Friday, December 26, 2014

Project M (Fanmade mod, 2012-2015)

Before I move on to the fourth and most recent Smash title, I'd like to make an entry on a highly-acclaimed fan mod called Project M. It's recognized by official Smash tournaments, so I think it deserves a mention here.

One of the most fascinating things about games is the ability to make modifications to their software to achieve new effects. Creative people with the right tools can change many aspects of a game, from textures and models to actual gameplay mechanics. Though some people can use mods to cheat, most people tend to do it to create their own spin on a game, sometimes making it almost like a completely different one. Without modding, many popular games would not exist today. It's generally agreed that the Nintendo Wii is by far the easiest console to modify without extensive knowledge in the field. Many of this system's titles were modded not too long after they released. By far, the most popular game to mod was none other than Super Smash Bros. Brawl.

It started off with simple texture and moveset hacks, mostly involving crudely remaking characters like Mewtwo by putting them over already existing characters. It looked shoddy for the most part, but it was easy to do, and you had a lot of kids and teens thinking they were pro hackers for it, and YouTube was flooded with videos showing off their mods.

However, some people wanted to take it a bit further. As most people know by now, Brawl was a game that divided the Smash community and was generally disliked by competitive players due to its vast differences from Melee and its more random, casual motif. A particular group of experienced modders got together to make the first extensive overhaul of Super Smash Bros. Brawl. In 2009, it was released under the title of "Brawl+". The idea behind this mod was to balance the game and restore a few techniques like wavedashing. While this mod was considered a failure by some, it did see a large presence at several tournaments and was at least somewhat popular with fans of both Melee and Brawl. Its popularity peaked in Summer of 2009, and it was mostly forgotten within the next year.

A few years later, after development of Brawl+ had more or less ceased, the team decide to rework their mod. It started off as a simple idea to make the character Falco in Brawl play exactly like he did in Melee. The team realized they were onto something, and decided to begin working on every character in a similar fashion. Bringing together each character's best strengths from Melee and Brawl combined, they coined their new mod "Project M". Its first beta build was released in 2012 and only had the top tier characters from Melee and a few others, but it certainly caught the attention of the community.

Throughout the rest of 2012 and 2013, the mod was regularly given heavy updates as more characters were retooled to bring out their best qualities. By far the most notable thing within Project M was the development of the Clone Engine. As I mentioned before, character hacks required the new model and texture to be placed over an already-existing slot. With this new engine, that was no longer an issue. new characters could be added to the game with their very own slot. Through this, we finally saw the return of Mewtwo and Roy, two characters that caused a lot of outcry over their initial exclusion from Brawl. Their movesets, models, animations, and everything else were all made from scratch, taking over 700 hours for each character.

I didn't get my first taste of this mod until this year. I would've got it sooner, but I stupidly sold my Wii back at the end of 2012. Either way, I'll share my own thoughts on the mod.

In terms of accessibility, it's very easy to obtain. The Project M website offers links to download the latest version of the mod, and you don't need to know anything about modding to install it. All that's required beyond a Wii and a copy of Brawl is a 2GB SD card, which is very cheap and easy to find. After it's installed and the SD card is inserted into your Wii, you need only to access the "Stage Builder" menu in Brawl, and Project M will boot up automatically.

As soon as it starts up, you'll notice that the menus received a beautiful makeover. I mentioned before how I hate that Brawl's menus are a blinding white color. PM fixes that by replacing them with deep purple, blue, and black tones with a new, stylish font for all the names. Everything is also much easier to navigate, and setting up matches is a breeze. There's even a new, original main menu theme. From the PM launcher, you can connect to the internet to receive updates, too.

In terms of gameplay, it's fast, technical, and responsive. Each character is a blend of their best attributes from each Smash title, with a few new tricks up their sleeves. It takes some getting used to, but it's great once you pick everything up, especially if you're an aspiring competitive Smasher. By far the best thing about Project M is its character balance. I complained about how awful it was in Melee and Brawl since those games overcentralized a very small amount of characters, but this is not the case here. No matter who your favorite character is, they are certainly viable at a tournament level due to their heavy reworking to bring out the best in them. This change means that Project M tournaments are infinitely more fun to both watch and attend because of the large character variety. You're no longer forced to choose from 5 or 6 characters to have any hope of making it out of pools.

The two characters they brought back from Melee, Mewtwo and Roy, are very welcome additions. Both characters were notably very low on Melee's tier list, but the Project M team has assured that they become competitive powerhouses that bring all sorts of new things to the table. I mentioned before how I'm a dedicated Mewtwo main, and I can't praise this mod enough for bringing him back in a competitively viable state. Everything about him and Roy are improved and so much easier to pick up and play. According to their website, these two aren't the only characters scheduled to be added back, as they're working on even more newcomers.

Project M is also "pre-loaded" with a good amount of all-new fanmade stages and character costumes to give you new things to play with, and it isn't hard to add even more. The whole mod is full of easter eggs, inside jokes, and proverbial love letters to the Smash fanbase. This is particularly evident in the singleplayer mode. All of the modes from Brawl are still functional in PM, and there are even some brand-new event matches. The Subspace Emissary mode is much more enjoyable with PM's physics.

Predictably, Project M has been the subject of some controversy. A lot of casual gamers think it "ruined" Brawl and see it as some sort of abomination towards Smash. Others just see it as "too competitive". I'll be the first to admit that it definitely caters toward the competitive Smash scene. In addition to the replicated Melee physics, advanced techs like wavedashing and l-cancelling are intentional and much easier to do. The DACUS technique from Brawl returns too. Stages are reworked to remove random hazards and function as neutral, tourney-legal stages. Matches by default are four stock, items off, with an eight-minute time limit (though almost everyone agrees that Stock is the optimal gametype). There's even this really cool feature where the music will fade after several minutes so tournaments with multiple setups don't become too loud and hectic. Other smashers are worried that it will take away from the sales of Smash 4 and other official media, but this doesn't seem to be an issue, and the PM team regularly promotes Smash 4. Currently, Nintendo has not filed any sort of lawsuit against the mod despite it being in existence for over two years.

Despite the controversy, Project M is held in generally high regard by the community. It's the only mod to be recognized by official national tournaments like EVO, APEX, and The Big House. The unique, varied nature of the mod brings crowds just as large as what the official smash titles would draw in, which is very impressive in its own right. Tournament representation ensures that Project M and the official Smash games can coexist and be played alongside each other without favoritism.

Personally, as someone who almost exclusively mained characters who weren't considered viable, I adore Project M. As my competitive career has advanced over the course of 2014, I've largely dropped Smash 64, Melee, and Brawl to focus on training in Project M and entering tournaments based mostly around it. Though I was primarily a Melee player at first, I find myself playing it less and less due to its overcentralization of the top 8 characters and moving on from it. It's still a fun title to play and compete in, but Project M is infinitely better in that regard. With the release of Smash 4, I've decided to dedicate a lot of time to it as well, though I still enjoy PM almost as much. It's amazing how much a group of fans can accomplish, and PM is a monument to the competitive Smash scene if nothing else.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Super Smash Bros. Brawl (Wii, 2008)

Given the comparatively short amount of time between the releases of 64 and Melee, I spent a lot of my early days on the internet wondering when the next Smash Bros title would hit the shelves. We had already been getting a few sneak peeks at Nintendo's next console, the Wii, by that point. Originally called the "Revolution", the system would heavily emphasize motion controls with much of its software. To make a long story short, the development team more or less gave up on this concept for Smash Bros since they had no way to implement it, so unlike most Wii titles, the next Smash game would focus more on showing off every other new feature the Wii had to offer. At E3 2006, Nintendo announced Super Smash Bros. Brawl with a grandiose cinematic trailer featuring veterans and even a few newcomers. They promised it to be the "best Super Smash Bros. ever", and the crowd went absolutely wild.

It can be said that Brawl was the original "hype train" game. That is to say, speculation, rumors, and a general feeling of excite filled the air during the prerelease era of the game. Everyone immediately flocked to various forums and other sites like YouTube to talk about the game and wonder what new characters would be added this time around. It was quite a time to be on the internet. There was so much hype for Brawl that Nintendo set up a website devoted to daily updates on the game, known as the "Smash Bros. DOJO!!". During 2006-2008, the site became a central hub for all things Brawl. The daily updates were released on a Japanese time schedule, so Americans wouldn't be able to see them unless they were awake around 3AM, but if you know the Smash fanbase, you'd know damn well they were willing to stay up. Sometimes the updates were simply new game mechanics or returning fighters, but what got everyone the most excited was when a new character was revealed.

Part of the reason Brawl took so long to release was its grueling development cycle. To put it into perspective, it was supposed to be a launch title for the Wii in 2006. It was literally ready to go gold when a certain character was requested to be added in, so even more time had to go into making him, his stage, and a music track. In general, it was often delayed, much to the disdain of fans. Super Smash Bros Brawl was finally released in North America on March 9th, 2008.

In the final days of the prerelease hype, the fanbase was ready to explode. Smashboards and other SSB-dedicated forums were rife with fans posting their last-minute speculation and talking about what they'd do when they finally got their hands on the game. There was even talk of people going to the midnight release dressed as their favorite characters. I didn't get to go, but from what a friend who did and told me about it, it was one of the biggest midnight releases ever held at Gamestop. Him and his friend were circling around the building; there was more of a huge crowd than an actual organized line, and like most big fighting game releases, they were even holding a tournament. At the time, I was in my freshman year of high school, and a lot of people in my classes were talking about Brawl.

