Category Archives: Games

The place for video game playthroughs and other gamey stuff.

Long Island Retro Gaming Expo 2018: Picks From the Dealers’ Room

This may shock you, but I spent too much money in the Dealers’ Room once again. I joked after Cradle Con that I wasn’t going to spend any more money on games or anime for the rest of the year and uh…yeah, I lied. I am a liar. I am setting a bad example for my family.

Nevertheless, I cannot go back in time and unspend all this money (not that I would), so I may as well take advantage of my fevered shopping spree by getting a blog post out of it. Seriously, if I go to Anime NYC (or any other con) anytime soon, I’m probably going to have to make a point of avoiding the dealers room, since I really can’t afford to do this. But enough realistic negativity, I have swag to show off!

I filled out my PS1 RPG collection with these two gems, which I’ve wanted for a long time. I’ve always been intrigued by the dating/weapon forging mechanics in Thousand Arms, and the job system in Star Ocean: The Second Story always sounded exactly like my cup of tea. There are PSP remakes of the early Star Ocean games, but from what I’ve read, I’m better off with the original here anyway. I wish I’d bought more of these games back when they came out, but back then, I only had so much babysitting money….

Speaking of RPGs, I needed this to fill out my FF collection so I can make good on my ongoing threat of Let’s Playing them all some day. Technically I do own these games already (Final Fantasy: Dawn of Souls for the GBA), but I’ve decided recently that I’d rather have everything in Playstation format when possible. PSX discs are readily available, usually inexpensive, and easy to (legally) play on the computer with an emulator.

For the record, I’ve never actually finished FF1; I’ve played about 75% of the way through it several different times, but just never completed it for some reason. I need to fix that sometime soon. FF2 I have yet to even attempt.

Not JRPGs? There must be some mistake!

I wasn’t planning on buying these, but I’ve been hearing since the ’90s that the Legacy of Kain series is high-quality, and these were really inexpensive. As an Eidos series, Kain is kind of like Lara Croft’s brother anyway, right? It made sense in my head.

After attending Leonard Herman’s panel on video game history, I was really curious to read his book. Phoenix has been around since 1994, but the fourth edition covers games history through 2015, so there’s a lot to go through here. I’ve started reading it and find it quite addictive, even if a lot of it is dedicated to covering dodgy peripherals for obscure systems I never knew existed.

Mr. Herman was really nice and even offered to help me raid the Strong National Museum of Play in Rochester to get at their JRPG collection, although I was kidding about that. Or…maybe he was kidding. Let’s assume someone was kidding.

Most of you probably need some background in order to understand why I absolutely lost my shit when fell over this. Versus Books was a company that put out unauthorized game guides back in the ’90s, and they’ve been all but forgotten today. What a lot of people don’t know is that in addition to being very thorough, the Versus guides were also hilarious; reading the Metal Gear Solid book is almost as fun as playing the game itself. Years ago, my brother wrote to the company to try to get a copy of this guide, but they were out of business at that point and it seemed like there was no way to get it.

I don’t know if they used this book to take the piss out of FF7 the way they did for MGS and Resident Evil 2, but if there’s even a chance, I have to find out. Plus, maybe I’ll finally learn how to master all those stupid Gold Saucer minigames that I suck at.

One of the only early Tomb Raider guides that I didn’t already have. I like to collect the TR strategy guides because I need them to complete the damned things I like the extra stuff that’s often included in these books. Chronicles was the installment of TR that came with the infamously robust Tomb Raider Level Editor (TRLE), so I’m curious to see what the book has to say about that.

Apparently magazine ads for games have become collectibles, which makes sense; they often make nice mini-posters. I didn’t think this was something I was that interested in until I saw that they had an add for Ehrgeiz, then I just had to get it. I got a few more of these while I was there (see header). Sadly, they did not have any ads for Parasite Eve. I also picked up one for the original Advance Wars for my brother, since that’s one of his all-time favorites.

These were free, yaaay! Old School Gamer Magazine was kind enough to give away sample issues to anyone who signed up for their email list. I’m glad to discover another print game magazine, since all my favorite ones ceased publication long ago. This mag just started last year, but it has a very experienced team of writers. I’m definitely going to keep up with it and hope they keep publishing it for a long time.


This concludes my posts on LIRGE for 2018. I hope you all enjoyed getting a peek at this fun convention, and consider coming down in 2019 if you’re anywhere near the NY area. LIRGE also includes Tabletop Expo, which I did not cover because I had my hands full with the video game component, but I hope to spend more time there next year. Tabletop Expo might be spun off into it’s own convention next year, so definitely keep tabs on the LIRGE website if you’re interested in attending either or both.

Long Island Retro Gaming Expo 2018: Cosplay!

The Long Island Retro Gaming Expo may not be a cosplay destination in the same way that say, Anime Expo is. That said, there was some pretty impressive cosplay on display, and even the simpler costumes shined when their wearers went all-out with roleplaying. Since it was a gaming convention, obviously most of the characters depicted were from games, but there were also some costumes from anime and films. There was even a roving gang of Star Wars cosplayers, but I never got a good picture of them because they only seemed to show up when I was a)eating a sandwich or b)in the bathroom.

No one literally said, “You just missed them; the elusive Star Wars cosplayers!” but that was kind of how it felt. I hope that was the only group cosplay that I missed; if I find out there was a Final Fantasy VII troop somewhere that I just never ran into, I’m going to be upset.

A note on lighting: The Expo holds its cosplay contest in the Planetarium, which is a really cool venue in general, but it doesn’t have the best lighting for photography. I took a lot of these photos during the contest, meaning the photos are a bit dark. I’ve done my best to compensate, but there’s a limit to what I can do. Geek-E Magazine sponsors the cosplay contest, and they had a professional photographer taking pictures, so better pics will be available through them at some point.

Let’s start with a character close to my heart, a gorgeous Lara Croft. Man, I want to cosplay as Lara Croft now…maybe next year. Of course, if I was going to do that, I should have probably done it before I cut off nearly all my hair. Maybe I can cosplay Dora the Explorer in the meantime?

The only Star Wars cosplayer I was able to track down. Was he part of the roving gang of Star Wars people, or an independent agent? Not sure. I should have tried to follow him and see if he’d lead me to the Jedi or whoever, but I’m pretty sure that would have violated the con’s no-stalking rules….

A great Street Fighter group cosplay; so glad I caught these guys on my way out. Sadly, there was no group of X-Men cosplayers for them to fight with; I’ll have to wait for next year in the hopes of seeing an X-Men vs. Street Fighter reenactment. But it’s possible! Keep hope alive!

The judges for the Kids Cosplay contest. I didn’t take pics of the kids for the most part (as a parent, I feel weird about it), but this Little Sister from Bioshock 2 crept in there.

I’m going to level with you, I have no idea what’s going on here. Bunny Sailor Mercury hanging out with…The Riddler? Not a clue. Why didn’t it occur to me to ask them while I was taking the picture? I am an AWARD-WINNING journalist goshdarnit, you’d think I’d know better than to embarrass myself like this.

Awesome Breath of the Wild Zelda. Not to be confused with the Hyrule Warriors version of Zelda, who was also in attendance. It’s almost like this Zelda series is popular or something.

Ness from Earthbound. I’ve really gotta play that game one of these years….

Crash Bandicoot.

This costume is of a Clow Card from Card Captor Sakura, but I’ve been looking for a while and I can’t figure out which card it is. It sound like she said the “Fate” card, but I can’t find any reference to a Fate Clow Card on CCSak sites. Any Sakura superfans able to help me out here?

Your friendly neighborhood Tobi from Naruto.

Hyrule Warriors Zelda. It’s a shame I couldn’t get a better picture, because this was an awesome costume. She won Best in Show.

Cube from Jet Set Radio Future. Love the skates!

Finally, a Mario! Worth the wait.

It’s another Ness from Earthbound. Uh, I really need to play that game….

The Squid Sisters from Splatoon.

Awww, it’s an entire Mario family! I’ve never seen Peach in a cowboy hat before, but I’m sure that comes from somewhere. Their performance was hilarious; they split the Best Group Cosplay trophy with the Splatoon group.

