What would you like to play this week? A niche JRPG series that’s been steadily growing in popularity over the last twenty years or an auto racing series that is probably the most popular in the world? You could also just play the 20 year old PS2 era Grand Theft Auto games again or for the first time. Speaking of old stuff, this is a long one, folks, with some really big notable titles releasing in the past. Ten years ago was Skyrim, and twenty years ago we had not only the release of Kojima’s masterpiece Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty, but the Xbox was ALSO released, including Halo, Dead of Alive 3, and everyone’s favorite, 4×4 EVO 2. Grab a soda, you’ll be here a while.
Shin Megami Tensei V (Switch) – Releases Nov. 12th
After being first being announced in 2017, the long awaited Shin Megami Tensei V is finally here! A long running series in Japan, we didn’t start getting these games in the West until part 3 came out on the PS2 back in 2004, which is also the last time a SMT game even released on a console, well, if you don’t count the Digital Devil Saga or Devil Summoner games, and of course there have been the Persona games, which are spin-offs, and then you had Tokyo Mirage Sessions which was another spin-off that crossed over with Fire Emblem, alright, enough! Anyway, Shin Megami Tensei V is the first new MAINLINE game to release on consoles since SMT 3: Nocture in 2004, there! Set in modern day Tokyo, a high school student (big surprise…) starts investigating rumors about demons appearing in a tunnel. An earthquake happens while the player and his friends search the tunnel, causing the player to fall unconscious, only to awaken in a post-apocalyptic Tokyo that has been overrun by monsters. Typical of these games, players will meet various demons while exploring the world and can either gain their trust through dialogue choices, adding them to your party, or you can fight them to gain experience. The game has already received very high praise from critics, with many outlets calling it the best RPG of the year. If you are a fan of the genre then I can’t imagine a more important game for you to pick up this year than Shin Megami Tensei V.
Blue Reflection: Second Light (PC/PS4/PS5/Switch) – Releases Nov. 9th
If collecting demons in a devastated Tokyo isn’t your cup of tea then perhaps a gentile, picturesque island populated with beautiful girls is what you’re looking for. Set at a school for girls who have lost their memory, you will make friends and help build and design the school. However, since this is an RPG, there are some monsters to face, as a mysterious pathway opens up, leading to new areas you’ve never seen before, and what’s this? You have magical powers now? Have the best Summer of your life, in the Fall.
Forza Horizon 5 (PC/Xbox One/Series X|S) – Releases Nov. 9th
The Forza series is split into two franchises. There’s Motorsport, which is the serious game for serious gearheads, not unlike Gran Turismo, and then there’s Horizon, which is more about arcade style mayhem with sick ass cars in exotic locations. This time, in Forza Horizon 5, players will be transported to the country of Mexico, where the development team made painstaking efforts to capture its authentic culture and environment, just so you can smash into it and create chaos. Such reverence! I can’t wait to play to mission where you collect piñatas. Pre-release buzz has been fantastic with the game receiving some of the highest scores of the year. If you don’t have a Series X by now, Horizon 5 might be the reason to finally hit up every retailer website you can to try and pick one up.
Jurassic World Evolution 2 (PC/PS4/PS5/Xbox One/Series X|S) – Releases Nov. 9th
Welcome, to Jurassic
Grand Theft Auto: The Trilogy – Definitive Edition (PC/PS4/PS5/Switch/Xbox One/Series X|S) – Releases Nov. 11th
Between Shin Megami Tensei V, Skyrim Anniversary Edition, KOTOR on Switch, and this game, I don’t think I’m going to see the sun for the next three months.
Ports and Re-releases:
Final Fantasy V Pixel Remaster (Android/iOS/PC) – Releases Nov. 10th
Um, the main character’s name is Butz. I don’t know what this Bartz shit is.
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim – Anniversary Edition (PC/PS4/PS5/Xbox One/Series X|S) – Releases Nov. 11th
Hey, look at that, a ten year anniversary release of Skyrim. Gee, I wonder what this week’s notable title from ten years ago is going to be…
Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (Switch) – Releases Nov. 11th
Do we usually celebrate 18 year old anniversaries? Fun fact, children born the year this video game came out can now fight in wars and vote for president, but they can’t drink or rent a car. Good thing we have our priorities in check.
Orcs Must Die! 3 – Cold As Eyes (PC/PS4/Stadia/Xbox One/Series X|S) – Releases Nov. 11th
If you’ve done everything there is to do in Orcs Must Die! 3, rejoice, for you now have something new to do! Featuring a brand new race of creatures, the Cyclops, new weapons like the flamethrower, and new ice filled scenarios in Endless mode, you should have plenty of content to keep you busy.