I would go ahead and tell you what I think of SSBB, but the truth is, unlike 64 and Melee, I didn't get this game or a Wii for that matter until long after its release. I didn't have a lot of money at the time, but that wasn't the only reason and there's a more complex reasoning behind it all. What were my initial thoughts on the game during prerelease and the early days?

I had a history of primarily playing Nintendo consoles. I'd gotten most of them before even considering their counterparts, so logically the next step would've been a Wii. When Brawl was announced, I quickly made my decision and started saving up for the console in 2006. A lot of the new features looked good, but I wasn't thinking about newcomers so much as who would be returning. If you read my post on Melee, you'll know I'm a die-hard Mewtwo fan, and I had high hopes for his return. Up until this point, characters being removed was a foreign concept. While I could understand removing "clone" characters like Pichu or Dr. Mario, Mewtwo was entirely unique and still popular. However, it became evident pretty quickly that he wasn't returning either, which as really disappointing and ultimately enough to make me decide to use the money I was saving for a Wii and Brawl to get an Xbox 360 with Halo 3 instead.

While this ended up being a great long-term decision, I still missed out on the Smash action for a while. I honestly don't know what "deconfirmed" Mewtwo in my mind, but I guess it was the reveal of the then-new 4th generation Pokemon, Lucario. While he's anything but a "clone" of Mewtwo, he is a similar concept and was likely at least somewhat of a replacement. If you know me, you know I never cared for Lucario. As much as I love Pokemon and the 4th generation, his design and concept always came off as uninteresting and generic to me; a "poor man's Mewtwo", if anything. Almost everyone you ask will tell you he's their favorite Pokemon, so there's a factor of being generic too. I honestly do not mind Lucario, he just isn't my style and made somewhat boring stand-in. Later I'd find out this wasn't the case, as Mewtwo was intended to be in the game, but was cut late into development to give the team more time to work on the game's extensive Adventure mode.

Anyways, I finally obtained a Wii with Brawl and a few other games during the holiday season of 2009, and it was definitely the game I played the most of. After finally getting my hands on the game, I admittedly warmed up to it. Since it's what everyone gets the most excited over, let's talk about the character cast first.

In addition to most of Melee's roster returning, Brawl included many long-requested fan favorites. Nintendo mainstays like Wario, Diddy Kong, and Charizard finally made their Smash debuts in Brawl, as did obscure characters like Pit from Kid Icarus, who received a major redesign which would later see use in Kid Icarus Uprising.

Aside from the inclusion of R.O.B., who wasn't even a video game character but rather a real-life gaming peripheral robot used to sell the NES, the most groundbreaking inclusions Brawl had for its time were third-party characters. That is to say, characters that are owned by someone other than Nintendo. The first of these was Metal Gear's protagonist, Solid Snake. I'd never played MGS at the time, but I'm retroactively very happy about his inclusion after I did play the series in 2014. At the time, the newest MGS game on the horizon was MGS4, a PS3 exclusive. Brawl had a lot of elements from this game, essentially giving it free advertising. Way to be a nice guy, Nintendo!

The other third-party newcomer was the one I mentioned that stretched Brawl's development time out, and one that just about every fan requested: Sonic the Hedgehog. After decades of rivalry, Sonic could finally square off with Mario, not to mention other Nintendo icons. He was given his own stage, Green Hill Zone, but the music from his home series differed a lot in that it was almost entirely ported from other games rather than an original remix, aside for one made at the last minute. Still, he was one of the characters I found myself using a lot.

With Mewtwo's exclusion, it was admittedly hard for me to find a new main. Wario and Sonic were interesting, and Link had a fun playstyle this time around, but there was definitely something missing. After a few days, I remembered that Wolf O'Donnell, the anti-hero from the Star Fox franchise was playable. I initially saw him in an early episode of Arby n' the Chief in 2008, but I guess I forgot since I didn't own a Wii yet. I was already a fan of Wolf as a character, and it didn't take long after unlocking him to figure out that his playstyle was perfect for me, and he's been my top main ever since, serving as a worthy successor to Mewtwo.

All in all, Brawl had a very interesting roster that was impressive for its time. Some of the exclusions were a bit unjust and not all the newcomers were appealing, but it had a certain charm to it and fans often consider it the best for its size, general diversity and long-awaited additions.

In the way of aesthetics, Brawl offered a bit of a mixed bag. Naturally everything looked better and of a higher resolution due to being on a newer system, but the game also tried to go for a vastly different art style. Everything was meant to look less cartoony and more "realistic". Textures were more defined and colors were far more muted and subdued. The menus had a bright, white theme to them, which I never cared for in any user interface, yet every modern site uses one. Other than that everything looked really nice and the stages especially had a lot of detail to them.

Easily one of Brawl's strongest points was its soundtrack. 64 and Melee both had wonderful OSTs full of love letters to old Nintendo titles, but Brawl took this up to eleven with a fully-orchestrated soundtrack with loads of remixes of iconic themes from each franchise. It's become one of the most well-known video game soundtracks and is often remembered by gamers everywhere. On the other hand, one of the worst things about the soundtrack is the main theme that they used for Brawl, an opera-esque song with Latin vocals. It's a great song by itself, but every original song that Brawl has to offer that isn't from an existing franchise is literally a remix of this, and it really gets on my nerves.

All of the modes from Melee made a return, and as you might expect, there was a slew of new ones to take on. For starters, every singleplayer mode was now able to be challenged co-operatively with a friend. As a multiplayer-focused series, Smash expanded a lot in Brawl. Using the Wii's wi-fi capabilities, Smashers were finally able to play with others online, a feature long-requested and absent from the GameCube. Brawl's online play got a reputation for being one of the worst online gaming experiences, however. While it was entirely possible to get a "good" match if you and your friend lived in the same country or region, anything else was questionable. Finding random matches would often take upwards of half an hour, and finally playing them resulted in an unplayably laggy experience. I still thought it was an okay option if you weren't able to play locally, though.

Perhaps the largest addition to Brawl was interestingly enough, to the single player mode. I'm talking about the heavily expansive and semi-story based Adventure Mode known as "The Subspace Emissary". It was teased a few times before Brawl's release and rather heavily talked about. It featured fully-rendered cutscenes and a somewhat basic story involving a mysterious entity trying to take over the Nintendo/Smash Bros world, so all the fighters team up to stop the threat. It's nothing mindblowing, but I do enjoy seeing all the characters interact and the gameplay itself is fun, if not repetitive at times. You'll go through stages reminiscent of a Kirby or Mario game defeating generic enemies as well as fighting other characters in a standard Smash match. Sometimes you also fight bosses from other games like Rayquaza from Pokemon or Ridley from Metroid. Even if you don't like the story, it's a great way to quickly unlock all the characters and other things. One major flaw with the SSE is that most of the enemies you face are generic ones rather than enemies from Nintendo games, which I felt was a huge missed opportunity.

The last and most important thing to go over is the gameplay. I'm just gonna say this now: this is the easiest you'll ever hear a competitive Smasher go on Brawl. Let me explain. When Brawl released it disappointed a great number of Melee's competitive players due to the huge difference in physics and the overhaul of the core gameplay. Brawl was generally slower than Melee. You generally couldn't run as fast, and advanced techniques like wavedashing were removed altogether. It was also a lot floatier. Characters jumped much higher and took significantly longer to reach the ground. Your character also had a random chance of tripping when they change directions, and the lack of hitstun lead to very little combo potential and a campy, defensive competitive gameplay.

The reasoning here was that Masahiro Sakurai wanted Smash to be a casual game that everyone could enjoy, and was somewhat displeased after seeing how Melee's metagame evolved, feeling that his dream wasn't entirely realized. Therefore, it was clear that he designed Brawl to cater more exclusively to casual gamers. The result divided Smash's fanbase considerably. Many competitive players just went back to Melee or didn't stop playing it, and Brawl's competitive days sort of came and went. It was a popular game when it was new, but the over-presence of absurdly powerful characters like Meta Knight and Ice Climbers as well as the gameplay that could sometimes be compared to watching NASCAR lead to Melee eventually eclipsing it. It's usually relegated to "side" tournaments at major venues now. Brawl has gone on to be the proverbial "black sheep" of the Smash series, and even mentioning it around competitive Smashers usually results in ridicule and other negative reactions.

I fully acknowledge Brawl's issues, but I do think it is a bit over-hated. While its fans are some of the worst, the game itself is at least tolerable and very fun on a casual level. That being said, I usually play the other games unless I specifically want to play as Wolf or Snake. The negative reception didn't stop the fan community from putting their heads together and creating some extensive game mods. A dedicated group of fans created a mod known as "Brawl+" with the intent of balancing the game out and speeding it up. It was so well received that the team expanded it into what is now the largest game mod of all time: Project M. It restored most of Melee's physics and techniques while keeping all the good things Brawl had and making every single character viable and balanced. They even brought back Mewtwo and Roy!

In conclusion, Brawl ended up being the most "controversial" Smash release and made plenty of changes, but I honestly think the good outweighed the bad and most people selectively remember the bad things about it. Though Nintendo recently shut down the online services, it's still a fun game to revisit occasionally. It's just that a lot of Smashers felt that they waited almost 7 years only to be disappointed, and this feedback would certainly be taken into account when the next game was announced.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Super Smash Bros. Melee (GCN, 2001)

I can only imagine that it's a great feeling when you make something that you're unsure about the success of, only to find out how big of a hit it was when you wake up the next day. Nintendo and Sakurai knew they'd struck gold with their little "side project" they worked on over the weekend, and one thing this meant was that the follow-up could be even more spectacular.

