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Games You Forgot to Play: #1 Final Fantasy V

These days, games are released in overwhelming waves of high-profile anticipation. It's hard to keep up, and even harder to remember all the titles you intended to play but never got around to. My new recurring series, "Games You Forgot to Play," will look at severely worthwhile titles you might have missed out on--by no fault of your own.

First up: Final Fantasy V.

Why you forgot:
The saga of Final Fantasy V's localization spans six years and numerous failed attempts at bringing the title to North American audiences. The title was initially supposed to be what we received as "Final Fantasy III," but when translation efforts fell through three separate times, the game was abandoned and Final Fantasy VI was ported under that name. Rumors that Final Fantasy: Mystic Quest replaced Final Fantasy V are untrue: MQ was released in America three months before FFV was released in Japan. Their only relation in this matter lies in the belief that American audiences would not entertain a "hardcore" RPG--where Mystic Quest was intended to offer an easy transition for non-RPG gamers to the genre, Final Fantasy V was dubbed "inaccessible" to the "average gamer," making an abandonment of its NA translation easier to go through with.

When Final Fantasy V finally did make it to North American shores in 1998, six years after its initial debut, it was in the disappointing Final Fantasy Anthology PSX port. Load times, translational errors, and a multitude of glitches left gamers with an inferior title which did not seem to deserve Sakaguchi's favor.

Finally, in 2006, an acceptable version of Final Fantasy V was released on the Game Boy Advance during the great SNES porting of 2004-2007. A significant number of previously unavailable, or difficult to find, RPGs were released on the handheld system--including Final Fantasies IV, V, and VI in 2005, 2006, and 2007, respectively. Unfortunately, by this point it was a basically a matter of "too little, too late." Most gamers who had wanted to play these scarce titles had found other means to do so long ago, or had forgotten they were ever interested in them at all. By the time these titles were ported yet again, we knew that Final Fantasy IV would be remade on the DS, totaling its 'official' system availability at four. In the hubbub of all the ports, remakes, and general "old game money-grubbing," the excitement of getting to play a remarkable version of the 14 year-old Final Fantasy V was lost.

Why you're being reminded to play it:
When I remembered Final Fantasy V, I was extremely hesitant to play it. I knew that 1) it was a heavily job-based system and 2) I hated Final Fantasy Tactics. At the time, all job system-specific experiences I had were in FFTactics, and that did not bode well for this mysterious title from the past.

Of course, the games are nothing alike. FFV is strictly a console-style RPG reminiscent of its SNES siblings, while Tactics is an atrociously slow turn-based Strategy game. It obviously has its audience, though--that just doesn't include me.

FFV has a particular audience, as well. Any character development, plot, depth, and general storypoints you enjoyed and admired in other Final Fantasy titles are nonexistent here. For Ted Woolsey to have called the game "not accessible enough to the average gamer" is absurd: that's like saying Tetris is not accessible to the average gamer. It's entirely gameplay-centric. I can barely remember the five--yes, there are only five--characters' names, they were so inconsequential as relatable people. The 14 names of Final Fantasy VI are second-nature at this point. Of course, those characters' stories had a place and purpose in their game. Bartz / Butz, Galuf, Faris--and the other two--are merely husks which I can fill with job abilities and battle talents.

And that's the true joy of Final Fantasy V. The Job System is an absolute treat, offering a constant reward and customization in a series which often demands grinding and long spans of blind faith that your invested time will meet some sort of return. Though subsequent titles in the series utilize an adapted Job System, none are as pure and comprehensively designed as Final Fantasy V's.

In Final Fantasy VI, each character essentially represents one of the Job classes---Locke is a thief, Strago a blue mage, Sabin a monk, etc. Despite this, all the characters still end up being generally interchangeable, thanks to always-available magic and directly controllable stats (via leveling up with Espers). In Final Fantasy V, you have to sacrifice specific abilities to utilize others. A character who has mastered all of the different types of magic--white, black, time, blue, summon--will still only be able to take three varieties into battle. The next game in the series to require such specific customization choices was Final Fantasy VIII.
"But I look so good in white."

This doesn't mean your characters are underpowered. Freelancers develop all the innate characteristics of the jobs they have mastered and can equip any in-battle support actions. Innate job talents include the ability to equip certain weapons and armor, the ability to sprint and see secret passageways, and maintenance of stat bonuses. When not using a Freelancer, (which will be most of the game while you level up jobs and gain new talents), characters have to equip these learned abilities specifically if they are not playing the specific class. So, if you're about to enter an area heavily populated by winged enemies, you probably want some characters to use bow and arrows. They'll need to be at level 3 in the Ranger class to do so, if they are not playing as Rangers specifically.

Another great aspect of FFV is that its "bonus" abilities are extremely useful, unlike many talents in Final Fantasy VI. Things like "Sketch" and "Dance" in FFVI were interesting to watch, but ultimately useless in battle. But the Dancer class in FFV is a heavy-hitter, with regular insta-kills and the opportunity for characters to equip essential items, such as the much-beloved Ribbon. Selecting your battle line-up later in the game is challenging because there are so many worthwhile actions clamoring for a spot.
Like this. Setzer was apparently throwing chocolate coins, because the real things hurt like hell.

The grahpics are an expected between-state of FFIV and FFVI. The character sprites are the same as FFIV, small and lacking detail, while the backgrounds and environments are stepped up, more closely resembling the lush world we experience in FFVI. The true aesthetic joy, though, lies in the music. Final Fantasy V boasts some of the most enchanting and memorable songs to grace the series. Gilagmesh's theme ("Clash on the Big Bridge") is probably the catchiest and most adrenaline-pumping FF song to date. "Pirates Ahoy!" sets the theme for a grand adventure, and has string sections that offer a reminder of the whimsical Secret of Mana. "Cursed Earth" is one of the songs reprised for a role in Final Fantasy Fables: Chocobo's Dungeon and it deserves this prominence. It's foreboding yet bizarre, highlighting the terrifying yet unexplainable events that are destroying the heroes' world. "Dear Friends" was the track adapted as the theme of Uematsu's orchestral Final Fantasy concert, and yes, it is from Final Fantasy V.

Of course, a number of the tracks are nothing special or are reiterations of work we've already experienced. As a whole, the OST is not the series' best, but it will keep you entertained and occasionally dabbing your eyes while enjoying what is the game's true masterpiece: its battle system and gameplay.

