10 Terrible Videogame Shops

As the nights draw in, and Jack Frost’s cold, frosty breath once again cuts a deadly swathe through retirement communities  and desperately underdressed revellers alike , we look to the horizon and spy warmth (albeit useless spiritual warmth, as opposed to life-saving bodily warmth) , in the shape of the Infinite Present- giver and his day of reverse-tribute, Christmas. Of course, as we all know, the depressing secret behind this relentless, unstoppable benevolence is that he does stop. Those golden memories linger, though, so the rest of us, we adults, turn to the False God, the Infinite Present-Seller, Consumerism, to aid our desperate emulation. We once again prepare our flimsy, timorous expectations for the perfect present, given and received, to be well and truly dashed. Ah, you old holiday, you.

Seriously, it’s a strange time. Christmas on my island, United Britain – the Great Kingdom, began about two months ago, for restaurants taking party reservations, the poor folk who organise those parties, and the hysterical, hollow misanthropes who can’t wait to spot the first sign of the season, just to complain about it starting earlier than last time. As far as I’m concerned, though, despite all the needless, self-inflicted poverty and cold cold death, it’s the best time of the year. All I really want for Christmas is a tin of Quality Street (gaudy old-style diabetes), some good BBC idents, the chance to see old friends, and a few video games.

But tis the season, so combo-ing the spirit of rosy-warm videogame nostalgia with a reality of blind frantic buying, I can’t help but think of the Olde Shopes of the Olde Games. Remember them? The shop in a video game was a welcome change of pace, and where you bought your in-game upgrades. They were also a useful incentive to expertise and effort, with proficiency opening up a wider gameplay experience. This, of course,  was all before the wheeze that is’ downloadable  content’ which broadly asks us to spend proper money on such pathetic necessities as ‘More Costumes’, ‘Less Costumes’ and ‘ Almost Skin-Tone Coloured Costumes’.

Of course, despite the nostalgia, some video game shops were truly dire, and as such effective simulations of the whole shopping shebang. So if you want to avoid the stores that could torpedo your Yuletide, pull up a leg, don your false crown of paper (if you haven’t forgotten about the one that you’re already wearing) and, well, read the article I’ve just written. READ IT!

CASTLEVANIA; HARMONY OF DISSONENCE

In a game full of floating chairs, eye-birds and waiter skeletons, it could actually be saying quite a lot that the shop is the creepiest thing going. In Castlevania: Harmony of Dissonence, you play as Juste, hunting for the lost relics of Dracula, for all the usual reasons. This fairly inevitable turn of events gives the player yet another opportunity to roam around a huge gothic castle, in the classic Metroidvania tradition. And that’s great, any excuse. Like most Castlevania games, there’s a shop where you can purchase essential items like armour upgrades, useless guns, bodkins, ‘leather things’, and fancy hats. Unlike later games in the series, though, which try to at least contextualise the shop in some way, the stores in HoD just … are. It’s literally just an old guy in oppulant pyjamas, swinging his hips and waiting for customers. In Dracula’s castle.

On the face of things, it’s like he wanted to appear on a list of the Worst Videogame Shops (fair enough, someone was going to write it, so why not aim for it? Tough luck, guy, you came 10th!!!). He occupies several rooms in the castle, despite him never having any guarantee of human walk-in traffic. Even if the castle regulars – the fishmen, the armours, the skelington ninjas – could use the stuff he has for sale, it’s not like they could afford it  – Dracula clearly doesn’t pay well. The merchant’d be better using his weapons to smash up the Count’s furniture, a much better business plan than “1) Buy merchandise and 2) wait around for anyone who might want to kill my landlord”.

But it’s with that that your appreciation of the merchant changes. Not only has he set up a doomed business in a castle full of monsters (penniless scrounger vagrant monsters) but it also happens to be the castle of one of the most famous monsters of all time. It’s like the business equivelant of the ‘sleep in a haunted house for a night’ dare (and he is in his pyjamas). Way to generate some hype for your store, maybe he could tie in an Extreme Business DVD. Either way, why would one of fictions evilest evils tolerate some guy hawking rubbish in his house?

