Bit-History: Prince of Persia – The Sands of Time

"I defy time... and Newton's Universal Law of Gravitation."

“I defy time… and Newton’s Universal Law of Gravitation.”

I was rather fortunate to be born at a time when home consoles were still in their infancy. I got to experience the one joystick, one button combo on the Atari, but it wasn’t until the NES came along that I began to realize the true potential of gaming. The first title I had wanted was Super Mario Bros… but I got Rad Racer instead. My NEXT game however WAS Super Mario Bros, and it was SO… MUCH… FUN! From there I played the likes of Zelda, Metroid, Castlevania, etc. There had been a great variety of gameplay styles to enjoy, but the early days of gaming was all about platforming. Technology only allowed for pixels to be manipulated on screen by moving them around, so playing in three dimensions had been out of the question. So as a result, my childhood was spent platforming my way across a variety of worlds with an impressive ensemble of characters. Could this be why I still prefer a platformer to almost any other style of gameplay? Perhaps, but I still think a challenging platform game is more fun in general than the likes of Halo or Call of Doody.

But, as the third dimension became ‘a thing’ – thanks to Dreamcast, Playstation and the N64 – platforming was getting a facelift… a facelift I didn’t think it really needed, but it got one anyway and the results were surprisingly good. Super Mario 64 forever changed the world of gaming for me, and it’s still one of my most replayed classic titles of all time. The camera sucked, but what could you do? At least the controls felt great, which is more than I could say for the likes of Tomb Raider (I’m sorry, I just don’t think the original Tomb Raider games were very good). But things sort of came to a grinding halt after that… until Grand Theft Auto 3 came along. That’s when 3D/open world gaming really began to improve… but GTA III isn’t really a platformer, so when did platforming actually begin to change for the better? As far as game changers go, and without hesitation, one game comes to mind – Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time.

Before the game’s release, the genre was mostly comprised of fun sandboxes that sent you on fetch quests – Go from point A to point B, make you way to the boss and take ‘em down, collect a given number of goods (I hated acquiring those damn red coins in Mario 64), etc. It was fun, yes, but not really engaging. The Sands of Time changed all that in a big way. For starters, the plot actually serviced the gameplay, as opposed to being the other way around. Basically, a series of events amidst a power struggle tricks our Prince into releasing the sands of time from an enormous hour glass that resides in the King’s treasure vault. A terrible sandstorm is released, which turns those within the palace into powerful monsters. As a result, it’s up to the Prince to see if he can return the sands to the hour glass, but it’s a daunting task that will push him to his limits. Fortunately, he runs into Farah, an Indian Princess, and although they don’t really get along at first, it’s clear that they need each other’s help if they hope to bring things back to their natural order.

This story introduces one of two things – First, the dagger which has the power to harness the sands of time. This is what released the sands, and it will eventually be what whisks them back in place. However, the Prince is able to maintain possession of it throughout his journey… and he’s able to take advantage its power whenever he gets in trouble. Since the game focuses on intense swordplay and risky platform tricks, there are PLENTY of mistakes to be made along the way, mistakes which often cause the Prince to fall to his death. However, as long as you have sand stored in the dagger, you can rewind time and put the Prince back in control of his destiny, allowing him another chance to carry on and learn from his mistakes. This is a core gameplay mechanic which spun some freshness into a genre that was feeling tired, because the ‘rewind time’ ability wasn’t just a gimmick. No, it was at the heart of the story.

And speaking about ‘heart’ and ‘story’, that’s the second thing this game exceled at – Making you feel a connection with the characters on-screen, something I don’t think had been done very well before this game’s release (again, in a platforming game). The Prince is resourceful and charming, but not particularly wise. No, his own pride and ignorance played a part in allowing the sands to be released, and because he’s never depicted to be all-knowing as things progress, he never comes off as superhuman. Then there’s Farah – She’s smart and strong – not to mention a bit feisty – but she has flaws of her own. It’s fun to watch these two characters start off with witty snarks, only to eventually lower their guards, realize they need each other, and fall in love.

The whole thing is a bit predictable, and the clever story comes off feeling somewhat shallow as a result, but the actual gameplay is so damn fun you don’t even care. Outside of the fantastic, refined gameplay though, another thing this game nailed was that ‘arabian nights/storybook’ vibe. You’d be hard pressed to find a single place in the game that doesn’t look dreamy and beautiful. Although The Sands of Time is as linear experience as they come, but the backdrop and level designs go a long way in allowing this world to live and breathe. The artistic intent was one of the most charming aspects of the game as a whole, and it was something I sorely missed the subsequent installments… that is, until The Forgotten Sands brought it back in a glorious way.

It call comes down to this – The entire platform genre owes a great deal to this game. Not just in regards to the designs or wonderful (albeit simple) plot, but because the controls were fluid and intuitive, which was rare for a platformer at the time. Furthermore, the combat actually made sense – You weren’t merely forced to hack and slash your opponents. No, you were actually encouraged to block and evade in order to survive. If that wasn’t working out, the agile Prince could leap over their heads and slash them in the back. I know it sounds underwhelming compared to today’s standards, but those standards are a direct result of the mechanics in this game. Of course, the platforming itself was the most important, and genre changing aspect. Without the Prince’s insane running and jumping – which includes running along walls – who knows? We may not have seen such a refined experience in the likes of Tomb Raider (2013) or Uncharted. Last but not least, there were some interesting puzzles to solve as well, making The Sands of Time a well rounded experience.

