By Will Violet

August 19, 2018

According to the mindset encouraged by popular culture, everyone is entitled to express an opinion about everything. But according to common sense, only people who have experience with a thing, as well as reasons and evidence to support their opinions, are entitled to express an opinion on that thing. Now I'm not sure if you saw this coming, but I'm about to explain my opinions on a thing, along with my reasons and evidence to support those opinions. And that thing, about which I have about forty-five hours of experience and counting, is Square Enix's gorgeous HD-2D 16-bit inspired JRPG Octopath Traveler.

I have three main points to make. I haven't seen these points being made in the conversation surrounding the game so far: hence my thought that they may be worth sharing. Or maybe, like Thanos's opinions about overpopulation in Infinity War, I'm actually the only one who holds them, and the fact that nobody agrees with my perspective opens me up to the charge of being a giant, purple, murderous kleptomaniac who shouldn't be allowed to express or enforce his opinions, even though they're principled, because they're grossly immoral. You decide. The first of my three thoughts is essentially a counter-argument against the general consensus about the game's story and structure. Octopath has been criticized for having eight characters whose stories do not meaningfully intersect or coalesce into any kind of unity except that imposed by the gameplay. Where's the plot unity? Why do these characters decide to travel together? Do they have any common goal? These are questions that the game does not address. And I admit that, if you come to Octopath expecting a narrative that adapts to your choices like a Telltale adventure game with eight main characters instead of one, or even a traditional JRPG with a set of characters on a common quest to defeat a world-threatening dark power, you're going to be disappointed. Having read several reviews before I bought the game, I myself wasn't disappointed by the lack of narrative unity, or the generic characterization. In fact, I find myself charmed by the straightforward, archetypal characters and the predictable, comfortable plot points. I wasn't attracted to Octopath for its story or characters, but for its appearance and its battle system. And the elements that drew me in remain, dozens of hours later, thoroughly engaging and enjoyable. But with all the negativity surrounding the game's lack of narrative unity, critics haven't seemed to notice that there is a subtler unity that ties all eight characters together: a unity of theme, not plot.

Even if the stories of Cyrus, Ophilia, Olberic, Tressa, Therion, H'aanit, Alfyn, and Primrose only intersect superficially, just insofar as the player choooses which four characters are in the party at a given time and the order in which the individual story chapters are completed, each story shares at least one major theme with all the others. And that theme, which is arguably the main theme of the whole game, is this: the nature and authenticity of one's profession. What does it mean to be a scholar, or a hunter, or a merchant, or an apothecary? Each character to some extent defines themselves by their profession, and wrestles with how they should engage in that profession. For several characters, this is manifested in the plot by confronting and overcoming a rival who practices the profession technically well but in an immoral way. Alfyn the apothecary, for instance, is motivated by genuine goodwill for his patients. He wants to become excellent in his profession in order to help heal people, only making enough of a living to continue his quest for affordable universal healthcare (thanks, Alfyn). But at one point he meets a rival apothecary, Vanessa, who induces false symptoms of fever in her patients so that she can sell them the cure for an exorbitant fee. Likewise Cyrus the scholar is confronted with villainous characters who want to hoard and use the arcane occult knowledge they've obtained in order to dominate others and prolong their own lives. Cyrus, of course, as a good-hearted, optimistic, fantasty JRPG character, wants knowledge to be publicly available and accessible to scholars the world over, to be used for good and unselfish purposes. Not all of the characters manifest their professional philosophies in conflict with a negative version of themselves, however. Olberic the warrior is on a journey of self-discovery for most of his plotline, wondering at length why he continues to be a warrior when the king for whom he fought is long dead. He comes to realize that protecting those he loves, and people whose lives are oppressed by injustice (i.e., the people he's met and fought for in each chapter of his story), is a worthy reason to continue working in his profession. The sprightly and likable Tressa, a merchant, overflows with naive, yet heartwarming ideas about how being a merchant isn't about selling things to people for profit, but instead connecting people with things they're looking for, making them happy and doing them a service, creating relationships and sharing the treasures of the world. (Tressa, by the way, also has a rival early on, but a friendly one.) I won't explain the details of each character, since the point is clear enough as it stands: Octopath Traveler does have a form of narrative unity, namely a thematic one. It's an exploration of professional philosophies, of why it is that people chose to dedicate themselves to their careers.