I suppose Dracula’s castle won’t pay for itself (the upkeep must be incredible, and it does keep getting magically blown up or pulled down or disappeared) so renting out a part of it would make good sense. But to someone who’s selling stuff designed to kill you, to people who want to kill you? It’s like the merchant’s sitting under his nose, taunting him, with a deliberately poor business plan and several shops that do not conform to any Health and Safety or Ease of Access regulations. Is Dracula …scared of the merchant? It’s not like you ever see any monsters in any of the stores, and just look at that face! That theme music! It doesn’t leave you, does it?

Perhaps the merchant has something on the big D. Perhaps he’s the most powerful entity in the entire game. Maybe it’s the game’s way of saying that, despite all the horrors on show, capitalism is the real monster here (oh ho! Good one, game!). I mean, how does he get from one shop to the next before Juste? Either he knows a much quicker way of navigating the castle (sharing is caring, so he clearly wants his only paying customer dead) or there isn’t just one shopsm’n, but rather the shops are part of larger franchise. A franchise that hires identical looking crazy guys  who instead of saying “Have a nice day” are trained to say “Glad to see you’re not dead”. And that’s not right. Offering positions of employment to people based on their appearance is just not right.

ADVANCE WARS

It’s been written countless times before, but Advance Wars was like a breath of fresh air in the strategy genre, a genre which suffers unfairly from perceptions of steep learning curves, curtains drawn at midday, and standing beside the checkout assistant at the Military History Museum gift shop for close to an hour, talking about favourite historical campaigns and presuming that the second closing time bell isn’t something that applies to you, somehow. The bouncy micro-machines-esque vehicles, distinct character designs and breezy script masked a simple-but-complex strategy title, that encouraged the player to think strategically, factoring in economy and speed, as well as the disturbing mutant powers of the Commanding Officers. You still got to build loads of tanks, too.

It was an almost-perfect portable gems that inevitably experienced a style coup-de-tat; it’s chipper cast of fun-loving-murderers eschewed in a reboot, in favour of the tiresomely inevitable troop of wide-eyed ‘genius’ snowflake moe schoolgirls and sharp chinned genius emo-boy bellends, with  the “you kids are the best generation EVER!” pandering rounded off by an obligatorily useless/simple/evil crowd of Far Too Old people slowly dieing in the background.

But that was a purely aesthetic change, the gameplay remaining reassuringly familiar. And while there’s lots to love about the original setup, the reboot took the opportunity to address the small but disturbing elephant in the room; namely, the poster boy CO’s downright disturbing attitude to war.

Chances are, even if you’re only passingly aware of aware of Advance Wars, you’ll recognise Andy, the Orange Star CO, he of the massive spanners and lover of all things war. He’s as wafer thin as they come, but endearingly simple with it. Apart from when he’s talking about how much he enjoys legal murder. Let’s be clear, no one was ever wanting or expecting a treatise on the horror of armed conflict and the terrible toll it exacts on individuals and families and communities and countries from a primary coloured Nintendo game, but  these were actual in-game exchanges between you (the ‘Advisor’), Andy and any other CO’s who had to talk to him.

Andy   : The best trained, huh? Boy, Sami, you have all the fun! I wish I was going instead of you.

Sami   : I doubt if this is going to be all that much fun, Andy. Ready Advisor? It’s time to get busy!

 (Andy’s input in the above is also contextually important, as it makes Sami’s remark a lot less insulting.)

Below, the now United Nations CO’s have just won a gruelling battle with the game’s secret Big Bad, 
who has you on the ropes for at least a third of the mission and routinely drops massive chunks of 
space rock on your men, wiping out literally hundreds of them.  After all that, the survivors get a 
pat on the back and some downtime, right? No. The CO’s reminisce about a old battle with Eagle and then... 
 Sami   : Facing you in combat was really a tough struggle. There was absolutely no margin for error!
 Andy   : Yeah, but it was a ton of fun!
 Eagle  : For me as well! Why not? Hey, Andy! I think I'd like to take another shot at you! What do you say? 
 Are you up for the challenge?
 Andy   : Another battle? You know it! Let's go!

Andy’s a homicidal jerk, but there are plenty of military commanders who had just the same detached attitude to their men’s lives. Advance Wars’ shop certainly doesn’t seem  quite as bad. It’s just an old man, really. Hachii jabbers away, giving ball-achingly obvious advice while selling the services of various COs, under the right conditions (have your own fun with that one). He also sells maps, each of which opens up a new multiplayer War Room level. Nothing wrong with that, right?