This is a cosplay from the movie The Hangover 2. I haven’t seen the movie, so I have no idea what’s going on here, but it looks like a really good attempt at…at…at a costume. Way to think out of the box there, friend.

A lovely Princess Peach. Not that I have anything against “casual Peach” above, but this is what I think of when I think of the Princess of the Mushroom Kingdom. This cosplay won the Best Craftsmanship award.

Liu Kang from Mortal Kombat. He did not do any huge acrobatics (which are against con policy anyway), but he did a nice routine featuring Kang’s trademark kicks. I wonder: did he have a violent confrontation with the Street Fighter team above? The mind boggles.

Remember Breath of the Wild Zelda from alllll the way back at the beginning? She found herself a Link! Okay, obviously these two came together, but I like the idea that they just randomly found each other at the convention. Then it was love at first sight.

Thank you to all the cosplayers for allowing me to photograph you. To those cosplayers at LIRGE that I missed (and I know there were some), my apologies; I was trying to get as many of you as possible, but I’m only one person and can’t be everywhere at once. I’ll probably be dressed as Dora the Explorer next year, so if I missed you this time around, you know where to look to get your picture taken.

Keep in mind I’m in my 30s though, if you see an age-appropriate Dora the Explorer cosplay, that is an actual child and you should probably leave them alone.

 

Long Island Retro Gaming Expo 2018

The Long Island Retro Gaming Expo is probably the warmest convention I’ve ever been to. I’m not referring to the ambient temperature; the AC was working fine (and in the Planetarium, arguably too well.) I mean it felt warm in the sense of being incredibly inviting and friendly. Part of this is no doubt due to the efforts of the con organizers (who deserve plenty of credit for putting together a great event), but I think it’s also due to what the gaming community looks like in 2018.

You had babies in strollers clutching beloved Pikachu plushies, little kids wearing Mario t-shirts, older men and women who vividly remembered playing their Magnavox Odyssey in the ’70s, and everything in between. It was really a family event, not just because there was all-ages programming, but simply because there were a whole lot of families walking around. You had hardcore game collectors, anime cosplayers, tabletop enthusiasts, professional game historians, indie game developers, and little kids who just wanted to play Sonic all day long, and everyone seemed to be having a wonderful time together. I know that this one convention does not represent the state of gamer culture in the entire world, but the attendance at this event couldn’t be further from the stereotype of the stand-offish, “toxic” gamer.

The whole second floor of the Cradle of Aviation Museum in Garden City, NY was filled with dozens and dozens of consoles playing retro games. There were also plenty of classic Arcade cabinets. 

The main Freeplay arcade area, minutes before the doors opened at 10 a.m.; once the con was open, it was standing-room only in here.

Even though the con is primarily focused on the gaming of yesteryear, there was plenty of talk at panels about recent developments in the industry. About half the convention was in morning after the apparent Death of Luigi during Nintendo Direct; streamer Vinesauce even held a “moment of silence” for Luigi during his panel. (It lasted about one second, but hey, it’s the thought that counts, right?) More importantly, everyone was talking about Nintendo’s aggressive targeting of ROM sites; in some cases, it came up because I asked about it specifically, but a lot of other congoers broached the subject during Q&A sessions as well.

While no one condemned Nintendo for shutting down emulation sites, many guests expressed concerns about how this move could effect the preservation of video game history.

“Taking such a broad approach to the issue does actual harm to the medium,” said Jeremy Parish of the Retronauts podcast. “As it is, it feels like they’re cutting off access to the past.” Parish went on to suggest that Nintendo continue taking down ROMs of their own games, but perhaps allow ROMs for more obscure titles to remain available.

From left to right: Jeremy Parish and Bob Mackey of Retronauts, and Kurt Kalata, Editor-in-Chief of Hardcore Gaming 101. Their panel covered the history of SuperJoe.

“This is a tricky topic….there are some games that are out of print, that the only people that would be making money from them are second-hand sellers– for like $400, for some of these games,” said @VinnyVincesauce, a popular streamer. “So you want a game that is, let’s say, from 1989, that you can’t get on the Virtual Console, that you can’t legally own. Now they’re making it harder for you to get it, so it’s just gone now.”

To Vinny’s surprise, the Vinesauce panel filled pretty much the entire Planetarium at the museum. This was about as close as I could get.

Leonard Herman, video game scholar and author of Phoenix IV: The History of The Videogame Industry, had a different perspective on Nintendo’s actions. “I’m for that…As a writer, you have copyrighted materials. The copyright lasts the life of the person who wrote it plus 50 years, and whether you’re making money on it–whether it’s available or not– those copyrights should be preserved. And I found my book, the earlier editions, on the internet for download, and it infuriates me…not that I’m losing a sale…I just don’t believe, unless the person who put it out agrees to it, I don’t agree with that.”

Right: Video game collector and educator John Hancock, and Leonard Herman, known as the Father of Videogame History. Their panel together covered not only milestones in video game history, but how to dispel misconceptions about videogames and disseminate the facts instead.

“I’m torn, because as a preservationist, emulators are the only way to play prototypes and hacks and all that stuff, and I think that’s awesome,” said game collector John Hancock, Herman’s co-panelist. He went on to say how frustrated he was as a collector to see Nintendo pass on the opportunity to allow people to legally purchase ROMs for individual games, and instead focus on “half-baked” options like the NES Classic. “It frustrates me to no end.”

Shawn Long, better known as RGT85 on Youtube, also lamented the inability to legally purchase older games directly from Nintendo, using the example of Mario Sunshine for the Gamecube. “This should be done more on a case-by-case basis,” said Long, echoing what Parish had said earlier in the convention.

Naturally, there were plenty of other things to talk about besides Nintendo’s recent shenanigans. Pete Dorr of Pete’s Game Room hosted a very entertaining panel about collecting games for older systems, speed-running, and finding underrated gems in older console libraries. He has also very nearly convinced me that I need to speedrun Ehrgeiz: The Forsaken Dungeon, so if you hear any tortured screaming coming vaguely from the Tri-State Area, know that it’s all Pete’s fault.

The guys from the Stone Age Gamer podcast used their panel to pit controller-against-controller in a no-holds-barred Best of 16, “The Best WORST Controller.” With the help of the audience, they picked the Dreamcast controller as their favorite “bad” controller; personally, I think the fix may have been in for the Dreamcast from the start, but I will give the SAG guys the benefit of the doubt here.

The Stone Age Gamer panel: Kris Randazzo, Dean DeFalco, and Marc Raimo.

I even got to attend a panel on NESMaker, something I didn’t know existed before this convention. Software that allows you to make videogames without coding has proliferated in recent years, but what makes NESMaker particularly special is that you can burn your creation to an actual cartridge and play it on an NES console; obviously, you need to invest in some hardware to be able to take advantage of that particular feature, but it’s pretty amazing to me that this is even possible. In terms of features, the program looks to me like it has a lot in common with RPG Maker, although with fewer options; however, that might be a good thing. Apparently you can knock out a game in NESMaker in a weekend if you feel like it, whereas RPG Maker can consume your entire life if you let it (believe me, I know this from experience.) I’m not sure if I’m quite ready to drop $36 on the software myself, but for hardcore NES-era fans, this looks like a dream come true.

I have some other stuff from the con to post for you: keep an eye out for cosplay photos and my pick ups from the dealers room (aka “The Reason Karen Can Not Afford to Go To Conventions Anymore). Now I’m going to go obsessively look up information on speedrunning, because surely I can find the time to fit that into my schedule, right? Don’t answer that.

Tomb Raider II, Level 6: Diving Area

From the title, Diving Area sounds like it should be a fun little level. Imagine Lara set loose in some kind of lush waterpark filled with swimming pools, indulging in some underwater treasure hunting whilst taking in some of that gorgeous tropical sunshine. But no, that is not the delicious digital feast that has been prepared for us.

Instead, we’re still stuck on the inside of this claustrophobic, ugly-as-sin oil rig, filled with toxic waste, and whenever we’re not busy running from room to room to push buttons that should really be in the same damn room, some asshole keeps sneaking up on Lara from behind and setting her on fire. There’s room for improvement here, is what I’m saying.

