Top games of 2017

Every podunk Youtube channel and blog is making its own best games of the year list, so I figured I should as well. So as not to fall behind.

1) NieR: Automata

Come for the hot android girl, stay for the existential crisis-inducing feels

I didn’t review this game because there was no point. Everyone has already declared NieR: Automata the best game of the year, and rightly so. I can’t disagree with that judgment. NieR has everything: android booty, robot-killing action, and a thought-provoking story. It’s also great having an irreverent, doesn’t-give-a-shit guy like Yoko Taro around in the increasingly self-important land of game developers. Or maybe that attitude is only prevalent here in America.

NieR: Automata also wins my “best soundtrack of the year” award. Yoko Taro and co. can throw that award on the pile with the others.

2) Persona 5

hnnngh so cute

I did review Persona 5, though once again I have to say that my review was completely unnecessary. People who don’t even like JRPGs loved this tale of high school students with magical powers who fight demons in a shadow world. I loved it too, but only 99% as much as NieR, so it gets second place. It also wins my “second best soundtrack of the year” prize. It’s really too bad Persona 5 didn’t come out in 2016. (Actually, it did come out in 2016 – but the NA release came six months later, so as far as I’m concerned it’s a 2017 game and it still loses to NieR.)

3) VA-11 HALL-A

Make way for best girl

I have sort of a love-hate relationship with “indie games”. Some of them take a brilliant idea and fuck it over with bad gameplay mechanics, while others have a decent sense of how to construct a game but can’t help pretentiousnessing all over the place until you’re fucking sick. VA-11 HALL-A is a game with a good concept executed well, one that’s fun and has great, memorable characters. You might not like it because it’s more or less a visual novel with a bartending minigame attached (if you’re the “games must have ACTUAL ACTION” type) or because it features a very young-looking sexbot character (if you’re the overly sensitive SJW type – never mind that this character is really one of the most interesting in the game and explores some of the possible morality issues surrounding her very existence.  I did know a few people who dropped the game for this reason.) But if you don’t like this game, you’re wrong. Yeah, I know, opinions and all. But you’re still wrong. VA-11 HALL-A is a great game, and you’re wrong if you don’t like it.

Wait, this game – this actually was released in 2016, wasn’t it?

Well, shit. Never mind. It still deserves to be on this list.

4) Gravity Rush 2

The gravity-bending heroine of the first Gravity Rush returns to the PS4 for more adventures.  Gravity Rush 2 is a good game.  Once again, if anyone tells you differently, they’re wrong.  Also, Kat is a really cute character.

There’s an important plot reason why Kat’s wearing that maid outfit, okay? Leave me alone.

5) ???

Okay, it’s time to admit that I haven’t played many of this year’s newest and hottest games.  I’ve been playing a lot of Stella Glow lately, but it came out in 2015.  I’ve heard a lot of good things about Horizon Zero Dawn but for some reason I don’t feel a great desire to play it.  It would probably be on this list if I’d bothered with it.

Anyway, have a happy new year.  Or not.  Whatever.  Does it even matter anymore?

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Valhalla I am coming

That famous line from Led Zeppelin’s famous “Immigrant Song” (their best-known, but not only, song they wrote about Vikings) is what I thought when I saw the title of the soon to be released VA-11 Hall-A, a visual novel by the studio Sukeban Games.  Valhalla, which is what I’m calling the game from now on because I don’t feel like copy-pasting VA-11 Hall-A more than once, is a VN set in a cyberpunk dystopian future city where there are nanomachines and probably robots and cyborgs that was certainly inspired by Blade Runner.  In this world, you play as Jill, a bartender working at a hole in the wall sort of place officially called VA-11 and unofficially called Valhalla who has to mix drinks and deal with the characters who come in out of the cold for booze and a conversation.  The gameplay, aside from being mostly or almost entirely a VN, includes a drink-mixing mechanic that’s vaguely reminiscent of a way less complicated form of the border agent work in Papers Please – you have the choice of mixing drinks properly for your customers or of giving them bullshit drinks, and your choice in this matter seems to affect the dialogue.

Your only customer in the demo, which gives you a brief taste of the full game.

Your only customer in the demo, which gives you a brief taste of the full game.

