January 29, 2014

This Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII Trailer is Adorably Retro

Square Enix released a rather cute promotional trailer today, for the upcoming final installment in the Final Fantasy XIII trilogy. Critical opinions of Final Fantasy XIII aside, it's a pretty cool video of the prior events that lead up to the beginning of Lightning Returns. I'm not sure its explanatory power is sufficient to get somebody who never played these games up to speed, but at least it's a cool throw-back to the classic SNES Final Fantasy style.

Part of me wants to warm up to these games a bit, after seeing this. I didn't like the original Final Fantasy XIII's story at all, and although XIII-2's developments didn't seem much better the actual gameplay and depth was much improved. XIII-3's mechanics seem like they will be legitimately enjoyable, even if the plot still sounds like hokum. There are some genuinely good elements in there, and it seems like Square Enix learned some lessons after the initial stumble.

If there is one thing I take away most from this trailer, though, it's just how contrived and random everything seems. The abruptness with which Lightning falls through a rift in the earth, only to fall into Valhalla and become a "warrior goddess" isn't just a cartoonish abstraction -- it's essentially how the story goes! Characters and concepts just appear and are forgotten as it becomes convenient. The rules about the nature of reality completely shift from game to game, as if the writers haven't fully decided where to take things. Sometimes I feel like I'm playing the JRPG equivalent of Axe Cop.

Review: Street Fighter X Mega Man

A couple years ago, Capcom's acclaimed Mega Man and Street Fighter franchises both celebrated their 25th birthdays. Around this time, Singaporean fan Seow Zong Hui wanted to pay homage to these two classic series by means of a nostalgic mash-up -- a traditional, NES-style Mega Man game which pitted the eponymous boy in blue against a roster of Street Fighter characters in place of the usual "robot masters." Rather than remain content to quietly release the fan project as a risky, underground diversion beneath Capcom's radar, Zong Hui approached the company for their blessing. As a result, Capcom not only approved of his fan game but also cooperated through funding and promotional efforts. The completed project, Street Fighter X Mega Man, remains a highlight of the Mega Man section of the Capcom-Unity website, available to download and play for free.

As anyone familiar with the NES Mega Man titles would expect, this is a traditional 2D action platformer. You start with a selection of 8 characters to go after in the order of your choosing, each with their own themed stage and a signature ability to bestow upon defeat. After defeating all 8, Mega Man is whisked off to a final multi-tiered series of challenges culminating in a tense duel with M. Bison. For better or worse, Street Fighter X Mega Man follows the tried-and-true formula of previous Mega Man iterations, with few twists. Let there be no confusion about it: you'll get exactly what you are expecting with this one.

Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, SF X MM isn't on par with series high points like Mega Man 2, 3, or 9. I'm not sure it's even as good as the "just okay" titles like Mega Man 4 or 5. It's still a fun, smart game with a few of its own ideas to bring to the table -- but the novelty of the character cross-over gimmick is going to be what drives most players to completion.

Some unwise decisions keep this title from being as good as it could have been, not the least of which is the inclusion of the "Mega Buster" charge shot. It's extremely over-powered, and is the most effective way (or only effective way) to dispatch any regular enemies, and arguably most bosses as well. Sure, Ryu's fireballs can be reflected back at him using Urien's Aegis Protector -- but instead of bending over backwards to make it happen, it's probably simpler to just hop over the fireballs employ the Mega Buster. Nobody in the game isn't weak against it, and as a result there's little reason to experiment much with the earned special weapons.

Other quirks range from questionable to outright irritating. Life-restoring Energy Tanks seem more plentiful than in most Mega Mans, but won't re-spawn even after a Game Over. Stage intros suffer from a lack of character animation. Completed stages can't be re-played. Life and weapon energy capsules seem to drop too often, and weapon reserves fill completely with each death. If you enter a boss room with a fully-charged Mega Buster, but let go of the button while the boss does his intro animation, the charge is simply lost without firing anything. Scrolling between single-screen rooms is much more frequent than in most games, and the unusual ability to backtrack to a previous room results in unfortunate accidents that re-spawn defeated enemies. While the stages are generally well-designed and feature unique tricks and platforming puzzles, they can also feel oddly "un-Mega Man" at times, and lack polish. For someone who has played a lot of old-school Mega Man and knows its ins and outs, these transgressions can be irksome.

The controls are mostly spot-on during gameplay. Mega Man runs, jumps, slides and shoots as responsively as he does in the "real" games. The menus and "meta" aspects of the interface are uncomfortably fussy, however. All menu selections must be confirmed with the Start button. Even after assigning buttons on the gamepad, there is no way to quit the game without reaching for the Escape key on the keyboard. In fact, there's no way to reset the game to the title screen at all, without quitting and rebooting the program entirely.

On the positive side, the game looks and sounds great, for what it is. The visuals are 100% faithful to their NES inspirations, the level environments are distinctive and detailed, and the enemy sprites are cute and inventive despite a few too many cheap palette-swaps as stand-ins for "new" foes. The sprites used for the Street Fighter boss characters are probably as well-made as can be expected, considering they were never originally designed or proportioned for an 8-bit world. Some of them look suspiciously like Mega Man in cosplay, but perhaps it can't be helped.

