GameSpotting: Final Fight

We get into one last verbal brawl before the year closes out.

Comments

Welcome to the final edition of GameSpotting for 2003. It's been a turbulent year, and the GameSpot editors have taken this chance not only to reflect on the past but to look forward to the future as well. We pay homage to the unsung heroes, we sing a requiem for things near and far whose time has passed, and we look to the future with apprehension-laced hope. Mostly, we reflect on what makes this business so great--the games. So share in this celebration of electronic entertainment, and know that you can head to our forums forums to spark your own discussion, or, if you'd like to give your gaming revelry more focus, you can submit your own GuestSpotting column.

Maybe You'll Think of Me
Andrew Park/Senior Editor
"A somewhat opinionated look back at the history of Black Isle Studios."


I Am Jack's Upset Stomach
Greg Kasavin/Executive Editor
"I dearly wish that all games based on movies would cease to exist. All of them."


They Didn't Quite Make the Cut
Bob Colayco/Associate Editor
"A few of my favorite games from 2003 received no mention in the awards. Thankfully, GameSpotting is the perfect forum to make amends for these gross injustices!"

Tell Me a Story
Alex Navarro/Assistant Editor
"Save for a few shining stars here and there, the quality of writing in games pretty much sucks."

GBA Games Rule, #&$*%!
Frank Provo/Contributor
"While everyone else has been bickering over which console is better--the Xbox, GameCube, or PlayStation 2--we've been playing one great game after another."

The Five Stages of Grief
Tim Tracy/Senior Producer, GameSpot Live
"After close to 17 years of tireless service, the 72 pins that made the magic happen for so many years finally just gave in and have refused to work any longer."

Santa's Lighter Load
Craig Beers/PC Video Editor
"I guess the moral of the story is to go vote--or something."


Early Adopting
Adam Buchen/Editorial Intern
"If you people are seriously angry, I have some advice: next generation, don't be an early adopter."

Massively in Need of Improvement
Graham "Morrolan" Templeton/GuestSpotter
"The whole MMO market is at risk of imploding, thus closing the door on one of the most promising genres in the medium of digital entertainment."

Don't Hate the Player
IcebergVegeta79/GuestSpotter
Gamin' ain't easy. You're out there on the streets, just trying to get by one frag at a time, and there's always some senator or parent group throwin' salt in your game. Hit our GuestSpotting FAQ and submit your own column on this gaming lifestyle.

Maybe You'll Think of Me

The Vault of the Future, tomorrow. But yesterday.
The Vault of the Future, tomorrow. But yesterday.

The developer we knew as Black Isle Studios is no more, and internal confirmation of the studio's closure came just recently. You could say that the writing had been on the wall for the troubled developer, considering the problems its publisher Interplay has encountered in recent years, such as its turbulent relationship with publishing partner Vivendi Universal Games and its ongoing financial troubles. That doesn't make Black Isle's closure any less of a loss, considering that the studio, and the people who created it, are responsible for some of the greatest and most influential computer role-playing games ever made.

PipBoy here was always ready, but maybe Black Isle fans weren't ready to hear of the studio's closure.
PipBoy here was always ready, but maybe Black Isle fans weren't ready to hear of the studio's closure.

Black Isle began its life as Interplay's internal RPG division, and its staffers helped give rise to the outstanding 1997 postapocalyptic role-playing game Fallout--the spiritual successor to EA's 1987 game Wasteland. Fallout is one of the best, and, I contend, one of the most misunderstood computer role-playing games ever. Yes, it received critical acclaim for its open-ended nature. And yes, using the game's "S.P.E.C.I.A.L." character-creation system (an acronym that stands for the character attributes of strength, perception, endurance, charisma, intelligence, agility, and luck), you could produce a great variety of different characters, like an eagle-eyed sniper, a heavy weapons specialist, a charismatic diplomat, a nimble knife fighter, an experienced wilderness scout, and others. It also let you travel just about anywhere across a fictitious and highly irradiated version of the United States. This included areas designated for low-level starter characters to the very final areas of the game. However, Fallout was also a highly compact game and actually had an end in sight. You had plenty of time to meet interesting characters and could solve frontier disputes in your adventures--but most of your time was spent adventuring, not wasting dozens of hours fighting wave after pointless wave of the same monsters or walking mile after pointless mile. When you were finished (because finishing the game before getting bored of it was actually possible), you'd want to play through it again as a different sort of character. Interplay's internal RPG studio was formally renamed "Black Isle Studios" in 1998, just in time for the sequel Fallout 2--though in the sequel, the vision of having a compact, open-ended game seemed lost. Fallout 2 did preserve many of the features of the original Fallout, but it was also a long-winded, sprawling game that was, in many ways, more linear than the original game. It was also packed with a few too many goofy and unnecessary references to movies, cable TV shows, and Saturday morning cartoons. Three of the Fallout team's key members left Interplay to form Troika Studios in early 1998; the game itself was completed later that year.

Baldur's Gate--the game that saved PC RPGs?
Baldur's Gate--the game that saved PC RPGs?

Black Isle then went on to lend production assistance to an up-and-coming Canadian developer, named BioWare, with a 1998 game called Baldur's Gate, which let you play as a fledgling adventurer who was revealed to be of divine heritage. After it was released, many critics claimed that this traditional high fantasy role-playing game "saved" computer role-playing games from the slump they were in at the time. While not everyone agreed with this sentiment, Baldur's Gate and BioWare's Infinity Engine would become the basis for Black Isle's PC role-playing games for the next five years. This included Tales of the Sword Coast, a challenging expansion pack for Baldur's Gate that was released in early 1999. Then, at the end of the year, Black Isle produced what I (and other fans) consider to be the studio's second truly great role-playing game.

One of the greatest computer role-playing games ever made.
One of the greatest computer role-playing games ever made.

