Games for broke people, procedurally generated edition

I’m still dedicated to writing about games that you don’t have to pay one cent for (or one of whatever sub-denomination of currency you use.)  But the problem is that a lot of free games out there are buggy, boring, and/or unfinished, some of which I suspect are student projects that would otherwise be bound for the trash.  Or they’re MMOs, which I have no interest in playing no matter how well-made.  So I started digging around, this time on itch.io, to find something at least worth the time it would take to download, and I came across a strange sub-genre of procedurally generated games.

Well, the term “game” might not quite fit in this case.  These are more like simulations or art pieces that you can walk through.  Still, that won’t stop me from writing about them.  I’ve already written about a game that consisted entirely of a five-minute boat ride and nothing else, and Becalm is about as much of a game as the following programs are.

Pattern

If you like the general idea of the world of Minecraft but you hate all the gameplay parts of it, Pattern is for you.  This program generates an endless land/seascape featuring forests, beaches, and what are either lakes or different sections of an ocean surrounding a bunch of islands.  It’s hard to tell.  As you run around aimlessly, night turns to day and back to night while the trees, ground and sky change color from green to red and back and a minute-long ambient loop repeats in the background.  There are a few interesting sights that break the monotony, but this describes 95 percent of the experience.

I might have sounded pretty underwhelmed in that last paragraph, but I basically like Pattern.  I find it relaxing.  There’s nothing going on in this world, at least from what I could tell, but that’s okay.  According to Talking Heads, Heaven is a place where nothing ever happens, so maybe Pattern is what Heaven will be like for those lucky enough to get in?

Wave Function Collapse

If Pattern isn’t a game, Wave Function Collapse really isn’t a game.  It consists of an infinite M. C. Escher-esque city full of staircases, balustrades, and classical-looking columns and arches that you can run over, across, and through, and that’s it. There’s no music, there’s not even sound, and there’s also apparently no way to quit the program other than alt+f4.  This one is kind of interesting just because it really does look like a city designed entirely by a computer – completely cold and inhuman, even lacking color.  Reminds me of the Copied City from NieR:Automata.

I had no idea what the title of this program meant, so I looked it up. According to Wikipedia, “wave function collapse is said to occur when a wave function—initially in a superposition of several eigenstates—appears to reduce to a single eigenstate due to interaction with the external world.”  So there you go.

SiCoTa N

According to creator Jonathan A. Daley, SiCoTa N is “[a] procedurally generated interactive environment whose movement is driven by the trigonometric functions of Sine, Cosine, and Tangent.”

Now look, I barely know a thing about how to do math beyond everyday business-related stuff.  I do remember studying sine, cosine and tangent from the trigonometry class I took in high school, but I don’t really remember what they are or know how they relate to the insane shit going on in this program, what with the cubes bouncing and the undulating polygons and block towers.  It is possible to jump off the edge of the platform to escape the madness (see right) but that won’t stop the bizarre noise music in the background from playing.  I think the background music is also procedurally generated, in fact.  I get the feeling that I just don’t understand SiCoTa N, but maybe you will if you’re a math major.

Okay, I promise I’ll review real games next time.  Probably.  I do recommend Pattern as a stress-reliever, though.  Works for me.

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A review of OneShot (PC)

Yeah, I’m late again, aren’t I? OneShot was making the rounds back in 2016/2017, and here I am about two years after the party ended as usual.  But I’ve finally played it. This RPG Maker game was originally a free title released in 2014, but it got a massive overhaul along with a completely new chapter near the end of 2016. This is the version that’s been put up for sale on Steam, and it’s the version I played.

So, uh. How to approach this one. This game isn’t that easy to review for reasons that will hopefully become apparent. OneShot is the story of Niko, a child with cat-like features (big yellow cat eyes and fangs and whiskers – not a cat, though, as we’ll learn later on) who wakes up in a creepy dark house alone. Well, he’s not quite alone – you, the player, are with him.* After finding a mysterious self-lighting light bulb, Niko finds his way out of the house into a strange fantasy world totally different from his own. There, Niko finds a robot dressed like a holy man, who calls him “Savior” and tells him the light bulb he found is this world’s new sun and that his mission is to bring it to the top of a massive tower to restore light to the world, replacing the old sun that broke one day without warning. This world contains independent light and power sources, but they’re finite, and once they’re exhausted, the world will be shrouded in darkness.

I mean no pressure or anything, you know

The robot also instructs Niko to contact you. Yes, you, the player. So Niko closes his eyes and tries talking to you… and you respond to him. Through predetermined dialogue options and dialogue trees, but you do respond to him. Holy robot man tells the amazed Niko that that’s god talking to him and that god (i.e. you) will be guiding him throughout his quest.

I played Contact a long time ago, a DS JRPG that broke the fourth wall. I also played Undertale, the game that OneShot always seems to be compared with, and that game broke the fourth wall as well. OneShot doesn’t just break the fourth wall – it demolishes the damn thing, 1989 Berlin Wall style. You, the player sitting behind the screen, are one of the main characters in OneShot, and everyone in the world knows you exist… including the game itself.  I can’t elaborate on what that means without spoiling parts of the game, so I’ll leave it at that.

As you guide Niko through this strange world, you’ll have to help him solve puzzles, typically by finding, trading, using, and combining items in your inventory. There’s no combat, no boss battles, nothing like that. That’s not to say Niko’s not in any danger – the world he’s meant to save is collapsing bit by bit for reasons that remain unknown to its residents.

Industrial equipment also poses a danger to Niko (not really, though.)

