Top 5 Tuesday: Zelda Gimmicks

I’m going to spontaneously combust if I don’t play A Link Between Worlds soon. Seriously. My hair’s melting off my scalp and my skin won’t stop turning to ash. And all because the K-Mart pre-Black Friday deal that I hyped didn’t include videogames. Yep. I’m the one who jinxed it. Please send all hate mail to my About page. I’ll see to your death threats soon as I get a some free time.

Anyway, in honor of Link’s newest ability to transform into a cave painting, I’m rocking out a Zelda-themed list of my favorite gimmicks in the series. “Gimmick” may not be the best word, but it’s the best catch-all I can think of for things such as…

5. The Four Swordsmen (Four Swords, Four Swords Adventures)

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Two guys putting their lives on the line and another two doing absolutely nothing? Sounds like Four Swords to me!

The latest Wii U Mario game is getting a ton of praise for it’s four-player scrambling and puzzle-solving, but it’s been done before. Over a decade ago, actually. If you and your buddies owned a GBA copy of Zelda: A Link to the Past (and those cumbersome link cables), you had your ticket to the world of four-player puzzle-solving. You also had a lot of yelling and leadership struggles, but where’s the fun in contentment?

4. Time Travel (Ocarina of Time)

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Back so soon? He’s got a well to drain.

It may seem straightforward compared to the three-day time cycle in Majora’s Mask, but Ocarina’s back-and-forth time travel opened up a world of story and gameplay wrinkles from the moment Link yanked the Master Sword from it’s pedestal. Who could forget their first steps into the ruined, ReDead-infested Hyrule Market as an adult? And just when you thought the trip to the future was a one-way deal, the Well and Spirit Temple beckoned for Link in his youth.

3. Sword Motion Controls (Twilight Princess, Skyward Sword)

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The Lightsaber duel of your dreams. Sort of.

I don’t care how limited the sword controls were in Twilight Princess–they were a dream come true. Indisputable magic if you’re a Zelda fan. And then Skyward Sword took it to a more comprehensive level with Wii Motion Plus Controls. Not only did this make for a fuller range of slashes, but it made for a few unforgettable sword duels with Ghirahim. Fake high, slice low.

2. Mask Collecting/Transformation (Majora’s Mask)

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Who’s saying no to that face?

Arguably the greatest sidequest in all of gaming, the mask collecting in Majora’s Mask was punctuated by the three transformation masks that catalyzed a Zelda gameplay experience like no other. It was enthralling enough to roll around as a Goron and swim at stingray pace as a Zora, but utilizing Link’s transformations for the sake of puzzle-solving took it to a higher echelon.

1. Dawn of the First Day: 72 Hours Remain (Majora’s Mask)

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That’s not the face of a moon who’s second-guessing Armageddon.

A lot of games involve ticking clocks and time travel. A lot of games involve living worlds full of NPCs with daily plans and paths. But no game quite combines the two like Majora’s Mask, where you have to be somewhere at some time… all of time. And even if you blew off the sidequests in favor of the main game, you still had that angry-ass moon to worry about. Three days is all you’re getting, but let’s not forget this is Link we’re dealing with. Slow down time, jump ahead, and reboot the whole thing when Armageddon approaches.

Top 5 Tuesday: Launch Games

PS4 has already taken off to the tune of over a million shipped units, and we’re just days away from the latest in ESPN entertainme–er, Xbox One. While we’re caught between console launches, it’s worth reflecting on the greatest launch games I’ve ever played. I’ll be honest with you: this is dangerously close to being a Top 5 Mario list, and heavy hitters like Halo and Soul Calibur are absent. Castlevania: Circle of the Moon, Wii Sports, and NFL 2K missed the cut as well. So what made my list?

Well, since you asked…

5. Sonic Adventure (DC)

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If you were man enough to endure the Amy and Big segments, SA1 gave one hell of a finale.

Why not kick things off with something controversial? The original Sonic Adventure may be the most polarizing game in the series, possibly even in the entire Dreamcast library. You either love the intense speed of Sonic and Tails’ levels, or your hate the impossible-to-wrangle camera. You either welcome Knuckles and Gamma’s levels as fresh breaks in the formula, or you knock the game for Amy and Big the Cat’s dreadful quests. You either play proud parent to your Chao or cast off the minigame like a black sheep. As for me, I side with the former parts of those three statements. Give me Sonic, Tails, Knuckles, Gamma, and Chao Gardens. And let’s pretend Big’s fishing levels never happened, cool?