Well, isn’t he just selling you info about uncontested areas of Wars World? Essentially, you and a rival CO (or a friend because WARS ARE FUN) are just turning up on a Spring Break and fighting each other in the streets of neutral cities, the forecourts of neutral factories, in the woods and hills and shallow streams of whatever slice of neutral McNeutralLand the old guy tried to palm off on you. In fact, if your quiet, peaceful corner of Wars World  is either a) entirely resource symmetrical or b) shaped like a big flower or a woman or something, you’ll be paying quite a high price for novelty.

The point is, Andy may be evil (pure chipper-as-chip evil) but in Campaign mode, at least he’s on a leash, his youthful bloodlust being channelled to good use.  Hachii and his bright warm wares serve as an enabler, selling Andy enough information to fuel a few weeks pointless warmaking. He only makes a few hundred coins a map. Seriously, Dracula’s castle – make it by the front door, and as long as you don’t mind kicking in another man’s candlesticks, you’re sorted.

FORGOTTEN WORLDS

Forgotten Worlds is a game just asking to be said out loud. This was the game you actively wanted some hysterical TV talking head to complain about just so that they might say the game out loud. Here goes. Your character, a dude (a shirtless dude) is flying down a motorway. He doesn’t really look like he’s being propelled or held aloft by anything, so he’s probably magic. Your magic shirtless dude is flying down a motorway, and even before you encounter any enemies, you know that he’s terrified (or endearingly stupid), because he’s just firing constantly, at everything. You can rotate him in whichever direction you want his lethal volleying to go, but you can’t stop him. So you start the game twirling, forever twirling your terrified shirtless magician dude down a motorway.

Obviously, the lizard folk who limply try to stop him are transgressors on our world, so our poorly dressed avatar is also the agent of our liberation. Despite possessing powerful magic, he still needs weapons and potions, and he clearly has the residual pre-apocolypse desire to shop as an ‘interval to something actually important’. And wouldn’t you just know it, Forgotten Worlds has it very own network of covert stores.

What with the earth being under brutal occupation, the shop only makes itself known when our hero is close by, dramatically rising from the ground. Hell of a way to break cover.

But the very idea of owning a shop in such conditions is mental. The shopkeeper also seems to assume the role of Princess of Earth, thanking the spinning coward for freeing ‘her people’ at the end of the game. If you were ruled by a monarch who, on meeting a potential saviour in need of a little firepower, tried to sell him firepower for a not-competitive price, wouldn’t you just vote for the lizards? Maybe the lizards were democratically elected? The only three ‘fighting for freedom’ characters (crazy & shirtless has a friend, you see) you meet don’t really seem to have it all together, to put it mildly.

There’s not even a bartering system – if you’re a penny (or a zenny, or whatever the unnecessary pretend currency name is) short, that’s it, you’re back on the street. The original arcade version even has a 20 second timer. If you haven’t made your choice by then, you’re out, this isn’t a … a gun library, you know. You’ve frantically pirouetted your way through hordes of lizards and dragons and automated cannons to the only safe haven in the game, and you have less than half a minute to get yourself together before you’re back on the street again, pirouettin’ ‘n’ sweatin’ (which really should’ve been the tagline for this game). If shopkeeper princess was that worried about getting caught by the occupiers selling to freedom fighters, she should have TAKEN THE WORD ‘SHOP’ OFF THE BUILDING.

Seriously, that’s a ballsy act of defiance. Maybe the entire shop is an act of defiance. She won’t sell at knock-down prices, she won’t just give the guns away, not just because there’s a war on. You won’t change us, invading lizard men. “Despite driving our entire species to the edge of extinction, we’ll still sell our unreasonable weapons to unstable people for absurd prices. That’s the real victory here.” What was she even going to spend her earnings on?! Is there a pop-up flighty-dress shop elsewhere? Yes.

At least, towards the end of the game. In one of those horrible acts of … well, horrible acts of Capcom, the last shop presents you with a dilemma; do you spend your remaining money on the best weapon in the game, or do you spend your remaining money, you being a huge gun-toting crazy-spinning muscle guy, on a lovely dress? You buy the best weapon in the game, right? Sure. But then, why would the shop be selling a useless dress if it weren’t for something useful? It bears the inscription “Buy this and something nice will happen.” Whuh? Nice, like getting all the Chaos Emeralds in Sonic, and getting the good ending? “If I don’t buy it, this being Capcom, will it just send me back to the start of the game to do everything all over again until I finally buy the dress? I don’t know! I don’t know, I’m 9 years old! Why is the shopkeeper, the only other human in the game, really trying to sell me that dress?!”

