Failed Revolutions: A Peter Molyneux Profile

Steve Jobs: European artiste model.

Steve Jobs: European artiste model.

It’s hard not to love Peter Molyneux. He seems like a really nice guy, he’s got cool ideas, and he’s genuinely passionate about games and their potential in a way that very few people with his level of power in the industry seem to be. Here’s a 53-year-old man who wears a suits a bunch and is absolutely, 100-percent in love with video games and is always encouraging others to take pride in their craft and stretch their artistic limits. More than maybe any other developer, he seems to be constantly trying to find new things for games to be, and constantly pushing the medium to new, unusual places.

The problem is that very few of those places have been good in about 12 years.

That’s not really fair, honestly. Molyneux’s only made a small handful of games we’d call flat-out bad. But, ever since he became the head of Lionhead Studios and started being the lead developer of his own dreams, they’ve all been huge ideas that promised to change gaming and then profoundly didn’t. And so, let’s take a look at the strange, imaginative failures of Peter Molyneux (technically, Peter Molyneux, Officer of the British Empire– which is pretty cool).

Black and White (2001)

Black and White was the first game by Molyneux’s Lionhead Studio, and the first game to really embody what would become Molyneux’s guiding

The most beautiful "endlessly throwing rocks at kids" simulator you'll ever play.

The most beautiful “endlessly throwing rocks at kids” simulator you’ll ever play.

principles as a designer: a focus on myth and fairy tales, archetypal morality systems, and player choice. You could tell it was about myth, morality and choice because it was a game where you played as a God and was named after the binary morality you could choose from. It’s… not a subtle game. You literally have a devil on one shoulder and an angel on the other.

Picking it up recently, it was surprising how well the aesthetic elements of it have held up. The visuals– which were incredible for 12 years ago –are clearly dated, but still have a good look to them, and a lot of little things (the game’s atmospheric use of lighting, the  surprisingly good physics) help give it a sense of grandeur and scale that fits it well. For all the emphasis put on the man’s choices in regards to narrative or agency, it often goes unmentioned that Molyneux and his team have an incredible skill for making a game look and sound really, really good.

The problem with Black and White is that its biggest weaknesses were what were supposed to be its biggest strengths. For all that it was supposed to put the God into God Games, there’s never really a sense of power. You can pick up your villagers and throw them around, but even getting a hut built requires resource-gathering and micromanaging. The average Sim City mayor feels more powerful and omnipotent than the divine hero of Black and White. This isn’t helped by the fact that the campaign casts you as a perpetual underdog battling more powerful gods, including crippling core gameplay elements for long sections, meaning that the player never has a chance to actually revel in their power. Similarly, the game’s morality system offers extreme choice, but no real reason to choose. Being pure evil is going to do nothing but screw you over (because if you can choose between keeping your followers well-fed and strong or burning them alive, one of those options is the smarter plan), whereas most of your benevolent actions are fairly dull and unnecessary (you’ll spend a lot of time and energy healing people who aren’t sick).

Black and White isn’t a bad game, but that’s its core problem: its premise should be there for pure escapism and moral anarchy, but it’s ultimately a fairly slow and rote experience. The campaign is only five levels long, and the core mechanic of that campaign– convincing other villages to worship you –is fairly simple. There’s lots of toys (complex miracles, an AI that was breathtaking for its time, all sorts of questionable actions) but no real reason to use them. It’s a game driven by huge dreams and staggering ambition that, in the end, makes you miss the down-to-earth focus and ordinary professionalism of Sid Meier.

Fable (2004)

SOMEONE'S been reading their Joseph Campbell!

SOMEONE’S been reading their Joseph Campbell!

Oh lord, Fable.  Not only could you write a novel on the gulf between Fable‘s ambition and the end product, that novel would honestly be fascinating and we would buy it and tell our friends to read it. Fable was like an artist set out to paint the Sistine Chapel and instead produced… we honestly can’t complete that metaphor because a work of art as workmanlike and fundamentally inoffensive but unexciting as Fable doesn’t get remembered by history. Don’t believe us– the previews for the game are still up, and every single feature listed is something that didn’t make it into the game.

It’s Molyneux’s fault, honestly. The man promised a game that was going to be like Morrowind crossed with Ocarina of Time, which you might recognize as our favorite games ever made. What makes Fable‘s hype somehow admirable instead of just embarassing is that it clearly came out of love: Molyneux was swept up by what videogames were doing and so enthralled by the potential of the medium that he forgot it was 2004 and not the magical future where computers can make games out of pure hope and whimsy.

All criticisms aside, it's impressive what this game got out of the original Xbox.

All criticisms aside, it’s impressive what this game got out of the original Xbox.

In the end, Fable was a fairly pedestrian but ultimately fun game. The core morality mechanic– that your character’s morality was reflected in their face and body, meaning you could grow horns or sprout wings –was simplistic, but a really nice way of demonstrating the mythic, fantasy-hero sense of good and evil that the game was going for. Like all of Lionhead’s games, it was visually stunning and had a unified and lush style to it.

At the time the fact that this “industry-changing, open-world, every-action-has-real-consequence, live-an-entire-other-life” game was a fairly linear fantasy action game was seen as hugely disappointing and shameful. Looking back, it’s honestly endearing. It’s clear that Molynuex wasn’t intentionally lying or trying to mislead (unlike some games), but that he was so excited by what he was doing and so hopeful about his game’s potential that he just wanted all of us to share in his excitement. This is why, despite having severe grievances with almost every game he’s done, we honestly really like the man: he’s so completely motivated by a love for his art, even when that might not be the best idea. When a developer literally, word-for-word, says that his project is “gonna be the best game ever,” it’s hard for their excitement not to be somewhat infectious.