Valhalla is being released on June 21, but I played the admittedly very short demo that gave me at least a taste of the sort of gameplay I should expect.  And I’m honestly intrigued.  Not only do I like good visual novels, but this particular VN involves the consumption of alcohol, which I also like.  Moreover, Sukeban is an unabashedly weeaboo studio (no, it’s not Japanese, but Venezuelan, strangely enough) so that’s another natural connection for me to make.  The weeaboo thing can cut both ways – I’m hoping the final product will not be too self-indulgent or memetastic.  But the brief demo suggested that this probably won’t be the case.  Unlike some other western VN projects that crop up and get public attention, Valhalla – at least so far – doesn’t feel like a cheap knock-together of mediocre art and writing.  And the Venezuelan team that put together this demo/game seems to have an excellent grasp on English – either they’re fluent speakers or they hired native English-speakers to edit their work.

In any case, I’m interested in this game.  I need something to play while I study for the bar exam and wait for Zero Time Dilemma to come out.  Expect (well, maybe expect) a review of the full version of Valhalla in the near future.

Retrospective: Saya no Uta

It’s Election Day here in the United States. I went to the polls today, in fact, though I didn’t really much like either of the choices I was given. It’s hard to get excited about electoral races in a two-party system.

Why do I bring this up? Because today I’m also taking a look at a game that I’m surprised wasn’t banned by law in the US, because it definitely walks some sort of line – definitely the sort of game that any good “family values” interest group would try to have dumped into the gutters if it had enough notoriety.

1763821-snucover

Some games are damn near impossible to review, and Saya no Uta (eng: Saya’s Song) is one of them. This 2003 visual novel was released by Nitroplus, a prolific developer also responsible for big names like Steins;gate and Phantom of Inferno. Nitroplus’ work tends to be pretty dark, and Saya is no exception.

Saya no Uta tells the story of Fuminori, a medical student who is involved in a car accident and is badly injured. To save him, his doctors undertake an experimental procedure. Fuminori survives, but at great cost: the entire world and everyone in it now appear completely grotesque and horrific in his eyes. All of his friends and associates look like monsters made of rotten meat (and stink as well.) Of course, the world hasn’t changed at all – only Fuminori’s perception of it. This fact doesn’t really help, though, even as Fuminori tries to continue living his normal life.

Fuminori, wearing the expression of a man who has just finished his exams after two weeks of binge studying and isn't convinced that he didn't fail all of them.  I know that look because I've had it.

Fuminori, wearing the expression of a man who has just finished his exams after two weeks of binge studying and isn’t convinced that he didn’t fail all of them. I know that look because I’ve had it.

Only one thing sustains him: the existence of a girl, Saya, the only person around who looks to Fuminori like a normal human being. Saya is a mysterious girl who approaches him shortly after his accident, seemingly without anyplace to call home, and Fuminori subsequently clings to Saya as the last thing in his life that seems at all pure or good. However, Saya isn’t merely a girl without a home – she’s something much more, and her relationship with Fuminori ends up driving him to extremes that he could never have imagined.

Saying anything else about the plot would spoil the game. All I’ll say is that it is one of the best VNs I’ve played as far as writing and emotional impact go. (For you anime fans, Saya no Uta was written by Gen Urobuchi, also responsible for writing the popular series Puella Magi Madoka Magica.) It’s short, too; just around five hours or so, and there are only a few endings, so Saya isn’t a massive time investment like other VNs tend to be.

She looks like a typical cutesy anime girl, but Saya isn't what she seems.

She looks like a typical cutesy anime girl, but Saya isn’t what she seems.

Warning: Saya no Uta is a hentai game. That’s to say that there are sex scenes in it. More alarmingly, Saya’s appearance and mannerisms (she comes off something like a young teenager, although the anime style adds some ambiguity to that) may seriously turn some people off. However, none of this bothered me too much, firstly because Saya doesn’t exactly have an age, at least as we understand it, and secondly because Saya no Uta is the only h-game I’ve played in which the sex scenes actually added to the game’s story instead of simply being some beat-off material shoved between normal scenes to sell more copies (I’m looking at you, Fate Stay/Night, but you’re not the only suspect.) In any case, the sex scenes in this game aren’t really made for that sort of thing, and I didn’t feel especially dirty for reading them. I did feel creeped out, but that’s exactly the feeling the makers were aiming for, after all. Together with the rough (in a good way) art style and the haunting soundtrack, Nitroplus succeeds at creating a strong atmosphere with Saya that you might feel drawn into.