Points. Remember Points? You get a bajillion Points in the game if you complete it with the dress. This maybe makes sense if you were playing it in the arcade (“Whoa. No way! Guys, look! That new kid? The one we all bullied and never gave a chance? He’s totally beaten the game…with the dress!” “Whoa!” Whoa no way!” “Radical!” “You got guts kid!” “The dress!”) but it’s INFURIATINGLY POINTLESS on a home console. Of course, you could probably rationalise it by pretending that those points represent the undying love of shopkeeper princess, who you bought the dress for (she is pretty shallow), but then that would mean that shopkeeper princess had tried to sell you an absurdly expensive dress just before the most difficult fight of your life, to give to her afterwards, with you only buying it to avoid having to do everything all over again.

I’ve heard undamaged Forgotten Worlds cartridges are quiet rare.

ALEX KIDD in MIRACLE WORLD

There’s nothing particularly miraculous about Miracle World, really, beyond the fact that there’s money in bags just lying around everywhere, and punching some enemies turns them into hamburgers. In real life, yeah, that would be something, maybe. But in a videogame, with the word ‘Miracle’ in the title, you’d maybe expect a bit more. The most amazing thing about the place is Alex, who has a head the size of his body, and a hand the size of his head. I’m not sure if that qualifies as a miracle. Even the ending defies the trade descriptions act a little – Alex, Prince of Radaxia, is on a quest to find his missing father. He does not find him. His finds his brother, sure, but that was never his MO. The ending in Miracle World amounts to the game showing the player an empty castle and shrugging. He does find his Dad in the Megadrive sequel, but that’s an entirely different game. It also turns out that his Dad is a Negligent Psychopath Dad. Seriously, the ending to Alex Kidd in (TITLE) is probably what was responsible for the character being canned. It was just too sad.

In fact, the Miracle in Miracle World is that hope somehow persists, and children survive, because the adults are relentlessly, unbelievably selfish. Take the shopkeeper. He’s reliably incompetent, but not necessarily harmful. In the grand tradition of videogames, he only sells one of everything, which is a great business model if you can make your limited stock seem rare or unique and sell it on for a high price. Unfortunately, shopkeeper sells pretty much everything for far too little. Fire rings, invincibility powder (which is probably drugs), flying staffs, all go far too cheap. He even managed to predict the market for mini-motorbikes a good 20 years ahead of the curve, but still, sells too low. Unless he’s having a supply problem, he really needs to have a think.

Still, his loss is our gain, right? That’s not selfish, that’s downright generous! Remember what I said about adults being dicks?

There are at least 2 occasions where you can buy a mini motorbike in the game, and 2 where you can purchase a speedboat. You would think that, after having bought each vehicle once, you wouldn’t need to buy them again. Unfortunately, the vehicles you buy are in such bad condition, that they only go forward and up, and their accelerometers are so gubbed that you can’t ever completely stop them. Once you’re inside your vehicle, the only way you can exit again is by crashing them against a wall or smacking into some innocent wildlife. The improbable pedal helicopter you can buy later is inescapable, unless you mangle it’s rotors on a low hanging roof. By the end of the game, you’ve left a trail of crumpled machinery and battered animals in your wake.

Let’s not forget the areas where you’re being sold these deathtraps. The second time you buy a motorbike, what follows is an expansive woodland where at least 50% of the ground is composed of spikes and more spikes. Some of this ground is too long to jump clean on the bike, even at top speed. Make it to the end of the wood and there’s a sword wielding bear. Who sells a child a broken motorbike to drive through a deathtrap wood run by a sword wielding bear?! The lakes you sail your speedboat over are filled with unbreakable objects, meaning you’ll almost certainly be spending most of your time swimming anyway. He even sells you the cannon-packing pedal-copter in the middle of a small housing estate. So the shopkeeper’s either a negligent and an incompetent, or a genius. Nah, if he were clever, he would’ve made it a vehicle hire shop, right? Either way, he must’ve had something to do with the naming of his planet.

