Book Thoughts, Inevitable Death Edition – 7/16/2022 (The Trial and And Then There Were None)

The Trial by Franz Kafka

The biggest misconception people often have about the law is that it is logical. Some people (reasonably) believe that proper application of the law naturally results in clear and consistent results, like a well-oiled machine. If the arguments are sound enough, the correct result will be guaranteed, right? If you study enough law, you’ll understand everything right?

No, unfortunately, you can spend your whole life studying and practicing the law and still fail to grasp the full extent of the laws governing society, or the verdicts that result from those laws.

Ultimately we are putting our lives, at least to some extent, in the hands of an amorphous system that is compromised of imperfect individuals judging other imperfect individuals. Despite the law being maintained and made for individuals, it is not beholden to the individual. A judge may hand down verdicts, but those verdicts result from thousands of micro factors It is a mass of factors that are impossible to comprehend the extent of: common wisdom, opinions, interpretations, political factors, social policy, personality relationships and so on.

The Trial lays that reality bare. Being charged for a crime that no one will give you any details about may seem extreme, yet it’s exceedingly common for people to have no real understanding of the laws at play in their lives or, if they do become involved in the legal system, what seemingly basic concepts they are fighting for mean. Sometimes even the lawyer doesn’t have a clear understanding of what’s going on, and not for lack of trying. The Court staff probably doesn’t know what’s going on. It’s entirely possible that the Judge may not know entirely what’s going on.

At some point you’d think someone would have to understand everything, that there was some amount of quality control going on. Such systems may exist, but only at the very top of the chain. Those systems are far off, expensive, impossible for the common person to interact with. Sometimes even that top level of people can make mistakes. There’s no guarantee that at the end of such your legal journey, you will find the answers you want and understand what happened completely.

On the back of my edition of the book, it describes The Trial as a “terrifying tale.” I suppose the idea of the legal system being like this can be scary, but I think for anyone who works in it, this depiction isn’t that far off from the essence of what’s really going on. If anything, the exaggerations make The Trial more amusing than terrifying. There’s a nonchalant attitude to the excessive and exasperating banality here that can’t escape the humor laying beneath the dread.

You almost get the sense while reading that the burden of this mysterious trial could not have been placed on a better protagonist than Josef K. He’s stubborn and overly self-conscious in ways that escalate and make the situation more entertaining. His strong-headed nature trips him into unintentionally falling upwards, deeper and deeper into the layers of the legal system taking over his life. Everyone in the story says entirely too much at virtually every time possible, and you can’t help but reflect on the ridiculousness of it all. K.’s annoyance with everyone around him only highlights how silly it is when he willingly ensnares himself in their verbose monologues anyway.

Franz Kafka writes in a way that perfectly conveys the plight of the story. His style suffocates you with long paragraphs and sentences that seemingly have no end. This may boil down to the unfinished nature of the novel, yet most of it feels intentional. The occasional breaks in paragraphs often line up perfectly with relief from whatever convoluted conversation Josef K. finds himself to be engaged in. Reading this book is like dunking yourself in an ocean and only coming up for air when you absolutely have to. Sometimes this style can be difficult to read, but it draws you in regardless.

An excessive amount of value often gets placed on the idea of a work being “finished.” The Trial, at least in the state it was released in, highlights why maybe rather than focusing so much on a work being complete, it may make more sense to think about the essence of what a work is trying to convey. Kafka clearly had more ideas he would have liked to flesh out, more characters and scenarios to include in this story. Would that matter, however? He wrote what he wrote, and the ideas he conveyed are out there regardless. If Kafka decided to finish his book, it is possible that he may not have gone with the ending we have, or at least an ending executed in the same way. That could have changed the core of his book, but that have made the current ending less valid?

The only difference between we have and what we could have had is that one version exists. There could have been more, things could have been different, things could have been better. At the end of it all, however, what we have is what is put out there, and that’s worth appreciating regardless of any what-ifs.

And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie

The real killer in a murder mystery is the author. Sorry for the spoilers. No novel makes that truth clearer than And Then There Were None, where Agatha Christie essentially draws parallels between herself and the murderer of the story.

What is a mystery writer if not someone playing God with (fictional) people’s lives? The author kills their cast of characters by providing the situation in which a killer authors who dies and how. There’s an art to building a compelling murder mystery story, and it’s on full display here. Stories like these sometimes feel more like intellectual exercises than a “real” story, or as the murderer puts it, a way for others to see how clever they are.

That can be fun, but it’s also a little morbid to think about. After all, technically the taking of another person’s life is about as serious of a subject matter as it gets. That’s certainly what the killer in this story, perhaps Agatha, seems to believe, as the entire concept of the murder island the story takes place on is to enact the “eye for an eye” principle on various victims who are guilty of murder in some fashion.

You could describe And Then There Were None as a story about death and justice, yet there’s an arbitrariness to it all that makes me hesitate to do so. The story is told by jumping between the perspectives of a wide cast of characters, giving glimpses into each of their stories, personalities, and thoughts on the situation, which might imply some depth to be had here. As the corpses begin piling up, however, that illusion of depth soon fades away and begins to feel superficial.

The characters begin to feel less like characters and more like bullet points. They are their occupation, their general demeanor, and most importantly, their crime. Beyond that, it’s hard to grow attached to anyone, and I suppose that’s kind of a point. This is a story where everyone dies, and you’re supposed to come away thinking that they deserved it. You’re also supposed to think that deep down, most of them believe that they deserve it too.

Mystery stories like this inherently involve some craft to them and that inevitably leads to some artificiality. The sequence of events has to unfold in a way that efficiently kills off the ensemble while keeping you guessing as to who the culprit could be. That everyone on the island truly does happen to be guilty of their crimes, regardless of the ambiguity of their actions, is yet another one of those aspects that feel unnaturally crafted. There’s a fakeness to the scenario that maximizes fun while minimizing drama.

In a sense, the craft takes away from the drama and the humanity. It turns it all into a game. Maybe that’s fine, however. It’s a lot easier to read the story as a game, rather than taking the subject matter for what it is at face value. As long as you’re a God of fictional murders, you can afford to be all fun and games.

Book Thoughts – 7/03/2022 (The Anomaly and Based on a True Story)

The Anomaly by Hervé Le Tellier

The Anomaly pulled me in more with the way it was written than with what the writing was conveying. It skillfully utilizes an ensemble cast to slowly hook you into its overall premise. I also enjoyed the unconventional ways the author weaves personality into the text. A lot can be gleaned from how the author casually conveys tone. It is an enjoyable read for the sake of reading.

As a narrative, The Anomaly explores the nature of existence; what things would be like doing things differently. I’m sure everyone wonders what life would be like if things went just a little differently, if they are really in control of their lives. As characters in the narrative allude to, however, exactly what difference does it make? I’m not too concerned about questions like that, and so the many twists and turns of the narrative and the characters did not grip me.

The ending in particular leaves little impact. “Oh well,” I thought. I couldn’t tell if the author thought that it was clever or if that’s exactly what he thinks too. Either way, not something that touched me personally.

Based on a True Story by Norm Macdonald

There exists a myth that there are naturally funny people – it’s misleading. Developing the aptitude for it might be easier for some than others, but it’s hard work all the same. Everyone can be funny sometimes and to some extent. The true “funny” people are the ones who can appear to be funny all the time. That does not come naturally. Being “funny” requires experience and insight into humanity. No one demonstrates that better than Norm Macdonald.

Norm, perhaps more than anyone, knew what was funny. That’s tough because funny is an aimless, amorphous concept that changes depending on the situation. That’s where the work comes in. Norm could read the room. He prepared for the reactions he could elicit. Most importantly, he wrote a lot and perfected his delivery of what he wrote. Anyone who has listened What Norm was really putting out into the world in his standup, talkshow appearances, and even his own shows knows he was not spouting random bits of nonsense he “naturally” stumbled into on the fly. They were perfectly crafted bits of humor that he could twist into being funny even if no one was laughing. A bombed joke can be just as funny as one that kills. That’s Norm. He was the art of comedy incarnate.


Based on a True Story condenses that craft into a roughly 200 page narrative. As the title suggests, what Norm wrote in this book is not in itself a true story, but rather based on true life events. Most of it ends up being implausible. Often they are absurd extensions of jokes he’s told a million times. Occasionally he just throws in his classic jokes verbatim. He almost treats his bits as special guest appearances, from actual people like Adam Eget to his moth joke. It ends up feeling like a full culmination of Norm.

While the book emphasizes the jokes, it utilizes its absurd fictitious elements to scrape at the truths hiding beneath them. Norm rarely tells you exactly what to think, you can just read between the lines a little to identify what he’s actually getting at. A lot like his usual standup routine. That makes it especially obvious how much work he put into his jokes. Everything here works just as well written as it does if Norm were reading it himself. Maybe that’s just because it’s so easy to imagine him reading it. I’m pretty sure an audio book version of exactly that exists, I just don’t think it’s necessary.

Based on a True Story is a funny, breezy, and even intriguing read that brings in some unusual narrative tricks. Perhaps the greatest lie in the book is that Norm claims to not be a writer. He was a writer, an amazing one, and that is obvious not only in the book, but all the years of comedy he performed.

What U Want vs What U Need – Sonic and the Fallen Star Review + Selfish Sonic Rant

Sonic shares an odd relationship with fangames. Fangames are basically the ultimate proof of his impact, his ability to inspire others to create and follow their passions. In turn, however, they also get used a lot to drag the official efforts. A double-edged hedgehog.

In some respect it’s justified; fan efforts became official efforts with the mobile Sonic ports, Sonic Mania, and now Sonic Origins, so with Sonic in particular the Pandora’s Box has been opened. It is in fact, more or less fair game to talk about fan efforts in relation to main titles, because the people who make them could very well be working on the series in an official capacity in some day.

Comparisons to fangames aren’t usually done with that mindset, however. It’s usually done in an almost idealized way, like the person wants something very specific out of Sonic that they are not getting, so they are comparing the two even if it doesn’t make much sense. I often see posts along the lines of “lol Sega can’t even do physics like this while one random person could!!” with a video attached showing a glitchy physics demo of Sonic jumping through a totally empty field or something. The assumption that Sega can’t compete with fans often fails out of the gate because it assumes that Sega is attempting to design the game that you specifically want. Unfortunately, this is often not the case.

Is that a problem with Sonic? Maybe. It feels like it. I want it to be a problem because I want Sonic to be a certain way and he is note! Why aren’t they making what I want?

I think it speaks to an important truth: what people want from Sonic likely differs from what Sega needs. I generally disagree with the notion that the recent Sonic games are bad, but I will also readily admit that they are not what I want.

The Sonic I want appears to have died sometime in the late 2000s. Sonic should be cool, all I see lately is a Sonic that used to be cool. He is either retreading his old adventures or imitating something more popular, whether it’s Mario or Zelda. Not saying these efforts make for bad games, they just don’t capture the full essence of Sonic to me.

That’s right – now it is my turn to selfishly rant about what I want and compare fangames to official games as a window into my idealized version of Sonic.

Enter Sonic and the Fallen Star. This new fangame just released at the time of writing, and I’ve already played through it twice in the day it has been out. It’s a fun classic style Sonic game. More importantly, it does not settle for merely being a classic style Sonic game. It pushes more boundaries than I expected, making it a distinct experience that jumps over the nostalgia pit that 2D Sonic games have been getting stuck in since Sonic 4. All of this is to say, I really enjoyed it.

I particularly enjoy Sonic’s portrayal. He’s very cool and lively, like the animations in Sonic CD fully realized into a game. This likely goal becomes especially obvious in the cutscenes, which often depict Sonic doing extended parkour sessions around the environment. It’s like he jumped straight out of the Sonic CD intro!

Aesthetically the game bends toward Sonic CD with some distinct stylings. The music especially feels different from Sonic while still totally fitting with the Sonic vibe. Defining what exactly the Sonic vibe is may be difficult, but I assure you I know it when I see it, because I am the ultimate arbiter of Sonic. At least in this essay.