Fable II (2008)

We got no real issues with Fable II. It’s not the game that Fable I promised it would be, but it comes closer than any other game in the series. It’s

Look at that! An antagonist with realistic motives and character development!

Look at that! An antagonist with realistic motives and character development!

the only Fable game with a fairly interesting plot, real moral nuance, and interesting side characters, helped along by very well-used celebrity voice actors (Stephen Fry in particular stands out as a character who’s half Oscar Wilde, half Blackbeard). It has a really good villain and combines everything that worked in Fable I with a bigger scope, better combat, more open world, and, most importantly, a better sense of what it wanted to be.

Its greatest strength is that there’s a real human connection. Whereas most of Molyneux’s other games can feel somewhat cold and distant, you really care about the characters of Fable II. The story is interesting, and has a lot more going on than “hero confronts bad guy.” The villain is a great example of how to write a villain that’s hate-able, disgusting, but also human and sympathetic (whereas the first game has, basically, The Devil and the third has a motiveless shadow monster). And there’s a real sense of epic scale to the game that was missing from the first. It’s still mostly linear, but the settings are varied, the spectacles are huge, and the story is suffused with a sense of grandeur and mystery. The ending of the game in particular, in which the player is faced with an almost impossible moral choice and in which the narrative pulls back from its huge epic adventure to some very simple human moments, is probably the best thing Molyneux’s ever done as an artist. It’s still not a masterpiece or a revolutionary game that changed everything, and if you don’t like some of the core Fable mechanics  this game won’t win you over, but it’s a really solid action RPG that never disappoints.

Fable III (2010)

Fable III is a really mediocre action RPG that perpetually disappoints. As much as we like Molyneux and respect the man’s vision, we cannot get

WHY DOES THIS MECHANIC EXIST?

WHY DOES THIS MECHANIC EXIST?

behind his decisions on this game. Then again, neither can he.

At least some of its failures are interesting. There are a lot of ideas here no one ever thought of doing before. The problem, though, is that unlike his previous innovations, no one thought of them for good reason. When you pause the game you get teleported to a magical room where you can go to your armory, inspect a map, and all the other things that are normally on the pause menu. It’s a neat way of giving the pause menu narrative justification, except that it also adds at least three button presses and five seconds between basic actions like changing what spells you’re using, checking the map, and changing clothes. The fact that you actually overthrow the king halfway through and the game becomes focused on making decisions as a new king is cool, except that it means that there’s half as much RPG-action as the last games and the moral choices stop being part of your character’s growth and just become you listening to two arguments and then hitting a button. Fable III may honestly have the biggest ideas and the most dramatic changes of any game in the series, but the way in which it tampers around with core gameplay mechanics, not just of its franchise but of game design in general,  is baffling and undermines the game’s potential.

There’s also more conventional failings. Whereas the previous Fable game had used its notable voice actors to great effect, this one squanders an

Remember that sad, interesting-looking old guy above? His replacement is a shadow monster who eats people.

Remember that sad, interesting-looking old guy above? His replacement is a shadow monster who eats people.

unimaginable amount of talent. Michael Fassbender, Stephen Fry, John Cleese, Simon Pegg, and Sir Ben Kingsley are all in this game. The only one you’ll even notice on a playthrough is John Cleese, and only because he has the most recognizable voice– Lionhead decided that the best use of a Monty Python alumnus was as the stiff-necked straight man to other people’s jokes. (Stephen Fry is recognizable, but only because his character returns, reduced from an interesting amoral rogue with to “man in top hat who represents the evil moral choice.”) The game is smaller, shorter, and easier, and the gameplay is identical to Fable II but simpler. Even the core mechanic of the Fable series, player choice, feels neglected. The Hero (who the game can’t seem to decide is a mute protagonist or not, as sometimes they speak and sometimes communicate in gestures) no longer changes depending on their skills and alignment, and the idea of choosing who you’ll be has no impact when it’s almost impossible not to have every skill maxed out by the end of the game.

As much as people criticize Molyneux for his overarching ambition. Fable III, though, shows why that’s not fair. Fable III is the only Lionhead game not to feel ambitious, and it suffers for it. Whereas the faults of Fable and Fable II felt somehow excused in the face of how much they were trying, Fable III‘s smaller scale and relative polish just makes its faults seem ugly. The game’s not much worse than the first Fable, but because it aims so much lower it’s a lot harder to love.

Fable: The Journey (2012) and Project Milo (RIP)

We love you, Peter, but there's no way we weren't using this picture.

We love you, Peter, but there’s no way we weren’t using this picture.

In all fairness, Fable: The Journey is the only game on this list we haven’t played, because we’d have to be much more successful bloggers before we buy a Kinect (and, regardless of everything we’re about to say, it’s shameful that Lionhead used a Kinect-exclusive spinoff to tie up loose ends and explain mysteries that had been running through the entire trilogy). But that’s sort of the point: it was a rail-shooter for the Kinect. It got mixed reviews, Molyneux’s promise that “it’s not on rails!” was proven to be a flat-out lie rather than onverenthusiasm, and the general critical consensus was that it was a good story– one of the best in the series –undermined by mediocre gameplay, dodgy motion mechanics, and an unnecessary reliance on the Kinect.

How did this happen? How did a man like Molyneux, who always seems to be trying to go bigger and more creative, end up making this game? Did the man who is, more than maybe any developer but Suda 51, keenly attuned to the potential of technology to further art and story look at Microsoft’s questionable motion-sensing Wii knockoff and say “this new and challenging technology would be best used to turn my beloved open-world-RPG franchise into a linear rail shooter”? Or did Microsoft say “the Kinect is not doing great, especially among non-casual gamers. Let’s get that respected developer who’s under contract with us to create a non-casual game designed to showcase it, using his most popular franchise?”

