Friday, January 15, 2010

GOTY 2009

I think ‘best of’ lists are a mixed bag.

I find the sort of those lists that are voted on by consumers or readers interesting to look over. They don’t shape my own interests really, but it is usually interesting or informative to have examine a barometer of public opinion. Like when I look at reader’s choice awards in a music magazine. It is interesting to see how close or how far off my own choices are from the mainstream, though I’m too old and weary now to get much satisfaction from being as far from the common view as possible. Lists compiled by magazine editors or other supposed professionals are frequently a waste of time though. I feel like they can only be useful if genre is taken into account. Mixed genre ‘best of’ lists are without context even if the writer tries to preface it with some bullshit.

A list from a reviewer that had his best example from each (or several genres), labled as such and no specific priority for them could be useful, and just as importantly, credible. When you just make up a list of say ‘my top 10 albums of the year’ or ‘my 25 favorite games’ with no regard for genre or style… well, what’s the point? If you’re tastes are not at all like those of your reader, then you’ve wasted their time. You also confuse the issue of whether a game was left off your list because it sucks or just because you suck at it (or it belongs to a genre you don’t care for). Lists like that are more an indicator of the writer’s taste NOT the quality of the items listed. Yeah, its all opinion anyway, but if you don’t distinguish genre (or style or some sort of context) you’re adding another layer of bias, conscious or not.

A ‘thing’ of the year is a little different. I think it possible to single out a favorite and still remain credible, because that is a distillation that makes sense and can be quantified simply. Irrespective of genre, fads, flaws, prevailing opinion and all that, what’s the one entry that was just flat-out the most enjoyable?

I said it is possible, but myself I’d probably have a really hard time with choosing a favorite film of the year. Or book. Or a favorite album. Those likes depend too much on my mood of the moment. I mean I will always list Rammstein’s Liebe Ist Fur Alle Da as a favorite album of 2009. At some point during that year, when it was new and I was really getting into it, I’m sure it was THE favorite. But with all the interest and exposure I have to music I don’t think I could call it or any album of that year ‘the best’, objectively.

Most years I’d probably say the same thing about video games. So many, so different… and in 2009 there were some really good games. Releases last year included Mushihimesama Futari, Deathsmiles, Brutal Legend, and lots of others just in the genres near and dear to me personally. Most of the games I played over the last year weren’t actually released in 2009, but were older. Games I hadn’t gotten to yet. Do I include those? I’m not working for a magazine with its stringent regard for release dates. No matter what I played, what I missed… regardless of genre… and regardless of my usual inability to settle on an absolute favorite, in 2009 one game rose right up to the top. Noting this is my pathetic attempt to add one more voice to the chorus chanting its greatness, though that chorus is probably restricted to the critics and the so-called hardcore… and get more people to buy a copy of this game:

Muramasa: The Demon Blade for the Nintendo wii.

Earlier in the year, I played through Odin Sphere. That game that had an awful lot going for it, but was marred by some glaring problems. I still enjoyed playing, but wanted a game from the same creative wellspring that somehow avoided all of Odin Sphere’s issues. Muramasa does exactly that. With the same unbelievable production values as Odin Sphere, a similarly complicated (though less Wagnerian) plot, Muramasa eliminates the repetition, load times, drawn out storylines, grinding for items and weird combat timing that were part of the earlier game.

In Muramasa you will play through two story lines (instead of Odin Sphere’s five). Like that earlier release the game will dovetail the two stories into a sort of crossover finale, but it isn’t particularly grueling to get there. You can play the two characters, Princess Momohime or Ninja Kisuke in any order, even jumping back and forth whenever you feel the need for a change. After selecting your character, you choose your ‘mode’, either Muso, which has an enhanced RPG aspect that allows you to keep gaining levels to help overcome more difficult parts of the game, or Shura which diminishes the leveling aspect (and your hit points) to make the game more skill and reflex-based… though both modes are far more quick action oriented than any Vanillaware game prior. You then proceed through the game areas fighting, gathering items, and talking with various in-game personalities but delivered to the player in a way unlike just about any other game out there.

