Saturday, July 19, 2008

The Legend of Zelda: A Short History

If you’ve clicked across one or another Top 100 games of all time list you’ll remember one thing from them all – the number one game is almost always Zelda. They tend to clump them together by franchise, and Zelda tends to battle it out with Mario for the top spot. More often than not though, Link’s magnum opus comes out on top.
The Legend of Zelda series is always about the same basic thing; a young boy, Link (or whatever goofy sophomoric name you give him – my brother’s first link was named poopFace) is called upon to accomplish a quest that his name sake, the great hero of Hyrule (at some unspecified time in the past) undertook. Said quest usually involves being tossed randomly into a situation of battle (often times as a young child) only to meet the princess of the realm, Zelda and uncover a plot by Ganondorf to take over and destroy the realm by getting his hands on the Triforce, an ancient remnant of Hyrule’s Goddesses. Link always kicks enormous amounts of ass and becomes the great hero of the realm. The story’s usually the same, with whatever goofy humor Miyamoto decides to throw in there and the few variations of gameplay.
And the gameplay is the key to all the Zelda games. The famous dungeons, usually 7-10 of them throughout the game, are notoriously well crafted, difficult without being impossible and almost always incredible beautiful. The time and energy put into the Zelda games usually produces lavish, monstrous games that rewrite how the genre is played. And that is why it’s the greatest franchise of all time.
It’s impossible to build a chronology for the games, as they are never specifically linked, but there are a variety of little details that give out some information as to how these break down.
The Legend of Zelda, released in 1986 for the NES, created and established the dungeon actioner genre and introduced us to the cast of now well known characters. The story involves Link being called upon to defeat Ganon, already in his pig form, after retrieving the triforce pieces that Zelda scattered throughout the land.
Zelda II: The Adventures of Link was released the next year and involves the same Link only a few months later. It’s considered by most to be at the end of the chronology as it is never referenced in other games. Moreover it gives cause for all of the princesses being named Zelda. A Zelda of many generations before was put to sleep for her transgressions against the King by hiding the triforce, so the prince decreed that all princesses of the realm would carry the name Zelda.
The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past was released for the SNES in 1991, making the great leap to 16 bit, the only game from the sequence to appear on the console. This game occurs earlier in the Zelda chronology, revolving around Link’s first attempt to retrieve the Master sword and defeat Ganon, still in pig form. It also makes first reference to the origins of Ganon, that is Ganondorf the thief, who stole the triforce and attempted to overtake Hyrule, and the Seven Sages who seal of the Golden Land from him.
With most of the Zelda games, shortly after a main sequence game, a spin off or sequel, something lighter is released not involving Ganon. In 1993, Link’s Awakening was released for the Gameboy as just that, a quest for enlightenment after defeating Ganon.
It wasn’t until 1998 that the next true Zelda game was released, and boy was it a game. The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time is considered by many as the greatest video game ever made. I tend to agree. Chronologically, it’s the first in the series, taking place when Ganondorf is still human, a thief from the desert in the west. He steals the triforce, which shortly after breaks apart because of his impure intentions. Link’s quest involves finding and putting the triforce back together and enacting all of the seven sage’s seals. This game more or less invented the genre as we know it today. Autojumps, aiming, analog controls, fully 3D environments, and the sheer scope of the game make it a classic without peer.
Majora’s Mask does the whole side story thing again. It’s about Link’s return to youth after the events of Ocarina, in which he’s robbed and drafted to help stop the moon from destroying another world.
Wind Waker, released for the Gamecube in 2003, takes place hundreds of years after Ocarina, after the land of Hyrule has been destroyed and is underwater. We meet Ganon as a pig once more, and discover that Link and Zelda are both reincarnations of their Ocarina counterparts. This game took a sharp turn from previous games, still extremely well made, but alienating many fans, with it’s cel shaded graphics and fetch quests. The game took as long as any previous Zelda to complete, but half of that time was spent sailing from island to island, floating around the great Hyrule sea. It could be….frustrating at times.
And that brings us to the newest entry, the big Wii release game, Twilight Princess. The newest Zelda takes place a few decades after the Ocarina of Time, this time our Link is an adult, living on his own in southern village as a wrangler. It’s the darkest and most mature of the Zelda games and along with its Wii controls, it manages to be the most breathtakingly cinematic of the games as well. Ganon first appears as pig, but reverts to Ganondorf at the end. Easily the longest of the Zelda games, Twilight Princess introduces tons of new elements, not the least of which is the chance to play as a wolf various times throughout.
The Legend of Zelda series is a long running Nintendo tradition, the kind that will never fade away, if only because of the fierce loyalty of its fans. These games are masterpieces, every one and never once has Nintendo let its fans down. We’ll just go ahead and pretend The CDi games never existed (they weren’t Nintendo anyways).