If you play the Final Fantasy series and other RPGs for their characters, plot, and depth, you shouldn't worry about your Final Fantasy V amnesia. It's a game best left forgotten.

But all gamers who want to experience a severely polished battle system, enjoy leveling and building characters, and look forward to their next good fight should take their ginkgo biloba and find a copy of Final Fantasy V. And really, gameplay is the difference between an interactive movie and a game: this doesn't make a very good story, but it is an amazing video game.

Pick it up.

Fallout 3 Diary: Day 27, Hour 102

I'm sure you can do the math. We can all do the math.

I've started over as a female character, abandoning Alec to the path he's chosen. As a level 20 badass with 2,000+ of every ammo, fully repaired weapons of every genre, and Tesla armor out the wazoo, he was no longer a lonely Wasteland wanderer in need of guidance. He's a Wasteland prince, worshiped as such and patiently awaiting the DLC which will allow him further advancement beyond his current perfection.

In the meantime, Sierra. Unlike Alec, who is saintly to a fault, Sierra is mostly indifferent to the world she's been thrust into. Her service is for sale to the highest bidder—if that happens to be the man who wants to blow up an entire city, so be it. If the highest bid comes from the bloodthirsty ghouls living in the metro tunnels, okay. We're all pals in caps-land. Even you, zombie-faced killah.

There's definitely a different feel to playing as an "evil" character versus a "good" one.

I think, deep down, all of my characters are just neutral. Any time someone ran up to Alec and gave him a random gift for "everything you do for us," I felt inappropriately inflated. I wanted to say, "Hey, I also just killed a random passerby. But thanks." Sierra is being hunted by a group of regulators, but she's hardly a "scourge on humanity." Just because she sold a few citizens into slavery, she's suddenly this massive villain who needs to be detained. Not only do they leave behind utterly worthless corpses (um, those Regulator Dusters? Not even half as useful as the Talon Merc's Combat Armor), but she loses karma for killing them. Even when they start the fight. Unprovoked. And she has no choice but to kill, be killed, or cripple their legs and run like a fat kid caught swiping Ding Dongs at 7-Eleven.
"What should we wear while scouring the Wasteland for atrociously dangerous criminals who have single-handedly killed hundreds of people? These shoddy old cowboy outfits and riding boots, with no additional armor or worthwhile protection? Perfect!"

One of the biggest changes, and most eerily rewarding, was blowing up Megaton. Alec lived, loved, and died in Megaton. He could barely pickpocket crucial-info-withholding Moriarty without crying acrid tears of guilt. Sierra, on the other hand, waltzed into Megaton, took "Sheriff" Simms' bobblehead, borrowed Moira's armored Vault suit, charmed Mr. Burke, and blew the place to hell without even introducing herself to the rest of its citizenry scum.
It's almost as if Tenpenny Tower was made for optimal Megaton-go-boom-viewing.

The explosion was brilliant in the pre-dawn hours, and the leftover crater and impenetrable haze of debris clouds is like a waking dream. I love wandering through the Megaton outskirts, kicking Deputy Weld in his not-quite-melted face. Moira seems happier as a ghoul. Gob is no longer slave to the drunken whims of smoothskins. And Sierra has a lovely walking trail on overly-sunny days, so long as her advanced radiation suit is handily nearby.

My Wasteland Lady is more than happy to assist those in need, but doing the bidding of the capitally degenerate is much more rewarding. Literally, with caps and goodies. Sierra had 83 caps to her name before blowing up Megaton and getting into the slaving business. Now she's a multi-thousandaire, buying shotguns and Stimpaks on willy-nilly whims. The emotional rewards which balance out the inevitable Jet addiction and spiraling flood of guilt arrive in the form of "I'm getting a vastly different gaming experience, but I only paid for one game! Someone is getting gypped, but it's certainly not me!" (Outside of Fallout 3, the world speaks in exclamations.)
The other emotional reassurances are slightly more direct.

That doesn't mean the path she walks is entirely paved with gold and buy-one-get-one coupons. Potential best friends flee upon meeting her; all of the sweet and kindly residents of post-apocalyptia find her less than charming. That might have to do with her having a Charisma of 3—she needed those points for Strength and Intelligence, the brainy bully—but nevertheless. It's already a lonely world, made that much lonelier when your closest pals are slavers, who just happen to be paying you to entrap their previous best buds. Her blazon fortune and roomy suite cannot quell the emptiness in her heart; the pain of going home to the mocking bobbleheads who are so tight-knit and yet exclusive in their cerebral Elephantitis.
Shut up, you don't know me.

Of course, she hasn't found Dad yet, the one person who loves her no matter what path she's chosen to plod down. But his approval will offer little protection. I'm sure those Wasteland jerks will just sneer out, "If he's so smart, how come he's dead?" as she kicks their faces in, Radroach-style, and continues her trek through not-quite-damned-for-eternity Karmaville.
Pick it up.

Replaying Zelda II 10 Years Later: Your Hatred Is Error

In the midst of playing a really great game, like Fallout 3, I often develop an insatiable itch to return to the bowels of gaming history and visit where our evolutionary fishfeet came from. Yesterday, Zelda II: The Adventure of Link caught my eye. Not because it has some magical appeal and great lesson to teach: the cartridge is gold, and it glints in direct sunlight.

Zelda II is known as the disappointing Zelda. It hangs out with Majora's Mask at Denny's, eating soggy crepes and lamenting where it all went wrong. I know where it all went wrong, Zelda II, and I'm here to tell you--it's not your fault.

First, let's take a look at the general reviews for Zelda II. A 73 on Metacritic (for the GBA port). An 8.0 reader average on GameFAQs. A "B" (ugh, those awful letter grades) from 1Up.

Suffice to say, people obviously don't hate Zelda II. In fact, they seem to like the game. Even appreciate its very existence. So why the in-bred hatred? Why the automatic "Zelda II? That joke of a game? Bah!" when it's mentioned in mixed company?

In short: it's a classic case of Final Fantasy VIII syndrome. The hatred clogging up both Majora's Mask and Zelda II's glory-faucets is derived from their predecessors' success. When gamers think of the "greatest" titles in specific series, the little brothers are always overshadowed and looked down upon. Final Fantasy VII blew everyone's non-RPG-acquainted minds, and Final Fantasy VIII sucked because it wasn't Final Fantasy VII. Majora's Mask could never hope to compete with the often-touted-best-game-ever, Ocarina of Time, and so it is doomed to wander the halls of gaming history as a shameful poltergeist on the series.