The music is superb, with familiar Street Fighter character themes re-thought as 8-bit chiptunes. More than a literal transcription from one medium to another, each track takes the core melody of the original and rethinks it in a genuine style and instrumentation suitable for a Mega Man soundtrack. Dhalsim's stage music actually borrows heavily from the music of Snake Man's theme in Mega Man 3, becoming a clever and fitting tribute that marriages the sounds of both series admirably.

The standard sound effects of the Mega Man series are all here, with no real surprises. One creative touch that I really enjoyed was the digitized, squeaky half-speech the Street Fighter characters blurt out when performing some of their special moves. It's adorable!

It feels petty to criticize a free fan tribute game for lacking substance, but despite Street Fighter X Mega Man being a well-crafted effort it does feel like a spartan, bare-bones affair. For one thing, the game is quite short -- and for another, it's relatively easy. Experienced players will breeze through most stages, and likely defeat most bosses with minimal snags.

There's also no story to be had -- not just minimal story, but literally none. Granted, no one plays Mega Man or Street Fighter for the plot, but there's usually at least some facade that seeks to justify what is going on. When you start the game, you're immediately brought to the stage select. No intro, no explanation for why Mega Man would want to fight these people, no anything. Again, I feel silly for faulting what is essentially fan service, but the lack of even an attempt at a premise makes the game feel like cheap fluff that the designer didn't think was "worth it." Literally anything would have been enough.

Street Fighter X Mega Man is good, but not great. If you enjoy retro gaming or the Mega Man series at all -- but, like me, you passed this one up when it first surfaced -- it's definitely something you should try. The Street Fighter cameos alone make the experience worth it, but some well thought-out level designs and inspired aesthetics keep things engaging and addicting from start to finish. While there's nothing here that exemplifies the best of either series, I'd say it's a success as an old-school action game, definitely worth a few hours to plow through.

January 24, 2014

Candy Crush Saga Publisher King Already Has My Vote for Worst Company of 2014

King, makers of microtransaction-laden "game" Candy Crush Saga, have earned themselves a heap of scorn over a recent spate of legal bullying. After securing trademarks in Europe and the United States to use the words "Candy" and "Saga" in game titles (and, oddly, clothing), the publisher is now siccing their lawyers on a variety of independent game makers who dared to use either of those words.

In an excellent article on Rock, Paper, Shotgun John Walker describes how the trollish move is already affecting many small developers. While the onus would be on King to prove any allegations of intentional brand confusion, they still effectively can force these smaller developers to submit to name changes or removal because they know an individual has far less time and money to hire a lawyer and risk getting taken to court.

One noteworthy victim of King's rotten fear-mongering is Stoic, developers of The Banner Saga. You'd have a hard time finding a game less like Candy Crush Saga, but on the basis of one word alone they have nonetheless been threatened with legal action from King's lawyers. Candy Crush is a colorful match-three puzzle game, while Banner is a viking-themed role-playing adventure. And yet, King finds there to be uncomfortable similarities between the two, somehow -- at least, enough to legally oppose their own file for trademark.

My god, it's uncanny! Or is it... uncandy?

King's justification is unsurprisingly flimsy and pedantic, but also basically an admission that they have no case:

King has not and is not trying to stop Banner Saga from using its name. We do not have any concerns that Banner Saga is trying to build on our brand or our content. However, like any prudent company, we need to take all appropriate steps to protect our IP, both now and in the future.
In this case, that means preserving our ability to enforce our rights in cases where other developers may try to use the Saga mark in a way which infringes our IP rights and causes player confusion. If we had not opposed Banner Saga’s trade mark application, it would be much easier for real copy cats to argue that their use of ‘Saga’ was legitimate.

How do you take legal action against someone for infringing on your trademark, while in the same breath admitting that you don't have any concerns about it? To me, that seems to require an extremely potent blend of greed, cynicism, and a cavalier penchant for abusing the most rotten and diseased aspects of trademark law for selfish interests. Companies like this just love twisting the letter of the law, while blatantly stomping all over the spirit.

Some might argue that for a company to maintain the right to protect their trademarks later, they must show an earnest effort to consistently defend against infringements. I don't buy this for a second, because in this case (and others) they are not going after actual copycats or rip-offs of their products whatsoever. No one is going to make a clone of Candy Crush Saga, and steal their name, then successfully defend themselves with "Oh yeah? Well, you didn't sue The Banner Saga years ago, therefore you don't own anything." No court would buy that. But then, most of these cases won't go to court. King's lawyers will continue to intimidate individuals with baseless threats, and succeed, simply because they know the little guys can't afford to call their bluff.

Consider, also, just how many video games are out there which share identical words. Did Nintendo sue Capcom back in the NES days for the similarities Duck Tales had to Duck Hunt? Both were duck-themed video games with the same word in their title. And yet, no confusion between the two was suffered by anybody, and no legal battle was necessary to protect any trademarks. Resident Evil co-exists with Evil Dead, as does Super Mario Brothers with Super Meat Boy. Or for that matter, House of the Dead, Left 4 Dead, Dead Island, Dead RisingDead or Alive, or The Walking Dead. As for myself, I'm rather a fan of Dragon Quest, Dragon Age, and Dragon's Crown. I tried Dragon's Prophet recently, and have been meaning to get my hands on Dragon's Dogma. I wonder how any of these companies can all get along, without trying to claim commonly-used words as their corporate property? Maybe they actually have a shred of decency, and a sense of shame?

