Critical Phantoms #006: Harry Potter & the Chamber of Secrets

I was bound to discuss Harry Potter at some point in this series, because from 2nd grade to the end of middle school, I was a Fan. I got presents of themed Harry Potter gift sets, with a Harry Potter version of UNO, and Bertie Bott’s Every Flavor Beans, which I still think is a great piece of branded merchandise with a built-in excuse to make some absolutely terrible jellybeans.

It started when I was 7, in second grade, as I mentioned. By that point, I was more comfortable with reading, and had spent a year out of school due to circumstance; when I did get back to school, we had moved, and the new school district was the one I’d follow until I eventually dropped out. But, being a small child who had been out of contact with kids my age for a year, and being averse to exercise after discovering the joy of video games and reading kids’ books as a hobby, I didn’t always want to run around with my new classmates at recess. My parents also realized I could probably read something a bit heftier than my current fare (a significant chunk of which were Goosebumps), and thus had given me a copy of Sorcerer’s Stone, which I ended up taking to school and the local youth club so I could read it when I didn’t want to be running around like a normal kid. So began my habit of reading way too much.

After my parents realized my fondness for the series, they apparently told my grandpa, who, wanting to foster the good habit, bought me the first four books. This, combined with Scholastic being the publisher for Harry Potter in the US alongside with the organizer of every book fair that my school ever saw, meant Harry Potter was everywhere in a significant part of my childhood. Then the movies happened! And with those movies, and the widespread desire to make money off the license, came the video games.

I mentioned before in this series that I’ve been using a computer since I was first aware of, like, written language, with my dad teaching me “go” as a command to launch an edutainment title. We always had a computer in the house, and my parents were the sort of people who used BBSes and will reminisce about the days when their 25mb hard drive was cutting-edge. This, combined with our slow adoption of more recent consoles, meant the version I got to play of both Sorcerer’s Stone and Chamber of Secrets was the PC one! They were, I later discovered, both built on the Unreal engine! This means, as continues to be true of a startling number of games, they’re built on infrastructure meant for, basically exclusively, Unreal Tournament. It’s fascinating to find out what variables you can screw with because of this.

But this revelation isn’t terribly surprising for the first Harry Potter games on PC, given how they’re basically very primitive shooters, intended to be played with the keyboard, that use the mechanics to provide a Zelda-like adventure game, dungeons and all.

This is more true of Chamber of Secrets, which is a more hearty game, and also can be played like a normal third-person shooter without much control fiddling. There are secrets, collectibles, crafting, Quidditch and dueling minigames, an optional area you unlock if you get all the collectibles, and a fairly open Hogwarts to explore and comb for extra jellybeans (the main currency).  It’s genuinely a pretty fun game, and once in a while I get the urge to go back and play it. It’s one of those things that, upon actually revisiting after a decade, held up surprisingly well!

That’s why I decided to focus on just Chamber of Secrets instead of making individual posts for Sorcerer’s Stone and Chamber of Secrets. Sorcerer’s Stone is both a lot more linear and segmented, and gives a more narrow view of what Harry’s life at Hogwarts is like. It’s also got a lot of really annoying one-off bits. Even just off the top of my head, you have to evade Filch and Mrs. Norris via Invisibility Cloak in an annoying stealth segment that freaked me the hell out as a kid, and you get to do the entire series of challenges guarding the Sorcerer’s Stone before dueling Voldemort at the end in a boss fight that mixes tank controls and an awkward camera angle very poorly. I only beat all of that as a kid with… cheats and the unerring determination that children are often full of.

Meanwhile, Chamber of Secrets is a lot more even, and the one I spent more time with by far, with a lot more uniquely interesting puzzles and, in my opinion, a better use of the format. A game would be a good way to convey some of the minutiae of Hogwarts life that are unnecessary for the novels or movies. Stuff like having to sneak around to steal the Polyjuice Potion ingredients, needing to get out as fast as possible when the Polyjuice Potion runs out and you’re still in the Slytherin dorms, or having Professor Snape teach you how to make health potions are more interesting than the completely dry pace that Sorcerer’s Stone takes from dungeon to dungeon.

