5 – Assassin’s Creed (Playstation 3)
I’ve heard it said that loving something makes you oblivious to its flaws. I disagree though – I think loving something often gives you a heightened and exaggerated awareness its failings, the key is that your emotions continue despite them. I love Assassin’s Creed, but I can’t help feeling that I’m the one in this relationship being taken for granted: however many times it lets me down, I’ll give it another chance, even if logic tells me not to. I devote hours of my life to it, I tend to its every need, work really hard to make things better and how am I repaid? With Assassin’s Creed 3. Like your partner celebrating your birthday by giving you a cheap card with a fiver in it; somehow worse than nothing. This post is the equivalent of me sitting down on the sofa with a tub of ice cream and looking through old photo albums, desperately trying to remind myself what makes it all worth the pain.
For those that stuck with that paragraph, it may have been clear that I think the Assassin’s Creed series has been growing progressively worse, game by game. This is, however, a backhanded way of saying that the first two games are great, particularly the original; hence its inclusion here. For those unfamiliar with the premise of the franchise: Desmond Miles, a 21st Century American, is plugged into a machine called the Animus, which taps into his ancestor’s memories stored in his DNA (if you think this is too far-fetched, be thankful I’m ignoring the utterly insane superbeing bullshit introduced in the second game onwards). Controlling these memories, Desmond learns of the ever-present battle for supremacy in the shadows of society between Assassins and Templars – a conflict present-day Desmond is himself embroiled in. The first game sees you take control of Altair, an Assassin in the crusade-era Middle-East. The missions themselves have been criticised for their repetitiveness: your boss gives you a name; you gather information on that person by way of eavesdropping, stealing, intimidation etc; before killing the target (preferably without being detected, mostly whilst being chased by roughly half of the crusader army).
Ubisoft’s trump card, as seen in Prince of Persia, is its platforming. What makes Assassin’s Creed fun to play is the creation of incredibly big environments and having the character running, jumping, climbing and stabbing his way through them at breakneck speed. The simple sense of achievement gained in scaling a viewpoint, peering around then launching yourself into a nearby hay bale is as addictive as a PS3-administered dose of super-lovely heroin. It’s worth pointing out additionally that the scenery and environments produced in these games are staggering in their detail (possibly too much so). Running around medieval Jerusalem or (in later games) Renaissance Italy is a thrilling experience and a visual feast (this is what made the choice of revolutionary USA such a disappointing setting for AC3). The first game in the series is also by far the best when it comes to the assassinations themselves. You can meticulously plan, carefully manoeuvre and strike so effectively you’re often in awe of your own stealth (massaging the player’s ego never does a game any harm), yet in later games this is cut down, with the feeling that the assassinations have slipped in the creators’ list of priorities.
Though it is now a commercial juggernaut, impossible to stop, for me the Assassin’s Creed franchise has been fatally undermined by bad decisions regarding the speed of releasing games (annual releases have left games feeling somewhat rushed – see ‘Brotherhood’ and ‘Revelations’); locations (again, AC3’s choice of revolutionary Boston and New York is awful); and the staggeringly overblown ridiculousness of the apocalyptic present-day plot that I can’t even bring myself to describe. My bitterness about this is clear, and what makes me so critical of the failings in later games (which are still fun to play) is that I loved the first one so much.
I’ve never gotten over you Assassin’s Creed, and I don’t want to, I just wish we could go back to the way things were.
4 – Heavy Rain (Playstation 3)
This is the addition to the list that I played for the first time most recently and the post with which I am most worried about length, as it feels as if I could write a dissertation about Heavy Rain practically without breaking sweat. Amongst the games I have played it is unique; and frankly I am in awe of it. Without wishing to sound as pretentious as I know I am capable of, Heavy Rain is a completely different interpretation of what a computer game can be. It’s something to rub in the faces of those who snobbishly view games as for children (even if sometimes they may have a point – what they fail to realise is that’s no bad thing anyway). Most plot-driven games essentially take the form of the player starting from ‘A’ and working their way through levels and/or challenges to reach ‘B’. Some more adventurous titles throw in additional options, maybe even choices: instead of ‘B’, the player could perhaps reach ‘C’, or having the option of reaching ‘B’ by going via ‘C’ or ‘D’, depending on their preference. Playing Heavy Rain though, is like being dropped in King’s Cross train station with an unlimited ticket allowing you to go wherever you like. You could end up in Cardiff, Edinburgh, Tunbridge Wells or Paris – depending on which route you take – and it is all entirely up to you. Oh, and this process is repeated for 4 different characters.
