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Top 10 Games with Staff Writer, Andrew Vandersteen

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Top 10 Games is a new, semi-regular series that hopes to offer a bit of insight into the twisted minds of Goomba Stomp’s writers, editors and podcasters by allowing them to tell you about their all time favorite games, and why they love them to such an unhealthy degree. 

About Andrew: 

From playing old DOS games on my Dad’s accounting computer, to getting our first NES and SNES, gaming has been one of the most constant things in my life. Growing up with three brothers it wasn’t just a way to kill time after school, but also a bonding exercise, or occasionally the cause of a fight after particularly nasty rounds of Perfect Dark. Even through high school and college gaming was a way to ground myself, wind down after stressful exams or long days of lectures. I’ve played a lot of games over the years, and picking 10 wasn’t always that easy, but here they are: the best of my best, and maybe yours too.

Crusader Kings 2

Yes, my Grand Vizier is a horse, what about it?

A lot of games have great stories, but often my favourite stories are the ones I create myself while playing. That’s what Crusader Kings 2 is all about, creating and experiencing your own story, and the tools it provides to do this are astounding. At times the game is equal parts medivial sitcom, and Game of Thrones fanfic, and weaving these tales has kept me coming back for several hundred hours.

This is easily the most daunting of games on my list to recommend to anyone, and I know several people that have attempted to play it because of me only to give it up in frustration after a few hours. That’s the trick to CK2 though, is you can’t give up in a few hours. I honestly took 50 or so hours to understand some of the basic ideas, along with several dozen visits to the forums and wiki for the game, but it truly did pay off, as playing the game now is a relaxing break from some of the more intensive titles on this list.

Yes, it’s mostly menus, and yes there’s a lot of reading, but CK2 isn’t a game just about storming castles and killing citizens. It’s a game about seducing your aunt to distract her from you killing her son because he’s next in line for the throne and you want that spot. It’s a game about outing the pope as a criminal because he wouldn’t support your crusade so you accidentally plunge half of Europe into civil war. It’s a game about marrying your daughter off to your enemy so she can act as a spy while you quietly buy the support of his neighbors in preparation for a coup. CK2 doesn’t need a main plot because it lets my story be the main plot, and it truly does it better than any other game to date.

Doom 2

DOOOOM! DOOOOOOM!

Yes, games that make you think are great. You complete a puzzle, you feel smart, and you move on. But I don’t always want a game that makes me feel smart. Sometimes I just want to tune out everything, crank some metal, and get lost in the carnage. Sometimes I just want Doom 2, over and over again till it’s done.

Doom 2 is like going to your grandmother’s house for me. Yes, everything is old, and covered in dust, and in comparison to newer things it just doesn’t look that great. But I don’t care. I’m sitting down with a cup of marshmallows and chocolate chips watching The Honeymooners on a 24′ CRT, but I’m happy. Doom 2 is that, only instead of weird snacks and outdated TV shows from the ’50s, it’s ripping demons in half and blowing them apart with a double-barreled shotgun.

What really pushes Doom 2 over the first one for me, aside from the aforementioned shotgun, was the maps. Doom had some great maps, sure, but they were just learning what John Romero and John Carmack were capable of. With the second game not only did id get more creative, but their community did too, and some of the maps are downright insane. Particular favorites: Tricks and Traps, Downtown, and best of the best: Barrels O’ Fun.

It sometimes surprises me that Doom 2 is still fun to this day, but every time I load it up, especially with some fan mods like Brutal Doom or Pirate Doom it brings me back to my youth again, and for that it earns a spot in my pantheon of greatness.

The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind

Giant bug taxis are the only fast travel for me.

This list isn’t technically presented in any particular order, save for Morrowind‘s position at the top. When it comes to video games, this is my be-all and end-all, my golden standard, and the one game I’ve returned to more times then I can recall. Morrowind is everything I love about games, not just RPGs per se but all games across all genres. It may have aged like milk, but I still love Morrowind.

I won’t spend too much time talking about why I love Morrowind, as I’ve already done that in great length here, but a few things are worth going over again. The absolute freedom of Morrowind still floors me to this day, and while its world is nowhere near as big and open as games like Skyrim or Breath of the Wild, the level of detail is outstanding, with seemingly every tree and rock specifically placed. It feels believable, with well-worn roads going between different cities and hidden caves and points of interest just off the beaten path. Despite playing it for 15 years, occasionally I’ll still run into something I haven’t seen before, some secret just out of sight that I’ve missed.

The second, and biggest thing I love about Morrowind is its community. I’d love to one-day run the numbers, but I’m confident in saying that Morrowind is one of the most modded games in existence, and the fact that people are still modding it to this day astonishes me. There’s even an open-source port of the game being worked on to allow for further modding, but the retail release is getting on just fine. Mods that change the graphics, change AI, change weapons and armor, add new cities, add entirely new landscapes. There are hundreds of mods for this game, and if you think Morrowind is missing a feature there’s a good chance someone else did too and has done their best to add it in. I’d like to think at least a portion of people working in gaming today got their start making Morrowind mods, and its overall effect on the industry, particularly Bethesda is still being felt today.