4. Super Mario Bros. (NES)

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Nothing owned my childhood soul like Lakitu in World 8-2.

I’m not even going to mention the game’s greater impact. I love the original Super Mario Bros. for what it is: a simple-yet-rich platformer with enough secrets to drown in. World 8 is still one of the high points in the series, and to this day I still shiver at the sight of the Hammer Bros. sprites. The game welcome multiple playthroughs and speed runs, and if that weren’t enough, mess around in the Minus World or try beating every Bowser with fireballs (a bonus requirement in the Gameboy Color re-release).

3. Super Mario World (SNES)

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Nothing beats swallowing a blue shell.

Though many consider Super Mario Bros. 3 the apex of 2D platforming, I don’t even consider it the best 2D Mario. World does everything Mario 3 does, then scales it up for the hefty gentleman: bigger levels, bigger secrets, bigger green dinosaur companions. Sure, you lose out on a few zany power-ups, but in their place you get Yoshi and all his gameplay wrinkles–the extra layer of protection, three different special forms, and those daring hop-off jumps. And let’s not forget that the madness that is the Special World. Mondo? Tubular? Groovy? Right on, dude.

2. Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess (Wii)

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Though some argue that the sword controls felt tacked-on, I was too damn happy to care.

If you were an early Wii adopter, you either owned Twilight Princess or had nothing great to play for roughly a year. For a series filled with magic moments, Zelda never felt more incredible to me than the first time I swung a sword with my Wii remote. Waving the controller back and forth for slices and slashes was my first and favorite taste of motion-sensing immersion. Then came aiming arrows, shaking the nunchuck for spin attacks, thrusting the nunchuck for shield bashes–and those are just the controls. Once you nail them down, throw on your green tunic and embark on one of the meatiest, grittiest Zelda quests, complete with nine dungeons, six or seven of which are superb.

1. Super Mario 64 (N64)

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The Michael Jordan of Platformers

Forget for a second what Super Mario 64 means to gaming and 3D gaming in particular. All impact aside, this is still the best 3D platformer on earth. From circling to the top of King Bob-omb’s mountain to grabbing Bowser by the tail and chucking him into the final spiked ball, you won’t find a better run and jump experience in the realm of 3D. Each level was a game in itself, and the straightforward platforming of the Bowser stages kept things fresh. Then you have the time-shaving slide levels (Why couldn’t there be a dozen of these?), the Koopa races, the frantic Rainbow Ride, the tweakable Tick-Tock Clock, the lava surfing, the wildly creative enemies, the Wing Cap, the damned monkey, the endless stairs… the list never ends.

Top 5 Tuesday: PS3 Exclusives

It’s not time to embalm the PS3, but let’s face it: we’re three days away from PS3 passing the torch to a new generation of console gaming. But no need for tears and tissues: PS3 ain’t going anywhere, and there are still some rockin’ games in its future (Lords of Shadow 2, anyone?). So rather than celebrating the end, I’m celebrating the era and checking the rearview mirror for my five favorite games that were exclusive to PS3.

This is an awkward list because a lot of my favorite PS3 games are multi-platform. Arkham City and Fallou 3 would probably top a non-exclusive list… Just goes to show how picking the right console these days is more about the console itself than exclusive games.

5. Uncharted 2: Among Thieves (2009)

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Derailed train? Or largest ladder in the history of gaming? You decide.

You could make an argument about the various game franchises that defined PS1 and PS2, and your answers would boil down to Final Fantasy or Resident Evil for PS1 and either Grand Theft Auto or Metal Gear for Sony’s sequel system. But nothing defined PS3 like the Uncharted series, which initially seemed to come out of nowhere. The first game in the series was fun but raw, then Among Thieves took everything top shelf with a movie-like presentation, immersive action and climbing, and a witty cast of characters.

