Saturday, December 31, 2011

Top 5 Video Games of 2011

The following are my top five games that I played during 2011. These are not necessarily the five games I ascribed the highest rating to. Rather, these are games that I found noteworthy for any number of reasons. In some cases, it was the fun factor. In others, it was brilliant gameplay. For most it was a combination of these. The games on this top five list cover different genres, series, and consoles. (A few games that I reviewed this year were ineligible, simply because they were games I had previously played but decided to revisit prior to writing my review. Those ineligible games include: Resident Evil 5, The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask, Sonic Adventure, Halo 2, and The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion).

#5 - Devil May Cry 4: Devil May Cry is ridiculous. Guns blazing, swords spinning, and characters dishing out one-liners, there are a lot of elements that would point to this being just another predictable hack-and-slash game. But the degree of involvement with chaining combos and the freedom to invest in different moves sets this apart from the crowd. Plus, it's hard not to like Dante, cocky as he can be.

#4 - Transformers: War for Cybertron: High Moon has done a fantastic job with their fresh take on Transformers. This is a game that does not lean too heavily toward either the cartoon origins nor the live-action explosion-fest films. There's a solid variety of weapons at your disposal, while the campaign tries to emphasize one or two as being ideal to each character class. Transforming on the fly is incredibly fluid, and makes the multiplayer side of things all the more interesting.

#3 - Pokémon Heart Gold and Soul Silver: I have not played a core Pokémon game in nearly ten years, but this is possibly the best way I could have returned to the series. While the main Pokémon and progression of the story are kept intact, a few changes make these DS remakes superior to their Gameboy Color predecessors. The most prominent difference is the user-friendly control scheme, courtesy of the Generation IV engine. But it certainly doesn't hurt to flesh out some of the side characters a little bit. Updated graphics and soundtrack, plus the inclusion of online play makes this the complete Gold and Silver experience.

#2 - Portal 2: Building off the groundwork of the first Portal, this sequel presents even more clever puzzles via aerial faith plates, light bridges, speed and propulsion gels. The story takes on a much more important role this time around, and in turn, the comedy is a step up from the memorable cynicism of GLaDOS in the first game. JK Simmons and Stephen Merchant brought out some of the best moments, while the entire package is a reminder that just because something is a wildly-praised cult classic doesn't mean it can't be improved upon.

#1 - The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword: The best Zelda game in over a decade, Skyward Sword puts the competition to shame with phenomenal storytelling, level design, artistic direction, and the most fine-tuned controls of any motion-based game to date. Since the original Legend of Zelda released twenty-five years ago, the series has long been considered one of the best in the adventure genre. But few have come close to contesting Ocarina of Time's spot at the top, a game many consider to be one of the greatest video games of all time. Whether or not Skyward Sword manages to trump Ocarina of Time is a matter of taste, but one thing is for certain: this swan song for the Wii gives the N64 classic a run for its money.

Friday, December 30, 2011

Top 5 Anime of 2011

#5 - Eden of the East: Many contemporary espionage/action films or television series draw the bulk of their inspiration and formula from the familiar, like James Bond or the Bourne Identity. There are certainly some similarities between the latter and Eden of the East, but this anime takes a rather different approach. In trying to recover his memories, Takizawa relies heavily on Juiz and an everday girl, instead of playing the role of a lethally-trained badass. Because everything plays out like a game, action is often swapped out in favor of mystery, lending this genre a fresh new spin on things. It's not quite perfect, but I found it a welcome break from so many copycats.

#4 - Devil May Cry: Far too often, licensed material becomes so bogged down in trying to recreate whatever it is based off in anime form that it loses any creativity or logic. Devil May Cry maintains the signature style of the games through Dante's characteristic cool nature, but takes a step back from slaying one giant demon after another. The anime chooses to instead focus on lesser demons, allowing Dante's relationship with young Patty - often humorous as the two are - to take center stage. The soundtrack and fantastic animation courtesy of Madhouse make this a standout series for its kind, and others would be wise to take notes from it.

#3 - Darker Than Black: I generally steer clear of anime that tries to sell itself as 'dark' or 'mature-themed', as a lot of these end up being violent and bloody without much in the way of plot. Darker Than Black certainly has its violent moments, with Hei driving his knife into another Contractor's hand and Wei throwing his own blood to puncture gaping holes through bodies of those opposed to him. But it isn't so reliant on these elements. Instead, the story makes its primary focus on what it means to be a contractor, and how being a human correlates to that. With a thought-provoking story and incredibly catchy soundtrack, Darker Than Black is as cleverly-scripted as it is entertaining to watch.

#2 - Mushi-Shi: This series stood out to me for two major reasons. First, the episodic nature of the relatively unrelated episodes made it really easy to pick up and watch a lot of episodes in one sitting, or set down for a while, knowing exactly where I left off when I returned. Second, the combination of traditional fantasy elements and old Japanese folklore gave the series a very unique identity and really boosted the quality of the storytelling. It doesn't try to force the mystical aspect on you, but somehow it's still difficult not to be mesmerized by this show, one bizarre Mushi after another.

#1 - Full Metal Alchemist: It may break away from the manga source material a number of times, but there is no denying that this is not only among the best anime in recent years, but among the greatest anime of all time. The story of the brothers Elric is a very human one, as the two stick together for better or for worse, even as the darkening forces of the Homunculus and the Amestrian military close in on them. It's a fantasy story that, frankly, can hold its own against a giant like the Harry Potter series - and in some cases, FMA manages to trump HP.

2011 Year in Review: Anime

Mobile Suit Gundam SEED Destiny: A step up from its predecessor, SEED Destiny spotlights a new lead character, Shinn Asuka, who alongside Athrun Zala, delivers a far more interesting narrative than Kira Yamato ever did in Gundam SEED. SEED Destiny evokes a more genuine sense of the difficulties in alliance and war, by painting the picture with the ambitions of all the major players, and spinning a much more intricate web of politics and deceit. The later episodes get bogged down by the same clichés that burdened Gundam SEED, but as a whole this sequel is a significant improvement. My rating: 8.25

Full Metal Alchemist (season two): Building upon the revelations from season one, this second half takes a darker path, exploring the origins of each Homunculus and the trials the Elric brothers face from the many factions they cross paths with. Although the series deviates from the manga at points - some ways more distinctly so than others - the story remains focused on the aspects of growing up and familial responsibility conveyed through Edward and Alphonse. The added backstories of Lust and Greed provide extra fuel to the emotional drive. Despite a few episodes that feel out of place, season two of FMA provides a fitting second half to the contemporary classic that is the story of the brothers Elric. My rating: 9.5

Rating for series as a whole: 10

Azumanga Daioh: Part slice-of-life, part comedy, Azumanga Daioh follows a group of awkward and zany girls through their high school years. Whether it's over-analyzing social customs, obsessions with cats, or avoiding one particularly weird teacher, the girls always have an opinion to share. The art style and soundtrack take a minimalist approach, which is appropriate given the nature of this hybrid series. My rating: 8.75

Mushi-Shi: A string of largely unrelated tales fuels work for Ginko, a Mushi Master - one of a rare few who can see and interact with semi-sentient entities that influence the unseen world around humans. The series blends fantasy and ancient Japanese folklore to deliver both a fantastic narrative and genuine sense of wonder. Though many characters only appear for single episodes, they are so memorable and well-developed that it is of no consequence if Ginko decides to take on a secondary role for an episode or two. My rating: 9.5

Eden of the East: A man without any idea of who he is or was, Akira Takizawa returns to Japan to find he is a contender in a national game of sorts, with a vast amount of money and seemingly limitless resources at his disposal. Along with his newfound friend Saki Morimi and faceless voice receiving his calls known as Juiz, Takizawa must figure out who the other contenders are and use the means he has been allotted to 'save Japan', whatever that might mean. The story is told in chunks that reveal enough information to keep the story interesting, but also perpetuate the suspenseful and action-driven parts. My rating: 8.5

Summer Wars: A bit of an awkward high schooler, Kenji jumps at the opportunity of spending time with Natsuki at her grandmother's 90th birthday celebration. Once he gets there, though, Natsuki reveals that she wants Kenji to play the part of her boyfriend to impress the family. Though he is uneasy about it, Kenji decides to stay. One night, he receives a text on his phone containing a complex math equation, which he solves, not knowing it is part of the security code to the digital realm of Oz. A virus known as Love Machine then makes its way into Oz, and Kenji recruits the help of Natsuki's cousin Kazuma in hopes of stopping Love Machine from unleashing all forms of chaos on the real world. The focus on family helps push the film along at a steady pace, though the shift in who assumes the role of the main character late in the film leads to a somewhat awkward conclusion. My rating: 8.5