Thematic unity might seem like a flimsy sort of unity compared to plot-based unity. If you were measuring Octopath Traveler against a strong plot-based unity like the first volume of The Lord of the Rings (or at least, the story of the Fellowship before it breaks), I could see why you'd find fault with Octopath. Tolkien's plot does something that the game simply doesn't: unify its diverse characters in a common cause, an overarching quest that makes its events unfold in a logical sequence. But that particular ensemble-on-a-journey-plot isn't the best comparison for what Octopath is doing. A more apt literary comparison would be The Canterbury Tales, where the individual stories that make up the majority of the text are disconnected and episodic, internally separate and distinct, despite being told one after another by the different characters on the same journey--characters who, by the way, are mostly defined by their professions in the famous Prologue. Chaucer's listing of character bios in the Prologue, come to think of it, is not unlike how the box art and opening menus of Octopath initially present its characters (the Knight and the Warrior, the Prioress and the Cleric, and two Merchants particularly overlap). A collection of stories told by different characters may in some sense be a much looser form of unity, to be sure, but the important thing is that it's also a different kind of unity. And as a different kind of unity, it deserves to be appreciated for what it is. The episodic storytelling of Octopath, just like the frame narrative justifying the collection of short stories in The Canterbury Tales, shouldn't be criticized simply for not being something else. Blaming Octopath for being episodic instead of continuously linear would be like blaming it for being a turn-based JRPG instead of a real-time strategy game.

My defense of Octopath's "episodic" narrative leads me to my second thought, which is about the game's ability to engage the player's imagination. This game is a delight for how it lets the imagination work to fill in or elaborate on its gaps and suggestions, and the connections between the characters' stories is certainly one of the main gaps. I personally don't mind not having a justification for why these characters travel together other than my decisions as a player: on the contrary, by giving me the freedom to decide which party members travel to where and for what reasons, it lets me work out a story of my own making. I don't mean that I construct an overarching narrative for the characters, a quest akin to that of the Fellowship in Tolkien. I mean that the characters jostle around in my mind constantly; and as I get to know them, spend time with them, learn who they are and what they're capable of, they inevitably collide with each other and meet each other in my mind. As I get to know them all, they all seem to get to know each other. They become not just fellow travelers but fellow companions. The "travel banter" sequences encourage this kind of imagination. They give just enough incidental interaction to fuel the sense I have in my imagination that these characters have become friends, or at least affectionate companions, but not so much that everything is spelled out for me. In fact, I wouldn't want the game to give me anything more than these suggestions, these imaginative provocations; it would too easily and quickly become tedious, time-consuming, and distract from the real main draws of the game: its art style and its battle system. But, seen in this way, the "travel banter" system isn't a sop to our desire for narrative unity (though it's usually criticized as such), but rather a helpful and necessarily concise aid to imagination.

The other, perhaps more obvious imaginative aid in Octopath is the contrast between the pixel art that the characters appear in 99% of the time vs. the beautifully drawn portraits of each character on the box art, in promotional art, and the screenshots that are unlocked after beating each character's main quest. (A similar, albeit less drastic contrast also occurs between the small, 16-bit-inspired pixelated bosses in the overworld and their corresponding gigantic sprites in the battle system.) The realistic drawings of the characters, to me, represent how they would look if the game were made in a modern, fully 3D style. It's the difference between how Mario looks in the 2D NES and SNES games vs. how he looks in the 3D N64, Wii, Wii U, and Switch games. When I watch a story sequence in the HD-2D pixel art of Octopath, at the back of my mind are how the characters "really" look in their box art profiles. By trying to reconcile these profiles with the beautiful HD-2D pixel art style, snatches of scenes in that more realistic style are played out in my imagination. No game in recent memory has encouraged my imagination quite like this.

