Categories
Video Games

Let’s Enjoy The Silence – A Lake Review

Initial Thoughts and Expectations

Gabrielle: I’ve been waiting for this game for more than a year. If I remember correctly, I found it on Twitter while going through indie developers’ accounts to find games before it blew up in popularity. I really love games that tell you to relax for a while and take things slower, and my favorite thing about any game usually is exploration. Just running through a game’s map, discovering things, appreciating the landscape, it’s always fun and makes me feel immersed in the world I’m playing in. That’s what I expected: A simple, cute little game with nice art direction, a couple hours of fun, even if repetitive missions.

Dan: I honestly think you were the one to bring this game to my view. I sometimes feel like I have those things they put on horses to keep them focused in one direction, so I miss so much. I could not be happier that I took some time to sit down and actually play this game. It’s honestly an extremely pretty game that took me out of my usual high-speed, action-packed video games and told me to just take it slow. I never felt rushed to accomplish things or to speed up. Although I did drive like there were no laws. I enjoyed this adventure a lot.

A Quiet Town

Dan: Within the first few minutes, the game hit me with an emotional sledgehammer. Straight across my face at 300 MPH. A boss calls you. A simple thing, but the conversation is one I have had many times in my adult life, and every time it happened, a little piece of me died. The work I had done wasn’t enough. There is always more. Meredith is going through the same thing. Working too hard for people who don’t appreciate her. But she doesn’t let them hold her back from her time off… Gab, how did you feel about the story?

Gabrielle: It was a great surprise to see that it had one, for starters. I seriously thought it was going to be limited to ‘’You have this temporal job. Do it’’, because that’s not something unusual with this type of game (and that’s okay!). The cutscenes are not the best because we have to remember that we’re not talking about a AAA game here (Although there are definitely some that impressed me), but the story is so endearing. Same as you, I felt really touched by it. Meredith is a grown woman in her forties who slowly realizes that she might have not discovered her path in life at all, and what she’s currently doing takes a toll on her and doesn’t fulfill her at all. The thought of that happening is something that’s in my mind, and I’m guessing most people, all the time, so inevitably, I think the majority will be equally touched by the game.

What was exciting to find out were the branching paths!

Dan: We have a large enough wage gap where I can comfortably say we are both in very different chapters of our lives. I empathized with Meredith a lot because I feel that way a lot too. I am not OLD, but I am about to turn 30 in a year. A lot of my time is spent thinking about if where I am going is the right path for me. There are multiple paths in life, and that is a beautiful segway into talking about the game. The branching paths were not expected at all. Honestly, I had no idea what to expect going in. As I said, I don’t play a lot of indie games, so I was expecting a straightforward story with linear paths… not a fully realized town that I felt a lot for.

Gabrielle: Exactly! The cast of characters is so varied, and each one has their own quirks and things to deal with. It makes them exciting to know. I was genuinely happy when I talked to Lori and organized to watch a movie together or when I reunited with Kay, Meredith’s childhood friend.

Change of Pace

Gabrielle: The gameplay is quite simple. You drive your van, check on your map to see where you have to go (Or you could actually see the street signs), deliver the envelopes or parcels, and return to the mail station. You have some cute side-quests, like taking a cat to the veterinarian or taking pictures to start a photography club. I find it to be quite solid. It felt good to play, and these mundane tasks are exactly what puts you right in the very center of the town, so in my opinion, they work perfectly. The driving physics are great too; you only get to drive one vehicle, but it feels like you’re really driving, with the weight of a van and all. No crashing physics though! Which I’m fine with. It wouldn’t make sense with the rest of the gameplay and tone.

There’s one aspect of the game that adheres to the gameplay I want to know your opinion about. Most of the time, you’re inside the van, hitting the road, and there’s one thing with you: the soundtrack. You’re actually hearing the local radio who someone started out as a hobby. It has few songs, something which is even mentioned in-game, but I never really got tired of it or felt it was repetitive. It has enough songs that, each time I got back in the game, it actually felt like a companion during the travel. What was it like for you?

Dan: Honestly, sometimes I found myself missing stops because I really enjoyed listening to the music and just looking at the lake. I grew up on an island, so I have a connection to small towns and water. It just clicked so well for me. The music didn’t get too repetitive where it ever felt like a problem. It honestly felt like a real radio station because some songs would repeat. I honestly loved that cat mission so much because of the cats in the game responding to you with meows. That stuff makes me smile.

The driving was so smooth! As I mentioned before, I often got lost in just watching the scenery so much that I may or may not have crashed the van a few times. Thankful there was no crash mechanic because I would have cost the town an arm and a leg.

What Makes This Game Stand Out?

Gabrielle: I think it’s the sum of its parts that makes it stand out. Each of them is great on their own, but together, they make something really unique. You could easily compare this to something like Stardew Valley, for example, but the art style, characters, gameplay, and especially the fact that it actually has an ending make the game a totally different thing of its own.

Dan: So Stardew Valley has too much going on for me to relax. It actually makes me anxious to have to think about all the systems in it. This is very much what I want in a relaxing game. I had a lot more fun putting my phone down and just fully immersing myself in the game for this. I have a habit of checking my phone, but something about Lake made me forget all those responsibilities and made me realize they could wait. I had mail to deliver!

Should you pick this up?

Dan: I really do think this one is worth buying. It’s a very unique experience from a video game. It’s a must-buy for me. It deserves some time to really sink in and deliver some letters.

Gabrielle: Totally. Some people could find a problem with the playtime (It took me seven hours and a half to beat), but honestly, I don’t care how long any game is, but how effective they are at what they try to do and how much I enjoyed it, and Lake excels at what it set out to do, making it an experience that I can only recommend you to play for yourself. If anything we said sounds even a bit interesting, you should check it out.

Categories
Video Games

Fortnite: Connection Through the Storm

It’s always out there lingering. The silent creeping dread at the edge of the map of what is known. Despite your best efforts, there is absolutely nothing you can do to push it back. It’s the fear, loneliness, and the thing that comes for us all. It’s the storm. So pop a chug and run, drive, or glide to the circle. You’re a Fortnite character running from your doom as Batman reloads before Ariana Grande can toss a grenade at you. As ridiculous as it sounds, I have found so much joy in the absolute wild platypus of IPs that Fortnite has become. Even more so, I have found so much value in it as a place to hang out with my friends in a time where that seemed like something impossible. After so many people said how stupid the game was, it has become worth so much to me.

For me, it’s become a constant connection to others. It’s a way to regularly connect when connecting in person was not possible. I cannot even begin to explain everything going on that is making the world scarier every day for every person. For a long time (and still), we cannot see those we love to share a hug, a beer, or the most dear to me…sandwiches. 

So things had to change. We had to figure out some new way to connect; a way for us to not feel that loneliness creep in. For my circle, it’s been Fortnite. Tell Pre-Pandemic Dan that he would be playing Fortnite more than any game on the market, his first question would be “Wait, you got Mike to play Fortnite?”. I did, I got a lot of people to play Fortnite. A freeware game where you and 150 people all leap from a school bus to duke it out. It’s so simple but it’s been a saving grace when we cannot just simply go to dinner or to the movies. 

It gives my friends a chance to play a simple, fun, and colorful game as we mindlessly talk for hours. Talking from huge topics of life to arguing with each other on who the best Spider-Man is and why it’s Toby Maguire. It’s a space where we know if we’ve had a bad day, we can say “anyone playing tonight?” and most of the time someone will be free to battle the storm.

The time Ethan and I went to an Ariana Grande concert and got to ride in bubbles.

It’s allowed us to connect in a time where it’s become rare. I can give you evidence that it’s something that bridges the lack of physical connection. Over the course of the past year, my buddy Ethan has come into my life and has quickly gone from the letterboxd Welsh to someone who I cannot fathom not being a part of every major life moment for me moving forward. It’s brought someone from across the ocean into my home and family nearly every weekend for over a year. Fortnite has made our friendship go from Twitter mutual to a brother as close to me as Jake and Mike who have been with me nearly my entire life. It’s allowed me to bring my friend and former roommate Chach into another part of my life so he can be connected with everything. It’s allowed for all of my friends to blur into one mass where everyone can be friends.

