Boots’ Top Ten Video Games of All-Time #4: Rock Band 2/3

The following is a part of my list of my Top 10 All-Time Favorite Games. There may be spoilers ahead, so read with caution. Please make note that I rated these games not out of quality relative to other titles but in the order of how much fun I had with each of them and how important they are to my personal gaming history.

Allow me to start from the beginning.

Growing up, I had two main passions in life: video games and music. Both of these creative art forms were simultaneously infused into my environment at a very young age and to this day, they both occupy a permanent space in my life. I love them both almost equally, but if I am being totally honest, music will always remain the champion.

As a child, I had access to a keyboard that my uncle owned. He was in a band and would often practice his synth work as well as fiddling on a guitar or bass from time to time. This led to me being inspired to learn basic melodies on his keyboard in my youth, and I would eventually self-teach myself guitar as I went through middle school.

Naturally, I had fantasies of performing onstage in bands or with my idols. I often wondered if I would have what it takes to succeed at the craft of rocking a live audience. Granted, I never really pushed for an opportunity at it, but it was fun to speculate.

Fast-forward to 2005. Harmonix borrows the formula from Konami’s Guitar Freaks and puts it onto the console market with Guitar Hero. After two successful titles, the studio abandons the franchise and returns to the scene with a full-band version entitled Rock Band. This new iteration had a few different features, but the core gameplay of jamming along to favorite popular songs remained intact.

I was never what one would call a songwriter, so my extent of musical talent was strictly in the avenue of “covering” my favorite bands’ work. What Rock Band did was not only give me an extended selection to do this with, but it also provided me with an ever-growing list of new tracks to choose from. The weekly DLC packs were hit-and-miss, but more often than not, I was happy with what was coming out and I know I spent a good chunk of change purchasing extra songs.

(That’s myself on the ol’ six str… uh, strum bar.)

While the original Rock Band was great, it really found its stride in its sequels. Gameplay didn’t change much from the core mechanics, but RB3 added the keyboard as an instrument and also implemented a Pro Mode which, if you had a special peripheral, would essentially require you to learn how to truly perform the song on a real instrument. I never made the jump into that stuff, but it was a nice touch for those interested.

But what I was interested in was just “playing” the songs and feeling good about it. Some people made the argument that the game should only inspire people to learn a real instrument, but my motivation in playing Rock Band solely centered on having fun. Was it an exact facsimile of guitar? Gosh, no. But what it did do was give me a good time along with the occasional challenge and the satisfaction of rocking out with my favorite songs and bands.

Could I ever hope to accurately play Dream Theater’s Constant Motion and be as good of a player as John Petrucci?

Fuck. No.

Jesus fuck, that fuckin’ guy.

As low-skilled as I was on real guitar, it never stopped me from playing those types of songs on the game, and I had a blast doing so whenever I did. It fulfilled my rock dreams, and that was all I had ever wanted from it. Of course, not every song was as difficult and some were maybe a tad boring, but I enjoyed the experience, regardless. It was even more fun when the developers would release an unexpected novelty song as DLC. A few of my favorites were the Eric Cartman (South Park) version of Lady Gaga’s “Poker Face,” Parry Gripp’s “Girl At the Videogame Store,” and the Hockey Night in Canada Theme song.

Perhaps one of Rock Band’s greatest achievements was its propensity to introduce new music to all that played the game. There were so many songs/bands that I would’ve written off if I came across them in the real world, but playing them in Rock Band helped me respect the tracks in a more organic way. My first exposure to The Strokes left me thinking that they were likely something I wouldn’t be into, but I’ll be good-goddamned if “Reptilia” isn’t a killer tune.

I could go on forever about how hooked I got on these games. Rock Band got me so good that when RB2 came out, I played it for a minimum hour every day for what I swear had to be 2+ years. I probably hit well over 1,000 hours of total playtime, and I don’t regret a single second of it.

Of course, all of this doesn’t even include the local multiplayer modes that spawned a sizable movement in bars and homes alike. In fact, to this very day, Rock Band parties are still held at various gaming conventions around the world.