My last opinion on the game is an explanation of how well it's paced. To begin with, its battle system is so good that grinding isn't a chore. There are times I consciously choose to grind, since the pace of leveling up is rewarding and the individual fights are so varied and layered with mechanics that each one feels like a new and interesting challenge worthy of my constant attention. There's always a new strategy to try, a new skill combination to test, a different order of characters to attack with, a new enemy weakness to discover. The short-term, minute-to-minute gameplay, then, is well-paced. But the longer-term hour-by-hour metagame is also well-paced. By the time I was getting comfortable with all eight characters and had picked my favorites, developed a play style, and unlocked all their possible skills, I stumbled across my first job shrine. This unlocked a whole new set of abilities, significantly changing how I played the character to which I assigned that secondary job. This particular job cost nothing to unlock, but was just what I needed at the time. Eventually, I mastered the free job classes I found, beat my main character's storyline, and had characters leveling up beyond the recommended level for each chapter. I was ready for a new challenge. That's when I tried tackling the job shrines that house bosses far more difficult than those found at the end of the main storylines. The challenge was greater, but so was the reward. It forced me to play with every trick I'd learned in my dozens of hours of practice, even developing more refined techniques for the occasion, like planning five to six moves in advance using combinations of magic attacks, physical attacks, skill buffs, and finally using lots of the items I'd been hoarding since the start of the game. When I finally took down my first job shrine boss, the rush of accomplishment was an order of magnitude greater than earning the end credits after completing my main character's story. But by beating the shrine boss, I also unlocked a powerful new class, the Sorcerer, forcing me to make a series of complicated decisions about how to allocate my job points and optimize which characters learned which skills from different professions in order to fit my ideal party. All this, in order to continue to tougher job shrines and to finish other characters' stories. On a large scale, then, the escalation of difficulty and complexity in Octopath is rewarding enough to make the hours and hours of gameplay it offers compelling without being either frustrating or boring. In other words, it's well-paced.

A final point about the game's pacing. There's a paradox at the heart of my experience with Octopath: it yields the satisfaction of playing something both short and long at the same time. Let me explain. JRPGs are notorious for being dozens, if not hundreds of hours long, often running the risk of burning out the player with repetitive battles and stingy leveling mechanics. A particularly compelling battle system can mask or even prevent this problem, and that's the case in Octopath Traveler. However, I want to argue that its episodic structure, apart from its battle gameplay, uniquely contributes to the game's success in preventing burnout and encouraging active long-term engagement. Starting a new chapter of a character's storyline gives me a similar feeling to watching the next episode of some TV show. But eventually, after several of these episodes, which often occur back-to-back in the same session, I think about how much I've played, see how far I've come, and reflect on just how long it took me (after all, every time you save in the game, you see how many hours you've put in). Moment-by-moment, in the heat of a particular character's story episode, it feels like I'm playing a series of short games. But taken together, thinking about my progression of learning and slowly mastering the gameplay mechanics, it feels like I've only been playing one long game. The plot-narrative creates natural episodic breaks in the longer gameplay-"narrative," creating the simultaneous feeling of episodic brevity and escalating, long-term complexity. From a narrative perspective, Octopath Traveler is eight JRPGs in one; but from a gameplay perspective, it's one long, well-paced, epic journey.


By Will Violet

June 4, 2018

Mario Tennis Aces for the Nintendo Switch is a vertically-oriented 3D fighting game. Or at least, that was my brilliant critical realization after playing it extensively this past weekend in its demo form. The idea is so brilliant, in fact, that at least some professional articles (Destructoid, for instance) posted this past weekend about the Mario Tennis demo have casually noticed the infusion of fighting game mechanics as if it were obvious to the discerning critic. But for me, as a totally inept non-player of fighting games and an anxious social introvert generally frightened of online competition, it took two days, several hours of play, and all my powers of Sherlockian deduction to see what was going on. Three defining experiences led to my discovery.

