Retrospective: Grand Theft Auto: Vice City

I think it’s time for another look into the past, the distant past. The past of 2002, when violence in video games was still something some people actually cared about rather than a scapegoat for politicians who wanted to avoid talking about real societal problems. Well, it was that then too, but the scapegoat tactic seems to have worked a lot better back when the Grand Theft Auto series made the transition from 2D to 3D.

Years ago, I wrote a post about my time with the older GTA games from the 90s. I’ll still stand by GTA and GTA2 as being pretty fun at the time, but the series benefited massively from this leap into 3D. The 2001 title Grand Theft Auto III was an impressive game, giving the player an entire city with depth to run around and cause chaos in, but it’s still the followup Vice City that I’ll always remember best.

Oh yeah, also spoilers, but I don’t know if anyone cares in this case.

Yeah, this really brought back some memories. Still absolutely no idea what was going on here though

I recently got a separate digital copy of Vice City on Steam because my old CD copy may as well be on the Moon for all I know, I lost track of it so long ago. And playing it again was a really nostalgic experience. This was at least partly because of the time and place I first played Vice City, taking some stress out on the poor residents of the city while studying for exams and writing those damn IB papers. If you were or are an IB student too, you’ll understand why playing this game was almost necessary for me at the time.

But enough of my complaining yet again. What’s Vice City about? If you haven’t played it, there’s not much to know about the plot and characters: it’s a basic gangster story. The protagonist Tommy Vercetti, a mob guy from Liberty City (aka New York, and also the setting of GTA III) took the fall for his boss, Sonny Forelli, and after serving several years in prison he’s back out. But Forelli doesn’t want him around Liberty City, so he sends him down to Vice City (aka Miami) to start some business for the family there. Vercetti goes to Vice City but loses the money he was given to pay for a drug deal after it’s ambushed by armed men, and Forelli is unfortunately not the forgiving type. So it’s on Vercetti to find out who fucked up the deal and get Forelli’s money back.

Forelli being pissed off about his missing money. I’ve never even seen one of these giant blocky 80s cell phones in real life

Of course, that’s not quite how things go: instead of getting the money back for Forelli, Vercetti ends up getting it back and keeping it for himself, because by the time he’s gotten to that point he’s built up his own criminal empire in Vice City, and honestly fuck that guy anyway. In the course of building that empire up, Vercetti makes friends with a bunch of colorful characters, including the neurotic, coked-up lawyer Ken Rosenberg, best friend forever Lance Vance, and the hotheaded local mob boss Ricardo Diaz.

Some of these and other characters you meet will give you missions to complete in exchange for money and plot progression. Said missions might involve intimidating people, following people, transporting people, transporting illicit items, chasing people down in a stolen car, or just plain killing people with any number of weapons you can buy or find lying around town. Your friends will also occasionally join up to help you cause trouble (though how useful they really are in a gunfight is questionable, because more often than not you’ll end up having to babysit their dumb asses and make sure they’re not shot full of holes.) Naturally, you always have to stay vigilant, both for rival gang members and for the police, who don’t like it very much when they see you committing theft and murder right in front of them.

There’s also this weird mission. I still don’t know what the French government has to do with this game

I could get more into the storyline, but that’s the gist of it: run missions, build up your reputation with your contacts and make more contacts who give you more missions, use your money to buy properties and eventually businesses that make you more money, run missions for those businesses to improve your status, and kill that asshole Sonny Forelli when he eventually comes hunting for you. Before that, however, you kill Ricardo Diaz when you discover that he’s turned on you and Lance. And in a great example of “possession is 9/10ths of the law” when you do that you somehow take ownership of his massive mansion and arsenal. You probably don’t need a lawyer to tell you that doesn’t work in real life. Maybe Ken Rosenberg pulled some trickery at the Vice City probate court offscreen. It doesn’t really matter, though: the important thing is that you’re on top of Vice City’s criminal underworld at the end.