At the turn of the century, Nintendo's next home console, the Gamecube, was announced. Of course, one of the biggest announcements along with it was the next Smash game, Super Smash Bros. Melee. Though it wasn't going to be a launch title from what I recall, it was slated to release very shortly afterward, during the 2001 Holiday season.

With all the success of Smash 64, Nintendo had not only the resources to truly go big, but a damn good reason to do so. This game's roster of fighters alone was a testament to this, jumping from 64's original cast of 12 to a whopping 26. Naturally, there were also far more stages, new gameplay modes (namely a much richer and more involved single-player experience), and generally improved gameplay. To put it simply, the game was noticeably fast-paced and had a high learning curve while still being enjoyable to newer players. Even the characters' moves were expanded upon. For example, everyone had four special moves instead of 3.

A lot of the characters introduced here were ones that many people had requested; those who's exclusion from the first game surprised some. Notable examples include Bowser and the two main princesses of Nintendo, Peach and Zelda, but I'll talk about the new characters more later. As you might guess, a lot of the returning cast had their movesets changed to make them play smoother and more uniquely.

At the time that this game was being promoted, I was subscribed to Nintendo Power magazine, and there were a few articles showing off the new gameplay elements, stages, and characters. This was how I first learned of Melee's upcoming release, and like any child at the time, I was beyond excited. I'd never wanted a game this bad before that point, and I was so pumped up for it that I immediately went to my N64 to play the first Smash Bros to satiate my hunger for Melee.

My mom took me to Best Buy the day it came out (for some unrelated reason, I don't actually remember why) and I pointed it out as we were leaving the store. I had actually got to play the demo for the game before it released earlier in Best Buy. As I recall, it was a match between Pikachu and a CPU-controlled Zelda on Fountain of Dreams.

I always felt bad about asking for things from my parents ever since the whole ordeal I had with Pokemon cards in the late '90s, and buying a new Gamecube with Melee was a pretty big purchase. However, this was early December and I figured I'd just ask for it as an early Christmas present. There wasn't much else that I recall wanting aside from other Gamecube games, so it was naturally the perfect present. My mom asked me if I was sure that was what I wanted, and I thought it over the next day at school.

When I got home, I stood firm on getting the Gamecube, even if all of my "Christmas budget" had to go toward it. And the rest is history. I instantly fell in love with Melee. It improved on what 64 established on all fronts. I started off playing mostly as Pikachu since he was my 64 main and I wanted to begin in familiar territory, but I eventually branched off and started playing as Samus Aran often, too. When 64 came out, I had no idea who she was, but a few months before the Gamecube came out, my step-brother Charles actually loaned me his SNES with a copy of Super Metroid, which I beat. So by this point, I had a new-found interest in Samus.

Hardly anyone at my school had a Gamecube as early as me, so it figured that my house became something of a hotspot for Smash Bros Melee. Several of my friends would regularly show up after school to play the game with me. In particular, I remember playing a lot with Andrew, Trevor, Kyle, Nicholas, Michael, and Ashlea (kids who lived by or went to school with me, you probably don't know them but I figured I'd include their names for memory's sake), but most of my time on Melee was spent with my best friend to this day, Chris.

It was with him that I spent many a night staying up discovering the majority of Melee's well-hidden secrets. He came to my house a lot and even got to sleep over often, and we were almost always playing Melee or some other Gamecube game. Looking back on it, I think he came over so often because he hated his parents' cooking and would always eat whatever my mom made like he'd been starving... Anyway, you have to realize that this was before the internet was what it is today. Social media was barely in its infancy. There weren't many guides showing you how to unlock everything, and it was hard to tell facts from speculation and outright lies. We didn't even have a home computer at that point.

Having to find every secret yourself was an almost indescribable, magical feeling that can't really be replicated with current games. Brawl, and especially Smash 4 had almost every secret leaked onto the internet well before the official release. It's a shame, really. I was actually alone one night when I unlocked Pichu, and it gave me a huge feeling of surprised and happiness, so much that I even ran upstairs to tell my mom. Chris and I discovered Falco one night and I remember him saying that if he ate doughnuts, he could beat Falco and unlock him. It's humorous memories I have with Melee that give it such a special place in my heart.

However, the best memory came with the discovery and subsequent unlocking of my favorite character in the entire Smash series. The character that inspired me to get good at the game, learn advanced techniques, watch countless videos, enter local tournaments, and prove myself: Mewtwo. It all started a few days after Christmas 2001. I was at the dentist's office in the waiting room, and my dad brings me the strategy guide for Super Smash Bros Melee. I suppose he randomly bought it for me on his way there, figuring I'd enjoy it. By that point, I almost had everything in Melee unlocked, but there were still things missing. This strategy guide had every hidden thing included, as well as how to unlock them. I skimmed through the character profiles and welled up with all the excitement you'd expect from a 9 year old kid when I saw Mewtwo.

Then I saw his unlock requirement: Leave the game on for 20 consecutive hours. I knew I couldn't do this alone, so Chris and I devised an elaborate plan. We convinced my mom to let him stay the night on New Years Eve, and when he got there, I already had the Gamecube started up. I'll never forget it; a one-stock match on Mushroom Kingdom, two controllers plugged in, 1P was Roy, 2P was Peach. We figured that we'd just leave the game on all day and night and do other things to pass the time. Roy was Chris's main at the time, so naturally he'd be the best choice to take on the imposing Mewtwo. We'd just pick up the second controller and run Peach off the edge when the time came.

So we waited. I had the N64 and the Dreamcast set up in a different room, plus a few VHS tapes to keep us occupied. We even set up a huge "war" between all our toys in the living room floor, with a Mewtwo figurine serving as the "leader" of the good side. The time came eventually, and we ran back to the Gamecube.

There was just one problem. Either him or I accidentally picked up the first controller and ran Roy off the edge instead of Peach, so Chris had to fight Mewtwo with a character he was largely unfamiliar with. Somehow, he pulled it off, and Mewtwo was mine. I immediately went to training mode to play around with him, and instantly I noticed how well the psychic cat thing's moves catered to my playstyle. Chris enjoyed him as well, but I think we unlocked Ganondorf right after that and that became his main from there on out. We made a pretty devastating combo in doubles.

Melee was a game my friends and I never truly put down for good. Years after its initial release, even into our teen and adult years, we would play it at least once every time we hung out. It became something of a tradition at my house. Melee's staying power is truly something to behold, and playing it during its early years was unforgettable.

That being said, that was then, and this is now. How does the game look through my eyes currently?

The intro was even more epic than Smash 64's. It had a lot of exciting cinematic sequences and the music is nothing short of iconic now. It ends with a short flash of the text "[GET READY]", an explosion, and, just like the previous game, the announcer screams the game's title, albeit mispronouncing "Melee".

Like I mentioned before, the gameplay heavily built upon Smash 64's with some major improvements. Melee obviously looks better due to being on a newer console, and the graphics in general are very vibrant and eye-catching. For an early title, it's one of the best-looking Gamecube games, if you ask me. Even the stages look nice, with each one offering a different aesthetic.

For many Smash fans, the most important part of the game is the playable roster, and I think Melee delivered the best in that aspect. Aside from the awesome Mewtwo (he's actually one of the worst characters in the game, I'm just really skilled with him), there was a plethora of welcome additions. Smash 64 featured only heroic characters, but Melee brought some iconic villains to the battlefield. While Mewtwo's status is questionable, the long-requested Bowser made his debut along with The Legend of Zelda's own king of evil, Ganondorf.

We also saw the debut of Peach and Zelda, the latter of which could transform into her ninja-esque alter ego, Sheik. Beyond that, there were some "clone" characters (this refers to a character with a similar moveset and playstyle to an already-existing character), such as Dr. Mario, Young Link, Pichu, and Falco. Continuing the theme set with Ness in 64, Melee brought in a few unexpected characters that had fallen into obscurity over the years, namely the Ice Climbers and Mr. Game & Watch, representing the earlier days of Nintendo.

Perhaps the most unexpected characters were Marth and Roy of the Fire Emblem series. No one outside of Japan even knew who these swordsmen were. Nintendo was actually considering taking these characters out of the international release for this reason. Fire Emblem was a Japan-only series at this point, and Roy hadn't even been in a game yet (his Melee appearance was meant to promote him and his upcoming title). Unexpectedly, the inclusion of these two actually sparked an interest in Fire Emblem within the United States and this eventually lead to the series being localized.

Stages are more diverse this time around, and every playable character aside from Marth and Roy has a stage representing their franchise. Several of the stages are hidden as well, with some being quite difficult to unlock. Some stages have more complex gimmicks, while others offer a more neutral experience. They also have multiple music tracks, something that would become a series staple.

Another thing I mentioned before is the improved single player modes. Classic makes a return, but this time the enemies you fight are randomized, adding significant replay value. Master Hand and the metal characters return too, along with even more new bosses. The second mode is called "Adventure", which has you running through stages based on popular Nintendo titles, such as Super Mario Bros and Metroid. You fight the respective characters, as well as several weaker enemies along the way. This was the closest thing Melee had to a story mode, and it even featured a few small cutscenes. The final standard 1P mode was called All-Star. You only got it after unlocking every character, which made sense because the objective was to defeat every fighter in the game without getting KO'd at all. It was basically an endurance match.