What makes this even more of a joke is that King's Candy Crush Saga isn't even a remotely original game. It's an obvious rip-off of Bejeweled and any number of countless match-three puzzle games. Have you seen some of their other products? These people couldn't muster an iota of creativity to save their lives. They just steal trite, pre-existing game ideas and monetize them for disgusting amounts of profit. The notion of them turning around and pointing fingers at copycats now is the very zenith of hypocrisy.

One of the few bright spots in this mess is that gamers across the internet have taken notice of King's slimy tactics and are feverishly collaborating on a game-making competition called Candy Jam. From now until February 3rd, indie game makers are hard at work creating as many games as possible using the terms "candy" and "saga," just to stick it to King and create awareness of the problem. Other terms that have been needlessly contested in recent past, including "scroll," "memory," "edge," and "apple," are also encouraged. Personally, I am rather enjoying following the #candyjam hash tag on Twitter. Kotaku had a nice piece about the movement, highlighting some cute entries.

Trademarking a specific phrase as it relates to a title or product name in a given medium -- that I can understand. If they want to own the right to call a game "Candy Crush Saga," I am obviously behind that. But when a company wants to own the right to use a single word anywhere in a title -- a word they had no part in creating or popularizing whatsoever, and which has already been in common parlance for centuries -- that is downright detestable. I already had no desire to take part in King's shoddy games on the basis of quality, but now it seems I have a moral objection as well. I'm just appalled.

January 18, 2014

Review: Anodyne

Anodyne is like a dream: a swirling miasma of surreal images and feelings, at once foreign and familiar. One's sense of reality vs fiction blurs, and although the events that take place are disjointed and nonsensical they nonetheless can provoke an emotional response.

Unfortunately, completing Anodyne is much like waking from that dream. One might reflect bemusedly on the abstract narrative which just took place, but doing so only underscores how fleeting and trivial it all was. Of course, there are those who desperately grasp at a flickering image or ominous phrase in a vain attempt to wrest some profound symbolism from the experience. Ultimately, though, it was merely a silly spark of imagination. It was fun, but there's not much to talk about when it's over.

Let's set aside the meta-game analysis for now, though, and get to the basics. Anodyne is an indie adventure title by the talented two-man team of Sean Hogan and Jonathan Kittaka, with strong emphasis on puzzle-solving and exploration. Many compare the game to Zelda, specifically Link's Awakening, and rightly so: it has a very similar feel, and reaches for the same goals. Play is centered on expanding your map, combing areas for hidden secrets, clearing monster-filled dungeons, and using your head to overcome obstacles. There's even a Link wannabe NPC in a green cap, hacking at a bush gleefully with his sword in the hopes of finding money. Of course, you don't get to fight with a sword -- your weapon in this game is a simple broom, infusing every moment of combat with self-effacing modesty.

There's also a potent twist of Earthbound present, as Anodyne has a quirky, self-aware and subversive sense of humour. Interacting with the game's cast is sure to be met with off-kilter non sequiturs and funny monologues for their own sake. At times it feels like Anodyne is trying too hard to churn out the jokes and referential gamer humour, but for the most part it's delightfully whimsical.

The wonderful sprite art is made to resemble something that might have appeared on the Super Nintendo or Gameboy Advance, with bold colours and squat figures who aren't afraid to show off their chunky pixels with pride. Areas are presented one screen at a time, scrolling over to the next scene when you walk to the edge of your field of view (another nod to a classic Zelda format).

Unlike Zelda, though, Anodyne seeks to do more with less. It's a roughly 6 or 7 hour game, so it doesn't have time to drip-feed you an arsenal of magical tools and weaponry. Combat and puzzle-solving are accomplished through maximizing tight economy of two different broom upgrades and a jump ability. You can also pick up and put down clumps of dust with your broom, which can be used as makeshift rafts on bodies of water, or to block some enemy projectiles. Having been trained by Zelda to always expect another item or power from each dungeon, I was honestly a little let down that such discoveries were never forthcoming. Still, if you can get that unfair expectation out of your mind, there is a lot to appreciate in the physical puzzles and challenges this game offers, using what assets it affords you. The dungeon environments really are quite crafty, and satisfying to master.

Don't expect an entirely happy-go-lucky picnic in a fantasy land, though. Anodyne  gets unsettling -- downright nightmarish -- at times. The veneer of cute, retro nostalgia only serves to feign innocence before things get dark. At one point, you'll walk along a sandy beach and approach a fisherman sitting on a dock. You shove him into the waters and dive into the swirling portal of crimson his death left behind, to find yourself in a hellish, blood-red maze of brambles and faceless behemoths. The dungeon in this area is guarded by a self-loathing race of ancient, octopus-like demons who describe their reluctant existence as "born from pain to die in pain."

Some dungeons have rooms full of wandering, mindless humans who say nothing and can't be interacted with at all, save for shoving them out of your way. Another area is a suburb rendered in a grainy grayscale, haunted by shadowy ghosts and populated by oblivious townspeople who won't talk to you until you stab them to death first.

