Guacamelee & Multipurpose Attacks

I’ve always been interested in gameplay mechanics that are designed to have multiple uses. Like how the hookshot in the Zelda series can be used to access out of reach areas and as a weapon to stun enemies, the social links in Persona 5 furthering the story and character development of your teammates while giving them special abilities in and outside of battle, and bullets in Metro 2033 working both as ammunition and currency. Multiple ways of affecting gameplay add another layer of complexity to a mechanic, make it more versatile and expressive. One of the best examples I can think of this type of multipurpose mechanic is how special attacks are handled in Guacamelee.

Guacamelee is a Metroidvania with combat ripped out of a 2D brawler. You’ll be exploring a large, spaghetti-like map looking for upgrades and abilities to access new areas, all while beating enemies to pulp with punches, kicks, grapples, and throws, each hit crunching like you stepped on a box of breakfast cereal. A handful of the abilities you acquire, like the Rooster Uppercut and the Dashing Derpderp, are just new harder-hitting attacks that can be used to pummel enemies, streaked with an associated color and moving in the character in a certain direction. At first, these attacks just seem like combo extenders. Since some of your attacks knock your enemies flying through the air like dandelion fluff, it is helpful to have a follow up move that can close the distance and dish out some damage. The combo system is underutilized, however, and the lack of an extra reward for a higher combo makes it pretty forgettable, but it is still satisfying to keep an enemy floating in the air with a string of punches and special attacks. As the game progresses, the armies of skeletons will appear not only cloaked in ponchos and sombreros, but colored shields too. 

These shields need to be broken with the attack of the corresponding color before the enemy can be damaged. The art design really shines in this implementation with the colors vibrant enough to instantly recognize which attack is required to bust open the shield, but this mechanic is still probably the weakest part of the game. The shields are fine when they are first introduced, about a third to halfway through the game. Just as the combat is starting to feel a little samey and lose impact, having an enemy per wave will spawn with a shield encourages target selection and helps the player focus. But it’s near the end of the game, cramped into a small room and many enemies, many with different colored shields, that this becomes annoying. It’s fun to throw your enemies around, watching them fly into each other and knock their comrades down, but a lot of satisfaction is lost if most of them have shields that haven’t been cracked and they are taking no damage from the cascade of limbs.

Combat is not the only aspect of Guacamelee’s gameplay, however, because there is also map exploration, and it’s here that the special attacks really show their worth. While running, jumping, and smacking enemies silly across the world map, the player will often find colored stone blocks impeding their progress. As in a Metroid game, special attacks are needed to break through these blocks and proceed. I typically prefer Metroidvania games where organic movement upgrades are needed to access new areas (like Hollow Knight and how the Castlevania series handle map design), but I find I don’t  mind this type of lock-key-key of design as much in Guacamelee. The game finds the middle ground between these two differing map types through its special attacks. Sure, the blocks are used in dungeons mostly to guide the player to certain areas and later to create shortcuts to checkpoints or to be revisited as the proper upgrade is acquired, but they also help inform the platforming challenges, which are probably my favorite part of the game.

There are many side paths in the world of Guacamelee to explore for extra goodies like health and stamina pieces and chests full of gold. Some are hidden through small gaps in walls but most are just side rooms with platforming challenge to conquer and collect your reward. I always go after as many of these as I can, not only because it’s good practice for when the game starts throwing similar challenges in the critical path, but because they are just very fun. Since each of the special attacks move the character slightly in a direction, they can be used to extend the length of a jump and redirect in midair. This gives the player a precise sense of control and opens up the platforming to a lot of tricky jumps. A common example is getting around walls hanging for the ceiling like stalactites, where you will have to fall past the bottom of the wall and Rooster Uppercut your where up and past it to a platform waiting on the other side. During the later part of the game, these types of platforming challenges become part of the main path. Sometimes you’ll have to cross a long room by going from platform to platform over a lake of acid or maybe it’s a vertical auto-scrolling section where you have to climb to the top of a room while being chased down by buzzsaws. So the special attacks gained throughout the game helps aid the player in both combat and exploring the world map, tying the two types of gameplay together and making them a cohesive whole, and the most interesting outcome of this is how it affects the Guacamelee’s difficulty curve.

Usually in Metroidvania titles, the end game is the easiest part because you’ve gained so many upgrades and new moves. Some moves, like the Screw Attack in the Metroid series and Gas Cloud transformation in Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, are pretty overpowered and completely blow out the difficulty curve. Guacamelee doesn’t have this issue since the special attacks are used more for utility than raw power—this leads to the game actually getting more difficult as more upgrades and special attacks are acquired. It’s so rare to find a Metroidvania game that doesn’t get noticeable easier, apart from maybe a few bosses, by the end of the game and the fact that Guacamelee does get harder (with a very steady difficulty curve and some real meaty challenges at the end to boot) makes it a very refreshing take on the genre, gives it an excellent sense of pacing, and helped to keep me engaged while games like Super Metroid would start to lose my interest.

Guacamelee is a very fun game despite all its little annoyances and a lot of that comes from how the game handles its special attacks. In combat, they are satisfying and expressive and can lead the game to feel as stylish as a side-scrolling Devil May Cry or Bayonetta at times. When exploring the world, they are versatile and help form a lot of tricky platforming challenges that are always thrilling to complete. These special attacks and how they help create a meaty difficulty curve is enough of a unique selling point to get a recommendation from me. It’s oddly similar to another game I’ve been playing lately, but more on that next time.

Top 5 Critical Miss Game of 2020

2020 is officially in the garbage can and good riddance to it. It was a rough year for reasons that should need to be stated. My mental health was a roller coaster ride of gradual raises and sudden drops, but I had had video games for relaxation and escapism. In my ongoing journey to play classic games I missed out on growing up, I played a good handful of games for Critical Miss this year. Before I repress all of 2020 from my memory, I wanted to order my favorite classic games from the series for the year. 

This year’s list was harder to make than last year’s. While I didn’t outright despise anything I played, only a few games I fell in love with and captured my mind, leading me to roll them around in my head for weeks after finishing them. Some truly classic games, like Metal Gear Solid, with its storytelling and cutscenes not seen before on consoles, and Super Metroid, with its incredible atmosphere for a 16-bit game and explorative gameplay, didn’t quite make the list. I wanted to mention them though since they are still very worth playing today. Other honorable mentions would be Starfox 64 for having differing paths to discover and Vanquish for just being a hectically fast-paced and fun game. But, without further ado, here are the top five Critical Miss games of 2020.

#5) Banjo-Kazooie

While it’s true that I had some major issues with the last couple levels of Banjo-Kazooie and they left me frustrated with the game, I cannot deny that the majority of it is still extremely strong. There is a variety and creativity displayed in the game that manages to still stay true to its core design and playstyle, something a lot of other games of the genre from the same era struggle to achieve. With a wonderful sense of charm and fun, the game is a pleasant little romp without feeling saccharine. Even though it’s not my favorite 3D platformer of its time, it is very much worth giving a play today.

#4) Devil May Cry 3: Dante’s Awakening

I was not really a fan of the original Devil May Cry when I played it earlier this year. I found it repetitive and clunky to control. Luckily, Devil May Cry 3: Dante’s Awakening managed to improve on everything from the original. With a larger world, more unique weapons and bosses, and a deliciously campy, over-the-top story shown throughout utterly ridiculous cutscenes, DMC 3 is a blast from start to finish. Controls are still not perfect, but they are much better than the first game and no longer feel like you are running through mud. There are less platforming sections in Dante’s Awakening compared to the first game, but they are still pretty terrible. The game was fun enough to convince me to try out the rest of the series and I’m excited to drive into the fifth game after I paddle through Devil May Cry 4.