1999's Planescape: Torment was an unassuming RPG that used the now-discontinued Planescape campaign setting from Dungeons & Dragons. The setting was based around interplanar travel that was centered in a hub city known as Sigil. You played as a scarred man with a bad case of amnesia and more than a passing resemblance to Black Isle producer emeritus Guido Henkel. While it seemed like the game had been thrown together and then shoved out the door in December of 1999--to barely make the holiday season--it turned out to be one of the most involving and intriguing PC role-playing games we've ever seen. In your quest as a man with no memories, your character eventually discovers that he is an ancient immortal whose actions had affected entire worlds and had changed history. The game also had an excellent moral alignment system that let you be truly good or truly evil--a paragon of virtue or a black-hearted manipulator--rather than the simplistic "I will either be a Goody Two-shoes or a big jerk" alignment choices that had appeared in other role-playing games--if they were even present at all. 1999 was also the year in which Interplay took the wraps off of Neverwinter Nights, BioWare's 3D role-playing game and toolset, though the two companies would part ways a few years later.

Baldur's Gate II--an epic RPG sequel.
Baldur's Gate II--an epic RPG sequel.

Black Isle went on to produce its own role-playing game in 2000 with the hack-and-slash Dungeons & Dragons adventure Icewind Dale, which was released at around the same time as Blizzard's highly anticipated action RPG sequel Diablo II. The studio also lent production assistance to BioWare for the award-winning 2000 role-playing game Baldur's Gate II: Shadows of Amn, a suitably epic sequel to the first game. While Icewind Dale did fairly well, Black Isle was also working on a few other projects, some of which were received better than others. Interplay's strategy game division, 14 Degrees East, created Fallout Tactics, a hybrid turn-based/real-time strategy game based on the Fallout RPG series, in early 2001--and even though the game wasn't developed by Black Isle, it was generally well-received. So was Throne of Bhaal, the BioWare-developed expansion pack for Baldur's Gate II, which ended the saga of the demigod character whose adventures started in the first Baldur's Gate. And Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance, a 3D action RPG developed by Snowblind Studios with production assistance from Black Isle, surprised everyone by being an astonishingly good hack-and-slash game for the PlayStation 2 console. However, the same couldn't be said for Heart of Winter, an expansion pack for Icewind Dale that was criticized for being too straightforward and too short, though the studio did supplement this with a second, free expansion pack called Trials of the Luremaster. 2001 also marked the debut of Torn, an ill-fated 3D role-playing game that was first revealed at the Game Developer's Conference in San Jose, California. The game's difficult development cycle led to its eventual cancellation, as well as the loss of several talented staffers that year. 2001 also marked the first signs of dissension with longtime collaborator BioWare, as the Canadian developer filed a licensing lawsuit against Interplay, which would lead to further complications down the road. Interplay itself was acquired by French publisher Titus that year, which represented a change that would lead to even more significant developments the following year.

Icewind Dale II. A good RPG, but perhaps not enough to stave off impending crises at the office.
Icewind Dale II. A good RPG, but perhaps not enough to stave off impending crises at the office.

In 2002, Interplay CEO Brian Fargo stepped down, citing difficulties with the Titus merger as being chief among his reasons for leaving. Interplay also lost the publishing rights to Neverwinter Nights to French publishing giant Infogrames (now known as Atari). It then sold off developer Shiny Entertainment, along with development of that studio's movie-licensed game Enter the Matrix, to that same publisher, though this sale didn't seem like it was enough to support the embattled publisher through its continuing difficulties. By this time, Interplay had established a publishing deal with VU Games, which helped bring the Black Isle-developed sequel Icewind Dale II to market, in addition to Reflexive Entertainment's problematic alternate-history RPG Lionheart. Aside from producing these games, Black Isle also helped produce Dark Alliance for the Xbox and GameCube consoles and announced a sequel for the PS2 and Xbox. Rumors also began circulating throughout Black Isle's fan community that two internal projects, code-named "Jefferson" and "Van Buren," would be Baldur's Gate III and Fallout 3, respectively.

And maybe I'll say...maybe.
And maybe I'll say...maybe.

Unfortunately, both products were shelved in 2003, while Interplay revealed a new hack-and-slash action console game bearing the Fallout name and confirmed its plans to continue production of Dark Alliance II. Most recently, Interplay shut down what we knew as Black Isle Studios in the face of continuing financial problems. Again, the writing seemed like it was on the wall, but it's tragic nonetheless. Black Isle will always be remembered by role-playing game fans around the world for having created some of the most enjoyable computer RPGs ever made.

[Editor's Note: Special thanks to all those who sent in corrections and updates.]

I Am Jack's Upset Stomach

You can quickly infer a lot about someone based on what they like sooner than you can accurately assess how they are just by observing them or speaking to them. Take me, for instance: What I do is play games and work at GameSpot; the former, for about 22 years, and the latter, for more than seven. I can sheepishly admit to any of the following: My favorite color is red. My favorite television show is Seinfeld. My favorite novel is J.R. by William Gaddis. My favorite band is Joy Division. My favorite movies are Seven Samurai and Fight Club. I am a portrait of everyone I disliked when I was in high school. Now that you know all this about me, you will then understand the frustration I'm about to express and the motivation behind the following sentiment:

So, when one of them gets punched, do they both lose health, or what?
So, when one of them gets punched, do they both lose health, or what?

I dearly wish that all games based on movies would cease to exist. All of them.

What made me arrive at such an unreasonable and unlikely conclusion? The announcement of a fighting game based on Fight Club. After staring blankly at the words and screenshots on the screen, my thoughts then trailed over to another forthcoming game: Seven Samurai 20XX. A strange sort of logic then came together in my mind: This madness must end.

Earlier this year, Sammy Studios announced that it was working on a game based on Kurosawa's classic, Seven Samurai, in collaboration with the late filmmaker's son. I was genuinely excited to hear this. Though Seven Samurai is an epic, at heart, it really is an action movie, featuring a great cast of memorable characters, and I honestly think the plot of the film--seven samurai attempting to defend a village against a band of 40 or so raiders--is perfect material for a game. So, of course, I was surprised to learn later that year that the film's influence on the game would be very tenuous, at best. In all fairness, I played an early build of the sci-fi-themed, anime-inspired Seven Samurai 20XX at E3 this year, and I basically had fun with it. But one question kept bothering me: Did they really have to brand this as a spiritual successor to one of the greatest movies ever made? Exactly how much audacity do you have to have to decide to do something like this?

