Sometime in 2016, Danny West noticed that games are examined and reviewed fairly dishonestly. The scores break incredibly high relative to honest reviews of other entertainment mediums and there is a well-documented pattern of low industry integrity for the sake of positive press and sales. Furthermore, the “scores” given to games are all rounded off to some impossibly simple and overstated value—a value without much value at all.
Accordingly, he did the only thing reasonable: He decided to play every game ever and tell us about it. The detailed quantities branded to these games is from a complex formula that doesn’t aim for objective perfection. In fact, the corresponding “score” here isn’t a traditional score at all, but an averaging of all the valuable possibilities that a video game could potentially offer a video game player. It is intended as an admittedly subjective supplement to his thoughts on the game. It is not a gospel declaration of irrefutable value.
You can find the video supplement to this series here.
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It wasn’t long ago that Hatred, a game about mass shootings in a dedicated and uncomfortable sense, became the closest thing we had to the Mortal Kombat or Night Trap pseudo-scandal of the early nineties. I lived through it. There were pieces on the evening news for a week and everything. You could imagine the type of stir a game like Splatterhouse would generate were it not like most of these other bogeyman titles: atrocious and vanilla.
You play as a muscle-jacked antihero (read: anticharacter) whose girlfriend was kidnapped by edgy monsters of varying squishiness and teeth anatomy. Only a paranormal mask that grants you steroids through the face can aid you in getting her back from endlessly repeated sprites and re-used environments. There are some fetal enemies, and in 1988, that should’ve made people upset. But they weren’t. Because this game is that meaningless, even with an obvious big play for attention. The final boss is a melty flesh head, and it’s cool-looking. So that’s something.
I would feel so sorry for the creators of this oddball horror game if its biggest problems were out of their control. D comes from just around the Myst era, a period with games that, on the whole, have aged unfortunately. But even so, the existence of deformed nonsense like this shows how much of Myst’s beauty was in its willingness to embrace its limitations, rather than try to push them. D embraces these limitations too strongly and excitedly. It frames them and puts them on the wall to show just what an ugly and hilarious act it has committed. It is a game with all the artistic authority of a child writing a story in crayon but without any of the endearing accompaniment.
The game takes place in Los Angeles for no reason. A doctor has gone on a killing spree inside his own hospital. His daughter is Laura, who the police let inside the hospital for reasons that are never explained, is transported to a castle setting to slog through horrible voice work and unsatisfying puzzles. I suppose if the unexplained is your fetish, this game would get you off just fine as long as you can look past, well, pretty much everything.
The presentation is so pitiful and funny, and the big plot reveal is a moment that D should be eternally grateful the world couldn’t be asked to remember. But the game did make me laugh. I felt something. And you could do worse than feeling something, even if it means feeling stupid for feeling it. Beware that the game must be beaten in one sitting and you have a limited amount of real-world time to finish. This is an effective way to build tension. And regret. Mostly regret.
Final Fantasy XV (2016)
It occurred to me at some point that Final Fantasy XV was more like early Final Fantasy entries than the more recent installments, which I’m positive was intentional. The similarities to Final Fantasy X, Final Fantasy XII, and so on are fairly superficial and/or technological. The real spirit of the game (and the series) is in the value of friendship and travel, using yourself and your small tribe of common good to complete simple tasks together so that a lonely and evil entity can be defeated. It’s about victories for the joys of being human and community. That mankind is saved from a cosmic force is more or less incidental.
The gravity of the game is natural because the world is so much less fantastical than the typical video game fare, let alone a Final Fantasy release. There are mythical creatures, sure, but there are also gas stations and highways. Part of the function is that this isn’t a fantasy at all; it’s the sad coming-of-age reality that flippant youth is fleeting, and the present is all we have. It’s that acceptance. That bulky pill there’s no real pride or reward for swallowing.
There’s no arguing the game is incomplete, or at the very least, that it contains scenes, elements that were not presented in the way they were envisioned. Such is the burden of creativity by committee under an entropic and bureaucratic corporate structure. This isn’t the first time Square has failed its audience in this way, and the game gets some things wrong; however, it gets the things right that it needs to.
Street Fighter (1987)
I don’t know of a single other game series that has had its premier entry so readily forgotten. Fighting games are impossible to evaluate in the same way other genres are. I don’t know what to say about my experience except that it was an old fighting game. The aesthetic was more cartoony than Street Fighter II, the roster was really unremarkable, and I don’t recall seeing a female character. You know, I don’t remember seeing any characters at all.