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Critical Phantoms #005: Sonic 3 & Knuckles

I swear this will be the last Genesis game I talk about! I’m even packing both Sonic 3 and Sonic & Knuckles into a single entry despite having experiences with Sonic 3 alone first!

Sonic 3, then Sonic 3 & Knuckles, were, in my experience, quintessentially the peak of my Genesis catalog. Aside from a couple other less important games, S3&K was my last pair of Genesis games, and I loved the whole package they brought. The game had cutscenes, an admittedly loose plot, big levels, new powers, bonus stages, and a whole lot of things I spent years combing through and growing accustomed to.

Angel Island is the first stage, and while it’s an idyllic jungle locale introduced to you by Sonic getting the Super beat out of him by Knuckles, the first act is punctuated by the mini-boss setting the entire stage on fire. Where there was once a blue sky hiding behind a jungle canopy, there now only lies a sea of glowing heat as the jungle burns, shifting the pleasant colors of the foliage to sickly greens lit by orange ambiance. You can attack it all you like, but this preview of your first major foe always ends with its escape.

This first stage is poised perfectly to demonstrate the benefits of all three of the new elemental shields: instead of the plain shield earlier Sonic games had, the player can now find fire, lightning, or bubble shields, each with their own traits. Fire protects from fire, lightning from electricity, and bubble gives the player an infinite supply of air when underwater. Angel Island, being a jungle, has water in it, and enough that an unfamiliar player may risk drowning, so the bubble shield is demonstrated quite well. Then comes the firebombing, and thus, the fire shield has its time to shine. The lightning shield does show up, but it doesn’t have any particular protective functions in this stage, instead simply demonstrating its ring-grabbing side-effect.

Additionally, each of these shields gives Sonic, but neither of his cohorts, a new function for tapping the jump button mid-air. I’ve felt for a long time like there are two ways to take this Sonic-exclusive foible of gameplay. One way is that Sonic is the eponymous character, so the shiny new toys the game introduces should be exclusive to him; the other is that, generally, Tails and Knuckles’ flight and gliding/climbing, respectively, are very powerful traversal tools as-is, and don’t need augmenting in the way that Sonic’s new split-second shield kinda does.

On top of that, Knuckles’ entire conceit as a playable character is his inability to jump as high as the other two, and busting through walls only he can manage to find entirely different paths through the levels. Granting him extra height through either the bubble’s bounce or the lightning’s double jump would make designing around that conceit even more silly, and the fire’s horizontal dash would be too similar to his existing glide.

After Angel Island’s fire, Hydrocity Zone brings the water, as the Hydro in its name might imply. Half of the level is underwater, and if you don’t have a bubble shield, it gets real stressful looking for air! The challenge becomes less focused on hopping from air bubble to air bubble, though you can still play it that way, but maneuvering around hazards while maintaining your safety bubble is an interesting shift of the tension of being underwater!

Then the second half of the zone starts, and after descending through the bottom of the mini-boss room, you’re deposited in a tunnel leading to the single most stressful video game challenge in my childhood. It looks like a plain spindash skill check, like the start of Hill Top in Sonic 2! “Oh, good, they put this earlier in the game so I don’t have to prove myself later”, I thought to myself, ignorant as I was.

The thing is, the instant you cross a certain threshold, the back wall starts chasing you. And I was horrified. Crushing deaths? In level 2?! And this was a huge, mandatory thing at the start of act 2! I didn’t really die enough to justify it, but I still kinda get wary of that segment whenever I play it again. It’s a doozy.

After that is Marble Garden, a name that evokes Marble Zone from Sonic 1, a place full of lava and crushing, which it lives up to in the latter respect. There are actual crusher obstacles and you can get caught underneath staircases as they descend. Fun stuff. Alongside that is a weird new piece of movement that are entirely limited to Marble Garden; the tops you need to ride through the air in order to bust through obstacles are weird to control and remind me vaguely of the nuts on bolts that served as elevators in Metropolis Zone, but detached from the limited area that the bolts worked as in Sonic 2.

Once more, in Act 2, Marble Garden falls apart around you thanks to Robotnik’s interference, and you have yet another obstacle course to traverse with the threat of crushing! Then you have a fight against him in a flying section where Sonic is lifted by Tails, who shows up even if you’re playing as solo Sonic. Weirder than that, though, is that if you’re playing as Tails, you get to fight him by hitting him with your tails while you’re flying, which has a hurtbox now! It’s very weird!