I'm betting the late Akira Kurosawa and his son didn't have a very good relationship.
I'm betting the late Akira Kurosawa and his son didn't have a very good relationship.

But again, my realizations about Seven Samurai 20XX were galvanized only in the wake of the Fight Club game announcement. Look, I'm borderline defensive about my policy of never passing judgment on a game until I've played it. I don't judge books by their covers, and I don't judge games based on my assumptions about them; I try not to have assumptions at all. Yet in the case of Fight Club, I can't help it. The mere existence of this project is an affront to my sensibilities. My colleague Alex happens to share my appreciation for the movie Fight Club. You'd think people like us would be the intended market for the game. Why, then, are we both sooner offended rather than excited at the thought of playing something like this?

One of my favorite things about the world is that art and commercialism are reconcilable. Today's greatest artists aren't eating moldy bread, desperately trying to gain recognition for their oil paintings. They're working at advertising firms, special effects studios, game companies, automobile manufacturers, and other businesses whose products strive for innovation and widespread, aesthetic appeal. The starving artist is either lacking in skill or just needs a good agent. It's nice to know that, if you're truly talented and creative in today's society, you can use that talent to make a living. This seems to be a historical anomaly, and I appreciate it.

The occasional good game based on a movie doesn't do much to compensate for all the horrible ones that come out.
The occasional good game based on a movie doesn't do much to compensate for all the horrible ones that come out.

The downside is, there's a fine line between making commercial art and milking commercial art to make a fast buck. Unfortunately, the fact that the latter phenomenon is so much more common than the former--naturally, because it's easier to do--completely cheapens the notion that art can be a commodity, and it even goes as far as to cast doubt as to whether the notion is even true.

Therefore, I wish I'd never see another game based on a great movie ever again in my life. When I see a movie that I really like, at no point do I stop and think, "Man, wouldn't it be great if there was a game based on this movie?" That's because, frankly, movies are still in many ways a higher art than games are. It's not like a game based on a movie is going to capture the nuances of the acting or the true spectacle of the special effects. At best, a game based on a movie can evoke the experience of watching the movie. Better yet, I suppose, in the case of EA's The Lord of the Rings games, a good-enough game released in advance of a movie can serve as an effective marketing device--and a surprisingly profitable one. Yet, while there have been some games based on movies over the years that haven't been complete disappointments, there are precious few instances in which the game is of superior quality to its source material.

I read the novel Fight Club after I saw the movie it was based on. For a number of different reasons, I think the movie is much better. However, I am very, very dubious of whether the forthcoming game will be of comparable quality to either the book or the movie. Maybe it sounds stupid to even point that out, but even if so, you have to wonder what the motivation is to make such a game in the first place?

The priority of anyone who provides a product or service ought to be maintaining the high quality of that product or service. Yes, a business must profit to survive, but it's no coincidence that good businesses provide good, high-quality products or services. The reason I inherently dislike all games based on movies is because, fundamentally, I find the motivations behind the development of those games to be very suspicious. I think most game designers are ultimately just trying to make good games. But they shouldn't feel compelled to bastardize the classics in the process.

They Didn't Quite Make the Cut

By now, most of you have already seen our Game of the Year feature and have read about what we believe were the best games the industry had to offer in 2003. Because we structured the awards to be inclusive of all platforms, it was inevitable that some very excellent games would fall through the cracks and not gain any recognition in certain categories, particularly the ones that are extremely competitive. A few of my favorite games from 2003 received no mention in the awards. Thankfully, GameSpotting is the perfect forum to make amends for these gross injustices! Well, OK, none of these snubs are that dramatic, but they represent some excellent games that I spent a lot of time playing this past year, and I think that they deserve some extra recognition.

Praetorians is perhaps one of the most underrated strategy games of 2003.
Praetorians is perhaps one of the most underrated strategy games of 2003.

Praetorians
Praetorians is the most obscure game on my list. In fact, many of you are probably scratching your heads wondering what I'm talking about. It was released rather quietly in March of 2003 and managed to slip under the radar screen. Developed by Pyro Studios, the creators of the Commandos series, Praetorians boasts a fairly impressive pedigree. However, I wasn't impressed with the game because of that--as I've never been a huge fan of the Commandos games. I liked Praetorians because it distills everything that's fun about real-time strategy games and presents it to you in a package that's devoid of extraneous clutter. The strengths and weaknesses of various units are intuitive, as are their special abilities, so you don't have to spend hours poring over a strategy guide to understand what's going on. The sieges are satisfyingly epic, and the included 24-mission campaign is varied, challenging, and lengthy enough to easily warrant its purchase price.

Mario Golf
No, it's not as deep--and certainly not as realistic as Tiger Woods or Links. But somehow neither of those games came as close to being as fun or addictive for me as Mario Golf. I was hooked on this game for weeks after its release over the summer, and I still come back to it from time to time. The most impressive thing about it is how simple it is for anyone to pick it up and play, yet it still manages to be deep enough to keep more experienced gamers challenged and amused. Don't want to deal with spin and power strokes? You don't have to. But all of these features are right there, waiting to be used once you're comfortable enough to start peeling at the outer layers of the game. The later courses offer just enough Mario flair for you to remember that it's a Mario game (warp pipes and such) but not so much that I was ever annoyed by it. The side challenges kept me going when the regular matches started to wear on me.

This might be the only universe where Cal will ever win a National Championship.
This might be the only universe where Cal will ever win a National Championship.

NCAA Football 2004
This was my favorite football game of 2003. Maybe I'm biased, because I happen to like college football more than pro football, but I just could not stop playing this game for weeks after its release, even through the release of the more popular Madden and ESPN NFL games. The amount of depth to be found in NCAA 2004's dynasty mode is incredible. Winning a big game and seeing your team on the cover of Sports Illustrated gives you a satisfying feeling of accomplishment. After a season of gruelingly playing every game on Cal's schedule and taking the Golden Bears to the Rose Bowl, I had a surprising amount of fun just going through NCAA Football 2004's recruiting mode, which amounts to a turn-based strategy game. I'm almost ashamed at how much fun I had poring over pages of stats and carefully considering my sales pitches to fictional high school football players. It's almost as pathetic as spending hours reading about real college sports recruits (guilty as charged).