Zelda II has it especially bad, though. Not only is its precursor an unwaveringly beloved classic, but its follow-up, A Link to the Past ("Zelda 3"), is the one Zelda title that rivals Ocarina of Time in "best Zelda game ever" battles. Not only that, but it had the same top-down view and gameplay that everyone fell in love with originally. Sandwiched between the two, The Adventure of Link looks like your forgotten middle child who grew up cutting his own hair and sewing his clothes out of potato sacks.

When viewed alone, though, as its own game and not just a continuation of its fancy-schmancy older brother, Zelda II delivers a unique and enjoyable experience to the player (as evidenced by the reviews above). Those that dog on the game are stuck viewing it as "not the original or A Link to the Past," with review titles like "Terrible excuse. Skip to Zelda 3" and "If it ain't broke, don't break it." (Although, for some reason, the actual review attached to that first title--which resulted in a 3/10 score--has nothing but positive things to say. Seems more like a "going along with the crowd" review.)

"Grab a pitchfork and your spittin' hats, kids! Everyone else is doing it!"

Here are the facts of the game, ten years later, offered by a dedicated Zelda fan:

1. The side-scrolling view was not a step back.
(It was merely different than top-down. It allowed for a different style of gameplay and fighting than the original title did. Ocarina of Time's 3D world did the same, but everyone was so smitten with 3D they didn't bother to complain.

With only a year between the two games, creating a Zelda clone would have been a mistake. The original Legend of Zelda offered two full adventures, enough to keep most gamers busy for quite awhile. Zelda II gave fans a similar experience, but varied enough to keep it interesting. By the time A Link to the Past was released in 1991, technologies had improved enough to significantly expand on the original and improve it in every way. If Zelda II had tried to be A Link to the Past, it would have flopped entirely--not just within its own canon.)

No, they're obviously different. Look at the very distinctive "II" Roman Numeral. And the ever so slight variation on colors. It's like a peek into a whole other world.

2. The gameplay is improved.
(It's still a sword-slashing, shield-blocking adventure game, but the side view allows for more options in battle. Being able to see where your shield is in relation to enemies' attacks allows you to consciously block, as opposed to hoping the shield will work in a pinch. Jumping adds a platforming quality which is later wholeheartedly embraced by--oh my, can it be?--Ocarina of Time and its 3D brethren. Downthrust is one of the most rewarding actions of any Zelda game, the only downside [haha, get it...] is receiving it halfway through the game. "Aw, ten seconds? But I want it now!")

3. The game does retain the spirit of the original, and the overall series.
(The story of any Zelda game broken down is typically: Ganon has kidnapped someone / something of import, is threatening Hyrule, Link sets off to save everyone. Zelda II takes place in a more fleshed out Hyrule, with Zelda in danger of sleeping forever, Ganon at the evil helm, and Link adventuring about the world in an attempt to right wrongs. Spectacle Rock in Zelda II is based off the same area in The Legend of Zelda. Pig-Ganon, taunting from his red screen of death, is the same ultimate baddie we faced in the previous title.)

You know, the jerk-off who claims the universe every time you fall into a lava pit. Oh, and who never lifts a finger other than posing for this Game Over screen. Tough gig, Ganonass.

4. Everyone who claims Zelda series games are RPGs should thank Zora for Zelda II.
(The Adventure of Link is the only Zelda game that is mostly RPG. Ironic, considering its title. The other games are Adventure games, Action Adventures, or at best, Adventure RPGs, with "RPGs" spoken very lightly. The critical "RPG" element comes from leveling up via experience points, gained from killing enemies.

Collecting heart containers is not "leveling up." There are a set number of heart containers, and you cannot spam them in one sitting to reach the max level. In Zelda II, you level up skills with experience points that enemies' corpses disintegrate into. You can leave and re-enter a palace as many times as you want, killing the same enemies and boosting your skills prematurely. The other Zelda games do not have this. They are not RPGs.)

5. It has the right level of difficulty.
(The game boasts seven palaces, which increase in size and challenge exponentially. The first palace is pretty much a cakewalk, and is a solid introduction to the style of game you're experiencing. There are specific enemies / areas which are a bit over the top--I dread running into blue knights, who show up as early as the third palace, and any lava pit with flying-head enemies is an absolute deathtrap, plain and simple--but most have precise dispatching methods which will leave Link without so much as a scratch.

Playing through this time, with knowledge of past run-throughs and an added dose of patience, I've found the game fairly simple--especially when handled systematically. I attack palaces ferociously to find all the keys and special items--then, depending on my experience points / lives, I either proceed to the boss or return to the beginning and fight more for an extra level.

You should never launch the crystal with a nearly-full experience meter. Finishing a palace fills your experience points and also seals that location. Sealing a palace with even half of your experience tally full is too much: go back and fight the palace's enemies again, then seal it. Every additional level helps. If you have a decent amount of EXP and only one or two lives left, choose a predictable location--like the entrance of a palace with the Armos statue--and fight that one enemy over and over. It can be tedious at times, but those who find the game excessively difficult will appreciate the early boosts to their skills.)

6. It's fun.
(What do we expect out of a Zelda game? Exactly this. I don't have to sit around playing decade-old NES titles on our smaller TV. But I've enjoyed playing Zelda II, and was surprised by this enough to write a massive post defending it. Maybe those gamers who mock it really don't have fun with it, but with all the positive reviews and silly excuses for not playing it, the negativity seems like something deeper. Something more sinister. Something...conspiratorial.)

From Director to Advisor? Oh-ho, heads will roll. In a 2D, side-scrolling fashion.

Pick it up.

First-Person Shooters for the Genre-Impaired (Now with 60% more enjoyment!)

For the past three years, I've witnessed first-person shooters from a third-person perspective: watching The Boy play them. I'm keen on just about any other genre out there--whether the focus is killing, traipsing, growing, whacking, wheeling, dealing--the problem arises when shooting takes center stage. My depth perception...I guess the phrase I'm looking for is "eye-gougingly horrid." Quite literally: I'm pretty sure the legally blind have a better sense of geometric space than I do.

