Inside Pulse 12

Adieu, PlayStation 2 – Christopher Bowen

With no new titles in development on scheduled for publication in 2011, we can now officially declare Sony’s PlayStation 2 dead. It becomes one of the longest lasting systems of all time, outlasted only by things like the Neo*Geo and its original arch-rival, the Sega Dreamcast (which still has games on tap for 2K11). To celebrate the life of the PlayStation 2, a different Diehard GameFAN staff member will be presenting their list of their ten favorite games for the PS2.

10: Rygar: The Legendary Adventure
9: Odin Sphere
8: Gradius V
7: Dragon Quest VIII: Journey of the Cursed King
6: Romance of the three Kingdoms X
5: Sakura Wars: So Long, My Love
4: Dark Cloud 2
3: Shadow of the Colossus
2: Suikoden V
1: Persona 4

Before I dive into the heart of this, I have to give out two honourable mentions off the top. Due to our rules going into this, we had to either pick exclusive PlayStation 2 games, or determine a reason – other than “it’s the game I bought” or “I didn’t own the other systems” – why the PS2 version was the better game, and for these two sports games, I could not do that. Therefore, due to the economic realities of releasing sports games in the 21st century, I give honourable mentions to two of the greatest sports games of all time, the PS2 versions of which I played to death: NHL 2004 and ESPN NFL 2K5.

I also have to give two honourable mentions to two great games that simply lost the battle for my heart to other games that did make my top 10. The first is R-Type Final, a great shooter that closed the book (for now) on a great shooting series. The game was very good, had a lot of replay value, and finally got the difficulty curve for the series right. It’s not my personal favourite shooter, but it is definitely my favourite R-Type game. The second honourbale mention is God of War, which I will admit is a better overall game than the similar game that did make my list. However, this isn’t a list of what I think the “best” games are, it’s a list of my personal favourites, and the one that made it struck a better chord for me.

Other than that, I have a lot more JRPGs on my list than I thought I would. In fact, my entire list – as it’s constructed, without the sports games – was developed in Japan. Maybe that’s because I’m just old-school like that – a throwback to the NES days, if you will – or maybe that’s just how my interests roll, but I find it a little funny that on a system that has the greatest library in history, all of my top non-sports games were Japanese. Maybe I’m just a closet weeaboo after all.

#10: Rygar: The Legendary Adventure
Developer: Tecmo
Publisher: Tecmo
Genre: Action-Adventure
Release Date: 11/12/2002

As I’ve intimated, Rygar is, overall, an inferior overall game to the original God of War. Just about everything Rygar did, God of War, through a combination of natural evolution, a better budget, and David Jaffe, was done better than Rygar did it. However, I would be remiss in mentioning a few things in Rygar‘s favour:

1) I loved the original NES game, enough so that it was the subject of my failed attempt at a retro column. Taking that existing property and sending it harder into the realm of Greek and Roman mythology (and closer to the intention of the original arcade game) resulted in a fun, if somewhat campy, story.

2) It did God of War first. I find it funny that a lot of modern games can be derided as a “God of War” clone, but I even made the point in 2005 (in an article lost to the passages of time and SQL servers) that God of War borrowed heavily from Rygar‘s gameplay, warts (camera) and all.

3) It was almost delightfully restrained. When I compare Rygar to God of War, what stands out is the distinct lack of gore in the former game. There’s visceral and then there’s overbearing, which I think God of War sometimes goes over the line on. This is strictly personal taste talking, but I like game experiences that leave me smiling at the end. Rygar pulled that off. God of War never did, because everything is so gruesome.

4) The fucking Diskarmor. Do I even need to say more?

Tecmo was, for the longest time, one of my favourite developers, dating back to the 80s when they took their middling arcade games, put them on the NES and made them absolutely amazing. Since the mid part of this decade, however, Tecmo has made blunder after blunder, finally culminating with the 2008 remake of Rygar that they threw on the Wii, after trying to make it look like a Musou game. The remake destroyed the Rygar name, and was the most visible example one could find as to why the company ended up having to eventually merge with Koei. At this point, the combined company spends its time pumping out Musou games, trying to make Ninja Gaiden “accessible”, and coming one step shy of turning a passable fighting franchise in Dead or Alive into full-out Skinemax porn. It’s pathetic. Rygar reminds me of a simpler time, before the company started their sharp decline, and is a game I love, even considering its weaknesses.