While playing, I found it hard to shake the feeling of “wow, this is like if CD was designed like a real Sonic game!” Not totally fair to CD, of course, because there was only one game to go off of at the time, but anyone who has played all of the classics probably knows what I mean. You can charitably say CD emphasizes exploration, as the levels are often big spaces that you can usually backtrack through to find secrets. There is a little exploration in Fallen Star for secrets, it just pushes you more towards traditional platforming and speed rushes that Sonic typically excels at.

That actually creates problems sometimes. The level design can occasionally blend together; there’s a few too many repeated ideas and empty stretches that are common through nearly ever stage. The moment-to-moment level design works well enough, it just occasionally becomes obvious that these levels were not professionally made and succumb to repetitive design tropes that may not have been in an official product.

The special stages also quickly become unusually tough. The special stage concept makes sense to me and twists pre-existing special stage tropes in a cool way; it just leaves little room for error and often throws new concepts at you in unfair ways. You can succeed after multiple attempts, so it does not pose an insurmountable challenge, it just feels like they could use some tweaking. Although I guess I can’t speak for the last stage – I only had one emerald to go before accidentally erasing my save somehow. Oops.

I’m always looking for games to make Sonic cool and exciting in new ways, and this game accomplishes that. Between the modern games, Boom, and throwbacks like Mania, Sega recently plays things too safe with how Sonic looks and feels to play. He comes across as sanitized. Uncool. Something desperately trying to stay relevant by sticking to what people know and love. This is wrong!

Sonic is the absolute last series I want to be “safe.” How totally antithetical to the character. People can prefer the older games, you don’t have to throw that style of game out entirely, but please push it forward! Please do anything but a straight up imitation! I don’t know who exactly I’m begging to. If you happen to being a corporate suit at Sega and are reading this, it’s time to make the games I want and only the games I want! Thanks in advance! Sonic Advance, am I right?

You can make a classic style game that isn’t “just” a classic style game, Sonic and the Fallen Star serves as proof. If Sega wants to make the games they need, it’s nice to know that someone out there still wants to make the Sonic that I want.

Fortnite – The Spider-Man Review

WARNING: This review was originally written in January 2022 but fell through a time warp and ended up here. It no longer reflects the current state of Fortnite! Or society!

The easiest way to drag me into an unknowably endless abyss is to promise that Spider-Man lies at the bottom of it. You probably know him, he was in a movie or something recently. But what you may not know about is Fortnite.

Just kidding, you probably know about Fortnite too. Just between you and me, though, what do you think Fortnite actually is? A popular video game? Where you build stuff? That features battles that are apparently royalty of some kind? While technically you may be correct, you are also completely wrong.

Fortnite is a void. It contains everything you can think of as well as nothing at all. Multitudes of intellectual property converge in this space-time anomaly in order to wage battle against each other after leaping from a mysterious vehicle known as “The Battle Bus.” Everyone is on The Battle Bus, but no one knows why. 

You are in Fortnite. I am in Fortnite. Spider-Man is in Fortnite. That is why we have gathered here today. 

Spider-Man joins Fortnite in order to kickstart what the game refers to as “Chapter 3.” I assume this means something but the game makes little effort to explain it. The game opens with a slow walking segment followed by a cutscene that implies there is an ongoing narrative. People sit around talk but the dialogue is incomprehensible. Oh well, Spider-Man shows up at the end so I guess it’s all good. 

After that, you gain access to menus that all essentially form a minefield, except the mines are ways the game attempts to convince you to give it money. For its first major gameplay challenge, Fortnite requires you to navigate these menus carefully to find Spider-Man. 

There are two ways to obtain Spider-Man: you can spend money to get him, or you can spend money to buy a battle pass and play the game a lot to eventually get him. You can also spend money to buy a battle pass then spend even more money to get him without playing the game at all, so technically you have three choices. I went with the first option. 

I note that while intellectual property-wise all roads lead to Spider-Man, the Spider-Man I purchased was the one from the hit film, Spider-Man: No Way Home. Now in theaters at the time of writing, likely not at the time of reading. I suppose it is up for debate as to whether or not this actually counts as “Spider-Man.” 

My reasoning for that distinction mostly boils down to the character’s sense of relatability. A core aspect of the Spider-Man character was that he was a kid thrusted into adulthood responsibilities through tragedy, so while he went on fun superhero adventures he also had to deal with real stuff like bills and alienating everyone in his life without exception. The MCU Peter’s concerns range between odd extremes of petty tantrums over school trips to wildly unrelatable events like inheriting a billionaire’s legacy or multiversal shenanigans. Yeah that stuff comes up in the comics, but it differs beca- look, the point is I’m kind of picky about how my favorite superhero gets portrayed. Let’s talk about Fortnite.

Well, usually Spider-Man doesn’t shoot people in the face with a gun. I understand the need to take some creative liberties, however, so I will give this pass. This Spider-Man also excels at dancing, clearly drawing inspiration from the Sam Raimi films. I do find it odd that he never really says anything; it’s rare for Spider-Man to be mute. Silent protagonists are relatable in their own way, so this decision may technically be in the spirit of Spider-Man. 

Honestly, he almost feels like some kind of blank avatar that merely wears the skin of Spider-Man rather than actually being Spider-Man. I’m probably just imagining things.

What I’m not imagining is how well they nailed Spider-Man on an aesthetic level. Spider-Man translates smoothly to the cartoony style of Fortnite and he looks great in every costume he wears. He has a nice selection of costumes, too. Not to throw shade at a game I won’t name starring Marvel’s Avengers, but this is how you gouge your playerbase. Black suit? Accounted for. Future Foundation suit? Looks sick. Product placement movie suits? Yeah they’re fine. I want all of these costumes, and I’m almost willing to play a bunch of Fortnite to get them.  

This brings us to the topic I’ve been avoiding: actually playing Fortnite. Historically, I haven’t been much of a fan. The typical round of Fortnite’s battle royale mode consists of running around a giant map for about 20 minutes without meeting a single other human being before the game ends and apparently you won. Occasionally you’ll encounter a minigame where someone snipes you from way off in the distance and you die, but this occurs infrequently. While exploring the map you can find treasure chests, drive vehicles, or fish for some reason. These activities theoretically add to the enjoyment of the video game, but overall I think it’s safe to say I don’t really get Fortnite. 

Spider-Man improves everything, though, right? That’s my life philosophy and it rings true even in the depths of this abyss. What surprised me more than anything else regarding Spider-Man’s Fortnite debut is that he legitimately changes the game. You see, Spider-Man didn’t just bring himself; he also brought his web shooters. Then he forgot them somewhere, I guess, because his web shooters can just be found unattended at a bunch of different places on the map. Whether you are the Spider-Man himself or not, picking them up imbues you with the proportionate strength and speed of a spider, allowing you to awkwardly swing around the map.

Spider-Man 2 web swinging or PS4 Spider-Man web swinging this is not. What Fortnite’s web swinging is, however, is mostly functional and interesting. The actual act of swinging feels a little off – you target what you want to swing off of just like how you’d aim a gun. In a way this offers more freedom than actual Spider-Man games tend to have. This freedom also tends to make things unpredictable – sometimes you’ll fly up with no problems, other times you’ll find yourself stuck in geometry or swinging oddly low to the ground. The momentum changes erratically and even after dozens of matches I never felt 100% confident in putting my life in the hands of the web gods.

The parts of the swinging mechanic I find compelling have more to do with its tertiary aspects. For example, most of the web shooter pickups only provide you with a limited amount of ammo. The idea of Spider-Man running out of web fluid regularly comes up in the comics and other adaptations, but it was more or less phased out from the games once they started going the open world route. I get it, when the games are all about traversal, having to worry about losing the ability to engage with the main mechanic of the game probably wouldn’t go over well. I love the idea of implementing it anyway though – it’s one of those mechanical reminders that Spider-Man really is just some guy with limits, especially economical limits.

What does this limit mean for Fortnite in particular? Not a whole lot really – your web ammo is limited, but you still get plenty. Your ability to quickly traverse the map depends on consistently identifying the next target to swing off of; failing to keep your momentum with an unbroken chain of swings forces you to wait on a cooldown timer before your next swing, so in a sense you’re actually encouraged to use them often and continuously. 

Once I found out that these web shooters existed, my experience with Fortnite dramatically changed. No longer was I wandering aimlessly for signs of life. I was now swinging aimlessly around the map in record time. You can actually move through the map so quickly that your chances of encountering other players increases dramatically. I began efficiently conquering other players in firefights and pillaging the map for resources and guns. I could easily dip into fights and dip out when things looked bad since the web shooters offered such a huge mobility advantage compared to what the average player can do. 

It was at this point I discovered that Fortnite may actually be a real video game. More importantly, it was at this point that I discovered how to consistently win. Face front, True Believers, here’s how to become an MLG 1337 Fortnite Pwner circa Fortnite Chapter 3 Season 1!

First, you’ll want to drop off of The Battle Bus around the Daily Bugle. Any self-respecting Webhead should know why; Spider-Man frequents the place so often that it just makes sense that he’d be dropping web shooters out of his pockets all the time there. As you fall, scope out the location of any bags webbed to the wall, that’s where Spidey keeps the goods. From there, shout “Excelsior!” while soaring across the map and pillaging the land for strong guns. Now, it’s Clobbering Time! Keep swinging around until the map has shrunken down to the point where everyone clusters together. With your Amazing arsenal and Spectacular speed, you will easily show everyone who the Superior Spider-Man really is. 

For whatever reason, game after game it felt like I was the only person finding and taking advantage of this clearly powerful strategy. I genuinely cannot tell if I was missing something about these web shooters that makes people avoid them or if the game is just so full of 12 year olds who don’t know what they’re doing that I am basically just bullying little children. Either way, great game! I think!

I admit that despite winning so much, I felt rather empty about it. Something seems off, like maybe this isn’t all real. Is Fortnite tricking me into playing more by pitting me against literal children and robots? Is this all a ploy to keep me trapped in the void forever?

I want to leave the void, but I can’t. I should disclose that over the period I was playing, they eventually put Venom up on the Fortnite shop and I ended up buying him too. This was after I had decided I was basically done with the game, so I definitely have a problem and need to get out of here as soon as I can. But how? Where do I go? It’s basically endless, there’s no escape. I can’t do this anymore; I just read something about how they might put Mega Man in the game! You can’t do this to me! Please let me leave!!!

(By the way, in case you were hoping for my Fortnite – The Venom Review, here goes: he’s cool.)

300 Words About Mega Man 2

When I was looking at different freelancing opportunities recently, one of them asked me to talk about my favorite game in 100-300 words. I don’t usually do small posts, but I I thought that was an interesting limitation and I might as well post something mercifully short for once:

I love Mega Man 2 because everything about it inspires me. A small, passionate team put everything they had into following up an idea they really believed in but had previously failed. The sequel perfects the ideas of its predecessor while introducing so many clever ideas and platforming staples of its own that this game’s legacy in particular continues to inspire new games today. Despite only being made in about three months, the game features so many memorable stages you can hardly tell. Quick Man’s laser gauntlet, Heat Man’s invisible blocks, getting chased by a giant Dragon; there is an overabundance of cool (albeit tough to conquer) ideas in one place.

Although Mega Man is a robot, his games focus on forming an empathetic connection with the player through their designs, music, story, and gameplay. Mega Man 2 carefully balances its stages with a unique blend of cautious play and creative problem-solving through strategic weapon use. To succeed, you must insert yourself into the situation. Mega Man 2 features a wonderfully moody soundtrack and simple but appealing visuals that work together to form an approachable, melancholic vibe. Forming a connection with the player was important for the team, and this mission was made most clear by directly involving fans in the design process of the bosses. On every level, the developers hoped to transcend simply providing a great experience to enjoy and opted instead for something truly special.

While other Mega Mans may be overall smoother experiences or introduce new staple gameplay elements, Mega Man 2 towers over them with its strong ambition and the clear personality of its development team, which didn’t fully carry over into the sequels. The oddly emotional ending to 2 will stick with me forever. That ending wordlessly defines the true power of video games.