Don’t forget to take time out of that busy schedule to find the best ramps in the city to do motorcycle jumps from

One obvious question about Vice City, since it’s now 18 years old, is how well it holds up. Vice City is obviously not as big or nice-looking as GTA V, but there’s enough to do both with the story and side missions that you can still spend hours on it. The game starts off with only half of the city accessible, the rest closed off due to an incoming hurricane until you pass an early mission (Phnom Penh ’86, the one where you ride the helicopter and shoot guys while hanging out of the side.) But even in the early stage of Vice City there’s plenty to mess around with: the usual taxi, police vigilante, and medical transport missions, an irritating pizza delivery mission you have to do while driving a shitty moped, and hits to carry out on people who probably don’t deserve what you end up giving them.

This guy wasn’t a contract, he just tried to steal my car. Well, my car that I stole from someone else. But still.

The story missions themselves are mostly fun as well, though of course the developers had to include a few bullshit gimmicky ones that might make you tear your hair out while trying to complete them. Like the one where you have to dodge the Haitian car dropping coffins with bombs in them. Or the street race with a bastard that I swear is using cheats, or maybe I’m just bad at the races.

But that’s where my favorite aspect of Grand Theft Auto comes in. Like other games in the series, Vice City is fine with you setting the story missions aside for a while to take side missions to make more money, or to try sticking up a few stores to see how much money you can get away with without being arrested. If you’re feeling especially pissy when you load Vice City, you can naturally also just go on a rampage in the streets, beating people up for the money they drop and getting an increasing wanted rating represented by the six stars in the top right of the screen. One of the most fun parts of any GTA is testing your skill at evading a progressively more intense police chase, one that becomes especially hard when the SWAT trucks start showing up at four stars. The cheat codes are also great fun to create even more chaos: if you’re playing the PC version, I recommend combining FIGHTFIGHTFIGHT and OURGODGIVENRIGHTTOBEARARMS. And maybe NOBODYLIKESME as well if you feel like trying to fight off all those armed pedestrians yourself.

Cheat codes won’t help this guy much; he dies in every playthrough of the game

There is clearly a lot of work and attention to detail in Vice City. A lot of that attention goes into making the city feel like a real lived-in place instead of a bunch of streets and building-looking objects that you can run into with your car. You have to deal with other drivers and pedestrians, who will always get in your way when you’re trying to run your missions. You’ll probably find yourself driving on the sidewalk and running over a few people more than you’d like. Well, it’s their fault for being obstacles to avoid when I’m driving my taxi missions or fleeing from police, isn’t it? One funny effect of having so many people wandering and driving around is that you’ll hear a lot of the same voice clips coming from nameless pedestrian #3845, but for me that adds to the charm of it. Like in Skyrim and all those guards who got shot in the knee or however that went.

The voice acting for the game’s central characters is also excellent, provided by serious and big-name actors including Ray Liotta, Luis Guzman, Burt Reynolds, and Dennis Hopper. The voices really fit, especially well considering that a lot of these guys acted in mob/crime dramas before this, most notably Liotta in Goodfellas. Speaking of mob dramas, there are also plenty of references to Scarface, along with a big reference to the lesser-known Al Pacino gangster movie Carlito’s Way: the entire character of Ken Rosenberg is pulled directly out of that movie based on Sean Penn’s performance as Pacino’s mob attorney. And Guzman was in Carlito’s Way too. Hell, if you like mob movies at all, you need to play Vice City if you haven’t already.

Sean Penn doesn’t do the voice, it’s William Fichtner, but it is that character

Even the radio is entertaining to listen to — every station features fake ads and satirical talk shows of the kind that were introduced in GTA III. I remember the big new 80s soundtrack featured in the radio stations getting a lot of praise as well. I’m not such a big fan of it, even though there are some really good songs there (for example, “Billie Jean” is the first song you hear on the radio when you get into the first available car in the game.) The 80s isn’t my favorite decade ever for music, though maybe it was a great nostalgic trip for people who grew up then. Maybe it’s a Stranger Things sort of thing where I don’t give a shit about the 80s references and themes so much. I wasn’t even in nursery school when that decade ended, so what do I care? Then again, I don’t care about 90s throwbacks that much either, and I did grow up in that decade, so maybe it doesn’t matter.