Full Metal Alchemist: Conqueror of Shamballa: A follow-up to the wildly popular series, Conqueror of Shamballa displays the most creative liberties taken with the series (which is to say, the film is not grounded in the manga in any way, save for characters and locations). While Al regained his body, Ed was sent to the other side of the gate, to our world, just prior to the Nazi regime's rise. The few Homunculi are dealt with in a fitting manner, while Eckhart fills the role of a relatively appropriate yet typical villain. The story is in keeping with the darker tone of the second season, though bits of humor retain the FMA charm. My rating: 9.25

Devil May Cry: Unlike the games, this series focuses on Dante's smaller missions as he faces demons that are generally on a smaller-scale. His life among everyday humans is explored, and his relationship with young Patty provides both comedic moments and a more genuine human element. The art design and soundtrack are both killer, all of which makes the licensed anime series a standout for its kind. My rating: 8.75

Panty and Stocking with Garterbelt: A very raunchy comedy from Gainax, the series takes a while to define itself. It delivers crude sex and bathroom humor in a style not unlike the earliest episodes of South Park, but sneaks in a number of pop-culture references and parodies of shows like Transformers, which may fly over the heads of viewers not so familiar with these other works. Save for the last episode's uncalled-for curveball, the series does a good job of sticking to what it does best - delivering laughs. My rating: 7.25

Halo Legends: A series of shorts set in the Halo universe, Legends covers not only the famed SPARTANs, but the Covenant, Forerunners, and ODSTs as well. A few of the tales come across as a bit too forced, most notably a feudal Japanese duel between two Elites. While anyone familiar with the main Halo trilogy will understand each story well enough, those familiar with the novels and side games will get the most out of this anime collection. My rating: 8

Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children: Two years after the conclusion of the classic PS1 game, Cloud Strife finds himself lost in this new peaceful world - that is, until a trio of Sephiroth-lookalikes show up, informing him of their intent to find "mother". Sensing trouble, Cloud and company join forces once more to stop the trio from bringing about a return of Sephiroth and subsequent destruction of their world. This is one beautifully animated film (no surprise, since it is a work by Square Enix). But only a handful of characters deliver any genuine emotions or feel necessary to the plot. My rating: 7.75

Darker Than Black: A reality where superhumans known as contractors live among regular people, hidden in the shadows, Darker Than Black places emphasis on the different organizations invested in the powers the Contractors wield as well as Heaven's Gate, the origin of all Contractors. The bulk of the story is told through Hei, a Contractor known by many as the infamous Black Reaper. On the other side of things is Misaki Kirihara, a security officer who knows each contractor not by name, but rather by their messier codes that are associated with each star in a new night sky. Stellar soundtrack and curious art style aside, Darker Than Black brings into question the concept of what it means to be human, and if Contractors are capable of such emotions. My rating: 9.5

Gundam 00: Awakening of the Trailblazer: Following the success of the series, this film explores a world headed toward absolute peace, and the uncertainties that come along with the revelations of the recently-discovered Innovators and Innovades. However, everything is turned on its head when the ELS, metallic shapeshifting extraterrestrials, make their way to Earth, drawn by the quantum brainwaves of the Innovators. While the same characters return and the story's pacing is managed well, the story is a bit off-key when compared to the constant human-centric story maintained through the two seasons of the 00 series. My rating: 8.25

Pokémon White journal - entry one

As with my journal for Soul Silver, I'm going to be keeping track of my progress with Pokémon White, offering up any opinions about the gameplay, story, and the 150 new Pokémon along the way. I found that last time this journal really helped me to pinpoint the strengths and weaknesses of HG/SS as I powered through it. With White Version, I plan to take it at a slower pace, but hopefully this journal will be just as helpful.

At present, I am almost eight hours into the game. I have spent a small amount of time grinding and revisiting areas to catch wild Pokémon I had previously missed. As a whole, it's been pretty straightforward so far, save for the open areas in Pinwheel Forest. I feel this is a result of the increases in user-friendliness carried over from the Generation IV titles, but at the same time, I'm hoping there are some more wide-open areas later on. It would make sense that, with only three gym badges under my wing, much of the world remains to be explored.

Since Nintendo was offering via download, I have added Victini to my Pokédex at a very early point. However, I have no intention of using said legendary until much later on. I still want the game to have some challenge to it. But while we're on the topic of my team, I chose Oshawott as my starter. In the past, I've leaned toward fire-types, but I wanted to mix things up this time around. Plus, I think Tepig's evolved forms look a tad ugly. The rest of my team has generally included Blitzle, Throh, and Lillipup/Herdier. Until recently, my fire type was Pansear/Simisear, but has since been swapped for Darumaka. And the latest addition, Roggenrola, had filled Tympole's brief position on my team. I'm certain each of the different types will merit use in the upcoming gyms, and I'm fine with swapping them out as need be when the time comes. In storage, I also have Purrloin, Sandile, Woobat, Scraggy, Pidove, and Audino.

I'm already finding that I dislike the grass types in Unova. They apparently all have giga grain and sleep powder, which makes them less of a threat in battle than it does a major annoyance. The rest have presented some interesting battle scenarios, however, due largely to just how flexible many of the Gen V Pokémon are with learning moves that are outside of their type.

So far the gym battles have presented just the right degree of challenge, I feel. It definitely helps that characters in-game actually provide you with some sense of direction this time around. Between gym battles, trainer battles, and even wild battles, it seems like my Pokémon are leveling up at a much faster rate than in previous games. I felt that leveling up was easier in HG/SS than it had been on the Gameboy Color, but White Version has my party progressing at an even faster rate. I suppose it's just as well, though - to my understanding, the legendaries appear at something like level 70 this time around. And I do want Zekrom and Kyurem by the time this is all said and done.

Pokémon: Nobunaga's Ambition trailer

Though I'm not familiar in the least with the Nobunga's Ambition series, this trailer looks very promising. I assume it will play similar to something like Final Fantasy Tactics, which - combined with Pokémon - should make for another great handheld RPG experience. No word yet on a stateside release, though, with the huge Pokémon fanbase here, I can't imagine Nintendo passing up such an opportunity. On a personal note, I'm glad to see Eevee in the spotlight as opposed to Pikachu for once.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Anime review: Gundam 00: Awakening of the Trailblazer

Picking up two years after the end of the show's second season, Awakening of the Trailblazer paints a picture of a world on the way to global peace. The Gundam Meisters have nearly disappeared from the public eye, though rumors of their actions against A-Laws still remain. New mobile suits are still being produced for Celestial Being, but any intervention on their part is kept in the shadows, only providing assistance when absolutely necessary - for example, Lockon's preventing an assassination attempt on Princess Marina.

There are a few points, primarily regarding the Innovators and Innovades, that see quick but satisfying wrap-ups that were not covered in the series. The Jupiter Incident, which was briefly explored in the show, takes on a significant role, as the long-forgotten research ship makes a return to Earth seemingly by itself. Though the Earth forces are able to destroy the vessel, some pieces fall through the atmosphere and attach themselves to trucks, trains, and even humans. As it turns out, the ship had been assimilated into the consciousness of the ELS, a collective of metallic shapeshifting aliens.

The Gundam Meisters head to Earth hoping find out what the ELS want, and quickly discover they are drawn to the quantum brainwaves of Innovators and supersoldiers like Allelujah. While Setsuna is still wrestling with the semi-recent discovery of his identity as an Innovator, he also finds his thoughts and reactions on the battlefield hindered by the ELS. This new threat to the Earth sphere - something predicted by Aeolia Schenberg, but not expected for many more years - prompts Tieria to assume the body of an Innovade and join his comrades to fight once more.

The film is very well-paced, allotting the better part of the first hour as setup for what is to come. Aside from Celestial Being and the military forces, the story also revisits Saji and Louise, both of whom serve dual roles - examples of what happens to those with Innovator qualities in this new world, and some of the first to experience the psychological blocks brought on by ELS presence. Even the inclusion of Kati Mannequin is merited as she fronts the defense against the ELS, though her husband Patrick Colasour is still as obnoxious, incompetent, and stupid as ever.

Some of the action scenes drag on a bit longer than necessary, and evoke some cheesy dialogue from the main characters. This is something the series did well to avoid, and it's disappointing to see the film lean toward that predictable territory. On the other hand, the non-combat scenarios are greatly executed, portraying the uncertainty with what will become of humanity in the future, as well as the personal relationships between characters like Allelujah and Marie or Setsuna and Feldt.