Game of the Year 2021

Somehow an entire year has passed since I wrote my game of the year list for 2020, which means that I have to write a new one or else I will lose my writing-about-video-games license. As always, if you disagree with me I implore you to cut that out.

You may notice that there are thirteen games sitting on this list. Why thirteen instead of ten? I ask instead, why ten instead of thirteen? Go into the mountains and meditate on this for ten days and thirteen nights. Return here when you are done and share your answer in the comments section. Only then will we be able to reach true enlightenment.

13. Elec Head

Players often hold the concept of “immersion” in high regard, essentially putting forth the idea that the games should strive to avoid making you think about the fact that they are games while playing them. Personally I’ve never found this idea to be that important. If anything, pursuing immersion too heavily results in missing out on key advantages that only the awareness of the fact you’re playing a game can provide.

Elec Head serves as an extreme example. You can’t ignore that Elec Head is a game; if you do, you simply won’t be able to progress. Elec Head forces the player to rethink the more abstract components of game design by turning them into essential pieces of puzzles. Over its short duration, the game packs in so many clever ideas and scenarios that it could stand out for how tightly designed it is alone.

12. Resident Evil Village

Both the biggest blessing and curse of the Resident Evil series lies in its nature to be consistently inconsistent. The balancing act between action and horror ebbs back and forth in nearly every game, and I believe that’s largely by design – when you’re a mainstream series like Resident Evil, you can’t survive this long by being just one thing forever.

Resident Evil VII surprised me with its reinvention of the series’ horror roots that had decayed over the decade prior to its release, but it was inevitable that the pendulum would swing back to action eventually. Village doesn’t fully abandon horror, though, it instead injects small doses of it in between more action-packed firefights with werewolves, vampires, and all kinds of creatures of the night. Village offers such an over-the-top sampling of scenarios and creatures that I can’t help but be enthralled by how far it goes in executing every outlandish idea it has.

I had a lot of fun with Village, but it may be the series at its most eclectic. Similar to any a-little-bit-of-everything blockbuster, I’m not sure I can appreciate it as much as something more focused like Resident Evil VII. As far as AAA blockbusters go, however, no one does it better than Capcom and Village offers up just about everything you could want from a horror-themed rollercoaster ride.

11. Steel Assault

William Shakespeare once wrote that “brevity is the soul of wit,” and although this quote is often cited from his work on Hamlet, it’s a little known fact that he originally wrote it when talking about how cool video games will be in around 400 years.

Arcade design endures to this day because although it often crams in a lot of mechanics and scenarios to master, the breezy game lengths ease the chances of a player growing too overwhelmed as well as their pain in making mistakes. The end goal of playing these games may be perfection, but until then, each playthrough builds upon the next by adding just a little more experience to your arsenal. As long as you keep trying, the rapid accumulation of experience gradually imbues your soul with enough wit to get the coveted 1CC. Shakespeare truly was ahead of his time.

Steel Assault executes on this concept flawlessly. The game echoes the formula of run and gun classics like Contra, but offers mechanical depth with its grapple line mechanic which allows for tactics that may not be immediately obvious without the experimentation multiple playthroughs allow for. I completed Steel Assault about five times in a row the first day I tried it, and while that might seem like a lot, it only clocks in to be a little over two hours. That’s the power of witty brevity. Steel Assault shines as a brilliant beacon for the merits of arcade action and design.

10. Splitgate

Splitgate emerged from the shadows (possibly via portal) as a surprise last-minute entry into the the running. These days I don’t expect to get into multiplayer shooters too much. Despite that, Splitgate has managed to pull me in for the past month. This year Splitgate left early access to enter, uh, indefinite beta, but frankly it holds up in a shockingly less Early Access state than its most direct inspiration.

Yeah Halo might be back, but just between you and me, I don’t know if Halo Infinite’s multiplayer does much of anything I didn’t like more in Halo 3 over a decade ago. It actually does a lot of things worse; I’m pretty sure I could just play any mode I wanted to play in Halo 3 for starters. Splitgate on the other hand competently carries over a lot of what I enjoy in Halo while adding in the strategic portal element. The portals don’t fundamentally alter the game, but they introduce a fresh consideration that consistently captures my imagination for coming up with new approaches and strategies. Halo fans have been beaten down by 343’s previous efforts and may be desperate to latch onto Infinite, but as it stands Splitgate may be more worth their time and attention.

AMBUSHED! Video Game Premonitions for 2022

Watch out, your arbitrary video game ranking list has been arbitrarily invaded by a random encounter! Can you defeat this trash mob of premonitions and emerge from 2022 unscathed?

  • Square Enix announces their intent to implement NFTs into Marvel’s Avengers somehow.
  • At least one iconic Nintendo character farts on screen in the Super Mario movie.
  • Microsoft neither implements nor outlines a coherent plan to expand upon Halo Infinite’s campaign mode in 2022.
  • Konami announces a new Castlevania that basically looks like a budget Dark Souls game.
  • The Pokemon Company announces their intent to implement NFTs into an upcoming generation of Pokemon somehow. By the way, there’s a new generation of Pokemon and it’s coming out at the end of this year. What, a new game is supposed to release this month? Whatever, that’s old news!
  • Gex returns and in a bid to make him more relevant to modern audiences, this time he is being voiced by Youtuber Videogamedunkey.
  • Capcom announces more Resident Evil projects than Mega Man or Ace Attorney combined.
  • Sony prevents the Apes from Escaping once again.
  • The new Zelda game (Obelisk of Shadow) is just ok.

That was pretty scary, huh? Anyway, you know what else is scary:

9. Tormented Souls

No genre of game suffers more from discourse about “evolution” than horror games. So many people talk about old school survival horror games as if the developers had absolutely no idea what they were doing. Why didn’t all of those legendary game developers realize they were making their massively budgeted and successful games “wrong” when they implemented fixed camera angles and tank controls?

Of course in reality, many of these so-called outdated techniques are perfect for horror while many modern conventions are almost antithetical to it. Fixed cameras lock you into perspectives that give each room a distinct feeling or personality, while the free moving perspective of over-the-shoulder or first person games often make things easy to ignore or blend areas together indistinctly. Tank controls might have a small learning curve, but they make perfect sense in a world where you don’t know what exactly to expect when you head off-screen.

I worry people aren’t ready for the truth – technical limitations or not, early horror games had an amazingly strong grasp on horror techniques and how they should work in a game, often a better grasp than most modern horror games do. Perspective and player control are indescribably important when it comes to horror. The more control you have over your actions and what you see, the more difficult it becomes to build up moods or tension. I’m not saying that horror is impossible in other perspectives, simply that this old style is hardly outdated and it’s an enormous shame that games made this way died off in the post-Resident Evil 4 world.

In this bleak world, Tormented Souls highlights this genre’s long-forgotten strengths. Everything you could hope for shows up – a grueling atmosphere, bizarre enemies and camera angles, puzzles you actually have to think about for more than a second, and item management that keeps you on your toes. The game borrows more than a few ideas from older survival horror games, but not at the cost of its own identity. In many ways, Tormented Souls pushes boundaries that its more mainstream inspirations would never have dared. Tormented Souls admirably reignites the torch of survival horror and I can only hope more games follow in its stead to keep the fire alive.

8. Balan Wonderworld

Balan Wonderworld presents a message about how our lives require a balance of both positivity and negativity to find meaning, and that regardless of what we struggle with at any given moment, kindness and imagination can push you through; so I suppose it is only appropriate that the game was relentlessly mocked to the point it unceremoniously tanked, dragging down the developers who worked on it in the process.

I get it, despite a lot of the clamor for these kinds of games to come back, collectathon-focused platformers aren’t actually that popular. At best, most will just ask why the game doesn’t play like Mario. Personally, I appreciate the laid-back lock-and-key style exploration Balan offers and playing the game to full completion remains a big highlight of this year. The excellent design work from Naoto Ohshima elevates the game further, making each level, creature, and costume powerup endearing with a style that I sorely miss seeing in a post-Dreamcast world. It’s a shame how Balan was received, but it was also easy to see coming. My guess: the world will grow much kinder to Balan in the long run.

7. Metroid Dread

Metroid and I have settled our differences and come to an agreement. She can keep the action focus and flashy cinematics, while I get a competently made map that’s fun to navigate and a story that doesn’t make me want to die.

A decade ago, I may have been more excited about Dread, but in retrospect I can only think “man I’m glad they’re finally on the right track.” Don’t misunderstand, I enjoyed the game a lot, but I can’t say it tops my list of favorite Metroid games or fully brought me back to pre-2010 levels of Metroid fandom. I’m just glad Metroid is safe and doing well and it’s not like I like her or anything b-baka.

6. Psychonauts 2

Only Psychonauts 2 gave Metroid Dread a run for its money in how concerned I was about how it would end up. I love Psychonauts, but I have not loved a Double Fine game since, well, Psychonauts. Okay, I liked Brutal Legend more than most, but I don’t know if I love it. The point being, as far as decade+-late sequels go, I felt all bets were off with this one. I didn’t even back it on their weird Kickstarter investing Ponzi-scheme setup because I had so little faith in the project. A truly great Psychonauts 2 would require Tim Schafer and company to somehow channel themselves from 2005 to make it work.

Well, call me a psychic but that appears to be what happened. Barring a few aspects, Psychonauts 2 follows up on the original like no time passed at all, in-game or otherwise. Every character arc and plot reveal logically and amusingly follows from the original and the game answers just about every question you could have about the world of Psychonauts. Game-wise the controls and level design have been streamlined, but the game remains fun and varied throughout. It’s just a nice, pleasant experience that I couldn’t have imagined coming from this company 16 years after the fact.

The only thing I can really complain about is the complete erosion of trust between Double Fine and their audience. Whereas the original may have left some things unsaid or hidden particularly dark parts of character backstories as secrets, this time around the writing doesn’t want you to miss a thing. There’s almost no reason to break open those memory vault slideshows because the game will just tell you exactly what happened anyway. You’re going to have everything about this character, their life, and their psychological hang-ups spelled out for you, sometimes from multiple perspectives, and you’re going to like it, you idiot.

Overall, though, I’m impressed. Double Fine put together a worthwhile sequel to one of my favorite games and it only required them to tank the whole company and get bought out by Microsoft to do it.

5. Fantasian

Final Fantasy marches on without creator Hironobu Sakaguchi’s involvement, but the games labeled Final Fantasy today exist as undeniably different beasts from the initial run of games he worked on. Even the throwback-style RPGs that attempt to capture the spirit of those original games never really do, and I believe it’s exactly because they are deliberate imitations that they end up missing some of the appeal.

Fantasian doesn’t feel like it’s trying to be recapture anything, it just effortlessly embodies the spirit of Final Fantasy. The handmade environments suck you into a world crafted with just as much charming simplicity as the game’s aesthetic. Fantasian does not revolutionize any RPG mechanics, but it doesn’t need or want to – it has enough smaller ideas to keep the battles engaging and the exploration interesting regardless. There will always be new Final Fantasy games on the horizon, but in many ways Mistwalker’s RPGs are the real Final Fantasy continuations to me, and Fantasian is perhaps the greatest testament to that so far.

4. Ys IX: Monstrum Nox

One of my favorite things about the Ys series is the variety it presents to the player in terms of the adventures themselves and varying game styles. At a time where the party member system of recent games may be wearing thin, the developers at Falcom found interesting and economical ways to do something different.

Despite the many shared elements, Ys IX stands as an almost polar opposite to Ys VIII. VIII pushed the boundaries of the series to its most expansive point yet, while IX quietly introspects about Adol and the nature of his adventures. That’s not to say it’s unambitious, as it aims to be the most consistent and strongly themed game in the series. Every element of the game builds on the concepts it explores and it results in a very different experience from what came before. While I’m sure Ys IX can be enjoyed by newcomers, it culminates the series up to this point in such a smart and meaningful way that I can’t help but feel being a long-time fan is a prerequisite to truly connecting with and loving this game.