Every form of media has worth. Everything is worth something to someone. Fortnite has gone from a silly game my little brothers play to something that is a huge part of my life. Never let anyone try to persuade you that something that brings you joy doesn’t have worth. You never know how you’ll connect through the storm.

Categories
Video Games

Indie Game Week (09/08/2021)

Indie games are awesome. Games made by a group of fifty people, or a dozen, or five, or a single person that wanted to bring a creative vision into reality with the resources they had. Art that, for several reasons, couldn’t be made by a multibillion-dollar company, at least today. That’s what this column is supposed to be: A celebration of all those projects made by people that, on their own, went and did whatever they wanted. We’re gonna be telling you in a bi-weekly format our newest discoveries regarding any games not made by an AAA company, to shed some light on those projects, gush about them, and maybe even to help you find a new favorite game!

Gabrielle:

How We Know We’re Alive –  Free with the option for donation on Itch.io.

How We Know We’re Alive is a side-scrolling, pixel-art, mystery game. You play as Sara, a woman who returns to her hometown after 10 years of leaving and a lifetime of hating the place to mourn the death of her once best friend. It’s an easy game to play. You only move left or right, talk to some people, maybe enter some buildings, all with as little as four keys to press. But it’s far from an easy game to experience. You walk the streets from your hometown under nonstop rain and realize a lot of the people you once knew are still there, and they still work where they used to, still go to church, still shop at the same place. Change is hard, but when things are similar enough to bring the past back, you may just feel trapped by them again. HWKWA doesn’t try to get away with easy answers, and I’m glad it doesn’t because none of the themes it works with have them. Sometimes you just have to move on in any way you can in order to not get stuck.

Created and directed by August Håkansson, art and animation by Leo Köhler & August Håkansson, written by Imogen West-Knights & August Håkansson, with an original soundtrack by Ivan Starenius.

Adriatic Pizza – $4.99 USD or more on Itch.io and Steam. 

This is another pixel-art, but now a first-person exploration and cooking game, heavily inspired by the animated movie by Studio Ghibli, Porco Rosso. You’re a soldier just returning home from war, decided to help your mother with her pizza delivery business in an idyllic archipelago. As soon as you wake up each day, you take orders from a radio in your room and mark them on your map to avoid getting lost. You make the pizzas from your family recipe book, and finally, you’re free to travel across the ocean and little islands with your plane (You can technically take off any moment you want, but you wouldn’t want to let your neighbors down, would you?).

Flying for the first time, with the relaxing music singing in your ears and the beautiful landscape with a very unique color palette, is truly a sight to behold. Easily one of the most relaxing experiences I had playing video games, and while not really adapting even the aesthetic, I think it captures the Ghibli vibes everyone loves. But of course, delivering pizzas is not the only thing you can do. You get to interact and help the citizens of this little town with tasks they assign you and even build the restaurant of your mother’s dreams! If you’re a Ghibli fan or a fan of this kind of relaxing game, I couldn’t recommend this enough!

Created by Samson Auroux.

Lake – $19.99 on PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Series S, and X.

I kept an eye out for Lake for a long time. I remember finding a teaser on Twitter and being absolutely charmed by it. Now, after the release of the game just a couple of days ago, I must say: It’s everything I wanted out of it, and more. In this game, you take the role of Meredith, a successful woman in her forties who takes on her father’s work as a mailperson, both as a favor to him and to herself.

So, of course, you deliver the mail across an 80s little quiet town. But you don’t get to do just that, no. You can actively choose to talk with a set of colorful characters with their own quirks and stories. Not only you can make small talk, but you’re able to become an actual important part of the town and the people you interact with. You can help them with simple tasks that relate to your work, like accepting some unprompted delivery or doing something completely different, like help them fight a corporation that wants to destroy the woods. I won’t spoil anything, but the characters you meet, be that new people in Meredith’s life or an old friend you’re reunited with, are full of charm. Every time I talked to them and made plans to watch a movie or something, I was genuinely happy.

Lake is a game that feels magical in its ordinariness. It invites you to do the same as its protagonist, and take a break, contemplate on things, and try to have a good time.

Developed by Gamious.

Luke:

So after writing through the Dreamscaper blurb and looking for the next two games to write about, it dawned on me that a lot of, if not all, of the indie games I’ve been playing recently, are mostly just riffs on pre-existing and largely successful games. These games definitely stand on the shoulders of giants, but I sincerely believe that all three of them are capable of standing on their own two feet and pushing their respective genres forward, whether through the introduction of new and interesting concepts or fun-to-learn but hard-to-master mechanics.

Dreamscaper – $24.99 on Nintendo Switch and PC.

Dreamscaper is one of those games that makes me take a pause, say out loud, “This is art”, and just appreciate the experience as a whole. It has drawn lots of comparisons to Hades, and I think appropriately so, which is a raving review in and of itself. It is incredibly similar yet distinctive enough to stand on its own two feet. Ironically, with Hades, it was the gameplay that kept pulling me in, but Dreamscaper has woven such a beautiful story with human characters that I find myself being more invested in the between-runs portion of the game rather than the combat sections themselves. It tells a story of a woman who has recently moved to a new town and has to maneuver those waters, and as the world opens up, you discover more and more about her, and there is a lot to discover. Even the names of the buffs unlocked between runs add to the story and the emotional depth present within the game. As for the combat itself, it’s very mechanical, featuring perfect attacks and parries, multiple melee and ranged weapons, and “lucid attacks” with even more able to be unlocked throughout the game. There is no shortage of replayability and different builds to be explored.

Developed by Afterburner Studios.

Mortal Shell – $29.99 on PC, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, Series S, and X.

In my never-ending search to recapture the anxiety and misery of Soulsborne games, I managed to find one that explains even less. However, as with all Soulsbourne and Soulslike games, my key is how well the combat feels, and this combat feels real good. It’s fluid with an interesting and very fulfilling twist to the block mechanic, which is definitely different from the parry mechanic, which is also equally fulfilling. It makes the combat feel a bit more like a dance than Soulsbornes, which I am very partial to. It also adds a twist to the class system, but as I’m very bad at the game (for now) and therefore not far, I’ll withhold judgment on whether or not it’s an interesting twist. Maybe it’s because it’s the first in the series and so it’s all-new, but I find it to be ever so slightly more intricate than Dark Souls, with its non-combat mechanics coupled with it explaining even less, means that I am in a whole new world of needing to git gud and I could not be more excited to do so.

Developed by Cold Symmetry.

Humankind – $49.99 on PC.

Between Civ 5 and Civ 6, I have 1.5k hours logged, so I feel qualified to say that I enjoy Humankind. I will also say that I am not good at these games, and I do not know all the ins and outs, especially to Humankind. But I digress! It’s a 4x game with much the same angle as Civilization, especially coming off the heels of 6’s art direction and city-building rework. You start the game back in the Neolithic era and advance through time into the present/near future, managing your people as they go. Humankind makes some not-so-subtle but not entirely revolutionary changes to some core mechanics, such as founding your Outposts/Cities, building out your Cities, and combat. I, personally, have quite enjoyed these changes, as they’re just enough to freshen up and differentiate this game from Civ, but they’re not requiring me to learn the game from the ground up. Humankind has been a very nice refresher to the genre (my experience with the genre is just Civ 4-6, so I use the word SUPER loosely) and introduces mechanics that I’d be interested in seeing more of moving forward. I guess my ultimate review of Humankind would boil down to, and as is tradition with Civ games, “Can’t wait for some DLC to flesh this stuff out and make the endgame worth playing through” (although now I think about it, Humankind does that much better than any Civ I have played).

Developed by Amplitude Studios.