Morrowind really is the ultimate expression of why gaming is the greatest art form today. A total sandbox of creativity and fun, and an experience that you can only get in a video game.

Fallout: New Vegas

The post-apocalyptic RPG I would write, complete with rockets and explosions.

I’ve said before that I love open world games, games that react to you, and the post-apocalypse, and that’s exactly what Fallout:NV delivers. This is as close to RPG perfection as you can get, and the definitive Fallout game for fans and new-comers alike. There’s a reason people were legitimately upset when Obsidian weren’t tapped to make Fallout 4, and a reason most people still prefer this game over the newer title.

Fallout 3 and 4 were both written as action games with RPG mechanics, where the larger focus is on the shooting and making minor choices to move you to the next shooting section. NV was written almost like a pen and paper RPG, with dozens of choices based on your abilities, your interactions with other people, and your history in the wasteland. This is what sets this game a step above, is that it recognizes what a proper RPG is about. It’s not just about killing things and leveling up, but doing that with a purpose and feeding that back into your next encounters.

Like other games on this list though, its the world that really draws me in, mixing the old west with the Fallout series signature retro-futuristic vibe. Yes it looks like crap even with a tonne of mods, but there’s a lot of character drawn into every nook and cranny, and every location feels like it has a story to tell. Compared to both Fallout 3 and 4 it also just feels more creative with some really unique and memorable areas, even if it is mostly desert.

Half-Life 2 (w/ Episode 1 & 2)

Fan mods do a lot to help keep this aging classic relevant.

In 2004 most games still looked blocky and weird, with really obvious visual tricks to try and hide or gloss over their imperfections. It made having a high-end PC feel like a waste of money, since most games didn’t look or run all that better then PS2/Xbox titles. Then came along Half-Life 2, a thinking person’s game for a thinking person’s platform, and it changed how I would think about games for a long time to come.

The sheer brilliance in Half-Life 2 is the now infamous 1->2->3 program Valve implemented for progression. First, introduce the player to a new mechanic in a safe, controlled environment, basically a tutorial they can’t fail at. Then introduce some challenge, add some danger to the situation. Finally let the player and the mechanic go wild as you slowly transition them to the next part of the game. It’s simple, but it goes a long way to make the gameplay of Half-Life 2 endearing even today.

The real thing that keeps me coming back to Half Life 2 though is the level of satisfaction it provides. The game is just rewarding to play, be it the exciting shootouts or puzzle sections. The world in and around City 17 is cool to explore and the characters are memorable, even if they only appear for a few minutes. It’s a shame we’ll likely never see the conclusion to the series, but for me the second game is still more than fine.

Harvest Moon

Better than real farming, trust me.

Growing up on a farm wasn’t always that great. I didn’t ever bike to a friend’s house, it smelled like chicken crap half the time, and there was dirt everywhere. As is often the case however, farming in a video game proved to be much more enjoyable, and the SNES cult classic Harvest Moon was a welcome reprieve from the drudgery of real farming.

The simplicity of the original is what does it for me, even 20 years later. There’s no grand story about Harvest Sprites or freeing Goddesses, or rebuilding a town or unifying a small country. Rather, you’re given 2.5 years to make your parents proud and how you do that is up to you. There’s plants to grow and sell, upgrades to earn, and girls in town to marry. All just to make sure Mom and Pops still love you when they get back.

The series has evolved in many ways since the first game, some for the better (HM64Friends of Mineral Town, Wonderful Life) and a lot for the worse (Island of Happiness, Save the Homeland, Tale of Two Towns) but the original game is the one that truly keeps me coming back. It’s simple nature and mechanics give it a timeless feel that just never seems to age, no matter how many times I boot it back up again.

Red Dead Redemption

John Marston’s story remains one of my favorites in all of gaming.

Ever since GTA III I’ve been a big fan of Rockstar games, and getting lost in their open worlds rank among my favorite gaming activities. Ever since watching The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly I’ve been a big fan of Westerns, and watching larger than life characters duke it out in larger than life scenarios. Understandably when I heard that Rockstar would be making a game that combined their open worlds with the themes and settings of the Wild West I was pretty excited, and as it turned out, rightfully so.

Read Dead is Rockstar’s magnum opus, the total combination of everything we love about them, so much so that even GTA V felt like little in comparision. Everything here is just as it should be. The characters are Rockstar’s best, with John Marston being among my favourite protagonists ever written. Marston’s story about the lengths a man goes to for his family, and facing the future in the waning years of the world he once knew, still resonate today, and many of the themes transcend the game itself. A good game is one you enjoy, but a great game like RDR is one you think about long after the game is off.