If I can’t have idyllic underwater treasure hunting, I guess two packs of grenades stuck behind a giant fan will have to do. Seriously, this is a well-hidden cache of grenades, there should have been a Jade Dragon here or something.

I did come dangerously close to having fun with this level, because it’s usually pretty clear where you need to go next, plus the platform elements are fun. The experience was spoiled a bit by too many enemies, especially the new flamethrower baddies, who are just unfair. However, there was nothing about this level as singularly tedious as the second half of Offshore Rig, so I’ll take what I can get.

Have You Thought About Renewable Energy Today?

Why is there a pool of toxic waste in the middle of the oil rig? Are they also mining Uranium from the sea floor or something? I wouldn’t put it past Bartoli, I bet that guy wants a dragon AND a gun that shoots nukes.

One thing that I never got around to talking about last level was the fact that Lara’s stuck on an oil rig. I may not like the look of the location, but it’s kind of interesting thematically. Oil is made up of fossils, creatures from the past– plants, animals, who knows what else– that we dredge up from the bottom of the sea and use for power. From a certain point of view, it’s a kind of an exploitation of the past, although a kind of exploitation that Lara herself is guilty of; after all, I don’t recall seeing any solar panels on the roof of Croft Manor.

Mostly, this area is just a pit stop to fit in a few more levels before we get to the sunken ship area, and I don’t think it was meant to serve any larger symbolic purpose. However, the fact that this whole area is associated with the Bartoli cult and all the evils they do (plus the fact that it’s just generally inhospitable towards Lara), gives a pretty negative view of using fossil fuels for energy, whether or not that was the intention. You get the impression that after this little adventure, Lara’s going to seriously consider building a wind farm somewhere on her property…possibly because, after the body count she wracks up on this rig, there won’t be anyone left to process the crude oil anyway.

Puzzle Puzzle, Turmoil and Buzzsaw

This level doesn’t boast particularly impressive puzzles, but it does have functional (and reasonably intuitive) ones. Too much of the level is spent going back and forth between two rooms, because God forbid you ever be able to solve a puzzle in the same room you started in, but let’s be honest: if that kind of gameplay bothers you, you wouldn’t be a fan of Tomb Raider in the first place.

What’s kind of a shame is that there are some things about this level that could be really cool, but don’t really go anywhere. At one point, a helicopter takes off in the middle of the level, but you can’t interact with it in any way, and you’re usually too busy in combat to even see it take off. You do get the opportunity to battle frogmen (and with the acquisition of the harpoon gun, you can even duke it out with them underwater if you want), but the harpoon gun isn’t fun to shoot. Most of the time, even after you have an underwater weapon, you’re still better off picking off the frogmen from solid ground. There’s a giant, spinning buzzsaw on the floor, but you never get the opportunity to shove any enemies into it. C’mon Core, throw me a bone here.

The fact that Lara can’t reach this keycard without getting shredded by the buzzsaw is an amazingly frustrating little tidbit. It’s the fact that it looks like you should be able to just pick the damn thing up without touching the blade that does it.

A note on a particular puzzle: the burner hall puzzle, the one where you can get the M16 if you know where to look for it. I swear I remember from years ago that I could hit one switch (turning off the first burner) then do a side-jump and hit the other one, allowing me to run down the hall, retrieve the circuit board, and make it back with plenty of time. This time around, whenever I tried to make Lara do a side-jump in this area, she kept hitting the ceiling and refused to jump; while I didn’t have a huge problem with it, this made the timing a lot less forgiving. Is this a difference between the Playstation and PC versions perhaps? It’s not important, but it bothers me because I have pretty vivid memories of solving the puzzle one way and it didn’t work this time.

Can you imagine if this fire extinguisher was actually functional, instead of just being there to mock you? Granted, Lara would die from being on fire before you could make it to the other side of the room to use it, but let’s not sweat the details here.

The Unbearable Cheapness of Flame Dudes

I don’t have a screenshot of a flamethrower, since I was always busy shooting like crazy whenever they were on screen, but I admit that was an oversight. So instead of the picture of the Big Bad Flamethrower guy I should have right here, enjoy this screenshot of Lara about to jump on a crane.

The idea that any death in Tomb Raider is “cheap” might seem a little silly. The whole franchise is based on traps that kill you instantly, not to mention a million other ways for our heroine to meet her demise. Unless you’re a serious fan and have the level memorized, you expect to see Lara die a whole bunch of times during any given level, and that’s not cheap; that’s just the type of game it is. That said, I still think the Flamethrower baddies are cheap, and overall a bad idea.

With most traps, no matter how deadly,  you can see them if you look out for them, and plan how to pass through them unharmed. In contrast, unless you know where all of them are in advance, the Flamethrower-toting baddies can just come out of nowhere and flame you, and then it’s Game Over. It’s okay to get a Game Over when you know you made a mistake and how to fix it, not so much when it feels like there was nothing you could have done differently.

This could be easily rectified too, since the amount of water on these levels could provide an easy out. If Lara can get lit on fire, she should be able to jump in the water and recover (like in The Dragon’s Lair), and then you at least have a fighting chance. Yet somehow, despite all the pools of water on this level, you often fight the Flamethrower dudes with no H20 in sight. To me, this creates additional difficulty for all the wrong reasons.

Bizarre Cutscene Theater: The Monk

When you complete Diving Area, you’re rewarded with one of Tomb Raider II‘s incredibly bizarre, disjointed cutscenes. A monk who has been trying to stop Bartoli thinks that Lara is a spirit guide sent to send him into his next life, and rambles on about that a little bit. Now, Lara doesn’t look like my idea of a Buddhist Spirit Guide, but to be fair, the dude has been tortured and lost a lot of blood. He is lucid enough to tell Lara about the Seraph, the key that Bartoli needs for the next stage of his plans. Bartoli, lurking on the perimeter, shoots the monk before he can give Lara any more information.

Now I know what you’re thinking; why didn’t he shoot Lara first? He had the drop on her, and she’s way more dangerous to him than an unarmed, delirious monk. I will repeat what I’ve said before; Bartoli passes up obvious opportunities to kill Lara because he wants to save her to play the Maiden to his Dragon. Like, what’s the point of even being a dragon if you can’t have your minions tie a woman to a stake and threaten to eat her? There is none.

But all of that is of lesser importance, because look at this:

YEAH I GOT THE WETSUIT! MY FIRST NEW OUTFIT IN TRII! I’M BLOWING THIS POPSICLE STAND!!!!!!

In perhaps the riskiest plan she has ever tried, which is saying something, Lara glomms onto a minisub that’s heading toward the bottom of the sea. For all Lara knows the sub could take an hour to get there and she would die from lack of oxygen long before reaching her destination, but the promise of pocketing artifact that both narcissistic Italian mobsters and delusional Tibetan Monks revere is just too much temptation to resist.

I’m still getting all the secrets. I don’t know how long I’ll be able to keep this up.

Best: When you finally drop down through the central hub and gain access to the whole level, it’s very satisfying. There’s a nice “aha!” moment when you realize how everything fits together.

Worst: The darn flamethrowers. They tempt you to save every five seconds, just in case you get immolated from behind around the next corner.

Rating: Two Uzi Clips Out of Five. Still brought down by too much combat and less-than-inspiring environs, but there’s some fun to be had solving a lot of small puzzles, so it earns an extra clip over Offshore Rig.

Next Up: 40 Fathoms, because there’s nothing that says “fun!” like suffocating to death a whole bunch of times before the level even properly starts.

Tomb Raider II, Level 5: Offshore Rig

Lara starts off the next major chunk of Tomb Raider II without her weapons, yet mysteriously unharmed. Given that Bartoli is really not a very nice guy, one has to wonder why he lets Lara live. Yes, I know if he didn’t, there would be no game, but let’s try to use in-game logic here: Why didn’t he just kill her while she was unconscious?  She’s already killed about 80 of his henchman (and maybe 30 of his dogs), so you’d think he’d want some revenge.

My guess is that he was planning to wait until he was a dragon and then kill her with his fire breath, because that would be a nice, theatrical use of his new powers. Either that, or the Fiamma Nera payroll was starting to get a bit unmanageable, and Lara actually did him a service by weeding out under-performing cultists. Maybe he was thinking of offering a her a job as his body guard, which would be the smartest thing he could do, but Lara busts out of her cell before the B-man can broker a truce, and now we’ll never know.

