My Memory of Light

It has been difficult for me to process my thoughts about A Memory of Light. It’s a big book in which a lot happens, and it represents the ending of a series that has been in my life for a good long time and which I have a lot of respect and adoration for. The opportunity to actually discover how the Wheel of Time ends (for want of a better word, of course, given the concept), to appreciate RJ’s vision in its entirety… for that, this book is a blessing. Unfortunately, it’s just not that simple, because on a deeper level, this book has so many massive issues and faults.

From here there will be spoilers.

The biggest problem with AMoL is the same problem I had with Towers of Midnight: Mat. ToM presented a massive tonal shift in Mat’s characterisation; I remember sniggering to myself about things Mat said during first read, and then immediately feeling unsettled because that wasn’t how I’d ever responded to Mat before. In the end I dealt with that and for the most part enjoyed ToM, but all of these problems came back stronger in AMoL, where literally everything about Mat felt wrong. Most prominent were the changes in his speech and thought patterns, particularly his constant peppering of his speech with ‘here now’ and ‘hey nows’, a form I really despise and not something Mat has ever done before, and most jarring of all, his constant mental referencing of himself by his full name, Matrim. Again, this was a relatively rare quirk pre-Brandon, but in this book it happens ubiquitously, and oh man I hated it.

A useful metaphor for my opinion of Mat’s character is Shakespeare’s fool. This is a character archetype pops up in quite a few plays, and whilst seemingly in the rather undesirable position of existing to make people laugh, holds the unique position aside of the main narrative, a position that allows them to postulate dangerous truths that other characters might not even realise, or at least be able to verbalise without backlash. Under RJ, Mat had a similar role; a lighter, comedic character but with a serious side, an intellectual maturity that informed his character. Under Brandon, all that depth seems to have vanished and we’ve just got a false fool, an immature joker whose role as ‘comic relief’ is so exacerbated that the serious side of his character suffers as a result. Maybe under RJ Mat’s decision to flee to Tuon might have made sense, but under Brandon it seemed incredibly wrong, and yet sadly in tune with BS’s own derailment of the character.

Mat used to be one of my favourite characters, and I still love him pre-Brandon. In fact, after finishing AMoL, I went back to some of my favourite chapters in the whole series, ‘A Different Dance’ from Lord of Chaos, and ‘A Stave and a Razor’ from Knife of Dreams, for a bit of therapy time with the Mat I once knew. Thankfully I was still able to enjoy those chapters thoroughly, despite my foreknowledge of Mat’s upcoming character fail, which is good, because if Brandon had managed to damage my appreciation for RJ’s work with his ‘efforts’ it would have been unforgivable.

So that was the biggest disappointment, not just with AMoL but with the series since Brandon took over. Sadly, it was by no means the only thing that left me dissatisfied with the final book. My second most major criticism is how we spent so much time blandly describing repeated charges and retreats and other battle quandaries; it got to the point where, at one point during a scene with the Borderland armies, I actually skipped over the paragraph of battle details. Now, the first time I read the Wheel of Time, I often found myself skipping past paragraphs and sometimes even whole pages (oh RJ) in order to get to the next speaking part and so advance the plot, but over time and most pointedly with my last re-read, I took my time to savour the details, the intricacies and quiet moments of the world that RJ created. To find myself falling back into those habits after such a deep and enjoyable few months savouring the rest of the series was a sad disappointment, but it was really only an illumination of something I’d already realised after re-reading The Gathering Storm and ToM; that Brandon’s books don’t have that sense of depth. They’re not something I want to take my time over. I thought at first that I was burning through them to ensure I was ready for the final book, but in the end there just wasn’t enough meaningful content to savour, so I didn’t stick around, and that is a shame.

Still, I might have hoped that things might be different with AMoL, until we spent so many, many pages and words with the Trolloc slaughters and battle descriptions, which were so repetitive and generic (I lost count of how many times I read about the Andor/Cairhien/Aiel lines ‘buckling’ without ever actually breaking). Those words could have been so much better used. I didn’t expect there to not be a strong focus on the Last Battle, of course, but to have it so badly articulated at the expense of, say, more moments with the characters I’ve loved for so long was a terrible disappointment. I think I might have preferred bad character moments even to well-written battles.