The game begins with you mundanely controlling Ethan, making him get up, brush his teeth etc then play with his adorable kids, all happy families. However, one of these children is soon killed off in a traffic accident, fast-forwarding you to a bleak, perpetually raining future in which a miserable Ethan struggles to rebuild a relationship with his remaining son. This son is then taken by the Origami Killer, a serial murderer, who kidnaps children before drowning them in rainwater. The killer’s signature method is what lends the game its title, as the player has until 6 inches of precipitation has fallen to save Ethan’s son. Ethan is given challenges by the killer, which if completed will yield clues to his son’s location. The player also controls a likeable Private Investigator, a young female journalist and an FBI agent drafted in from out of town, all of whom are caught up in attempting to find the identity of the murderer. The gameplay itself is fairly simple: mainly based on moving around and carrying out options that flash up on screen, and often dependent on quick time events – which usually annoy me but work a lot better when used consistently throughout a game rather than thrown in at one or two random points.
You do not play the game for the gameplay though – it’s hardly like the thrill of Assassin’s Creed’s free-running. The attraction of this game is its unfathomably intricate narrative-building and the emotional investment it builds in the gamer. As mentioned above, it is you, the player, who decides what will happen and crucially, every single decision – no matter how small – feels important. Every play of this game will result in a different outcome: trying to work out the permutations – when taking into account every decision that is made across 4 characters – makes my head hurt. Each decision feels important and is completely up to you and just as crucially, come the end of the game you can see just how these choices led you to your particular finale. I’ve spoken to a number of people who’ve played Heavy Rain; all of us arrived at completely, radically different endings and yet I had no difficulty in understanding how each of these finales was reached, how each fork in the road can lead you down a totally different path. It’s also of vital importance to this set up that failure is an ever-present option. If you mess up, the character you’re controlling dies. And if they do, that’s it. You are not inevitably going to save Ethan’s son; he could die. Each character you control can be made a better person through your actions, or a far worse one. And sometimes it’s unclear what decision will lead to which outcome as well as whether being a better person will be a more effective way to reach your goals. A minor but fundamental part of this is how the game saves – it does so regularly and automatically; you cannot choose when, meaning you can’t just reboot and try again – you’re stuck with your decision.
This constant feeling of pressure helps build the astonishing emotional immersion I found myself subject to when playing this game. I agonised over decisions: some relatively mundane ones like how soon to leave a place you’re visiting, others more important like whether or not to fight or succumb to the FBI agent’s drug habit while a number are truly harrowing. This, just like everything else in this masterpiece, is carefully constructed: scene by scene, line by line, meaning that by the end you care so much it becomes a little scary. I wouldn’t want every game to be like Heavy Rain, I don’t want to be that emotionally drained and mentally challenged by each time I turned on a console; I’d be a complete wreck, but it’s one of the most important I’ve played. If you have any interest in games, you need to play this, if you’re like me it will stand as a ‘before and after’, watershed moment in your console-orientated life. Computer games may or may not be considered art, that’s a (quite boring) debate for another time, another place. For me though, there is no argument that Heavy Rain is an artistic triumph, pushing boundaries and opening my eyes to what is possible. Awesome in the true sense of the word.
3 – Tenchu: Wrath of Heaven (Playstation 2)
Unsurprisingly, moving into my top 3 brings us to the games I’ve played more often than any others. In the case of Tenchu, the majority of this worrying amount of time invested came during a year or two of my teenage years, when a friend and I could have been describe as having a borderline obsession with it (‘borderline’ being a generous term). Unlike the huge Ubisoft franchises mentioned above, this is not a selection to represent a series of games: I’ve played other Tenchu titles and did not particularly like them, so Wrath of Heaven stands alone, a shining lighthouse of brilliance within a sea of mediocrity.