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Final Fantasy: A Short History

In 1987, Square was on the verge of a complete and utter breakdown, bankruptcy from a slew of failed games. It was with this that they decided to throw everything they had into one last ditch effort, aptly titled Final Fantasy. The game was a monstrous success, utilizing cutting edge technology to tell the first of many epic tales in the newly minted Japanese RPG format.
The next two games didn’t see immediate release in the United State, but grew the brand name and popularity of the series in Japan, leading up to the release of Final Fantasy IV in 1991, released later in 1992 in the US as Final Fantasy II. It was the first of three releases for the SNES and single handedly blew away the entire genre. It was an epic tale of deception and betrayal and the quest of a disgraced Knight to uncover and destroy the conspiracy that promises to ruin his nation.
The next game was similarly skipped in the US, a more numbers and level oriented affair much like earlier entry III. It was a growth in the series but nothing revolutionary, merely an extension of the brand name to bridge the gap until the next blockbuster in Final Fantasy VI.
Final Fantasy VI was released in the US as Final Fantasy III and proved to be the kick in the pants that many American gamers needed to truly fall in love with the series. Even now, it’s considered by many to be the best of the series. Terra, Kefka, intensely fun boss battles and a story line to rival any since then, Final Fantasy VI had it all and stands even now as one of the most often played of my classic game collection.
And it was with this game that Square brought to an end the 16 bit era of Final Fantasy. The inclusion of offshoots, Mystic Quest for the SNES and Legends for the Gameboy should be noted as attempts by Square to extend the popularity of the franchise to a mainstream audience. Most will note the failure of the endeavor, as none of these titles were true Final Fantasies relying on the brand name more than the game play to sell copies.
It would take a technological revolution and the abandoning of a classic partnership for Square’s key franchise to make the jump to mainstream popularity. That came in 1997 with the PlayStation release of Final Fantasy VII. The decision to abandon Nintendo was made for multiple reasons, not the least of which was the inability of Nintendo to develop a platform capable of the technical capacity Square wanted to introduce. Staying true to the classic cartridge format, Nintendo alienated the desire for video and orchestrated music inclusion, something Sony’s new CD format game console handled beautifully.
And it was this new technology and openness to innovation that brought Final Fantasy VII to the market. It was the first in the series to jump to 3d. Also, the first to use FMVs, the videos played during emotionally climactic moments of the game. Whether the story or game play were revolutionary has always been hotly debated by fans and dissenters, but the impact of VII on the genre has been felt ever since. It reinvented, as the series did 10 years earlier how the RPG genre was viewed, and today remains one of the most popular games of all time.
A year and a half later saw the release of Final Fantasy VIII, step two of Square’s Playstation trilogy of games. It took the advances of Final Fantasy VII and built on them admirably, introducing a new format for magic and leveling that some saw as too easy, but also added entirely new levels of strategy to the experience.
Final Fantasy IX sought to return the series to the medieval roots from which it grew. By reverting from the nearly realistic approach of the eighth entry, we saw the reintroduction of the super-deformed cartoonish style of earlier games. The plot retroacts to the medieval formats of the earlier games as well, away from the science fiction elements of the previous three games. It was received well but overlooked because of the simultaneous release of Sony’s new PlayStation 2 and the introduction of new highs in graphical output.
Enter the next generation. Final Fantasy X was a step forward in the ways VII was five years before. It introduced true 3D, voice acting, astounding graphics, and one of the most compelling stories in the series, unabashedly harsh and unforgiving to its characters, so powerful it bred a sequel, the first in Final Fantasy history. Of course, the sequel didn’t quite live up to it’s predecessor and Final Fantasy X-2 has never received the respect of its brethren, but the game itself is fun and full of innovation that no main series game could pull off.
Except, Square decided to go for it, and in Final Fantasy XI they didn’t even create a standard RPG. Instead, the RPG giant brought to us their entry in the MMORPG realm, a sprawling, technically wonderful internet RPG, which now boasts one of the second largest internet populations (World of Warcraft destroys all of its competition). Some found it too hard, and more didn’t appreciate the use of brand name just to sell a completely new product, especially as it pushed the release of a new console game to almost 5 years later. XI has been around for a little while now and is in need of a sequel, and it’s yet to be seen if Square-Enix will go to the trouble.
Yup that’s right, Square Enix. The two giants merged shortly after XI’s release and things took a sure change. Final Fantasy XII was indefinitely delayed for years because of the merger. But it finally released earlier this last year to critical acclaim. The game took the more efficient elements of XI’s battle system and introduced a more mature, involving story, revolving around all of its characters. As a game, XII succeeds on multiple levels because of its willingness to change from the “formula” that the other games created. And this is the story of Final Fantasy as a franchise. Through innovation, Square Enix has managed to always craft something incredible worth playing and lasting. I still have all of my original Final Fantasies intact on a shelf hidden away for safety, something only Zelda also enjoys as a game franchise. Everything else tends to disappear.
As PlayStation 3 arrives, the newest entry is probably only a year or two away and we’ll see what Square Enix does with it, but you can count on one thing. It will be innovative and top notch.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