And So My Troubles Begin

This burner trap looks really threatening at first, but the solution is incredibly simple and kind of lame.

I really don’t like this level set in general. It has it’s moments, but in general it feels like your regular Tomb Raider session has been interrupted by Metal Gear Solid. You would think putting TR and MGS together would lead to good gameplay, but alas, no. It’s the sterile, industrial environments of MGS without the stealth and intrigue of that series, and the occasional plodding tedium of TR without any of the grandeur and atmospheric magic. Things do pick up a bit once we get to the sunken ocean liner, but we’re not there yet.

And argh, the color-coded keycards. Any Tomb Raider level that has Lara collecting key cards instead of ornate keys or ancient sculptures is automatically suspect.

I tried to enjoy this level, really I did, but it’s full of so many things that are just a pain. In theory, it’s clever that you need to manipulate your armed opponents into shooting out the windows for you so you can progress in the level, but in practice, you’re standing there, waiting to be shot, then getting shot. Not fun.

And getting sucked into the underwater fan about 20 times before you realize you have no need to go over there, ever; not fun.

And climbing lots of ladders. Not fun.

And getting shot by frogmen with harpoons, only to pull up on dry land and nail those froggy bastards with your pistols…okay, I admit, that part is a little fun. The point still stands.

Please sir, can I have the windows shot out? I would be so very grateful!

The Rig that Never Ends

This level isn’t very large at all compared to some of the ones we get later in the game, but it just feels too long. I think after Opera House, I wanted a quick, refreshing little level to get me used to the new environs while I recollected my arsenal of weapons. Instead, by the time you get to the giant, water-filled room with tons of precarious cat walks, it’s like “you’ve got to be kidding me.”

I’m tempted to chalk it up to pacing, except I don’t really understand pacing very well. People will talk about “pacing issues” in books or film, and I’m often not sure I know quite what they mean. Everyone has a different intuitive sense of how things should be paced, so calling something “poor pacing,” as if that’s the kind of thing that can be quantitatively measured, just seems kind of iffy to me. That said, I wonder if my overall dislike of this level can be summed up as poor pacing; there are parts of it I like, but those parts tend to be incredibly short.

Running on top of the seaplane is cool. It’s a shame there isn’t more to do here.

I made things worse for myself by missing the exit of the water room, so I ended up navigating the catwalks about 3-4 times, completely; that’s not the game’s fault, and should probably be chalked up to me being dense sometimes. But still, it happened, and it’s partially Offshore Rig’s fault.

I hate this room. Granted, it’s nice of them to put a pool of water under you so Lara doesn’t die when you fall, but in some ways that just prolongs the agony.

Just when you think you never have to hear that stupid alarm again, you pick up this keycard and it goes off all over again. Goddammit.

At least the combat isn’t too bad. There are a lot of foes that you can take out from afar with your little plinky-plink guns, and I appreciate that sort of thing. No matter the level, conserving ammo for my big guns makes my stingy heart proud.

Yeah, I took a long time on this level. I spent a stupid amount of time playing with the underwater switch that leads to the Jade Dragon thinking it was critical to my progression or something (it’s not).

Best: Jumping around on the plane en route to get your pistols, then experiencing the euphoria of being armed again once you find them. I swear, you can almost hear a chorus of angels singing.

Worst: Uh, everything else? If I have to pick, I guess navigating the catwalks above the huge, water-filled room. It’s a good idea, but it just goes on way too darn long. Add in the fact that you end up traversing it a lot looking for the exit to the room, and it’s just annoying.

Rating: 1 out of 5 Uzi Clips. You’re supposed to start out hating this level, then feel awesome once you get your pistols back; unfortunately, the pistols only make me happy for about two minutes, and then I go back to hating the entire level. I’m sorry, Offshore Rig fans.

Next: Diving Area. Just give me my goddamned wetsuit already and let’s get this over with.

Tomb Raider II, Level 4: Opera House

There’s something intimidating about this level. Starting from the very first area, I always expect it to be a lot harder than it is. Yes, there are a couple of areas where you can easily kill Lara over and over again, generally while trying to avoid swinging crates/blocks/whatever, but it’s not actually that devious; most of where you need to go is laid out in plain sight, and you get fair warning before most of the traps. The amount of gun-toting enemies is a little bit insane, but you usually have enough space to move around that you can out-maneuver enemies if you’re smart about it.

Still, I was a bit apprehensive about getting up to this level, and I’m kind of glad it’s over now. My degree of nervousness towards this level is probably equivalent to how I would feel if I were to attend an actual opera and had to pretend I was enjoying it.

The Ghost of Opera Past

Blades of broken glass that come up to your thigh, and we’re not even in lobby yet? This is why no one goes to the opera anymore.

I’ve spoken before about how I prefer it when this series sticks to tombs instead of modern areas, but one thing I didn’t realize until this playthrough is that Opera House actually kind of works as a tomb. Think about it; opera is close to being a dead art form. Yes, operas are still performed, all over the world, but they only appeal to a very small percentage of the population. As far as popular culture is concerned, opera is dead as a doornail.

Once you start thinking about this level as symbolizing the demise of opera as an art form, instead of “random building where a stupid amount of Bartoli’s thugs are hanging out,” it starts to feel much more like a proper Tomb Raider level. I especially like the fact that the orchestra pit has been flooded; it’s like nature is reclaiming the theater, one tiny step at a time. I can’t decide if the frequent boulder traps work as part of this, or if they’re just ridiculous; right now I’m leaning towards ridiculous.

This is one of the only mid-animation screenshots of Lara I have ever managed to take. Don’t take this screenshot, it’s mine! I’m proud of it!

Did Bartoli and his group kick a theatrical company out of this theater? From the looks of things, this was a derelict building long before Bartoli & Co. got here. Friends, this is why we must always support the performing arts, in all their forms; if you abandon a theater and let it fall into disrepair, next thing you know it’s become a nest for ripped, dragon-obsessed cultists. Don’t let this happen to your local community theater, unless their version of Fiddler on the Roof is really just intolerable.

If Only I Could Get To That Place (That Is Totally Accessible)

This shot has nothing to do with the topic of this section, I’m just happy that I got a screen of Lara facing forward for once.

Another interesting thing about this level is that it strongly illustrates a problem not just with Tomb Raider games, but with this kind of adventure game in general; sometimes, you don’t realize where you can access. When I first played this, I was stuck on the audience side of the theater for a long time, because I didn’t realize the stage was accessible; you can do a running jump from one of the balconies onto the stage, but it doesn’t look like you’re supposed to, so I didn’t try. I don’t remember how I got out of this; the strategy guide might have been involved.

I can’t tell you how many times this has happened to me in Tomb Raider. “Gee, if I could get over to that ledge over there I bet that’s where the key I need is, but I can’t get there from here.” *insert an eternity of frenzied running around, followed by a desperate running jump to the ledge; it works.* “Oh, looks like I could get here all along; shame I’ll never get that hour of my life back that I spent looking for an alternate route.”

Am I the only one who has this problem? Maybe this isn’t an inherent problem with the game, and I just have really bad spacial reasoning skills? It’s possible.

Beware the World’s Most Dangerous Wooden Crates

I can’t tell you how many times I got Lara killed by this stupid swinging crate.

The main environmental hazard on this level is swinging items, either crates or sandbags. I find them irritating to deal with, but they’re pretty funny if you consider that the other main threat to Lara’s health on this level is tons of bad guys packing heavy weaponry. So while ruthless thugs with large guns just plink-plink-plink away at Lara’s health, like it’s no big deal, being grazed by a slowly-moving sandbag is equivalent to a death touch. Maybe Lara is just highly allergic to sawdust, who knows.

This is where the decision to institute the “save anywhere” system in this game really pays off, by the way. If you had these traps in the original Tomb Raider, and you had to memorize the timing for several of them in between each save crystal, no one would have finished Tomb Raider. I shudder to think what playing this level would be like if you couldn’t save anywhere you wanted…wait…actually, I know exactly what it would be like. It would be like Tomb Raider III. I’m trying to save my lamentations about TRIII until I actually get up to it chronologically, so I’ll leave it at that.