Without wishing to belabour this point, I’d like to provide an example: one of the scenes in AMoL that I legitimately enjoyed was the scene with Rand and Tam, and their discussion and sparring match about the ‘weight of that missing hand’. This was a perfect character beat that I really enjoyed, and I’d have taken a few more of those over overwrought battle scenes without hesitation. Interestingly enough, I seem to recall reading somewhere that it was Brandon’s decision to reunite Rand and Tam in the first place, which made this scene all entirely his own work. If that’s true, then Brandon is capable of not only creating powerful scenes from RJ’s notes, but also building similar, well-presented scenes on his own accord. He is not talentless. So then why was so much of this book so.. insipid, the flashes of brilliance lost in a sea of mindless bloodletting?

Beyond all this, I had a lot of comparably minor issues. Moiraine’s return felt underwhelming, and the fact that we had to witness Rand seeing her again not from inside his head but from Perrin’s disappointed me – it felt like Brandon was intimidated by the moment, and so fled to the head of the character he’s always been the most comfortable with. Many of the deaths of characters whom I’ve come to really like over the course of the series, most notably Siuan, barely registered any emotional significance with me, a problem I can only once again attribute to uninspired prose. The deluge of fake-out ‘is person X dead/evil’ cliffhangers and plot twists also wore out their welcome very quickly, most notably in the cases of Galad after losing to Demandred, Aviendha after her gateway exploded and the ‘Vanin and Harnan are Darkfriends oh no’ episode that I didn’t believe in for a second. Whilst most of this I lay solely at Brandon’s feet, RJ has to be held accountable in some instances, particularly those of Padan Fain, whose ultimate role ended up being little more than a footnote, and the fact that Nynaeve felt barely present for the entire book.

That’s pretty much the roll call of my criticisms. Extensive though it is, it shouldn’t be taken to mean that I think AMoL is a complete write off, just, in my opinion, deeply flawed. When looking at how the plot threads writhed to a conclusion from a distance far enough that the details are slightly blurry, I am happy with how the series ended, with how RJ’s vision played out. I have no problems with Rand re-sealing the Dark One rather than killing him, and I’m happy that a lot of characters, even minor ones whom I’ve liked such as Gaul and Jur Grady, survived. The Dragon’s legacy of peace is a nice thematic contrast to his previous life’s legacy, and it pleased me that Rand was able to live on, even if the mechanics of exactly how he was able to do so were quite obscure to the point of being completely omitted. Though I would have preferred a more expansive epilogue that told me a little more about the 4th Age, in the end I’m fine with preserving some mystery and leaving it to the imagination of the readers.

To end this review/diatribe/piece of crap on a happier note, here are a few more of the things from AMoL that I genuinely enjoyed:

– Moiraine off-handedly referring to Mat as ‘the father of us all’. Maybe it’s just because I caught the reference, but I really liked it.

– Noal saving Olver was one of the few moments that I had a genuine emotional reaction to. ‘That man still lives’ was another, which is a good thing considering it was pretty much the climactic point of the book.

– The realisation that Demandred had gone completely mad somewhere along the line was pretty cool, although the fact that it just happened without any prior build up prompted a raised eyebrow. Nonetheless, his entrance was impressive, and I particularly enjoyed the fact that he couldn’t even do insanity as well as Lews Therin did.

– Logain’s arc was well done. I was genuinely worried for him after we got a glimpse inside his mind after what Taim’s crew had done, which made his redemptive moment very sweet, on behalf of all the Asha’man as well as himself.

– Rhuarc falling victim to Compulsion was another emotional gut-punch.

– Rand calling Aviendha ‘shade of my heart’ after the Aiel fashion was a quick, brief moment that I nonetheless really appreciated.

I feel like my thoughts are a bit more in order now. Final word? Although I currently have absolutely no desire to even open AMoL, much less re-read it, I’m hopeful that this funk will fade. I’m sad that The Wheel of Time didn’t end under the pen of the man who created it, and I hope that Brandon’s ultimately underwhelming efforts don’t undermine the series’ legacy or my enjoyment of it in the long term. AMoL wasn’t the ending we deserved, but it was the one we got, and I suppose I can be grudgingly thankful to Brandon for at least giving us something. I don’t think I will ever be able to respect the man, though; some combination of his terrible WoT prose and his attitude from interviews has left me with an infinite hatred for this man, despite my reasonable side recognising that finishing this series to everyone’s satisfaction was an impossible job.

I just think he could have done a better job than he did.

Hell, I almost think I could have done a better job, and I’ve always been the first to criticise my own ability.

But enough.

Thank you Robert Jordan, for a series that set my world alight.

Thank you Brandon Sanderson, for a glimpse of what might have been.

