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In Defense of Nostalgia

“That’s just the nostalgia talking.”

After reading Liore’s post about starting to play Final Fantasy 7 for the first time (from the latest Steam sale), I started thinking about nostalgia. After all, I still consider FF7 in my top three favorite videogames of all time. I have undoubtedly played other games for longer – and it’s likely that I’ve played “better” games since then – but a component of what I describe as “favorite” includes impact on my life.

Nostalgia is always used as a pejorative in videogame discussions, a way of dismissing the assertion that X is better than Y, or that X is still good at all. Hell, I have probably used the term in the same manner. But it seems clear to me now that the “charge” of nostalgia is a bit too sweeping. Sure, sometimes you think something is (still) good simply because you liked it when you were younger. But sometimes you do just so happen to experience a revolution or cultural event as a child. Was the moon landing “just nostalgia talking”? Was MLK’s speeches “just nostalgia talking?”

The cultural impact of FF7 in gaming specifically cannot be overstated. It has sold 10 million copies as of 2010, which might not sound impressive for a game that came out in 1998, but keep in mind that that still makes it the best-selling Final Fantasy title of all time. It pretty much popularized the (J)RPG genre in the United States, and arguably sold the original PlayStation by itself. The graphics, which admittedly don’t hold up well at all today, were revolutionary at the time. And the music? The end of Disc 1? One-Winged Angel? There is a reason why so many people cosplay as FF7 characters and not, say, characters from FF6 or FF4 or FF9.

But let’s assume that is just nostalgia talking. Well… when does nostalgia not talk? Is everything from the past suspect? Do things only get better over time? Are all the good things in gaming just conveniently occurring right now? (Hint: Many MMO bloggers are saying no.) I am not entirely sure that a hyper-focus on the present is any less ridiculous than a longing for the past.

I will be the first to admit I have criticized someone for having “rose-colored glasses” in regards to wistfully looking back to, say, TBC WoW game design. And I do actually still stand by those criticisms: there is nothing about TBC that I don’t honestly and truly believe Wrath improved (with the exception of Kara, maybe). But… I dunno. I’m not sure anymore that I can legitimately claim “that’s just nostalgia talking” in one instance and not levy the same damnation on a game like FF7. Vanilla WoW or even TBC WoW were just as groundbreaking at the time, in their contexts, as FF7 or anything else. Cataclysm? Much less so.

Nostalgia remains a tricky subject though. Can something be both legitimately revolutionary and not hold up to today’s scrutiny? Probably. Like… Pong, maybe. And surely there are others too, although the first thing that came to mind, Super Mario Bros, actually holds up IMO. Secret of Mana? The music alone buoys the game. And, again, I’m not entirely sure why a game “not holding up” is necessarily a deficiency of the game anyway. A timeless classic in other mediums remains amazing by definition, but it is not as though we continuously invent new ways of reading books or watching movies. Meanwhile, there are millions of different iterations on combat systems or simple object interaction. Holding games to the same standards of books and other mediums seems like an unfair comparison in that regard.

And really, who cares if it is “just nostalgia”? Regardless of whether FF7 holds up, it had a significant impact on my (gaming) life if nothing else. I created save files in front of every CG cutscene and showed my friends when they came for sleep-overs. Remember the Mako Junon Cannon firing? I was showing them that one and my friend David quipped “Is that the gun?” when the camera was panning to the side turrets. I paused a beat and then said “No, that’s the gun” as the Cannon came on-screen. That IRL moment couldn’t get more cinematic if we tried.

As I mentioned at the top, I have undoubtedly played other games for longer amounts of time, and probably have played objectively better games too. Nevertheless, I’m not entirely sure whether my favorite games of all time list have really changed. To be honest, I haven’t thought about it all that much. Bastion was good enough to dislodge some SNES game, surely, but which one? Hell, can I even get myself to play my supposedly favorite games again? And if I can’t, should that even mean anything?

I dunno. I also purchased FF7 during the latest Steam sale, and am looking forward to playing it again with no mods (besides the music one that makes it sound like the PS1 original). Will it hold up? Will my opinion on it change? We’ll see. Maybe not soon, but eventually. And then perhaps I should give Xenogears and Final Fantasy Tactics another try too, seeing as they hold spots #1 and #3 respectfully.

Review: XCOM: Enemy Unknown

Game: XCOM: Enemy Unknown
Recommended price: $15
Metacritic Score: 89
Completion Time: 22 hours
Buy If You Like: Relatively simple but slick Tactical Sci-Fi games

I do what I want.