Immersion, This is Not

I wouldn’t call this level a complete failure on the graphics front, but it has a lot of issues. The main lobby area is pretty nice, but most of the side areas look pretty half-assed and unconvincing. The area above is supposed to be a dressing room (I think?), but it doesn’t really look like much of anything. The level is also frequently very dark, and while I know flares were invented for this purpose, it still bugs me.

I think I used three flares to get the Stone Dragon: three. Because the underwater area is pitch-dark, and you can’t use the cheap lighting effect of constantly firing Lara’s pistols while she’s swimming. I think collecting all the secrets is more important than hoarding flares, but there’s a part of me that always just wants more flares, like they’re candy.

Gunfighting For Profit, Not Fun

Since we spend so much of this level shooting it out with bad guys, this is a good time to talk about how combat in TRII works. Sometimes you can target enemies from far away and finish them off before they get close to Lara; that’s optimum. Sometimes though you have no choice but to get down and dirty, in which case it becomes a game-within-a-game of trying to exploit the enemies AI. If a foe isn’t facing Lara, he has to laboriously turn around, allowing the player to get a ton of free shots at the enemies back. With a little bit of luck, and judicious use of the roll button, it’s possible to take out a gun-toting enemy without taking any damage; just keep them turning in place.

That said, if an enemy gets the jump on you, a whole section of Lara’s health can be gone before you’re oriented properly to start screwing with the foe’s AI, plus there’s numerous other ways to mess up. Once I fell into the water-filled orchestra pit, allowing the guy on stage to take tons of potshots at me while I tried to swim away; I ended up reloading that time.

Given the save-anywhere system, it’s possible to save before every fight and make sure that Lara takes minimal damage. However, that also kills the spontaneity of the game; taking some damage and sucking a medipack is part of the experience. Basically if I really screw up, by letting the enemies get the jump on me and taking out all my health, I reload; if I take some damage from enemies while I’m trying to outfox them, well, that’s the cost of doing business.

Nice little detail I never noticed before now; if you look carefully, you can see the city skyline before you get on Bartoli’s plane.

I may have to get more anal about preventing damage to Lara if I start running short on health packs later in the game, but I’m going to try to continue playing with honesty, i.e. not constantly redoing every section until I do it perfectly. In any case, I used three health packs on this level and while I’m not proud of it, I’m not going to lose sleep over it either. Sometimes if you’re too busy mastering the game, you forget to play the game, and I don’t want to fall into that trap.

Yup, that’s three whole health packs. I also killed 44 bad guys, so my stats are still looking pretty good as far as I’m concerned.

At the end of the level is a cutscene I’ve never really understood because I can’t make out any of the NPC accents in this game, but short version: Lara hitches a ride on Bartoli’s plane, hears Bartoli talking about how everyone must have faith in his Great Dragon Destiny, and gets konked over the head by a muscle-bound baddy. I guess as good as she is, even Lara doesn’t have eyes in the back of her head.

Best: The whole elevator section. Once you’ve found the Relay Box and the elevator becomes functional again, there’s something really cool about riding the elevator down to visit an area you saw (but couldn’t access) earlier in the level. The fact that playing around with the elevator leads to a secret is just icing on the cake.

Worst: That last sandbag trap right before the end of the level. By this point, everyone is just tired of this marathon level and wants to be done with it, only you have to try to figure out how to time your jump so the slow-moving Sandbag of Death doesn’t disembowel Lara, and it’s just so tiresome. Let me on the plane already! I’m ready to have all my guns taken and shoved underwater, anything to make this stop!

Rating: Two Uzi Clips out of Five. I feel like this level earns at least two for pure ambition, but I just don’t enjoy playing it very much. I almost rated it a 3, but it loses a clip for poor graphics in many areas.

Next Up: With Offshore Rig, my bitching about how much I dislike the whole underwater section of this game begins. If no one wants to keep reading, I’ll understand.

Tomb Raider II, Level 3: Bartoli’s Hideout

A Note on Format

Oh TR fans, you have no idea what I’ve been through to bring you this post. What follows is a sordid tale of technical woe; if you don’t care about that and just want to read about the level (which is understandable), please skip to the next section.

As much as I appreciate being allowed to use Katie’s excellent screen shots, I decided it was time to buckle down and take my own. Sadly, the Playstation Vita doesn’t allow you to take screenshots of non-Vita games (why?), so I had to change systems. I bought Tomb Raider II for the PC, thinking this would make life easier; oh, how wrong I was.

First, I needed to set up a controller. I’ve never been a PC gamer, and the chances of my actually completing TRII with keyboard controls were about nil. Fortunately, we already had a Steam controller, except I couldn’t get the buttons to map right. If you’re using the Steam Overlay (which gives you access to general Steam features no matter what game you’re playing, and is on by default), the action button is reserved for Steam functions, so I couldn’t use it to have Lara grab and fire her weapons. Obviously, I was not going to fight about 20 years worth of muscle memory with a different button configuration, so I had to turn off Steam Overlay, then I was able to map the buttons to the classic Playstation configuration. Except, without the Steam Overlay, I lost the ability to take screenshots within Steam; more on this later.

I was doing okay with the Steam controller, until the lack of a dpad became a problem. Lara just kept getting stuck in corners, and the analog stick liked making her turn in circles instead of setting up for a running jump. So I had to get a separate USB controller, with a dpad…which would have been great, except the game didn’t know that the dpad was there. Eventually my husband resorted to what I can only assume was evil sorcery to get the game to realize that the dpad exists in this reality, and play resumed as normal. Except pressing “s” to take a screenshot, a feature of TRII, wasn’t working for some reason (no idea why), so I had to resume my general method of taking screenshots on this machine.

This wouldn’t be a big deal, except I happen to be running Windows via Bootcamp on a Macbook, so my screenshot command is the somewhat arduous shift+alt+F11. Three buttons, which makes it impossible to take a screenshot with one hand on the controller. This means that when I want to take a screenshot while holding the look button (or any other button), I have to keep one hand on the controller, one hand pushing shift+alt, and use my big toe to push F11. Most of the screenshots in this post were taken in this manner.

If you put aside the fact that I still need to do a gymnastics move worthy of Lara herself to take a screenshot, I have a workable system now, but uh…is it just me, or was this all a helluva lot harder than it should have been? It feels like I’ve taken all the frustration and tedium inherent in the early games of this series and tripled it, all in a uniquely personal way. For a moment during this whole process, I believe I began to hate Steam, Tomb Raider, and even Lara herself, but that’s all passed now. I think. Probably. Mostly I just hate the Steam controller. But hey, I can take screenshots now, as long as I don’t pull a muscle in my thigh!

Thank you to those of you who have joined me for this sad tale of trying to play old video games in 2018; we now return to your regularly scheduled level write-up.

Raiding the Clubhouse

Ironically, considering everything I went through to take screenshots, there wasn’t much in this level that I wanted to take a picture of. Venice is a much prettier level, and a more iconic one t’boot, but I find this one more fun to play. We’re inside Marco Bartoli’s personal stronghold, so the “where are all the civilians?” concern no longer applies; besides, we see more than enough muscular henchman for the area to feel populated. The only really strong, memorable idea in the level is the chandelier-hopping sequence, but somehow, even when you’re solving typical, bread-and-butter Tomb Raider puzzles, there’s something appealing about this level to me.

Despite my enjoyment of this level, I think this might here might be the dumbest looking trap in all of  the Tomb Raider games. These sword-swinging robots just look totally out of place in Bartoli’s mansion. Makes me feel extra-stupid when I time it wrong and get Lara cut in half by one of them.

Maybe it’s because the difficulty balance finally feels right– we may still be fighting a ton of gun-toting baddies, but it’s a lot easier to take them on in this terrain than in the watery canals of Venice. I think TRII starts out a bit too hard, and this level is where the difficulty eases up a bit and allows you to get your bearings. The level also strikes a good balance of giving you decent-sized areas to explore at your own pace, while still having linear parts to move things along briskly.

When I first played this game as a teen I didn’t realize that you could totally bypass these blade traps by jumping into the water; now it seems very obvious. I hate this burner trap though, it’s like a redux of the Palace Midas burner trap only with no grandeur.

