Dark Souls

In the 1990s, a man named Hidetaka Miyazaki graduated from Keio University with a degree in social science. He began working for an American company named Oracle Corporation wherein he managed accounts. However, he reconsidered his career path at age 29 when a friend recommended a game named Ico to him. Inspired by its design, Mr. Miyazaki sought a career in game design. Due to his age, few companies were willing to employ him. Fortunately, he found one promising studio in the form of FromSoftware. After being hired, he began working as a planner for the then-latest installment in their long-running Armored Core series of mech games: Last Raven. To his surprise, he soon found himself in the director’s chair, overseeing the development of Armored Core 4 and its direct sequel Armored Core: For Answer.

The seventh console generation began in 2005 following Microsoft’s launch of the Xbox 360. It was in full swing in 2006 once Nintendo and Sony released the Wii and PlayStation 3 respectively. The latter was largely criticized upon its launch due to its limited library upon launch and exorbitant price point of $599 USD. Having manufactured the console upon which FromSoftware made their debut, it seemed only fitting that the developer would provide Sony with a hot app. It was to be a fantasy role-playing game intended to be a spiritual sequel to their inaugural title King’s Field.

Mr. Miyazaki was especially interested in the project, though the rest of the company considered it a failure. Not helping matters was its negative reception at the 2009 Tokyo Game Show. Nonetheless, Mr. Miyazaki felt that, once assigned to the game’s development, he would do his best to put his own artistic spin on it. He rationalized that “if [his] ideas failed, nobody would care – it was already a failure”. In spite of its poor initial showing, the game, entitled Demon’s Souls, began selling surprisingly well through word-of-mouth. FromSoftware soon found they had a sleeper hit on their hands. Such was the hype surrounding Demon’s Souls that it caught the attention of Western gamers – some of whom went as far as importing it. Luckily, they wouldn’t have to wait long for a chance to play it themselves because the surprising success of Demon’s Souls allowed them to easily find publishers willing to venture an overseas release. Thus, Demon’s Souls went on to become one of the PlayStation 3’s exemplary exclusive titles.

Having made such a popular game, it would seem only natural for Mr. Miyazaki and his team to rally themselves for round two. As soon as they could, they began working on a new game. However, things were not so clear-cut. Demon’s Souls was published by Sony whereas this new game would have Bandai Namco do the honors. As a direct result of this transfer, the intellectual property rights prevented FromSoftware from making a direct sequel to Demon’s Souls.

Undeterred, Mr. Miyazaki and his team retained many of the same basic ideas from Demon’s Souls to create not a sequel, but a spiritual successor. Working hard over the next two years, the game was finished and released worldwide in 2011 for both the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 under the name Dark Souls. While Demon’s Souls brought the company true international exposure, Dark Souls signposted to everyone that their success wasn’t an accident. Selling over two-million copies over the next two years, Mr. Miyazaki would soon be rewarded for his creativity by being promoted to the company’s president in 2014. To this day, Dark Souls is considered one of the greatest efforts of the 2010s. On the heels of a surprising sleeper hit, how was Dark Souls able to continue this momentum?

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Persona 4

Atlus’s long-running Shin Megami Tensei metaseries had always been popular in its native Japan. However, the first games were released on Nintendo’s Famicom and Super Famicom consoles. The developer’s North American branch had a strict policy that prohibited any religious symbolism. Because of the series’ frequent use of Christian symbolism, these games had no chance of making it past Nintendo of America’s censors. Fortunately, the series was able to travel overseas when Atlus, like many third-party companies, jumped ship to the PlayStation line of consoles. Even so, the series was still largely invisible in the West. This changed in 2004 when Atlus released a localized version of the main series’ third installment, Nocturne. Though not as successful as many popular, contemporary JPRG series such as Final Fantasy, Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne found an audience, becoming a cult hit for the PlayStation 2 era.

