Text Adventures: The Story of Visual Novels in America

Hey, sorry about the dry spell! I was neck deep in my latest feature for the fine folks at USGamer.net. It’s called Text Adventures: The Story of Visual Novels in America, and it’s a look at the history of the genre, what it’s like bringing one to our shores, and what the future holds.

It gave me a chance to speak with Ben Bateman (999, Sweet Fuse), Mike Engler (Xblaze Code: Embryo), Phoenix Spaulding (Danganronpa 1 & 2), and Tom Lipschultz (Corpse Party). I think you’ll enjoy it!

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Handheldphobia

I wrote a feature for USGamer.net about the state of horror games on handhelds, and I was lucky enough to speak with the folks behind games like Lone Survivor, Corpse Party, Dementium: The Ward, and Home. It’s a genre we don’t see much of on our portables, which is crazy considering the benefits our handhelds afford us. You can bring them anywhere, which means you can heighten that sense of fear by changing your surroundings…perhaps heading somewhere a little less comfortable than your living room.

Here’s an excerpt from the piece, which you can read in full here.

I make a run for the alleyway, its potent mixture of rot and decay should hide my scent from these…well, I’m not sure what they are. I’m heading somewhere, and while I can’t think of an exact location, it’s definitely away from here. I stick to the shadows, avoiding the filth at my feet. As if it even matters anymore. The monsters shamble past, as I squeeze the letter my dead wife left me, one that she managed to send from beyond the grave. I think I’m alone, but there’s hot air hitting my neck now…and I think I’m a goner.

I look up and I’m surrounded, but not by zombies. I’m joined by a different shuffling mass, composed of nurses, factory workers, and writers. The warm breath on my neck was from the college student sitting next to me. My Vita may be in my hands now, but just a moment ago I was in its world. That’s the beauty of handhelds; I can bring them everywhere, and they can take me anywhere.

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Gitar Hero (Gitaroo Man Lives – PSP)

Theatrhythm? The curtain’s closed, buddy.

Hatsune Miku? More like Vocalannoyed.

Space Channel 5? Where’s the remote, because this show is done.

I finally got around to playing Gitaroo Man Lives! for the PSP, and let me tell you, the rhythm action genre ended back in 2006 and I had no idea.
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iNiS, creators of other genre staples like Elite Beat Agents, crafted the most amazing music game I’ve ever had the privilege to play. While I opened this piece with some absurd claims (those games are all rad as hell), what isn’t crazy iGitaroo‘s status as the best there is, the best there was, and the best there ever will be.
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It’s No Cake Walker (Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker)

I’m not sure how I managed to convince myself that Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker was not important, that I could always save it for a rainy day. But now I’m having an uncomfortable sleep in this bed I’ve made, as I spend my days rushing to wrap PW up.

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The truth came to me suddenly. “Shit…MGSV: Ground Zeroes takes place after Peace Walker…what the hell happened in Peace Walker anyways?!” As luck would have this, this realization came just after a sale on PW, a missed opportunity to purchase it for $5.

Oh, but it’s not like I didn’t already own Peace Walker. That game was exactly why I purchased the Metal Gear Solid HD Collection in the first place. But time makes fools of us all, and I could never find enough of it to play the game.
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My Top 10 Favourite Handheld RPGs

With Bravely Default being the talk of the town, I figured it was best to share my favourite handheld RPGs. Although, doing so is a fool’s game; I can’t imagine you’ll be able to put Bravely Default down long enough to read this, let alone commit to another 20+ hours long RPG.

Since these are personal favourites, save any potential scorn for a more definitive list (TOP 10 RPGs EVER!). Your favourite not here? Perhaps I never played it. Maybe I think it’s a dud. Hell, I could even own it but am drowning in enough of an RPG backlog as it is. Fill me in on some of your favourites on Twitter (I’m @tylerohlew) or in the comment section below. Maybe you can turn me onto a game I’ve never even heard of!

Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VIISquare Enix – PSP

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It’s great that something good came out of the Final Fantasy VII Compilation. These kinds of projects tend to cash in us weak willed fans, and with games like Dirge of Cerberus kicking the festivities off, it appeared Square-Enix’s efforts were no different.

Crisis Core is more a more action oriented affair, which puts it in line with works like the Kingdom Hearts series. Even still, the RPG tropes we love make the transition. Battles aren’t about mashing an attack button, but about working your way through the enemies with the most suiting decisions. Who you attack and with what is as important as ever, with enemy weaknesses, Action Points, and status affects playing as much a role as the more traditional Final Fantasy games. Spicing things up is a slot-machine that doles out power ups and Limit Breaks as the battle wages on.