The animation still retains the same style as in the 00 series, though there are some notable improvements in the attention to finer details. The occasional 3D models are incorporated seamlessly in the midst of battle sequences. The soundtrack is largely the same as in the show, with a few new variations here and there.

Gundam 00: Awakening of the Trailblazer takes a lot of risks as a Gundam property. While the Innovators and Gundam Meisters tie it back to the plot of the series, the ELS carry it into brave new territory. The film has some hit-or-miss segments, though many of these are grounded more in execution than the actual plot. It may not be as perfected a formula as seen in the show, but Bandai and Sunrise should at least be commended for their first inclusion of extraterrestrial life in the long-running franchise.

My rating: 8.25 (out of 10)

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

2011 Year in Review: Video Games

2011 was a big year in gaming for me. It was both a return to the games of yesteryear and an exploration of newer titles that, in some ways, made up for the lackluster feelings I had towards many of 2010's releases. The titles I played in 2011 present a wide range of genres, and a few I consider to be quite groundbreaking - two of the titles I played this year earned perfect '10 out of 10' scores. Without further ado, the play-by-play of every video game I reviewed in 2011.

Marvel vs. Capcom 3: The Fate of Two Worlds: Presented through an art style very much reminiscent of comic books, Marvel vs. Capcom 3 pits characters new and old against one another. Each character is balanced to near-perfection, a welcome break from the unbalances found in some other fighting games. There are only a handful of stages presented, and while the single player arcade mode is pretty straightforward, most of the replay value comes in the form of training challenges (which is to say, the replay factor is somewhat limited). Still, it's a solid multiplayer experience, even if the online lobbies force players to stare at a semi-blank screen instead of a match in progress. My rating: 8

Beautiful Katamari: Not much has changed since the original Katamari Damacy, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. The King of All Cosmos once again calls upon the Prince to roll up as much random junk as he can to replace planets and meteorites. This time, the world is much more open and expansive, preventing many of the collisions encountered in the first games. The soundtrack and art style are just as zany as ever, a perfect marriage to a game that has an intro scene which features dancing pandas and kaleidoscopic flowers. My rating: 8

Fallout 3: Arguably one of Bethesda's best games to date, Fallout 3 puts players in the shoes of the Lone Wanderer as he/she escapes from the confines of Vault 101. What lies beyond is a post-apocalyptic retro-future, where tunes from the forties and fifties carry across the rubble that was once Washington D.C. Combat is divided between real-time and the freeze-frame VATS, the latter of which allows players to take precise aim at specific body parts of an enemy to inflict greater damage. There are moments of inconsistency with regards to the game's difficulty factor, though a bevy of sidequests can help players level up and surpass these, so long as they're willing to put in the extra effort. The main story is well-developed, though rather short. That said, the simple act of exploring the Capital Wasteland can present plenty of adventure in and of itself. My rating: 8.5

- Operation Anchorage: 6.5

Devil May Cry 4: A hack-and-slash game with plenty of gothic imagery and religious undertones, Devil May Cry 4 destroys its competition by having one of the most involved combo chaining systems in the genre. Players can upgrade Nero and Dante's movesets as the game progresses, and revisit levels on higher difficulty settings. The boss fights place the most emphasis on strategy, and are often preceded by cutscenes that rival Hollywood action. The main game is a bit on the short side, but the finesse in sword and gun combat is unrivaled. My rating: 8.25

Portal 2: Chell returns to the Aperture facility, this time aided by robotic companion Wheatley, whose quirky nature rivals GLaDOS' dark humor. While the puzzle layouts in the original were mind-bending enough, Portal 2 adds new elements like Light Bridges, Aerial Faith Plates, and Speed and Propulsion Gels. The single player mode benefits from more narrative backing this time around, while cooperative play introduces some real head-scratchers. In the end, it's a brilliant mix of puzzles and platforming. My rating: 10

Sonic Rush: The story of two Robotniks from alternate dimensions is a sign of the inspiration drawn from new school Sonic games. The level design, on the other hand, is largely inspired by the original Genesis games. There are a few puzzles here and there that slow down an otherwise breakneck pace. Levels are unfortunately accompanied by what is possibly the most obnoxious soundtrack in the series. 3D boss fights are cleverly planned out, and serve as some of the game's highlights. It's not a perfect Sonic game, but it doesn't take itself too seriously either. My rating: 7.5

New Super Mario Bros. (DS): Sticking to the classic Mario formula from the NES and SNES, the DS version is quite nice to look at, with every enemy and environment rendered in 3D models. A nice variety of level design and lack of a story will certainly make this handheld Mario appealing to fans who want to revisit the plumber's roots. My rating: 9

Transformers: War for Cybertron: Unlike the movie-based games, War for Cybertron takes greater creative liberties, building its own origin story for the war between the Autobots and Decepticons. High Moon has done a great job with their new spin on the Transformers story, though they do slip in a number of references to Generation One. The multiplayer is a ton of fun to play, with character classes that are well-balanced. It's not a perfect, but still a great first entry that High Moon will no doubt improve upon with the sequel. My rating: 8.75

Resident Evil 5: A follow-up to the wildly acclaimed Resident Evil 4, RE5 puts players in control of Chris Redfield as he travels to the Kijuju region of Africa. He and his partner Sheva Alomar quickly discover the locals to be infected with Plagas, as well as longtime villain Wesker's plans for world domination. It's an intense experience from start to finish, trading out the classic horror for more action-packed segments. While the item management is less-than-stellar, the level design, lighting effects, and environmental ambience make the experience all the more engaging. The game serves as a fitting end to the main Resident Evil story arc that has been running for over a decade. My rating: 9

- Lost in Nightmares: 10

The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask: Ocarina of Time is a tough act to follow, and while it might not be as wildly revolutionary as its predecessor, Majora's Mask brings plenty of new content to the Zelda series just the same. Easily the darkest story in the entire series, it's also one of the best told, as Link must stop Skull Kid from using the power of Majora's Mask to crash the moon into the land of Termina. The game puts more emphasis on pre-temple and post-temple tasks, while each of the four temples is brilliantly designed and presents a nice challenge just the same. Often overlooked when compared to other titles in the franchise, Majora's Mask is one of the most polished, most challenging, and most enjoyable games I've ever had the pleasure of playing. My rating: 10

Batman: Arkham Asylum: Part stealth game, part brawler, Arkham Asylum puts players in control of the Dark Knight as he attempts to return order to Arkham Asylum, after Joker has set all of the inmates loose. Aside from some very creative boss encounters with Scarecrow, Killer Croc, and Poison Ivy, players can seek out Riddler Trophies to unlock character models, and beat up baddies to their heart's content in the extra challenges. It has a few flaws, but by and large Batman: Arkham Asylum is a prime example of how to approach licensed material the right way. My rating: 8.75

Sonic Adventure: Twelve years after its initial release, Sonic Adventure still holds up as a solid adventure platformer. The story is one of the best in the entire Sonic series, and while it may look somewhat primitive by today's standards, the 3D graphics were a standout element for the 1999 release. The voice acting is downright terrible, and any mission involving Big the Cat will ultimately lead to frustration. while much of the gameplay feels like a test bed for what would come in the sequel, Sonic Adventure is still a lot of fun to play. My rating 8.5

Halo 2: A game that not only made a giant impact on online gaming, Halo 2 also had a huge impact on the way the series would be shaped through future entries. While some might not have been so keen on playing as the Arbiter for some of the game's missions, it certainly helped add depth to the Covenant and UNSC forces alike. The gameplay was much smoother than in the original Halo, and the graphics are some of the best on the original Xbox. There are a few hitches here and there, particularly with 'bump-in' objects during cutscenes, but it's a great gaming experience nonetheless. My rating: 9.5

Halo 3: ODST: The black sheep of the Halo franchise, ODST is an unusual FPS game. Chapters of the larger story are presented from the various squad members as they try to regroup, while the streets of New Mombasa act as an explorable overworld hub. The Rookie is the main character, and in the style of Master Chief, is left a shell of a character for player to imagine as whomever they wish. The rest of the cast fleshes out nicely, given the six/seven hours it takes to complete the campaign. The soundtrack is gorgeous and the voice acting top-notch. My rating: 8.75

Street Fighter III: Third Strike Online Edition: Classic arcade fighting at its finest, Street Fighter III: Third Strike rounds out its roster with many new faces since Street Fighter II. All of the 2D character models are vibrantly colored and highly animated, while the levels and soundtrack make the game's atmosphere. Combos prove much easier to chain than in other games like Marvel vs. Capcom 3, though the element of strategy is not sacrificed in the process. Throw in online multiplayer and you have yourself one excellent recipe for a fighting game. My rating: 9.25