So I feel like a creep now, writing about what’s technically a porn game (though I would argue it absolutely isn’t one in spirit, even if it does sit in the h-game category.) But hey, that’s why my blog is anonymous. God bless anonymity, right?

Anyway, Saya no Uta is up for sale through JAST here (of course, you can also buy the original in Japanese if you understand it.) JAST localizes a lot of Japanese VNs, and they apparently haven’t censored Saya at all, which is nice – censoring the game would pretty much kill the whole point of it. It’s supposed to be a little shocking, after all. But please don’t play it if you’re under 18 or you have a weak stomach. There, you can’t say I didn’t warn you.

Anime for people who hate anime: Akagi

a.k.a. Mahjong Legend Akagi: The Genius Who Descended into the Darkness

log25

I’m going to approach this series a little differently. Instead of writing a normal review of the show, I’m going to take you through the first episode. Why? Why not? I do have a reason for doing this, but it might not be apparent until the end of this post.

The first episode opens with a minute of background. The setting is late 1950s Tokyo. Japan is finally over its post-war slump and is starting to grow again.

This is all explained by the narrator.  He talks constantly throughout the series, but he's not obtrusive at all and in fact is often extremely necessary, so you'll get used to him.

This is all explained by the narrator. He talks constantly throughout the series, but he’s not obtrusive at all and in fact is often extremely necessary, so you’ll get used to him.

The story begins in a smoky hole-in-the-wall mahjong parlor. Four players sit around a table. Big deal, so they’re playing some mahjong. Nothing strange about that.

But this game is different. One of the players, Nangou, is deep in debt to the mob. Three of the other players are Yakuza guys. One of them, a local mob boss, has had his mistress take out a life insurance policy on Nangou. You can see where this is going.

[Triad]_Akagi_-_01.avi_snapshot_02.39_[2014.05.18_11.30.25]

Since the Yakuza are nice guys, they let Nangou try to cut a path out of his debts by beating them in a mahjong match. Sadly for Nangou, it’s not going too well for him. He’s nearly out of points and is about to lose the game and his life. Nangou reaches into the wall of tiles to pull one, praying to anyone, even the Devil, to help him out of his predicament. At that very moment, the door to the parlor opens.

[Triad]_Akagi_-_01.avi_snapshot_04.33_[2014.05.18_11.23.27]

A kid (yeah, he is a kid, even if he doesn’t look like it) is at the door, seemingly looking for shelter from the driving rain outside. The Yakuza thugs try to throw him out, but Nangou tells them he called the kid to the parlor just in case he, you know, “went missing.” Of course, Nangou and this kid have never seen each other – Nangou just wants a break from the game to collect his nerves. Luckily for him, the kid plays along with his story.

After a few minutes, the game is back on. Nangou prepares to make a deal that he needs to complete to build his hand. However, he gets nervous, because that same tile is one that his main opponent (Ryuuzaki, the boss) might need to complete his hand. Nangou decides instead to deal a “safe” tile – a defensive rather than offensive move. After all, if he loses this hand, it’s quite literally all over for him.

He’s all set to make this defensive play when the boy sitting behind him speaks.

[Triad]_Akagi_-_01.avi_snapshot_06.20_[2014.05.18_12.28.26]

Nangou turns around and asks the kid what he’s talking about.

[Triad]_Akagi_-_01.avi_snapshot_06.39_[2014.05.18_11.25.53]

This kid admits to Nangou that he’s never played mahjong before, but that he could sense Nangou’s feeling of hopelessness. He tells Nangou that to survive, he’ll have to be aggressive – to take a risk. Nangou turns back to his hand and realizes that the kid is right. He returns to his original deal – and it passes! Nangou ends up completing his hand and winning on the next deal. His life – at least for now – is safe. (Incidentally, as the narrator explains, that “safe” tile deal would have completed a different player’s hand, meaning Nangou would have lost had he dealt it.)