It’s not just the story that makes RDR legendary to me. Gameplay is both perfected and improved from GTA IV. I’ve always found it interesting when games don’t include any automatic weapons in their roster, and with RDR its clear there’s a new level of balance to make fights interesting and deadly. When you can’t spray and pray there’s a bigger focus on making your shots count and staying mobile, which is easy to do thanks to RDR‘s amazingly detailed horses. Even when you’re not shooting there’s a tonne to do like play poker or go hunting, more than enough to keep you busy.

But the real pepper on this plate of fries is the world of RDR, and this is a high watermark I still hold all other games to. RDR and Rockstar’s games in general, truly understand that it’s not good enough to just make your game world open, there needs to be things happening in it too. Groups of bandits or lawmen riding around, farmers taking their cattle to pasture, settlers headed into the unknown, and people having a break around a camp fire. There’s so much dynamic activity in RDR that you truly can just get lost in the immersion, and that’s what puts this game on my list.

Resident Evil 4

Leon Kennedy, as fast with the gun as he is with the quip.

My first experience with RE4 was at a friends house for a sleepover. His parents were far less strict about what games he was and wasn’t allowed to play, and so we loaded up RE4 to see how far I, as a totally new player, could get in the game. Throughout the night we made it to about the halfway mark, partway through the castle in the second act. Despite being completely tired and only kept awake by cans of coke and whatever candy hadn’t been devoured I knew this game was special.

It wasn’t until some time later when I finally got to revisit RE4 and figure out what it was exactly I loved about it. My first time beating it was with the disastrous PC port, the one that didn’t allow mouse-input without a fan-made patch. That didn’t matter, the core of what I loved about RE4 transcended controls, and it still remains firmly in place today.

RE4 is one of the few games I’ve played that understands that “survival horror” isn’t about jump-scares and spooky feelings. It’s about making the idea of surviving moment to moment the horror element. Only ever giving the player just barely enough resources to make it through and trusting you to figure out how to use them. There are very few jump-scares throughout RE4, meaning that you’ll almost always see your death coming and its up to you to figure out how to stop it. Few other games, even today, seem to understand that, and it frustrates me that more developers can’t seem to figure out what made RE4 work.

Despite it’s constant struggle for survival RE4 is just fun to play. People often deride its “tank-controls” but for me this fed back into the horror element, forcing you to think about how best to conduct your fights, rather than just letting you sit back with a machine gun and mow down your enemies. Couple that with the fact that the game has an obvious sense of humour and the whole thing is just consistently enjoyable, even after seven or eight replays.

S.T.A.L.K.E.R: Shadow of Chernobyl 

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I love the surreal and the abstract, things just barely removed from normal that off-put people and make them feel unsure of themselves. I also love post-apocolyptic settings, seeing what modern man can do when everything is stripped from them. S.T.A.L.K.E.R scratches all of these itches so well I pray someone buys the IP so we can get another one.

In 2007 there weren’t open world first person shooters, and save for Deus Ex there weren’t any FPS-RPG games. First person horror existed sure, but mostly in the form of slow and boring point-and-click titles. S.T.A.L.K.E.R changed all of that, and most certainly changed me when I first played it. Here was a game truly unlike anything else, but steeped in the familiar. All I wanted to do was experience more of it.

The Zone still feels like one of the most fully realized game worlds ever made. Every inch of it feels hand-crafted and tooled for horror and action. Mutants, zombies, and hidden treasures all await the unwary in this twisted hellscape. To add to it is the game’s A-Life AI engine which occasionally breaks, but when it works you get to watch groups of AI fight it out organically. The first time you watch a group of dogs take down a boar then drag its carcass away to feast on you’ll understand why people love this game.

I’ve played all three S.T.A.L.K.E.R titles for hundreds of hours, and while I concede that 2009’s Call of Pripyat is in many ways superior, for me the first game is still the crown jewel of the series. It’s world is more detailed than most games I’ve played today, and it has a greater focus on progression, something the later games don’t always do right with their more open natures. Finally out of all three it’s the most refreshingly different, truly a world apart from other games, and for someone that constantly craves originality this was like finding a vodka soaked holy grail.

Super Mario World

Peak Mario.

The amount of times I’ve beaten this game is truly staggering. I’ve seen every level, every enemy, and every boss and I still love it to death. To me this is the pinnacle of Mario games, the title everything else is held to in comparison, and many fall flat. This is Mario as it should be forever. This is how most games should be.

I love the challenge in SMW. The levels have a steady progression to them, slowly building harder and harder until you get to the final boss. Sometimes the world has a particular theme, sometimes it’s just a series of levels which are barely connected. A lot of times there’s secrets to unlock, but you’ll need to go beyond the norm to find them. Even after you’ve defeated Bowser there are entire worlds off the beaten path for you to unlock, should you be willing to look for them. I’m convinced there may still be levels I haven’t played yet, not for lack of trying.

I love the creativity in SMW. The color palette is bright and vibrant, 16-bit as it is. It’s not the SNES’ best looking game, but it is one of the system’s cheeriest. There are minor details in each level I love looking at, and the layouts of the levels are as expertly crafted as they are fun to observe. Then there are the enemies and power-ups, the graphics for which are still sometimes used today.

