The glory of subjectivity

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Today, I bought a Nintendo DS. Immediately, I was faced with the problem that all late-adopters of consoles face: that of sifting through a very large back-catalogue in order to choose my initial purchases. While in the store, I went with my heart, and what I remembered being told was good. I left with New Super Mario Bros. and Professor Layton and the Curious Village.

These are both great games, and I already adore them, however, I intend on playing more than two games for the rest of my DS-playing life. So, as soon as I had enjoyed myself with these two games enough to take a breather, I did what your usual new-console owning gamer would do. I went to Metacritic.

The all-time highest scores for DS games are as follows:

  1. Mario Kart DS
  2. The Legend of Zelda: The Phantom Hourglass
  3. Advance Wars: Dual Strike
  4. Jump Ultimate Stars
  5. Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrows
  6. New Super Mario Bros.
  7. The World Ends With You
  8. Meteos
  9. Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia
  10. Osu! Tatakae! Ouendan

I had already resolved to buy Mario Kart and Phantom Hourglass, so that was mere confirmation that they were good. However, almost all of the rest of the list does not interest me in the slightest. In fact, having played The World Ends With You, I know that I want to do all in my power to stay away from it, let alone spend the AU$60 or so on it.

The games that I am actually interested in sit further down the list. Phoenix Wright sits at #52. Civilization: Revolution is at #57. Diddy Kong Racing amazingly sits at #297.

This is the kind of thing I really need to experience time and time again as someone who thinks semi-professionally about, and studies games. No matter how much we might like to think it, there is no gaming canon. There is not one single game that can universally be regarded as ‘good’.

My brother hates Zelda. He won’t play a single one. He isn’t a huge gamer, but it’s interesting nonetheless. He likes Call of Duty, and a number of other shooters, and also the odd flight sim and strategy title. But games like Zelda, where he says “it isn’t clear what you are supposed to do,” he just won’t play.

I had a conversation with a friend of mine the other day after class. We were discussing games, and we had lengthy conversations about Okami, Shadow of the Colossus and Iko. He’s a well-versed gamer, who knows his stuff.

But he hates Half-Life. He couldn’t quite put his finger on it, but he said that it just never quite clicked with him. Boring, he said. Dull, uninteresting. Stopped playing after a couple of hours. Has tried since, but to no avail. Maybe this is what Will Wright meant when he said that he would “rather have the Metacritic and sales of Sims 2 than the Metacritic and sales of Half-Life.”

But in gaming, perhaps more so than other mediums, we tend to put a lot more value in review aggregators, or ‘top’ lists, even if we say we don’t. I like to consider myself quite illuminated in regards to treating this industry as subjective and meaningful outside the norm, but even I turned to Metacritic as some kind of flawless indicator of quality. When I’m looking to watch a movie, I never look at Metacritic, or ‘top’ lists. I do a bit of research on my own, I ask other people’s opinions. I watched Peter Jackson’s King Kong last night. It wasn’t great, but it was enjoyable enough, and well worth the $10 DVD. I didn’t look at reviews before watching it, and I certainly don’t know its Metacritic score even now. I went on the basis that I was simply interested in the film, and that I had a few friends who had seen it and had interesting opinions on it. In short, I did exactly what I should be doing now.

There are people out there – not just people, but gamers – who don’t like ‘canonical’ games like Zelda and Half-Life. There must be gamers out there who hate every Mario game ever made (I’d love to meet them).

It seems obvious, but this is the power of subjectivity. At present, it is the rare voice that criticises a universally acclaimed game (Metacritic approved terminology used intentionally, of course). But it is the rarer voice who praises a universally criticised game. On gaming forums, at least, you might not be challenged for your love of Elf Bowling, but I’d say you will feel like there might at least be something wrong with you.

So, some practical questions: what DS games should I really buy? And do you find your own tastes fit in neatly with those of Metacritic, or do you have feelings for a game that is unfashionable to love or hate?

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7 Comments

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7 responses to “The glory of subjectivity

  1. catfishmaw

    In my mind, the DS’s design makes it perfect for those old-fashioned point and click adventures. I haven’t finished it, and it’s a flawed game, but, if you like exploration and puzzles, then Another Code – Two Memories is a good place to start. I can also recommend the Phoenix Wright series. There’s really little more to them than charming plot lines and pretending to be a lawyer, but the thrill of knowing you’ve solved a case prematurely, or of realising that you’re out of options in the final stretch of the trial, is engrossing.

    For sheer guilty pleasure, I think you should try Elite Beat Agents. I have the Japanese version of the game (and, remarkably, almost nothing is lost in translation), and it’s great fun to play. It’s essentially a rhythm game, but it utilises the touch screen. For similar reasons, get hold of Geometry Wars if you don’t already own some iteration of it. It seems to me that this game was made for the DS. It’s also one of the most addictive games I’ve seen in the last few years.

    I haven’t had time to analyse any of the DS’s many JRPGs since I got it, which is a shame, because that genre has been very rewarding to me. I hear that Luminous Arc is an interesting title, though I’m not sure how traditional it is. I think it has some sort of awkward, isometric, semi-turn-based battle system. It doesn’t sound like this kind of game is your cup of tea anyway, though.

    Tetris DS is full of features, but the only one that matters is the one they haven’t fiddled with. It’s also possible to play online against a friend, though, I don’t know why anyone would want to. I’m a sap for Tetris, and I tend to end up getting every new iteration for every new Nintendo portable I buy.