#9: Odin Sphere
Developer: Vanillaware
Publisher: Atlus USA
Genre: Action RPG
Release Date: 5/22/2007

I loathe the whole “art game” debate. Both sides of this argument have this idea that their side is extreme, and that it has to be a total, partisan victory. It’s like Republicans vs. Democrats, only even more retarded, if one can believe that.

Why not have both?

Vanillaware has made a career for toeing the line between making good games and making them artistically gorgeous, from equal parts visual and stylistic standpoints. They have three games to their name, and all of them have the same vibe to them: amazing 2D sprites with good enough game play to not get in the way too much. GrimGrimoire was a stylish RTS that succeeded based on its great story. The Wii’s Muramasa: The Demon Blade overcame some control issues to win my 2009 Mount & Blade Good Bad Game Award. Odin Sphere, however, is the game that put them on the map. A beautifully designed game with a very well designed and broken down story, and some action elements that reminded me of old NES games – in good ways and bad (it’s kinda cheap) – combined to make one of the most charming games I’ve ever played. Yes, the game had some issues, but frankly, I’m willing to sacrifice that for a game that leaves me with a look of wonderment and amazement the vast majority of the time. The game is playable – enjoyably so – and that’s good enough for me.

Simply put, I loved Odin Sphere, partially because it proves that we can have our cake in this art game debate and eat it too. Best of all, the artsy guys can make that cake look amazing before it goes down.

#8: Gradius V
Developer: Treasure
Publisher: Konami
Genre: Shoot ’em Up
Release Date: 9/14/2004

You have one of the greatest shooters of all time in Gradius. It has never really had a bad game, either as Gradius, Salamander or even Parodius (Sexy Parodius might be the greatest shooter of the 90s. Let that sink in for a second), yet you think you can do better. How do you take a legendary series and make it better?

You hire fucking Treasure. Yeah, Treasure. Gunstar Heroes, Radiant Silvergun, Ikaruga, Bangai-O, Sin and Punishment, Astro Boy: Omega Factor. THAT Treasure.

They took Konami’s baby, and ran with it. Gorgeous visuals, some expertly designed stages (just the second stage alone – which has you working in concert with another ship – is brilliant), and a few gameplay changes that leave add beautifully to the classic Gradius gameplay that we’ve known since 1986 make this by far the best Gradius ever, which is saying something. It’s not only a great shooter, and a great Gradius game, it’s arguably the best shooter of the decade.

R-Type Final was good. But Gradius V was amazing.

#7: Dragon Quest VIII: Journey of the Cursed King
Developer: Level-5
Publisher: Square Enix
Genre: Japanese Role Playing Game
Release Date: 11/15/2005

Talk about a developer talking someone else’s property and making it theirs. I love Dragon Quest, the first game of which was my introduction to RPGs. I love Level-5, who, among others, brought me the #4 game on this list. When they combined, it was like an angel bringing me a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup: a perfect combination brought by omnipotent beings.

Dragon Quest has always been a top notch JRPG for the first six games (we’ll ignore VII), so much so that I would play fan translations when I was younger. DQVIII took a great formula and made it look pristine, bringing out the best in Akira Toriyama’s art. What I found the most surprising at the time was that the current trend JRPGs have been taking for some time in terms of difficulty was reversed in this game; DQVIII is not an easy game in the slightest.

Lastly, the characters in this game had a personality all to their own. I love Dragon Quests III and IX, but one criticism I have about both games is that they don’t have any real characters; you have your avatar, and a bunch of bots with no personality that you can create. DQVIII gives you three other characters, each with a distinct and charming personality (yes, even Angelo), and even the NPCs were interesting. This was the first game in which rote translation stepped aside for inventive localization. I’ll always take a good localization over a cut-and-paste translation, and Dragon Quest has had one of the best, starting with this game.