It didn't end there. One of the most interesting new modes was the Event Match. This placed you in special situations where you had to fight under a specific condition, usually relating to the story of the characters you were playing as or fighting against, or putting you in a humorous situation of some sort. Some of the matches required that you played as a certain character, such as Link against Ganondorf on the Hyrule stage. The minigames were split into the new "Stadium" mode. Break the Targets returned along with Multi-Man Melee (a mode where you fight several waves of weak CPUs) and Home-Run Contest (Where you use a baseball bat to hit a sandbag as far as you can). All of this made for a great experience when you didn't have friends around.

Of course, multiplayer options were expanded upon, too. There was now a "special" Melee mode where you could fight as giant characters, play with your damage at 300%, or even take screenshots and save them to your memory card. There were new modes added alongside Time and Stock, too. Coin battle had you beating up your enemies to get money to fly out of them for you to collect, and Bonus mode scored you based on your style of play. These two modes weren't played often, though.

The last new thing Melee introduced was the advent of in-game collectibles in the form of trophies. Trophies were small figurines of characters, stages, or other game elements, each containing some information on their backstory. There were around 300 to collect, and each had different requirements to obtain, much like the other ingame secrets. You could also earn "smash coins" by playing normally, which could be spent at the Trophy Lottery for a chance at a new trophy. This also became a staple of all future installments and I found it fun collecting them all, even if some demanded a lot of skill from the player.

Since I brought it up in the Smash 64 article, I figure I could talk about Melee's competitive scene. It's huge. It's one of the most well-known competitive fighting games, even well over 10 years after its release. Melee tournaments bring in massive crowds and are sure to be a good time. The rise of the competitive scene lead to the discovery of many advanced techniques, such as wavedashing and l-cancelling. It was through Melee that Smashers such as Mew2King, PC Chris, and Mang0 rose to fame as the best in the country. Many of the players that started back in 2002 still attend tournaments today, and the tournaments continue to generate just as much hype as new games.

And that's a great segue to bring up my final point. As the competitive game evolved, a "tier list" was established, separating the more powerful characters from the weaker ones. Though it's entirely possible to get good with a low-tier character like I did, for most people wanting to place high, there isn't much point in playing as anyone outside of the top tier (Fox, Falco, Sheik, Marth, Jigglypuff, Peach, Captain Falcon, or Ice Climbers). No matter how good you are at the game, you'll almost always get beat by someone using a higher-tier character if they're on a similar skill level to yours.

Melee is a fantastic game, but it suffers from poor balance. I only play characters I'm a fan of, which results in a lower ceiling for me aside from the off chance that I play Falco. It took me a long time to come to terms with the fact, but some characters just aren't viable for high-level play, and that bothers me. It's one reason I'm starting not to like Melee as much, favoring Project M instead.  If you want a balanced game where your favorite character is always viable, play that instead.

All of that aside, Melee holds the most memories for me of any game I've ever played, barring online games like RuneScape and Halo 3. It will always have a special place in my heart. Unlike most of my older games, I still retain my original copy of Melee, and don't plan on getting rid of it. I'll never forget the great times I had with it, and I know that even more are to come. Balance issues notwithstanding, Melee would be a hard game to follow up on, but Sakurai and his team wanted to take even more time perfecting the next installment. Six years, to be precise...

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Super Smash Bros. (N64, 1999)

As a kid, one of the things I was always fascinated with was the idea of a crossover game. A game where characters from multiple franchises would come together and interact in one way or another. A lot of debates between my friends and I back in elementary school centered around who would beat who in a fight. The first game to explore this idea in the form of a fighting game was Capcom's VS. series, centering around Capcom characters fighting against Marvel super heroes. Nintendo's answer to this was a game that launched one of the most popular series in gaming history: Super Smash Bros.

This game was the brainchild of a Nintendo employee known as Masahiro Sakurai. He already had the popular Kirby series under his belt, and was still working on other games at the time when he got the idea. Conceptually, it was originally a more generic fighting game without any Nintendo characters in it. This concept was named "Dragon King".

The idea was to make a fighting game that could be enjoyed at a more casual level than popular fighting games at the time, such as Street Fighter. Sakurai believed that the gaming industry was flooded with fighters that were too similar to one another and catered more to technical, high-level play and complex button inputs and combos.

Not too long into the development process, Sakurai got the idea from Nintendo's president, Shigeru Miyamoto, to replace the more generic characters with iconic Nintendo mascots such as Mario, Link, and Pikachu. This would help the game appeal to a wider audience and hopefully sell better. He changed the title to Super Smash Bros, and began reworking the game.

Super Smash Bros. was created on a very low budget. The development team wasn't sure if the idea would catch on, and Sakurai only worked on the game whenever he had spare time on the weekend since he and his team were busy with larger projects. Rather than a standard health bar, every fighter has a "percentage" next to their icon. The object of the game was to raise your opponent's percentage so that they could be knocked off the stage by your next attack. As you might guess, the higher your percentage, the further you were knocked back.

To make a long story short, the game was a huge commercial success. Marketing went especially well in the United States, thanks to the now-famous commercial featuring men dressed as the characters beating each other up to So Happy Together, all while being narrated by none other than Don LaFontaine (the guy who voices over most movie trailers). Almost everyone that had a Nintendo 64 in 1999 had this game, and it was the go-to multiplayer game any time you had friends over.

My first exposure to Super Smash Bros came when I was still in Kindergarten. I had a good friend at the time named Matthew. He'd typically get new 64 games when they came out, and he had a lot of them. I already purchased Banjo-Kazooie after playing it at his place back in '98, and the small taste I got of this game enthralled me. I remember not doing much other than playing around in a few stages as Pikachu and Jigglypuff in training mode, and watching Matthew play through part of 1P Game. Later that week, my father bought the game for me from Toys R Us.

Though I was only 6, I still have a very vivid memory of the first night I brought the game home. I lived in a 5-room house back then, so my room was always really quiet. I got home kind of late and rushed down to my room to play it as soon as I was done eating. It was a really serene and chill evening; I messed around in training mode and fought a few CPUs to get used to the controls. This was during the height of my Pokemon obsession, so I pretty much immediately called Pikachu as my main, and started the 1P game on easy (Yeah, I was young and still sucked). I was pretty blown away the first time I went through it, especially when I got to the Fighting Polygon Team. The stage looked cool, and the music really got you pumped. I picked up a fan item and beat up the whole team with it. After I beat Master Hand, the credits rolled and I felt a strange sense of accomplishment that no other game at the time gave me. I felt like I'd become a part of something that would "blow up" and get really popular. You can imagine my surprise when I looked out my window and saw how dark it'd gotten. Smash really sucked me in, and I'd lost track of time. It was one of the first nights I ever stayed up "late"!

There wasn't a whole lot else to do in 1P mode after that, other than the minigames. I didn't get to have friends over very often, and when I did, it was usually in small intervals, what with how strict my and my friends' parents were back then. However, when we started up Smash, we were always in for a good time. I even bought 4 controllers eventually, but we rarely used more than 3 unless it was my birthday or something.

If I had friends over and we weren't playing Mario Kart or Pokemon, we were usually playing Smash. It became a great game to keep coming back to. I started playing it a lot again when the sequel was announced so I could prepare, and even after it came out, my friends and I would occasionally revisit the original game for variety's sake.

Looking back on the game today, what do I think? Well, starting with the intro sequence, it really amps you up to play the game. It shows all the characters in their native environments, a bit of gameplay, and ends with the announcer screaming the game's title. You don't see that kind of enthusiasm in current games, which I think is disappointing.

The singleplayer aspect is definitely where this game is lacking the most. The standard "1P Game" (what would later be known as "Classic mode" in all future titles), was a standard arcade mode. You'd choose a fighter and defeat every non-unlockable character, as well as some special boss characters, with some unique mini-games in between fights. It was fun to play through, but didn't have a lot of replay value since you fought the exact same opponents every time. You had to play through it 3 times with certain parameters to unlock 3 of the characters, and if you beat it with every character, you even unlocked a new stage.

Beyond 1P game, singleplayer options were pretty limited. You could play two of the minigames by themselves and try for a best time (you needed to do this with every character to unlock one of the hidden ones), or you could play training mode, where you could practice at the game against a "dummy" CPU and test things out with the pause menu. And that's about it. This is excusable, however, since the game was developed on a low budget with multiplayer action as the primary focus.

The multiplayer was indeed a far more rich experience. 2-4 players could play, and you could edit the game modes to a degree. The two main modes were Time (requiring you to earn the most KOs with in a time limit of your choosing), or Stock (where every fighter had a set number of lives and there was no time limit). The second option is preferred by most players. You could also change between a free-for-all match or a team battle, where teams of two could challenge each other by picking a color-coded team. There were other options available, such as the ability to turn items on or off. Smash's multiplayer was simple, yet strangely addictive.

As for the characters to choose from, there were only twelve including the secret fighters. This number is dwarfed in size by later Smash titles, but it is impressive given the game's low budget. It mostly consists of Nintendo's well-known heroes such as the Mario brothers, Link, Donkey Kong, Kirby, and Pikachu, but it also brought a few characters out of obscurity, namely Captain Falcon (of the semi-obscure futuristic racing game, F-Zero), and Ness (of the cult hit RPG, Earthbound). A lot of people, myself included, had no idea who these characters were until reading up on them later on. The cast is relatively balanced in terms of how potent they are as fighters. Samus has some glaring issues whereas Kirby is near-perfect, but the gap isn't very big between them.