First, some background. The game's not out yet: it will be released on June 22 with a robust single-player adventure mode. The demo, on the other hand, focused almost all of its resources on player-to-player competition. It mostly consisted of a three-day online tournament in which players could, after being briefly familiarized with the new mechanics in a tutorial, jump into online games in the hopes of reaching a "Finals" match and winning a championship. At first glance, these new mechanics might seem just like Mario-sports-esque evolutions of normal tennis shots. In addition to the regular and expected array of slices, topspins, lobs, and drop shots, you now have more fanciful options. One kind of special shot lets you slow down time; another lets you save an otherwise out-of-reach ball with cartoonish animations (Mario, predictably, jumps in the chosen direction; Yoshi turns into an egg and rolls across the court; Waluigi moonwalks backwards like a total creep, and so on); and another triggers a brief character-specific cutscene that lets your opponent know that the most powerful attack in the game is about to be unleashed on them. At this point the first telltale sign that Mario Tennis is now a fighting game becomes apparent. The most powerful shot in the game, called a Special Shot, can be blocked, but with tremendous risk. The receiving opponent can try to time a blocking shot, but if they miss the narrow response window, their racket will shatter. There are a limited amount of rackets each player has to begin with, and if that's your last racket, it's an instant loss by KO. And that's what the game calls it. A KO. The implication didn't really hit me till long after the concept was introduced in the tutorial. But in retrospect, what could be a more overt indication that Mario Tennis is now a fighting game than the fact that you can KO your opponent after charging up a meter to unleash a powerful special move?

The Mario Tennis Aces experience that tipped me off to its fighting game nature, far more than the kinds or names of its mechanics, was the yawning abyss between player skill tiers as I played my first few matches. I've been a fan of Mario Tennis since the Game Boy Color and N64 days. I've skipped the most recent entries on Wii U and even GameCube, but am still very familar with the button presses to activate shots on the Game Boy Advance version. The point is, I thought I was pretty good at Mario Tennis. I thought I knew how to pull off the different types of shots, and that the new wrinkles in the mechanics were more or less optional luxuries to learn at another time. If I already knew the base system, how different could it really be? It's hard to understate how dramatically my expectations crashed against the actual nature of Aces. The image that comes to mind is that car commerical cliche when the crash test dummies crumple into a pile of flailing limbs and scrap metal as their car is hurled against a wall in slow motion. I came into the Mario Tennis Aces demo a day after the tournament started, but already players had mastered the new mechanics to completely exploit ball, court, and shot control. I was demolished. I was slaughtered. I was absolutely pulverized. We're talking losing a game by three or four service aces in a row. Losing matches without scoring a point. Losing helplessly after my opponents rocketed multiple Special Shots (the move that can KO you if improperly blocked) my way. Losing after jumping across the screen as Mario when I accidentally pulled off a "Trick Shot," ending up about three hundred miles from the actual direction of the ball. It was embarassing, shocking, and oh so very frustrating. I think I swore more in that two-hour period than I have in the last ten years of my life combined. I did, however, win the occasional match against players that I can only assume were one-handed five-year-olds fooled by the bright, colorful, cartoony Nintendo graphics into thinking that this tournament wasn't all about cutthroat competition and mastery of tightly balanced game mechanics. That, or maybe the family dog was chewing on the Joy-Cons and I mistook it for intelligent human input. Oh, and I would also win the occasional game when the other player's internet connection was so bad that it disconnected us.

The point I'm making here, before I tell my underdog tale filled with training montages, staircase joggings, and feel-good victories, is that I could tell within thirty seconds of a match starting how skilled my opponent was. If there was any consistent matchmaking, I didn't notice it. One game I'd be paired with what seemed like an expert tougher than any CPU Mario Tennis boss I'd ever encountered; the next match I'd barely be able to keep up with a player, though I could score a few points and maybe even win a game; and the next match I would demolish my opponent in a matter of minutes. Never in my experience--except maybe that one time I tried to play Counter-Strike--have the levels of skill between players been so obvious to me. Like I say, I don't know fighting games. I once tried, and failed, to learn Street Fighter II: Hyper Fighting on the Wii Virtual Console (RIP). The farthest I've gone down the fighting game path--get ready for a hipster-credential-building, impressively obscure deep cut--is playing enough of SNK vs. Capcom: Match of the Milennium on the Neo Geo Pocket Color to beat the final boss, M. Bison.

