable to play the game, to watch what others are doing. I suspect other people’s excitement for this title is fuelling a massive feedback loop of successive play, as we all mix together and share in our excitement of slow, but oh so satisfying progress.

It’s making the wait for each days play far more rewarding in turn, as we each start to see the subtle differences in each of our routines. I’m personally enjoying easier access to villages in other regions of the world. Watching another person’s town grow and evolve in fascination in the dusk of their game as I sit in the bright morning of mine. I enjoy hearing about what other people find enjoyable about the title. Aspects I don’t spend much time on. Someone else’s fascination with collecting Gyroids, another’s love of gardening. The happy timesink of designing more and more elaborate patterns to share.

Being able to see these moments of others fascination in picture form has created a new lease of life in this occasionally tired game. As I watch others stumble into detail of the game that I hadn’t yet discovered.

This sort of sharing encourages more online play – spotting an image of someone in a pear orchard, might inspire a pair to swap friend codes, as one person is eager for new fruit and another for more visitors. Personally, I’m just enjoying the window on endless Animal Crossing inspiration.

Twiggy celebrates my birthday.Becoming the mayor of Nevaeh

Why don’t we see this more?

With a generation of new console hardware around the corner – why is it still so rare to take pictures of your experiences on home consoles? Features like this are crying out to be used more effectively. Achievements and trophies are nice, but isn’t the ability to take a picture of a particularly epic moment in a game just as appealing?

There’s a palpable excitement about being able to do this too, precisely because the ability for everyone to universally share pictures of their experience with a game (particularly on a handheld) is so rare it’s created a genuine buzz around a title some admitted was probably going to retread too much of the previous entries to be worth getting excited about.

I don’t even think technology can be used as an excuse why it can’t be done anymore. Neither can intellectual property concerns. Fans of Animal Crossing are doing a great job of marketing New Leaf to all of their friends more powerfully and naturally than any marketing department could ever dream of.

Categories
Video games

The conundrum of Shadow of the Eternals

I am a huge Eternal Darkness fan. I have written about it extensively, and it remains one of the most beloved titles in my collection – one I return to and replay frequently. I have an in-depth knowledge and intense admiration for a title that employed a unique storytelling method and remains a memorable and engaging title each time I play it. It was this narrative detail that I appreciated about Eternal Darkness most of all, combined with the rare inclusion of a intelligent and powerful female lead character.

But the announcement of Shadow of the Eternals feels like a direct challenge to me and to those of us that admire Eternal Darkness so highly. As if after all our years of bleating for any sort of followup, we are now challenged to put our money where our mouth is.

Now the day has finally arrived, it’s left me feeling distinctly uncomfortable though.

Eternal Darkness nostalgia as a tool

Any crowd-sourcing attempt to generate funds relies on an element of trust. This is evident in any equivalent Kickstarter project. I’ve been asked frequently upon the announcement of Shadow of the Eternals if I trust Precursor Games with my money. Fans of Eternal Darkness are left to wonder if proof of concepts and videos are enough given the history of the team and the complexity regarding Precursor’s creation.

While I agree the episodic format does suit the narrative structure of Shadow of the Eternals in some way, the project has probably been justified in this way in order to minimise the risk and cost of development, it’s not likely to be about the narrative structure at all, without wishing to be too negative. I’m not thrilled with many examples of episodic game content, but that’s just my personal preference talking.

What I’ve seen of the game so far seems to retread the path of Eternal Darkness homage too carefully. In its demo I recognise moments from Eternal Darkness in a way that almost disappoints. Concepts, sounds and scenes lifted straight from the original game rather than building on the ideas it inspired in any measurable way. Hints of moments that look exciting or promising, brushed away by another detail too close to what I know already.

This repetition contradicts my adoration for Eternal Darkness in some ways. Some people would be content with more of the same with its spiritual successor. I worry that Shadow of the Eternals will rely too heavily on the nostalgic content of Eternal Darkness rather than the potential of how the ideas it inspired could be expanded on further.

Can Shadow of the Eternals really capture what made Eternal Darkness so great?

It wasn’t so much of the psychological horror elements of Eternal Darkness that I really enjoyed (such as the much-lauded sanity effects) it was actually the unique story telling method. The idea of story as legacy, told in relay. It was all about messages and warnings passed through history from character to character. The moments that broke the fourth wall to use the player as the vessel for the narrative were also particularly dazzling.

