Skyward Sword: Taking Leaps in Storytelling

Is Skyward Sword old news now that it's 2012? I doubt that. With a game this impressive, I can surely say that people will be playing this game for a while. (If the Silent Realms don't scare them off.)

In the newest Zelda game, Link lives on a land above the clouds, put there a long time ago by the Goddess to protect her people from the evil land-dwelling monsters below. Link lives a happy life, as do the other people of Skyloft, training to be a knight at the academy. On the first day of the game, he has a race against his classmates. The winner gets to fly around with Zelda for a bit, receive her sailcloth, and advance to the next class at the academy.

Fortunately, the game explains flying on your Loftwing pretty early in the game with the help of Zelda.

...After she pushes you off a cliff.

It's how she shows her affection.

Now, even if you suck at flying (which I did during the race), you'll win, so just take it at your own pace and you'll be with Zelda in no time.

Oh, wait--just kidding.

The story seems like same old Zelda games by that point. Link has to go save Zelda because he's the Goddess's chosen hero. Link will go through dungeons getting new equipment and chasing after Zelda, as well as going through trials to prove his worth as a hero. But wait--there's so much more!

The characters in this game have never had more personality. Link and Zelda have a strong relationship, and they care about each other. However, they can both survive on their own. This game forces them apart to each grow. You see Link go from a boy who likes his childhood friend to a young man who not only runs into battle with determination but also acts out of desperation when the person most important to him is in danger. Zelda is no damsel in distress. She may have fallen to the dangerous surface, but she's got plenty of spunk. She takes care of herself while she enters dungeons long before Link has the chance to do the same. Even when saved by Impa later on, Zelda knows when she has to put her foot down. She'll sacrifice the time she has with Link so that she can save the world. Link and Zelda are a team of heroes. Without either, the world will perish by the hands of demons.

This game doesn't just beat you over the head with "They like each other!" This game will make you feel it by stabbing you in the gut. It's the first Zelda game to make me openly cry.

And it's not just our protagonists who have dimension. We have Zelda admirer and slick pompadour-wearing Groose! He starts off on the wrong foot (ain't nobody hurting my bird!), but he's honestly a sweet guy. And even this secondary character is essential.

If there isn't a spin-off game about Groose, I will be so upset.

But my all-time favorite character is Lord Fabulous Ghirahim. With a creepy tongue, flamboyant personality, and weird tendency to hit on Link, he steals the show. He's the primary antagonist in the game, and while he's pretty awful at pursuing a young blonde girl, he's pretty great at getting in your way. Even he's got a personality.

Just look at those supple arms.

It was the lack of personality in the majority of characters in Twilight Princess that didn't make me fall in love with the game. It had a good story and it was fun, but it's got nothing on the characters of Skyward Sword.

Only one character has no personality (but not without development!), and that's by design. Fi, the spirit within the Master Sword, aids Link on his journey and gives advice, hints, rumors, and analysis when prompted. Most of the time, her dialogue goes something like this, "Master, there is an 85% chance that there is a key to this door somewhere within this dungeon," which roughly translates to, "Go find that goddamn key."

There is a 100% chance that you are an idiot and will need my assistance.

The motion controls set this game apart from the rest of the series. In Twilight Princess, all you really had to do was flail the wiimote around. Battles in Skyward Sword take more patience as most of the time you need to swing the sword in a certain direction or even thrust the sword. You start off with more hearts than usual for a Zelda game, but those extra hearts are necessary at the beginning. You will get pushed around, beaten up, and killed by a stupid spider just swinging back into your face. When the motion controls are finicky (it was difficult to get the wiimote to realize I was thrusting and not slashing), it's frustrating. If you have problems, recalibrate your wiimote, which you can do on the main menu screen in game, and then practice slashing and stabbing in the air.

This especially takes patience.

But what I love the most of all is the music in Skyward Sword. Each song tells a story on its own and makes a scene more powerful without the aid of voice actors. The orchestra is incredibly talented. The music sometimes blends into the background just to suddenly erupt when the time is right, and other times it gives characterization to the colorful band of characters in places like the Skyloft Bazaar.