Carnival Night is another Spring Yard/Casino Night zone, with more crushers, a weird miniboss you have to bait into hitting himself lest he destroy the entire floor, and a second act where the zone gets flooded, making use of that bubble shield once again. There’s also an infamous moment near the end of the level where you’re locked into a room with a single exit, past a mechanic they expect you to have chanced upon before, and people hadn’t! You have to press up and down on a barrel to make it swing further vertically, and I’d landed on barrels while spinning through the levels and seen them swing ridiculously far down before, so I did this within a couple of lives, but that was a huge wall for an incredible amount of people!

Ice Cap has great BGM, and also, another mandatory segment where my crusherphobia was tested! Aside from that, though, it’s not terribly interesting. Launch Base is the last of the Sonic 3 levels, and it’s a pretty neat use of verticality, both in terms of raw platforming density and in designing the second act to be played in both an underwater segment and a network of pipes and buildings hanging above the water. The final boss of Sonic 3, which doesn’t show up in Sonic’s path in S3&K, can actually grab you and knock you out of your Super form in S3! That was scary for me as a kid, who worked hard to get Super and finally get to use it on a final boss! You only fight that boss as Knuckles in S3&K, and he doesn’t do that to Super Knuckles.

By the way, I haven’t mentioned this, but Knuckles and Tails can go super in this game! Tails, however, requires the additional power of something new to this game… Starting in Mushroom Hill, when entering a Special Stage, you can start pursuing Super Emeralds instead of Chaos Emeralds, as long as you have all the Chaos Emeralds. The new Special Stages are different and harder, but once you have all the Super Emeralds, you can go Hyper (in the case of Sonic & Knuckles) or Super (in the case of Tails) under the same restriction of 50 rings as before. It’s honestly unnecessary, and generally overkill!

Sonic starts flashing multiple colors, runs even faster (and leaves after-images) and can, while double-jumping, kill all the enemies on the screen. Knuckles flashes pink and leaves after-images, and can glide into walls to cause earthquakes that do similarly large amounts of damage to enemies. Tails is even weirder, though, because thanks to his transformation being singular, it’s an even more silly jump in power. He flashes bright yellow and summons four Flickies that home in on anything on-screen and deal damage to them, including bosses! It’s comparable to playing Cream in Sonic Advance 2, where you can command her Chao, Cheese, to attack enemies, but autonomous and extremely rapid.

Flying Battery is a notable zone from Sonic & Knuckles primarily because it starts finally using electric damage that you can keep safe from with the appropriate shield. Sandopolis is full of sand and ghosts and I hate it. Lava Reef and Hidden Palace are cool aesthetically, as is Sky Sanctuary, but then Death Egg finally gets to be a full stage instead of a boss arena, with gravity-flipping, and I loved it.

And then, if you’re at least Super and playing as Sonic, you get… to play through… Doomsday Zone. The space station falls away after Robotnik dashes away with the Master Emerald in the final boss of Sonic 2, and with the power of the Emeralds, Sonic transforms and begins his pursuit.

This level is not easy for a fresh player! You’re invincible, but on a strict time limit, the only reason you’re still alive in the vacuum of space being the Super transformation that is slowly gnawing through your rings. You have to maneuver through a debris field, grabbing rings where you can, and avoiding missiles, until you come up on the thing firing them at you; not your original target, but a threat nonetheless. You can then use its own homing missiles against it in this moving battle, and when it finally falls, you can return to the chase, and finally just bash your idiot Super Sonic face against the robot that gave you such a pain in the neck in the last game!

It’s very cathartic once you finally win. And it’s one of my last major 2D childhood gaming memories! This is one of my favorite Genesis games for that reason. Also, the entire OST is a goddamn jam. The credits theme for Sonic 3 in particular is real good.

If you’d like to toss me a tip for my writing, I have a Ko-fi page! This series will have new entries every Sunday and Wednesday; if you missed the introduction, here’s the pitch!