The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess: A Gamecube title ported over to the Wii, Twilight Princess takes on a darker tone than some other Zelda games. The story of the Twili presents a fresh and interesting spin on Link's story, though much of the game tries to identify too heavily with Ocarina of Time. The motion controls respond well enough, but there's nothing wildly revolutionary presented through the items or weapons. Most of the boss fights will prove quite simple for veterans of the series, but there's no denying that Twilight Princess is among the best adventure games on any console this generation. My rating: 9.0

Sonic Generations: Drawing some of the best levels from the Sonic series, Sonic Generations delivers to both old-school and new-school fans. Each level is tackled twice - one as side-scrolling retro Sonic, and again as third-person view new age Sonic. The boss fights are cleverly designed, while the challenges present players with plenty of replay material. A few level choices seem a tad uninspired, but if this is a sign of things to come, SEGA's mascot hedgehog might just be on the fast track to a great revival. My rating: 8.5

The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword: The greatest Zelda game in over a decade and the single best Wii title, Skyward Sword is one game not to be missed. It's super-precise controls respond like a dream, while the gameplay mechanics as a whole draw from the tried-and-true methods of previous entries, while adding some new-school flair to round out the package. The game is quite lengthy, offering up 35 to 40 hours depending on the number of sidequests players choose to tackle. The storytelling is phenomenal, providing a great precursor for the rest of the series. My rating: 10

The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion: With a vast world to explore and a variety of character classes to choose from, the Elder Scrolls IV has something to offer every RPG fan. The level up system is a bit awkward, and the Cyrodill seems a rather generic medieval realm. But for an early release on the current-gen systems, The Elder Scrolls IV looks and plays pretty solid, with sidequests going the extra mile to flesh out the experience. My rating: 8

- Shivering Isles: 9.25

Pokémon Heart Gold and Soul Silver: DS remakes of the Gameboy Color releases, Heart Gold and Soul Silver retain their identities by placing emphasis on the Pokémon from generations I and II, while utilizing the generation IV engine (Diamond, Pearl, and Platinum). The result is a beautifully-rendered Johto region that is as colorful as it is teeming with quirky characters. The gym layouts have been updated to incorporate puzzle mechanics, and the soundtrack sounds fantastic to boot. Heart Gold and Soul Silver showcase the improvements to the user-friendliness in the Pokémon games, the primary reason that the DS versions are improvements over their Gameboy predecessors. My rating: 8.75

Monday, December 26, 2011

DS review: Pokémon Heart Gold and Soul Silver

Remakes of the Gold and Silver Generation II entries from 2000, Pokémon Heart Gold and Pokémon Soul Silver revisit the Johto region and the earlier days of the franchise. The main storyline and Kanto post-game remain almost entirely retained, though they receive some very welcome graphical and gameplay upgrades, courtesy of the Generation IV engine (Diamond, Pearl, and Platinum). Before I get too far into this review, I should make a point of noting that I have not played a core Pokémon game since the days of Gold and Silver on the Gameboy Color. I played the Stadium games and enjoyed the quirkiness of Pokémon Snap. While I have kept up with the additions to the Pokédex over the years, these DS remakes are the first traditional Pokémon titles I have played in almost a decade.

For those unfamiliar with the plot of Gold and Silver, it's pretty much the same this time around. Players will name their character, then receive a starter Pokémon before they set out on their journey to beat each of Johto's eight gym leaders. Those starters come in the form of Cyndaquil (fire), Chikorita (grass), and Totodile (water). The starter players choose will impact their rival's pick, who - unlike the cocky rival in Red and Blue - actually steals his starter from Professor Elm.

Early encounters with wild Pokémon will prove relatively easy. With a starter at level five, it's going to be easy to grind for experience points during the first few hours. Trainer battles will also provide sufficient funds for the occasional potion, but players will not need to worry about status changes like poison, sleep, and paralysis until after the first couple of gyms. This allots newcomers some time to adjust to the gameplay, while veterans will have sufficient time to beef up their team prior the earliest gym battles. Certain types of Pokémon will not be available to catch in the wild right away, and players must learn to keep their party balanced and strategic when approaching trainer, gym, and rival battles.

As players progress through the story, they will have encounters with Team Rocket and need to complete a handful of sidequests in order to be granted access to certain gym battles. While the story remains focused on the player, his/her rival, and the gym leaders, there are some side characters that are fleshed out a bit more than in the original Gameboy Color releases. The Pokémon games have never been recognized as the greatest in storytelling, since much of what happens therein is up to the player. But small alterations like this make the world much more engaging and believable. On top of that, the soundtrack is a phenomenal update, with some of the more noteworthy tunes being Ho-oh's theme, Red and Lance's theme, and the three variations of the theme that plays during the battles with each legendary dog.

The DS control scheme allows for two modes of play. Those who prefer the Gameboy controls of yesteryear can still select attacks and items in the midst of a battle by using the D-pad and buttons. The touch screen also allows use of the stylus for accessing all of this, as well as managing the Pokémon storage system. When teaching Pokémon new moves, players can compare the type, damage, and accuracy of a move to those their Pokémon already know, and not have to react so blindly or impulsive in these put-on-the-spot moments.

Outside of the main game, players can access the Pokéathalon, which presents a number of amusing minigames that will grow old after a short time. The Battle Frontier can be accessed after the main game is completed. There, players can battle a series of trainers back-to-back in order to earn Battle Points. However, players are not allowed to use certain Pokémon in the Battle Frontier (most being legendaries), nor can they earn any form of experience points through said battles. The Battle Frontier is included primarily for bragging rights among hardcore Pokémon fans, but there isn't much else to it.

On the other hand, the Safari Zone allows players to catch some Pokémon from Generations I, III, and IV that they would be otherwise unable to obtain. The Pokéwalker accessory that comes bundled with both Heart Gold and Soul Silver allows players to gain experience points, find items, and catch wild Pokémon on the go, as each step taken helps progress toward leveling up their Pokémon companion. The Kanto post-game provides some decent higher-level battles, though about half of the regions gym leaders are pushovers. Perhaps the most significant inclusion in recent Pokémon games is online play, allowing players to challenge friends to single or double battles.

Thankfully there are only a few points in the main game that require grinding for experience points, and the gameplay flows quite seamlessly because of this. The Johto region has never looked better. The tall grass and trees aren't anything special to look at, but the Ecruteak City towers, streets of Goldenrod City, and seaside port of Olivine City are each rendered in vibrant colors. The styles of different buildings now act as markers for the Pokémon Center, Pokémart, and Gyms, instead of simple text labels. The interior of each gym utilizes some form of puzzle mechanic, making the gym battles among the most exciting parts of the experience.

Players will need to purchase both Heart Gold and Soul Silver if they want to catch every single Generation II Pokémon. They can also import Pokémon from Generations III and IV if they so choose. The Pokémon games have always presented a great handheld RPG experience, and Heart Gold and Soul Silver are no exceptions. Where they really exceed, though, is through their improvements to user-friendliness. These are fantastic remakes and - a few shortcomings aside - belong in the collection of any Pokémon fan.

My rating: 8.75 (out of 10)

Sunday, December 25, 2011

25 Days of Villains - #1: Ganondorf

“My country lay within a vast desert. When the sun rose into the sky, a burning wind punished my lands, searing the world. And when the moon climbed into the dark of night, a frigid gale pierced our homes. No matter when it came the wind carried the same thing... death. But the winds that blew across the green fields of Hyrule brought something other than suffering and ruin. I coveted that wind, I suppose. It can only be called fate... That here, I would again gather the three with the crests... That I should lay my hand on that which grants the wishes of the beholder... That when power, wisdom, and courage come together, the gods would have no choice but to come down... The power of the gods… The Triforce! He who touches it will have whatever he desires granted! Already the crest of wisdom is mine. All that remains… Do not fear. I will not kill you. I merely have need of the power that dwells within you. Now! Let us put an end to that which binds us together!”

Every one hundred years, the all-female Gerudo tribe gives birth to a male who is recognized as their king. As Demise promised Link and Zelda upon his defeat at the end of Skyward Sword, there would always be an incarnation of his hatred to walk upon the Earth. That revival comes in the form of Ganondorf, king of the Gerudo, usurper of Hyrule, and (as far as I'm concerned) the single greatest villain in video game history.

