Saturday, January 26, 2013

Week in Review - 1/26/2013

I apologize for the Saturday post, but I had a busy blog schedule this week!

This is the first week where I'm trying to start taking my own screenshots. I've been doing this on Steam and other PC games all along, but it's more complicated on the Playstation 3. Some of them have turned out rather nice and others not so nice, so bear with me as I try and push through this growing phase.


Wizarding Glory!
Last weekend, Steam hosted a free weekend of Magicka. The Steam recommendation system has been pitching this game to me for a while, but I simply couldn't tell if I'd like it by looking at pictures or videos. It really took some hands-on game time to decide if it was the type of game I'd enjoy. I logged a handful of hours on Saturday and as it turns out this is quite a fun game. It's an action-adventure game that is heavy in self-referential humor. The most fun to be had in our small taste was mixing and matching magical elements to form new (and sometimes unexpected) spells to sling at our enemies.

Cobalt Ninja Shailud in his base!
We defeated the Wall of Flesh and entered Hardmode. It's hard. It took us thirty minutes just to get ourselves out of our outpost on the edge of Hell and back to the surface. We were attacked en masse by countless Corruption monsters that had emerged. We spawned Cobalt, Mythril and Adamantite, but so far are only equipped in Cobalt Armor. We then built some bases around the map - mine for storage and aesthetics; my wife's castle for form and function on the edge of the ever-spreading Hallowed ground. 

Playstation 3
My Pyromancer, Nara
I decided my first character was dying too much, so I decided to start a new one and follow the suggestion of online veterans a bit closer. My new Pyromancer does much better for herself. She made short work of the Bell Gargoyles (killing 1 before the 2nd even showed up!) which gave me quite a headache in my original run. She's fought her way past everything I had done before and is now headed into Blighttown which I know next to nothing about. Her death count is so much lower, but as a result of switching characters I abandoned my running death log (which was well over 100 deaths). 

Sit in your tower laughing for now!
Your day will come!
I'm stumped again in this game. Two weeks ago I blasted through my nemesis Jewel Man and subsequent Robot Masters until I came up against Splash Woman's stage. I didn't play last week, but I threw myself against her stage again and again this week to see if I could finally finish off this game and move on to Mega Man 10 once and for all. It was all in vain. I can get to the part with the moving platforms, but then it's one swan dive on to spiked floors after another. It's extremely frustrating. Splash Woman is sitting in her room laughing at me. I know it. 

Meet Oliver and Mr. Drippy
This game is already a gem in my collection. I wasn't quite sure what to make of it. I love Level-5 as a developer and I love Studio Ghibli as an animation studio. It was a guarantee that I'd want this game. I was pleasantly surprised to find the gameplay a clever blend of Dragon Quest VIII and Pokémon while watching a beautiful children's movie like Princess Mononoke or Spirited Away with an adorable cast of characters. The score is composed by Joe Hisaishi and recorded by the Japan Philharmonic

- TOP 

It was a busy week so the Bunker Hill Bros. did not get a chance to play a game together. I've chosen a game from the many we've played in the past for us to blog about briefly. Fitting with the week's theme, I've chosen Pokémon Battle Revolution.

Master Splinter with dreadlocks.
Taking our WiFi battles to the big screen, with bright and flashy Wii graphics was extremely welcomed, and the best aspect of the entire game. I spent weeks and weeks building up a team based around the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. The only member of the team who was bread for his Individual Values was Splinter (Lucario) and the rest were taken as is. I had Leonardo (Blastoise), Donatello (Torterra), Michelangelo (Shuckle) and Raphael (Torkoal) backing him up. They were all EV trained and able to take down everything my brother threw at them.


Pokémon Training is bleak against EV-trained rivals.
I received a very generous care package from my brother in the Spring of 2007. Among other things, it included a Nintendo DS and Pokémon Diamond. I had sworn to never betray my loyalty to Gameboy for a DS, but, boy, was I wrong! The DS quickly grew on me, thanks to Diamond and access to WiFi. TOP recommended I research EV training to keep up with him, but it sounded like such a waste of time to me. I was wrong again! A couple years later we would face off on Pokémon Battle Revolution. His little team of misfits consistently dismembered all my Legendaries. It still stings to think about his utter dominance when our rivalry had previously been quite balanced.


Friday, January 25, 2013

Fire Starting - Black & White

Fire Starting 5 by T Oliver Prescott on Grooveshark We are at the final stop in this mini-series as we hit the release of Pokémon Black and White, March, 2011. My Pokémon pupil had graduated to Pokémon rival. She had leveled up from girlfriend to wife. We had also both evolved into parents. Together, we were packing up our life in Hawaii and moving across the ocean, across the country to settle (indefinitely) in Maryland where we are today. This turned into the closest thing to a true Pokémon adventure I've had in my life. We bought a minivan in order to drive across this beautiful country. Our adventure began in Oregon and would end in Maryland, taking us along the southern edge of the country instead of a more direct route. The Pokémon by our side were our daughter (2 yrs old), our son (1 yrs old) and our cat (6 yrs old).

It probably sounds insane, but it was extremely awesome. We bought a cheap set of TVs to play children's shows which we used roughly half the time. The kids slept the other half of the time. There was never much fussing, and only a few bouts of car-sickness on the first day of our trip. My son was the only one with known limitations. After seven hours of driving, he called it quits and cried, so our journey moved forward seven hours at a time. Each night we'd stop and rest at a hotel, or at the home of our friends and family we got to visit along the way. We also managed to stop at a playground for an hour each day which allowed the kids to blow off some energy and tire themselves out for the journey ahead. At night we would snuggle in our hotel beds and let the kids watch TV until they fell asleep, while my wife and I curled up with our Pokémon games. We were also alternating use of the PSP, a game called Jeanne d'Arc that we both highly recommend.