Along the way, Niko meets some of the residents of the world who decide to help him out, partly because they recognize him as the savior (some of them even address him as Messiah) who will return their sun to the tower and save the world.  Well, maybe save the world.  There seems to be disagreement among the world’s citizens as to whether restoring the sun will stop the strange instances of corruption and decay that have been occurring, eating up the land and swallowing it into a void.  Even so, they’re putting all their hopes on you and Niko to do your best to save them.

Well shit, thanks for telling us that now.

While Niko finds friends throughout his journey, the most important character relationship in OneShot is the one between Niko and the player.  Niko will sometimes talk to you when you direct him to make certain decisions, and there are a few points in the game where he opens up about the world he comes from and asks about you and your world.  It’s easy to imagine the writer screwing this up by making Niko irritating, but he’s not.  Niko is a pretty smart kid, but he’s not annoyingly precocious; he takes the challenges presented to him in stride, but he still misses his mom and the rest of his family and friends in his village and wants to go home.  This desire becomes evident if you decide to let Niko take a nap in one of the few usable beds scattered around the game world.  When you put Niko to bed, the game saves and closes, and upon opening it again you’ll get to witness Niko having a dream about being back home before he wakes up and continues his journey.

Niko dreams of pancakes.

Niko’s characterization is one of the greatest strengths of OneShot.  Your first run of the game will probably take about three to five hours to complete, so you don’t really spend that much time with Niko, but the writer used that time very effectively.  By the end of that first run, I wanted to protect Niko at all costs, because he’s a good kid and he deserves to go back home, damn it.  People often compare OneShot to Undertale, but if there’s one big difference between them, it’s that while Undertale made me care about the world of the game, OneShot made me care about its protagonist.

I’m sure this game won’t present me with a dilemma that plays on the fact that I want to protect this kid

I like the game’s art style.  You can tell it’s an RPG Maker game, but the character designs are great, the character portraits are nice and expressive, and I love some of the weird little details included in the game’s settings.  The world itself isn’t very big for a game of this kind, but it’s got quite a bit to explore, with a lot of flavor dialogue and descriptive text and a few secrets to reward the obsessive completionist who has to talk to everyone and find every available item.  It’s certainly possible to speed through OneShot if you’re good at working out logic puzzles, but a lot of the game’s charm comes from wandering around and talking to everyone you and Niko can find.  The game’s background music adds to the experience – none of the tracks jumped out to me as amazing, but they’re all perfectly fitting if that makes sense.

If there’s one criticism I can make of OneShot, it’s that the other characters in the story aren’t all that fleshed out.  Not that they couldn’t be – most of them seem interesting, but it feels like you and Niko just kind of fly by them on your way to the ending.  You do get to revisit these characters in the game’s new final chapter, though.

Not a cat, not a Persona 5 reference

Time to give this game a score, I guess.  How about a 6 out of 7?  Yeah, that fits.  OneShot might just be an RPG Maker game, but like Yume Nikki, it manages to do something special with a relatively limited program.  The highest praise I can give OneShot is that it surprised me and kept me guessing all the way to the end of the final chapter.  It’s well worth buying.  As for the older free version, it’s still available to play, but it doesn’t contain the final chapter of the game, and it requires the player to play through without quitting the game except at the beds.  This is apparently why the game was titled OneShot – it only gave you one shot to beat it.  Kind of a harsh restriction, though.  Check it out if you feel like it, but this Steam version seems to be the definitive one.

Okay, I’m tired.  Two posts in the span of 48 hours is a lot for me.  Maybe I’ll go to bed and dream of pancakes. 𒀭

 

* I know Niko’s gender is never addressed in the game, but I always thought of Niko as a boy for some reason, and so I refer to him. Niko just as easily might be thought of as a girl.  It doesn’t really matter.

Music review: Moe Moe EP by Moe Shop

There’s even an out-of-print cassette version for people who are nostalgic for their Walkmans

When I was a kid, CDs were amazing.  They were the big new thing.  Now a CD release is a novelty, and I feel old.  And depressed.

What’s the solution to my depression?  Music won’t cure it, but it sure as hell helps.  I’ve written about the mysterious indie musician/composer Moe Shop once before (that’s moe as in the anime/manga-derived concept of cuteness, not like Moe from The Simpsons) but I haven’t written a proper review of Moe Moe, an EP released last year that’s so damn good I went out of my way to order a physical copy.  The cover really suits the music – this is full of bright electro-funk like someone attached a giant plug to your head and funneled cute female vocals and funk basslines and beats into it.

To be honest with you, dear reader, I wasn’t sure whether to post this review here or on my other site.  This album doesn’t have anything to do with games.  It’s not even a game soundtrack, or an anime series soundtrack, or anything like that – it’s just standalone music.  But I figure this music is weeb/anime-ish enough that it qualifies for inclusion here.  The first time I referred to Moe Shop, I said it was like Parliament-Funkadelic if it were composed of cute anime girls. Like a cute P-Funk that isn’t stoned, or at least isn’t quite as stoned as the actual P-Funk. That’s probably a stupid analogy, but I can’t think of a better one.  I know this stuff is called “future funk”, but I still don’t really know what that means exactly.  Something to do with vaporwave, I guess.

Enough of my bullshit – let’s get to the songs.  There are six on this album, and they’re all good.  However, there are three songs that I especially like.  Virtual is a bit slow-paced and very relaxing, with really nice, smooth vocals and instrumentation (each song has a different singer/lyric-writer collaborating, but all the music is written by Moe Shop.)  Lovesick is quite different.  It’s got a sort of tense feeling, with weirdly deadpan vocals that fit that feeling perfectly.  Deadpan in a good way, though, not in an overly affected way, if you know what I mean. Finally, there’s Notice, which features the line “senpai notice me” in the chorus, which pretty much makes the song worth listening to by itself.  But it’s also got a great driving beat, very cute singing, and pretty depressing lyrics if you bother to read them (or the English translation posted in the song’s Youtube video description.)  The other three songs are good as well, especially the opener Magic, but they just don’t press my buttons in quite the same way.