In the pantheon of music/rhythm games, this franchise is the masterpiece, in my opinion. Great gameplay and excellent music collided to make a compelling experience that most games have yet to accomplish, and I will always consider it as one of the best in all of video games.

And all it had to do was play into my two greatest loves.

…and speaking of novelty songs, let’s get Metal Gear Solid 3’s “Snake Eater” in the game. It deserves to be there.

The Top Ten Games of the Xbox 360/PlayStation 3/Wii Console Generation

WARNING: Game spoilers lie within. BEWARE.

When I first decided to do a blog about the last generation of console games, I wasn’t sure whether to go with my favorite games or favorite moments. There’s a lot of games from this wave of consoles that I’ve yet to play, but then again, who played everything?

No, you didn’t. Don’t lie.

Looking at my list, I was surprised to see how limited it seemed. With my Xbox Gamerscore just over 84,000, I felt like the list would’ve been a bit more extensive. Turns out I just had a lot of time to farm in fewer games, I guess. All that unemployment during this console gen really “helped out.” While I still have so much to get to, I’m going to list my Top 10 favorites of the PS3/360 years that I’ve played through to date.

Sorry, Wii. I never got around to owning you.

This list is not based on any technical prowess of the games, but rather, my immersion and fun level with said games. That’s why there are no fighters on it. I don’t enjoy fighters. I also didn’t play any. Go figure. Anyway, let’s get this shit started…

10: Braid

Braid

This specific puzzle was super frustrating.

Prior to playing this instant classic, most downloadable titles seemed to be arcade-style games designed for bite-sized consumption. 2008’s Xbox “Summer of Arcade” changed all of that. Designer/programmer Jonathan Blow’s debut title took conventional side-scrolling mechanics and turned it on its edge, infusing a time-manipulating element that added a whole new layer to its gameplay. The plot was a bit vague, but the reveals were rewarding in their own way, with a special twist coming in the final stage that had me reeling.

Braid set a new bar for the “downloadable” scene and changed the landscape of gaming forever as it headed into the digital age, leading the way for independent games to grow and thrive.

9: Mark of the Ninja

Mark of the Ninja

Go ninja, go ninja, go!

As you can tell by the header of this blog, I am a huge fan of this game. I kept hearing how exceptional its mechanics were and once I finally got my hands on it, I agreed with every praise the game had received. Sometimes a game can make the player ask “What do I do now,” but not this one. Its design choices were perfect, giving just the right amount of information to teach you everything you needed to know about its stealth and combat systems. Playing this game felt natural, and there were very few moments where I struggled to pull off whatever strategies I attempted. Personally, loving this game led me to having a chance to interview its lead designer Nels Anderson on my podcast early last year, which will always be a highlight for me. But seriously, play this game if you haven’t yet. You won’t be disappointed. I promise.

8: Lost Odyssey

Lost Odyssey

Fun Fact: The woman in the middle is the grandmother of the little girl.

My first foray into RPGs on this gen came in the form of The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. It did not go well, at the time. I was very lost and unsure of how to approach that sprawling world with endless possibilities. Lost Odyssey, however, felt more like the JRPGs of old that I had grown up playing. It made perfect sense, given that it was the brainchild of Hironobu Sakaguchi, formerly of Squaresoft and the original creator of the Final Fantasy franchise. Though a challenging game early on, it played like those games I was so familiar with from my teen years.

As comfortable as it felt to play, it was certain aspects about the story that hooked me. Protagonist Kaim struggled to remember aspects of his life (Amnesia!) but would be reminded of them every so often via events happening around him, leading the player into short narrative on-screen novelas that you had to read to understand. It gave the memories a sense of importance and emotion that I hadn’t felt from a game in a long time and it made Kaim much more relateable. Full of interesting characters and environments, Lost Odyssey is a game that any RPG fan should be required to give some time to.

7: Dead Space

Dead Space

Do you hear that?