Aside from proving I would never win a fight against Triangle Man, other aspects of shooters never really appealed to me, either. Having to keep track of ammo, trying not to shoot your teammates in the face, the squishy splatters which highlight my enemies' much better aim. Not really my thing. It was only in the past year and a half, (much to The Boy's delight), that my mind began to think of shooters differently. That certain titles showed up, guns blazing, and offered not only a reason to play, but also presented an easier transition than "There are eight guys with rocket launchers shooting at you and now you're dead." Three titles in particular stand out against my inept bloodshed as key games for FPS beginners. These games are not just excellent training wheels for FPS newbies: they're also must-plays for any gamer, shooter fan or not. It's a lot easier to enter a genre when it boasts some of the decade's most amazing titles.

FPS Skill Level: Newborn Kitten
FPS Skills Learned: Aim, General acclimation to first-person view, Environment interaction

If Portal was not considered one of the greatest gaming experiences ever created, I'd think it was made strictly as a shooter trainer. It's the ideal starter for those who are uncomfortable diving straight into the bloodbath firefight of series like Halo or Call of Duty. As Portal's primary obstacles are puzzles and room maneuverability, very little threat or stress accompanies the learning process. Players can take all the time they need to look, aim, and fire--and if you miss, there are zero repercussions (outside of the 'challenge' modes, which beginners will obviously not be taking part in yet). Your 'ammo,' the portals themselves, are unlimited. You are free to test out a variety of actions just to witness the results. And when you do begin working towards the actual solution to a room, your actions offer immediate yet nonthreatening rewards. If you've never played a FPS game, you'd be silly to start with anything but Portal.

Portal is only terrifying to those who hate the Florida Gators.

My personal experience: Portal was my very first shooter, besides the hour of Halo 3 I was forced into by persons much too optimistic about my shooting capabilities. I wanted to start with a game that would acclimate me to the first-person view without overwhelming me with options and generally understood rules: I don't know that X is reload in most games. I have no idea if I prefer the inverted axis or not. Portal didn't expect me to know any of these things, or even bother with them. It just wanted me to find my way through the lab, learn a bit about GLaDOS, and develop an unquenchable lust for fake cake. It was a stress-free introduction to the genre, and gave me the confidence to immediately dive into the next title...

FPS Skill Level: Dennis the Menace
FPS Skills Learned: Aiming while under attack, Melee weaponry, Weapon progression, Ammo acquisition and rationing, Exploration incentives, Cautionary exploration

Unlike Portal, which lies in some comfortable between-state of FPS slash Puzzle game, BioShock is a full-on shooter. It just also happens to contain some RPG elements, one of the most engaging storylines of any genre, and an atmosphere that is as enveloping as it is haunting. These traits only reinforce what is already an excellent introduction to the FPS genre. The game's gentle slope from melee weapon to small pistols to heavy ammunition gives it an almost tutorial vibe, without feeling overly controlled. Those who are still mostly uncomfortable with pulling that trigger will find the wrench a worthy substitute, holding its own against most enemies (offered the proper Plasmid assistance). Fighting via the wrench retains the general feel and direction of the genre while shrinking the targeting range significantly. There is also plenty of ammo to find, purchase, or create along the way, allowing for trial and error with ranged weapons once you are prepared. It's also necessary in certain cases, like when fighting the Big Daddies.

BioShock offers the tension and danger not experienced in Portal, thanks to splicers jumping out from behind corners and life being measured via the typical health meter. Its story, atmosphere, and lower difficulty level open it up to players of every genre, and specifically those looking to get their trigger finger dirty.

The whole theme of "splicing" was dangerously close to the mark. Yes, I will inject another 36 hours of BioShock directly into my system, thank you very much.

My personal experience: I started a game in BioShock to get The Boy off my case. That was the only hope I had for it: to make him stop telling me to play it. I had Portal under my belt and could at least look around while walking and not run into walls over and over. After staring at the TV for 8 hours straight that first day, I realized it might be worth a bit more than that. I loved almost every thing about BioShock--the only fault it can be assigned on this list is the utter dominance of the wrench on lower difficulties. I really missed out on some hardcore shooter lessons by whacking everyone in the head with that thing. There are way too many plasmids that encourage such behavior. I needed more "Hey, use an actual gun!" plasmids. Oh well. Whack, whack.

Fallout 3

FPS Skill Level: Revolver Ocelot (after his Ninja run-in, but before MGS2)
FPS Skills Learned: Weapon specialization, Item / apparel deterioration, Ammo collection, Head and limb-specific shots, Sneak attacks, Sniping, Enemy radar, Environment awareness, Selecting the right weapon for each situation

Like its list predecessors, Fallout 3 is not a straight-up shooter. It's a FPS RPG, which makes it an excellent transition game. RPG and sandbox fans will be drawn in by its enormous world and impressive population; by the time they find out there are guns (lots of guns), it's too late. They're hooked. The slightly raised difficulty comes from Bethesda's D&D method of leveling, where players essentially have to choose a style of combat as their forte and go from there. Unlike BioShock, where switching from a melee fighter to an explosives expert is just one Gene Bank away, Fallout's skill points and perks are not reconfigurable. Sure, you could choose to be mediocre at everything, just in case--but how are a half-assed shotgun and meh-grenades going to help you when you're fighting a Behemoth? They're not. Opting to be a melee fighter in this game is also not the best option for a beginner, so you're pretty much stuck with the ol' shooter standby--gasp--guns!

However, my choice of one-armed Revolver Ocelot stands. You're going to have to use guns, and try to use them well--the Wasteland is teeming with people and creatures who hate (or crave) your guts. But the arm that got chopped off is gleefully replaced by V.A.T.S. (Vault-Tec Assisted Targeting System). V.A.T.S. will do most of the dirty work for you. Bring up the menu while targeting your opponent, and V.A.T.S. offers body part differentiation and percentage estimates of likelihood you'll hit said part. Then, select your method of kill, and watch as V.A.T.S. guides you through the motions, asking only for Action Points in return.

It does not, however, tell you the percent chance that the sledge will crack your skull open and that Super Mutant will be licking up your brain juices in the next ten seconds.