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A Worldwide Web

I’m a huge supporter of the idea that WiFi should be freely available wherever you are in the world. To me, it seems like the endless march of the technology is destined to take us here, and it just seems like such a good idea; wherever you are, whatever you’re doing, you can get onto the internet, a tool that is both nowhere and everywhere and vitally important for our day to day lives. I wouldn’t go as far as to say that the internet has become essential, but it’s certainly a powerful item in modern civilisation. And yes, we have to pay for it in our own homes, and it doesn’t power itself, but I still believe in the idea of complete global saturation.

America gets it. Whenever I, whilst over there, found myself in a position where I had to kill some time – usually in limbo places such as airports and bus stations – there was always internet available. Granted, it wasn’t always very functional, but it was there. It was all the more gratifying for me since, as an alien, my phone’s mobile internet wouldn’t function without running me up a massive bill. It was nice to always have the ability to connect to the things that are important to me. It wasn’t just these limbo places, either – almost every restaurant or bar that swung more towards the social archetype than the dancing and drinking one had free, open WiFi.

Unfortunately, Britain doesn’t get it. We see the awesome power of infinite WiFi and translate it from a means of embracing the future of technology into a money-making opportunity. I was less than impressed to arrive in Gatwick airport, with the intent to hop on the internet and find myself the most efficient way home, and discover that the only available WiFi there was pay-per-use. I confess that I rather rudely stalked off from the customer service fellow who imparted this information to me, disappointed as I was. Since getting back from Canada I’ve noticed a lot of places where there’s just no connection, or where the only connection is one of those damn ‘hotspots’ from BT Openzone, the Cloud or whatever, which either cost money or never seem to work.

It makes me sad. The idea of global WiFi is an awesome one that I’m happy to endorse, and I know I’m not alone, as I recall reading an article a while back about a new service that was intending to do this for at least the British Isles. Unfortunately, my country as a whole seems more inclined to see the idea of WiFi for consumers as another opportunity to leech money from them, rather than embracing the concept of technology for the levelling of the playing field that it symbolises: anyone can do or say anything they like on the internet, which is kind of frightening but far more awesome, and I can’t help but be of the opinion that charging for that, in public areas at least, is a vain attempt to put a price on freedom. Poor show, Britain, poor show.

One Night in Liberty

Excuse me whilst I get my geek on.

Okay, a few days ago I was browsing through the archives of Films According to the Profound, just to get my mind up to speed a bit, and I noted my ‘Grand Theft Auto 4: Part 1′. It functions fairly well as a separate piece touching on a couple of aspects of GTA4, but the part 1 tag kind of suggests a part 2, right? I decided to sit down, re-familiarise myself with the game, and see what I had to say about it now – especially considering that the two expansions, ‘The Lost and Damned’ and ‘The Ballad of Gay Tony’, had gone some way to fixing the things that weren’t very good about the original game.. Well, TBoGT did, TLaD is more like the unwanted cousin we keep in the closet under the stairs, and only get out when we fancy riding around on motorbikes that all look quite similar and drive like shit.

Anyway I was cruising around for a bit, switching between my various saves for different experiences, before I decided to go and hit up the Perestroika cabaret club. This is always a giggle since the place is usually full of gun-toting Russians, meaning you get a bit of a fight, and it’s also got rooftop passageways and hideaways by the dozen, for playing with the cops after you get the inevitable wanted level. I did both of these things, holding out and generally going a bit crazy with my explosives, until I got bored and decided to make a futile-seeming run for it (with six stars). With my rusty credentials I wasn’t playing too well, although I did manage to get a block away from the club, being shot at by a helicopter in a state of health where a dangerous gust of wind could have killed me, alive. I blew up an FIB Buffalo, stole a car, went to the hospital to get my health back, had to kill about 50 cops who chased me there, drove south to find a free Turismo, failed to escape in it multiple times, losing my health again in the process of getting the car out of the driveway, ditched it for a new one under a bridge, drove literally right past an FIB car without being spotted, and finally managed to escape my wanted level as I drove past the Perestroika club.. where it all started.

It was quite a giggle for my first time playing in months. Needless to say, after this I was pretty much done playing. I grabbed a taxi and randomly sent Niko to Star Junction, GTA4’s equivalent of Times Square. The taxi booted Niko out right in the centre of the junction, and I left him there to go and do some other things. I kept glancing back though, and noticed a shadow was crawling across the ground, slowly but perceptibly, due to GTA4’s sped-up timescale causing quite swift sunsets. I decided, since I wasn’t doing anything else, to make a picture diary of the passage of the night in Star Junction.. and in doing so reminded myself how very nice the art of the game is.

This is just after arrival.

A more dramatic shot, showing the fading out of the sky.