I don’t think you could steal a police car and get paid for running petty criminals over in the 80s either. This game is lying to me

So I’d say based on my time with Vice City recently that it totally holds up. San Andreas, IV, and V built the series up quite a lot, but Vice City still stands as an excellent game on its own. It’s pretty cheap, too, so if you don’t mind how old it looks I think it’s worth checking out. I don’t think I would have gotten passing scores on my IB exams without being able to vent here in alternate universe Miami so much, so I’ll be grateful to the game forever for that at least.

Retrospective: Sonic Adventure 2

Were the Sonic Adventure games good? Throw that question out to the crowds of Twitter users and watch people fight over it, because it’s a contentious one. But that wasn’t always the case. This series had a famously rough transition from 2D to 3D, but I think a lot of the poor reputation of modern Sonic stems from the total disaster that was Sonic ’06 and from some of Sega’s less bad but still pretty bad blunders such as the endless slog of the nighttime sections of Sonic Unleashed and the entirety of Shadow the Hedgehog.

The Adventure games, on the other hand, went over pretty well at the time. The first two real Sonic games in 3D were far from perfect, with plenty of camera problems and glitches, but I remember liking them when I first played them on the Dreamcast, and I don’t think anyone really outright hated them or declared the series dead after playing them. A lot of fans agreed, and I do too, that they weren’t nearly as good as the original 2D games on the Genesis, but they weren’t considered a disgrace to the series or anything like that. Even when the Dreamcast died, these two games were at least well-regarded enough to live on as Gamecube ports with new features added. Yet now they do get quite a lot of hate, especially the first one, which I’ve even heard called one of the worst games ever made.

I’m not going to address here whether Sonic Adventure deserves that harsh assessment, though I’m pretty sure it doesn’t. But I only own the Steam port of Sonic Adventure 2, so that’s the one I can write about without having to dig through hazy twenty year-old memories. I finally got around to playing this version of SA2, and I don’t feel that differently about it now than I did back when I played the Dreamcast original upon release in 2001: generally pretty all right but with some boneheaded gameplay decisions and clunky elements that make it a chore to get through sometimes.

But amazing dialogue

But you’re reading this to get specifics, so let’s get to them. SA2 opens with a nice cinematic-looking shot of Sonic being transported as a prisoner on a military helicopter for a crime he obviously didn’t commit, because he’s a good guy. So he jumps out of the helicopter and onto the streets of San Francisco using a broken-off piece of it as a skateboard (Sonic doesn’t take fall damage, so he’s fine.) It turns out that he’s a victim of mistaken identity, because the grandfather of Dr. Robotnik, now officially known in the West as Eggman, developed another anthropomorphic hedgehog as an experiment on an orbital base to be the ultimate lifeform.

When Eggman discovers this being called Shadow, he unleashes him to cause some chaos. And of course, since Shadow and Sonic are shaped in a vaguely similar way, everyone thinks it’s Sonic wreaking havoc instead. While Sonic runs from the military police, his friends Tails and Knuckles join up to help out, pairing off against Eggman, Shadow, and another new character named Rouge, an anthropomorphic bat lady and a government spy. But she’s also a treasure hunter who’s after the Master Emerald, which for some fucking reason isn’t on the Floating Island anymore.

Remember when Knuckles was the guardian of the Floating Island and sworn to keep this shiny rock on it, otherwise said island would fall into the ocean like in Sonic 3 & Knuckles and Sonic Adventure 1? Well Knuckles doesn’t, because he never even brings that up. And this is the third time he’s lost the damn thing anyway. What are you doing, Knuckles?

And since Knuckles shatters the emerald on purpose to get it out of Eggman’s hands, he has to search for the missing pieces again while also helping out Sonic. Amy Rose is also around, though she sadly doesn’t get much to do this game other than pine after Sonic and get captured by the bad guys as usual. Other things that happen in the course of the game: Sonic and Tails meet the President of the United States, and Eggman blows up half of the Moon with a giant space laser.

More stuff happens in Sonic Adventure 2, but this is enough to see that the plot is pretty damn stupid. In places, it doesn’t even make sense. The mistaken identity part is already silly enough since Sonic and Shadow clearly look different even from far away, so why does everyone mistake Shadow for Sonic? I guess it’s because the game needs someone for you to fight/run away from in these stages. And it can’t just be Eggman now, because he’s also a playable character along with Shadow and Rouge in the second “Dark” storyline that runs parallel to the “Hero” one up until the final part of the game, when both teams have to work together to defeat a greater, more insane evil than even Eggman himself.