BONUS STAGE – Miscellaneous 2021 Thoughts

Wow, you managed to enter the secret bonus stage! How did you even do that, you’re just sitting and reading a web page!? Anyway, here are some brief 2021-specific thoughts:

DLC

As you may know, in the year 2021 a game releasing doesn’t mean it ever has to stop releasing. I spent a good amount of time on add-ons and expansions this year, so I thought I would highlight a few that stuck with me in particular:

Streets of Rage 4 – Mr. X Nightmare

I know what you’re thinking: I, too, was hoping for a way that Streets of Rage 4 could win Game of the Year two years in a row. This will have to do.

Mr. X Nightmare perfects Streets of Rage 4. I mean it was already pretty perfect but I guess it is more perfect now. They sure showed me. Not only does the expansion add more characters to enjoy and experiment with, it also adds new moves to every existing character. The survival mode, while perhaps more limited in what it offers than you might expect, allows the game to go as wild as possible in often zany, overwhelming ways. It serves as a nice diversion to replaying the main game, at any rate.

Streets of Rage 4 already existed as one of the most comprehensive packages in the genre, but Mr X Nightmare adds so many reasons to continue to replay the game that it’s hard to wrap your head around it. I know game design isn’t about content alone, but I just can’t see any game topping Streets of Rage 4 on its own terms now. It’s over. Perfect game.

Streets Fighter V – Final Season

I realize you’re not supposed to say this out loud, but Street Fighter V has been my favorite fighting game this past console generation by far. I’ve enjoyed the game for pretty much its entire run, and I couldn’t ask for a better send off than this final season of characters. Oro in particular sat on my list of dream characters for a long time, and I’m exceedingly happy to see him finally show up in a new game. While I’m interested to see where Street Fighter 6 goes from here, until it materializes I am more than satisfied with Street Fighter V.

Super Smash Bros. Ultimate Fighters Pass 2

Around the same time as Street Fighter V, Super Smash Bros. Ultimate also came to an end this year. While I generally enjoyed the characters in the second fighters pass, I can’t say any of the picks got me overly excited. They are well made and interesting to play as, but the first pass did a lot more for me until the Byleth reveal set our reality onto the alternate timeline. I’m happy to see Sora managed to cut past all the legal red tape at any rate.

I’m a little surprised Nintendo chose to end things here to be honest. I understand that working on the game requires a lot of time and money, but the ever looming Smash reveals offered so many benefits outside of simply collecting DLC money that it seems insane to end the potential for more without some kind of follow-up on the immediate horizon. That’s the other problem – Smash Ultimate undoubtedly poses one of the toughest acts to follow of all time. It makes no sense to completely reboot the series with different mechanics as that would no longer be Super Smash Bros., but the disappointment of a roster downgrade will also be difficult to swallow.

As things stand, I only see two ways forward: (1) they re-release the game on the next Nintendo console with more characters then restart the DLC cycle all over again, or (2) they give Smash a long break and return with some kind of weird service game that lives on the unstated promise that eventually the roster may grow back to Ultimate’s size. Either way, Smash will eventually need to face up to the existential crisis created by Ultimate, and it may not be pretty.

Skullgirls Returns from the Dead (Again)

Perhaps appropriately, Skullgirls fades in and out of undeath. It seems like just yesterday that Squiggly miraculously joined the roster, only for that to open the door for even more characters, only for future updates to be unceremoniously shelved in favor of Indivisible. Now the tables have turned and Indivisible has been unceremoniously shelved while Skullgirls reigns supreme. As it should, if you ask me.

It does seem strange to me that two of the most key people involved with the inception of Skullgirls are now off the project for various reasons, but I’m not dissatisfied with the work Future Club has done without them. I can only hope to one day see Minette and Panzerfaust to complete this unlikely Skullgirls fever-dream purgatory extravaganza.

Fan Games

Just as the indie side of the game development grows in power, so too does the unofficial fangame scene. I briefly considered putting two particular efforts onto the official game of the year list, but since both projects are technically ongoing, I opted instead to highlight them here:

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles X Justice League Turbo

I know I said I’m enjoying the new updates to Street Fighter V and Skullgirls a lot, but TMNT X Justice League Turbo might be the actual coolest thing going on in fighting games right now. This game aims to be the unofficial sequel to both TMNT Tournament Fighters and Justice League Task Force on the Super Nintendo, but in reality it far surpasses both. Not only did News Team 6 faithfully transfer both games into a more universal and fun fighting system, but they executed it with a polish on the level of an official product.

The number of professionals working on the game far surpasses what you might expect – former SNK staff contributed art and music, a former Konami developer who worked on the original Tournament Fighters returned to make additions to the characters he worked on, April’s original voice actor from the SNES game reprised her role, and more. The core team working on the game have done such a great job with the fighting mechanics and story content that even if they lack the professional background, they might as well be pros in their own right.

Version 1.0 released this past December, but apparently development will continue into 2022. Frankly, I’m amazed with how much is already in the game. TMNT X Justice League presents a staggering picture of just far fan efforts can go.

Sonic P-06

If there’s one thing that virtually everyone can agree on when it comes to Sonic, it’s that the 2006 entry needed more time in the oven. Project 06 not only ports the 2006 game to PC, but it goes the extra mile and actively seeks to improve it. Developer ChaosX adds a layer of polish that the team at Sega lacked the opportunity to apply while also implementing unused ideas and dialogue. As of the time of writing, both Sonic and Shadow’s campaigns have been completed with Silver actively in development.

Contrary to its reputation, Sonic 06 had merits, but they were buried under an avalanche of problems stemming from the condition of the company and development team implosion happening at the time. As things stand, we’re lucky when Sega officially acknowledges Sonic 06; I don’t expect them to ever rerelease it or properly fix it. They want it buried. Project 06 digs the game out from the rubble while carefully recreating it with a love that only someone who truly appreciates what the game should have been could provide.

The Metaverse and NFTs

If ham-fisted corporate messaging is any indication, the big trend for the upcoming decade appears to be detaching humanity from reality as much as possible. Why attend a meeting for your job when you can attend a meeting for your job where everyone looks like an early CG cartoon? Why actually own things when you can own this license to a thing or something? Monkeys? Hello?

I can’t say if these concepts will actually catch on or not, my guess would be not for a while and probably not in the form they are currently being marketed as. In any case, however, I expect these to be AAA video game buzzwords for the foreseeable future, becoming the new GAAS, lootboxes, online passes or whatever your contentiously dirty business practice of choice may be. Ubisoft and Square Enix CEO messaging definitely implies they won’t be going away without a fight, so get used to seeing these terms pop up. Rest assured, if it wasn’t this they would be pushing something equally as stupid in an attempt to gouge you. That’s just how this works. In the meantime, get your NFT apes primed for the next generation of Ape Fighting.

That was fun, right? I tried to ease you into it with that last paragraph, so let’s head back to harsh reality:

3. The Good Life

Swery’s work in games strives to be atypical, but in a way that has almost typecast him into delivering certain things that people expect. The Good Life delivers on his tropes on some level, but it also doesn’t execute them in the usual ways. The Good Life promises mystery, animal transformation action, and compelling characters, but overall its strengths lie more in its life sim elements to convey a vibe, a feeling of appreciating life in any circumstances.

The protagonist, Naomi, thrives in cynicism and the town she visits for a big scoop sometimes feels as if it exists purely to annoy her. You, as the player, have to be willing to play along or else you’re likely to become just as frustrated as Naomi. Many people in town are clearly manipulating you for their own gain, but there’s fun and charm to be found in between the lines of the over-the-top cynicism. Finding joy in the tedious and absurd situations summarizes what the game is truly about. In that way, The Good Life may be the most accurate life simulator to ever exist.

2. No More Heroes III

In 2019, Travis Strikes Again proposed a new hypothesis for Travis Touchdown and No More Heroes, one that could only emerge from time away to reflect, and No More Heroes III finishes that thought. Like Travis Strikes Again, No More Heroes III may not fit neatly in line with what people were expecting from a new entry, but it smartly builds upon the prior games all the same with a revamped combat system and deftly mixing elements that worked from each prior installment.

It seems unlikely to me that Travis Touchdown fades away never to be seen again after this, but No More Heroes III absolutely marks the end of No More Heroes. Travis and Suda have left the bleak and cynical attitudes of the originals behind and matured to greater heights.

What, there are no heroes in this world? Oh, but there totally are!

1. Blaster Master Zero 3

Blaster Master Zero 3 concludes a love story not only about the game’s protagonists, but about each generation of video game developers and players connecting to the next. From the very beginning Blaster Master Zero has been about linking a classic game to a new generation while satisfying fans of the old. Zero 3 finally brings that theme full circle in surprising ways, leading to a truly epic finale that punches far above the weight level the game’s looks may imply. Much like your battle tank’s cannon, everything in this game fires on all cylinders: the difficulty has been raised, the stakes are at their highest, and the emotions are at their strongest.

When I sat down to think about which game satisfied me the most this year, the choice was actually pretty easy. There were many great games this year, but by the time I completed Zero 3, it had left a remarkably powerful impression on me. This game, and this series, encapsulate everything I love about games and wraps it all up in the nicest, most endearing package possible.

Marvel’s Avengers – The Spider-Man Review

It may be silly with how frequently he shows up in things, but adding Spider-Man into a game will always pique my interest at least a little bit. In a way, he’s kind of the ultimate touchstone for creative interpretation – so many different artists, writers, and all manners of other occupations have worked on the character that I always find it interesting to see how the next version ends up.

Interpreting comic book characters can be tricky business, however. Many of these characters have built up such long histories and been in the hands of so many people that it muddles what exactly the character is supposed to be and make it difficult to pin down their key characteristics. This muddling leads to one person’s impressions of a character being wildly different from another’s depending on what material they have been exposed to.

Bearing that in mind, I don’t claim to be some ultimate authority on how Peter Parker and Spider-Man should be portrayed. I would much rather the people in charge at Marvel send me some kind of official certification before I do that. I do know what I like about the character though – the stories and and details that I treasure, the aspects that influence me. It’s from that perspective that I present to you this Ultimate Authoritative Review on Spider-Man as depicted in Square Enix’s Crystal Dynamics’s Marvel’s Sony’s Spider-Man’s Avengers.

I suppose the best place to start would be how Spider-Man feels to play in the video game. It really depends on perspective; I can’t sugarcoat it, this is a game made by people who work on AAA cinematic adventure games. If you compare controlling any character in Marvel’s Avengers to something more slick and responsive like, say, most other types of video games, the results are not favorable for Marvel’s Avengers. Within the limited genre of cinematic AAA games, however, Avengers emerges on the higher end of the spectrum.

Spider-Man in particular feels like the most fun character to control on the roster so far. His combat moves can be flashy in their choreography, he flies through most areas with relative ease with his webswinging, and his ability to tag and web-zip to enemies makes fights dynamic and snappy.

Most people will likely be tempted to compare this version of Spider-Man to the 2018 Spider-Man game by Insomniac. While understandable, I don’t find that to be a particularly fair comparison. Insomniac developed a totally different kind of game both in terms of genre and character focus – it’s a very different ordeal from what Avengers aims to be. That said, Avengers Spider-Man doesn’t feel totally foreign from Insomniac Spider-Man, they are similar in terms of basic combat moves and dodging. Avengers Spider-Man ends up resembling Insomniac Spider-Man to a surprising degree, albeit a slower and weightier version.

The most noticeable difference lies in the webswinging, in which Avengers Spider-Man returns to the automated “sky swinging” featured in most Spider-Man games prior to 2004. I hate to break it to anyone who thinks this is a genuine complaint, but attempting “realistic” swinging in this kind of game would almost certainly be a nightmare. None of the maps in the game would accommodate it and dumping him into them with that kind of system would remove Spider-Man’s main highlight – the easy and efficient traversal. In this game, the webswinging has been acceptably compromised.

