In Defense of Easy Mode

Metal-Gear-Rising-Revengeance

I felt a little uneasy upon slipping Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance into my 360 for the first time. I’m a diehard Metal Gear fan, and my studies of the series’ complicated, nonsensical lore border on an obsession, but this wasn’t the plodding, predictably rhythmic stealth gameplay I was used to; Revengeance is a game for the hair-trigger crowd, a game where the best defense (or only defense, due to the lack of a dedicated “block” button) is an unrelenting offense. I hadn’t played any of Platinum’s previous games, nor any of Revengeance‘s spiritual predecessors like Ninja Gaiden or Heavenly Sword, so I began to feel like I was a little bit out of my depth, this being my first lightning-quick melee action game and all. I had heard prerelease rumours about the game’s difficulty being comparable to Platinum’s previous super-hardcore hit Bayonetta, and a friend of mine (who is much, much more skilled at these kinds of games than I am) confirmed the rumours upon release. I became worried whether I’d even be able to beat the damn thing, and I hadn’t even played it yet.

As I began adjusting my menu options upon starting a new game, I paused at the difficulty select screen. I knew that if I picked “normal,” I would undoubtedly kick the bucket more than a few times, and I really, really wasn’t looking forward to trying to take down those infamous Platinum Games bosses. So I struggled with some shame for a few minutes, then decided I really didn’t give a damn whether anyone knew I played Metal Gear Rising on easy mode, and just went ahead and dialed down the difficulty.  It proved to be the right decision; although the game is laughably easy (not once have I ever been in danger of dying), easy mode has allowed me to just power through the repetitive combat and quickly get from cutscene to cutscene, which is admittedly what I’m really playing the game for. In all honesty, I think I’m also enjoying the combat far more than I would’ve playing on a higher difficulty; the absence of any imminent danger has allowed me to get really creative with my combos, allowing me to go for style pointz rather than fall back on the frantic button-mashing that characterized my early acclimation period.

It’s not often that I play through a game on easy mode (in fact, Metal Gear Rising is the first one I can recall), and it’s possible that’s due to that ugly Internet stigma against games these days being too easy (a thinly veiled “uphill both ways in the snow” argument if there ever was one). If there’s anything that a hardcore gamer is more insecure about (other than fake gamer girls), it’s being perceived as a casual. I’ve never considered a punishing level of difficulty to be  a selling point for me, mainly because I get absolutely no pleasure from a masochistic, frustrating gameplay experience. I don’t find replaying a section of a game over and over again very fun; I enjoy quickly making progress and moving on to see the next piece of new content. There becomes a point where the “challenge” quickly boils over into “apathy,” and I can no longer bring myself to keep banging my head against a wall.

Part of my decision to play MGR on easy mode also had to do with what I personally wanted out of the game. Like all Metal Gear games, I was really just in it for the story, for the melodramatic monologues to the poetic treatises on the nature of war. The story itself , with major conceits centering around the war economy, electrolytes, and orphan brains, is just the kind of psychotic, nonsensical mess I was hoping for. So by allowing myself to just waltz through the combat, I don’t feel like I was sacrificing a major part of the experience; someone who played Ninja Gaiden for the super-difficult combat sequences might, but I didn’t. There are certain difficult games that I’ve indeed mastered in the past (Fire Emblem and Super Meat Boy come to mind), so it’s not like I can’t handle challenging games, but I ain’t always up for it. I play games for pleasure, not to work myself up into a rage.

Having tried easy mode and actually enjoyed it, I think it’s entirely possible that I might make the switch for other games in the future. When I began playing Fire Emblem: Awakening last month, a game in a series that I’ve always played using self-imposed limitations to artificially make the game harder (why I continue to do so is beyond me, but it’s like tradition now, I guess), I considered turning permadeath off and enabling mid-battle saving, which many diehards would claim is blasphemy. I ended up leaving it on, and I suffered many character deaths and forced restarts over the course of the game.  Awakening is one of those rare games that is so damn good I don’t care if I have to replay an hour of gameplay, but I still wonder if I could have saved myself some time by just disabling permadeath and enabling saving. Let the trolls have my supposed “dignity”; in the future, I’ll just enjoy my games on whatever terms I please, thank you very much.

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I’m Not Dead, I’m Just Playing Fire Emblem

FireEmblem

It’s been a while since I last posted, although that was certainly not my intention. See, a wonderful thing came into my life last week, a true blessing from on high. Nah, it’s not a baby; it’s just Fire Emblem: Awakening, only one of my most-anticipated games ever and possibly the best game I’ve played in the last year.