There’s also something kind of fun about knowing that you’re in Bartoli’s house, jumping on his furniture and taking his stuff. It’s like the guy posted a “No girls Allowed in Treehouse!” sign on his front door, and Lara just ripped it off and went through without a care in the world.

Library Raider

This game has a pretty sparse script, so we don’t get to learn a whole lot about Bartoli; we probably learn more about him from exploring his home in this one level than anywhere else in the game. I know he’s a crazy, power-hungry cultist dude who just wants to become a dragon, but I’m beginning to think the guy might have hidden depths; no one who has such an awesome library can possibly be all bad.

The whole sequence of climbing up library shelves, shooting out windows, frolicking in the garden and canal outside, then going back into the library to solve more puzzles is an example of the kind of thing that this game does really well; putting several different types of surroundings adjacent to each other, and letting you jump around between them before any of them have a chance to wear out their welcome. All of the TR games do that to an extent, but when TRII is firing on all cylinders, it’s really good at making you leave and reenter the same space about 40 times without even minding that you’re doing it.

At one point I screwed up the resolution and went to widescreen, making Lara look like she just gained 50 pounds. Lara dear, I know those Italian pastries are delicious, but please put down the cannoli! We have work to do.

There’s one thing I want to call attention to here, something that I’ve never understood: the uzis hidden in a pool of water towards the end of the level. Why is this not a secret? Like, you should pick up a dragon, hear a little “ding!” sound and then get the uzis, but no, they’re just there, lying on the ground, as if this is a totally normal pickup. Then when you get the actual Jade Dragon, all you get is shotgun shells or whatever. It’s like the uzis are openly mocking the entire concept of secrets, and I’m not sure how to feel about this. Respect the sanctity of the secret, developers.

One more thing: you know that last enemy, the guy who shoots you from the balcony right after you blow up part of Bartoli’s house? I think he owes us a pickup, at least some automatic pistol ammo or something, and it’s morally wrong that he doesn’t give you anything. Seriously, I shimmied all the way over to that dumb balcony for nothing? Lame.

I feel bad that I wasted a small medi-pack, but there are just too many of those gun-toting guys in the library and I haven’t memorized all the secret ways you can ambush them without taking damage yet. Hopefully I can get through Opera House without using every single medipack I have.

Best: The entire ballroom area, jumping from chandeliers and all. Obviously I’m keen on the library too, but the library is infested with an annoying amount of enemies; the ballroom has just enough opposition to keep you on your toes, but you can primarily focus on solving the puzzle. See, if they made the game nowadays they would probably make the chandeliers swing and stuff in accordance with the laws of physics, but I actually like it better this way.

Worst: That stupid burner trap. I know it’s actually quite easy if you know how you’re supposed to do it, but it plays on the seasoned TR-player’s desire to turn everything into a running jump, and that’s just not cool. Plus it’s just kind of plopped randomly in the middle of the level and doesn’t have a good reason for being there, as opposed to the similar fire trap in Palace Midas.

This is why no one comes to nice parties at your house, Marco. Because you have a fire hazard right in front of your ballroom.

Rating: Three Uzi Clips out of Five

A fun level to play, but it lacks the big ideas and beautiful views of the best Tomb Raider levels, landing it somewhere in the middle.

Up Next: Opera House

So named because completing this level always takes me longer than an entire opera, complete with Valkyries.

I Want to Play Omega Labyrinth Z

Usually, when Japanese games are censored in the west or denied release at all, it’s a moot point for me because it wasn’t a game I wanted to play. When a risqué feature was removed from the English-language version of the mobile game How to Pick Up Girls in a Dungeon: Memoria Freese,  I thought that the game should not have been changed, but I wasn’t that invested in the subject. I am anti-censorship, but I understand that private companies aren’t obligated to localize features they think won’t do well in their market, etc. etc. etc. It didn’t seem like that big a deal overall.

Now the game Omega Labryinth Z has been cancelled outright, and this seems a lot more important to me, only because it sounds like something I want to play. Ever since trying Lightning Warrior Raidy almost (gasp) ten years ago, I’ve been kind of intrigued by the naughty-dungeon-crawler genre. I haven’t devoted the time to play any besides Raidy, but I’ve always wanted to go back and explore the subgenre. I’m not generally a fan of ero media– I’ve seen maybe two hentai anime in my entire life– but something about the combination of really ribald sexual humor and the grindy, meticulous gameplay of roguelike dungeon-crawlers appeals to me. It seems like a fun send-up of the type of masochism inherent to the genre. Plus, I don’t need much of an excuse to play a dungeon-crawler.

According to Eurogamer, the reason why the game was canned (by Sony itself, no less) is because of the youth of the characters: the girls are explicitly minors, making their sexualization unacceptable in Western markets. This is a problem that always leaves me scratching my head, because while I understand the reticence regarding sexualization and children in general terms, anime girl drawings are not minors.

Some anime depict children that look like children and adults that look like adults, but a lot of anime media portrays characters of an indeterminate age, and you need to know the background of the story to know what age anyone is supposed to be. Anime use similar designs for characters that are supposed to be 13, 23, even 33 or 43 at times. Just to pick a recent example, in Comic Girls, Kaos’ mother doesn’t look any older than the rest of the girls on the show; she’s just dressed in a more mature fashion. One of the things I commented on while watching Comic Girls was that Ruki is supposed to be 14 years old, but successfully pulls off an “older sister” act to an audience of 30-something women with only the aid of a little lipstick and eye shadow. Age is just weird in anime and it’s sister media.

I’m not saying “age is weird in anime” is a handwave that can be used to dismiss any criticisms or concerns about the sexualization of minors, but it does make me wonder. The developers could have choose to make everyone in the game exactly 19-years-and-four-months old, and then the sexualization would have been deemed acceptable, even if neither the artwork or writing had been changed in any way other than that.

I’m not getting super-upset here and calling for a boycott of Sony or anything; actually, considering my love of PSX-era games, boycotting Sony would hurt me a helluva lot more than it would ever hurt them. I just wonder what opponents of this sort of game being localized expect to happen. If this continues, when developers of erotic Japanese games want their product to have an opportunity to sell in the west, they’ll just change their premise from “everyone is always in high school!” to “everyone is always in college,” while leaving everything else exactly the same. Does that solve the underlying problem here, assuming there is one?

In any case, reading about this issue has given me an urge to play a hentai dungeon crawler again, and Lightning Warrior Raidy was never really my cup of tea; I may have to import Omega Labryinth Z. If I do, I’ll be sure to let you know how that goes, in exquisite (excruciating?) detail.

Here’s the official trailer if you want to get an idea what the game looks like; for more detail on the gameplay, look forward to my upcoming Let’s Play! HAHAHAHAHAHA…am I kidding? I’m not sure. I might not be kidding.

Tomb Raider II, Level 2: Venice

So my last Tomb Raider-related blog post was, uh *checks watch,* seven years ago. Look, you can see this as me being lazy and abandoning a project for too long, or you can see it as me valiantly attempting to combat the view that popular entertainment is disposable by refusing to bow to the quiet tyranny of time; the choice is yours.

The Urban Problem

I have a lot of problems with Venice, in fact with this whole Venetian level set, and it makes me feel kind of bad. I know these levels are largely beloved by fans, and I wish I could feel the same. But from the first time I played this level, back in 1998, I found it tedious and frustrating, and I’ve never been able to shake that feeling. Even now, when I have the level mostly memorized and can zip through it pretty fast, I still find it frustrating.

The first problem is that urban environments present practical problems for Tomb Raider, as a franchise. If we’re supposed to be in a city, where are all the people? Well, there are lots of gun-toting Bartoli henchman, but where all the non-packing, non-insane people? Putting in neutral NPCs would probably create as many problems as it would solve, but it still feels weird to be running around a city where no one lives; it’s kind of antithetical to the whole concept of the series, really. The whole set up of Tomb Raider implies that you don’t run into any people, because they all died thousands of years ago; when you’re in a modern city, and there’s still no people, you’re reminded of the artificiality of the situation pretty bluntly.