    You should also look into Soul Bubbles. It’s not a very high-brow title, but it’s very pleasing aesthetically – reminding me of a kind of stone age Rayman 2 – and it’s rewarding to play. It’s great to see how much can be done with such simple mechanics.

    Depending on your taste (and probably your age), you may hate Etrian Odyssey. It’s no picnic. There are no real distractions from the dungeon-crawling gameplay, and having to draw and edit your own map on the fly sounds like the sort of thing which would bore your brother to tears. there are few ‘objectives’ to speak of, playing quickly becomes a grind and the difficulty curve is quite silly, but it’s oddly rewarding. It’s a very traditional RPG – I’d be surprised if it’s selling well. I hear that the sequel is out now, too.

    Trauma Centre should be on ebay for peanuts by now, because I remember playing it the first time I went skiing. It’s too hard for me, but it was the first game I played which really made use of the touch screen. It’s a lot of fun to play first-hand, rather than via a controller, especially if you’re new to the DS. I imagine that TC is probably seen as a little old hat these days.

    Drawn to Life is no masterpiece, but it’s nice to have a ‘game 2.0’ for the DS. Like many flash games, it allows you to design your own avatar, as well as your items and environment. It’s a nice enough platformer.

    Steer clear of Star Fox Command, Chibi Robo and Cooking with Mama, and you’ll be fine.

  2. catfishmaw

    Osu! Tatakae! Ouendan being Elite Beat Agents‘s Japanese doppelganger.

    Bear in mind that Mario Kart DS is not particularly enjoyable when played alone.

  3. I’ve had a DS for a few months, but to be honest I’ve only as yet bought a handful of games. I have the two that you purchased right off, which are both excellent. I also have a couple strategy games if you go for that sort of thing–Age of Empires The Age of Kings (which is a great turn based version of that series) and the criminally overlooked Anno 1701: Dawn of discovery (in the RTS mode).

    I need a new DS game for my holiday trip to Scotland, but can’t decide just what to buy from the newer stuff. Might opt for the Bioware Sonic RPG, or maybe the new Harvest Moon or perhaps I’ll just play it safe and buy the Civ port.

    As far as subjectivity goes, I’m a firm believer that there is no objectivity–though that doesn’t necessarily mean it isn’t a target worth shooting for at times. But real objectivity I think would be boring and heartless–when it comes to film, I think that perhaps the most objective film of all time is Warhol’s “Empire”–and that’s just 8 hours of lights going on and off in one of NYC’s signature buildings. If that’s objectivity (and even here,I’d argue that it really isn’t–the choce of building itself is a highly subjective one) then I’m not sure at all that I want to sign on to the concept.

  4. The thing I love most about the DS is the way it has grown exempt from the thundering herd syndrome of gamers moving from one big title to the next. When I see players of all ages with their DS’s, there seems to be no one game they’re playing.

    It also seems that DS games have a longer shelf-life than most console-based games. I still see plenty of Meteos and Mario Kart screens when I look over the shoulders of gamers at the airport. This remarkable little system really is the one gaming device suited to everyone of every age.

  5. I still haven’t figured out people’s obsession with Zelda. I’ve been working through The Twilight Princess ever since I got a Wii. Ugh! I really want to like it, but there’s just not enough there for me.

    On the subject of DS, I really enjoyed Mario and Luigi: Partners in Time. It’s a fun, RPG-lite with neat combat. I also played a fair amount of Hotel Dusk: Room 215 and it had some really neat use of the handheld’s features.

    Games I’ve bought and barely played: Mario Kart – never enjoyed playing unless I was sitting on a couch playing against someone else and Mario 64 – didn’t enjoy fighting the controls and never played the game much when it came out so I had little nostalgia.

  6. Daniel Golding

    Wow! Thank you all for your thoughtful and helpful comments.

    @catfishmaw – I don’t usually go for rhythm games (I also hate music games with unbridled passion), but Elite Beat Agents does look kinda fun. Your post also reminds me of one notable game that I sit outside the norm on: Tetris. I *cannot* stand it. To me, it’s like fingers down a chalkboard. I have some thoughts on why this is, and I might post them up at a later date… Will also look into all the other titles you mentioned.

    @Christopher Hyde – I’d be interested in how Age of Empires works on the DS. Strategy games in general, actually. I too am looking to pick up Civ Rev, though I am worried that it will be the equivalent of being able to ingest crack in public places; no longer will my Civ addiction be limited to my PC desk. The beast will be mobile.

    @Michael Abbott – From my brief experience with the console, I have to agree. I find myself interested in a huge variety of games on the console, regardless of release date or genre. Maybe that’s the advantage of having a machine that isn’t hugely technically able, though I guess then the Wii would have the same qualities. You don’t see too many people playing Red Steel these days.

    @Travis Megill – If TP is the only Zelda you’ve played, you are missing out. For various reasons, I think TP was a colossal disappointment; a dull, lifeless hulk of a game. If you can, track down Majora’s Mask or Wind Waker – in my opinion, the pinnacles of the series.

  7. Oooh, agreed with that last comment of yours Daniel about Majora’s Mask and The Wind Waker being the best of the franchise.

    Anyway when the DS Lite released a few years ago was when I got mine and at the same time, the very 5 games that I still own now. Yes, that means I haven’t bought a single game for the DS since the day I got the handheld. No it isn’t because I hate the thing or anything, quite the opposite actually. It is simply because I am always focusing on the console games instead and I must admit that I am quite ashamed of that fact. There are so many DS games I want to try and still do intend on doing so but damn it, money doesn’t grow on trees and my wallet is always empty. So sad…

    Anyway enjoy your new handheld and hopefully you play it more than I play mine.

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