Chasing the line of the sunset. This was when I decided to make a hobby of this.

Night fell suddenly, like a sack of bricks. I only looked away for about a minute and BAM all the lights were on.

At about ten o’ clock, it started to rain.

I decided to get a bit meta and took a picture of Niko taking a picture of the traffic. Said traffic had not moved for hours on account of a single taxi, the driver of which had somehow either died or simply vanished, leaving his vehicle blocking the road. Thankfully, these guys didn’t start honking, but instead sat there quite peacefully. For hours.

The moon came out, very briefly. Shortly after I took this picture, it was gone again. This is after midnight, in true dark, when the brightness is turned up to 11.

This fella had been in the traffic queue so long he fell asleep.. Only kidding, the truth is much more gruesome. Somehow, he ended up dead. The streets of Liberty City are a dangerous place indeed. And in all the time I was there, no ambulance turned up to try and save him, no police turned up to investigate what had happened.. and no fire truck turned up either, but they wouldn’t have had anything to do if they had so I’ll let them off.

Dawn made everything go quite bulbously teal. Don’t those Burger Shot signs look fucking disgusting? Knowing GTA, that’s probably almost definitely the point.

Then sunrise made everything go a quite horrific shade of pink.

And we come full circle. Advertising must go on, after all. It’s sad that the bright and false lights of Star Junction in the night creates a much sharper definition than natural light can. Don’t the daylit pictures seem warmer, but fuzzier than the night-time ones? It could just be me. Either way, I guess that’s the nature of cities which, in reaching for the sky with skyscrapers, ironically end up blocking out the sun.

P.S. This isn’t part 2. But there will be one now.

BioShock

Three years ago, BioShock came out, and I don’t know what I was doing at the time but it must have been fairly engrossing because I completely missed this particular event. If anyone can remember what I was doing for the entirety of 2007, I’d love to be reminded. Anyway, the remarkable gaps in my memory aren’t important right now, since eventually, I did get round to noticing the game, because it featured a steam-punk dystopia, which is one of the things I love the most (I love saying it out loud as well) in fiction. The fact that it was in the video-game medium made it even better.

See, it is the perennial job of a video-game, or at least the current generation’s worth, to build a world for itself that is if not inherently compelling, then at least convincing. A few generations ago, it wouldn’t have mattered; Super Mario 64 convinced easily with a world no bigger than a castle, and a creatively abstract means of warping between ‘levels’. Technological advances mean, however, that we are now capable of so much more (like sending Mario into space, but that’s a path I’m not going to go down at this moment in time, for fear of coming out in sympathetic asphyxiation for every time the lucky plumber’s head didn’t explode) and it is the job of a modern video-game to blow our socks off. A video-game world differs from that of a book, or a film, because it’s not just part of the background, passed on by the plot, but an actual place that you can wander around and experience. Video-games transcend other mediums by allowing you to actually become part of a fictional world, rather than just be a passenger taking in the sights. If it’s done well, it’s awesome.

In that manner, BioShock succeeded, with its personal setting of a huge, decrepit, futuristic metropolis lurking at the bottom of an ocean, a world designed as a utopia but driven to hell by madness, greed and several rounds with ‘what no man should ever have known’. Several times whilst playing I would stop in one of the travel tunnels between complexes to look out at the fish swimming past with skyscrapers in the background. It is compellingly bizarre, beautiful and utterly fucked. Unfortunately, whilst this aspect of the game sold me from the off, the actual gameplay didn’t, and after playing about twenty minutes of the game, I went to do something else for a while with the intent of ‘coming back to it in a bit’.. and never did for about a year and a half.

It’s not my fault. Okay, it is my fault, but only subconsciously. I like adventure / platform / occasional RPG / mix games more than anything. Those are the genres I <3; I was bought up on them (my first game was Rayman (another awesome game)), and underexposed to other genres such as FPS, RTS, sports, driving, and god sims. (For anyone not following: RPG = role playing game, FPS = first person shooter, RTS = real time strategy.) BioShock is, upon first glance, or more accurately first twenty minutes, an FPS, and although I’m not opposed to them, they never seem to be able to hold my interest particularly well. I chalk this up to the reason I originally never got round to experiencing BioShock properly.