Categories
Video Games

On Returning to Final Fantasy VI

By: Gordon Mitchell Smith

I need you to know that this poem
was going to be a listicle, another litany

of superlatives, plaudits, and praises
to briefly top that mountain, before more

would be cast upon by others, to be lost
in the great glacier of gaming legend.

This poem was going to be an essay, loaded
with bullets, little shots of aggression

aimed at nobody, because nobody disagrees
that the sun is bright, the sea is wet,

or that Super Nintendo’s Final Fantasy VI
is a glacier-wrapped Everest of story.

But by definition, nothing’s new in repetition.
There’s nothing left to say about that journey,

no new spins or takes but contrarian,
no discourse but communal nostalgia

for the Wagnerian scale, the oceanic heart,
the symphonic score and global humanity, so:

I need you to know that this is a poem
about me and my brother Ian on weekends

so many years ago, how we still chase them
when we’re able to talk, how he still plays

character themes on the baby grand in his condo,
as I on the uke in both of my houses, laughing

over the lyrics we wrote to the Mt. Kolts tune—
la DA da da SNOOP Doggy DOG-gy—

how we still argue over who’s Edgar or Sabin,
how I can see his 9-year-old face more clearly

than any other memory I have: staring up
at the screen from a crouch, rapt and innocent,

his red hair all poufy with curls, buckteeth out
and blue eyes wild, my Gau, my feral angel.

I need you to know that this poem is a trap
to tell you to hold fast to your loves, human

and human-adjacent. I spent years in recovery
from addiction to porn, from homogenizing

everything’s uniqueness with sex, flattening
complex feelings into simple lusts, years

before which, all I’d left for myself was Ian
and our game, the patchy raft to which I’d cling

winding blind through my self-made serpent trench
filled with asps of my own lonely summoning.

I need you to know that Ian and our 16-bit bond
saved my life, and I need you to know that you

become your collections, those to which you return,
the waters of wells from which you drink most. 

We can be our own villains and victims, both
Kefka poisoning the river, and Cyan mourning

his poisoned family; but we can also be both
Terra and her orphans, the savior and the saved.

I need you to know that just as every poem
needs a reader to be written, every game

and its plot, heroes, battles, and bosses,
every world shattered and balance restored

needs a player, and perhaps their own Ian,
without which there’s no game, no story to be told.

Art by Yoshitaka Amano

Categories
Books Comics Film Television Video Games

Star Wars: A Spotter’s Guide to the Legends EU

Star Wars!

A thing we all love and can totally agree on amicably!

While we anxiously await the day that there can be Star Peace, this sprawling franchise has encompassed numerous genres beyond the realms and narratives of space opera. The franchise’s genre-hopping has also spanned over multiple “time periods” throughout the storied history of the Jedi, Skywalkers, and Republic. Branching off into multiple timelines that wove themselves throughout and between the movies into books, video games, and short-form narratives.

The most famous of these timelines being the “Legends Expanded Universe”. The name given to the now-defunct chunk of history that started narratively post-Return of the Jedi which used to sustain us ravenous nerds once we had ruined our VHS tapes of the Special Editions, roving out in search of more love and lightsabers.

So in honor of the GateCrashers Star Wars Celebration (no, not that one), the wise and powerful Jedi Council of GC decided we should talk about our favorite Old EU works! The stories that were too big for movies. Too weird for TV shows. And too horny to be placed anywhere else in the main canon. 

So gather up that Calamari Flan and take a seat at the cantina as we bring you A Spotter’s Guide to the Legends EU!

Star Wars: X-Wing (Book Series)

So we are gonna start with one of the more obvious picks, but one that merits discussion all the same. Michael A. Stackpole’s intensely readable X-Wing series! For my money, one of the few aspects of the Legends EU canon that still holds the fuck up.

Set only two and a half years after the Battle of Endor and the destruction of the second Death Star, the X-Wing series finds Rebellion hero pilot turned New Republic General, Wedge Antillies, building a brand new Rogue Squadron; the legendary fighter wing that took down the first Death Star and provided the fledgling Rebellion with some of its first victories.

But while the logline of the series portends high adventure and blazing set pieces, the X-Wing series delivers much more than just thrills and heroics. While centered around Wedge as the “lead”, the rest of the cast, all ace pilots from across the franchise, all get plenty of time in the spotlight, growing together as a team and experiencing the epic highs and lows of a life on the edge. More than that, Stackpole takes these missions and their stakes deadly seriously, allowing this series to finally function as a raw and real war story, set against the immense backdrop of Star Wars in general.

That means we experience loss almost as much as Rogue Squadron does. We feel their pain and their triumph in a way that the movies never really had the time to focus on. We get smaller stories and scenes of heartbreak even as the larger war against the remains of the Empire marches on. That, I feel, is the real triumph of the X-Wing series. A Series that finally put the “War” into Star Wars.

Genndy Taratakovsky’s Clone Wars (Animated Specials)

This one might be another “no brainer” so bear with me. BUT C’MON! It’s the “original” Clone Wars cartoon! And the superior one, if we are being truly honest with ourselves and The Force. (Editor’s Note: This claim is disputed).

Originally presented as much-hyped short film specials on Cartoon Network/Toonami, these high octane, smartly contained short films gave fans left feeling tepid after The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones the action they so craved. Almost oppressively animated and smartly staged by the fevered mind that gave us Dexter’s Laboratory and Korgoth of Barbaria the shorts became appointment viewing during their original run and garnered all manner of critical praise for their rough and tumble action movie approach to Star Wars.

Sure, the final movie they heralded turned out to be kind of a snooze (though I’ll admit Revenge of the Sith is my favorite Prequel DO NOT @ ME). But the anime-inspired shorts still hold the hell up. Beyond just the sheer kinetic fun of the series throughout, you can tell the production staff had a real blast filtering Star Wars through all sorts of action/samurai movie riffs. Not to mention it serves as the stage to introduce many fan-favorite characters to the animated world, such as Asajj Ventress, the dreaded Durge, Kit Fisto, and literally dozens more. They even have been given somewhat of a renaissance here lately thanks to Disney+’s latest addition of the series to their “Star Wars Vintage ” collection.

Though pretty much all of the series’ stories have been wiped away by the new Clone Wars cartoons, I am still happy to live in a universe where I can queue up a whole bloody cartoon of seeing some of my favorite Jedi and Clone Troopers fighting breathlessly through the galaxy, not a single episode of a droid being kidnapped in sight.

The Star Wars: Jedi Knight Series (Video Games)

Probably the entries on this list I feel the most connected to, LucasArts’ Jedi Knight games deliver pretty much exactly what is said on the tin. And therein lies the real fun!

Set roughly between the years directly after Return of the Jedi into the opening years of Luke’s New Jedi Order (more on THEM in a bit), players usually find themselves playing as Kyle Katarn. The Legends canon’s acerbic mixture of Luke Skywalker and Han Solo. A character that I lovingly refer to as a “Trash Jedi”, as he starts as a cocksure padawan, washes out, takes up bounty hunting, and then finally comes back around to being a Jedi, all over the course of the first two games, both thrilling examples of the kind of cinematic shooter early 90s PC games were capable of.

Katarn is a character that recurs a few times throughout the Legends canon and once stood as the closest the series ever got to a Grey Jedi. He is also going to recur a few times in THIS list too, if only to keep me from mentioning Dash Rendar, who is just a straight-up carbon copy of Han with great shoulder pads. I have to give General Calrissian 5 wupiupi every time I mention Dash Rendar so I try to steer clear. 

But probably the best entry in the franchise, along with the most accessible, is Jedi Knight III: Jedi Academy, which finds players taking on the role of a full-fledged EU canon Jedi apprentice, under the tutelage of Kyle and Luke. Players get to visit a number of iconic worlds and choose the path of the New Order or the Cult of Ragnos, a new Sith sect rising to meet the light of Skywalker’s new temple. It is genuinely fun Star Wars nonsense and is stapled to a game that’s surprisingly addicting to play. The lightsaber mechanics feel genuinely devastating when employed correctly and the character development, tied obviously to your moral choices, feels rewarding in a way a lot of modern SW games have yet to crack again.

