Three By Three: Video Game Levels

Video Game LevelsThe Category

If anything can be said about the three of us here at Pop Modern, it’s that we all love video games. We may have each grown up on different systems and with different games, and nowadays we tend to play very different games at varying degrees of intensity, but that common link is still there. Between the three of us, we’ve spent so much time playing video games that a few key moments were bound to bubble to the surface and show themselves as our favorites. That’s why this week we’re taking things to the next level (or the previous level, as the fancy strikes us) and showing you our favorite video game levels of all time.

The Choices

Allen

“The Milkman Conspiracy” from PsychonautsIt was hard to choose just one level from Psychonauts, since it’s two greatest strengths are its level design and the writing that stitches them together. But “The Milkman Conspiracy” world takes the cake for being incredibly creative, both visually and narratively. Set inside the mind of paranoid security guard Boyd Cooper, the level borrows several sci-fi and alien invasion tropes, and mashes them up into a fine paste. As Raz navigates this strange and disjointed world, he encounters the G-Men, who are very conspicuously trying to find Boyd and uncover his secrets. At the same time, the Rainbow Squirts, which are Boyd’s interpretation of an organization like the Girl Scouts, are using explosive cookies to keep Raz from progressing. Besides having some of the funniest lines in the game (“Hi mom, look at me! I’m tangled in a web of deception!”), it was also the first level to make use of the Clairvoyance power, which allowed Raz to see through the eyes of other characters. Being able to re-appropriate this strange world as a security camera or a cute-but-deadly Rainbow Squirt was both disturbing and hilarious in a uniquely Psychonauts way.

“The Train” from Uncharted 2: Among ThievesAlthough the game starts with Nathan Drake hanging off of a crashed train in medias res, the reveal of how that train slid off a cliff is actually one of the best sections of the game, and one of the best of this generation. It represents the upper echelon of console gaming, and the polish and cleverness at play could only be done in the back half of this current console generation. As Drake navigates from the back to the front of a speeding train, the game abandons the wide open arenas of battle in favor of tight corridors and multiple layers of ground to cover. As the train goes under a tunnel, you head inside, and shoot your way through the passenger cars with reckless abandon. However, it’s when it opens up to the dense jungle that you can finally hop outside for a faster path to your goal. Enemies trying to climb on from the sides, hard turns on the track, and jumping from car to car were some of the most thrilling moments in the best game of 2009.

“Rust” from Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2It wouldn’t be fair to do a best levels list without mentioning one of my favorite multiplayer maps. I think one of the reasons that “Rust” worked so well was its small, dense architecture. Even though Modern Warfare 2 was my first introduction to the series (and the last one I truly loved), I was able to hold my own on this map within my first few matches. The focus on verticality, the circular nature of the area surrounding the tower in the center, and the numerous hiding spaces made it all the more fun to weed out less honorable players who prefer staying in one place and relying on the game’s weapons and gadgets to win. There was no staying in place on “Rust”; at the top of the tower, you were an open target. At the bottom, you were easy to spot between cover. And the map practically begged for weird variants on the typical Team Deathmatch mode that players all over the world would make up. Throwing knives only, rocket launchers only, or even grenades only all worked because of how tight and intimate this follow-up to Call of Duty 4‘s “Shipment” map was.

James

“The First Shard” from Bastion: Bastion had many memorable levels, but the Anklegator level was one of my favorites. The level has the careful combat and fantastic narrative style that the rest of the game has, but introduced a fearful mechanic: run in the grass, and you will probably die. Unlike most forced stealth missions in games, the level itself is fairly well-designed, with an emphasis on fighting, and avoiding certain patches of ground. The Brusher’s Pike and the final fight with the mother Anklegator at the end are just the cream of the crop, giving an exciting conclusion to a well-built level.

“Dark Energy” Half-Life 2: Half-Life 2 is built on the diverse experiences throughout the game and its episodic sequels. Ravenholm plays like a survival horror game, the initial level plays like a dystopian French film, and City 17 played like a stealthy action game. Despite their dissimilarities, there is one common theme throughout all of these levels: fear. No matter what the setting, the player always knows that one wrong turn will kill them. The game promotes caution and thoughtfulness in the midst of a revolution. The final chapter reverses this. By finding an upgraded gravity gun, Freeman no longer plays as an outlaw, running from hiding place to hiding place. Instead, the player steps into the mantle of the hero, with a setting that shows these powers while still providing enough of a challenge to counteract any hubris that might come with such immense power.

“Hoth” from Star Wars: Battlefront II: Battlefront II is a game that is based on the diversity of its maps. The maps span the entire galaxy, from Coruscant to the Outer Rim. Despite it all, there is something that is extra special about playing on Hoth. Whether teaming up with a friend in a snow speeder to take down an AT-AT, or grabbing a sniper rifle to pick off those pesky rebels from atop a giant mound of snow, there is a niche for everyone on this map.  Mopping up the reserves can be somewhat irritating, but the scale and intensity of the battles were some of the most amazing that I have ever played, and were fantastically formative to my prepubescent mind.

