How Horror Games Nail Vulnerability

Note: This post contains spoilers for Resident Evil (2002), Silent Hill 2, Outlast and Haunting Ground.

Horror games are obviously intended to scare players. A horror game that isn’t scary has pretty thoroughly failed its objective. Some games, however, have segments that go above and beyond and really stand out in their ability to make the player feel vulnerable. You’re never in any real danger when playing a video game, so creating real tension for the player can involve some interesting tricks.

Anyone who reads my blog likely knows that the original Resident Evil remake is my favorite video game. I love the exploration, puzzle solving, resource management and variety of enemies to contend with. One part in particular has always stood out to me as a great way to make the player feel vulnerable long after they’ve gotten accustomed to the mechanics. Late in the game, in the final secret laboratory that nearly every Resident Evil game seems obliged to include, you must restore power to an elevator to proceed. It’s not as simple as flipping a switch, however. The process involves taking an empty fuel capsule from one room and backtracking to another to fill it with fuel, then lugging the capsule back to its original housing. The issue is that the fuel used in the capsule is described as a nitro compound that will explode if shaken or jarred too much. You must carefully walk the refueled capsule back to its starting point without engaging in combat to make sure you don’t accidentally blow yourself up.

That infinite rocket launcher is no use here.

It’s a short but effective sequence because it’s one problem in the game you can’t solve with your weapons or by running away from it. Did you leave any enemies alive on the path between the two rooms? Better hope they don’t grab you on the way back. Even after beating the game many times, I’ve slipped up at this part and forgotten about an enemy that was hiding on the ceiling, only to get grabbed and have Chris automatically use a defensive grenade to subdue said enemy, killing us both. I only recently found out the game uses a mix of RNG and set values to determine if the capsule will explode in a given situation. Running for more than 3 seconds will always cause it to explode, but getting grabbed by enemies or using weapons is a gamble between living or dying. Regardless, it’s still the part of the game that always makes me the most nervous during no-save runs, because it completely throws out your character’s proficiency with weapons and general amped-up strength as a special forces operative.

Haunting Ground is another Capcom game that has sadly been left behind on the PS2. It’s one of those games that goes for a small fortune online thanks to a small print run (at least in the US) and no modern ports. I’d love to see a re-release but am not confident it will happen, as the game revels in making the player feel vulnerable from start to finish by placing you in the shoes of a young woman being terrorized and sexually harassed by assorted stalker enemies. It’s pretty divisive among people who have played it, with some finding the game’s themes off-putting while others think it’s effective horror. I fall into the latter camp but can see the reasoning of the former, personally. Despite the entire game being designed to make the player feel uncomfortable, there’s one especially effective gameplay twist late in the story.

Early in the game, protagonist Fiona befriends a dog named Hewie (who players may recognize as the same dog model used in Resident Evil 4), and he becomes a great AI companion. The game uses a pretty cool system wherein you train Hewie to be an effective companion just like you would train a dog to do anything else. You can give him various commands, such as searching areas and attacking enemies, and need to either praise or scold him depending on whether or not he followed them. How well you train him will make the game easier or harder, as he’s a valuable asset for finding items, detecting traps and getting away from pursuing enemies.

At one point late in the game, Fiona and Hewie become separated while lost in the woods. You have to follow the sounds of his barking to find him within an undisclosed amount of time. If your relationship with him wasn’t at the top level prior to this point and you fail to find him, or your relationship was already particularly bad, you get locked into the worst ending the game has to offer. Being separated from Hewie after you’ve been given plenty of time to get used to depending on his help provides some high tension, amplified by the forest where you lose him being a maze. I remember playing this section for the first time and frantically running around trying to locate the source of the barking, fearing if I found him too late he’d be dead. It’s a smart way for the developers to shake up the gameplay formula after players have become comfortable.

One of my favorite spooky bits in gaming comes from Silent Hill 2. I’ve written about my love of this horror classic and this specific sequence before, but it bears repeating here. In each area of the game, you find a map that can be pulled up anytime as long as there is sufficient lighting for protagonist James to read it. He will also occasionally make notes on the map and highlight key locations. It becomes its own little companion of sorts, always being there for you when you need to catch your breath and take stock of your surroundings. All of that comes crashing down around the halfway point of the game.

One of the most unsettling things I’ve ever seen in a game, and it’s just a map.

As the journey starts to take some bizarre turns and James starts questioning reality, the player is thrown into a strange maze. The area consists of a top floor of bare walls and floors, as well as a lower level that is partially flooded. You have to traverse this area using ladders to move between floors and doors that lead to new hallways, but the whole thing is very confusing thanks to the samey visuals and compounded by the presence of monsters, including the invincible Pyramid Head. Worst of all, your map is completely gone. There’s no map to pick up here, as the area doesn’t correspond to anything in the real world of the game. Open your map screen at this point, and you’re greeted by a blank sheet of paper. As you move through the labyrinth, James draws his own map. It may sound silly to someone who hasn’t played it, but this part of the game was deeply unsettling to me the first time around and actually remains my most dreaded area on replays to this day. It’s easy to get lost and accidentally run into Pyramid Head around a corner. It’s also just a good example of a horror game ripping away your security blanket. I never thought a hand-drawn map could be so spooky, but here we are.