If you have a Steam account and some time to kill, spin them up! I promise you’ll at least be entertained by the dozens of Stormtroopers you’ll Force fling to their ragdolled, Unreal Engine-powered doom. 

The Bounty Hunter Wars (Book Series)

Long before another War of the Bounty Hunters graced the pages of Marvel Comics, author K.W. Jeter stirred up a whole ‘nother hive of scum and villainy in the Bounty Hunter Wars trilogy.

Set almost directly after Return of the Jedi, this trilogy’s biggest selling point was its promise to return Boba Fett to the saga. In the trilogy’s opening installment, The Mandalorian Armor, Jeter did just that. Just…probably not in the way we were expecting. From that kick-off, we are treated to a rollicking journey through Star Wars’ backwaters and scuzzier locales. One that feels and reads with a much harder edge than the lofty Jedi-focused stories and “blockbuster” efforts like the Thrawn Trilogy.

Better still, Jeter makes great use of the whole toybox of villains provided by Star Wars. Fett, obviously, takes the “marquee” spot but characters like Dengar, Bossk, Zuckuss, and 4-LOM all get rousing set pieces and featured positions throughout the three books, making great use of the book’s focus away from the “Big Three” of Luke, Han, and Leia. Cult-favorite character Prince Xizor, star of the N64’s launch hit Shadows of the Empire, also gets fun featured bits throughout, adding a bit of interconnected flair to the whole affair and adding the Black Sun’s rep to the already ripping yarn.

While relatively low-stakes in relation to the more well-known Legends canon installments, The Bounty Hunter Wars provided the prose with a scummy, pulp novel-esque fun the new books could stand to find a bit more of.

Star Wars: Galaxy of Fear (YA Book Series)

Did y’all know that Star Wars once did a Goosebumps? Did you also know that they fucking rule? Because both of these things are true, I promise.

Set in the weeks after A New Hope, the Galaxy of Fear series, all penned with a ghoulish glee by author John Whitman, follow Force-sensitive twins Tash and Zak Arranda who take up with their mysterious “Uncle” Hoole and his ditzy droid DV-9 after the destruction of their homeworld Alderaan. The pair then ping from one horrifying adventure to the next, trying to stay one step ahead of the Empire and meeting all manner of iconic Star Wars heroes along the way.

And when I say “horrifying” I absolutely mean it. These books are filled to the brim with nightmare fuel like flesh-eating Dark Force-powered zombies of long-dead Jedi and a whole race of aliens that are just brains in jars that walk on mechanized spider legs. THESE WERE FOR CHILDREN. 

While the clear R.L. Stein inspiration is an obvious draw, this series also stands up as a competently structured YA saga. All the books are accessible enough on their own, but they reward repeat readers with touchstones to the past books and are armed with a truly driving, morally poignant central narrative that carries it across the whole way. 

The cameos don’t hurt either. I won’t lie at the surface level glee at reading about Dr. Evazan being a part of basically the Imperial Thule Society or Dash Rendar (dank FARRIK, another 5 wupiupi for Lando…) ferrying children through a casino ship overtaken by a homicidal AI. But I think Galaxy of Fear offers a lot more than just basic thrills and chills, especially if you like your Star Wars to be a little more genre flavored. And A LOT more koo-koo bananas

Star Wars: Republic Commando (Video Game)

For my galactic credits, one of the best FPS shooters ever made and a personal (not-at-all-pushy) request for the list from Editor Ethan here at the GC Capital Ship. (Editor’s Note: Go read the book series that followed on from the game, they’ll make you cry).

Casting players in the role of “Boss”, the CO of an elite unit of Clone Troopers, LucasArts’ Republic Commando depicts the absolute thick of the Clone Wars’ fighting. Employing the diverse destructive talents of the rest of your squad, the game brings the pitched, gritty fighting of some of the better EU novels and translates it thrillingly onto consoles. 

Sure the campaign is thin compared to today’s standards and the multiplayer lobbies stand empty now (AGENTofASGARD on Xbox Live btw, in case you all wanna take some checkpoints later). But there is a reason it drew comparisons to Halo and the Spec-Ops franchise in reviews upon its release. Its combat mechanics are easy to learn, but challenging to master, and its storytelling, while driving and action-heavy, still makes the time for quiet moments amongst the player and the rest of the cast. All culminating in another stand-out first-person shooter effort amid the Legends EU video game timeline. 

Dark Horse Comics’ Star Wars Titles (Comics)

Long before the Galaxy Far, Far Away returned to the House of Ideas and once again bore the Marvel masthead, Dark Horse Comics controlled almost every era of Star Wars. And did a pretty bang-up job with it to boot.

Encompassing everything from the Old Republic to the New Jedi Order, the Dark Horse Comics era of Star Wars was an embarrassment of riches. Starting in the 1990s and even supported along the way by host of The George Lucas Talk Show, George Lucas, the Dark Horse line continually offered up a wide range of Star Wars experiences. Right up until the moment it legally couldn’t anymore.

For fans that wanted stories of the heyday of the Jedi, there were titles like Dawn of the Jedi, Republic, and even a Knights of the Old Republic ongoing series. For readers that wanted stories of the Age of Rebellion and iconic Star Wars heroes, there was a Star Wars ongoing, Rebellion, and even a wonderful X-Wing: Rogue Squadron title, serving as both an adaptation and continuation of the fan-favorite prose series. And even for fans that wanted to move BEYOND all that, they offered many adaptations of famous Legends EU novels, the now-iconic Dark Empire miniseries, and its rousing follow-ups Crimson Empire I-III.

We honestly didn’t know how good we had it. Though the current “Marvel Era” of Star Wars comics have popped in a way I didn’t expect (I would die for Doctor Aphra), I will always remember fondly the time when Dark Horse Comics’ efforts graced my pull-box with just top to bottom FUN (and well-produced) Star Wars comics.

The Jedi Academy Trilogy / I, Jedi / The New Jedi Order (Books)

My final entry is a bit of a cheat, but stick with me, I promise my reasoning is sound. 

One of the most enduring concepts from the Legends EU canon is the New Jedi Order. A brand new generation of Jedi Knights, led by Jedi Master Luke Skywalker, who intends on restoring the Jedi into something new and helpful to the fledgling New Republic. This kicks off properly in 1994’s Jedi Search by Kevin J. Anderson, a frequent and ironclad name on any discount Sci-Fi fiction table. 

This trilogy opener really swings for the fences. It’s weird and fussy and very, very focused on establishing the flavor of Luke’s new class of Jedi. But best of all, it feels like it’s also very intent on pushing forward Star Wars canon thus far. Shaped by the success of the Thrawn trilogy and some of the other standalone books, Anderson and company start to really knuckle down and grow the universe out, dragging a lot of icons along the way. And even introducing a few of his own with the debut of the Solo Twins, Jacen and Jaina

This expansion also starts to bleed well into the standalone books too! One of Anderson’s later efforts, I, Jedi, for example. In this single volumed tale that takes place concurrently with the new trilogy, we are introduced to Corran Horn. He’s a former member of Rogue Squadron and one of the galaxy’s first new Force-sensitives. In the chaos of the ending war, Horn’s wife is kidnapped and visions of her haunt his life. Turns out, those visions are Force powered and Horn resolves himself to speed through Jedi training with Luke in order to save her. Even if he has to turn to the Dark Side to do it.

Mixing the military action of the X-Wing series and the high weirdness of the Jedi Academy Trilogy, I, Jedi finds the Legends EU bearing expansion very well while also making great use of the myriad of genres one can explore through the lens of Star Wars. It’s exciting and raw and immensely re-readable, even after all these years.

This expansion comes to a head 25 years ABY (After the Battle of Yavin) in the proper debut of the New Jedi Order. 1999’s Vector Prime from the legendary R.A. Salvatore, the man who gave us Drizzit Do’Urden. Picking up with Jania, Mara Jade Skywalker, and other Legends EU staples, this series that sustained the Legends EU until the very day it stopped is just pure fun from start to finish.