We made several visits along the way. We got to visit family in California and New Mexico. We made stops to visit old friends in Las Vegas, Tennessee and North Carolina. We spent a day and a night at the Grand Canyon - one of the most amazing and beautiful things I have ever seen. We drove across the Hoover Dam. All in all, this trip was more amazing than we could have ever hoped or dreamed. The only thing that could have been better was if our little Pokémon were old enough to remember it.

The fateful and unfortunate night we spent in Texas was the low point of the trip. My cat, Tama, long ago dubbed my personal Pikachu due to his penchant to cling to my side, slipped out of the hotel room and was never seen again. I had him since he was six-weeks old and he was my best bud during most of my lonely, depressed years. He didn't really like anyone other than me and my children. He was pretty unpleasant toward everyone else and he was something of a brawler. I took too long getting him fixed, so once he got his juices flowing he was out every night thinning out the competition for food and affection from the cat-ladies of Hawaii. He would come home with many cuts and scars from all his dedicated EV training around the neighborhood. He was a tough and mean old boy, but he had a true soft side for me and the babies.
This Fire Starter starts out so cute, but ends up so unfortunate.

I spent the whole night looking for him all over the hotel grounds and the surrounding area. Tama was often known to disappear for days or weeks at a time on his many adventures as King of the Strays. Because of that I felt the likelihood of him turning up when he didn't want to be found was incredibly small. It was with a heavy heart that I made the decision around 8-9am to check out of the hotel and move on. During our searches for him we discovered a huge population of cats and kittens in the area - I mean insanely large. So obviously cats were thriving around there. I knew it wouldn't take Tama long to assert himself and dominate the local scene. I do miss him quite a bit, though. Every time talk of getting another cat comes up, I feel quite sad.

Meet N.
This guy is oddly hard to forget.
In a similar way to Pokémon Ruby, my experiences with Pokémon Black were dwarfed by these events around it. I believe it's a good game, but I don't really remember too much about it. I couldn't tell you any of the Gym Leaders. I don't recall any of the Elite Four. I have no memory of any real rival, but I do remember the enigmatic N character. I also remember some pretty impressive fights against the Legendary Pokémon that were on the covers of the games' boxes - I still can't remember their names very well without looking them up (Zekrom & Reshiram). It's possible that it is a better game than Diamond, but without any concrete memories (and only playing it a quarter of the time I played Diamond) it's hard for me to accurately judge it.

I do recall they added the Entralink, which is Pokémon meets social networking - only a severely limited social network. The basic idea is that you transfer a Pokémon from your game up to the internet, where you are given a space online to decorate and explore. You grow your berries, collect items and meet new Pokémon friends that you can take back to the game. You can also visit other people's spaces and water their berries and things like that, but whether or not you can access your friend's spaces all seemed very unclear and limiting. I don't know the ins and outs of the system because once we were packed up and moving to Maryland, we weren't connecting our games to the internet at all. The service also didn't start right away at the launch of Black & White, so the time we got to spend on there was quite brief. It is an interesting idea and a great new way to connect with other Pokémon players around the world, if only it weren't quite so limiting.

This is how adorable the Entralink is in theory.
All this writing about Pokémon this week has gotten me rather excited about Pokémon X & Y. I'm excited enough that I'm not sure I can wait until October and I may pick up one of the several titles around the house and go another round. Pokémon is one of those great games to carry around with you in your DS, and it is one of the (few) reasons it's nice Game Freak has stayed dedicated to handheld systems for its delivery. It's simply the type of game you can play anywhere for a few minutes at a time, on the subway, or while waiting for class to start. It's so easy to just flip on, play for 15 minutes or so, and flip off.

I hope you have enjoyed this trip down memory lane through the 5 generations of Pokémon. I'm sorry that I haven't had the time to discuss in any detail the special editions of each generation: Yellow, Crystal, Emerald, Fire & Leaf, Platinum, Heart & Soul, Black 2 & White 2. Perhaps the "Fire Starting" series will pick up with these titles sometime in the future. I'm pleased with how much of my life I've covered in these articles, though. Each jump through the timeline has stirred up a lot of interesting memories that I have associated to playing Pokémon. We covered some dark times, and some extremely happy times. Most of these memories I haven't visited for a very long time and it was a pleasure to do so. Let me know how you felt about "Fire Starting" or about Pokémon Black & White in the comments below.

An actual photograph taken of my wife & I on the Battle Subway!

My "Week in Review" column will post tomorrow since I've had such a full week blogging. Next week TOP Gaming will go back to weekly articles. Expect something up on Tuesday!


Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Fire Starting - Diamond & Pearl

Fire Starting 4 by T Oliver Prescott on GroovesharkThe next stop on our Pokémon adventure is the release of Pokémon Diamond and Pearl in April, 2007. This should come as a stark contrast to yesterday's post, because 2007 was an absolutely amazing year for me. I've often said to my friends and family that 26 is the ideal age to me. If I could have just stopped right there for a while, it would have been perfect. Some people say they want to go back to their high school years, but not me. Those years didn't agree with me. Others want to relive their college days, and while I admit those years were a blast, as I've covered already I was young and naive. When I was 18-20, I thought I knew everything there was to know about the world, but I couldn't have been more wrong. When I turned 26, however, I understood that I didn't know all there was to know about the world and I'll always be learning, but what I did understand most importantly was myself and where I fit into the world.