The game contains two overlapping and intertwined storylines, depending on which character’s path you choose to play: Rikimaru’s or Ayame’s. Both ninjas, the plot(s) follows their attempts to find and defeat Tenrai, and evil wizard hell bent on world domination/destruction/the usual things evil wizards want. What this fairly simple set up allows for though is a vastly contrasting set of levels, with enemies varying from simply enemy ninjas and guards to shimmering spirits, wooden robots and the undead. There are also a number of differing locations for each level; from caves to graveyards to hidden fortresses, with some of these levels ending in a rather traditional fashion: a battle with a boss. Though the combat sections are well designed – cleverly so in terms of making it accessible to button-bashers but also containing more complex manoeuvres that can be picked up by more experienced players – the main feature of the game is the stealth kills. An ever-present stealth meter on screen shows both how close you are to an enemy and how aware they are of your presence, and attacking one before you are detected results in an impressive (and regularly gruesome) execution; changing depending on from which angle you approach. Collection of a certain number of these kills on a level also grants you access to a new ability or move which can be used alongside the vast array of items picked up and taken with you on levels, from rice cakes to boost your health to smoke bombs and grenades to throw at enemies.
As with many great games, the initial simplicity of appeal is enough to get you hooked and from then on the game continues to introduce intricacies in both script and gameplay that will draw you further into its world. Criticisms could be made of its slightly repetitive nature, as well as the glorious stupidity of enemies, who – 10 seconds after having been attacked by a mysterious ninja – will go back to being completely unruffled and unaware if you hide out of sight around a corner or something (though you could argue this stupidity is necessary – a realistic response would make any stealth kills practically impossible after you’re first detected). I felt that Rikimaru and Ayame’s styles and storylines differ enough to maintain interest at all times, while the ratings awarded to players after every level appeal to the perfectionist in me, determined to achieve a “grand master” rating on each one (which I am both proud and embarrassed to admit that I’ve done in the past). The game also has some great unlockable features – look out for a very different additional character, complete with their own levels and plot as well as a bizarre and hilarious level transporting Rikimaru to late 20th Century USA (complete with cops talking about doughnuts). It’s also probably got my single favourite intro to a game, if only because one viewing leaves me unable to get the song out of my head for days.
This is a game that emphasises the personal nature of this list: of those of you who have played Tenchu, most will probably just have thought it was ok, nothing particularly special. Unlike Heavy Rain, it’s not a game I would insist someone had to play, something I would describe as objectively brilliant. For a raft of reasons, Tenchu feels like a personal and almost a secret treasure I’m risking sharing with you here, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
2 – Pokémon Red/Blue/Yellow (GameBoy/GameBoy Colour)
Before you snort with derision and move on to the next post, at least hear me out and think this one through. If you’re of a similar age to me, there’s a pretty good chance you spent a worryingly high percentage of your childhood playing at least one of these games (and/or trading the cards and watching the TV show – I bet you still know the words to the theme song). Pokémon was a cultural phenomenon, ubiquitous for a number of years, with all of its gargantuan success stemming from these original games. We all know the basic premise: begin with one Pokémon, embark on an epic quest to defeat 8 Gym leaders and then the Elite Four (and your suitably hilariously named rival) whilst attempting to “catch ’em all”.
The addictive nature of these games is what made them so remarkable – you often grew genuinely attached to the members of your ‘team’ and the hours spent honing their skills, desperately fighting everyone and anyone to gain them a few more levels of experience, really did border on obsession. The game was clever in that while it offered a genuine challenge in terms of whether or not you could defeat the opponents set before you (in particular the Elite Four), it was never impossible – things were always within reach as long as you invested the requisite amount of time into the game. And players definitely did that. If you played these games, you probably still vividly remember the forensic detail with which you decided, ruthlessly, which of your charges were worthy of a place in your top 6, which combination offered the best balance in your attempt to be ready for everything and anything.
In retrospect, the detail built into the games was staggering: the graphics may not have been particularly advanced but the extra details crammed into the games memory are astonishing: think of all the characters you come across, all the cities, trails, caves and seas, each containing different Pokémon of different levels and abilities. The Pokémon battles themselves were also never a disappointment: to draw a parallel with something else that at times dominates your life, sometimes on Football Manager you get so obsessed with which players you’re signing or will try to sign, playing the matches themselves became something of an afterthought. On Pokémon however, whether your main aim was to garner experience for the current beast under your tutelage or simply to defeat an enemy necessary for the game’s progress, the battles were never boring; requiring a combination of skill, knowledge of the ins and outs of types (fire being strong against grass etc; I’m sure you remember them) as well as the more basic advantage of battling using a higher level Pokémon than your opponent.