There’s not much to talk about here aside from the new Game & Watch device. It features three games, The Legend of Zelda, Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, and Link’s Awakening . On top of that, you also get the classic Game & Watch game Vermin, but with graphics that depict Link and Octoroks instead of Mr. Game & Watch and moles. There’s also a clock feature that shows Link exploring dungeons in the first Zelda game, and a timer that depicts link fighting monsters in the sidescrolling stage from Zelda II. This could be a great gift for that Zelda fan in your life, if you can find one.
- Football Manager 2022 (PC/Xbox One/Series X|S) – Releases Nov. 9th
- Bright Memory: Infinite (PC) – Releases Nov. 11th
- Treasures of the Aegean (PC/PS4/PS5/Switch/Xbox One/Series X|S) – Releases Nov. 11th
- Game & Watch: The Legend of Zelda – Releases Nov. 12th
Notable Releases from 10, 20 and 30 years ago:
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (PC/PS3/Xbox 360) – Released Nov. 11th, 2011: Wiki Link
Development on the next Elder Scrolls game was in the pre-planning phases shortly after the completion of The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, however full production on the game wouldn’t start until after the completion of Fallout 3 in 2008. The team at Bethesda knew they wanted to set the next game in the franchise in the land of Skyrim, thus giving The Elder Scrolls V it’s name. Unlike the generic European fantasy setting seen in Oblivion, the world of Skyrim was seen as a bit more of a “realistic” setting. The team opted to give the world a more gritty and grounded feel, showing that the land of Skyrim was more harsh than Cyrodiil, being closer to something like the land of Morrowind, where danger lurked around every corner. Speaking of, the team wanted to return to the sense of danger and discovery that The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind provided, as director Todd Howard felt that Oblivion was a bit too safe. To do this, Skyrim’s world map would be divided into nine sectors, each with their own topography in order to feel distinct from one another, and to give a sense that players never quite knew what they’d find. While Skyrim’s map is roughly the same size as Oblivion’s was, the high mountains made traveling across it much more difficult, as Cyrodiil was generally flat. As for the game’s dungeons, all of Oblivion’s were made by one person who just kind of copy/pasted bits and pieces here and there, while Skyrim’s were all handcrafted by a team of eight. With 150 dungeons, 244 quests, 300 points of interest, and numerous unmarked locations, players had a ton of stuff to do; so what did you do, and why were you doing it?
Just like every other Elder Scrolls game, players start off as prisoners. In Skyrim you are caught trying to illegally cross the border by Imperial soldiers, a crime punishable by death. During your execution the dragon Alduin appears and beging to lay waste to everyone around you. In the chaos you are able to escape, making your way to the town of Whiterun. While there, the town is attacked by another dragon which you are able to defeat, aborbing its soul in the process. The player then “shouts”, prompting the locals to refer to him as the fabled Dragonborn. The player is instructed to climb the tallest mountain in all of Tamriel and meet with the Greybeards to learn about who the Dragonborn is and what their destiny entails. While most people will likely go this route quickly, the real joy of any Elder Scrolls game is the open-ended, non-linear gameplay, meaning you could play for several hours before you even figure out you’re the Dragonborn and that you have some kind of ancient prophecy to fulfill. No two playthroughs of Skyrim are the same, although there are gated missions, but for the most part, my time playing Skyrim can be vastly different than yours.
When Skyrim released on 11-11-11 it was an instant success. Critics praised all of the changed and upgrade that Bethesda had worked on, giving high marks for the new, rich detail setting, as well as other changes, such as the removal of character classes. Not every critic loved the game, however, some said the main quest line was boring and relied too much on reading journals and listening to expository dialogue. The difficulty of the dragon fights was also criticized for being too easy, but also for being too hard to for ranged players. Finally, of course, there were also critics who couldn’t help but point out the numerous bugs and glitches that seem to plague every Bethesda game. After two days, Skyrim had sold over 3.4 million physical copies of the game, and while we don’t have digital sales, the game did see 230,000 concurrent players on Steam on launch day. That might not seem like a lot, but by January 2nd 2012, over 5 million had the game in their Steam library, and by June of 2013 it was announced that Skyrim had sold over 20 million copies across all platforms, and then by November 2016, the game’s five year anniversary, that number had grown to over 30 million. During awards season it would clean up, earning Game of the Year from multiple outlets, including the VGA’s, X-Play, GameSpot, GameSpy, Joystiq, and the DICE Awards. Skyrim was also highly influential int he gaming industry for its use of the open world format and total player immersion. In fact, one high profile fan was Eiji Aonuma, producer of the Legend of Zelda series, who saw how reception to Skyrim overshadowed his recent release, Skyward Sword, a game we’ll talk about next week. If you want to play Skyrim today you can pick the recently released Anniversary Edition, or any of the multiple ports it has received over the years. As for the future of the series, The Elder Scrolls VI has been announced, but details on its location and release date don’t exist, except for rumors. Bethesda is currently working on a science fiction RPG called Starfield, and they’ve promised that once that game is completed they’ll jump right into Elder Scrolls VI. Until then, just play Skyrim again.