Henshin a go-go baby!
Henshin a go-go baby!

Viewtiful Joe
OK, I'm cheating here because Viewtiful Joe did get nominated in a few of our Game of the Year categories, including GameCube Game of the Year (which it very nearly won). Despite that recognition, I don't think it can be stressed enough how awesome this game is. At a time when the industry is awash in sequel after sequel and rehash after rehash, Capcom took a chance at being wholly original. They made a side-scrolling beat-'em-up years after the genre fell by the wayside. They released a cel-shaded game even as so-called "hardcore" customers sneered and continue to sneer at the style for being too childish. They could have tried hedging their bets by using a proven franchise to, at least, curry favor through name recognition; instead they created a brand-new character. Of course, none of that would be important if the game wasn't solid, and it was (and is). Even if the romance was brief, Viewtiful Joe was an experience I wouldn't ever trade for another Mega Man or Street Fighter.

Alex Navarro
Assistant Editor
Currently Playing: ESPN NFL Football (Xbox), Mario & Luigi (GBA), Prince of Persia (Xbox)
New Year's Resolution: Play less horrible games.
Projected Date On Which This Resolution Will Be Broken: January 14, 2004

Tell Me a Story

Despite the fact that the bulk of my gaming time is largely spent playing mindless action games and a seemingly bottomless array of sports games, story-driven titles are something I've always had a deep appreciation for as well. Over the last few years, I've, in fact, started to see my appreciation for games with a good, well-told story increase quite a bit. Why? Well, I'm going to go out on a limb here and make a semiblanketed statement that will likely inspire some anger in a lot of you: Save for a few shining stars here and there, the quality of writing in games pretty much sucks. Now, before you get all huffy and start plastering me with angry e-mails about how you find the Final Fantasy games to be brilliant pieces of fiction and assert that I clearly am off my damn rocker, hear me out for a second.

Tim Shafer was--and is--one of those rare talents who can make a game fun but at the same time can bring you deeper into his imagined world--in fact, much deeper than you'd ever expect to go, thanks to some brilliantly written stories and characters.
Tim Shafer was--and is--one of those rare talents who can make a game fun but at the same time can bring you deeper into his imagined world--in fact, much deeper than you'd ever expect to go, thanks to some brilliantly written stories and characters.

Think about how many games you've played in the last two years that were based around a legitimate plot that went beyond the basic setup of "Aliens! Everywhere! Shoot 'em!" Think about how many of these games legitimately sucked you in with their stories. Not with their gameplay mechanics or pretty graphics, but with character depth, a truly intriguing plot, well-written dialogue, and a satisfying conclusion. OK, yes, not even the movie industry provides this level of quality these days, but when I compare the number of movies I watched in the last couple of years (that managed to captivate me) to these very components (mentioned above) and then compare them against the number of story-based games that have done the same, there's a pretty wide gap between the two. A lot of this falls on the quality of writing (or lack thereof) in games.

Writing is probably one of the most overlooked, and yet absolutely necessary, factors in any form of entertainment. Take movies, once more, for instance. Movies come from screenplays, which are, in turn, created by screenwriters. Generally, directors and actors tend to get the most attention for work on a film, and, obviously, if their craft is done well, they deserve the praise. But a screenplay is the backbone of a film, and without a good one, the project is essentially doomed to fail from the get-go. Same thing goes for a game. Designers tend to get the most credit for a game's success or failure, and in a lot of ways, they also deserve that notoriety. But what about game writers? Are there even game writers to speak of?

If you look at a lot of credits for games, there rarely is ever a definitive credit for a writer. And often when there is, these people also have credits for other pieces of a game's production as well. This is because there aren't a lot of bred-and-born fiction writers working on game design teams. What this often leads to is a lot of assistant producers and otherwise tech-minded folks being given the overwhelming task of writing a game's script. Every once in a while, some of these folks manage to pull something together that works really well, but a lot of times, you get the impression that a game is written by someone who clearly didn't pass eighth grade English class. Does this mean that no one out there has the aspiration to solely devote his or her life to penning video game scripts? Let's dig a little deeper.

Throughout my time playing Drake, I couldn't help but feel like I was playing something that every major comic book publisher in the world had previously rejected.
Throughout my time playing Drake, I couldn't help but feel like I was playing something that every major comic book publisher in the world had previously rejected.

The game industry, like most areas of the entertainment business, has its superstars. Miyamoto, Kojima, Spector, Shafer--essentially our Coppola, Fellini, Scorsese, and Tarantino--are the multitalented heavy hitters who can weave together equally brilliant pieces of fiction and game design. But designers like this? They're not exactly a dime a dozen. Having that innate ability to write a clever storyline and make a game that's equally as captivating is no easy task. And therein lies another problem. It's incredibly easy for a company that doesn't have a big-time talent, like one of the aforementioned gentlemen, to take someone with little more than a singular good idea--and not necessarily the means to bring it to proper fruition--and still give them a team and a budget based solely on the idea. In fact, sometimes it's not even a good idea, so much as it's just an idea, period. I find myself all too often these days feeling like the game I'm playing is some sort of failed screenplay, graphic novel, comic book, or what have you, that the person who conceptualized the game only decided to make because one way or another, he or she was going to tell the world this crappy story that couldn't be sold otherwise, which essentially relegates the game to little more than a fall-back option.