I’m still young enough to be within that coveted 18-25 year-old male demographic (the one that likes all the violence and the sex, apparently), but as I age, I find I’m getting less excited by new game releases, even ones that I undoubtedly would’ve lost my shit over as a younger man. After buying Skyward Sword and Super Mario 3D Land in November 2011, I didn’t beat the former until late this summer, and I didn’t even play the latter until May. I didn’t feel sick with anticipation in the months leading up to their respective releases, and I wasn’t caught up in the pre-release hype machine that usually resulted in me checking for new screenshots, trailers, anything, several times a day (I couldn’t sleep the night before Pokemon Stadium came out because I was rewatching all the commercials in my head all night).

But then Fire Emblem: Awakening released in Japan last year, and my interest went from cautious curiosity (the last two Fire Emblems, one of which was Japan-only, were both lazy remakes that threw away much of the series’ steady progress) to desperate need once I saw all the features packed into this game. I’m a Fire Emblem diehard and a jaded, fairly negative person to boot, but even I thought the game looked damn impressive. As the game neared its February 5 release date, I wondered last Tuesday how I could ever wait another full week.

Then came the rumours: Canada broke the street date a week early. Fuck Canada. Hey wait, I’m in Canada! Do you think?…nah, I’m never that lucky. Still, I called my local EB Games just to be sure, and the slightly surprised clerk on the other end told me that she hadn’t gotten to calling me about my preorder yet, but yes, they had them in today and were going to be selling them today, street dates be damned. A half-hour later, I couldn’t believe it: my most anticipated game in years, and I had it a week before I was supposed to. I let myself cackle, just because it felt like the thing to do.

Sooo… this is actually what I’ve been doing instead of writing: playing Fire Emblem in some nega-universe where someone fucks up, every EB Games in Canada gets the game shipped a week early, they sell it the next day, then they stop selling it the next day once the hammer comes down (guess the House of Mario wasn’t too happy about it), then they tell everyone who was unlucky enough to not buy it during the Great Street-Date-Breaking that they have to wait ’til the 8th due to “shipping problems.” That fucking sucks, bud.

I hate to gloat, but usually I’m never quick on the draw for things like this. I miss every great Steam or Amazon sale because I don’t find out about it until a day later, and I never get those free game codes that devs sometimes tweet. But finally, my luck came through when it mattered most (to me, anyway).

So here I am, about to beat a game that comes out in a few hours. I’d like to thank whoever got fired in EB Games’ shipping department for allowing this to happen. Your brave sacrifice will be remembered by Canadians for all time; we’ll erect an ice sculpture of you in our parliamentary igloo, right next to the throne from which Celine Dion holds high court.

When Nintendo Goes Into Panic Mode, We All Win

iwatabanana

After a lackluster 3DS launch in 2011, Nintendo took drastic measures in order to make the handheld more palatable for the holiday season. Just six months after its March launch, the 3DS’ inflated $250 price tag suffered a huge $70 price cut, with Nintendo promising free game downloads to early adopters. I was one of said fools, and though I enjoyed the smattering of Game Boy Advance and NES games that Nintendo delivered free of charge, I would’ve just rather had my $70 back. Not long after, the 3DS XL made my launch 3DS obsolete. I vowed never again to buy a console on day one.

The 3DS price cut is notable because of how swiftly it arrived and how deep of a discount it was. Had Nintendo simply sold the handheld for $200 from day one, I imagine they would’ve met with far more success even despite the drought of decent games (which would eventually last for over a year). Instead, they were forced to dip below $200 far too early in the console’s life cycle. Let’s be clear: in this case, the customers were the winners, because $180 is more than a fair price for the handheld. The only people who got screwed were the handful of early adopters, like myself.

So when Nintendo announced that the Wii U would be sold at the exorbitant price of $350 for the full package (the less said about that bastard child of a $300 Basic package, the better), I sighed because I felt they had learned nothing. When their full launch window release schedule was published recently, I shook my head. Once again, they were launching an overpriced console with no killer apps for at least six months. And sure enough, the Wii U didn’t sell amazingly well over the 2012 holiday season. So Nintendo, a company that’s actually been doing a much better job lately of listening to their fans and generally feeling less like a bunch of out-of-touch Japanese suits, went into full-blown damage control mode today, advertising that new Wii U titles would be announced via a special Nintendo Direct stream.