The contrast in imagery fosters a growing mistrust in the protagonist, as if the version of reality being presented in the game is becoming increasingly inaccurate. It has much in common with Silent Hill at times, with objective reality periodically giving way to an alternate realm of horrors which other characters seem not to bear witness to. As cute and quaint and peppered with goofy jokes as Anodyne is, it's also a disturbing, isolated journey. Even the most friendly and helpful of personalities are essentially static cut-outs, aware only of their own little worlds, leaving you to face existential monstrosities on your own time.

Sean Hogan's soundtrack also contributes to the atmosphere very effectively, eschewing the bombastic, "video gamey" melodies one might expect from an old-school action RPG in favour of downplayed, ambient pieces. It really is in service to the game's mood, making peaceful moments gentler and more beautiful, and hostile environments that much creepier.

As fun as the game is, it lacks cohesion, in both story and a sense of direction for the player. You guide silent protagonist Young, who is instructed by a hooded figure called Sage to go protect the land from evil. This quest is never really clarified, so you just sort of go out and do things, fight monsters, and explore where you can. Soon enough, you begin to amass a collection of cards featuring the game's cast, and encounter gates which block off areas of the map and won't open until you've attained a requisite number of cards. As you clear areas, you find warp pads which link back to a network of portals in a central hub area.

Most of the roadblocks are easy enough to open, with cards naturally coming to you at an appropriate rate. However, what you may not realize until it's too late, is that in order to enter the final area and complete the game you must find every single card available. To me, that seems pretty fussy, and rather demanding of a game that completely fails to make any sense, let alone be bothered to provide me with a motive for my quest. Even after doing the necessary backtracking and finally beating the game, the story still never comes together. Why do you fight monsters and collect cards? Apparently, because they're there.

I wasn't going to say it, but if the shoe fits...
Anodyne's plot, if it has one, is too impenetrable for its own good. Each chapter remains self-contained and frustratingly abstract. Certain lines might stick out as portentous foreshadowing or poignant insight in the heat of the moment, but nothing ever comes of it. Whether it represents a symbolic journey through Young's subconscious, or just a hodge-podge of silly stuff sewn together as a masturbatory experiment, the resulting narrative feels like it's written as a self-reflexive exercise for the creators' own amusement. In this respect, it reminds me a lot of Braid -- a game to enjoy for the puzzles and mechanics, but if you are waiting for all the loose threads and deep-sounding monologues to actually add up to something in the end, you'll be in for a disappointment. It's trying way too hard to wear the "cerebral, indie art game" hat, but not trying nearly hard enough to paste together a coherent plot. I challenge anyone to explain who the final boss of this game actually is, without resorting to speculative hypotheses woven entirely from wholecloth.

It's a shame that the story issues hold this game back from being something great, as the rest of the package is really impressive. The visuals and sound are done expertly, the exploratory elements and dungeon sequences are fun to solve, and the writing is genuinely punchy. There's enough in the moment-to-moment action to keep the player motivated, but once you reach the end, don't bother to look back and trace how you got there. Even the most basic questions -- Who is Young? Who is Sage? Why am I doing any of this? -- goes completely unanswered. It's like trying to complete a connect-the-dots picture, but the dots aren't numbered, many dots are missing, and you have to add several dots yourself.

Do I want to see more from the people who made Anodyne? Absolutely. They've proven they can produce a quality game with clever level design and addicting mechanics. Am I glad I bought the game? Yes. It was $10 on Steam, and I did have a great 6 or 7 hours of fun. Would I recommend this game to others? Yes, but to a very specific set of gamers. If you enjoy retro graphics and gameplay in the style of Zelda, this game is for you. Just don't try to read too much into the words of the game's verbose NPCs, though -- none of it actually refers to anything. Just treat it as you would a dream: an amusing puff of imagination, but not something that warrants revisiting or deeper analysis.

Anodyne Review - Living Myth

January 15, 2014

Final Fantasy Tactics Successor Announced: Unsung Story

It's still only January, and I think this might be the greatest news I'll hear all year. California-based developer Playdek is partnering with Yasumi Matsuno to craft the spiritual successor to his celebrated series of tactical RPGs. Matsuno is the mastermind behind such classics as Final Fantasy Tactics, Final Fantasy XII, Vagrant Story, and Tactics Ogre.

Unsung Story - Living Myth

Currently, Unsung Story: Tale of the Guardians is seeking funding on Kickstarter, requiring at least $600,000 by Febrauary 14th. As of now it has already pulled in over $240,000 with ease, so things are looking good. The promise of a follow-up to FFT alone is enough to get many people salivating, myself included.

Details are a tad sparse as the project is still young, but already the tone and setting sound like they are on the right track. As described on the project page:

History is written by winners, and tells the tales of heroes. But where there are winners, there are losers, and wars are not won by heroes alone. Behind the veil of history, there are countless stories that lie forgotten. Reliving these hidden tales is the concept behind the Unsung Story.
Unsung Story: Tale of the Guardians presents an epic sweep of history through the eyes of the ones that make it, but are overlooked by the passing of time. It presents a fundamental twist on the hero’s story, as it immerses gamers through the experiences of those lashed to the great wheel of history!

Unsung Story - Living Myth

The page also outlines the gameplay in a general, with classes such as Polearm Knights and War Mages clashing on 3D battlefields. Players will fight on multiple sides of the war, as powerful nobles and rebelling commoners alike, seeing political machinations and social unrest through different viewpoints. Fans of Matsuno's previous work will likely be excited to see some familiar themes here.