Finally, I think Outlast has a pretty effective way of making the player feel vulnerable. Like Haunting Ground, it’s not for everyone thanks to some edgy and crass subject matter. It’s also one of those “hide-and-seek” horror games that many horror fans (including myself) have gotten burned out on over time, but I found it scary enough back in 2013. The gimmick with this game is that you step into the shoes of a journalist investigating a tip about corruption and abusive practices at a secluded asylum, and as such brought a camcorder to document your findings. You can bring up the camera at any time, and often need to use its night vision mode just to see your very dark surroundings. It runs on batteries that must be replaced periodically by finding new ones lying around the building, and the night vision even dims as the battery level gets low. This isn’t the scary part, though.

A good while into the game, protagonist Miles drops the camera down a hole. Not the least predictable thing that could happen, admittedly, but the following segment where you have to run around in near-darkness without it works to make you feel positively alone. Like the map in Silent Hill 2, it’s a security blanket for the player that gets taken away abruptly. Making matters even worse, the camera is damaged by the fall. Upon recovering it, players will notice that the screen bears a large crack in one corner that distorts the image. The camera will also occasionally glitch out, with the screen flickering and distorted audio playing briefly, for the rest of the game. It’s a nice way to startle the player even after a key item has been lost and found.

Horror game developers have many tricks up their sleeves to make players feel helpless and vulnerable. There are probably many more examples than those I’ve discussed here, but these moments stand out in my memory as effective ways of shaking up the spooky factor. The common element here is that all of these games found a way to take something away from the player late in the game, once they were already accustomed to the gameplay loop. I suppose this could become a tired cliche if used too often or telegraphed too much, but I enjoyed it in all of these games.

Triple Triad and Enjoying the Side Content More Than the Main Quest

Note: This post contains minor spoilers for Final Fantasy VIII.

Final Fantasy VIII is a weird game. It stands in the shadow of the juggernaut that is Final Fantasy VII and is often overlooked as a result. It’s also unpopular with some fans of the series on its own merits. Without getting into spoilers, the plot goes in some very strange directions and is nearly incomprehensible at times. Despite this, it’s one of my very favorite games and one I hold near and dear to my heart. Why is that, you ask? Well, it’s everything but the main story that I love. It features my favorite character in the entire series in the form of secondary protagonist Laguna Loire, whose personal story I find way more interesting than the main plot. More importantly, FF8 has some of my favorite side content of any game, especially the addictive card game known as Triple Triad.

My favorite mini-game ever.

I think FF8 has stellar aesthetics and music, which is admittedly a strong suit of the series as a whole. The world features many distinctive locations to explore for a PS1 game, all crammed onto a whopping 4 discs in its original release. Over the course of the adventure, you’ll journey to harsh deserts, snow-capped mountains, coastal villages, bustling cities and more. The artstyle is an interesting blend of old-timey design sensibilities and futuristic sci-fi fare. Just check out the contrast between the sleepy rural town of Winhill and the high-tech city of Esthar below.

The game is also loaded with side quests than can be completed at different stages of the story, with some already doable on disc 1 and others not becoming available until disc 3. This content distribution provides some nice breaks from the main story and gives the player reasons to explore the map to its fullest. For example, there are summons (known as Guardian Forces) that can only be obtained by defeating them in combat after locating them in optional areas. One side quest involves tracking UFO sightings around the world. Another sees the player venture into a village hidden underground and helping the residents complete a work of art. In a far corner of the map, an abandoned oceanic research facility can be found that houses powerful enemies including a super boss. All of this stuff gives the game’s world a sense of mystery and wonder.

Tonberry King must be defeated as part of a side quest to gain him as a summon.

So, what’s the deal with Triple Triad? It’s a card game that’s popular in the FF8 world. People from all over the world will accept your challenges to play, and there’s a full set of cards to collect featuring portraits of enemy monsters, bosses and important characters. Plenty of cards are even one-of-a-kind. The rules are simple. The game is played on a 3×3 grid. Players take turns placing cards on the grid. Each card has 4 numbers on it, each corresponding to a side of the card. If you place a card down with a higher number than the corresponding number on the opponent’s card, you flip it to your color (blue for the player and pink for NPCs). Whoever has the most cards in their color once every square is full wins.

The opponent’s final card can’t flip any of mine, as none of its sides have a number greater than 8.

It’s a simple yet addictive formula. Making things even more interesting is the presence of unique regional rules. Various areas around the world will have their own rule sets that they play by, such as the dreaded Random rule (your hand is drawn at random from all cards you own). Same and Plus rules spice things up nicely. The way these work is thus: Same makes it so that if the exposed numbers on the cards add up to the same amount when placed, they get flipped. Plus works the same way except it flips cards if the exposed numbers add up to the same amount. The Elemental rule will add +1 value to a card that matches the elemental affinity on its square and -1 to a card that doesn’t match, as seen above.

As you travel around the world, rules from different regions you’ve played in can even spread to others. Diehard card collectors will take the time to instead abolish the more annoying rules from areas using RNG manipulation. One woman you can encounter in various places calls herself the Queen of Cards. She has her own side quest that involves deliberately losing certain rare cards to her so that she will have new rare cards created by her artist father. This quest spans nearly the entire game, as you initially meet her in the first town but can’t get one of the required cards until disc 3. One rare card is obtained by giving a man a “naughty” magazine. The UFO will give you its card if you manage to track it down and give it elixirs instead of killing it. Hunting all of the cards down is immensely satisfying to me because Triple Triad itself is so fun, and it’s nice to see a little star on the menu screen once you catch ’em all.

Dozens of hours spent represented by that little star.