To me, when someone says Mario, this is the game that instantly springs into my mind, and that’s unlikely to ever change. Many Mario games are great, most of them amazing, but this is truly the Mario game that still does it for me.


There are a lot of games that almost made this list, and a few that were on it up until the last second. Even as I write this I’m re-thinking some of these choices and this list is not totally representative of games that I hold in high esteem. Still, these are the 10 games that I can play over and over again and still enjoy, and I hope there’s something here for you too.

10 Honorable Mentions: Far Cry 2, Saints Row 2, The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask, Bioshock, Metal Gear Solid 5, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, Warhammer 40k: Dawn of War 2, Spec Ops: The Line, The Sims 3, Chrono Trigger

Andrew Vandersteen has been watching movies and playing games since before he could do basic math, and it shows. But what he lacks in being good at things, he makes up for with opinions on everything nerd culture. A self described and self medicated audiophile and lover of anything and everything really, really terrible, he's on a constant quest to find the worst things humanity has ever published. He's seen every episode of The Legend of Zelda, twice, and thinks the Super Mario Movie was a war crime. When he's not playing games or writing about them, he's messing around with audio or fixing computers. Perpetually one paycheck short of breaking even, and always angry about something.

3 Comments

3 Comments

  1. Carston

    September 10, 2017 at 5:23 pm

    This is a great list man. Props for loving Crusader Kings 2, I have a serious love/hate relationship with that one.

  2. Ricky D

    September 10, 2017 at 5:44 pm

    I’m surprised you put Super Mario World as your top pick. I figured it would be a PC game. That said, Super Mario Bros. 3 is the best game in the series by far 😛

    • Andrew Paul Vandersteen

      September 11, 2017 at 1:27 pm

      Id actually say Morrowind is my top pick, but all the games here are awesome. SMW is hands down my favourite Mario game and i cant wait to play it again on the SNES classic

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15 Years Later: ‘Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater’ Is Kojima’s Espionage Love Letter

On November 17th, 2004, Metal Gear Solid 3 was released, marking the first entry in what would become a major part of the Metal Gear Saga.

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Metal Gear Solid 3

“After the end of World War II, the world was split into two — East and West. This marked the beginning of the era called the Cold War.”

On November 17th, 2004, Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater released in North America and Japan marking the first entry in what would later become a line of prequel games within the Metal Gear Saga. Big Boss’s story would finally be expanded upon in the Hollywood action game that forever changed the course of video game storytelling.

The legendary mercenary’s journey began in Kojima’s espionage love letter to the ’60s that broke the primordial gaming standards of both interactive design and visual storytelling through immeasurable gameplay depth piled onto a mind-boggling top-notch origin story. Snake Eater was only the beginning of a tale of how one of gaming’s greatest heroes descended into a villain through what is not only arguably the most compact and well-executed Metal Gear story, but Kojima Productions story ever conjured up to date.

Taking the Narrative Back

Metal Gear Solid 3
“Snake, try and remember some of the basics of CQC.”

Snake Eater ditched Solid Snake and Raiden’s current predicaments in a postmodern world to provide audiences with background knowledge and explanations for the previous chapters that came before it in what was intended to be Hideo Kojima’s final Metal Gear game at the time. Cold War political fiction and espionage thrillers from the game’s time period such as the Sean Connery and Roger Moore James Bond 007 films became the foundation for this entry’s story and tone; a balance of both goofiness and seriousness that is simply unmatched when compared to the rest of the series.

Metal Gear Solid 3 marked the beginning of a prequel series of games that would later proceed to continue after Solid Snake’s story had concluded in Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots. Snake Eater threw players back in time to tackle the story of Metal Gear and Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake villain Big Boss, who was formerly referred to as three different names being John, Jack, and of course the iconic codename Naked Snake — the first character to take on the reptilian infiltration name.

Revolver Ocelot’s gun-slinging pre-boss cutscene was completely animated through motion capture footage.

Whereas Metal Gear Solid and Sons of Liberty questioned the fantasy aspects of the story, Snake Eater fully embraced the campiness that it provided. A gun-slinging, cat-growling GRU Major or a man who is able to manipulate bees are never questioned by the game’s characters. Nothing feels out of place due to how accepting everyone is of what is going on in their interpretation of history. The first fantasy aspect that players encounter is during the opening 5 minutes of the game when Naked Snake makes the HALO jump. The location the game takes place, Tselinoyarsk, is not the actual name of the location and isn’t an area of the world that has jungles.

Political fiction often comes into play during the story by incorporating real figures and the game’s characters into events that actually happened during the height of the Cold War. For example, Eva and Ocelot are depicted as the two NSA codebreakers, Martin and Mitchell, who defected to the Soviet Union. Weapons and designs featured in the game such as the hybrid screw-propelled metal gear, the Shagohod, are based on real blueprints for military weapons of the time period. While the story incorporates science fiction and fantasy aspects, the story still remains grounded and has its own limits even in gameplay.