The stages each represent an iconic location in a Nintendo franchise, such as Saffron City from Pokemon, and Yoshi's Island. Each one has a "gimmick" that can greatly affect the flow of battle. For example, Donkey Kong's Congo Jungle stage has a barrel you can catch yourself in if you're about to fall. There's only 9 of them, but each one brings something unique to the table, just like the characters themselves.

Most of the music consists of new arrangements of popular themes from other Nintendo games, as you might expect, but there's also a good deal of original music in the game, a lot of which returned in later Smash titles. The main menu music, however, is a stark contrast to the other games. It has a minimalistic feel and I personally find it to be oddly unsettling, but I like it.

While it's successor, Melee, is known for its sprawling competitive scene, that scene hadn't quite blown up when Smash 64 was new, so it was and still is largely in Melee's shadow. Currently, the competitive community for the game is small and dwindling, but the fans of the game are very dedicated to keeping it alive, one notable example being Isai, who is generally considered the best Smash 64 player. Still, the game is far from forgotten, having seen a re-release on Nintendo's virtual console.

In conclusion, while Smash 64 might come off as dated to some people, it offers its own experience with its quirky, cartoonish attitude. Most if not all of the aspects this game established went on to be staple features of every Smash title made, and it's fun to revisit if you've not played in a long time. Unfortunately, physical copies of the game are currently very expensive, but there's always emulation if you're short on cash. The fact alone that the game continues to live on after three sequels is a testament to its success. It's proof that you don't need to sink a ton of money to make a game that is both successful and enjoyable, and with the launch of the next Nintendo console, a new Smash game was sure to follow.

Friday, August 15, 2014

The "PC Master Race": A matter of personal preference.

The picture has nothing to do with the subject of the following rant.

Alright, so this is honestly something I've wanted to rant on for many years now. After some thought, I managed to significantly shorten it from its original length.

If you've played a video game at all, chances are, you played it on a gaming console at least once in your life. Did you know that you're gaming the wrong way? What's that, you're not? You are according to most PC gamers.

Now, I'm not trying to stereotype here, I'm only going off of personal experience. The fact is, a lot of PC gamers are incredibly elitist. They will actively attack anyone who prefers or even plays games on a console for whatever reason. I didn't really find this bothersome until it was impossible to bring up console gaming in conversation. I can't talk about what new game I got on my 360 anymore without someone berating me for playing 360 or not getting the PC version.

I'm not 100% on what started this whole "war", but hopefully I can elaborate. See, I have a good friend named Ville. He plays both 360 and PC, but does claim to be a member of the "master race" and jokes about it a lot. From what he's told me, the gaming industry largely ignored PC in favor of console back in the late 2000s, which is true. I'm not sure if this was the main inciting incident, but it definitely gave PC gamers a valid reason to get angry.

Still, it's gotten out of hand over the years. Members of the "master race" are the pinnacle of fanboyism. I see them actively going to YouTube videos or other internet discussions just to say how much better they are and how much the "console peasants" (their term for anyone who chooses console over PC) suck and are inferior.

Now, let's stop right here to provide a bit more context. The phrases "PC gaming master race" and "console peasant" were both coined by a well-known internet reviewer named Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw. He does a show called "Zero Punctuation", where he gives somewhat humorous reviews to games. In his review for The Witcher 2, he explained how the game was optimized for PC and used the two phrases as a joke to compare the two types of gamers. You heard me right. PC gamers are now using these phrases that were coined satirically in a completely serious manner.

One of the main arguments that console gamers make towards PC is that PC gaming is far more expensive. While this is entirely untrue, you can't ignore the facts. Most people still think PC gaming is more expensive and will continue to think this until taught otherwise. Your arguments, true or not, hold a lot less weight when the masses still think otherwise due to the way pre-built gaming PCs and upgrades/parts are marketed. Beyond this, it does take some degree of knowledge to build a PC for gaming, as well as time and a good amount of patience.

While gaming PCs are in fact superior to consoles on just about every technological level, this just isn't something I look for in gaming. PC games have better graphics. So what? Not only can I barely tell the difference (maybe it's certain games; I watched a video of Dark Souls II on the PC in 1080p fullscreen and could barely tell the difference from my 360 version), I literally do not care about graphics. At all. I honestly don't consider people that prioritize graphics to be true gamers, but that's just me.

Moving on with that point, another argument that's been brought up recently is that PCs can run new games at 60 frames per second as opposed to 30. While one's eye can in fact tell the difference, it doesn't improve my gaming experience in any way. I recently read that low FPS count can strain your eyes. I've been gaming since I was 4 and have never needed glasses or contacts in my life. Some 360 games, such as Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance actually run at 60 FPS, proving that consoles are capable of doing so.

Most of the other advantages to PC gaming just don't interest or cater to me. For me, the Steam Summer Sale is just there to buy a bunch of old or obscure games that I'll never play and one or two AAA titles I might pick up. Mouse-and-keyboard controls are clunky and disorienting. Modding is interesting, but I've never been enthused with it. In fact, console modding is actually encouraged these days, unless used to cheat. I've never seen anything in the Humble Bundles I'd play more than once.

In fact, the only deciding factor in choosing a gaming platform for me is the exclusives. I don't care about the tech specs, the fees, the DRM, or what company made it as long as I get to play the series I've been following for many years now. Every platform has its exclusives. I'm not exactly chomping at the bit to play DotA 2 (MOBAs bore me to tears, sorry guys). On the other hand, I'm a die-hard fanboy of Halo and Gears of War, two series exclusive to Xbox. Many people argue that the Halo series has gone downhill, but I highly disagree. I loved Halo 4 and I'm already excited for the fifth installment. It's a wonderful FPS series that, for me, cannot be replaced. Halo may have lost most of its community to CoD, but I'm sticking with it til the end.

One last point I want to make. I'm not sure if this ever happens for any of you guys, but sometimes, even if something is really awesome or impressive and almost has me sold, there can be one thing that's an instant deal breaker. For me, it's the lack of physical copies of games. I'm just as much of a collector as I am a gamer. My collection isn't as large as most because of a combination of only collecting games I'll actually play and poor income, but something in my mind tells me I must have a physical copy. It might be considered semi-obsolete by now, but I simply have to have the game sitting on my shelf. Physical copies are available for PC games, but they're almost never purchased with the advent of Steam being the primary market for PC games.

In summary: No Halo? No physical copies? No thanks. You will never "convert" me because I already play some PC games and still prefer consoles as my main platform. I have nothing against PC gaming, PC gamers, or their choice to play on their platform. What I do have something against is the elitist, rabid fanboys that can't stand it when you're having fun in a different way than they are.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

My unpopular opinion: Dark Souls Vs. Dark Souls II.

A major complaint among the gaming fanbase today is that modern games are just too easy. A lot of more recent titles are easy to blaze through in one or two sittings due to the advent of things like generous amounts of checkpoints, regenerating health, and "pay to win" games. Players often have to impose their own challenges or switch to the highest difficulty setting to get a more satisfying experience. However, in more recent years, a lot of difficult games seem to have emerged. Notable examples include I Wanna Be The Guy, Super Meat Boy, and the subject of this post: From Software's critically acclaimed Souls series.

It wasn't always as popular as it is today, however. The first game in the series was the 2009 PS3 exclusive, Demon's Souls. It was a relatively short game, but it was brutally difficult. Everything was stronger than you. Mistakes did not go unpunished, and new players weren't given any breaks. If you died, it was your fault. Checkpoints were few and far between, and to top it all off, you could be "invaded" by other players at any time if you were connected to PSN, and they could and would kill you. The game was somewhat popular, but it was more of a sleeper hit with a cult following.

A surprising amount of big-name titles were released during the second half of 2011, such as Saints Row The Third and The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, and one of them was Demon's Souls' spiritual successor, Dark Souls. Due to the huge amount of hype built up for this game, it was much more popular than its precursor, and became a huge hit. Like Demon's Souls, it was mostly known for its brutal, unforgiving difficulty. You were thrust into the dying world of Lordran with a vague objective and whatever items you started off with. This game offered no hand-holding. You had to figure out everything for yourself, and many parts of the game became trial-and-error due to the sheer amount of times you would die, and you would die. Most of the bosses towered over you and could easily dispatch you in a hit or two. No longer could you "tank out" every boss like you can in other games; your main priority was to not get hit.

Naturally, as big of a hit as it was, it created quite a large community of people that worked together to tackle the game's toughest areas, find every secret, strategize about the best builds, and slay each other in PvP over and over again. The community was an iconic part of the game, spawning memetic phrases like "git gud" and "jolly co-operation". Naturally as well, a sequel was in high demand.

Fast forward a few years and we're introduced to Dark Souls II in March of 2014. The hype behind this game was unreal, but when it released, some fans were at least a little bit let down. One major issue was that Hidetaka Miyazaki, the main director of the first two games, didn't have much involvement in the game other than overseeing its production, and they essentially got From Software's "B Team" to work on it. Why did this game disappoint some fans of the original, and why do I disagree with their feelings toward the game?