The PlayStation era marked the beginning of a Shin Megami Tensei spinoff series named Persona. It was one of the first games in the metaseries to be localized, though it quickly fell into obscurity. Consequently, when its first sequel, Persona 2, was split into two separate releases, the second failed to debut overseas. However, with the momentum gained from the positive critical reception of Nocturne, Atlus wound up localizing Persona 3. Because most Western fans had never heard of the two games preceding it, Persona 3 ended up being a gateway entry for anyone seeking to delve into the metaseries along with Nocturne. Indeed, many Western critics praised Persona 3 for providing a unique take on the gameplay Nocturne pioneered.

With the series finding its way into Western markets and Persona 3 proving to be a domestic hit, a sequel was inevitable. Katsura Hashino, who had directed many installments in the metaseries, including Nocturne and Persona 3, found himself in charge of leading a new team. Many of the people who worked on Persona 3 returned for this project. A significant portion of the new personnel consisted of fans of Persona 3. With this new installment, Atlus sought to improve both the gameplay and the story so as to not retread old ground. Development began shortly after the release of Persona 3 in 2006, though ideas had been thrown around earlier according to Mr. Hashino. Development of this game, simply entitled Persona 4, took place over the course of two years. It saw its initial release on July 10, 2008 in Japan for the PlayStation 2 before debuting in North America the following December. The game saw the the light of day in Australia and Europe in March of 2009. Despite being released two years after the launch of the PlayStation 3, Persona 4 was even greater hit with the metaseries’ new fans than its predecessor. It is considered one of the greatest games of all time and an exemplary swansong effort for the then-aging PlayStation 2. Was Persona 4 able to give the greatest-selling home console at the time a worthy sendoff?

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The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask

The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time was released in 1998 to a reception unlike anything that came before. To a skeptical crowd, Nintendo proved they were still relevant in a gaming scene that was then dominated by Sony, their new rival, by releasing what is considered to this day the medium’s greatest achievement. Even though Nintendo was naturally interested in creating a follow-up to this landmark title, they themselves knew it would be a tough act to follow. As one of the directors of Ocarina of Time, Eiji Aonuma, noticed, they were “faced with the very difficult question of just what kind of game could follow Ocarina of Time and its worldwide sales of seven million units”.

Nonetheless, requests for a sequel ensued, and Nintendo knew it would be for the best to create one soon while members of the gaming sphere were still talking about Ocarina of Time. Shigeru Miyamoto proposed a concept akin to the second quest of The Legend of Zelda wherein the dungeons of Ocarina of Time were rearranged while retaining the same plotline. It was to take the form of an expansion disk entitled Ura Zelda, roughly meaning “Reverse Side Zelda”. The unit was planned to utilize the Nintendo 64DD, a peripheral device intended to be attached to the bottom of the Nintendo 64.

However, Mr. Aonuma believed that the dungeons in Ocarina of Time complemented the story and the gameplay in such a way that replacing them wouldn’t work at all. Without Mr. Miyamoto’s knowledge, Mr. Aonuma began working on dungeons and environments independent from the tentative Ura Zelda. After some time passed, Mr. Aonuma summoned the courage to approach his boss with a proposal of his own. He asked permission to stop work on Ura Zelda to create an original game that would treat audiences to an entirely new experience. Mr. Miyamoto was surprised, but offered Mr. Aonuma a deal; he could direct a brand new Zelda installment, but it had to be completed in one year. Even those not in the industry would realize a problem with this deadline. By this point in gaming history, development cycles lengthened as technology became more sophisticated. For the sake of comparison, Link’s Awakening, the then-newest 2D installment, took eighteen months to create. Ocarina of Time, on the other hand, spent four years in development. The idea of creating another 3D installment in less time than a Game Boy title seemed impossible.

Even with the odds massively stacked against him, Mr. Aonuma accepted the task. Fortunately, Mr. Miyamoto wasn’t going to leave his colleague to his own devices. He allowed Mr. Aonuma to reuse art assets and character models from Ocarina of Time, which by itself significantly cut down on the amount of work they would have to do. Moreover, Yoshiaki Koizumi, who had made a name for himself writing the scenario for Link’s Awakening and serving as one of the five co-directors of Ocarina of Time, was asked by Mr. Miyamoto to aid Mr. Aonuma in this project. Mr. Koizumi approached with a game concept he came up with while daydreaming: the ability to rewind time so the player may revisit the same levels, eventually unlocking new content through their successive experiences. As time travel was a concept featured heavily in Ocarina of Time, this would appear to be a perfect fit for the series.