That said, realism does seep into this Spider-Man too much anyway. Put simply, this Spider-Man lacks memorable poses and it sucks. In my mind, Spider-Man’s default mannerisms should aim to look creepy or stylish. Spider-Man creator Steve Ditko often put Spider-Man into strange, almost frail poses while later artists like Todd McFarlane would use bombastic and over-the-top poses; both these approaches sold the surreal-ness of the character. Outside of some select combat animations, Spider-Man in Marvel’s Avengers doesn’t come across as surreal. He comes across like some guy in a cosplay suit that looks mildly uncomfortable wearing it. It just feels off.

Speaking off feeling off, I should mention that the idea of Spider-Man joining the Avengers is kind of an “off” idea in and of itself.

For the majority of his existence, the various creative forces behind Spider-Man characterized him as an eternal loner. Sure, he regularly guest-starred in other comics and starred in team-up books with new partners every issue, but Spider-Man never actually joined teams. He made superhero friends, but actual alliances were always fleeting. At the end of the adventure, any chance of Spider-Man joining a team was typically outright rejected, either by that team or Spider-Man himself.

That loner aspect of Spider-Man formed a large part of his appeal. He helped out the Avengers or the Fantastic Four with bigger threats when needed, but at the end of the day he would have to go back to his normal life and fight his own battles. It kept the character grounded in his own problems and made him easier to relate to. At the end of the day, Spider-Man stories were about doing the good you can while persevering through the unglamorous problems the world throws at you, whether it was overdue rent, relationship troubles, bad press, or octopus-themed supervillains.

It wasn’t until the mid-2000s, 40 years after the character was created, that he officially became an Avenger. It was a big moment for the character, and more importantly, by that point it felt earned. During this time period, the mainline Amazing Spider-Man series was being written by J. Michael Straczynski (JMS for short), and he portrayed a noticeably matured Peter Parker over the course of his run on the title. His Spider-Man acted like someone who had truly experienced the decades of stories under his belt and had grown significantly.

JMS and John Romita Jr.’s work on Spider-Man ranks among my favorite runs of comics. It showcases a Spider-Man who has learned from his past and finally establishes his place in the world as a hero, with his family, and even with the inner workings of the universe itself.

To be clear, very little of this run actually depicts Spider-Man’s time with the Avengers, that was in the Avengers book itself, but JMS’s run established the perfect time for him to join. It brought Peter to a point where it made sense that he would now be willing to move to the same level as the “big” superheroes.

Clearly the JMS run was a big reference point for the Marvel’s Avengers team too, because the in-game comics and profile customization items borrow heavily from it. Despite this, I can’t say they translated anything that was cool or interesting about this development in the comics into their game. With how Crystal Dynamics chose to portray Peter, such a thing would have been impossible from the start.

In Marvel’s Avengers, Spider-Man appears to be a much younger and more inexperienced take on the character. He fanboys over the heroes, lacks confidence, and generally seems preoccupied with making really terrible jokes. I gotta be honest – I hate it. This versions borrows much more heavily from the recent Marvel Cinematic Universe movies than it takes from the comic books, both in the general cadence of Spider-Man’s personality and even with some nonsensical movie references like Captain America referring to Spider-Man as “Queens” even though they have no actual in-game conversations. It comes across as phony and insufferable.

Nothing Spider-Man says sounds right, in his voice or his dialogue. It seems totally bizarre to me that you could read early Spider-Man comics or JMS’s run and come away with this kind of character in your head. Interesting to note, the MCU head honcho Kevin Feige has similarly cited JMS’s run as a major inspiration for the recent Spider-Man movies, to the point of poorly adapting a major scene from the run with none of the weight or consequence it had, which is equally baffling.

Here’s the heart of the problem: Spider-Man may be a nerdy guy. Spider-Man may make lame jokes. Spider-Man may mess things up. However, Spider-Man is not some incompetent, geeky goofball. I assure you there is a distinction.

Too many writers are dead-set on portraying Spider-Man like some nervous, inept child that inherently respects authority figures and meekly avoids conflict, usually preferring to whine instead. In many portrayals, Marvel’s Avengers included, he comes across like some stuttering wimp that is very gosh-darned excited to meet the Avengers but lacks any real backbone.

The excuse, I assume, is that many of these writers believe that since their Spider-Man is a high schooler he must be a naive, starry-eyed wuss. This was not the case in Ditko’s original run of the character, it was actually the exact opposite. Young Peter started out angry and vengeful – he stood his ground against bullies but lacked the power to do it competently. Once he obtained the power, he realized that using it for petty revenge wasn’t worth it. He saw the reality of his situation and tried to rise above it.

Peter never lacked confidence, he lacked maturity. Often he was too confident, which extended his social issues to the superhero world at large. He expressed interest in joining groups like the Fantastic Four or the Avengers simply because he needed the money. He was never so star-struck that he’d blindly accept their orders or start idolizing them. I suppose you can chalk some of this up to the crowd-pleasing nature of early Marvel comics where fans constantly wanted to see the heroes fight, but Spider-Man often threw down with these superhero groups over minor disagreements just moments after trying to join their teams.

Early Spider-Man was an immature jerk. That trait added a rawness to the character that made him feel real. As Spider-Man, Peter escaped from his social woes at school only to discover that the superhero world wasn’t so different. These early stories worked in tandem with the much later ones written by JMS in showing Peter had grown up and moved past some of his hang-ups. It was, for once, an example of the longform storytelling comics are known for displaying compelling character development.

In Marvel’s Avengers, there is no conflict or growth. Spider-Man briefly talks about how he isn’t used to working with others but how nice and great it is to do so, followed by friendship montages showing him instantly fitting in with everyone. There’s nothing interesting going on here, just endless fawning from Spider-Man and unconditional acceptance from the Avengers.

Now I’m not saying they needed to portray Spider-Man exactly how they did in the comics – maybe some might chalk young Peter being a jerk up to outdated writing or something. I don’t know if that’s true, as they also had an excellent blueprint to follow with the Ultimate Spider-Man series by Brian Michael Bendis and Mark Bagley where Peter acts largely in line with his original universe counterpart.

This alternate universe reboot featured government agent Nick Fury monitoring and recruiting a high-school age Peter with the intent for him to eventually join The Ultimates, the in-universe equivalent to the Avengers. Naturally, this wasn’t a smooth relationship. Peter struggled with the idea that he had to grow up and be a tool for the superhero government. He lashed out, he rebelled, he stood up for himself and seriously considered what he wanted in life.

There was real conflict here, a different kind from what the original Peter faced, but born from the same kind of personality. Ultimate Peter often made quips but at the end of the day he was the same kind of headstrong character that persevered through endless tragedy and forces outside his control. If you ask me, this is the run the people at Crystal Dynamics (and MCU Spider-Man) should have been studying more closely than the JMS run. This more contemporary Peter also felt like a real character, instead of whatever this is supposed to be:

I never subscribed to the idea that Spider-Man used humor as a lame coping mechanism, but this Avengers Spider-Man goes all in on that interpretation. That certainly wasn’t the original intention behind his jokes – Stan Lee just defaulted to writing most of his characters’ dialogue that way because that was his personality. On that level, I think you can actually extrapolate Spider-Man’s quips to being simply him being a sarcastic New Yorker with a chip on his shoulder. He’s rude and doesn’t mind playing a little dirty. The idea that he’s constantly scared runs almost counterintuitive to his headstrong nature and makes little sense.

At the end of the day, my real issue with this version of Spider-Man joining the Avengers simply lies in the fact that they’ve created a really boring version of the character; it’s not the kind of writing I enjoy for Spider-Man here or anywhere. This isn’t just a Crystal Dynamics problem to be clear, I’m not thrilled with how Spider-Man gets written in the new movies or in a lot of comics where Peter is now an adult but regressed to act more like a child than when he was actually a child. It’s an ongoing problem with Spider-Man these days.

But whatever, he’s on the team regardless of how they did it, right? And despite everything I have previously said, the developers on Avengers faithfully adapted how Spider-Man functions in team scenarios.

In Marvel’s Avengers, Spider-Man more or less plays the role of a “support character.” Spider-Man can’t inflict big damage on enemies, so instead he relies on his ability to hinder them. Multiple tools in his arsenal allow him to tag enemies with a unique webbing status effect that binds smaller enemies and slows down the bigger ones. This makes things easier for him and the team as a whole by opening up longer opportunities to do damage or regroup. On top of that, Spider-Man can specialize into a pseudo-healer role with his summon-able spider drones that fly around and restore health to the group.

This implementation feels like appropriate adaptation of how the character tends to function on big teams – Spider-Man typically isn’t the person who fights the ultra-powerful, universe-ending threats that the Avengers tend to face head-on. Some writers imply that he could be strong enough to eventually fight at that level, but he never really does. In most “big” Marvel storylines, Spider-Man just happens to be around and doesn’t do much of anything, so I guess this is perfect casting.

The developers even went one step further in faithfully capturing this aspect of the character. Spider-Man fights admirably against the various trash-mobs of enemies that Marvel’s Avengers tends to throw at you, but against the bosses that cap off most endgame activities, he’s basically worthless. For whatever reason, reading between the lines in this Reddit reply from the developers implies it is a technical issue that they decided to call a deliberate decision, Spider-Man’s web status doesn’t affect bosses. This decision effectively cripples the character, because afflicting enemies with webbing is the only real contribution Spider-Man can make. He can’t tank much damage or dish it out effectively. He’s just kind of there. So obviously they perfectly executed the ideal version of Spider-Man in a group scenario. Job well done, guys!

Yeah, I am being facetious with that paragraph. It actually comes across like a major oversight to design the character this way, and this core design problem represents the overlying theme of Spider-Man’s implementation into Marvel’s Avengers: this character simply didn’t receive the care or thought he needed to be executed as well as he should have been.

This impression especially extends to the content Spider-Man brings to Marvel’s Avengers outside of well…himself. Unlike the other new additions to the game’s roster like the Hawkeyes or Black Panther, Spider-Man has no dedicated story missions to complete. Well, that’s not entirely true. Spider-Man has a series of tasks to finish, and going through this checklist gradually tells something resembling a story.

In between objectives like throwing around webbed enemies or smashing them with webbed wrecking balls, Spider-Man periodically needs to check in with comic book regular Liz Allan in a hub world for something similar to a story. There’s an underlying plot here about corporate conspiracy and bad guys doing bad things, but the actual events occur almost entirely off-screen and have virtually nothing to do with the missions you complete. The story’s content and execution could best be described as aggressively uninteresting.

The real draw to completing these tasks lies in unlocking Spider-Man’s “Iconic Suit.” You might think that means his regular suit, you know, the iconic one, but no. Incorrect. The “Iconic Suit” actually refers to the brand new suit the people at Crystal Dynamics designed exclusively for this game. That may be putting the cart before the horse a little, but sure, why not.

That’s right, we have reached the most important part of the review: the suit analysis and breakdown. How does the Crystal Dynamics suit fare against the pantheon of other iconic Spider-Man suits? Read below to find out, True Believers!

It’s fine. Nothing special. This suit mostly futzes around with the original design without making any dramatic departures, and from that perspective I wonder why they bothered. I don’t love the Insomniac Spider-Man suit with the giant white spider, but I can at least appreciate that they tried something odd and unexpected. In Marvel’s Avengers, I am mainly picking the Iconic Suit because I prefer the shade of red they used for it over the shade they used for the normal, actually iconic suit.

Of course, there’s a wide variety of suits to choose from in Marvel’s Avengers beyond just these two costumes. As long as you’re willing to pay up anyway…or play up to ten hours a week over the course of a few months. The game locks everything else in the wardrobe up behind two methods: (1) a marketplace requiring real money or (2) as rewards in a character progress card that asks you to completely daily and weekly missions in order to crawl through a handful of unlocks at the proportionate speed and strength of a very lethargic spider. That might sound bad, but the good news is that the selection of costumes available happens to be very underwhelming so it’s not a big deal.