I’ll give Moe Moe a 6 out of 7 – very solid album all around, and even the tracks I don’t like as much are still pretty nice. Make that a really strong 6, though.  I can’t say this album is absolutely perfect, but it’s close enough, and playing this little EP in the car helped me get through a couple of really bad weeks last year when I felt like driving my car into the river on the way to work.

The artist him/herself has posted these songs on Youtube and Soundcloud, so I wouldn’t feel too bad about listening to them there for free if I were you, but it’s also available on Bandcamp if you feel like buying a digital copy. The physical copy I’ve got also includes each of the tracks without vocals (I guess you can use them to sing over yourself, or to sing to with your drunken friends at karaoke night?)  Anyway, the instrumentals seem to be exclusive to the physical release, and that was a limited run, so good luck finding a copy if you want it. The physical copy also comes with a lyric sheet, most of which I can’t read. Nothing new if you’re a collector of imported goods from countries whose languages you’re not fluent in.  Like me.

CD inserts and lyric sheets are a novelty now too, aren’t they?

By the way, sorry for the lack of game-related posts – I’ve been working overtime the last few weeks. I do have a couple of reviews coming up, though.  Still working through that backlog.

Okay, I’ll shut up now.  Until next time.

Seven super-extended video game tracks to work/study/meditate to

Relax with some popular and also some semi-obscure music that’s mostly from JRPGs I like

I’ve been pulling hard at the oars these last weeks, working through Saturday and Sunday.  A lawyer’s work is never done.  Thank God, I now have a job that lets me sit down and work in peace without being harassed by moody partners, anxious clients, and support staff who are just trying to deal with said partners and clients.  In other words, I get to put on some actual god damn music while I work, a fact that makes it worth not having medical benefits anymore.

And what better music is there to put on than some of my favorite video game tracks?  Whether you’re an expendable white-collar grunt like me or a college student studying for finals so you can also become a white-collar grunt, the following music might help you get into the right kind of mindset to take on hours of tedious work.  Just an aside before I get started – yes, six of the seven tracks here are from JRPGs, but that’s naturally how it turned out.  Did you expect anything else from me?  Finally, I’ve posted links to super-extended edits of these songs on Youtube for your convenience in case you think any of my recommendations are worth taking.

7) Digital Devil SagaMuladhara

Is it any surprise that I’m starting this list with a Shoji Meguro piece?  Probably not if you’ve read any of my other posts.  Digital Devil Saga sits under the Megami Tensei umbrella of games and has an excellent score written by Meguro, who has done soundtrack duty on most of the Megaten games.  A lot of the music in DDS and DDS2 is straightforward hard rock stuff, but the games also feature some mellow mood-setting tracks like “Muladhara”.  This one reminds me of an overcast rainy day, which might be because that’s the weather in the area of town your main characters are camping out in where this music plays.  But it also has that kind of “rainy” feel, where you just sit inside and don’t feel like going anywhere.  That’s my favorite kind of weather if I don’t have to go out, and even if I do, I prefer overcast days to sunny ones, so maybe that’s why I like this song so much.

6) Final Fantasy VIIIBreezy

I know FF8 is a little controversial as far as Final Fantasy games go, what with its janky magic system and its nonsensical plot (though the latter is a standard for FF games.)  And I’m really not a fan of sappy stuff like “Eyes On Me”.  But aside from that wet fish of a love song, FF8 sure as hell has a great soundtrack.  “Force Your Way” is my favorite FF battle song, and I love a lot of the other themes in the game.  As far as relaxing, meditative pieces go, though, “Breezy” is probably the best.  Nobuo Uematsu knows how to set a mood, whether that mood is lighthearted or tense or apocalyptic, and “Breezy” is one of his best mood-setting pieces.  Very simple – just a guitar playing a nice melody.  It’s good to relax to.  Same goes for Balamb Garden from the same soundtrack.

Also good music to ellipsis to

5) Phantasy Star OnlineMother Earth of Dishonesty

This song might have more of a relaxing effect on you if you haven’t played Phantasy Star Online.  If you have, it will conjure up images of a creepy forest full of monsters and alien chickens that play dead when you beat them up.  If you haven’t, it might just sound slightly ominous.  That might be just the kind of music you need if you’re running up against finals right now (and you are if you’re reading this at the time I’m posting it, around mid-April.  Take heed if you’re a procrastination-loving college student like I used to be: open those books now, before it’s too late.  Don’t let your anxiety get the better of you, but don’t put your studies off, either.  That microeconomics textbook isn’t going to read itself.)

Sorry for the tangent.  This is a good song, and PSO has a good soundtrack.  If you end up failing some of your finals because you put off studying too long, I recommend giving it a play on an emulator – it might put things into perspective.  At least you’re not a freelance hunter getting your face clawed off by an alien monster.  Though I can’t blame you if you think that would be a better fate than suffering through finals.  I felt that way too when I was a student.

4) Skies of ArcadiaUninhabited Island

Imagine yourself on the deck of an old-fashioned sailing ship at night, and now imagine that it’s flying in the air, and that you’re the valiant captain of a crew of good-guy pirates.  And then imagine that you wreck on an island, also drifting in the sky, and you’re stranded there alone for a while.  That’s the feeling I get from this track from Skies of Arcadia.  I guess that description won’t make any sense if you haven’t played the game, but even if you haven’t, “Uninhabited Island” is something nice to play in the background while you strain over your textbook or your screen.  Theme of Reflection is another good choice from the Skies of Arcadia OST to help you reflect.  Hell, “reflection” is right there in the title, and the title is apt.