Some of the stretch goals will be crucial in attaining a genuine atmosphere we usually ascribe to Matsuno's games. At the $900,000 mark Alexander O. Smith and Joseph Reeder will sign on to help write, which is a real boon as they were largely responsible for the distinctive flair seen in the English script of Matsuno's previous games. At $1,300,000 Hitoshi Sakimoto will compose the soundtrack, which I'm sure fans of FF Tactics, FFXII, and Vagrant Story will agree is imperative in instilling a unifying soul to these worlds.

Antipyretic from Final Fantasy Tactics

Further goals sound enticing as well, including ports to handhelds like Playstation Vita and Nintendo 3DS, additional music and game modes (including a card game and co-op), an orchestral soundtrack, and finally a map creator.

January 13, 2014

Living Myth Celebrates 2 Years of Fun & Games

Final Fantasy VI - Terra Birthday

It's hard to believe, but Living Myth is already two years old! On a not-so-unlucky Friday the 13th in January of 2012, I made my first post and struck out into the blogging world. I really had no expectations of where it would go, and was mainly doing it just for fun. I didn't even care that I had no readers for a while (okay, maybe I did a little), and updates weren't always showing up on a regular basis, but it has always been an enjoyable and fulfilling project. I'm thrilled that more readers are starting to trickle in, and I can share my writing with a wider audience! Thank you so much for coming, gamers of the world!

I thought I would celebrate by sharing a few of my favourite posts from the past two years...

Rokko Chan Parties Like it's 20XX

My first post, and one which I keep coming back to. I love Rokko Chan so much, and even though it boasts a devoted community of fans (and even its own fan art and soundtrack remixes) I still feel that this indie tribute to the NES Mega Man series is criminally under-appreciated. It embodies everything I admire about gaming fan culture, and it's a great example of creatives in the indie scene putting in the thankless work it takes to fill a niche that larger companies typically have little interest in (and for free, no less). It might be fair to say that I originally started this blog just so I could write my review of Rokko Chan.

What I find a little strange is that Rokko's creator in the story, called Dr. Sane when I originally played the game, has been changed to Dr. Thane. Is that supposed to be a more accurate translation? I would have thought the first version better captures the opposition to the villain, Dr. Mad.

This piece may have been too lengthy for its own good, but there was a lot of material to cover in chronicling the dubious arc of the Mana series' Icarian obsession with overcooked mechanics and reinventing the wheel. As one of many fans who admires the first few games but could do without the gauntlet of self-mutilation the rest of the series put itself through, I was torn between the futile hope for a return to the classic formula and the grim realism that it would never happen. So, I came up with the best alternate solution I could, and it turned out to be a fairly surprising proposition. I don't know if many others would agree with my plan, but at least it was fun to look back at the rocky history of the Mana games and dream about what might be.

A Fond Farewell to The Legacy Music Hour

This comprehensive and entertaining podcast may be effectively discontinued now, but that doesn't make it irrelevant. The Legacy Music Hour is an exceptional radio DJ-style program with a backlog of over 150 episodes, providing a detailed examination of video game music from the 8-bit and 16-bit eras. Hosts Brent Weinbach and Rob F. Switch add a healthy mix of silly banter and insightful commentary to the music, while highlighting clever techniques and stylistic choices of the great composers of the day.

If you think you've heard all the noteworthy music there is from this period in gaming history, or if you're under the impression that 8- or 16-bit chiptunes are necessarily primitive and unsophisticated, think again. This show will open your eyes (ears?) to a whole new way of appreciating game music.

The Legend of Zelda: More Than One Link to the Past

One of my most popular articles, which felt good because writing about one of my favourite games of all time was a blast. Describing the many facets of the Zelda franchise that originated in this one title came naturally to me, but even I was surprised at just how many there were when it all got assembled in one place. It seems like Ocarina of Time is "the big one" as far as popularity and fan nostalgia, but honestly I feel that in a lot of ways it is essentially a 3D recycle of A Link to the Past. I might even argue that although later titles developed new ideas and invented some creative mechanics, Zelda's SNES outing was the last time a game's foundations were so completely fresh and without pretension.

Early on, one of my first posts was about Toberu Mono, a beautiful piece from Mistwalker's Wii RPG The Last Story. Composed by famed Final Fantasy composer Nobuo Uematsu, the track really spoke to me and its melody illustrated a sensibility reminiscent of the classic RPGs I grew up with. Two years ago, I shared the instrumental version of that piece, so to close today's anniversary post I thought it would be fitting to listen to the vocal arrangement:

Music is one of the aspects of video games which I most strongly respond to -- among the first things which draw me into a game, and the most enduring memories years after the fact. It's been a while since I wrote a post devoted to a specific piece, so I'll try to get back into it in the future.

Thanks again for reading -- it's been a great couple of years!

January 12, 2014

Let's Be Friends!

Hi! Nathan here. I wanted to take a moment to thank everyone who has been reading the blog. I'd love to hear from you and find out who's out there. Please feel free to comment on anything you see, or stop by my social network pages and say hello. I won't bite!

Cosmetic Updates

There have been some big improvements to the look and layout of the blog lately, due in no small part to the design advice of my wonderful friend Stephanie White, design guru at home decor and DIY blog Two Zero One. I don't know how much overlap there is in the gaming community and the home decorating scene, but if you want to at least see what a really slick blog layout looks like, take a gander at her site!