On the other hand, this game has special moves, which was probably unheard of at the time. Discovery is nearly extinct in fighting titles, so perhaps it deserves some celebration. Good on you, game.
I’m going to call this what it is: a beta. The NES doesn’t have many competent games. It’s so much closer to the Atari generation than the SNES, which isn’t what I would’ve remembered. The tech is primitive by any measure, but what really pains me about this title more than anything is the female revelation.
Samus may have become important, but it didn’t happen with this game. The self-congratulatory show of an 8-bit bitch in a bikini is tumorous, and I hate it to its spurious bones. It shouldn’t have been important. It’s important to me that people understand it wasn’t important. It’s patronizing and juvenile, and I hate that it’s been retconned as a moment and not an eye roll.
As for the gameplay? It’s carnage. It’s tedious, too samey—why not more color swaps in the environments?—and it’s one of those sad games that is authentically and entirely obsoleted: There’s no reason to play this game other than to say you did or to laugh at it. It was the predecessor to something crucial and beautiful. It’s a brainstormed first draft. It belongs in a museum behind glass, far from anyone’s innocent eyes and hands.
Altered Beast (1988)
Arcade beat ‘em ups were dirty little thieves. It made economical sense to develop them as impossibly hard so they could jack your pocket quarter jingle, you stupid sucker child. They were like slot machines but with moving pictures you could punch right in the fucking face. I don’t think slot machines would be permitted in laundromats, either.
Altered Beast is very fair for an arcade game, but it’s very effective and has no business being as fun as it is. It has lots of imagery from Ancient Greece and all of the intense folklore to match. It’s the eighties and it’s a video game, so you have the Mario-Peach-rescue problem, but the motivation isn’t in the plot details (because there really aren’t any). The good gimmick is that every few times you punch to death a muscly devil or bipedal fur beast, you turn into some unholy abomination yourself. Aside from a complete letdown of a final battle—a man-height rhino? Really?—it’s good healthy retro fun. Would God of War exist without this? Probably.
Sonic the Hedgehog 3 (1994)
There was a point in playing through Sonic 3 that I realized that I was speeding on well-worn ground. In fact, it was my thinking that if I plopped someone in front of it who wasn’t intimately familiar with Green Hill Zone or its music that they wouldn’t be able to tell me which Sonic game they were playing without looking for clues or the packaging. Trudging through the “special” stages would be a dead giveaway, but that’s not the point. The character and the premise is entirely based on the joy of velocity, and this series has none of it at this juncture.
The series ran out of gas in a very documented and humiliating way, but I don’t remember this being the game where the car started to sputter. That seems too early, but here it is. You go fast in a few grass-based levels that mostly look the same. A round metal vehicle tries to kill you. Later on, there’s water.
I can’t help but wonder how much the 16-bit console war was decided by power ups instead of hardware specifications. Maybe Nintendo would’ve won anyway, but giving Sonic a cape or something might have made things closer. Or at least different-colored shoes.
Primal Rage (1994)
A roster of seven in a fighting game is a tough sell, and I’m definitely not buying it when a few of them are knockoffs of the others. Seriously, this game has two giant god apes, and aside from one of them pissing and throwing up to entertain no one, you can’t tell them apart. It’s true that controlling a god should be a bit bulky and heavy (think Ganondorf in Smash Bros. Melee), here it’s just annoying. Because they’re all gods. And aside from one raptor-looking claw lizard, they all handle really similarly. Not great.
They’re also Claymation, which can’t be the most effective way to create engaging pre-historic colossi. The game is flat out ugly and not in an intentional way. I confess that although I wanted to try the whole lineup, I stopped halfway through when Chaos the God Chimp performed an anti-gravity vomit attack, appeared on the other side of the screen, then ate his slow-flying vomit. His opponent was untouched, but I’ll give the game credit: it finished the hell out of me.