Xbox – Released Nov. 15th, 2001: Wiki Link
On January 3rd, 2001, Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates was on stage at the Consumer Electronics Expo with the most famous wrestler in America, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson to unveil their brand new video game console, Xbox. With Sony dominating the home console market, Nintendo floundering in the living room but killing it in the handheld market, and Sega just about to drop out, Microsoft was taking a big risk in trying to compete with three established gaming companies. Would they succeed?
Let’s go back a few years to 1998 as four engineers from Microsoft’s DirectX team, Kevin Bachus, Seamus Blackley, Ted Hase and Otto Berkes, began discussing the idea of using DirectX, the popular gaming API for Windows, to create a home console. The talks were, at first, just that, talks, but then in March of 1999 Sony came out and announced their new console, the PlayStation 2, would be using a Linux operating system. Sony declared that the PS2 would be a revolution in home computers and they expected the PS2 to compete with PC’s as the number one media device in homes. This may have been a translation error, but it didn’t matter, Sony had unwittingly put themselves in the crosshairs of one of the most powerful companies in the world, Microsoft. Bill Gates, worrying that Sony was coming for their share of the home PC market, decided that Microsoft needed to hit them where it would hurt the most, the living room, and Seamus Blackley knew how they could do it. What Blackley realized was that all games are made on a PC before they are ported to a home console, so why not just turn a PC into a console? Well, the team from WebTV, a recently acquired asset to the Microsoft portfolio, new this wasn’t just something you could do. They warned Gates and soon to be CEO Steve Ballmer, that the cost of the device would be way too high. The WebTV team insisted that Microsoft follow the same route as Sony and Nintendo and create a less powerful, and thus cheaper, device if they were serious about getting into the console business. The DirectX team, however, were not giving up, and in a pitch meeting to Microsoft executives they promised that their console could run Windows AND DirectX, unlike the WebTV team that wanted to basically create Dreamcast 2 with Windows CE and no DirectX compatibility. Gates was adamant that Microsoft’s console be a PC in a box and ultimately gave the project to Blackley and his DirectX teammates. They would soon find out, though, that the WebTV team was right. This would not be a cheap device.
After acquiring a few Dell computers, the DirectX team began the process of building their console. The initial idea was that Microsoft would design the machine and then they would get a third party to build it. That was a mistake. Blackley and his team very quickly discovered that there was just no way anyone else could build the device. Not only that, but there was also no way for the machine to allow users to directly interface with Windows, a key feature that Gates had insisted on and one that the DirectX team had promised would be a feature. On February 14th, 2000, Rick Thompson, the team lead, and GM J Allard went to Bill Gates’ office to deliver the bad news. According to Thompson, Gates was furious and screamed at the two men so much that they had to wipe the spit off their face. After a good 30 minutes, Gates was finally done. By this point it had turned into a full on meeting with several Microsoft executives. According to Steve Ballmer, the break from Windows was a very hard decision as it was Microsoft’s key piece of software, but he understood the larger goal. For Ballmer, the goal wasn’t to have gamers embrace Windows, it was to have regular people embrace Microsoft and put them in their living rooms. One question that kept coming up during the meeting was “What about Sony?”. Gates knew he could not let Sony put a computer in the living room, it would destroy Windows, they had to do something. Gates and Ballmer gave each other the look and told Thompson and Allard that they would get everything they wanted, including a $500 million dollar marketing budget and an entire building all to themselves to make the console in. With the device getting the green light it was time to put a name on it.
There were several names suggested for the device, most of them acronyms such as WEP (Windows Entertainment Project), MTG (Microsoft Total Gaming), MIND (Microsoft Interactive Network Device), and MIC (Microsoft Interactive Center). Another name considered was “Midway”, seeing as the device was a bridge between the living room and the office, as well as being a subtle nod to the “Battle of Midway” in WW2 where U.S. forces decisively beat the Japanese (i.e., Microsoft would beat Sony). One name, however, stood out most to the team, DirectX Box. Named as an obvious homage to the API that started the whole thing, DirectX Box was a hit among the Direct X team (no surprise), and over time they would shorten it to just Xbox. Microsoft’s marketing department, on the other hand, fucking HATED the name. They wanted to, for unknown reasons, call the device “11-X” or “Eleven-X”, baffling the DirectX team. The marketing team were so confident in their names, and in their hatred of the name “Xbox”, that they ran a series of consumer surveys and focus groups with the general public to get their opinions. As you might have guessed, “Xbox” was the clear favorite among those surveyed and that was that. Microsoft’s new console would be forever known as Xbox.
