a few older titles that have fostered new obsessions.
Densha de Go! Final
For a long time I've had a vague awareness and fleeting interest in Densha de Go!, a long-running Japan-only series of arcade train sim games. When I visited Japan for the first time in Feb 2023, I was struck with how reliably I could spot a Densha de Go! machine in most arcades I visited, especially considering the age and very large footprint of the cabinets. I was a bit too intimidated to actually sit down to try it until my last day while killing time in Shibuya, waiting for a friend to finish up with one last round of crane games. My main impression from sitting there poking at the enormous lever controller was "Dang, this seems like it might be really fun if I only knew what was going on."
When I got home from my trip I found that the 2004 abandonware PC installment titled Densha de Go! Final had extremely recently received an English fan translation mod as of Dec 2022 which seemed truly serendipitous, an ideal starting point for learning how the game worked without futzing with the Google Translate app every step of the way.
This game immediately, and firmly, planted its hooks in me. It's definitely more of an arcade game than pure sim, but despite its mid-2000s era highly-aliased graphics it is just sim-y enough to trigger sensory memories riding the commuter trains around Tokyo, emulating popular real-life train routes complete with their famous station-specific omnichord-timbred jingles at each stop.
As far as actual gameplay, most of it boils down to waiting patiently for the announcer to complete their spiel and the cabin doors to close, accelerating and braking starting through various speed limit changes and time checks, then attempting to execute the perfect arrival at your next destination, which is what supplies the real thrill. Your aim is to brake gradually, smoothly, and confidently as you roll in to the station for a stop within mere centimeters of the target, without added acceleration or uncomfortable lurching, and of course precisely on time. It feels like the video game equivalent of the classic wooden ball game Shoot the Moon, where excitement and tension comes from the risk and reward of letting your ball (or train) go as far and as fast as you dare, attempting to pull it back to safety within a split-second, then either being handsomely rewarded with a great score or swiftly punished with absolute disaster.
It's totally addicting and I've played way too much of it within only a few days. I put in an impulse order of the 2021 edition Densha de Go!! Hashirou Yamanote-sen for Nintendo Switch, along with a rather extravagant arcade-style controller, but the PC version still has many many more hours of thrill to provide to me in the meantime.
Final Fantasy 7
I didn't own any Playstation consoles as a kid. As an adult I grew an aversion to JRPGs due to the tedious combat and grinding. But Final Fantasy iconography from growing up in the 90s has always been strong and appealing to my brain. The "idea" of Final Fantasy until this point was more attractive to me than the actual games. I had always been told "play them for the story" but to be honest, I was pretty skeptical that the story was even that good. I tried to get into Final Fantasy with IX a few years ago but ultimately fell off somewhere after the first disc as I wasn't feeling much propelling me forward, despite the look and sound of the game being extremely charming.
I picked up FF7 finally when I learned that the remastered version would allow me to blitz through basically all combat, turning the game into something more akin to a visual novel or old school adventure game. I also thought it might be easier for me to stick with and get into if I was streaming it on Discord to my friends. Turns out, FFVII is pretty darn fantastic!!
The prerendered visuals are so striking and beautiful and the story and characters are wonderful. The dialog is often hilarious and the cutscenes often heartbreaking. Every new location feels like a chapter in a book or an episode in TV series. Best of all, it's often delightfully absurd. There's so many wild ideas in here, they really threw the whole kitchen sink in.
Most of my exposure to what this game looked like was really the Midgar section. Towering steampunk structures, neon-lit slums, Cloud on a motorcycle, and our heroes overlooking a cliff once escaped. What I saw of the 2020 remake of this section of the game also did no favors to this perception.
As it would happen that is such a small fraction of what this game has to offer. The "ghost hotel", Mog House, and probably Gold Saucer as a whole is my favorite thing and is gonna be such so batshit to see rendered in beautiful lush 3D in the upcoming remakes. Also the music is truly remarkable even though I hear so much that is just a blatant ripoff of something else. As my old music theory professor used to say, great composers steal. I am already imagining myself vibing out to the soundtrack or longplays of this game on YouTube for years to come.
Great game, gripped me, was extremely hard to put down pretty much the whole way through. I feel inspired to try out more similarly famous JRPGs that I have missed, but I don't feel like I'll ever experience one quite like this ever again. Hope to be proven wrong though.
This game has a major reputation, and unfortunately it's one of having aged very poorly. In some ways I agree, there is a lot that is very archaic about it, such as awkward controls, poor voice acting, and systems that require you to burn tons of in-game time without much to do while waiting for the next story beat.
But in other ways, I couldn't care less! I completely adored it. It has immense charm, and the things about it that may otherwise seem annoying through the lens of modern game sensibilities just endeared me to it more. I don't have much specific to note other than to ignore what others say and give it a try engaging with it for yourself by meeting it on its own level. Laugh at the voice acting, rotate some virtual gachapon, do some forklift racing, and let its slowest, most mundane moments soak through you. There's nothing quite like it and I loved every moment.
Also be sure to support and download Suka Pass, a fan project to recreate some online-only content and features from the original Dreamcast version of the game. Read the meticulous backstories of characters and locations, as well as mark off stuff on the map you have seen as you go. There's so much to dig into, and it's a marvel what great lengths the creators went to to try and simulate a small town's inhabitants in a way that had never been done before(and arguably has not been done since!).
Diablo II: Resurrected
I had never touched the Diablo series much until early 2022, but picking up Diablo II for the first time with this remaster completely blindsided me with how much I had been missing. I had played Diablo-likes before, as well as just a bit of Diablo 3, and found them to be mostly too "brain-off" for my enjoyment. Diablo II is still highly regarded for a reason as it turns out though, and it quickly showed itself to be one of the games I've ever played.
It strikes a perfect balance between mindlessness and mindfulness. One moment you might be on metaphorical autopilot, stomping through small enemies and collecting their gold, while the next second unexpectedly caught off-guard and overwhelmed, suddenly fighting for your life on a razor's edge as you chug any health potions from your inventory you can scrounge up. The variety and atmosphere through randomly-generated maps keeps things fresh just enough for near-infinite replayability. It's very rare for me to finish a game and immediately want to start it again, but Diablo II has been one of those games.
I would not fault anyone for not wanting to buy this game given all the very public issues that Blizzard as a company has had around labor and sexual misconduct in recent years, but it is a very special game and a great remake, and one I think is worth the effort to find another way to experience if one was so inclined.