Skyward Sword provides an excellent backdrop to the whole series, giving origins to many important pieces in Zelda (such as the Master Sword and Zelda) and as to why there are so many different time periods and worlds that have Link and Zelda playing the roles of hero and goddess.

To those who criticize the graphics, saying that they're not nearly as beautiful and detailed as the graphics of Twilight Princess, Skyward Sword is not Twilight Princess. The latter was a darker game and required minute details. Skyward Sword is more akin to an impressionist painting with beautiful colors blending into each other.

Is Skyward Sword the best in the series? It's really up to you. For me, thanks to the beautiful storytelling, it is--without a doubt--my favorite.

Seek A Way Out: 9 Hours 9 Persons 9 Doors

It's the morning after my escape from death onboard the Gigantic. I'm tired, confused, but--more than anything--I'm blown away.

9 Hours 9 Persons 9 Doors is a game with two parts visual novel, one part suspense, and one part horror. The game places you in the role of Junpei, a college student who finds himself onboard a ship in a locked room.

Oh, and he's going to drown thanks to the water flowing through the busted window if he doesn't get out soon.

Junpei is one of nine people onboard a ship that is set to sink into the ocean in nine hours. Their kidnapper, a person in a gas mask identified only as Zero, tells them that they must find a door with a "9" on it to escape. But things go awry quickly. A group of people in danger of death will not remain calm. Some will blatantly refuse to go along with the kidnapper says. Others will insist on doing as told in order to reach freedom. Some are old, some are young, some are brutish, some are demure. Among these clash of personalities is Junpei. You decide which doors he goes through, as well as the actions he makes and the things he says. The smallest of things given to you, as well as the strangest conversations, are all important in the end. You won't know which doors will lead you to safety and you won't know which characters are controlling everything. If you don't play by the rules, your body's not going to remain in one piece.

 Talk about a strange cast of characters.

Think of this game as the choose your adventure books from elementary school, but there's gore, tragedy, telepathy, and conspiracies. 999 has six possible endings, three of them leading to your brutal murder. One abruptly ends because you didn't gather the necessary information to continue and another ends in tragedy and confusion. That particular ending gives you a lot of necessary information for the final "true" ending, but don't write off the other endings--they also help fill in the blanks of the story, as well as give answers to "What if I hadn't had that conversation with her?" "What if I hadn't accepted that from him?" And because of those six endings, this game has obvious replay value. The story doesn't make sense if you don't listen to all of the conversations with different characters. Granted, hearing the same things over and over gets old quickly, so the developers allow you to speed through dialogue you've already encountered and it automatically stops as soon as you come across new dialogue. (Unfortunately, you will have to redo puzzles several times, so keep a pencil and paper with you. You'll be able to memorize some of the puzzles after one or two times.)

999 is all about solving puzzles in life or death situations, putting forth the idea that your true potential emerges when you are in a true emergency. Some of the puzzles are difficult and close to impossible for those of us who weren't blessed with logical reasoning and mathematical skills. For some things, you just need to explore the environment and keep clicking on the screen until you find something. But other puzzles require you to input a series of numbers from clues. This game is obsessed with digital roots and base-10, so you'd best listen when they explain concepts you never came across in algebra class. If you're like me, you won't be able to solve some of the puzzles, much less figure out how to flush the toilets through one of the doors. Do your best to solve them on your own, but don't feel too defeated if you have to look up answers. After all, we're not the ones with our lives on the line.
Don't even joke about that, Snake.
Though, this game does make you feel like you're on the ship with them, especially when playing at night with the lights off and the headphones in. The music sets the mood and changes with the atmosphere of the situation. At times it will suddenly crescendo and at other times it will disappear completely. You can see the change in characters and after a playthrough or two, you can predict what's going to happen next--or who's going to kill you next. Because you are directly interacting with the environment through Junpei's eyes, it's almost as if you were there in his place. There's a great deal of suspension of belief the game can put you through. Add some mystery in there, and it's already more convincing than most horror movies. You try going to sleep right after dying. The flash of red on the screen and the sudden sound of a knife piercing flesh won't leave your mind.

 (I did mention that this game is rated M, right?)