I assume there must be something with the engines these AAA games are built in that pushes the developers into focusing on robotic armors and normal people clothes over anything actually cool. Don’t get me wrong, Spider armors are okay, but they rank on the lower end of interesting costumes Spider-Man has worn. They certainly aren’t the ones I want to see. The black suit should be the starting point, not totally absent. Where’s the Scarlett Spider hoodie? No sick Spider-Man Unlimited costume with the web cape? Not even the Spider-Man 2099 suit? That’s basically a Spider Armor guys!

Some day….

To make matters worse, while there’s technically dozens of costumes available, in reality there’s more like a small handful. Most “costumes” are actually recolors of the small handful of unique costumes to simulate others without much attention paid to the details that made those costumes distinct. While I understand this places less of a burden on the developers, my question would be why would anyone want these costumes? I like the Future Foundation suit in the comics, but what they have on the Avengers marketplace is not the Future Foundation suit despite that clearly being what it’s meant to resemble.

If you’re going to charge money for this stuff is it truly a big ask to put more effort into making them accurate to the source material? As is, I think the developers are being a little too transparent about these costumes being disposable cash-grabs.

I’m not even going to get into the fact that the Insomniac game offers way more distinct costumes that are far more faithful without charging a cent for them. Other than this paragraph, anyway. In fact, they can’t stop giving them away. Wait I said I wouldn’t get into it. Alright, I’m stopping now.

I get it. Marvel’s Avengers did not make the quadrillions of dollars that Square Enix was hoping for and they need to make money back somehow. But I shouldn’t be looking at this giant selection of costumes meant to make me want to pay money and think “nah, I’m good.” It’s amateur hour stuff and this should have been the bare minimum of things to get right.

The elephant in the room here is that the scope of this character has likely been limited by its nature as a console-exclusive character. Many of the flaws in Spider-Man’s portrayal and gameplay philosophy could likely be chalked up to it being determined that it simply isn’t worth it to put a lot of resources into content exclusive to one platform.

They may have been in a bit of a hurry when making Spider-Man’s cutscenes.

Honestly, though, I completely disagree with that assessment if that really was their thought process. It seems downright foolish to me.

Despite the exclusivity, Spider-Man is by far the most popular character that will ever be added to this game. The movies skyrocketed the overall Marvel brand and elevated the Avengers into the mainstream, but Spider-Man remains Marvel’s biggest source of revenue. No one else they add to Avengers will top Spider-Man in terms of interest. Beyond that, the Playstation userbase likely makes up the majority of players for the game – it’s the more popular console by far and a good chunk of people likely bought this version specifically on the promise of Spider-Man down the line. It makes no sense to me why they wouldn’t bring out the big guns and make sure they got this character right – if there was ever a character to get right it needed to be him.

I guess if the people making the high-level decisions for Marvel’s Avengers were good at what they do, the game as a whole would be in a better spot right now.

As is, Spider-Man provides an okay addition to the game, just a disappointing one. The designers wrapped him in many layers I find off-putting, but I still had some fun playing around with him. It’s really the details they screwed up on – I think the team’s heart was in the right place but their muddled understanding of Spider-Man on a philosophical and business level led to some poor decisions. I guess that just speaks to the basic nature of Spider-Man not really gelling with groups like the Avengers.

Oh well. See you in the next game with Spider-Man it. Excelsior!!!!!!

Balance in Love – Mon Amour Review

Love can often be more complicated than it seems, and no game developer excels more at crafting deceptive simplicity than Onion Games. Mon Amour’s marketing describes it as a “one-button, insta-death kissing-action” game, and you can’t describe it much more succinctly than that, so instead I’ll take the opposite approach and talk about it in grotesque detail. Mon Amour purports to be all about love and kissing, but both in premise and mechanics, it has more going on than love at first sight might suggest.

Onion Games games (which from hereon shall be referred to simply as “Onion games”) typically extol the virtues of love and harmony. There’s a charming kind of purity to their narratives that makes their games easy to connect with, even when they broach darker subjects. Mon Amour is no exception. It may actually be the extreme.

You play as Baron Soisoir, who just before marrying his betrothed princess, gets attacked by witches who kidnap not just his fiancé, but the entire royal procession of maidens. The Baron immediately launches into the sky to save each and every one of the kidnapped maidens by… kissing them. From there, each person saved forms a line behind the Baron until he can safely lead them back to his castle. All of this is accomplished on the player’s end by strategically holding down a single button, allowing you to balance the Baron’s flight path in order to navigate him safely to his destination and spread his brand of love across the kingdom.

However, there’s something decidedly less pure about this strange old man’s expression of love than one might expect from other Onion games. Yeah, Chulip is about kissing strangers too, but that’s kinda where it ends for the most part, you know? Any ambiguity about this guy’s intentions disappears whenever you watch some of the game over cutscenes and see how the Baron spends his free time with the ladies he’s saved. We even get the captive Princess’s disappointed reactions! Wasn’t this guy supposed to be getting married? I’m just saying this all seems a little off for a game that’s supposed to be about lo-

Oh, well I guess if you put things that way, it’s fine. I’m used to some layer of understated reality to the work of Onion Games, but Mon Amour throws nuance to the wayside in pursuit of its passions. Is it a little delusional? Maybe.

The primary obstacle of Mon Amour at least seems to hint at some disconnect with reality. While failing to hold a button will simply drop the Baron to his demise, in most cases your true foe will be a cityscape that rises up from both the top and bottom of the screen. This city’s presence conflicts heavily with the supposed setting of the game, which is supposed to be a kingdom complete with medieval-style castles.

If the Baron collides with the city, he takes damage and a member of his harem gets knocked away. Avoiding the city starts easy enough, but after each maiden you kiss, it slowly encroaches more and more of the screen. Luckily, the city can also be repelled. If the Baron collects the fruits or hearts that shoot out from the maidens upon kiss impact, this fills him enough with enough love energy to deflect the city back off-screen.

I have to wonder what exactly Onion Games were trying to say with the nature of this cityscape – is the Baron a man trying to avoid reality? Or is modern society simply incompatible with this idealized being of love? The game never provides a clear answer and plays its initial premise completely straight otherwise, so it’s hard to say what’s really going on here.

Either way, the battle with the cityscape reveals that Mon Amour is actually a game about strategy. The game looks like Flappy Bird, but approaching it that way will eventually come back to bite you. Flappy Bird focuses entirely on dodging obstacles with careful input balance; that idea factors into Mon Amour, but in most levels avoiding obstacles poses no real issue. Maneuvering the Baron only truly becomes a problem a few stages in, when the city has had time to grow unchecked. That’s where the strategy comes in.

You can actually manipulate the direction that maidens spew hearts and fruit – it all depends on your approach. Depending on the angle you land your kiss, items will fly out in the corresponding direction. Strategic placement of fruits and hearts allows you to repel the encroaching city at the most opportune times. This technique also forms a major part of the scoring aspect of the game. The initial hearts spawned from a kiss provide only a meagre amount of points, but if you avoid collecting them and instead fire more hearts in the same direction, they will combine to form giant hearts with much larger payoffs.

Particularly valuable are fruits that grant you temporary invincibility, which prove to be perfect for the boss stages that appear on every ninth level. These stages add in one-time gimmicks: you might need to carefully maneuver around some walls, bunnies may be propelled in your direction, strong winds might blow you off-screen, and so-on. If you save the invincibility fruit for these occasions they’re a breeze, but if you didn’t plan ahead you’ll be in trouble.

Essentially, the hearts and fruits you spawn become the real obstacles to avoid as you wait to activate them at the best time. It’s the perfect kind of gameplay twist I’ve come to expect from Onion Games – something that turns your basic understanding of the game’s premise on its head if you want to really excel at playing it. The way you shoot your items and how willing you are to save them can greatly increase the difficulty of your flight paths on the normal stages while decreasing the difficulty of the boss stages. With this simple twist, Mon Amour emphasizes balance not only in its controls, but also in how you manage your items.

It’s not completely perfect, though. I do feel that there are genuinely unreasonable setups for the player to avoid without luck. The penultimate stage narrows in the cityscape with little room to breathe while also dropping such large objects on you that it seems impossible to maneuver unscathed without saving an invincibility fruit. It’s especially unfair if one never spawned for you to save in the first place. Other times, your planning may backfire when boss stages force you into collecting items that interact with obstacles in a way that guarantees you’ll take damage. One boss stage involves avoiding three spinning wheels that more or less put you on a set path with a single way through – one time I had no choice but to touch a giant heart, which sent the middle wheel flying directly into me while I was trying to avoid it.

Maybe I’m missing some ultra-hardcore secret strategies that make it so you can perfectly plan for every eventuality, but I think I’ll just have to settle for being approximately the 150th most qualified person to talk about this game (I’ve likely been pushed to a worse spot on the leaderboards by the time this gets published, but I’m not gonna intentionally sabotage my own credibility!). Even if it’s not truly the case, the game feels balanced towards luck in a way that makes me uninterested in trying too hard for a perfect run.

Regardless, Mon Amour remains fun to play for the sake of it. A typical playthrough lasts about ten minutes, making it perfect for casual replays. The game also pulls boss stages from a grab bag of potential candidates, so you’re unlikely get the exact same playthrough twice. Randomized boss maidens actually provide a major replay incentive outside of scoring – the Baron must save every maiden to get the true ending. If you want the Baron to be truly happy, and who wouldn’t, extra replays are a must.

Mon Amour, like all Onion games, revels in the unconventional. It provides an interesting take on a type of game that frankly most other developers wouldn’t find to be worth examining. Mon Amour asks the player, like the developers, to look at a little more closely at the straightforward to find something that contains all the charm and fun I’ve come to expect from Onion Games. Although admittedly, in this case maybe they don’t want you to look too closely. I certainly question the Baron’s methods, but he is undoubtedly good at what he does.

Existential Dread – Reflections on Metroid Dread

I was a little concerned knowing that Metroid Dread was on the horizon. Even before it was officially revealed, rumors of the game’s existence had lingered in the ether. The prospect of a brand new Metroid was exciting, but also meant that an important question would soon be answered. One might say I was Metroid Dreading!!! that answer.

After finishing the game and having some time to reflect, however, I am mostly relieved: Metroid Dread confidently answers the question of what Metroid can be in the modern day and the answer does not disappoint. That may seem to be a strange thing to worry about, but it’s one that has repeatedly come up for me as I’ve watched the past decade of Metroid unfold.

A Dreadful History

You’ll have to indulge me for a bit here. For a game like Dread, one that has been such a long time coming, I have trouble talking about it without sorting out some baggage. Unfortunately, Metroid accumulated some significant baggage over the years.

The release of Metroid: Other M in 2010 was always going to shake the series up. Other M represented a major departure both from what the series had been about as games as well as what most of the audience had thought Metroid was about narratively and thematically. Whether Other M achieved success or failure, things were not going to be the same after its release. Ultimately, of course, things landed closer to the failure side and Nintendo shot Metroid with an ice missile as the then-president of Nintendo of America, Reggie Fils-Aime lamented that they needed to “do a lot of thinking” about why it didn’t sell as well as they hoped.

I can’t tell you exactly why it didn’t sell – Other M fits in completely with the popular trends of AAA games in that era, so it may have just boiled down to the audience for that kind of thing not being on Wii. The debate on the game’s quality also doesn’t really matter at this point. Plenty of long-running series have bad games, few truly get destroyed for it. No matter what angle you view it from, whether it was the sales, quality or something else entirely, Other M simply wasn’t what the series needed. Other M’s legacy has long outlived the Wii, and these days I think the people at Nintendo have realized that regardless of whether or not it objectively affected the game’s sales, Other M created a rift with the fans.

Reggie attempted to downplay it in his comments about Other M, but this was not an enviable position for Metroid to be in. The rift had nothing to do with a simple bad decision or easily rectified problem. The real issue, and the reason I believe people felt so strongly about it back then and continue to do so now, is that Other M reveals some uncomfortable truths about Metroid. These truths retroactively detract from the entire rest of the series in ways that are hard to ignore. Other M did not depict Samus’s character wrong, it showed what Samus’s character was always meant to be. Other M fleshed out aspects of prior games that may have been better left unsaid and turned memorable moments into embarrassing ones. Fans were forced to confront the potential truth that the cool and calculated Samus Aran and creepy, atmospheric worlds of Metroid may have been the result of careful edits owed to technical limitations of the past.