#3) Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door

I’ve never played a Paper Mario game before Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door. Now I have a sinking feeling that it might be tough to go back to play other games in the series because this game is so fantastic. I love nearly everything about this game: the art style, the characters, the humor, variety in chapters. The best part by far, however, is the active battle system. Requiring the player to perform button prompts or little minigame-like challenges to power up or even land an attack is a wonderful idea. It gives them something to do in the turn based battles and is plain fun. The only reason this game is not higher on the list is because some sections are not very interested. The wrestling tournament just results in battle after battle, the search for General White is just artificial padding, and the less said about the Bowser sections the better.

#2) Spec Ops: The Line

All good art should in some way elicit an emotion from the audience and that’s exactly what Spec Ops: The Line does. After masquerading as a standard modern military shooter for the first half of the game, the curtain flies off and the player is thrown into the depths of a harrowing story of war crimes, PTSD, and the fine line between being a soldier and an outright killer. It’s a gut punch that is very effective, even when I knew the heel turn of the game prior to booting it up. While the story is unique, engaging, and sometimes hard to stomach, the gameplay is just fine. Not bad at all, it’s completely solid and well designed, but doesn’t do anything new or interesting. It’s necessary for the overall message of the gameplay, granted, but it’s the lackluster gameplay that landed Spec Ops: The Line in the number two spot.

Photo by SilenceInTheLibrary. Found at specops.fandom.com/wiki/Spec_Ops:_The_Line

#1) Silent Hill 2

Widely considered to be one of the best horror games ever made, Silent Hill 2 is a mastercraft in atmosphere, video game storytelling, and general spookiness. I was surprised by how genuinely unnerving and frightening the game was, how well it got under my skin. The most interesting thing about the Silent Hill 2 is how all its assumed flaws actually benefit the atmosphere and story, feeling debatably intentional. Things like the pretty awful voice acting, completely bizarre characters and interactions between them, and the stiff movement and clunky combat all lend an air of unworldliness and desperation to the game. It is a game with a singular focus sharp as a razor blade, with the enemies you struggle against and the locations you explore all symbolism a different aspect of James’ personality and faults. It is a perfect game for what it set out to accomplish.


I had a hard time choosing between Spec Ops: The Line and Silent Hill 2 for the number one spot. They battled in my mind for weeks, going back and forth as the one I preferred. In all honesty, if asked on a different day or while in a different mood, Spec Ops could have easily been granted my favorite Critical Miss game of the year. I guess it would be fair to say they are tied. All the games on the list are great and I had a blast playing them all, but if I had to choose two from the list to suggest anyone plays, it would easily be Spec Ops: The Line and Silent Hill 2. They gave me the strongest emotional reaction of any games I’ve played in a long time and really show the uniqueness and strengths of the types of stories only video games as an art form can tell.

Photo by AlexShepherd. Found at silenthill.fandom.com/wiki/Silent_Hill_2

Banjo-Kazooie – Critical Miss #22

Bear Pace

I’ve been a big consumer of YouTube content since rediscovering my love of video games around 2014. If there is one game I’ve heard more praise for than any other, it would have to be Rareware’s 1998 3D platformer for the Nintendo 64: Banjo-Kazooie. The Completionist, Antdude, videogamedunkey, they all laud the game as one of the best ever, a perfect, or at least near perfect, game. I’ve always liked 3D platformers, but haven’t played many from the N64 era, arguably the golden age of the genre, besides Super Mario 64. So I was excited to check out Banjo-Kazooie once I finally bought a used Xbox 360. 

Upon booting up the game, the player is met with a Saturday morning cartoon’s worth of color and bouncy music. Everything, from the characters to the locations to the collectibles, are bright and cheerful, full of personality and charm. The music masterfully arranged, being catchy and bubbling and adapting to changes in the game like going under water or entering a differently theme area. There is a simple joy of picking up a collectible in 3D platformer and hearing a jingle play and Banjo-Kazooie is the best at this. Everything you pick up, be it eggs, feathers, or Jiggies, everything has a unique little fanfare that plays. Where the presentation fails is with repetitive noises. The stop-and-start gibberish all characters speak in is the usual suspect for complaints, but I didn’t find it too bad. It’s not great, but it’s charming enough to look past. The thing that started to irritate me most was Kazooie’s panting while doing the Talon Trot move. Seeing how this is the quickest way to travel, you will be using it a lot and hearing Kazooie’s “mer-her, mer-her” constantly.

The Talon Trot is the best mode of transportation because Banjo-Kazooie is a slower paced game than other 3D platformers. I was surprised how heavy the characters felt when starting the game. Banjo’s default walking speed feels like he has lead covering his paws, the swimming controls are slow and very slippery, and most utility moves have a delay to activate them. Attacks like the Rat-at-tat Rap and Forward Roll require the characters to jump or run (respectively) first before they can be used and even more situational moves like the Shock Spring Jump require the player to find a special pad in the world and hold down a button before it activates. It creates a game that feels more restrictive than the likes of Super Mario 64, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing, just a different gameplay style. If freeform 3D Mario games are like jazz (as I have said in my Mario Odyssey post), then Banjo-Kazooie is a damn great pop song.

By far the best aspect of the game are the levels. There are nine levels (not including the opening Spiral Mountain and the hub world, Gruntilda’s Lair) and they are all vastly different. While most fall into the usual platforming template of forest level, desert level, water level etc., they are filled with uniquenesses that help them stand out. Gobi’s Desert if filled with pyramids and other tombs to explore, Freezeezy Peak is a Christmas wonderland decorated with lights, presents, and giant snowman as the center focus, and Bubblegloop Swamp is a southern bayou infested with poisonous water and alligators. Even the two levels that are strikingly similar, Clanker’s Cavern and Rusty Bucket Bay, feel completely different. 

Along with varied levels, the collecting Jiggies is also very varied. There are the standard platforming challenges and a few boss fights, but you will also have to complete mini games, compete in races, collect Jingos, and even get flushed down a toilet at one point. Seeing as Banjo and Kazooie are a bipedal bear and a bird chilling in a backpack, all but sewn together like the pigeon-rat from The Simpsons, the game does a great job of exploring all the abilities those creatures would have when collecting Jiggies. However, some require the duo to change forms with the help of the shaman, Mumbo Jumbo, and I was nervous about this. I was expecting them to all have different play styles like the different characters in Spyro 3, an aspect about the game I did not enjoy at all, but the different forms in Banjo-Kazooie are not bad at all. This is mostly due to the fact that their controls are simplified to just being able to run and jump. The forms are really only needed to gain access to areas and collectibles Banjo and Kazooie cannot get themselves. For example, the walrus form in Freezeezy Peak can swim in the freezing water without taking damage and is welcomed into another walrus’s home, something they refuse to do for Banjo because they are afraid of him, being a bear and all. There is a great difficulty curve in Banjo-Kazooie with levels and the challenges becoming bigger and more complicated as the game progresses. However, a difficulty curve is not the same as pacing, and that is what the game struggles with the most, especially near the end.