Importantly, Crisis Core doesn’t forget the hardware it’s running on. It’s story unfolds in missions, which are broken up and peppered with save points. This works wonderfully on the PSP, and allows players to accomplish a lot with little investment.

It also features some of the hottest male eyebrows you’ll ever see. Does Zack get them waxed, or threaded? A friend wants to know.

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Did Tearaway ignite a fire in your soul?

Are you craving games that manage to successfully blend their art and mechanics into one thoughtful package?

Well, I feel sorry for you. That shit is rare. To pretend that you haven’t heard of games like The Wind Waker, Okami, and Kirby’s Epic Yarn is ridiculous, as their marriage of art and play has earned them plenty of praise and attention.

Luckily, there’s a dark house. A game so overlooked it doesn’t have its own Wikipedia page. Can you imagine that? Every Game Boy Micro faceplate has its own Wiki page, for Pete’s sake.

Patchwork Heroes is that hidden gem, a gorgeous title whose beauty extends beyond the surface.

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Developed by Acquire and Sony’s C.A.M.P. program (Creator Audition Mash up Project!) , Patchwork Heroes was released for the PSP as a download exclusive (why so few know about this game is beyond me…). While not afforded the best opportunities, Patchwork overcame such difficulties with a pretty face and the brains to match.

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As implied by the title, the game’s world seems to be composed of scraps, a society welded together from parts of a better past. The player controls Titori, a young man tasked with disposing of an enemy fleet. Much like the world he hails from, these warships are thrown together with whatever materials were on hand. Armed with only a saw, Titori must hack his way across these warships, taking them apart bit by bit. Enemies crawl along these flying bases, but with the help of rescued comrades, they’re no more an obstacle than the task at hand.

Crafting a beautiful world, only to have me wanting to destroy it in the same instant is quite the feat. The way the warships are designed is genius; by having them appear to be these separate pieces of materials slapped together, the object of cutting them into smaller chunks is made all the easier. You can practically see just where to make your cuts. It’s a perfect example of art aiding the mechanics in place.

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The game’s visuals also help in creating a feeling of tension similar to that of the Pikmin series. Each of the partners you rescue has a unique look, age and name. When forced to sacrifice one as a bomb, I feel as though I’m sacrificing a brother in arms. It’s sad, and although her drifts away on a parachute after the explosion, your heart still sinks as you’re just a little bit lonelier on this mission. Having them die is even worse! Making contact with an enemy will instantly claim their life, with their portrait thrown onto the screen with DEAD slapped upon it. It’s sad, and not how I wanted to complete this mission damnit!

It’s not recommended to wrap up a session of Patchwork Heroes then go looking for its acclaim on the internet. Despite some great reviews, there doesn’t seem to be a Twitter campaign to release a sequel, and even it’s dedicated Wikia is incomplete and pretty depressing. I’m asking for a lot, but maybe, just maybe, you’ll find it in your heart to check this game out and spread the word.

#PatchworkHeroes2AngelasPatches

wpid-71CLJ1aXC-L._SX600_.jpgPatchwork Heroes can be purchased for the PSP and Vita, either on the system itself or from Sony’s online store, for $7.99.

The 2013 Stickies (My Favourite Games Of The Year)

What a year.

When major gaming sites are able to open their eyes and realize that a portable game can be Game of the Year, you just know it’s been a great time for handhelds.

Below you’ll find my 10 Favourite Handheld Games of the Year, a list that was super tough to nail down. Cuts had to be made, friendships torn apart, lives lost, but I do it for you. You’re a great person, and you deserve to know what games are good enough to exist in your cartridge slot.

After this top ten, you can click through to witness the work of a madman. I crafted several more for you, just to insure every great game got its due. This top ten is admittedly light on Vita content for example, but that doesn’t mean there weren’t ten amazing Vita games! So click through for my ten favourite Vita, 3DS, Home Console, and Download games.

10. Fire Emblem Awakening – Nintendo / Intelligent Systems – 3DS

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From my original write-up this past August:

I really didn’t expect to give a damn about Fire Emblem: Awakening. At one point, I damned it as one of Nintendo’s least interesting franchises. It’s not its SRPG trappings either, I’ve rather enjoyed titles like Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor and Advance Wars. It’s the fantasy, the high fantasy. It’s just never spoke to me, prompting me to skip over this Lord of the Rings so many enjoyed.