Despite all of the measures taken to cut development time, Mr. Aonuma was feeling the pressure of the rapidly approaching deadline. At one point, he even had a nightmare wherein he was attacked by characters in the game. Mr. Miyamoto took notice of this and graciously allowed Mr. Aonuma to take extra time to get the project done. To the former’s surprise, Mr. Aonuma expressed his determination to fulfill his promise, and he and his team soldiered onwards. As if to punctuate this, his nightmare even inspired the creation of a cutscene in the final product. The team took all of the emotions they carried throughout this arduous journey, and used them to help craft their work. Finally, as promised, the game was completed after one year, seeing its official release in 2000. Though it began life as Zelda: Gaiden, the game evolved into a full-fledged entry in its own right by the name The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask. Though it sold millions of copies and garnered a lot of critical acclaim, Majora’s Mask was overshadowed somewhat by its predecessor. However, by the end of the decade, it had gained a dedicated following, allowing it to stand side-by-side with Ocarina of Time as one of the greatest games ever made. Does Majora’s Mask successfully answer the question of what kind of game could possibly follow a work as universally beloved as Ocarina of Time?

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Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater

Metal Gear Solid 3 - Snake Eater

Hideo Kojima intended for Metal Gear Solid 2 to be the concluding chapter of his series. It is commonly believed that, in an attempt to sabotage his work so he could move on to other projects, he deliberately made the plot as confusing as possible with no intent on answering any of the questions it raised, insulting his audience all the while. This plan failed miserably when it became one of the best-selling, critically acclaimed games of 2001.

Whatever the case may have been, a new installment was announced at the E3 in 2004. It was originally planned for the up-and-coming PlayStation 3, but the idea was scrapped when it became apparent just how far the console was from completion. Instead, Mr. Kojima and his staff focused their efforts back on the PlayStation 2. This game marked a dramatic change in setting from any entry in the series thus far. Gone are the sterile, manmade structures and in their stead are lush rainforests. Many problems plagued the development process; older entries were primarily set indoors because consoles at the time were incapable of portraying a true jungle environment. Even the simple fact that the outdoors lack flat surfaces meant an entirely new collision engine had to be built in addition to changing how they set up the motion capture technology. Despite all these setbacks, this new game, dubbed Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater, was released in 2004 in Japan and North America (the following year in Europe and Australia).

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Undertale

Undertale

Undertale – the game promoted as the friendly RPG where nobody has to die. It was developed over the course of roughly two-and-a-half years almost entirely by a single person: one Toby Fox. Mr. Fox already had an internet presence orchestrating music for Homestuck, a webcomic known for its complex plot and large following, but this was to be his first original creation.

The project saw its release in 2015 whereupon it received universal, widespread acclaim from numerous publications. This sentiment wasn’t limited to critics either; so profound was its resonance with the community surrounding the medium that, mere months later, its members voted it the best of all time on a certain site famous for providing walkthroughs on almost every game imaginable. A coalition of video game fans banding together to deem such a new title a superior effort to all that came before is an extraordinary display. It begs the question: what is it about this game that caused those who played it to declare it the best of the best?

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Planescape: Torment

Planescape Torment

The late nineties was a golden age for PC gaming, and many creators earned their place in history around this time. One such person would be Brian Fargo, who served as executive producer of Interplay’s 1997 game, Fallout. It stood out from other RPGs at the time by being set in a post-apocalyptic California as opposed to a generic fantasy land, and having a tactical element to its combat system. The game was a tremendous success, so, naturally, a sequel had to be made. The development of this game was handled by Black Isle Studios, a division of programmers that had formed the previous year within Interplay.

Fallout 2 was released a year later in 1998. Though the game was initially plagued with bugs and unfinished ideas, it was warmly received nonetheless – even more so than the original in some circles. During the development of Fallout 2, Black Isle Studios began an entirely new project, utilizing the engine that BioWare had used to create Baldur’s Gate. The lead designer of this project was one of the main developers of Fallout 2: Chris Avellone. This game, originally released in 1999, is the fruit of their labor.

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