Yes, V.A.T.S. essentially replaces the friend who made you play shooters in the first place. Instead of hitting pause and whining "Get me out of this mess," just let V.A.T.S. do it for you. What saves Fallout 3 from being an utter n00bathon with a system like this in place is
1. You are limited by your Action Points, which take a few seconds to recharge after being used. So if you don't kill off an enemy while in V.A.T.S. (happens pretty frequently), you're going to have to finish him off yourself, with guns and human fingers. When facing multiple enemies, you might even have to fight someone without the use of V.A.T.S. entirely.
2. You never have to use V.A.T.S., and can play the entire game without it if you so choose (you don't get anything for doing this except a surprisingly brusque pat on the back from the hardcore committee).

Either way, the game is still a step up on the shooter scale while offering an excellent introduction to the genre. And if you choose to be a melee or unarmed fighter, you're probably more experienced in FPS games than anyone I'd ever address with this entry.

My personal experience: I was wooed by Fallout 3's BioShock costume. Post-apocalyptia with a 1950s' kitsch? Yes, please. I've already killed everything in Rapture; I need another mutated freakshow world to frolic about. Oh, the game is more addictive than coffee served in chocolate bubble wrap cups? By turning on my 360 and inserting this disc I'm just signing off 100 hours of my life for the next two weeks? But it's...fun, right? Okay, well, I'll see you in February.

Next up...
There are a number of titles that fit the above requirements (a shooter for beginners with an excellent game attached) I have yet to play, and so they'll receive just a brief mention here.

Mass Effect

Mass Effect should probably be slotted in just before Fallout 3---it's an RPG with shooting mechanics and plays from the third-person perspective much more fluidly. Word on the street is this BioWare company makes pretty decent games, like that mostly un-terrible KOTOR. I can't speak from experience, but game of the century-type nominations tend to speak for themselves.

Half-Life series
Valve seems to understand that not everyone diving into the FPS fray is a weapons expert. Portal is a unique gift that will allow players to enjoy their other, deeper titles, such as Half-Life and Half-Life 2. Though Half-Life is the oldest entry on this list, it has remained a necessary classic in any gamer's FPS arsenal and will open a direct door to more competitive shooters via Counter-Strike. Like BioShock, Half-Life offers a melee weapon (crowbar) to start, easing the player into its world and offering a smooth transition from bashing to blitzing.

You guys / are my best friends / through thick and thin / we've always been together.

Left 4 Dead

The newest title on the list and another offering from Valve. Left 4 Dead could easily snatch the number 2 most accessible spot, but I have yet to agree to play it and thus can't rate it accurately enough. I've watched zombie horde run-throughs again and again, though, and am sure that its ultra-collaborative style and regular "Shoot wildly until everything is dead" combat make it an ideal entrance into competitive shooting games. Having three friends right next to you at all times, knocking zombies off you or offering remedial advice will make even the most inept (see: the author of this article) FPS players feel at ease. When The Boy does convince me to play some form of competitive first-person shooter, it will likely be this one.

Runners-Up for Life: Wolfenstein 3D and Doom

These were actually the first first-person shooters I ever played, when I was all of 9 years old and trying to emulate my older brother's gaming habits. These are beyond classics at this point, and are about as basic as the genre can get. If you just want to experience shooters the way they used to be, and get a very beginner introduction to the viewpoint and combat style, check either of these out (I prefer Wolfenstein to Doom, personally). I wouldn't expect a lot of useful lessons to present themselves, but it never hurts to have more Nazi- or alien-killing experience under your belt. Especially considering we're overdue for an alien Nazi invasion.

Pick it up.

A brief history of the Mother / Earthbound series

When Earthbound was released for the SNES back in 1995, few American gamers knew just what had been brought to their shores. It was one of those wacky RPGs, packaged in an overwhelming box, with nerdy characters and a no-name developer attached to it. We owed it nothing, and gave it less.

Striped shirts mean business in the Mother series.

Those players who did give it a chance found themselves immersed in a world they couldn't explain to their friends. They were spending their afternoons and weekends in a humorous, snarky, and at times illogical place based on a realistic present day, but mixed up with magic and fantasy elements. Their new hero was that of a boy not unlike themselves: a baseball-capped, yo-yo-swinging boy with bed hair, a doting mother, a loyal ragamuffin dog, and an obnoxious neighbor knocking on his door late at night. How is this setup "one of the greatest games ever"? It sounds typical. Dull. Leave it alone.

A few years later, a little title by the name of Super Smash Brothers was released on the hottest new system, the N64. We get to fight as all of our favorites! Mario, Link, Kirby! Wow, Pikachu, Samus and Fox! Oh, and...Ness? With only 12 playable characters in the first Smash Bros. game, pitting the seemingly no-name Ness alongside mega-stars like Mario, Link, and Pikachu was mind-boggling at best. Who is this guy, Western current-gen-ers wondered. A year later, the public confirmation that the sequel to Ness's title, Mother 3 (which had been in production for the N64 and then 64DD for four years), was officially canceled brought even more attention to the series of mysteriously beloved titles from Japan, along with the nationwide wailing heard from fans in the know.

Mother refused to conform to your 3D standards of beauty, late '90s.

I have to imagine that Starmen.Net's creation in 1999, (known as Earthbound.Net for the first year of its existence) helped increase this attention and awareness of the Mother series. Not only the greatest Mother fansite on the net, but possibly one of the greatest fansites period, Starmen.Net gave disconnected fans of the series a place to meet and share their love, while simultaneously taking significant strides to bring more of the Mother series to our shores, including the elusive Mother 3. Through fan art, petitions, postcards, and plenty more, awareness and requests built and built into a massive following of kitschy, niche love. Though a still much more minor following over here, the Western Mother fans have grown to a respectable size, filling 130 pages of topics at GameFAQs, appearing in EGM and on 1Up multiple times (each), and downloading the recent translation patch of Mother 3 X-thousand number of times (there's no direct count at the moment, as far as I can tell).

We owe them so much.

The series which began its fame in America as just an oversized box with weirdo characters is now a true gaming phenomenon, and merely being a part of it is an experience all its own. The final installment has been completed, released; its fan translation is finished and available. My review is temporarily delayed but on its way; stop throwing doorknobs at me.
Pick it up.

Island of Happiness may be the best Harvest Moon to date. Not really. Maybe. Let's see.