But does anyone care that much about the plot of a Sonic game? Some people do, and five years later the series tried a sort of serious RPGish plot with Sonic ’06, but that didn’t work at all and went over horribly. So maybe it’s better if the games don’t worry so much about plot. You can easily ignore the dumb plot, because the gameplay is the main thing.

Sonic Adventure 2 also trips up a bit there, however. The first Sonic Adventure, released in 1998/99, tried out a lot of different gameplay modes, a couple of which were famously clunky (namely Big the Cat’s fishing game that’s widely hated; people also complained about Amy’s sluggish platforming style, though I didn’t mind it as much.) Sonic was still the center of attention, however; his game was by far the longest out of the six, with many more stages to play through. SA2 cut down on the number of gameplay modes to just three: traditional fast platforming action with Sonic and Shadow, an exploration-based hunting mode with Knuckles and Rouge, and a third-person mech shooter with Tails and Eggman, each mode sharing equal game time. So when you’re playing SA2, you’re only running around classic Sonic-style for one third of the time.

This is obviously a problem if you don’t like the other two-thirds of the game. You can’t even just play through Sonic and Shadow’s stages and ignore the others like you could in SA1, because instead of individual character routes, the story is told through two separate Hero and Dark routes that alternate stages between Sonic/Tails/Knuckles and Shadow/Eggman/Rouge. So you just have to suffer through those parts if you’re not interested in them.

Do you know the Pumpkin Hill song by heart? I fucking do

I don’t hate all the non-Sonic/Shadow parts of this game. The Knuckles and Rouge hunting levels get a lot of shit, but I don’t find them that bad. The scavenger hunt element of those stages work pretty well, and the three emerald shards or whatever other three objects you’re hunting for are placed in randomized locations that you need to find by using a sort of hot/cold radar system, so each run through of a stage plays a bit differently. The horrible camera controls can make it hard to dig around in tight areas as you’ll often have to do, but the camera in this game is always a pain in the ass anyway.

No, the sections of SA2 I really don’t care for are the mech stages. It was a fun novelty to play as the villain Eggman, and it makes sense that he’d be using a mech to get around, but Tails is now also stuck in a mech throughout the game, which means the player misses out on his unique flying ability that made playing as him in Sonic 3 & Knuckles so fun. I know Tails is supposed to be an engineer, so it’s not crazy that he’d be driving a mech around, but that still seemed pretty dumb to me. You can fly, so why not use that skill?

The greater problem here, though, is that these stages are just too slow and dull. I don’t see anything special about them. Though I do know people who really like them, so this seems like one of those “your mileage may vary” issues.

excitement

But the Sonic and Shadow stages are pretty fun. They’re still not as fun as the stages in the original Genesis games, partly because they’re far more linear. But I think the main appeal of these stages in the early 3D Sonic games is seeing how quickly you can make it to the goal. This game even implements a time/score-based ranking system from E to A (no F, I guess because if you reach the goal, you haven’t technically failed no matter how long it took you to get there) along with four extra challenges in each stage and bonuses for completing them successfully. If you’re a completionist, you can get a lot of replay value out of Sonic Adventure 2.

Some of that replay value is also provided by the Chao Garden, where you can raise some weird onion-headed blue creatures with any of the six playable characters, feed them animals to make them strong, run them in races, etc. I’m not into this kind of virtual pet stuff, but if you are, it’s worth checking out.

This is pretty much how you raise Chao as far as I know

The team that ported SA2 to Steam seems to have done a pretty decent job, because it mostly plays fine.* I do get some slowdown in a few parts of stages (mainly Sonic and Shadow’s visually busy jungle stages) but I’m not sure how much of that is me having a piece of shit PC that I can only run visual novels on. For the most part, this game plays how I remember it playing in 2001. All the good and bad elements of the game are still there: the camera is still garbage and the mech stages are still boring, but the Sonic/Shadow stages and some of the Knuckles/Rouge ones are still fun to play.