In A Link to the Past, Ganon is referred to as having once been a man, before he discovered a greater power that allowed him to transform into the powerful beast. As Ocarina of Time is the first game in the timeline confirmed to follow Skyward Sword, we can only assume that to be the first appearance of Ganondorf. As he makes clear to Link, Ganondorf intends to overthrow the king of Hyrule and command the power of the Triforce as his own. When Link removes the Master Sword from its pedestal in the Temple of Time, he opens the Sacred Realm, which allows Ganondorf to steal the Triforce of Power. He then uses it to reshape the kingdom as he sees fit.

During the seven years that followed, Link spent his time asleep in the Sacred Realm, while Zelda evaded Ganondorf’s grasp by taking on the guise of Sheik. Link eventually helped all six of the sages awaken, and they in turn helped him to forge a path to Hyrule castle, but not before Zelda revealed her true identity and was captured by Ganondorf. The only one capable of stopping Ganondorf, Link proceeded to his castle and ascended to find Ganondorf waiting for him. With all three pieces of the Triforce in one place, Ganondorf intended to kill Link, his only remaining opponent, and claim the Triforce of Courage.

Reflecting his own dark magic back at him, Link was able to defeat Ganondorf, but the Gerudo King used the Triforce of Power to transform himself into the beast Ganon. While Link lost his advantage temporarily, he was able to retrieve the Master Sword and, with the help of the sages, sealed Ganondorf away.

There are a number of theories regarding how the Legend of Zelda timeline progresses. For the sake of avoiding debate, I will simply be covering Ganondorf’s actions in the other two titles he appeared. In Twilight Princess, Ganondorf was recognized as a threat to the kingdom and the sages attempted to execute him. They soon realized the extent of his power, however, as a blade to the chest did little harm. Ganondorf killed the sage of water, and – seeing the severity of the situation – the other sages sealed him away in the Twilight Realm.

Once there, Ganondorf took advantage of Zant, leading him to believe that he was some kind of a God. He granted Zant some of his powers – enough to travel to Hyrule and shroud portions of it in Twilight, but nothing comparable to the strength of the Gerudo King himself. After Zant’s defeat, Link and Midna stormed Hyrule Castle to find Ganondorf had assumed the throne. Eventually they were able to free Zelda from his control, and Link killed him, driving the Master Sword through his preexisting wound.

In The Wind Waker, the same Ganondorf Link sealed away in Ocarina of Time has found a way out of the Sacred Realm. When he planned a second conquest of Hyrule, there was no hero to stop him, and so the Goddesses flooded the realm, creating the Great Ocean. Hundreds of years later, there are but a few who remain that know even a little about Hyrule, one of them being the King of Red Lions, talking boat and travelling companion of this era's Link. While the two set out to face the challenges of the tower of the Gods and retrieve the pieces of the shattered Triforce of Courage, Ganondorf has already sent his minions forth to kill the last two remaining sages, Laruto and Fado. He's also gathered quite a collection of young girls with pointed ears, hoping that one of them might be the descendant of Princess Zelda.

Around the midway point of his journeys, Link finds the Master Sword beneath Hyrule Castle. But the blade of evil's bane has lost all its power, forcing Link to tackle two more dungeons to return it to its former glory. At the same time, most of Ganondorf's power was sealed beneath the pedestal of the Master Sword. With it removed, Ganondorf is once again able to assume his Ganon form, as well as his superhuman strength. When Link ventures to his tower to face him, Ganondorf already has Tetra/Zelda, and makes quick work of Link, beating him until he is nearly unconscious. The three pieces of the Triforce resonate, and Ganondorf relays his wishes to the Goddess.

Unfortunately for him, the King of Red Lions (aka the King of Hyrule) intervenes, touching the Triforce first and bringing his own wish to wash away Hyrule to fruition. Outraged, Ganondorf then faces Link and Tetra one final time, intent on taking them down with him as the ocean floods in all around. Link ultimately prevails, with help from Tetra's carefully-aimed light arrows, and drives the Master Sword into Ganondorf's skull.

In Ocarina of Time, Ganondorf is at his most malicious, sending forth every imaginable enemy to hinder Link's progress and attempting to kill the Deku Tree, Jabu Jabu, the Gorons, and the Zoras. His hatred and anger are displayed quite prominently as well, through his rage after his castle collapses. In Twilight Princess, he takes on the role of puppeteer, hoping it will be too late for the people of Hyrule by the time they realize Zant is not the true threat. And in The Wind Waker, Ganondorf shows maturation since his time in the Sacred Realm. His plan is much more carefully laid out, and he nearly succeeds. When it's all said and done, though, Ganondorf is still as vengeful as ever, throwing everything he has at Link and Zelda. Despite how many times Link defeats him, Ganondorf and Ganon will continue to return, just as Demise said he would, bringing pure hatred wherever he goes. There aren't many video game villains that can be both as iconic and as enduring as Ganondorf. And those are the reasons he ranks as the greatest villain of all time.

Boss Themes:

I have two favorite themes for Ganondorf. The first is from Ocarina of Time, when Link parries magic spheres back at him. The second is the sword duel with Ganondorf at the end of The Wind Waker, and both of these easily fall among the most atmospheric and epic final boss battles I have ever played through in any video game.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

25 Days of Villains - #2: Solidus Snake

"Damn the Patriots!"

Born of the best genes Big Boss had to offer and therefore easily the strongest of his three sons, Solidus Snake displays a near-perfect balance of tactical and physical prowess. Solidus’ interest in the Patriots came about after the Shadow Moses Incident, when he was still in office as the 43rd President of the United States. Rallying Fatman, Vamp and Fortune to his side and forming the Sons of Liberty, Solidus assumed command of Big Shell, holding everyone there – including the 44th President – as his hostages. Believing Revolver Ocelot to be his ally, Solidus initiated his plans to undo the Patriots.

Solidus’ intent was to assume command of Arsenal Gear, which lay beneath Big Shell. After his encounter with Solid Snake and Raiden, Solidus’ lost one eye and his Harrier Jet was sent crashing toward the ocean. Ocelot’s Metal Gear RAY saved him, however, and the two headed for Arsenal Gear. Realizing that Solid Snake was now on Big Shell, Solidus sped up his plans to access Arsenal Gear and retrieve the identities of all the Patriots. Before he could complete this however, Raiden was captured.

Upon recognizing Raiden, Solidus revealed he was once his adoptive father. Solidus trained Raiden to be a ruthless killer at a young age, earning him the nickname of Jack the Ripper. Shortly thereafter, Ocelot revealed that the actions of both Raiden and the Sons of Liberty had been scripted by the Patriots. Infuriated, Solidus went on a rampage, destroying as many of the Metal Gear RAYS as he could and killing Olga Gurlukovich.

Unable to initiate his plan of knocking out Manhattan’s economic structure through an electromagnetic pulse, Solidus had no further means to fight the Patriots with. As Ocelot escaped with a Metal Gear RAY, Arsenal Gear was sent on a crash-course with Manhattan. Solidus beckoned Raiden for one final showdown in New York, to determine his capabilities as comparable to Solid Snake as per the S3 Plan. The third son of Big Boss was defeated by his protégé, just as the Patriots had intended.

Solidus is not only physically strong, but utilizes some diverse weapons. Attached to his combat suit are two robotic tentacle arms, which can be used to inflict forceful blunt trauma or fire small missiles. The suit also grants him boosted strength, speed, and endurance, despite his faster aging process. Solidus wields two katanas and a P90 submachine gun, and his plans at Big Shell are indicative of his careful plotting. His goal is not so far-removed from that of Solid Snake, but the fact that he is so willing to kill many to see that end achieved sets him apart from his brother. Were it not for the Patriots’ hand in everything, Solids Snake’s determination to defeat them would have most certainly succeeded.

Boss theme:

Friday, December 23, 2011

25 Days of Villains - #3: Albert Wesker

"The right to be a God... That right is now mine."

A product of the Umbrella Corporation, Albert Wesker was the standout member in the Wesker children project. He spent many years as part of the Umbrella team, before transferring to the S.T.A.R.S. division of the Raccoon City Police Department. As Umbrella began experimenting on animals and people, Wesker began to lay out plans for his own rise to power.

During the Mansion Incident, Wesker duped his S.T.A.R.S. team into believing he was their ally and commanding officer. Faced with the mutated plants and animals that infested the mansion, all but a few of the team members died. While Chris Redfield and Jill Valentine stopped the Tyrant, Wesker led them to believe he had been killed by it. In reality, Wesker had injected himself with a chemical provided to him by former colleague William Birkin, and his body was resurrected, now with superhuman abilities.