Survival horror has had its ups and downs over its lifespan, but Dead Space nailed what it should be quite expertly. Sure, it had its share of jump scares, but that’s an inevitable event when it comes to scary stories in media. What Visceral Games created was not only a freaky and claustrophobic setting with horrible abominations coming for you, but perhaps a Master Class in sound design. Clanking heard in the distance and the increasing amount of creepy whispers throughout the game do more to raise your pulse while aboard the USG Ishimura than any of the twisted necromorphs you face. I highly recommend playing this with one headphones. Throw in an interesting dismemberment mechanic along with creepy plot easter eggs and you get a near-perfect representation of how horror should always be done in video games.

6: Portal 2

Portal 2

“Oh, it’s you.”

Innovation fell to the wayside for a while during the last gen. Enter Portal, a bite-sized pack-in on The Orange Box. Valve’s experimental puzzler set the industry ablaze with its inventive mechanics and super vague but captivating story. Four years later, Portal 2 came out to even further acclaim. The story of Chell again attempting to escape the labyrinthine confines of Aperture Science was more fleshed out this time around and introduced us to everyone’s favorite personality orb, Wheatley.

Portal 2

The gang’s all here.

Personally, this game was hugely important as the multiplayer campaign became the unofficial initiation ground for the BlankShowCast co-hosts. The show was born when Tim and I were playing through the levels, and later Isabel would also join me for a run. It’s always a fun one to go back to after a while to flex the brain around. Also, Potato GLaDOS.

5: Red Dead Redemption

Red Dead Redemption

You missed.

Whenever I think of this game, I briefly remember Grand Theft Auto IV and how unsatisfying it was. With the buzz that Red Dead Redemption was getting, my hopes were that Rockstar would redeem themselves in a genre that they had pioneered. I was happy to not be wrong.

The “old West” setting was perfect for a sandbox game. I kept marveling at how beautiful the environment was. I also loved the way the music elements would swell in and out depending on the action level.

When I started the game, I unfortunately had the BIG late-game moment spoiled for me. I was initially angry, but the more I played the game, the more I was anticipating that moment. It gave me a level of tension that I don’t think would’ve been present had I not been spoiled about it. Because of this, the time just before it happened had me on the edge of my seat, wondering what events were going to transpire. It was a better game for it, and I wouldn’t change it for the world.

4: Saints Row: The Third

Saints Row: The Third

We’re taking over this town.

Speaking of the GTA franchise, there was a long time between the PS2’s San Andreas and GTA IV, during which the Saints Row franchise came to fruition. The first was fairly similar in style, but incorporated a better shooting mechanic and its sense of humor was slightly more absurd. SR2 brought in a better story and the writing went even deeper into silliness. By genius or by accident, someone at series developer Volition went completely nuts and created the wackiest, goofiest, over-the-top open-world game ever created. And it was glorious.

The opening mission has you AIRLIFTING A BANK VAULT from its home inside a tower. Later, you fall through the air after forcing a plane out of the sky from within, dodging debris as you careen toward the Earth. The government sends a military airship to stop you and your crew. A psychopathic wrestler causes major grief for the Saints. Oh, and you play as a toilet for a short time.

Saints Row: The Third

Here’s your damn Superman Punch, Roman Reigns.

SR3 is nothing but total joy and fun wrapped in a crazy box filled with insanity. Everyone should play it. Go do that.

3: The Last of Us

The Last of Us

Survival isn’t pretty.

Naughty Dog’s look at a post-apocalyptic world doesn’t seem like much on paper, but is perfect in its execution. The story of Joel escorting Ellie across the country is expertly crafted, and I can’t give enough praise to Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson for their masterful performances. Helping them survive in a world full of infected people is constantly tense and you can’t help but care about their fate. The game also does a marvelous job of pacing. One moment, you’re put in a high-risk situation among waves of aggressive enemies, while the next moment has its characters reflecting on where they’ve come from and why they’re continuing on. It’s a very emotionally heavy journey, but TLoU handles it so well. In fact, the character of Ellie quickly became my favorite in all of games. A revelation that only became more cemented in me after playing the Left Behind DLC.

I can’t stress enough how wonderful this game is. It’s a true must-play for everyone.

2: Mass Effect 2

Mass Effect 2

Don’t fear the Reaper.

