A year ago, I was marveling through a heavily merchandised litle rpg called Pokemon Yellow. At the time, I had only minimal exposure to the cartoon, the card game, and the vast omnipresent marketing plan. Pokemon was an rpg for Game Boy, and EVERYBODY was talking about it. And everybody had been talking about it for quite some time.
I hate not knowing what everybody is talking about.
With Pokemon Gold and Silver, there isn't quite so much chatter... mainly because the pokemon paradigm just isn't as fresh and imposing as it once was. The trend has officially plateaued; in fact, we're so close to the edit now that we can no longer use Japan as a vision of the Pokemon Yet To Come. But - and this I happily predict - if people are still snapping up pokejunk next year at this time, we can officially declare the property an evergreen.
Pokemon was the phenomenon that broke all the rules. Consider: it originated as a video game... and on the long-suffering Game Boy, no less. And _then_ it graduated to card game, cartoon, breakfast cereal, the movie star and all the rest. But most amazingly, Pokemon does not forsake its fathers, after all this swag-come-lately. Pokemon Silver/Gold returns the hyper-inflated kiddie uber-property to it's birthing matrix... specifically, it's dot matrix.
It's easy to overlook (or forget) how great a game this is. As an rpg, it is pleasant and engaging... it creates a complete, unique little world and lets you in slowly. The slippery-slope pace is particularly surprising given how huge Pokemon has become. When you enter the Johto continent of Pokemon Silver and/or Gold, you're fresh, you're uninitiated. It's as if you never heard of Pokemon. This is entry-level role-playing at it's finest, with no overblown fantasy drama cliches, no intensely confusing menu systems and subsystems... it's an rpg without the pain.
In Pokemon Gold or Silver, you start off with a single pokemon (the flowery lizardine Chikorita, Totodile the blue aligator, or Cyndaquil the flaming porcupine thing) and have to create your personal legend from the ground up. You'll travel from city to city meeting and challenging other pokemon trainers, winning money and experience. As your pokemon grow, they'll learn new skills that will keep you moving... opening up new paths and regions... all for the inevitable goal of becoming Pokemon League Champ and the damn-near-impossible goal of completing your Pokedex.
Yes, that is the exact same plot of Pokemon Red/Blue/Yellow.
Here is where Silver/Gold becomes a great sequel. Everything about the first set of games has been retained, upgraded or added to. Three years have passed since the primary trifecta of Red/Blue/Yellow, and you now take on the role of a different young trainer in a different continent. There is a whole passel of new, never-before-seen pokemon to catch. There are a lot more of the mini-mission sub-quests, usually involving Team Rocket. New Gym Leaders. New badges. New HMs and TMs. A radio. A phone. A mail system. It's a much deeper environment, and it has the incredible bonus of offering an entire second level that takes you back to the towns and people of Red/Blue/Yellow.
But the single most startling addition is how Pokemon Silver/Gold gets into your life... your real life. As you should know by now, these games now run in real time... so if it's 6pm Tuesday in your world, it's 6pm Tuesday in Johto. This sounds incredibly dull until you realize the ramifications: if the Park Clerk tells you that the Bug Catching Contest is only held on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, then you need to turn your Game Boy on sometime during a Tuesday, Thursday or Saturday. You won't understand how this infects your brain until you're sitting at work on a Thursday afternoon and suddenly think "Shit. I need to get to the park for the Bug Catching Contest."
Another great use of real time involves Kurt, the cranky artisan of Azelea Town. He'll take an apricorn from you and hand-carve it into a specialized poke ball. Now, apricorns of all colors are free for the taking; apricorn trees are fairly common in Johto. But ol' Kurt will only make you one poke ball a day... so you'll be flying to his house every day to pick up yesterday's ball and give him a new one. Remember how you could always work around the un-reality of these sorts of situations in other rpgs? Not any more.
Despite all the gimmicky Pokemon games (Pinball, Puzzle League, Hey You Pikachu, etc), Pokemon hasn't forgotten what made those original little rpgs so great. And G/S develops it even further. And while you're playing it, you get to completely ignore the marketing machine... and just immerse yourself into a damn fine game.
