Theatrhythm Final Fantasy: Curtain Call (3DS, Square Enix / indieszero / 2014)
I am obsessed with this game, I really am. Not since Tetris has a game exerted such a strong “just one more go” influence over me, and that’s okay because the Final Fantasy-based rhythm action game is perfect for playing in short bursts. It’s also perfect for playing in marathon sessions, if you ask me. Okay, so how you feel about Theatrhythm is, in large part, dependent on whether or not you like the soundtracks of the Final Fantasy games. I love Final Fantasy soundtracks and I love rhythm action games, so it was an easy sell for me.
If you’ve never seen it in action, Theatrhythm has you tapping and swiping along with music tracks from the Final Fantasy series – over two hundred of them included in the game – and it’s a simple gameplay system that works perfectly. Inputs are precise, the difficulty levels are excellently balanced and it’s packed with that sense of pleasure that comes from getting really immersed in the action.
The gameplay is excellent, but as bonus it’s all wrapped up in an extremely loveable package. Square Enix are putting more effort than ever into leveraging the history and characters of the Final Fantasy series into lucrative spin-offs with games like Final Fantasy Explorer, Record Keeper and Brave Exvius, but it’s in Theatrhythm that it comes together the best. That’s partly because it’s all just so sweet and charming. Some people will complain about the cutesy, doll-like character art, but personally it’s preferable to yet another CG model or FF6 sprite edit. There’s fan service aplenty, stat-boosting art cards to collect. You can make a party composed entirely of dads. Even the online versus mode is a pleasure. Sure, there aren’t many players about and when you do get a match you’ll probably be stomped by someone with a playtime of 999 hours, but even if you lose you swap a little profile card with the other player, which includes a new map for the game’s quest mode, and you also get one of the game’s collectable cards. The way it works is that you each pick a song and the one that you battle each other over is randomly picked - and the majority of the time, an online opponent who won the virtual coin-toss will pick the song you chose last time, so that everyone gets to play the track they want. I'm getting old and soppy enough that this kind of unenforced ettique is very heartwarming to me. Like I say, Theatrhythm Curtain Call is utterly charming and it’s also the only game to make me say “I wish they’d keep releasing DLC for this.”
God Hand (PS2, Clover / Capcom, 2006)
The game that was so much of a cult thing that it stopped being a cult thing and became widely known, God Hand came out of nowhere and finally got the transformation of the beat-em-up genre from 2D to 3D right. The ultra-weird presentation that revels in such glorious insanity as wrestlers in gorilla costumes and fat demons called Elvis is the perfect parter for a deep, challenging and customisable combat system. It’s not a game that wants you to have an easy time of it – it gets more difficult they better you play, for starters – but it only treats you mean because it knows you’ll get so much satisfaction when you master the combat.
A harsh taskmaster, then, but one that exudes such a loveable sense of dumb fun that it’s impossible to get angry at. And hey, if you do get angry, you can kick a dude in the balls to relieve said anger, complete with cartoon “ding” sound effect. Finish the whole game for the best and most appropriate ending to any videogame, then head straight back into it on a higher difficulty. When it all clicks and you’re dodging attacks almost without thinking and counter-attacking with suplexes, you’ll be glad you did.
Global Defence Force (PS2, Sandlot, 2005)
Another cult game, this second entry in the still-going-strong Earth Defense Force series is the one that first revealed to me (and many others) the inestimable charms of the EDF. I remember hearing about it through the GameCentral page on the late, lamented Teletext service, where they gave it a glowing review. “What the hell”, I thought, “it’s a budget game so I might as well pick it up. Maybe its as good as they say.” It turned out to be even better, the ultimate surprise package. It’s a simple premise, born from the sci-fi movies of the fifties: giant insects are invading the Earth. Shoot them. Shoot them and shoot them and shoot them, because there are bloody thousands of them, crawling over buildings, scurrying across beaches and occasionally calling in an off-brand Godzilla for back-up.
Quite a few games on this list have what I’d describe as a feeling of purity about them, where they do one thing but do it exceptionally well, and Global Defence Force fits exactly into that category. The graphics might be ugly and the slowdown rampant, but it’s worth it to have destruction on such a huge scale. You haven’t lived until a group of tarantulas the size of buses are leaping at you, only for you to send them back where they came from with an enormous plasma cannon. Five difficulty levels, two very different playable characters and dozens of weapons to collect give it plenty of longevity, too. Try the Inferno difficulty level, if you fancy a challenge. It even says in-game that only a handful of people in the world will complete it, so if you’re the kind of person who responds well to that kind of antagonism, then have at it.