As far as how the game holds up today… I’d say fairly well. The graphics obviously look ancient, even in the HD version available on PSN and the Prince of Persia Trilogy collection, but that magical storybook vibe is still present and enveloped me with ease. The combat and platforming is still decent, but seems way too easy.

To be fair though, this game was always easy. That’s really the only complaint I’ve ever had about The Sands of Time – It has a great story with interesting characters, but there’s not much of a challenge to speak of. This doesn’t really make the experience less enjoyable, but it can make areas where you’re fighting waves of bad guys come off as a slog. The AI wasn’t much to speak of, so the devs seemingly wanted to compensate with tests of endurance. That’s all well and good, but when the enemies are a breeze to annihilate, you just feel like the game is padding its runtime.
All in all though, this is one of those games that I simply cannot live without. I’ve owned it on the PC, Xbox, and the PS3, and if I ever need to pick it up on a future platform, I won’t hesitate to do so (although the HD PS3 version should last me for a long time). If you haven’t played this gen, or any of its sequels for that matter, you should jump on the Trilogy collection ASAP.

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Bit-History: Batman – Arkham Asylum/Arkham City (And Why Asylum Is Better)

I’m going to do something a little different this time around – With Batman: Arkham Origins on the horizon, I wanted to take this opportunity to discuss something that’s bothered me for some time. In order to make my point, I’ll be ‘reviewing’ two games at once. This isn’t something I plan to do regularly, but when it comes to the Arkham-verse, I feel this is the best approach.

Anyone who follows the likes of IGN, Gamepot or N4G have undoubtedly seen their fair share of ‘best of’ lists. More often than not, we see one of the Arkham games make the cut, it not both, which is excellent. They’re solid efforts that took the gaming community by surprise, which is quite the feat, isn’t it? I mean, let’s face it – Superhero games tend to suck. They’re usually made to tie-in with an upcoming film, leaving the devs a very strict schedule to create and perfect whatever they hope their final product to be. This usually leaves the gameplay feeling ‘sticky’, the in-game world bland and uninspired, and the story… oh, the story.

So many of these games don’t even follow the plot of the film! They make up whatever the hell they want, slap on the film’s logo and call it a day. Remember the Spider-Man 2 game that was on Xbox and PS2? It was actually a better effort than most, but uh, it really had nothing to do with the film. You KNOW there are countless examples that illustrate my point, so I won’t bother in providing an exhaustive rundown. On the flip side of the coin, there are games that actually attempt to follow their respective films to a ‘T’, but come up with superficial (read: stupid) quests to pad the game’s runtime. This usually means you’re playing a bunch of levels that look like locations from the film, but all of your objectives still have little to do with the original plot.

*sighs*

So, yep, I was highly skeptical about Batman: Arkham Asylum. It looked dark and appeared to have some cool ideas in the gameplay department, but so what? Screenshots and promo videos never tell the whole story, so I continued to expect a so-so experience that did little to make itself memorable. Well, I was wrong. Not only was it memorable, but it stands out as one of the better games to have surfaced this gen. Apparently I’m not alone, as its popularity helped to make the Arkham-verse an annualized franchise… that is, if rumblings about upcoming projects actually come to fruition. Of course, everyone was excited as hell to see what the subsequent offering would provide, myself included. Well, Arkham City was met with even more critical acclaim, with more than a few fans claiming it to be better than the original. Even a bunch of those ‘best of’ lists rank Arkham City higher than its predecessor. Hell, sometimes those very same lists failed to mention Asylum at all!

Now, everyone is entitled to their opinion of course, but this is where I deviate from the general consensus. Don’t get me wrong – Arkham City is a damn fine game, but graduating from a sandbox island to a sandbox city? That decision was directly responsible for taking away the ‘core’ of what made Asylum work so well in the first place – Its sense of danger.

For the uninitiated, Arkham Asylum pulled no punches. At the very start, we (as Batman) escort the Joker into the Asylum, believing he ALLOWED himself to be captured. Of course, Batman wants to know why. Well before we know it, all hell breaks loose and the island is effectively sealed off from the rest of Gotham. So, there’s Batman, stranded in the middle of a plot that involves a host of villains with a bunch of their hired goons watching every square inch of the place. Does Batman run? Of course not. He uses stealth and nearly all of his gadgets to string these bozos up, hoping to figure out what the Joker’s plan is and what it means for the innocent people of Gotham.

It was a really, really dark game. Outside of Nolan’s Batman films of course, we haven’t seen such an accurate depiction of the Dark Knight since Batman: The Animated Series. Recognizing how successful and iconic that very show as, the devs wisely sought, and acquired the talents of Kevin Sorkin and Markin Hamill (voicing Batman and The Joker, respectively). They also capitalized on the series palpably tense mysteries, the cat and mouse games that were played in tight quarters, and kept the visual aesthetic as dark as possible. In each respect, Arkham Asylum succeeded – if not actually perfecting the formula – making it the definitive at-home Batman experience to date.