After the end of my first marriage, there was a long period of depression. I was really down on myself for all the mistakes I'd made. I felt like my entire life was made up of one failure after another. I had a hard time pulling myself out of that rut. I looked to the wrong sources, the wrong people, for support. All of that was better than living in an abusive relationship, but it was still a fairly hard time. By April, 2007, however, I had finally left my Metapod phase behind and evolved into a beautiful Butterfree.

When Pokémon Diamond was released on April 22nd, it was just in time to find its way into my beloved Nintendo DS  before a very uncharacteristic vacation to California. You see, several months before April my core friends had invited me (peer pressured me) to go with them to Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in Indio, CA. It was really their scene more than it was mine, but I did want it to be mine, and I knew if I went with them I would have a blast. I stepped slightly out of my comfort zone and agreed to go. Aside from them, I didn't know who else was going, but I knew it was going to be a significant group. I was really looking forward to going up until I met a young woman.

She and I started seeing each other at the end of January (her version) or beginning of February (my version) and despite our best efforts we were quickly falling for each other. This relationship came at a time in my life when I'd lost faith in love and romance. I had given up on the idea of romantic happiness, and it was one of the liberating notions that allowed me to figure out who I was as an independent person. It allowed me to be happy and feel fulfilled without being with someone else, or measuring my worth against their happiness. So it was my greatest and best failure that year that I could not stop myself from falling in love with this person and (eventually) marrying her - but I'm getting ahead of myself. We were seeing each other quite regularly by the time April rolled around and there came a day when we had to announce we were going to be away for a while going to Coachella - wait, you too? What was happening? We had separately planned a vacation together by accident. Her story was similar to mine in that her friends had convinced her to go, and she was part of a larger group of people going that I had been otherwise unconcerned with.

Before she could play Pokémon Pearl,
I insisted she play Pokémon Leaf Green.
I am a harsh mentor.
So things started getting more and more serious between us, which left one important question unanswered. Does she play Pokémon? I had to begin grooming her to be the very best like no one ever was, if she was up for the task. Before we had started dating her feelings toward video games were luke-warm. She enjoyed them casually, but wasn't super interested in them. That was certainly better than being completely against them, or jealous of them. It was a start. Pokémon is the perfect hook to get your girls gaming with you, if you can manage it.

So hand-in-hand, armed with our trusty DS's and copies of Pokémon Diamond and Pearl, we were off on our whirlwind adventure to California - which ended up sweeping us all the way to Las Vegas. What ensued was one of the most amazing, magical and romantic weeks of my entire life. I had previously been musing to myself how romantic comedy movies really set up people to fail with unrealistic expectations. I felt that nothing in life ever remotely happened like it does in movies where two quirky people have a series of misadventures and end up falling crazy-in-love with each other. Well, this trip set me straight. It does happen, but it's rare and wonderful like getting a Shiny Bulbasaur if you reset Pokémon Fire Red over and over (1 in 8192 chances)! When times are tough in life, I just think about April 2007 and this magical trip and it helps me feel better.

Let's get back to Pokémon Diamond, though. This game was the Pokémon Renaissance of my life so far. Not since my original copy of Pokémon Red had I become so involved and absorbed in a Pokémon game. There's so much I could say about it, but I fear if I start gushing I'll go dig up my copy and start playing it again. It was my on-again/off-again game for several years. I will say that I love the Nintendo DS. It's one of my favorite video game systems ever made, so to have the first Pokémon on that system was bound to go over well with me. I was also a mentor to a bright new Pokémon trainer, my future wife, who would grow to become one of my greatest Pokémon rivals. Then there was the matter of rivalry itself.

Meet Deez
This is what a Pokémon trainer
who doesn't EV train his
Pokémon looks like!
Pokémon Diamond destroyed the previous limitations of who I could trade and battle with. Prior to 2007, all my rivals had to be within an arm's length of me. I hadn't had that kind of Pokémon playing companionship since I was in high school ten years earlier. I'm sad to admit it, but most times I would eventually buy the alternative copy of the game and just trade with myself in order to "catch 'em all." It was tough being a 20-year-old Pokémon player in those days, but all that changed in 2007! Nintendo DS was built with WiFi compatibility, so I could easily battle trainers all over the world in the comfort of my living room! More importantly, I could finally test my mettle against my ultimate rival, my younger brother.

Since the early days of Pokémon Red, I have been naming my Pokémon trainer after myself, and the rival character after my brother. Even though we were young in those days, somehow I knew his love for Pokémon mixed with our sibling rivalry would make us destined to cock-fight our Pocket Monsters until the end of time. It was in 2007, I learned he, too, had been naming his rivals after me even though we had never spoken of it before. Because I'd moved more across the continent, our Pokémon rivalry had been on hold for a decade, but now we were free once more to battle to our hearts content. It was a glorious time to be alive. I was coaching my new Pokémon pupil by day and clashing with my Pokémon rival by night.

I pulled all the punches, too. I educated myself on Pokémon IVs (Individual Values) and EVs (Effort Values). I bred about 500 Chimchar to get the ultimate Infernape. I spent hours upon hours breeding and hatching eggs to get the ideal amount of IVs. I spent another eternity of hours battling that Pokémon and his allies against the same opponent over and over to get the correct EVs. If you don't know what these things are (you're lucky!) it's because you've never gotten into the darker side of Pokémon - competitive battling. It's honestly something I consider myself quite an amateur at, but all this extra effort paid off when I defeated my brother with a well trained team.