I went into Banjo-Kazooie with the intention of 100% complete it, but by the end of the game, I had decided not to bother. Early in the game, the levels were great. Large and explorative, but confined enough to not drag on like the last few levels did. Longer levels are not necessarily a bad thing, but levels like Rusty Bucket Bay and Click Clock Wood feel artificially lengthen to the point of feeling bloated. This is mainly due to the harsh punishments for making slight platforming mistakes. Most platformers will either have something to catch a player if they fall during a long platforming challenge, cutting down on the amount they have to redo, or they make the time between failing and restarting short, ensuring players stay determined more so than frustrated. Banjo-Kazooie has a problem with this and the game suffers because of it. If you miss a jump while climbing the very tall central tree in Click Clock Woods, you are falling to the very bottom. 

Rusty Bucket Bay is the worst offender of this seeming oversight. There is a ship in the center of the level with a Jiggy hiding behind its whirling propellers. To shut off the propellers, you must first enter the ship’s bridge to hit a button to slow down the fans in the engine room, then exit the bridge and go to the engine room. There you have to complete some of the toughest platforming in the game including walking across narrow paths, climbing spinning gears, and jumping through spinning fan blades that periodically slow down and speed up. It’s actually really tough, but the real kick in the shin is that it all takes place over a bottomless pit. If you make one mistake and fall into the pit, you restart at the beginning of the level and have to repeat everything again. You don’t restart at the beginning of the engine room section, which would be fair with such a harsh punishment. You restart at the level entrance and have to repeat the steps in the bridge to slow the engine fans down first. You have to do this every single time. It takes about a minute or two to have another chance to retry the section and in a game like this, that is forever

The only other real issues I have with the game are pretty minor. The first is Grunty’s Furnace Fun, the board game Gruntilda makes you play at the end of the game. Simply put: it isn’t fun and definitely not why I play platformers. It’s unique, no doubt, but it’s sluggish and having to answer trivia questions about the game feels little self-indulgent. The second issue is Gruntilda’s Lair, the hub world of the game. I’ve heard a lot of praise for this particular hub world but I don’t understand why at all. I found it to be overly spacious and not very interesting. Rooms and areas all have unique set dressing and atmospheres, you can even collect some Jiggies in it, but I always prefer a more contained space for a hub world. Make it smaller with more interesting things to find. Larger hubs like in Banjo-Kazooie just add a commute between levels, adding on to the other pacing issues I found in the game.

Overall, though, I still enjoyed Banjo-Kazooie, even if the ending did leave a bit of a sour taste in my mouth. It’s a great game filled with varied levels, a charming art style, and fun but kind of clunky gameplay. The pacing issues and overly long final levels means I cannot say it’s a perfect game, even for what it was striving to be, but it’s pretty close to it. To go back to the pop song comparison earlier: the game is still fun and I now understand the mass appeal of it, I am not immune to its charms myself, but it’s not my preferred genre and not the first thing I would think to pop in and jam out to.

Spelunky 2: Game of the Year – 2020

I didn’t play a lot of games released this year. Partly due to a limited budget of money and time, but mostly it was disinterest in most that came out. No AAA game really caught my attention. I found Final Fantasy 7 Remake demo repetitive and tedious so I never picked up the full release and I refuse to support companies like Naughty Dog and Ubisoft, so that crossed out all their new games. Even the indie games I played this year didn’t excite me too much. Carrion was a fun little bite size romp and Hades was so close to being what I want for a roguelight with social mechanics, but sadly fell short. I felt I didn’t play enough games to make another top five list this year, but I wanted to talk about what is undoubtedly my favorite game of 2020: Spelunky 2.

My history with the series is weird. When I first got my PS4, one of the first games I picked up was the original Spelunky because it’s reputation was so strong. However, I found the difficulty completely impenetrable; I could hardly make it out of the caves. The difficulty in Spelunky 2 isn’t any easier (it may even be harder), but the game just feels better to play. There is less stiffness in the controls and you can toggle run to always be on so you don’t have to constantly hold down the trigger. There is one strange control aspect that returns in Spelunky 2 and that is carrying items.

In both games, carrying items is pretty clunky. To bring anything anywhere it has to be carried and only one thing can be carried at a time. This includes weapons, keys, and the pets, who will give you a health point if delivered to the level exit. This can lead to having to manage multiple items at one on levels that require multiple things to carry around, like the floor in the dwellings where you have to bring the key to the chest to unlock the Udjat eye. If you have a weapon on this floor and also want to carry the pet and the key at the same time, get ready for a juggling act of dropping and picking up items.

This clunkiness with carrying items is very obviously by design though. Since delivering pets to the exit is one of the only ways to get health, only being able to carry an item at a time forces the player to assess what is most important to grab and carry, leading to a sort of flow chart to be run down in the moment. This is because different throwable items have different attributes. Rocks only hit for one point of damage and never break while arrows hit for 2 points of damage, but break and become useless after hitting an tougher enemy like a caveman. So you are constantly going over a checklist in your head. Am I carrying an item that can be thrown as a weapon? If no, grab one. If yes, is there a better weapon or item I should be carrying. It’s these little moments of consideration, these moments of assessment that make Spelunky 2 such an engaging game to play aside from the platforming elements. 

Like most every other roguelike, Spelunky 2 is a game of learning from mistakes and internalizing what needs to be done in the future. Every different biome has different enemies and challenges to consider. Enemies attack patterns and health need to be learned. Interactions between level elements have to be assessed when scouting out a safe path forward. And, the most frustrated of all, traps that can kill you with one hit need to be spotted and avoided.

There is at least one thing in every biome that will kill you instantly no matter how much health you have at the time. Spikes, bear traps, lava, moving blocks; all of these can end your run in a second. While it is definitely frustrating to build up a great run only to have it snuffed out in the blink of an eye, the instant death traps are necessary for the balance of the game. The game would become trivial with the right combination of items and having traps to constantly look out for keeps the game engaging. You have to always be looking ahead for upcoming traps to avoid, enemies to dodge, and treasure to grab that your mind will be racing a mile a minute while playing. Once you have the base gameplay down, then you can start hunting for secrets.

There are so many hidden things to find in Spelunky 2 from secret areas and paths to take throughout the game, items to collect, and new explorers to rescue. And, if you wish to discover the secret 7th world after the “final” boss, there is something that needs to be done on nearly every level and secrets that must be revealed and, quite literally, death to be defied. It’s while going after this secret world that the limited item carrying comes into play as the game’s way of balancing itself. At a few points, items will have to be carried between levels, meaning that if you get a powerful weapon, for example the shotgun, on an early level, you will have to eventually give it up. It’s a great tool for the game to balance itself. If you are just going for a main path ending, you don’t have to worry about giving anything up, but if you want to see the secret worlds and bosses, you have to sacrifice things.

Spelunky 2 is a game of checks and balances, of risk versus reward. Everything good you can get in the game comes with some drawbacks. The shotgun has knockback that can send you flying back off ledges or into spikes. Paste can help you stick bombs to enemies, but will also attach them to walls and ceilings if not aimed properly. The jetpack offers the best mobility in the game, but can easily explode, causing massive damage. With most other roguelikes, it can be very easy to become completely overpowered and become nearly impossible to be killed once you know what you are doing. Spelunky 2 is not like this at all. With the constant threat of instant death by traps and very good items having massive drawbacks, you have a game where full attention is required throughout an entire run. Good play is necessary and mistakes are harshly punished.