Critical Phantoms #004: World of Illusion

Carrying on from my last post, my childhood attachment to Disney also led my dad to pick up a copy of World of Illusion Starring Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck (which is the full official title), which was likely the most complex game I ever played on the Genesis. Multiple gameplay modes, two different characters whose properties changed how you were allowed to progress in the level (Donald’s got too big a butt to get through crawlspaces unaided, and thus must find ways around, sometimes through entirely different levels), and co-op where you can climb on each other’s shoulders to reach things you couldn’t alone! Dang! It’s also got some split paths later on that were indecipherable to me at first, with multiple doors on the same screen leading to completely different places, and my small child brain not being used to that, I thought it was always random, but I just kept going in different doors every time I played! Silly me.

This was also the first game I played co-op (with my dad) where co-op wasn’t just a throwaway gimmick with a second person attached to the console. Sonic 2 has “co-op”, but it’s just 2P as Tails bouncing around the screen, attacking enemies but being strictly limited to Sonic’s location. Real co-op systems worked into things didn’t happen until…. the next Sonic game I’ll talk about, but in World of Illusion, working together happened fairly often! Also, the locales and bosses are a bit weirder than I’m used to; the game takes place inside the titular World of Illusion, inside a magic box, thanks to an evil Magician, who turns out to be Pete. So a lot of enemies and most bosses have a really goofy and/or Pete-adjacent face.

The bosses are generally pretty simple, and nonthreatening, except for the world 3 boss, which is a terrifying shark with the most offensively sharp noise I’ve ever heard in a Genesis game! I forgot about this before I looked up a video of the bosses to link for this post! Here’s that link; the bosses are timestamped in the description. This is also a very good demonstration of how the Genesis soundchip kinda got misused by people who didn’t know its strengths, except for that shark noise, because DAMN.

If you’d like to toss me a tip for my writing, I have a Ko-fi page! This series will have new entries every Sunday and Wednesday; if you missed the introduction, here’s the pitch!

Critical Phantoms #003: Aladdin (Genesis)

I don’t know how common an experience it is, but I feel like if I say that a lot of my early childhood was spent watching and rewatching what Disney movies I had on VHS, most folks around my age can connect with that on some level. Aladdin was one of my favorites; the music, the fantastic (in both senses) setting, and the particular kind of slapstick comedy that the Genie offered kept me coming back, and I still love the music to this day.

It’s not surprising, then, that one fateful day at Funcoland led me to want to buy this game, after seeing it in the Genesis section. I managed to keep hold of it until I sold my Genesis and all the remaining games down the line, but I never beat it! This game is hard!

This game also definitely sparked my awareness of abstraction, and how media formats differ wildly, given my familiarity with the movie as I played the game. The game follows, roughly, the plot of the movie, but because they intend to make a game out of it, you do a lot more footwork as Aladdin in the game than he does in the movie; there’s climbing through the streets of Agrabah in pursuit of the scarab that will lead you to the Cave of Wonders, there’s traversing the desert while following the scarab, and there’s an immense amount of platforming while you’re in jail.

None of those things are in the movie! None of those things make literal sense for either the progression of the narrative or how, for example, jails work! But a platforming sequence where this jail tries to kill you with spikes and disappearing platforms works as a representation of the difficulties of being in prison, albeit one that falls rather flat due to the movie providing Aladdin a way out immediately, and the subject matter being for kids anyway.

Remember how I mentioned that I never beat it? Yeah, this game’s difficult, and it ramps up pretty significantly, even proportionally to how much energy I had to spend on beating it as a kid. The furthest I made it in this game legitimately was the Cave of Wonders, though I saw what laid ahead of it with the level skip cheat. It was an easy level skip cheat: simply pause the game, and hit ABBAABBA! That would warp you to the start of the next level, and I used that to try my hand at later stages. Didn’t even ever beat it that way!

Probably the most notorious difficulty increase is the Cave of Wonders escape and rug ride pair of levels. You can watch a video of both here. The Rug Ride stage is so difficult that the game actually skips you past it if you die three times!

You might have also noticed the sound in that video. The Genesis has a very distinctive soundchip, one that I’d probably describe as… crunchy, for lack of a better word. The sound the boulders in that escape level make are a good example of what I mean by that. SEGA-developed games tended to have a better grasp on how to utilize it for music than the average external developers; the Genesis Sonic games have a particular style that really works well with it.