Years later, Wesker sent Ada Wong into a remote region of Europe to retrieve Plagas samples. Ada crossed paths with Leon S. Kennedy a number of times, and though Wesker was likely aware of the aid she provided Leon, did nothing to interfere. He was prepared, however, for Chris Redfield to come looking for him following the Kennedy report that Leon followed after his eradication of the Los Illuminados.

Wesker then travelled to the estate of Ozwell E Spencer, who revealed to Wesker that he had been the one in charge of all the experimentation and bio-organic weapons. Spencer had hoped to use these to force the next phase of human evolution, but with both the Plagas and the Progenitor Virus at his disposal, Wesker informed Spencer that he would assume that role and shape the world to his own ends. As Wesker killed Spencer, Chris and Jill entered the room and engaged him in combat. Despite their skill with firearms, the duo could not compete with Wesker's inhuman physical strength and speed. Wesker leapt from the window, taking Jill with him. This led Chris to believe her dead, when in reality Wesker had taken her prisoner, attached a control device to her chest, and commanded her as one of his underlings.

Eventually Chris and Wesker met again in the Kijuju region of Africa, where he and his new partner Sheva Alomar took on wave after wave of Plagas-infected Majini and wildlife. These proved stronger than those Leon had encountered five years earlier, but the two manage to track down Wesker through Ricardo Irving and Excella Gionne. Wesker revealed to them his plans to unleash Uroboros worldwide by spreading it into the atmosphere, as well as the fact that Jill was still very much alive, albeit under his control. Chris and Sheva struggled to free Jill, but eventually succeeded. Afterwards, Chris and Sheva followed Wesker to his jet, fighting him in mid-flight until the aircraft crashed into a volcano. Furious with the duo for having foiled that which he had waited so long for, Wesker unleashed his own mutated form. While he nearly killed Chris and Sheva, he was forced into the lava and blown up by an RPG round as Jill and Josh Stone came to the rescue.

Throughout all the Resident Evil games, Wesker carried himself with a cool confidence. Despite the fact that much of his achievements were met through manipulation and murder, he did have a hand in much of the research he ended up taking for his own use. His idea that humans needed to be saved through a forced evolution into something monstrous and controllable, as well as he desire to be akin to a God shows his delusional mindset. And it is because of this that he shows little to no restraint in just how evil he can be.

Boss theme:

Thursday, December 22, 2011

25 Days of Villains - #4: Ridley

Leader of the Space Pirates and one of Samus Aran's oldest foes, Ridley is as mean as they come. His appearance is still reptilian like the rest of the Space Pirates, but he is considerably larger, looking much like a dragon. He's faced Samus many times in battle, and each confrontation proves as lethal and unforgiving as the last.

During her Zero Mission, Samus encountered Ridley as one of two major obstacles to reaching Mother Brain. Though she was able to defeat Ridley, she discovered later on that the Space Pirates were attempting to save him by combining his organic body with mechanical elements. While Samus was able to destroy the prototype before she escaped Zebes, Meta-Ridley would be completed on board the Frigate Orpheon orbiting the planet of Tallon IV. After Samus killed the mutated Parasite Queen and started a chain reaction that led the ship to crash into the planet, Ridley began tracking her. He watched from a distance in the tundra of Phendrana Drifts, eventually facing her head-on at the Chozo Temple where the Phazon meteor crashed. Ridley went all-out, firing seeker missiles from a distance and lashing out with his tail at close range. Despite the intense fight, Samus emerged victorious, if only for a brief while.

On Norion, as the Space Pirates engaged Federation Forces, Ridley attempted to take the generators offline. At the same time, Samus was trying to keep them online to aid the Federation's defenses, and the two engaged in battle in the midst of a free-fall down the catacombs of the base. Some years after the eradication of Dark Samus and the Metroid populous of SR388, Ridley took it upon himself to steal the last living Metroid. His forces performed all manner of experimentation on the life forms of Tallon IV and Aether during Metroid Prime and Prime 2: Echoes, the Metroids included. Though Samus was able to defeat Ridley, his goal of mutating the last Metroid was already underway.

Ridley's remains were destroyed at the end of Super Metroid, confirming his final death. But in all the times Samus faced him, Ridley exhibited a balance of intellect and deadly force. On the one hand, he is well-versed in the aforementioned genetic experimentation as well as battle tactics, with the Space Pirate forces having proved themselves capable opponents to the Federation fleet. Facing Samus one-on-one, Ridley always has speed and brute force on his side, and his attacks are carefully planned.

Boss Theme:

Though Ridley's theme has been relatively consistent through the years, the version that plays in Metroid Prime is easily my favorite. The electronic sounds really help to embody both the sense of sci-fi exploration and the intensity of facing Ridley.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

25 Days of Villains - #5: Ghirahim

"It hardly seems fair, being of my position, to take all of my anger out on you. Which is why I promise up front not to murder you... No, I'll just beat you within an inch of your life!"

One of the most flamboyant characters in Zelda history, Ghirahim - or I should say, Demon Lord Ghirahim, as per his preferred title - is also one of the best villains to grace the series. Seeking Zelda as a means to resurrect his master, Ghirahim stirs up a tornado that sucks Zelda down from Skyloft to the surface world. Things do not progress as quickly as Ghirahim had planned, however, as both Impa and Link impede his designs.

While Impa leads Zelda to the various locations around Hyrule that are crucial to her role in keeping the Demon King Demise sealed forever, Link face Ghirahim and all of his followers head on. Ghirahim sends one monstrous foe after another to face Link, only to see them fall to the hero's blade. Ghirahim is introduced as someone who thoroughly enjoys displaying his powers, and likes to lean toward the most theatrical of presentations. But as the game progresses and Link defeats each new challenge thrown his way, the Demon Lord becomes frustrated, allowing his dark side to emerge. By the time the last few hours of the game roll around, Ghirahim is infuriated at how many defeats he suffered because of Link, and becomes a more collected individual, though he is still simmering in hatred and frustration.

His final solution to revive his master is to undo everything Link managed to accomplish, using the Gate of Time to travel back to an era when his master was just freshly sealed away by the goddess Hylia. Link follows, but this time Ghirahim is determined to finish his work. He begins his ritual, intent on using Zelda's life force to free Demise from his current form as the Imprisoned. Summoning the full force of the Dark Tribe with a single snap of his fingers, Ghirahim commands them to keep Link at bay, informing them that whatever they might fear of Link is nowhere near as frightening as what he will do to them if they fail.

But even this massive force proves unable to stop Link, which leads Ghirahim to throw a bit of a temper tantrum, demanding to know why Link won't let him finish his ritual. Ghirahim then moves Zelda off to the side and forges a battlefield high above the Sealed Grounds so that he may face Link once more. He tells the hero that he plans to knock him off the edge and kill him as a sacrifice to Demise. It is then that Ghirahim reveals his true form - a black and grey sword spirit, and something of a polar opposite to Link's companion Fi.

In his new form, Ghirahim's body is impenetrable, save for the diamond on his chest, which Link thrusts his sword into enough times to bring the two back to ground level. But Ghirahim is not done. He utilizes the same tactics he displayed before, though this time his sword is considerably larger and more lethal. It's also somewhat fragile, assuming Link strikes it at the proper angles.

Finally beaten, Ghirahim is appalled at Link's skill. He never fathomed that a human could beat him. In his final moments, Ghirahim informs Link that his effort was all for naught, as the ritual had continued during their fight. Ghirahim laughs maniacally as the Imprisoned absorbs Zelda's spirit, allowing Demise to assume his proper form. Ghirahim welcomes his master back, but is cut short as the Demon King absorbs Ghirahim back into his own sword. His role complete, Ghirahim dies at the hand of the one he fought so long to revive.

Ghirahim is one of the notable exceptions on this list of villains who actually succeeded in their aims. Though Demise was eventually defeated by Link, Ghirahim's sworn duty was only ever to see to his master's return. Ghirahim is a curious individual. Rather than going from collected to crazy, he sort of does the opposite, displaying a very angry yet serious demeanor when he decides to travel back in time - a far cry from the energetic sadist Link encountered in the Skyview Temple.

Boss theme:

This is the track that plays during the final confrontation between Link and Ghirahim at the Sealed Grounds. It's very befitting Lord Ghirahim, and this is my favorite variation.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

25 Days of Villains - #6: Dr. Robotnik

"I am Dr. Ivo Robotnik, the greatest scientific genius in the world!"

Hear me out - I realize Dr. Robotnik (or Eggman, as he is referred to nowadays) is not among the most successful of villains. Sonic has foiled every single one of his plans, from his earliest robotic creations to his most recent time-travelling beast. But there's no denying how iconic the goofy main antagonist of the Sonic the Hedgehog franchise is.