We can’t say for certain, but there’s two good pieces of evidence for the latter. The first is that Fable Heroes, an Xbox-Live side-scrolling beat-em-up, exists. The second is Milo.

Whether or not it's a good idea is debatable, but it's definitely a new one.

Whether or not it’s a good idea is debatable, but it’s definitely a new one.

Project Milo was a project Molyneux showed off at E3 2009. It was intended to use the capabilities of the Kinect to really make the player feel like an active participant in the game’s world– you would interact with a ten-year-old boy, speak to him with the built in microphone, teach him to skip rocks using the motion sensor, and generally play with things that were unique to the Kinect (which, it should be noted, rail shooters are not). It built on AI from Black and White, it drew from Fable‘s idea of guiding the life of a single person and that person’s dog. By all accounts, Molyneux looked at the Kinect and thought of a game that he wanted to make that could never exist without the technology.

And then it was announced that Project Milo had never been intended for release as a game– despite numerous people on the development team saying otherwise –and was instead a tech demo. Technology used to create it was used to make Fable: The Journey instead. And that’s what makes Fable: The Journey so depressing. We know that it’s not the game Molyneux wanted to make. We know that when he saw the Kinect he had big, bold ideas of how to use it in new ways, just like how the Xbox’s processing power and memory space inspired the huge potential of Fable. But the game he wanted to make was the kind of strange, small-scale, offbeat thing he would have made before he started working for Microsoft, and it wouldn’t have helped convince people the Kinect was worth buying. And so instead, the man’s dream franchise got shunted into an out-of-place linear shooter game designed to sell hardware. We can get mad at Molyneux for Fable III, but Fable: The Journey just inspires pity: one of gaming’s most imaginative and enthusiastic dreamers, putting out a product he didn’t want to in order to sell hardware.

The Future

That’s not going to happen again, though. Molyneux has left Microsoft, gone independent, and is making games following his own visions. He recently announced and financed a game on Kickstarter and– while we’re skeptical about him using a platform based on the idea of “you need to deliver on your promises” –we wish him luck. The man is one of gaming’s true dreamers and we can’t help but love him, even when he stumbles.

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Personal Favorites of the Generation

Whereas our last list was 6 games that we are equally united in loving, we found that getting ten we both agreed that enthusiastically on was basically impossible– the idiosyncrasies in our tastes became pretty apparent, and there’s just not enough room to boil it down to two or three choices each. Rather than even trying, we’ve expanded our choices to twelve. Each of your beloved bloggers will give you his four favorites. These might honestly be more interesting; this bottom eight is where we fully expect some dark horses to come through and some interesting picks to get revealed.

#7

Jasper’s Pick: Mass Effect 2

NOT EVEN THIS WILL RUIN ME2 FOR ME.

NOT EVEN THIS WILL RUIN ME2 FOR ME.

The Mass Effect trilogy stands as one of this generation’s biggest monuments. There are a huge number of achievements we can place at the series’ feet: successfully telling a cohesive 3-game long story, having some of the most memorable characters in gaming, and, most importantly, arguably being the best mainstream mass-media science-fiction story of the 21st century. Honestly, the best endorsement I can give the series is that if I had to pick one video game to pitch to my dad (a guy who’s never played a video game besides Oregon Trail, but is way into Star Trek and has a signed photo of Peter Jurasik from Babylon 5) it would be Mass Effect— it doesn’t simply compete with the science fiction that inspired it, but stands among the best. The series has always been plagued with problems though: the first game’s clunky combat and cluttered inventory and stat systems, the second’s planet-scanning minigames, the third’s occasionally-questionable writing (although I have no problem with the ending, I can’t take the evil cyborg space-ninja seriously as an antagonist).

The second one, though, is close to perfect. There are complaints, sure: the combat’s too cover-heavy, the planet-scanning is boring, Miranda exists. But those are small compared to complex, interesting characters like Jack and Mordin Solus, fantastic voice-acting, intensely satisfying and strategic combat, and some of the most well-written and fun missions of the past several years. The combat is simple but has a surprising depth (playing it on Insanity is up there with Brass Balls in Bioshock as some of the most satisfying hard-mode I’ve ever played), and it’s the richest and deepest look at Mass Effect‘s world and culture. It also made the bold decision to go in a different story direction from the other 2 games: relying on a less epic, more mysterious main conflict and focusing the majority of the game’s plot on exploring its world and getting to know its characters– only to spend the entire incredible final mission testing you on how well you knew and trusted those characters, with their lives hanging in the balance (the fact that Bioware is much better at world-building and characters than at narrative definitely helps). Also, it had Martin Sheen, something no other game on this list can claim.

(Runner-up: Dragon Age: Origins which is even more ambitious from a game design perspective and does some incredible things with player agency, but which has a story that never really clicked for me and some clunky, wooden gameplay and visuals)

Best Moment: “Bad Blood,” Mordin’s loyalty mission that pushes you into dark moral territory and essentially feels like the best episode of Star Trek that never got made.

Joe’s Pick: Super Mario Galaxy

How epic can you get?

How epic can you get?

It’s amazing that Miyamoto still has it after all these years. Super Mario Bros. created the platforming genre as we know it today and in 2007, Super Mario Galaxy completely revitalized the genre in the age of the FPS. In short, Galaxy reminded me why I originally liked Mario so much after many years of nothing but Sunshine (and the underrated Luigi’s Mansion) to tide me over. And playing it on Christmas morning back in 2007 made me feel like a child again. Structurally, the levels feel a lot more akin to the classic games in the series than the previous 3D entries, which had a more exploratory feel. The paths to each of the stars are mostly linear with finely crafted challenges along the way that all build on the motifs of the level. Classic items like the mushroom, fire flower, and invincibility star (which were absent in 64) all make reappearances, as well as some new items, like the bee suit, which feel right at home in the franchise. But not only did Galaxy  bring back that classic Mario feeling, it’s arguably the best title in the series, no small feat considering how stiff the competition is. It improved the aging gameplay of Super Mario 64 immeasurably, added in some innovative new gravity mechanics, and had an epic scale to it that the Mario series had never attempted before.