The games were exceptionally crafted, with each hour put into them earning more reward and resulting in a colossal amount of time being spent walking through grass or navigating your way through a particularly complex route. The Red and Blue versions of the game even had that classic of older games: the well-known glitch/cheat, in this case the Missingno bug allowing you all sorts of impossibly levelled Pokémon, infinite items (which weren’t technically ‘infinite’ at all) and the like. It seems the majority of newer games have an unlockable ‘anti-gravity’ mode as standard and this unoriginality, as well as the fact it feels so designed, packaged and frankly handed to you on a plate rather than being a genuine mistake in the game to discover takes away a lot of the mischievous fun, for me at least. Unlike these games though, Pokémon was charming, engrossing, incredibly fun and the most addictive console game I’ve ever played. In fact, I feel like finding an old game boy and giving it a go right now…
1 – Sonic the Hedgehog 2 (Sega Mega Drive)
So we finally reach the big reveal of my favourite ever game. I’m afraid it’s something of an anti-climax: this will not come as a shock to anyone who has (a) followed me on twitter; (b) ever spoken to me about video games or (c) noticed the picture heading this blog and realised what the title of this website is a reference to. As my near-constant sycophancy in previous entries displays, I adore the games listed above for a variety of contrasting and complimentary reasons, but there was never any doubt that this would be my number 1. It is my favourite game by far. Were it not for the fact it would have been (even more) boring and repetitive, I would have included the original Sonic game in this list, too – possibly as high as second. It is the sequel to that game which trumps all else for me, though.
A number of times throughout this list, I have praised games for their simplicity, the ability for a game to be fun whilst stripped down to its most basic. Sonic 2 is the purest example of this: the only controls manipulating the blue hedgehog are the direction pad and pressing a button to jump (or spin). Similarly, the levels come from that most straightforward platforming concept – going from one end to another, defeating enemies along the way and with a boss (Dr Robotnik) at the end of each zone’s final stage. Yet the game as a whole and each level individually are so beautifully designed that they never feel remotely repetitive and are able to constantly throw different challenges your way. One area in which I feel the second game has a significant advantage over its (indisputably brilliant) predecessor is this level design and the way in which it always allows for the building of momentum throughout, picking up a breakneck speed (if the players chooses too). The game also features a staple of many Sega games – a wonderful soundtrack, with each level’s own music contributing hugely to its feel and superbly setting the atmosphere (much like the original Sonic, whose soundtrack was rumoured to have been contributed to by little-known American artist Michael Jackson, who also lent the hedgehog his distinctive red shoes).
The sumptuous visual design of these levels also remains striking, the flowing movement ever-present throughout not so much touching at perfection as grabbing it and giving it a bear hug it refuses to release. Every aspect of this game is marvellously judged – the levels retain the key gameplay features of speed and fluidity whilst noticeably becoming incrementally difficult, as do the bosses, culminating in the challenge of the final Death Egg Zone. Similarly, I think the two player capabilities of the game are hugely underrated. This is the first time Tails is introduced as a character in a game, and while the two player competitions are outrageously fun and at times hilariously frustrating, the optional use of him in the one player version of the game is genius. It allows a companion to dip in and out of the game to prevent them getting too bored watching, while also (if the second player is any good) making it easier to collect all of the chaos emeralds. The emeralds are an important feature of another aspect of the game – the extras built into it. These are often fairly small (hidden extra lives, for example) but whether it be desperately trying to collect rings on the special stages to obtain all the emeralds (take it from someone who’s done it – it’s worth it) or playing the slot games on Casino Night Zone, there is also something different ready to reach out and grab your attention. Even Sonic’s personality provides an extra edge – designed as a less bland competitor for Nintendo’s Mario, the little things like his obvious impatience should the player remain inactive, or the amusing attempts at keeping balance when perched near the edge of a surface are relatively minor, but nonetheless merely add to the game’s charm and character.
As is probably clear, I could go on and on about this game, saying both everything and nothing. The best advice I can give is to just play it if you have the opportunity, either on the Sega itself of by playing one of the Sega collections now available on later consoles. It is my favourite game by an embarrassing distance and it is quite simply the best. Perfection.