MARIO 3

I’d be lying if I said that the slot machine mushroom houses in Mario 3 puzzled me when I was a youngster. a) I really wasn’t that inquisitive a child, and b) even a stupid, uninquisitive child knows that gambling dens don’t just give out free spins for free. If the mushroom people felt that just giving Mario free lives or equipment would be the best way to aid him, they’d have done it, right? He was saving their ruler and liberating their land. Something, my nine year old self did not think, is afoot.

Online gambling is a huge emerging industry, thanks in no small part to incentivised registration. In the UK, we’re bombarded with adverts offering ‘£10 of ‘free spins’ if you join now’, that kind of thing.  Just enough to get you ‘in the door’ and comfortable with the environment, then you’re a customer for life. Like these offers, the mushroom houses give you your first spin totally free. Unlike these offers, you get precisely one spin, and then the door closes on you. Mario, now totally all about spinning shape-matching roulette, has no other recourse but to find another mushroom house, then another, then another…

But why would the mushroom kingdom, in need of a hero and surely boundlessly grateful for the plumber’s selfless intervention, try to get him hooked on free-to-play slot machines? No disrespect to plumbers (for you are both more useful and more rich than I could ever hope to be), but even if they started charging him later, building an industry on the back of a benevolent tradesman with a crippling addiction seems like an unsound business plan, and maybe a little crass. Perhaps it has something to do with Mario’s first adventure?

”Your princess is in another castle” quickly became THE easy in for anyone who wanted to make an irreverent observation about videogames without actually having to think about them. No-one, though, could’ve been more tired of it than Mario himself. Perhaps, after having endured an entire campaign of false ends (and then his second adventure being one huge false end in itself) the first castle on the horizon in Super Mario 3 would’ve had a wearying familiarity to it. So the mushroom kingdom would’ve needed something to keep him going, something beyond the only ever marginally grateful Princess Peach.

Why do you suppose there are so few of the gambling mushroom houses towards the end of the game? That’s when the fight’s at its hardest, so they need Mario frantic, desperate for brightly coloured slot machines. Sure, maybe it was Bowser who pulled them down, but  the best thing he could’ve done would have been to create a whole valley full of re-spawning dens. But then, sometimes even evil has standards, and he probably wanted to try out his wooden armada on someone with a bit of fight in them. Even if that ‘fight’ was one big gambling withdrawal symptom.  Shame on you, Mushroom Kingdom. Shame on you all.

GHOSTBUSTERS

Unlike other Ghostbusters games at the time, Ghostbusters for the SMS was part ghost-busting (yay!) and part business sim (yay!). I’m not sure if other business sims are like this (I’ve never played any), but Ghostbusters immediately tried to sell you an absolute shed-load of stuff, and you couldn’t figure out what any of it did. For a game about bustin’ ghosts, this seemed like an accurate depiction of setting up in business; you want to get to the good stuff and the making of the money, so when you find out you have to buy fake plants and fake art and computers, you freak out, right?  In the shop, you’re offered a ghost hoover, an anion beam, a marshmallow detector, a super marshmallow detector. You do not buy those. You’re offered a laser containment field, like in the movies. You buy it. What were you thinking?! What does it even do? You also get to choose which car you buy, and you even get to choose the iconic ghostbusters car. Which you don’t, because that would be stupid.

If you lost the manual for the game, you’re screwed, because there’s no one to explain what anything does. It’s probably the only time in any game, ever, where I’ve entered a shop and there’s no-one there, not even a nice-but-useless old guy for you to make fun of. Yet there’s also no ‘steal’ function. Not only does this lose the game some credibility, it also makes it too difficult to shake the feeling that you’re being had. Put it this way – all of the stuff you have the option of buying – who made it? The game does say that you’ve opened your own franchise, but the location and events are still ‘of the movie’, so you’re essentially buying ghost-busting equipment before ghost-busting had even been invented.  It really feels like a bunch of wise guys and jerks heard that you might be starting up a ghost-catching business, had a bit of a titter to themselves, and then cobbled together some junk in the hope that you might be gullible enough to buy it. A hoover, ‘ghost-traps’, something with lasers. Whatever.