I have about 10 boxes full of these guys if anyone wants one.
(Not a joke)

Even though Pokémon Diamond is not my favorite Pokémon game, it certainly the one that got the most love because of where I was in my life at the time. It strengthened a bond with my girlfriend which would later blossom into a marriage and family. It reunited me with my brother across 3000 miles, whom I hadn't been gaming with since the early days of Final Fantasy XI. It was really a fantastic year for me. Let me know in the comments your favorite years and ages to be!


PS:  I mentioned that Pokémon is a good series to get your girlfriends interested in gaming, because it's something you can do together. It's nice because it has all the hardcore aspects you could want in competitive play, but it can also be cute and silly, which makes it a great in an intro game to people who don't play too many games. I also wanted to add the "Kingdom Hearts" series to that comment. It's funny to me, because I was really excited about Kingdom Hearts due to the Square Enix / Final Fantasy involvement, and my wife was really excited about the Disney aspect. We didn't know each other at the time it came out, but it's great that it's a series that hooked both of us in different ways. We still play them together today.

Fire Starting - Ruby & Sapphire

Fire Starting 3 by T Oliver Prescott on Grooveshark My adventures in Pokémon Ruby were short lived and dwarfed by other events in my life at the time. I mentioned in the post yesterday (Fire Starting - Gold & Silver) that I was headed into a dark time in my life around the end of 2000. I made a lot of decisions that led to unpleasant conclusions. When Pokémon Ruby hit shelves in March of 2003, things were all about to change again. The tumultuous relationship with my first wife was now two years strong, our marriage over a year old itself. Setting aside all the general insanity and violence that occurred, our wedding was on September 21st, 2001, in the shadow of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. A month later while I was at the Air Force boot camp, the home we were married at burned to the ground. I'm telling you, readers, Cthulhu had his dark tentacles in this relationship from the start.

I spent the three years between Pokémon Silver and Pokémon Ruby feeling very isolated. I moved from Massachusetts to New Mexico in May of 2001.I joined the Air Force in October and moved to California in December. I was far away from everything I knew, and through her powers of manipulation and enhanced by my own insecurities, I completely cut myself off from my friends and family. Part of that situation was pride. I chose this life for myself and I didn't want anyone to know how unhappy my decisions had made me. I didn't want to admit I had been wrong. I wanted everyone at home to think I was well, but ultimately I was alone and tormented.

Video games were no longer a hobby of mine because they had evolved into an escape from reality. I've written about this in my first article of the year, but 2001-2003 was the first time in my life when I actually understood how much one can lose themselves in video games and how much the rest of the world will just cease to exist while you do it. So I'm saying that when Pokémon Ruby arrived in stores in 2003, I had no real love or interest in playing Pokémon. My passion for video games had turned into something darker. The games were a means to an end, and a lot of that time I spent (was allowed to) playing video games was closely monitored and harshly criticized. I mentioned all of this briefly in an article I wrote before about the music of Kingdom Hearts which also came out during that time. You can find it at "A Music Chain of Memories" if you're interested.

Actual picture of how alone and tormented I was in 2003.
Also in May 2003, I was finishing my language training and leaving California. So during those last few months, I was being over-worked and over-stressed about all the final exams that were on the horizon. So work (school) was stressful. My home life was more stressful. gaming had its moments of releasing me from all that stress, but in March, 2003, they were far and few between. I didn't start playing Pokémon Ruby until closer to May. It was then that we drove from California to Texas. It was in Texas that my life was about to undergo another paradigm shift.

Married life in Texas was intense. The demands of my job were immense. The nature of the work I was doing kept me from sharing it with my wife and as a result that secret life I had at work caused her to grow even more chaotic and jealous. Violence in our home escalated. It was also no longer a thing we kept behind closed doors, but sometimes even erupted in front of other people (scaring the hell out of them, to be sure). I realized at one point in this nightmare that I was quick to resort to violence in order to defend myself, or even sometimes preemptively lash out physically before I was physically threatened. I felt like I was becoming just as violent and unstable as she. I felt unable to control my actions and emotions as well as I had before. This realization was so jarring and upsetting that I had an immediate shutdown.

I went to work and did my job. When I came home at the first hint of trouble, I would get up and lock myself in the bathroom for the rest of the night. It was there I would play Pokémon Ruby until I was ready to fall asleep. Sitting in the bathroom quietly, meditatively at times, made me realize it wasn't my fault. Nothing I was doing was cause for her kinds of abrupt outbursts of jealousy or violence. I understood that I wasn't naturally a violent or "bad" person. As my first wife raged against the bathroom door, using everything in her arsenal to get me to emerge - violence, manipulating and soothing words, all the way to promises of sex - I realized I was back in control of myself (at the very least). I would no longer participate in her madness or her violence. I was more isolated than ever before, but my descent into her world had halted. It was then that I came to some upsetting conclusions.

Upsetting Conclusion #1:  I'd be stuck with this guy for 20-40 hours.