This is why the premise of Shadow of the Eternals on paper is intriguing, even if it the idea has been a little tainted unintentionally. Interestingly, Nintendo still hold the original IP rights to Eternal Darkness, so it remains to be seen quite how much of the original title’s concepts can realistically be filtered through, and how much will have to be recreated from scratch, I imagine  it’ll pan out to be a game laden with a reliance on knowing references, and fit for purpose renaming conventions, but I only have what I’ve seen so far to go on.

This whole idea boils down to brand recognition, by name checking Eternal Darkness, Precursor Games have opened up their title to the intensity of fan fervour, by distancing themselves from their previous employer they alert the attentions of those same devotees who grow quietly suspicious of a good concept soured by a lack of explanation of how this all this came to be. A very tricky combination to conquer.

Categories
Gamers

Is where you live a good place for your video game hobby?

It’s easy to forget with the popularity of the internet, but years ago we used to move mountains to play games with other people. We sought out someone to play multiplayer with, moved computers or consoles in trains and cars, even bought new hardware and software to increase the chances of playing with others.

Online gaming has eroded much of the need to do this now of course, but I still think where you live has an important bearing on how successfully you can enjoy your hobby.

My local area

I concluded pretty quickly in my teenage years that the area that I live in (Gloucestershire, UK) is not a great one for video games. This is my opinion of course, but the experience I’ve had of living here for the past two decades confirms that.

Meeting other like-minded people that play games, and being able to play with them locally is pretty simple in a very built up place or city, but in a rural of sub-urban place like where I live, I feel vastly outnumbered by people interested in other things.

When I briefly lived in a city – my ability to find other like-minded people was much easier, and there were better and more densely populated facilities for us to meet and play games. There were regular game nights at local pubs and bars, or retro days run by enthusiasts.

These days I struggle to find anyone with more than a passing interest in games in my immediate vicinity. This hasn’t proved a huge problem, it’s simply forced me to develop other interests and pursue the social channels of those, but sadly has meant that I too am forced to use the internet to wax lyrical about games in a way that isn’t going to bore the circle of people who live around me.

In fact when Game UK has its problems on the high street I was not (and am still not affected) by those store closures. I didn’t have a Game here in the first place, and seeing one means travelling to another city or town.

A streetview of Leila's milk bar. Running errands for Leila at the Milk Bar.

The consequence of not feeling welcome

While gaming isn’t a niche, it certainly feels like one around here, even though I know more than enough people that are willing to support video games retail and events in this area, no ones prepared to create or sustain anything.

There is one independent game shop in my town (there used to be two more, but they both closed long ago), and while it is good for pre-owned titles, getting hold of brand new games remains an ongoing problems. Truly, I have to travel further afield for a good independent shopping experience.

This is where the internet comes in again as a lack of decent video game retail in my town has forced me to do all of my games shopping online too – taking my money out of the local economy and perpetuating the problem.

Not only that but shopping online requires planning and care, if there’s a game I am likely to need on a certain day I have to pre-order to be certain that I will get it in time. Plenty of people will complain about pre-order but it’s a lifeline for me when a rare title is released.

I can travel to one of the many other independent games shops in another cities and towns around me, but that just repeats my desire for wanting a good one here, despite there not really being much of a market for it locally.

A in-game example: Ni No Kuni

In writing about my experiences of trying to enjoy games in a local area that doesn’t support it, I am reminded of the idea of two worlds in Ni No Kuni. Motorville (the quiet, peaceful almost bland suburbia) where the game originates, and it’s other, more fantastical world full of magic and intrigue.

Enjoying the settings of both worlds meant suspending your disbelief a little, and embracing the poetic licence of numerous RPG tropes; the young, pure-hearted hero on a journey, destined to combat all problems, a hidden magic power they were unaware of.

This example reminds me of my desire for a more enriched, video game-filled town, with thousands of other local gamers around me, yet I find myself stuck in an real-life equivalent of Motorville, as I crave a simplistic, yet busier gaming horizon. Ironically then, it is still the internet that adds that other needed dimension to my gaming world. The perfect gamers location doesn’t often exist, and forces me and many others to travel and mingle to find like-minded people in the most unusual of places.

I love where live, it’s a vibrant and eclectic place, but there’s no escaping the fact that it largely snubs my biggest passion and interest.

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Currently playing

Has Monster Hunter finally shaken off its reputation for being tricky?

There’s been a bit of a resurgence in recent years of mastering difficult or incomprehensible games. Popularised by titles like Demon’s and Dark Souls. These sorts of experiences have taking some of us of a certain age back to the sorts of titanic struggles we had with games of our youth.

