Review: The Legend of Zelda – Breath of the Wild

fe346ffcc73201e778e69c8e2ed24225.gifAt last, the winds of modern gaming have turned Nintendo’s sails, and tipped its fantasy-action flagship on its side. With The Legend of Zelda – Breath of the Wild, the trendsetter has become the trend follower, and though this could be viewed as a sad capitulation, I prefer to think of it as an overdue adaptation.

Most gamers revere the Zelda series as a standard-bearer for action-adventure video games. The original NES game mixed fast-paced action with a relatively large world full of secrets of surprises, and then made it all easy to learn and play. A Link to the Past took this formula and structured it to align with a simple but dramatic plot. Then The Ocarina of Time transplanted the whole thing into a beautiful production that didn’t just look like a dream, but felt like one. The controls in Ocarina of Time were genius in their elegance, employing lock-on targeting and adjustable viewpoints. Its presentation rivaled anything seen on the PlayStation. The game wasn’t as challenging as previous entries in the series, and the game featured extensive tutorials to ease players into its features, but the graduation to 3D was so impressive that this didn’t matter. All the familiar elements of Zelda were present, but they were grander and more impressive than ever before. Ocarina was everything that Zelda fans had hoped it would be: a glorious jump into a new generation, and a literal game-changer.

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I guess this is all you really need to see.

Ocarina was such a success, in fact, that Nintendo itself became fearful of it. Its lengthy development had demanded a lot of work, a lot of time, and a lot of risk, and Nintendo didn’t want to mess with it. Aside from the polarizing Majora’s Mask, future titles were pretty safe in their design. There were gimmicks here and there, from Wind Waker’s sailing and toon graphics, to Skyward Sword’s motion controls, but the overall flow is the same: you explore a fantasy world, delve into a series of caves, castles, and dungeons, find special tools that aid your navigation, and then use those tools to advance to other caves, castles, and dungeons. Even the minute-to-minute action went untouched. Each game had its own unique monsters and puzzles, but they were conquered with the same backflipping and block-pushing we saw in 1998. Worst of all, the constant hand-holding only grew with each release. The language of 3D Zelda became static, and then stagnant.

Then the gameplay videos of a new, “open-world” Zelda trickled out of E3 2016, and everything changed.

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The first surprise was that these videos were hours long. We weren’t looking at bite-sized, self-contained samples with trite “Thank you for playing!” messages at their ends; this was the full game, and Nintendo was just setting people loose on it. They knew that even with the unprecedented access they were allowing, players would make meager progress, if any.

The reason for this was that the players didn’t want to make progress. They were too busy bounding across grassy hills, leaping streams and scaling cliffs. They were marveling at endless, gorgeous landscapes and devising clever methods for taking out monsters. They were chasing every distraction, and not once did a fairy or a lion or some glowing, talking sword interrupt or redirect them. The world was theirs to enjoy, and on their own terms. This was Zelda as I remembered it from the good old NES days: unbound, untethered, free, wild.

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With their well-advised Let’s Play approach, Nintendo conveyed a significant message: they’d recognized the rut they’d been in, they’d acknowledged the concerns of the fans, and most importantly, they’d paid attention to the market. They hadn’t overlooked the rise of Dark Souls, Skyrim, and Minecraft. They were going to take those upstarts on, and show that they still had the magic.

Breath of the Wild was Game of the Show. It will likely be Game of the Year. It sold a million Nintendo Switches. It sold me a Wii U. I don’t regret the purchase.

I won’t go over the premise or details of the game, as many other reviews have already done so, and any attempt of mine would be mere parroting. Instead, I’d like to describe what I find so confounding about the game: its unoriginality.

That’s right: Breath of the Wild doesn’t do anything I haven’t seen in video games before, and yet it somehow comes off as groundbreaking and magical. In taking familiar concepts and spinning them into Zelda’s universe, Nintendo makes the old appealing.

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Not something I expected to read in a Zelda game.

Why does this work? I think it’s because Zelda fans — and by extension, Nintendo fans — have been frustrated at Nintendo’s sideline strategies as of late: aiming for a theoretical market outside of the established hardcore where Sony and Microsoft hold court. Those who grew up with the genre-defining Nintendo have been holding their breaths, waiting for the emergence of their beloved franchise into the crafting-heavy, DLC-laden, micro-transaction world that gaming has become. They have accepted that Nintendo is no longer dominant; they hope for it at least to remain relevant.