As odd as it may sound, I adore Final Fantasy VIII as a game for everything but its main quest. I feel like that’s unusual for a story-heavy RPG, but the wealth of side content on offer makes it a joy to replay. I always have a good time exploring the unique world and finding all the secrets hidden within. Do you have any games like that? I’d be interested to hear if anyone else has such a relationship with a video game.

Laguna (in the blue jacket) demonstrating why he’s my favorite.

The Female Characters Who Inspired Me

Today is International Women’s Day, and I thought I’d mark the occasion with a fun post about the female video game characters who inspired my love of gaming. There are more female protagonists in gaming than ever before, which I think is pretty cool, but I want to show my love for the gaming ladies I looked up to in my youth.

The Explorer

Tomb Raider was one of those games I obsessed over in my childhood, and remains a favorite to this day. The protagonist, Lara Croft, is a sassy, tough woman who goes on adventures around the globe. While other people were talking about Lara’s physique, I was admiring her determination and adventurous spirit. I really appreciated seeing a woman starring in a game that action-packed, one who could hold her own against anyone who got in her way.

The Fighting Fatales

Growing up in the ’90s, Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat were both absolute juggernauts in the gaming world. Everyone had played them, even my parents. Street Fighter 2 (the one most of us started with back then) and Mortal Kombat both only featured a single female character in their original releases, and I adored them both. Chun-Li and Sonya Blade remain two of the most iconic female characters in gaming history thanks to their indomitable fighting spirit against their male counterparts. I have vivid memories of playing Street Fighter 2 with my cousin and both of us picking Chun-Li, every single match. As for Sonya, her famous handstand neck-snap in the 1995 movie left an impression on many nerdy girls like myself. Both ladies are still going strong in their respective series, and Sonya even has a daughter following in her footsteps now.

The Bounty Hunter

Even before I had ever played a Metroid game, I knew about the famous twist from the end of the first game that protagonist Samus Aran was a woman. That boosted my curiosity in the series, as I’d never played a sci-fi game with a female lead before. I eventually did try out Super Metroid and others in the series, and nowadays I’d firmly place Metroid Dread among my all-time favorite games. Samus is the best bounty hunter in the galaxy and a tough warrior. She’s the Ellen Ripley of the gaming world, and I love that.

The Resident Slayers of Evil

I’ve written many times about how Resident Evil (2002) is favorite video game of all time, and the series as a whole is probably my favorite in all of gaming. The horror genre is no stranger to putting women in starring roles, and this series is no slouch in that department. From the very first game, Resident Evil has nearly always included female protagonists and has some of the coolest female characters in the industry. Jill Valentine and Claire Redfield, stars of the first two games, never struggle to hold their own alongside Chris Redfield and Leon Kennedy. Even though their personalities are different, with Claire being a bit more hot-tempered than the cool and collected Jill, they’re both inspirational heroines.

The Brawler

Back in 1997, it was impossible to be into video games without hearing all about Final Fantasy VII. It was a break-out hit for an already popular series, and dominated gaming discourse. The main party in the game includes three female characters, and while I like them all, Tifa Lockhart was always my favorite. Like the aforementioned Lara Croft, she’s inspired plenty of commentary about her busty appearance over the years, but that wasn’t my concern. I appreciated how strong she was, being known as the strongest martial artist in the world of her game. She can famously suplex bosses that are ten times her size. She never backs down from a fight. And, she balances all that with a kind and caring personality that makes her easy to love. Tifa is the epitome of a character who fights for her friends and loved ones, and I’ve always found that inspiring.

There are many more great female characters from the world of gaming I could name. I wanted to focus this post on those who inspired me in my youth, as they hold a special place in my little gamer heart. I’m glad to see the industry continue to bring us new female characters of all stripes today. On this International Women’s Day, I’d love to hear about others’ favorite female characters.

We Could Use More Games Like Katamari Damacy

Katamari Damacy ReROLL was recently a featured trial as part of Nintendo Switch Online, so I took the opportunity to re-play the cult classic for the 3rd or so time and ended up buying it. Playing through the charming and fun physics puzzler again got me hyped to play the upcoming We Love Katamari ReROLL, a remaster of the sequel, which is a fan-favorite of the series for many players such as myself. It also got me thinking about what a breath of fresh air the series is and how much I’d like to see more games like it.

Rolling around the town.

You play as the Prince, a little dude whose father, an eccentric being known as the King of All Cosmos, accidentally destroyed all of the stars in the sky except for Earth during a night of drunken debauchery. He tasks you with taking your katamari (basically a big ball that can collect objects and grow) to Earth and rolling up lots of objects so that he can use them to recreate the destroyed planets and constellations. The gameplay of all the Katamari games is a simple yet effective formula. You roll your katamari around, collecting various objects until it grows to a designated size. Occasionally, you’ll be required to roll up only certain types of objects, but that’s it. Roll up objects to make the perfect katamari.


That simplicity is one of the series’ biggest strengths. It’s the kind of game you can introduce anyone to as long as they can use both analog sticks in tandem. Rolling up bigger and bigger objects is delightfully addictive. The themed levels, such as rolling up as many fish as possible to make Pisces, help spice things up. Two levels in Katamari Damacy present a tough twist on the formula for those seeking a challenge. You need to roll up as many objects as you can to make your katamari bigger, then roll up the biggest single cow or bear (depending on the level) that you can find. This is trickier than it first seems, because the levels in question are littered with objects that represent those animals, like milk cartons and stuffed animals, and rolling them up will count as finishing the objective, just with results that will disappoint dear old Dad.