Uncharted for me has always felt like Resident Evil 4 on three cups of coffee. The third person shooting happens faster, and all the jumping and rolling picks up the pace. It also helps that the storytelling moves at a frantic pace and the game doesn’t get bogged down in weapon assembly/customization like a lot of shooters do these days.

Favorite moment: The snowy train ride, particularly the part where you have to shoot out the logs from beneath a burly, invulnerable soldier. That eureka moment when you realize you can shoot the strap is gold.

4. Tales of Graces f (2012)

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Graces is at its best when you’re slaying beasts. Now if only you could slay half the main cast…

Cliched storylines and cheesy characters are forgivable when you have one of the best JRPG battle systems at your disposal. Graces did the unthinkable and one-upped Symphonia’s masterful combat by incorporating a snappy block-and-dodge system and combo chains for extra strategy. Graces’ combat is so exhilarating that I’m not going to write two exhaustive paragraphs criticizing the obnoxiously obnoxious female cast or the overbeaten theme of friendship.

I swear. Watch. I’m moving on to #3…

3. Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception (2011)

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Things get shifty early on in Uncharted 3. Then it explodes off into gunplay and outrageous climbing puzzles.

Take Uncharted 2, improve the bland melee combat, provide another gripping storyline, juice up the multiplayer, and you have Drake’s Deception. Though the level design and plot get utterly ridiculous at times, it’s the most fun game in the series. The postmodern intro with Nate and Sully faking their deaths outside a bar remains one of my favorite intro scenes in recent memory. From there Naughty Dog lumped on 12 more hours of action and enough Nate/Sully banter to keep me grinning for days.

2. Ninja Gaiden Sigma (2007)

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Sure, it looks like Ryu’s kicking ass, but there are about two dozen Game Overs waiting to happen.

I’m cheating a little. Ninja Gaiden appeared twice on the original Xbox, but last I checked Sigma is a PS3 exclusive. Don’t like having a remake of a remake on this list? Fine, scroll back up to the top and ask for a refund.

Ninja Gaiden Sigma earns a high ranking for its poetic combat feel and brutal difficulty. Whereas Devil May Cry feels too clunky and God of War feels too chaotic, Ninja Gaiden nails combat with a blend of offense and defense that requires timing, memorization, and strategy. Oddly enough, I love playing defense in Ninja Gaiden almost as much as slicing and dicing. Hold down L1 and move the control stick to roll away from danger and set up anything from a flying decapitation to a wall jump combo. Relentless fun.

1. Valkyria Chronicles (2008)

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Though you can slip around a tank in most Strategy RPGs, VC will make you pay in it’s real-time segments.

I can’t name a more original JRPG from the past generation. Valkyria Chronicles somehow combines real-time strategy with turn-based strategy and manages to execute compelling, challenging gameplay with only four different character classes. The fusion of simplicity and complexity proves mindblowing, and the storyline contains one of the most genuinely gutwrenching moments of any RPG I’ve played. Oh, and the characters are likable–from the main cast all the way down to the army recruits who are loaded with as much personality as ammo.

If you own a PS3 and haven’t touched this one yet, do so. It’s like $15 on Amazon.

Top 5 Tuesday: Games of 2003

Soul Calibur II HD Online is set to release in a few weeks, just three months following its ten-year anniversary. Ten years… I feel like a senior citizen looking back on it. If you missed out on SC2 because you were too young or just oblivious, download it later this month on PSN or Xbox Live. It’s both deep and casual-friendly, and the only major letdown is you won’t be able to play as Link (who was an exclusive fighter in the Gamecube version).

As for today’s Top 5, I’m jumping back a decade to recall my personal favorite from 2003. I’ll warn you now: the list is Gamecube-heavy, and unfortunately I missed out on some excellent releases, most notably Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic and Beyond Good & Evil.

5. Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker (GCN)

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2003: The year of a boy, his talking boat, and an oversized ocean full of pirate romps.

Despite being the weakest of the 3D Zeldas, Wind Waker is still a Zelda experience littered with sharp puzzles, engrossing side quests, and slick swordplay. However, Wind Waker disappointed for two reasons: the monotonous sailing and the lack of gameplay originality beyond the sailing. Notice how I didn’t rip the cel-shaded visuals? Though they don’t suit the tone of Zelda, I’m okay with them if only because they broke the gaming trend of realism that’s been rampant for nearly two decades.