By all measures, Nintendo has done this.

Gone is the formula of “find dungeon, clear dungeon.” Breath of the Wild still has its dungeons, but they needn’t be cleared or found in order to complete the game. The overarching goal is presented right at the beginning, and all else is optional. The real focus is on the world and how the player chooses to take it in.

There are familiar concepts at work to facilitate this. You’ve got towers, a la Far Cry, that Link can climb in order to reveal portions of the world map. There are Shrines, similar to the mines or caves in Skyrim, where Link must solve a puzzle or two so he can claim a health enhancement. There are wild horses to tame as in Red Dead Redemption, and stables where he can board or take them out, like the garages in Grand Theft Auto V.

There’s also a crafting element, in the form of cooking. It’s very much derived from alchemy in Skyrim, right down to the principles. You gather ingredients by hunting animals, picking flowers, or catching insects. You throw these ingredients in an established crafting pot and you get a healing/buffing food item. Mix two or more ingredients with similar properties, and you get an improved version of that property. Nothing new, right?

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There are tweaks, though. You’re not restricted like you are in Skyrim. You don’t need to taste items and ensure that their properties match before combining them. You can experiment with multiple ingredients from the start and end up with satisfying results. Different categories of ingredients affect healing value, buff type, and buff duration. There are elaborate recipes like tarts, pies, and sushi that actually look kinda tasty. Plus, there’s a cute little animation that plays when you cook, in which all the little apples, herbs, and hunks of meat hop around to a tune.

Then there are the environmental hazards. Link has to deal with rain, snow, extreme heat, and even thunderstorms. Some of this stuff is just annoying: rain will make climbing any surface nigh impossible, while snow and sand slow Link’s movement. Others are dangerous, and even deadly, but a smart player can use them to his or her advantage. Setting a metal weapon in an enemy camp during a thunderstorm can bring about a wrathful Zeus-blast that spares Link a risky fight. Dropping fruit and meat in a volcanic area will result in instantly roasted meals with added healing potential. Toss food in icy water, and they’ll freeze over, gaining a heat-resistance buff. There’s a natural logic happening here that’s reminiscent of Minecraft, and if you ever catch yourself wondering if something will work, odds are that it will. It’s a wondrous feeling. The last time my experimentation was rewarded in a Zelda game was way back on the original NES, when I first tried burning a bush with a candle and found a hidden passage beneath it. The guy inside stole my money, but that’s not the point. The point is that I had a funny idea, tried it out, and found something I didn’t expect.

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Another significant change from previous Zelda games is that Link has learned how to climb like Altair in Assassin’s Creed, or Nathan Drake from Uncharted. Link can climb almost anything now, and that means that there are no real barriers in Hyrule, other than its furthest borders, of course. Link still has to manage his stamina as he climbs, or he’ll lose his grip and fall, possibly to his death (sorry, you can’t roll when you fall from a high place anymore). Even with this smart limitation, climbing allows a tremendous amount of freedom, and different players will approach their exploration in different ways. An anal player will likely seek out every possible path around a mountain, while an impatient one will simply climb over it.

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The greatest change — and to me, the most important — is the dramatic increase in difficulty. It’s very easy to die in Breath of the Wild, especially since the game doesn’t warn you of its many lethal threats. Monsters can hack off as many as ten hearts with a single blow, so it’s easy to charge into a fight completely unprepared. When Link collapses from an unexpectedly powerful attack, and that red “GAME OVER” wafts onto the screen, I’m sure that Dark Souls fans will have some unpleasant flashbacks. Beating the challenges of Breath of the Wild requires harsh learning, and perhaps the occasional face-plant.

This is critical to me because I feel the Zelda series has become far too easy for its own good. Monsters in past 3D Zeldas have been typified by their slow, lumbering movements, but here, they hop about madly, make lengthy combination attacks, and are happy to gang up on Link for unfair fights. Link still has his backflip and side dodges, but he can also parry attacks with his shield and respond with mighty counterattacks. There are satisfying callouts for these special defenses, and it’s all very Dark Souls. The toughness of the monsters demands skillful play, and I find this invigorating and refreshing. Again, I think the thrill is amplified simply because it’s unexpected from this series. I’m just so happy that Zelda is tough again! It may be a fanboy thrill, but I’ll take it anyway.