But how wrong I was. Not sure you’ll remember, but a weird snafu caused some Canadian retailers to sell the game nearly a week early. What you also may not now is that I’m a weak, weak man.

I’ll give credit to 8-4 Ltd. and their terrific localization for making this type of fiction bearable. While wizards and dragons aren’t my cup of tea, those that don’t take them too seriously certainly have my attention.

9. Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate – Capcom – 3DS

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From my original write-up this past August:

Despite my praise for Soul Sacrifice as the anti-Monster Hunter, my heart still belongs to this bundle of joy.

I adore how calculated it is. The devil is in the details, and if there’s one thing Japanese developers have over everyone else, it’s minutiae. Every encounter with the game’s many beasts is a game of of observation, watching for its tells. It’s rare to just hammer on a foe, you have to seize your openings and retreat just as quickly.

It plays like a toybox, goofing around with everything available only to settle on that one weapon that suits you perfectly. The Monster Hunter series is about finding the perfect experience, learning and exploiting the tiniest details along the way. It’s not about immediate thrills, Monster Hunter’s concern is earning them.

8. Sweet Fuse: At Your Side – Aksys Games / Spike Chunsoft – PSP

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I really shouldn’t have been so surprised by Sweet Fuse. While I was never aware, I had actually been building up to a straight Visual Novel for awhile now. Phoenix Wright, 999, Virtue’s Last Reward; all titles that had been molding me into someone who just adores reading off a 4-inch wide screen. While it loses some of the more ‘gamey’ aspects of those titles, it more than makes up for it with its focus on romance. The story is just terrific, and makes replays just as enjoyable as the first time through. The game finds a perfect tone, expertly blending terror, comedy, and romance without feeling forced or manipulated. Someone set us up the bomb*, and it’s good.

*Please forgive me and continue to read the site despite this reference.

7. Mario & Luigi: Dream Team – Nintendo / AlphaDream – 3DS

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From my original write-up this past August:

I don’t think anyone could understand my excitement when Dream Team was first announced. Occurring only a few months after Paper Mario: Sticker Star’s release, it was something I hadn’t considered to see the light of day for at least a year. But Nintendo decided it had to wash our mouths clean of that stickers gunk as quickly as possible, releasing another stellar entry in the Mario & Luigi series.

I enjoy seeing the progression made in the series, witnessing the improvements made with each entry. Dream Team’s execution of the ‘dual world’ motif is terrific, besting Bowser’s Inside Story. Pi’illo Island and Luigi’s dream world are cohesive, yet still manage to play differently in an effective way. The Pi’illo Island segments represent the M&L formula I love; isometric exploration and battles. While the dream sequences share the 2D sidescrolling seen in Bowser’s Inside Story, it goes much further in distancing itself. Here, Luigi is an all powerful being, able to summon dozens of clones and become part of the environment to assist Mario. It’s super engaging, and in switching between these two playstyles, the game constantly feels fresh.

Oh, and it makes me chuckle.

6. Phoenix Wright Ace Attorney: Dual Destinies – Capcom – 3DS

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The sign of a good product is when one cares enough to actually ponder just how it’s made. With the Ace Attorney series, I’m constantly blown away by these crazy characters and foolish situations. Do those behind these Turnabouts start off with an ending? Do they create the cast first, or are they just placed within an already constructed story? I’m always questioning the decisions made by the Ace Attorney developers, but what is not up for debate is the quality. While no entry can top the mastery of Trials and Tribulations, Dual Destinies still enthralls me with the plight of Phoenix Wright. It’s funny, clever, and perhaps even more chilling than ever. While its digital release lacks that physicality many crave, it’s as solid as could be.

5. Tearaway – Sony / Media Molecule – Vita

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I never expected much from Tearaway. While I often make the case for game developers to not be judged by their prior works, my lack of enthusiasm for it was based solely on my disinterest in LittleBigPlanet. It wasn’t fair, but that’s the truth. As its release came up, I began to better understand why so many had fallen in love through the reviews that had circulated. When I finally got my hands on it, my heart swelled as Tearaway‘s personality made its impression. Here was a game that made perfect use of the Vita, not with gimmicks, but with ways to better bring its world to life. Games like Populous had been denoted as ‘God Games’, but Tearaway is my definition of the genre. It wasn’t about ordering folks around or acting as ruler, Tearaway wanted me to make a genuine impact on its world. Not through fear or morphing geometry, but by actually being part of the story.