A Whole New Meaning to Survival

When Hideo Kojima and Yoji Shinkawa saw the 1987 movie Predator, one concept from the film that stuck with them was how the technologically advanced alien Predator used camouflage within the jungle setting to stealthily take out a military rescue team lead by Arnold Schwarzenegger. Camouflage became part of the foundation for Snake Eater‘s gameplay that delved into the realism and campy side of the series. Players could swap outfits and face paints at any given moment to adapt to their current surroundings. The top right-hand corner has a camouflage index that constantly keeps track of how well-hidden you are in the environment.

Just as gadgets are a critical part of James Bond’s arsenal of weapons, Snake Eater saw the Metal Gear Solid series expand on the variety and utilization of items. The number of different ways to tackle standard environmental obstacles and boss battles was exponentially increased due to how many ways one could actually use their equipment. Grenades, lethal firearms, night-vision goggles, cigarettes, and even cardboard boxes all inherited a multi-functional philosophy that most players would never even discover unless they had experimented during their playthrough or were told to do a specific action. Even food became a weapon of war that could be used to poison and distract guards if it had gone spoiled.

On the topic of food, alongside the standard health bar, Snake has a stamina meter that must be ministered to constantly by eating foods found on-site and administering proper medical treatment. Animals, fruit, medicinal items, and various packaged resources must be collected and watched over throughout the game. All food items ran on a real-time clock leaving food to go unsanitary and rotten after a matter of real-time days.

The Beginning of Product Placement

Fun Fact: Kojima has gone on record saying that Naked Snake’s favorite CalorieMate Block is the chocolate-flavored line (rightfully for promotional reasons!).

The Metal Gear Solid series kickstarted Hideo Kojima’s constant usage of product placements within his games that are still ongoing today. These products include but are certainly not limited to clothing, accessories, toys, household items, and of course, food. Snake Eater began a trend of future Kojima Production games featuring real-life items that are purchasable in many small scale and large retail stores throughout Japan through the brand of nutritional energy bars and gels, CalorieMate.

The chocolate-flavored CalorieMate Block appeared in the original version of Snake Eater, while the maple-flavored kind replaced it in the HD Collection due to it being the latest flavor release at the time. Advertisements for CalorieMate during the game’s release showed Naked Snake holding a chocolate-flavored Block saying “If you wanna survive in the jungle, your going to need one of these.”

When initiating a Codec call with Paramedic after eating a CalorieMate Block, the character will question the legitimacy of the food. In reality, CalorieMate first released in 1983, contradicting the 1960’s setting of the story, therefore, making its placement in the game an anachronism; an object or person that is displaced in time.

A Legacy Worthy of The Big Boss Rank

At the time of Snake Eater’s release, although the game garnered a completely positive reception from critics with a 91 Metacritic score, it was highly debated whether the sequel-prequel was superior to the entries that came before it. Critics commonly praised the graphics and cinematics the game had to offer but questioned whether the gameplay was too complex for its own good. Snake Eater also had to ride the coattails of unsatisfied audiences originating from the previous entry’s lack of Solid Snake being the protagonist which ultimately lead to sales of the game being significantly lower than the previous Solid entries.

Over time, Snake Eater became the fan-favorite entry of the series and would go on to receive the most re-releases out of all the Metal Gear games to date. Most notably, in 2006 Metal Gear Solid 3: Subsistence expanded upon the online mode in the game and added a completely new third-person controlled camera system that enhanced the overall experience and became the right analog stick standard for future entries. Buyers of this version were also treated with the original two MSX Metal Gear games found on the main menu- the first time the original Metal Gear and Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake had ever been localized outside of Japan.

Snake Eater 3D Limited Edition Bundle included a ‘Snake Skin’ themed standard 3DS (only released in Japan).

2011 saw the release of the Metal Gear Solid HD Collection, a compilation title that included an updated version of Subsistence — arguably the best way to play Snake Eater today. In 2012 the game also saw a release on the Nintendo 3DS dubbed Metal Gear Solid 3D: Snake Eater which included a new real-life camera camouflage system and multiple gameplay changes inherited from Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker to accommodate the 3DS’s lack of dual analog sticks.

Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater is a true patriot that definitively holds its ground against the rest of the series today due to its creative liberties that the series never quite revisited in complete depth. Hideo Kojima and his team of masterminds behind Kojima Productions are well deserved of a salute for the tremendous efforts they put into creating a groundbreaking title that forever changed what it meant to be a cinematic video game. From its action-packed plot to its cinematic orchestra inspired-score, even after 15 years the pure indigenous nature of creativity from the studio never ceases to amaze audiences.