Now, however, I have, and it’s entirely thanks to one person going ‘hey let’s play this’. Such random instances, I have been learning recently, may well be the best way to do things in life. But yes, an evening of exposure illuminated me to the fact that BioShock doesn’t play quite like a typical FPS, but is in actuality more akin to the Metroid Prime games, and their (I thought) unique mixture of adventure, exploration and shooting. It’s not just about guns, although there are plenty – there’s even have an upgrades system which is notable for demonstrating restraint, a lack of which unbalances and ruins many games these days when they prefer to sacrifice the integrity of a challenge in exchange for a gold-plated semi-automatic (I’m actually thinking of Army of Two here, not the Ballad of Gay Tony, since in TBoGT the golden SMG is it’s own weapon with good and bad points). Guns in BioShock, by contrast, are only half of the combat experience, with the other half being given over to chemical-based technical enhancements that… well, essentially, it’s magic. However you spin the ability to shoot lightning from your fingertips, it’s still magic at heart.

There’s a fair bit of this magic, present in both active – fireballs, force lightning, telekinesis, swarms of bees (seriously) – and passive forms. The passive forms offer more of a chance to ‘build a character’, to create that elusive sense of self-identity that many games strive towards. BioShock’s various paths aren’t as varied or restraining as those in, say, Borderlands; you can feasibly do a bit of everything. My friend and I personally chose to make the humble wrench the most vicious weapon on the ocean floor, which had its very own hilarious factor of awesomesauce. When you can stroll through the final level killing everyone with a swift rap or two to the back of the head.. I haven’t decided yet if it’s very wrong or very right, and I may never.

So yeah the game has more depth than simple rakakaka, and whilst it can’t honestly be called an FPS-RPG, it has enough to it to make managing your magics and weaponry almost fun (and this is coming from someone who derives endless pleasure from reorganising the briefcase from Resident Evil 4 to be as aesthetically pleasing as possible). BioShock, then, manages to tick the all important boxes of a) having an engaging in-game world, and b) gameplay that held my interest (at least, after someone showed me how it actually worked)…

This brings us to c), the final part of the video-gaming checkbox trinity: does it have a good story? Even the most impressive overworld and gameplay can’t save a game that has an abysmal storyline, especially if the storyline is heavily intertwined with the world itself. Games like GTA4 and Just Cause 2 can exist independently of their story because they’re tales that happen to be set in particular places; consider the title of the CD release of GTA4’s expansions; ‘Tales From Liberty City’ .. not tales of Liberty City. Games like Bioshock are very much tales of their respective locations, and if the tale is no good, the whole thing begins to fall to bits.

Luckily, BioShock’s storyline is, at the least, passable. Although occasionally given to ridiculous ‘fetch this stuff’ quests that exist purely for the sake of padding, the overall tale of the mysterious city, the mysterious man who comes to it and the mysterious people he meets is a good one. There’s plenty of intrigue about who the good and bad guys are, even if this isn’t reflected in the game’s morality mechanic, which allows you to be either a) Mother Teresa or b) Hitler. It’s not overly twisty-turny to the point of being labyrinthine to those who don’t concentrate (hello Assassin’s Creed 2), but certainly leaves you guessing (and in our case, correctly deducing a particular plot thread completely by accident). Unfortunately, at about the three quarters mark, the clouds clear and the final antagonist makes their stand.. and instantly dissolves from interesting and well-rounded character into taunting, babbling …republic serial villain, as Ozymandius would put it. It’s almost embarrassing. The actual ending is also somewhat abrupt, and blows away the remaining cobwebs of Dubious Morality in order to capitalise on the Mother Teresa vs. Hitler debate for an incredibly black and white denouement. Oddly enough, the ‘neutral’ path is also Hitler. Perhaps that’s some sort of moral warning to those who sit on the fence. Either that or the developer’s deadlines popped up a lot sooner than they were expecting them to do. I hate it when that happens.

So that’s BioShock. Crazy, compelling and definitely worth the time spent with it. Unfortunately, having now completed it, there’s not much left to do with it. I could attempt it again on the hardest mode without dying in order to go for another Platinum Trophy.. but that way madness lies.

Actually, another thing I’ve learnt recently is that madness is actually quite fun.. so yeah I’ll see you all in a bit.

Thai Travel Guide: Bangkok in 500 words

If we must sacrifice the nickname ‘City That Never Sleeps’ to New York City, then it’s a sad day as there’s no better fitting name by which to refer to Bangkok. Admittedly, there must be some point at which everyone in the city gets their head down for a solid hour or two, but you’d be forgiven for missing it; I certainly did. Perhaps a better nickname for Bangkok would be the ‘City That Never Sleeps Consistently’. 5am or 5pm, there is always something going on. And whilst New York offers its own uniquely westernised hedonistic pleasures to keep us up all night, Bangkok provides an utterly opposing, yet curiously familiar take on the same idea.

