posted on 2022-01-01 13:40:00
A long time ago when Norma and I had just started dating and I hadn't ever taught anyone to program, I wrote a post. In it, I talked about some of my favorite games. It was mostly just a list with a little added color here and there. But it's time for an update, and this time I hope to do just a little more than list some favorites. I'm also a little aware of how I weighted things last time. When I wrote Beloved Games, I wanted to make sure the times in my life with the most gaming (middle school and high school) had the bulk of the entries. I also wanted to show that the gaming experiences that had been managing to pull me back into the fold and affect me at that time were small downloadable indies, a relatively new phenomena. Those games offered new experiences more regularly than AAA titles so I also was careful to not include more than one game from a particular genre or series (which were relegated to honorary mentions).
So, what really struck a chord with me in the last 8 years? I'll just list the titles first and then delve into more detailed thoughts and justifications. These are arbitrarily in order of least to most long-term impact on me personally.
The Last of Us is an incredibly compelling story and one of the best games of its generation. The value it has to me has less to do with the gameplay though, and more to do with the quality of its presentation, the rapport it builds with its cast, and the more serious themes of its plot. In some ways, The Last of Us reminded me of when I first played "Metal Gear Solid". The themes it dealt with were more mature than what I expected of games at that time and it pushed the envelope of how to tell a story in games compared to its contemporaries.
The interesting thing about such games is that they make a big impact at the time of release but wane later. By pushing the medium forward, if you miss them when they came out it becomes notably harder to appreciate their qualities many years down the line when the lessons they teach are internalized by other works in the medium. (The same thing happens in film, of course.)
The reasons I started disconnecting with games in the late aughts and early tens was two fold. For one, I was really starting to grow up. I had a lot of opportunities to do fun things IRL that weren't available to high school me. I was being social more, studying more, working more. I was living more. That focus made it harder to justify lots of time spent on gaming experiences.
The fact that AAA games increasingly were just rehashes of existing series or well-formed genres was just the nail in the coffin. The Last of Us is an amazing title. But it is a continuation of the established mold of "story-driven 3rd person action adventure". That's not to undersell its accomplishments at all, but I think there are limits to how much that can impact me now.
There isn't a ton to say about Skate. It should've been on the original list and it wasn't. I can clearly remember spending the night at a friend's house in 1999 and his insistence at Blockbuster (really dating myself here) that we rent a skateboarding game. I thought it was the dumbest idea I'd ever heard. Why on earth would that be any fun at all?
Tony Hawk's Pro Skater got me into skateboarding in real life. It is the first ~~physical~~ athletic activity I remember really liking. It was also the first hobby I picked up and really enjoyed despite knowing I wasn't particularly talented at it.
Tony Hawk as a series has always been an arcade game rather than a Sim though. I discovered Thrasher's Skate and Destroy in high school and eventually favored it because it was closer to how I would really want to skate than the mindless combo fodder of THPS which was better for playing with friends.
Skate came out in 2009 and was probably the first PS3 game I was really hype about. That or MGS4. Skate took a great budget and the notion of a Sim skateboarding game and nailed it. I loved the whole series and eventually started playing it more than really skateboarding. Whoops.
What was the first "Open World" game? Do we count GTA 3 and Vice City or do we wait until Assassin's Creed and Skyrim? Is 3rd person perspective required? I realize Elite was a thing but I wasn't alive for that. Breath of the Wild is probably the first so-called open world game that I gave a damn about it and that's the least interesting thing about it to me.
Ocarina of Time feels like the first open-world game that I played and was really captivated by. It comes down to the same crucial thing: an insane dedication to compelling world building. There are tons of open world games that just feel like endless content with no soul, no hidden inner workings, just the result of needing to fill a virtual space rather than a thing that has a logic of its own. In a game like GTA where most people play by just causing chaos and trolling authority in a controlled space that's fine. But in a game like Zelda, it makes all the difference.
I don't remember if I played Breath of the Wild in 2017 or 2018. I never finished the story. I just enjoyed exploring a well-crafted world until I'd had my fill. I don't know that it changed how I thought about games or what they could be. It was just the perfect way to relax and enjoy Hyrule.
Final Fantasy convinced me I liked JRPGs but I never managed to break into the genre more broadly. I really enjoyed FFVIII (my first) and FFX. I never played 1-7 (I know, I know) and started but never finished 9 and 12. It mostly came down to an enjoyable world to explore, an interesting (or at least tolerable) cast, and great art and music. Persona 5 was the first JRPG I managed to play outside Final Fantasy and I think the only reason I didn't finish it is my wife got impatient. I enjoyed watching the rest of her playthrough. One day I'll finish my own.
