The Skinny: The Smithsonian gathered votes for its upcoming Art of Video Games and this week, I detail what I threw my weight behind. Part one is here. Part two is here. Part three is here. Part four is here. The first part of Part Five is here. Today, I finish off by talking about my picks from the last decade or so.
Era 5: Next Generation, continued
“Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door”
Even though there’s a “Zelda” in the category–“The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker,” to be specific–I voted for “Paper Mario” because of localization. There’s a tricky art to the practice of taking the in-jokes and idioms of a game made in Japanese and making them work in other territories. It’s led to unintentionally funny bad Engrish translations before in video games: the All Your Base meme of the early 2000s came from botched localization. So, it’s a triumph that fans all over the world get to see how “Paper Mario” games poke fun at their titular hero and the lore that accrued around the super-successful character. These games also expand our understanding of what the iconic character can be and how his universe can be understood.
“Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time”
It was a tough fight between this and “Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem.” I’ve written about “Prince of Persia” and my love for it before. “Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem” is a time-hopping, Lovecraftian horror game. Aside from the creepy atmosphere of the gameplay experience, it found ways to scare players that crept into the real world. At one point, the game tells you that your save data’s been corrupted and that you’ll have to start over. Tons of gamers panicked that what they saw onscreen was actually true, but it was just a supreme mindf**k on the part of “Eternal Darkness.” However, ” PoP” looked backwards and forwards simultaneously. Reaching back to 1989, it revived Jordan Mechner’s iconic indie game with a modern take and more mature sensibilities. Then, it changed the way that platformer game mechanics looked and felt. The first time that I saw the Prince run across a wall, I did a double take. And the first time I saw him rewind time, my jaw dropped. Most compellingly, “PoP: SoT” develops its lead character even as gameplay is happening and glorifies storytelling in a way that’s fitting for a title that acknowledges a debt to 1,001 Arabian Nights. It felt, played and looked a bit of digital folklore, something from the past re-envisioned for the now. The Prince will probably enchant us in some form or another for decades to come.
So far the only game to come out of EA’s partnership with Steven Spielberg, “Boom Blox” plops players into a wobbly, block-built universe populated with cartoony, cute cube-shaped critters. Players are tasked to either harvest magical gems by knocking them to the ground. The game mechanics combine aspects of dominoes, Legos and Jenga; the main modes of interaction involve dislodging the onscreen blocks by throwing a virtual ball at the screen). I loved how the EA game made the Wii’s then-new motion controls feel infectious and natural. Even as the
“Super Mario Galaxy 2”
I’ll just repeat what I said when I included “Super Mario Galaxy 2” in the Best Games of 2010:
In a year where the company mascot notched a 25th anniversary of starring in games with “Super Mario” in the title, the little plumber starred in an adventure that exemplified how Nintendo earns such vibrantly loyal fans. “SMG2” felt vibrantly alive and quivered with ingenuity at almost every turn. Everything in the game — from the partnering with Yoshi to the power-ups and the puzzle-like structure of the worlds — felt considered and easy to understand. Factor in the automatic assist of the Super Guide and you get a title that nearly everyone can finish despite its burly difficulty. Experiences like the one “Super Mario Galaxy 2” delivered are the reason Nintendo design guru Shigeru Miyamoto gets compared to Walt Disney. Play and learn, everybody else.
“Zack and Wiki: Quest for Barbaros’ Treasure”
I loved that this under-appreciated and clever puzzle game from Capcom made the nomination list. Done in a wild over-the-top manga art style, “Zack and Wiki” made players rethink the Wii remote’s relation to physical space by having them turn it this way and that to solve riddles. It’s a brainier implementation of the gestural controls available through the Wii, making the glut of waggle-centric games that clogged the console look simple by comparison.
The Smithsonian exhibit’s focusing on the artistic aspect of video game creation, so it makes sense that “Okami” is on the list of nominees. The 2006 release dedicated itself to visual beauty in a way that few other games have. Playing as Japanese sun goddess Amaterasu in lupine form, you purge demons from a mythological, feudal Japan blighted into drabness and reintroduce color into the world. From the mystical powers you invoke by drawing symbols to the little bursts of flowers that spring up at Amaterasu’s feet, “Okami” created a feast for the eye. After playing it only once five years ago, I still remember how vivdly the world vibrated as I played.
“Shadow of the Colossus”
The work of Fumito Ueda and his colleagues at Team Ico does away with many video game design clichés, leaving players with unique and beautiful experiences Ueda’s an artist/designer led the team responsible for another Playstation 2 classic called “Ico.” “Ico” and “Shadow” share the same spare, haunted visual language, as if a vast storybook universe were abandoned and players come upon it eons after the glory faded. In “Colossus,” players control a young man trying to bring a dead love to life. To do so, he must kill the 16 colossi scattered all over the world. The quiet and enigmatic Colossi could be the lovechildren of Ray Harryhausen and Maurice Sendak, and are among the most memorable creations ever to appear in a video game. Yet, while it looks amazing, “Shadow of the Colossus” uses it’s impressive looks and sharp design to deliver an unforgettable emotional impact.
Call “Flower” a tone poem, a small slice of pure feeling. You control a solitary petal borne aloft on the wind making other flowers bloom. Designer Jenova Chen and cohorts at dev studio ThatGameCompany built a game moves from leafy exhiliration to urban gloom to an eventual truce between the two opposites. And your heart moves along with it. “Flower” doesn’t use any words (or even human characters) to tell its story but its sublime interactivity results in a experience that anyone can appreciate.
Here’s where an exhibit like the Art of Video Games can early shine: by taking a genre (or specific franchise) and charting how it’s evolved through out the ages. It’s likely that there will be more than one “Mario” or “Legend of Zelda” game on the final list and attendees will be able to see how innovations like 3D rendering affect the look and design of the familiar characters. In the case of “Heavy Rain,” it’s the mostly dormant adventure genre that finds unexpected resurrection in Quantic Dream’s cinematic thriller. The same mechanics as were found in “Grim Fandango” show up in “Heavy Rain”: find people, seek out objects in the environment and suss out the embedded connections. The eerie realism in “Heavy Rain” adds weight and mood and its divergent story branching up the ante from what adventure games used to be and point them forward in a tantalizing new direction.
Another face-off between three standout nominees. “Uncharted 2: Among Thieves” stands as the pinnacle of a certain game type: the balls-out, bullets-and-wisecracks derring-do formula and “Call of Duty: Black Ops” is the latest outgrowth of a hypercompetitive multiplayer culture that breeds its own intricate strands of strategic, twitch-reflex DNA. But, simply, “LittleBigPlanet 2” (and a very few games like it) encourage you to create and disseminate. It looks like a lovingly, hand-crafted world It gives back to the medium that spawned it. I’ll bet money that the game designers of 20 years hence will say they first caught the itch when playing “LBP2.”
Man, if you stuck with me through this whole long mess, it’s duly appreciated. The Smithsonian will be revealing the games that people voted for next week, so we’ll see just how many of my personal picks will be shown in Washington, D.C. when “The Art of Video Games” opens next year.