Your katamari starts off tiny, only able to pick up small items like dice and thumbtacks.

The other thing that makes Katamari Damacy stand out in a sea of video games is its whimsical and joyful atmosphere. The game oozes fun and happiness, from the excellent soundtrack to the vibrant colors that fill the world. Even the main menu is a little hub where you guide the Prince around to select different options, and if you choose to quit after saving, you’re shown a little scene of him waving goodbye to the screen. It’s just full of adorable little touches like that. And seriously, check out the soundtrack if you’ve never heard it. It’s full of upbeat pop, funk and jazz tunes that wonderfully complement the wacky gameplay. The graphics are low-poly but the artstyle is very lively and cute. There’s also plenty of humor on display, from the King’s questionable parenting to making the citizens of Earth panic as you roll them up off the streets with your katamari. The quirky charm of the game never fades, with even the ending credits sequence being a memorable gameplay setpiece wherein you roll up the countries of Earth. It’s a cool and memorable little bit of interactivity that didn’t have to be included, but I’m glad it was.

One of the coolest ending credit sequences in video games.

Reportedly, Katamari Damacy was made on a budget of only $1 million. It came out back in 2004, before the indie game scene really took off. Nowadays, we see plenty of video games with small budgets and small scopes thanks to indie developers, but I’d like to see the big studios give games like this a shot again. Experimental games with modest budgets can carry low financial risks while possibly being surprise hits, as was the case with Katamari Damacy when it released. We keep hearing about the pressures on AAA studios as budgets balloon and development time increases for blockbuster games, so why not make more small games like this that don’t require tons of resources? I think a series like Katamari perfectly demonstrates how a game can be fun and appealing to audiences without needing to break the bank. All it takes is a good idea and a willingness to experiment with new concepts.

Theatrhythm Final Bar Line is Fun for All Skill Levels

Even the title screen art is cute.

I’ve made no secret of my hype for Theatrhythm Final Bar Line leading up to its release. It’s been out for a little over a week now, and I’ve been having a ball playing it. The music is great and spans hundreds of songs, there are tons of characters to choose from, several modes to play and lots of virtual goodies to collect as you play. One thing that’s been on my mind while playing is how accessible the game is, and I’d like to highlight that.

So, what is Theatrhythm Final Bar Line? It’s a rhythm game featuring songs and characters from across the Final Fantasy series, with very light RPG mechanics. You assemble a party of 4 characters, each with unique abilities to gain as they level up. In typical rhythm game fashion, you hit the notes to the beat as the chosen song plays. There are notes that must be held, slide notes, various directional inputs and simultaneous inputs. Multiple stage types are represented across the song selection. In one type, your party travels across a field, beach, mountain or other zone while collecting treasure chests and fighting a few monsters. In another, battles are the focus and your goal is typically to vanquish a boss. In the third stage type, your party isn’t present at all and the notes are placed over cutscenes from the games.

The intimidating Ruby Weapon from FFVII appears as a boss.

I’ve never met a rhythm game I didn’t like, but am by no means a top-tier player. Theatrhythm Final Fantasy: Curtain Call, the last entry in the series released in the west, came out back in 2014, so I’ve been easing myself back into the gameplay by sampling different difficulty levels and working my way through the different quests and challenges on offer. There are 4 difficulty levels, plus a practice mode where you can play any song to completion without being booted back to the menu for failing too many inputs. In addition, a simple control scheme is available that makes inputs require only one button. Those with disabilities related to their hands or motor control should find this useful, and I hope it does help people play the game who might not be able to engage with other rhythm games. Another option that might make the game easier for newcomers is co-op, where you and a friend can play together with each person in charge of the notes on one side of the screen.

My poor Chocobo is obscured by Aranea.

One of the big new features is a revamped quest system where players choose a playlist of songs from a specific Final Fantasy game or sub-series and go through them in order with extra feats to accomplish for rewards. For example, you may be tasked with meeting an overall score threshold, killing the song’s boss character in a certain amount of time, or not taking any damage. You can take on most of these quests at any difficulty level, so there are no hard gates against those playing on easier levels. There are a few quests I’ve seen so far that require beating a song on a high difficulty level, but the quests are ultimately optional anyway. I’m playing on Switch, but the PS4 version may have trophies related to completing all the quests. Regardless, you won’t miss out on much if you don’t go for 100% completion of this mode.

Some CollectaCards on display.

Even if you have no interest in tackling the higher difficulty levels and tougher quests, there is plenty of content to enjoy in Final Bar Line. The base game has 385 songs in its roster, with more available in deluxe editions and DLC coming that will add songs from various other Square-Enix series. Most of the FF games featured have characters to unlock and add to your party, sometimes including villains in the mix. There are also virtual collectibles in the form of CollectaCards and summonstones. CollectaCards are adorable little trading cards of the various characters, enemies, summons and iconic scenes from the series. They even appear in a virtual card binder and can be examined individually. As a bonus, collecting cards of higher rarities grants bonuses to things like EXP gained and character stats. Summonstones each contain a summon with different rarities and accompanying bonuses. Both CollectaCards and summonstones can be found randomly in chests, awarded for completing quests or given out for various in-game milestones. If you play the online battles against other players, you can exchange summonstones with each other.