You see, Arkham Asylum was comprised of numerous buildings, each specializing in a particular use. One was where the inmates where kept, another was the medical facility, and so on and so forth. A fair chunk of the game is spent inside of these facilities, worming your way through enemy infested areas. At times you’ll be hopping across the ceiling as you strategize a way to take out all the armed guards in the room below, or you’ll be forced to sneak on the ground quietly without attracting any attention. In short, get spotted and the jig is up. Most of the time you’re in close quarters, which makes this not only a stealth-action game, but a nail-biter of one at that. The atmosphere just dripped with tension, and at times even a bit of fear. Once in a while the Scarecrow would use his hallucinogens on ole’ Batsy, causing his mind to transport him into a frightening world. This included reliving the worst parts of his past. Outside of the main story missions, you have an opportunity to pick up a bunch of clues left behind by The Riddler, as well as audio from Arkham Asylum inmate interviews (with the likes of The Joker, amongst others). Both of these audio cues throughout the game are very, very creepy.

So the atmosphere was flawless – Dark and serious, which is the way Batman should always be depicted… you know, because we don’t need bat suits with nipples or our hero to have his very own Bat Visa Card. Our villains also don’t need to look like they popped right out of a Sunday comic strip. Another thing that helped Arkham Asylum was, of course, the gameplay. You actually FELT like you were Batman. Hiding in the shadows using detective mode? Stringing up baddies upside down? Using gadgets from his utility belt to zip to high elevations in an instant? Even the fighting mechanics made you feel like a practiced brawler. It was a simple ‘hit a few buttons in succession to string combos’ method, although you’d have to watch for enemies that were ready to attack, which was always signified by a little flash of light around their heads. To counter, all you’d have to do is hit a single button, and then continue racking up hits. There’s nothing more rewarding than successfully taking out an entire room of bad guys without taking a single punch, or even being seen for that matter.

Everything just gelled. Between feeling like the Dark Knight himself and the palpable tension and dread, Arkham Asylum proved to be much more than your average superhero game (which as I’ve discussed, usually amounts to absolute suckage). It’s one of those games where if you hear a friend say the dreaded words, “I haven’t had a chance to play it yet”, you’d instantly respond with, “That’s a mistake. Correct it. NOW.” It was a semi-linear experience, yes, but that only served to keep you engrained in the story, not to mention convey the intended tone. This is probably where Arkham Asylum excelled most of all.

Last but not least, it’s worth mentioning how Rocksteady were able to incorporate a multitude of notable villains without having the game feel oversaturated. Considering how many foes you’ll be up against, I’d say the devs have accomplished a feat I previously thought to be impossible. Many other devs have tried to provide such a diverse range of villains in a single game, but at the cost of the story and the characters contained within…. And why? So they could ‘proudly’ tell their publishers they threw the kitchen sink at us. Rocksteady took a serious gamble in focusing on so many villains, but they ultimately made every character and plot device flow organically…

…So of course, hot on the heels of their success, they felt the need to outdo themselves, to go bigger and better with their follow-up.

In an attempt to deliver that bigger and better experience, Rockstar brought us Arkham City. I won’t give a complete rundown of the game because many of its core mechanics feel the same, so I’ll merely focus on what I feel it’s somewhat inferior to its predecessor.

As the name implies, Arkham City pits you in the middle of a significant chunk of Gotham City, as opposed to the confines of an island teeming with crazies. It’s a good idea on paper – being able to scale buildings and using your cape to glide around for what seems like an eternity – but the more time I spent out in the open, the less I actually wanted to. I appreciate Rocksteady’s ambitiousness, but I don’t feel they accomplished what they set out to do.

My major complaint is the city itself, as it acts as a ghost town with no real population to speak of… well, except for the assailants that have been planted on the occasional street or rooftop, but dealing with them quickly becomes a tiresome chore. Sure, they’re fun to toss around at first, but eventually the game’s development becomes too transparent to ignore – They’ve only been placed around the city so you’d have something to do. As a result, the city is so lifeless it’s boring, which is a shame. The devs should have taken a page from the likes of Infamous, where the city was populated with citizens in peril and destructible property. Don’t you think that would have upped the fun factor considerably? Anyway, I eventually just wanted to get from point A to point B without much of a hassle, because I exploring all that open, deserted space just didn’t entice me. It’s a downright shame, because I actually went out of my way to collect all the Riddler trophies in Arkham Asylum, but this time around I just couldn’t be bothered. After beating the game, I was content with my experience and wouldn’t look back.

Look, I know devs tend to believe that bigger always means better, but the Arkham-verse is a prime example as to why that isn’t true. Case-in-point, I had no desire to explore the open world they provided. Arkham Asylum was different though – Its island was big without being too big, so it was never a hassle to return to any of the on-site facilities, meaning it was actually FUN to move from location to location and collect everything, Arkham City just makes 100% feel like a daunting experience though, and not in a good way. I’m always looking for a challenge (look at my articles about Ninja Gaiden or Dark Souls for evidence), so difficulty wasn’t my concern. No, it was merely that the devs failed to hold my interest in collecting all the goodies they’ve strewn about.

Then there’s the story, which simply wasn’t as compelling as the first go-round. In short, it wasn’t as focused. More of the fan-favorite villains are introduced and provide some of the better boss battles in the series overall, but their inclusion didn’t feel so organic. They felt as if they’d been wedged into the plot, and again, it’s because the devs wanted ‘bigger and better’. Each villain has an intriguing story in and of themselves, but moving from one evil baddie to the next feels extremely disjointed. The inclusion of one villain in particular also ties in to another minor complaint I have, which is that Arkham City actually begins to stray from the grounded reality of its predecessor.