Kid Icarus (1986)
Kid Icarus is a property that’s been barely breathing for decades. It almost never gets a reference, let alone a title. Pit was appropriately eponymous (I think) when he appeared in the horrid Captain N cartoon, and I don’t recall him appearing again until a few Smash Bros. games infinite years later. I suppose his minor longevity is built entirely on the endearing quality a little do-good Cupid has; it’s sure as hell not the game itself that did it. Pit is a happy little shit that can’t accomplish anything even though he’s allowed to use the sides of your TV to “cheat” to the other sides of the each level. Even by NES standards, it’s lazy and disappointing. It’s also obvious that even for a 1986 release, this game is often a cruel joke that obscure developers used on unsuspecting players. There’s enough charm here that it could’ve been a good game, but damned if it wasn’t squandered on the shallow delight of frustration for the sake of frustration.
Hang in there, Pit. You’ll get a game that isn’t rubbish one of these days. Or maybe you won’t, I don’t care.
Zelda II: The Adventure of Link (1987)
Is there a game that got more mileage out of the NES than this? There’s an overworld, little towns with little lives for you to gather information, graveyards and basements. And of course, there’s dungeons and monsters. For a game that the franchise has all but tried to abandon in design focus, there is a lot worth keeping. Case in point: the music! Every composition is so interesting and appropriate. It may be the best feature in a game with plenty of strong features. Did I mention this is from 1987?
The Zelda premise is now a universal bit of knowledge, but back then, we needed a full on scrolling summary after we pressed start! It isn’t the most seamless exposition, but it’s a retro game and most of the words are spelled correctly, so Mosel Tov. The gist is that Zelda’s asleep—slightly less undignified than kidnapped, so don’t hurry—and Link has to run around with his most historically impotent sword poking things and doing squats until he has enough adventuring gear to get the Triforce (here a glorified alarm clock) and wake Zelda from her accursed coma.
I have no idea why this game is an afterthought in the Zelda pantheon. Is it too different? Is Dark Link that much less cool than Ganon? Is it that Zelda is a brunette?
I didn’t enjoy all of it, of course. It’s an NES game, so it has all kinds of antiquated missteps in experience points, game over details, punishment metrics, and so on. But the idea that it takes these steps at all is pretty wonderful. There’s no reason this world should feel bigger than any current game, but I promise you it does. And the Game Over screen has so much jarring finality, so much sudden strangeness, that I didn’t mind that it had no idea which way to spell Ganon’s name. Which is good because I didn’t find a different way to save my progress other than having Link surrender to a horse head guy or a little jumpy blob.
You can beat Z2:TAoL in a few hours if you do the right research, and honestly that’s probably the only way I’d go it again. But I would consider going it again in New Game Plus mode. Because it has one (mostly), which is sort of amazing.
And that’s really the take home here, isn’t it? Zelda II doesn’t have a perfect version of anything, but it has a lot more good than a lot of other games, especially for this era. And that is so so commendable.
I hate to always make stuff about stuff because it’s nice to have a break now and again, but the universe of Nintendo boxing is so reliant on cartoon stereotypes that date back to turn of the (last) century Bugs Bunny cartoons that it utterly bemuses me. Did anyone laugh when croissants flew out of Glass Joe when he got slugged? Is that somehow better than blood, cartoonish or no?
I didn’t use motion controls because I’m not a crazy person, but this is essentially the same experience it was in the 1980s, which is fitting since most of the characters are the same. The trainer is the same, the hero is the same, an overwhelming amount of the fighters are the same, and given that I used the traditional sideways Wiimote configuration instead of flailing around the room, the controller is the same. Who selected the roster? Was Aran Ryan, the most forgettable character in the SNES version, really a better choice than the big clown? What happened to the muscle-baby Bruiser brothers? Did they eat each other?
But yeah, it looks better. And Bald Bull is finally getting the respect he deserves in the more advanced circuits instead of piddling away his endless prime in the early game. Thank God for that. Also thank God war-torn refugees didn’t fly out of him when he went down. I almost closed my eyes just to be safe.
Beyond Good and Evil (2003)
Beyond Good and Evil is the foremost example of a game with a “frontlash,” that is, a game that was so underrated in its time that its momentum has accelerated too far the other way. We now think of it as some sort of genius classic that was robbed of its due respect, which is blatantly untrue. It’s a game with more than its fair share of flaws—its annoying Phantom Menace world-building, its headache-inducing green filter, its hopelessly naïve cliffhanger ending, its unexplained tinge of Rastafarianism—but it’s ultimately a good game. It’s just positively nothing beyond that.