Other M was apparently what a fully realized Metroid looks like straight from its most key creator, Yoshio Sakamoto, who directed, produced, and wrote the story for the game. Worse, the game didn’t even feel like playing Metroid, but rather a bizarre and overly simplistic action game that treats past game locations and enemies like theme park attractions. Other M fundamentally failed to connect with a large portion of Metroid fans and that disconnect was predicated on the ambiguous and seemingly unintentional nature of the prior games. How do you fix something like that?

The answer, of course, involves compromise. It’s important to note that Sakamoto has remained with the series and its newest push back to prominence, serving as a producer for both 2017’s Metroid: Samus Returns and Dread. I don’t believe that Sakamoto for a single second has ever given up on his vision for Samus and Metroid. However, I do believe that he and the people at Nintendo have realized the need to reconcile his vision with that of the Metroid people thought they knew. The result: something that takes steps back from Other M while incorporating the elements of it that can reasonably be fit in.

On a gameplay level, the idea of turning Metroid into a more action-heavy game predates Other M. Metroid Fusion can be considered a trial run for Other M in many ways, but the most important aspects are the more straightforward levels and larger emphasis on action sequences. The SA-X chase sequences forced the player into do-or-die moments where execution was key, while the boss battles demanded pattern recognition and mastery. Boss fights in most Metroid games prior tended to be “messy.” You could certainly maneuver around and dodge the boss’s attacks, but less experienced players could also find success in attrition. Players could take a lot of hits but still dish out enough damage to come out on top without truly mastering a boss fight. In a way this brought the older Metroids’ true strength to the forefront: exploring the world and finding powerups was more important than your ability to fight. In Fusion, regardless of your upgrades, boss fights posed a greater challenge and learning patterns felt mandatory. Fusion brought the action to the forefront rather than the exploration, and from there, Other M took that approach to its extreme.

Samus Returns ushered in this latest era of Metroid by providing an experience that attempts to reimagine an older and more exploration heavy title with sensibilities from Fusion and Other M. Combat once again takes the forefront. Other M’s counter dodge mechanic lives on in spirit through the game’s melee counter, which dramatically affects the flow of fights with both regular enemies and bosses. Samus Returns also litters Other M’s excessively flashy cinematic flourishes and fancy attack sequences into most encounters. Metroid II already featured a smaller scale map and focus on boss fights, so it was a logical game to attempt this mixture. It also makes sense why Mercury Steam was chosen as the primary developer – their take on 2D Castlevania with 2013’s Mirror of Fate similarly pushed combat and flashy cinematics over exploration-heavy design.

To me, the results were mixed. Samus Returns’s heart was in the right place, but the execution was lacking. The counter mechanic slowed the game down a little too much, while the world design was competent but unexciting. It only felt like Metroid to a bare minimum extent. Most importantly, it didn’t feel particularly special. Rather than wondering about how Metroid could recover from a fundamental disconnect, Samus Returns made me worry about Metroid from a whole different angle.

When Metroid Fusion released in 2002, it was still at a time where Metroid and games like it were fairly rare. In the ensuing decades, the “Metroid” genre exploded with titles inspired by the original run of games. Simply being like Metroid isn’t special anymore, and it hasn’t been for a long time. Samus Returns will primarily be remembered for carrying the Metroid branding. Without it, it would probably be recognized as a decent game in a sea of decent games that happen to be like Metroid.

So the question arises: what can Metroid be in the modern day? It can’t be what it was pre-Other M. That opportunity passed a long time ago. But ideally, Metroid also shouldn’t linger as a shell of its former self that lives off brand name alone. The next game would have to truly dig deep and figure out what Metroid should be about, and it would have to portray it confidently. It couldn’t just be about compromise anymore – it had to be something interesting and different while undeniably Metroid. A difficult task, to be sure.

Overcoming Dread

Metroid Dread tackles this existential dilemma from virtually every angle. From its mechanical iterations, gameplay scenarios, and even its narrative, Dread uncovers and redefines what Metroid needs to be. Dread culminates the success and failures of its predecessors while opening the door for a truly new beginning.

Like Samus Returns, Dread leans into an action-exploration hybrid of design, but this time in a refined enough manner where the combat mechanics no longer feel intrusive. Notably, the counter no longer stops Samus in her tracks. Instead, it weaves directly into her movement, allowing for speedy enemy kills and continuous momentum. The changes here may amount to minor tweaks, but they make a world of difference and encapsulate what was clearly a major priority for Dread: slick and continuous movement.

Movement in Metroid has historically been a contentious issue. Personally, I find positives in the more weighty feel of Super Metroid and the more streamlined variants of the Gameboy Advance titles. Both approaches are competently designed for the games they are in, they simply provided different feels to the experiences. Making a weighty and slower game like Super Metroid in this day and age would be a tremendous gamble though. For better or worse, most players today have been conditioned by standardized control schemes and mechanics to expect game control to be “objectively better,” or I suppose to rephrase more usefully, as intuitive and efficient as possible.

If Dread must go that route, then logically the developers should push the movement as far as they can. The addition of the slide ability displays this intent most clearly. Going through tiny gaps could be described as a Metroid staple. Usually, however, you’re changing Samus into a tiny ball to do it. While not an overly slow or laborious process, it did halt things slightly. With the slide, Samus doesn’t need to hesitate – she can just slip right through. It doesn’t make the morph ball obsolete either; it works in tandem with the morph ball to make the transformation instantaneous if her slide distance isn’t enough to clear the gap.

When it comes to ease of movement and speedy gameplay, Dread stands at the top of not just the series, but the genre. I certainly can’t think of anything that feels exactly like the game on this front. Exploring the map feels like a breeze, and by the time I was doing the endgame item clean-up I was struck by how fun it was to just play the game. The focus on movement undeniably pays off by making the game consistently engaging while also setting it apart from other games in the genre.

It helps that Dread literally feels different to play, because my number one hope for the game was that it would feel different from other Metroids in general. Basically, I was hoping it would not reuse too much. Even dramatic departures like Other M and the Prime games borrowed a lot of enemies and powers from the original games, so this time I wanted something genuinely new.

Dread does not fully meet my expectations on that front, but it does introduce enough new things to be satisfying while mostly justifying what it pulls from the past. Dread sets out to wrap up threads from Fusion that have lingered for nearly twenty years, so I suppose if any game was going to have one foot stuck in the past, it should be this one.

The mixture of old and new flows well with one of the major themes of Dread in any case, which could best be described as rediscovering oneself. I suppose you could stretch most Metroid games into fitting with this theme, but for Dread it feels particularly poignant. Following an encounter with a mysterious Chozo warrior on Planet ZDR, Samus suffers a bout of “physical amnesia” due to the unknown circumstances of the battle’s conclusion. In other words, she loses all of her powers for the millionth time, but at least in this game it serves a thematic purpose rather than simply a gameplay contrivance. Collecting familiar power-ups suits Dread just fine, because it’s hard to shake the feeling that this time something is off about the whole arrangement.

There’s an artificial, almost sterile nature to ZDR that complements this feeling well. While I wouldn’t say any particular zone of ZDR stands out as overly memorable, each area, even the ones containing more natural elements, are filled with signs of outside tampering. Chozo used to inhabit this planet, and it’s clear that they conquered and studied virtually everything on it. Now that they’re gone, Samus must explore what remains. ZDR almost feels like one giant abandoned laboratory, and with knowledge that at least one Chozo remains, there’s an unspoken dread that something sinister lurks behind the artificial nature of the environments.

Of course, the most direct source of dread are the EMMIs. At first glance, the EMMI sections bare resemblance to the SA-X chases of Fusion, but this concept has been greatly expanded upon. Unlike the fairly straightforward SA-X encounters, the EMMI encounters contain a degree of open-endedness. While you’re generally aiming for a specific location, the EMMI zones often provide multiple branches to get there. These paths aren’t necessarily for replayability, but rather to provide escape options. The EMMI robots patrol in set routes, emitting detection zones that allow them to pick up when Samus is nearby. Once detected, the game demands moment-to-moment decision making: should you rush to the exit or find some place to hide? Samus’s new Phantom Cloak ability pairs excellently with these sections. In a game that normally emphasizes constantly moving forward, Samus can use the Phantom Cloak to hide and regroup or to simply trade movement speed for safe traversal.

The EMMI zones convey Dread’s sense of foreboding the best of any single element of the game. You know exactly what you’re getting into every time you see an EMMI door, and you know you have little choice but to go through it anyway to proceed. The fast-paced avoidance of EMMIs mixed with the puzzle-like nature of when it comes time to turn the tables results in a satisfyingly fresh take on overcoming the odds.

Even with its new ideas, I wish Dread pushed a little harder to escape familiar standbys. It’s understandable why it brings so much back, Samus’s abilities in particular are iconic to a degree that even most Metroid-inspired games translate them to their own games in some form. I certainly don’t envy the developers of Dread having to decide what players would expect to be in a Metroid game versus what might just be mindless fanservice. The closest Dread approaches to the latter is the probably the Kraid fight. It’s not clear why he’s there or why he doesn’t just melt in the lava he’s standing in. I don’t know if I needed to see him again, and even Samus seemed indifferent about the reunion. Thankfully, other pulls like the return of the X parasites are more well-executed and interesting.

What I find to be the biggest shortcoming of Dread might be a controversial one. Dread has recently been targeted as yet another exhibit in the dreaded difficulty debate. Is it too hard? Should there have been an easy mode? Do I even like video games? My assessment: I don’t think Dread poses a particularly formidable challenge relative to many other popular side scrolling action games. At its worst, it might be slightly tougher than the hardest parts of Fusion. Does Dread need to be easier or have an easy mode? If we’re being honest, the developers have already made things as easy as possible.

I suppose it depends on how one defines difficulty; does the simple fact that you might die a few times before winning mean that the game is hard? Rather than describing that as difficult, I’d say it’s the point. People learn best from mistakes, and that kind of pattern adaptation forms the core of most action games. In my view, truly difficult games are the ones that are hard to execute on even when you know what you’re supposed to do. I would not describe Dread as one of those games. Most bosses heavily telegraph their attacks and are fairly straightforward when you understand what you need to do. The problem people are having, I think, is that the bosses hit hard enough where you can only make a handful of mistakes on each attempt.

As I described earlier, Fusion started this trend of upping boss difficulty and demanding pattern mastery. This approach strayed from the prior entries, but it made sense to include in a Metroid that wanted to focus more on the action. It makes even more sense now in Dread, where Samus has never been easier to control or more equipped to fight back. In Fusion, however, when you lost you got sent back to the last time you saved. Dread instantly teleports you back to seconds before you fought the boss. Convenient? Sure. But should a game called Metroid Dread be prioritizing convenience?

I understand why they did it this way, it would frustrate players to have to continually walk back to a boss only to die in three hits, but that might have been a sign that this boss approach should be rethought instead. The way the checkpoint system works now turns each encounter into a simple matter of slamming your head into a wall a few times until you win. How much dread can one truly feel knowing that some unseen force is saving your game for you to ensure you don’t lose too much time? When you can try every boss and EMMI encounter over and over nearly instantly? I didn’t care for this decision in Samus Returns and I care even less for it in Dread. Rather than making the bosses hit hard enough that most players will need multiple attempts to learn the fight, I’d prefer they rebalance the game by adjusting the bosses to do less damage but still punish you for dying by keeping the saving decisions in the player’s hands. That might also require some rearranging of the save rooms, but I think it would make for a better game.