This is why I can’t understand why so many people prefer Arkham City over the original. Again, I understand that opinions are subjective and all, but I can’t help but feel that gamers are neglecting to take story and atmosphere into their overall consideration. Those are the things that made Asylum such a hit in the first place, and I feel that detaching those elements a bit was a big mistake.

Just so I’m clear though, I didn’t hate Arkham City. Not in the least. It was still a really enjoyable game. Playing as Catwoman was fantastic and I applaud Rocksteady for at least making her inclusion feel necessary. She’s probably the most engaging character in the game… outside of Batman, of course. Also, all the ‘levels’ you’ll visit in the city are really well done. Even more impressive is the amount of environmental hazards Rockstar implemented in each of these areas. Some are bad for the big bad Bat, some actually serve as advantages in a boss fight. I don’t want to give anything away, but I’ll say that one the biggest ‘oh shit’ moments I’ve had in this gaming gen, came from the Penguin’s temporary lair. Anyone who’s played this game knows about this unexpected way to die, and are likely to be even more irrationally afraid of in-game water than they already were. I know I am! Well played Rocksteady, well played. Thanks for making the water parts in The Last of Us that much scarier. Last but not least, the ending was far more satisfying (and shocking) than I had anticipated.

So after all is said and done, I definitely recommend playing both games. To miss on either one means you’ve missed on some of the greatest gaming this generation had to offer, and really, since both games are available as dirt-cheap ‘Game of the Year’ editions, there’s no reason for you to stay in the dark. This review/opinion piece was really the result of all the praise I’ve seen Arkham City receive over its predecessor. For my money, Arkham Asylum was a far more engaging and immersive experience in every perceivable way. I worry for the future of gaming if City is considered by most to be the pinnacle of Rocksteady’s work, because that means people actually care more about gameplay than the package overall… but then again, The Last of Us is already being touted as the best game of all time, and that’s BECAUSE of its story and character development. Sort of a mixed message that I’ve been receiving, but what can I do (besides bitch about it on the internet)?

As far as Arkham Origins is concerned, I’m actually not too pumped for it. I’m certainly intrigued, but Rocksteady isn’t working on the game, and when the original dev isn’t attached to such a project, that’s always cause for at least a little skepticism. The prequel route is also somewhat off the mark, because such a story should actually tie into the rest of the story in some way, shape or form. Unfortunately, game development doesn’t have a good track record in this respect. Just look at God of War: Ascension if you need an example. It’s a fine game, but completely unnecessary in the grand scheme of things. Here’s hoping the new dev is able to work a bit of magic instead of making the franchise feel stale. I have my fingers crossed, but I have a feeling that the best of the Arkham-verse is already behind us…

Bit-History: The Elder Scrolls V – Skyrim

My last Bit-History was dedicated to Oblivion, a game which had been touted as the definitive open-world/free-choice RPG. It wasn’t. The world at large felt like a sandbox that did little to differentiate one area from the next, and the main quest missions were the very definition of tedium. Because of my underwhelming experience with Elder Scrolls’ fourth installment, I was no longer sure about my place amongst the world of RPG’s – If Oblivion was considered the best of the best, and I found it to be disappointing in most every aspect… was my brief relationship with RPG’s at a close? Would I have to stay content with FPS and platform games? The answer to both is obviously no, since I went against my better judgment and decided to give Skyrim a shot. I guess the better question would be, “Why would you play Skyrim when you obviously loathed the game that came before it?”

I expected Skyrim’s release to be a major event, but the onslaught of coverage was too effective for me to ignore. I’m a big fan of gaming, so I keep myself up to date as much as humanly possible, regardless of whatever biases I’ve acquired along the way. A good rule of thumb for any gamer, especially serious ones is ‘Never judge the current state of a franchise on where it’s been.’ How many series began with a bit of a fumble, only to improve and become some of the most recognized names in gaming? Yeah, Far Cry and Assassin’s Creed say hello. So, I read every review, watched every video and looked at a bajillion opinions from actual gamers on the appropriate forums. What I had read sounded interesting enough, and as a fan of everything Viking, its look had more than piqued my interest. The gameplay actually showed off a variety of terrain (shocker!), and being able to hike throw snow peppered lands while taking on dragons as they attack from the sky? I couldn’t help but feverishly follow the hype… but still, I was careful to make an INFORMED decision, rather than make a blind leap to buy something I probably wouldn’t enjoy.

I am so, so glad I went against my better judgment and picked up this game.

After a brief tutorial which hinted at the disparity of the land, as well as an introduction to dragon battle, I found the true beginning of my journey in the wilderness. Well, a path on the wilderness, but it was still nothing but trees, snow-covered mountaintops and shrubs as far as the eye could see. I could already see this was going to be quite a different experience than Oblivion… this world looked fully realized, and I was hoping some exploration would complete that picture with a bit of variety. It did, but more on that in a bit. One other thing worth noting, was that I met this world with an orchestral score that was every bit as epic, majestic yet calming as anything out of Lord of the Rings… and this score plays a BIG part of the adventure that awaits. The game’s soundtrack is on, like, four CD’s, and the game has more than enough occasions to cycle through so none of the themes feel irritatingly recycled.