3) NieR Song of the Ancients/Devola

I can’t write a list of songs to relax to without including something from NieR.  The soundtrack has a lot of mood-setting songs, but “Song of the Ancients” is one of the best.  I really like the “Devola” version, which is the one I’ve linked to above, but there are a few other takes on this theme that are all good, including one in the semi-sequel NieR:Automata.  This particular version is pretty simple, featuring the beautiful singing of Emi Evans and what I think might be a mandolin, but I could be wrong about the instrument.

2) NieR:AutomataPeaceful Sleep

Speaking of NieR:Automata, yeah, here’s a nice track from that game.  “Peaceful Sleep” is the song that plays when you first discover the android resistance base in the ruined city near the beginning of the game.  It’s a haven safe from the killer machines wandering the rest of the city, and this track really sets that tranquil mood well (I keep using the terms “sets the mood” and “mood-setting” in this post, but I can’t think of a better way to express the idea.)  I don’t know if it’s lazy to include a song from each NieR title in this list, but Keiichi Okabe is a great composer too, so what the hell.

One nice bit of trivia about the android resistance base is that it contains a little makeshift alcove sort of thing with benches to lounge on and an old-fashioned jukebox that contains every song in the game, though you have to actually play through the game to unlock the entire soundtrack.  It’s a nice place to visit on a new game plus.

Even in the middle of a desperate battle, there’s still time to listen to sit around and listen to music

1) Hyper Light DrifterCascades

Now here’s a game with a fantastic soundtrack from start to finish.  Hyper Light Drifter is an indie top-down action game that was released a few years ago.  Much to my shame, I haven’t beaten it (it’s still more or less in that backlog I keep going on about) but I’ve listened to the entire soundtrack a few times over.  Very electronic and ambient, and I’d bet my life that Brian Eno was a big influence on the composer.  Some of the less ominous pieces make for good background music as well, like “Cascades” linked above.  I really like the ominous pieces as well, but I don’t know if I’d put on “The Midnight Wood” or “Cult of the Zealous” to relax to – you can tell from the titles alone that they’re not made for meditation, unless you feel like meditating yourself into the middle of a bloodthirsty mob of enemies.  Well, maybe you do feel like doing that.  Who am I to judge?

I’m no one to judge.  Especially when I title a post “Seven super-extended video game tracks to work/study/meditate to” and I proceed to put nine songs in the post.  I’m not very good at these list-style articles.  Cracked isn’t exactly knocking down my door to put me on their team.  Then again, Cracked effectively (and deservingly) went under several years ago.  So much for those list articles of theirs.

What’s your favorite music to put on when you need to sit down to your work or studies, or when you want to shake off the stress of the day?  Feel free to comment.  I’m always looking for new music to hear.

Backlog review: Sonic CD (PC)

Yeah, I said I’d be cleaning up the backlog, and here’s the proof.  I bought Sonic CD on Steam during a sale years ago and immediately forgot about it.  I’d messed around with the game on Sonic Gems Collection on the Gamecube years before, and I remembered it being a sort of strange novelty and not much else (classic Sonic + time travel?  What a combination!)  But that’s not being very fair to Sonic CD.  It’s an interesting game in its own right, and a pretty good one too, despite its problems.  Probably more interesting than good, which is more or less what I wrote about Knuckles’ Chaotix a long time ago.

Let’s start with the basics: what the hell is this?  Sonic CD was released in 1993 on the Sega CD, a Genesis add-on that more or less flopped. Sonic CD was originally meant to be the sequel to Sonic the Hedgehog, but while Sega of Japan worked on it, legend has it that series brainchild Yuji Naka fucked off to California to get with a branch of the company named Sega Technical Institute that created what would become the actual Sonic the Hedgehog 2, aka one of the Sonic games you actually remember playing when you were a kid.  Sonic CD ended up the flagship title for the Sega CD and was pretty much forgotten until it was re-released in 2005 on the aforementioned Gems Collection, which contained otherwise crap novelty games like Sonic R and Sonic the Fighters.  Then it was semi-forgotten until it was re-re-released on Steam a few years ago with some serious upgrades and additions made by Christian Whitehead, the guy who ported this and a few other 2D Sonic games to Steam and other platforms and who also worked on Sonic Mania.

Future and Past signposts. I’d make a Moody Blues joke here but I don’t think I’ll ever be old enough to do that.

The premise of Sonic CD is that Sonic has to once again save the world from Dr. Robotnik. Yeah, very original, I know. But this time, he also has to rescue Amy Rose, a hedgehog girl who crushes on him hard (and yeah, this will come back in later Sonic games dozens of times) from the clutches of a robot version of himself that fans have dubbed Metal Sonic (or maybe the original manual called it that – I don’t know, I don’t have it.)  Sonic also has the option of changing the history of the world by time-traveling through the use of posts that let him travel into set points in the past or future and destroying Robotnik’s robot-making machines in each level Back to the Future style.

Sonic’s world also had Roman times in its past, just like our world. Coincidence???

Aside from the usual run past the final post and beat the boss at the end of each zone stuff, Sonic CD features a new style of bonus stage that I completely hate because I’m bad at it.  It’s in some kind of weird pseudo-3D track that Sonic has to run around while destroying UFOs for some reason.  Destroying all the UFOs before the time runs out nets you a Time Stone, which is this game’s version of a Chaos Emerald, because… because why the fuck not have a new kind of rock you have to collect?  Incidentally, destroying all of Robotnik’s machines in the past or getting all the Time Stones gets you the good ending and creates a good future that you can travel to if you want to see the fruits of your labor, which unfortunately does not include going Super Sonic because that wasn’t a thing when this game was being developed.  The good future looks nice and shiny and clean, whereas the bad future looks like a Captain Planet dystopia covered in oil and electrical equipment.