I won’t claim to be an expert. The total sum of my time in Bangkok currently stands at two and a half days and three nights, and since I am but a weak westerner I was forced to sleep at some points – I can honestly say I have no idea what the streets of the Thai capital look like at 6:30am (4:30am, however..). But I have experienced the city, as well as some other places, and I know a lot of people will be interested in how the place manages to careen along from day to day without imploding, so I thought I’d write a retrospective travel guide, rather than simply blog all about my hollydayz in a thoroughly dull manner.

What I find wickedly exciting and impressive about Bangkok is that it’s almost entirely founded on contradictions. Start on one side of the city, and you’ll wander past broad highways, through beautiful parks, into a tight, chaotic urban shopping district of glitz and glamour.. then on through the quiet calm of a temple, and out the other end past a stinking canal with dilapidated looking buildings wobbling dangerously along its banks. Quiet, peace and religion wander hand in hand with madness, activity and glamour through the streets of Bangkok and it’s completely, utterly, unequivocally mental. I’ve never been anywhere that can be so dedicated to two inherently opposed ways of life before, and possibly may never again (unless I go back, but then that would be cheating).

The best metaphor I can think of for the city is that of the floating party from ‘Life, the Universe and Everything’, another entity that careens through the swathes of existence without a care in the world, rolling formlessly from one thing to another with no reason nor rhyme. Hopefully, it won’t be critically injured by the sound of several hundred people saying ‘wop’.

Anyway, this is just the introduction; Bangkok in a nutshell, if you will. Next, I’ll be going into more detail about the various neighbourhoods of the city, and what’s worth seeing in each one. The third part of this guideblog will probably be dedicated to the many ways of getting about, and the last part will be about why leaping on a bus and going north is a fucking good idea.

My Top 10 Games of All Time

Two and a half years ago now, I was compelled by the top ten lists that GameFAQs often runs to make a list of my own. Since it was just going to be the one, I decided to make it high stakes, and made it a list of my top ten games of all my gaming time. The creation and ordering of the list I made actually presented me with a lot of difficulty – if you try this yourself, you may well feel it too. To compress years of video gaming into 10 stand out titles that could be called the ‘best’ is no mean feat.

The finished product, my list, was an accomplishment I was quite proud of once I’d finished it, and recently I located it again on the blog where I originally posted it, where it is still visible (at http://myheartagramromance.spaces.live.com/blog/cns!5AC15658CAF96A90!657.entry). I found it quite interesting that some of the things I had discussed in my list were slightly different now, approximately two and a half years later. Also, now I was able to observe that the rose-tint of nostalgia had affected me somewhat in my choices. As it was then, I decided to make a new list, an update in leiu of the old one. Once again, it has wracked my very heart and soul, but I have completed it. So here are my top ten games of allllll time.

10. Final Fantasy IX (PS1)
The reasons I supplied for the inclusion of this game in my original list still stand; an adventure epic in scale, but not afraid to be closer to the roots of its franchise than more recent games. At the time, Final Fantasy 7 & 8 had introduced a new technologically-based fantasy world, and though it had defined the RPG genre for the time, I’d never been particularly interested in them. FF9, however, refocused on the fantasy aspect of the games, with black mages, monkey-tailed humans.. and well, I don’t know. Save the first few acts of FF8, Final Fantasy IX remains still the only game in the series I have dedicated time to, so I don’t really know how to compare them. I’ve attempted later games in the series, and come away thoroughly bemused (particularly FF12 and the battle with the dreaded Rogue Tomato).. so when it comes to RPGs, it’s only FF9 for me.

Well, there is one other, but I’ll get to that later..

9. Super Mario World (SNES) / Dynasty Warriors 5 (PS2)
This initially made me shudder, but I’ve come to terms with it since then. The number 9 position in this list is shared by two games, because I can’t decide between them and had no desire to bump FF9 off the bottom. As it is, both games, though vastly different, have affected me in the same way – predominantly, socially. SMW is a 1-player platformer, but myself, Jun and Daniel have made it a meme of sorts that it’s the game we complete. Every now and then, we come up against it again, and we complete it, because it’s just what we do. The fact that it’s a very good game certainly helps, but somehow it’s moved beyond that for us.

Dynasty Warriors 5 have similar social value. A few years ago we played it religiously, not just for the breezy hack and slash gameplay, but for the challenges of the harder modes, the unlocking of special weapons for all the characters, and the fulfilment of the conditions to unlock all the really cool special items, which then made the hack and slash even more fun. Also, on harder modes, the battles would tend to unfold more like real wars do, as opposed to having overpowered officers running in and killing everything. Recently, we’ve started DW5 over again, and it still has all the same attractions as before, which, for a game with a fairly simple concept, is quite impressive.