As much as I am loathe to use this terminology, to be perfectly honest, it's time that developers started "thinking outside the box" when it comes to their games' scripts. I'm not saying that every game that gets made has to put me into some sort of deep, existentialistic state of mind, where I find myself questioning my own being or anything. I mean, hey, games are intended to be fun. But at the same time, if you're a developer and you've got what you think is a golden idea for a basic game design--complete with a story-driven nature--but you don't have the means to write out a captivating story arc and well-thought out characters for it, then put the story in the hands of someone who can. And I don't mean handing the task over to your team's assistant dialogue editor, either. There are obviously plenty of people out there who do know how to make a game's narrative something worthwhile, so maybe it's time for development teams to start branching out and begin finding ways to get these people on a project-to-project basis. With all the talk of maturation and legitimizing of the game industry that's been getting tossed around lately, it seems wholly ludicrous that writing in games is still at the elementary level in which it currently resides. If our industry is really bigger than the film industry, in this day and age, then let's strive to make our stories every bit as captivating and thought-provoking as theirs. Obviously, it has been proven that we can do it, so let's make this a regular habit, shall we?

GBA Games Rule, #&$*%!

Drome Racers--Hot polygon on polygon action.
Drome Racers--Hot polygon on polygon action.

A new year is almost upon us. I hope that all of you out there in Internet Land are safe and sound and that you managed to work large meals full of power pellets, super mushrooms, and phoenix downs in with your traditional holiday festivities. This time of year also means that another edition of GameSpot's Best and Worst awards has come and gone. Most likely, you disagree with at least a few of the winners, and you're probably livid that some of your favorites weren't even nominated.

You have the power to correct a few of these injustices by casting your vote in this year's readers' choice awards. You'll feel better for doing so, and you'll send a message to all of the publishers out there who think that the only games worth making are those with a picture of a famous athlete or a movie poster on the box cover.

Medal of Honor: Infiltrator--Remember when gameplay was king?
Medal of Honor: Infiltrator--Remember when gameplay was king?

As for me, I consider myself an advocate for portable gaming and a pusher-man for all things good on Nintendo's Game Boy Advance. I played more than 120 different games on my GBA in 2003, wrote reviews for approximately 90 of them, and enjoyed around a dozen of them enough to keep them in my collection permanently. Every year, when the Best and Worst awards come out, I develop a sense of melancholy because some of the games I really enjoyed didn't even make the cut for an award nomination. Most of the time, the games in question are wonderfully put-together but don't quite have the same universal appeal as say a Super Mario Bros. or a Tony Hawk's Pro Skater. It's not that they're lacking in quality, it's just that they're aimed toward a specific audience that likes what that particular game is trying to do.

So I'm using this GameSpotting column as my soapbox to point out three or four GBA games that weren't nominated for a GameSpot award in 2003 but would make excellent additions to the game libraries of those of you who are into certain genres or design styles.

Harvest Moon--You'll stay up late tending to your virtual farm.
Harvest Moon--You'll stay up late tending to your virtual farm.

First up is Drome Racers, a hot little racing game from THQ. From the moment you pop in the cartridge, this game makes a strong case for itself. The flat-shaded 3D polygon engine looks great on the tiny GBA screen, and the action actually moves along at a good clip without much in the way of slowdown or polygon breakup. Once the honeymoon with the graphics wears off, you're still left with a solid arcade-style racer that combines weapon-based combat with the traditional three-lap setup found in most racing games. Surprisingly, THQ released the game at a budget price point of around $20, which is quite a bargain considering you're getting a good game with a four-player link option and battery-saved high scores. Come on, Sega! Take the challenge offered by Drome Racers and bring Virtua Racing to the GBA.

Ninja Five-O--Use your sword to slay ninjas, and use your grappling hook to reach higher platforms.
Ninja Five-O--Use your sword to slay ninjas, and use your grappling hook to reach higher platforms.

The next game I'd like to bring to your attention is Medal of Honor: Infiltrator, which comes to us from EA Games, the most prolific publisher in the history of sports--and James Bond. And The Sims. Infiltrator is a top-down shoot-'em-up that takes the concepts first pioneered in games like Commando and Frontline and updates them with modern design ideas, such as stealth gameplay and multiple mission objectives. Although blasting away at countless enemies with machine guns and grenades is fun, what makes the game so interesting is that it gives you the choice between going in with guns blazing or sneaking up on enemies and clocking them with the butt of your rifle. The ability to drive tanks and control tripod-mounted guns doesn't hurt either.

Still here? Good. (I'm a tart for attention.) The third game I want you to mull over is a farming simulator from Natsume called Harvest Moon: Friends of Mineral Town. While the game is fairly accurate in its representation of farming--in that you have to till fields, water crops, and raise livestock in order to earn money to live on--the reason it's so addictive is for all of the things you can do besides tending the farm. There are people to talk to, people to give gifts to, and people to flirt with. There are events to see that tell the story of the lives of the people in the nearby village. There's a TV shopping channel that lets you buy furniture and stuff, like a kitchen, which you can use to conjure up more than 100 different recipes. In time, you'll even get to the point where you can ask one of the villagers to marry you. Thanks to its never-ending design, Harvest Moon is the sort of game that will appeal to anyone with a compulsive personality.

When conceiving this column, associate producer Ryan Davis suggested that I show some love for Konami's Ninja Five-O in this write-up. I have to admit that I didn't get as much out of that particular game as other people I know did, but I can certainly see why Ryan and others swoon about it. You play a ninja with a sword, a grappling hook, and an endless supply of throwing stars. The sword and throwing stars can be used to attack enemies or to ricochet their bullets back toward them, while the grappling hook allows you to pull yourself up to higher platforms or to swing across the ceiling like Tarzan. If Ninja Five-O has a fault, besides the old-school 1992 graphics, it's that it's one of the most unforgiving games ever made. It's a real challenge to rescue hostages, duel other ninjas, and swing over spike pits with just a single life bar per level.

Finally, I want to end by giving props to all of you out there who realize that the Game Boy Advance is the only system worth playing. While everyone else has been bickering over which console is better--the Xbox, GameCube, or PlayStation 2--we've been playing one great game after another.

