Stepping Out of My Comfort Zone in 2020

Dylan Gregory is a friend to Super GG Radio and one of the hosts of Backstage Gaming, a fantastic podcast about storytelling in video games.

2020 has been… a period in time. When the guys at Super GG Radio approached me
for another GOTY list, I realized that I hadn’t actually played a lot of games that came out this
year (FFVII REMAKE, 13 Sentinels and Hades, ranked in ascending order with Hades being my favorite). So instead, I figure I’d write something a little different. Having a lot more free time and a lot less in the way of social obligation, it’s only natural that I’ve spent most of my time off from work playing video games. Because I’ve had so much time, I had the opportunity to deep dive into games in a way I haven’t been able to since I was a kid; while I’ve revisited old favorites, and slowly made progress clearing out my backlog, I’ve also looked into games from genres that I normally don’t devote too much time to. Variety is the spice of life, and I think I needed to challenge myself with something different. So, this is less “my favorite games of 2020” and more “how the soul crushing ordeal of quarantine has led to me playing games out of my comfort zone”.

Spring 2020; Blood: Fresh Supply

As a kid, the most time I spent playing First-Person Shooters happened during sleepovers at my friends’ house. There were a lot of sleepless summer nights spent playing
Halo 2 and the original Modern Warfare, but the FPS genre was never something I thought to
get into myself. While I did grab the original DOOM a couple years ago, that was more for it’s
presentation than an earnest attempt to get into the genre. PS1 JRPGs made me a sucker for
games with 2D sprites and 3D environments; I needed more of that fix and well, DOOM is pretty cheap these days. I would later get the rerelease of DOOM 64, and that led to my checking out other 90s shooters. Which finally leads me to the “Fresh Supply” rerelease of 1997’s Blood. I don’t know if I’ve gelled with an FPS more than Blood. Blood is an INSANELY difficult “boomer shooter” made in the same engine used for Duke Nukem 3D. Unlike the latter, a love letter to action movies and crass humor, Blood goes for Horror with decidedly more tongue-in-cheek comedy. Between gunning down crazy cultists and running through incredibly diverse environments ranging from morgues to amusement parks, Blood evokes the same kind of dark zany fun that made me fall in love with Resident Evil 4. This definitely isn’t a beginner friendly shooter however; my first couple nights of owning Blood, I struggled to make it through the first 3 maps. In the early game, ammo for your firearms is scarce, so you’re forced to rely on melee attacks and smart use of explosives to survive. It was definitely a learning curve as someone who’s entire understanding of the genre is “point and shoot”. Even so, as the game started to click, I gained a newfound appreciation for old school shooters; the way secrets are tucked away in what feels like every corner, how enemy AI is programmed to react to the player’s inputs, etc. Everything in Blood feels fine tuned and deliberate. More importantly, it makes me want to see what other shooters I’ve missed all these years.

Summer 2020; Ketsui Deathtiny

Unlike FPS games, shmups, more specifically the danmaku/”bullet hell” subgenre of
shoot ‘em ups, are games that I’ve wanted to get into for a while, but have been too intimidated to try out. This summer, I took the plunge and bought a couple during a steam sale in what was the beginning of an ongoing deep dive into the catalogue of one CAVE Interactive CO., Ltd. CAVE is considered among the most prolific shmup developers in the industry, and as I looked into their history, the game that piqued my interest the most was Ketsui. Released in arcades in 2003, Ketsui would later be ported to the PS4 as Ketsui Deathtiny, a goofy title that makes more sense when considering Japanese phonemes (Deathtiny, “Desutini”, ie “Destiny”… your destiny is death… it’s Ketsui: Prepare to Die Edition). Ketsui is a shmup where in order to score big, the player must fly in close proximity to whatever enemy they’re shooting at amidst a downpour of bullets. This scoring system, combined with Ketsui’s unusual bullet patterns, make it infamous as one of Cave’s harder titles. If I’ve proven anything in these first two picks, it’s that I’m a glutton for punishment, but I want to make it clear that my love for Ketsui extends beyond hard thing=good because it’s hard. It’s a weird feeling to explain, but Ketsui is just a fun game to watch. Seeing a ship navigate through a swarm of tiny bullets is inherently appealing to me, and to slowly make sense of the visual overload on screen has been some of the most fun I’ve had this summer. When I die in Ketsui, I don’t feel frustrated or cheated, I feel excitement. In a way, it’s like rehearsing for a dance routine; the process can be arduous but it’s going to look so awesome when I can finally weave my way through.

Autumn 2020; I bought a Fightstick

Yeah, so this might not quite be the direction you expected this article to take. This piece
isn’t just about how I experimented with genres alien to me; it’s about pushing myself to try new things. In this case, the “new thing” in question was something I had reserved only for trips to barcades and conventions in the past. One joystick, eight buttons, and the joy of haptic feedback as I play whatever I want with my new fightstick. I’ve used it in several of my last Ketsui sessions, I’ve used it to play old school classics like Castlevania, Streets of Rage and
Shinobi, I’ve even used it to make clicking through text boxes in visual novels a more tactilely
satisfying experience. Of course, I’ve used it for fighting games as well, and with some
exceptions, I’ve had a blast relearning characters and inputs with a new control interface. The whole process has prompted me to dive deeper into each game’s Training Mode that I have in the past; I’m giving more consideration to mechanics that felt awkward or clunky to me on pad. Using a fightstick for fighting games has just been the tip of the iceberg; it’s the odder picks that have given me the most mileage out of this purchase. Something as simple as buying a new controller has breathed life into games I’ve played to death; I cannot stress how fun it is to dig through my library and ask myself “can I make this work?”. As of writing this, I’m currently trying to figure out my ideal fightstick configuration for Mario 64.

Winter 2020 and beyond; Old Favorites, New Perspective

Fightstick or no, as the year draws to a close, I’ve found myself revisiting some of my favorite games from years past. The most surprising thing? I’ve been able to apply the skills I learned from these previously alien genres to games I’ve played for years. In playing Ketsui and other shmups, I’ve learned to predict and manipulate the trajectory of enemy projectiles, which has helped in dealing with the infamous Medusa Heads of Castlevania. In a broader sense, I’ve also found that these games have helped my ability to focus on multiple onscreen points of interest: I’ve had less trouble avoiding attacks while staying on the offensive in Devil May Cry and Nioh because I’m having a much easier time keeping track of other enemies. I’m actually really excited to revisit my old DS copy of The World Ends With You in preparation for it’s upcoming sequel (sorry! I just had to give a shout out). Likewise, by discouraging reckless use of guns in favor of dealing with enemies using more unorthodox weapons, Blood has motivated me to examine weapons and mechanics I had previously ignored in some of my favorite games. As it turns out, bombs, arrows and spells are super useful for combat encounters in A Link to the Past! I never thought to experiment with them because I was a hoarder used to saving all my expendable resources only for when they’re absolutely necessary. Hell, even playing conservatively, Blood taught me that there will be moments where you’ll be low on ammunition for the weapons you’re most comfortable with, and that’s what can make a game interesting. I had priorly never thought to use Octorok Balloons, Chu Jellies, or half of the Sheikah Slate functions in Breath of the Wild, and yet they have been more instrumental in enemy encounters than weapons or even recipe buffs were in my previous playthrough. The point I’m trying to make is that as we get older, we tend to gravitate towards genres or methods of play that are familiar to us. We stick to what’s comfortable, but consequently, we give ourselves tunnel vision. In 2020, I had the unique opportunity to shake things up, and I think I have a greater appreciation for games as a result.

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