Yes, in the back of your mind, even in the first game, you always know you’re playing a video game; it’s not like making TRII Venice look more populated would really change that. But I think it’s safe to say that Tomb Raider achieves a higher level of immersion when set in, err, tombs, versus modern environments. Interestingly I think they pulled this off better with the London levels in Tomb Raider III, since in that level set, it felt like it was about 4:30 A.M. there and Lara was exploring mostly abandoned buildings anyway, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

The first vehicle you can ride in all of Tomb Raider and I…don’t like it too much. Maybe this is just me, but I feel like I’m constantly getting on an off the damn thing when I don’t want to, and it happens a lot less with later vehicles.

The second major problem is I think the level’s primary puzzle is a bit too clever for its own good. Maybe I’m just mad that I blew up Lara about a zillion times on the mines trying to clear this level as a teen, but I still think the boat puzzle is too hard to figure out without the aid of a strategy guide. I mean, this is the first TR level in history where they even give you a vehicle, and you’re supposed to figure out a)that you can completely destroy it and b)you can jump out of it at the last second before an explosion? My memory is a little hazy, but I think at the time, I thought you were supposed to improve your speedboat piloting skills to the point where you could navigate between the mines; obviously, this didn’t work out so hot for me.

On one hand, I complain that this puzzle is too unintuitive. On the other, I know that if this game were made today, NPCs and in-game prompts would probably give you about 47 hints about what you were supposed to do, and there would be no satisfaction when you solved it. Maybe I’m just never happy?

Eventually I destroyed one boat pretty much by luck, and forgot the second one existed, so I completed the level the wussy-way; swimming through the gate and completely missing the harried boat ride through half the level. Imagine my surprise when I started the next level and Lara was in yet another speedboat.

Is it possible that very few players were stymied by this puzzle, and I was just being dense? I guess it’s possible. Besides, I have to admit, when you do know what you have to do and you succeed with the timed boat challenge– complete with taking your boat to places where boats are definitely not meant to go– it is pretty darn satisfying.

The Joy of Awning Hopping

It’s hard for me to see past the negatives with this level, mostly because of bad memories from 20 years ago messing with my perception. However, if I give Venice a fair shake, there are some really nice elements here. Jumping from awning to awning is much more fun than it should be; same with jumping up to the fancy glass windows, shooting them out and then running inside. Somewhere out there, there is custom level that’s all about jumping on awnings and shooting out fancy windows on raised overpasses, and I really need to be playing it right now.

I also like the secret placement; sure, burying two little dragons in the black depths of an underwater catacomb is a little harsh, but if you haven’t figured out by this point in the game that they’ve been handing you buckets of flares for a reason, that’s on you.

Once you get this mysterious door open, that’s when the fun starts. I can never get enough of scouring dark catacombs for shiny things, especially when there are lots and lots of shiny things.

Have I mentioned that love collecting flares in this game? I feel like they’re the closest thing to money in the game, so my hoarding instinct takes over;  I’m pretty sure I’ve finished the game with 60+ flares in my inventory. It’s like a game-within-a-game to see how well I can get along with stumbling around in complete and total darkness without using the obvious tool. Hey, did you know that in a pinch, you can use your pistols instead? Lara’s pistols illuminate the area around her briefly, so if you fire them like they’re tiny little machine guns, you can almost see where you’re going for a little while there. Sadly, this does not work underwater, which is where you tend to need flares the most, but oh well.

Speaking of the swimming element, it’s cool to be swimming along, pull up on a dock, shoot some henchmen, jump back in the water and get on with your day. In practice I always get Lara shot about twice as often as she needs to and end up getting frustrated, but that doesn’t change the fact that the idea of it is cool.

Is there some kind of theme park attraction where you’re in an entirely floating city, and you can climb up on the dock to buy ice cream or something, but then jump back in the water to swim to the next attraction? Because that sounds like it would be insanely fun. I may have to stop playing Tomb Raider for a bit and petition all my local waterparks to implement this feature.

Best: Hands down, the best part of the level SHOULD be doing the timed boat race, which is really innovative and feels exhilarating when you pull it off, but as you now know, I have a love-hate relationship with that puzzle. So instead, I’m going to say that the best part is the whole sewer-like area you enter after getting the first speedboat; you may burn through flares like mad, but it’s a blast finding all of the hidden items and secrets. Those uzi clips nearly buried in the sand in a dark corner underwater…*chef’s kiss*

Worst: The excessive number of enemies in the first area, especially the one that pops up after you pull the switch in the boathouse. We’re just getting used to fighting human enemies in TR2, and you throw like five of these bozos at us? Plus mean dogs? No thank you.

Rating: Two Uzi Clips Out of Five

This is my honest opinion; please don’t hurt me.

Coming Next: Bartoli’s Hideout, where I’m going to try to put aside all my issues with Venice as a whole and just play the damned level.

(Screenshots from Katie’s Tomb Raider Screenshots; used with permission.)

Are Video Games Art? Part II

Art Is Cooperative

To illustrate how the viewer always customizes the experience of art, let’s turn away from videogames for a moment and look to something that is clearly “Art with a capital A,” painting. There’s a Kandinsky painting called Inner Simmering that I have a special connection with. I don’t know what Kandinsky intended with the painting; if I ever read any sort of commentary on it, I’ve long since forgotten. However, for me the painting is about the turbulent feelings of going from childhood to adulthood.

When I was 11, my mother took me to the Guggenheim Museum to see a Kandinsky exhibit. I was tremendously excited to be going to a museum and not a “kids” museum; a serious art museum for sophisticated, cultured adults. Inner Simmering was the painting that stuck in my mind; I felt like I was “simmering,” boiling over with excitement at taking the train, then the bus, then going to the museum, then going to a trendy cafe for lunch, all being treated like an adult and seemingly being initiated into this beautiful adult world of symposiums and garden parties. But I was also still a child, and I was a little afraid, worried the wonderful day would somehow fall apart, and my mother would lose me somewhere. Maybe I’d get lost in the city and end up begging in Central Park, or run over by an angry cab driver; there were dangers everywhere. My stomach wouldn’t stop churning.

Even now, over 20 years later, I can’t look at an image of that painting without thinking of the “simmering” feeling I had that day, the day when I felt my childhood and my adulthood bumping into each other in the pit of my stomach. This feeling was probably not what Kandinsky intended, but I think most appreciators of art would agree that my personal interpretation is a valid one; that, without getting into a tiresome “Death of the Author” debate, it’s widely recognized that the viewer’s experience of every work of art is customized to their own experience; not by choice, but by necessity. I can never be in Vassily Kandinsky’s head, only my own.

Returning to games now, I have the same kind of customized experiences. Tomb Raider was about the fantasy of overcoming my own natural timidity and going out to explore the world, maybe not ancient tombs but, say, hiking on a local trail without fear. Parasite Eve was about a fantasy version of Manhattan, a Manhattan that, while being full of monsters, was mostly devoid of people, meaning I could explore at my own pace; something I’ve never felt able to do when I’ve actually been in real-life Manhattan (and to this day, I feel far more at home in PE’s horrifying version of Manhattan than I do in any of the actual locations featured in the game, despite having visited many of them several times.) Final Fantasy VII was about…Final Fantasy VII was about a lot of things, and I don’t want to go on for 30,000 words here, so I’ll leave it at that.

I’m pretty sure Vagrant Story was somehow about sex, but I’m still figuring that one out; yes, Ashley’s famous pants played a role there, but that was only part of it. .hack was about trying to figure out why imaginary items in imaginary worlds were so important to me, among other things, and I still haven’t cracked that one; I keep replaying the .hack quadrilogy once every couple of years, hoping to figure it out. In fact, I think one of the reasons why I’ve never been able to get into World of Warcraft is because I’m still waiting for the simulated MMO of .hack to reveal whether or not I should care about real MMOs or not.

I think everyone has these kinds of personal experiences of games; they may not all be as elemental as my association with Inner Simmering, or even Parasite Eve, but they’re still there. However, this is where we get into how videogames differ from other media; because while we all perceive a painting differently, we’re all still standing there in front of the canvas, or the browser; our “participation” as it were, is all in our heads. In videogames our different experiences are acted out, sometimes in relatively simple ways (ex. taking a different route in a platformer), and sometimes in more complex ones, like purposely playing the game “wrong” to create a different experience. In games, the cooperative nature of art– something that has always existed– can be taken to the next level.