The new generation of Jedi are thriving and the galaxy is in a healthy flux. But when a new and wholly unconventional threat called the Yuuzhan Vong make themselves known coupled with reports of rogue Jedi taking the law into their own hands on the Outer Rim, our new Jedi Council is forced into a deadly game they may not even know the rules to.

It all culminates in a thrilling, but meticulously staged collection of Star Wars stories. Ones that both honor the spirit of the original movies and push the franchise into different, challenging, and unexpected places.

Conclusion

Hear some of you grousing already, I can.

“What about the Black Fleet Crisis?!” “No love for Thrawn?!” “Y NO SPLINTER OF THE MIND’S EYE!?”

To which I reply, that’s the beauty of the Legends EU! It contained so much and employed all manner of genre riffs that any one of you could make a wholly different list and it wouldn’t necessarily be “wrong”!

The Legends Expanded Universe canon may have been pruned, TVA style, once the new movie trilogy was announced. But that doesn’t lessen its power much. Nor does it detract from the new line of novels and tie-ins produced in the wake of these new movies.

It’s all still there, in libraries and bookstores used and new all over the world, should anybody want it. I think that’s pretty crikkin’ neat. It doesn’t make it any “better” than the new books, comics, and video games. It just makes it always THERE for us. Either in their original prints or in the new reprints popping up on shelves, provided by the good folks at Del Ray.

Just like how A Galaxy Far, Far Away always is. No matter the incarnation. That matters. Then, now, and forever.

Godspeed, Rebels.

Categories
Comics Film Video Games

My Weird History with Captain Phasma

A character I’ll occasionally tout as the most underutilized in Star Wars, Captain Phasma is an odd beast to tackle considering how I got into reading about her. We’re just going to jump right into it while showing my Star Wars appreciation along the way. 

Part 1: Damn You, Kelly Thompson (Or Rian Johnson? Or whoever?)

Late-2017, what a time. Riding off the promise of Spider-Man: Homecoming excited as all hell for Avengers: Infinity War meanwhile slowly getting into DC with their various animated films and a certain Justice League cut we shall not name, I had not thought about a Star Wars in years! Precisely since The Phantom Menace briefly returned to theaters in 3D all the way back in 2011. Then a crush at my work at the time said The Last Jedi was her most anticipated film of the year. I knew I had to see it, I had to impress her with something to talk about. Quick disclaimer: Doing this did not work out at all and that is not how this story ends.

Any sane person would have started at The Force Awakens. Instead, I headed to my preferred LCS then and scoured the Star Wars section as I knew that was the only way I was gonna devour a bunch of information in a short time other than just going on Wookieepedia. Lucky for me, a series specifically titled Journey to Star Wars: The Last Jedi- Captain Phasma was coming out and I, not knowing a thing, grabbed it as soon as I saw it. I had fun with it at the time! For the life of me, I can’t remember a single plot point. The only reason it exists is to explain how Phasma goes from being dumped in some trash to fighting Finn. 

Come the premiere of the film and this character I had spent four issues falling in love with comes in 2/3rds of the way through to get beat almost immediately. I was an absolute wreck and couldn’t even focus on anything the rest of the film was trying to tell me. Days spent ranting to my friends how this film just ruined a side-character most people didn’t even know had a comic. 

Part 1.5: Another Star Wars Comic

Really quick, I need to gush just how perfectly Age of Resistance: Captain Phasma captures everything I thought this character could do. She is ruthless and bone-chilling. An absolute boss-bitch that could scare any Sith even. This issue makes you look at her couple minutes in Force Awakens and just laugh at what seems to be a totally different character. Read this if you can scout it down. Easily my favorite Tom Taylor work which is also a rarity. all hail supreme leader Phasma

Part 2: The Pandemic

Quite possibly the weirdest and most frightening thing most of us have experienced, right? A deadly airborne virus. Those first two months, especially the first two weeks were B-O-R-I-N-G. So fittingly, I decided to get absolutely addicted to Battlefront II with some friends and main as the one and only Captain Phasma. Genuinely some of the most fun I’ve had with gaming overall. Any mode I couldn’t be Phasma I would get upset. There was a strategy to it being in the support role with the droid she can drop, and that staff is the most fun weapon to use. all hail supreme leader Phasma

Apparently constantly playing as her wasn’t enough for a bored panoramic brain as I decided writing fan-fiction of Phasma entering the Marvel universe after her battle with Finn was worth it. I did not get far at all into it and have since deleted it but I for sure thought it was rad then. To conclude, Phasma is a ruthless boss that I feel deserved more time to show that off. Sadly, given the whole zeitgeist of even discussing that trilogy means we probably won’t see anything added to the era for a long while let alone something Phasma. 

Categories
Video Games

No Man’s Sky (Review)

Ever since Mary Shelley wrote ‘‘Frankenstein; or, the modern Prometheus‘‘ in 1818, and redefined forever what would be the science fiction genre, especially in storytelling, there has been an insurmountable amount of work made around it. There have been books, comics, music, and movies that try to capture that style and narrative to tell a new story, maybe attempting (And maybe even succeeding) at trying to redefine it how Shelley once did, or use it to talk about modern issues. 

But what is science fiction? What makes a piece of art belong to that specific genre, and not fantasy, or surrealism, for example? As understood after Frankenstein, is a type of story set in an alternative reality to ours, to explore and answer a philosophical question that cannot be answered in our current reality. That’s why a book like ‘’1984’’ is still science fiction even after decades of its (at the time of it being written) futuristic setting has passed. And same as that of Shelley, a lot of works like Blade Runner choose to explore the theme of existentialism under different lenses and objectives. 

How did we originate, and how do we matter in an infinitely vast and ever-expanding universe in which we are no more than invisible dots? In movies or graphic novels, you can even see how the unimaginable size of the universe is purposefully the center of attention in a lot of panels to emphasize that exact theme. Since we are commonly scared of the randomness of our existence, given the unknown possibilities that come with that, choosing to create something using existentialist themes usually comes with a depressing tone, and that’s what sets No Man’s Sky apart.

Source: No Man’s Sky

I’m not a day one player. In fact, I played for the first time in 2019, already three years after its launch, and after HelloGames had added various patches and updates. Even though the game gives almost total freedom to do anything you want, the start is almost the same for everyone. Every player starts at a random star, with nearly all of them being dangerous for some reason. You may start at a frozen, heat, or radioactive planet. I’ve heard of very few people that begin on a paradise planet. 

In my case, I appeared on a temperature planet, which means daily heat storms and generally a desert biome. So you wake up completely lost and disoriented, without knowing where you are, how did you get there, or even who you are. At this point, you are nobody; a newborn, if you want to put it that way. You want to find answers, and notice that the equipment of your exosuit, the spacesuit that keeps you alive in outer space and gives you tools for better survival, is broken. So you start searching for the necessary materials to repair it. You walk this barren planet that seems focused on getting rid of you, experiencing storms that kill you in a matter of minutes, while there’s not a single sign of life forms like you that can help you, or even fight against you, in order to at least make the place feel less isolated. But you also realize that you can do anything you want with what is presented; you can go to whatever you prefer on this planet, transform the land at your will, and the more you find, the more options you have. It’s a similar feeling to that of playing Minecraft for the first time.

So you find the materials and repair the most important piece of technology for this; your analysis visor. When it’s turned on, you get a signal, coming from a starship. And then you go, fighting the deathly weather by trying to go as fast as possible or maybe using caves as a refuge, whatever way you can. And when you reach the ship, you discover it needs fuel and the thrusters repaired. After you’re done with the heavy work, you can finally take off from this planet. The motors of the starship start running, and it jumps brusquely out of the ground, almost as a magnet liberating itself from the force of another magnetic body. And when you start flying, this gigantic planet, that seemed infinite when you were exploring it, becomes almost as small as you. 