Tim Tracy
Senior Producer, GameSpot Live

Now Playing: Fire Emblem, Beyond Good & Evil
Unable to play: Super Dodge Ball, Super Mario Bros. 3, Star Tropics, Many Others

The Five Stages of Grief

It's with a heavy heart that I have to report that recently, my beloved NES finally passed on to the great video game collection in the sky. After close to 17 years of tireless service, the 72 pins that made the magic happen for so many years finally just gave in and have refused to work any longer. Let me tell you, though, we've been through a lot together. All those countless sugared-up weekends spent playing Dragon Warrior, Final Fantasy, Faxanadu, Castlevania and countless other games.

When I first moved out of my parents' house, you were there, waiting in my room while everyone else was playing Mortal Kombat 3 on the PlayStation. So many memories are tied to the fun we've had together over the years. For every R-rated movie my parents rented that they didn't want me to watch, there was a game rental to match every Friday night. When I was too awkward and shy to ask the girl that I really liked to my senior prom, you were there for me, keeping me company like you always did. It all came full circle when I married that same girl a few years later and I found out that her father drew the cover art to two of my favorite games of all time. I simply can't believe that it has to end like this. Out of all the consoles I've owned over the years, this is only the second one to ever break on me. The first was a Sega Game Gear, which got really hot and leaked battery acid all over my hands within the first couple hours of owning it. I promptly returned it and got a new one that served me well for many years.

Was it because I thought about buying a top-loading Famicom while I was in Japan recently? Well, for whatever reason it might have been, the fact of the matter is, I'm grieving over the loss of my dear NES. After a quick Google search, I learned that there are five stages to dealing with grief, and I've dealt with all of them in the past couple of days.

Denial. Perhaps I've just got a streak of luck going simply because this is really the first to just give up and die. At any rate, it's just not fair.
Denial. Perhaps I've just got a streak of luck going simply because this is really the first to just give up and die. At any rate, it's just not fair.
Anger. What the hell! I just bought Star Tropics 2, Heavy Barrel, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 2 from the Goodwill down the street! What right do you have to just give up on me!
Anger. What the hell! I just bought Star Tropics 2, Heavy Barrel, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 2 from the Goodwill down the street! What right do you have to just give up on me!
Bargaining. Sure, my NES was old, but I still played it all the time. I'd gladly let my Dreamcast die a horrible death if you, my NES, would just come back to life!
Bargaining. Sure, my NES was old, but I still played it all the time. I'd gladly let my Dreamcast die a horrible death if you, my NES, would just come back to life!
Depression. I know it's that time of year when lots of people get sad because there's less sunlight, but I feel like I've lost an old friend here! We've had so many great times over the years. Why does it have to end like this?
Depression. I know it's that time of year when lots of people get sad because there's less sunlight, but I feel like I've lost an old friend here! We've had so many great times over the years. Why does it have to end like this?
Acceptance. Despite the fact that you're gone, you provided me with many, many years of great gaming. You might be gone now, but those experiences will never be forgotten.
Acceptance. Despite the fact that you're gone, you provided me with many, many years of great gaming. You might be gone now, but those experiences will never be forgotten.

While grieving, I got to thinking about why my NES' dying hit me so hard. I've got a room filled with tons of great games and consoles, but I always seemed to come back to my old Nintendo. Games these days have come a long way since the 8-bit days, but they've also lost something along the way--which is pure and unbridled gameplay. There are a bunch of stinkers in the NES library, but the great games it has have stood the test of time. They're still just as fun to play today as they were so long ago.

It's this simplicity--this absolute playability--that kept my NES in use for so long. The foundations of most of the games we play today were built on so many of these games, and the fact that so many of the characters and series that debuted on the NES are still around today, on this generation of hardware, is a testament to how great these games truly were and are. I'll certainly buy another NES very soon, but it's just a shame that it took the death of a console to make me realize exactly what it meant to me.

Craig Beers
PC Video Editor

Now Playing: Disciples II: Rise of the Elves Fire Emblem
Will Upgrade Computer For: Half-Life 2 Doom 3

Santa's Lighter Load

I've been defending this year long enough. I saw tons of forum posts complaining that this year sucked for gaming. I kept scratching my head when I read these and responded, "Hey! No it didn't!" But now that the game of the year awards are behind us, I can see why people would be thinking that. There were lots of good games, but it was still sort of a sorry year for gaming. A bunch of highly anticipated titles got delayed, thus leaving a whole crop of good but not outstanding games. This is really a shame because everybody loses when this happens. Gamers think back on the past year and have trouble remembering what they even played. I don't know about you, but my time is pretty valuable. Forgetting what I even did with such a precious commodity makes me angry. Playing games like Enter the Matrix makes me even angrier.

There's just so much excellence to be found on the GBA this year.
There's just so much excellence to be found on the GBA this year.

Gaming journalists lose because we spend countless hours trying to finalize game of the year awards. Some categories are easy, especially GBA awards. I can honestly say that I've played my GBA more than any other gaming platform this year. I think I have more than 50 hours clocked on Final Fantasy Tactics Advance alone. But most categories were difficult this year because there wasn't anything that really stood out. Lots of research was required, thus bringing us back to the "value of time" statement above.

Game retailers lose because the holiday season is huge for revenues, and it's been a lackluster holiday season for games. I personally haven't bought anything in months, which is severely depressing, considering this is the time of year when I should be losing entire paychecks to new games. I don't know how the holiday season will shape up in the final month, but we recently posted a news article about November sales, and analysts projected that growth would be much lower than expected. It's not surprising, considering that six months ago we all expected games like Half-Life 2 and Halo 2 to be out by now. Quite literally, everyone wants to get their hands on these games, so you can imagine what sales would have been like if they made it to store shelves this year.

The pinky demon is probably going to be eating less flesh since it won't be out this year.
The pinky demon is probably going to be eating less flesh since it won't be out this year.

Lastly, game publishers lose out. Perhaps they lose the most because next year is going to be crazy. If Halo 2, Doom 3, Half-Life 2, and Unreal Tournament 2004 all come out around the same time, which are you going to play? I certainly can't play all of these at once and neither can any sane person. Some of these publishers are going to be dependent on high sales so they can post good numbers when it's time to report quarterly results. You certainly aren't going to sell as much as you could have if you release Doom 3 next to Half-Life 2. Can you imagine how much money Vivendi missed out by having Half-Life 2 delayed? I don't mean for it to sound bleak, because, either way, tons of people are going to buy it. But after years of development, I would want to maximize my returns if I were a major video game publisher, and that simply can't happen now.