The soundtrack hasn’t been touched either, which is again both a good and a bad thing. I really like some of the music in SA2, especially Rouge’s smooth jazz lounge stuff and Shadow’s extra over the top angsty-sounding themes like “Supporting Me”. The Knuckles raps are still really bad, but then again they’re so bad that they’ve become jokes, especially the Pumpkin Hill theme — and in any case, it’s hard to imagine those Knuckles levels with any other BGM. If you’re a fan of Crush 40 and Jun Senoue’s guitar-playing then you’ll also really like Sonic’s character and stage themes. I’m not a big fan of the style, but “City Escape” is still catchy. Just try to get it out of your head when you’ve heard it once.

Hey Knuckles, when you’re done flailing around like a dumbass, let’s have a proper fight.

In the end, I still have mixed feelings about Sonic Adventure 2. It’s mostly fun to play, and even the mech sections aren’t horrible to get through aside from a couple of extremely overly long stages late in the game. On the other hand, I think it also represents a shift away from the old Sonic style that I grew up with as a kid and that I liked so much. The first Adventure also added new characters and a dumb plot, but it felt more in line with those older games somehow. With SA2, we’ve now got much more “adult” characters with the extra-edgy Shadow, who looks like he was designed to appeal to depressive loner kids (i.e. me) and Rouge, who looks like she was designed to appeal to furries on DeviantArt (i.e. not me, but I guess I get what they were going for if in fact they were going for that.) And the President is a character in the Sonic universe now for some reason. Sonic Heroes is where the series really lost me, and Sonic ’06 is where it gave me a giant middle finger, but in some ways SA2 feels like the beginning of that shift into unfamiliar territory.

But does it really matter that much? Sonic the Hedgehog as a whole has had plenty of ups and downs, and even though I’ve been mostly out of the loop with the Sonic series for the last two decades, I’ll probably always have a soft spot for it. I certainly will for Sonic Adventure 2, which in my view counts as one of those ups. At the very least, this game is certainly not the disaster some critics paint it as. I guess that’s not the most enthusiastic endorsement I could give the game, but I’d say it’s still worth trying out, even with its problems. 𒀭

 

* This isn’t the case for the ports of Sonic Adventure, however. The Gamecube port Sonic Adventure DX: Director’s Cut was supposed to be an upgrade, but it actually downgraded some of the graphics and added new glitches that weren’t present in the Dreamcast original. The PC version is even worse in this regard, taking the Gamecube version and compounding these problems, and unfortunately the SA offered on Steam is based on that one, making it a port of a shitty port of another shitty port. Thankfully, fans have created patches to fix many of these issues, doing far more for the game than Sega ever bothered to. For a comprehensive rundown of the port issue, see a video overview here (made by Cybershell, an excellent YouTube video maker who recently reappeared for the second time after years of hibernation) or go straight to the source to get all the details.

As far as SA2 goes, I also played it on both the Dreamcast and the Gamecube, and I don’t remember so many differences between the two versions aside from a few bits of added content like multiplayer battle mode, but I could be wrong about that. It’s been a long time, after all. I should also mention that the extra Gamecube content is offered on Steam as DLC. I didn’t buy it, but it’s only a few dollars as of this writing.

Retrospective: Yume Nikki

Several years ago, at some point during the complete mental haze of my life that was my early 20s, I played Yume Nikki. I’ve made a few references to it on this site, and I’ve reviewed at least one game that was directly inspired by it, but I haven’t really taken a good look at the game itself until now. Yume Nikki (trans. Dream Diary) had humble origins.  It was first released as a free RPG Maker game in 2004 on 2channel, but after a fan put out an English patch the game spread around the internet by way of video game and anime imageboards and textboards (the much-maligned 4chan played a big part in this process, as did one particular event from the game that produced a meme popular around the boards.) As a result, Yume Nikki ended up a cult classic among some of the obsessive weirdo subcultures of the internet, so much so that it acted as an influence on several other popular games in the horror, exploration, and RPG genres, including the critically acclaimed Undertale.

Madotsuki’s bedroom in the real world.