The Yakuza guys, disappointed that they couldn’t finish Nangou off then and there, break again for a few minutes. In the meantime, Nangou questions this mysterious kid about his identity and what he’s doing hanging around a Yakuza mahjong parlor at midnight. The boy is 13 year-old Shigeru Akagi, but beyond that he says nothing. For the first time, Nangou notices something strange about Akagi: his clothes are covered in sand. He guesses (rightly, as we’ll soon learn) that Akagi came close to death that night.

How can Nangou tell? Because, as he explains to Akagi, he’s near death as well. Nangou then makes a request of Akagi.

[Triad]_Akagi_-_01.avi_snapshot_09.30_[2014.05.18_12.40.31]

Nangou can sense something great in Akagi, something that Nangou himself doesn’t possess. Despite never having played mahjong before, Akagi agrees to sit in for Nangou and gets a five-minute primer on the basics of mahjong.

And we get to learn along with him!

And we get to learn along with him!

When the game starts again, the Yakuza players have no idea what the hell is going on but they roll with it anyway, figuring that some kid will probably be even easier to beat in mahjong than Nangou. And they might be right.

[Triad]_Akagi_-_01.avi_snapshot_11.20_[2014.05.18_12.49.33]

Perhaps in a case of extreme beginner’s luck, Akagi’s very first hand is a monster: he has pairs of each dragon tile. A hand with three of each of these tiles (white, green and red, all on the left) is one of the biggest hands in the game – a dai san gen. It’s also one of the most difficult to get, because completing a dai san gen usually involves having to call someone else’s dragon tile when they deal it, and any hint of a dai san gen will cause the other players to act defensively and not deal dragons.

Still, Akagi will have to call those tiles to complete the hand. The first dragon is thrown out.

[Triad]_Akagi_-_01.avi_snapshot_11.38_[2014.05.18_12.55.54]

One by one, each of the other dragons are thrown out, and Akagi lets each one pass, completely wrecking his hand. Nangou starts cursing himself for letting this stupid kid take over his life-or-death mahjong game.

[Triad]_Akagi_-_01.avi_snapshot_12.08_[2014.05.18_11.32.31]

What the hell was Akagi thinking?

At that moment, there’s a knock on the door of the mahjong parlor. It’s a police officer. Turns out the police are looking for the survivor from a game of chicken that involved severe casualties.

[Triad]_Akagi_-_01.avi_snapshot_13.03_[2014.05.18_11.33.16]

Everyone in the room turns to Akagi, who says nothing. The Yakuza boss is duly impressed by Akagi’s guts and tells his henchman to shoo the policeman away. Akagi, however, knows that that’s not going down, because the cops followed him here on a lead and won’t let him go. So he decides to make a deal with Nangou.

[Triad]_Akagi_-_01.avi_snapshot_14.07_[2014.05.18_11.33.59]

Nangou is pretty miffed at this suggestion. This kid just let a monster hand get ruined and he wants me to help him? Nangou points out that Akagi needs something to offer him to make such a bold request. Akagi says he does have something to offer.

[Triad]_Akagi_-_01.avi_snapshot_14.30_[2014.05.18_11.35.13]

Suddenly Akagi’s hand has three of each dragon tile, where before it only had pairs. Akagi has a dai san gen one tile away from completion. At first, Nangou has no idea what the hell is going on, but then he realizes what Akagi has done: he used the Yakuza guys’ distraction in dealing with the policeman to covertly steal each of the dragon tiles he needed from the pond (the center of the table where players put their discarded tiles.) Now Akagi doesn’t have to call anyone’s tiles: he can win right away.

Not wanting to lose his shot at a huge win, Nangou agrees to provide Akagi with a cover story. A few seconds later, a detective barges into the room.

[Triad]_Akagi_-_01.avi_snapshot_15.47_[2014.05.18_11.35.35]

The detective pinpoints Akagi as the chicken survivor he’s looking for. Nangou, however, springs to action and covers for Akagi.

[Triad]_Akagi_-_01.avi_snapshot_16.03_[2014.05.18_13.24.24]

He claims Akagi has been in the parlor all night. Ryuuzaki and the other gangsters go along with Nangou’s story because they want the police to leave.

The detective isn’t buying this story, so he decides to hang around for a while. The Yakuza dudes at this point are distracted and pissed off that they couldn’t get rid of the cops, so Akagi reminds them that they’re in the middle of a round of mahjong and that they should get back to playing.