Magellan

“Green Hill Zone”-Sonic the Hedgehog: I figured I’d start my list off with one of those roll-your-eyes, “classic” picks. It may seem disingenuous to point to such a basic, iconic level as one of my three favorites of all time, but I assure you this is entirely genuine. When I was a kid, I had a Sega Genesis, so I played Sonic all of the time. Now, the hedgehog-in-blue has let me down a little over the past few years, but back then he was the king. I would pop in my Sonic cartridges all the time, and, given that I was never good enough to get past that one pain-in-the-ass water temple level, I would end up replaying “Green Hill Zone” quite a bit. What sets this one apart as one of my favorite levels is the fact that, like many levels in the old Genesis Sonic games, I can play it over and over again and never get sick of it. Even listening to the music is enough to make me feel like a kid again.

“Palace of Twilight”-The Legend of Zelda: Twilight PrincessNow, while I had access to an N64 growing up, I never played much Ocarina of Time or Majora’s Mask. The first Zelda game I fully delved into and finished was The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess on the GameCube. I knew I wanted to pay homage to that game in some way, since it’s still one of my favorites and since the Zelda franchise deserves a mention somewhere on this list, but it was hard for me to settle on which dungeon was my favorite. Ultimately, I settled on the “Palace of Twilight,” as it exemplifies what is unique about this game compared to other Zelda games. It offers a balanced mix of Link’s human form and wolf form, and showcases the interesting “twilight” look that dominates much of the game’s overworld segments. The boss fight is also interesting, as it takes you through several past boss fights, forcing you to put your entire array of equipment to the test.

“DK Mountain”-Mario Kart: Double Dash!Although I had a Genesis and a PlayStation, the console that I ended up playing the most and buying the most games for was my GameCube. Of course, there wasn’t much point in buying any games for it, since it already came with the best one: Mario Kart: Double Dash! This is a game that’s still a blast to play, so much so that whenever the three of us (Allen, James, and myself) are in town, we all hang out at my house and throw around expletives while racing through the game’s sixteen tracks. At this point, I’ve played those tracks so many times that I have them all memorized (including the fancy shortcuts) from start to finish, so it was difficult to pick a favorite. Most of them are a bit too basic to stand out as one of the best video game levels of all time, and others like “Rainbow Road” or “Sherbert Land” are more hard than fun. I ended up picking “DK Mountain” because, with it’s car-flinging cannon and rolling boulders, it epitomizes the frenetic fun of Mario Kart. Plus, that railing-less wooden bridge just before the finish line can make for some real nail-biting finishes.

The Conclusion

Oftentimes we feel as if we can’t represent the full scope of a category, given there are three of us and thus only nine slots to fill. Other, better video game levels floating around in your memory? Offer your favorites up in the comments below. Other opinions are more than welcome. Our own choices, in fact, may not even be the “right” ones. Oh, perish the thought!

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Three By Three: Video Game Soundtracks

Video Game SoundtracksThe Category

When you spend all day playing video games, your eyes and your hands are totally satisfied. Your brain, maybe not so much, but those eyes and those hands, baby. But what about your ears? Yeah, those cute dangly guys jutting out of the side of the melon you’ve got balanced on top of your no doubt ripped, glistening torso. What are those poor guys to do? Well we here at Pop Modern, serving, like always, as the triumphant voice of the oppressed, have compiled a list of video game soundtracks that will satisfy your often squandered gift of hearing. Your twitchy digits and pupils, too, may enjoy these choices.

The Choices

Allen

Chrono Trigger: The soundtrack to this critically-acclaimed SNES JRPG is almost more famous than the game itself. It’s endlessly listenable, both in and out of context, and its legacy can be felt in game soundtracks to this day. It’s also one of the most remixed and orchestrated soundtracks of all time, with the standout being a remix album that overlays Jay-Z’s most famous verses onto the songs of one of the best games of all time. The album can be found here: http://2mellomakes.bandcamp.com/album/chrono-jigga

Bastion: Darren Korb was the composer and sound designer for 2011’s indie hit Bastion, which has captured the hearts of millions of gamers to this day. Even as Supergiant Games’ next title, Transistor, is looking to be a better game, it’ll be tough beating its predecessor’s soundtrack. A combination of folk guitars, smooth vocals, and surreal blues instruments, the soundtrack is as integral to selling the game’s magical universe as the painterly art style and gruff narration are. Zia’s Theme (Build That Wall) is a personal favorite of mine: (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t8cELTdtw6U)

Hotline Miami: Continuing the theme of selling a game world with music, I can’t help but add Hotline Miami to this list. For a game that lets you play as an insane, masked serial killer in the 80’s, it’s only fitting that the soundtrack is loud, disturbing, and trance-like. It’s a 50/50 split on songs that make you feel dirty and corrupted, and thumping techno beats that make you want to jump into the game and smash a few Russian mobster heads in yourself. The entire soundtrack is available as one long track on YouTube here (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oKD-MVfC9Ag), but I wouldn’t recommend listening to it all in one sitting if you want to keep your sanity.