Back when I started gaming, every title was a little tricky. Most developers had a penchant for making you guess concepts or telling you very little. It encouraged us to experiment, share and spread rumours in a way that’s been totally fragmented by the rising popularity of the internet.

What I find interesting though is how players are using their patience and experience from one difficult title to return back to another series they’ve previous written off. Using the knowledge patiently gathered from other titles has been seemingly useful for returning to a game like Monster Hunter, which has developed a bit of a legacy for being hard to start and tricky to master.

I don’t see Monster Hunter as a particularly difficult game, but it certainly becomes one in its later stages. What’s interesting then is that it’s the introductory stages of the game that puts most of its intended new audience off the series.

One of gamings best kept secrets

On the face of it Monster Hunter has a bit of a PR problem. On the one hand many people think that it’s comparable to Pokemon. Upon further exploration since it’s PSP days, it’s developed a bit of a reputation for being difficult to play, hard to get into and slow to start.

This idea in particular can be hard for the existing Monster Hunter community to relate to. Capcom can be notoriously bad at explaining how the game works to new audiences, because it understands that the target group for the game understands it completely and doesn’t need to be troubled by tutorials for an engine they know inside out.

This is where games like Dark Souls come in. That game (and it’s predecessor) was the best explanation of the sentiment that Monster Hunter started many years prior. The concept of experience and failure within a game teaching you lessons about how to progress. Problems and enemies around every corner. Maps to be memorised, NPCs to figure out.

It’s a very old school chapter of game design that many subsequent developers are trying to emulate. Yet for many of us Monster Hunter remains one of gamings best kept secrets. It’s been preaching these design decisions chapter and verse since its launch on the PS2 back in 2004. It’s obviously popular in Japan, but still regarded as somewhat of a niche title in the West.

For some reason it’s a title not performing quite as well as it could be, simply because of a misguided reputation alongside rumours and intrigue about what it contains. These are very concepts that drew so many new Demon’s and Dark Souls players in, and perhaps what’s ignited a surge in Monster Hunters popularity this time around.

What you learn now will stay with you forever

So just as many Demon’s Souls players found they could digest Dark Souls more easily due to their knowledge of Demon’s, much of this same audience is experiencing Monster Hunter with that understanding of what this type of game is trying to accomplish, inspiring many to continue progressing through a title that seemed too impossible before.

The design decisions made by Monster Hunter seem quite obtuse and garish at first. The combat seems slow and unresponsive, the animations that your character is forced into in order to heal seems drawn out. Hopefully the gaming communities refined knowledge of these very purposeful choices in game design will come to fruition this time around.

Monster Hunter turns its back on the conventions settled on by so many other adventure or role-playing games. Instead it settles on a “what you learn now will stay with you forever” mantra. Learn how to play Monster Hunter and you take on each new title in the series with added confidence. You’ll best a tricky foe with the same equipment as someone starting fresh and beat it faster and more competently. You’ll even learn to challenge new foes by observation, patience and time, and not with health bars.

Perhaps the burgeoning Monster Hunter community has encouraged more new hunters this time around too. Seemingly the launch of the newest title is the best time to start and I’m pleased by the numbers of new hunters who are stepping forward and finally get what Monster Hunter is trying to do. Interestingly many gamers are inspired by the idea that they can progress through Monster Hunters occasionally impenetrable starting hours by tackling it together. This is the same sentiment that created the almost viral spread of Demon’s Souls import success, and the news that copies of the game on both 3DS and Wii U are subject to shortages is promising. Whether or not Monster Hunter can continue to captivate my immediate gaming circle in the way that it has in the past few weeks remains to be seen.

Monster Hunter’s future

It’s hard not to get excited by the positive reception that Monster Hunter is receiving of late, but I’ve seen it many times before, first with Monster Hunter Tri’s launch (supported by a genuinely concerted effort on Capcom’s part to properly market the game) and with Monster Hunter Freedom Unite‘s run for its money as the most complete Monster Hunter to date.

What will really distinguish if Monster Hunter has truly shaken off the misconceptions people have about it is if this momentum continues past it’s launch window and into the quieter summer months and beyond. Part of this may be fuelled by the series finally supporting cross region play in American and European regions properly for the first time. As a long-time hunter however, the ongoing strength of the community is how I will continue to mark its success.

I wish new hunters fresh to Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate every success, and as somewhat of a veteran of the series now I hope it continues to capture the imagination of many more new hunters. After all there’s no better time to start.