Metal Gear Solid 3

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‘Castlevania Bloodlines’: The Official Sega Genesis Sequel to Bram Stoker’s Hit Novel, Dracula

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Castlevania Bloodlines

Castlevania isn’t a dialogue-heavy series by any means, but it’s still home to one of gaming’s most compelling narratives. Equipped with only their ancestral weapon, the legendary Vampire Killer, descendants of the Belmont clan face off against Count Dracula every 100 years like clockwork (give or take). His resurrection is inevitable. Just as good will always triumph over evil, evil will rise again. Castlevania was about the cyclical nature of good and evil long before Dracula mused about the nature of humanity in Symphony of the Night. Castlevania chronicled the Belmont family’s centuries-long struggle to keep Count Dracula at bay, game after game. Of course, he wasn’t the Count Dracula– more a representation of evil– but that was as much a given as a Belmont rising up to wield Vampire Killer. Then Castlevania Bloodlines happened. 

Released in 1995 exclusively for the Sega Genesis, Bloodlines may have looked like any other Castlevania game, but it marked a series of eclectic firsts for the franchise. Gone are the Belmonts and the game neither takes place inside of or involves getting to Dracula’s Castle. Bloodlines is even titled Vampire Killer in Japan, creating a bigger divide between it and previous entries, but that hardly compares to Bloodlines’ strangest contribution to the series: making Bram Stoker’s Dracula canon. 

The nature of how Dracula fits into the Castlevania mythos isn’t as plain and simple as just taking the book as writ as canon, but it fits much cleaner than one would expect. Although Bloodlines may lift elements from the novel with its own embellishments, its changes are ultimately inconsequential. Quincey Morris doesn’t have a son in the novel, but he’s the only major character alongside Dracula not to keep a journal, keeping his background relatively obscured. Quincey also doesn’t sport his signature bowie knife in Bloodlines’ backstory, finishing Dracula off with a stake (instead of the Vampire Killer for whatever reason.) 

There’s no mention of Jonathan Harker, Mina, or Abraham Van Helsing– and Dracula’s motives aren’t at all in-line with his novel counterpart’s– but Konami’s references to the novel make it clear that audiences are intended to consider the novel canon even if the details don’t quite match up. It seems a strange choice, especially for a franchise that was pushing its tenth anniversary by the time Bloodlines released in 1995, but it’s not a totally random decision on Konami’s part. Much like how Super Castlevania IV’s tonal maturity gave it a greater layer of depth, Bloodlines thrives off its connection to Bram Stoker’s Dracula

If there’s one immediate benefit to tying Dracula to Castlevania: Bloodlines, it’s grounding the latter in some semblance of reality. Set in 1917, Vampire Killer was the most modern Castlevania to date– not just at its release, but until Aria of Sorrow was released in 2003. The games were never period pieces, but they were set far enough in the past where literal Universal Monsters wouldn’t keep the series from staying narratively grounded. More importantly, the series’ settings were always consistently gothic, creating a unique sense of style around Dracula himself rather than the time period. 

Bloodlines opts for a wildly different approach altogether when it comes to setting, doubling down on the series’ historical elements while keeping Super Castlevania IV’s darker tone intact. Dracula feels a part of the world, rather than the world of Castlevania feeling a part of Dracula. At the same time, Bram Stoker’s Dracula helps ground the very minimal plot by giving John and Eric’s trek across Europe greater scope. John and Eric even have a personal stake in the plot, having witnessed Quincey’s death. It’s all window dressing, but Bloodlines’ assimilation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula gives the series some narrative legitimacy to rub shoulders with its high quality gameplay. 

The connections to Bram Stoker’s Dracula are admittedly loose, but they’re loose enough to work in the game’s benefit. Dracula is structured as an epistolary novel with chapters divided in letters, journal entries, articles, and logs. The story is told coherently, but this approach often results in the point of view & setting changing. While uncertainly a direct reference to the novel, Bloodlines similarly allows players to switch between John & Eric whenever they use a continue on Easy mode, and each stage takes place in a different country rather than just Transylvania. 

Bram Stoker’s Dracula may give Bloodlines its foundation, but it’s that globetrotting that gives the game its identity. Stage 1 opens in Romania, the ruins of Dracula’s Castle left to time after his previous defeat. Where other games would immediately transition into the depths of Castle Dracula, Bloodlines’ Stage 2 instead takes players to the lost city of Atlantis in Greece, while Stage 3 involves scaling the Leaning Tower of Pisa in order to slay a demon at the top. There’s a grandiosity to the stage design simply not present in previous entries. Not just in terms of scope, but in actual structure. 

Only six stages long, Bloodlines is the shortest of the mainline Castlevania games, but it makes up for its lack of length with longer stages overall. The main story falls on the shorter side, but the stage to stage pacing ensures that Bloodlines neither outstays its welcome or goes too soon. While a Stage 7 may have done the game some good, Bloodlines’ six stages offer some of the tightest action-platforming in the franchise. Enemies are by no means infrequent, and Bloodlines requires players to understand both John & Eric’s unique platforming skills by Stage 3, outright preventing progress should players fail to adapt.