And the next task is reaching a space station. Until that point, I thought I was gonna be alone all of the time. There were only going to be empty planets, some nicer and more visually pleasing than others, but empty planets after all, where I could only explore, discover animals and build things. But all that changed when I reached the station. I encountered myself at the front door of this massive, spherical, otherworldly satellite, and I was absorbed inside. As my spaceship was going through the interior of this unknown building, I was in awe. It wasn’t something I could build at all, it had to be the work of something far more organized and capable than a single, wandering being like myself; what was that entity in question, I don’t know. But even more striking, were the people that I saw. Aliens of all kinds of races going through what seemed like just a normal day; some worked there, some were just stopping by, like me. This is when I knew that the planet I woke up in, was nothing. I wasn’t alone, I was in an extremely alive and breathing universe with millions of things that were just waiting for me to find them. 

Source: No Man’s Sky

And I kept playing. As the months passed, I dropped out of the game to do other things or play other games, but I always came back. There was always something else to discover, especially with all the new updates that are constantly being added to the game. I’ve always looked for that game that people tend to have for themselves, that serves almost like a second world to live in. For some, that’s a game like World of Warcraft, for others something more relaxing like Stardew Valley; for me, it’s No Man’s Sky. 

At first, I settled on a nice planet that I found, built my base that I planned to keep expanding until it was the most imposing, technologically advanced mansion, with every possible gadget that I could make. But I had a really evident money problem. There are three types of money in the game; units, nanites, and quicksilver. All of them are accessible without paying anything in real life, but I had near to nothing of all three. And that’s really important, if you lack a mineral to create something, you could just buy it at a space station. Or maybe you are offered a freighter that costs ten million units, and you have barely six thousand. I wasn’t very aware of the best way to get money. I saw that some people built their own industries that mined minerals to then sell them, and I considered doing that, but it just didn’t feel right for me. 

That’s when I started doing the Nexus missions. The Nexus is basically a lobby where you can trade, meet other players, claim rewards and take on missions. The mission objectives can go from rescuing a stranded life-form, or fighting space pirates in your ship, to destroying sentinel bases. I started earning a fair amount of money with them, and while I was exploring, I realized that I didn’t want to settle on a planet. I was going to travel through the universe, living inside my freighter, a mothership given to me by an ex-captain after saving them from pirates, because they weren’t prepared for the responsibilities. Not only that, but I was going to save the money I’m getting as a bounty hunter to upgrade both my freighter and starship to become a space pirate myself, living my life by robbing other freighters. 

And while I’m doing that, I’m still finding out things. I recently broke an egg that I thought would just give me minerals, and a mix of a pseudo-xenomorph and a scorpion came out of it and attacked me. I also discovered a giant, one-eyed worm at the bottom of the sea that almost ate me. And probably the most random encounter I had, was a metallic substance in an ancient underwater building that talked to me about some sort of prophecy. And there are still things that I know about that I never encountered, like giant-sand worms (I tend to avoid deserted planets), flying pets, and abandoned, almost haunted freighters in the middle of space. All of it serves as proof of how No Man’s Sky treats existentialism. Some people decide to view it as a hopeless concept; we are not important, we are just dust in space and nothing we’ll do will ever matter. But No Man’s Sky wants you to embrace the fact that you are an invisible dot in an ever-growing universe, so that you can do everything you want with it, and have as much fun as you want because, in the end, that’s all that matters.

Categories
Video Games

Dragon Age’s Recovering Templar

NPC’s, or non-playable characters, are typically the filler of the RPG sausage. You need them to build out the world and provide stakes to the narrative, but more often than not they won’t bring much outside of side-quests to the table. Cullen Rutherford is not a traditional NPC. I had at one point written off this Templar until I noticed he kept showing up in Dragon Age games, each time being a little more relevant to the plot and underscoring the plights of the Templar Order, most notably substance abuse. 

Dragon Age is a fantasy RPG centred on the continent of Thedas’s hostile politics, a recurrent demonic plague known as “The Blight,” and — most notably — the conflict between the mages and their keepers, the Templar Order. 

When we are first introduced to Cullen, he’s a Templar witness to the Harrowing your protagonist survives in Dragon Age: Origins‘s magi origin. His job was to strike you down if you came out of that “test” as an abomination. When you later visit the Circle of Magi’s tower, Cullen can be found trapped by some blood mages and politely asks you to kill all the mages within — in case any were secretly blood mages. I didn’t expect him to show up again in any future capacity.

Cullen in captivity – Dragon Age: Origins

Cullen was next sent to the Circle of Magi in Kirkwall, the setting of Dragon Age II, wherein he was promoted to second-in-command to Knight-Commander Meredith. Unlike his portrayal in the first game, Cullen is idealistic about the Templar Order’s ability to win the hearts and minds of the city and quell rising tensions between the discontent mages and the Chantry. As the years pass, he comes to believe that Meredith is leading his order down the wrong path. The red lyrium in her sword has shaped her into a homicidal authoritarian. When she dissolves the Circle of Magi in Kirkwall (effectively sentencing all mages to death) it is Cullen who orders her to step down. 

The last person I expected to see commanding the Inquisitor’s forces in Dragon Age: Inquisition was Cullen. The Templars were in active conflict with the mages and he did not seem like the type to walk the middle road. It’s clear, however, the events in Kirkwall changed the way he saw both the order and its treatment of the mages. His degree of inner turmoil isn’t fully apparent until he admits to you that he’s been weaning himself off an addiction to lyrium. In fact, Cullen made an agreement with your squad-mate Cassandra to be removed from duty should he become a liability. As the Inquisitor, you have the option to either encourage him to fight this addiction or go back on lyrium. 

Cullen’s Lyrium Kit – Dragon Age: Inquisition

So, there’s a lot to unpack here. Who are the Templars and why are they abusing harmful substances? Why would substance use be a part of the Templar Order’s culture? Why is it that the Inquisitor has any say over Cullen’s path to recovery? 

The Templars are the military arm of the Chantry, the most prominent religious order in Thedas. They are charged with hunting apostate and rogue mages, defeating demons, and watching over the mages researching magic within the Circle of Magi. The Templars posture as holy knights, yet their Order has insidious practices towards both mages and its own members which all come back to the use of lyrium. 

While mages use lyrium to enhance spells and rituals, Templars ingest this mineral to enhance their ability to resist and dispel magic. It also gives them more boldness and power in combat. Not dissimilar in some ways to the performance enhancing chemicals used on soldiers in Vietnam. In many ways, it’s horrific that substance use like this be so ingrained in Templar life, but this is not a side-effect of their calling — it is a feature.  

It becomes clear throughout the Dragon Age games that the Chantry has dominance over the entire lyrium trade, despite dwarves being the only group capable of safely mining and refining the substance. The Chantry uses their lyrium for a test called the Harrowing for all Circle of Magi members, to disable mages by removing their magical connection to the Fade using a lyrium branding technique known internally as the Rite of Tranquility, and — finally — to maintain Templar addiction to the substance for long term obedience. 

Cullen’s Lyrium capsule – Dragon Age: Inquisition

On the surface it makes a twisted kind of sense — use the substance directly connected to all magic in Thedas to police its usage. Templars, with their lyrium enhanced abilities, can fight back against rogue mages, apostates, and abominations by becoming inhuman themselves. If you dig a little deeper though the Chantry’s logic falls apart. 

A mage can survive a Harrowing and later become a blood mage or abomination. That first test is like getting your driver’s license — a successful exam doesn’t eliminate the possibility of an eventual car crash. Secondly, forcefully turning mages into Tranquil through lyrium castration may relieve the risk of their demonic possession but it also removes all humanity and has been repeatedly abused by the Chantry for political purposes. The greatest lyrium abuse, however, lies with the rank and file Templars. 

Prolonged use of lyrium by Templars becomes addictive, the cravings unbearable. Over time they will grow disoriented, incapable of distinguishing a memory from the present. They’ll often become paranoid, haunted by their worst memories and nightmares during all hours. So, why not just quit it entirely? Well, withdrawal symptoms include physical weakness, headaches, forgetfulness, an unquenchable thirst, and cold hands. A Templar named Samson talks up the merits of lyrium in Dragon Age II before admitting, “if you stop it just about kills you.” Yet this doesn’t dissuade Cullen from attempting sobriety. 