The Mass Effect franchise might be the most highly acclaimed of this console generation. BioWare managed to build themselves up into a powerhouse developer with this and the Dragon Age series, but it was the journey of Commander Sheppard that ruled narrative-driven gaming.

All three ME titles had their strong points. However, it seemed that the consensus among most is that Mass Effect 2 is, by and large, the best among them. The game introduced a large number of shipmates to the universe, and gave you a chance to get to know each and every one. Players formed bonds with these characters. Some so close that genuine emotions were felt as they learned more about them. Their backstories shaped their world and our allegiances within it. Throw in the fact that many – or ALL of them – could be killed off during the final mission and you had an experience like no other. Getting through with everyone surviving became the goal for many, and it only served to strengthen our ties to each character.

Except for Jacob. He’s a bit of a dolt. And his teeth are way too large. But the priiiiiiizzzzzzzzzzeee……

1: Rock Band 3

Rock Band 3

Hey now… you’re a rockstar!

Gaming is something I’ve had through my entire life. I can’t remember a time without it. Music was always the other constant. A childhood pizza place that my family would often visit had both a jukebox and an arcade game, and I would struggle with the choice of which to partake. I later taught myself guitar, and when Harmonix created Guitar Hero, it was a perfect marriage of my two hobby loves.

Fast-forward to the Rock Band series, and while I never had many chances to do any full-band play, I was intrigued by the prospect of trying other instruments. Of course, I always fell back to guitar/bass and I loved every minute of it.
Rock Band 3 is the final installment – at least, for now – and it perfected the genre. In its heyday, new DLC songs were being released weekly, and it had something for everyone. I managed to find almost all of my favorite bands at some point on there. Avenged Sevenfold, Dream Theater, Rush, System of a Down, Metallica, Pantera, Iron Maiden, Judas Priest… I lived out so many rock fantasies with this game. In fact, I was so fond of this series that I had a 14-month period where I played an hour or more every day.

Sadly, the rhythm game bubble broke a long time ago, and Harmonix has ceased production of new content for the game, but that didn’t make me love it any less. While I would LOVE to see a Babymetal track pack, I am perfectly content with what I’ve purchased and what remains on the Rock Band Store. I will never not love this game.

Guitar Hero III Controller

Art.

…and there you have it, my Top 10 games of the 360/PS3 generation. I realize that I probably left off some that others would include, but again, I didn’t play everything. And that’s perfectly okay. I’m working through my backlog and loving every second of it. I just love games. All of them.

Except Final Fantasy XIII. What a steaming pile of shit. The literal worst.

So what made YOUR lists? What games did I not mention that you loved? It wasn’t Final Fantasy XIII, was it? If not, tell me what your faves of the gen were. Leave a comment here and tell me your choices, or you can hit up the show on Twitter (@BlankShowCast) and tell us what your Top 10 are. I’d love to see what you all pick!

Boots’ Top 10 Video Games of All-Time #5: Resident Evil 2

The following is a part of my list of my Top 10 All-Time Favorite Games. There may be spoilers ahead, so read with caution. Please make note that I rated these games not out of quality relative to other titles but in the order of how much fun I had with each of them and how important they are to my personal gaming history.

Being a Nintendo child, I had reservations when the original PlayStation was released. It wasn’t until the summer of 1995 – seven months after its release – when I finally rented the console and two games from my local Blockbuster (!) and fired up Descent. It was a decent game, but I hadn’t quite adjusted to full 3D yet and it was a bit too much for me at that time. I decided to switch games so I popped in Resident Evil. Without going to deep into detail, let’s just say that I was instantly sold on the console from that point on.

Fast-forward to early 1998. Resident Evil had been largely critically lauded and the inevitable sequel was finally released. While I’m not sure how soon I was able to play it, I am certain that once I did, it was everything I could’ve hoped for and then some. The graphics were much improved over the original and the setting of the city and Police Station were magnificent. Along the way through the game, new characters were met and the corruption of the Umbrella Corporation was revealed to be far worse than imagined.

Kaboom!