Robotnik still shows up to try to kick your ass in the good future, but unfortunately for him, all but one of the boss fights in this game are complete garbage.

I want to love this game.  I love Sonic 2 and Sonic 3 & Knuckles.  Sonic CD is hard to love, though.  It’s just too oblique with its ridiculous level design.  Almost every stage is stacked up in bizarre ways that don’t really work that well with Sonic’s style of play.  Other 2D games in the series let Sonic go fast, but Sonic CD tells Sonic to slow the fuck down.  Using speed to get through one section of a stage often ends with an obstacle stopping you or springing/catapulting you back to where you started.  There’s nothing wrong with that in itself – it’s not like I want a straight left-to-right course without any obstacles – but at times it feels like this game is giving me a middle finger.

This is doubly a problem if you’re going for a good ending by finding and destroying each one of Robotnik’s machines.  This requires you to travel to the past and to find and destroy said machine.  This might sound easy, but it’s not, for the simple reason that the god damn game makes it a chore for Sonic to maintain top speed for long enough to time-travel.  All too often you’ll find yourself faceplanting into a wall just before your jump.  The worst part of it is that losing momentum after a couple of seconds makes you lose the ability to jump until you hit another post, and the next post you’ll find is usually a useless Future post.  It’s frustrating, and the crazy level design only adds to the madness.

Okay, I already don’t know where to go and I’m only 18 seconds in, please help

But there is a lot of good in Sonic CD.  As much as I might complain about how much of a pain in the ass it is to navigate your way to a good future in each stage, it does add some replay value to the game.  The soundtracks, both American/European and Japanese, are also really good.  Sonic CD features a massive soundtrack for its time – each stage has a present theme, a past theme, a bad future theme and a good future theme.  This had to take a lot of effort, and it paid off.  For some reason, the western and eastern soundtracks feature mostly different tracks aside from the past themes, but I like all of them.

I also like the art in Sonic CD.  The style is pretty different from the Genesis Sonics.  I don’t know whether that has to do with the fact that it was made for a CD-based console or what, but it looks good.

The special stages look really good too, but I still hate them.

Major props go to Christian Whitehead, who made some great modifications to the original Sonic CD for its Steam release, cementing it as the definitive version of the game.  It lets you choose whether to play the NA/EU or the JP soundtrack, which up until this release was a huge point of controversy among fans.  It allows you to play with the Sonic 2-style spindash that wasn’t present in the original Sonic CD, giving Sonic more of a boost (this is a big deal, believe me.)  It even lets you play as Tails once you’ve beaten the game as Sonic, which is some Knuckles in Sonic 2-level game-breaking insanity.  Tails’ flying ability adds a new dimension of “fuck this level, I’ll fly over it” to some stages, and it’s just a lot of fun to explore parts of the stages you can’t get to with Sonic.  Tails is nowhere to be found in any of the older versions of Sonic CD, so this is a welcome addition.

Best of all, Whitehead added all that good stuff without taking out any of the weird little touches that made Sonic CD interesting, like the bit at the end of the very first stage where Amy chases after Sonic.  That’s important lore.  Establishing character and shit.

Maybe if I hide up here long enough she’ll go away

Sonic CD is the weird cousin of the classic Sonic lineup.  It’s still recognizably classic Sonic – all the elements are there – but it’s different in so many small ways that it just belongs in its own category separate from everything else.  That doesn’t make it a bad game by any means.  There’s a lot to recommend it: it’s got great music and plenty of action.  But I can’t ignore its main flaw.  Sonic CD suffers from such completely fucky, non-intuitive level design that large parts of it are frustrating to play, which is something I can’t say at all for Sonic 2 or Sonic 3 & Knuckles (it’s something I can say for Sonic 1, but Sonic 1 is still more enjoyable than Sonic CD, and it gets a break for being the first game in the series.)

Even so, I like Sonic CD.  Maybe it’s because I was the weird cousin too when I was growing up, so I feel some kind of strange man-to-game camaraderie with it.  It gets a 5 out of 7 on my stupid nonsensical scale.  It’s worth playing, but it’s not as good as any of the Genesis titles except for Sonic Spinball, which isn’t really that good at all.  If you haven’t played any of the old Sonics, I wouldn’t advise you to start with this one.  Get Sonic 2 or 3&K first and see how you like them, and get this if you end up hooked on those.  It’s probably worth it for the soundtrack alone.

Megami Tensei #2: The solitary soul

Yes, it’s more of this weird stuff. Sorry. The following post contains major story and ending spoilers for Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne.

Humans are social animals. We all need connections with our fellow humans. We all need love from other people. That’s just common knowledge, isn’t it?

I’ve always been an introvert. Huge surprise, I know – you couldn’t have guessed that the guy who’s into weird JRPGs likes to keep to himself. I’m thankful for the fact that I can at least function in society and pretend to be a more or less normal person, but at my core, I’m still the same reclusive kid I always was. I used to dream about going to some distant island and just staying there alone forever. I still have those dreams sometimes.

As much as I hate to admit it, even I need to socialize. One of the reasons I write on this site is to connect with readers, after all, and that’s a kind of indirect socializing. And yes, I do have friends, and I’m maybe not quite as miserable as I let on sometimes. But does the mind really need those social connections to keep sane and healthy? That’s one of the questions raised by Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne. You might already know that Nocturne is one of my favorite games, but one of the reasons I love it so much is all the philosophizing its characters get up to.

First we have to set the table. The game starts about a half-hour before the world ends. Specifically, about a half-hour into Nocturne, the protagonist’s hometown of Tokyo is mostly wrecked and turned inside-out so that its ruins are now on the inside of a sphere, like an inverted Earth, with a sun-like representation of the Japanese fire god Kagutsuchi floating in the center of the sphere.*

Nocturne starts like a survival horror game, then turns into something completely different.