Before DSII, I'd never actually played a Souls game. I was toying with the idea of picking one of them up when I had a little extra cash, but nothing ever came to fruition. One day in May of 2014, one of my best friends came to my house and literally gave me the game for free. Of course, I was excited to play the game. I hadn't even seen much gameplay yet apart from the infamous "This Is How You DON'T Play" series that DSPGaming spawned, and even that I didn't pay much attention to. Long story short, I instantly fell in love with the game. Right from the get-go, it drew me in. Every area was dynamically different from the last, the progression was very open-ended, and the minimal story involvement after the intro gave me a chance to roleplay as my character and add my own bits to the story. I knew what I was getting into, a game known for its difficulty, and I still died a lot on my initial playthrough. It was this type of difficulty and challenge that didn't frustrate me because just beating one section was all that much more rewarding.

It was also easily the longest game I have ever played. If you don't skip any of the main areas, this game can take you a while. After about a week, I'd finally beat it, and it was a feeling that no game had given me in a long time. I'd overcome a huge challenge, and I did it by myself without guides or cheap tactics. I truly felt like I was a part of something bigger. I loved the game all the way through. The dynamic character customization and advanced graphics made me look and feel like a badass, even on console. It was such a cool feeling when you decide to help out a character and find out that they'll repay you by joining you in a boss fight later on or something like that. Each of the 30 bosses provided a unique challenge and made you want to know more about their backstory and how they came to be. All in all, a satisfying experience.

However, the game did suffer some flaws like any game would, and I think these are a few of the reasons why the fanbase thought the game fell short. Many of the bosses boiled down to "a big dude wearing armor", where Dark Souls had bosses such as Ceaseless Discharge and Bed of Chaos. Though Dark Souls II did have some equally memorable bosses such as The Rotten (a huge mash of flesh made up of many undead bodies wielding a cleaver), or The Duke's Dear Freja (a two-headed spider the size of a house that shoots lasers), I guess it just wasn't as prevalent to Dark Souls players. Another issue came from the Player-versus-Player aspect. There were a lot of cheap and easily exploitable strategies that made the combat unbalanced, and a lot of the issues still persist after several patches.

On one hand, people say that Dark Souls II was easier than its predecessor and more geared toward new or casual players. Your objective was made somewhat more apparent, and excessive use of magic made the game easier. Combat was also made more fluid and manageable, but I don't see that as a negative. There's even a ring you can wear that nullifies your loss of souls. However, death is far more punishing in this game. Each time you die, your max health will decrease and you will have to use items to get it back. Dying also no longer prevents invasions. Additionally, enemies are generally harder to kill even from the get-go. Starting enemies in Dark Souls go down in two hits from even the weaker weapons, while your early encounters in the second game will easily take three or four strikes to kill, and they know when to use their shield. They don't zerk as often as DS1 enemies, but their weapon reach is much greater and they have more of a tendency to gang up on you. Lastly, parrying, once an easy task in Dark Souls, is now near-impossible in the second game. It's almost always more viable to just block or roll out of the way because of the picture-perfect timing needed to pull this off. Speaking of rolling, you're not invincible when doing it anymore.

Weapons also have far less durability this time around. Even your stronger weapons will teach you to conserve your attacks, keep repair powder on hand, and hold onto an extra weapon for this game's many lengthy segments. Traps are more commonplace as well, and more well-hidden. Some restorative items no longer heal you or increase your defenses at all. That Giant's Armor you used to increase your poise and tank your way through the game isn't there anymore. Dark Souls II is by no means harder or easier than Dark Souls; rather it's as hard as you make it. There are ways to cheap your way out, but you know when you're doing it.

Yet another complaint was the lack of memorable characters. Dark Souls introduced us to brave knights such as Solaire or Siegmeyer, who followed us through our adventure and allowed us to watch their own story unfold alongside ours. The second game doesn't start off quite as well in that regard. Shanloette just talks too much until she actually becomes more important to the plot (much later in the game), Lenigrast acts like he's annoyed by you and takes stuff way too seriously, and Straid mocks you and calls you names even after you save him. But again, I think Dark Souls players ignored some of the characters that were just as good. Lucatiel joins you on your quest to seek out the same goal as you, all while being oblivious of the cure to her curse. She presents herself as a strong female character and her tale is very tragic if you hear her out to the end. This game also features Benny, who is my personal favorite character in the game. You meet him early on and he seems somewhat minor to start out with. After helping him out, he slowly comes to have great respect for you and will fight by your side to the end. He displays a genuine sense of honor and I enjoy the bond you form with him as the game progresses. He even accompanies you during all three final bosses.

 Honestly, I think it was an overall improvement over the first game. The story is more apparent as long as you take the time out to listen to the characters' dialog, and there is an abundance of references to the first game to bring old players back in. Not only is the combat improved, but the controls in general feel more "right". Everything from climbing ladders to exploring new areas feels faster and less tedious. Dark Souls had the issue of artificially padding out its length by making you walk absurdly long distances through huge areas that didn't even have enemies in them. Dark Souls II is easily twice as long as the first game, but you can tackle the areas in whatever order you see fit, so players of different skill levels could enjoy the game, and each playthrough could potentially be done differently.

I think that's a perfect way to segue into my final major point: Why I just don't think Dark Souls is as good. For context, the game was given out for free if you played on Xbox 360 during June. My main problem with this game versus its sequel is that not only does it feel dated when coming to it from Dark Souls II, it feels much more bland and slow-paced. The best way I can describe it is that Dark Souls is a fantastic game, but it takes a considerable amount of playing to get to "the good part". In my opinion, the game doesn't pick up for me until you start to uncover more of Lautrec's (my personal favorite character) story and what his true motives are, especially when you get to Anor Londo and face off with the Silver Knights and Ornstien and Smough. Until then, I find myself trudging through the somewhat-generic environments of Undead Burgh or Undead Parish and fighting easy enemies and bosses that have a certain flaw you an exploit to win, whereas in Dark Souls II I was immediately impressed and drawn in by locales such as the Forest of Fallen Giants and its interesting bosses and many hidden secrets.

I think my problem is that I would've liked Dark Souls a lot better if I'd played it first. The controls and interface are by no means clunky, but they sure as hell feel like it compared to the sequel. I always find myself holding B in the vein that I'll be able to climb ladders faster or swinging my mace to do a combo that isn't in the game. There's also a stat in the game called Resistance that isn't worth leveling up at all. I'm not sure why it was even there, and Dark Souls II completely did away with it.

In conclusion, I spoiled myself on a much more polished game and now I can't enjoy Dark Souls the way everyone else did. Like I said, I still see it as a great game, and I will complete it soon, but I have every reason to prefer the sequel where most did not.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

This one time I liked... Jennette McCurdy.

In some ways, the internet can, for some people, be considered something of a time capsule. Every time you post a video or picture, write a comment, or even create a username, it's something you can look back on years later and reflect, laugh, and in some cases, cringe pretty hard. If there's one thing that gets a mix of all three of those out of me, it's the time from 2009-2011 when I had a crush on an actress/singer known as Jennette McCurdy.

Now, I've always been known for being very open about my celebrity crushes, but the vast majority of people that know me nowadays know me for my unending fondness towards dance pop superstar Lady Gaga. This is mainly because, well, I've had this crush on her since early 2009, but that doesn't mean nothing else happened in between then and now. For a while, I tried to remain quiet about my past with Jennette, but I think anyone that knows me deserves to hear this bizarre tale in all its "glory". So the following post will be a full and concise history of my involvement with Jennette McCurdy.

By the way, if you don't know who she is, she's mostly known for portraying the character Sam on the Nickelodeon sitcom, iCarly. She reprised this role on the less-successful spin-off series Sam & Cat, and also had a career in country music, producing one self-titled album. Considering this was almost five years ago, I'm naturally a bit hazy on how this all began. What I do remember is that it was Summer of 2009, during one fateful evening in a YouTube Stream with one of my best friends, Quinn. iCarly was in the middle of its second season, and Jennette had made her foray into country music with two singles a few months prior, with an album supposedly coming out in July.

At the time, I was still crushing pretty hard on the Gaga. I almost got to attend The Fame Ball Tour, and Paparazzi was right around the corner. Either he or one of his friends had added a video into the stream. I think it was an iCarly clip. I opened it in a new window and found one of Jennette's videos from her actual channel of her singing a cover of Adele's Right as Rain. I was instantly captivated. This was some love at first sight type shit. I don't even know what made me like her so much because it all happened so fast. There was no denying she looked great (I have a major attraction to fringe bangs, and hers rivaled even Gaga's signature 'do), and she had a great voice. Beyond that, she was very charismatic, modest, and unique among the Nick/Disney girls. I checked out the rest of her videos, and I was pretty love-drunk for the rest of the day. I remember sitting there in this hypnotic state staring intently at this picture of her while listening to the instrumental of Mariah Carey's Touch My Body on repeat.

I read up a few things on her and found out she was only 3 months older than me (which was surprising, looking at her you'd think she was younger) and I figured, while iCarly was already a pretty popular show, people knew it more than they knew her, and somehow by that logic I had a shot with her. I initially didn't tell anyone this aside from Quinn and my other good friend Amanda because I saw them as trustworthy and they wouldn't laugh at me for it. As the Summer went on, I got more and more obsessed with the actress and would talk about her with my friends nonstop. More and more people naturally learned of my plans and naturally joked with me a bit, but they all seemed to find my crush cute or endearing and ultimately supported me on my new "quest".

