On Speedrunning

Gotta go fast.

We’re currently in the middle of Summer Games Done Quick, and I’m bummed that this might be the first GDQ event I’ve had to miss since first learning about it some years ago through Ray Narvaez Jr. while he was still working at Achievement Hunter. GDQ is a 24/7 speedrunning event (24 hours a day for seven days) aimed at raising money for charity. Those who know me know that I am a huge proponent of video gaming as an art form and as a culture, and GDQ tickles my fancy by raising money to that extent as well.

That’s great and all, but that kind of raises questions about speedrunning as a whole. The topic is surprisingly divisive – more so than I would have thought until a few days ago when discussing it with another friend. Speedrunning is exactly as it sounds: finishing a game as fast as you can. There are certain categories that are each interesting in their own right: Any% means just reaching the endgame state, Glitchless means completing the game within the game’s intentions, or certain game-specific criteria (like maybe playing through Call of Duty knife-only). As you can probably tell, speedrunners are a very niche category of gamers.

Which is where the dispute comes up. One argument is that speedrunners aren’t gamers at all because they try to exploit the game in ways that the developers never intended. Breaking boundaries, using exploits, etc. – it’s not how you gain that experience of being part of an adventure. And I understand that; that argument is not without merit. However, I’m of the mind that the speedrunner is the ultimate gamer. Video games are unique because they can be pushed; one cannot really do much with a movie or book apart from analyzing each frame or each word. But video games, in their intrinsic interactivity, has to have limits for a gamer to push and break. In that sense, the speedrunner becomes the master of the game – finding ways to cut corners, or finding weaknesses in the code, or just being damned skilled at what he does. The speedrunner community, I argue, knows the game the best, because they have to consider every single possibility – and then some – just to shave seconds off their times.

Would I ever do speedrunning? Maybe, with a heavy lean towards No. It’s a fascinating subject, but I find myself watching speedruns to be a little on the boring side, and I don’t want to take the time to learn how to do so. On the other hand, GDQ is an event – almost like a sporting event (for me). I love watching the runs of my favorite games, and just reacting live. Super Smash Bros. Melee during this year’s AGDQ was extremely impressive, and seeing some of the perfectly landed Jigglypuff Rests were the cause of many a “WHAT” from me and my friend. I’m a little sad I won’t be able to catch much of SGDQ 2017, but if you’re interested I highly recommend you swing by and take a look. There can’t be anything wrong with playing video games for charity, right?

Frederic: Resurrection of Music

“Musicality” just doesn’t work, okay.

Well this was an interesting play.

*Spoilers*

During this year’s summer sale, I spotted Frederic: Resurrection of Music on a Reddit post that linked some lesser-known, potentially interesting titles not shown on Steam’s front page. With me getting back into piano this past November and chipping away at Ballade No 1, I figured I’d check it out.

It’s…interesting. It’s basically just a little rhythm game to be played on your keyboard. The art is a little gloomy for my liking, the voice acting’s a bit on the abysmal side, and literally everything is as caricatured and stereotypical as you can get – but the music was a pleasant surprise. Each battle track in the game is a stylized remix of a Chopin piece – i.e., the American Midwest has a western, while New York has hip-hop, etc. Part of me dislikes what I consider to be sacrilege of musical masterpieces, while the other part of me is extremely impressed in how these remixes were designed and created.

Unfortunately, the music might be the only saving grace about this game. On top of the earlier complaints, the plot is effectively nonexistent (though the commentary on music labels was somewhat amusing) – but the worst part was the keyboard control scheme. The game is essentially a seven-lane falling rhythm game (like Guitar Hero or Tap Tap Revenge), mapped to A, W, S, E, D, R, F, forming the notes F to B on a piano keyboard. If you look at your keyboard right now, you can tell how that might be a problem. These controls can be remapped, which alleviates the problem somewhat – but for me the worse part was seeing how the notes were constrained to seven keys. It was quite disorienting to be playing what I expected to be chromatics while hearing diatonic movements, and it took me forever to get past that.

The last gripe I have about this game was its difficulty curve. The first few levels were doable, even on the aptly-named “Chopin” difficulty, but when reaching Ireland the difficulty shot up. At this point I gave up on trying to finish the game at Chopin, and just decided to get it over with on Normal.

Was Frederic a good game? I dunno. The art, though not my style, does have an appeal; the music, as stated earlier, is quite good; but I just can’t get past the other parts of the game, parodies notwithstanding. I think I’d only recommend it to someone who likes listening to Chopin, and nobody else.

Also, there is no way in hell that a keytar is cooler than a grand piano. C’mon.

Shipping Emblem: Conquest

Two down, one to go

Over a year after I had finished Birthright, I finally returned to Fire Emblem: Fates to finish Conquest.

*SPOILERS FOLLOW*

Initially, I had started Conquest pretty much immediately after finishing Birthright, but stopped because I kept losing units, because I was stubbornly attempting Hard/Classic. I don’t quite remember why I stopped, but part of the reason was so I could finish XCOM 2 (which had released the week before) and Skyrim (which I had started earlier in that academic year but had never finished).