James

Fallout 3In this post-apocalyptic world, the deserts are full of mutants, the water is full of radiation, and the air is full of music from the 1940s. The dichotomy between futuristic technology and jazz songs, such as “I Don’t Want to Set the World on Fire,” provides humorous relief to the horrific scenarios that the hero from Vault 101 undertakes.

Halo ReachLet’s make one thing clear: I am not disparaging any other Halo soundtracks. As a personal preference I like Reach the best. The Reach theme strikes the right tone, somber yet inspirational, the perfect tone to complement the storyline. The instrumentals are downright beautiful, and the singing borders on ethereal. This is definitely one of the highest quality video game soundtracks ever produced.

The Pokémon Series: Let’s be honest. People pretend that the Pokémon soundtrack isn’t great, but they are just lying to themselves. Wandering through the grass, there is no greater pleasure than hearing the spiraling sounds that precede the battle that is sure to commence. The music is infectious, pleasant to the ear, and most importantly, the songs can withstand 300 hours’ worth of playthroughs.

Magellan

Civilization IVThe Civilization games have a lot to be proud of: from historical intricacies, to detailed units and buildings, to addictive gameplay, it’s easy to get sucked into the experience. The music is certainly a big part of that. Civilization V especially offers a great musical selection, featuring ambient themes (ones for war and ones for peace) for every civilization in the game. Why, then, did I choose to highlight Civilization IV? It’s for that opening song, “Baba Yetu,” which is incredibly beautiful. That song is the only reason I have the opening cinematic of Civilization IV forever seared on the inside of my skull.

Eternal Champions: To be fair, this choice is a biased one. I had a Genesis as a kid, and for whatever reason this was one of my staple games. I don’t remember where or when I bought it. I don’t remember how much I played it. I don’t even remember if I was any good at it. But I’ll tell you one thing I do remember: the music. The main theme is classic pump-up, chip-tuney stuff, and I’m not afraid to admit that I still hum and dance along whenever I encounter it. Did this choice bump some better-orchestrated game music off the list? Maybe, but just listen to that and tell me it’s not fun: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9_MZk3wE-lA

The Legend of Zelda Series: Yeah yeah, I know it’s a huge cop-out to just go ahead and name a series, but I felt like I had to go wide to compensate for that last esoteric choice. Besides, it’s so hard to pick a specific Zelda game, since they all have such knock-out music. I suppose I’m partial to Ocarina of Time or Twilight Princess, but that’s because those are the two that I’ve spent the most time with out of any Zelda game. That all being said, I think I can safely say that “Song of Storms” will be my favorite video game song for a long time. If you like the music of The Legend of Zelda, I highly suggest you check out Zelda Reorchestrated. They’re a group that has taken the music of the series and given it an orchestral sound. Check them out here: http://www.zreomusic.com/

The Conclusion

Hate one of our soundtrack choices? Have to just scream out your favorite choice, despite noise limitations in your home or place of business? How about instead you head on down to the comments and sound off? Help yourself! Heaven knows we want to hear every last opinion we can.

Random Encounters: Bastion and a New Approach to Games

By James

Sometimes it’s not what you say, but how you say it. Bastion is one of those games. The story has nothing that is particularly enthralling: two warring civilizations wind up destroying each other and you are one of the only survivors. The combat is equally banal, a standard-but still tight- set of controls that display competency even if creativity lacks. Weapon selection is varied, and the level system feels familiar and comfortable. The art style is beautiful, a cartoonish portrayal of reality, and the cut scenes are beautiful pans on still shots. The music to the game is fantastic, with a catchy beat and a haunting melody that floats through the levels. All in all, this speaks to an indie development team making a decent game. So why has Bastion captured the hearts and minds of so many? Well, it’s mostly about the narrator.

In Bastion, the entire game is narrated by one character. The narrator is an elderly white man who details every move, from the kid’s falls to the main plot of the story. The narrator’s voice is gruff, but kindly, and the comments range from hilarious to moving.  The amazing part is that this changed the game for me. The thing that Bastion got right was the move towards a narrative. For me, the structure was strangely charming and addictive, but I couldn’t pinpoint why. Then it came to me: the last time I had listened to a narration like this, the narrator was my mother reading a bed-time story. This game managed to dredge up a piece of my childhood in a deeply emotional way. It has been a long time since I sat down and heard a story, so listening to the game was a pleasure.

The storyteller style is fresh and completely unlike any other game currently on the market. You see, most games tell stories, but they tell the stories through cut scenes and brief snippets of dialogue. The majority of time and effort always seems to rest on combat and puzzles. The story has become less and less focused, taking a back seat to action. While this is an acceptable practice, Bastion reminds the audience that gameplay and story don’t need to compete for your attention, but they can be seamlessly intertwined into a completely immersive experience.

Oftentimes I am told that the beauty lies in the interactivity of a game: the fact that you can alter the scenarios to elicit a response from the system. However, in the end, stories all seem to blend together in animated cut scene after animated cut scene, separating the content of the game from the purpose. But Bastion rudely awakened me to the fact that these systems of storytelling should improve past mechanics and cut scenes to where the choices really matter: the gamer’s play.