I loved Aladdin’s musical numbers in the movie, but… the music in the game is rather barebones in comparison. It still has some nice tunes, but generally it’s not using the hardware very well. One of the better tunes is Arab Rock 2, which is the theme for that Cave of Wonders escape level, and an original tune for the game. I feel like the most pernicious changes inflicted on this soundtrack were on the arrangements of the movie’s songs, the vocal themes especially. Arabian Nights adapts fairly well to being background music for the aforementioned jail level, but I feel like that’s the exception.

I still really like the Genesis soundchip, and I appreciate when songs I like get remixed using it, or to at least sound similar to it, but a lot of Genesis games I remember playing didn’t really make decent use of it! The occasional good song I heard in the ’00s using it or a soundalike inspired me to occasionally listen to chiptunes, though! I also really love remixes of normal commercial music with old chiptunes, like this one of 3 Doors Down vs Comix Zone.

If you’d like to toss me a tip for my writing, I have a Ko-fi page! This series will have new entries every Sunday and Wednesday; if you missed the introduction, here’s the pitch!

Critical Phantoms #002: The Secret Island of Dr. Quandary

As I mentioned in my last entry, I was on the computer at a very, very young age. I have really vague memories of a time when my dad taught me how to type “go” into the command prompt to boot up a game I now can’t remember but, at the time, adored.

In thinking about my past for this series, I recalled this, and asked him if he had even the slightest inkling what that game was. His best guess was Mickey’s 123: The Big Surprise Party, a DOS edutainment game where Mickey throws a birthday party for Donald, and in watching some video of it, I honestly can’t tell if I remember it. It has all the hallmarks of the sort of edutainment game that existed at the time, and my memory in particular was hyper-focused on the fact that I learned to spell the word go, so details about the game were unimportant.

Some time after that, when I had a better grip on reading, I ended up playing today’s game, The Secret Island of Dr. Quandary. I know I had a better grip on reading because it’s an adventure game with puns and puzzles; while you can manage to play some to most of it with no understanding of what words are being used, I definitely remember having my first “oh, that’s a pun” moment while playing this as a wee babe. After playing a carnival shooting gallery where you’re aiming to hit specific Troggles (a cameo from another MECC line, the Munchers games), and winning, you’re given the choice of three Lifelike Action Figures: B. Ginner, O. D. Nary, and D. Feecult. A difficulty selection, and the wittiest thing that tiny tot Devon had ever seen!

My parents guided me onto B. Ginner, and I don’t know how I beat it, because I’ve tried revisiting this game multiple times and I’m just bad at it. I guess that’s how puzzle games with no coherent singular puzzle structure go; no through-line for puzzle escalation means it can be kind of an uneven difficulty curve. It was more memorable for all the dumb jokes it crammed in between the Tower of Hanoi minigame, the musical minigame, and the maze on the eponymous island. You have to go around the island, solving various puzzles to get ingredients for the Fixer Elixir, a plot device to put you back in your own body instead of the Lifelike Action Figure (ie the doll) you chose at the start, which you then have to throw all together in a cauldron that’s randomly on the beach. It’s also one of the only mouse-based DOS games I think I ever played, aside from the obvious Oregon Trail (also a MECC product), and really got me used to using a mouse, instead of just hammering on the keyboard to do things.

This game wasn’t revolutionary or anything, but it was really good reading practice, and I could ask my parents what words were or meant, and expand my vocabulary while playing a video game. I think that was often used as an excuse for wanting to play games by a lot of kids when playing something like Pokemon, which had a lot of words but very few educational tidbits, but I definitely got practice reading while I played this game and got mad that I couldn’t do a minigame very well.

I recently discovered that actually has this game playable in your browser! If you wanna mess around with this game, like I do, you can find it here. Mind the volume, though, it’s old and can get very punchy with its music.

If you’d like to toss me a tip for my writing, I have a Ko-fi page! This series will have new entries every Sunday and Wednesday; if you missed the introduction, here’s the pitch!

Critical Phantoms #001: Sonic 2

It’s difficult to express how your first game impacted you, especially when you began playing games at as young an age as I did, but there’s no time better than the start of this project to attempt it.

