Master Classes

It recently occurred to me that I’m not mastering games the way I used to, and I’m not entirely sure why that is. (Note: For the rest of this post, whenever I say “master”, please silently append “to my own satisfaction” to the end of it. I’m not out there shattering speed records or bragging about my leet skillz, so don’t get the wrong idea here. This is all personal.) Mastering a game is the real joy I get out of games, plumbing their depths and seeing what lies beyond. I typically don’t buy games just because I think they’d make for a fun eight hours; an ideal game purchase for me not only provides a meaty initial playthrough, but is also robust enough to sustain interest through repeated play. Hammering out ideal routes, ferreting out the smartest strategies, and experimenting with different combinations and tactics is where I get my gaming kicks. Every time I buy a new game I cross my fingers and hope that this one will be intriguing enough to add to “the rotation”, the list of games I replay regularly and am constantly trying to figure out. If, after seeing a game’s credits, I immediately want to hit the reset button and try again, I know I’ve got a keeper.

It’s odd, then, that I’ve been doing less and less of it in recent years. I don’t know why. It’s not a question of time, as I play games about as much now  as I have at any point in my life, and it’s not a question of interest, as if anything I’m more addicted to picking apart games these days. But I don’t think I’ve really mastered a new game this entire hardware generation, and there’s only a few games from this generation I think will eventually get there. There are a few games that I’ll probably replay, eventually, and years from now I’ll probably consider myself as having mastered them, but… they lack that “I must play this again” urge that characterizes most of the games I’ve really mastered.

On that note, I thought I’d talk about all of the games in my career that I feel I’ve mastered to my own satisfaction. There aren’t as many as I would have thought — there are many games that I love dearly, and have replayed repeatedly, but that I’m not anywhere close to knowing everything about. I’m really good at Baten Kaitos Origins’s battle system, for example, but I still haven’t seen everything in the game, there are still dozens of sidequests (minor ones, admittedly, but still) that I haven’t bothered to solve, and the earth is more likely to fall out of its orbit and crash into Mars than I am to collect everything in that game.

Super Mario Bros. 1 and 3

More specifically, the All-Stars version. The very first game system I owned was a Super Nintendo that came with Mario All-Stars and Mario World, and those five games were the only ones I played for over a year. However, I’ve never been that enamored with 2’s gameplay and the Lost Levels is far too difficult (I didn’t beat that one until my first year of college!), so 1, 3, and World were where my attention really fell during that time. I combed those games thoroughly over the years, looking for secrets, and to this day it’s a rare year that I don’t play all three at least once. Mario 1, in particular, has received an infusion of interest this year thanks to Super Mario Bros. Crossover.

Super Mario World

See above, but with the added caveat that not only have I mastered the game itself, but I’ve also delved into the dangerous world of romhacks. Mario World has a world-famous hacking scene, and I’ve been following it with various degrees of enthusiasm since I learned of its existence. Familiarity may be breeding some contempt with this game. Unlike almost all the other games on this list, where my affection for them is renewed with each playthrough, I find myself growing that much more unimpressed with each play of this game. I honestly think New Super Mario Bros. Wii is a better game, taken as a whole.

The Donkey Kong Country trilogy

Some people will tell you that this series hasn’t aged well, you’ll never convince me of that. I’ve always loved these games, and their secret rooms and stage layouts are burned, pixel for pixel, into my brain. To this day I can play all three on autopilot. I’ll probably be receiving DKC Returns for Christmas, and while people tell me it’s much better than the SNES games, I’ll be very interested to see how it compares to my memories of the original trilogy.

Chrono Trigger

I’m listing these in the order of their release dates, but I didn’t play this game until around 2005. Once I did acquire it, though, I played it with a fervor, and was quickly able to make up for lost time, as it was more or less the only console game I played for something like two years, a period when I’d grown disillusioned with the hobby and didn’t buy many new games. This is a great game for experimentation — almost every party combination has something unique and fun to offer, and I feel like I’ve tried them all.

Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars

For most of my life, if you’d asked me what the best game ever made was, I would have answered, without hesitation, “Super Mario RPG”. I’ve come down on it somewhat since then, but it still holds a lot of sentimental value to me — it introduced me to the world of games that weren’t side-scrolling platformers, so that has to count for something. The sum total of my knowledge of the game was expressed in the Let’s Play I wrote about it a few years back.