There’s something more, though. Something greater. It’s the mixture of these many systems with this beautiful, expansive world that makes Breath of the Wild irresistible. The possibilities presented by the game’s physics, logic, and move-sets are almost limitless, and enterprising players can create action sequences far more spectacular than any scripted Call of Duty set-piece:

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THIS is the success of Breath of the Wild: its steadfast faith in the talents of the player. I’m sure there are plenty of people who will play this game in a predictable and conservative manner, but the option for experimentation is there, and that alone makes me very happy. For once, Zelda isn’t about searching for Hookshot targets, it’s about making your own way through, and if we’re going to get anywhere with Nintendo, we must praise them for respecting our intelligence.

Now that I’ve gushed, it’s time for the negatives. I realize that to complain about anything in such a generous feast of a game would come off as exceedingly ungrateful, but I’m compelled by honesty to mention the few minor issues I had with it. Bear with me.

First, the game chugs, and unnervingly so at times. In grassy areas with lots of monsters, the frame rate drops into the teens. It didn’t affect my fighting, but it was frustrating to see. There were also a few occasions — usually upon slaying a Moblin — when the game froze completely. Several anxious seconds passed before it snapped back into action, just an instant before I made to reset my console. Nintendo has released a patch that’s mollified the problem, but hasn’t rectified it.

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Second, I wish there was greater variety in the monster types. There’s an impressive panoply of baddies in the game, and they increase in strength as Link does, but there are really only three major types you’ll deal with during your travels. As I wandered the game’s diverse environments, I hoped to encounter all kinds of monsters to match them, like nests of Skulltulas, rock-hopping Tektites, or burrowing Leevers. I soon learned, however, that Bokoblins, Moblins, and Lizalfos were the meat of the enemy army, and that was disappointing.

Finally, some of the game’s quests are bummers. Most of the side quests are quite interesting and involving, particularly the ones regarding Shrines. There are others, though, that slip into typical RPG tedium, and make me wish that Hyrule was even less populous than it already is. Bring me fifty bundles of wood. Show me a Moblin Club. Can I have ten luminous stones or restless crickets? There’s some cute and charming dressing to it, but it’s still just filler.

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Still, Breath of the Wild is so engrossing that I performed every task it assigned to me. Then, as my quest list shrank and I struggled to refill it, I realized that it was time to stop screwing around and make for the final goal. That was when I stopped playing for a few days, and became hesitant, uncomfortable about returning to it.

The reason was simple, and yet oh-so-rare: I didn’t want it to be over. That may be the kindest, most recommending thing to be said about a piece of entertainment, and Breath of the Wild is one of those precious few pieces that earns it. I can’t say that this is my favorite Zelda game; that title remains with the very first Zelda on the NES, which is short, so I can play through it every week if I want to. Breath of the Wild is like an epic novel that one reads once every few years. You’ll never forget it, though. Once you’ve played it, it will always be a part of you.

Controller1.com rating: 3/3

A LisVender Xmas Mix

For those of you who just can’t silence the individual, here’s a set of songs that paint Christmas in a drier, but no less enjoyable, light than most carols. Put some of these on during the ride to Grandma’s and I’m sure you’ll be smiling in no time:

Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukah, Kick-ass Kwanzaa, etc. I’ll just say “Happy Holidays” to cover the rest, and that still don’t make ya happy, well then go the hell. 🙂 See you next year.

We Gotta Soften the Software

Picture this: I’m fourteen, and I’m in my bedroom waiting for my brother to get off the Super Nintendo. He’s playing Madden (yes, it was around back then), and I’m getting impatient.

“Hey, when are you going to be done?” I ask.

“Why?” my brother says. “What do you want to play?”

“I want to play Mario Paint,” I say.

My brother scoffs and points at the new PC at the other side of the room.

“Hey!” he says, “you’ve got a freakin’ two-thousand-dollar Mario Paint right there!”

I didn’t admit it at the time, but he was right. Courtesy of my friends at the Modesto High School computer lab, I had Autodesk Animator and Adobe Photoshop for Windows on my 486. A professional creative suite, one far more robust than Mario Paint, was at my disposal.