I get the feeling that Kikiyama, the creator of Yume Nikki, didn’t set out to do any of this when he (or she?  Nobody knows) put the game together, because it is a very simple game at its core. After a brief three-screen tutorial, the player starts the game controlling Madotsuki, the above-pictured pigtailed girl, in what seems to be her bedroom.  There’s no prompt at this point – no text box, no inner monologue, no mother or older sibling character banging on the door telling Madotsuki to wake up and get ready for school.  The sliding door at the bottom of the screen leads to a balcony, and Madotsuki shakes her head when you try to guide her through the door at the top to explore the rest of the apartment she presumably lives in.  Madotsuki’s TV turns on, but the cable is out.  There are only really three things for Madotsuki to do in her room: play the one game she owns on her game console (a playable game-within-a-game called Nasu that’s pretty damn boring and repetitive), write in her diary that functions as a save file, and go to bed.

The hub world.

Almost all the action in Yume Nikki takes place in Madotsuki’s dreams, because it’s only in her dreams that Madotsuki is willing to open her bedroom door, which now leads to a chamber containing 12 more doors.  Each of these doors leads to a separate dream world ready for Madotsuki to explore, worlds that contain passages to still more worlds that loop in on each other in bizarre ways.  While none of these dreamscapes are really terrifying (well, almost none, anyway) most of them aren’t exactly inviting either.  Madotsuki’s dream worlds all exist in her head, but they don’t seem to exist for her own amusement.  Just like dreams in our world, Madotsuki’s dreams are filled with vague shapes, strange characters, and a whole lot of seemingly meaningless symbols and structures.  None of these things can hurt Madotsuki – she’s only dreaming, after all – and if she gets stuck in an unpleasant situation or a dead end during her explorations, she can wake herself up by pinching her cheek (i.e. by pressing 9.)

The vending machine is out of order.

The closest thing Yume Nikki has to an objective is the collection of “effects”, items that Madotsuki can acquire in her dream worlds that let her transform in various ways.  Some of these effects let Madotsuki mess with the inhabitants of her dream worlds: for example, getting the Traffic Light effect and turning into a red light freezes them in their tracks, while using the Cat effect pulls them towards her (because, I don’t know, people like cats?)  Others allow Madotsuki to travel more quickly (the Bicycle effect, which is a must to get early on, because walking through all the worlds of Yume Nikki takes a really god damn long time.)  Some effects don’t have much of an actual effect aside from changing Madotsuki’s appearance.

I like the posters.

Yume Nikki doesn’t feature an apparent plot or any dialogue beyond a few bits of garbled text in one of the dream worlds that doesn’t make sense.  The few human and humanoid characters to be found other than Madotsuki live in her dreams, so it’s impossible to say whether they’re based on people she knows in the real world or whether they’re just pure creations of her mind.  These figures often don’t acknowledge Madotsuki’s presence, and even when they do, their interactions with her don’t make sense.

So how did such a weird game with a silent protagonist and blank slate for a story gain such popularity?  And more importantly, why should you play it?

Why is it snowing in my house?

Yume Nikki is all about exploration.  It doesn’t make any demands of the player.  It doesn’t feature any real puzzles or objectives other than the collection of effects, and even that’s presented by the game in a sort of offhand way.  While I can’t really call Yume Nikki relaxing – there’s a little too much bizarre and unsettling imagery in it for that – it’s definitely not taxing in the way some later RPG Maker horror games can be (see Witch’s HouseBlank Dream, and Ib.)  I think it’s the fact that Yume Nikki is such a blank slate that made it popular.  The player can read pretty much whatever he wants into Madotsuki and her surroundings.  Most descriptions of the game say Madotsuki is a hikkikomori – a sort of shut-in with extreme social anxiety – but the game never actually tells the player why she won’t leave her bedroom.  Maybe there’s been a massive war or a supervirus outbreak and that’s why she’s holed up in her apartment.