Categories
Retro gaming

The narrative landscape of Panzer Dragoon Saga

If I ever needed a reminder of the indelible quality of video games, then Panzer Dragoon Saga served nicely.

I have started Panzer Dragoon Saga at least once before this occasion where I actually completed it – this time the nostalgia from a mere two years ago was enough to propel me through the game.

Ironically, I last time I attempted to play Saga was in a period of recovery following surgery, my recollection then was that it was compelling game, worthy of the praise I had seen piled on it for many years, but something was missing. Tired from surgery, wracked with pain, it wasn’t the game I needed, it was too subtle, too gentle in persuading me to continue.

Understatement as power

The real message of Panzer Dragoon Saga is nuance, that is perhaps why it is so difficult to really appreciate over a decade after it’s original release. Unlike it’s contemporaries (such as Final Fantasy VII) Saga is a game of understatement, and that’s no bad thing.

Most of the game is spent exploring the game world on the back of your dragon. The gameworld is quiet and brooding, mottled with splashes of pale colour, and dotted with surrealist landscapes, all complimented by the game’s quietly powerful soundtrack.

One thing you notice immediately is the apparent lack of people. As such the game feels very lonely, and this is a deliberate choice on the part of Team Andromeda. The sense of excitement you experience when discovering another person in Saga’s beautiful but painfully barren world is palpable. This experience really lends itself to this RPG experience only lent to Panzer Dragoon once. So each NPC feels more important, more necessary to the story. I found myself hanging on their every word unlike any other RPG.

Flying up to the massive ship called Mel Kava.An example map screen.

Gentle pacing

Panzer Dragoon Saga’s theme of isolation, combined with this rarity strikes the perfect tone. Playing it all these years after its release at a time when everyone was focused on the New Year period felt as though I had walked far off the beaten track. That I had a link with all the people that has sought this game out like myself and stuck with it far past it’s quiet opening, far past its moments of visual grandeur, which does still have the power to impress.

Saga sets a deliberate pace that might be too slow for some, but this is only so it can catch you out with the payoff towards the end of the game. I haven’t enjoyed an ending so thoroughly  since completing Xenoblade Chronicles. The very best gaming endings aren’t just the pay off of the story, but actually linger with you weeks after the game has been completed, and it tinges me with sadness that many people won’t be able to experience Saga’s spectacular finish.

A beautiful battle screen, highlighted in sunset.Your dragon is our salvation.

Saga’s powerful themes

It’s rare that I find the inspiration to continue with a RPG that still employs a random battle system. This is one of the moments (other than moments when Edge is on foot) that hints at the games age. However the battle system goes immediately changes from competent to endlessly enjoyable, as you experiment with completing battles quickly for better ratings, experience and items, and determining the best position for your dragon to move in real time around your enemies.

The bond that you build up with your dragon is worth a mention too. As your longest companion through the game (starting with your ability to name him). This games starts as a story of friendship, but belies something more powerful.

The sense that this is something you have experienced before – particularly if you have played the two previous Saturn Panzer Dragoon games is palpable. This is folded into the narrative by the indelible dream-like quality of the game, a sort of hazy sentiment that carries through each carefully crafted scene and landscape. The pacing of this game also nods of a lucid dream particularly through the freedom of flight.

This is supported by the ending of the game too, which reveals a richer thread to the narrative that makes your subsequent memory of the game more humbling as you spin through each exciting realisation in turn.

The dragon and rider highlighted in blue.Exploring the brightly lit rooms of the Tower.

Gliding over landscapes

So is Panzer Dragoon Saga deserving of all the high praise it has received in the years following its release? In all probability yes – if viewed through the careful lens of the time it was made. Looking back it is an extremely revolutionary game, it left an impression on me for another reason though.

I am now five years into a chronic illness. The optimism from that promising surgery back when I last attempted Saga is mere vapour. I am more tired than ever, and the fatigue has an odd effect on my brain.

Each time I sit down to play or write about a game, I left its finishing screen feeling empty-headed. Sometimes games can take us back to a moment in time, through their gameplay, their music. Their quality. And Saga did this, it took me back to that moment of recovery back in 2010, when I still had hope about my illness.

As such it has been my immense pleasure to play, despite all the pomp and noise from other games, it was this quiet, almost sombre experience that reminded me exactly why I was so inspired to start discussing video games back in 2009 upon completing this website.

Saga’s patient, impassive glides over landscapes, water and its breathtaking technicality reminded me to walk off the beaten track a little more often, to find joy from experiences that many others have moved on from. To enjoy the rich tapestry of our gaming history rather than just our gaming present.