I truly believed our marriage was destined for "until death do us part." I thought the sheer notion of my desire to leave this relationship once and for all would send her into a murderous rampage and the only way I would survive was if I emerged the victor of our brutal conflict. That is not to imply I began plotting her death, but that the only logical conclusion I could foresee was an escalation of anger and violence until one of us killed the other. I have to say that as horrible as that sounded, I came to grips with it. I imagined that death, or prison, couldn't be much worse than living your life in a bathroom with a Gameboy Advance - especially with only a thin piece of wood separating me from a person who absolutely terrified me. I felt I had nothing to lose, so I prepared myself mentally. I came home from work one afternoon, made sure no knives were present for the proclamation, and said plainly that we needed to separate and that she needed to go home.

These agents of Cthulhu... I mean Kyogre... mock me!
Shockingly, no one died. Even more shockingly, she took this announcement at point blank range and calmly said "OK" as if she'd already come to similar conclusions on her own. There was no anger, no animosity that night. She asked that I go spend the night on base with one of my friends and that by the end of tomorrow's work day she would be gone. I naturally didn't trust her, or believe her. I imagined she would spend that time thinking of clever ways to manipulate me into staying, or maybe plotting my death. In truth, all that happened was I came home to an empty house the following night.

It was a mixture of joy, sadness and rage all balled up into one moment. There was joy because I was free (and alive)! There was sadness because I had failed at the one thing I left home to do. I had failed at this attempt at marriage and now I was truly alone and trapped in my contract with the Air Force. I would have to eventually admit this failure to everyone at home. Then there was the rage. When I said I came home to an empty house, I mean the house was completely empty. There wasn't a single belonging left behind except a handful of dirty dishes in the sink and the rest of my military uniforms. The fridge was empty. Within a few days the water and electricity were irritatingly shut off. I couldn't turn them on until I got paid again - and she stole my next three paychecks thanks to the Air Force blundering up my paperwork (twice). Life was interesting in Texas.

Did I mention the house was empty? That was the end of my unfinished adventure in Pokémon Ruby. It was also the end of a very dark time in my life. Losing progress in a game (in fact, losing every game I'd brought with me to Texas) was really a small price to pay to get out of that relationship. What followed was a lot of years of self-doubt and self-loathing, which lasted almost until the release of Pokémon Diamond and Pearl. Eventually I reconnected with a lot of my old friends and with my family. I was no longer alone.

Slowly, I refilled my house with important things: Pokémon Dolls
Now, Pokémon Ruby and Sapphire are my least favorite games in the entire franchise. Hoenn is my least favorite Pokémon region. Torchic/Combusken/Blaziken is my least favorite fire-type starter. I can't really remember a damn thing about the plot (not that Pokémon plots are much to write home about). I don't even like the graphics in these games compared to the others in the franchise. Due to circumstances I just described, I didn't even get around to beating the Elite Four until just before Diamond and Pearl came out. I had wanted to make sure I could upload the older Pokémon to the new generation of games, so I bought the special edition of this generation (Emerald) to play through the entire game in the early months of 2007.

I have no idea if I dislike this generation because of its own faults, or because of everything that was happening to me at the time of its release. I could go either way on the argument, because I honestly feel it is the weakest in the franchise on all the ways I mentioned above, but I also realize that I have certain jaded bias due to real life events that may influence my perception and judgment. I'll let you all be the judge - let me know in the comments if you disagree and Ruby & Sapphire are your absolute favorite games in the series!

Who are you? Where's the real Champion: Red?

And worry not, faithful readers, for things will get better in tomorrow's post when I talk about the launch of Diamond & Pearl in 2007.


Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Fire Starting - Gold & Silver

Fire Starting 2 by T Oliver Prescott on Grooveshark We join our Pokémon heroes again in September of 2000. I'm a sophomore in college and I'm wondering if I'm too old to be watching and playing Pokémon. One fateful Saturday morning my best friend and I are eating Lucky Charms and watching Saturday morning cartoons in a refined, higher-educated, mature adult sort of way. At some unsuspecting moment that morning a commercial for the Pokémon TV series announces ceremoniously the return of Brock to the cast of main characters. Now, I love Brock and I truly disliked the character who replaced him - an animated nemesis of mine named Tracey - so this is a big deal to me. My eyes light up as if it were Christmas morning and I was ten years old again. I turn to look at my best friend to see if he notices how giddy this has made me (ready to be embarrassed about it) and find my expression mirrored on his face. The sudden realization that our emotions will be embraced rather than mocked allows us to exclaim in glee how much we love Brock and are excited for his return to the series. We were best friends, of course, and Japanese majors at that so this kind of reaction might have been expected of us by our peers.

The fateful return of Brock occurred in the episode that aired on October 7th, 2000. It was then that my nemesis and subject of much of my ridicule and general animosity, Tracey, retired from the main cast and Brock was welcomed back into the fold. Ash, Brock and Misty were then trusted with the task of taking the mysterious GS Ball to the new region of Johto. It was clear to me that I was not too old for Pokémon (and I would never question this again). The video games upon which the anime was basing itself, Pokémon Gold and Silver, were released a week later on October 14th. Once I had allocated the money on a poor college student's pitiful income, I bought a copy of Pokémon Silver. Though my best friend shared my love for Pokémon, he insisted he would rather focus on his studies, pursuit of Japanese girlfriends, and music than strive to be the very best like no one ever was with me. For the first time, I had no immediate rival. I was on my own.