There is a lot of fun to be had with Theatrhythm Final Bar Line, whether you’re a rhythm game veteran or totally new to the genre. It’s a cute, upbeat game that offers plenty of things to do and unlock, and provides some accessibility for those who have difficulty with rhythm games. I think it’s a good starting choice for anyone curious about the genre or Final Fantasy fans who are looking for a nice spin-off. A demo is available for anyone on the fence, so feel free to give it a try if that describes you. As a final note, check out the Final Fantasy Mystic Quest soundtrack! It was the first RPG I ever played as a kid, and has some very cool tracks I’m thrilled to see included in Final Bar Line.

Mystic Quest complete!

#LoveYourBacklog 2023

I read this post by Kim over at Later Levels and thought a month dedicated to discussing our backlogs sounded fun. At some point in the past, I basically wrote off my own backlog and decided I was throwing in the towel on the games I still hadn’t gotten around to by that time. Regardless, some games have crept back into my backlog in the years since, especially thanks to the rise of subscription services like Game Pass. I’m not sure exactly how many games are currently in my backlog, but I’m pretty sure it’s less than 100. Without further ado, let’s discuss a few of the games in my backlog.

A Game You’re Eager to Play, But Haven’t Yet Started

I’ve written in the past about how I finally got into the Call of Duty series after years of seeing my husband enjoy the games, but I’ve only played entries from the Black Ops sub-series. I think it’s time to change that by finally getting around to Call of Duty: Modern Warfare (2019). I grabbed it on sale sometime last year, and it seems like a good starting point to see if I like Infinity Ward’s games. If I enjoy this one, I’m sure the other Modern Warfare games will make their way to my backlog as well.

A Game You’ve Started Several Times but Haven’t Yet Finished

This is an easy answer! I mentioned in a recent post that I’ve never finished any of the Mother games and am currently playing through the original Mother to change that. After that’s done, I’m moving onto the sequel, Earthbound, which I have started at least 2 or 3 times since I was in college. Mother has been very enjoyable so far, so I think the added context of having played the predecessor will give me the push to finally finish the cult classic Earthbound.

Some rowdy skate punk enemies from Earthbound.

The Oldest Game in Terms of Release Date

Metroid II: Return of Samus takes this crown, having originally released in 1991. I only really took an interest in this game after falling in love with Metroid Dread and realizing I should have checked out the remake of Metroid II that graced the 3DS before I sold my system. As luck would have it, Nintendo just added Game Boy games to the Switch Online service, so I can play the original game and even throw a filter over it to give it the color palette of a Game Boy Color game. Super Metroid is the oldest game in the series I’ve beaten, so I’m interested in seeing how well I enjoy this one.

The Most Recent Addition to Your Library

This title goes to Bayonetta 3. I played the first 2 games on the Wii U and liked them back when Bayonetta 2 came out, so when the newest one was released, I got the idea in my head to buy the whole trilogy on Switch and play them all in order. I love action games, stylish combat and Bayonetta herself as a sassy and cool heroine, so I can’t wait to replay the first 2 games and then dig in to the latest one.

The Game Which Has Spent the Most Time on Your Backlog

This is a funny one. The honor goes to System Shock, which I bought from GOG back when it was still called Good Old Games. I’m pretty sure that was more than a decade ago, and in that time I’ve since bought System Shock: Enhanced Edition and tried out the demo for the upcoming remake. I attempted to get into the game once and, despite being a fan of both shooters and RPGs, had some difficulty figuring out what exactly I was doing. It was then I realized I’d probably need to sit down with the massive manual before trying again. I’m going to give it another shot soon, as I feel like I’d love it once I got the hang of it. The cyberpunk setting, evil AI and funky soundtrack are right up my alley, so I’m hoping to tackle this one soon.

System Shock’s intro scene.

The Person Responsible for You Adding the Most Entries to Your Backlog, Due to Their Good Recommendations

This is probably my husband. We’ve been together for many years and both love video games, so we’re always showing each other new games to check out. He even got me to try out Call of Duty, as mentioned above. Both of my siblings are probably a close second place, as I recently discussed how we have a habit of getting each other into series and playing games based on each other’s recommendations. My friends are a mixed bag of gaming tastes and preferences, so we occasionally suggest new things to each other but tend to play different things overall.

So, there’s my intro for this month! I think this is a nice and varied slate of games to dive into for the occasion. I can’t wait to hear what everyone else checks off their lists this year. Let’s all see how our backlogs look after this and have fun!

I Love Modern Demos

I currently have around a dozen demos installing courtesy of Steam Next Fest, a recurring event billed as “a celebration of upcoming games” wherein hundreds of demos are put up for a limited time. Titles on offer include some highly anticipated upcoming games like Darkest Dungeon 2 and the remake of System Shock. There are also a bunch of games I’ve never heard of in my download queue, ranging from retro-inspired shooters to cute platformers. My Switch home screen is also currently displaying several demos thanks to last night’s Nintendo Direct and the pretty substantive demo Square-Enix provided for Theatrhythm Final Bar Line. I love checking out video game demos and think it’s cool that we have so many of them nowadays.

When I was a kid, I acquired quite a stockpile of PlayStation demo discs. One came with the console itself and others were given away as promo items with gaming magazines, and they were a great way for me to learn about and sample games that I might not have tried otherwise. As a child whose only spending money was an allowance, I didn’t get many new games outside of my birthday and Christmas. Rentals and demos filled in the gaps and helped me decide which games were worth saving up for. In those days, with no Internet access at home, there were some games I never got to play outside their demos because local stores didn’t stock them.