You can always revisit the shop later, but the game is suitably frantic, as you respond to ever increasing emergency calls and vainly try to slow the gradual rise of the city’s PK levels. When Gozor cometh, you’ve no choice but to meet the challenge, there and then. If this had been a more recent game, you could’ve spent the gaming equivalent of two months levelling up, taking on optional bosses and making Gozor look crippled and redundant. But with the pace fast and furious, so the choices you make at the start of the game really are that important. Which makes it all the more frustrating that the shopkeepers are probably hiding in the backroom, laughing into pillows as you try and figure out whether you really need a super marshmallow detector.

ZELDA, THE WIND WAKER

The original Game Boy Zelda game, Link’s Awakening, featured a shop you could shoplift from. You would fool the shopkeeper into believing you’re the respectable sort by running round him three times, holding his wares aloft. Having impressed the shopkeeper, you then run out the door. Hyrule does have a history of being taken by surprise, but in a land where you can find money in the grass and under stones and by breaking other people’s pottery, why would you even need to steal? Link’s Awakening solves this by adding the incentive of having Link being forcibly renamed ‘THIEF’, changing not only the tone of every conversation you have (as a result of the caps, they always ends with the other party yelling THIEF in your face), but also adds an unexpected degree of depth to your character. The hero of Hyrule, the Hero of Time, shoplifter. He probably only went on the quest because there was nothing left to thieve.

Seriously, has there ever been a series that offers so many tempting opportunities to disrespect shopkeepers? Cel shaded Zeldas, like my favourite, the Wind Waker, up the ante by giving the shopkeeper Beadle an annoying greeting chime, an annoying face and a slow moving mode of transport, and you a rapid fire cannon whose ordinance make an incredibly satisfying sound on impact. No wonder he offers you a loyalty card, he needs to give you a reason to keep him alive. Yet somehow, despite the stream of explosives the mere sight of his ship incites, somehow he does survive. His boat is seemingly composed entirely of impregnium or gundanium or both, and despite catching fire a little, it always emerges unscathed, as do all of his other mobile shops in all of the other cel-shaded Zelda (or Celda HOHO) games.

And so, to the question. Why isn’t Beadle a hero? Why isn’t he the hero?! He has an invincible boat, and an invincible balloon. He deals in weapons. Unless he bought his unbeatable Armada from someone else (which may explain why he has no money, to be fair), he’s clearly pretty good at making unstoppable methods of transport that could become unstoppable weapons of war. Sure, the fact that a good chunk of the evil resides inland might be a bit of a problem, but surely not for him. Not Beadle.

If doing the right thing for the sake of doing the right thing isn’t up his street (it’s clearly not), then he could surely do it for money, or even just to exact revenge on the folk who mercilessly blitzed his boat at any given opportunity. Beadle should take a leaf out of THIEF’s book – he probably only saved the Princess because it was technically stealing.

POWERSTONE 2

Let me go on record as saying that the shop in PowerStone 2 is the best shop ever. Fact. Undisputable. Let me count the ways in which Mel’s shop is the best shop ever.

Mel is a lovely, sunny, girl-next-door shopkeeper who sells weapons. She sells big comical romanticised weapons, like ray guns and tridents and chimney sized cannons. She has her own machine for making more weapons, which works by combining weapons with other weapons, or with fruit or mopeds or copies of PowerStone magazine. She lets you use the machine for free. She makes fish out of weapons, cakes out of guns. Think I’m kidding? Check out these recipes –

 
Ray Gun + SoapBubbleGun = 5 Way Shotgun
5-Way Shotgun + Shortcake = Wedding Cake
Devil Wing + Fireworks = Homing Missle
Loud Speaker + Silk Hat = Trumpet
Harisen + Lance of Lava = Banana
Gunpowder + Banana = Medium Bomb

She’d maybe be a bit like Jesus, if she didn’t sell weapons to wooden children and old men and knife wielding psychopaths. She then lets all of them fight in her shop, and she lets you join in. If you do enough fighting, she’ll fight as well. When she transforms, she transforms into an angel, who attacks with big bags of gold and no mercy. When she wins, she says thank you. If anyone ever needed any proof of Capcom’s specialism in cutesy gun-nuts, play this game and apologise.