Our silent blank slate protagonist, your typical high school student, just happens to have been in a hospital with two of his schoolmates, Chiaki and Isamu, on a visit to their teacher Yuko Takao at the time – the same hospital where this apocalypse was triggered by a cult leader in the basement through some kind of arcane occult magic. Since the hospital itself was spared from the disaster (the cult leader wanted to survive, after all, so he presumably created a magical barrier around it) you, your friends, the teacher, the cult leader and a stray journalist you met earlier that day who somehow found his way into the hospital all survive. However, almost every other human has been killed, inverted ruined Tokyo world has been filled with demons (of course it has – it’s an SMT game) and the protagonist is himself turned into a demon by a mysterious boy and his elderly nanny who force an infernal parasite into his brain through his nose.

Aw, shit… how much did I drink last night?

Got that? It’s all a little bizarre, but the gist of it is that the world as we know it has ended. But not permanently. Just before his demonic transformation, the protagonist receives a telepathic message from Kagutsuchi in which he’s commanded to “find a Reason” and create a new world. These Reasons are basic philosophies, principles for how the world should best operate. If a human can find one of these Reasons and collect enough magatsuhi (some kind of weird glowing red energy that exists in all living things in the Vortex World, as this inside-out sphere world is called) he can gain enough power to summon a god to carry him to Kagutsuchi, who will then let said human create his ideal world. So while the Vortex World is chaotic and filled with violence, it’s really meant to be a brief transition from the end to our world to the beginning of the next one.

Yeah, the apocalypse isn’t fun.

There’s a problem, though. After receiving Kagutsuchi’s command, you might expect that your quest here is to find your own Reason, summon your own god and create your own world. In a different game, that would be the case. But in Nocturne it’s not, because only a human can conceive of a Reason, and the protagonist is no longer fully human. He still has a human mind and what looks more or less like a human body, but in exchange for gaining the superior physical and magical power of a demon, he has traded away part of his humanity, or at least enough of it that he no longer gets to enter Kagutsuchi’s “Create Your Ideal World” contest (only humans qualify; it’s in the fine print.) However, the Demifiend, as the protagonist is now known, can lend his power to one of the remaining humans if they conceive of a Reason he likes and can fight for the supremacy of that Reason over the others.

In the course of the game, three Reasons are conceived, and two more are attempted but fail for different reasons. The first of these Reasons is conceived by Hikawa, the dillweed cult leader who started this whole mess. It’s called Shijima, the world of stillness, one in which all souls melt into a perfectly consistent soup of energy and nothing changes for the rest of eternity (at least I think that’s the idea – his explanation is obscure, or maybe I’m just too stupid to get it.)

Hikawa explains his Reason, but it still doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.

The other two Reasons are conceived by your two surviving still-human classmates, Chiaki and Isamu. Chiaki champions Yosuga, the world of strength, which seems to be something close to the Chaos “might makes right” alignment in the other SMT games with the exception that the powerful can’t be challenged and overthrown in Chiaki’s version. While both Hikawa and Chiaki actively seek demon minions to help them gather magatsuhi to call down their gods, Isamu retreats into the Amala Network, a series of tunnels “under” the Vortex World that act as a sort of extra-dimensional subway system for the Demifiend and those few others who know how to use it. It’s in this Network that Isamu realizes his own Reason of Musubi, a world of solitude in which every soul can create his or her own reality separate from every other reality. Strangely enough, Isamu starts to gather demon followers as well, though they don’t have quite the same team spirit as the Yosuga and Shijima demons have for obvious reasons.

Yeah, keep telling yourself that.

The first time I played Nocturne, I wasn’t following a guide, so I didn’t realize that rejecting all three Reasons was a viable option. I thought I had to make a choice out of the three. All three of the Reason-conceiving characters try to some degree to convince Demifiend that he should support them, and there are a few dialogue and decision points starting around late mid-game that present the player with the option of supporting or rejecting each. Naturally, you can’t support more than one reason, so the game uses a point system to determine which Reason you end up backing, sort of like the Golden Saucer date system in Final Fantasy VII except the fate of the world lies in the balance.

Out of the three Reasons, I rejected Shijima out of hand. Hikawa is an asshole who never shows any sympathy for the protagonist or his friends, who in fact uses and deceives your teacher to collect magatsuhi for the purpose of creation. On top of that, his ideal world sounded like a hellish nightmare to me. Shijima seems similar to some of the less orthodox Western ideas about Heaven or to the Buddhist concept of nirvana, in which the idea of the self and all its desires are lost. I know that’s supposed to be a good thing, but I guess I’m not enlightened at all, because I’d rather keep my self intact, as much as I hate it sometimes. So there was no way I was going with Shijima. The “strong oppressing the weak forever” world of Yosuga also sounded pretty lousy. Chiaki is the game’s only female human character aside from Takao, so some players might have thought about making her Demifiend’s qt waifu, but alas, near the end of the story she’s absorbed into a weird-looking god named Baal Avatar and completely loses all semblance of humanity, so that’s not happening. Nocturne isn’t a Persona game, and there’s no Christmas date with your girlfriend in the Vortex World.

This is really as close as you get.

That left Musubi. Isamu is kind of a dick throughout the first half of the game and ends up blaming Demifiend for not saving him from being captured by a gang of demons that were squeezing magatsuhi from every living thing they could find, something that wasn’t Demifiend’s fault at all. But once he finds his Reason, he forgives Demifiend for that, since he seems to have found his own truth – that people live essentially separate lives and can never truly empathize with each other. Hence Isamu’s ideal world, which takes a lot of credit from the idea of solipsism, that you can never be sure of any fact other than that you exist. Isamu doesn’t elaborate on this idea a whole lot when you meet him in the Amala Network near the endgame, but he seems to suggest that in his new world, everyone would be able to create their own worlds in their own minds, essentially talking to themselves for the rest of eternity, or at least until the next death and rebirth of this universe.

