Uncharted 2: Among Thieves

Introduction

Sony’s PlayStation 3 console met with a lukewarm reception when it was released in 2006. There were several reasons for this – the two biggest sticking points concerned the lack of console-exclusive games upon launch and its initial retail price of $600 USD. It could have made for a handy replacement for one’s PlayStation 2, as the original models boasted backwards compatibility, but the prohibitive amount of money it sold for deterred even the most dedicated fans.

In 2007, Naughty Dog, a company known for making quality games exclusively for Sony’s platforms, released Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune. The game proved to be one of the console’s first bestsellers, showcasing its potential to any would-be adopters. However, many fans continued to express hesitance, as it would hardly be worth investing hundreds of dollars just to play a single game – no matter how good the press insisted it was.

Nonetheless, it sold enough units to warrant a sequel, the first trailer of which was unveiled in December of 2008. Earlier that year, the highly acclaimed Metal Gear Solid 4 saw its debut as a PlayStation 3 exclusive. As Metal Gear was a long-running IP with an existing, dedicated fanbase this action caused the tide to slowly turn in Sony’s favor, a trend that would continue into the following year after they reduced the price to a more reasonable figure. As a result, the anticipation for this new installment in this up-and-coming Uncharted series was far greater than that of its predecessor. The development period of this game took nearly two years, ending in 2009 with the final product being entitled Uncharted 2: Among Thieves. Countless publications awarded Uncharted 2 perfect scores with many critics believing it to be a new landmark in gaming. It was to the point where these accolades found themselves bombastically emblazoned onto the game’s cover. From this, it’s evident that Naughty Dog was proud of their work. Was their effort able to end one of gaming’s finest decades on a triumphant note?

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The Witness

Introduction

In 2008, an up-and-coming game designer by the name of Jonathan Blow released his debut title, Braid. It received massive amounts of critical acclaim for its inventive platforming mechanics, subversive storytelling, and eye-catching art style. Along with Cave Story released four years earlier, Mr. Blow’s title helped the independent game movement gain steam, inspiring many artists to follow in his footsteps for years to come. Shortly after his first game debuted, Mr. Blow began working on various prototypes for possible builds. One concept in particular stuck out to him as particularly viable, though challenging considering it would require developing a 3D game engine to properly implement. Realizing the slightest mistake could compromise his progress, he began working on a new game in earnest in late 2008.

By 2009, this project had a name: The Witness. In contrast to Braid wherein he completed most of the programming himself, Mr. Blow created a team known as Thekla, Inc. to help bring his vision into reality. Making the game proved to be long and arduous due to a number of factors ranging from Mr. Blow’s wishing to expand the scope to opting against any time and cost-saving solutions. At no point did he allow the gameplay itself to be diminished in any way, nor did he permit the use of a premade engine to expedite the process, as he wanted to have total control over every conceivable element. To fund this project, he used revenues from sales of Braid, though it was exhausted by February of 2015. Undeterred, he sought additional capital, and by the time the project reached completion, estimations suggested it cost just under six million dollars to make.

The Witness was finally finished and released in 2016 whereupon it received nearly unanimous critical praise. The gaming press was quick to cite Mr. Blow’s sophomore effort as yet another triumph for the venerable 2010s indie scene. Considering the creative new directions contemporary artists explored through their work, how does Mr. Blow’s The Witness fare in the face of such tough competition?

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Dragon Quest VII: Fragments of the Forgotten Past

Introduction

In 1996, Nintendo launched the Nintendo 64, the successor to their 16-bit Super Famicom. Boasting a superior processing power, it proved instrumental in ushering in a new era of 3D gaming with Super Mario 64 in particular serving as a pioneering title. One year before its release, Nintendo announced a peripheral to their new console: the 64DD (Dynamic Drive). It was conceived to compete with the Sega Saturn and Sony PlayStation, contemporary consoles which favored the CD-ROM and its large storage capacity over Nintendo’s far more limiting cartridges. Among other things, it would feature a real-time clock, rewritable data storage, and the ability to connect to the internet.

One of the proposed titles for this system was a new chapter in the highly regarded Dragon Quest series. After achieving success with its two Super Famicom installments, releasing the next one on the 64DD would guarantee the sale of millions of units. However, technical issues plagued the 64DD’s development, and it was consequently delayed numerous times. Once its original planned launch in 1996 failed to come to pass, Heartbeat, the company in charge of the game’s creation announced the project would move to the PlayStation. This situation had a precedent, as Nintendo’s insistence on using cartridges cost them much of their third-party support, and series such as Final Fantasy would see their sequels jump to Sony’s console.

Unfortunately for Yuji Horii and Heartbeat, the problems had only just begun. The series’ immense popularity was such that as soon as Heartbeat declared their game would be on the PlayStation, Sony’s stock prices rose significantly in Japan along with Enix’s. Naturally, this placed the team under an immense amount of pressure. How could they possibly live up to the immeasurable hype? Because the staff only consisted of thirty-five people, work on the game was extended several times. It was finally released in 2000 under the name Dragon Quest VII: Warriors of Eden. By that time, Sony had launched the PlayStation 2 months prior. This in no way deterred the fans, as it quickly became the best-selling PlayStation game in Japan that year.

Historically, the series didn’t meet with anywhere near the level of success in its native homeland, but Paul Handelman, who was the president of Enix America at the time, expressed confidence in the game, commenting that “…at the end of the day, compelling gameplay is what it’s all about, and Dragon [Quest] VII provides just that.” As the previous two installments didn’t see a release overseas by that point, those who enjoyed the series were doubtlessly confused when this new entry was unveiled as Dragon Warrior VII. Despite having to translate a monumental amount of text, the translators soldiered on, and it saw its North American release in 2001. By this point, Microsoft had entered the console market with their Xbox console, the PlayStation 2 had been out for a year, and the Nintendo GameCube was a month way from its debut. Does Dragon Quest VII manage to end gaming’s fifth console generation on a high note?