This is why I love the game so much. It manages to stay engaging through every different run, perfectly balanced so it is impossible to easily win a run, and it is simply fun. Puzzling out how to get a trapped pet or ghost pot to the end of level without killing or breaking them is fun. Discovering all the secrets and items is fun. The art style itself is just cute, charming, and fun. Many people considered the first Spelunky a perfect game; so much so that there were those wondering how they could improve it for a sequel when it was announced. I cannot speak for the first game due to lack of experience, as stated before, but Spelunky 2 is about as perfectly designed as a game can get in my opinion.

The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past – Critical Miss #21

Enter the Master Sword

This Critical Miss is a bit of cheat because I have played The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past before. As a kid, I had the Gameboy Advance rerelease of the game. From what I can tell, it’s the exact same game as the 1992 Super Nintendo game, but with a little screen crunch and more washed out colors. I wanted to play it again for this post though because I never actually finished it. When I was younger, I never made it past the Ice Temple and the few times I’ve picked it up since, I never made it much further than the beginning of the Dark World. 

The story is the standard Zelda story: evil being is being evil, find three of something to get the Master Sword to defeat them, things go wrong shortly after gaining the blade, explore more dungeons to collect more items to stop the evil once and for all. It is the same story as any other Zelda game but this time the evil being is the wizard Agahnim, who is actually Ganon in disguise, and he is collecting maidens to open up the Golden Land. Once Link has the Master Sword and defeats Agahnim, he is transported to the Dark World, the Golden Land that has been twisted and corrupted by the wizard’s evil desires.

The story is serviceable but I never found it engaging. The backstory of the Triforce and the Golden Land is mostly told by the maidens after saving them from dungeons. The story is simply told in long text dumps that are not particularly well written or interesting. The reason for the simple style of storytelling is most likely due to the limitations of the SNES, but games like Chrono Trigger managed to tell epic and engaging stories with the same limitations. 

Gameplay has always fared better on the SNES and A Link to the Past’s gameplay is still very fun. The core loop is exploration, fighting enemies along the way, and looking for gear, upgrades, and items gives a great sense of adventure. The overworld is fairly large for a SNES game and it is colorful, has varied locations from deserts to lakes to tall mountains, and is absolutely full of secrets to find. Being transported to the Dark World is a cool moment the first time it happens, but visually, it is not as appealing to look at as the Light World. It’s just kind of drab, filled with mostly browns and yellow, sick looking greens and muted purples. Thematically it is fitting, but after the bright and stunning colors of the main overworld, the muted color pallet of the Dark World gets boring after a while.

The exploration aspect of A Link to the Past is the strongest part of the game for me. Secrets like heart pieces, piles of rupees, and items are scattered everywhere across the map. It’s the type of game where you can spend hours exploring the world in between the critical path dungeons, looking under every rock and bush for hidden passages or items. Some of the most satisfying secrets to find are those that require moving between the Light and Dark Worlds because some areas, like ledges, cannot be accessed unless shifting between the two different maps. Link can teleport back into Hyrule by using the magic mirror and doing so will leave a cloud of magic dust that takes you back to the Dark World. Besides the dust created by the magic mirror, Link can only travel from the Hyrule to the Dark World by finding magic portals. It’s an interesting limitation that makes entering the Dark World a puzzle in and of itself and is used consistently to unlock areas of the map and to discover the entrances to dungeons.

Dungeons are a staple of every Zelda game and utilize a blend exploration, combat, and puzzle solving to complete. They need to be explored thoroughly to find the big key, the item needed to finish, and the lair of the boss at the end. Some dungeons require items found in the overworld to navigate, like the Swamp Palace needing the Zora flippers to swim through the changing water levels. This is great because it requires players to explore the overworld thoroughly. Typically, you will have what you need already to explore a dungeon, but if not, it’s just a matter of finding the item needed in the world. 

The items found in dungeons are often needed to defeat the boss at the end, but not always. For example, you need the magic hammer in the Dark Palace to break the Helmasaur King’s armor before you can damage him. Requiring the items found in the dungeons to defeat the boss is a design choice Nintendo would make more in later Zelda games, but in A Link to the Past most items seem to be designed with exploration and puzzle solving in mind rather than combat. This is not a bad thing, but it does make some of the items feel less impactful, like the cape, if they are only really required to gather a heart piece. This does lead to some odd choices when items in dungeons are optional. I found it very strange that Link finds the blue mail, which reduces damage taken, in the Ice Palace, only to find the red mail, which reduces more damage, three dungeons later in Ganon’s Tower. 

This is, of course, if you are doing the dungeons in the order the game suggests. They can be completed out of order, but many require items from previous dungeons to compete or even unlock the area of the map they are in. I went through the dungeons in the order found on the game map because doing them out of order seemed  frustrating to me as someone who does not know the game like the back of my hand.

The dungeons are fun for the most part because they rely so heavily on the best aspects of A Link to the Past: exploration and collecting items. That being said, however, they can get tedious to do. I think 3D gaming worked wonders on the Zelda series’ puzzle design. It added a much needed sense of spatial reasoning to explore dungeons. In the 2D games, so many of the puzzles rely on killing all the enemies in the room, pushing a certain block, or finding a button underneath a pot in order to unlock the door or make a key appear. While every dungeon has its own gimmick, the Swamp Palace’s changing water levels or Turtle Rock’s floating platform to ride, they tend to lack individual personalities to me. They have slightly different atmospheres and looks to them, but the dungeons still often look and feel too similar for my taste. 

But the game is still great, solidly designed and with a sense of adventure unparalleled by most other SNES games. It was so realized that it became the foundation for pretty much every Zelda to come after it. It introduced the collection to Master Sword to more collection outline common in other games in the series. It was the induction to staple items like the bottles, hookshot, heart pieces, and even the Master Sword itself, as well as abilities like the spin attack. It is the game that made the Zelda series what we think of today while managing to maintain its own identity since it is still a 2D game where most games that came after are 3D.

I think it’s time to admit to myself that I’m just not a huge Zelda fan. I am still a fan, but a casual one as opposed to a die-hard one. I’ve played many games in the series and, while I have enjoyed all of them, I’ve never really fallen in love with any. There’s never anything deal breaking in them that makes me shut them off, but there’s not much I can think back on that I absolutely adored. That is except the wall merging mechanic in A Link Between Worlds. I found that to be a truly genius additional that opened up puzzle and level design to a possibility not seen before in the series. And that game owes everything to A Link to the Past. It is basically its child with how much DNA it shares with A Link to the Past by being a reimagining of the game. If I had to choose a favorite Zelda game, A Link Between Worlds would be high up, probably even the top spot. So even if I did not find A Link to the Past the most engaging game to play nowadays, I will also thank it for helping create one of my favorite games in the series.

Bioshock & Plasmids

Bioshock could have easily been just another 1st person shooter, one destined to fade out of memory soon after its release. But nearly 15 years after appearing on store shelves, it’s still a highly regarded and discussed game to this day. It sets itself apart from other shooters of its time, and still those of today, in many ways: the setting and atmosphere of the underwater city of Rapture, its commentary on freewill and the politics of Objectivism, its strong writing and memorable twist. However, I think the major thing that made Bioshock stand out are the Plasmids, how they affect gameplay and the story, and most importantly how it ties the two together.