Still caught in a daze, they turn back to their game, and one of them immediately deals into Akagi’s dai san gen. Only too late do they notice that the pond is missing a few tiles.

[Triad]_Akagi_-_01.avi_snapshot_18.06_[2014.05.18_11.37.05]

Ryuuzaki and his buddies would love to beat the shit out of Akagi right now, but they can’t – because the cops are in the room with them. As it happened, Akagi planned on this as well. So Ryuuzaki gives Akagi the dai san gen and lets him off with a warning.

Could be worse.

Could be worse.

The gangsters, now thoroughly pissed off, take yet another break and go into a back room. One suggests they call in their “rep player” – a guy whose sole job is to win mahjong matches for the mob. Ryuuzaki is offended by this suggestion.

[Triad]_Akagi_-_01.avi_snapshot_19.39_[2014.05.18_13.38.47]

The boss says he can’t call in their rep player just to take care of some amateur punk kid. All Akagi did was pull off a massive cheat – he won’t be able to do it a second time. They’ll defeat Akagi and kill Nangou without the rep player’s help. They all return to the game, with the detective watching. Sadly for the Yakuza guys, they don’t realize just how much Akagi can do.

[Triad]_Akagi_-_01.avi_snapshot_21.10_[2014.05.18_13.43.33]

Will Akagi continue to win? Will Nangou survive the night? How will Akagi deal with the detective on his trail? If you want to find out, watch the second episode! It’s all on Youtube, and I’m sure you can also torrent it if you wish, as Akagi has never been licensed in the US.

If the art style and the subject matter of Mahjong Legend Akagi seem familiar, that’s no coincidence: it’s another Nobuyuki Fukumoto work. Akagi isn’t much like Gambling Apocalypse Kaiji, though, and that’s because of the differences in their respective title characters. Kaiji Itou, the protagonist of Kaiji, experiences fear. He often panics when in a dire situation before realizing exactly how to escape it. Perhaps most importantly, Kaiji makes mistakes. He’s a genius, but a very human one.

All of these things make Kaiji much more relatable than Akagi, who is less a human than a force of nature that destroys everything in its way. Unlike Kaiji, Akagi has no doubts about his abilities and no compunction about using those abilities to completely destroy his opponents. Really, the only thing that makes Akagi not a villain is the fact that his opponents are all gangsters and thugs or other gamblers working for criminal organizations. Except for his final opponent – but I can’t tell you who that is. Just watch the show! I’m not one to claim I have “favorite _____s” usually (I can’t say I have a favorite album, for example, because I love a lot of music) but I can make an exception here: Akagi is my favorite anime series. Not a second of the show is wasted. There’s absolutely no filler, no scenes simply for their own sake – everything moves along the plot or establishes character. And Akagi has plenty of great surprises in store for you if you decide to watch.

Note on the mahjong terminology: If you’re scared off by all the crazy jargon, don’t worry: that’s completely normal. The story does a pretty good job of explaining the whats and whys of everything that’s going on, so don’t worry if you don’t know what a “tan yao pin fu dora dora” is. For this purpose, I recommend getting the Triad subs if you decide to go for a torrent: the notes at the top of the screen explain a lot of the terms that often crop up throughout the series.

Retrospective: Prince of Persia

prince

When I was a kid, I had a big book with selections from the One Thousand and One Nights. It was naturally filtered for a kid’s consumption, though not totally – some of these ancient tales are seriously bloody, and as a six year-old kid I distinctly remember reading about villainous bastards getting boiled alive in pots (Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves; seriously, look it up.) I also read about some great adventures that didn’t involve death by boiling oil, though: the tales of Sindbad the Sailor, Ali Baba (minus the boiling part) and Aladdin. I imagined what it would be like to be carried away by a giant bird to a distant land or to discover a magical cave full of treasure.

I think Jordan Mechner must have read the 1001 Nights as a kid too, because Prince of Persia feels a whole lot like one of them (specifically Aladdin) compressed down into game form. It features a vizier-sorcerer guy who is evil (because the vizier is always evil) and wants to marry the young princess, who is in love with the player character (you.) You are the Prince of Persia and your mission is to rescue the Princess from being forced into marriage to a creepy middle-aged magician. You must escape from the dungeon the vizier has thrown you into and make it into the palace, where the Princess is being held.