I suppose the point you should take away from this is that individuals can make a difference. I'm sure that each of the developers who delayed a game was thinking that its game will do fine next year because the competing products are still coming out at the end of this year. The problem is that everyone probably thought like this, so now we will have everyone competing against one another at a slower time of the year. I guess the moral of the story is to go vote--or something.

Early Adopting

If you're like me, you won't hesitate to take off from work or school or whatever to wait 12 hours in the blistering cold autumn night for the release of a new console. The pneumonia only lasts a week or two, but that'll just give you more of an excuse to play that shiny new system of yours! Well, OK, I exaggerate. Even though it doesn't get quite that cold in California, it's still a pain to get that new system, with respect to both time and money. I do this because I am on the frontier--the cutting edge. I am, my friends, an early adopter. I'm sure most of you out there are in the same boat as I, and it often sucks. You see, there are just lots of potential disadvantages that come with being the first in line.

Perhaps the biggest drawback of being an early adopter is the steep cost you'll incur as you so eagerly buy the newest gaming system. Not only will you be paying top dollar for your hardware, but at the beginning of various consoles' life cycles, the accessories are also at top dollar. Let's not forget that you won't have any "Greatest Hits" value titles, so you'll also be paying top dollar for the first generation of games, which is often sparse and mediocre. Let's set the clock back to 2000 and imagine that we are among the dozen or so who are able to get a PS2 at our local retail outlet. Between the PS2 ($299), memory card ($35), second controller ($35), and tax, you're probably at about $400 by now, and that doesn't even include any games! Throw in SSX and Tekken Tag Tournament to appease your competitive nature, and you've surpassed the $500 barrier.

I still don't regret standing in line on 9/9/99 for this.
I still don't regret standing in line on 9/9/99 for this.

Contrast that with the present... Today, a PS2 costs $179, the accessories are less, and the selection of games is huge, with an incredible lineup of Greatest Hits games for under $20. This includes, say, Virtua Fighter 4: Evolution, which is easily a better fighting game than Tekken Tag. Realistically, you could have a complete package with PS2, accessories, and three Greatest Hits games for under $300. The case is indeed similar with the GameCube and the Xbox, both of which have seen dramatic price reductions. This doesn't even take into account some of the cool bonuses you can get if you buy a console, with Nintendo's classic Zelda compilation coming to mind immediately. Clearly, from a purely economic standpoint, it makes more sense to hold off before taking the plunge.

If money doesn't matter, there are still further headaches that can be created by adopting early. Consoles in first-production runs have historically been less than reliable. Furthermore, hardware is often coupled with weak 90-day warranties and sparse technical support, thus leading to situations that are less than ideal for the consumer.

Well, this wasn't quite as wise of an investment.
Well, this wasn't quite as wise of an investment.

Consider also that better technology is always on the horizon. I don't mean a new console per se, but, perhaps, a new and improved accessory that might leave one of your investments obsolete. I had a nice setup with my GameCube, complete with four controllers for friends. Then came the WaveBird. This controller was so great that I had to buy four new ones to replace the corded controllers I had already bought once before. And perhaps more egregious than the WaveBird is another Nintendo example: the Game Boy Advance SP. This was the wonderful handheld that had everything the first GBA was missing (except a headphone jack, but don't get me started on that).

Last, the console could just flop. If a system had a poor release--say, 5,000 units sold in the first week--publishers could quickly drop it like it was hot, and the system would end up with a library that is unable to justify your initial investment. You'll end up with a paperweight, and your friends will tease you relentlessly for months. They might point out how much your gaming device looks like a taco, or they might make any number of other cruel observations.

It is, indeed, risky to be an early adopter, and many people wouldn't take the risk in diving in headfirst when so much can be accomplished by waiting just a little while. You'll save money, the hardware might be a little more refined, and there will be a bigger selection of games. I know all this, but I just lack the discipline to hold out.

Yeah, OK, this was utter crap. I can't believe I actually paid for it.
Yeah, OK, this was utter crap. I can't believe I actually paid for it.

Sure, I'll hold off on buying consoles that look like they have no chance to survive, but with the rest of them, you can count on seeing me waiting diligently in line for my chance to get my hands on that new system the day it comes out. I'm sure many of you reading this probably feel the same way. There's just something about being one of the first to have a new console, and it's always a wonderfully geeky pleasure to be able to show it off to friends. And most importantly, let's not forget that you'll be able to play games from the first day they're released. You'll be able to fit in hundreds or thousands of more hours of gaming than the average person who decides to wait a little for that first price cut.

Nowadays, I constantly hear people complaining about everything they missed out by being the first in line to buy their hardware. No two free games, no lit screen, no Zelda bonus disc, no hundred dollar price cut, nothing. If you people are seriously angry, I have some advice: next generation, don't be an early adopter. It doesn't ever make good business sense for console manufacturers to give people any breaks or any bonuses to those who are going to buy their hardware anyway. And when it comes to cases of particularly risky consoles, try waiting a week or two, as the manufacturer might be forced to make an early price reduction, and perhaps they'll throw in three free games to boot.

Either way, my point is simple. If you believe that having that great new system is cool enough to be worth it, then buy it. But if you're going to cry foul at the first hint of a special offer or price drop, then perhaps the months you could be playing brand-new games aren't worth it to you--and that's fine. You'd be more comfy sleeping in than I would be while I was waiting in line and getting a mild case of frostbite, at any rate.

Massively in Need of Improvement

I am a bitter, jaded, and thoroughly disillusioned gamer. When I play a masterwork like Knights of the Old Republic, my shriveled little heart swells just a little, but there is always some unfortunate compromise that shrinks it right back down. In all of video games, there's one genre that stands out in my mind as being the paragon of unfortunate compromises--the massively multiplayer online role-playing game. Since their inception, MMORPGs have flaunted their patch-driven premise. They were new, they were exciting, and they gave us an idea of what the Internet could really do for gaming. The problem is that the MMORPG hasn't undergone any serious appreciable changes since its inception. Now that the newness has worn off, the cracks have begun to show.