Nothing a little grenade launcher can’t fix.

I vividly recall my first encounter with a Licker. I tried my best to take it out, but the pistol was mostly useless. It brought me back to my memories of the original game’s Hunters and how quickly they’d jump around, dodging my attacks. My fear and frustration levels toward the sequel were vastly elevated at this point.

Later, I was separated from a little girl I was trying to help named Sherry (not to be confused with my Minimum Requirements co-host). I was given control of her so that she could find a key that I needed to advance, so I sent her into the sewage plant. Little did I realize that there’d be THREE ZOMBIFIED DOGS waiting to eat her face. Of course, playing as an 8-year old girl, there was no way to attack the pups and I was forced to book it past them a few times while searching. Again, a very tense moment, with many more to come in my future.

Sherry

I don’t think he has any candy, little girl.

Resident Evil 2 was far more forgiving with the ammo drops for newcomers, but I also was aware of how the franchise’s mechanics worked so I wasn’t wasting too much ammo this time around. I made my way through the different puzzles, occasionally crossing paths with Leon and we’d exchange info about what we found in the station. In the end, I neutralized William Birkin and escaped the city with Leon and Sherry… but I wasn’t finished.

In a truly innovative move, RE2 allowed players to go back and play through the game as the other character from their perspective. Using the save data from my run with Claire, I was now in control of Leon’s side of the story. New scenarios popped up as well as different characters and a returning old friend from the last game. Even the ending was extended past the point where Claire’s had cut off, giving me what I still feel is one of the greatest credits music in all of gaming.

Needless to say, I was in love with this game. The original pretty much wrote the book on video games being a cinematic experience and the sequel held true to form. After finishing my Claire/Leon run I quickly restarted and did a Leon/Claire playthrough. It wasn’t much different, but I still enjoyed it. Of course, I later discovered that getting a good rank on your finished game stats would open up a couple secret scenarios, so I began playing over and over to improve upon my final score.

It got to the point where I was able to beat both characters’ quests in under 3 hours each, and with minimal damage (using First Aid Sprays hurt the ranking). I had memorized where to go to get items in order of need along with knowing when I’d need to visit each Item Storage box for maximum efficiency. Those S-Ranks were eventually mine and I played through a scenario as Hunk, an Umbrella-hired mercenary tasked with retrieving a sample of the G-virus for the evil company. Later, I was also able to play as a lump of tofu armed only with a knife. No, I’m not even joking.

Tofu

Not a healthy alternative to brains.

There is just something about this game that holds my attention super tightly that I often think to play it again on occasion. I’ll remember a quote from the script or a certain point of the game and think of how much I loved my time in Raccoon City proper. It was nice to see such a great improvement over the game that first drew me to the original PlayStation and I will never not sing its praises. I could literally play that game everyday and continue to love it so. It is never not fun, and that’s why it is at Number Five on my Top Ten.

PS – This game introduced the character of Ada Wong to my world, which became a whole different tangent in my life. A story for another time, perhaps.

PPS – Tyrants are still fucking scary.

Boots’ Top 10 Video Games of All-Time #6: Contra

Contra

The following is a part of my list of my Top 10 All-Time Favorite Games. There may be spoilers ahead, so read with caution. Please make note that I rated these games not out of quality relative to other titles but in the order of how much fun I had with each of them and how important they are to my personal gaming history.

They say you never forget your first. You sit there and look forward to it for years upon years, building the excitement for that fateful day when you finally get to feel what you’ve heard friends talk about for so long. It might be the best thing you’ve ever done, but it’s often awkward and possibly shameful if you didn’t think it through. Hell, it might be downright painful. Regardless, it will always be your first.

It was late 1988 and I was only 10 when I hit the milestone. After being duped into thinking my dreams were crushed, my parents did the ol’ “We forgot to put this last Christmas gift out” maneuver and handed us that final box. My brother and I tore through the wrapping and were then the proud owners of an NES. Of course, it came with Super Mario Bros. And Duck Hunt, but both of us also received one game of our own, and mine was Contra.