8. N
Something of an entry from leftfield, N stands out on this list as not belonging on a console, due to being a flash game. Not a break-time-at-work short and sweet style of flash game, though; N is possibly the most in-depth, lengthy and epic flash game there is. As a ninja with no weaponry other than your impressive agility, you must navigate 500 individual courses filled with things that will make you dead.. under a time limit as well. I enjoy this game because it’s a challenge, up to the point where it might even be considered masochistic to play in the later levels. But the controls are fluid and it’s undeniably fun to throw your ninja around.. even willingly to his death, which activates the remarkable ragdoll physics engine for some fun times.

I’ve completed N twice, the second time after a computer crash robbed me of my saved data. These days I just watch sped-up replays and awe at how good some of the stuff I somehow pulled off was, feeling consistantly bemused by how I ever managed it. There was an N+ released on DS, but it was dull in comparison to the flash games’ high-octane thrills. Good times.

7. Fallout 3 (PS3)
Another new entry, and one that, if you know of this game, you most likely won’t be surprised to see. Fallout 3 is one of the most renowned games of the current console generation, due to the size, scope and scale of it. I don’t have much to say about it other than that I enjoyed it so much I went through the entire game twice in a row, and it didn’t get old, despite the fact that I made more or less the same moral decisions both times. And the downloadable content hasn’t even been released yet; many more fun times await.

6. Super Smash Bros Brawl (Wii)
Another somewhat controversial entry in my list is the latest incarnation of the Super Smash Bros franchise, replaced Melee from my original list. There’s often debate over which of these two games is the better, with Melee being cited as the more balanced, professional game, and Brawl being bigger and brighter, but infinitely more retarded. There’s certainly valid argument for this; Brawl introduced a much more excessive level of randomness to battling, to the point where it’s often quite easy to believe that the game is actually taking steps against you. The upshot of that is that brawling with friends now doesn’t always go the same way. Before it was always Dr. Mario or Sheik or Falco winning, OP characters played by OP players. The madness of Brawl makes it much fairer for all, and though it was thoroughly frustrating at first, I think we’ve all adapted to it now, and Brawl has become our ultimate party game. Whereas it was all seriousness with Melee, with Brawl, anything could and always does happen, so we just take it easy.

It still pangs me a little deep inside that they didn’t bring back the good doctor. At least Mewtwo, similarly MIA, was replaced somewhat by Lucario. Poor doc was just tossed into the void.

5. GTA San Andreas (PS2/PC)
In my original list, the Grand Theft Auto presence was filled by Vice City, which, at the time, despite not being the highest-tech GTA game, was my favourite. Since then, we’ve been treated (or spoilt) by GTA4 on our shiny next-gen consoles, and it’s all good. For a given value of good, anyway. Whilst 4 was a huge step forward in terms of creating a virtual world, it sacrificed a lot of the madcap action that made previous GTAs so fun in favour of gritty realism. And, whilst it told a better story, it was also a less fun one. I’ve gone more in-depth with GTA4’s flaws elsewhere, so I’ll leave that for now, but the upshot of it was that when I, on a whim, got San Andreas for PC and played through it again, I was blown away by the sheer awesome. The scale of the land (close to par with Fallout 3 if that game had been using last-gen technology), the epic of the story, the sheer ridiculous amount of fun stuff to do.. All things that GTA4 lacked, and yet these are things that made GTA famous. Now, I’d put Vice City and GTA4 about level, but for me San Andreas is the Grand Theft Auto king.

4. Pokemon Firered/Emerald (GBA)
Anyone who knows me should not be terrible surprised by the presence of the Pokemon franchise on my list – indeed, it made it onto my last one, albeit in an uninformed manner, since at that point Crystal version was the pinnacle of my pocket monstering, and its inclusion on saidl list was borne almost entirely out of nostalgia. Well, a lot has happened since then, and I’ve spent a lot of time with newer incarnations of the Pokemon franchise, most of it good. Why, then, have I gone for the GBA games instead of the DS games, on which I have spent many hundreds more hours?