Night Slashers (Arcade, Data East, 1993)
Of all the hundreds of games I’ve played in my time writing VGJunk, Night Slashers is the one that stands out as being my luckiest find. I might never have played it otherwise, but since I did it’s shot straight onto my list of all-time favourites. It combines a genre I love with my favourite setting to produce a side-scrolling beat-em-up that takes place in a gore-soaked horror world of Frankensteins, mask-wearing psychopaths and zombie bowling. That’d carry it a long way even if it wasn’t any fun to play, but happily Night Slashers is one of the more refined examples of the form. It’s got the basic brawler set-up of multi-attack combos, throws and a special health-draining attack, and then it piles plenty of extra moves on top of that: charge attacks, screen-clearing magic spells and the ability to wedge zombies into the ground like tent pegs so you can kick their exposed heads off, amongst others.
You all know of my love for Halloween by now, and there are very few games more evocative of the season than Night Slashers. It’s even more of a gory B-movie than most gory B-movies, and being freed from the limits of what special effects can accomplish allows it to be packed with things like monsters whose flesh melts off when you punch them, all set to a wonderful soundtrack that I’d describe as action-horror-rock if I had to give it a genre. Night Slashers might not be the best arcade brawler, not while the also excellent Alien vs. Predator exists, but it’s just - just - my favourite.
Shining Force 2 (Megadrive, Sonic Software Planning / Sega, 1993)
As an RPG fan living in Europe, and especially as a SNES owner, the nineties were kinda rough. So many of the classic RPGs of the 16-bit era never made it to our shores. No Final Fantasy VI, no Chrono Trigger, no Earthbound. Of course you can buy all those games though various different services nowadays, but that’s no good to pre-teen, summer-holidays-to-fill VGJunk, is it? Happily I managed to get my console RPG fix through a borrowed Megadrive and Shining Force 2: the jolliest, most candy-coloured RPG out there. Just thinking about Shining Force 2 means I’m immediately hearing the town theme in my head, a musical theme that by rights should appear under the definition for “jaunty” in every single online dictionary.
Yes, Shining Force 2 is a happy game, a cheerful game, a strategy RPG where, if truth be told, the strategy rarely gets more complicated “try to fight enemies one at a time.” Not every RPG has to be unfathomably deep to be enjoyable, though, and sometimes it’s nice to just command your fairy-story characters about the battlefield without worrying about personal affinities or elemental alignments or what have you. Shining Force 2 is a great example of this kind of gaming experience. A colourful world to explore, packed with weird characters and dialogue with a slightly wonky translation that only adds to its charm, Shining Force 2 has a certain childlike sweetness to it. Would it be one of my favourites if I had had access to Final Fantasy VI and Chrono Trigger as a kid? I’m not sure. Maybe I wouldn’t love it quite as much as I do, but I’d always have room in my heart for an RPG that lets the player put a werewolf, a vampire knight called Lemon and knock-off Gamera in their party.
Blood (PC, Monolith, 1997)
Anyone who’s been following me anywhere on the internet will already know all about how much I love Blood, and that’s a lot. Back in part one I said that Silent Hill 2 is the game that most feels like it was made for me, but Blood runs it a close second. It’s a first-person shooter created using the Build engine, much like Duke Nukem 3D - but where Duke Nukem 3D is a parody of and homage to over-the-top action movies, Blood is all about horror. “An undead cowboy with a pitchfork fights evil cultists” is an elevator pitch that makes me realise it’s probably a good job I’m not in charge of a movie studio. Everything about the world of Blood is just completely, spiritually nourishing to me, the computer game equivalent of a big mug of soup in November– the horror movie references, the sinister carnivals and haunted hotels, the ghost enemies that scream like someone with their testicles caught in a bear trap, all of it.
The setting is great, but it wouldn’t mean much if the gameplay was rubbish, but Blood delivers in that regard too. It’s got the classic, rocket-speed carnage that the golden age of PC shooters was so wonderful at creating, but with its own unique style of combat. Even the lesser enemies can be utterly deadly, so there’s less focus on the huge swarms of monsters you’d see in, say, Doom, and more emphasis on tightly-constructed corridors and smaller arenas, with excellent level design all the way through the game. The enemies are fantastic and nicely varied, and the selection of weapons is probably my favourite in any first-person shooter, from familiar friends like the double-barrelled shotgun to the destructive power of the dynamite bundle to more exotic tools of death like the voodoo doll. It’s the closest you’re likely to get to being the “hero” of your own gore-soaked horror movie. A Bruce Campbell-em-up, if you like, and that feeling is probably why I play through Blood at least once a year.
Deadly Premonition (Xbox 360, Access Games, 2010)
Let’s get this right out in the open: a lot of the time, Deadly Premonition isn’t that much fun to actually play. The controls are bad, the combat is repetitive and dull and I always seem to get one or two huge glitches whenever I play it. However, none of that matters, because Deadly Premonition’s gameplay is merely a vehicle for transporting a truly bizarre and completely captivating storyline. The comparisons to Twin Peaks are immediate and obvious, but Deadly Premonition twists that familiar setting into its own unique experience, creating a world that looks at first glance like low budget trash but eventually reveals itself as a game with a rare depth of personality. The game’s star, FBI special agent Francis York Morgan, is a truly fascinating character, and not just by the usually low standards of videogame characters. Driving around and hearing York talk about the movies he’s watched sounds like it’d be insufferably dull but it ended up being my favourite part of the game. You don’t often get such a glimpse into the inner life of a videogame protagonist, and as York makes his way through a surreal plot with a shocking twist at the end I find myself being totally captivated by this weird world full of oddball townsfolk. It’s also one of the very few games to make me feel genuine emotions. I had a lump in my throat at the end of the game, and it wasn’t the usual hastily-swallowed sausage rolls.