Anyway, I was walking my way down to a lower elevation, until I stumbled upon my next breathtaking sight – Running water. I know how ridiculous that sounds, but that stream seemed to be alive. Oh, and what was this? A fellow traveler is resting his haunches next to his lean-to! I walk over and introduce myself, and he happily tells me about the fruitful hunts he’s had in the area. Not only that, but he’s willing to share! He says something along the lines of, “There’s more than enough to go around, bud!” I agree, nod my head and smile… and then I realized something – I don’t really have any appropriate hunting equipment. At least, nothing long range. I decided to take a look in his inventory… he had a bow. So, I took a look around, making sure there were no witnesses to inform the nearest town of my wrongdoings… and made the hunter meet his maker. The bow was mine! His little bed beside his lean-to looked enticing, but I didn’t want to stay so close to the ‘evidence’, so I continued in my travels. For the rest of the game, that hunter had never respawned, proving each and every choice you make is everlasting. Oddly enough, I sort of felt bad after the fact, especially since this little item would be dropped by many-a-foe throughout the game.

Over the next some-odd hours, I made my way to the nearest town and learned how to do some chores for a bit of coin, and I pushed my way through a few caves which were inhabited by bandits. I wandered off the beaten path for a bit, and met some fairly dangerous animals along the way. After putting them down and taking their hides so I could eventually turn them into leather or leather strips, I visited my first major city. There I learned a great deal more about the situation in Skyrim, and the further I pressed through the main story, the more I began to realize how much better it was than Oblivion’s. Dragon’s which haven’t been seen for ages are beginning to rise, and there’s an ominous force behind them which must be stopped. Coincidentally, you learn you are ‘Dragonborn’, meaning you’re the only hope that Skyrim has. The world of man needs to stand together as well, but they’re too busy brewing a civil war to really care what that means in regards to their survival. The scope of the story is far greater, and more epic than anything Oblivion attempted to deliver. As a result of the story at hand, I felt more like a hero… like a man who was working with each separate faction to get them where they needed to be, as opposed to merely being their errand boy. Even so, I didn’t feel unstoppable – Regardless of all my efforts in mediation, the civil war would come to a head, and I would have to choose a side.

So yeah, I found the main quest to be a HUGE improvement over that of its predecessor. A civil war in the works with the threat of powerful dragons looming? What’s not to like? That being said, it really was the free-roam gameplay that sucked me in. Oblivion tried to offer the same sort of experience, but since its world wasn’t fully realized, nor feel as if it was truly inhabited with life, I never got into it… but in Skyrim? Oh, I wanted to see every piece of the map, so I stayed away from the main quest for a long, long time, just so I could explore. 70 hours dumped into the game, and I was probably only halfway through the main quest. Not only that, but I was STILL finding new locations! How crazy is that? That’s how massive this world is – To walk from one side to the other takes 30-ish minutes, and that’s if you’re taking the easiest route. Incorporate traveling through the mountains and you’re going to increase that time by quite a bit, especially if you’re the kind of adventurer who doesn’t mind stopping to admire the beauty of the land. Granted, the game allows you to fast-travel to locations you’ve visited, but I just didn’t want to. No, I wanted to keep walking, hunting, having random encounters, and come across various other surprises along the way. This is why the ‘open world’ of Skyrim works, and ultimately crushes the ‘reality’ that Oblivion failed to provide – There was enough people and events throughout this world to make it feel alive. I could be walking along at night, and see a powerful spellcaster take on some dangerous vampires. The appearance of towering giants made me stop in my tracks. Travelers would break down and require assistance. Assassins would just run at me out of nowhere, having my heart rate jump as I struggled to survive the battle. Merchants wandering the wilderness would offer me rare and even illegal products. Oh, and there’s plenty of random dragon encounters, too. We certainly can’t forget about that. And all this is only the tip of the iceberg – I can’t even begin to describe the variety of animals and creatures you’ll face along the way. Again, in short, Skyrim feels ALIVE… the land looks and feels REAL. Well, real enough at least, anyway.

Of course, there is more to a game than plot and aesthetic experience, and when it comes to RPG’s, a big part of the game comes from navigating menus. Menus allow you the ability to level up, equip armor/weapons and use items, and check on the status of your quests. Personally, I didn’t like the menus in Oblivion. They were all so dull, and as a result, using them felt like a chore (yes, even on the PC version), thus ruining the immersion. So, Bethesda streamlined the menu for Skyrim and PC fans everywhere cried foul. “EHRMAHRGAWRD, THEY MADE IT CONSOLE FRIENDLY! NOOOOO!” Not me, however. Things don’t need to be complicated in order to work, and I vastly prefer the menu system in Skyrim. Not only are they easier to navigate, but they all look vastly different from one another. For skills, you unlock ‘star branches’ from constellations in the night sky. Looking at items appears in a list that can be broken down by category, and you can always see the physical item and inspect it. Applying magic to weapons and armor looks a bit different, as does the quest menu… it never gets dull. When I look at my inventory, I feel like I’m looking at my own stuff, and not just a yellow parchment with reddish-brown lettering (yuck).