My only real complaint with this game is the idea of the group having 9 hours. While they're chaotic at first and just talk for a while, you can understand why they can't figure out what to do at first. But by the time they only have 1 hour left, characters go off on long-winded stories instead of worrying about their time limit. If I were Junpei, I would have punched them all in the face and then forced them to help me solve puzzles instead of telling me their life stories. These are all important things to the overall plot, but I would have liked to see a greater sense of urgency in the characters' attitudes.

Um...don't you think we should be a little more concerned with living long enough to hear Elvis's songs again?

 This game is largely text-based. It reads like a novel--vivid imagery accompanying the stills on the top screen of the DS, and you see Junpei's innermost thoughts and feelings. Some of it is hard to read, but you can't simply stop. So you continue reading about the chunks of flesh that were once a body just 81 seconds ago. If you don't like reading and thinking, don't get this game. And if you don't like excellent point and click games (such as the Ace Attorney games, Professor Layton, Trace Memory, or Time Hollow), don't bother. But if you love chilling, tragic stories that make sense by the time you finish, you won't want to put this game down.

Take my word for it. Seek a door with a 9.

The Freshness of Pokemon Black and White

It looks just like all the others--a choice of a starter Fire, Water, or Grass-type Pokemon. A team of bad guys. Rivals. The same 8 gym structure. Similar Pokemon with different names lying in the grass.

But that little comparison does not give the game the justice it deserves. It's true Pokemon seems to have a very distinct formula that never changes in any generation, but if this fifth generation has to have one thing working in its favor, it's the plot.

Remember when we all joked about the rampant animal abuse in Pokemon?

Well, these moral issues of enslaving animals to make them fight each other have finally been addressed--by the "evil" guys of Black and White. They are Team Plasma and they're a fresh change from the evildoers like Team Rocket, Team Magma/Aqua, and Team Galactic. While Plasma does steal Pokemon, they're instead a radical group crusading for Pokemon's rights. They believe that only by releasing Pokemon and separating from their trainers, the Pokemon will be free. The leader of this organization, known only as N, blocks your path with philosophy.

He ain't too bad on the eyes, either.

You have to step back and really consider whether you're treating your Pokemon right. Do they deserve to be trapped only for us to use when we choose? Or do trainers bond with their Pokemon? Will a separation actually change anything? Every trainer has to consider why they have Pokemon and even N falters. He's a welcome addition to the Pokemon universe because he is actually interesting and has layers unlike most Pokemon characters.

Your rivals unfortunately are not as developed. Cheren runs after you only to fight. Winning is an evaluation of his self-worth and because you keep beating him--if you want to move on, that is--he spouts out angsty teenage crap. (And not the attractive kind that we enjoy in anime and games--just the annoying kind.) He might as well fall to his knees and curse himself for ever being born. He is that upset after each battle. He changes that attitude by the end, but it happens off screen. From one scene he's angsty over his loss and the next he's vowed to capture Team Plasma and help you.

Bianca has the potential to be a strong female character, but falls short. She admits that she's not very good at Pokemon battles, realizing that she can instead help Pokemon in her own way. Unfortunately, she ends up needing your help most of the time. She's essentially a dumb blonde and I only forgive Nintendo for this because they gave us such a cool-looking female main character.

She's bringing '80s hair back.

This game, while seeming quick to me after finishing it in a week, had a harder difficulty. I found myself actually stocking up on potions and needing to use strategy. Your opponents have some level of intelligence; they make informed decisions. If you send out an electric type against whatever Pokemon they have, if it knows a ground move, they will use it. And you will curse under your breath. Not every battle is difficult, but the ones that matter are.

Gracing the Pokemon stage are also new battles. Triple battles are just like double battles except the Pokemon on the far left cannot hit the one of the far right and vice versa. Unfortunately, there are few occurrences of this in the game. There are also rotation battles, which are also three-on-three. Instead, one Pokemon at a time fight and you're able to rotate one of the other two in at any time to fight. Unfortunately, these battles don't seem much different from regular battles.