This may seem minor and be swept away as simply being inconvenient, but inconvenience serves a genuine purpose when it comes to what a developer wants to convey. Why do you think FromSoftware games make you walk back to the boss instead of just letting you try it over and over? They want you to truly feel it when you lose. If Metroid Dread wants you to feel dread, this entire set up feels antithetical to that goal. If the developers want to make Metroid into a more hardcore action game that’s fine, but the way it’s been implemented feels so half-hearted that it disconnects the boss fights from the rest of the game. If the developers can’t fully commit, I feel they should reconsider the attrition approach of prior games.

That’s not to say that the bosses are poorly made. In terms of providing a challenge and being fun to fight, I might even say Dread’s fights are the best in the series. These encounters have also been supercharged in line with Other M – most fights feature flashy cinematics and brutal execution-style finishes. A few fights even have QTEs! Personally, I never needed nor imagined Samus flipping around like Ryu Hayabusa or killing enemies like Kratos, but it admittedly works well enough and certainly suits the acrobat finesse of controlling Samus in the normal game. The cinematic stylings especially pay dividends during the final encounter and aftermath of Samus discovering what she has become. If I had any complaint about the bosses themselves, it’s that a few get reused far too often near the end in a way that feels like unnatural padding.

Overall, however, I would say that Dread is a job well done. For Samus, for the team at Mercury Steam, and for Sakamoto himself. Dread polishes up the action-focused direction Metroid has been heading in while not skimping on the details that made for previous great Metroids – interesting, unsettling atmospheres and areas full of secrets that are fun to explore. Dread bases its identity around its namesake, and it works despite attempts to undercut itself. The story concludes the ongoing narrative of Metroid in a satisfying way while opening doors for plenty of new adventures to come. All in all, a great package.

See You Next Mission

Metroid was one of my favorite video game series growing up. I’m not sure I feel that way now – damage has certainly been done in the intervening decade, but I have also simply played a lot more games that have made a greater impression on me at this point. I do still care about it though; that’s why I was concerned about a new game in the first place. Even if I don’t 100% agree with everything they do with Metroid, I can at least appreciate when they release high-quality games that capture important aspects of what I do like about the series.

For the first time in a while, the future of Metroid feels truly bright. Dread appears to be on-track to be a massive hit relative to the rest of the series. Metroid Prime 4 has had some issues, but the people at Nintendo are taking it seriously enough to reboot the project and ensure they put out something of high quality. Metroid is in good hands right now. I can’t say if the next mainline Metroid will necessarily be in Mercury Steam’s hands, that studio has some pretty big issues that might strain their relationship with Nintendo, but I believe that at least Sakamoto and the higher-ups of the Galactic Nintendo Federation now know what they want to do with the series. A new Metroid game will happen, and this time I don’t feel like I need to dread or be cautiously optimistic about it; I am just looking forward to it.

Scraps On A Pedestal – Analyzing the Weight of Creators’ Words in Game Discussion

One of the biggest challenges I encounter in regards to writing about games is determining the weight that should be given to the words of game developers and how to incorporate them into what I write. I certainly believe it’s important to research their thoughts – after all video games are like any other art form and can express ideas and concepts that reflect the people who worked on them. Being aware of these thoughts can guide your own understanding and allow you to appreciate them in a different light. Interviews and quotes also add an objective element to an analysis in the sense that it’s hard to get more official of a view of a work than from the words of someone who participated in its creation. However, problems can spawn from relying on words alone, and so the question arises: how exactly should they be used?

Recently Masahiro Sakurai, the director of the Super Smash Bros. series, appeared on Harada’s Bar, a YouTube show hosted by Katsuhiro Harada, the current general manager of Bandai Namco and an instrumental figure in the Tekken series. During their conversation, Harada brought up that things they say and do as prominent people in the game industry tend to be overanalyzed and given undue importance by the world at large. What they say becomes immortalized as memes or held up as unshakeable fact despite the fact that they may have been said casually or without much thought. It’s something I’ve often thought about while writing articles lately – for some games there is a ton of information present both inside and outside the game so I feel confident in the perspective I’m gaining, but for others there’s very little information so any attempt at adding historical context or perspective from the creators is essentially like putting scraps on a pedestal.

It seems like no matter how much or how little information there is though, it all runs the risk of taking on a life of its own. Sakurai may in fact be one of the most heavily scrutinized individuals in the game industry today. He owes that scrutiny largely to the Super Smash Bros. series, whose marketing cycle has resulted in a small speculation industry on places like YouTube. Is Sakurai’s shirt a hint that the next Smash Ultimate character will also have a shirt? Ridiculous stuff like that pops up all of the time, and it’s gotten to the point that during the program Sakurai states that he has avoided associating much with other video games in public appearances to hinder the speculation machine.

But for Sakurai, things are also a little weirder than people going crazy for a video game they’re excited about – it extends to comments he’s made about his own life. Over the years, Sakurai has made passing mention of times he’s had to work hard or encountered health issues, but these off-hand comments from his weekly column in Famitsu and other places have been picked up by various outlets and morphed into how he gets characterized as a human being. It’s very common now to see any kind of article about Smash Bros. or Sakurai himself littered by bizarre comments about how he “really needs to take a break” or “he should finish Smash Bros. so he can rest.” I don’t claim to know Sakurai personally or how he feels, but to me it’s like complaining to a friend that you had a bad day at work and broke your leg, and now whenever your friend sees you all they talk about is how you must hate your terrible job and should quit before you hurt your leg again…for like a decade.

My guess is that Sakurai, like most people with a job, is a human being who has ups and downs with his health and how he feels about what he is doing every day. Maybe he hates what he does and Nintendo works him to the bone, but I feel it’s more likely that he overall enjoys his job and simply expresses his occasional negative experiences that are then selectively reported to a global audience. People often overlook this fact, but Sakurai works for Nintendo on Smash Bros. as a freelancer – he is not beholden to them or to continuing his work on Smash Bros. if he doesn’t want to. Sakurai could certainly get work elsewhere if he so chose, or simply retire if he has no interest in making games. At the end of the day, it’s really no one’s business but his own.

I don’t know for sure if comments like that actually bother the man. I view them as a warning sign regardless. It makes sense if you only have a little bit of knowledge of someone that it would shape how you see them, I just don’t think anyone realistically would like for that to happen to them at the scale it does for Sakurai. We should recognize that words from a creator may have limited value and not represent the entire truth of a situation. Relying too hard on any one anecdote runs the risk of turning relevant information into misinformation.

Another risk of misinformation lies in the language barrier between people like Sakurai and the rest of the world. I can only read and speak English, which poses a huge problem when it comes to discussing and understanding the video game industry. The Japanese market has been astronomically important to developing the video game world from a hardware and software perspective. Since I’m not Japanese, I do not have access to the most direct sources of information about that market or the ability to understand it. Instead, I find myself at the mercy of those who graciously provide and translate that information to others. The reality is that even for American game developers and companies, it can be difficult to comprehensively research a game. For a westerner seeking information about a Japanese game, you’re dealing with a niche within a niche, where only what someone else finds interesting gets a spotlight.

That’s also just talking access to research material – the nature of translation itself adds yet another layer of issues. How much can a translation truly be trusted? Sometimes fan translations convey things faithfully, but others may contain mistakes or interpret things in a biased manner. Whenever I read interviews with Japanese developers from western publications, especially really old ones, I always wonder if the words they printed are an accurate representation of what the developer was trying to say. Even the Harada’s Bar program suffers from this issue and needs to occasionally provide corrections to their English subtitles.

Even under the best circumstances, sometimes a developer simply won’t paint an accurate picture of what they are working on. Whenever a game developer talks to a game journalist for an interview, the often unstated context is that they are virtually always doing so under the guise of selling their game. Ideally that means the developers just present their project in the best possible light, but in reality that’s not always how things end up. Historically, Peter Molyneux reigns as the all-time champion for misrepresenting his games, often claiming ambitious ideas and mechanics would appear in them with little regard for how they could be implemented into the actual product or if the team was even actively working on those ideas at all. No Man’s Sky serves as a more contemporary case where even shortly before launch director Sean Murray described features and ideas for the game that would neither be in the initial release nor see the light of day until years later. These are extreme examples, but misleading words are uttered to some extent in interviews all of the time.

Misrepresentations probably occur more frequently for smaller aspects of a game than the content of the final product. Minor asides about game development like influences, descriptions of thought process on why certain decisions were made, or the roles of certain people color people’s understandings of a game or series in a way that may not be accurate.

I often think about how people understand the role of someone like Keiji Inafune for the Mega Man series. Inafune wasn’t the “father of Mega Man” as he was popularly described by games media through the 90s and 2000s in the sense that he created the character entirely on his own, but many of those early interviews made it sound like he was the most prominent member of the team. To Inafune’s credit, I don’t see this as a misunderstanding born from malice, as he himself clarified that his mentor Akira Kitamura was the one who initially designed the character all the way back in 2007. I may have a more charitable view of the man than most though – despite not being the most instrumental team member of the original games, he absolutely took on a father-like role for the series that likely kept it chugging along through its highest highs and lowest lows. It’s telling to me that Capcom hasn’t treated the character the same way since Inafune’s departure, even if they are attempting to build the brand up again. When it comes to analyzing the initial games, however, Inafune’s situation provides a good reminder that it’s important to think beyond just what the popular understandings of a game’s creation process may be.

So if there are so many different potential pitfalls when it comes to using the words of creators, how should they be used? How much weight should be given to random comments and should they be taken as truths at all? I dunno.

Ok, actually, I have some thoughts on this subject.

I do think creators’ words should be used if possible, at least depending on what you want to talk about. Right now, my focus has been on capturing a game in a holistic way, as in what I believe the game is like and what it’s trying to convey. I’ve often seen this approach in literary essays or even just forewords for books – the authors of these writings tend to characterize the book through a mini biography of what the actual book’s author was going through at the time. There are other approaches that don’t necessarily need the original author, “death of the author” approaches to works are also very common, but those kinds of writings generally say more about the person writing them than anything about the work. As for what I want to convey, I prefer writing things with a mix of both aspects of those styles.

That being the case, my current approach to game writing leans into the subjective nature of both my writing and what developers themselves say. I use the developers’ words more as a guide for my own interpretation rather than attempting to argue a definitive truth about a game. For example, last year I wrote a review of Deadly Premonition 2 for a website that like most other video game websites, focuses on what I’d call a “consumer review” style. “Consumer reviews” explain what an individual reviewer liked and disliked about a game, ending with a final recommendation and usually a score. That’s what I did, however I also heavily relied on my own interpretation of who the game’s director, Hidetaka Suehiro, is as a person. I formed this interpretation based on playing his prior body of work, reading the things he has said, and even having my own brief interactions with him over social media. You could call it the starting point for the articles I’m writing now – I dropped the “consumer review” angle and emphasize that there are other ways to communicate about and understand games.

Communication in any form involves expressing thoughts and feelings. Unless you’re the person doing the communicating, however, it’s unlikely that you will be able grasp everything the person wants communicate. Earlier I brought up that a language barrier makes it more difficult for people to understand each other, but the truth is that even if people are speaking the same language, misunderstandings happen often. Frankly, it’s hard enough for anyone to 100% understand themselves, so how can we expect someone else to do a better job?

Between the developer’s words, my interpretation of a game guided by those words, and the readers interpreting what I’ve written, there’s multiple layers of understanding and potential misunderstanding going on. No one’s understanding of any individual layer is going to be perfect and both the people being interpreted and those doing the interpreting are always evolving their understanding of themselves and others. For that reason, I don’t claim to be an ultimate authority on anything and I’m always open to changing my analysis approach. Ideally, people should always keep in mind the imperfect nature of communication, both as readers and writers.

I believe that should be the approach people have in general when it comes to using the words of others, whether it’s for a written article or simply writing a tweet. It’s fine to use words as starting points for your own understandings while also keeping in mind that it should be backed up by other things. Some off-hand comment said a decade ago, however, should not be immortalized as some constant truth to be spouted repeatedly whenever the person who said it shows up in a news cycle. It’s important to understand that words alone won’t tell you the full story, and fiercely clinging onto them isn’t healthy for discussing video games or anything else for that matter.