That's a bold title, and it needs a bold cereal. Really, though, Island of Happiness is one of the best gaming surprises of the year, and all fans of the farm-till-you-drop series should pick it up. Newcomers, less so: some of the aspects that make this such a great entry into the series are also what make it less appealing to first-timers. Who cares about them, though? They had their chance(s) with the 20+ other variations out prior to this one. (Yeah, that's not an over-estimate. There are at least 20 different ways to get your in-game farm on. This both thrills and nauseates me.) Luckily, IoH, despite having possibly the worst HM subtitle abbreviation, is a universal panacea for HM ills. Here's why:

1. You start off with "nothing"
The immediately visible 'storyline' to IoH is that you are stranded on a deserted island after a shipwreck, and decide to build up and populate it. Luckily, because that was the exact reason you were on that voyage, (aside from the shipwreck part), you arrive on your slightly-less-exemplary island with most tools you need to survive, along with two families who just happen to specialize in turning run-down shacks into cozy, furnished homes in half an hour, or it's free.
Deserted island homes, with standard accommodations: bed, trashcan, telephone to the outside world.

So, really, what are you lacking that makes IoH better than the average bear farm? Buildings. Scads and scads of buildings. No chicken coop, no cow barn, and nothing else in the village besides the two super-shacks your shipwreck buddies move into. There is plenty of island to explore, but the bridges to other areas are all a-shambles and can't be traversed until they're repaired. You're truly rewarded for your hard work in this one, as opposed to being rewarded for just turning the game on. "Welcome! You've inherited a pristine farm, all the fixin's of a fortune, and your choice of five women we've kept virginal and eligible until the day you arrive in our town. Now, get to 'work,' wink wink!"

2. The island progresses as you do
I fear the previous comment of not being able to cross bridges until they're repaired will bring up traumatizing memories of
Innocent Life for some. Don't worry: IoH does not take the pre-destined Innocent Life path, where no matter how much work you've done or how well you've built up your farm, story-progressing points are inaccessible until a certain date on the calendar. Island of Happiness utilizes the much more accepted, and preferred, Harvest Moon timeline of, if you work yourself like a dog and want to have a greenhouse built before summer, you can do so. The bridges to other areas can be built once Gannon moves in, (also dependent on your own efforts), and you've collected enough money and lumber for them. Your hard work is rewarded, not ignored.

If you join a union in Innocent Life, you can get the bridge built early.
Haha, but seriously, it's a terrible game.

3. New island, new people to abuse
As much as I love Mineral Town, and hate Forget-Me-Not Valley--(c'mon, it boasts the least memorable or likable characters in all of HM canon)--it's nice to get away on occasion. IoH was the perfect opportunity to do so, since an entirely pre-populated village wouldn't magically get stranded on an island together (unless it broke off from its land mass a la future California). Amazingly, leaving the comfort zone of established characters, and even the tried-and-true brunette hero (look at his ruffly blond locks!) has breathed fresh life into the series. When a new villager arrives by boat and sets up shop, I'm genuinely interested in getting to know them. It's not just reconnecting with old friends I've talked to hundreds of times: these are entirely new opportunities for relationships. ...Mostly. Once you do get to know their basic personality, you find that many characters are just slightly varied clones of old pals. Denny is essentially a tanned Ray, (actually, he's like a Ray+Cliff+Dan-creepy loner-ness); Vaughn is a less hermaphroditic Jamie; and Gannon, like his Gotz predecessor, is grumpy as hell and my BFF. To maintain the façade of variety, don't talk to the Mineral Town residents who are bound to show up uninvited and bombard you with happy memories of days gone by. Just don't do it.
"We haven't had a racially ambiguous character in awhile. That'll keep 'em interested for another decade."

4. Most villagers like garbage
When you're first up-and-coming on the island's farm celebrity hit list, handing out 100 G bars of chocolate may seem a pretty steep price for friendship. But once you're mining, fishing, and raking in tens of thousands of dollars a day, your diabetes-ransacked buddies will be a mere drop in the pot. Not only can you make friends with the majority of villagers via fodder, chocolate bars, or colored grass, but the game itself actually tells you these things up front! No other Harvest Moon is so generous with its villager information. Your Asset menu contains a blurb about every villager that lives on your island, and what they like or dislike to receive as gifts. Also, their birthdays are automatically marked on your calendar, so you don't have to keep a cheatsheet nearby as with every other iteration in the series. However, to offer these detailed rap sheets, the game has sacrificed other basic, and essential, information on two of its other very cool additions.
This is like gold to them.
5. My turnips took 20 days to grow
Even though 20 days is a warning of "these are probably radioactive and steroid-filled" in the real world, for Harvest Moon turnips, 20 days is indicative of a serious turnip problem. Usually that you haven't watered them or even actually planted turnip seeds. In IoH, the crop and weather system is entirely different than in the other entries in the series. And somehow, the game forgets to mention this entirely. It's not explained by the "Ranch Master" who teaches you everything else, it's not alluded to in the instruction booklet...I guess you're just expected to know, thanks to your innate island-living skills received by the magical shipwreck fairies who delivered you to this points-based-weather-world.
There's a reason the later games replaced churches with hospitals.
This is another key reason the game is not intended for new HMooners: you really need to be aware of and utilize that ultimate Harvest Moon guide that we all know, love, and cuddle with at night: Fogu.com. It kindly explains what the game refuses to: that crops grow based on sun and water points. Each crop requires a certain number of sun points and water points per stages of growth, if it doesn't receive one or the other it won't progress, and if it receives too many in a set number of days, the crops will die. Additionally, different types of weather deliver different numbers of points. Oh, and the weather is decided upon five days in advance, so no more saving before bed, deciding if you like the next day's forecast, and then resetting.
Got all that? Me neither. It's extremely well thought-out for a Harvest Moon weather system, and it really takes away the controlled aspect that makes most of the games grow dull after two seasons. Players also benefit from the fact that crops not watered for days in a row won't die--they might not grow, but they will not die. So no more "wake up, water crops, fish, sleep, wake up, water crops, fish, sleep." This mixes things up a bit, and offers the variety the rest of the game has already championed.