In the time since then, I’ve heard people saying how Conquest is the best of the three Fates branches, both in difficulty and in story. With two out of three now under my belt, I can say that to be true so far. Corrin’s sacrificing of his soul and being for the betterment of both Hoshido and Nohr was a far more engaging story than the fairly simple frontal war experienced in Birthright. That being said, this game was damn hard. This time, swallowing my pride and really just wanting to get the story over with, I played on Hard/Casual, and even then found it challenging. As a matter of fact, I never even finished the final Invasion mission, failing at it several times before giving up to start the last chapters. The game’s difficulty made me prefer the Guard Stance, and as a result I ended up having some “commander” units that were maxed out; I even bought Effie an Eternal Seal to boost her level cap to 25. She ended up being pretty much a literal tank, with 48 Def that more or less ensured nobody could inflict any physical damage on her. My other “commander” units were Corrin, Xander, Leo, and Henry.

I only wish I could have connected my DS to the Internet. With no side missions to boost my ships supports, I ended the game with only three children: Kana, Midori, and Siegbert. Digressing a bit, I ended up marrying Kaze and Effie; their S-support log made me laugh out loud:

Confirmed: trebuchets are more meaningful than statues

As an aside, my three S-supports were Corrin/Nyx, Xander/Selena, and Kaze/Effie. I was planning on Mozu/Henry and Leo/Beruka, but the game ended before I could see those through.

At any rate, the lack of non-story battles made planning for my army a real pain. I was wary of buying any equipment that wasn’t discounted for fear of funds later down the road. This fear ended up being quite founded, as for the first time in any Fire Emblem game I’ve known I actually found myself having to sell some of my equipment to maintain my troops. Moreover, my requirement of survival made a severe and quite extreme level imbalance; my practice of keeping units in Guard Stance rarely allowed the supporting unit to gain any experience, and consequently many of my units went unused for pretty much the entire game. I know for a fact that I never even deployed Izana, and since I was unable to do any castle battles and thoroughly upgrade my fort I never had Flora join my team.

Then again, I reasoned to myself that I was really just going through the story. If I really wanted the supports, I can read them online once Revelations is complete (just to avoid any accidental spoilers). Conquest is quite a dark game, I must say. Perhaps not in content, but you can almost feel the oppressive Nohrian army on yourself as you play; parts of it were almost painful to go through. This being a Fire Emblem game, though, there were still some enjoyable and funny moments. The last CG scene has the Avatar bouncing off of Camilla’s chest (seriously, what’s with the implied incest-ness in Fates?), and the support logs are still amusing as all hell. I vaguely recall hearing people complain about the lack of story depth when compared to Awakening, but, hell, it’s still a fun game nonetheless.

Next up is Revelations, and then I’m finally finished with Fates. I’ve put in about two hours into the game; I had forgotten how Conquest tints the menus with a purple, and the ability to have side battles is such an underappreciated godsend. After this? Who knows – I’ve been writing a symphony and maybe I’ll actually put some good, uninterrupted time into that.

The pain…

:C

This sucks.

Yesterday, I lost my Halcyon 6 save. It hurts. I had put in some 12 hours this past week, hoping to actually complete a playthrough.

And I came damn close (I think). Tier IV ships, seven officers, the entirety of the starbase explored…all to be lost in a single go.

It’s disappointing, to be sure. Halcyon 6 is a fun little game. Though touted as a mix of FTLXCom, and one other strategy game that I can’t quite remember at the moment, it feels like it struggles a bit to live up to the individual expectations of each title. That being said, it’s fun in its own right; the sense of back-against-the-wall really does feel like some of XCom‘s toughest moments, and there’s something really satisfying about taking out an entire enemy fleet without taking any damage.

It’s too bad, really. I had started Halcyon 6 two or three times during the semester, but had never seen it all the way through. With ~12 hours down the drain, I just don’t feel like starting again now. Maybe later. For now, though, it’s finally time to finish Fire Emblem.

Assaulting the castle

What an extraordinary experience.

*Spoilers follow for Breath of the Wild*

I finally finished Breath of the Wild over the weekend. With all Divine Beasts freed, all memories unlocked, and the Master Sword in hand, the only thing left for me was a full-on assault against Ganon. Earlier, I had explored the rear entrance of Hyrule Castle briefly (based on the advice of one of the NPCs), and accidentally found myself the Hylian Shield, but upon realizing how badass the music was – infused with Zelda’s Lullaby and the main theme as it was – I felt morally obliged to take on the castle in a single sitting.

And that was a great idea. Hitting the castle from the front, taking the obvious path outlined on the map, fighting Ganon, and watching the credits and cutscenes took about an hour. The music invoked a sense of inevitability and duty, and taking on the Guardians one by one let me feel a real sense of progress as I made my way up the structure. The ending itself was more emotional than I was expecting; seeing the four Divine Beasts unleash their power against Ganon made me realize the enormity of Link’s task, and fighting the multi-limbed creature in the castle’s sanctum was exciting for the battle’s entirety, despite its simplicity and reliance on skill more than abilities.