The game also manages to be incredibly imaginative with its settings, in ways that no other Super Mario title has ever been. There are, of course, the classic lava, desert, water, etc, levels that appear in almost every game of the franchise, but then there are the stages where you infiltrate massive space battle-stations, avoid dangerous dark matter in gravity shifting environments, and even traverse a floating obstacle course made of cakes and other pastries. If I have to point to flaws, some of the boss fights are a little lackluster, and maybe the underwater controls are a little too loose, but these issues do virtually nothing to diminish the luster of this nearly perfect game. Super Mario Galaxy manages to feel nostalgic while being incredibly new and I’m more than happy to call it my favorite game in the series.

Best Moment: The “Gusty Garden Galaxy.” It perfectly encapsulates the epic scale and the inventive gameplay that make the game amazing.

#8

Jasper’s Pick: Bayonetta

Japan: The Picture

Japan: The Picture

Bayonetta is a really smart game, and we’ve talked about this. It’s got gorgeous art design, maybe-feminist credentials, a surprising amount of serious theological scholarship, and pretty clever writing (plus a story that is one of the most ludicrously complex I’ve ever seen). The game’s treatment of religion is a big part of why I love it– I’m a huge fan of Blake, Miltion, and Donne, and the ways that the game interacts with and draws on some of the same ideas, Biblical weirdness, and Judeo-Christian apocrypha, combined with its weird quasi-feminist retelling of myth and history, makes for a strange and heady experience that I just love. But all of this artistic and narrative stuff is a distant second to the main reason I adore Bayonetta: it’s got some of the fastest, most fun combat I’ve ever played in my life.

Playing Bayonetta is like getting drunk and ramping a sports car up a dragon. It’s a fairly natural outgrowth of two of Hideki Kamiya’s previous awesome games: combining the varied, outlandish action spectacles of Viewtiful Joe with the acrobatic combat and semi-realism of Devil May Cry. And it works incredibly well. The way in which combat seamlessly integrates dodging, the completely natural flow to all the combos, the way that it keeps you constantly moving and weaving like a damn Sonic game– I’m hard pressed to name another game in which combat feels this fluid and cool. And the sheer spectacle on display– the giant boots made of demon-hair, the high-heel mounted bazookas (named the Col. Kilgore, which is great game design because Apocalypse Now is the greatest film ever made), the ability to spank enemies to death –means that I spent the first hour of the game with my jaw hanging open at the over-the-top cartoonish awesome of everything. Combine that with what are easily some of the best boss fights of this generation and this may well be the most purely fun entry in the entire article. Most of my love for Bayonetta is focused on how fun the fighting is, yes, and the game has some problems– its two minigame levels go on way too long, and the plot is so complex I’m still not sure what actually happens –but the core gameplay is basically perfect.

Best Moment: A boss fight against God. A boss fight. Against God.

Joe’s Pick: Red Dead Redemption

Cougars, the real scourge of the west.

Cougars, the real scourge of the west.

Despite the popularity of the genre in both books and film, there are almost no video game westerns to speak of. There was Sunset Riders, an arcade-style shooter that I was practically addicted to as a kid. But other than that, I can’t remember playing any other westerns, that is until Red Dead Redemption (which is technically the sequel to a Capcom game that I and most others didn’t play), and it was everything I had always wanted to see in a western video game. Redemption succeeds as a sandbox game more than almost any other title I’ve played. There’s just so much to see and explore within the world, and it reproduces most of the different kinds of environments that you’ll find in the American West. While the world in this game does contain some of that amazing Rockstar satire (like a hilarious early cartoon about the “dangers” of women gaining the vote or a terribly incompetent social Darwinist professor), it doesn’t have quite the same level of personality that GTA IV’s Liberty City does, but the greater potential for exploration makes up for that. I could spend hours just hunting bears in the mountains or riding through the wilderness busting gang hideouts, and that’s one of the main reasons this game shines.

Another area where Red Dead Redemption stands above the rest is its writing. As stated above, it doesn’t contain as much of a satiric edge as the Grand Theft Auto games, but it takes many of the darker themes about America that GTA IV introduced and adapts them to the wild west. As the plot progresses, the game deals with issues like the costs of maintaining civilization and the hypocrisies of the American government. It also does an amazing job of showing how brutal and amoral the wild west actually was. The game even covers a good deal of the spectrum that western movies do, starting out with missions similar to the old John Wayne westerns, transitioning into the grandeur and mythic qualities of the spaghetti westerns in Nuevo Paraiso (Mexico), while finally settling into the darker tones of films like Dead Man, and somehow it all feels seamless. Saying that Red Dead Redemption is only the best video game western does it a disservice– it really is one of the best westerns of any medium.

Best Moment: The mission, “And The Truth Will Set You Free”, where protagonist John Marston finally confronts his old mentor and gang leader. It contains some of the best written dialogue I’ve ever heard in a game.

#9

Jasper’s Pick: Borderlands 2

The Borderlands series went from having no conflict to one of my favorite villains ever.

The Borderlands series went from having no conflict to one of my favorite villains ever.

I really didn’t expect to be taken in by Borderlands 2 as much as I was. There were various reasons: the first game was a really fun diversion but had a really bungled finale and was pretty sparse in terms of narrative. The core mechanics of “tons of random crap and sifting through loot” seemed too MMO-ish to grab me. The people who made have a history of being kind of awful. But it really, really worked for me. (Mind you, I might be biased– I played through the entire game with my girlfriend as Player 2, which I think might be a little more fun than doing it with random strangers online).