I started playing games young enough that there was no point of my non-infant life where I interacted with media, but not games. My dad jokes that he’s the one who set me down the wrong path by setting up edutainment computer games for me at less than two years old, and over the course of my childhood, my mom boasted of me starting on computers at 18 months old enough times that it’s kinda burned into my brain. But that game is something we can discuss another time; this isn’t a post about the first game I played. This is about the first game that stuck with me.

I have scant few coherent memories of games that I played before the age of five, but Sonic the Hedgehog 2 is the focus of the majority of them. The earliest and clearest memory I have at all is me standing in what I’d later come to recognize as a local pawn shop, holding a Sega Genesis box, staring intently at the back at a single tiny screen from Sonic 2, as if my fifth minute of staring at this blob of color printed onto cardboard would somehow yield new insights. I saw other games, but I knew this one was the one I was getting, so the rest were irrelevant in that moment. I was, at best guess, 3 years old, maybe approaching 4.

Talking about Sonic 2 has always been a sticking point for me, because it’s not a matter of being good or bad. This game is integral to how I learned to play video games, and its levels are etched into my brain, both due to how formative this game was for me, and for how long I made it last. Every zone was an ordeal, leading to an eventual triumph, and exploring all the paths as I either hit game overs or just needed to turn the game off and replay levels when I came back led me to an acute awareness of the spaces the game held.

I remember discovering triggers for extra passages in Emerald Hill Zone, imagining them as tiny buttons you have to press before tunnels will open, and realizing that there was one I really liked, but that killed me every time, right before the final checkpoint and the boss.

I remember the incredibly stressful flooded shaft near the end of act 2 of Chemical Plant Zone, and realizing I could escape from the spider-grabber bots while spending a sick day at home, nauseous and curled up in a blanket on the couch.

I remember seeing the Aquatic Ruin Zone and being terrified of drowning in the water that was only a vague threat in Chemical Plant. Then, with time came the realization that a little patience went a long way, and kept you out of the water almost entirely.

Casino Night Zone is the most complex level in the early game, and walled me for months; it’s a nightmare to navigate as a child, it’s loaded with crushing hazards, and it’s got way too many distractions, some of which you need to just let go of or you’ll never get through the level. On top of all that, it’s got a boss with a really strange arena and attack pattern, which thwarted me and made me dread fighting it whenever I got that far. Once I finally did beat it, I felt a sense of relief that was quickly replaced with apprehension.

Hill Top Zone is weird. I’ve always thought this, but it’s a strange refrain in the gradation from nature to industry that the game otherwise generally follows. The game does throw you from verdant hills into the harsh glass and steel maze full of chemicals rather quickly, but then, after trudging through a sunken ruin full of greenery and a neon-lit nightlife locale, you find yourself in an echo of Emerald Hill. But here, the gaps in the earth lead not to waterfalls, but bottomless pits or lava, and the level itself fills with a tide of magma during one of the most stressful stretches of gaming in my childhood. It’s a crueler version of the first level, one that doesn’t even let you into it unless you understand how the spindash works, and I definitely did not by the time I got to it for the first time.

Mystic Cave and Oil Ocean are zones that I almost always forget one of, because they’re both mazes with different rules to follow, and are always overshadowed in my mind by the behemoth of Metropolis, but both put a different kind of fear and resolve into my young mind. Mystic Cave is full of crushing obstacles, and is probably mostly responsible for me being so squeamish about the thought of getting crushed in video games, but Oil Ocean has some platforms launched by a plate underneath them that can be a lot more terrifying in their descent onto an unwitting 4 year old.

Oil Ocean also has the first instance of a liquid in which Sonic can vaguely swim, but with that ability comes the dread of treading a line in the level where if you let up, you’ll just die outright. No safety net, no drowning timer; you hit the bottom of the oil, you’re dead. This is used in the boss of the area, where Robotnik ascends from the depths to see if he’s killed you yet, and if you get greedy with hitting him as he goes back down, you’ll get caught in the titular ocean and likely be struck with the next attack. I feel like these moments were what honed the basis for my action game instincts more than anything, but the next stage was where they were tempered.

