Monthly Archives: August 2012

Chrono Trigger (1995)

Chrono Trigger is not Primer, and the world is better for it. The game plays so fast and loose with the rules of time travel, it’s bound to make paradox theorists’ heads explode faster than if they met alternate-timeline versions of themselves. But Crono and his friends exist in a universe where soaring through the millennia is a dreamlike and inviting proposition. A greater attempt by the game’s designers to rectify the logical issues inextricably linked to the narrative’s central conceit – problems that make or break many other time travel stories – would almost certainly be at odds with their creation’s other bountiful charms. Besides, it’s not so much that Chrono Trigger‘s creators ignore the issue of causality; they simply employ it only when they feel it would most emotionally resonate.

The game begins in its parallel world’s version of our present. (However, its technology spans anywhere from turn-of-the-century steampunk gadgets to contemporary kitchen appliances to vaguely futuristic doo-dads.) Spiky haired silent protagonist Crono begins his grand adventure as many RPG characters before him: being woken up by his mother on the eve of a life-changing event. When his friend Lucca unveils her teleportation machine at a local festival, things – as they are wont to do at teleportation machine unveilings – go horribly wrong. Crono is soon hurtling through the ages, traversing and re-travesring a relatively small world map that only reveals its hidden depths in new time periods.

It wouldn’t be a party-based roleplaying game without a menagerie of superpowered oddballs aiding the hero on his journey, and Chrono Trigger’s suitably ragtag collection does not skimp on the eccentricity. Continue reading

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Super Mario 64 (1996)

There’s a tangible restlessness to Super Mario 64’s final third, where Shigeru Miyamoto and his team no longer seem giddy with the mere idea of three-dimensional exploration and begin to ask what this brave new world truly means for level design. This is not to discount the work that precedes it; nearly every stage in the game presents tasks that not only fit comfortably with the level’s theme, but perfectly escalate the difficulty as the player settles into what was, back in 1996, the heretofore unmastered physics of that unruly third dimension. Those first few rudimentary courses are rightfully iconic for initiating a generation of virtual adventurers, their cheerful fields and blocky floating islands acting as expansive playgrounds when compared to the militaristic left-to-right march of previous sidescrolling titles. And gems like the labyrinthine pyramid of “Shifting Sand Land” and the strangely piecemeal, bottomless-pit-orbiting chambers of “Hazy Maze Cave” inspired any number of future gaming challenges, from the classics to the infuriating failures.

But it’s that last third – those brilliant, batshit levels that plucked you from your recently established comfort zone within this 3D fever dream – that grabbed the door the rest of the game broke down, took it off its hinges, and ran it through a woodchipper. Continue reading

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Half-Life (1998)

Sad as it is, I bet many young people think Citizen Kane is just some overrated old movie about an asshole who misses his sled. Despite having so much to offer as merely a straightforward story, the age-old line about Kane is that out of all the great Hollywood pictures, it is the one that requires the keenest eye toward technical and structural innovations. No matter how invested you are in the tragic tale of Charles Foster Kane, it’s undeniable that the movie is at its jaw-dropping best when plot works in tandem with the viewer’s awe of Welles’ deep-focus shots and oddball narrative framework. To be unaware of these novelties is to miss an entire motif of the film. I am not saying that Half-Life is “the Citizen Kane video games” (partly just because I believe that label is absurd); if it were a movie, its story and themes could barely support mid-tier John Carpenter, much less one of cinema’s undisputed masterworks. But like Kane, an integral part of understanding Half-Life is not only recognizing what Valve did differently, but how those changes created a deeper, more emotionally satisfying product. Continue reading

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