When you transcend the plane of normal humanity, you lose your shirt but keep your hat.  Those are the rules.

This might sound just as hellish to you as Hikawa’s world of stillness or Chiaki’s world of strength, but I find something interesting in it. The mind needs socialization, but if it creates its own society, its own world, its own universe – maybe that fulfills its need perfectly. The real world may already be headed in that direction with improvements in AI and the creation of virtual worlds that are starting to not look and feel like shit when you enter them. Be honest with yourself – given the choice, would you deal with the outer world full of people you can never fully empathize with or trust, or with your own inner world? Most people would honestly say the former, and I understand why. But I also understand where Isamu is coming from, and I was 100% in “fuck the whole world” mode the first time I played Nocturne. I chose to support Isamu, and we built our own world(s) at the end of the game when I beat the hell out of Kagutsuchi for him (turns out Kagutsuchi doesn’t let you create your own world unless you can beat him in a two-stage boss fight. That must have also been in the fine print.)

On my second playthrough, I found out that I could reject every Reason and get a different, better ending, so I did that instead. Still, even after all this time, Isamu’s world of solitude holds some appeal for me. Throughout my life, I’ve been told what to do and how to do it. I’m sure you’ve been told the same. Even now, I don’t feel like I live for myself at all, but only out of duty to others. I’d like nothing better to escape, though that’s impossible. Is it selfish of me to think that way? Probably. Should I care whether that makes me selfish? Every day I live, I care less and less. Weirdly enough, then, Isamu is the character in Nocturne I empathize with the most.  Aside from Yuko Takao, that is.  She’s got it the worst.  Elaborating on her story would take an even longer post than this one, so I’ll set it aside.

It’s sad, though.

What are your thoughts? What kind of world would you create if you were given the option? Do you think it’s even right to impose your own ideals on the entire world the way the characters in Nocturne do? Do you wish I would shut up about this nonsense and review my backlog of games instead? I will, I promise. 𒀭

 

* What happened to the rest of Earth outside of Tokyo after the Conception is never addressed, but our characters have enough of their own problems to be concerned with that. Maybe Tokyo just blinked out of existence and left a void behind, or maybe every city and every little bumfuck town in the world experienced its own Conception based on their city and county limits.

Megami Tensei #1: You’re not the hero of this story

Sometimes I won’t write anything for a week or two, and then in a few hours a few thousand words will spill out of my brain. This was one of those days, and the result is the start of a series on prominent themes in the Megami Tensei series of games and how I think they relate to life in general. I know, it’s a huge surprise that I’m writing about Megami Tensei. I only bring the god damn series up every other post I make. Anyway, I hope this mind dump makes sense to at least one person. It contains a few very general spoilers for Persona 5 and a lot of very specific story and ending spoilers for the original Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey.

It’s almost a cliche to say that we all like to think of ourselves as the heroes of our own stories. I recently had to attend a few events at my state bar association, where you occasionally get to hear some puffed-up language about the nobility of the profession of law. Law is a serious and complex profession, no matter what field you’re working in, and we are subject to real ethical standards (a fact that’s shocking to a lot of non-lawyers.) Perhaps as a result of this, there’s a tendency, especially among law students who don’t know any better, to equate being a lawyer with something like being a knight. We do take an oath upon being sworn in, and some aspects of discovery and trial could be compared to the dance of a duel between two champions. Otherwise, the reality of the practice is quite a bit dirtier and more mundane than that. (At least practicing law doesn’t usually result in someone getting axed in the skull.  But I’m still never returning to the endless hell that is the world of litigation.)

This kind of romanticism affects many more areas of life, public and private, professional and personal. And, of course, we see it in video and PC games. Many of us, myself included, play games to escape from reality, so it’s only natural that we want to play the role of the hero. There’s a reason Joker from Persona 5 is such a popular character that he made it into Smash, and it’s not because of his amazing dialogue. His being a silent protagonist helps, in fact, because the silence makes it easier to pour own your personality into that empty vessel, a point that a lot of people who complain about the Persona games’ silent protagonists seem to either miss or ignore.

And who wouldn’t want to play one of the heroes in Persona 5? Joker and his Persona are references to the fictional suave gentleman thief Arsène Lupin, and his Phantom Thieves as a whole are a callback to probably fictional romantic bandits like Robin Hood and his merry men of Sherwood Forest, only in a modern urban setting. Yes, Akira in the real world got a raw deal as a wrongfully convicted felon undergoing probation, but Joker in the world of shadows is a dashing hero. That’s not to mention the fact that even in the real world, Akira can romance almost all of the women around him.* Persona 5 does try to address serious social problems like official abuse of power, but in the end I see it more as an escapist fantasy than a commentary on reality. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. God knows I need my escapist fantasy.

Yeah, this is 100% fantasy…

You can’t live in the escapist fantasy forever, though. Eventually, reality will catch up with you. There’s another game in the Megami Tensei series that emphasizes this point, and it’s the infamously difficult dungeon-crawler RPG Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey.**

In most of the endings of mainline Shin Megami Tensei games, the silent protagonist is not really the hero of his own story. He typically ends up assisting the head of one of the extremist factions build its own paradise based either upon the principles of the Law alignment or the Chaos alignment. The word paradise should really be in quotes, however. A Law ending usually leads to the direct domination of human society by God, complete with a nice “cleansing” to get rid of the unworthy, which is most of us, while a Chaos ending usually leads to the destruction of human society by a horde of demons and the violent murder of the weak, which once again happens to be most of us. The same is true of Strange Journey, in which you play another silent protagonist the fans have dubbed “Space Marine”, a member of an international strike/research force sent into a growing mass of dark energy covering most of Antarctica. Turns out said mass is swarming with demons (what a surprise!) which has gotten so bad that Mastema, a mysterious black-winged angel, is also there fighting the demons under the direction of God himself (or so he claims, anyway.)