Social Networks

One particular addition I'd like to point out is the Join My Party section on the sidebar. It's where I'll be keeping links to my social networks, external pages, etc. I'm sure most people are familiar with some of them, but let's go over them anyway:

Twitter - Living Myth   Facebook - Living Myth   Pinterest - Living Myth   Google Plus - Living Myth

I'm sure many are already familiar with Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, and Google +. Aside from releasing updates whenever there is a new post on Living Myth, I also tend to use these networks to highlight sites, videos, articles, etc., that are of interest to gamers. I love getting recommendations too, so if you have anything you'd like me to follow, or just would like to say hello, please stop by!

 Follow on Bloglovin   

Bloglovin' is a great resource for subscribing to multiple blogs from around the web. All your followed blogs are collected in one feed, making it easy to keep track of updates without manually clicking through a list of bookmarks. Have a blog you think I'd be interested in? Hit me up!

I also have provided a link to my RSS feed, for use in various news aggregators. I'm no expert on these, but if you know what it is then you already know how to use it.


Examiner.com is a news site employing freelance writers, reporting on every topic under the sun. While my main focus is on Living Myth, I do also post gaming stories here as well.

Help Out the Little Guy!

I hate to ask, but if some of you would consider deactivating your ad blockers for my blog it would be greatly appreciated. I don't have pop-ups or anything too obnoxious, and it's extremely easy to disable extensions like Adblock Plus on a per-site basis. Not that I'm only doing this for the money, but it's kind of my dream to make at least a make a partial living in writing some day. No advertising equals no viability whatsoever for small, independent blogs such as this.

A Winner is You!

Again, a big thanks to everyone who has been reading so far! I know you're out there, though I don't often hear from the readers. Seriously, don't be afraid to comment, criticize, or just say hi and throw me a link to whatever you've got going on. Maybe you're working on an upcoming game, or have made a new music remix or fan video, and would like some coverage? Anyhow, I hope everyone's enjoying themselves here so far, and I'll try my best to make Living Myth a fun and thought-provoking spot for gamers throughout 2014!

January 11, 2014

Log Horizon is the MMO Anime We Wanted All Along

Log Horizon - Living Myth
Move over, Legend of the Galactic Heroes -- there's a new LOGH in town!

While 2012's Sword Art Online may have had a head start in capitalizing on the novelty of the "OMG we're trapped in an MMORPG!" concept, a number of its early followers ended up feeling betrayed. What seemed in the first few episodes to be an adorable tribute to the tropes of the genre quickly degenerated into curiously unfaithful and out-of-touch game rules, a ho-hum plot hinged on contrived gimmicks, and a forced, cringe-inducing "romance" in the second act that left us all feeling icky. The titular virtual world that originally captivated viewers was swapped out for a less compelling placeholder in a cruel bait-and-switch, and in the series' upcoming season the fantasy MMO genre seems to be done away with altogether.

As if the cosmos saw fit to correct such injustice, the anime powers that be have bestowed unto us a vindicating follow-up, Log Horizon. It's not a perfect specimen itself, but damned if it doesn't deliver exactly what it promises -- and it does so gloriously. With the first half of the season aired, it's shaping up to be an unapologetic lark, especially for gamers.

Log Horizon
Kitties, griffons, cute ninja girls, and fireball-hurling sorcerers. What more could you ask for?

The first episode wastes no time in setting up the premise -- the immensely popular online fantasy game Elder Tale is no longer a game, but an inescapable reality. We're kept completely in the dark about the how and why of it, particularly as it is established that the game wasn't a Matrix-esque VR simulation but a standard mouse-and-keyboard affair. We also never catch a glimpse of the real world before this incident, and the swiftness with which the characters accept their sudden (and assumedly horrifying) entrapment is off-putting. Everyone just kind of rolls with it, and the show seems to hold the pretense that the viewer will too, perhaps to its detriment. Then again, if you wanted to see a bunch of traumatized people moping about how terrible it is to be stuck in a game world, you came to the wrong show. This isn't a series to take too seriously, and if you can suspend your disbelief a bit, it really is a lot of fun.

Interestingly, this isn't a game of life-and-death. Being defeated by a monster or another player simply means being re-spawned back at one's home city, which for some reason the show still plays up like it's such a dreadful thing. It's hard to get a sense of exactly what the stakes are, at first, but eventually the implications of this are expounded on as a scourge of malevolent "player killers" essentially hold the weak hostage within starting zones.

Log Horizon - Naotsugu
The ever-elusive Tank.

The greatest aspect of this show is its steadfast loyalty to portraying the mechanics and rules of its world in gaming terms. If you have any experience with MMORPGs, or RPGs in general, Log Horizon is sure to delight. Action scenes are drenched in strategic chatter about HP and MP, aggro, ability cast times, and cooldowns. Everyone has a designated class, with signature offensive and defensive skills, alligned pretty much exactly how you would expect in World of Warcraft or any of its ilk. They aren't just superficial name drops, either -- battle scenes demonstrate an impressive consistency, with victories earned through teamwork and mastery of familiar MMO tactics like crowd control, tanking, and healing.

Log Horizon - Nyanta duel
You know its an RPG when...