I had started doing freestyle raps about her and was originally going to record one but never got a camera or anything. I stayed up many a night that Summer private messaging Quinn and a few other people talking about Jennette nonstop and all the stuff we were going to do together and how I was gonna invite all my friends and have double dates and all these other wild dreams. I made a video for her 17th birthday in late June using this really simple website called Animoto in the vein that she might see it one day. As luck would have it, about 10 days later, I got a notification at around 1am that she'd left a comment on it. Needless to say I was fucking ecstatic.

From there on out, we talked quite a bit through YouTube's private message system, and she replied to my comments on most of her other videos and even left a few on my channel. It wasn't anything huge to me, but it was still a big-confidence booster to be conversing with her already after it had been less than a month since I started liking her. It made me truly believe that this could happen. I also bought her a rather expensive ring that I planned to give her. At several points during that Summer, random people on YouTube and RuneScape mistook me for Nathan Kress because we had the same first name.

Keep in mind, I had to keep this whole thing a secret from my family, which was no easy task. I was initially pretty subtle about the whole thing, but as time went on, I pretty much dedicated my whole YouTube channel to her. Sigh. The rest of '09 went pretty much the same way, and she even emailed me wishing me a happy birthday, which was pretty awesome. I met two people, Jake and Jeremy, who also had crushes on her, so we started something of a friendly competition and supported each other quite a bit. Jake wasn't as serious about it as I was, but Jeremy and I would talk about her nearly every day on Yahoo IM from November to March.

I also made two other videos for her using Animoto, and I think she noticed them, but they didn't get very popular. I originally planned to meet her in person during the holiday season of that year, but it proved difficult without telling my parents since I couldn't drive yet and the plans fell through. After the new year, I attempted to set up meeting her in February, but that never happened either. As 2010 went on, she contacted me less and less, but I tried as hard as I could not to let my spirits get down. She sent me a couple of messages on MySpace in Feburary, but that was about it for a while.

Nothing of interest happened for the rest of the first half of 2010 that I can recall, but I started to get really depressed because of all the sudden changes happening in March/April of that year. One of my best friends, Craig, was quitting Xbox Live, another friend, Jack, was acting really strange and not himself and trying to replace me with a new friend, and Jeremy randomly stopped liking Jennette. I made a few more videos for her later that year, including one as an entry to a contest for her 18th birthday, which I didn't win. Anyways, the following Summer, I temporarily moved to my mom's house to take care of my sick cat, and met a girl named Kristen on YouTube.

She was one of the contest winners and she had suggested that I join Twitter. I had heard of the site back in '09 but didn't want to join it because I honestly thought it was a dumb idea. However, she ended up convincing me to join by telling me that Jennette would often send her followers direct messages. Since she hadn't contacted me in a while at the time, I decided to give it a shot. The first few months on Twitter were honestly a lot of fun. It was a very chill and fun environment and I met a lot of cool people. It almost felt like going to a bar to wind down the day and hang out with all the regulars. It gave me a chance to socialize since I wasn't going to public school at the time.

I managed to get Jennette to tweet me a few days after I made my profile, but I still wanted to try to get her to DM (direct message) me. I think it was at this point that I truly started to descend and lose my sanity bit by bit. I had nothing else to do, so all my time on Twitter was spent tweeting Jennette left and right in hopes of getting that message. Month after month went by, and it just wasn't happening, and I was naturally starting to have second thoughts about this whole endeavor. The fact was, I felt that I was in too deep to turn back now. I couldn't talk about anything without someone bringing her into the conversation even when I was trying to avoid it. It was all I was known for. My YouTube channel at this point was plastered with images of her and paragraphs about how much I loved her.

November was the worst of it. Several of my friends were getting DMs from Jennette and publicly bragging about it while I was not. It even happened one time while my friend Allen was over and we were watching Fanboys, and I had to choke back the tears. I had a one-track mind. All I could do was think about getting that DM. I cried almost every day that month because my desperation and repeated failures made me look like some kind of stalker that I'm not, and when I asked my friends for help, they told me to stop bitching and shut the fuck up. I privately messaged my friend Peter telling him I was going to kill myself and probably would've if I didn't have the Assassin's Creed series to cheer me up at the time. The last thing I ever received from Jennette was a generic "Thank you" tweet for something I sent her.

After half a year of zero success with what seemed like a simple goal, I deleted my Twitter account in January and pretty much said fuck everyone on there. For the first few months of 2011, I tried in vein to keep my love for Jennette alive, but it was very clear that I was fighting a losing battle at this point. I was honestly done caring. I really shouldn't have felt any ill will toward Jennette herself. Being fair to her, she was much busier in 2010 than she had been in '09 because she was on tour and doing mostly free concerts, which is a shitton of work.

Regardless, what was once a cute, innocent, fun endeavor had spiraled out into a desperate, sad struggle. I had no idea what type of shit I was getting into when I made my decision back in '09. I found out that she was coming to Texas to do a free concert and decided I'd make one final all-or-nothing effort. As you might've guessed, this never happened either. I tried to get my mom to take me, but I froze up when I tried to ask her. I opened my mouth and nothing came out. My computer died in April of 2011 and I spent six months away from the internet, barring Xbox Live. During this time, I thought hard about everything.

I had gone back to public school a few months prior and met two wonderful girls, Taylor and Isabella. I started listening to the radio more since I couldn't listen to music on my PC and found out Lady Gaga was releasing Born This Way. 97.5 was playing a ton of her old songs, and all the great memories of her flooded back to me instantly. I started dreaming about her more, and after hearing the masterpiece that was The Edge of Glory, I decided I'd been crushing on the right Lady from the start. After almost two years, it was time to put my involvement with Jennette McCurdy behind me, and I was okay with that.

I returned to the internet in September of 2011, broke the news of my decision to everyone (much to their collective shock and awe) and, like a lot of guys are with their exes, I was initially somewhat bitter towards Jennette. I made a new Twitter and trolled a large amount of her fanbase (to be fair, it wasn't to be mean to her, her fanbase is just really easily trolled), and mocked her for taking four years to release her album. It was clear I was spiteful and probably salty about the whole thing. A few months later, I'd put my mean-spiritedness behind me when I met Lydia Winters. No one I know really talks about the whole thing anymore, and I think that's for the best.

As for Jennette, it's clear that she's changed drastically from the girl I fell in love with in '09. Her general appearance has altered quite a bit, as she dresses in a less unique fashion and wears considerably more makeup. She lost most of her interest in music, as she left her record label not long after releasing her only album, and while she still has a great voice and does YouTube covers, they're only of generic, boring mainstream pop songs from artists like One Direction and Miley Cyrus, and don't measure up to the old "mebesinging" videos of yesteryear. She's considerably more vulgar and "edgy" than she used to be and just has an almost completely different personality. It's not like I expected her to be this perfect, wholesome role model all her life, but I think she had her points where she tried too hard to be edgy just for the sake of doing it, like Bob Saget when he was trying to distance himself from Full House. She still acts, but hasn't done anything outside of Nickelodeon and seems like she only wants to be famous on Twitter and Vine these days. It's sad to see her so different than she was, but the recent years haven't been kind to her. Her mother passed away in 2013 and from what she's said on Twitter, Nickelodeon treated her like utter shit, which she didn't deserve. In fact, after a lot of drama with the producers as well as on set, she left the channel for good. I don't follow her very closely at all like I used to, but it seems like she's lost a lot of her old ambition. I don't know, everybody grows up, I guess.

[Edit 1/13/15] So, something I feel the need to mention since making this post. I briefly mentioned her music a few times here. While I was browsing TVTropes, I found a podcast she did with Nerdist. According to what she said on it, she apparently not only has no plans to release any more music, but hated her music career and resents it. I'm honestly not sure what to think of this. On one hand, I think she hated the touring and how her management handled things more so than the actual process of writing and singing music. Apparently, her label forced her to mention it in almost every interview and generally told her what to say in them as well as during concerts. It's pretty stupid how they outright told her to explicitly state that she "grew up listening to country music" when she didn't. On the other hand, hearing this revelation disappoints me even more. It's mesmerizing to look at her old videos circa 2009 where she seemed so genuinely happy to promote her debut album, and how much energy and uniqueness the songs themselves had. I refuse to believe that all of that was just stuff her label was telling her to do/say. Again, I feel like she (at least at one point) blurred the line between trying to move on from her "teen star" phase and being outright fake, but whatever.

All in all, my failed quest for a relationship with Jennette McCurdy is both an old shame of mine and a learning experience that has, at the very least, made me stronger. I still think she's a wonderful actress and singer, and hope she acts in mainstream movies one day and maybe even releases another country album. Until then, I'll always remember this strange experience and direct anyone who asks to this very post. ~

"Sweetie-pie, does this dress make my ass look fat?


Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Part 4 - The Meeting

As it stood, there were exactly two different ways I could handle the current situation. The first being to remain calm and introduce myself to the Lady I'd been crushing on for about four years, and the alternative was to freak out, go complete fanboy on her, make an awful first impression, and possibly pass out from excitement. I hadn't ever really played out either one in my head, but I knew good and well that this would be my one and only chance to effectively kill two birds with one stone by getting some answers about this supposed conspiracy and spend some time with my favorite singer, uninterrupted and with the ability to discuss just about anything. Therefore, I decided to compose myself and take the first option.

"Umm, w-what's good? You look stunning tonight, you know.", my deep voice resonated with a slight air of uncertainty.