JRPGs often have an adolescent feel to me and I think it's probably essential that they do. I was a shut-in during high school even though I'm pretty extroverted. I had close friends but still managed to doubt that I'd figure out life: jobs, relationships, a future. JRPGs are great providers of "safe freedom" and a coming of age setting. They build faith that you can figure things out and win, often in a style that suits you.
Persona 5 nails this more than any RPG I can think of. It has incredible art and worldbuilding, an engaging story, and genuinely interesting relationships. It is the only RPG where I've been compelled to micro-optimize whether I study, work, build a friendship, or fight demons after school. How they made it both fun and relaxing, I'm not sure.
You've probably already heard about Hades. (And most of these games, in fairness.) It won Game of the Year from many publications. It is the first roguelike I have loved. Roguelikes are tricky for me. It's interesting to separate the games on my lists between an attraction for worldbuilding/story vs mechanics/gameplay. While there is definitely a spectrum, games are fairly even dividied as to what the big draw is for me but it is exceedingly rare for me to like a game that doesn't have strong art and storyline to rope me in.
Roguelikes as a genre promise variation from randomly generated elements in a playthrough and multiple ways to win but often struggle to have the same draw for me as games with more linear stories and higher production values. It's hard for randomly generated worlds to have a soul. Call me shallow but there are exactly 3 games on my lists that I would say don't matter to me at all in terms of story and characterization: Mega Man 2, Super Stardust, and Melee.
Lots of indie roguelikes (and metroidvanias too) struggle to not just be fun to play but also compel with their characters and sense of place. Hades brokethrough for me by having a very strong sense of meta-progress across runs, a very engaging story, beautiful art, and an amazing capacity to build enjoyment through more options the longer you play. It's hard to explain but it's magic. I remember saying the same thing about Persona 5 at some point, "It just keeps opening up".
I love platformers. The last few years have really driven that home for me. Celeste took me a while to get around to because, well, the art didn't quite impress me. And I was fresh off playing Hollow Knight so my bar was probably a little high. It also didn't have combat and I wondered how the gameplay would develop to keep me engaged without it. That was a foolish mistake.
Celeste is one of the best platformers I have ever played, has a memorable and moving soundtrack, and one of the most thoughtful treatments of mental health in video gaming. It is brutally challenging while also encouraging the player to push onwards. For all its difficulty, kindness is somehow in its design. I am not one of the people who completed all the optional B and C-side content and probably won't be. I am immensely happy I took the time to pick it up.
We're really getting into the heavy hitters at this point. I loved Hollow Knight. Really loved it. I've been eagerly awaiting their follow-up game Silksong for the better part of 2 years, clinging to any news at all and hoping for a surprise release announcement constantly.
Hollow Knight is the complete package. A new IP from a formerly unknown developer. Just enough story and lore to have you curiously driving forward while retaining an air of mystery. Absolutely stunning artwork and animation combined with a fresh setting. A beautiful soundtrack to accentuate exploring. A sense of perpetual "opening up" as new mechanics and abilities are unlocked. And most important of all, beautifully tight physics and controls. The kind of game where it "just feels right".
It's been years since I've played it and I regularly entertain thoughts of playing it through again (which I don't really do with games). I'm sure I'll love it for years to come. Here's hoping 2022 is the year for Silksong.
I ... probably should stop the article now. Melee is a force. I played Super Smash Bros for N64 and Wii in college and really enjoyed it. Few things are better than beating up your friends with Nintendo characters. It's just a fact. But Melee is something else. You can play it the way you play the other smash games. It can be chaos with friends, random items and silly stages full of hazards. Or you can turn off the most chaotic random elements and stages, practice movement with your character, and turn it into possibly the most interesting competitive game I've ever played.
I started playing at the end of 2013 and I haven't stopped. I've traveled out of state with my friend Max to compete in national tournaments. It is the only fighting game I know of that has multiple tournaments with prize pools in the tens of thousands of dollars 20 years after release with no backing from its developer. I am closer to understanding fans of real sports because of how many times, how many seasons, I've watched twitch streams of major tournaments with tens of thousands of other spectators, rooting for pro players I think can break through to the next level of play or conquer their demon.
There are at least three high quality documentaries I can think of off the top of my head chronicling the game's competitive history and the stories of its players. There are countless sets I've loved watching. The melee I see played today has evolved from 2 years ago, which has evolved from 2 years before that, all the way back to when I started playing eight years ago. I have recordings of me playing in 2014 and 2015. I can't express how different they look to when I play now.