Dragon Quest games always manage to keep their charm throughout the years despite not changing much throughout the years. Whereas Final Fantasy constantly rewrites the rules, Dragon Quest holds to the same general tenants it’s had since the very first game in the mid 80s. Dragon Quest VIII is one of my personal favourites of all time, and one of the best RPGs the PS2’s ever seen.

#6: Romance of the Three Kingdoms X
Developer: Koei
Publisher: Koei
Genre: Strategy/Simulation
Release Date: 6/21/2005

This is pretty well known to my friends, but not so much to my readers: I love Romance of the Three Kingdoms. The book is my favourite book of all time, and I read it so much while I was in the military that I had to buy three separate copies. It was the games – specifically, Romance of the Three Kingdoms II for the SNES – that made me fall in love with the story, and I’ve been a big fan of not only the main games, but the spinoffs (namely, Dynasty Warriors) ever since. Hell, I even tolerated Liu Bei screaming “DIAO CHAAAAAAAN” every twelve seconds in Kessen II. I’ve been addicted to the story for the vast majority of my life. I’m even re-reading it now, for the I’ve-lost-count time.

Romance of the Three Kingdoms X is probably the best version of the game specifically because it didn’t fall prey to what the games before and after it did: catering to the Dynasty Warriors crowd. As DW grew more and more popular, it tried to bring those fans into the company’s more strategic offerings, despite the fact that the audiences couldn’t be different for them. ROTK X handles that little problem with a bang; the learning curve is harsh enough to make goats cry, because your officer can be anything from a ronin to a ruler, everything in between, and depending on whether you have the emperor or not, even a king, or hell, just become the freaking Emperor himself! You’ll piss off your subjects most likely unless you’re specifically abdicated to, but who cares, you can become the freaking emperor of Han China! There is so much going on in this game that it’s impossible to keep up with unless you have an intimate knowledge of what happened in the canon of either the story or of history, and the fact that you can play it as any officer in the game, or as a created officer, gives this game literally thousands of hours of gameplay. Not hundreds, thousands, over many different scenarios including a fictitious one.

In fact, the only real problem I have with the game is that there’s so much going on that the game sometimes wigs out. Recently, I saved my game, and decided “what the hell”, and revolted against Sun Jian without saving, just to see what would happen. I saved, and revolted successfully along with one other city that was in my district. I then left the city, just to see the story advance – almost ten years later than it would canonically – and the game suddenly decide to roll back everything that had happened to that point. Instead of what was becoming a four way power grab between forces aligned with He Jin (including Sun Jian) and other forces, forces that had been long out of the game were brought back in, Sun Jian was reduced to one plot of land, and half the country was brought to nothing. These things rarely happen, but it was enough to keep a great game from being higher on the list.

To this day, ROTK X is still the best version of the game that I’ve ever played. They’ve since released another version (for the PC in America as well, which is a boost in its favour), and have brought it to the iOS devices, but this now-six year old game brings the best combination of user control, a good UI system, and things to do that I’ve seen in any similar game. Regardless of whether you like the story or Koei’s other entries related to it, this is a classic.

#5: Sakura Wars: So Long, My Love
Developer: Sega
Publisher: Nippon Ichi Software
Genre: Japanese Role Playing Game
Release Date: 3/30/2010

I have to admit that unlike Alex and Mark, I do not have prior experience with Sakura Taisen. I wasn’t into importing in the Dreamcast era, largely due to lack of resources and largely due to the fact that I lived on an aircraft carrier and was lucky I was able to store my Dreamcast in the first place. My knowledge of Japanese is still only good enough to not make a complete fool of myself while trying to fumble through a game like a drunk teenager trying to get his girlfriend’s bra off, so playing the games competently would be a problem. Therefore, I was waiting with bated breath for the first Sakura Taisen game to make it over here.

To say Sakura Wars: So Long, My Love was good is an understatement.