For me, Skyrim is one of the must play games of the last decade… but that’s not to say it’s perfect. Far from it, as a matter of fact. Skyrim has a TON of issues, the first major complaint stemming from battle. It’s a HUGE improvement over Oblivion, but it still feels wonky. People are so used to first person precision nowadays, that anything less feels unacceptable. Use of your shield and weapons aren’t terrible, but they do leave an awful lot to be desired, mainly because it doesn’t feel like you’re actually in control. Pushing your action buttons will allow you to raise a shield or swing a sword, but the animation happens a little after your command, not WITH it… like in any other first person game. To make the clumsiness of battle more awkward, the scaling of certain enemies just doesn’t make sense. I mean, if I can take countless DRAGONS down with ease, I should be able to take more than a single hit from a giant before I’m pushing daisies right? Or, even more lopsided are the times when you’re actually able to destroy dragons AND giants, yet an armored enemy in dungeon or keep will shred you like yesterday’s lettuce. Does that make ANY sort of sense whatsoever? No? OK, just making sure I wasn’t crazy or something.

Then, there’s the bugs and glitches. Many have been hammered out of course, but there’s still a good handful of quests that will get hung up, meaning you’ll never be able to complete them. There have been a few mid-quest tasks that just wouldn’t ‘activate’ for me, so they’re forever stuck in limbo. Actually, I once even encountered a bug in one of the main quest missions – A certain order of actions actually rendered my attacks to the enemy useless, and I had to clear the cache on my console in order to get things working right again. To be fair though, these really are minor inconveniences when compared to the amount of stuff there is to do in Skyrim. As I already said, I put 70 hours into this game without thinking twice… and I probably only touched a fraction of what the game had to offer. Bethesda had this to say – There are an almost infinite amount of possible ways to play this game, and virtually no one is going to replicate the same experience, step for step. As a result, some glitches are nearly impossible to find in testing, before AND after the fact. I accept this response from the devs, because the game is MASSIVE and there are bound to be flaws. Some people won’t accept this and say that more time should be spent on quality control… but when virtually every decision you make along the way is going to be unique from everyone else who plays the game, can we really expect Bethesda to find EVERY bug? Probably not. So, they get a pass from me… the game is just so immersive, I can skip a side quest without worry, because I know there’s more than enough to do no matter how much time I put into the game.

Honestly, I could sit here and write all day. In fact, I’ve already written a bit more than I usually do for a Bit-History piece, so I’m going to put a cap on the ‘review’ here. I’ve covered some of my favorite aspects of the game as well as why it craps all over Oblivion, as well as the negatives. If you’ve played this game, you already know how great this game is… but if you haven’t tried this game because you loathed Oblivion, take it from me… Skyrim is not to be missed.

Bit-History: Ninja Gaiden (Xbox)

I’m not here to discuss the original NES classic or any of the sequels that followed.  No, I’m talking about the third-person ninja platformer that appeared on the original Xbox, and if you’ve played this game, you’ll understand when I say that I have a love/hate relationship with it.

I’ve always been drawn to difficult games.  I know that a majority of gamers out there, who are mostly casual, have no patience for games that are deemed as punishing, but I freakin’ love ‘em.  Sure, it isn’t fun to have your ass handed to you on a regular basis, but there’s a sense of pride and satisfaction like no other when you’re able to progress.  This is what ultimately propels me to move forward, as opposed to stomping my controller into a million pieces while I unleash a string of expletives.  That being said, Ninja Gaiden was exposed to the world long before the likes of Demon’s Souls, so for years, Ninja Gaiden was the game that almost broke me.

Actually, let me rephrase that – Ninja Gaiden DID break me, and on more than one occasion.  It wasn’t until my third time around that I beat the game, but why did it take so long?  Because I got incredibly frustrated, obviously… perhaps more so than my days playing the punishing titles NES had to offer.  I kept going back however, because I’m an accomplished gamer gawdamnit, and I refuse to let a game beat me into submission.  So, because third time’s a charm, I played with one goal in mind – vengeance, and I finally emerged victorious.  At the sake of making it sound like I have no life – which couldn’t be further from the truth, as I’m a freelance writer for a popular DVD/Blu-ray review site, work full time and have a family at home – watching the end-credits roll produced an incomparable sense of pride.  Certainly not the highlight of my life or anything, but as a gamer, I’m not sure I’ve ever had the pleasure of experiencing THAT much satisfaction before.

For how difficult I’m claiming the game is (and really, how difficult anyone would tell you it is), let me be clear – Dark Souls makes Ninja Gaiden look like child’s play in comparison, but there’s no denying that Ninja Gaiden is still one of the most daunting trials of patience and endurance the gaming world has ever seen… and not always for the right reasons.  For starters, the camera often played a role in my demise.  It’s not as bad as some of the early N64 games (Super Mario 64, I’m looking at you), but for a game that requires lightning quick response time, it proved to be more than just a mere annoyance.