So why in the hell was I jonesing for a sit-down with Nintendo’s chintzy pretender?

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Well, aside from the fact that my Super Nintendo was practically my best friend at the time, Mario Paint was just so much more approachable than anything Adobe or Autodesk have ever made. It had style and showmanship. The title screen was interactive. The menus were colorful. There was punchy, catchy music to listen to. Every tool made a sound: paintbrushes pecked at the screen, the Undo button barked, and the navigation buttons all made little clicks and clunks. And when you were ready to wipe up your mess and start making a new one, the game offered an array of screen-clearing tools that the did the job with unique 16-bit effects.

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Since this was a cartridge on a relatively feeble chunk of hardware, Mario Paint was extremely limited. You could only really paint with sixteen colors, the music composer allowed no sharps or flats, and the animation program only allowed the production of nine frames. I never made anything worth keeping on Mario Paint, but I didn’t care, because I always enjoyed using it.

It reminds me of how I feel when I mess around with Maxis’s hyper-criticized classic Spore. Maxis knew that the heart of the game was its personal connection with the player; the idea that the player’s characters and stories would always be more interesting than something a studio could present. So they poured their efforts into these delightful creation programs and built them into the game.

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Players — myself included — ate this up, and they cranked out millions upon millions of creatures even before the game was released. I can understand that! Spore’s creation tools are so intuitive and so much fun that an artist can move from vision to finished product in minutes, all the while watching it spring to life bit by bit. The creatures move and react to every adjustment the player makes to them, providing a powerful, and continuous, feeling of creative gratification.

It’s a hell of a lot more fun than the God-damned Maya tutorial I fumbled through recently. I spent hours making an un-textured butterfly-thing and then struggled just to make its wings flap. I remember nearly tearing my hair out because I couldn’t find the “edit curves” menu option, even though I had just used it minutes earlier. That tutorial was a joyless slog, and it made me depressed that I needed to learn so much confusing bullshit just to express an idea in my head. I realize that 3D computer modeling isn’t supposed to be simple, but who said it has to be so fucking intimidating?

I remember reading that people often used the Sims games as rudimentary home design tools. I can understand that! The Sims 4 is a hell of a lot more fun to use than most of these advanced 3D modeling programs, and I’m saying that as someone who usually hates building homes in The Sims.

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It’s very, very easy to forget that art is supposed to be fun. There are so many outside factors that can sap the joy of creating: deadlines, marketability, ambition, impossible standards…any one of these is enough to constipate an artist. The message becomes one of work, “MAKE THIS.” What we need are tools that feel like toys, or that at least have toy-like options, which will remind us of the Muse’s true message, which is “START WITH THIS, AND SEE WHERE IT TAKES YOU.”

I can only hope that companies like Nintendo and Maxis, who are enjoying phenomenal success with games like The Sims 4 and Super Mario Maker, will share a little of their magic, and teach creativity and productivity designers how to give their products some much-needed creative heart. Sure, it’s important to be proud of the work you create, but I’d much prefer to have a great time making it.

An Animation for the Hell of It

Here’s a little cartoon I had knocking around in my head after listening to an old podcast:

It’s full of in-jokes from the podcasts of Controller1.com and Angry-gamer.net. I know it’s silly, but I had fun making it. Did I mention I do commissions? 🙂

Games of the Year

Ah, video games. I love them and hate them. They seem like childish wastes of time one minute, and they’re engrossing adventures the next. I believe I’ve sworn myself off of gaming as often as I’ve come back to them. I hate the checklist-addiction  that many modern games substitute for fun now, and yet, I still think new games have smarter, more efficient design than old ones.

Anyway, I thought it would be fun to go over the top five games that I enjoyed best this year. Keep in mind that only two of them actually came out in 2014, but if they’re on this list, it’s because they’re timeless.

#5, The Sims 4: A lot of folks complained about The Sims 4 when it came out. They bemoaned the divided neighborhoods, the load times involved in moving between lots, the lack of toddlers, etc. As someone who’s played The Sims since its first incarnation in 2000, I wasn’t surprised at this strip-down; every new game in the series cut out features that were added in expansions for the previous game. That sounds like it might suck, but every game introduced original concepts that made up for the loss, and I think The Sims 4 adds some meaningful new ideas that make it worth ditching The Sims 3 for.