I called Metropolis a behemoth earlier. It’s the largest level in the game, in volume if not only in my memory. The format of the levels is smashed underneath a crusher, the rules for a level’s structure change, and everything in this goddamn factory wants you dead. Metropolis Zone is the only level in Sonic 2 that has three acts; a reflection of Sonic 1’s normal act count, but a very different experience for this entry, which made two-act zones the norm.

It’s not like they made the acts easier, either; this was grueling. This zone is all mechanical, all function, and all ruthless. There are crabs that fire their hammer arm out and get an actually absurd hurtbox that I can’t 100% deal with to this day, there are crushers, conveyor belts, pneumatic tubes, blocks with rotating spikes, and some kind of molten nonsense that acts like lava everywhere… All of these things aren’t even as bad as the speed-sensitive starfish and praying mantis bots with overly-homing boomerang arms that infest the tunnels and assault you while you’re dealing with the nuts you have to spin up giant bolts that function as elevators. God damn, Metropolis is a pain in the ass.

After working through Metropolis and its absurd boss, where Robotnik throws balloons of himself out at you, you then get to sit through an auto-scroller where Tails (or Sonic, if you’re playing as Tails) takes you on the approach to the big aerial fortress. Sky Chase is a breather before the final platforming challenge of the game, and even though it can be a little stressful, after Metropolis’ entire bag of nasty, enemies that die when you jump into them and cute little robot turtles that you can stand on are a nice little breather, and the way they maneuver the form of Wing Fortress past you as you near the end of the level is cool.

Wing Fortress, however, is hell. Here’s a level gimmick I don’t like: zig-zagging up a vertical area with platforming over pits that risk falling down a level, and other pits that are bottomless being between you and the area you just fell down. Wing Fortress is a fortress in the sky, so the entire level is platforms situated over a bottomless pit, with daring jumps baked into the path to progress, and it was super stressful! I don’t like bottomless pits, and the legacy of this level in later Sonic games did this whole thing a lot better. Fortunately, this is only a single act, and then, Death Egg happens.

Death Egg is double hell. It’s got the most finicky bosses in the game, there’s no checkpoint, and there’s no rings, so there’s no safety net for you taking damage, and also, even worse, Super Sonic isn’t available to you! You need 50 rings, and Death Egg has zero. So if you went through the effort of doing all the special stages, you’re out of luck! No palpable benefits for you!

By the time I got to Death Egg legitimately, I’d discovered the major cheats the game has, both level select and debug, so when I failed to beat the game, I warped to Death Egg and gave myself some rings. I ended up still losing, but next time I got that far, I had a little more experience and… lost again. Eventually, though, I got the hang of things, and memorized Silver Sonic’s patterns, and got over the dread that set in whenever the final boss music played, and I beat the game!… only to discover that if you beat it with all the Chaos Emeralds, you get a different ending. So I eventually beat it 100%, but by that time I had more games to play and didn’t need to get so ridiculously into it.

Largely, I believe my time with Sonic 2 laid a really good foundation for my spatial awareness in games, and also the stubborn nature I’m still working on tempering into something less silly. I’ve gotten better about taking breaks when I’m starting to get worn out, which is something I know I did when I was a kid, just because my parents wouldn’t let me play video games all day without taking breaks. Despite that, I will still beat my head against a wall in a game a lot, which, now that I think about it, kinder games in recent years will enable as a behavior with checkpoints and such.

It’s weird to think about this, but I probably didn’t actually play Sonic 2 until after Super Mario 64 was out. The Genesis from the pawn shop, and other games used from our local Funcoland, meant that I was already a generation behind by the time I got into gaming, and getting a hand-me-down foundation, in a way, but so it goes. This might be why I feel like the 90s is such a compressed chunk of time in terms of gaming importance; it’s weird to think about how long ago that was, but how recent its games feel in my perspective of things.

If you’d like to toss me a tip for my writing, I have a Ko-fi page! This series will have new entries every Sunday and Wednesday; if you missed the introduction, here’s the pitch!

Critical Phantoms #000: The Pitch

Despite not believing in ghosts, as time passes, I find myself haunted by phantoms. Echoes and figments pursue me relentlessly, and I must face them one day, or I will find myself lost without awareness of where I am, or how I came to be here. For others, this may be fine, but I cannot simply yearn for the past; I must examine the journey I’ve made, else I would fail to live up to my own standards, my own ideals, as a critic.