But then, I was only playing against the computer. I'm sure seeing vastly different levels of player abilities is a common experience in fighting game communities. But the only thing comparable in my habitual knowledge base as a gamer is seeing the difference between casual players of a certain game, who leisurely make their way through a campaign that may take dozens of hours, and speedrunners, who exploit glitches, tricks, and optimized movement strategies to complete the game, at times, in a matter of minutes. So what struck me this past weekend in Mario Tennis Aces more than anything was how the same mechanics were available to all players, and yet their abilities were so different. I wished in my agonized frustration that the game would pair me with players who were at my skill level, so I could learn more gradually. But it insisted on baptism by fire. If, however, there had been matchmaking, these skill gaps would not have been nearly so apparent, and the comparison with fighting games might not have occurred to me. But when it did, I thought to myself, isn't this just like the way that fighting game players each work within the same system of kicks, punches, special moves, and counters? Sure, here we have slices, topspins, Special Shots, and blocks, and the orientation of the screen is vertical instead of horizontal--but the same kind of one-on-one, timing-based, strategic, fast-paced gameplay is at work. Moreover, in a fighting game you tend to have meters that gradually fill, with the option to use a minor power attack if the meter is partially full or a much more devastating attack if the meter is completely full. It's the same in Mario Tennis. Do you wait till your energy wheel is full for a near-unblockable Special Shot, or do you spend some of it early for a Trick or Zone Shot? It depends on the situation, your reflexes, your play style, and the mind game you're currently playing with your opponent. In sum: you can't button mash in Mario Tennis and expect to win. You have to plan, balancing the current situation of volleys with the meta-game of building up a meter for later use. It takes all kinds of short-term concentration, and is probably why hisorically Mario Tennis games were released alongside the more relaxed Mario Golf series as a palette cleanser. This kind of layered fighting-game gameplay was not present in the Mario Tennis games I had been familiar with, and gets me interested in the way Camelot has refreshed the series for the current gen.

Dwelling on the gameplay leads me to my third point. In Mario Tennis Aces, like in any fighting game worth its salt, you're driven to improve, to master the mechanics, to learn your opponent's moves and outhink them on the spot. You come to realize that there are types and styles of play, most of which are tied to a particular character's strengths. In a fighting game you might have a nimble character with a range attack that likes to come in for quick strikes and dance away before taking any significant damage. In Mario Tennis you have speedy characters like Yoshi or Toad who can rush to one side of the court, put the ball almost out of reach, and return to center court ready for another volley. My own preferred strategy by the end of the tournament was to use a defensive character like Waluigi whose gangly, octopusing, Gabe-from-the-Office-like limbs could return almost any shot, even when locked in place to charge his energy wheel. I would use as as little of that energy as possible, hoping to build to a series of Special Shots to overwhelm my opponent, or at least keep the momentum on my side.

Basically the same person.

Eventually, I got better at the game. Instead of losing in the first round, I'd lose in the second; instead of rarely reaching the second round, I'd consistently reach the third. By the end of the demo I had reached the Finals twice, and even though I lost both matches, it was a significant enough improvement in my skill level to give me a sense of satisfaction and achievement. But ironically, I had become what I initially hated. I was now the asshole player crushing noobs unfamiliar with how to execute Trick shots, exploit lob or drop shots, or unleash Special Shots. The game became much more consistently rewarding, as I found myself matched with much fairer opponents. I like to flatter myself that if the demo had lasted one more day I could have won a championship, validated my life's existence, erected a statue of myself in the town square, and eventually pass on this story to my children every year on June 4.

If I had to compare my experience of the thrill of playing an equally skilled player with some other game, it would be Nidhogg. Nidhogg is an abstract pixel art 2D platforming fighter, and it reminded me of Mario Tennis Aces not only for its focus on a one-on-one battle of wits, but for its streamlined mechanics. In Nidhogg, you can fight with fists at close range, or fight with swords at arm's length, dropkick from a close distance, or throw your sword from a farther distance. In the same way, Mario Tennis gives you a range of shot options, each of which can be countered by your opponent. You have the same set of tools as the other player. The mechanics in both games can be learned in a few minutes, and in that sense they're simple and elegant; but what makes the games complex and deep in practice is just how many ways they can be put to use to create new and interesting situations.