Cullen & Tranquil Mage branded by the Right of Tranquility – Dragon Age: Inquisition

I have complicated feelings around how Dragon Age handles lyrium addiction. Being only a few months sober myself, I can understand the shame Cullen feels in relapsing on lyrium. It struck a chord with me. So, naturally, I pushed him away from lyrium use. The problem, outside of the withdrawal effects, is that his outcome as an addict or teetotaler depends wholly on your choices as the Inquisitor. Specifically, whether you’ve pushed him to use lyrium or abstain, whether you’ve disbanded the Inquisition, and whether the two of you have been romantically involved. 

The potential scenarios that play out are (1) Cullen settles down with you in Ferelden to find some undefined happiness with no clear indication of how he overcame addiction, (2) Cullen opens a rehabilitation centre for former Templars and people suffering from lyrium madness, and (3) Cullen is found years later as a crazed street beggar who has fully succumbed to lyrium madness and needs to be put down like a rabid dog. 

Cullen’s lyrium addict outcome – Dragon Age: Inquisition – Trespasser DLC

Lyrium isn’t methamphetamine. It doesn’t function at all like opioids, depressants, or hallucinogens. If anything, the use of lyrium by Templars would be more analogous to the stimulants I take to manage the physical and mental symptoms of ADHD. I’m not even sure if my advising him to go off lyrium entirely was the right choice given the immediate effects on his coordination and awareness along with the long-term effects. Sadly, any other choice the Inquisitor makes is a fast-track to Cullen becoming a drug-addled beggar. Why is the choice so black-and-white? And why is me being his romantic partner the difference between him farming in the countryside or opening up the Betty Ford Clinic for wayward Templars? 

Ideally, the conversations you have with Cullen would have amounted to him making his own choice about substance usage and recovery. Or perhaps, maybe the triggering of a questline that produces some solutions around lyrium addiction and recovery. Instead, the Templar Order marches onward as does lyrium addiction. Cullen was just a glance at how challenging the world of Thedas is for those who sacrifice their physical wellbeing for shiny armor and a stat boost against magic. It’s a sad conclusion to a character who deserved to determine his own fate. 

I recognize that Cullen is an NPC and you are the protagonist. Your agency in the world of Dragon Age is obvious. Still, the level of influence you have over another character’s recovery in this case is a real disappointment. My hope is that the upcoming Dragon Age sequel can find a solution to rehabilitate former Templars without removing their agency or waving away how immensely challenging the road to recovery can be. 

Categories
Video Games

20XX: Battle Network Revisited

By: Zee Huff

Mega Man: The Blue Bomber — he’s been in our collective imagination since he fought his way through the first wave of Dr. Wily’s robots in 1987’s Mega Man on the Nintendo Entertainment System. The Mega Man franchise has only ballooned since, the “Classic” timeline leaping forward when technology has, while (mostly) keeping the core, platforming and side-scrolling gameplay central. But, at the dawn of the new millennium, Capcom decided to take a risk, to try and reach an untapped market who might like their Mega Man a bit more… isometric. But what could collectible card games, Y2K, and a cagematch between Alexa and Siri have to do with Mega Man?

Capcom’s Mega Man Battle Network was released in Japan on March 21st, 2001, as Rockman.EXE. A launch title for Nintendo’s then-new handheld, the Game Boy Advance, Battle Network was intended to compete with, and appeal to the fans of, Game Freak’s massively popular Pokémon series. With collectible battle chips, a variety of Pocket Monster-esque “viruses,” and a battle-system almost tailor-made for competitive play, it’s easy to see why Capcom thought this could be the smash hit the Mega Man franchise needed to draw in a new generation of gamers.

This first game, though rough around the edges, launched with Capcom’s full confidence. And through their efforts, Battle Network was positioned to become a valuable sub-franchise in its own right. To tie-in with the release of the original game, CoroCoro Comic, a monthly magazine targeting elementary school-aged boys, began publishing Ryo Takamisaki’s manga adaptation in February of 2001. Before the year was out, Capcom released a sequel, Rockman.EXE 2, perfecting a formula that future games would improve upon. By March of 2002, when an anime series loosely based on Takamisaki’s manga began airing on TV Tokyo, Capcom had inked a deal with Bandai to release merchandise based on the PET (PErsonal Terminal) used by the main character. The era of Battle Network had begun.

Yet, despite multiple lines of content, a dedicated fanbase, and success both in Japan and internationally, Battle Network is perhaps best described — at least in the West — as the forgotten child of the Mega Man series. After a notably panned fourth entry into the main game series, reviewers changed their tune, marking the games not by their innovation, but for their stagnation. And though the anime continued for five seasons in Japan, American and Canadian audiences only saw the first two seasons dubbed into English. Mix this with the second series of toys selling only modest numbers in the States, as well as revived interest in the classic series from fans worldwide… and, well, you can see where this is going.

So, why dig it up now?

Well, a spin-off is bound to its source material; you don’t get to make Pokémon Snap, for instance, without it carrying all of the baggage of the core games. But what spin-offs lose in originality, they gain in potential. Spin-offs are opportunities to reinterpret a concept, recontextualize it for a new generation, and reveal sides of the source material previously unconsidered. Battle Network is at its most interesting when it does this — when the writers, cut off from the timeline of the classic series, are free to explore this brave new world to its fullest. Battle Network is a time capsule. It reflects the concerns of a generation for whom internet technology was a new and quickly growing enigma of a thing, while being made for, and targeted to, a generation where the internet is permanently, irrevocably integrated into our daily lives.

Upon first contact with the series, even I — seven at the time — scoffed at the idea of an oven being connected to the internet. But look where we are! Whether it’s being able to post to Twitter from your LG Smart Fridge or the simple, taken-for-granted fact of holding a cell phone with more processing power than most, if not all, computers of the early 2000s, Battle Network’s future is closer to home than I think even the developers imagined.

The kids of that generation —  the one the games were originally targeted to, the elementary schoolers of the 2000s — are adults now, living in a world that existed only in their wildest dreams. Sure, a NetNavi makes Siri look like a calculator, but hackers can, and do, have the ability to put entire countries on alert.

But… I suppose that doesn’t really answer the question, right? Well, blame the manga. Couple of us got going one day, talking about how the manga had been one of those well-loved, dog-eared volumes, and the conversation, like the franchise itself, snowballed from there. Some people only knew the manga. Some, like me, went hard in the paint, getting their hands on any scrap of content they could find. It was — it is — important to us.

In the coming months, CFC and GC will be celebrating, and analyzing, Mega Man Battle Network in all its forms. We want to dive deep and explore why some of us keep coming back to Battle Network. However, we’ll also be looking forward: What did the series teach us? Did we carry that with us?

It’s been twenty years, but the future is now. The year is 20XX. Get ready to jack in, y’all.

Categories
Video Games

A Toast, to the Movie Tie-In Video Game

            Do you like movie tie-in video games? Don’t think too deeply about the question, it’s not something I expect many to have a quick answer to. Unless of course you’re one of those gamers steeled by floppy disc handovers, an affinity for shooting monsters on Mars, and knowing what makes you hardcore, which if you are, good for you, I’ll be sure to mark you down as no.

The phrase movie tie-in video game is enough to draw a wide array of emotions from outright disgust, fond nostalgia, and massive indifference. They’re the bargain bin schlock you wouldn’t waste your money on, they’re the infamous Christmas gift that no child ever asked for. In general, their existence could be considered a step up from movie novelizations, but that of course depends on whether or not you enjoy movie novelizations. And yet despite the rather negative connotation that the subgenre can bring upon itself, one can’t deny the enjoyment found within The Lion King or Aladdin, the couch split-screen insanity in GoldenEye 007, or co-op adventures fighting Helm’s Deep in The Lord of the Rings video game series. There are gems to be found for those willing to brave the search; some of these games manage to carve their own path making them entirely unique experiences, like Scarface: The World is Yours, a game that allows you to play a version of the story where Tony Montana escapes death to build a drug empire. The beauty of these games lies in the fact they aren’t limited to the stories their movie counterparts are stuck to and can provide a charming aside for fans. 