4. Luigi’s Mansion: Dark Moon – Nintendo / Next Level Games – 3DS

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From my original write-up this past August:

Another great example of Nintendo at their best, because just what is Luigi’s Mansion? It’s this freaky hodge podge of ideas, held together by a fumbling plumber clad in green. Dark Moon is an example of the perfect Nintendo experience, something different, old, and new, all at the same time.

To Next Level’s credit, they managed to twist and reshape what the GameCube original introduced, and made it their own. Instead of one massive mansion, they divided the game across five distinct areas, each carrying its own theme. Next Level also broke the game up into missions, forcing Luigi to tackle each mansion in bite sized chunks. Their commitment to building a handheld game shone threw, and further proved why they’re Nintendo’s go-to Canadian developer.

Let me also say that the online is a ton of fun, and well worth dipping your toes into. There’s fun to be had in sucking up ghosts as Pink Luigi.

3. Animal Crossing: New Leaf – Nintendo – 3DS

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From my original write-up this past August:

Yet again, another example of Nintendo blowing me away. Unlike Fire Emblem Awakening, I did intend on picking up New Leaf. I’ve always been an Animal Crossing fan, owning three Animal Crossing themed GameCube memory cards through an odd sequence of events. Problem was my disinterest in the Wii entry caused me to think the series’ time in the sun was over. I failed to recognize that A) the games belong on handhelds, and B) New Leaf brings along some significant improvements.

Being mayor isn’t just a job title, you’re responsible for shaping the town. Its future hinges on decisions you’ve made, and it feels wonderful to see the world around you grow and prosper.

The game is packed with content, seemingly offering an endless supply of furnishings. Its life is extended even further by its online capabilities, allowing me to visit and share my creations with those around the world.

New Leaf is a necessity for any 3DS owner, as its a game that suits a variety of play styles. You’re never pushed in any one direction, you can play with determination or simply take it easy. It exemplifies the idea of an ‘open world’ more than any other game, letting players partake in their own idea of fun.

2. Shin Megami Tensei IV – Atlus – 3DS

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From my original write-up this past August:

I’ve played Shin Megami Tensei IV in ways I had never bothered in other RPGs. What sparked this is SMT IV wants me to care about what I’m doing, a feeling I had never felt imposed on me before.

As opposed to crafting a ton of content that I will likely never see, SMT IV invites me over, promising just rewards for my actions. It says, “Try out my sidequests, they’re genuinely worth a damn.” I don’t think I’ve ever bothered with sidequests; the stories they tell often seem boring, and the demands obtuse and confusing. SMT IV always provides terrific direction, my mission never seems pointless or a simple case of filler.

I guess it’s part of a new wave of JRPGs, ones that learn from the past. It doesn’t damn me for lacking the appropriate skills and knowledge, instead it allows me to manipulate the situation, have it work in my favour. I’ve never so consciously formed a party before, one that is so well rounded. It encourages experimentation, something rare in any genre.

SMT IV shows there’s no danger in appealing to new and old players alike. It’s so well formulated that I really feel comfortable playing how I want to. There may be challenges, but the rewards are so great it’s difficult to turn anything down. SMT IV wants me to enjoy myself, which isn’t something every game can say.

1. The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds – Nintendo – 3DS

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Lest my love for A Link Between Worlds be alleged as nothing more than nostalgia, let me admit that I still have not played through its spiritual/full on predecessor, A Link To The Past. This installment of the Zelda series stands on its own, especially considering its strides to move away from what many have deemed as the ‘Zelda formula’. The strongest shot it takes at that claim is the rental of its key items. But that’s only upon first impression. In fact, allowing players to acquire these items at the time they see fit isn’t all that ground breaking. Players still use the appropriate tools in the appropriate dungeons, just as before. It’s the fallout of that decision that leaves the largest impression. Besides the required item, it becomes a fun task to discover what other items may speed your dungeon deeds along. Having all the items at your disposal puts you in charge of just how you carry out the adventure. It isn’t about following a dotted line, the game is about Link being a hero from the very start. Not having the necessary tools isn’t a hindrance, it’s a only quick broom ride away. The world/s is your oyster, and how you crack it is completely up to you.

If you really want a full breakdown of all my favourite games of the year (home console, download, etc.) then keep on reading!

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