Well, I got up early for said stream, which was extremely hit or miss. The first twenty minutes of the thirty-five minute stream were dedicated to Miiverse, with the adorable Satoru Iwata re-explaining the online service for the millionth time like it was a brand-new program. It’s easy to see why they might’ve thought this was a good idea; nearly every major gaming site has agreed that the Miiverse is as engaging a distraction as they come, and Nintendo has latched onto this praise like a drowning man clutching a piece of flotsam. But this kind of information would only be of interest to the casuals who honestly don’t have the Wii U anywhere on their radar, and they won’t be sitting at their computers with the hardcore gamers watching a Nintendo Direct stream. I think a lot of people could’ve done without the Miiverse crap, but when it finally ended, Nintendo went into full-on “we’re sorry” mode.

After addressing two of the Wii U’s biggest criticisms in its menu/download performance speeds and the lack of Virtual Console, Nintendo began dropping the names, one by one. They glossed over the fact that new 3D Mario and Mario Kart games were on the way, which was wise of them, since everyone expects those anyway and having those be the big game announcements would’ve been truly depressing. They gave up some tantalizing tidbits about the next major Zelda game, and although Aonuma was as vague as can be, it seemed he was hinting that the next Zelda could be non-linear, open-world, and multiplayer. Well, the community wants at least two of those three things in the next Zelda anyway, so this seems to be another occasion of Nintendo bowing to fan demand as regards the future of Zelda (recall how everyone went apeshit when they revealed the realistic, dark art style of Twilight Princess, since that’s what the fanboys had been wanting for years). Could be all right, but I’m a fan of linearity in my games. Oh and by the way, they’ve got an HD Wind Waker remake to tide you over until then, no biggie.

These were all games that I expected to be released for Wii U at some point in the near future, so Nintendo gets checkmarks for reassuring us that they’re indeed in development (a far cry from the days when they’d pretend like every new Mario or Zelda was a privilege and after each game was released, there was no telling if or when we’d ever get another one). I was a little disappointed that they’ve still got nothing to show for Smash Bros. (although they reconfirmed that two titles were in development for 3DS and Wii U, respectively), but at least it’ll be at E3 this year. It’s likely too much to ask for it to come out this holiday, so it’ll probably be late 2014 before we have the damn thing given how slow Sakurai works. A shame, because that game is absolutely a system-seller, and the series is historically evergreen to boot; the longer it’s on store shelves, the more profit for Nintendo, so why not get that shit out on day one? Perhaps Sakurai should’ve been working on this instead of fucking around with a Kid Icarus reboot that no one really needed. Ah well, I can wait. It’s not like my friends and I are going to get tired of Brawl any time soon.

And then there’s those beautiful niche games that cater to the 1% of the total gaming population, the freaks like me who love bizarre Japanese crossovers, punishingly difficult strategy-RPGs, and post-cyberpocalyptic pseudo-MMOs. Shin Megami Tensei X Fire Emblem might be one of the most bizarre game announcements of all time, but even weirder is the fact that, being announced on the North American Nintendo Direct, one can reasonably expect this game to arrive on our shores at some point. Possibly without even having to resort to Operation Rainfall II. I lost my collective shit when this game was announced, and sadly, I must admit that Nintendo has me; if this game comes out before Smash Bros., I will buy a Wii U for it. Monolith Soft’s X (which looks to be a spiritual successor to Xenoblade Chronicles, or possibly even an actual sequel if the “X” ends up just being a codename) is just icing on the JRPG cake, really.

Nintendo starts feeling the heat, and all of a sudden they’re forced into revealing pretty much every major title they’re working on for at least the next year, just to prove to fans that, yes, we do indeed have games in the pipeline for our poor, forgotten Wii U. They may not have wanted to show their hand this early (with some footage or screenshots, this would’ve been a damn impressive E3 presentation), but I feel like the fans have benefited from Nintendo’s frantic scramble to showcase the Wii U as a console with a deep lineup of first- and third-party content. Finally, I’m excited about being able to play some Wii U games, despite the fact that I might not see any of these titles until this Christmas. Until now, the prospect of owning a Wii U, ever, seemed up in the air as long as Pikmin 3 was their big 2013 title. But now, things are different, see. Now I need a Wii U because it’s the machine that will allow me to play a Shin Megami Tensei/Fire Emblem crossover and a new Monolith Soft RPG. When those games drop, I will buy a Wii U whether Nintendo’s hacked $70 off the price by then or not.