But maybe I spoke too soon about having the same set of tools as the other player. The biggest difference between Aces and Nidhogg, other than the fact that one is arranged in a fixed 3D vertical space and the other in a multi-screen 2D horizontal space, is that Mario Tennis allows a choice of characters, but in Nidhogg all players have the same character. With that choice of characters in Aces comes a corresponding choice of base abilities, whereas Nidhogg gives all players precisely the same abilities so that the difference between them is only skill. Nidhogg is, as a result, by far at its most fun when playing local co-op against other players at the same skill level. Playing it with my friends and family, when we were all learning the machanics together, is one of the highlights of the past few years of multiplayer gaming for me. The thrill of outthinking your opponent, the hilarity of landing a successful sword throw, the surprise of discovering or developing a new strategy, the mind game of noticing patterns and trying to keep your own play style from being predictable, was a real treat, especially considering the three or four dollars I spent on the game when it was on sale on the PSN. Some matches would go on for several minutes, as every move or play I made was canceled or overcome by my opponent. The tension built and built till someone finally broke through to the end of the level. Mario Tennis Aces also allows this kind of outcome to a limited extent, though every close match will inevitably come to a definite end much sooner than one in Nidhogg since the closest of matches must end with a tiebreaker. I ended up in a few tiebreakers during the course of the demo, but the most memorable would have to be the time I played against a player called--you guessed it--Crotchsnot. I was desperately scrambling for points against someone named Crotchsnot. Crotchsnot. Just "Crotch" or "Snot" on its own would have been weird enough, but this guy (or girl, but let's be real, it was a dude) was bringing his name game to a whole new level. As the match progressed, the thought of losing to an avatar with that particular alias became more repulsive and embarassing the more I thought, or tried not to think, about what Crotchsnot means and what it says about me if I can't best the mind that invented such an abomination. But at that point in my journey to Mario Tennis success, I just wasn't skilled enough to stave off a loss. You could say, though I don't know why you'd want to, that I was drowning in Crotchsnot. I'd like to personally thank him for spreading his particular brand of slimy joy across the otherwise kid-friendly environment of Nintendo's Mario Tennis Aces demo. The world is a better place with you in it.

EDITOR'S NOTE. The author would like to apologize for not having screenshot proof of Crotchsnot's existence. Will claims he remembered the screen capture button on the Switch too late, and his attempt to reach for his phone to use Snapchat was in vain. As a substitute please accept this gif of an ostrich dancing with a guy holding its egg.


By Will Violet

March 8, 2018

  1. Make a blog, barely learn HTML, invent characters and personas and pseudonyms and a bizarre shared universe to house them all, just in order to talk to a nonexistent audience about games. This alone could prevent you from playing games for hours at a strech. Highly recommended.
  2. Listen to several game podcasts a week for several years running, cumulatively absorbing hundreds and thousands of hours that teach you about hundreds of games, many of which sound like a lot of fun to play, if only you had the time.
  3. Watch hours of YouTube game reviews, discussions, glitchfests, speedruns, history pieces, retrospectives, top 10 lists, and gameplay videos daily.
  4. Make a detailed excel spreadsheet cataloging the hundreds of games in one's collection, keeping track of the console or system totals, whether each is physical or digital, how many hours is on the game clock (when it has the option), what my personal rating might happen to be, all while making separate tabs to keep track of how many I own, how many I've beaten, and how many I've sold, in case I get seller's remorse and want to re-buy the Bomberman 64 and Rocket: Robot on Wheels I sold on eBay as a kid. Has the added bonus of making you want to beat all the games you own, just to see the column of "Beaten" games look more filled in.
  5. Spend hours looking up copies of old games you used to own, or want to own, on eBay. Also works best as a daily habit.
  6. Surf IGN, GameSpot, Gamerankings, or your website of choice to learn about all the current news or read reviews of games you can't afford or don't have time to play anyways. Another little daily habit to keep those nasty games away.
  7. Spend some time time wishing and complaining to your significant other about what you'd like to be playing right now, or what you're about to buy next, if you didn't have life responsibilities and a job and actually wanted to do something about your desire to be happy. Couples well with daydreaming and guilt-tripping yourself about your backlog.
  8. Frequent your local retro store (or thrift store) and browse for an hour or two to unwind after a long week; or better yet, make a day of going to an enormous used game warehouse (or convention, though I haven't tried this one yet), going through their entire enormous inventory item by item, in order to maximize the deal you can get on games that will go straight onto your shelf to collect dust with all the rest.
  9. Periodically check the PSN, Steam, or any of the Nintendo eShops for flash sales, to make sure you get that 80% off deal on a game that will sit shamefully and secretly on your memory card or hard drive and add one more pound to the sixteen-ton mental weight of the backlog.
  10. Organize and re-organize your physical collection, making custom boxes to replace all those cardboard ones you foolishly tossed as a kid. Be sure to place them neatly and alphabetically on a shelf in your closet so that when you're getting dressed for work in the morning, at least you can admire the box art and daydream about how fun they look to play. Very therapeutic. Editor's choice.
  11. Bonus! Read old issues of Nintendo Power, so that you can be ready to play with power, whenever you do get around to playing something.