What’s really impressive about Borderlands 2 is the way in which it successfully married mechanics and art. It uses the skinner-box-driven luck and reward mechanics of an MMO and the team-based co-op of games like Left 4 Dead, but was actually able to craft a compelling narrative out of them. I went in expecting a fun way to shoot bandits and hunt for guns with my girlfriend, but found a level of consistently clever writing and interesting characters more befitting a classic Lucasarts adventure game than anything else. And there’s the visuals: the lush and cartoony cel-shading that makes it one of the best-looking games ever.

The game's art design and graphics make even minor events look beautiful.

The game’s art design and graphics make even minor events look beautiful.

And then it got serious. And it got big. The game started throwing out really fun characters, more and more unique and quirky weaponry, and some legitimately great storytelling. It actually made me tear up at one scene. It delivered one of my favorite video game villains of the past several years. By the end of the game the combat was still fast-paced and fun, the loot was still random, and there was grinding and scavenging galore, but I had a really deep emotional connection to the game that took me completely by surprise. It’s everything a sequel should be: so much bigger and deeper that it makes the original game obsolete. And it’s the rare game that you can pick up for an hour of mindless diversion, or sink an evening into just getting absorbed in the story.

Best Moment: “Where Angels Fear to Tread,” the end of the second act. Things have been getting progressively more serious, but the sudden turn towards a much darker story– and the amount to which the previously-cartoonish villain Handsome Jack  becomes sadder, more complex, and legitimately menacing –highlights this game’s ambition and everything it does right.

Joe’s Pick: Mega Man 9

A return to that classic Mega Man style.

A return to that classic Mega Man difficulty.

After roughly a decade of silence in the classic Mega Man series (and let’s be honest, Mega Man 8 was no prize), it was great to hear that another entry was finally coming out. I thought it would at most be an interesting little diversion but it turned out to be one of the best games in the series, second only to Mega Man 2. And considering how Mega Man 2 is virtually the gold standard of level design, 9 taking second place is perfectly understandable, and it even added a survival mode (called endless mode in the game) and a pretty great time trial mode. It’s just too bad that Capcom couldn’t have released something like this for Mega Man’s recent 25th anniversary (good thing a fan stepped up to the plate for them.)

It’s true that Mega Man 9 didn’t really add anything to the core gameplay of the series, much like most of the other Mega Man titles, but there’s something to be said for a game that does an exemplary job of polishing up an old formula. The level design is some of the strongest in the series, introducing new twists on the core mechanics in each level, but never straying too far from them. The level design is also helped along by possibly the best arsenal of weapons in the entire series. While in most Mega Man titles (even in the second one) you can coast through almost the entire game using only three or four of the more useful weapons, here all eight of the weapons feel relatively balanced and equal. And playing the stages in time trial mode will encourage you to find new uses for your powers too. Finally, and this might seem like odd praise to heap on a Mega Man game , the story is handled really well. The NES style cutscenes (still images with text) capture the old charm that storytelling in retro video games has, and the ending is amazing (again second only to Mega Man 2). Overall, it’s just a fun game that takes a great old song and makes it catchy again. And speaking of songs the soundtrack’s great too but c’mon, for a Mega Man game that goes without saying.

Best Moment: Tornado Man’s stage. The level introduces a slew of interesting gameplay twists. Also the music and changing weather patterns (which not only look great but affect the gameplay) make it one of the most immersive stages in the whole series.

#10: Rayman Origins

The game looks and feels like a wonderful cartoon.

The game looks and feels like a wonderful cartoon.

This was a tough choice, because it’s ultimately one of representation. I could have put another Western RPG here (Fallout: New Vegas was definitely on my short list), repped another great indie game (until Hotline Miami came out, Bastion was going to be the indie representative here), or said Sonic Generations because Sonic is the coolest hog alive and nothing you will say is going to change my mind (also, Sonic Generations really is a fantastic game and it made me feel like a kid again). Ultimately, I decided to go for Rayman Origins, a beautiful throwback that proves that there’s still room in this generation for some really classic ideas.

This has been an interesting generation for platformers. There have been a few mainstream ones that took the genre in new directions (Super Mario Galaxy being the most notable example, while newer Sonic games have been taking a more ignoble path), but 2D platformers have been mostly delegated to the indie market while the mascot-driven 3D collect-a-thons of the last two generations basically died out. But Rayman Origins avoided either of those directions: it’s a perfectly-done, completely classic 2D platformer, and one that deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as Sonic 2 or Prince of Persia. And the fact that it got a full-price release and full support from Ubisoft (and an upcoming, amazing-looking sequel on the Wii U) is one of this generation’s most surprising success stories.

It deserves the success though. The game feels like a master class in how to design a platformer. Gorgeous art design, wonderful music, a perfectly-designed sense of difficulty and escalation, and a wide variety of levels built around a ton of different challenges and play styles. Like the best Mario games, many of the levels have their own unique challenges, are built around quirky mechanics, and incorporate familiar obstacles in new styles and combinations. The game has 66 levels and almost every one of them feels distinct. It’s not just a return to the classic Rayman formula, it’s the best game of the entire series. If this game had come out in 1994 we’d be talking about it as one of the great 2D platformers. I hope that we still can.

Best Moment: When you get the ability to run up walls, suddenly transforming the game’s fundamental mechanics halfway through.

Joe’s Pick: VVVVVV

This would be impossible in any other platformed.

This would be impossible in any other platformer.