As an adult, I have more disposable income, but still appreciate being able to check out a game before buying. In the case of a game like Theatrhythm, I’m already buying the game on launch day but am having a blast playing the limited songs available until then. I can remember some murmurs in the industry years ago that demos might disappear entirely, as a bad demo can damage sales. I’m glad to see that didn’t come to pass. In contrast, companies like Nintendo and Square-Enix have started releasing larger demos in recent years that allow players to transfer their save data from the demo to the full game and pick up right where they left off.

Knights of the Round in action.

Demos for games like Octopath Traveler and Fire Emblem Warriors: Three Hopes provide hours of gameplay to really get you invested before the official launch. I think this is a smart business approach, as it makes players more likely to get attached to the progress they’ve made and want to continue with everything they’ve already unlocked when the release date arrives. For example, I unlocked the very powerful and beloved Knights of the Round summon in the Theatrhythm demo, and I can’t wait to share it with other players in the full game.

With the tough economic times we’re all facing, I think good demos deserve some praise. I hope the trend of releasing lengthy demos with transferable progress continues and is embraced by more companies. I also love seeing a wave of demos courtesy of events like Steam Next Fest that provide a veritable buffet of demos to check out. It definitely makes me more hyped for those games and brings new ones to my attention. After all, there’s no harm in trying out a game with no financial commitment, so why not? I can’t wait to dig into all these demos I’ve installed over the past day and hope there are many more to come.

It’s Nice to See Horror Games Thriving Once Again

There’s been a lot of discussion lately about how big-budget, AAA horror games are making a comeback this year. The Dead Space remake just released to high acclaim, Resident Evil 4 is getting its own remake in March, and Konami announced a slew of new Silent Hill projects that are expected to start releasing sometime in 2023. I’ve never hidden my love for the genre, and I’m ecstatic to see horror finding success in the video game industry again.

Horror games never truly went away, but if you’re as old as me and follow the genre, you can probably remember a time a little over a decade ago when big publishers lost faith in their ability to bring in money. Many fans, too, lost hope as they saw series they had loved in the late ’90s and early ’00s languish in the transition to the HD era. Resident Evil 6 and Silent Hill Homecoming, for example, were lambasted by many players for focusing on action over atmosphere. HD development also meant increased pressure on video games to sell well, while most horror games (and movies, for that matter) traditionally got by on humble sales due to their low budgets. At the time, lots of articles were written in the gaming press warning readers that horror was a genre with one foot in the grave, at least as far as video games were concerned.

But then, something happened. The indie gaming boom of the early 2010s started producing some horror games. Amnesia: The Dark Descent, Slender: The Eight Pages and Five Nights at Freddy’s all came out with relatively little fanfare and blew up overnight to become modern horror juggernauts. They didn’t have big marketing budgets or seasoned publishers managing their releases, but that didn’t matter. Those games and others like them went viral thanks to YouTube videos, livestreams and the hitherto untapped audience that loved watching someone else get jumpscared. And, even if many of the viewers of such content were children or those not inclined to actually play such games themselves, they still sold very well.

A spooky scene from The Convenience Store.

The indie horror game scene is still alive and well today, and seems to me to be coexisting with the new wave of AAA horror games quite well. A sub-genre I like to check out is the retro-inspired games by the likes of Puppet Combo and Chilla’s Art. These games mimic the look of low-poly games from the PS1 and PS2 eras, often with visual filters reminiscent of watching an old VHS. They aren’t the scariest games around, as they usually rely on a few jumpscares and are typically pretty short, but they’re good fun to play with others watching.

One big trend I’ve noticed is a drastic increase in spooky games aimed squarely at children, unmistakably due to the astronomical popularity of Five Nights at Freddy’s. While I’m not personally interested in titles like Poppy Playtime, Baldi’s Basics or Garten of Banban, I’m happy for the horror-loving youngsters who get to enjoy such games tailored to their age group. Kids like scary media too, but most horror offerings aren’t appropriate for them, so it’s nice to see people step up to provide such games for them. It’s like how R.L. Stine gave kids like me spooky books to read when we were too young to dive into Stephen King’s works. One upcoming game, My Friendly Neighborhood, published by DreadXP (of The Mortuary Assistant fame) is a kid-friendly horror game that combines Muppet-esque characters with Resident Evil-inspired gameplay. I think that’s a cool idea, personally.

To their credit, Capcom never truly gave up on the genre and continues to make excellent Resident Evil games in terms of both new entries and remakes. After not caring for RE6, I fell back in love with the series with RE7 and Village. I think the RE4 remake will be a great time and am looking forward to seeing where the series goes next. I’m also very excited to see how these new Silent Hill games turn out, since Konami is back onboard with publishing them. While remaking Silent Hill 2, one of the most beloved horror games of all time, is a fairly safe bet in terms of sales, I’m curious to see how the other games in the upcoming slate materialize. In particular, Silent Hill f should be an interesting game. Written by When They Cry author Ryukishi07, it’s the only SH game I’m aware of that takes place in Japan and, while I’m not familiar with his work, it became immediately apparent following the game’s reveal that he has a dedicated fanbase. I’m definitely interested in giving this one a shot.

House Beneviento, one of the best locations in Resident Evil Village.

Horror is one of my favorite genres across media, so I’m very happy to see it finding its footing again all over the video game industry. Anyone interested in the genre has a plethora of titles to give a look spanning different gameplay styles and budgets. Sometimes, my husband and I just go looking for small and inexpensive horror games on Steam to spend an evening playing. There’s a wealth of experiences out there to sample in the world of modern horror, and it’s nice to see both indie and AAA horror games doing well for themselves.