In the context of gameplay, Plasmids are upgrades. They range from offensive abilities like starting fires, freezing enemies, and summoning swarms of bees, to passive buffs like increased defense, attack, and improved hacking skills. They are found throughout Rapture, encouraging exploration, and bought using ADAM, the material taken from the Little Sisters. ADAM is also used to purchase more slots that additional Plasmids can be equipped too. This system gives the game RPG elements without relying on skill trees or upgrade points that would infest similar games in the 2010s. This allows players to create their own playstyle and RPG-like builds that best emphasizes that style.

As with most 1st person shooters, firing weapons is mapped to the right trigger. However, instead of the left trigger being used to look down sights, it is mapped to using Plasmids in Bioshock as that is the hand the character uses them from. This is very intuitive and oddly immersive as you watch the character mimic the same movements you make. It draws you into the game and helps you step into the shoes of the protagonist. Having the left trigger control Plasmids does mean that typical down-sight aiming controls had to be moved and are instead mapped to pressing in the right trigger. While this is clumsy to use, it’s not a big issue since the tight halls and enclosed spaces of Rapture ensure that precise aiming is not really needed. I found myself perfectly capable of fighting off enemies with just the regular aiming icon and found the iron sights to be more difficult to use in a heated fight. While it at first feels like a weird omission, the game is built around not needing iron sights and is worth the exclusion for the fun of easily using Plasmids with the left hand.

In combat, Plasmids have many uses. There are the typical damage causing skills like Incinerate and Insect Swarm, but there are also ones with more indirect uses like Enrage, which makes enemies attack each other, and Security Bullseye, which causes enemies to trigger security cameras and turrets. Some even have secondary effects. Winter Blast freezes enemies making them easier to kill at the cost of loot, Incinerate can melt ice to open doors or reveal items, and Electro Bolt can electrify water to hit multiple enemies at once. It’s a little disappointing that not all Plasmids have these secondary uses, especially with Winter Blast as there are tons of puddles on the ground or streams of water falling from the ceiling. It seems like a missed opportunity to be able to freeze the puddles to trip enemies or the streams to create a shield.

While there are not many drastically different ways to build a character, there are many options and combinations of Plasmids for the players to choose. Some players may see the value of Plasmids I did not. Maybe they want to equip all the modifiers for the wrench and try a more melee focus build. The Plasmids instill a sense of creativity in the player not offered by many other 1st person shooters. And with health and EVE, the material needed to use Plasmids, needing to be kept track of, there is an additional layer of complexity. You can choose to go for an easy freeze kill if you are low on health and medkits, or you may rely solely on your weapons if EVE is precious and Plasmids not available. A have and have-not system that would be all too familiar to the city of Rapture.

Bioshock critiques Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism by showing the inherent greed, selfishness, and unsustainability present in it and the Plasmids not only represent the downfall of Rapture, but a direct cause of it too. Since Plasmids were such an addictive substance, it was highly sought after in the city. The citizens started taking more and more of it until they mutated in the Splicers you fight throughout the game. Through audio logs, you learn that the founder, Andrew Ryan, refused to regulate the creation and use of Plasmids, instead trusting the free market to sort itself out. He even encourages other businesses to offer a better product if they wish to compete with them. 

These revelations add a lot of context to the things the player sees throughout the game. Obviously Rapture is nearly completely dismantled when you arrive, but figuring out how it got that way is up to you to discover. It makes the Splicers sympathetic but past the point of reasoning with, it makes the leaders standing by their zealot beliefs almost cartoonish when they are faced with the tragic outcomes they’ve created. The whole game paints Ryan and the other notably people of Rapture as highly intelligent, creatively ambitious, and extremely driven, but also incapable to accept the consequences of their choices, responsibility for the seeds they have sowed. 

This is the type of storytelling that games thrive in over other forms of media like books or movies. With the interactivity games offer, there is more engagement that comes from the strong context and connection the player can feel when gameplay and story are woven together. Players feel more involved in the story, even in linear games like Bioshock, when the story informs the gameplay, it feels like you are part of the world of the game, it helps with immersion while playing and satisfaction when they succeed.

The Plasmids help with all this. They are simply fun to use, but also help players feel more freedom in their playstyles in a genre that typically doesn’t offer much differences between playthroughs. They are a great example of story informing gameplay, making the entire game feel more cohesive as a whole, not like gameplay or story was the main focus with the other being an afterthought. They are the main reason why Bioshock is still so much fun today while other 1st person shooters of the era have aged poorly or drifted out of memory completely. It’s a great example of how much a little creative, intuitive gameplay design well tied into a story expands the experience of a game

Silent Hill 2 – Critical Miss #20

Photo by AlexShepherd. Found at http://silenthill.fandom.com

Town of Blood and Fog

It’s October which means it’s spooky season. While I love horror movies, I haven’t actually played many horror games. I could make excuses like how they don’t tend to interest me or I find them mechanically light typically, but the truth is horror games freak me the fuck out. It comes down to interactivity. I can sit back, idly watching a movie and judge the characters for making poor decisions, but in a game, I am the one who has to make the poor choices if I want to progress. When it came time to choose a classic scary game for the Halloween Critical Miss this year, there was one game that immediately came to mind.

Silent Hill 2 released in 2001 to immediate commercial and critical success. Even today, it is widely considered to be the high point of the series and one of the scariest games ever made. It’s praised for its atmosphere, psychological horror direction, and symbolism in design. The game centers around James Sunderland coming to the fog shrouded resort town in search of his wife, Mary, who has sent him a letter despite being dead for three years. Walking toward the town, you meet a woman named Angela who warns James not to continue onward because there is something wrong with the town. And she is absolutely right.

The titular town is enveloped in a dense fog making it impossible to see more than ten feet in front of you and is infested with monsters, terrible humanoid shapes with their arms pinned to their torsos like their burnt skin is a straight jacket. When you first make it to Silent Hill, you will spend a good chunk of time wandering aimlessly around, dodging the shapes materializing out of the fog, until you find any indication of where to go. Silent Hill 2 is not afraid to make the player lost. Once you find the thread to follow to destinations, the game is sign-posted well enough, but until then, you are on your own. This is extremely effective in creating fear since you are trapped in this unfamiliar town you can barely see and there are monsters around every corner and hiding under parked cars ready to jump out and maul you.

Photo by AlexShepherd. Found at http://silenthill.fandom.com

All monster encounters are extremely tense since the controls are very stiff and weighty. Combat, when you are forced into it, is especially stiff, sticky, and enemies take a lot of damage before dying. It is always advisable to run away from enemies rather than fight them due to resources needed to kill them, both ammo if you have any or healing items needed to keep James alive. I was very grateful to discover you could turn off tank controls earlier on, but the free movement is still based on a very uncooperative camera. Camera angles change suddenly, leading to running back down the hall you just exited and it swings slowly ,almost drunkenly, around when positioning it behind James. The camera is disorientating and makes the player never feel settled in a place. 

James must find his way through Silent Hill to find Mary and to do that he must navigate its streets and buildings while plunging deeper and deeper (literally at times, as in the prison) into the darkest depths of the horror and misery of his past. You’ll visit four main areas throughout the game that sort of act as dungeons from a Zelda game or a RPG. There are the apartment buildings, the hospital, Silent Hill Historical Building and the prison inexplicably below it, and the hotel. You will have to search rooms for items to either solve puzzles or unlock new rooms to search. The puzzles are typically clever logic puzzles, like the coin puzzle, or have hints somewhere nearby to clue you in to the solution, like the clock puzzle or combination lock. As the game progresses though, I feel the puzzle start becoming more obtuse. The main culprit of this is the block of faces just after the prison. I’m not sure if I missed the hint saying what to do, but I could not for the life of me figure out what was expected of me until I looked up the solution. The puzzles are either clever but solvable, or encourage exploration, both which I enjoy, and they are only really let down by the clunky inventory menu. Overall, the gameplay of Silent Hill 2 is fine, it’s passable, but that’s not the star of the game. The real reason to play this game is the town itself, James, and the complete horror one finds when confronted with their darkest secrets.