Well, it’s because of the ‘most’. The DS games, Pearl and Platinum, lack the innocence that was Pokemon’s charm when it first began. Initially, in those first few games, it was all about the epic adventure to become the master, but then, starting with Crystal, funnily enough, Game Freak began to include post-game stuff of a much more serious note; the various battle towers and frontiers that plague the games these days. And though an interesting challenge, as these facilities require knowledge and skill, they’re not fun, as they come hand in hand with frustration and failure. With the two Pokemon GBA games I own, the only thing I’ve experienced is fun. Firered was just Red version all over again, albeit with prettier graphics and some new stuff; a fun-filled nostalgia trip with nothing to rape you at the end of the game other than a stronger Elite Four. Emerald was more epic in scale, and just as fun, since although it did contain a Battle Frontier, it was one I wilfully ignored due to the already established presence of a more recent one. So, although Platinum is probably my best game and almost definitely has my best team, Firered and Emerald tie for the pinnacle of the Pokemon franchise in relation to me.

3. Spore (PC)
A new entry at such a high point in the list must mean it’s something good, and so it’s oddly fitting that said entry is the most ambitious and far-reaching game.. possibly ever. As a grand-scale journey through life, the universe and everything, Spore is a joy to play each time. Offering condensed versions of various genres in its initial stages – namely RPG-grind-adventuring and real-time-strategy, both genres of gaming that I’ve never really gotten into outside of this, the gameplay is varied but always enjoyable, all leading up to the point where you enter space, and behold the vastness of the games’ internal universe. Although there’s not really that much to do with all the space, the approach you take towards these familiar activities will differ every time depending on how your race of creature evolved; it has for me, in any case, and though I once argued that there was no real need to replay the Space stage more than once, I have now ‘completed’ it – that is to say, spent a large amount of time with it, six times. So I guess I can eat my hat.

I haven’t really done it justice here – I’m only now mentioning the creature creators, which can do some really cool stuff once you get the hang of them, but to actually do this game justice is quite tricky. Note that it’s not without its flaws, but for me, the scale of it overwhelms them. If I’ve ever looked up at the stars one night and wished I could travel to them, chances are within a few hours I’ll be playing Spore.

2. Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door (GC)
This is what I said at the end of what I wrote for the original Paper Mario, which occupied the number 2 position in my previous list:

“Never have I played a better RPG (though I plan to get the Gamecube sequel, so who knows what might happen next).”

Well, since then, I purchased said sequel, and I can quite happily say that in terms of quality, it makes the original look like a 90’s arcade game. TTYD is the Empire Strikes Back of the Paper Mario series; it builds on the engine that was already established, the visual style, the still relatively unique approach to RPGing, the surprisingly (for Mario) anarchic sense of humour, but does it all so much better. Also, since the first game retrod the traditional Mario tale of Bowser kidnapping the Princess, the sequel is free from such shackles and as such can tell a deeper, darker, funnier and even crazier tale.

Compare; the main hub of Paper Mario was Toad Town, a fairly pleasant little town .. but not really all that interesting. The main hub of TTYD is Rogueport, a busy but dodgy seaside town, full of seedy characters, thieves and thugs – all of whom are represented by traditional Mario characters. Piantas, the floppy gormless inhabitants of Delphino Island in Mario Sunshine, run a mafia in this game. A mafia! Then there’s the chef character – previously a charming little lady, the new chef constantly berates Mario and calls him clumsy because he breaks her contact lens early in the game.

In terms of set pieces, this game also beats most others out there. The world’s most high-tech supercomputer falls in love with Princess Peach, Mario battles the main antagonists’ super-pimped battleship by calling in a favour from a sulking pirate ghost and borrowing his ship, a ghost steals Mario’s identity leaving you in control of his shadow, until you can recover the missing letter to spell the ghost’s name, Mario is shot to the moon by a giant cannon powered by Bob-ombs..

I could talk about this game all day. But I won’t, as there’s one more to go yet.

1. The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask (N64/Wii)
Majora’s Mask was my number one two and a half years ago, and it still is now. In fact, this new list was actually inspired by a recent playthrough of this game. With three days until the moon crashed down and killed everyone, as Link I was working my way through the adventure once more, healing the sad souls of the lost Gorons and Zoras of Termina, reunting families and enjoying myself, yet also being saddened as I skipped through time and my work was undone, but it wasn’t until I reunited Kafei and Anju, the objective of which being the games largest side-quest, and I waited for their finale in a deserted Clock Town, with the moon literally right overhead and mere hours until oblivion, with terrifically haunting music playing and minor earthquakes serving as a reminder of what was to come.. it was only then that I realised once more how fucking phenomenal the atmosphere this game creates is. Fallout 3 might win for the most realised game world, Pokemon claims the prize for most time spent with a game, and Paper Mario 2 might be the most entertaining entrant on my list, but nothing tops Majora’s Mask. It’s just too good.