There are even cutscenes!

There are even cutscenes!

You might know the Prince of Persia franchise from the reboot series it got in the 2000s. If you were curious about where it started, here you are. Jordan Mechner designed this PC platformer to appeal to the newly computer-addicted kids of the early 90s, a group that I belonged to. And it absolutely worked, because Prince of Persia is a great game.

The first screen of the game.  You'll get used to seeing this screen.

The first screen of the game. You’ll get used to seeing this screen.

It’s also a hard, unforgiving, hit-your-fist-against-the-wall-and-cry kind of game. Prince of Persia is a platformer from the age of hard as fuck platformers. The Mega Man series on the NES is a classic example of this sort of game: lots of easy deaths, pitfalls, and traps to kill you, even when you think you’re playing carefully. Prince of Persia follows a similar pattern, only here the obstacles are spike traps that extend from the ground when the Prince approaches them and floor-to-ceiling snap traps that will cut the Prince in half if he’s caught in them.

Why is the Prince a blonde guy?  Are there many blonde people in Persia?  Maybe there are a few.

Why is the Prince a blonde guy? Are there many blonde people in Persia? Maybe there are a few.

Expect to see this a lot. Prince of Persia is a trial-and-error sort of game; you’ll try jumping from platform to platform and hanging onto ledges, and you’ll fail often and fall off ledges and die, fall into traps and die, etc. You’ll also face sword-wielding guards waiting for you in almost every level. Fortunately, the guards are also susceptible to spikes and huge metal teeth. You can use the level’s treacherous nature to kill off guards more easily by pushing them into said traps.

Every guard dreads the "just in front of the spike pit" posting.

Every guard dreads the “just in front of the spike pit” posting.

Thankfully, the game offers continues that are unlimited in number, though upon each death you’ll have to start at the beginning of the level. There’s a catch, however. Remember that beginning cutscene with the hourglass? The vizier/sorcerer/whatever bad guy has given the Princess one hour to decide whether to marry him or TO DIE. So you have an hour to save the Princess. No, not an hour in fake video game time – an actual hour. Sixty minutes.

As you can imagine, this really puts the heat on the player to blaze through all the obstacles in front of him. However, rushing forward without a plan is probably the worst playing method here – you’re guaranteed to constantly fall into the successively more difficult death traps the dungeons and palaces have in store for the Prince. This time pressure is compounded by the many time-limited gate-opening puzzles throughout the game. The later stages demand that the player think creatively to get around some of these obstacles. There’s even a great twist near the end of the game in one of the final boss fights – let’s just say that it’s not a normal boss fight in any sense. The solution to the fight is simple, but it’s nearly impossible to guess your first time out.

Another interesting thing about Prince of Persia: it used an early form of copy protection to prevent people from playing pirated copies beyond the first level - you needed the game manual to proceed.  This was also before the Internet existed as we know it today, so looking the answer up on Google wasn't an option.

Another interesting thing about Prince of Persia: it used an early form of copy protection to prevent people from playing pirated copies beyond the first level – you needed the game manual to proceed. This was also before the Internet existed as we know it today, so looking the answer up on Google wasn’t an option.

Prince of Persia was deservedly a big hit, and as a result, an SNES port of the game came out a few years later. The SNES version isn’t just a port, though – it adds 8 more stages to the game for a total of 20 and gives the player two hours instead of one to make up for the extended length. It also adds background music to the previously soundtrack-less game and throws a lot more detail into the graphics.

The Prince also looks more like an actual Persian now.

The Prince also looks more like an actual Persian now.

Unfortunately, the SNES version also removes something from the original PC game: the blood. You and the guards you kill can (and will) still fall and die on spikes, snappers and so on, but there’s no blood involved. This is a weird sort of censoring that Nintendo was performing in the early 90s in an effort to be seen as family-friendly. More famously, they did the same thing with the Mortal Kombat SNES port. I never understood this. Your character was still committing violence against other people and getting impaled by spikes – what difference did a little blood make?

No, it's not a violent game.  See?  There's no blood in it!

No, it’s not a violent game. See? There’s no blood in it!