John’s unique platforming ability will be familiar to all those who played Super Castlevania IV as, predictably, he can use the Vampire Killer to hang. This time around, however, John can whip onto just about any ceiling. Eric, on the other hand, has a charged jump that thrusts him into the air when released. Eric’s jump ignores platforms entirely, allowing him a degree of verticality Castlevania typically doesn’t give to players. Stage 3 even features a room that’s a bottomless pit for Eric, but easy platforming for John thanks to its whip. Subsequently, there’s a room where John can’t make progress due to the ceiling, but Eric can jump right through.

John and Eric’s abilities are natural extensions & evolutions of Simon’s from Super CV IV, just split between the both of them, but it’s also worth noting how Bloodlines’ more involved platforming helps to further flesh out Castlevania’s world. Bram Stoker’s Dracula coupled with the European setting did more for the series’ world-building at the time than any of its predecessors, save for Rondo of Blood. It’s not often that a video game series absorbs a literary classic into its main plot, but Castlevania handles it surprisingly well. 

It’s fitting that Castlevania Bloodlines is titled Vampire Killer in Japan. At its core, Vampire Killer is a recontextualization of Castlevania. The story is still framed through the Belmonts’ struggle against Dracula, but the scope is wider, extending mediums in the process. Vampire Killer is about the legacy of the Vampire Killer and the vampire killers whose fates are sealed by the whip. Symphony of the Night may be a direct sequel to Rondo of Blood, but Bloodlines set the stage for Symphony to tell a traditional and intimate story.

More important than anything, though, Castlevania taking Bram Stoker’s Dracula and making it a part of its canon is just so outlandish that it makes perfect sense. The series that regularly featured Universal Monsters as bosses was never going to ignore the novel forever. That Bloodlines uses the novel tactfully and in a game where its presence is appropriate– intentional or otherwise– weirdly elevates Castlevania as a franchise. Castlevania isn’t just a Dracula story, it’s the Dracula story. And of all the games to make that declaration with, Bloodlines is a damn good choice. 

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XO19: Top 10 Best Announcements of the Show

Xbox just had their best XO presentation ever, and it wasn’t even close. Here’s a rundown of the best announcements from XO19.

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Microsoft had a lot to prove going into its fifth annual XO showcase. Console launches are on the horizon, cloud competitor Google Stadia is about to ship to early adopters, and Game Pass subscribers are as hungry as ever for new additions to the lineup. Then there’s the fact that XO has always been looked down upon by the gaming community in general as a lackluster, padded presentation.

All of that changed with XO19. This was, by far, the best XO in the event’s history. In fact, it featured more shocking reveals and genuinely impressive announcements than a good deal of Microsoft’s recent E3 press conferences. From new IP reveals, to first-time looks at gameplay, to a couple “I never would’ve believed you a week ago” shockers, it’s clear that Xbox stepped up its game from years past. Here’s our list of the best announcements of the show.

10. Everwild Reveal

It’s not too often that we get to experience a new IP from Rare. Their last attempt, Sea of Thieves, was a fully multiplayer, always-online affair that gradually garnered a cult following thanks to some of the best community engagement and most consistent content updates in the industry.

We don’t know what type of game Everwild is yet, but it’s certainly oozing that same colorful, ambient charm that made players fall in love with Sea of Thieves all those years ago. Seeing as how we only got a cinematic teaser, though, it might be quite some time before we’re running around these gorgeous environments.


9. ID@Xbox Lineup

The ID@Xbox team has pulled it off again. Despite being stuck with an almost insultingly poor time slot in the presentation, several of the indies shown off in this short montage rivaled some of the show’s AAA spotlights. It had everything from high-profile indies like Streets of Rage 4, Touhou Luna Nights, and the Yacht Club Games-published Cyber Shadow, to more modest beauties like SkateBIRD, Haven, Cris Tales, and she dreams elsewhere.

The best part? All of these are launching on Game Pass day and date. The worst part? No actual dates were announced for anything shown. Regardless, it’s encouraging that so many high quality indies are continuing to come to Xbox (and that relationships with Devolver Digital and Yacht Club are rock-solid).


8. West of Dead Reveal/Open Beta

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Raw Fury has one of the better eyes in the indie publishing scene. Gems like GoNNER, Dandara, and Bad North have all released under their watch, and West of Dead might be their best acquisition yet. It’s a heavily-stylized twin stick shooter that switches things up by making tactical cover a core part of the experience.

The trailer hinted at roguelike elements being present, and the ever-popular procedurally generated levels should significantly up replayability. How it plays, however, remains to be seen…unless you have an Xbox, in which case you can play the exclusive open beta now before the full game comes to all platforms next year.


7. Halo Reach Release Date

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The Master Chief Collection has long been the one golden goose that endlessly eludes those outside of the Xbox ecosystem. Earlier this year, though, Microsoft made waves when it announced that it was bringing the entire collection over to PC. Reach is the first step in that process, and it’s finally making its way to both PC and Xbox One as part of the MCC on December 3rd.

It’s just a date, but the fact that so many new players get to experience one of Halo‘s most beloved outings at last easily made it one of the highlights of the night.