My Affair With Yuna

Screenshot taken from Youtuber Hellbent Revenge’s Yuna Only Challenge video.

Time for a confession: while I’ve never recorded myself doing Super Mario Speed runs or tried to beat Resident Evil in under 2 hours with only the knife, I am a challenge gamer at heart. In fact, I am the originator of the Final Fantasy X Yuna-Only No-Summoning Challenge.

*Pause for most people to go “the hell’s that?” while everyone who’s actually played FFX winces in terrible, sympathetic pain.*

For a while after FFX came out, people were making up all kinds of difficult challenges for the game, like the No Sphere Grid Challenge and the Tidus-Only Challenge. This sort of thing is pretty common among Final Fantasy fans in general, but it seemed like this trend was reaching its peak around the time X came out. While eventually every character had their own solo challenge, for years, Yuna was left out. Yuna was considered a bad character to try to solo with, because the whole premise of the game was that she was too weak to survive without protection. Yet, if you allowed her to summon her Aeons, then she became the most powerful character in the game*, completely destroying the “challenge” element of a solo run. The conventional wisdom was that a solo run that allowed summoning was too easy (and given the length of the summoning animations, too tedious anyway), while prohibiting summoning made it impossible.

Sometime in 2006, during a cold Albany winter (which was probably more relevant to all of this than you might think), I had a dangerous thought: What if a No-Summoning run with Yuna wasn’t impossible, only extremely difficult? I had to find out.

People on Gamefaqs were skeptical. How will you get past this boss, they asked, how will you survive this section where the enemies can kill poor little Yuna in one hit? And yet, I always found a way. I discovered that if you were willing to spend enough time leveling up Yuna by herself, you could pretty much brute-force your way through the entire game. Between farming for rare offensive weapon drops and power-leveling to get Yuna a support spell she wouldn’t normally learn until the end of the game, it all became possible. Check out this FAQ for more details; the user named Crystal Bangle is me.

What this meant, practically, was that I spent dozens of hours in front of the TV, staring at Yuna’s back. It was a time in my life when I needed a distraction, and did I ever find one. It was also a time when I felt very alone; I had moved to Albany after college with high hopes of building a new life for myself there, only for my few preexisting relationships to sour, while I was stuck in a dead-end job where I never met anyone. It felt appropriate to have Yuna’s companions run like cowards and leave her alone to face the monsters; it felt right for her to be all alone, hour after hour.

Even though I knew I was intentionally playing the game wrong, doing something players weren’t supposed to do, it still colored my perception of the game’s story. When the characters would talk about their duty as Guardians to protect Yuna, I found myself thinking. “What are you talking about? You guys haven’t done SHIT to protect Yuna, she’s all alone! Shut up Auron, even though you’re hot.”

What I essentially did was made another game within the larger game of FFX; a game where instead of being treated as a precious resource who was to be protected at all costs, Yuna was cast aside and had to fend for herself. While I’ve played through the storyline of FFX normally a few times, I can’t think of the game now without thinking of this “alternate” game, where all of Yuna’s companions abandoned her every single battle; hundreds, probably thousands of times over the course of the game.

To this day, I’m not sure how to feel about this. On the one hand, I proved that a challenge that people assumed impossible was not, and that’s kind of cool. On the other hand, I projected my problems onto this game, and spent dozens of hours staring at Yuna’s back when I could have been doing something to actively fix my problems. Maybe in a way I was addressing my problems, and I needed to do something like the Yuna No-Summoning Challenge to process what was even happening to me, but that’s an area of inquiry that goes beyond the scope of this discussion.

My torrid affair with Yuna was the only time I did a “challenge” with very specific parameters, but I’ve still spent plenty of time making games-within-games, albeit in a less anal manner. I’ve played the quest mode in Ehrgeiz as a religious zealot, using the game’s obtuse (and usually ignored) religion system to power up my weapons and steamroll through the game. I’ve played Vagrant Story while only using certain weapons, or certain spells. I’ve played Parasite Eve with a kind of God Eater Aya, using odd exploits in the game to power up the character far beyond what’s necessary to complete it. I’ve played X-Men Legends in an effort to experience the kinds of team-ups I wanted to see happen in the comics, but never did.**

Even when I’m playing the game the “normal” way, I still have certain quirks that usually customize my playthrough to a certain extent. Since I like exploring mechanics and hate replaying boss fights, I’m usually stupidly overleveled in any game with a leveling system. I also hoard items like a Doomsday prepper, regardless of whether or not I actually need them. I enjoy picking my favorite characters and giving them “Most Favorite Character” status: giving them all the best weapons and armor and stat boosts, while their teammates lag behind. This is especially satisfying to do when my MFC is technically one of the weaker ones, and I make her into an insane powerhouse for no earthly reason.

To return to my earlier point, I think having these kinds of customized gaming experiences are very much like my special meeting-of-the-minds with Kandinsky. I know I’m looking at the game in perhaps a different way than was strictly intended, yet looking at it in more than one way makes my personal connection that much more powerful. However, in traditional art, the personal experience is expressed as a kind of declaration: “To me, this painting is about ____”. In video games, it’s more of a dialogue with the game’s creators. Why did you make this character do this, when she could have done that? Why are you trying to encourage me to fight this boss now, when I still have imaginary crops to grow? Why are you trying to sell me on the power of friendship, when I feel more alone than I’ve ever been?

Let’s Play (Another Version of) This: Gaming As Performance Art

I didn’t record my YONS challenge; it was still hard to record gameplay at that time, and to be fair, it wouldn’t have made for very interesting viewing anyway. But the growing popularity of Let’s Plays adds several more dimensions to this idea that we create customized narratives and experiences within games. With an LP you can:

A) broadcast your customized narrative, so other people get the benefit of seeing the game through your eyes

and

B)Turn your gaming experience into a kind of performance art, using custom images, songs, and even roleplaying to add an element of improv theater to your gaming.

and

C)Turn your gaming experience into a communal experience of performance art, with viewers sharing their own custom art, songs and roleplaying.

Obviously I find the artistic possibilities of Let’s Plays and other performative gaming events to be fascinating, but let’s not ignore the obvious; a lot of LPs, perhaps most, are not worth watching. Most are riddled with lines like “I thought there was a health potion over here in this corner, oh wait it’s a green herb,” stuff about the logistics of playing that doesn’t add much to the experience. In a lot of cases the only reason to watch an LP is either because you’re such a huge fan of the game that you’ll watch any content related to it, or you’re stuck somewhere in your own first playthrough and are trying to figure out where you need to go next.

Sometimes though…sometimes people hit it out of the park. Take this Animal Crossing Screenshot LP, where someone turned a seemingly innocuous children’s game into a harrowing tale of psychological horror. Some LP’s can become hilarious screwball comedies, others can introduce a level of poignancy that wasn’t in the original game, particularly when the player shares a personal story that resonates with the games themes. I don’t know if I would consider Let’s Playing an art form– it’s more a weird, bastard child of several art forms, including theater and graphic novels– but to deny that there’s at least an element of art to a good LP seems quite ignorant to me.

Not only that, but the community that can build around an LP– suggesting strategies, coming up with character names, drawing LP-specific fanart, or just making funny quips at the right time– is also a creative entity. It’s art spiraling out and creating more and more art, as art in general tends to do, but this time, maybe even more so.

LPing may not be the most fascinating thing in the world, but let me put it this way; if there aren’t at least 20 Master’s Theses being written about LPing in Media Studies departments all over the world,  right this second, then I no longer have any hope for academia. Because you can scoff if you want, but this is the future of art; not all art, certainly, and not all the time, but some art. Maybe even Art with a Capital A.

In the third and final article of this series, we’ll look at some of the arguments against games being art and why they’re all shallow and dumb break them down a little bit.

*I’m a big FFX fan so OF COURSE I know that the most powerful character in the game is actually Wakka once you get Attack Reels, don’t send me hatemail. Or, do send me hatemail, that sounds interesting, just not about Wakka. 

**Just FYI, Jean Grey is stupidly overpowered in the original X-Men Legends. I mean, canonically, she should be, but what’s kind of funny is I think it might have been accidental.