But enough of that. Both Prince of Persia versions are good games and well worth your time. I prefer the PC version, probably because it’s the one I played as a kid. The SNES version might be easier to get running, though, if you can install an SNES emulator and find a rom.

A historical note: The vizier in the original Prince of Persia is clearly based on the sorcerer guy from the original Aladdin (I know what you might be thinking, but no – Disney’s Aladdin came out two years later.) The game refers to this guy as “Jaffar”, however, just like the villain of Disney’s Aladdin. Ever since, Jaffar has been the first character to come to mind when the term “evil vizier” comes up.

There was a Jafar ibn Yahya al-Barmaki who was a vizier to the 9th century Abbasid Caliph Harun al-Rashid, and he’s believed to be the basis of this character. He wasn’t originally portrayed as a villain, however: Jafar shows up in a few of the 1001 Nights tales as the protagonist, and the historical Jafar was known as a proponent of the sciences and of learning during the Islamic Golden Age. Jafar did end up losing his head as a result of allegations that he was boning the Caliph’s sister, but whether this was true or simply a result of a court intrigue is an open question. The closer you are to the throne, the more danger you’re in. See Game of Thrones for more on that theme.

edit: As it turns out, the timing of this post is pretty good, considering that it’s the second day of Ramadan and lots of Persians – along with millions upon millions of others around the world – are celebrating the month with fasting during the day and feasting at night. I didn’t actually intend it to turn out this way, but since it did – happy Ramadan, whether you’re taking part in it or not. May you successfully avoid spike traps and horrific crushing metal teeth.

Retrospective: Chip’s Challenge

Even the most vocal Microsoft critics have to admit that the Windows Entertainment Pack games of the early 90s were really good. Later on, when Microsoft made an executive decision to be more shitty, it dropped all its interesting games and stuck with solitaire, hearts and multiplayer network board games that are widely available on sites like Yahoo Games for free. But back in the Windows 3.1/95 era, the Best of Windows Entertainment Pack (stored in the BOWEP folder, so that’s what we’ll call it) was the most fun way to waste time better used writing your report or sending “electronic mail.” Even better, all the games were free and came pre-installed on your system. As a young boy at the time, before the Internet was a thing most people had or even knew about, I had the added bonus of being fascinated by the novelty of these games.

We’ve already covered one game from BOWEP. SkiFree was great in its simplicity and made for the perfect timewaster. But there was another great game in the folder, one that could easily take hours of your life instead of mere minutes. That game was Chip’s Challenge.

Notice how this game is completely amazing in every way possible.

Notice how this game is completely amazing in every way possible.

Chip’s Challenge tells the story of Chip, a nerd, who is invited into some kind of secret club by Melinda, a girl. To join, however, Chip has to run through a hundreds of levels long obstacle course of death filled with crushing blocks, monsters, bees and fire. Just why the hell Chip wants to get into this club so badly that he is willing to risk his life is a mystery, but this box art suggests that the motivation is love at first sight:

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I didn’t pick up on this because I never had the box. The only reason I ever played this game was that it came with my family’s 386. Lucky thing, though, because Chip’s Challenge was, and still is, a lot of fun. It’s just a really long puzzle game. The goal in each level is to collect all the chips and get Chip to the exit. Fire will kill Chip unless he’s wearing the right boots, and other obstacles will kill him no matter what. But it doesn’t matter, because Chip always comes back to life. Yes, he is going to get into this god damn club even if he has to die one million times.

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One nice feature of Chip’s Challenge is its password system. Each level has a password that you can use to get right to that level, so quitting the game is never an issue. Good thing, because some of these levels are pretty hard to get the solution to. Of course, once we got Internet connections around 1994/5 and found lists of the passwords online, we went straight to the last level, because the game didn’t care and neither did we.

Still, the fun in playing Chip’s Challenge is actually playing it. BOWEP is near impossible to run on a Windows 8 or 7 machine, but a copy that works on DOSBox may be found here. If you’ve got a few hours to waste, try it out.

Retrospective: Skies of Arcadia

Skies Of Arcadia

Sometimes I get nostalgic for my old Dreamcast, and when I do one of the games I think about is this one. Skies of Arcadia was released in 2000 and it stands on its own, without any sequels or spinoffs (the Gamecube port with added content, Skies of Arcadia Legends, doesn’t count.) And it’s still one of my favorite games of all time.