And as for the sailing, it was both good and bad. Good when you were looking for adventure or sidequests. Dreadful when you knew where you wanted to go and had to sit through five minutes of cartoon ocean. In the end we were left with a massive overworld with only a handful of dungeons. Epic final fight, though.

4. Fire Emblem (GBA)

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Oh, you bought Final Fantasy Tactics Advance instead? That’s cute.

I already praised Fire Emblem in a previous Top 5 list, but I’ll say this: Fire Emblem had the misfortune of releasing two months after the inferior Final Fantasy Tactics Advance back in 2003. This was back when Final Fantasy was a juggernaut in terms of sales and popularity. For a lot of gamers, Fire Emblem was an afterthought when it came to jotting down Christmas lists.

At least now we know better.

3. Soul Calibur II (PS2 / GCN / Xbox)

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Many gamers bought SCII solely for Link, only to discover that the game itself was excellent.

Soul Calibur II has the distinction of being the only fighting game I love that’s not named Super Smash Bros. Why the sappy crush? Because it was enjoyable no matter your skill level. You could pick it up on day one, have a blast button-mashing, then spin together some smooth combos by the end of the week. By the end of the month, you’d have a handle on some advanced techniques as well as some serious button combos.

And that’s just the core fighting. Soul Calibur II had a fun single-player mode that involved collecting weapons for each character, arcade modes, 8-character team battles, and more. And I haven’t even mentioned the vivid cast, diverse in both fighting styles and personalities.

And before you ask: my main was Nightmare.

2. Skies of Arcadia: Legends (GCN)

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Ship battles, codes of honor, glass eye-patches: what’s not to love?

I have yet to play an RPG with a better atmosphere than Skies of Arcadia. Sailing the skies with ships is every bit as engrossing as it sounds, and the towns, locales, customs, and myths of the game lend to a sense of place that is rivaled by very few games I’ve played. Though Skies offers an admittedly cliched story, the presentation is top notch, and the characters are infectious, particularly Vyse (He never gives up, dammit!).

Battles run lengthy, but the combat is a fresh take on turn-based, elemental fights. Certain ship battles end up feeling particularly grand due to the length and scope of the duels (some require you to chase down titan-like Gigas or set up a beast for a harpoon takedown). When you grow battle-weary, there’s always Suikoden-style recruiting to look forward to. If you’re going to save the most vivid world in JRPGs, you might as well stock an army for the job.

1. F-Zero GX (GCN)

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You vs. 29 other racers. Wouldn’t hurt to ram five or ten of them off the track…

Milliseconds.

That’s often the difference between 1st place and 6th in an F-Zero GX race. Nintendo’s best racer is intense, maddening, and delightfully masochistic, but the game shines due to its unrivaled blend of fun and difficulty. Track memorization is key, as one slip off the edge means game over. Oh? Think you can stay on board? Try doing it while ramming your booster, which juices your speed up at the expense of your vehicle’s damage threshold. Boost too much and you’re one wall-nick or driver collision away from breaking down. And you have to boost. A lot.

Not only is F-Zero GX intense, but the tracks weave, drop, and roll like poetry. If you haven’t driven Aeropolis – Multiplex or Lightning – Thunder Road, do yourself a favor an score a used copy of GX. It’s the best racer out there in this blogger’s humble opinion, not to mention my favorite game of ’03.

Top 5 Tuesday: Castlevania games not named “Symphony of the Night”

I’m in a whip-cracking mood today with Halloween on the horizon, so let’s run through my favorite horror-themed franchise: Castlevania. For those of you who’ve never played a Castlevania game (It never ceases to amaze me how many people have overlooked this classic series), know that the games range in play-style from linear action-platforming to Metroid-esque exploration to Ninja Gaiden-style 3D action. Though I prefer the “Metroid-vanias,” I’ll take Castlevania in any form I can get it.

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Symphony of the Night is an masterpiece, and not just because it let you slash at a giant sphere of dead bodies.

To spice up the list, I’m withholding the excellent Symphony of the Night, which is the pinnacle of the series in most fans’ eyes (mine included). If your haven’t played a Vania, start with that one. If you have, look into these five games while the night is still young.