Photo by AlexShepherd. Found at http://silenthill.fandom.com

As James gets pulled into Silent Hill, so does the player through the game’s atmosphere. Everything is dank and empty with metal doors rusted, windows broken, and the walls covered in grime. The game takes familiar settings like a hotel or hospital and makes them hellish and alienating by plunging them into darkness and coating everything in rust and filth. The visuals still hold up extremely well today, but the sound design is on a whole other level and is some of the best I’ve ever heard. Sounds range for the loud radio static when monsters are nearby to the quiet barely heard whispers of unknown voices, the constantly pounding of James feet to sudden crying of a baby heard in only one room. Everything sounds chucky and uncanny, real enough to be recognized but odd enough to unnerve anyone hearing them.

Uncanny is how I would describe the characters too. Not in an “uncanny valley” sense where their models invoke an unease in the players (although there is some of that since this is the PS2), but more in their actions and conversations. James is pretty unflappable. Sure, he reacts to the horrific things happening in front of him, but he never seems to react to an appropriate level. His first encounter with Maria is a perfect example: he first mistakes her for his wife because she is Mary’s exact double, but is a sexier outfit. She immediately takes a liking to James and comes on to him very hard, despite the fact that they are trapped in a town full of monsters. James acknowledges Maria’s likeness to Mary, but that’s it. He just accepts it and moves on, no real questions after this interaction. I think James’s cold acceptance to the things he sees mostly has to do with the voice acting, which is not great with flat and stilted delivery, but it honestly works better than expected. It helps add to the other-worldly feeling of the town, as if the characters are too numb, terrified, or simply indifferent to care much about what is going on.

Whether the poor voice acting was intentional or not, it adds so much subtle unease to a game that’s filled to overflowing with subtleties. There are quiet sound effects, like footsteps following you in the beginning of the game and heavy breathing in certain rooms, that only happen in particular areas and are easy to miss. All the enemies represent the larger themes of the game. There are all feminine in nature, like the mannequin enemies that are just too sets of women legs and the nurses, except for Pyramid Head, face of Silent Hill since his introduction in this game. Pyramid Head is a tall, powerful male figure often seen attacking and assaulting the feminine enemies. The enemies represent every thing of James’s guilt of past actions to his frustrated libido since Mary’s passing. It’s so unnerving when you realize this because it adds so much more to the town of Silent Hill itself. It makes the town feel the main antagonist of the game, an alive, thinking entity with its own agenda for James.

Photo by AlexShepherd. Found at http://silenthill.fandom.com

All this builds to a tense and terrifying game. It breeds that special type of anxiety in you, that tightness in your chest, the sense of never feeling completely safe. The dread builds and builds until the very end where the game closes like a quiet door. It doesn’t offer a big, cathartic climax where the secrets of the town are discovered with a big, horrific set piece like many other horror games offer. Instead, the game’s climax is an emotional one, where the player watches James admit to and accept responsibility for his past sins. It’s a quiet, bleak, and heart wrenching moment because it’s not easy to not get invested in James and his suicidal quest in Silent Hill.

When I played, I got the ending that suggests that James commits suicide to be with his wife. You never see it, but it’s very much implied. After watching the other endings, this one feels the most fitting for me and my understanding of the town of Silent Hill. The town doesn’t not exist to redeem or offer any sort of relief to those it chooses, it exists only to punish and to torment. 

I wouldn’t call the game itself very punishing. It checks a player’s overconfidence through stiff combat and having James be quick to die, but mostly the gameplay is just a little stiff and the puzzles oblique. But it works for this type of game and paired with the thick atmosphere and fantastic story. James and his journey through hell will always have a place in the back of my brain, poking at my thoughts like a thorn. I’ve been turning Silent Hill 2 over in my head again and again since completing it, and that’s always the best sign to me that I really loved a game.

Photo by AlexShepherd. Found at http://silenthill.fandom.com

Resident Evil 4 & 3rd Person Controls

The first Resident Evil game I ever played was Resident Evil 4. I first played it to completion little over two years ago and I fell instantly in love with it. The gameplay was intense and powerful, the story was campy and dumb in the best way, and even the briefcase menu screen made inventory management fun. I knew the game’s place in history and how it changed up the formula from previous Resident Evil games at the time, but it wasn’t until I played those earlier games that I understood how different, but oddly similar, the fourth game in the series was to its kin. And all it took was a simple change in the camera.

Resident Evil 4 was the first mainline game in the series to abandon the fixed camera angles in favor of an over-the-shoulder 3rd person camera. And, while every game in the series previous was a mix of action and horror, Resident Evil 4 focused much more on the action side of the gameplay, being mainly a 3rd person shooter and leaving much of the survival horror aspects of the series behind. There are still effective moments of horror in the game like the Regenerator enemies the sewer section with the invisible bug creatures, but the game focuses much more on action and tension created by the relentlessness of the enemies. I think the shift in the camera is the culprit for this gameplay and tonal shift. 

In the early Resident Evil games, each room, hallway, and staircase had a fixed camera, or multiple, to show the area. They could not be moved in any way and were mostly implemented due to hardware limitations. But the designers discovered an interesting side effect from the restrictive camera system: claustrophobia. With the limited view and narrow level design, the early games instill a sense of tightness in the player, a sense of being trapped and not knowing what to expect in upcoming areas. The camera in Resident Evil 4 is used to create a similar feeling, but by different means.

The camera in Resident Evil 4 hangs just behind Leon’s shoulder, following behind him as he explores the decrepit Spanish village. Even though the camera can be moved around, its movement is smartly locked in a certain degree of movement where Leon is facing. This still limits the view on the player, especially with Leon’s model taking up quite a bit of the screen. With this restriction, the game still has a sense of tightness and claustrophobia to it, even with its much more open level design. You never know when a village is shuffling up behind you or even just outside your peripheral vision. Many modern 3rd person shooters like Control offer a free camera, able to look any direction regardless of where the character is facing, but this just wouldn’t have worked for Resident Evil 4

At its core, Resident Evil 4 is still a horror game, even though it focuses more on action. Without the dank, cramped environments of the previous games to provide scares, Resident Evil 4 uses complete relentlessness. When in combat, there are many enemies coming from all sides. The limited camera makes it impossible to keep track of all enemies at once and this allows them to sneak up out of view and grab Leon unexpectedly. The developers know this too and use it to apply stress to the player, having enemies come at you from all angles. Often you will be backing away from an approaching village right into the hands of another. Every combat encounter turns into a balance act of killing the enemies in front of you while also keeping mental tallies on any you know who are coming near and keep your distance from them all. 

Besides hounding Leon from all directions, the enemies have been designed around the new camera in other ways. The villagers are typically slow moving to accommodate the narrow camera and stiff tank controls, but they can jog in quick bursts to gain distance on Leon. They can close distance surprisingly fast if not tended to, but the game gives the player ways to deal with that. Enemies become stunned when they take enough damage, stopping to clutch their legs or head or wherever they’ve been shot. Shoot them in the legs enough and they become staggered, allowing Leon to roundhouse kick them. This is an important technique to learn because it not only does damage and can hit multiple enemies, but it gives you invincibility frames and sends the enemies flying back. An up close blast from a shotgun also knocks enemies a good distance, granting you a little bit of breathing room and precious seconds to assess the situation and make a plan.