Skies of Arcadia didn’t have an especially fresh plot or complex characters or anything like that – it was a pretty standard “save the world” sort of deal, and the characters were, for the most part, either just plain good guys or bad guys. Moreover, a lot of the bad guy characters in this game are of the goofy, sort of incompetent type. SoA did have a nice lightheartedness to it that a lot of RPGs lacked, though, and the characters were genuinely dynamic and fun – just don’t expect any big deep human drama or anything like that.

The heroes of Skies.  Please don't laugh at the graphics too much; 2000 was a different time.

The heroes of Skies. Please don’t laugh at the graphics too much; 2000 was a different time.

But as far as setting went, Skies was unique as hell. The main character here is Vyse, the son of a pirate captain (a good guy pirate, meaning he only plunders bad guys.) Only, as the name implies, these pirates don’t sail the seas: they sail the skies. The whole world of Skies of Arcadia is suspended in the sky, including the land masses and the ships. Imagine the good Pirates of the Caribbean movie, only it takes place a few miles above ground, and you’ll have a good idea of what’s going on here.

This is your navigation screen while you're piloting your ship.

This is your navigation screen while you’re piloting your ship.

There’s no real explanation of how or why everything in this game is in the sky or how it’s all floating up there, and no indication of why the developers decided to set a pirate-themed RPG in the sky. Somehow, though, it all works. SoA offers the player a big world to fly around in (at least for a game made in 2000) with new parts of the map revealed as the game progresses, all RPG style. Your character can dock at ports, some of which are town areas and some entrances to dungeon/field areas. At this point, you set out on foot.

This is generally when you get into fights.  SoA's combat system is pretty standard, but RPG lovers should enjoy it.  There are way too damn many random battles, though.

This is generally when you get into fights. SoA’s combat system is pretty standard, but RPG lovers should enjoy it. There are way too damn many random battles, though.

A lot of SoA‘s gameplay is pretty normal turn-based RPG fare. Where the game gets interesting is in its ship battles. At certain points in the game, you will enter into battle with an enemy ship, during which you must choose your ship’s actions (usually you’ll get three or four of them, depending on how many characters are in your active party) against your prediction of what you think the enemy ship will do. Here you’ll have to use some tactical thinking to take advantage of times at which your enemy is most vulnerable to attack and to shield yourself when your ship is weakest in position. You can outfit your ship with plenty of weapon types, including normal cannons, smaller guns that can fire in succession and torpedoes that can hit the enemy up to two turns away from when they’re launched, allowing you to concentrate a lot of firepower at the point where your enemy is exposed to attack. Trust me; it’s all a lot of fun when you actually play it.

Ship battles also feature a lot of "turning point" decisions like this that can change your fortunes for better or worse.

Ship battles also feature a lot of “turning point” decisions like this that can change your fortunes for better or worse.

Later on in the game, you can enhance your ship by recruiting crew members who add special abilities to your craft such as added attack, defense and healing. The whole ship battle thing might have come off as gimmicky if it had been shoehorned into the flow of the game or was done poorly, but I think it really ties in well with the story and the action of Skies.

Also, you fight this thing.

Also, you fight this thing.

Sadly, SEGA never followed up on this classic. I’d guess that it didn’t sell all that well, only that can’t be true, otherwise they wouldn’t have re-released it on the Gamecube with a ton of added content. So what happened? Nobody seems to know. Fans of the game have been badgering SEGA to put out a sequel, or at the very least an HD remake of the original, and SEGA has consistently put off those hopes. I’m not holding my breath, myself.

If you’re looking to play Skies of Arcadia today, you might have a hard time going about it. Both the Dreamcast original and the Gamecube port are currently selling for $150 on Amazon and similar amounts on eBay and other sites. You might notice that this is completely insane. I don’t know why copies of Skies are so rare these days, but they are.

That said, if you have the money to burn and the time to fully enjoy this fantastic RPG, I’d advise you to go for it. Skies of Arcadia is worth it – it offers dozens upon dozens of hours of gameplay and is just a lot of fun.

Or it could just be the nostalgia talking. Either way, Skies was a great game that still holds up today.