Retro Round-Up

I’ve been in the mood for some retro gaming goodness lately, so I decided to tackle 3 games of varying levels of familiarity to me. I’m playing through all 3 of them concurrently, and thought it would be fun to share my feelings about them while I’m in the middle of the journey. Think of this as a sort of “what I’m playing” update.


Ninten’s quest involves finding 8 melodies to complete a special song.

Also known as Earthbound Beginnings in official English-language releases, Mother is probably best known as the precursor to Earthbound outside Japan. I’ve actually never finished any of the Mother trilogy, and decided it was high time to rectify that. I remember playing through most of this original entry many years ago, but never beating it for some reason. So, I fired it up on my Switch and decided to dive in head first, determined to see it through this time.

The story goes that sometime in the early 1900s, a married couple from the small town of Podunk went missing. 2 years later, the man returned with no sign of his wife, and became a reclusive researcher who refused to ever speak of what occurred. Fast forward to 1988 (my birth year!), and a young resident of Podunk named Ninten is woken up by poltergeists in his house. His father tells the boy that his great-grandfather studied psychic phenomena and sends him off on a quest to figure out what’s going on and put a stop to it. After adventuring for a bit, Ninten finds himself teleported to the magical land of Magicant, where the ruler, Queen Mary, has been having recurring nightmares. She asks him to find 8 melodies scattered around the world that will form a complete song when reunited, as she believes remembering this tune will help her understand the source of her nightmares and vanquish them.

I’m enjoying Mother more than I expected. I didn’t remember much of my initial attempt, so it’s a fresh experience full of delightful surprises. The game is much less linear than Earthbound, which I like. It truly feels like going on an adventure through a fantasy America. For an NES game, there are lots of varied locations to discover as you gather your party and locate the 8 melodies. The quirky sense of humor the series is known for is here, as well as catchy music and an atmosphere of heartfelt sentimentality that gives me that warm fuzzy feeling. I’m intrigued to see this game through to the end, and can see it being one of those games I finish and then miss.

Zelda 2: The Adventure of Link

Link confronting Gooma, the boss of the 5th palace.

Zelda 2 has always been a bit of a curiosity to me. The black sheep of the Zelda family, I always heard that people hated it and it was awful growing up. Over the years, the game’s reputation has seemingly improved, at least in my circles. I started to hear people praising the experimental mechanics and harsh difficulty that set it apart from both its predecessor and later entries in the series. So, as someone who has beaten the original Zelda and wanted to see what all the fuss was about regarding its sequel, I decided to give it a shot.

This game does indeed make many departures from The Legend of Zelda. Our story begins with Princess Zelda in a coma thanks to a sleeping spell, and stalwart adventurer Link tasked with awakening her. He must accomplish this by journeying across Hyrule to 6 different palaces and placing magic crystals into statues within them. Once this is done, the final Great Palace will be opened, wherein Link can obtain the Triforce of Courage and awaken the princess. All the while, Link will be hounded by Ganon’s minions, who have determined they can revive their dead leader using the blood of the one who killed him.

Zelda 2 features some really cool story and gameplay integration for a game released in 1987. You really do feel like you’re being hunted by Ganon’s followers, as the overworld features pseudo-random battles with them and enemies in this game are much more aggressive than in the previous one or even the later sequels. There’s some impressive AI on display, too. The perspective has shifted from the top-down view of the original Zelda to a more traditional 2D layout, and fights have changed to match it. Link’s foes react to his attacks by raising their own shields, jumping and ducking. You can’t just slash at them with reckless abandon and hope to win. In one of the later areas, enemies pop up from behind a wall and toss rocks at Link, with a surprising degree of tracking for an NES game. You also now have light RPG mechanics to deal with, in the form of upgrading stats. Link’s attack, magic and HP are all tied to meters now that must be leveled up with XP. This all comes together to make Zelda 2 quite a challenge. Comparisons to Dark Souls are understandably met with eye-rolls most of the time, but I genuinely do think fans of that series should give Zelda 2 a look. I’m nearing the end and have had an absolute blast. The difficulty makes for a satisfying experience once you get the hang of it, and the moody atmosphere really adds a lot to the experience.

Donkey Kong Country 3: Dixie Kong’s Double Trouble!

Dixie and Kiddy, decked out in their alternate colors.

Unlike the previous entries, DKC3 is a game I’ve played countless times. Like Zelda 2, it’s kind of the black sheep of its family. Popular opinion generally puts DKC2 at the top of the trilogy and this entry at the bottom, and I can see why. The second game perfected the formula introduced by its predecessor, while this one is known for some infamously frustrating and gimmick-heavy levels, along with a divisive soundtrack due to the composer changing and enemy sprites that many consider too colorful and cartoon-y. Plenty of players also hated Kiddy replacing Donkey Kong himself as the “heavy” character, which is understandable considering he shrieks and cries upon defeat. It’s reminiscent of listening to Baby Mario cry in Yoshi’s Island. DKC3‘s reputation also isn’t helped by it being a late SNES release. It came out in 1996, the same year as the N64, and people were pretty down on 2D games at the time thanks to the cutting-edge 3D technology being showcased by the new consoles. Nevertheless, I loved this game as a wee lass and it’s the first one I go back to when I feel like playing some classic Donkey Kong.