Now here we are, back on stage in January of 2001 with Bill Gates on stage with The Rock to unveil the Xbox to world. Expectations were high for the console, not only did it feature superior graphics and processing power compared to the PS2, but it came with a built in hard drive that would not only eliminate the need for memory cards, but would also allow developers to utilize the extra space to, accordingly to Blackley, expand further on their own creativity without having to worry about hardware limitations. When E3 2001 rolled around it was time for Microsoft to announce some of the upcoming games. To do this, they would need to acquire some studios, but after unsuccessful attempts to purchase EA, Midway, Square Enix, and even Nintendo, things looked a little dire. However, they were able to convince both Bethesda and Tecmo to sign deals giving them the exclusive rights to the new Elder Scrolls and Dead or Alive games, and while they picked up a handful of studios, perhaps their most important one was the acquisition of a small studio called Bungie. They were currently hard at work on a third person action game for Apple computers called Halo, but that was about to change.
On November 15th, 2001, Xbox was released at midnight in North America. Bill Gates would personally sell the first console to a lucky shopper at the Toys R Us store in New York’s Times Square, sticking around afterwards to play games with other patrons at various kiosks set up at the event. Microsoft’s director of marketing John O’Rourke remarked that it was a lot of fun seeing Gates interact with the public and that he had a sort of twinkle in his eye, taking in the spectacle and wonder of the event and the games he played. By the end of 2001, 1.5 million Xbox’s would be sold, one of the most successful console launches up to that point. It was thought that their big seller would be Oddworld: Munch’s Oddysee, seen as a major “get” from Sony, but it was Halo, which was now a first person shooter, from the relatively unknown Bungie that turned out to be Microsoft’s killer app. Ed Fries, the head of Microsoft’s gaming division, noted that Halo was a runaway hit, far exceeding expectations, with the game featuring a staggering 50% attach rate. Based on their launch lineup, it was Fries’ opinion that Xbox fit in somewhere between hardcore PC gaming and the more family oriented world of Nintendo. Seamus Blackley would elaborate further, saying that Xbox showed the executives at Microsoft that gamers were more than just 14-year-old skateboarders who committed crimes, they were adults, kids, women, and families. Microsoft had entered the living room, and as we all know today, even with some bumps along the road, they’re still here. “Xbox play Star Trek: Into Darkness!“
We already talked a bit about Halo and Oddworld, but now let’s really dive deep into these launch games, shall we?
The Killer Apps
It’s hard to imagine now, but there was a time in gaming history where more people were excited for a brand new Oddworld game than they were for Halo, but that’s where we were in 2001. After the success of Abe’s Oddysee and Abe’s Exodus on the PlayStation, developer Oddworld Inhabitants started work on their third game (and second in the overall story), a 2D platformer to be called Oddworld: Munch’s Oddysee. It became clear pretty early on that they would need to switch over to the more powerful PS2, but the game’s director Lorne Lanning found the PS2 to be very difficult to program for, and its graphics were not up to par with what he wanted. The decision was then made to move the game to PC, but the game’s publisher, Infogrames, was looking to cut costs. Hearing a rumor that Infogrames would limit their budget to $3 million, Lanning became distraught and put out feelers for potential new publishers. Hearing this, Microsoft reached out to Lanning and offered to publish the game if they agreed to make Munch’s Oddysee an Xbox exclusive. A quick look at the console was all he needed to see that the Xbox was far more powerful than the PS2, and its PC innards would allow Oddworld Inhabitants to easily port over much of their already completed work. After a few months it became clear, though, that Munch’s Oddsyee just wasn’t going to be ready in time for the Xbox’s launch, so according to Lanning, “four or five” programmers from Microsoft came in and completely re-wrote the game in nine months. They added a slew of humor and jokes not originally present as Microsoft felt the game was going to be their “Mario 64”, and break them into the casual/family market, and even wanted to change the title to Abe & Munch’s Fun Adventures. While the game received decent reviews, it was not well received by the public. In fact, Fans of the PSX titles were furious before the game even came out, accusing Oddworld Inhabitants of selling out by joining up with Microsoft and putting their game on a console that “nobody wanted”. Sales were poor, and as it was considered the most high profile game on the console, to be beaten out by Halo only exacerbated the problem. Microsoft would decline to publish their next game, 2005’s Stranger’s Wrath, but due to their contract, it would still be an Xbox exclusive. The good news is that the game is now available on modern consoles, easily playable today.