When does a game become more than a game? I think it's when the dedicated, long-term efforts of thousands and thousands of people force it to continue to grow and change until it no longer resembles it's humble origins. Every time I think the game has been pushed to its limits and all its secrets have been revealed, I'm proven wrong whether it's at the next tournament or the one after. It won't surprise me if Melee is still being played seriously 20 years from now. And even if it isn't, it's been one hell of a ride. Some good links below if you're interested.
Grade A Youtube Content (from entertaining to educational):
One very good recent set:
Compilations and Combo Videos:
posted on 2014-11-22 15:00:00
This post is mostly written for myself. It assumes familiarity with various terms, people, equipment, etc. If you find it useful or entertaining, whether you play melee or not, cool. This post is not intended to be a training guide. I'm not good enough to be educating beginners, just to observe my experience over the last year.
If you do want to get started with Melee, you need a few things:
I'm not a gamer. The last time I really put substantial time into video games was high school. I also wouldn't describe myself as a competitive person. But for whatever reason, I've always been competitive in Smash Bros. I want to win.
Late last October, I stumbled on a documentary detailing the history of the competitive smash brothers scene. I was riveted. I was suddenly aware of a massive depth to the game I'd hitherto missed. I had to know more, I had to try to my hand at competitive play.
In addition, I've always struggled with things I'm not immediately good at. I'm terrible at being patient with myself, at viewing life (and goals) as a journey and not a destination to be reached post haste. Melee remains an excellent opportunity to practice being loving and patient with myself, and handling failure and defeat gracefully.
As I said before, it's a monumentally deep game. Like in chess, character positioning and board layout is paramount. As in poker, bluffing and calling your opponent's bluffs is crucial. There's also an executional aspect. Professional players routinely execute 300 actions per minute and have to perform complex controller inputs in a 20th of a second window or less. Not to mention just learning the properties of 25 characters, their moves, and the Rock Paper Scissors of what beats what in which situations.
I've been at it for a while now. I'm still not good but I'm much more at peace with that than I was when I started. Here are a few things I've learned playing melee the past year. A lot of these things are habits I've had to work hard to break. Just remember not to get discouraged. Melee can be very unforgiving.
You have to stay motivated. If things get too serious and you're not having fun you're going to play less and your skill will plateau. There are a lot of things beginners have to absorb and a plethora of suggestions, bordering on rules, about how to practice. Feel free to violate anything anyone says in order to keep things fun.
A few semi-regular suggestions I violate in the name of fun are:
I play 2 seriously (Sheik/Marth), 2 semi-seriously (Fox/Falcon), and 2 for fun (Pikachu/Doc Mario). If I don't switch it up, I find myself getting frustrated with progress on a single character. And when playing with friends, it can be surprisingly rejuvenating to go play a quick falcon ditto after an hour or more of serious play.
Additionally, I find some characters make certain kinds of practice more rewarding. For me, Fox makes it really fun to practice tech skill and Marth makes it really fun to practice spacing. Those characters really emphasize those attributes which makes the practice payoff very clear.
The big argument here is that CPUs ingrain bad habits. Especially if all you're trying to do is win. So don't try to win. PPMD talks about doing something called shadowboxing, essentially playing the CPU like a human opponent. The 20xx hack pack is supposed to improve their behavior in various ways, especially DI. I find it helpful to practice tech skill at a level where the CPU will punish me if I'm too slow or miss an input.
Editor's Note: Some of the advice in this section is specific to me because I don't attend or plan to attend lots of local tournaments. The core advice of separating different kinds of play still applies.
To play competitively, you're going to wind up doing 3 things:
It is important that you keep these things distinct. For example, I try to spend 20-30 minutes a day practicing tech skill. I move around the stage, working on flubs or things I execute too slowly. I try to learn new tech (such as waveshines). I don't go to many local tournaments so I experiment with different approaches and punishes against a CPU. Finally, when I want to be competitive I play (seriously) against friends.
Initially, you'll want to blur all this together. You'll be playing semi-seriously with a friend and be tempted to try "new stuff": platform movement, wavedashing, the "Ken combo", getting an off stage Falcon Punch. Don't give in to the temptation. Melee requires you to adapt to your opponent above all else. If you're too busy obsessing over moves you want to land, you'll limit your options and your play will suffer for it. This isn't to say you shouldn't try to work on specific things in matches with your friends. Just that tech skill you haven't mastered and particular combos are not those things.
To emphasize further, don't practice specific combos. Part of Melee's depth comes from DI, or Directional Influence, the upshot of which is that getting a specific combo might be impossible depending on the opponent's actions. Long story short, DI allows you (and your opponent) to change the direction a hit knocks them in, potentially making follow up attacks miss. The interesting choices in melee come in between hits as you watch what your opponent does and react to it. While there are "guaranteed" combos in specific situations (character a vs character b at XX%), most of our combos come from reacting not planning.