My biggest complaint however, is that the developer didn’t just craft a difficult game.  No, that would be too kind – Ninja Gaiden looks at the line between ‘hard’ and ‘evil’, and decidedly, like an a-hole, lunges to the evil side with a shit-eating grin on its face.  What exactly am I talking about here?  What single gameplay component was so bad, it actually took me out of the world the developers worked so hard to build?  I’ve got one word for you – ‘Waves’.  The easiest foes in the game have the potential to take you down if you’re not careful enough, and dealing with a few at once can be tricky… but there are PLENTY of moments where you’re trapped in a small area, with no means of escape… that is, until you defeat about 18 bajillion waves of bad guys.  I have no problem with endurance runs like this in any given game, but Ninja Gaiden almost made me feel like the game was broken, or like the enemies would respawn infinitely until I figured out some environmental puzzle.  Nah, that would have made too much sense.  The devs just wanted to make a hard game that much more difficult, and although they accomplish that with this gameplay mechanic and then some, it’s not for the better.  You just get bored and frustrated, and each of these ‘room traps’ just feel unbalanced from the rest of the game.  Ninja Gaiden is hard as fahk, but these endurance runs actually felt unfair.  All I could think about were the devs laughing their asses off… and I’m annoyed that they did something that was so unenjoyably underhanded.  They KNEW what they were doing.  You want proof?  Look no further than PS3’s Ninja Gaiden Sigma – The studio polished off the game for an HD remake/reimagining combo, and guess what?  They removed the frustratingly endless supply of enemy waves.  Thank gawd.

This introduces a larger issue than mere boredom however.  You see, the relationship between a developer and their games should be similar to that of Dr. Frankenstein and his ‘monster’ – The developers put their heart and soul into creating something, but once they’ve brought their project to life, it’s going to live and breathe on its own after the fact.  The gameplay should speak for itself, the locations, plot and characters should make you feel fully immersed.  What these ‘waves’ ended up doing instead, was make me feel like Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz – At first I was intimidated by the challenge, practically to the point of tears… but eventually found the truth hiding behind a little green curtain.  I was distracted from the experience the devs aimed to provide, and that’s never a good thing.

Now, I know my long rant makes it sound like I hate the game, but I actually feel the opposite.  I LOVE Ninja Gaiden, and mostly because everything the game does right completely overshadows the awful ‘wave trials’.  For the most part, the controls actually make you feel like an exacting ninja.  It takes a little practice to nail the timing, but you’ll soon find yourself doing parkour up walls, running circles around bad guys, and slicing them all with calculated precision.  Since each enemy actually provides a challenge, you feel like the bad-ass you’re meant to be as you stand over their defeat, because you actually have to work to come out on top.  The secret, is that like a true ninja (I would imagine), you have to keep moving.  Constantly.  Stay in one place too long, and there’s only one of two things that will happen – You’ll either get taken out, or you’ll find yourself hopelessly stuck in ‘block’.  Because you’re a ninja, you’re inherently quick… unlike your lumbering armored slowpoke in Dark Souls.  So, you can become rather efficient at being able to attack without getting hit on a regular basis, and there’s nothing more satisfying than finding that groove.  The combat may be one of the most challenging that gaming has ever offered, but again, it’s definitely one of the most rewarding.

Which pretty much blends into the main reason why I love Ninja Gaiden so much – Although it may look like it at first glance, this action slasher is NOT a button-masher.  The action is far more demanding than that, and perhaps even more impressive, is that the combat is actually sort of a puzzle in and of itself.  The game does offer a couple of legitimate puzzles, but it’s always fun to figure out the best way to take out each specific enemy.  Such a combination is rare nowadays, but I’m glad there are certain games out there that have embraced this gameplay style (again, Dark Souls, you make my heart aflutter).

Never played Ninja Gaiden?  It’s a shame.  It was probably one of the best games from the Xbox/PS2 era, but if you own a 360, you can still play it today, as it’s one of the few titles that had been backwards compatible.  If you want a difficult experience that actually feels more fair, then you should definitely pick up Ninja Gaiden Sigma for the PS3.  Besides, despite the fact that Ninja Gaiden was made years and years ago, the HD remake is actually rather gorgeous.  Don’t like difficult games?  Well, man up.  Some of the best games ever made are horrid beasts that aim to make you feel like their bizotch, so get crackin’!  Are you really going to let a game such as this go unchallenged?  NEVAHHHHHH!

 

It’s a ‘Control’ Issue

Debating consoles over the years has been equal parts intriguing and frustrating.  I mean, there are so many aspects of gaming to dissect and so many different opinions to take into consideration, that you’re guaranteed to never have the same discussion twice.  There’s the hardware comparisons, the evolution of gameplay from platforming to the third dimension, which games are the best of all time, the importance of story versus gameplay, if video games can actually be considered art… and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.  That being said, there’s one aspect of these conversations that have been very cyclical for me, and I’d like to address it – Controllers.

Controllers have changed a lot since the beginning, haven’t they?  I mean, the Atari only had a joystick and a single button, yet we managed to make it out alive.  NES introduced a groundbreaking control scheme with its directional pad, as well as ‘B’ and ‘A’ buttons which were entirely separate from ‘select’ and ‘start’.  All of a sudden, it was possible to do pretty much anything.  The SNES controller further refined our gameplay experience by adding more buttons for our right thumb to access, and placed some bumper buttons up top for our index fingers… after all, our fingers weren’t doing anything up there before, so let’s put them summabitches to work, amiright?  AMIRIGHT?!  Today, we have more buttons, triggers and bumpers, and more.  Still, there’s one thing that can’t be denied – The influence of the SNES controller is evident in almost every design we’ve seen since.  There are some exceptions of course, but gaming might not have been the same without the SNES pad around for inspiration.