There are a ton of other fan theories out there about Madotsuki, her dream world, and the characters in it, some of them pretty damn dark.  The beauty of it is that there aren’t really any right or wrong answers.  People can argue over competing theories when it comes to most other games, but Yume Nikki?  Who knows what any of it means, or whether any of it means anything at all.  But that seems to be the whole point.*

What the hell is happening

If you’re going to take one recommendation from me, make it this one: play Yume Nikki.  It’s now on Steam, true to its origins still free to play, and you can also download and play the old version (it’s pretty much the same) if you have the right version of Game Maker installed.  If you’ve played Undertale, or Dreaming Sarah, or any of the RPG Maker games I mentioned above, you owe it to yourself to experience the game that did so much to inspire those.  Not just for “historical” purposes, either, because Yume Nikki is a legitimately fascinating game to play.

*****

* Here I should note there are light novel and manga adaptations of Yume Nikki that I haven’t read.  Maybe they provide explanations about Madotsuki and her world that the game doesn’t.  Taking the game in itself, though, there aren’t any answers to these questions that I’m aware of.

Retrospective: JezzBall (and the pain of existence)

Years ago, I wrote about two PC games that were packaged free with computers running Windows 3.1 and 95. SkiFree was a fun time-waster for a few minutes, and Chip’s Challenge was a surprisingly deep, well-crafted puzzle game. However, there’s a game from the famed Best of Windows Entertainment Pack bundle that I neglected to write about, a game that many consider to be a classic on the level of SkiFree and Chip’s Challenge.  A horror game that plumbed the depths of the psyche even more thoroughly than did Silent Hill 2.

I’m talking about JezzBall.

The beginning of stage 2.

JezzBall is a puzzle game in which the player must trap balls (the help file calls them “Jezz atoms” – yes, Jezz atoms, that’s not a typo) that are bouncing around a chamber while a timer runs.  The player can trap these balls by creating walls that reduce the size of said chamber.  However, there are a few catches – the wall is broken if a ball hits it before it’s completely built, each wall that’s broken costs the player a life, and the game is over if all the player’s lives are exhausted or if the timer reaches 0.  The object of the game is to reduce the chamber’s size by 75%.  The player starts with two JezzBalls, or Jezz atoms, or whatever, to trap, and each stage adds another ball to the mix.

You thought this was just a simple puzzle game, but check out this deep lore.

Perhaps you have fond memories of playing JezzBall back in the 90s or one of its clones more recently.  Or maybe you played the 80s arcade classic Qix that this game is based upon.  But did you ever feel uneasy about it?

Most people would say that JezzBall is just a little puzzle game, a fun diversion.  But for me, it’s more.  Playing this game is like looking into the abyss.

In the world of JezzBall, your only purpose is to seal atoms into small areas.  And after you’ve reduced the space they can move in to 25% of the screen, the game “rewards” you with an additional atom to deal with.

Your job becomes more difficult the further you progress, but do your nameless, faceless supervisors care?  No.  Trap more atoms.  Keep trapping atoms.  There is nothing else.

Soon enough, the pace of your job will become unbearable.  You will have a very limited amount of time to trap several atoms without any clear way to separate them into their own chambers.  Every time you try to build a wall, it breaks when an atom hits it before it’s complete.  You try to build a wall starting in the middle of the chamber to at least create a partial wall, but when atoms hit both ends of your wall you lose two lives and are that much closer to a game over.

JezzBall doesn’t care.  It will continue to throw additional atoms at you until you break.  The difficulty curve of this game starts with a gradual slope that leads to a 90 degree cliff face.  And when you fall from that cliff, as we all eventually do, you’re given the “honor” of marking your shame by entering your score on the leaderboard.

Other games I played growing up had an end goal or a winner.  Mario, Sonic, Zelda – the games in these series taught us that perseverance leads to victory.  The NES Mega Man games were difficult, but even an average or poor player could beat Dr. Wily given enough time and patience.  Chip’s Challenge, one of the other BOWEP titles, was a long game, but it also had a final level and an ending to offer.

JezzBall mocks your delusions of victory.  There is no happy ending in JezzBall, just as there is no happy ending in life.  No matter how skillful you are, no matter how far you get, a round of JezzBall always ends in failure.  It only offers you the option to play again.

And if you refuse to play again, it says nothing else – the game simply leaves you sitting in front of a black screen.

Life is a cruel joke.  Life is an absurdity.  Life is JezzBall.

I rate it a 5 out of 7.