The majority of enemies are melee, with a few having ranged weaponry or tossing their axes or sickles at you from afar. You would think that in a 3rd person shooter, most enemies would also be armed with guns. This is indeed the case for most games in the genre, but those types of enemies would not have worked in Resident Evil 4. While the combat can be hectic, with snap decisions needed in the heat of a fight, the camera and controls give the shooting a more slow-paced and methodical feel. With the enemies being slow and having to reach Leon first to damage him, the player has plenty of time to focus the camera where it needs to be, to run to spot where they are safe enough to stop and shoot, to even dash past enemies if they are overwhelmed, low on ammo, or just don’t to waste the bullets to fight.

Resident Evil 4’s combat is some of the best out there, especially for an over-the shoulder camera system. It not only shaped action games at the time, but its influence can still be felt today. Take the 2018 God of War. The camera is as close to Kratos in that game as it is to Leon in Resident Evil 4, but the latter is a methodical shooter while God of War is a fast paced hack and slash. The camera’s closeness to Kratos never felt like it worked as well as it should. The game constantly had to have immersion-breaking indicators and arrows pointing to enemies off screen or throwing range attacks. The game mitigates this a bit by limiting the enemies to face in individual encounters compared to other games in the series, but it doesn’t handle the shift in the camera perspective as well as Resident Evil 4 had over a decade earlier.

It must be frightening to design a new game in a series so radically different than its predecessors. It has to retain what fans loved about the earlier games and the new stuff has to be as good enough for players to enjoy immediately. This must be why Miyamoto spent the few months of Super Mario 64’s development perfecting Mario’s controls. Likewise, I think the Resident Evil 4 developers knew how important the new over-the-shoulder camera was to the game. They clearly designed everything around it and made sure everything worked well within the new camera system. 

It honestly blows my mind when people say they can’t play the game due to the camera or controls. Sure, the controls and camera can feel weird when you first start, but the game is so expertly crafted around them that you quickly get used to them. From the camera subtly creating a tight feeling to how the enemies are designed, the game perfectly utilizes the 3rd person perspective to heighten every minute of Resident Evil 4’s gameplay.

The other major complaint against the game: Ashley—that’s a whole other post there. Stay tuned.

Spec Ops: The Line – Critical Miss #19

Image by SilenceInTheLibrary at specops.fandom.com/wiki/Spec_Ops:_The_Line

Lines Drawn in the Sand

I stated in my Vanquish review that I missed the years in the late 2000’s where cover based shooters were the hot new thing. Even today, it’s not a genre I gravitate into, along with the trend of modern day military shooters like the CoD games since Modern Warfare. They tend to be too slow and dry for me. So why is it then that when I purchased a Xbox 360, one of the first games I bought for the system was Spec Ops: The Line, a modern military cover based shooter? Extremely positive word of mouth is one thing, but the real reason I had to play it was because the game is lauded as one of the most interesting uses of narrative in video games. 

Set in Dubai during cataclysmic sandstorms, you play as Captain Walker, a US Delta Force operator and his two man crew of Lugo and Adams. They have come to the ruined city in response to a radio transmission from Colonel Konrad, a man Walker fought under in the past. Their mission is simple: locate survivors from the sandstorms and radio for evac. This gets immediately complicated as Walker’s team finds themselves under attack by two sides of battling for control of the city. Refugees attack the team thinking they are part of Konrad’s 33rd battalion, and the 33rd themselves mistake Walker’s team as CIA agents who have been supplying the refugees with arms to fight the 33rd.

Image by SilenceInTheLibrary at specops.fandom.com/wiki/Spec_Ops:_The_Line

The setting of Dubai half buried in desert sand is one of my favorite things about the game. It effortlessly juxtaposes the opulent wealth of the glass shard skyscrapers and the clutter, squalor poverty of the holes where the refugees are hiding. The levels will take you throughout the sand filled streets, dark and buried-in ground floors, high up in gaudy condos, and zip-lining across rooftops. While the setting is great, art direction if often lacking, especially in terms of character design. There were times I laughed during a shoot out because I would see multiple of the same character model rushing through a doorway. This lack of strong character design tended to confuse the story for me too. Most of the major players in the plot, the characters with speaking lines and move the story forward, are the boilerplate white dude military type and I had the hardest time remembering who was who.

It’s a good thing that the setting was interesting because I found the gameplay to be only fine at best. The actual shooting mechanics are engaging in a fight, but everything around it—getting in and out of cover, sprinting across battlefields, waiting for enemies to pop out of cover to be shot like cans on wall—felt slow and tedious. This is no doubt influenced by my lack of enjoyment from cover based shooters in general and I will say that I didn’t find Spec Ops to be any more clunky than other games in the genre I’ve played. The game does have a few unique mechanics to it. Walker’s teammates, Lugo and Adams, can help snipe or grenade enemies at the player’s command. Sand can be used throughout the game by blowing out windows to bury enemies, grenades causing clouds of dust that the player can use for cover, and even occasional sand storms will blind both player and enemies, sending both in a mad dash for safety indoors. Sadly, these mechanics are never explored to their fullest potential and it is almost always faster to just kill enemies you have your sights on instead of fiddling with calling out to a NPC to shoot them. They very well be much more crucial tools on the harder difficulties, but on normal like I played, they seem no more back of the box selling points. But I didn’t expect the gameplay  to blow me away when I purchased Spec Ops. What I was there to see was the story.

Image by SilenceInTheLibrary at specops.fandom.com/wiki/Spec_Ops:_The_Line

I beg anyone who hasn’t played Spec Ops: The Line to stop reading this review now. Go play the game if you have the means to or watch an unnarrated playthrough on YouTube. This is a game that needs to experienced without expectations and an open heart. I will not be spoiling everything in the story, but must discuss the turning point from a box standard military shooter to a repeated kick in the gut.

The game works as a deconstruction of other military shooters like Call of Duty and Medal of Honor that were on the rage during that time. It starts with the unflappable heroes, dripping with unwavering duty and machismo, as they saunter into Dubai, cocksure and cracking jokes. When they find themselves being attacked by refugees and the 33rd, Walker decides the best thing to do would be to locate Konrad. In the pursuit, they must pass through a heavily guarded section of the city and Walker decides to clear out the opposing forces using white phosphorus. This is where the shoe drops. Walker and his crew soon find that the 33rd had set up a camp for refugees there too and they had just wiped out 47 civilian lives.

Image by SilenceInTheLibrary at specops.fandom.com/wiki/Spec_Ops:_The_Line

From there the chaos continues to spiral. Konrad commands Walker to choose between killing a water thief and soldier who murdered civilians, the team helps a CIA agent named Higgs raid and steal the water the 33rd was guarding only to crash the trunks and destroy it, and Walker opens fire on a group of civilians after they hang Lugo. The game actively forces the player to commit more atrocious acts of violence because this is a war and, like Walker says, there’s not always a choice, But Spec Ops does not celebrate these actions. Quickly the veneer of glory in the line of duty and ends justifying the means mentality is ripped away and there is only death caused by the characters, and the player.