While Munch’s Oddysee was having a hard time gaining its footing, one game in the launch lineup was having a heck of a moment. Bungie’s Halo was originally going to be a PC game for Apple computers, but after some financial issues they sold a portion of the company for publisher Take-Two Interactive. This didn’t stop the bleeding, though, so put out word that they were looking to be fully acquired by somebody. Ed Fries, Microsoft’s head of games, heard their cry for help and offered to buy the company, but Take-Two still wanted their piece of the pie. In a move that somebody still probably loses sleep over at night, Take-Two agreed to take the Myth and Oni franchises from Bungie, and Microsoft could have Halo. This meant that all PC work on Halo needed to end and they would need to start work on porting the game to Xbox. A decision was made to change from third to first person as both a way to make players feel closer to the main character, Master Chief, and as a way to show that consoles could do first person shooters. To help with this, designer Jaime Griesemer wrote a piece of code that would assist players in their movement. The code would predict player intent and subtly guide them in the direction they were moving, doing so in a way that didn’t feel obvious to the player. Originally intended to be a grand, open world epic, there just wasn’t enough time and, surprisingly, not enough technical power in the Xbox to pull off such a feat. Halo would be stripped down to a linear, roughly ten hour campaign. However, while the game is memorable for its single player campaign, what most players discovered was just how fun it was to play the game’s multiplayer mode. Critics called it the best console multiplayer since GoldenEye and declared it Xbox’s killer app. Despite what people may have thought of the other nineteen launch titles, Halo was absolutely worth the price of the console and needed to be played by every Xbox owner. During awards season, Halo would receive numerous “Game of the Year” wins, including from the prestigious Interactive Achievement Awards (D.I.C.E. Awards). The legacy of Halo is long and storied with many ups and downs throughout its lifetime. Bungie no longer makes the games, instead moving on to their own franchise, Destiny. The series is now in the hands of 343 Studios, with the latest entry, Halo Infinite, set to release in December of 2021. We might not be sitting here talking in such reverence for the Xbox if it wasn’t for the success of Halo, and I’d wager many people out there might not even be playing video games if it wasn’t for the adventure they went on with Master Chief and Cortana back in 2001.
Racing Games, So Many Racing Games
I’ll tell you one thing, if you were a fan of racing games then the Xbox launch lineup had you covered. With seven (!) racing games out at launch it was by far the most prolific genre. However, a closer look at them reveals that the choice maybe wasn’t as diverse as you though, with two different NASCAR games and two different “off-road” racing games. Out of each, I preferred NASCAR Thunder 2002 over NASCAR Heat, and Test Drive Off-Road Wide Open over 4×4 EVO 2. NASCAR Thunder 2002 is a more robust game than NASCAR Heat, featuring a long (very long) season mode, as well as far superior graphics. Still, at the end of the day, they’re two games about racing in an oval for ten laps; pass. 4X4 EVO 2 has the interesting distinction for being produced by Sam Houser of Grand Theft Auto fame, but it just misses something that Test Drive has. There’s just a greater sense of excitement and speed in Test Drive; funny enough, the game was developed by Angel Studios who also developed Midnight Club on the PS2 for RockStar, and would eventually become the studio that would work on the Red Dead franchise. There were also two arcade racing games, Arctic Thunder and Mad Dash Racing (pass on both), but the best racing game in the line up was another Xbox exclusive called Project Gotham Racing. Developed by Bizarre Creations, the game was a spiritual successor to their Dreamcast exclusive Metropolis Street Racer. While not as deep of a simulation as Sony’s Gran Turismo, it was still seen as a slick racer with its feet planted firmly in both the sim and arcade fields.
With six sports titles out at launch, three were from the extreme sports genre, while the other three were from traditional sports. However, two of these were football games and the other one was a hockey game that played more like an arcade title than a serious simulator. Like with the PlayStation 2, EA supported Xbox’s launch with a copy of their most recent football sim, Madden 2002. Do you need to know anymore than that? It’s Madden, we all know what it is. What’s a bit surprising, though, was that Microsoft also decided that they needed to make their OWN football game. While this wasn’t the first game in the franchise, a PC only game came out in 2000, NFL Fever 2002 was Microsoft’s attempt to try and make a splash with their graphics in the same way that NFL 2K did for the Dreamcast. Critics were pretty mixed on the title, with the highest score coming from Official Xbox Magazine, of course. In case you are wondering, yes, that is Peyton Manning on the cover who at the time was only in his third year as an NFL player. The hockey game, NHL Hitz 20-02 was developed by Midway as an arcade style game similar to their NBA Jam and NFL Blitz franchises; it’s okay. Moving to extreme sports, there was the god awful TransWorld Surf (though not as bad as the PS2 launch surfing game), the even worse Dark Summit, a strange snowboarding game that had you taking on missions and doing tricks in order to take down a fascist who rules over the ski slopes, and then the crown jewel Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2x. Developed by Neversoft and Treyarch, THPS2x is a re-release of the first two Tony Hawk games, featuring all of the stages from those titles done in higher resolution graphics. The game was well received by critics who thought the updated graphics and controls helped elevate it over the original PSX games, but the recent release of THPS3 on PS2 kind of overshadowed this game, making it feel a bit dated. Still, until the release of the 2020 remakes of part 1 and 2, this was, by far, the best way to play THPS 1 + 2.