This is another game that really inspired me as an fledgling indie developer. It’s amazing that essentially one guy was able to create a game that’s as well made as this one. VVVVVV manages to impress me so much because it takes a simple gameplay mechanic– the ability to flip (basically reversing your own gravity instead of jumping)– and wrings everything it can out of it. The game also follows the Mega Man approach to level design, introducing unique twists on the gameplay in each new stage and gradually evolve said twists through the duration of the level. The stages are actually linked together by an overworld and can be accessed in any order (except for the final stage), making it a bit like a metroidvania game on top of all this. The graphics are really well done too. Using this simple, yet unique and attractive graphical style no doubt gave creator Terry Cavanagh the time he needed to make the gameplay nearly flawless.

So yeah…that’s about it. I’m sorry for the shorter entry here but really no amount of discription can do this game justice, it’s the kind of game you just need to play to really understand, which you can do now that you’re almost done reading this blog post. The difficulty may be pretty high but don’t worry, the frequent checkpoints stop the game from getting overly frustrating.

Best Moment: “The Tower”, where you have to flip quickly to escape a steadily rising floor of spikes. It’s a great segment that really gets your adrenaline pumping.

Our Favorites of this Generation

[Apologies for our recent absence. The two of us have been traveling, working, and fighting off illnesses for about a month straight now. But we’re back, we’re expanding and going deeper on out last topic, and we’re gonna try and keep posting regularly from now on.]

Which games are winner? Read on to find out.

Which games are winner? Read on to find out.

With the end of both 2012 and the nearing end of this video game generation (the seventh according to Wikipedia) with the release of the WiiU, we felt it would be appropriate for each of us to look back on the past several years and list our ten favorite games of this generation. Unsurprisingly though, since we think alike enough to write this blog, our top five choices of this generation were basically the same. So we’ll be listing those five first and providing our individual comments for them, and then we’ll diverge into our separate lists for the next five next week. We’re defining the beginning of this generation with the release of the Xbox 360 in 2005 so any game after this is eligible unless it’s a remake of an older game (no Ocarina of Time for the 3Ds or Resident Evil 4 for the Wii). Since this list can also double as some game recommendations, we’ll try to keep it spoiler free.

#6: Spec Ops: The Line

The Line was a real surprise for us– to the point where we’d already written most of this article by the time we played it (hence a top 6). There’s a lot to talk about, and a lot of it has been by other critics. But it’s probably the best mainstream game of 2012, and the best military shooter of all time.

The gameplay can be a little repetitive, but that’s the smallest complaint. It’s well-written, smart, creative, and boasts the best performance of Nolan North’s career.  Even the visuals, which few

Brown and gray don't have to be dull.

Brown and gray don’t have to be dull.

reviews mentioned, are praiseworthy. It’s one of the most beautiful games we’ve ever seen, and definitely the best-looking that doesn’t rely on a fantastical setting and a different world. The apocalyptic Dubai of the game is absolutely gorgeous: tragic, lush, and full of tiny visual details. The contrast between the opulent buildings and the ravaged landscape isn’t just “Destroyed Beauty,” it’s loaded with heavy, heavy symbolic weight.

And that’s The Line‘s greatest achievement: it’s a game where everything means something. It takes you to dark, dark moral territory, and it does so through more than just a well-written narrative. It tells its story through mechanics, and especially through the narrative tropes common to other war shooters. Whereas Modern Warfare gives you a gatling gun and a helicopter and lets you revel in it, The Line makes you feel guilty for the bloodthirst your power inspires. The player’s decision to keep playing until they “win” is cast as a psychotic hero complex, their attempts to make meaningful moral choices are swatted down because you don’t get to just decide you want to be a good person, and the game’s philosophy– encapsulated when the protagonist is told “you’re no savior. Your talents lie elsewhere” –is about as good a refutation of the idea of the “heroic action protagonist” as there ever has been. Other shooters would treat the death of civilians as a giant turning point. In The Line, it’s possible while trying to evacuate a refugee camp to see a shape running at you, panic, and realize you just shot an unarmed woman. It wears you down, makes you scared, and doesn’t just show evil–  it makes the player realize how evil happens.

The Line: Where Happiness Goes to Die!

The Line: Where Happiness Goes to Die!

It’s a game that has a real sense of morality and is making bold, unfriendly statements about both American foreign policy and about

contemporary games. It has enough power and enough intelligence to make you consider the way you play other games– both of us feel a lot less friendly towards military shooters after The Line made us  feel culpable for our actions. It’s a testament to the game’s power that it tries to be the Apocalypse Now of gaming and comes damn close to living up to that.

Best Moment: It’s hard to talk about without spoiling but there’s a moment right before the final level when things are very, very bad that not only pushes the player harder than any other game we’ve seen, but makes a very clear point about the way in which war leads to people doing terrible things.

#5: Hotline Miami

It's not about making those corpses. It's about walking back past them.

It’s not about making those corpses. It’s about walking back past them.

Hotline Miami is very much The Line‘s indie brother. It has brutal, realistic violence, a strong film influence (Nicolas Wending Refn’s Drive), and works to make the player feel guilt not just for narrative actions but for completing the core gameplay objectives. When a game directly asks you if “you enjoy hurting people” it’s pretty clear what it’s going for.

Hotline Miami deserves to be praised not just for exploring the issues of violence, escapism, and identity in games but also for, well, everything. It‘s visually stunning: a throbbing, pulsing fever dream of 80’s neon and blood that looks both incredibly cool and unsettling. But these visuals also work on a level that serves the narrative– the swirling, psychedelic look of the game lulls you into a psychotic trance, while watching an enemy try and pry your hand away before you jam a power drill into his ear does a damn fine job of pulling you out of it. At every step the game is pushing you towards violent acts and then making you feel terrible for them.

You owe it to yourself to go watch every trailer for this game.

You owe it to yourself to go watch every trailer for this game.