The way we interact with art, games included, is complex, prone to flaws and inconsistency, shifting endlessly amid the waves of culture and society. It’s often overlooked, but it’s foundational to how we discuss media, and thus I find it relevant to muse on.

A simple explanation would be that the audience (a single person, for the sake of example), consumes the media (a game, again for the sake of example) and forms an opinion on the game. This, however, is an incomplete explanation, assuming a vacuum of context, a situation unheard of in any relevant slice of time to the creation and consumption of art.

The audience brings expectations and past experiences with them; the creator of the media likewise has intent both conscious and subconscious, which must first survive the process of both creation and consumption before it reaches the audience. And make no mistake, creation is inherently a threat to the survival of intent. Creating media, a human endeavor, carries with it human fallibility. These steps of imperfect transfer are why the concept of the “death of the author” is as useful as it is for assessing text and subtext in media; bereft of intent, what does the resulting art have to say?

There’s an easy, familiar shorthand for the audience’s expectations and past experiences that color their impressions of a new piece of media: taste. There’s no accounting for it, as the saying goes. The way I prefer to analogize the development of one’s taste follows a comic I remember reading but could not properly recall the source of, on how, sometimes, we perceive people we’ve just met in terms of bits of people we’re already familiar with. Comparing new information with familiar points is how we grow. There’s a nature vs. nurture argument to be had about the starting point for said development, and how that origin’s influence on your exposure to media can radically change the trajectory of your taste, but I’m setting it aside for this project.

The earlier in your history of media you are, the larger impact every piece has on the lens through which you view media, by ratio if nothing else. Everything you experience is inescapably colored by what came before it. Even if the similarities are so few that you’re exposed to something completely outside of your existing knowledge of media, you learn the information “this is not something I know”, and a broadening of your scope occurs. I tend to call the residual impact of a work on my taste its “phantom” for lack of a more concise term, in reference to the phenomenon of phantom sensations in amputated body parts, and the analogous effects of a piece of media that isn’t present in my perception anymore, but whose imprint still shapes how I move forward.

There’s no accounting for taste! But despite the adage, I know that I’ve definitely played a lot of games, read a few books, and listened to a fair bit of music in my fairly uneventful life, and I want to reminisce and reflect on how they’ve shifted my taste. What games have shaped my views and expectations? What experiences do I carry with me for use as a litmus test? Can I truly express how so many games have altered my life?

This project, which I’ll be calling Critical Phantoms, is my attempt to answer these questions, for no other purpose than self-satisfaction and practice as a critic. Twice a week, I will publish a retrospective post on my experience with a game; these will vary in length and complexity, and because I’m exclusively dealing with games, it won’t be an exhaustive examination of all of my development via media or life events, which is fine.

I welcome any critics or writers to join me in ruminating on their history in part or in full; my twice-weekly goal is simply to push me to write regularly, for as long as I can manage to think of substantially influential games in 2018. 

If you’re looking for other work of mine and/or are confused by the gap of nearly three years since my previous post, you can find the podcast I host with my cohorts Becky Davnall and LeeRoy Lewin, along with JRPG-centric writing by us and commissioned critics, at Support us on Patreon!

Critical Switch Guest Episode: JRPGs and Simplicity [Transcript]

I had the pleasure of putting together what became a guest episode on Critical Switch, the audio games criticism series by Austin C. Howe (@AustinCHowe, who also writes at his blog) and Zolani Stewart (@Fengxii, who’s responsible for the Arcade Review).

You can listen to my guest episode here!

Under the cut is the full transcript of the episode, and at the end is the track listing of the background music! If you enjoy my episode and aren’t a regular listener of Critical Switch, please consider becoming one and/or supporting Zolani and Austin on Patreon!

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Silver Review: Xenoblade Chronicles

Over the past three weeks, I’ve been playing Xenoblade Chronicles as a favor to the guy who so graciously gave me his old Wii and 3DSXL. It’s not solely for that reason, though; I’ve been interested to see what I think of the game that the general public won’t seem to shut up about when JRPGs are brought up.

…Let’s just say that I’m sad that I don’t like it more. I wish I could find this trite game worth the literal hundred hours I ended up putting into it.

There are spoilers for the game below the cut.

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