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First of all, creating characters and building homes, two activities that felt a little too much like work in the past, is much more intuitive in 4 than in previous Sims games. You just grab what you want to change with your cursor and pull. It’s quick and it’s fun, which means that you can get to playing sooner. Live Mode has been overhauled; Sims generally move and respond more rapidly than they did in previous games, they can perform multiple actions at once, and the retooled UI is sleek and lovely. Maxis has finally succeeded in moving Needs to the back burner, too. Emotions are what matter now, and it’s a lot of fun to see the differences in your Sims’ demeanor as their moods shift. Depending on how they’re feeling, they’ll move, talk, gesture, and generally carry themselves in unique ways. Emotions also affect what they feel like doing, and what they enjoy. There are tons of surprising, emotion-based actions to find, as well. Sims who are feeling Flirty can bake heart-shaped cookies. Playful Sims can paint cartoon characters. Confident Sims can “Pee like a Champion,” and more.

I like that Maxis scaled things back a bit, and returned the game’s focus to the dynamics of the household. My only complaint is that if you get addicted to it, as I did, it might feel like the well of surprises dries out quickly. Sometimes I felt myself struggling to come up with new ideas for my Sims to play out. Still, I find it tough to stop playing it whenever I start, so it’s earned a place on this list.

#4, Soviet Strike: Boy, am I glad I kept my PlayStation 2, because it turns out there are tons of fun and fascinating PlayStation 1 games that I simply overlooked during the system’s heyday. Soviet Strike is one of them.

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Back in the 16-bit era, I read a lot about the Strike series of games for the Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis/Mega Drive (for simplicity’s sake, I’ll call it the Genedrive). I dismissed them because I completely misunderstood them: from the pictures, I expected them to be serious flight sims with complicated controls and slow-paced gameplay.

Man, was I wrong. Turns out they’re cousins to one of my favorite NES games, Solar Jetman. You pilot an assault chopper around massive battlefields, rescuing POWs, collecting fuel and ammunition, and blowing up everything else. The 16-bit games were still kind of slow, though. The explosions were weak-looking and poorly animated, the maps had few distinguishing landmarks, and there was no music during gameplay, so flying from one point to the next felt desolate. Even worse, the games had no HUD: you had to pause in order to check vital stats like armor, fuel and ammo. Not cool. When I first played Desert Strike on the Genedrive, I shook my head in disappointment. It was so close to greatness, and yet so far.

Soviet Strike, the first Strike game on the PSX, is something else though. The gameplay backbone was carried over, but improvements were made in several areas. The controls are more responsive than in the 16-bit games, your weapons have better aim, and the explosions look terrific. There are two camera settings, so you can play with the viewpoint centered behind your chopper now. There’s a HUD with all the important stats, but if it gets in the way, you can toggle it with a button press. And there’s music during gameplay now! When I started playing Soviet Strike, I couldn’t stop until I’d cleared every possible mission on the map. Then I wanted to jump into the next one. This game is the closest thing I’ve found to a Solar Jetman sequel, and that’s a big deal to me.

#3, Street Fighter Alpha 2: I grew up during the fighting game craze, so yeah, I’ve played this one before. Still, I never recognized just how gosh-darned good it is until this year. While all the one-on-one fighters around it made significant missteps, Alpha 2 just got everything right.

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Alpha 2 is a Capcom standard bearer. It has bright, eye-popping graphics (cleverly animated to maintain timing), catchy musical themes (none of the bland techno stuff like in Alpha 3), hefty sound effects (I still don’t know why Capcom stopped using those sweet smacking punches), and a variety of unique abilities that are always at your disposal (no ISMs or single Super Arts). I’m no expert at the game, and I can’t work a super move into a combo for the life of me, but I can just feel it when things are going right. The game is consistent enough that you can shift between planning and improvising, pressing the attack and breaking away in a flash. It’s not so crazy that you can’t tell what’s going on, and it’s not so advanced that newcomers won’t stand a chance at it. My only complaint is that the AI can be a complete cheap-ass. Still, when I want a quick gaming fix, Alpha 2 is the game I’ve been going to this year, so it makes the list.