Walker himself becomes noticeably more angry and violent after using the white phosphorus scene. His simple shouts of “Got one!” when you shoot an enemy during gameplay turns to “Got the motherfucker!” and “Fuck you!” as he ends countless lives. I will not spoil the ending because I had not had it spoiled for me before playing but it is a great capstone to everything the story and themes have been working towards. It completely recontextualized the 2nd half of the story and Walker’s complete psyche.

One of the most interesting aspects of the narrative is that it simply doesn’t make a lot of sense. I was having a little difficulty following it for a bit because it didn’t seem logically tied together, the events of a scene didn’t always understandably lead to decisions Walker makes on what to do next. But I think that’s the point. The whole story is built on assumptions and bad faith on Walker’s part. What made me realize this was the death of CIA agent Gould. It is discovered that he was planning on storming an area of Dubai named The Gate and Walker decides that’s where his team must head to next. When asked what’s important about The Gate, Walker just says “Gould thought it was important enough to die for, so it must be important.” This leads directly to the use of the white phosphorus to clean out the soldiers guarding The Gate. When agent Higgs ropes the Delta Force team into helping him steal water from the 33rd, Walker just goes along with it. He clearly does not trust Higgs, but he agrees to be a part of the plan with much second thought. 

Image by SilenceInTheLibrary at specops.fandom.com/wiki/Spec_Ops:_The_Line

There are no good guys in Spec Ops: The Line, but I’m not sure I would say there are any bad guys either. There are just people doing what they think they have to do no matter the cost. Walker has to find meaning to the madness happening in the city, Konrad was trying to protect the refugees even if it meant by force, Higgs felt the need to cover up Konrad’s crime out of fear of the world discovering them. There is no good or evil; there are only people fighting to stay alive, people insisting they are in the right, the messy gray morals of war and people fighting to the death. 

Art is not always pleasant. It’s not always comfortable. Look at the pain and grief portrayed in Picasso’s Guernica or the stomach turning scenes of assault in Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange. Some art is designed to shine a light on the darkest parts of the human heart and challenge the viewer themselves with questions they may not want to answer. Spec Ops: The Line is one such piece of art. Throughout the game, it constantly asks: What are you doing? Is this right? Do you feel like a hero yet? But they just hang there. It does not offer any answers because it is not up to the game to decide. The only one who can answer those questions are yourself.

Super Mario Odyssey & Player Rewards

When I was fourteen, I got my first Nintendo DS. Along with it came a copy of Super Mario 64 DS. I didn’t know at the time that it was a port of an Nintendo 64 game, I didn’t even know what the term “port” meant in that context, nor did I care. Super Mario 64 is such a great game, it didn’t matter that it was clunkier to control with the d-pad, I fell in love with it. It was one of the first moments I can remember of realizing games can be something truly special. And, much like how they revolutionized 3D games with Super Mario 64, Nintendo would completely rewrite the script on 3D platformers again over 20 years later with Super Mario Odyssey.

Mario Odyssey is a phenomenal game. It’s easily my favorite Mario game and probably sits in my top 10 games of all time. Recently, I played through the entire game again and I was constantly reminded of how good it is, how impeccably designed, how fun to play, how satisfying it is. And it is that one aspect that piqued my interest in my last playthrough: satisfaction. A common complaint I’ve seen against Odyssey is that there are too many Moons and players can collect them so often that they lose their value and stop feeling special. I’ve never felt this way and, in fact, feel that this complaint ties directly into the main design of the game. Odyssey constantly awards players’ curiosity and exploration to give them a sense of fun and satisfaction.

There are many ways to reward players: experience points for levels, skill points for unlocks, leader boards for competitive games. Being a 3D collectathon, Super Mario Odyssey rewards players with collectibles. Be it coins, purple tokens, or Power Moons, every level of Odyssey is filled to the brim with things to grab and collect. Besides collectibles, the levels are just full of stuff in general. It has some of the most densely packed level design I’ve ever seen but, thanks to the standard Nintendo polish, the worlds you explore never feel cluttered or sloppy. 

The collectables are the main tool the designers push players to explore the levels thoroughly and challenge themselves to find everything because they are actually worth something in Odyssey. In Super Mario 64, Power Stars were collected to unlock new levels and coins are only collected to restore health and get certain Stars. While the Power Moons in Odyssey only unlock progress, similar to 64’s Stars, coins have much more importance. Along with the purple tokens, which are needed to purchase level specific souvenirs and stickers for Mario’s ship, the Odyssey, coins can be used to purchase new outfits in the shop. This is so highly incentivized that upon death, the player doesn’t lose a life, but a handful of coins. The outfits, souvenirs, and stickers don’t actually have any gameplay effects, but they are still strangely addicting to collect. They add so much charm to the game—especially the outfits which can be mixed and matched to make Mario look utterly ridiculous. 

Even the enemies work as collectibles in a way. Mario can possess certain enemies by throwing his cap onto them and there is a whole bestiary-like list of all of them in the game. When possessing an enemy, the player has access to their special abilities. This replaces the standard power ups of a Mario game, but the creativity and variety enemy possession offers is unparalleled. The first thing in the game I wanted to complete was the enemy list because they were so much fun to control. It is always exciting in the game to stumble upon a new enemy and throw your cap at it for the first time, to see what new moves it’ll have and how it will open up the world around you.

So the designers fill a level with Power Moons, coins, purple trinkets, and enemies to play with and drop the player in the middle of it. The first time in the level, there will be an objective to complete but how you get there and how long it takes is up to the player. It’s tough to go from point A to B when there is a playground of things to do, collectables to be grabbed, and fun to be had in between. The designers know this too and smartly do not discourage players from going off the critical path. In fact, they encourage it. They use collectibles to catch the player’s eye and lead them to different areas. They use landmarks in the distance to keep pushing players forward. Finally, when a player fully understands Mario’s special jumps and movement abilities, they tease players with areas that seem to be out of reach.

Some of the best moments in the game are when you see a ledge that is slightly too high to jump to or an area just out of reach and think to yourself ‘I can get up there.’ So after a series of wall jumps, air dives, and cap bounces, you make it some place you’re seemingly not supposed to access and there is always something there for you. Sometimes it’s a secret Power Moon, but usually it’s just coins. But that’s ok because it feels like a wink from the developer, it feels like an in-joke between you and them and they are congratulating you. There is a staggering amount of depth to the movement options in the game and it feels good to accomplish a tricky jump to an area that seems like it would have been forgotten by the developers only to be rewarded. 

Collecting these Power Moon, coins, and outfits never stops feeling satisfying. It preys on the part of the human brain that likes feeling they’ve accomplished a task, no matter how simple, the part that likes filling out checklists and seeing things tidy and complete. It’s the same part of the brain that the game industry preys upon with loot boxes and limited time character skins. But this satisfying feeling is used for good instead of evil in Super Mario Odyssey because it requires nothing from the player besides skill and patience, no additional money or microtransactions, and I believe that makes it even more satisfying. 

It’s truly amazing how Ninendo can create seminal, groundbreaking games time and time again. But it’s not really surprising when you consider the attention to detail and focus they put into their games. Nintendo’s policy has always been to put fun first and that shines clear in Super Mario Odyssey in how they constantly reward the players’ curiosity. They provide playgrounds just begging to be explored and cover them with things for the player to find so there is no moment lacking satisfaction. This is why I seriously consider Super Mario Odyssey one of the most fun games to simply play.