It’s the only way to be sure.

XCOM: Enemy Unknown is a reboot of the 1990s cult-classic tactical title of the same name. In this game, you take charge of the XCOM project, which is a worldwide military response to what appears to be an alien invasion of Earth. You engage in a series of turn-based tactical battles, which is then broken up by periods of base building and resource management inbetween alien incursions.

Combat is “team turn-based,” which means that you can move all of your own units before giving the floor over to the aliens to do the same. Individual unit turns boil down to “Move + Shoot/Ability,” while trying to make an effort to end your turn next to some cover.  As units earn experience, they gain levels and can unlock new abilities/bonuses in their class’s (limited) talent tree. There are a number of different weapons and armor types available (including special items like Grenades and Medkits), but for the most part they are limited to the class they are designed for.

If this all sounds pretty simple, that is because it is. While XCOM won a number of accolades and serious blogging goodwill for its tactical combat, its primary accomplishment is simply existing as a tactical offering at all in a desert of similar titles. At no particular point did I find myself especially challenged tactically, at least in terms of historical titles like Fallout Tactics, Final Fantasy Tactics, Tactics Ogre, Suikoden Tactics, and so on. While I did “only” play on Normal Ironman mode (Ironman meaning you cannot reload a saved game to avoid a team member death), I simply do not see enough moving parts to justify some claim to XCOM’s tactical brilliance. In particular, I have a problem with team turn-based gameplay leading to “dogpile tactics” (maneuvering units so as to unload a full turn’s worth of damage without recourse), combined with an enemy that almost always waits patiently for you to discover them before taking any initiative at all. And then there are a few of XCOM’s uniquely questionable design decisions, such as not showing the range on, say, Sniper Rifles.

Kinda overkill, but it looks cool.

Luckily the aliens give you all the time you need to get into position.

Some of the lack of complexity in the tactical segments is made up in the planning stages. Character growth and equipping is straightforward, but trying to juggle base expansion, e.g. building more research centers vs power plants vs ect, with the other demands like satellites for XCOM member states or research into better weapons can get a little dicey. While I got a handle on things by the end of my first playthrough, I was not particularly sure whether the complexity was via the underlying systems or if it were just random chance that, say, China kept getting bombarded by UFOs.

All of this is not to suggest that XCOM is a bad game. It is, in fact, a fun game that I think is an auto-buy at $15 or below. I just want to distance myself from the blogging narrative that XCOM is some kind of superstar in the tactical gameplay arena. It certainly wins the “best tactical game in years” award, but it does so due to an utter lack of competition. If you enjoy this subgenre you will enjoy XCOM, but you will likely find most of your planning taking place outside of the tactical battles rather than in them.

XCOMed

By the time this gets posted, I will probably be done with my first play-through of XCOM: Enemy Within after ~20 hours.

Taking the advice of many others, I started out with Normal Ironman difficulty which turns the game into a sort of roguelike. While I have lost quite a few agents, the majority of them were rookie redshirts I tasked with carrying around the stun gun to take the aliens alive. A sort of morbid hazing ritual, if you will. An unfortunate few were grizzled veterans who got one-shot by new alien types before I had a chance to realize the danger. Or simply victims of poor planning when the only guy with a Medkit is the one bleeding to death. Too bad all the people standing around him cannot, you know, take the Medkit from his pocket and spray him, but I suppose knowledge of medicinal nanomachine application is only imparted at the character select screen.

I always find it interesting how I start developing relationships with the randomly generated characters though. Name, gender, nickname, nationality, and even class are all randomly determined, but you can customize some of those qualities. One stun gun redshirt managed to beat the odds and survive the bagging of two new alien species… and suddenly I am taking Chloe Dupont the saucy German Assault trooper with me everywhere. Mechanically, Chloe is indistinguishable from any of the other max-level Assault troopers, but I have had more fun ordering her watching her aggressively breach UFOs armed with a shotgun and the same stun gun she has carried since her initiation than any of the others. Just yesterday there was a rather hilarious moment when I put her on Overwatch mode, and during the enemy turn one Muton Elite turned a corner only to get an Alloy shot in the face, while a second Muton triggered her auto-reaction shot when it climbed a ladder I didn’t realize she was standing next to. It was practically a scene out of an action movie.