Despite all this, it’s also crazy, crazy fun. It’s easy to pick it up, play for half an hour, and have a blast. The gameplay is fast, frantic, and cool, while also doing something great with its ultra-hard difficulty: it’s the rare game where beating your enemies isn’t about strength, equipment, or inborn advantage but about quick thinking and strategy. The fact that your character is just as frail as the enemies, can’t outrun them, and has no superweapons both fleshes out the game’s story (the people you’re killing are just as human as you), but also makes the combat about as nerve-wracking and intense as we’ve ever seen (Jasper’s girlfriend loves the game, for instance, but can only play one level at a time or “it feels like I’m having three heart attacks at once”). Plus, you know, the soundtrack is one of the best game soundtracks ever made.

And the fact that it’s such a small-scale, personal project game is just icing on the cake. It was the best game of 2012– it’s one of our favorite games of all time –and it was made by two guys. In their spare time. With freaking Game Maker. Its success is a testament to some of the massive changes going on in gaming right now. And as people who have loved Cactus’s work for about five years now, it’s wonderful to see him make a masterpiece.

Best Moment: The fourth chapter, Tension. Specifically opening the door. If you’ve played it you know the door we’re talking about. Wait… no, the best moment is when one of us got featured in a trailer for the game (third quote).

#4: Portal 2

Portal 2 isn’t as daring as anything else on this list. It’s an expansion of the first game’s puzzle-shooter mechanics, it doesn’t make the player

You might say that the game is... looking pretty good. (VIDEO GAME COMEDY.)

You might say that the game is… looking pretty good. (VIDEO GAME COMEDY.)

question themselves or redefine what the medium is capable of. So why is it on this list?

Because it’s as close to perfect as any game has ever been. Do you want to know our complaint? Our one complaint? Some of thepuzzles in the middle section of the game have art design that makes it a little hard to see where you’re supposed to go next. Maybe 3 or 4 of them. That’s it. This game is so well-done that we can literally count every single problem we have with it in the span of about a minute. It doesn’t quite soar to the heights of the other games on this list, but it’s an absolute masterpiece nonetheless. It’s simple, refined, and near-flawless. It has four major characters (one of whom is a mute protagonist and one of whom is dead), and around a dozen different puzzle mechanics, and it manages to make one of the medium’s most compelling stories and an endlessly surprising game out of them. Whereas the first Portal was tight effective writing paired with a handful of puzzle elements, Portal 2 kept that simplicity and sparseness and transformed it into a beautiful, powerful efficiency of both narrative and design.

There's as much tragedy and pathos to this goofy mad scientist as most Oscar-winning films.

There’s as much tragedy and pathos to this goofy mad scientist as most Oscar-winning films.

Portal 2 is really the best representation of Valve’s strength as a director: it’s not just that they made a game which was imaginative, well-written, and fun. It’s that they did that and worked and worked making that game as good as it could possibly be. It’s about as meticulously crafted and focused on its artistic goals as any game in the history of the medium, and it applies that focus to gorgeous art direction (which is also expressive and great at telling a story), brilliant writing, and inventive mechanics. It may be Valve’s masterpiece (and if not, their best since Half-Life 2). It’s a simple story, with a few characters, but those characters are brilliantly written and the story’s emotionally engaging and consistently hilarious. The puzzles are intuitive and clever, and almost entirely on a just-about-perfect level of difficulty. If the last games on this list were Drive and Apocalypse Now, Portal 2 (the only game on this list with an E-10 rating, coincidentally) would be a film like Wall-E or Toy Story 3: less edgy, less auteur-ish, but just as revolutionary and every bit as great.

Best Moment: The game’s focus on rapid-fire wit over spectacle makes this tough, but it’s either the aftermath of the “fight” against GLaDOS that closes the first act or the slow, hilarious reveal of who and how crazy Cave Johnson was.

#3: No More Heroes: Desperate Struggle

Suda 51’s No More Heroes was a wonderful oddity: a game that actually used the Wii’s motion controls in a way that felt necessary, with excellent boss fights, funny writing, and a sharp satiric edge. Between that and the wonderful trailers, we were pretty excited for its release. We were expecting another fun cult hit that had cool ideas and some great moments.

GAMES ARE ART.

GAMES ARE ART.

What we got was one of the best games we’ve ever played, and one that established Suda as one of gaming’s most interesting artists. The series still has its faults, of course– the non-boss combat is usually functional but unimpressive, some levels go on far too long –but almost all of them were removed between the first and the second game. The first had fun and creative boss fights, the second makes them not only more fun through deeper combat but makes the bosses more rounded characters and has you fight a gundam, an anime nightmare, a supervillain, the White Male Power Structure, and an astronaut. The sequel improves in every way, from having great retro minigames in place of the first’s dull jobs, to a weirder and more postmodern tone (fellow game creators Shinji Mikami and Hideo Kojima get loving tributes, cult director Takashi Miike makes a bizarre cameo), to an overall richer and deeper story.

The story is Desperate Struggle’s biggest strength. Whereas the first mostly used protagonist Travis Touchdown as a punching bag, making points about escapism into games and nerd culture through him, the second really lets him come into his own as a protagonist. He’s still dumb

What makes the romance so good is how realistic it is.

What makes the romance so good is how realistic it is.

and self-absorbed, but he’s a complex character with real human depth and growth. The game still has a ton of satire in it (its main focuses being on our obsessions with sex and violence, mass-media culture, and the amoral nature of most action heroes), but it’s made stronger by having real characters we care about at the core. Travis Touchdown, in this game, is one of gaming’s most interesting heroes and one that couldn’t exist in any other medium.