Robotnik has never been known for subtlety. His classic hover chair accommodated a number of attachments, from spiked wrecking balls, to drills, to hydro cannons. His floating Death Egg fortress was one of his earliest creations that reached mammoth proportions. In Sonic Adventure 2, he reactivated the lost colony ARK, which was revealed to have a giant cannon capable of shattering half of the moon, and that just so happened to bear a striking resemblance to his own visage. Even the Egg Dragoon, though considerably smaller than the other two, is an ostentatious mecha unit loaded with every imaginable form of ammunition to serve as overkill in taking down one hedgehog.

Some of his more successful endeavors include the creation of Metal Sonic, and the occasions where he turned to Knuckles, Chaos, and Shadow as his ever-powerful number one fighters. Through Chaos, Robotnik managed to acquire each and every one of the Chaos Emeralds, though things went south once Chaos morphed into his uncontrollable perfect form. Shadow, on the other hand, proved much more loyal to Robotnik for the majority of Sonic Adventure 2, even continuing his search for the Master Emeralds as he questioned his purpose late in the game.

Probably the two instances Robotnik came closest to victory over Sonic were during the events of Sonic Adventure 2 and Sonic Generations. His plans in Sonic Adventure 2 would have succeeded, had he not misunderstood his grandfather's legacy. In Sonic Generations, Robotnik (both his past and present selves) used the Time Eater to erase history and every instance of Sonic's victory over him. As a side effect, all of Sonic's friends were locked away in various places from his past journeys. The thing Robotnik had not counted on was the fact that, without any measure of time present, the two versions of Sonic were able to move back and forth freely, and this allowed them to quickly gather the Chaos Emeralds to go Super Sonic on the Time Eater.

Robotnik's victories may be small and limited - often they are through the actions of his creations and subordinates. But he certainly is persistent, and is determined to someday defeat the famous blue hedgehog. His methods can be a bit ridiculous, but you have to give the man credit for his style.


Yes, it's cheesy music from the early 2000s. But I love how catchy Eggman's theme from Sonic Adventure 2 is - very befitting of someone who enjoys tooting his own horn so frequently.

Monday, December 19, 2011

25 Days of Villains - #7: Prophet of Truth

"You are, all of you, vermin! Cowering in the dirt, thinking... what, I wonder? That you might escape the coming fire? No! Your world will burn until its surface is but glass! And not even your Demon will live to creep - blackened - from its hole to mar the reflection of our passage, the culmination of our Journey. For your destruction is the will of the gods. And I? I am their instrument!"

Religious fanatic and one of the hierarchs of the Covenant, the Prophet of Truth commands his forces with a calm but passionate demeanor. He is constantly spouting forth propaganda to boost the morale of the various species that make up the Covenant, while demonizing the humans they are in a constant race against to recover Forerunner artifacts.

Though the three Prophets of Truth, Mercy, and Regret all technically oversee the Covenant and help to maintain its path toward the Great Journey, the events of Halo 2 make it abundantly clear that Truth is the one pulling most of the strings. While the Covenant forces respect each Prophet, following their commands without question, Truth is the one Tartarus, the Arbiter, and Half-Jaw all turn to for their next orders. He is always at the forefront during any proclamations to the Covenant masses.

When Regret makes his preemptive strike on Earth, Truth informs him that his actions nearly jeopardized the Great Journey. When Master Chief crosses paths with Regret and kills him, Truth orders a ship to fire on their location, implying that he would have killed Truth whether Chief beat him to it or not - Master Chief's presence there was merely an excuse. Toward the end of Halo 2, when the Prophets and the Brutes are leaving High Charity for Earth, a flood spore attacks Mercy. Tartarus tries to help him, but Truth stops him, claiming that the Great Journey will wait for no one. With both Mercy and Regret out of the picture, Truth officially assumes complete control of the Covenant.

There are a few things that Truth indirectly caused without realizing the impact it would have. In ordering Tartarus and the Arbiter to retrieve the Icon on Delta Halo, his unleashed the Flood from containment, allowing the Gravemind to leave, claim High Charity, and invade both Earth and the Ark. Also, Truth's aims are misguided. He believes that activating the Halo array will lead to the Great Journey, some sort of spiritual transcendence, when in reality, activation of the rings will wipe out all life in the galaxy.

However, Truth knows full well that the humans want information from any and all Forerunner technology they can get their hands on, and sees this as a threat to the Great Journey. He sees humans as a significant threat to the Covenant, as well as the Separatist forces. In Halo 3, the Covenant Separatists are a full-fledged fighting force allied with the humans of the UNSC. But in Halo 2 they are scattered rebel groups, and Truth orders the Arbiter to quell them with edge of his blade.

Truth comes very close to achieving his dream, initiating the entire Halo array at once near the end of Halo 3. But Master Chief and the Arbiter manage to stop him just before the rings can fire. The Arbiter then kills the Prophet who tarnished his image.

Truth always keeps his wits about him, save perhaps in his final hours, when he sends his forces out in desperation, hoping they can buy him enough time to complete his work. For someone so delusional, Truth is always depicted as calm and confident, if not power-hungry. And the fact that he was able to command so many who would follow his word to their dying breaths says a lot about his leadership and manipulation skills.


There isn't ever any boss fight against Truth. But the Sacred Icon Suite from Halo 2's soundtrack is perhaps the single tune most closely tied to him. Plus, it's easily one of the best tunes from any of the Halo games.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

DLC review: The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion - Shivering Isles

After a mysterious portal opens up on an island in the middle of Niben Bay, players are granted the ability to travel to the Shivering Isles. This new region, ruled by Sheogorath, is split into two halves. The Mania portion is governed by Duke Thadon, who takes pleasure in his experiences with mind-altering drugs. The inhabitants of this portion of the island are often paranoid, though cheerful enough when compared to the depressing lot that inhabits the Dementia side. Some of the Dementia citizens even express a desire to kill Duchess Syl, plotting with one of her own guards.

The Shivering Isles are nowhere near as large as the main game's realm of Cyrodill. Still, both the Mania and Dementia halves host a significant number of sidequests, and the realm itself is teeming with life - citizens and monsters alike. The enemy designs are some of the most creative in the entire Oblivion package, and many present a much more tactical dynamic to combat. The characters are quite diverse, even though there are only a handful that are key to the main storyline, and this shows just how much extra effort Bethesda put into this DLC.

The story follows the same main character from Cyrodill, as Sheogorath has him travelling around the Shivering Isles in an attempt to stop Jyggalag and the Greymarch from taking over his lands and bringing an end to his time as ruler. As Sheogorath informs players, this is a cycle that happens at the end of every era, and he is determined to bring it to a halt. None of the missions last particularly long, though the dungeon areas exhibit a strong balance of tactical combat and clever puzzles.

About halfway through the main quest, players must make a decision to align themselves with one side of the island or the other. During this portion of the quest, as well as a couple of segments that follow thereafter, players will be accompanied by either the Golden Saints or the Dark Seducers (depending on their alignment). These AI companions prove both stronger and more competent than the forces that gathered at Bruma toward the end of the main storyline of The Elder Scrolls IV. The commanding role also presents a nice change of pace from the early missions of dungeon-crawling solo.

The Shivering Isles have some of the most beautifully rendered environments in the Oblivion universe, with half-sunken villages and giant mushrooms twisting their way toward a skybox decorated with a nebula of red and violet hues. Sheogorath also proves the most oddball, yet lovable character in the game. He constantly greets the character in a cheerful manner, yet follows up with a bizarre "Come back again soon, or I'll pluck out your eyes!"

In short, Shivering Isles is a great DLC package. It has a fantastic balance in its gameplay, quirky characters, and a storyline that is honestly better than the main questline of The Elder Scrolls IV. It's a curious look into what chaos and order mean for an inverted world. Players will have a number of reasons to care about the main quest and be thoroughly engaged. Plus, they might find a few really cool additions to their arsenal along the way.

My rating: 9.25 (out of 10)*

*(rating applies solely to downloadable content, not its inclusion with the content on the original game disc or other downloadable content)

Pokémon Soul Silver journal - entry six

I finally beat the Elite Four. It took me a couple of tries. Frankly, I felt that the Elite Four members were pretty easy (I remember wiping the floor with Koga on my GBC Gold Version, and this time was no different). Honestly the biggest challenge came from Lance, and I do feel there is a bit of a sudden jump in the degree of challenge the game presents here. I ended up going back and grinding for a bit. I traveled back to Dragon's Den to get the Dratini (which is now a level 35 Dragonair) and used my Master Ball on Entei (since all the other Legendaries will stay in one place when I face them, I'll rely on Ultra Balls).