For those who don’t know, Contra is one of many NES Konami titles that is notorious for its challenge and high quality. A port of the arcade game of the same title, this side-scrolling shooter gave players fits thanks in part to that unique Konami design and the inherent challenge of their games. Because of that trait, the developer often instilled the popular “Konami Code” that would give either multiple lives or full power-ups depending on the game in question.

USE THE CODE

Up, up, down, down, left, right, left, right, B, A, start

Contra’s code resulted in a thirty life reserve for the player and for many, including myself, it wasn’t until utilizing the code that players were able to finally conquer the game and defeat the evil Red Falcon terrorist/alien organization.

But here’s the thing… I had already had time with SMB thanks to its arcade release and while the NES port was a near-perfect re-creation, I had less desire to dedicate time to it thanks to previous experience, so I devoted every minute to Contra, and it was all worth it.

Of course, when you play a game for that amount of time, you become a part of it. You memorize patterns, you remember where items are located, you know where enemies are going to appear; the game becomes an extension of your being. As I played it more and more, I found my zen in its intricacies.

Hangar Zone

Why are there spiked claws above the mine cart tracks? That seems hazardous.

It wasn’t long before I had a surefire technique all set up. It was quite simple, really, and merely consisted of the following steps:

    1. Get the Spread Gun
    2. Get the Rapid-Fire power-up
    3. DOMINATE!!!

Seriously, if you have that gun throughout the entirety of the game, no one should pose much of a threat. Your biggest concern then becomes environmental hazards like flame pillars, spiked walls, or making sure you jump properly over the boss of Stage 6 when he charges you.

I eventually got to a point where I no longer need the Konami Code to finish the game, and at my apex, I was easily able to beat it in less than two deaths and could consistently pull off flawless runs. As of now, I can still occasionally pull one off.

The other great part about this game for me was its soundtrack. Konami has a history of having great music in their games and Contra was no exception. If you are familiar with their music, you can probably tell that they have one of the NES’ most unique sound palettes. Even Konami’s offshoot company Ultra Games used this palette for many titles. There’s just something about the tones and sounds that give them such a powerful quality, and Contra really shows it off with well-written, fast-paced, tense songs that only improve on the game’s atmosphere.

Yes, Contra was my first, and yes, it was equally awkward, embarrassing, and painful in the beginning. But the more time I invested, the more experience I earned, the more I learned of its finer details, all of it combined to give me confidence in my ability as a gamer to improve and know what I was doing from that point on. No longer would I be intimidated by another now that I had the skillset needed to feel prolific.

…and I’ll never forget it. Ever.

Boots’ Top 10 Video Games of All-Time #7: The PlayStation 2 Era of Grand Theft Auto

The following is a part of my list of my Top 10 All-Time Favorite Games. There may be spoilers ahead, so read with caution. Please make note that I rated these games not out of quality relative to other titles but in the order of how much fun I had with each of them and how important they are to my personal gaming history.

Blood fills my character’s eyes as I’m shot from point blank by my partner in this bank job. She runs off with the money and leaves me for dead, calling me “small time” as she turns away. Tried and convicted for the robbery, I’m being transported to the penitentiary to serve my time. This never happens, however, as a group of people attack the convoy that is moving myself and two other prisoners. They take one of the others with them and leave the remaining convict and I to fend for ourselves. A bomb goes off, destroying the bridge and creating an escape diversion. My new friend tells me of a place we can go to get changed and rest. I steal a nearby car and drive to the apartment, ditch my prison orange jumpsuit for a black jacket and green cargo pants, and we head off to get some work with a man named Luigi. Thus began my time in Liberty City…

It’s amazing how such a short and seemingly insignificant moment is the genesis of a franchise’s popularity. I had previously played Grand Theft Auto 2 and, while a great game with some interesting concepts, I was interested to see how it would translate from its top-down 2D look to a full 3D setting. It’s pretty safe to say that almost no one was disappointed with the result. Grand Theft Auto 3 became the benchmark for many games that tried to emulate the open-world genre, and that tradition carried on with its sequels, GTA: Vice City and GTA: San Andreas.