I’ve talked at length in recent times about the game and why I like it, so to repeat myself here is fairly unnecessary. However, the reasons I loved the game are still relevant. The game is a terrific evolution of old-fashioned RPG gameplay, which forces people to pay attention while making the story parts interesting. The strategy gameplay is also entertaining.

At the very least, as my Nihongo improves, it’s inspired me to play the other games in the series. Yeah, I know the Complete Box Set on Dreamcast is motherfucking expensive, but I have a disc loader and an external hard drive and I know how to use it. See, Sony? I wouldn’t have to resort to such tawdry methods if your monkeys would realize the game is more than a “visual novel”! You stupid motherfuckers. You STUPID motherfuckers.

#4: Dark Cloud 2
Developer: Level-5
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment
Genre: Action Role Playing Game
Release Date: 2/17/2003

As I’ve mentioned earlier in this article, I’m an unashamed Level-5 fanboy. Loved DQ VIII. Liked Rogue Galaxy a lot. Really liked Jeanne d’Arc, and judging by how long she’s had it, so does my fiancee. Everyone loves Professor Layton. Can’t wait for Ni no Kuni. We’ll let White Knight Chronicles slide. They’re the closest I’ve had to a favourite developer since Konami’s heyday in the 80s, before they started buying venerable names just to publish “social” games. The company can do almost nothing wrong.

What I found most attractive about Dark Cloud 2 was that it wasn’t overbearing. Games in the past decade have been so angsty and “emo” that they’re hard for a grown man to play; they seem like they’re written for teenaged girls who write “slash” fanfiction. Dark Cloud 2 stands out as being a charming game. The graphics – simple, yet effective cel shading – stand out even today, and the gameplay was deceptively deep, with an effective action RPG veneer on top of various customization options as well as a photo/invention system for the OCD types. Best of all, adding to the charm that I mentioned earlier, the two main characters are endearing and fun to control, as are the majority of the NPCs that they meet along the way. It’s a well told story that doesn’t beat everyone upside the head with how “deep” it is, and I’ve been thankful for that for eight years.

My love of a game can be attributed to how worn out a strategy guide for that same game is. I bought the Dark Cloud 2 guide when I got the game in 2003, and it was with me for my last year in the service. The thing is missing pages, dogeared all over the place, and generally unsellable at this point. It’s to the point where I’ve had to consider getting a scan of it, because the old one is beat to crap. That says a lot. I still play Dark Cloud 2 in 2011, eight years after it came out, and though I like Rogue Galaxy, it cannot compare to what is, in my eyes, still Level-5’s masterpiece.

#3: Shadow of the Colossus
Developer: Team Ico
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment
Genre: Action-Adventure
Release Date: 10/18/2005

It’s sad that in 2011, when people think of “art” games, they think of the worst examples. At best, they think of Braid, which is a good, if pretentious, little game, or Limbo, which I’ve talked about in the past. However, most of the time, they talk about terrible examples, such as The Path, or any other game that has virtually no playability to make some exceptionally pretentious statement. However, people don’t realize that probably the best “artsy” game – the one that melds standard video game set pieces with an artistic style and statement that set the game apart – was a first party title released for the world’s most successful system in terms of sales, with a heavy marketing push behind it. People don’t think of Shadow of the Colossus as an “art” game because it’s fairly well known; it’s almost as if for a game to keep its art “cred” it has to be poorly known, as if it was the video game equivalent of Arcade Fire or Immortal Technique. However, people who think this way are missing one of the best games of all time, by either standard.

I’ve always said that I would take beautiful flaws over sterile imperfection any day of the week, and SotC exemplifies beautiful flaws. The camera sucks. The control isn’t great. It’s not always clear where you have to go. Your horse doesn’t always do what you say. Things like this that would knock down someone’s review score, but one has to take the whole package into account with this beautiful, amazing game that simultaneously engrosses the player, and immerses them into a world with nothing but boss battles, with their only friend and ally being a fictitious animal. In fact, the story between Wander and Argo is beautiful and poignant, despite no words being exchanged between the two. I felt more for my horse in this game than I’ve felt for almost any other video game character in history, which is notable considering my first “crush” outside of real life was Irene Lew. Peter Moleneaux WISHES he could tell Fable half as well as Team Ico told SotC.