#2, Diablo III Reaper of Souls: Like The Sims 4, D3 took a lot of flak from gamers for “dumbing down” the series. I don’t really understand this. Diablo was never a very smart game to begin with. You click monsters, monsters die. What’s to dumb down? The most common complaints I hear are that it takes too long to get unique items, the monsters are too easy, and that move choices are too limited early on in the game. “Too much action,” they said, “not enough RPG!”

I find it tough to care about these things, though, when the action looks and feels this good.

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That’s a typical scene from D3. There’s more shit blowing up and bodies flying around here than in most first-person shooters. Complainers say it’s all just so much bluster, but hey, I love bluster. Explosions, particles, rag dolls…I can’t get enough of it. That there’s a solid Action RPG beneath it, with fast-flowing combat, customizable moves, and endless randomized quests just sells me further. I’m very happy with the direction Diablo has taken, and if Blizzard keeps adding new features via patches, I can see myself playing it for yet another hundred hours. Still, as much as I love it, I can’t say it’s my favorite game of 2014.

#1, Medal of Honor: No, not the reboot. I mean the original on the PlayStation 1. The one that set the standard for World War II shooters with its objective-based gameplay, authentic weaponry, and superlative sound design.

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It looks pretty crappy by today’s standards, but Medal of Honor has an atmosphere that keeps it engaging. The starry nights, the clattering guns, the distant blasts and gunfire, they all just wrap around you and pull you into them. The “war room” menus are also quite cool. The game just does a terrific job of putting you amid the agony and intrigue of WWII Europe. The action is tense and methodical, but never frustrating or cumbersome. The controls are surprisingly modern, too; it’s built to play with a Dual Shock, and there’s a setting to play using the familiar move/look control setup we all know and love.

Medal of Honor walks the line between the exploration-based design of Doom and the scripted spectacle of Call of Duty, and I love it. In fact, I find this “middle ground” philosophy to be quite common among PSX games, and I really enjoy it. The PSX carried the soul of the 16-bit era that came before it, even while it tried on some of the trappings of the oncoming future. We got big, crazy games with detailed 3D worlds, but none of the obsessive-compulsive, subscription-based, online-only, multiplayer-focused, on-disc DLC, micro-transacted bullshit we have to deal with today. I think I’ll dig a little deeper into the PSX library to see what other gems I missed. Who knows? Maybe my whole top five for 2015 will be made up of what I find!

Back to Xbox One

 

I was playing Diablo III the other day when I stopped to ask myself, “What the hell am I doing? I’m thirty-four years old, for crying out loud, and I’m still obsessed with finding gold and gaining levels? When am I going to grow up and get away from these damn video games?”

When I was a kid, we had these places called “arcades,” where people gathered to check out and compete at the latest and greatest video games. Home consoles weren’t anywhere near as powerful as the arcade hardware at the time, so you had to go to the arcade to see the newest, most advanced stuff. Street Fighter II and Mortal Kombat were the big games of the day, and they continuously drew crowds and crowds of kids. Occasionally, though, I saw some grown man in a business suit hanging around at the games, and it confused the hell out of me. “Doesn’t that guy have a job?” I’d ask myself.

Now I question whether I’ve turned into that guy…the old man in the arcade.

Over the years, I’ve come to understand that video games are like any other form of entertainment: some are for kids, some are for grown-ups, and a whole hell of a lot of them are for adolescent boys. I take some comfort in the fact that I have no interest in the games that most kids like to play. I’m not into Call of Duty or Battlefield or Titanfall, or any of those “run around, shoot people and die” kind of things. Games for me are a solitary pursuit, a way to go off on an adventure and get lost in my imagination. So there’s that.

I remember reading that the nation of Japan passed a law requiring Dragon Quest games to come out only on Sundays. They did this because people of all ages loved the games so much, they would skip school and work to go out and buy them. If a culture as hardworking and polite as the Japanese can get into a video game, how harmful can it really be?

I also agree with Lewis Black in his video above. Sometimes you gotta get away from reality, and video games are often excellent showcases for creative art design and animation, especially games by Blizzard. And anyone who knew me in high school knows I love calculator watches! Hey, how do you think I made it through Advanced Algebra with a solid A, huh?

So maybe video games aren’t so bad after all. Like books and movies, video games let you have some exciting adventures, and do things you’d never get to do in real life. There’s nothing wrong with a little recreation, as long as you don’t kid yourself into taking it too seriously.

You hearing me, Twi-hards?