6. Grounded Reveal

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Who woulda thought? Fresh off releasing one of the best RPGs in years with The Outer Worlds, Obsidian decided to show off a passion project from one of its smaller teams: Grounded. The premise? Honey, I Shrunk the Kids: Survival Edition.

Players take control of kids the size of ants as they fight off actual bugs, cook, craft armor and weapon upgrades, and build shelter to survive in the wilderness of someone’s backyard. As silly as it sounds and looks, and as unexpected a project it is for Obsidian to undertake, it genuinely looks rather promising. The cheerful color palette is a welcome contrast to the dark, brooding aesthetic so many other survival games have adopted. There are plenty of details left to be uncovered, but if early impressions are anything to go by, this is one to keep on your radar early next year.


5. Age of Empires IV Gameplay Reveal

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Age of Empires is one of the most esteemed strategy franchises in history. Despite having this beloved IP in their back pocket, however, Microsoft hasn’t published a new mainline game in the series since 2005. Age of Empires IV was originally announced over two years ago, and after buttering everyone up with the release of Age of Empires II Definitive Edition that afternoon, the first glimpse of gameplay was finally shown at XO19.

Simply put, the game looks gorgeous. Every building is full of detail and the countryside looks surprisingly lush and picturesque. Witnessing hundreds of units charging down the valley towards the stronghold in the trailer was mind-blowing as an old-school fan. They didn’t show off any innovations or moment-to-moment gameplay, but it’s looking more and more like the future of the franchise is safe in Relic’s hands.


4. Final Fantasy Blowout

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Xbox’s success in Japanese markets has become something of a running joke over the years. Though inroads were clearly made with Bandai Namco, many more Japanese publishers won’t go within a mile of the platform. Possibly through working with Square Enix’s western division to put the latest Tomb Raider and Just Cause entries on board, it looks like the main branch has finally decided to give Xbox players a chance.

Starting this holiday, Game Pass subscribers will gradually get every single-player Final Fantasy game since Final Fantasy VII. More shocking still, The Verge reported that the Xbox team is working to get the massively popular MMO Final Fantasy XIV over as well. The sheer value of having every post-Super Nintendo Final Fantasy game included in Game Pass (even XV) is ridiculous. It remains to be seen what the rollout cadence of these ten titles will look like, but considering how long each of these are, one per month wouldn’t shock or disappoint.


3. The Reign of Project xCloud

With Stadia launching just next week, Microsoft had been surprisingly quiet on their cloud gaming front up to this point. The service had gone into preview for those lucky enough to get in and, by most accounts, it had been fairly well-received. The real question came down to what Xbox was going to do to make itself stand out from its competition.

The bombs dropped here felt like the equivalent to the thrashing Sony gave to Microsoft back at E3 2013. Microsoft shadow dropped 40+ new games into Preview for players to test (for free) including Devil May Cry 5, Tekken 7, Bloodstained, and Ace Combat 7. Even better, xCloud will support third-party controllers including the DUALSHOCK 4 and will finally show up on Windows 10 PCs in 2020.

Perhaps the most damning announcement, however, is that xCloud will be integrated with Game Pass starting next year. Only having to pay for a Game Pass subscription to access 100+ games and play them in the cloud (including Halo, Forza, The Outer Worlds, and all those Final Fantasy titles) makes xCloud a far better value than Stadia right out of the gate. If this didn’t force Google to adjust its strategy, we might be looking at a very short cloud gaming war.


2. Square Sharing the Kingdom Hearts Love

Kingdom Hearts 3 releasing on Xbox One was somewhat bittersweet. On the one hand, players who had left the PlayStation ecosystem after playing the first games had a chance to see the arc’s conclusion. On the other hand, new players had no options for going back and experiencing the series’ roots.

Kingdom Hearts HD 1.5+2.5 Remix and Kingdom Hearts 2.8 Final Chapter Prologue finally coming to Xbox next year is a godsend for younger players and new players alike. More important, however, is the tearing down of those over 15+ years old exclusivity walls. Just like with many of the Final Fantasys, the main Kingdom Hearts games had been married to PlayStation systems for years. This shift at Square is an exciting one, and it bodes particularly well for the next generation of Xbox hardware.


1. Yakuza Finally Goes Multi-Console

It seems like Phil Spencer’s trips to Japan finally paid off. In what was arguably the most shocking announcement of XO19 (right next to Kingdom Hearts), it was revealed that SEGA is taking the Yakuza series multi-console at last. Not only are Yakuza 0 and Kiwami 1+2 coming to Xbox, but all three are going to Game Pass next year as well.

Does this mean support from Japanese studios will increase across the board? Of course not. But getting big names like Bandai Namco, Square Enix, and SEGA on board is nothing if not encouraging. Xbox is clearly pulling out all the stops to ensure a diverse suite of third-party support come Scarlett’s launch next year, and it’s the healthiest the platform has looked in a very long time.

Honorable Mentions:

Bleeding Edge Release Date

KartRider Drift Reveal/Closed Beta Announcement

Last Stop Reveal

Wasteland 3 Release Date

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