So if Mel’s shop is so good, so moreishly good, how is it that it finds itself on a list of poor shops? By the time Powerstone 2 had been released, most of the games-buying public had lost interest in the DVD driveless Dreamcast. To say that the Dreamcast remains one of the most fondly remembered failures in video game history is being a little polite about it. Instead, you’ve heard the unfair joke about how 10% of the people who say they were in the French Resistance were actually in the French Resistance? 10% of those who claim they have fond memories of owning a Dreamcast back in the day actually owned one. That’s purely conjecture on my part, but it’s also totally fact. If it was so popular, how could it have been such a failure?

If you gather up all the revisionists in the press, that would maybe translate to about 100 extra units sold. Not much. My point is, I really don’t remember the world waxing lyrical about how good the Dreamcast was, until at least 5 years after it ceased production. Of course, the PS2 was just around the corner at the time, and most folk (myself included) were enticed by the possibility of another PS1 style game-changer, as well as  an actual honest-to-gosh DVD player (quaint, weren’t we?). The way me and my friends saw it, the Dreamcast was doomed the moment Sony released the specs.

But that was hardly the fault of Mel’s shop, right? Fast forward to 2006 and those of us who had bought second-hand Dreamcasts and second-hand copies of Powerstone 2 and who were banging on about it like first-adopters were thrilled to hear the Capcom were porting Powerstone 2 to the PSP along with the prequel, mainly because it meant that we got to bleat on about just how good the Dreamcast was, and just how terrible people were for not having bought it in the first place. So this new Powerstone, it sold shed loads, right? Well, it sold.  It set the world on fire? Not exactly. The PSP, despite expectations, failed to catch the public’s imagination, and was thoroughly trounced by the Nintendo DS. Maybe I’m just too blinded by love to see whatever it is that puts people off  Powerstone but, for a game with so much charm, so much shop and so much Frozen Tuna violence, I honestly find it’s continual anonymity baffling.

So, seriously, what’s my point? Powerstone’s a game that’s just never been able to sell itself. It’s been on the overlooked console in each generation it’s chosen to participate in, and in a world where fast and furious, throwaway online multiplayer gaming is the norm, it’s somehow disappeared entirely. The characters don’t even show up on Marvel vs Capcom, and that’s an easier gig to get than Resident Loud Mysoginist Among Spineless Other-Guys on a home-made fighting game Let’s Play. I’m half expecting to see it ported as a Windows Phone-only exclusive, or to the Gizmondo. For all of her shopkeeping skills, Mel’s just never been able to get her product off the shelf.

What do you mean, tenuous?

RED ALERT

Red alert doesn’t have any in-game shop that your characters or units can enter (if it did, and what with it being set in a war ravaged mid-twentieth century,  it would probably only sell bits of rope and turnips). Instead, the game itself is essentially a shop. In fact, Red Alert is more of a mall-sim than anything. You start the game with a small amount of money and one shop. You buy things from your own shop to make more shops and more money, the latter of which is then used to buy more of the former, after which you repeat the whole process. When you have no more shops to buy, a nice-but firm woman begins reminding you, roughly every 15 seconds, that you have too much money. This only ends when you buy too many tanks and crash the game.

Which is fine. I love Red Alert. But the purchasing system in Red Alert is a little like how you manage your money as you grow up. When you first start earning your own money and you have expendable income, you buy all the shiny novelty things, like re-issue toy robots, replica weapons and anime production cels, and you think everyone thinks you’re great. This, translated into Red Alert, is the Chronosphere, the flamethrower trooper, the tesla tank, that guy who looks like the hamburgler. And you enjoy dicking around with them for a while, concoting wildly convoluted plans with them that take a few hours to stage and end when the AI builds a flame tower in the wrong place. Again, that’s fine – you’re young.

But after your third attempt at doing something meaningful with the Chronotank, you realise that you just have to build lots of light tanks to get on. Trying to blow up your opponent’s construction yard with a Tanya or set up a base inside his base with a mass engineer rush is all very comical, but after a while, you have to move on. People want to see you move on. You want to move on. If you were prolonging a war in real life in order to see how long a teleported invincible artillery unit really could survive, then you’d tried for war crimes (or given a lucrative public speaking tour and a peace ambassador role in the middle east, whatever).

So yeah. Red Alert is on this list for helping me realise that when I bought that replica Shockwave and was really proud of it and thought it constituted an investment of sorts (really), and subsequently showed my friends and family and thought that their less than enthusiastic reactions were a kind of poorly guarded jealousy at my perpetual coolness in the face of encroaching adulthood, yeah, I wasn’t being cool at all. And that’s great. Thanks, General Stavros!