Ultima Online, EverQuest, and Asheron's Call were the three games responsible for bringing massively multiplayer gameplay to the masses. For what they were, these games were fantastic achievements. What they should have done was pave the way for new MMORPGs similarly willing to take risks. What they should have done was spark a renaissance of innovation. What they did was create yet another set of genes from which countless games could be cloned. What should have been the first, shaky step down a long, long road has become a roadblock placed across it. So, what can be done? I propose four basic changes to the MMORPG formula that would breathe life into the stagnating field.

Exciting!
Exciting!

Consequences
For me, the lack of consequences is the biggest problem with today's MMORPGs. Death is a minor setback--one that results in more wasted time rather than lost assets. On the surface, this only affects the difficulty of the game, but the problems run much deeper than that. A game with no consequences becomes a game with no tension. When there is no well-defined goal to work toward and the gameplay takes much of the action out of the hands of the player, what exactly is left? The next generation of MMORPGs must not be allowed to lean on their players to the point of making them the sole attraction. Human interaction is currently the only thing keeping people in these persistent worlds.

So, what sort of consequences should there be? How about permanent character death. There are many people who refuse to look at any game which penalizes failure so stringently, but the simple fact is that without some set of severe consequences, MMORPGs have no future. Have all the nifty trade skills you like, have all the superficially different races, and have all the large-scale battles. But without real, definable, and completely terrifying consequences for death and for risk-taking, any online world will become boring and stagnant. The character doesn't necessarily have to kick the bucket at each and every death (though games such as Trials of Ascension plan interesting permadeath systems that allow for a certain number of deaths), as long as there are genuine consequences for bad decision-making and sloppy play. How can you have a workable economy with no turnover? You can't. It will become bloated and useless. How can risking your life for a friend be considered meaningful when there's no real downside to death? It can't. Introducing a palpable fear of death opens up worlds of possibilities for occupations like bodyguards or elite and unstoppable assassin guilds. Coupled with well-thought-out systems for player versus player combat and a player-driven justice system, the single most motivating portion of life can be realized in the digital realm.

Morrowind featured a well-executed skill system.
Morrowind featured a well-executed skill system.

Skills
Classes are so five years ago. Games like Morrowind have proven that a skill-driven system can indeed work very well, and the online RPGs could definitely benefit from such a system. Classes are simply too limiting. What if I want to be as good as a ranger with a bow, but I don't care about tracking skills? Can I spend my time and skill points toward becoming good at melee combat as a trade-off? Not in a class based system I can't. The interaction with other player characters found in MMORPGs make them conducive to some of the purest role-playing to be had on a PC, but being unable to develop your character exactly how you want to negates that. A clever development team can make this system accommodate abilities and feats that are just as unique and individual as in any class-based game but without the restriction of forcing the player to choose which one at any time. In most current and upcoming MMORPGs, the most important decision of the entire gaming experience is made before you even start playing. In a skill-based system, that choice in present in every single second spent playing.

Combat
Hit. Stop. Hit. Be hit. Hit. Stop. Hit. Be hit. Hit. Stop. Hit. You have gained experience! Oh, the glorious monotony of MMORPG combat! That this noninteractive, turn-based combat system would be the first to appear in the emerging MMORPG genre is understandable, as the technological implications of thousands of truly dynamic fights all happening at once are pretty staggering. Regardless, the current "caveman" combat style used by most MMORPGs just isn't going to cut it any more. What is required is a deeper, more involved system that allows for multiple styles of armed and unarmed combat. And if, God forbid, the combat were to put me in the role of spectator for even an instant during a fight, I want that instant to, at the very least, look good. In this same vein, magic should not be a substitute for ranged weaponry, but it should, in fact, create a completely independent and unique style of play that is truly--not just superficially-- different than physical conflict. Ideally, magic would be used primarily for noncombat activities.

In current MMORPGs there are only three things to do: Fight, think about fighting, and prepare to fight. Every trade is focused on enhancing combat, and every skill is applicable to combat in some way. This is bad. The option to play an entire character's life without having to ever pick up a sword should not only be possible, but it should be enticing! Be a barkeep, be a shop owner, be a craftsman, be a politician, be a writer, be a cartographer. In the perfect MMORPG, very little would need to be coded to allow for these possibilities, as the basic gameplay would be robust enough to allow for them. Consider, if you will, a game in which there is paper that can be duplicated at an appropriate expense and that can be filled with whatever a skilled scribe can "type." Blammo! With no effort, you've just created dozens of industries. Players may become poets, they may begin to write and print newspapers about the juiciest hunting spots or the latest happenings in the largest guilds, etc. Heroes (because heroes can exist in a game with permadeath) could gain enormous fame. An entire printing and distribution sector has just been added to the economy, along with just one very real incentive to play a nonviolent character.

Creatable and Destroyable Content
Players need to be able to create something real--something tangible. Shadowbane did this quite well with player-created buildings, and such a system is basically a necessity for MMORPGs going forward. The greatest asset of these games is that they provide a living, breathing environment full of real people with real personalities. To lay this foundation in a physical world, which is static, with minimal player input goes against the underlying philosophy of MMORPGs.

And all that's just for starters. If an MMORPG were designed to include well-implemented permadeath, player versus player, justice, skill, combat, out-of-combat, and building systems, it could jump-start the entire genre. Just one game could knock down that roadblock and get things moving again. Far off games, such as Trials of Ascension look promising, but it's too far off to tell if the developer's promises will actually materialize. Upcoming MMORPGs might offer the most refined version of the utterly dead formula to date, but that doesn't make up for the fact that the formula is utterly dead. Take away the human interaction, something that the developers had absolutely no hand in, and what's left is a game that can barely be called a game. If change doesn't happen, and happen soon, the whole MMO market is at risk of imploding, thus closing the door on one of the most promising genres in the medium of digital entertainment.

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