Deadly Premonition is a great example of what videogames that might be lacking in technical proficiency can make up for in sheer imagination and ambition. It starts out as a supernatural murder mystery but goes on to take in so many different themes, always tinged with a unique sense of humour, that any problems I have with the gameplay are completely negated. Of course, if you told me that you hate Deadly Premonition, I could totally see where you’re coming from. Not every game has to be for every person, though, and that’s the great thing about Deadly Premonition.
Rainbow Six Vegas 2 (PS3, Ubisoft, 2008)
I can’t believe I’m putting this game on the list. It’s a fairly generic tactical FPS in which terrorists get shot in Las Vegas. It’s pretty decent, although hardly more evolved than any of its predecessors. And yet, when I was thinking about this list I kept coming back to it for one simple reason: the Terrorist Hunt mode. I have spent so much time and had such a good time playing that mode, specifically playing it couch co-op with a friend. Just the two of you, a very limited number of respawns and a mansion / oil refinery / casino filled with terrorists who skipped the “camouflage” portion of their training camp and turned up in bright red fatigues.
I couldn’t even tell you what it is about this mode that was so appealing to us, leading to RSV2 becoming our go-to game any time we fancied some shooter action. Maybe it’s the way the terrorists sometimes command their comrades to “Aim and shoot!” just before you aim at them and shoot them, the irony being as devastating as the machine-gun fire. Maybe it was the uncomplicated, solid combat combined with the tension of only having limited lives. I have no idea, I really don’t. I guess that’s why they call your tastes “tastes.” I like the taste of Dr. Pepper, but I sure as hell couldn’t explain why.
Street Fighter Alpha 3 (Arcade / PS1, Capcom, 1998)
I’m pretty bad at fighting games. I’ve explained this before, it’s because there are so many of them that I want to play that I never have the time to sit down and really master any single game. I’m greedy, basically. Street Fighter Alpha 3 is the closest I’ve ever gotten, though, thanks in part to it being just the right level of complexity for me: lots of different fighting systems and three separate fighting “styles” to chose from, but nothing I can’t wrap my head around. Obviously there are many other Street Fighter games I could have had on this list – the impact of Street Fighter II’s SNES port is hard to exaggerate, that game became almost a religious calling for some kids – but SFA3 is my favourite of the bunch. I don’t know how well it’s regarded these days, having never paid attention to things like “balance” and “tier lists,” but it’s got that classic, super-slick fighting action that made Street Fighter famous in spades. It also has the most appealing graphics (to me, anyway) of the series, with big, cartoony sprites, and a huge roster of characters new and old. The PS1 version even adds a “World Tour” mode with RPG-like elements. At its heart, though, Street Fighter Alpha 3 is simply Street Fighter. Timeless, classic action that’s honestly yet to be improved on in a big way. Nowadays, if I’m going to play Street Fighter I’ll probably play SFV… for a while. Then I’ll hop straight back over to SFA3 and spend entire battles doing nothing but Dan Hibiki’s rolling taunt.
Chrono Trigger (Squaresoft, SNES, 1995)
What can I say about Chrono Trigger that hasn’t already been said a hundred times before? Not much, that’s what. Creative talent operating at the height of their powers to craft a true masterpiece, every aspect of the game slotting together to form a veritable Voltron of delights. A time-travel story that not only works, but opens up the possibility of over a dozen endings! Quite probably the best soundtrack on the SNES! Memorable characters, a team-up battle system, singing robot cats! Chrono Trigger is the ultimate gloomy afternoon videogame. Go on, try it text time it’s dark and rainy at four o’clock on a Sunday afternoon. Get under a duvet and play some Chrono Trigger, it’ll warm you right up.
There, I think that lot ought to do it for now. Some games were omitted because, while I do love them, everyone else does too and they don’t quite feel as special to me personally. Honourable mentions include Zelda: A Link to the Past, basically every Super Mario platformer but especially Super Mario World, Final Fantasies 5-8, Zombies Ate My Neighbors, Timesplitters: Future Perfect and Marvel vs. Capcom 3. What did I learn from this? That my tastes are pretty mainstream, mostly. There’s not much here that you’d mistake for being obscure, with the exception of Night Slashers. Also I’m a massive Playstation fanboy, apparently. And with that, I’m off to try to complete my CollectaCard collection in Theatrhythm Curtain Call, an endeavour that I’m sure is going to end up with me found dead from exhaustion, surrounded by probability charts and drop-rate tables.
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