If that doesn’t convince you, and I’d be disappointed if it didn’t, then we can look at the sales. Information found within NPD annual report shows that Enter The Matrix, despite releasing to lukewarm reviews, was the 9th highest selling game in 2003. Spiderman 2 in 2004 became the 8th highest selling game. 2005? Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith at 8th as well. 2007 would see Spiderman 3 reaching 6th in Playstation 2 sales, High School Musical: Makin’ the Cut! at 7th in Nintendo DS sales, and Transformers: The Game coming in 4th in Playstation Portable sales. With games linked to some of the biggest films coming out at the time, and with holiday seasons always being a major draw for many video game publishers, it was only natural for these games to find success in one way or another. Sure, maybe it was the brand recognition, maybe it was the thrill of playing as our favorite characters, maybe a parent didn’t want to live with the judgment egged on by other parents for buying their kid Grand Theft Auto, whatever the case may be movie tie-in games held staying power, and were a considerable force with regards to sales.  

Like any subgenre –if we’re to be generous and consider it a subgenre (I happen to be very generous in this regard) – there are merits and shining examples of developers looking to craft enjoyable, immersive experiences not unlike that of their bigger-budgeted contemporaries, even if their purpose was meant more as a side dish than an entrée. This raises a far more interesting question; is it the talent and work of the developers that propels a movie tie-in game to major success, or is it simply a byproduct of a brand name with mass appeal? It would be pure naivety to assume the former in a capitalist world, but it would be too cynical to believe the latter, dismissing the work of a development team. In Gamesrader’s article “How nine people at Rare created a seminal classic with GoldenEye,” lead artist on the game Karl Hilton said, “I hope it would have done well anyway, but I doubt it would have had the penetration into popular culture that the James Bond link gave it.” It’s possible for some games, the relationship is symbiotic, but for others, a brand name can do the major heavy lifting. 

But for every Peter Jackson’s King Kong: The Official Game of the Movie, a game unique in having the director being a direct collaborator with the project, resulting in its iconic no HUD display, there are practically dozens of duds to choose from. Perhaps you’d be interested in dead on arrival platformer Jumper: Griffin’s Story, dismal beat-em-up Catwoman, hokey 3D fighter Fight Club, abysmal shoot ‘em up Bad Boys: Miami Takedown, or perhaps the nostalgia of Atari graphics will have you gravitating towards E.T., an overwrought series of bad decisions and industry crashing aftereffects mythologized in the form of a piece of plastic, stealing the superlative from then sitting president Ronald Reagan before he stole the title back.

This is to say the history of movie tie-in video games is paved with good intentions and questionable business practices. Most of the aforementioned games were set to be released in time with their movie counterparts forcing developers into a release date they had to meet, which could result in dire and short development cycles. On top of that, if these games don’t do well commercially, it could very well mean the livelihood of the employees working there. In the case of Catwoman developers Argonaut Games, that game would be their last, as they shuttered their studio in October, two months after the release of the game, with no publishing deals coming through to keep them afloat.  It’s a situation no one would ever want to face, and in the case of Argonaut Games, it comes with a bit of a bittersweet tinge; they were also developers of Harry Potter and the Philosopher Stone, a game that despite its barely passing reviews coming in at 64% on Metacritic, sold 8 million copies placing it sixth on the list of best-selling Playstation video games. Within history, the game sold more than iconic legacy characters in Sony’s library like Tomb Raider, Crash Bandicoot, and Metal Gear Solid. This before we knew how awful J.K. Rowling could truly be. What a time.

Even though many choose not to look back fondly on this particular subgenre, their absence is deeply felt, with the last movie tie-in game seeming to be Planet of the Apes: Last Frontier released back in 2017 for the Playstation 4 (with ports to Xbox One and Windows releasing in 2018.) The game didn’t favor too well critically, pulling in a 59 on Metacritic, and with no information on its sales, it’s safe to assume that it didn’t inspire too much confidence for other publishers. There’d be no joy in Mudville tonight, for the movie-tie in games have struck out. But if the aforementioned Aladdin and Lion King games were able to find themselves ported to 8th generation consoles (very close to saying current generation before I remembered that, haha, that’s not true anymore) and if ten years of fan clamoring for Scott Pilgrim vs. The World: The Game resulted in the game making a grand reappearance at last year’s E3, then clearly someone somewhere has an interest in the subgenre. Who can say?

However, if we’re to progress forward with this idea of reviving movie tie-in games, that is if we want them back, then perhaps it should be done with a better understanding, and hope that the working men and women will be given the proper resources to create not just a good product, but a memorable experience. It would be a future where publishers aren’t in such a rush to meet deadlines to receive that windfall from a blockbuster film’s release. Maybe even promote finding new and innovative ways to tap into the mobile and indie gaming market, engaging with players directly, and allowing them to experience their favorite stories in exciting new ways. Take for instance 2017’s The Mummy Demastered, developed by WayForward studios. Instead of releasing in time with 2017’s The Mummy (which may have been a good thing all things considered), or featuring cliché uninspired gameplay beats, the game is a retro throwback to Metroidvania style gameplay (a word that somehow both gains and loses the more it’s said) and was released quietly in October. What’s more, the game reviewed well, receiving a 78%, 75%, and 73% score for PC, Playstation 4/Nintendo Switch, and Xbox One respectfully, with Thomas McDermott of DarkZero saying, “It may have been spawned solely as a means to promote a movie, but it overcomes those unassuming origins and rises to become a tremendous addition to the Metroidvania genre.”

Is there hope that in the future children will be able to play Pixar’s Soul as a so-so adventure platformer for the Nintendo Switch, or perhaps Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) in the vein of old school beat ‘em ups. I personally would love to experience a survival horror game in the Event Horizon universe. But would they even want it now? While Gen Z is notorious for being better crate diggers than most 90s DJs, it’s a completely different realm attempting to tap into that subgenre for reappraisal. The fact of the matter is, unless a movie tie-in game happens to sell well while also transcending the label, it’s very likely no one outside of that specific window of time will ever have the opportunity to discover it. It’s simply out of our hands, and in the hands of those who have yet to see a purpose for these games. They’re the holder of the keys and for some unfortunate games, they’ve permanently locked the door. To me, that’s a tragedy and serious oversight and speaks volumes in the ways we treat the idea of video game preservation and the work of thousands.  

There’s so much to consider with regards to this particular issue; if a Spiderman fan in 2021 happens to get an interest in playing Treyarch’s Spiderman 2, a game that any fan of Insomniac’s seminal 2018 hit will feel at home with, a game which Andrew Reiner of GameInformer considered, “one of those games that you will continually go back to and have the time of your life in,”… well they can’t. The game currently isn’t listed on any digital platforms, nor are there any remasters of it. Should you happen to have the consoles and simply opt-in buying a physical copy, Amazon has a copy of the Xbox version for $72.87. Prefer your games on Playstation 2? You’re in luck because that version is listed at $72.69. There are local video game stores that surely may have it, but it’s a game of chance and is never a certainty. While emulating may be the common sense go-to choice for any form of retro gaming, it is still considered illegal and goes unspoken for the most part. Even so, emulating just isn’t a practical solution for the average everyday consumer to access these games in the same way the average everyday consumer may want to access older movies, music, books, or any art form. 

I digress. Maybe the time has come and gone for this particular sub-genre. Maybe we’re better off not having to deal with the scourge of cash grab shovelware designed for everyone and no one. But to write them off as such would be gravely undermining their placement in the history of it all, and for many, proved to be their entryway into being gamers before anyone of us had any concept of what hardcore gamer really meant. Think it’d only be fair if we offer similar opportunities for future generations moving forward, no?