FINAL FANTASY 7

Final Fantasy VII is a game that has a lot to apologise for. It had an involving and engrossing storyline that ended in a 10 minute cut-scene that somehow didn’t answer anything. It spawned a slew of dreadful cash-in sequels and nigh-on perpetual calls for an HD remake that, if made, we will not hear the end of and will only serve to disappoint everyone with wildly disproportionate expectations (i.e. everyone). It convinced a generation of gamers that they really enjoyed playing Japanese RPGs.

But, the game itself, it was pretty good, wasn’t it? The in-game shops were just an small, normally overlooked element of the RPG experience done extremely well in FFVII. Despite generally following the tried-and tested progression formula of game-shops (each new shop you encounter having slightly better, slightly more expensive weapons, equipment etc), each shop had it’s own unique stylings and flavour, usually informed by the town, city, or wherever else it happened to be located . They all oozed unspoken development and history – even the shops that sold laughably useless stuff, usually as a result of them being based in ‘a poor village’ or ‘the shopkeeper thinks he’s all that and he’s actually not’, had some reason for doing so, some subtle back story.

But you also often got the impression that certain shops were trying to tell you how badly you had performed in the previous area of play. Very often, armours and accessories (usually the expensive-but-oh-alright-I-guess-I-probably-need-it kind) for sale could’ve been stolen from the previous areas boss character, or worse, stolen multiple times from a slightly hard respawning monster, if you’d just kept trying. FFVII was such a new experience, you wanted to see everything that it had to offer, so when it as good as told you that you hadn’t been doing it right, it sucked harder than the marching mini-game in Junon (which wasn’t very good).

Having said that, that experience wasn’t necessarily unique to FFVII. What was unique was just how popular setting up a shop seemed to be among the NPC’s, and how few of them seemed like they were actually capable of doing it well, and by well I mean safely. Beyond the fact that most of the weapons sellers and materia sellers could probably have made a much healthier profit setting up a bread-and-milk shop, the amount of shops that were set up down old construction pipes or animal skeletons or from the inside of some old guy’s gown really defies belief. It’s like exploiting tax loopholes must be blindingly easy on Gaia.

It’s so poorly regulated, people are putting themselves in danger. Look at Rocket Town. Rocket Town is a tiny hamlet that sprung up around the launch site of the abandoned Shinra No28 Space Rocket after the latter’s abortive takeoff. Sprang up right beside the rocket, well within it’s blast radius, after it had tried to take off, after which it would surely have suffered some internal degradation, and would surely as a result be quitea bit unsafe. They built right beside the rocket, and 3 out of the 4 structures built were shops. Sure, one of them was an inn, and given that it’s the site of the only serious attempt to master interstellar travel, you’d assume there’d be a market for tourism. But with the only real route to Rocket Town going through a) crazy ol’ Nibelhiem and b) an abandoned Mako reactor/genetic test site/cell room of the calamity of an entire civilistation/spiky mountain range, you’d imagine that there might not be much passing trade.

Actually, all the buildings in Rocket Town have a fairly similar design and styling to them, suggesting that they were probably part of a real estate development. If the shops in FFVII are bad, then surely the real estators are reprehensible. The shops themselves are victims of bad shops. Not only did they manage to sell 3 business properties in a dangerous, remote area with seriously hazardous access issues , they even built and sold a 4th property despite it being under a dangerously lopsided rocket. To be fair, though, they sold it to Cid – he’d probably want to go out that way.

And there it is. But before you use your newfound vigour for electronic consumerism to devastating fiscal effect, let’s briefly embrace the spirit of the holiday, reflect on ourselves, and resolve to work towards improving our world for betterment of mankind. Please – Metroidvania?! I’m all for just bashing words together in the hope that they might come to mean or represent something, but c’mon, this is serious – this is videogames. And it’s Christmas. The best presents are made, not bought, so let’s give ourselves the present we really deserve by developing our own language in way that doesn’t end up looking like we don’t know all about words and sounds by now. Metrovania? Metronia? Mevania? Castroid?

No, not ‘Castroid’, sorry about that one. Ok, fine, can we just call it a New Year’s resolution?

Merry Christmas!

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