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Dragon Quest IV: Chapters of the Chosen

Introduction

In 1988, Enix and Chunsoft had a hit on their hands in the form of Dragon Quest III. Naturally because of this, the public wanted a sequel, and the creators obliged, releasing Dragon Quest IV: The Guided Ones in 1990. Enix, having learned their lesson from last time, wisely decided to release it on a Sunday. There was an urban legend that the Japanese government intervened by forbidding the creators from ever releasing any future Dragon Quest installments on a school day, but in reality, Enix themselves made the choice.

To place Dragon Quest IV in context, Nintendo was working on a successor to the Famicom, the platform on which the previous installments saw their initial release. NEC Home Electronics had launched the PC Engine to compete with them a few years prior while Sega followed suit with the Mega Drive a year later, a console boasting more processing power than their competitors at the time. When the Super Famicom was released later in 1990, it marked the end of an era. Does Dragon Quest IV manage stand as one of the Famicom’s final hurrahs before a new wave of consoles ushered in a new generation?

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King’s Knight

Introduction

In September of 1983, a company in Yokohama named Square was founded by Masafumi Miyamoto shortly after graduating from one of Japan’s most prestigious universities: Waseda. Originally, it was a computer game software division of Den-Yu-Sha, a power line construction company owned by Mr. Miyamoto’s father. During this time when the medium was still budding, many projects were conceived and developed by a single person. Mr. Miyamoto challenged this, believing graphic designers, programmers, and professional writers working together on a common project could produce something far greater than the sum of their parts.

Square’s first title, The Death Trap, was created by a part-time employee named Hironobu Sakaguchi and sold enough in 1984 to pave the way for a sequel the very next year. After a series of modest successes, Square decided to branch out into the West. Six years after the company’s founding, the official North American subsidiary, Squaresoft, was established in Redmond, Washington. The American gaming scene had been revitalized thanks to Nintendo’s NES console after a particularly brutal crash in 1983, so this was Square’s chance to capitalize on this new, rapidly growing market. The first title they chose to localize was their debut as an independent company: the 1986 game, King’s Knight.

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Takeshi’s Challenge

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Introduction

In the seventies, two friends, Takeshi Kitano and Nirō Kaneko (also known as Kiyoshi Kaneko), formed a comedy duo known as Two Beat. Taking on the stage names Beat Takeshi and Beat Kiyoshi, their manzai routines, a sketch which involves back-and-forth banter between a funny man (boke) and a straight man (tsukkomi), became a massive success when they performed on television for the first time in 1976. Mr. Kitano’s risqué material was the true source of their popularity. As far as he was concerned, there were no unacceptable targets, as the elderly, the handicapped, the poor, children, and women among others found themselves the punch line of his humor. Despite being one of the most successful acts of its kind during the late seventies and early eighties, Mr. Kitano decided to go solo, dissolving the duo.

In 1985, Nintendo released Super Mario Bros., taking the entire world by storm and forever changing how artists went about creating 2D platformers. Mr. Kitano observed the game’s overwhelming popularity and decided to create a live-action version – the result being Takeshi’s Castle in 1986. Each show involved anywhere between 100 and 142 contestants undergoing a series of grueling physical challenges with the goal of reaching Mr. Kitano in his castle. This proved to be easier said than done, for the difficulty in accomplishing this task was such that only nine people ever won. It was a beloved show in its native homeland, and it would become a cult classic when it began broadcasting overseas, reaching an unexpected level of popularity in Spain.

In the same year Takeshi’s Castle debuted, Taito Corporation, the company behind the 1978 arcade sensation, Space Invaders, planned an adaption for Nintendo’s Famicom console. When he learned of this, Mr. Kitano himself contacted the designers about ideas for an entirely original game. Inserting his trademark brand of black comedy, the fruit of this endeavor was released in December of that year under the name Takeshi’s Challenge. Other video games bearing the name of a celebrity had been developed prior to this one, but Mr. Kitano was the first to actively contribute to the development process. Partly because of his fame, Takeshi’s Challenge ended up moving 800,000 units, and it left a profound impact on all who played it.

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Dragon Quest III: The Seeds of Salvation

dragon-quest-3

Introduction

In the mid-eighties, unbeknownst to Western hobbyists, the Eastern scene was quickly developing an interest in RPGs thanks to the Dragon Quest series created by Yuji Horii and Koichi Nakamura. The first two installments were tremendous successes, selling around two million copies apiece, so when Enix announced a sequel, the anticipation was higher than ever. Dubbed Dragon Quest III: And thus into Legend…, it was released in February of 1988 – a little over a year after its predecessor’s debut.

It is almost impossible to overstate exactly how ecstatic the Japanese fans were for this new chapter. So great was its popularity that over one-million units were sold on the very first day. As its release fell on a weekday, the police ended up arresting nearly 300 students who skipped school to purchase a copy. Some of them, mostly high-school students, even dispensed with the whole notion of purchasing it legally by mugging small children on the way home from the local game store.

As was the case with the game that came before, Enix made efforts to publish Dragon Quest III in the West in 1992, hoping it would match or surpass the staggering 3.8 million copies sold in its native homeland. Called Dragon Warrior III in the official NES localization, it met with the same tepid reception of its predecessors. Western gaming fans had no idea of the sheer impact this game, which would eventually be known as Dragon Quest III: The Seeds of Salvation, left on their counterparts across the Pacific Ocean.

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