Now, I bought Silver because I prefer silver to gold in terms of jewelry. I always have, and it's safe to say at this point that I always will. This selection presented some immediate problems, though. The Pokémon on the cover art is Lugia, and the Pokémon on the cover of Gold is Ho-Oh, which is clearly a Fire-themed Pokémon. It wasn't explicitly clear to me what type of Pokémon Lugia is, but it was clearly not a fire-type. So who was I going to pick as my companion on this journey? Previously, I'd used the box art to decide, and chosen the fire-type starter, Charmander. Would I stick to the box art and go with Totodile's water-type, or would I stick with fire-type and forsake the box art? It should be evident if you've been following this mini-series or noticed the name, I went with the fire-type starter, Cyndaquil. Unbeknownst to me at the time, Cyndaquil is perhaps the weakest fire-type starter in the entire franchise, but the decision had been made and the tradition was officially solidified. I would choose the fire-type starter without debate from here on out.

He may be weak, but I still think he's kinda cute.

Now, you may be shocked to read this, but while I was in college I spent a great deal of time playing tabletop role-playing games. I ran a rather successful Dungeons & Dragons (Advanced, 2nd edition) campaign which was loosely based on a novel that I never finished. News of this spread to friend of ours in our Japanese class and he invited me and my best friend to join him in a game called Call of Cthulhu. I had never heard of it, but he told me that it differed from Dungeons & Dragons in that it was set in a more modern, or Victorian, time and dealt with concepts of evil, chaos, insanity and general disturbing darkness. Thus I was introduced to the works of H.P. Lovecraft who would become a huge influence on my own writing, some personal philosophy and even video game preferences in the future.

This summarizes my sophomore year of college nicely.

My friend running the game expressed to me that one of the trends of his game was going to be the closer we (the players) got to the truth of the matters (regarding Cthulhu) the closer our characters would struggle with their sanity. This theme was the bud of many philosophic ponderings I've had over the years about the true nature of the insane and mentally deranged. Are crazy people actually crazy, or do they see the world in a way we so-called sane people can't begin to comprehend? Do they have some unwanted key to a knowledge that is beyond the grasp of everyone else? Do the voices they hear whisper the maddening truths of the universe to them? Does this process mark them as undesirable to those of us living in the world of light and ignorance? It's probably just chemical imbalances in the brain, but these thoughts are interesting to me nonetheless.

Do I absolutely love this moment or is it a chemical imbalance in my brain?

I mention all of this because October and November of 2000, while I was busy playing Pokémon Silver by myself, busy playing Call of Cthulhu with my friends, and occasionally studying Japanese when the mood struck me, I was unknowingly in a transitional time of my life. I realized while working on this article that during the time in which I got to know Cthulhu (the malevolent god-like being) I was inviting into my life a period of darkness, chaos and suffering. I was courting my first wife at the time (an obvious agent of Cthulu in retrospect, a priestess of chaos and madness and anguish). I would go on to solidify my relationship with her the following semester and ultimately leave college to pursue that relationship in 2001.

My evolution from Boy to Man-butterfly illustrated
Pokémon Silver was the last game that I treasured as a creature of the light. It marks the end of a time when I was young, naive and (for the most part) innocent. It was in many ways the end of my childhood. I willingly left a life I felt had been mostly predetermined for me to forge my own way in the world. After these happy days playing Pokémon Silver, I would go on to make a slew of interesting, yet poor decisions that would transform me into a new, more cynical person. In Pokémon terms, I was evolving. The Caterpie inside me was growing cold and hard as it became a Metapod. It would be many years later that I finally emerged from those dark times as the beautiful (yet damaged) Butterfree I was yet to become.

We can talk more about that tomorrow!


PS: Long live Brock!

Monday, January 21, 2013

Fire Starting - Red & Blue

Fire Starting 1 by T Oliver Prescott on Grooveshark
The first time I recall hearing about Pokémon was around December of 1997 when the television show caused seizures among children in Japan. I had no idea what it was at the time other than an anime series for children. I imagined this incident would certainly mean a ban on such a show coming to the United States, but I would be very wrong. Somewhere around six to eight months later, I started seeing advertisements for the show coming to one of my regularly viewed networks. I was shocked. Not Pokémon Shocked, but regularly shocked.

A guaranteed way to accidentally hype your television show is to have it send over 600 children to the hospital simultaneously for watching a particular scene with flashing lights. Back in those days, I was already deeply set into my golden age of being an otaku (anime geek) so it was guaranteed that I would be watching the debut of Pokémon. On September 7th, they showed a sneak peek episode, "Battle Aboard the St. Anne" which I thought was cute, but since it was shown out of order made little sense to me. The following day I watched the beginning of Ash Ketchum's journey and from that moment I was hooked.

I don't recall when I first learned the Pokémon TV show was tied to a video game series for Nintendo's Gameboy, but after watching two weeks of the TV show one thing was very clear: I would own that game. I knew next to nothing about it. It could have been a fighting game, or a side-scrolling adventure game. It didn't matter to me. The thought of starting my own Pokémon journey even loosely connected to the anime show was all the information I needed to make the decision. Pokémon Red and Blue were released on September 30th. I got paid on October 2nd.

Things are about to get weird for a moment. October 2nd happens to be musician Sting's birthday. I know this because my high school friends and I used this occasion as an excuse to go out and celebrate. Why, you may ask. I don't really have an answer. When I was 17, as I was in 1998, I was a senior in high school and held my first job at a small, locally owned pizza parlor. Working there with the radio on all day, I began to develop my eventual taste in music. Though there were several early, embarrassing hiccups in my music taste,  one thing I learned almost immediately was a love for Queen and The Police. Also in 1998 the internet was beginning to blossom into the wealth of useless information that it is today. Sting's birthday had been discovered in some unknown dredges of the early internet (Geocities, I'm looking at you) and from that moment forth it was an excuse for us to have a good time. Life was weird, yet also surprisingly simple back then.