But little did I know, that was not the boss battle. No, the real boss battle – the final battle – took place outdoors, in as beautiful of a setting I could ever imagine. The soundtrack called back to the main theme revealed in last year’s E3, sprinkled with almost senseless and grating piano lines, and yet had an overarching sense of elegance that was at times both harmonious and conflicting with the Bow of Light and the battle’s location in Hyrule Field. Taking on Ganon astride my trusty blue steed Thunder (I actually underused the horse mechanic in this game, preferring to do my travelling by foot; I am curious as to how this final battle would have panned out if I had never domesticated a horse) with Zelda’s voice in my mind, I was finally struck by the game’s duality of giant scale and great, intense focus. Through looking things up after the endgame, I realized I had achieved the true ending through completing all of the main quests, and that ending really made me feel empty once I realized the game was over. I only wish there was a playable epilogue that detailed Link and Zelda’s journey to restore Hyrule; perhaps in one of the planned DLCs.

In conclusion to an amazing game and extraordinary experience, Breath of the Wild left a lasting impression on me. Everything was possible; I just had to have the right mindset and the right strategy. The story, if weak and a little simple, was fulfilling. Maybe I didn’t finish all of the side quests – and it’s entirely possible I haven’t even found all of the side quests – but Breath of the Wild has already taken its place as my favorite game of all time.

Breath of the Wild: a breath of fresh air

How Zelda is both new and old.

*SPOILERS AHEAD*

You’ve probably heard some things about Zelda‘s latest title, a little thing called Breath of the Wildreleased for Nintendo Switch. No biggie.

It’s been covered to death, and ever since seeing the E3 2016 trailer (somehow I missed the first 2014 one…?) have been very excited for the game. You may remember the Twilight Princess reveal, one of the most genuinely enthusiastic responses of a video game I can think of; when BotW was revealed last year my friends and I basically lost it in a similar fashion.

As of writing, I have yet to finish the game, but I’ve put in enough time to free all of the Divine Beasts and reclaim all but one of my memories. I have also done a little over 50 shrines and unlocked the entire map. Before the summer ends I should be ready to fight Ganon; the only reason I haven’t done so is because the lead-up to Hyrule Castle has such a heroic soundtrack that I feel morally obligated to do the entire thing in one sitting.

Anyway. It’s tough to say whether BotW is the most like Zelda or the least like Zelda. On one hand, it takes a stark departure from the somewhat linear progression that the Zelda series has used in the last few years; on the other hand, it’s so close to the original Zelda that one might consider it the ultimate Zelda game.

By which I mean its completely open world. If you recall, the original Zelda game had no instructions whatsoever; you were allowed to go in any direction from initially spawning – technically you didn’t even have to grab the sword. You could tackle the dungeons in any order you desired and secrets were unlocked by using your brain. Conversely, Skyward Sword infamously had Fi, who held your hand at every corner and turning the game more into a list of chores to do.

BotW takes the best of the original Zelda and supports and structures it with modern technology. People drop hints but never tell you explicitly how to achieve a goal. The search for the Master Sword was particularly good; through talking to four or five people, you eventually synthesize information to realize it’s hidden in the Lost Woods, and in order to navigate the Woods you need to watch the wind.

I think the reason I love BotW is how it strikes a balance between abilities and mechanics. When you think about it compared to other open-world games, it actually features fewer skills that empower the player; much of what makes the game tick is under the hood. Tiny little details, really. Temperature, weather, a true, loading screen-free open world (save for dungeons and shrines), the ability to set things on fire, etc. etc. etc. Moreover, the game puts a higher emphasis on skill. People claimed that BotW took points from Dark Souls; the Souls guys replied by saying that they’ve been taking points from Zelda. While abilities help you solve puzzles, get around, and sometimes fight enemies, much of the game is based on your personal ability as a gamer to react, empowering you and making you actually feel like the hero of legend – especially if you elect to go with the reduced, “Pro” HUD (in settings). This is further seen in the different ways you can attack a challenge. With all four abilities plus the paraglider unlocked in the first half hour, failure at a challenge means you can hit from a different angle. Maybe a head-on rush against a monster camp doesn’t work, so try swinging giant metal boulders around, or gliding in from above, or lure a Guardian over or something.

That being said, I do have a minor complaint. Where is Hyrule? There’s a massive castle in the center of the world, but what is it ruling over? I realize that there are town ruins in the vicinity of the castle, but there appear to be very few citizens. It just seems strange to have a very large castle ruling over a very small amount of people, the Calamity notwithstanding.

Though I feel BotW would have been an incredible game no matter when it came out, I think it was released at a great time. AAA gaming is taking a far more businesslike model, and each day I’m losing confidence in the entire industry as a whole. I’ve long lamented how big developers seem to be putting in features for the sake of putting them in and not for fun (looking at you, Assassin’s Creed collectibles), but in BotW everything plays a part on the overarching story of Link trying to save a kingdom on the brink of destruction. Nintendo is usually seen as being somewhat conservative and backwards in terms of game development, but ever since Iwata’s tenure as president the company has almost always been experimenting with fun. They don’t always succeed (see: Star Fox Zero), and yet they are unique in their way of at least putting that first. In that sense, Breath of the Wild really is a breath of fresh air.