What really makes the story special to us is that it’s real and human in a way that a lot of game stories aren’t. NMH:DS may throw spectacle and absurdity at the player nonstop, but Travis’s core arc is learning to value other people, become less dependent on pop culture to define himself, appreciate the real world, and develop a set of adult values in place of childish wish-fulfillment. It’s a story that’s fundamentally one of growing up, and resonates especially hard with people for whom video games, TV, and movies are a big part of life. The game may feature mech battles, ghosts, katana fights, and space lasers, but it’s fundamentally the story of what it is to be a young man who feels disconnected from his society and alone in the world. It’s one of the coolest and weirdest games ever, and one of the most heartfelt and nuanced ones too.

Best Moment: The fight against the third ranked assassin, an aging cosmonaut. The actual gameplay of the boss fight is really solid but it’s the atmosphere that pushes it over the top. Not to mention the touching cutscene afterwards.

#2: Grand Theft Auto IV

Grand Theft Auto IV finally accomplished something that no other crime sandbox game had been able to do: creating a narrative and world in

"We can pick the game, Niko Bellic. But we cannot change the rules. "

“We can pick the game, Niko Bellic. But we cannot change the rules. “

which the game mechanics felt natural and realistic. It’s hard to understate how massive of an achievement this is. When playing as Rico Rodriguez, The Boss, Tommy Vercetti, or any other sandbox hero you feel like, well, a kid in a sandbox; the world is fun to interact with and the toys are awesome, but you never feel like a real part of it. GTA IV is one of the only sandboxes to escape this.

It did this, in part, with incredible writing and narrative. Niko Bellic should be taught in college courses as the perfect example of how to create a game protagonist. He’s interesting, complex, sympathetic, and– most importantly –every aspect of who he is, from his traumatic past to his status as an immigrant outsider, is tailored to fit the game. Every action the player can do as Niko feels like a natural result of who he is. Even the mechanics of the game reflect this: Niko trudges from place to place, fights with cold, mechanical precision, and generally feels like an unlovable killing machine. The game is able to give the players an extraordinary amount of freedom, but Niko’s character is so perfectly crafted that you’ll feel immersed even while biking off skyscrapers and starting battle royales between cab drivers.

Liberty City, meanwhile, is the gold standard of what a sandbox world can be. It’s not as pretty as Far Cry 3 or as full of games as Saints Row 2,

The strip clubs are depressing and not fun. Told you it was realistic.

The strip clubs are depressing and not fun. Told you it was realistic.

but it feels alive unlike just about any other game. Every neighborhood has its own demographics and unique feel, there’s a sense of unique personality to a lot of the pedestrians, and it actually feels like a real, living world– which makes the chaos  so much more rewarding. Getting drunk and starting a fistfight in central park is as enjoyable in this game as blowing up a city block is in Saint’s Row, just because having that real and organic a world makes disrupting it so much more fun.

Finally, the game just has an incredible story. It’s well-written and full of great characters, and it walks a delicate line between goofy satire and serious social commentary. It has hilarious fake right-wing talk radio, sure, but it also says a lot about what America is and how cruel it can be. For every hilarious moment like Brucie talking about his lack of “funny balls,” there’s a haunting one like Niko’s discussion of how he became who he is. It’s dark, funny, and moving, and it works because the world and the mechanics immerse the player so deeply in what it is to be a man like Niko Bellic in a grim and cynical America.

Best Moment: The game’s absolute gut-punch of an ending– either one –which drives home how unattainable the “American Dream” truly is for people like Niko. Either that or the amazing bank heist mission.

#1: Bioshock

The game's dialogue could be nothing but fart noises and visuals like this would still make it a masterpiece.

The game’s dialogue could be nothing but fart noises and visuals like this would still make it a masterpiece.

Don’t act surprised. You knew it was going to be Bioshock. We could write this entire blog by doing one entry a week on some facet of this game and keep busy for years.

Bioshock is beautifully-designed, visually-stunning, and packed with so many creative ideas that it’s hard to go ten minutes without seeing something new and cool. The city of Rapture is one of the best settings in game history. It’s one of a handful of games to set its sights on really big ideas– to grapple with one of the twentieth century’s major philosophers –and really succeed. The gameplay, while kind of simple, gives the player some extraordinary freedom in terms of the tools at their disposal and how to use them. But the gameplay’s not why we’ve replayed the game at least twice a year since it came out.

Bioshock is a success on virtually every aesthetic front. The art design is absolutely stunning, both in terms of raw visual beauty and in terms of serving the narrative– a ton of the game’s story and tone comes through details of setting and visual elements. The characters are all distinct individuals with their own strong personalities and narrative arcs, who also serve to illustrate the world and give human faces to its philosophical conflicts. The music’s amazing, the sound design is unimpeachable, and the game’s grasp of tone is so flawless that it can be laugh-out-loud funny and incredibly creepy at the same time.

Oh man, remember this?

Oh man, remember this?

But what makes Bioshock truly special is that it’s a game in many ways about the potential of gaming. Its closest analogue– no hyperbole intended –is Citizen Kane. Like Kane, Bioshock uses the very mechanics of its medium as a central part of its story, and in doing so proves what that medium is really capable of. It’s ambitious, creative, and so deeply in love with everything games can do that its love is infectious. And just as a Citizen Kane book would be laughable, Bioshock provides a narrative experience that is entirely dependent on the interactivity, choice, and immersion that games provide. Bioshock is a great game, yes. But even more than that, it’s quite possibly the best argument ever for why video games are an important, even necessary, medium for art and storytelling. It’s our favorite game of the past six years, not just because of how good it is on its own but because its very existence is an inspiration as to what the medium can be at its best.

Best Moment: Don’t even play. You know what it is. Man. Chooses. Etc. Possibly the most famous scene of the entire generation. A scene that basically changed gaming forever, when the core principles of game narrative were fundamentally challenged.