Ah, first generation console games. Developers bitching about the new platform... only a few games on the racks... no licensed characters... it's always interesting to watch a new system launch. (And more interesting to imagine what the games will look like a year from now.)
TimeSplitters is a very eager first gen game. It's a striking first person shooter... and I am not a big fan of fps on consoles. Even if you ignore the fabulous graphics (and you won't), it has plenty of extra gaming details that make it well worth buying. This game set out to be one of the first must-have PS2 games, and the general opinion is that it succeeded.
TimeSplitters is a game clearly tailored for showing off the PlayStation 2. The levels and characters are worthy of the best the pc currently has to offer. The textures and maps are detailed and clean... not as clean as the mountains of Smuggler's Run, but crisp enough that you'll be surprised how swift the game moves. PS2 hardware at work! Really, speed is the controlling issue... the first "story" level, Tomb, tries to impress you with both graphics and speed, but the latter quickly outpaces the former. It's particularly impressive in the harder levels where you're attacked by 10+ enemies at once.
The enemies are a pleasure to fight against, mainly because they can behave in clever, realistic battles. They'll duck behind pillars and roll on the ground to avoid your bullets. Amusingly, if you pin down a cowardly enemy, he'll hold his gun over his head and shoot randomly. In the customizable arcade matches, you can tailor the bots individually, choosing both skill and appearance. And there is a wealth of enemy animations for dying! Speaking of dying, you'll do quite a bit of it. It does not take many shots (from a decent level weapon) to put you down, so stealth (and cowardice) may be the better part of valor.
There are many different level themes, covering a century of weapons and scenery. Thankfully, some of the fps cliches have been checked at the door, like the green-pulsing-alien-goo-on-walls-outer-spacestation level. The winning conditions of the "story" levels are largely the same: go find some object and bring it back to where you started.
Completing "story" levels will unlock several arcade levels and challenge levels. The arcade section lets you play capture-the-flag type games (and others), and the challenge rounds offer some difficult purpose and give you about 15 seconds to pull it off.
I've been putting "story" in quotes, you might note. That's because there is no "story" to this game. In fact, the only mention of any kind of plot connecting the various levels is on the back of the box. And what a story that is! Seems that the TimeSplitters are an evil alien race bent on screwing up Earth history and a diverse group of heroes from each time period have to stop them. This is not covered in the manual. I guess I'm spoiled, as every console game these days seems to go to great lengths to incorporate some horrible, pathetic plotline. I was also expecting a cool-ass fmv intro movie too, but TimeSplitters has none.
But TimeSplitters does have an amazing statistics systems (I've shattered 378 panes of glass! I've shot 45,839 bullets! I've punched off 27 heads!) and a great little level editor.
I've been waiting for an easy to use level editor for years, and I would not have guessed that it would come on a console game. Now, TimeSplitters's editor certainly has limitations, but that's the cost you pay for something that doesn't require a degree in Computer Science. Basically, you have several pre-built rooms and room shape elements that you can string together across a nice-sized grid and up several floors. Each room can be assigned a different type of customizable light, and you can drop in the various weapons, power-ups, starting blocks, home bases, etc. You do not get to choose wall textures, however; there are several decoration schemes to choose from. I made a competitive capture-the-flag map that only took 800k on my memory card... so you have a good amount of space to work with. TimeSplitters would be a great game without the editor. Including it makes it a terrific game.
There are many playable characters... your typical tough guys and sexy girls. With the characters - both enemy and friendly - TimeSplitters adopts an interesting, Aeon Flux sort of style. The people are all skinny legs and armor plating. Each character has cutesy animations at the start of each round, but they have no differences in the game itself. They're purely a vanity choice.
So far, I've logged over nine hours on the various play modes of TimeSplitters. I've beaten the first round of easy levels and played many, many capture-the-flag and challenge games. Although I would not call it a hardware showcase title (it's too dark to get non-gamers' jaws to drop, and too similar to a pc game), it is an early attention-getting game.