Other times, I sorta feel bad bringing, say, any new sniper because that entire class is cursed. “Sorry, Yoshio Saito of Japan. You’re probably going to die.” Sure enough, that is the mission when the aliens start using grenades, a redshirt bites the dust, my other redshirt panics and, in defiance of his accuracy rate for the entire goddamn mission up to this point, shoots Saito in the back of the head, killing him instantly.

Anyway, game is pretty fun thus far and the full review will need to wait until A) I finish, and possibly B) I try out Classic Ironman. The only negative I have is the slight impression that the game isn’t really all that deep for a “tactical” game. A lot of times I feel like I’m playing a turn-based Dawn of War 2, or one of those WW2 squad-based cover games. Also, the game is terrible when it comes to indicating at which locations (and elevations!) you can actually see/shoot at the aliens someone else sees before moving there. If you have already committed your game to having grid-based movement, give me grid-based weapon ranges and Line-of-Sight indicators.

XCOM is no Final Fantasy Tactics, or Tactics Ogre for that matter, but it is pretty good nevertheless.

The List

Just for fun, the following is the list of old games/systems/etc that I’m selling to that website:

NES

  • Nintendo console w/ cords
  • Nintendo console without cords (may not work)
  • Two Original controllers
  • Nintendo Advantage controller (arcade-style gamepad)
  • Blaster Master
  • Metal Gear
  • Battle Chess
  • Super Mario Bros
  • Super Mario Bros 2
  • Super Mario Bros 3 (two copies)
  • Dr Mario
  • Metroid (+instructions)
  • Mega Man 3
  • Castlevania 3: Dracula’s Curse
  • Top Gun
  • Duck Tales

SNES

  • Super Nintendo console w/ cords
  • Original controller
  • 3rd party controller (unknown brand, has turbo and slow buttons)
  • Mouse and Mouse pad (two mouse pads) for Mario Paint
  • Zombies Ate My Neighbors (+box plus instructions)
  • Chrono Trigger (+box plus instructions)
  • Illusion of Gaia (+box plus instructions)
  • Populous (+box plus instructions)
  • The Chessmaster
  • Secret of Mana
  • Sim City (+box plus instructions)
  • Super Metroid (+box plus instructions)
  • TMNT Tournament Fighters (+instructions)
  • Star Fox (+instructions)
  • Mario Paint (+instructions)
  • The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past (+instructions)
  • Super Mario All-Stars
  • Final Fantasy 3

Sega Genesis

  • Beavis & Butthead (+box plus instructions)
  • Jurassic Park (+box plus instructions)
  • Sonic the Hedgehog 2 (+box)
  • Streets of Rage 2 (+box)
  • Madden ’94 (+box)

N64

  • Nintendo 64 console w/ cords and box
  • Two Original controllers

Special Note

I seem to have misplaced all my N64 games, but I still have boxes/instructions for:

  • The Legend of Zelda: Orcarina of Time Collector’s edition box + instructions
  • Perfect Dark box + instructions
  • Conker’s Bad Fur Day box + instructions
  • Turok 2: Seeds of Evil box + instructions
  • Golden Eye: 007 box + instructions
  • Star Fox 64 box + instructions

Instruction Manuals

Similar to the N64 situation, I have loose sets of instructional manuals for the following games:

  • Battletoads (NES)
  • Super Mario 64 (N64)
  • Wave Race 64 (N64)

Gamecube

  • Gamecube console w/ cords
  • Four Original controllers (silver, purple, black x2)
  • Resident Evil Zero (+case and instructions)
  • Super Smash Bros Melee (+case and instructions)
  • Tales of Symphonia (+case and instructions)

___________________

The whole collection above is being bought for $375. I did do some research beforehand, and realize that a lot of those SNES games could fetch ~$50 by themselves. Indeed, Conker’s Bad Fur Day for N64 could have sold for $45 to the same website – it is supposedly a very Rare game (get it, get it… oh nevermind). Regardless, I feel pretty comfortable with $375 if only because it saves me the trouble of having to micromanage dozens of individual eBay auctions.

Finally, for the record, I had more games for these systems than listed above; I just had a tendency to sell them back to the used game place for store credit.

I am not entirely sure I will ever sell my Playstation collection though. Final Fantasy Tactics, FF7, Xenogears, Tenchu 1 & 2, Chrono Cross, Silent Hill… sigh. Soon it will be 15 years since any of these cases were opened, but I suppose there are lines even I won’t yet cross. Then again, none of those games are backwards compatible with the PS3, so once my PS2 shuts down for good… damn.