Main protagonist Shiroe, an Enchanter, will hold enemies in place by summoning thorny vines, put enemies to sleep temporarily, and buff the offensive power of allies. Naotsugu, a burly Guardian, defends the group by forcing targets to focus on him, lest they suffer the wrath of a devastating counterattack. Direct damage and reconaissance is handled by Akatsuki, a lithe Assassin specializing in tracking and precise stealth attacks. Watching combat play out is sheer joy for an MMO aficionado, part hilarious homage and part genuine thrill. If you enjoy the rigorous detail and descriptive play-by-play of the fight scenes in Naruto, but can do without the drawn-out flashbacks and snail-like pacing of every move, this series is worth watching for the action alone.

The MMORPG theme doesn't stop at the fights, either. The story is driven by all kinds of familiar gaming staples like NPCs, quests, dungeons, summonable mounts, and crafting professions. One of the more prominent and interesting subplots is about the secrets of successful cooking, which really goes a long way to making the world and its rules seem deep and consistent. Everything in this show feels like a part of a greater whole, all having a place in adding to the atmosphere and economy.

Log Horizon - Nyanta
My vote for Time's Purr-son of the Year.

Speaking of cooking, let me just gush for a moment about the show's master chef and all-around best character ever, Nyanta. He's a cat man (one of a handful of races in the "game" of Elder Tale), an agile swashbuckler, and often ends his sentences with "desu nya" (a Japanese "meow" pun, because the guy is really into role-playing his character well). Regrettably, most of the other characters in Log Horizon are rather flat, with not much depth as of this point in the story. The author of the original novel, Mamare Touno, must have known Nyanta would be a fan favourite, because this guy seems like he got some extra attention and nuance. He's knowledgeable, well-mannered, disciplined, patient, nostalgic, perceptive, and has a strong sense of honour. We don't have much insight into his former life, but he is immediately likable and adds another feather to the show's cap.

Log Horizon - Akatsuki
Naotsugu's obsession with panties and boobs is more "genuine MMO banter" than I'd like to admit.

Of course, at its core, Log Horizon is silly. You just can't write a show about an MMO world turned real without a healthy dose of tongue-in-cheek humour and self-aware parody. As cool as it is that the show is so authentic about its video game subject matter, it's also kind of a running gag. LH could be criticized for leaning on this gimmick too heavily, as there is little here to enjoy for anime fans who aren't into the "gamey" aspect of it. There's also a lot of cliché anime slapstick thrown around, which only serves to highlight the "one trick pony" nature of some characters. Again, this isn't a problem per se, as long as you keep your expectations in check. This is a lighthearted MMORPG-themed anime, made for fans of the genre, and as such it is highly enjoyable thus far. My only concern is that when it inevitably comes time for the earth-shattering reveals in the second half of the season, the emotional investment may not be there to enhance the impact.

Log Horizon

As of now, though, I have to recommend this series to anyone who finds the premise appealing. It absolutely triumphs in portraying an online game world come to life, and savvy viewers will relish the attention to detail Log Horizon puts into realizing its setting. Frankly, it runs circles around Sword Art Online in a contest of authenticity, and it will be enticing to see if it can maintain that lead while bolstering the character development and plot as the season's second half airs over the coming weeks.

Log Horizon can be viewed on Crunchyroll.

January 9, 2014

Reality is Only a Matter of Perspective in The Museum of Simulation Technology

Pillow Castle Games - The Museum of Simulation Technology

"What you see is what you get" is about to take on a whole new meaning. Pillow Castle Games, a group of Entertainment Technology students at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, PA, is developing an experimental new game concept that turns visual illusion into physical reality. In an early tech demo video of The Museum of Simulation Technology, the player navigates rooms in first-person, manipulating objects and using the tricks of perspective to literally make things as large or small as they appear to the viewer. For example, a model of the Eiffel Tower may be physically immense, but because it appears smaller when viewed from far away it can be picked up off the horizon and held. While in the player's grasp, the tower's size relative to the camera remains constant -- and it can easily be brought over to a nearby table and placed aside tiny pieces on a chessboard.

It's difficult to describe exactly what is going on in words, so take a look at this proof-of-concept video:

Some of the feats pulled off in these clips are so dream-like, it's hard to make sense of it. Just when I started to think "Okay, I think I understand the ramifications of this," the next room showed off something even more unbelievable. Making some blocks big enough to step on, by moving them closer to a horizon line, was just the beginning. Re-sizing a window so that it's large enough to fit though was starting to get pretty wild. Plucking the moon out of the sky and combing it for a hidden doorway was really crazy. And that last one, where they re-sized the doorway and came out bigger? Absolutely bonkers.

It's unclear exactly what the final product will be like, but already the folks at Pillow Castle Games are proving themselves to be visionaries in the field of perception-based puzzles and imaginative gameplay concepts. I'll be thrilled to hear more news from them in the future.

January 6, 2014

The Legend of Zelda: More Than One Link to the Past

With The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds making waves on the 3DS, its only fitting that we take a moment to recognize the accomplishments of its direct predecessor. 1991's A Link to the Past was not only one of the SNES's best-selling games, it also marked a watershed moment for the Zelda series, defining many key features and mechanics fans may have come to take for granted. This single game, in many ways, was to the Zelda series what Symphony of the Night was to the Castlevania series, or what Solid was to Metal Gear. A Link to the Past saw the essential spirit and core gameplay elements of Zelda finally solidify, providing a successful model that would inform all iterations to come. There is no overstating how instrumental it was in shaping the modern franchise.

