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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The Silver Grinding’s Tales Starter Guide

(or, A Tale of a Thousand Miles Begins With A Single Skit)

Greetings! You’re probably not wondering why I’m writing this, and I’m not wondering why you’re reading this. Both are for the same reason: you’re interested in learning more about the series of games known as the Tales (or Tales of) series, but don’t quite know what entries are recommended (or even available) to try!

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