[GAME REVIEW #200!!] Persona 4

Introduction

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?

Continue reading

Anubis II

Introduction

In the 2000s, British developer Data Design Interactive had the idea to remake the classic Amiga game Zool: Ninja of the Nth Dimision for the then-current console generation. This plan fell through when Zoo Digital Publishing, unimpressed with DDI’s efforts, canceled the project. Not to be deterred, DDI continued with the assets they created. Changing the theme and the protagonist, the end result was Ninjabread Man. The game was universally panned upon its 2005 release, becoming even more notorious in 2007 when DDI ported it to the Nintendo Wii under their Popcorn Arcade branding. Around the same time, DDI released another game utilizing the same engine as Ninjabread Man dubbed Anubis II. Does this game fare any better than Ninjabread Man, which is considered the textbook definition of shovelware?

Continue reading

Shadow of the Colossus

Introduction

Though Ico became a critical favorite when it was released in 2001, it failed to become a bestseller. Only 700,000 copies were sold worldwide by the end of the decade. Fumito Ueda, the game’s lead designer, speculated that his “design by subtraction” ethos may have hurt its commercial success. In the early 2000s, games were typically promoted through still images rather than with gameplay footage. An uninitiated person would take one look at screenshots of Ico and see a game without a heads-up display, being led to wrongly believe that it was either incomplete or overly simplistic. Not helping matters was Ico being released in the face of fierce competition such as Halo, Metal Gear Solid 2, and Grand Theft Auto III. It wouldn’t be until much later that Ico received attention from the gaming sphere for being one of the first mainstream console releases to use the medium as an artistic expression rather than just to entertain.

Nonetheless, Mr. Ueda didn’t let this setback deter him and, along with thirty-four other staff members, began developing a new game in 2002. With the tentative title Nico, a portmanteau of Next and Ico, this team set out to create a sequel to their debut title. An early technology demo for their project surfaced in 2003 at the DICE Summit, an annual multi-day gathering of video game executives which is held in Las Vegas, Nevada. This clip depicted a group of masked boys with horns on their heads riding horses. Together, they were able to fell a gigantic, intimidating foe. Mr. Ueda later explained that it was easier to reuse the character models of their previous work’s title character until they had fully established the world they were about to create. Indeed, the biggest turning point for this new game’s development cycle came about from their decision to sever any overt connections with Ico. As Mr. Ueda judged that the ending of Ico was too final, he felt it unnecessary to produce a sequel.

Though Nico appeared on internal schedules for upcoming Sony releases, no official announcement was made. It wasn’t until late 2004 that a new title dubbed Wander and the Colossus emerged. The particularly astute observed several similarities to the concept presented at the DICE Summit, but gone were any connections to Ico. This was the game Mr. Ueda and his team had been working on, and a year later in October of 2005, it would see the light of day. Sony noticeably put far more effort into promoting this team’s sophomore effort than they did with Ico, advertising it in gaming publications, on television, and on the internet in what was one of the industry’s earliest viral marketing campaigns. It was even featured in the 2007 American comedy-drama film Reign Over Me. Adam Sandler, who became a fan when it was demoed to him, requested it to be put in a scene involving his character playing games to cope with the loss of his family. The scene in question wherein he played through it alongside Don Cheadle wasn’t scripted – they were fully immersed into the experience.

As a result of this publicity, Wander and the Colossus was a commercial success, domestically selling over 100,000 copies in its first week alone. Nearly 80% of the first Japanese shipment was sold within two days. While Ico fell into obscurity overseas, it didn’t take long for Western fans to embrace this game where it was renamed Shadow of the Colossus. Like Ico, Shadow of the Colossus deeply resonated with critics, who would praise it for giving the medium much needed artistic credence. Did this game five years in the making live up to its grand fanfare upon release?

Continue reading

Ninjabread Man

Introduction

The year 1983 marked the founding of a video game developer known as Data Design Systems. Despite developing many games on popular platforms such as the ZX Spectrum, the Nintendo Entertainment System, and the Sega Genesis (Mega Drive), nothing from their of their output managed to capture the attention of critics even in the face of their scant successes.

This began to change in the 2000s wherein they had an idea to remake Zool: Ninja of the Nth Dimension, a well-received Amiga classic, for a new generation of console enthusiasts. Zoo Digital Publishing commissioned Data Design Systems, now called Data Design Interactive, to bring this project into reality. Unfortunately, the publisher was unimpressed with DDI’s efforts, and subsequently canceled the project. Not letting this setback deter them, DDI soldiered onwards with the assets they created, changing both the theme and the character. The project was completed in 2005, debuting on the PlayStation 2 under the name Ninjabread Man. It eventually saw a North American and Australian release in 2007 for the Nintendo Wii as part of a series bearing the company’s Popcorn Arcade branding. Was this a game worth a two-year wait?

Continue reading

Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater

Metal Gear Solid 3 - Snake Eater

Introduction

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).

Continue reading

Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty

Metal Gear Solid 2 - Sons of Liberty

Introduction

Throughout most of the nineties, the only exposure Western video game fans had to the Metal Gear franchise was the NES port of the original MSX title. Metal Gear Solid changed this in 1998 when it demonstrated its relevance in the 3D era by selling nearly six million copies, and proving to the public that the medium is capable of plots more complex than “kill all the bad guys.” Although the plot left few lingering threads, players naturally clamored for a sequel. They weren’t alone; after all, this is an industry in which the higher-ups to pressure creators into encore performances in the wake of a great triumph. Though the man behind the series, Hideo Kojima, was initially uninterested in making a follow-up to his blockbuster hit, he ultimately yielded, and development of this new installment began in 1999.

A year later, Sony released the PlayStation 2, inspiring Mr. Kojima to set his sights higher. To this end, he recruited Harry Gregson-Williams, a prolific British film composer from Hans Zimmer’s studio, to orchestrate and arrange the main theme and took advantage of the machine’s superior hardware specifications to add unprecedented levels of detail in an effort to bring the environments he created to life. The game was originally going to be called “Metal Gear Solid III,” with the Roman numeral purposely hinting at a nonexistent installment to serve as a plot point while representing what were the three tallest buildings in New York City at the time. This plan was ultimately dropped and the game was retitled Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty. The year 2001 saw the completion of this project, blazing the trail for the series in a new era of gaming.

Continue reading

Ico

Ico - Japanese Box

Introduction

Delphine Software International released many beloved PC classics in the early nineties such as Another World and Flashback. The titles from this now-defunct company were groundbreaking for treating players to cinematic experiences with their visuals and emphasis on storytelling. Inspired by the works of Delphine, an up-and-coming art student named Fumito Ueda sought to pursue a career in video game industry, joining Sony Computer Entertainment four years after graduating from the Osaka University of Arts. The game that would result from this project was Ico. Initially meant to be released on the original PlayStation, Ico wouldn’t see the light of day until 2001 – one year after the debut of Sony’s second gaming console. Though it was largely ignored in North America in favor of the more hotly-anticipated titles at the time such as Metal Gear Solid 2, Ico nonetheless captured the attention of critics who continue to cite the game as one of the best storytelling experiences in the medium.

Continue reading