This is one of a very few points in Soul Silver where I really felt the need to grind for experience points. And as annoying as it was for a brief period, I'm rather grateful that the grinding has been limited, unlike in some other RPGs I've played. Ultimately, my plans to level up Dragonair into a Dragonite were scrapped in favor of using Gyarados as my dragon type to counter Lance's three Dragonites. Umbreon held his own surprisingly well against Aerodactyl, and both Lance's Gyarados and his Charizard were pushovers, thanks to Raikou and my own red Gyarados respectively.

And so I present the 2011 Pokémon Soul Silver Dream Team - Raikou, Gyarados (actually red), Umbreon, Typhlosion, Lugia, and Entei. There's a bit more variety here than with my 2000 GBC Gold Version Dream Team. I'm surprised at how much I've warmed up to dark types. I've also used water types much more frequently this time around. My review of Soul Silver should be up within the next couple of weeks - if not before the end of the year, then shortly after the start of January 2012. Now if you'll excuse me, I've got a ticket to board the S.S. Aqua.

25 Days of Villains - #8: Dormin

Following Barthandelus is another deity-level being. Dormin's presence is made known from the very start of the Wanderer's quest inside the Forbidden Land, but just what his role in everything is kept a secret until the very end.

His girlfriend dead, the Wanderer seeks out a legendary power, word of which has been passed down through his people for generations. However, this power lies in a land that has been deemed a forbidden place. There is hardly any life within its borders, but upon his arrival to the central temple, Wanderer is greeted by a bodiless voice that seemingly emanates from an opening in the ceiling of the temple where sunlight shines through. The voice tells Wanderer that he can bring the girl back to life, but only if Wanderer is able to slay the sixteen Colossi that roam the land. Determined to save his lover, Wanderer sets out on his horse Aggro, sword in hand.

While it isn't apparent right off the bat, Wanderer undergoes physical changes after defeating each Colossi. About halfway through his quest, it is easy to notice that the hue of Wanderer's skin has become more pale, almost grey. Before facing the last few Colossi, a cutscene is prompted, showing a group of masked men on horseback headed toward the Forbidden Land. Only after Wanderer defeats the final Colossi is it made apparent that these men are familiar with the main character, and warned him never to come here.

Thus is the game's big plot twist - Wanderer was not the knight in shining armor players were led on to believe. His aims are still to revive his lover, but the means to achieve that were dark and taboo. Knowing the severity of what Wanderer has done, the men try to kill him with sword and arrows, but it is already too late. With all sixteen of the Colossi slain, the voice from above is now freed, his sixteen pieces no longer sealed.

Dormin, as this deity is known, assumes the body of the Wanderer as his vessel for resurrection. He then proceeds to attack the men, knowing they are all that stands between him and the outside world. Despite his power, Dormin is only able to hinder their escape within the cramped spaces of the temple. The men make their way to the top of the spiral ramp, then turn to an enchantment as one last-ditch effort to defeat Dormin. This opens a portal within the pool of water at the bottom of the ramp and, despite their attempts to escape, both Dormin and the Wanderer are sucked in. The men leave, destroying the bridge, barring anyone from ever entering these lands again.

In the final moments of the game, it is revealed that the young girl has been brought back to life. Though Dormin kept his word, the Wanderer is no longer the man who brought his girlfriend to this temple. He is still alive, but in the form of a baby with horns on its head, implying Wanderer to be the first of the horned people in ICO. As for the fate of Dormin, things are not as clear. As Wanderer defeats each Colossi, a new shadowy figure is waiting in the temple. The enemies in ICO look similar, and it is possible that Dormin scattered in many smaller shadow beings after his defeat. It is also possible that his power merged with Wanderer, and that the horned people are a kind of human-demon hybrids.

Boss theme:

Since there is no actual boss battle against Dormin, the closest thing is the point where players assume control of him, attempting to stop the men from leaving the temple. The whole soundtrack to Shadow of the Colossus is gorgeous, and this track is no exception.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

25 Days of Villains - #9: Barthandelus

“I am Fal'Cie. My name is Barthandelus; voice of the Sanctum, and Lord-Sovereign of the Cocoon Fal'Cie. Your kind feared the darkness, so we gave you light. You begged us for the Purge, and did it not come to pass? Now you spurn our counsel? You must learn your place!"

Disguising himself as a human and assuming the role of Primarch Dysley, Barthandelus is the Fal’Cie who reigns over the people of Cocoon. He manipulates them into believing that Gran Pulse, the expansive realm that exists below the floating world of Cocoon, is a dangerous place. He also incites fear into the people by leading them to believe the L’Cie are dangerous, violent beings. But at the same time, Barthandelus is the one who led Fang, Vanille, Lightning, Sazh, Snow, and Hope to become branded as L’Cie.

Barthandelus’ aims are no quite as simple as a lust for power or greed. He has already cemented himself in a position of power before the game begins. What he wants is to bring back the Maker, the Final Fantasy XIII God, hoping that said Maker would create the world anew, presumably with the Fal’Cie able to act on their own, not requiring the Focuses of L’Cie to see their own aims met.

When Lightning and the rest of the L’Cie first confront Dysley, they believe him to be human. Knowing what must be done, Barthandelus reveals his true form to them, humoring himself with a short fight. But he also realizes that, in order to bring back the Maker, Barthandelus must leave the L’Cie with a desire to destroy Fal’Cie – most notably, the Fal’Cie Orphan.

Even after he steps down from his position as Primarch, Barthandelus continues to manipulate the people, choosing Cid Raines as his successor. He meets the L’Cie during their travels on Gran Pulse, offering them a means of transport back to Cocoon once their trials are completed. Making their way through the streets of Cocoon’s capital Eden, now ringing with the chaos of combat as the worlds of Cocoon and Gran Pulse collide, the L’Cie enter Orphan’s Cradle. Once at the center of Orphan’s Cradle, Barthandelus challenges the L’Cie to one final battle. Upon his defeat, Barthandelus is assimilated into Orphan’s consciousness, along with Eden. Barthandelus is then able to influence Orphan to the same goal of bringing back the Maker.

Ultimately, the Maker never comes, even after Barthandelus, Eden, and Orphan die. But their death does trigger something else – something Barthandelus had longed for, believing it a necessary part of the ritual to call back the Maker. Ragnarok is born of Fang and Vanille’s L’Cie powers, and manipulates the environments around itself to stop Cocoon from falling out of the sky.

Barthandelus exhibits a careful and calculating behavior, having plotted every step of the L’Cie’s journey and the manner in which he will propel them forward. He also has an unwavering patience, having waited a half-millennia for his plans to come full circle. That said, he does appear quite eager to finally see the fruits of his labor in Final Fantasy XIII. His classical appearance as something distinctly demonic, yet at the same time slightly angelic is well-suited to his role as puppeteer and borderline-demigod.

Boss theme:

This is one of my favorite tracks from the Final Fantasy XIII soundtrack. And the Final Fantasy XIII soundtrack in its entirety is one of my favorite video game soundtracks of all time.

Friday, December 16, 2011

25 Days of Villains - #10: Majora

Chaos incarnate, Majora is the reason everything turns out so terrible for the inhabitants of Termina. True, Skull Kid takes the initiative to steal the mask. But as the game indicates, Majora was affecting Skull Kid's thoughts and actions - by the end of the game, Majora tosses Skull Kid aside, feeling that his usefulness is over.

Most of Majora's acts of malice come into play before Link arrives in Termina. With Skull Kid as a medium, Majora directs its power to cause harm to the different races - poison in the Deku Scrubs' swamp, freezing some of the Gorons alive. Majora's actions even lead to the deaths of Darmani and Mikau, two of the realms most accomplished warriors. And as a grand finale, the mad mask wants to crash the moon into the world below.

Majora is certainly evil. Both his dialogue and actions late in the game indicate that the demonic entity views everything as a kind of game. Because of this, he lashes out when backed into a corner. Though the final boss fight is one of the most difficult in any Zelda title to date, Majora seems really uncoordinated - almost childish. While Majora channels chaos like no other, logic and planning are sacrificed at this expense, which is why this villain ranks at number eleven.

Boss theme:

The final boss fight against Majora is divided into three sections, each with its own variation on the same theme. My personal favorite theme of the three is that of Majora's Incarnation, since itserves as a great reflection of his chaotic nature. Majora's Wrath's theme carries the most sinister and dark tone, however.

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