The flashy performer smiled back at me, laughed, and calmly responded, "Hello there. That's incredibly sweet of you. How... did I know you'd be the one back here, of all people. You were so energetic on the floor earlier."

 I put my hand on the back of my head and took my hats off, shaking my head a bit to allow my hair to return to its natural shape. "Well, the way I see it, a show of your caliber deserves no less! You wouldn't believe me if I told you, but it's not easy to get that kind of emotional reaction out of me." I stopped, thinking I was forgetting something. "Oh- I'm Nathan."

She smiled again, and said, "Stefani. Charmed to meet you...but you probably knew that already."

I approached her expecting a handshake or something, but instead I was met with a full-on embrace. Naturally, I hugged her back, and I'm not going to lie, I wish it lasted forever. I pulled up a chair next to her.

"You know, you've probably heard this more times than you can count, but I've actually been a fan of yours for quite some time. Since the start of '09, if I recall. I've had this huge crush on you ever since." We both laughed. "You're the only person out there as strange as I am."

She blushed very slightly, just enough for it to be noticeable. "I...honestly don't get that last part a lot. Haha. That's very cute, though, and so are you." My heart must've skipped a beat.

"Ooh, smooth."

"I try."

We began discussing different subjects for the next hour or so. I told her that I was an aspiring writer and director and even though I didn't make music myself, I had a love for the industry. We talked about various art-related things and discussed her different songs and the inspirations behind them. She explained to me how she did 'Brown Eyes' in a single take after a night of drinking and crying, and how 'LoveGame' came from an idea she had as a joke to pick up guys at a bar.

The back-and-forth continued this way, and a little over an hour into it, I decided to bring up 'Paparazzi'. She explained how she wrote the song well before she was ever famous and how she made this story up in her head about an obsessed stalker following a celebrity around. She wanted a 'true' pop song with rock elements still mixed in here and there. I half-jokingly told her that I thought the song was 'sexy' and that I didn't think music was capable of 'turning you on' before I heard it.

I causally decided to bring up the conspiracy, and her face turned from cheerful to what I can only describe as a look of concern and neutrality, like she'd just seen something scary. Some of the color visibly left her visage. Seeing her this disheartened had a similar effect on me. I thought I was about to be told to leave; that I'd fucked everything up by saying the wrong thing at the wrong time, but she continued as normal, telling me that a lot went into the recording of the song, but nothing otherworldly or negative.

 She then cleverly changed the subject by pointing out that it was past 2:00 AM and asking if I'd like to get something to eat with her.

"A date?!", I thought to myself. I must've been tripping. Not one to pass up such an offer, I accepted. After all, this would be the only viable way to continue my 'investigation'. She told me she knew a place that stayed open past midnight and we exited the now-completely empty venue. Not even her managers and staff had stayed behind this long.

I lead her to my green Jeep, the only car left in the lot, and had her take the wheel at her request. I'd sobered up by this point, but that didn't change the fact that I was exhausted. My body ached from all the cheering and dancing. Normally, I don't trust anyone with my ride, but this woman had a sense of articulation unlike anyone I'd seen. She turned the radio to the rap station, and I fell asleep partially leaning against her within about 15 minutes. 

I proceeded to slip into another very strange dream...

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Weed-ventures #2 + New Years' stuff

Again, sorry for the long gap in between posts. Just figure I'd do an all-in-one post featuring the second installment to "Weed-ventures" and a general update on what's been going on.

I suppose I'll get the bad stuff out of the way first. In early December, something happened to me that really shook me up:

I got caught. After a year and a half of successfully hiding it, my parents caught me smoking. Well, it wasn't so much that I got caught, so much that it was I got snitched on.

As the story goes, G-man had been absolutely itching to smoke. Couldn't even talk about anything else. I had an extra $20 on me that he persuaded me to give to him towards about 10 grams of reggie. We knew a guy that sold it for 2 dollars a gram, which is even cheaper than reggie normally is, which seemed pretty cool. We picked the stuff up at the Flying J, but we couldn't smoke yet since G-man had work, so we agreed to wait until later that night.

I went to the store with my mom to pick a few things up, and it was pretty late by the time we got back. Bex was gonna smoke with us, and she'd already shown up by that point. I put away all the groceries, then waited til my mom left and went outside with Bex to G-man's truck. We hotboxed for a while and then went straight back inside. That was our first mistake. We didn't air ourselves out or spray anything.

Anyways we honestly weren't all that high, we just sat down in my room and talked as I started to play "Chris Dolmeth" by Hopsin. Not even half an hour later, I hear my mom pounding on my door. Now let me stop the story right here to tell you something. I have a rule. Don't try to get my attention when my door is locked. I don't care if I'm shooting up black tar heroin while performing illegal experiments on a human body. Do. Not. Fucking. Bother. Me. When. My. Door. Is. Locked. That clear? Anyways I opened it, and my mom simply asks who has marijuana. I wasn't acting high at all, so I simply said we didn't, but that answer wasn't good enough for her. The bitch has a superhuman sense of smell, and it's gotten close to ruining my life many times before this one. Bex covers up for me by saying that she had some before she came over, but again, that isn't good enough. G-man starts acting sketchy but ultimately also says we didn't have any.

I don't remember much of the next half-hour. I have a very prominent love-hate relationship with my mother, mainly because she does a lot of Xanax and other pills, and therefore has mood swings, but in any case, all the hate spewed out that night. I raged so hard that I blacked out. I was told that I threatened to kill my mother, but I have no memory of saying anything like that. Finally, G-man and Bex left because they both had work early the next day, and I was pretty pissed that my session got ruined, and that I'd lost my appetite. I'm currently trying to gain weight, so I cannot afford to skip any meals.

I try to regain my composure, and G-man decides to come back and see if we're okay. I try to talk it out, but he insists I leave the room so they can talk alone. He says I can still listen in on what they say through the door. I initially object to this because I know he's going to talk bad about me, but he fiercely denies he will do such a thing, and forces me to leave. I have less say in my own house than my cats. I'm 21 fucking years old and I get treated like I'm 12.

He starts off being true to his word, but then tells my mom that we in fact, did smoke that night, then proceeds to spill out every secret I foolishly trusted him with over the past few years. I can't describe what I was going through as I heard this. I tried opening the door lock with my knife, and even threatened to bash down the door with a sword. They completely ignored me as I screamed in utter terror and agony. My whole body was shaking. They finally let me in and I did my best to explain myself, but it was no use.

My mother is one of the most extremist Christians I know, and her morals are years behind. Needless to say, she has a zero-tolerance policy for weed. She didn't actually do anything to me other than have me give the weed to G-man, but I was crushed because her opinion of me was forever changed. I happen to deeply care about what others think of me, especially family members. I should also later note that my mother had to worsen things by telling the rest of my family what happened, effectively ruining my relationship with them.

I got every pill I could find in the house and contemplated ending my disheveled existence for a solid hour before finally deciding against it and going to sleep. I wasn't much better the next day. My body was shaking, I was horribly nauseous, and I couldn't eat anything. My mother and who I thought was one of my best friends had destroyed me over something that wasn't my fault. I sought help on the Grasscity forums, which had a nice community that welcomed me and gave me a good bit of helpful advice, and from there, began the slow process of healing.

What was the lesson to be learned here? Don't smoke weed? More like don't trust anybody. Remember how in my last post I said that G-man is someone I can always count on? Well, you can forget I ever said that. In regards to all the events that transpired that night, fuck him. He's an unstable, volatile person who swallowed one too many aspirin and bottles of cough syrup. This doesn't mean I won't associate with him anymore, but I'm sure as hell not trusting him.

As for how to move forward after this? Well, I'm going to move out as soon as anyone will hire me, which could be a while considering this is Waco. If I'm by myself, I'll be able to smoke as much as I damn well please. For good measure, I'll get myself a safe because it drives me up the wall when people go through my things. Will I put weed and paraphernalia in there? That's no one's business but my own, and with a locked safe, it'll stay that way.

I'm in no way ashamed to admit that I smoke marijuana. It's my life, I'll do what I want with it. No one dictates what I can and can't do but me. Aside from that night, weed has had only positive effects on me and has helped me out a lot in the long run. As for it's legal status, the world is finally realizing that marijuana is completely harmless to your body, and will be made legal nationwide very soon, so I have little to worry about. It's time to make some progress for once.

Moving on from that craziness, New Years was pretty fun. I hung out with some friends, blazed up a few bowls, found a shiny Ninetales, and had the best munch session ever at iHop. Overall 2013 was an interesting year. There were plenty of great games, awesome music, memorable movies, and most importantly great friendships formed.. I honestly can't think of much to say about it without trailing off. I thought this part of the post would go on a bit longer, but I honestly can't think of anything to add. So far, this year is starting out all right. I still don't have another job, but I have a lot of fun times ahead of me. All the pain and turmoil has made me stronger than ever.

Lastly, as of posting this, it has been exactly one year since the fateful day I saw the lovely and talented Lady Gaga live at the Born This Way Ball at the American Airlines Center in Dallas. It doesn't feel like it's been that long, but I guess that's what happens when someone leaves that much of a lasting impression on you. I'll never forget that night, and I'll be seeing her again this July at the ARTPOP Ball! I have general admission this time around, so I'll be able to look her directly in the eye. <3 *sigh*

Anyways, my next post will be the long-overdue fourth part of my creepypasta. I'll probably post another weed-ventures after that. See you soon! ~