The Fascinating History Of Backgammon

Backgammon has a long fascinating history of more than 5000 years, making it one of the oldest games in civilization. The earliest backgammon board, from an early version of the game, was found circa 3000 B.C. in the royal cemetery in Ur of the Chaldees in southern Mesopotamia(now called Iraq), the birthplace of Abraham.
The game has been played around the world and throughout recorded history. A form of the game was enjoyed by the Egyptian Pharoahs; boards dating from 1500 B.C. were found in King Tut's tomb. Wall paintingsin many Egyptian tombs portray people playing the game, indicating that it was played by the common people as well as the Pharaohs. A thousand years later, the Greeks were playing a form of the game. Homer, Sophocles, and Plato mention the game in their works. In Rome, the game long remained one of the most popular among the patricians. Emperor Claudius reportedly wrote a book on backgammon.
The excavators of Pompeii found a backgammon table in the courtyard of almost every villa. Various early versions of the game were popular in Britain, dating from the Crusades. It has always been a favourite game of the English. It is believed that the current form of the game evolved in the tenth century. Backgammon has been played in the United States since the seventeenth century.
However, the doubling cube was only introduced to the game in the early 1920s by an anonymous genius. This greatly enhanced the quality of backgammon and increased its popularity in the United States. The game had another surge of interest in the 1970s, but has waned in popularity in recent years due primarily to the advent of video and computer games.
When backgammon is played with the right people and strategy, it can be a very fascinating and addictive game for everybody. Hopefully, interest in this ancient game will increase in the near future. Perhaps, if more people discover the real game of backgammon, it will regain the popularity that it deserves.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

The Fascinating History of Bingo

The amazing success of the favourite pastime of many, Bingo does not happen overnight. It does has its own history, which dates back to it first appearance in the early 1800s. Bingo is a direct descendent of lottery-type games and its roots can be traced back into Europe, to the year 1530, when the Italian state run game of Lo Giuoco del Lotto was organized.
Over the centuries, an offshoot of that game spread through the whole of Europe. It was played quite differently from now as the game card was divided into 3 horizontal rows and nine vertical columns, instead of the usual 5x 5 grid. Another difference is that the numbers used are in the range of 1-90 while nowadays we use only numbers from 1 to 75.
The horizontal rows contained 5 numbered squares and 4 blank ones. As usual, the objective of the game was to cross out a horizontal row or vertical column. The blank squares were marked as "free" , similar to our present game, and the player needed to have the 5 numbered squares called.
Each player would be given one unique card and has to wait for the caller to draw numbers from a bag that contain wooden chips which are numbered from 1-90.
Bingo in its current form, grew out of the depression and was immediately a big hit with the Americans looking for a diversion from the everyday drudgery of life. As its fundraising potential was realized by churches and various groups, Bingo grew out of proportions and spread from coast to coast rapidly. By the middle of 1930s, thousands and thousands of Bingo games were played each week and this game subsequently ended up as the favourite pastime for many players.
On the east coast, New Jersey legalized the game in the 1950s and New York did the same in 1959. As other states realized the popularity of Bingo, the game simply became unstoppable and everyone seems to be playing it everyday.
The lucrative possibilities of Bingo was also attracting the attention of other neighbouring countries who were looking for revenue generating opportunities. Thus, it did not take long for these countries to jump onto the Bingo bandwagon.