Never trust an angel in an SMT game.

Most of these mainline SMT games also have characters who represent the Chaos alignment and the belief in absolute liberty, following the lead of Lucifer, and a character who represents the Law alignment and submits body and soul to whatever avatar God happens to be using at the moment (often, but not always, the Old Testament YHVH, complete with his jealousy and smiting and weird mood swings.) And behold, two of your fellow crew members, Jimenez and Zelenin, take these roles and undergo a demonic and an angelic transformation respectively (equally monstrous transformations in the context of the Megaten universe, because both end up completely losing their humanity as a result.) Out of the three available ending paths, two involve joining your considerable power with Jimenez or Zelenin and bringing about either a new Earth ruled over by massive demonic worms that have apparently devoured most of humanity or a new Earth in which part of humanity has technically survived, but in a brainwashed state in which all people everywhere are constantly singing in praise of the Lord forever while standing on top of giant gray windowless buildings.

Yeah, I don’t… I don’t know about this.

Watching these endings probably won’t make you feel like much of a hero for helping to bring them about.*** They might even make you angry. This is what I was fighting for? you might think to yourself. Generally speaking, the closest you can get to a “heroic” ending in a mainline SMT game is by taking the Neutral path, which rejects both God and Lucifer in favor of humanity’s control over its own destiny. Perhaps for this reason, both getting onto and completing the Neutral path is usually ridiculously difficult. Maybe that’s the price you have to pay for opposing the wills of gods and renegade angels.

It’s not too hard to find analogues to God and Lucifer in humanity itself, either. Replace all of Earth with a single country, God with an oppressive tyrant ruling over it and Lucifer with a violent revolutionary leader trying to oust him and you’ve got the basic plot of an SMT game, and one that occurs in the real world all the time. The only real difference between the two scenarios is that while the victorious revolutionary leader often transforms into the new oppressive tyrant, the Lucifer of Megami Tensei has no desire to rule over humanity because that would run against his belief in absolute freedom. But even in the Chaos ending, the soil is ripe for the growth of a new absolute ruler who can win power through strength and charisma, creating a constant cycle of lawful tyrants and chaotic revolutionaries that overthrow them. Even the Neutral ending always feels more like a temporary fix than a permanent one – the powers representing the extreme alignments might go away for a while, but they never truly die. God and Lucifer always return in some form to submit humanity to more suffering. Not exactly the fun “hero slays the dragon and saves the princess” kind of story, and certainly not satisfying if you’re looking for a happy ending.

You’d think if Lucifer took the trouble to genderbend that he’d also try to come up with a less lazy fake name than this.

Maybe that’s just the point – there are ups and downs in life, but there is no ultimate happy ending. There may not even be an ending at all. The Abrahamic tradition, the one I’m most familiar with by far, views time in a straight line starting with with creation and the Garden of Eden and ending with the apocalypse and Judgment Day. But in other traditions, time is viewed not as a line but as a circle. It’s not evident in Strange Journey, but other mainline SMT games adopt this cyclical view of time. It’s not that heroes can’t be born in that cycle – heroes simply can’t break the cycle. Balance between Law and Chaos is never achieved permanently, and the resultant suffering continues forever because of it.

My own country is going through a political upheaval right now. Our head of state and government is contained in one person, and that person is definitely incompetent and possibly traitorous. We Americans like to think we’ve somehow earned stability and prosperity, and even that God himself guarantees said stability and prosperity. When I was growing up in the 90s and early 2000s, “God bless America” was a mandatory line in every politician’s speech, whether Democrat or Republican, almost as if by repeating this line over and over we could keep God’s blessings forever.

You don’t hear that line so much anymore. My own millennial generation is less traditionally religious than past generations, but there might be more to it than changing demographics. I think there’s a sense now that we could lose everything we have, and perhaps that God, if he even exists, doesn’t care. Perhaps he doesn’t even care if all humanity burns itself out because of our inability to handle the technology we’re developing. If that’s our ultimate fate, there isn’t a hero who can permanently prevent it. That’s the message I take from Strange Journey. It’s a depressing message, but an honest one.

Or maybe I’m just a depressive pessimist.  Yeah, that’s probably it. 𒀭

 

* I guess this point isn’t applicable to gay men or straight women. I’m not sure how well lesbian players can put themselves in Akira’s place either, him being a man and all. People have suggested bringing the female MC option back to a Persona game after P3P’s FeMC, or the possibility of at least one homosexual relationship (which did exist in implied form in Persona 2: Innocent Sin, but nobody seems to remember that game exists.) However, that’s a subject for a different post (and for countless, endless forum/imageboard/Twitter fights.)

** I technically haven’t finished this game, but I’ve gotten all the way to the absolute final Neutral route boss.  Yes, I’m pretty lousy.  I swear to God (or YHVH or whoever) I’ll complete it one day, just out of spite.  I made it all the way through Horologium, for fuck’s sake.

*** Depending upon your religious upbringing and how well it stuck, the Law ending in Strange Journey might seem like a good one to you. I don’t think Atlus intended for it to seem like a good ending but rather to be a mirror image of the Chaos ending. But if you think you’d enjoy singing hymns on top of a giant building for all eternity, more power to you. Just don’t make me join in. Well, I’d certainly be one of the unclean humans who gets banished to the outer darkness anyway, so I guess it’s a moot point.