5. Castlevania (NES)

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I pity the fool who doesn’t bring Holy Water to the Grim Reaper fight.

I didn’t play the original Castlevania until it’s Game Boy Advance re-release in 2004, so its #5 ranking has nothing to do with nostalgia. It’s simply a fun, challenging game that has aged better than most games from the late-80s. With just six levels, the original is super-short in terms of actual game length, but its brutal difficulty (and admittedly archaic jumping controls) makes it feel four-times its size.

How hard is it? Well, if you want to have any chance at defeating the later bosses in this game, show up to the fights with a full health bar. Having the right sub-weapon helps, too–just be prepared to lose your ax or holy water whenever you die… which is quite often.

4. Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow (DS)

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So what if his sword is thrice the size of you? You’ve got a halberd, man.

Dawn of Sorrow is the sequel to the final GBA Castlevania, Aria of Sorrow. Though I loved Aria’s gameplay concept (kill enemies to acquire “souls” that bestow abilities), all the soul-farming lead to unintentional level-grinding and thus a soft challenge. Dawn of Sorrow fixed the problem with a stiff difficulty that complemented the soul system, all while continuing the futuristic Vania tale of its predecessor.

3. Castlevania: Circle of the Moon (GBA)

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A giant succubus riding atop a worm-headed skull: the ultimate male fantasy. Sort of.

Circle of the Moon was the first portable Metroid-vania, and thanks to an intense difficulty level, it nearly lived up to it’s PS1 predecessor. The game boasted a card-based power-up system for your whip, but what ultimately defined the game was how it managed to feel like a classic Vania in a Metroid setting. While Symphony introduced swords and button-combo attacks, CotM reached toward its roots and put the whip back in the protagonist’s hands. It also jacked up the challenge with tougher enemies and devastating bosses.

2. Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia (DS)

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Lighthouse crab Brachyura is my favorite boss in the series. After he chases you to the top, the only option left is to drop a spiked elevator on him. Epic.

In 2006 Konami changed the Metroid-vania formula by taking us outside the castle in the DS installment Portrait of Ruin (which barely missed cracking this list). Two years later, Order of Ecclesia followed suit by sending us to secluded lighthouses, mist-blanketed forests, and mountain passes.

And that was only the first half of the game.

Dracula’s castle returns in the second half, making the game’s world a blend of new-age locations and the classic labyrinthine castle. Throw in a mysterious new heroine and a modified version of Aria and Dawn’s soul-collection system, and you have the best portable Vania in the palms of your hands.

1. Castlevania: Lords of Shadow (PS3)

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Lords of Shadow is home to one of the most brutally gothic intros you’ll ever witness.

Many fans and critics dragged Lords of Shadow through the catacombs, claiming that it lacked a true Castlevania feel. While LoS certainly draws heavy gameplay influences from God of War, Ninja Gaiden, and Shadow of the Colossus, the total package is cloaked in a decidedly Vania atmosphere. Occult powers, vampires, and whippings are abound, and the storytelling has the looming, historical tone that the series has always thrived off.

Bells and whistles aside, Lords of Shadow took #1 thanks to its ridiculously fun and challenging combat. Put the game on Hard Mode, then take the time to experiment with all the whip combos (which include turning your whip into a buzzsaw), sub-weapons, and dodge techniques. You won’t be disappointed. Then brace yourself for Indiana Jones-style whip swinging, snappy quicktime events, and bosses that’ll have you trash talking your TV screen.

And hurry up. The sequel is just a few months away.

Top 5 Tuesday: Square Enix RPGs (Post-Merger)

Last week Square Enix teased us with the first gameplay trailer for Kingdom Hearts III as well as some new footage from the third and supposedly final entry in the Final Fantasy XIII saga, Lightning Returns. I’m not exactly counting the days till both releases, but at least neither is a HD remake or cell phone port. Bravo, Square.

Square’s sudden relevance left me pondering whether or not I could do a Top 5 Tuesday based solely on RPGs released AFTER Squaresoft and Enix’s merger in 2003. Let me put it this way: We barely dodged our first ever Top 4 Tuesday. I’m not crazy about today’s #5. I probably should play The World Ends With You so I can revise this list. Until then…

5. Kingdom Hearts II (PS2)

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KHII gave us what we wanted in the original: a Final Fantasy ally.