I played this game for dozens upon dozens of hours as a kid, and actually beat it maybe once. I loved playing games back then, but wasn’t exactly fussed with being a completionist. With that in mind, I decided to beat the game as an adult and at least attempt to unlock the extra-hard bonus world, which I definitely never did back in the day. I’m also rocking the alternate colors for Dixie and Kiddy, which have to be enabled using a cheat code. I never knew about these growing up, but totally would have used them if I did. The code switches Dixie’s outfit from pink to purple and Kiddy’s from blue to green. Green is my favorite color and I’ve never been fond of pink, so I’m all about this.

DKC3 makes for a nice nostalgia trip. It has a lovely overworld map based on Canada that can be explored, unlike in the previous games. You acquire different water-based vehicles from Funky over the course of the game to navigate large lakes and uncover secrets, which I quite like compared to a more traditional map screen where you just move from level to level. There’s even a little sidequest that involves finding various items and trading them with NPCs around the map. Dixie has always been my favorite Kong, so it’s nice to see her in the starring role for this outing. Despite their divided reception, I’m a fan of both the soundtrack and the colorful and admittedly goofy enemies in this game. The difficulty is just as outrageous at times as I remembered, but I’m okay with that. There are some definite missteps in the level gimmicks, such as an over-reliance on turning into the various animal buddies that I’m pretty sure no one ever enjoyed. Regardless, it’s pretty rewarding to overcome the obstacles in DKC3. I’m definitely looking forward to finally reaching the Lost World, aka Krematoa, in this run.

I’m having a great time making my way through these retro games. Between the 3 of them, I have a game I once started but never finished, a game I’ve never played at all, and one I’ve played more times than I can recall. It’s nice to take a step back and revisit old favorites as well and check out older games you might have overlooked. I can see myself playing more retro games in batches like this, since it provides as bit of variety within one unifying theme. Until next time, happy retro gaming!

The Joy of Getting Others Into Video Games

I spent most of my childhood without any siblings, my brother and sister both showing up when I was already in middle school. As the much older sister, I got to enjoy the older sibling duties of playing video games for their amusement and helping them learn the basics of playing when they were little. I can still remember my mom bringing home video games based on children’s shows like Teletubbies and guilt-tripping me into teaching my siblings how to play them like it was yesterday. Even though we’re all grown now, it’s still fun to share gaming as a hobby with them. My husband and I have also gotten each other into new gaming experiences in the years we’ve been together. It’s tons of fun to introduce games and series you love to others.

At this moment, my little brother is patiently waiting for Fire Emblem Engage to release in 2 days. It’s his most hyped game of the year, and it warms my heart a little to know I helped foster the love he and my sister both have for Fire Emblem as a series. Way back when Fire Emblem Awakening released on the 3DS in 2013, I told them they would probably love the game if they gave it a shot. It took a while for them to try it out, but they both eventually did and ended up falling in love with the franchise. Now, they’ve both played more games in the series than I have and are far more knowledgeable about it than I could hope to be. My sister even managed to snag physical copies of the GameCube and Wii games, and adored them so much she now waits for an announcement of remasters or remakes for them. We all play the mobile game, Fire Emblem Heroes, as well and share our progress with each other regularly. It’s a rare series we all like and have experience with, which makes it great fun to chat about.

When Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance got a second wind of popularity with the younger crowd over the past year or so, my brother asked me about it. He knew I had played it back when it first came out on PS3 and 360. I thought he’d like the meme-tastic humor of the game, but wasn’t sure on the gameplay, as he’d never shown any interest in hack-and-slash action games. I gave him my old PS3 copy to play, curious to hear his thoughts on it. To my surprise, he took to it way better than I ever expected. It was love at first sight for him, and he ended up getting the platinum trophy, which is no easy feat for a game like MGR. It was like a very goofy but real “student surpasses teacher” moment. I was proud of him for doing so well in a tough game and happy I’d introduced him to a new favorite.

Similarly, my sister got curious about Final Fantasy VII a few years ago when the (at the time) upcoming remake was all over gaming news. I told her it was one of my favorite RPGs and I thought the story still held up all these years later, and she decided to give it a shot. She had a blast with it, which led to her playing the remake at launch and blazing through the Crisis Core remake within a week of its release. A video game that came out before she was born is now a shared interest between us, and I think that’s pretty neat.

This kind of experience can happen with anyone, not just siblings. My husband and I routinely talk about new and upcoming video games with each other. Early in our relationship, I told him he should check out Silent Hill 2. It was one of my very favorite games and one I felt was a contender for best horror game (a sentiment I still hold). He had never played any games in the series, but gave it a try and ended up sharing my feelings for it. He doesn’t play many horror games, as it’s a genre he usually prefers to watch me play instead, but SH2 is one of his few exceptions. I’m glad we can share our appreciation for a great game even though only one of us is a big fan of the genre.

Conversely, he sparked my interest in many shooters. Before we got together, the only FPS games I enjoyed were “boomer shooters” like Doom and Blood. He’s a big fan of all kinds of shooters, however, and though it took years for me to expand my horizons with the genre, he eventually got me into big series like Call of Duty and sub-genres like battle royale games. I never would have imagined when we were dating that we would play Apex Legends sessions together in the future, but it’s so much fun to play as a couple.

Gaming can be a great social hobby when you share it with friends and family. It’s always a fun topic of conversation in my circles, and I love recommending games to others and getting recommendations for things I may not have noticed otherwise. Right now, I’m looking forward to replaying Persona 3 Portable this week, courtesy of its new ports, and venting to those around me about how daunting the achievement list is. Sharing gaming experiences with others is one of my favorite aspects of this hobby. Do you also have people you share your love of gaming with? Have you gotten anyone into a certain game or series? I’d love to hear about it!