Ambulance

Don’t mess up, don’t mess up, don’t mess up…

There was almost no way for me to get bored in these games. While there were a HUGE number of activities to take part in, the one I truly remember best from each game – possibly due to its annoyance level – is the Ambulance Missions. I’d go around picking up injured patients and bring them to the hospital, but holy crap, one slip-up and all that work for extra health would be lost. This happened on many occasions and I can vividly remember the rage. Of course, there were also the fun things. Story missions were almost always entertaining if not interesting, and I absolutely LOVED looking for all of the unique stunt jumps in each of these titles, especially after finding the superbikes.

Characters in the franchise are colorful and varied, and I had many favorites. The writing in these three games was top-notch and I enjoyed every minute of dialogue. Developer Rockstar Games even managed to land big name Hollywood actors for many of the roles, giving the games some outstanding performances.

Tenpenny Meets His Fate

Samuel L. Jackson plays the corrupt Vinewood cop, Officer Frank Tenpenny. SPOILER: He doesn’t win.

But it’s not even those things that stand out to me the most. It was the chance happenings, the unscripted events that occurred just by way of being in the perfect place at an opportune time, that made these games some of the most fun and memorable that I’d ever played. It could be a well-timed explosion, or a sweet maneuver from the cops, or even something as simple as discovering a dirtbike race on a mountain.

My clearest memory of the entire franchise comes from Vice City. I was doing a mission where I had to break a needed ally out of jail and, upon exiting the station, my wanted level was sitting at a nice four-star level. I ran to the street, eliminated a couple cops, and hopped into the nearest sports car. Being the rock fan that I am, I was happy to see that the preset station was for V-Rock.

Love Fist

The hottest Scottish metal and in all the land. From left to right: Willy, Percy, Jezz, and Dick.

As any GTA fan knows, the radio stations that are in the games make up some of the gaming’s most immersive experiences complete with original programming and full-fledged commercials. This specific occasion had Anthrax’s Madhouse on as I attempted to evade the police. The song was entering its final few beats as I just managed to get clear of the initial blockade, turning it into a legit high-speed chase. That’s when I heard a familiar series of notes…

There are famous guitar lines in heavy metal, and then there are riffs that reached a sort of god-like status. As I sped toward more open roads with the law on my tail, the opening riff of Slayer’s Raining Blood filled my ears and gave me instant goosebumps. I was already familiar with the song, but it had been a while since I’d last heard it. At this moment, blazing through traffic in hopes of finding a Pay-N-Spray quickly, the power of that riff combined with the intensity of the situation melded to form a perfect synergy. My adrenaline surged to a level I didn’t think was possible from a video game. In my head, the only expression I could muster was an excited “OH SHIT, OH FUCK!” I couldn’t form any other words. It was downright magical.

That’s what this newly-dubbed “sandbox” genre is all about. Exploring the world, finding those little gems of gameplay, discovering the in-jokes and easter eggs that the developers threw into the landscape. You can camp on a rooftop and fire at everyone, bet on horse races, fly a fighter jet (YES, A FREAKING FIGHTER JET!), deliver pizzas, or do like I did and just hop on motorcycle and travel around the entirety of San Andreas in one giant loop in about 12 minutes or so on all of its main highways. It seemed as if you could just live a life inside of Rockstar’s worlds, and I’ll be damned if some of us didn’t actually wish it were possible.

Looking back, it is way too difficult to decide which of the trio of PS2 titles is best. Each of them have a unique flavor that works perfectly. The Mafia-inspired tone of GTA3, the cocaine-fueled drug ring tale in Vice City, the early-90s Southern California Gang-like vibe of San Andreas; every game had something for me to connect with. All three had great storytelling, kickass characters, super fun gameplay mechanics, endless nods to pop culture from my childhood, and all of them heavily drew me into their worlds. For these reasons, it is only fitting they are all included as one entity, make the PS2-era of Grand Theft Auto my #7 favorite game(s) of all-time.

Fighter Jets!

I need a wingman. Where’s Goose?

PS – Grand Theft Auto IV? Not even close to living up to these games. Here’s hoping GTA V is as great as it appears to be.