I shouldn’t have to go into detail on this one. It’s essentially a copy-paste job of the original with new levels and a couple new moves (most notably the Parry move that Square borrowed from Zelda: The Wind Waker). Though admittedly fun, nothing about KHII struck me as fresh or groundbreaking.

As for highlights: teaming up with Auron and Jack Sparrow. Lowlights: that dreadful Little Mermaid musical level.

4. Final Fantasy XIII (PS3)

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It’s hard to focus on the storyline once the gang starts focusing on Cocoon.

I actually thought FF13 was a step in the right direction, and, no, this isn’t a lead-in to a “Hallway Fantasy” joke. Sure, the game is linear, but at least it steered the series away from the direction FF12 sent it in.

FF13 returned the series to traditional Active-Time Battles while throwing in the twists of paradigm shifts. Much like how FFX enabled swapping out party members mid-battle to exploit enemy weaknesses, FF13 let players switch the party’s character classes on the fly. Dealing with a tough boss? Start with a Sabatuer/Synergist/Medic group to weaken the enemy and bolster your guys. Then swap for Ravager/Commando/Ravager to rip into the beast. All at once, it played nothing like FF12 and tweaked the classic formula of hitting Attack Attack Attack and mixing in the occasional spell.

The battle system was good enough to keep me going, even when the storyline collapsed toward the end. I actually liked Lightning, Sazh, and Snow until maybe the midway point. The first half of the game was much more personal on a character-to-character level. Then everything veered off into protecting Cocoon, saving the world, and other trite developments.

3. Valkyrie Profile 2: Silmeria (PS2)

Underrated masterpiece alert! For whatever reason, nobody cares about Valkyrie Profile 2. Even fans of the original don’t give a shit. VP2 faded into obscurity almost from the moment it released. Total shame.

For those of you completely unfamiliar with the series, the Valkyrie Profile games put you in the role of a Valkyrie who traverses a conflict-ravaged earth in search of wayward souls to send to Valhalla. What’s cool is you can hang onto some of these souls and keep them as party members, or you can ship them off to the god Odin for bonuses.

What distinguishes VP from other J-RPGs is sidescrolling dungeons and towns (why the hell don’t other RPGs do this?) and a unique battle system that assigns each character to one of the four face buttons. In other words, tap X and your X-character will attack; immediately after, you can follow up with your Circle, Square, and Triangle-characters. It makes for some wild timing combos, and if you nail the right chemistry you can set up for some massive special attacks. As an upgrade from the original (at least in my opinion), VP2 put the battles on a full 3D plain where your 4-man party could dash around ganging up enemies one-by-one. Throw in a phenomenal fight theme, some challenging bosses, and a wild villain, and you’ve got yourself the most underrated Square game of the past decade.

2. Star Ocean: Till the End of Time (PS2)

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Battles may look chaotic and mindless, but SO3’s combat requires timing and patience.

I have a bad habit of thinking of Star Ocean 3 as the poor man’s Tales of Symphonia. They’re both stellar RPGs that I happened to buy on the same day; they both have enthralling battle systems; and both have decent storylines and a couple awesome characters. The difference is that Tales has more charm and polish than SO3. Other than that, they’re neck-and-neck.

Star Ocean 3 is a mammoth. Reaching the credits screen ran me around 70 hours, and while the storyline wasn’t Xenogears, it had a few compelling sci-fi spurts. I even liked this one particular late-game plot twist that appalled most fans. Hey, one man’s plot-breaker is another man’s compulsion to keep playing.

The draw with SO3 is its battle system, which is action-oriented without being button-mashy. Thanks to a stamina bar known as the Fury gauge, you can only use your light and heavy attacks so many times before the gauge has to replenish. Run out of Fury and you’re left punchless and vulnerable. Manage it properly and you can destroy enemy shields with heavy smashes or link up combos based on distance from the enemy and strength of the attack. Like Tales of Symphonia, SO3 thrives off fun battles. If only the game had been edited a little better for length…

1. Nier (PS3)

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Masterpiece or mess? It boils down to personal taste.