Difficult (But Still Fun) Games

In my last post, I laid bare several of Borderlands 2‘s worst flaws, and I consider its frustrating difficulty to one of the chief reasons why I haven’t played it in almost a week now. While I will readily admit that I prefer my games to be a bit on the easy side (I crave progression and despise forced repetition), I’ve played plenty of games that offered just enough of a challenge to make me feel like I’ve got to turn on the ol’ brain and earn my progress (Portal 2, Pikmin 2, Telltale’s adventure games). I don’t usually play ultra-difficult games because I find the payoff dwarfed by the endless hours of pain and suffering, and I’m not interested in completing games solely for bragging rights. But despite my preferences, I have found myself legitimately enjoying a handful of maddeningly-difficult games over the years.

Part of the reason why I stuck with the following games is that despite the monumental death toll, the core gameplay was so fun that I had to keep playing. Another reason is that I was eventually able to master all of these games, but it took a lot of practice and patience. My skills have since faded, but even when I was at the height of my power, there were some sections of these games that I just could not beat, and with my aging reflexes, my window of opportunity for 100%-ing these games has long since passed. But I came damn close, and for a time, I was caught in the grip of some of the hardest games the market has ever seen.

F-Zero GX – I remember bringing my GameCube to a friend’s party back in the day. We set it up next to a kid who was stubbornly playing PS2 while the rest of us did our best to run each other off the road on F-Zero. At one point, the PS2 kid (who was playing Gran Turismo) looked over at our screen, and I could almost hear his jaw hit the floor. F-Zero GX was a shockingly fast racer for those brought up on more realistic sims, and it boasted some gorgeous visuals (courtesy of SEGA) and a punishing level of difficulty to boot.

F-Zero GX is the kind of game where you die if you don’t exhibit a godly level of precision over your racer. In the earlier levels, you’ll probably just bounce off the walls a few times before you explode, but in the later races you’ll immediately go careening off the track into oblivion (instant game over), since there are hairpin turns and no fucking walls. At that speed, the slightest twitch in your thumb and your racer is toast. But I somehow got good enough to beat a few Grand Prix on the highest difficulty with a handful of different racers, and I even unlocked a few AX pilots by beating the excruciating Story Mode chapters on the highest difficulty. My two greatest regrets were that A) I never unlocked the AX tracks (never could beat Diamond Cup on Master), and B) I never unlocked the Rainbow Phoenix, which I thought was the coolest racer (couldn’t beat Story Mode chapter 1 on Very Hard…gah).

Fire Emblem: Radiant Dawn – In retrospect, I probably made this a lot harder on myself than I should’ve because I consider myself pretty damn good at Fire Emblem games. I was doing a no-death run and playing without using the overpowered laguz Royals, which worked out pretty well until the endgame, where I discovered it was actually impossible for me to beat the final boss. I couldn’t believe it; I had to restart completely, and over 100 hours of game time went down the drain (Radiant Dawn is a long game). I used the same masochistic rules in my second playthrough, but this time I paid much more attention to my character builds and XP gains. The endgame isn’t the only difficult part of the game, however; in both playthroughs, the final third of the game was spent carefully assessing probability ratios and testing movement ranges, and as a result, each chapter took me over 3 hours to beat. Radiant Dawn is definitely the hardest of the five localized Fire Emblem games, but it’s a game that speaks to my OCD in soft, hushed tones and strokes it lovingly. While F-Zero GX required me to make split-second decisions, Radiant Dawn gave me as much time as I wanted, and I needed every second of it to make sure I had the perfect battle strategy.

Super Meat Boy – I still can’t believe I even beat* this game. While F-Zero GX and Fire Emblem: Radiant Dawn are generally considered difficult, Super Meat Boy is the only one of the three that was actually designed to be so. Edmund McMillen and Tommy Refenes sought to create a game of legendary difficulty, but not one that would drive people away in frustration, and in my opinion they succeeded. The key is the fact that each Meat Boy level takes under 30 seconds to beat, meaning you could die instantly but still know that you’re only five or six jumps away from the goal. It’s a tantalizing prospect, and one that kept me playing despite my growing corpse pile. The last level might have taken me a full week to beat, but when I finally beat it, you can get everyone in the building knew about it (I screamed pretty loud). Mind you, this was before I bought a wireless receiver for my 360 controller, so I beat this thing using a keyboard. Nearly gave myself carpal tunnel.

*Light World only, but that’s more than enough for me. Cotton Alley and the Dark World are for masochists.