Boots’ Top 10 Video Games of All-Time #8: NHL 94

The following is a part of my list of my Top 10 All-Time Favorite Games. There may be spoilers ahead, so read with caution. Please make note that I rated these games not out of quality relative to other titles but in the order of how much fun I had with each of them and how important they are to my personal gaming history.

When I was but a wee lad of 13 years, my brother kicked me off of the SNES one afternoon to play goalie for him and his friends in a game of street hockey. They had bought a small net and I guess it wasn’t enough for them to shoot balls into an unguarded cage. I begrudgingly turned off the console and assumed the role of netminder, unknowing to the effect this would have on my life.

The sport of hockey grabbed me like nothing ever had since video games way back at age 4. There was a certain satisfaction in making mind-boggling saves and leaving my opponents befuddled. Of course, it was only inevitable that I would also get into hockey video games as I tried to combine my two biggest loves.

I had played both Ice Hockey and Blades of Steel on the NES, and while I had known of the greatness of NHL Hockey 91 on the Sega Genesis and NHLPA Hockey 93 on the SNES, it was NHL 94 that became the proverbial “nail in the coffin” for me and video hockey.

Let’s. Play. HOCKEY!!!

My brother and our two best friends – who are also brothers – were obsessed with the sport by late 1993, and this game only served to further our addiction. After playing NHLPA 93 for so long, the next year’s installment was a huge step up in quality. Players seemed to maneuver far better than previous EA NHL games, and even the smallest touch of having both licensed players AND teams added a huge dimension to the game overall.

In terms of new features, NHL 94 hit it out of the park. This was the first of the franchise to feature one-timers; a quick shot taken directly off of a pass from a teammate. This new tactic opened up a whole new set of scoring possibilities and gave the game a more realistic feel to what you’d see in real life. Playoffs and Shootout modes were also added for variety, but perhaps the most important addition was the inclusion of a few team-specific goal songs. You don’t know real hockey history until you’ve heard a digital representation of Brass Bonanza after scoring with the Hartford Whalers.

While the game kept a basic set of stats on its virtual scoreboard, we took it to a whole new level by keeping track of goals for each player, goalie GAA, and a few other numbers. In the summer of 1994, since these games were yet to feature a “season mode,” we even went as far as to find a copy of the upcoming NHL schedule and create our own “league” play in which we each chose a team and played out the schedule they were given. I fail to remember how far into the playoffs I took my Buffalo Sabres, but I know I enjoyed every second of it. Well, that’s not entirely true.

You see, my brother had discovered a gamebreaker. At first, it seemed to be a fluke. After repeated usage, it became a nuisance. We simply called it “The Spot.”

Basically, you could take just about any player with a decent ranking, skate him just over the blue line slightly off-center, and hold Down on the D-pad while ripping a full power slapshot to score almost eighty percent of the time. Some players in the game were more successful at the technique and, since my brother had discovered this, he was the first to employ it liberally with said players. At one point, he was not against using Sergio Momesso of the Vancouver Canucks repeatedly for this very purpose. Every time the puck would slide through the goalie, he would assuredly scream out “MOMESSO POWER” in honor of the event.

Eventually, we had to take action and create limitations to using this tactic, especially while playing head-to-head games. Future years’ titles would have their own bugs to govern, but “The Spot” would always remain the one that none of us would ever forget. Even to this day, whenever we see a real NHL goal of similar fashion, we all either yell out “THE SPOT” or “MOMESSO POWER” in tribute.

Hockey games have become more realistic over the course of time, and have certainly taken on a more authentic feel, but in terms of fun and satisfaction, I don’t think any of them can compare to this one. It had all the makings of a great game that was easy to pick up and play, and the memories I created with my friends will never leave me. I have yet to have as much fun in a sports game – or any other competitive game – since, and it is those factors that put NHL 94 at the number eight slot in my Top 10 of All-Time.

The greatest hockey game ever

PS – To this day, I continue to play hockey. It’s probably right beneath video games amongst my interests. It is also the source of my nickname of “Boots,” but that’s a story for another time.