There are holes in my hammer
The other new farming innovation which is exciting, and yet completely glazed over, is the addition of "Wonderfuls." Most previous HM games utilized the level-up system for tools, most visible and fleshed out in Back to Nature. You use a tool X number of times and it levels up, meaning it is then capable of being upgraded to the next best version (from copper to silver to gold, etc.). When you find said stone and bring both the tool and it to the blacksmith, he levels up your tool. That next best version benefits you in some way, such as being able to break larger boulders, water more crops at once, cut more grass, and so on. IoH has done away with leveling your tools in favor of item collection and assignment. Wonderfuls, colored stones, are now the method in which you enhance your tools. There are seven different types--red, orange, yellow, green, blue, purple, indigo--and each offers a specific bonus when equipped on your tool. For instance, adding a green Wonderful will reduce the stamina needed to use that tool by 1. They can be stacked, so adding three greens will reduce stamina usage by 3.
These are the good kind of stones, right? I've already been to the hospital twice today.
The problem here, as with the weather system, is that no one really bothers to mention Wonderfuls in any meaningful way. You can get them by winning festivals, mining, purchasing them on specific days in winter, or from ranking high in the online wi-fi tournaments. But who the hell is supposed to know any of that, aside from visitors to Fogu? Especially the option to purchase: Wonderfuls will show up in the island's main store every day of winter (certain stones at certain points during the season, such as red from Winter 01 - 06, Indigo on Winter 07, etc.), but they will only show up in the store if your "farm degree" ends in the number 5. Not only is your farm degree totally invisible, but if this coinicidence never happened to occur, you'd be totally oblivious to all the Wonderfuls you could be purchasing and making use of--and they are pretty essential to building up the island at a reasonable pace. So, although Wonderfuls are a really unique and interesting change of pace for how to increase your skills, they're almost entirely invisible to the average farmer who just jumps in and hopes the game will help them from killing themselves and an entire island of shipwrecked hopefuls.

Direct improvements over Harvest Moon DS:

You shore are purty
I love 2D, FoMT graphics more than the average 3D-challenged bear, but IoH utilizes the DS's capabilties and presents a beautiful pseudo-3D world with non-existent load times. Except: you can run through frames quite often, especially your cows. Sometimes I stand in the middle of my cow while trying to milk her. She likes it.

Ohh, freak out!
Considering HMDS suffered from some of the worst glitches known to mankind--including the glitch where if you tried to upgrade your house before summer, you were signed into a $250,000 homeowner's loan you had no way of paying back...Oh, and that one that deleted both your save file on HMDS and on FoMT, if you had it in the GBA slot--the fact that IoH is relatively glitch-free is a beautiful, flowy bit of redemption for the portable Harvest Moons.
Kind of like the glitch that tricked Stephen Spielberg into releasing his cartoon series to their adoring fans after over a decade.
3. The aforementioned lack of Forget-Me-Not Valley-ness
Just a reminder that Forget-Me-Not Valley, its citizens, and all games associated with it suffer from a distinct lack of awesome found in most other HM titles. IoH: awesome included.
Seriously, you guys just need to go away.
4. Your animals aren't hand-obsessed attention whores
HMDS was so excited that it had touchscreen capabilities that it forced you to utilize them to exhaustion. Namely, brushing your animals via touchscreen every single day. This "mini game" is exciting the first two times you do it, and then monotonous thereafter. IoH realizes this, and only puts you through such misery on random occasions, demonstrating that you will enter a mini game by displaying a hand (or milker or scissors) thought bubble above your animals. And for doing so, you're rewarded with a blushing, dancing pet who loves you.

Teleportation and casino not included
The two things HMDS really had going for it were: first, the equippable teleportation necklace that let you jump to any area of the map you pleased, in exchange for two fatigue points, and second, the sprites' casino. I could waste hours in that casino, and winning there actually rewarded you with useful tokens--like a teleport necklace (oh hi, circular logic!).
EDIT: I learned today that IoH does have its own teleport stone, but it takes awhile to get and is not nearly as immediately obvious as the one in HMDS. But apparently, it exists, so minus that minus from IoH.
Harvest Sprite: "This is the only good thing I've ever done with my life."
Even without these two nifty dealies we enjoyed on the first DS Harvest Moon, IoH reigns supreme. Beyond the massive list above, it also managed to utilize stylus-only controls surprisingly well--not quite as responsive as The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass, but well enough that I'm perfectly content to draw all over the place to do my chores. Swapping items seems less finicky than in HMDS, and you can give people gifts even if you're across the room from them just by tapping on their greed-filled face. I'd say overall, after a year of farming on the island so far, Island of Happiness weighs in as my fourth favorite Harvest Moon title, and mainly because I'm a nostalgic pansy.

1. Harvest Moon: Friends of Mineral Town
2. Harvest Moon: Back to Nature
3. Harvest Moon (SNES)
4. Harvest Moon: Island of Happiness

You're still the one that makes me strong
Still the one I want to take alone
We're still having fun
And you're still the one

Pick it up.

Assassin: Enough Ass for All of Us

Altair pisses me off. I'm going to kill this Sinbar guy, who just happens to be staked out on a giant ship docked in the harbor. Okay, so he's cornered himself in and I just flit my nimble assassin body over to his ship and slice his fucking throat. Easy peasy.

Wait, no, unbelievably difficult because Altair--the greatest assassin alive, who can take out 25 guards in a single fight and jumps off 8-story buildings into a three inch bale of hay without a scratch--can't swim. Not just can't swim, but drowns the minute he touches water deeper than his ankles. And not just drowns the minute he touches water deeper than his ankles, but purposely throws himself into such puddles without any warning.

So I'm going to kill Cinnabon, and my maps tell me to take the longest way around possible--which means I have to jump on about 80 wooden stakes sticking out of the water, and guide Altair from stake to stake without letting him get distracted by his inherent desire to die as soon as fucking possible. For some reason, after about five solid jumps, he will always turn the sixth jump into a manic dive toward the deadliest item nearby. I arrange him on his wooden stake, turn his head to face the only area he could possibly be jumping toward in a giant sea of death, lightly tilt the analog stick toward that one shining bastion of life, and hit the...

And Christ, if he doesn't jump eight feet in the other direction, straight into the ocean of "You're screwed."

"What am I aiming for here?"

So after about 20 attempts to kill Sinbad by way of massive-maze-of-suicide-pegs, I say Fuck it, and dive straight into the group of guards stationed to keep you from running along the docks straight to his ship. Okay, those guys are dead and no one seems too upset. Run down the docks, jump on to 2--not 80, but only 2!--pegs, climb the front of the ship right under Sinatra's nose, up over the railing when his back is turned and ssswip, slice his throat open to receive the "Blade in the Crowd" achievement for killing someone like a true assassin.