Nier is the best mediocre game I’ve ever played. If that sounds like an odd compliment, understand that Nier is an odd game. It starts with bizarre winter scene between a father and daughter who are hunted down by otherworldly geometric creatures called Shades. Without spoiling, I’ll say that Nier has a touching and thought-provoking story that explores themes of humanity, mortality, sacrifice, family love, and the afterlife. If you appreciate a good mindblow, hang around for the game’s closing sequences. I can promise you your brain will pop like a pricked balloon by the time it’s over.

While Nier’s story is surreal, original, and enthralling, the rest of the game’s components are a mixed bag. The soundtrack and atmosphere are among best of any RPG, while gameplay and combat go lukewarm at times. The combat is fun but not challenging enough: Think Kingdom Hearts with the gimmick of a magical tome that can unleash a variety of spells and abilities. Unfortunately, though, the game’s straightforward enemies and bosses rarely warrant breaking out those spells.

But trust me on this one: don’t take Nier as a sum of its parts. Enjoy it for the experience, which happens to be the best one Square Enix has offered since its inception.

Top 5 Tuesday: Game Music To Write To

Writing is a complex, lonely, and often drawn-out process. To my knowledge, the best way to cope with the lengthy demands and isolation is to listen to video game soundtracks. Whether it’s blitzy battle themes or atmospheric town chimes, game OSTs have a ton to offer us keyboard monkeys. And without the distraction of lyrics and singing.

Compiling a Top 5 list of my favorite writing songs was brutal. There’s at least thirty that could’ve made the list, and honorable mentions could warrant a post of their own. “Bombing Mission” from FFVII, “Dancing Mad” from FFVI, and “Premonition” from FFVIII are three snubs from the Final Fantasy series alone. Then there’s Nier, Castlevania, Zelda, Chrono Trigger, Valkyrie Profile… gah, let’s just get to the list before I unveil Top 30 Tuesday.

5. “Maiden Astraea” (Demon’s Souls)

Dark. Chilling. Immersive. I’m not a fan of Demon’s Souls (challenges are great; challenges involving clunky, technical controls aren’t), but this Maiden Astraea theme is enthralling. It has all the chills you’d expect from horror music, but what makes it so writing-conducive is the layered sound and it’s strong, even pacing.

4. “Fight!” (Grandia II)

I have yet to play Grandia II, but it has quite possibly the most electric RPG battle theme around. The guitar soloing is clean and uplifting, while the rhythm parts never stop punching. Great if you’ve hit writer’s block or need a boost.

3. “Someday the Dream Will End” (Final Fantasy X)

Roughly 4,537 Final Fantasy tracks could’ve made this list. Nobuo Uematsu is the kind of guy you slap the “genius” tag on, and “Someday the Dream Will End” is a masterpiece, especially when you need to grind out a lengthy article, essay, or story. The track has a light, compelling flow that pours into what becomes an epic track. Enjoy the two-hour version next time you camp out at the keyboard.

2. Trisection (Final Fantasy Tactics)

It makes sense that Tactics’ music goes perfectly with the writing process; after all, the game’s story battles can last upwards of 30 minutes. If you’re bunkering down for a blog post, what better to listen to than a musical piece that accompanies thought provoking combat? “Trisection” is my favorite of the FFT bunch, thanks to its silky sound, smooth pacing, and striking crescendo. Also check out “Back Fire” and “Unavoidable Battle.”

1. “Mechanical Rhythm” / “You Will Know Our Names” (Xenoblade Chronicles)

There’s a tie for #1, and they both happen to be from Xenoblade’s epic metal soundtrack. Xenoblade has some of the best battle music around, but the reason why these two tracks topped the list is because they’re my go-to cure for burnout. “Mechanical Rhythm” puts me in a keyboard-clicking rhythm from the second I push Play, and “You Will Know Our Names” has enough pop, sizzle, and energy to throw me out of any funk. If you can’t afford a ludicrously-priced copy of Xenoblade, at least check out the OST.

Now do me a favor. Post some of your favorite gaming tracks. I’m always open to letting great instrumentals carry me through my writing.