To satisfy everyone’s desire for a good “art” game, there’s a great story about unintended consequences to be told here as well. Without spoiling the ending, I have to say that when I was racking my brain for a movie to compare this game to, the first one I came up with was Sophie’s Choice. That’s fucking deep. In fact, that’s the only reason this game – a game I will maintain is the “best” game of the decade, from a game making perspective – is only #3 on my personal list of PS2 games instead of #1: I like walking away from a game with a smile on my face. Call me a sap, but I like my gaming experiences to involve smiles. The gameplay and style of SotC is sublime, and the game stuck with me, but it’s not something I play when I want a pick-me-up. With that said, that’s a personal issue, and doesn’t obscure what is one of the greatest games of all time.

Shadow of the Colossus went Greatest Hits, and is readily available, even in mainstream retailers. It’s also being remastered in 3D for the PS3. In short, unlike Ico, there is no reason why people can’t experience this amazing game.

#2: Suikoden V
Developer: Konami/Hudson Soft
Publisher: Konami
Genre: Japanese Role Playing Game
Release Date: 3/21/2006

I’ve always been a Suikoden fan, but Suikoden hasn’t really been a big fan of me. The first game took me completely by surprise, in an era where Final Fantasy VII – and only Final Fantasy VII – was king. I’ve written enough about that it basically explains itself at this point. But I wasn’t a huge fan of Suikoden III. I didn’t care for the jumping around between chapters, which I felt kept the story from having flow. I shouldn’t have to play a game for thirty or more hours to get it to start going. As for the fourth game – the first one fully developed without series creator Yoshitaka Muriyama – the less said, the better. Like the rest of the free world, I felt that Suikoden was probably dead at this point, and was skeptical when Suikoden V was in development, being led by the same guy (Noritada Matsukawa) that screwed up Suikoden IV. However, when it comes to properties that I’ve developed a liking towards such as SuikodenFinal Fantasy also falls into this boat, despite the fact that they’ve burned me consistently since the 90s – I tend to behave in a manner similar to how Pavlov’s dog is perceived. Konami rings the bell, and I show up with money in hand. Some times, I get a doggy treat. Some times, I get a newspaper to the dome. Thanks for nothing, Tierkreis.

Suikoden V – which I admitted was a risk as I was spending my money on the game on the day of release, because that’s how we roll in this bitch – was a revelation to me as to how good Suikoden could be when Konami allowed it to be. “Oh yeah, THIS is why I liked it!” It’s much like how Eddie Murphy describes getting laid for the first time in a long time on Raw; V was my proverbial Ritz cracker. The gameplay is tried-and-tested at this point: start with a small army, collect 108 like-minded people, kick evil’s ass. Suikoden has always carried political intrigue along with the Gotta Recruit ‘Em All gameplay, but what stood out about Suikoden V‘s was that for the first time since the second game, it had riveting characters to back it up. I stay interested in a story-based game because of the characters much easier than I do for the overarching story. In my case, I say “fuck the forest” and love the trees. Suikoden V has some of the most interesting characters in the series, who combine good writing along with excellent voice acting for the most part. There are nods to previous games (hi, Georg Prime!), but they’re not necessary to get anything out of this game. This is a great place for newcomers to come into the series, and old time fans would have a blast.

Suikoden V isn’t *quite* as good of a game as Suikoden II is; it’s too easy and a bit unbalanced. But unlike Suikoden II, it doesn’t require past knowledge to get anything out of it, is more accessible than the first two games were, and even the annoyances that reviewers have noted in the past (even I admit it’s a series of games that *require* either a guide or GameFAQs) are set pieces that they have long accepted. To me, it’s a debate as to which game – II or V – is the best in the entire classic series. It’s still II, but the debate is close, and this game that I’ve beaten multiple times times in as my 2nd favourite PS2 game of all time.