Consider what "Zelda" meant before 1991. All we had were two games: the original The Legend of Zelda and the oddball sequel Zelda II: The Adventure of Link. The first was an exploration-based fantasy adventure with an overhead view, which was involving yet limited by primitive technology. The second game was a side-scrolling action-platformer, and a wild departure from the original. The questions of "What is a sequel?" and "What is Zelda?" were still very open.

A Link to the Past was a return to form, taking influence from the original and transforming it into something greater -- much in the same way one might talk about the relationship between Super Mario Bros. 3 and its own original ancestor. Even though A Link to the Past is looked upon favourably by fans, I still feel that the depth and scope of what this game established for the series is rarely appreciated to the extent it deserves. The sheer amount of familiar staples that this one game brought is staggering, and maybe even a little disheartening.

In this article, I hope to expose just how much the series owes to this classic SNES title -- not to belittle later games, but to give credit where it is due.

What's in a Name?

Before A Link to the Past, the Zelda logos looked like this:

The Legend of Zelda    Zelda II The Adventure of Link 
Now, it looks like this:

A Link to the Past logo

And it's looked more or less like that, ever since. Although background elements of the logo have adapted over time, such as colour scheme and additional imagery, A Link to the Past marks the first time this distinctive lettering was used -- and it stuck. Every game since has used this large "ZELDA" lettering as its logo.

Tools of the Trade

Zelda Pegasus BootsZelda Power GloveZelda ShovelZelda Hookshot
Zelda Big KeyZelda Ocarina

Have you ever...
  • Donned a pair of enchanted boots and dashed through swaths of enemies or a crumbling wall?
  • Equipped a strengthening gauntlet which imbued you with the power to lift heavy rocks?
  • Dug for buried treasures with a shovel?
  • Reached faraway spoils, or crossed gaping ravines, with the use of the grappling Hookshot?
  • Won a pair of Flippers from a friendly Zora, allowing you to swim?
  • Searched a dungeon desperately for the Big Key, which would let you unlock a special chest and the final boss door?
  • Managed a supply of bottles to contain potions, fairies, or bumble bees, etc.?
  • Played a magical ocarina?
Then you did it first in A Link to the Past. That's where all of these iconic Zelda items stem from.

Ever taken one of those precious tools and tossed it faithfully into a conspicuous pond for good luck? Did a magical creature or fairy pop out, rewarding you with an upgraded version of that item? Thank A Link to the Past for that upgrade.

Those Who Live by the Sword


Link's signature spinning attack was first developed for his SNES incarnation, as was an early prototype for the Hylian shield's Triforce and wing motif.

The Master Sword, probably the most unifying object in modern Zelda outside of the Triforce itself, also originated on the Super Nintendo.

The convention of using your sword to cut through bushes and tall grass in the hopes of uncovering hidden rupees or secret holes also became commonplace in A Link to the Past. How much time have you spent hacking away at local shrubbery? Now you know why.

Foundational Principles

A Link to the Past is the first game in the series to feature this creative idea: two versions of the same world to explore. The land of Hyrule had a "Light World" and a "Dark World," and each was closely related to one another yet oddly different. Navigation, puzzle-solving, and story advancement required deft mastery of the exploitation of relationships between both sides. This back-and-forth "world-hopping" gimmick has been echoed in such games as Ocarina of Time, the Gameboy Oracle games, The Minish Cap, and Twilight Princess. It works, but too much of a good thing quickly starts to feel derivative.

Before the player was given free reign to bounce between both realms at will, one had to complete three introductory dungeons and collect three magical doo-dads, which permitted access to the Master Sword and free realm-hopping ability. Again, it seems Nintendo decided "Why fix what ain't broke?" Off the top of my head, I can roughly recall this structure lifted directly from A Link to the Past and plunked into Ocarina of Time and Twilight Princess.

It's the Little Things That Matter

Collecting four "Pieces of Heart" to complete an additional notch on your life meter? Thanks, A Link to the Past.

A bustling village named Kakariko? Thanks again, A Link to the Past.

That unmistakable music that plays on the opening menu screens and hidden fairy fountains.

The eerie, droning tune leading up the the final battle with Ganon.

A boss battle in which you must swipe your sword to reflect magical projectiles back at the enemy.

Although the Fire Rod and Ice Rod were converted to elemental arrows for the bow in some games, the concept remains the same: torch or freeze targets from a distance.

Striking a Crystal Switch, causing a gate to open or blocks in the floor to raise and lower: yep, A Link to the Past, yet again.

...And of course, one of the most popular Zelda tropes of all, the chickens. Do not attack chickens if you want to live. Yes, A Link to the Past first taught us this as well.

Edit: Reader TreTrodoToxin4 reminded me in the Reddit comments that A Link to the Past was the first of many games in which Link begins his quest unconscious. That guy's always sleeping in, how could I have missed it!

There may yet be more aspects of this amazing game to which Zelda owes its legacy -- one might reference the rotating, laser-firing Beamos statues, or the Mirror Shield -- but these are minor details. What is clear already, is that A Link to the Past represents an incredibly significant time for these games. Nintendo wasn't just crafting one specific game, they were drawing blueprints that would impact an entire franchise for decades.