If you've spent years playing Smash casually, you'll largely see the game as hitting or being hit, offense or defense. But that brutal simplification will limit your ability to see the larger game. Two common adages fall under this section:
The takeaway is, It's better to not get hit than to get a hit.
You'll be tempted to rush in right away, ignore that impulse. You'll be dying to hit them back for hitting you, re-establish good footing instead. The "neutral game" is everything that happens outside of getting a hit or combo and trying to escape being hit. The sooner you can see encroaching on an opponent's space on the stage as a useful form of micro-aggression, the better off you'll be. Just positioning yourself in a threatening way is a hugely useful tool.
Don't force your play into a false dichotomy of attacking or defending.
Editor's Note: This rule was originally called "Stay Grounded" and came from my reflections on the Marth v Link matchup with my buddy Max. Some of this section will be dependent on the matchup.
Stage position is important. Let's say it again: Stage position is really, really important. When I first started playing Marth, I always wanted to approach in the air. Just all the time. Lord knows why. But being in the air takes away a huge number of movement options. Your opponent can plan around and react to your play more easily when you have fewer options.
I wound up above Max a lot and got punished. Even if your character has good aerial attacks, unless you're talking cross up nairs with Pikachu or Fox there are probably safer, better approaches. So, being above your opponent is usually a pretty negative situation.
In general, center stage is a great place to be, and above the opponent, in a corner, or on the ledge, are bad places to be. Platforms are a bit more of a mixed bag. But remember where on the stage you have advantage and where your good options aren't available and figure out why that is.
In addition, spacing is really important. Spacing is more than just trying to throw out attacks from a safe distance, or thinking about your opponent's range. It also has to do with thinking about the range at which your character performs best. Marth and Falcon, for example, are mid-range powerhouses, while Fox and Sheik generally need to get in close to be really effective. Know where your character performs well and remember to stay in that effective range as much as possible.
Kirbykaze's blog posts explain this much more clearly than I will. Any time you can keep most of your options open while limiting your enemy's, do it. That's a huge advantage. And any time you can narrow their range of choices you have a much better chance of predicting their play, or finding a tactic that covers every possible outcome.
Since Melee is so much about movement and positioning, being fast is key. And indeed, most of the executional aspects of high-level play are in service of eliminating as much lag as possible from your character's moves. It's useful to try to build a formal model here.
Every move in the game has a set duration, though certain moves (dash dancing, wave dashing, aerials) can be shortened to varying degrees. Once you've committed to a move, the opponent knows more or less how long the move's hitbox will be active, how long you'll be unable to execute a different move, etc.
Consequently, speed mostly comes from transitioning quickly between moves or, as Kirbykaze's blog says, "action states". The better you get at switching between shielding, standing, walking, dash dancing, wavedashing, and attacking, the faster you'll be. Seamlessly and quickly transitioning between these states is vastly more valuable than L-canceling all your down aerials.
This is something I'm just now realizing and trying to improve on. It's very appealing to just work on l-canceling or short hops or wavedashing but misses the real point. The connecting tissue between action states is where most of our sluggishness comes from.
Finally, it should be obvious that regular, focused practice makes a big difference. I'm going to try to practice 20 minutes a day, 5 days a week going forward. I'm still figuring out exactly what that practice regimen will consist of, probably mostly tech skill and movement with Sheik and Marth. Wavedashing and L-canceling are muscle memory, sure, but practicing the basics shouldn't ever really stop.
And I'm still not where I want to be but I've had a few good moments. I hope this has been an interesting post on some things I've struggled with while learning melee. Happy smashing and if you're in Atlanta and want a game, feel free to drop me a line.
Various people have posted articles for beginners on getting better:
posted on 2013-10-19 14:49:00
I'm still on a break from recreational programming. I've been gaming a bit to remember why I was writing an Emulator in the first place and got the idea for this article. Here are 16 games that left a major impression on me (and 4 honorary mentions) presented in something close to Autobiographical order:
Certainly there have been other titles/series I've enjoyed putting hours into: Naughty Dog's Uncharted, Bethesda's Skyrim, Borderlands, and so on. But the above are the games which uniquely effected me. Each holds special nostalgic value, many represent discovery of a genre or fictional setting that I've come to love. Hell, the Tony Hawk's Pro Skater series got me skateboarding in real life and I'm not sure I would have owned an Acura NSX if not for Gran Turismo.
It would be fun to do a similar list for Movies (would I have become a programmer without Hackers?) or Music. I'll call this good for now. :)
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