So there we were, October 2nd, 1998. I felt like king of the world because I had my first job and no expenses to speak of (yet). I took all my friends interested in Sting's birthday bash out to dinner. The name I put on the wait list for a table was "Sting" so when they announced us they said "Party for Sting!" which I still admire the cleverness of to this day. Of course before dinner my girlfriend and I had popped over to the game store and picked up a copy of Pokémon Blue and Red respectively. Our friends at the dinner made fun of us for being interested in such a "kiddie" concept like Pokémon. If only they could see me now in my thirties wishing every day that October wasn't so far away (Pokemon X & Y release, not Sting's birthday).

This is an actual picture taken of me, my girlfriend and my brother circa 1998.

There was an important moment, shortly after speaking with Professor Oak, that I realized this game is an RPG! We should all know by now that is my favorite genre of video games. Remember, I had no idea prior to turning on the game I'd be treated to a new RPG adventure, so this was a true surprise and delight.

I got to the moment where I needed to choose my Pokémon partner and like all life changing decisions (in video games) I deliberated for a long time. Squirtle was my favorite Pokémon in the TV series so far (though that title would later be challenged by Charizard, incidentally) but my girlfriend playing Pokémon Blue claimed him. The Pokémon on the cover of my copy's box was Charizard so I simply chose Charmander. My girlfriend and her Squirtle promptly beat me in every match up we ever had. Seriously. How embarrassing, right? She was my very first Pokémon rival and she beat me every time. I was such an Ash in those days.

This is as good a reason as any to choose a Starting Pokémon

A precedent was set that day. When I semi-arbitrarily chose Charmander as my starting Pokémon, I set into motion a tradition of choosing the "Fire" Pokémon in every subsequent Pokémon generation. In my quest to be the very best, I knew it was my destiny. I'm nothing if not a sucker for symbolism and tradition when it comes to my video game franchises.

Tune in tomorrow as I explore my life in 2000 with the release of Pokémon Gold & Silver.


PS: I treat you to a side story that "Fire Starting" has reminded me of. The first time I ever played Mortal Kombat (Joe's Arcade, Salisbury Beach, 1993) I chose Liu Kang because he reminded me of Bruce Lee. I knew next to nothing about Bruce Lee as a 12 year old, but I did know he looked like him. Because of this I chose Liu Kang in every single subsequent sequel and re-release of the Mortal Kombat franchise. I can't tell you how delighted I was when the character I chose arbitrarily based on his appearance became the Grand Champion of the tournament (Mortal Kombat) three times in a row. Man, can I pick them or what?

Interesting Trivia: Liu Kang is the "Fire Starter" of Mortal Kombat

Anyway, in Mortal Kombat: Deadly Alliance, Liu Kang is killed in the opening cut scene thus rendering him unplayable (and assuring the victory of the villains, presumably). I was beside myself. I didn't know what to do because I was so set on always playing Liu Kang first in every game. We're talking a tradition that has spanned 4 games by now (6 if we count Ultimate MK3 and MK Trilogy, which I did, in fact, play Liu Kang first, so I will in fact count them) and ten years! I almost turned the game off. If I couldn't choose Liu Kang as my first character, I wasn't sure I could play. I spent a grueling amount of time staring at the character select screen weighing my options. Should I pick someone who has been in the game since the original Mortal Kombat such as Raiden or Sub-Zero? Who would I choose and how would I decide? It was too much for me.

Eventually, I chose Kung Lao.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Week in Review - 1/18/2013

Holy Land holdings not shown!
I got bit by a bug to conquer Europe this week. After much debate I decided to start as Count of Desmond, Ireland again. His dynasty is doing so much better than last time. I unified Ireland. I married into the Kingdom of Scotland and Wales. I'm one step away from proclaiming myself Emperor of Britannia and as a bonus, one of my heirs returned from the Crusades the conquering King of Jerusalem. Hail the Irish Empire.

Shailud & Minna at Candy Village!
My wife and I got our revenge on Skeletron with upgraded weapons and potions. We explored a huge chunk of the Dungeon he guards and brought back much loot to the Candy Village! I've upgraded my Ranger Shailud with Necro Armor and Mage Minna with Jungle Armor. We've built an outpost on the edge of the Underworld (Hades, if you will) and I've begun Hellstone mining operations while we scour the map for Health upgrades. Wall of Flesh, we will be gunning for you shortly then we enter the dreaded Hardmode. It will be a first for both of us and we are anxious about it. 

Playstation 3
I don't look this heroic.
I finally beat Demon's Souls which granted me in-real-life justification to move on to its successor. I have to admit, I'm loving it. I haven't poured a lot of time into it, but what I have done has been extremely fun. I started a running "death log" of how many times I throw myself at a situation before I get through it, and I hope to post it in the future. Right now, I'm throwing myself at the Bell Gargoyles in the Undead Parish. They seem to get the best of me every time the second one shows up and starts belching fire all over my hard work.


This is a new addition to my Friday column. My brother and I have reinstated a weekly gaming night, something we've done in the past with limited success. Since we have lived thousands of miles apart for over a decade, it gives us a chance to get together and hang out in the realms of video games. We grew up playing the NES/SNES era of Nintendo and a bit of Nintendo 64 before I headed off to college. It was one of the earliest things we had in common and a main source of our sibling bonding even to this day. So we've happily been able to continue this tradition with the rise of online gaming.