By Will Violet

March 4, 2018

LEO'S NOTE. Our first featured post will be from a sure-to-be-recurring guest contributor, Will Violet. He is a serious person with serious ideas, but he also likes to have play time. Hence his only recourse was to submit his ideas to Playtime with Leo. Here is his tale of triumph and tetrads taking a twenty-year time-span.

Big thanks to Leo for letting me borrow 1% of his vast mindshare on the interweb and take his blog for its maiden voyage. I'd like to do a split-personality review of Tetrishpere for the Nintendo 64, from the perspective of both my past boyhood self and my current aging mid-life-crisis self. Strangely, they are both in total agreement that this game is completely awesome. As a result, the interesting conceit of my review is immediately rendered irrelevant, since they would both say the same things about the game. Here is my story.

As a kid I got stuck on a puzzle in the Hide & Seek mode, the second to last of the entire series of puzzles in that mode. It was devilishly difficult because, like all excellent puzzle games, it required split-second reactions, precise timing, and delicate handling of the game mechanics, not unlike today's Thumper. In fact, the two games give me the same sort of thrill: pumping techno music amplifying and underscoring an intense challenge, the rising stakes (and heartbeat) due to getting close to the end of a level only to lose all progress as a result of a slip-up, and, after many attempts of increasing skill on my part, the triumph of completing a stage after a sustained period of concentration. They're both the kind of game you play where it feels good to be stressed out--and the kind of game which, when you begin to master it, makes you feel like you're a virtuosic musician. Playing Tetrisphere and Thumper feels like playing an instrument. Beating Thumper, no less than beating a high-end level in Tetrisphere, is less like solving a Sudoku puzzle than performing a work of music--though there's more improvisation in Tetrisphere. The visuals of both games also bear some comparison. Thumper and Tetrisphere both have an abstract and colorful art style, though Thumper is more moody, bizarre, and relies on muted colors, unlike the characteristically-N64-vibrant palette of Tetrisphere.

In any case, the puzzle that tripped me up as a kid I must have tried dozens, perhaps hundreds of times. I returned to the game last night to pick up where I left off so many years ago. The muscle memory was still there, after all these years, without any appreciable loss: a testament to how much time I'd spent playing when I was younger, and how engrossing the game can be. Within an hour, I think less, I had beaten that impossible stage; then on the first try I beat the final level of that entire mode.

The matter-of-fact, Word-Art-esque "NICE JOB" that flashed across the screen in recognition of my colossal achievement might as well have read "YOUR WHOLE LIFE HAS BEEN LEADING UP TO THIS MOMENT, AND IT WAS WORTH IT." The experience of that triumph was more memorable to me than the entire year and a half I've spent playing Pokemon Go, which requires no concentration or skill at all. But even games of higher quality and with deeper mechanics that rely by design on a less concentrated, more slow-burn kind of gameplay loop than Tetrisphere, can't touch the intensity of the highs it offers. Boyhood me and adult me are in complete agreement: Tetrisphere is an overlooked gem on the Nintendo 64. Its puzzle mechanics still feel fresh, challenging, and rewarding. GameSpot was right to rate it so highly upon its release in 1997. Tetrisphere is just as good twenty years later in 2017.