If I had to take one thing out of Pokemon Black/White, I'd rip out the musicals. As a girl who loves a good song and beautiful people singing it, the idea of Pokemon on a stage dancing around and singing sounded fantastic. I wondered how Pokemon moves would be incorporated into it, just like the contests. However, the musicals are a useless gimmick. There's no competition involved, no rankings, and no singing. One of your Pokemon dances on a stage with props that you have and you're able to use those props to appeal to the audience. When the show ends, that's it. You receive a few compliments from the audience and the occasional prop to keep for future musicals.

And then you run far away and tell yourself that you'll never do that again.

The musicals had wasted potential. Had they had some form of competition like the contests from the earlier games, I'd still be running to Nimbasa city to make my Pokemon dance around in funny outfits.

Overall, Pokemon Black/White is fresh material. While some things still need to be improved, this generation brought us the first story in fifteen years that made me think. Pokemon is about engaging the audience and letting them choose how they want to play, whether it be to fight and be the best or to catch 'em all, and for the first time we had to consider ethics in a fictional world.

Maybe next time we'll see Officer Jenny arresting trainers for dog fights.

How Super Smash Bros. Helped Me

Ahh, the sweet feeling of cartoony characters pushing each other off of buildings into moving vehicles. This is a series that never gets old and it's my favorite fighting game (I don't do well with memorizing button sequences for special moves).

I sat here for a few minutes, realizing that I hadn't thought of what to write about this week. Then I remembered that I played Super Smash Bros. Melee last night with some friends for my post-birthday-dinner.

I was in the fifth grade when I first discovered this series. Super Smash Bros. was on the Nintendo 64, a console that I had asked for my birthday or Christmas. A part of the reason I wanted that system so badly was Super Smash Bros. (the other part was Pokemon). I went to a friend's house after school one day and he introduced me to the game. I wasn't very good at it then and I think he mercifully let me play on his team while I got used to the controls. (This is much nicer than what I do--a quick crash course on how to play and then I throw them into the game. Just ask my dad.) Back then my character of choice was Mario. the graphics were rather blocky and geometric, but I thought it was the best thing I had ever seen.

After a long time of playing Super Smash Bros., I got a Gamecube with my sister and bought Super Smash Bros. Melee, my favorite game so far in the series. It was a revamped version with some new characters and new stages. I moved on from Mario to Fox to Link, who is now my default pick. I played this game religiously and I still revisit it. I gradually worked up to fight Master Hand and Crazy Hand on the most difficult levels and I trained against level 9, the highest difficult setting, computer players. When this got too easy, I asked friends to come over and we played 3-on-1. These fights trained me to think faster and react as quickly as possible. Using the C-stick to fight became cheating for me and I instead chose to do things that took more skill. I trained for a few weeks, trying to hone my skills enough to dodge by rolling next to people or dodging in mid-air.

These 3-on-1 fights also taught me how to be humble. I've had a competitive spirit since I was young. I had to realize that sometimes I couldn't win every battle. Occasionally I messed up. Maybe I should have used my hookshot instead of the spinning move. Or I should have reacted faster when someone was about to knock me out. When I was young, I took every mistake personally. Unfortunately, I also chose to turn my frustration on others and I got angry at them in addition to getting angry at myself. The harder matches forced me not only to be modest, but still proud, about my winning streaks, but also to congratulate others when they beat me.

Me at 6 years old.

Then Super Smash Bros. Brawl came out for the Wii. I still have a hard time with the controls since they were changed. They weren't as fluid as they were in its predecessor. They changed the weight of some characters, as well as their speed. Link was no longer my speedy warrior--I had to change to Pit. Some of the new features were fun: the 1-player mode had a storyline, characters had awesome smashes via the smash ball, fights over that smash ball make the game hilarious, and the graphics improved tremendously.

The great thing about Super Smash Bros. is that it never gets old. I love games like Soul Calibur, Guilty Gear, and Tekken--and I still need to find a copy of BlazBlue--but I can only play them for so long before I get bored. One-on-one fights can only be fun and challenging for so long. It's the massive chaos on the field that demands your full attention and hones yourself not to think, but just do. React to those around you and use their weaknesses and strengths.

And you've got to bet that I never forget how a person plays after I've fought them.

This post has been Sonic approved.