The Rest of Them
Rounding out the launch lineup are a handful of games that don’t quite fit into the other areas above. I want to talk about three of them quickly. First, we had Fuzion Frenzy, an Xbox exclusive, that was their take on Mario Party. Players would compete in a a variety of challenges all set in a dystopian future, you know, where the REAL party happens. It sucks. Next we had Cel Damage, a vehicular combat game in the same vein as Twisted Metal, only in this game the tone is far more cartoonish, down to the cel shaded graphics (a still fairly new trend). It was a timed exclusive, eventually releasing on GameCube and PS2, before coming out more recently for modern consoles. It kind of sucks. Third is Shrek, a 3D platformer the featured art designs by Todd McFarlane (of Spawn fame) who gave the game a more dark and twisted look than the movie that inspired it. This game does not work on the Xbox 360 so I did not get a chance to play, however it got poor reviews and is generally considered to be dog shit.
Alright, as for the other two titles, Air Force Delta Storm and Dead or Alive 3 are the lone Japanese developed games for the system. As you’re likely aware, Microsoft, the company behind Xbox, is an America company. As such, their design aesthetics, work culture, and business practices are staunchly American, and this caused friction over in Japan. In the early days of development on Xbox, the team would meet with as many Japanese developers as would see them. Some meetings went well, like the one with Tecmo in which Dead or Alive creator Tomonobu Itagaki in which he assumed they were there to try and get DOA3 as an exclusive, but the team was more interested in releasing the rumored 3D Ninja Gaiden game he was working on as it had been the very first game Kevin Bachus (one of the core Xbox designers) had bought as a kid for the NES. Impressed that Bachus was a fan, and his strong relation with Seamus Blackley, Itagaki promised that both DOA3 and Ninja Gaiden would be Xbox exclusives. A meeting that didn’t go so well was with another famous Japanese developer, Shinji Mikami over at Capcom. There were rumors that Mikami was growing frustrated with how difficult it was to program games for the the PlayStation 2 and was thinking about moving Resident Evil to another platform. Seeing a massive opportunity, Bachus set up a meeting, but due to poor translations, and a seemingly already annoyed Mikami, the talks fell apart almost instantly. Mikami demanded to know what Microsoft’s philosophy on games was, with Sony calling them entertainment to make you feel emotions and Nitnendo calling them toys that should be fun for everyone, Bachus apaprently had no response. However, after Mikami stormed out of the room the translator elaborated on what Mikami wanted and Bachus, beside himself, realized he had the perfect answer, Microsoft viewed games as art and the power of Xbox would help creators achieve artistic goals they could only dream of. The translator was like “Oh, I guess I should have made that more clear to you, sorry”. They tried to get Mikami to come back and hear their response, but it was too late and Resident Evil 4 was now a Nintendo GameCube exclusive.
Still, just why was the Xbox a failure in Japan? Some think, aside from poor relationships with third party Japanese developers, that it all had to do with a speech Bill Gates gave at the Tokyo Game Show in March of 2001. His speech started out nice enough, talking about how much respect he had for the Japanese video game industry and all it had accomplished over the last two and half decades, but it would then transition into a promotional sales pitch, something that rubbed the 4,000+ people in the audience the wrong way. Aside from journalists and fans, the speech was also attended by executives from every major Japanese publisher; Capcom, Square, Sega, etc., and this very American way of promoting the Xbox was taboo. Gates had been used to going to places like E3 and CES where you showed off a bunch of promotional trailers for your games, talked about how “sick & awesome” your product was, and hyped everyone up, but that wasn’t the TGS way. This bad speech, the fact that the console and controller were gigantic and ugly, and Microsoft’s inability to function on the same business wavelength as Japanese companies, were all a recipe for failure. Still, it wasn’t all bad. Microsoft’s relationship with Sega was solid due to their work on the Dreamcast, so when that system failed Sega announced it would make 11 exclusive titles for Xbox. A relationship with Konami to port their arcade titles to PC allowed for the release of Air Force Delta Storm as an Xbox exclusive launch title, and of course, Xbox was the exclusive home for Dead or Alive 3, as well as the upcoming Ninja Gaiden and Xtreme Beach Volleyball.
Since the release of the Nintendo Famicom in 1983, Japanese game consoles had dominated the worldwide video market. Atari had tried to stick it out, releasing consoles up until 1993, but they just couldn’t compete with Nintendo and Sega. Eventually Sony would throw their hat in the ring and we’d have three Japanese powerhouses all vying for marketshare. To have Microsoft, and American company come in and try their hand at making a console, even after Sega had just failed in their efforts, was a huge risk. It looked scary in the beginning, these launch titles are pretty awful, with only 3 or 4 out of the 20 actually being worth your time, but it was their forward thinking, their persistence and, let’s face it, their deep pockets, that allowed them to press on and become the gaming giant we all know today. Sure, they’ve hit a snag recently with the laughably terrible Xbox One, but the Xbox Series X|S is, like the PS5, a very hot commodity this holiday season, and their Game Pass program is probably the most important development in game distribution since they spearheaded digital distribution on, yes, the original Xbox. it’s been a wild twenty years for Xbox, can they make it last another twenty?
Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty (PS2) – Released Nov. 13th, 1991: Wiki Link
November was one heck of a month for gaming in 2001. Not only did you have the release of Microsoft’s first console, Xbox, but you also had Nintendo’s new console, GameCube, as well as one of the most anticipated games of the year, Hideo Kojima’s Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty. While the Metal Gear franchise had been around since 1987, the release of Metal Gear Solid on the PlayStation in 1998 solidified the franchise as one of the most popular in the world, turning Solid Snake into an icon and would open the door for multiple copycat games such as Syphon Filter and Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell. It was a complete surprise, then, when the game’s protagonist turned out to NOT be Solid Snake but instead a brand new character; Raiden.
Development on the game started shortly after Kojima handed in his completed design document in January 1999. In early drafts of the the script, the game was going to be called Metal Gear Solid III, with each of the I’s symbolizing the three tallest buildings in New York. This was changed well before 9/11, but can you imagine if they had kept it? Aside from being totally confusing (where was Solid 2?), it would have no longer made sense after that horrific tragedy. Further, the game was originally going to feature Snake as the main protagonist again, with him heading into Iraq to find weapons of mass destruction that Liquid Snake had stored there. Again, this was changed before the U.S. invaded Iraq, but things were getting tense in that region before that anyway, so the decision was made to move the setting to an offshore military base. The tanker level you play in the prologue, the only part of the game you get to play as Solid Snake, is a leftover from that original Iraq story. As mentioned, the game throws players a major curveball after they finish the tanker ship portion of the game when they are introduced to a new protagonist named Raiden. Kojima felt a change was necessary for two reasons. His first reason was that he felt it was a bit silly to have to lead players through tutorials and teach them the basics of gameplay when the character Solid Snake had already done this stuff in three previous games (Metal Gear, Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake and Metal Gear Solid), and the second was that he found out that female players did not connect enough with Snake. For one reason or another, women just didn’t find the character appealing, and this was likely a key factor in the decision to make Raiden a pretty, sensitive man. The development team must have known this protagonist swap would be controversial, even going so far as to digitally insert Snake into cut scenes that would eventually feature Raiden when players actually played the game. Showing the influence this game had on future developers, the team at Naughty Dog would use this tactic for The Last of Us Part II and its controversial protagonist switch.
The plot of Metal Gear Solid 2 is fairly cryptic, like most Kojima games, full of technical/military jargon and surreal twists, but the overall story isn’t hard to follow. Set in the year’s 2007 and 2009, the game starts with Solid Snake infiltrating a tanker ship that is carrying a new Metal Gear called RAY. The ship is then attacked by Russian mercenaries, led by Colonel Gurlukovich, his daughter Olga, and Revolver Ocelot, sporting a new hand in place of the one you cut off in Metal Gear Solid. Upon seeing Snake, Ocelot is overcome by something that changes his personality, causing him to betray the Russians and steal Metal Gear RAY, escaping into the darkness. Two years later, a massive oil spill has happened in the middle of the ocean. The U.S. government erects an environmental cleanup facility, named Big Shell, to clear the spill. While on a tour of the new facility, the President of the United States, James Johnson, is kidnapped by a group of terrorists who call themselves The Sons of Liberty. These terrorists, led by a man claiming to be Solid Snake, plan to destroy Big Shell and kill the President. In order to stop these madmen, a young solider named Raiden is dispatched to Big Shell by Col. Roy Sanders (who players would recognize from MGS) to rescue the President and take down The Sons of Liberty. Helping him are two Navy SEALS, a bomb expert named Peter Stillman and a guy with a strangely familiar name, Iroquois Pliskin. Of course nothing is as it seems, Big Shell is not a cleanup facility, it’s a military installation, and The Sons of Liberty don’t want to kill the President, they want to steal Metal Gear RAY, which is being housed in Big Shell. Over the next few hours, players will, like Raiden, slowly begin to question their sanity, as well as what the whole purpose of fighting is. If you play Metal Gear Solid 2 and come out of it not just a little bit disillusioned about the military industrial complex and humanity’s need to constantly try and kill one another, then you weren’t paying attention.