I've invited him to contribute to this column by giving his input on what we've been doing with our game nights. He does most of the logos, banners, icons and artwork for this blog and I have yet to give him due credit for his help getting TOP Gaming off the ground. He also does a lot of peer editing and helps brain storm new ideas. He's the hidden half of TOP Gaming.

We are the Prescott brothers from Pepperell, Massachusetts, so when making online game matches and such we've taken to calling ourselves the Bunker Hill Bros. We're wicked proud of our heritage. If you're (United States of) American and you don't know about Bunker Hill, educate yourself with the links provided below.

This week we've been playing Wanderlust: Rebirth!

This would be us
but only if all the players were dead.
After telling Deez about Terraria a while back, we've gotten real excited for the upcoming Starbound title. The guys at Starbound, in turn, worked out a deal with their affiliates at Chucklefish to get some of the proceeds from Wanderlust: Rebirth and put it toward the development of Starbound. I bought four copies of the game and Deez, my wife and I have been messing around in it since then. It's fun, but awkward. The awkwardness leads to unnecessary difficulty. We die a lot.


I like to hide under giant words!
We took up Wanderlust: Rebirth again this week, but I found it much more enjoyable this time. I'm finally taking advantage of the Alchemist class's full range of abilities. He drops AOE bombs on his enemies and then dashes to safety while they are dazed. I prove to myself once again that my favorite role in gaming is the cowardly ninja. HAHA! Our romps would be a lot better if we could figure out a way to gain more than 25 CP (Character Points) per level. Until then we have to deal with the shame of our OHKOs and default victories. HAHA!

- Deez

Related Links

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

To Be the Very Best

To Be the Very Best by T Oliver Prescott on GroovesharkOn January 8th, Nintendo announced a brand new generation of Pokémon games being released in October for the Nintendo 3DS. Since that day the internet has damn near exploded with excitement over Pokémon X and Pokémon Y. Perhaps it speaks to my character and interests, but it feels like everywhere I go online I’m being bombarded with talk about this new entry in the main series of one of Nintendo’s most profitable franchises. Little is known about this new addition to the Pokémon family, but what is known is stirring up quite a bit of excitement. 

First, there will be a worldwide release in October. For the first time ever, I will not have to read all the grand adventures Serebii is having in the Japanese version. I won't have every aspect of the game spoiled for me over the six-to-eight month wait for the North American release. Everyone in the world will be battling their way through Gym Leaders and catching them all concurrently! Second, and most notable, the graphics are a vast overhaul from previous versions. Pokémon X & Y step into the world of modern gaming with 3-dimensional models and maps rather than playing like a RPG from the 90s on 2-dimensional fields.

The Pokémon "Y" and "X" incarnate!

Of course, Pokémon is an RPG from the 90s. It started (in North America) in 1998 and has come a long way, but Pokémon is not a series known for taking bold new steps into uncharted territory. It found a winning formula a decade and a half ago and has stuck to it with much financial success. Each new game typically has improved graphics and tweaked features, moving it ever closer to a perfect mind trap to the collectors and explorers inside us all, but nothing quite as drastic as pulling us into three dimensions. Mario was brave enough to do this back in 1996, but he had been in the video game business for fifteen years. I suppose Pokémon was playing it safe and biding its time as if it were Brock’s Onix about to crush the life out of my Pikachu.

Game Freak's Development Strategy

So we are approaching the 15th anniversary of Pokémon’s debut in North America (17 years for the Japanese readers) and we’re finally seeing something closer to the Pokémon world we've all secretly yearned for. I am pretty excited, but not without some reservations. I've always assumed that Pokémon’s graphics were limited because they needed the cartridge space to cram in all those Pokémon and their move pools. I’m a huge proponent for cutting back on graphics power in order to jam in all kinds of customization options and content - which is something Pokémon has always done! So I am hopeful that the 3DS is finally capable to give us all 700 or so Pokémon and all their attacks and abilities alongside these graphic enhancement, but if there are sacrifices for the sake of graphics, I will be duly disappointed.

The Great Circle of Life

It's a wonder that I'm still playing Pokémon after all these years. I love a classic, traditional Japanese-style RPG with their turn-based battles. Games of that nature are hard to come by in this day and age, so I suppose Pokémon is dependable in that regard. Since very little has changed over the years, and I know that I had fun playing it before, I know I'll have fun playing it again - with new creatures to collect and strategies to employ. Their dedication to remain the same has made the product rather consistent. It appeals to me (and others) because I love to collect and customize. I also love that it has the simplicity a child could grasp, but a hidden depth to training and strategies that I've only barely scratched the surface of in competitive play. Varying layers of depth and complexity is a large draw for me in any genre of games.

Next week I’m planning a mini-series dedicated to my own personal Pokémon journey. Each day I will discuss a new Generation and where I was in my life when I got my hands on those games. Pokémon has been an important part of my life since I first watched the anime series just a week or two prior to the release of the games (great marketing strategy, Nintendo). The theme song alone convinced me that it was my destiny and I've been a fan of the games ever since. Along with "Final Fantasy" series, it’s one of the few franchises I've been a part of since its debut in North America, and also one of the most influential to me as a game player and writer. If you enjoy Pokémon, or random anecdotes about my personal life, then you’re in for a treat next week. If you don’t like either of those things, let’s argue about it in the comments!


Related Links

  • - My one stop source for everything Pokémon