But much like every other aspect of gaming, I’ve come across a varying degree of opinions in regards to which control scheme is best.  Everyone has different preferences, but those who seem to prefer the ‘unique’ controls of the Wii-mote or the Gamecube controller always have the same thing to say… and this is the only aspect of ‘game talk’ that I seem to relive over and over again – “Well at least they’re trying to do something different, instead of copying the SNES/PS1 controller”, and they say that like it’s a bad thing.  Correct me if I’m wrong, but since when was the SNES or PS1 controller considered an abomination to mankind?  Who EVER had a negative thing to say about their experience with such hardware?  Nobody… and you know why?  Because they just worked, that’s why.  They were mostly comfortable AND intuitive, and allowed us to make the most out of the games that were coming out at the time, if not ever since.

I get the angle that some gamers just want new and inventive ways to play their games, instead of feeling like they’re doing the same thing over and over again, but I feel like those people are just trying a little too hard to distance themselves from a trend.  You know the old saying – If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.  Well, Sony and Microsoft both apparently understand this in regards to their controllers.  The PS controller added more buttons up top and eventually a couple of joysticks.  They’ve had little need to change it since.  Microsoft originally released a massive controller for the original Xbox, but eventually scaled it back and then perfected their design with the Xbox 360.  In fact, I’d probably rate the Xbox 360 controller the best of all time, even though it’s D-pad sucks and isn’t really built for those quick, button-mashing fighter games, like Street Fighter IV and Mortal Kombat.

So, how is it that Sony and Microsoft apparently get what works with their gaming controllers, yet the original trend setting Nintendo, does not?

N64 – Let’s be honest, this wasn’t a great controller.  It worked, yes, and there isn’t a single N64 game that feels comfortable unless you’re specifically using this controller… but come on.  You had three handles on the damn thing, one of which was absolutely useless (hint: it was the left one).  Your left hand always had to use the center grip, because that’s where the essential joystick and Z-trigger had been located.  The A/B buttons in combination with the C buttons were just sort of awkward, and those pesky yellow dots weren’t comfortable to press.

Gamecube – I rank this one as the worst of all time.  I’ve had someone tell me that it felt so comfortable it practically melted in their hands… and you know what?  I’ll agree with them on that – When I was holding this thing, it was heaven.  Those triggers up top were magnificent and really helped to seal the deal.  That being said, using the buttons on this damn thing was an entirely different experience.  You had a usable stick on the left, but on the right was this short, nubby little ‘C Stick’, which was mostly awkward.  Next, the A button was transformed into a ginormous red panic button, and the X and Y buttons were made into almost rectangular shaped buttons that formed around it, so they weren’t comfortable to use either.  Nintendo wanted this controller to look fun, but actually using this piece of hardware was anything but.

Wii – Yayyy!  Motion controls!  Grand in theory, but a failure in practice.  I’ll give you one simple reason why – The nunchuk.  You could use motion controls, but you had to have a small handheld joystick for the other hand… which wasn’t wireless, but leached power from the Wii-mote itself via a cord, hence ‘nunchuk’.  It worked well enough together, but if they were going to go through all that trouble, they should have made the joystick wireless, or even go back to making traditional controllers.  But, oh, the fun doesn’t stop here, does it?  You can use a ‘classic controller’… but not unless it was plugged into the Wii-mote, which you wouldn’t be using anyway since both hands would have been on the classic controller!  GAHHH!

Wii-U – OK, this is actually kind of cool, but still rather silly.  Tablets are all the rage now, so OF COURSE Nintendo had to make their latest and greatest controller a freakin’ tablet.  There are some really cool ideas in its implementation, a major draw for me being the fact that you can have your kid play on the tablet while you can watch your regularly schedule programming.  Still… the thing is a TABLET.  It’s BIG.  It doesn’t really feel all that comfortable to hold, in my opinion.  Again, it just feels like another gimmick, and Nintendo… you need to stop taking advantage of stupid people by selling them a gimmick every time they get a paycheck.

My intention isn’t to pick on Nintendo, exactly, but it just so happens to be their controllers to have pissed me off over the years.  Anyway, my point is this – Just because something hasn’t changed much over the years (such as the controller designs used by Sony and Microsoft), doesn’t mean a decline in quality or performance.  If anything, these companies have found something that has worked VERY well, and instead of trying to change the way we control our games every other minute, they have instead focused their resources on refining what already works.

Controllers shouldn’t be the constant game changer from generation to generation… it should be the gameplay itself (amiright, AMIRIGHT?!).  How do you change the FPS game?  Look at the open world mechanics of Far Cry 3 or the upcoming Killzone Shadow Fall for inspiration there.  How do you change third person sandbox games?  Look at Watchdogs, which allows you to hack into pretty much anything with a small electronic device (in-game, of course).  I think there are plenty of people who think that gaming has gone as far as it can in the gameplay department, but that’s just bullcrap.  A devs imagination is the limit, is it not?  They are literally creating something out of nothing, right?  So why do people say, “This is it!  All we have our Grand Theft Auto, Call of Duty and Halo games!”  No, you’re just not looking hard enough.  Try something outside of the mainstream, folks, you may just realize that it isn’t the controllers that are providing you with better experiences after all….