The adventure stars Jade, who may be the most likeable video game character of all-time, and her blue-collar pig uncle Pey’j. There comes a point where an otherwise good character is so moral that they become easily hated. Jade steps up to this line closer than any other character I can think of, but she never trespasses over: She’s impossible to hate. She speaks only when she feels it’s necessary, she greets every unusual situation with skepticism and caution, she cares for uncouth creatures without smothering them, she’s happy without being jubilant, she’s zen without being pretentious, she’s capable without a showboat; she wants to save the world, but she doesn’t want the attention that comes with it. More importantly, she doesn’t tell us either of those things. She’s the unequivocal best feature of a game that goes far too far in every idealistic direction. Without her, this game is a scattered mess. With her, it’s a scattered mess that’s likable.
Games are a medium of art by community compromise and practicality. Beyond Good and Evil tried very hard to deny that and was punished. It has more ideas than it has words to detail them, more meat than it has bones to support. You’re caught in the middle of a vast conspiracy network that threatens the world through alien intrigue and media sensationalism. There are multiple currencies, multiple ambiguous plot threads, clumsy stealth areas, robots, vehicle chases, and if you really want to max out your capabilities, you have to call time out and take a picture of every monster you face before you do martial arts all over it. Jade has an alias sometimes. There are cameos from interesting-looking characters that get no development whatsoever, yet there’s a short-lived comedy character that looks so generic he could’ve been culled from a freeware bag of assets. That idiot got a ton of lines. All of this and it’s hard to remember any substantial differences between the game’s pitifully low quantity of dungeons.
The game bored and frustrated me in a few places, and I shrugged from lack of investment quite often, but I never once blamed it on my avatar. Our egos seldom allow us to feel like we’re worse people than our game protagonists, even when those game protagonists are genuinely better than we are. Nothing is ever our fault. We’ve been yelling at Mario to jump like we want him to for decades. From the beginning of this game to its ill-fated conclusion, I never once blamed my screw-ups (or the game’s) on Jade. She meditates and runs an orphanage for ugly kids and a fat dog. It had to have been my fault.
During the hour or so I spent with it, I couldn’t help but think of all the modern games that Contra resembles. Shooting in all directions and killing any human that moves? That’s sandbox fun. Choosing between weapon upgrade drops? How very Borderlands! The bullet hell influence is apparent as well.
This is one of those refreshing games that needs no context. It’s a game that means business. Load the gun, shoot the stuff that isn’t you because stuff that isn’t you sucks. Other things that suck? Inconsistent boss design. Sometimes you get the typical 1980s H.R. Giger nightmare, and sometimes you get snow plow with spikes glued on. And those base levels with the wimpy jumping flea men? Please.
Crazy Taxi (1999)
Crazy Taxi is what happens when you get enough sponsorship money from KFC and Pizza Hut to buy the rights to two Offspring songs and then have to build a game around it. It is the textbook one trick pony game, the very essence of diminishing returns in fun. You could learn every inch of the game’s fictional city to become some sort of loud and kooky Sega-flavored Travis Bickle, but you won’t have one ounce of fun more than you did when you only made it three minutes before getting a middling ranking and a game over. It’s a game that knows how shallow it is but doesn’t care. It has no aspirations to be more, which is honestly okay now and again. Not everything has to be The Last of Us, but it would certainly behoove any game, even the unambitious, to create a system whereby you have more fun as you get better. Or at the very least, you get to hear a different Offspring song.
Sega Rally Championship (1995)
When my Saturn tries to run this, I can almost hear it straining under the weight of its own dumbass hardware infrastructure. The dirt and dust particles in this game have that unmistakable look of arcade port failure, but that’s basically what sold the system–for that one month period anyone bought it anyway.
As for what you’re actually doing here, it’s a racing game. You pick from a very limited set of cars, try to will your way through a very limited set of tracks, and ultimately look at a kitschy helicopter for a few seconds when you go across the start/finish line. It’s transparently difficult because it is completely aware of how small it is on actual content. You get a spotter yelling directions at you the entire time (“easy right!” “medium left!”) like those adjectives mean anything to you, the fantasy driver. If you’ve played enough to know to what extent these labels apply and what they mean, you don’t need the spotter anymore, do you?
The drifts are really fun though. And the whole game is drifting. The controls don’t do you any competitive favors, but it doesn’t matter. The drifts look and feel like bliss. I don’t care if I crash. Which is good. Because I’m going to.