So, a true assassin has to disregard all of the information he's spent hours gathering, kill a bunch of people in plain sight, knock a bunch of drunken sailors to their watery graves, and avoid touching any water deep enough to drown a puppy in? Assassins suck.
Pick it up.

Sizzle Score

I try to avoid games that are overly fluffy or obviously girl-centric, such as that horrifying iMagine Babies, which I can't imagine actually appeals to anyone who hasn't had a frontal lobotomy. A single picture should prove the point on that game.

So, when I found myself unexplainably drawn into "Burger Restaurant," I began to worry that my gamer-morals had evacuated and were off playing Russian Roulette with Hello Kitty and the Olsen Twins. Not only is it a browser-based, Flash game (the epitome of casual), but in it, you play a pink-clad, doe-eyed blond whose apparent only purpose in life is to be a one-woman assembly line of burgery goodness. She doesn't even chat with the customers--probably because the only words she knows are "Tee-hee, how can I serve you?" and "No, they're real." Despite the character's (she doesn't even have a name) cardboard cut-out appearance and lack of purpose beyond shakin' & bakin', this game is hella addictive.

It starts off slow, with pretty much only one potential burger combination, meaning you can stockpile patties and just wait for the customer to arrive. (Very McDonalds'-esque.)
Hoarding burgers for the Apocalypse.

But after a few levels, it really picks up speed, and you actually have to strategize your cooking methods, while paying attention to the increasing-in-impatience customers and, eventually, even burglars who will rob you blind when your back's turned. (You get to beat them with a baseball bat if you catch them.)

Burger-stealing bastard.

Beyond my own break-from-work or any-time-I-pass-my-computer love of this game, I'm thrilled that it's yet another installation in my "Games that will turn Melissa into a gaming fiend" collection. It's probably a step back from her Chibi-Robo experiences, but I still feel that any game she enjoys is one game closer to true-player-status.

Burger Restaurant

Pick it up.

You read the blog. It's full of words! You're dead!

I love Kemco's pseudo-trilogy of point-and-click adventure games released on the NES from 1988-89. Deja Vu, Shadowgate, and Uninvited. The first two aren't terribly obscure: Deja Vu spawned a sequel, packaged with its predecessor, on the Gameboy Color in 1999. Shadowgate was ported to the handheld the same year, and probably helped to sell a handful more copies of the N64 sequel, Trial of the Four Towers, released just two months later. Deja Vu is probably the best inspiration you'll find for the Phoenix Wright and Hotel Dusk type P&CA games of today. Shadowgate seems to have inspired seedier references--any game which offers a larger variety of deaths than ways to win, such as (the inevitable future entry focus) Chulip.

Uninvited must have missed whatever minuscule window of opportunity Shadowgate and Deja Vu found themselves in, as it has faded into an extra-obscure realm of game history which even fans of its siblings rarely tread. I only happened upon the game by accident one day, drowsily browsing GameFAQs' companies list for something new to play and thinking "Kemco must have made more than two games in 20 years," (note: this was mildly accurate, though most of their games are ports or remakes or reports or poormakes--see what I did there).

Amazingly, our local McVan's had a copy of this secret gem which I snatched up and immediately brought home, cleaned, blew into, yelled at, begged, and then bribed into working on my NES. I started a new game file, read the beginning 'set up,' and the game was over. That may indicate the game is longer than it actually is. Let me rephrase: Power. Start. A button. The End.

You begin Deja Vu in a toliet. This is relatively true for the other games as well.

This is an important point because Kemco seems to have had a rule that each of these games could not be released without a set number of deaths waiting the player. The number was set at Absurd.

Uninvited has 22 possible ways to die scattered about its 15 minute-long plot. More than one death per minute. More deaths than dollars paid for the used game. You can die by opening a door, hitting a spider, carrying around a beautiful red gem, using an anti-zombie pendant on a zombie. These are not 22 expected and thoughtfully avoidable deaths. These are Shadowgate "Pick the book up off the sturdy, stone ledge and die" type events.

Get used to this.

This post surprisingly began by claiming I love Kemco's three, nearly-identical-outside-their-plot-games. And I do. But I can admit they are ridiculous, often absurd adventures that cannot possibly carry over today unless you really, really want to enjoy them. (Note: No one does.) Like most older games, though, that's part of their ongoing fun and charm: being able to laugh at them and yourself (and only myself, apparently) for still liking them.

And then, being able to play the even more condensed and hilarious mock Flash version. This game sums up all three titles pretty well. And it's actually win-able, which I can't say is absolutely true about the others.

Pick it up.

A boy and his bots

Last weekend, I managed my most amazing and miraculous gaming feat yet: conning my boy into playing Robotrek. The trouble with Robotrek, aside from its many, many translational errors and almost entire lack of worthwhile plot, is that I love it. Absolute, 100% devotion to it. But I have trouble explaining just why, or what it is about Robotrek that should put it within a court order's distance of anyone's need-to-play list.

The previous three statements can apply to almost any Enix game, (especially of the SNES era), yet they remain my favorite game developer. Besides the issues their games share, they all have a quirky charm and some uniqueness that prevents you from saying "Oh, it's just another ___ game," because there is always an "...except that !!!" at the end.

Robotrek is just another turn-based RPG...except that you build robots to battle for you! And you have to invent many other devices throughout, such as a relay that lets you talk to animals and an umbrella that controls the weather. The Song of Storms was way behind the times.

Everyone in the game, even the villains, are likable. I don't even remember who was bad vs. good because I'm just buddies with all of them. We still meet up at Denny's for omelets on Saturdays.

For some reason these vague, and often blurted out at inopportune times, reasons for playing the game don't seem to woo many a player. The Boy only agreed to play because I mercifully released him from a commitment to the end of Final Fantasy VIII, on the grounds that he would owe me the entirety of some other game of my choosing. I guess if I want the world to play the unexplainable awesome that is Robotrek, I'll have to make more serious demands upon it, and then relinquish to its lesser threat.

"You have to play through Taz-Mania without cutting your hands off. Or, you could just play Robotrek."
Pick it up.