#1: Persona 4
Developer: Atlus
Publisher: Atlus
Genre: Japanese Role Playing Game
Release Date: 12/9/2008

Despite some popular opinion, games writers – those of us who do it for more than just a hobby – don’t have an infinite amount of time to play games. We have things to write, sources to follow up on, games – good and bad – to review, and things completely unrelated to games to worry about. That leaves our leisure time to play games we actually want to play and dedicated some time to limited, and I don’t know about others, but in my leisure time, a lot of the time, the LAST thing I want to do is play video games. Sometimes I want to play basketball. Sometimes I want to take a drive. I usually want to do anything but play a long, involved game; if I sit down for a game, it’s usually for a quick game of a sports game.

I use that previous paragraph as perspective for the following: I loved Persona 4 so much that I put 105 hours into it to beat it… and then I did it again. It takes a Herculean amount of dedication – and a bunch of nearly sleepless nights – for me, at 30, at this stage in my career and my life, to put over 200 hours into any game. However, Persona 4 didn’t feel like an effort. I was able to mostly fly through all of the game’s parts, whether they were dungeon crawling, the story bits, or the minutia of pretending to be a small town Japanese high school student. There’s no part of this game that drags, and I’m that much more thankful for it.

I said in my Suikoden V write-up that I get more into good characters than I do into a good story. Persona 4, while it has a very good overall story, had some of the best character writing and especially voice acting I’ve heard in an English video game. Yes, I know, the game didn’t have Japanese voice acting, and that is cause for the weeaboos to hold a Kangaroo Court, but trust me: this didn’t need it. The English voice actors were *perfect* for the localization, and added another layer of personality to what were already terrifically written and intentionally flawed characters. Chie’s stammering, Yukiko’s mood swings, the internal Dojima family’s dynamic, Kanji’s never-quite-addressed sexuality issues, whatever the hell Teddy’s doing, the other side characters that have both a lot and a little to do with everything going on around the protagonist… everything melts together beautifully to create a world that is easy to get yourself lost in, despite the fact that the game does a good job of showing the rote differences between Japanese culture and American culture. If anything, the localization of this game shows how far Japanese culture has penetrated the American gaming subconsciousness. Would characters that actually used honourifics such as “senpai” and “kun” have gotten anywhere ten years ago? Hell, would they have gotten anywhere even five years ago? Persona 4 is so well written and so well acted that it even makes people who don’t read or speak the language hear things like “Go, Yosuke-senpai!”, in perfect English, and not blink an eye.

This doesn’t even go into the battle mechanics, which are so complex that I have to skim over them for brevity’s sake in what has become a humongous write-up. There is a perfect – if difficult at times – balance to gameplay that ties in the story and the daily life of your protagonist (via social links) into battle to make things more balanced in your character’s favour. Notable for veterans of JRPGs, but not later Persona games, is that resources are fairly limited. Because money is needed to heal MP – not HP – without losing a day, healing is extremely expensive until late in the game, money is in precious short supply, and enemies can do a number on you in a hurry, it leaves simply level-grinding as a poor option to get the best equipment. This requires learning enemies, experimenting (unless you’re using the guide), and taking a few lumps. Especially on Hard, this is not an easy game, and JRPG newcomers will have problems.

Words cannot describe how well made the two PlayStation 2 Persona games – both 3 and 4 – are. It’s a matter of personal preference as to which one is best for you. For me, not only is Persona 4 the best, it’s my personal favourite PlayStation 2 game of all time.

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  • Mike

    Interesting – your list is pretty close to what mine would be. Great to see someone mention Dark Cloud 2 and Suikoden V, two of my all time favorite games.

  • Samuraiter

    Stellar list, ‘Bus. (The R-Type Final references are appreciated; as noted in multiple conversations, I hold that game as superior to Gradius V, but I take nothing away from G5, as it is still incredible.) Could discuss each and every one of these ad nauseum, but, alas, I have limited time. What I will note: True, the Persona games are dub-only, but the voices ARE among the best I have heard. The gaming world is finally starting to get with the program on that. … Took ’em long enough.