Movement through the game reminds me of the old NES and arcade game Legend of Kage. In that game the hero ran along the ground or jumped through the trees, and a lot of the combat took place in the air. Muramasa is like a very polished, very elaborate version of THAT. The protagonists jump through the trees, or over rooftops slashing the enemies with their swords or deflecting back their foes’ projectiles. The wii controller, which is not my favorite means of input, took some getting used to, but after a while becomes really easy and I can’t really imagine using anything else for the game now. None of the motion control aspects come into play. Since there is really only one main attack button (the other two buttons are for versions of super attacks that you don’t get to use all the time) it would appear you can just mash your way through all the combat. It’s true there aren’t a lot of input commands like a fighting game, but the seeming-simplicity is deceptive. The combat here is all about timing and discernment. You need to keep track of how your swords are holding up (they can be broken). You need to pick out the strongest foes, and modify your attacks based on what works against who. Certain swords and their powers will work better in certain situations. The game doesn’t really want all fights to be brutally challenging to the player… you can button mash your way through a lot of them. But if anything doing that in the minor fights just brings satisfaction because they are over so quick. You start working on fighting and ending the fights in style. With panache. Everything in the game is quick. The running. Accessing menus. Even the game saves happen so fast it is almost ridiculous. Everything about the game is optimized to go as quickly as possible, from the game engine, to the convenience of getting from one place to another. Even the dialogue, which is wonderfully voiced and subtitled, can be fast-forwarded through. After I’d gained the ability to warp from one town to the next, I frequently didn’t bother because a) I wanted the experience points from the battles during travel and b) you move so quickly anyway it really isn’t boring. The number of scenery changes helps too. Not every area or screen is unique, but there is a lot of variety.

The game’s narrative is linear, but the world itself is pretty open once you’ve gotten a ways into the game. This allows for grinding if you wish, but its never forced on you. It is almost impossible to get lost or lose track of your next goal. Once you’ve beaten several bosses and removed some of the games barriers (designed to keep you on track) you basically have a world map where you can run around wherever you want, but can always figure out where to go to ‘progress’ the plot. The mapping mechanism is genius. You can select between a transparent full-screen area map, a top-of-the-screen immediate area map, or no map… all on the fly. Super-quick. Getting to the overall world map, or any of your inventory and item options is also super-quick and convenient. You can set your favorite items, healing or sword protective, to be quickly accessed at any time right during movement or fights. In previous Vanillaware games (and most other action games, really) you have to open a menu pausing the action to switch weapons or access healing and magic items. That’s bullshit to Muramasa. You CAN pause the game to pop an item, but mostly its done without pausing, that second, with no drop in pace.

All this work towards speed and action, and the game still has decent play time on its bones. I clocked just under 25 hours to get through both storylines and epilogues and most of the optional ‘lair’ areas, though I wasn’t trying to go through it hell bent for leather as fast as possible. I was trying to enjoy what there was to see.

And there is so much to see. Heaping shitloads of praise have been written about this game. I though Dave Halverson at play was going to jizz in his pants. But he’s not wrong. The game is a throwback in one sense to the artistic sensibilities in the heyday of 2d gaming. But the old games rarely had production values like this. As I raved about in my entry on Odin Sphere, this game makes most other titles 2d, 3d, whatever all look drab and pathetic by comparison. Of recent games I’ve played, only Bayonetta (a future blog entry to be sure) shows as much love of the characters and game world as Muramasa. Of particular note are the boss fights. Games love to have huge or elaborate bosses. Its one of the draws of video gaming. You’re David and that thing is Goliath. Muramasa has awesome (frequently huge) bosses. Only the aforementioned Bayonetta and perhaps Shadow of the Colossus made me flip out the way Muramasa did during boss fights. The art style hearkens back to traditional forms of Japanese painting, but with a modern use of color. Even eating food is an elaborately detailed, lovingly-animated experience. The whole thing’s a little like going to see Disney’s Fantasia when what you’re used to is a steady diet of Phineas & Ferb.

There’s pretty much no aspect of Muramasa: The Demon Blade that isn’t a total class act. That this thing runs so much faster and more conveniently than Odin Sphere is amazing and a testament to Vanillaware’s ability to learn and adapt. The only gripe I’d probably put on the game is that compared to Odin Sphere the whole game runs through a slightly foggy filter. All the graphics in the former game were really sharp and brilliant. Muramasa is ever-so-slightly faded and softened, but you’d almost have to have played the two side-by-side to notice… which is what I did actually. It might be partly an issue with the wii’s video output and whatever mode Muramasa runs in. I don’t know enough about the technical specs, but I have other 2d games on the console and only Samurai Shodown Anthology seems to have the same problem. It could even be a conscious decision on Vanillaware’s part to give the game a dreamlike veneer.

Anyway. The game is practically worth buying a wii to play. Nintendo’s console gets a lot of flak for catering so much to casual gamers, but this title does much to fight that stigma, along with Super Smash Bros. Melee and the upcoming Sin and Punishment 2. I spend more time on other consoles than I do the wii, sure. But I’ve rarely had such a concentrated must-keep-playing experience as this game gave me, and it is a Nintendo wii exclusive. Do what you must to play this game.

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