Kirby Super Star

Probably the game I know the most about. Given that it’s a fairly standard platformer with unimpressive level design, you wouldn’t expect this game to have depths to plumb, but you’d be wrong. The incredibly flexible system of powers gives it a lot of room to explore. Did you know that thrown objects deal incredible damage in this game? How about the fact that the Jet power’s exhaust can damage enemies? Or that a full Plasma charge will protect you from projectiles? All true, and all things you’re not likely to notice if you just take things as they come. In particular, fiddling around with the Arena increased my respect for the game tremendously — it’s difficult to understand just what each power is capable of until you’ve put them to the ultimate test.

Super Mario 64

I actually replayed this earlier this year with some trepidation — I hadn’t touched the game since playing the Galaxy games, which seem to be universally acknowledged as superior, so I was afraid that my warm and fuzzy memories of the game would be trampled by cold, hard reality. Lo and behold, though, the game was just as fun as ever — and in a different way than the Galaxy games, I think. The Galaxy games are all about translating 2-D Mario’s obstacle course gameplay into 3-D (a task they accomplish admirably), but Mario 64 is a different beast entirely, being far more exploratory and freeform. More than any other Mario game, Mario 64 allows you to set your own pace and proceed in the way you want to proceed, rather than the way the game decided that you should. I’ve spent hours dreaming up weird, unconventional ways to get to the stars in this game, and that’s a different kind of fun than Galaxy’s constant forward drive.

Star Fox 64

The only twitch game on the list; Star Fox 64 has the advantage of coming out at a time before I realized that I hated twitch games. Star Fox 64 is also the only game, ever, that I’ve cared about my score in — it’s embarrassing the amount of time I’ve spent trying to just get one… more… kill.

The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time

It’s a bit weird, given how much I love the Zelda series, that this is the only entry on the list. It fits, though — every other Zelda game has something, somewhere, that I forget or overlook — a puzzle whose solution slipped my mind, or a findable doodad whose location has evaded me. Not Ocarina. I remember everything about this game. If you put an N64 controller in my hand as I was dying, I could probably get through at least the Forest Temple on sheer muscle memory before rigor mortis set in. Given the shitty N64 library, I often played this game in preference to sleepwalking through Yoshi’s Story or forcing myself to pretend that Jet Force Gemini was fun, and it shows.

Skies of Arcadia Legends

Another game that’s big and complicated enough that just working out “the sequence” is entertainment enough for me. It also has a charming setting and cast, as well as some interesting locations to explore. I was hoping to communicate my love for this game in LP form, but, well…

Fire Emblem: Blazing Sword

This came out around the tail end of 2003, but I didn’t actually acquire it until 2006, after I’d played FE8 and 9. (It was out of print at the time, so I had to hunt down a used copy.) My affection for this game derives mostly from the fact that it never plays out the same way twice — you’ll get a different army every time you play, and a character who was a god for you in one playthrough might be useless in another. Hector’s Story was also a stroke of genius. Another game I’ve talked about at length in an LP.

Tales of Symphonia

What can I say? I love this game quite unconditionally. I love the gameplay, love the characters, even love the story. I honestly believe this game has a good story, and not in the “so bad it’s” sense. I think the issue here is that Symphonia is a game that begs to be replayed — there’s a lot going on under the surface here that’s not immediately apparent, and you’re not getting the full context of the stories and the character development unless you seek out the hidden scenes and play around with the affection system. I forget how many times I’ve played this game — over a dozen, at least — but after my most recent playthrough in November I was still getting the urge to play again. Symphonia was so good that I conned myself into playing Arc Rise Fantasia, of all things, because I thought it would be another Symphonia — that didn’t work out so well for me.

Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door

I’ll admit that I passed on the first Paper Mario because it wasn’t enough like Mario RPG (which, let’s remember, was the best game ever made). I did eventually play it, first through a rental and then again through the Virtual Console, but it’s not nearly as good as its sequel, which improves upon it in every way. People think Paper Mario 1 was funny, but that’s only in comparison to regular RPGs. Paper Mario 2 is a legitimately funny game, by any standard. Its battle system is a lot more varied and interesting, and the badge system gives you surprising flexibility. Yet another game I played a lot during my self-imposed exile from the new games scene, and another game I revisit once a year or so.

That’s it. The last game I mastered came out in late 2004 (although, as mentioned, I played Fire Emblem and Chrono Trigger after that). Is there some special quality to this generation’s games that’s keeping me from replaying them? Are they so focused on creating a singular experience that revisits just don’t seem as profitable? Are the genres I like just in decline? The answer is probably “all of the above”.

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