Bucking conventions, the game was released in North America first on November 13th, 2001, two weeks before Japan. This meant that by the time it came out in the East the big Raiden surprise was already spoiled, thus the character shared equal space on the game’s cover art, as opposed to the U.S. cover art that featured just Snake. Pre-release hype for the game was at an all-time high after a stellar showing at E3, and when critics and players finally got their hands on the game they were not disappointed. Well, sort of. People we understandably upset at the change of protagonist, especially after promotional videos had shown only Snake, but because the story was so intriguing, and the gameplay so fresh and fun, you forgot all about it after a couple hours. As you might have guessed, Metal Gear Solid 2 was met with overwhelming praise from critics who hailed it as a masterpiece, receiving perfect scores from Game Informer and GamePro, while holding a Metacritic score of 96/100. Game Informer would even name it Game of the year, however it would lose the DICE Award in the same category to Halo. Modern critics continue to praise the game, with many calling it the first Postmodern video game, being full of skepticism, irony, and a rejection of grand narratives and ideologies associated with Modernism (i.,e., “Enlightenment rationality” which posits that ideology should be used to maintain political and economic power). In the last few years, especially after the failed attempt to overthrow the U.S. government by former President Donald Trump and his supporters, a quote from Metal Gear Solid 2 was passed around and discussed in regards to what some called Kojima’s warning about the internet. I’m paraphrasing here, but it essentially warns us that trivial information is created and shared online everyday, and it will be accessible forever, thus giving even the most banal, or incendiary, ideas the same power and longevity as more well thought out and researched ideas. As time goes on, people will start to retreat into their own bubbles and walled gardens of information, only hearing the things that they want to hear and will reject anything that goes against their own narrow world view, their version of “the truth”. The speech then closes out with the powerful line, “…this is the way the world ends. Not with a bang, but a whimper“.
A game as profound and important MUST be easily available on every modern video game console, right? Haha, of course it isn’t! The easiest way to play MGS2 today is on PC where the game is available digitally through GOG, and if you’re one of the lucky people who own an Xbox Series X, or you still have your 360 or Xbox One sitting around, you can download the 360 release of the Metal Gear Solid HD Collection. There is some bad new there, however, as it was just announced on the day that I started writing this, November 8th, that the game would be delisted from digital store fronts “temporarily” due to licensing issues with some of the historical footage used in both MGS2 and MGS3. Konami has stated that the games will return to stores once the licensing issues are fixed (and maybe they were because as of 8:42pm PT the games are still up for sale). If you want to play the original PS2 version then you’re going to need a working console and a used copy of the game which can be found on eBay for as low as $2.25 and as high as $300 (capitalism rules). The themes of Metal Gear Solid 2 are just as relevant today as they were in 2001, maybe more so, and if you haven’t played it then you are truly missing out on one of the greatest games ever made.
Advanced Dungeons & Dragons: Pools of Darkness (PC) – Released Nov. 1991: Wiki Link
Well, after such massive notable releases from ten and twenty years ago, our game from 1991 should be pretty groundbreaking too, no? Ha, well, I mean, it probably is to someone? No I kid, of course it’s important, since Pools of Darkness would be the final game in the SSI Gold Box series of games based on the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons game system. Pools of Darkness is a direct sequel to the previous game, Secret of the Silver Blades, and allowed you to import your characters from that game so you could continue their journey. As far as the game’s plot, players are initially tasked with escorting a high ranking council member named Sasha as she heads out on a diplomatic mission. While traveling the party is attacked by the evil Lord Bane who destroys multiple cities and landmarks in the land of Faerun, claiming it as his own. From there the party must venture into the unknown and seek out the Pools of Darkness, portals to other dimensions where they will have to fight four of Lord Bane’s lieutenants in an effort to restore Faerun and remove the darkness covering it. This sounds like a really fun, really entertaining story that I love to play, the problem, this game is so FUCKING hard that I want to rip my eyes out. First of all, there’s no way in hell to tell where you are and where you are going. Yeah, the overworld map has stuff on it that you can walk to, but nothing really stands out so you’re just kind of stuck trying to figure out if the black dot is something you can enter or if it’s just a black dot. Once you are inside a dungeon it switches to a first person perspective, but you can switch to a top down view with very basic graphics if that’s more your thing. Battles happen in a different screen, shown as an isometric playfield, with turn based combat. I did okay for a bit, but once you come across any magic user then the game might as well just be shut off, because you will not survive. The intense difficulty in this game was not by accident, the developers wanted to make sure that the final Gold Box game would pose a considerable challenge for long time players, and the fact that you could take your characters from the previous game into this one meant that you’d likely be leveled and geared up to a point that it wouldn’t be a total party kill on your first encounter. Critics loved the game, especially the one from Dragon Magazine (go figure), but players were not feeling it, with Pools of Darkness being the worst selling game in the entire series. If you’d like to give this game a try you can find it on GOG as part of the Forgotten Realms: The Archives Collection 2, along with the other Gold Box games, Pool of Radiance, Curse of the Azure Bonds, and Secret of the Silver Blades, as well as some other classic AD&D games, Hillsfar, Gateway to the Savage Frontier, Treasures of the Savage Frontier, and Forgotten Realms Unlimited Adventures. These eight games will probably take up a ton of your time if you are patient enough to learn their obtuse and archaic gameplay systems.