My nerdiest column ever… and that's saying a lot.

September 26th, 2008

I’ve got my Playstation 2 back. It’s been about two years. I gave it to my friend Ben for safe keeping. I wanted fewer distractions while I worked on making comics. The Playstation 2 (PS2) is one hell of a video game system — and one hell of a distraction.

I’m not much of a gamer to begin with. I’m bad at them, don’t have too much time to invest and still kind of bummed about the lack of high-profile graphic adventure games (and am still waiting on Monkey Island 5). But, last week I had to take care of an attention-needy cat in D.C. for honeymooning friends. They had a giant television and a PS2. I got my games back. I will never know what it’s like to relapse on heroin, but when that blue opening screen flashed on the television it was like seeing an old friend again. 

On Sunday I picked up my console at Ben’s, cleared my calendar for the rest of the day and turned on my bedroom television for the first time in two years. Ben was kind enough to give me the games he bought while taking care of my system. The “Mega Man Collection” is nice (although the controls aren’t great) but all I really cared about playing was “Kingdom Hearts II.”

“Kingdom Hearts” is essentially Final Fantasy meets Disney — literally. It’s a Zelda-type cross promotional wet dream. Players assume the role of a kid named Sora, who teams with Donald and Goofy through various Disney worlds (i.e. movies like “Alice in Wonderland” and “Peter Pan”) in a quest to save the universe. Sora encounters plenty of Final Fantasy characters along the way.

It sounds like the dumbest game ever. I mean, when I used to customize my Final Fantasy 3 teams back in 8th grade, never in a million years would I have thought “this team needs The Little Mermaid!”

But “Kingdom Hearts” is great. You’re just going to have to take my word. The graphics are gorgeous, the game play is smooth, many of the official Disney voice actors lend their talents, and, I gotta admit, the 11-year old in me gets a kick out of beating the crap out of Jafar.

Like the Final Fantasy games I enjoyed as a kid, there’s a 40-hour or so investment to finish the first game. I finished it in grad school and was still waiting for the price drop on the sequel when I gave my PS2 away.

I’m almost three hours into “Kingdom Hearts II” and nothing has happened. I’m playing a character called Roxas (who may or may not be an amnesiac Sora), who is hanging out with his friends on the last few days of summer vacation. I know it’s an epic adventure and needs to start small. I’m eventually going to go to worlds like “Pirates of the Caribbean,” “Mulan” and even “Steamboat Willie,” but if this were a movie I’d have turned if off by now.

Think about it: “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy was about as epic as movies get. It doesn’t take Frodo three hours to leave the Shire — that’s the first, what, 30 minutes? I’m almost the length of “The Fellowship of the Ring” in and I still haven’t even met Donald and Goofy. To go with the analogy, that’s like 3 hours in the Shire before meeting Sam.

Yes, it’s a video game and not a movie, so it might be unfair to compare. Video games have bigger story palates to work with. They don’t need to confine themselves to a 2-hour time limit. But there’s a trade off — video games are supposed to be games. Stuff is supposed to happen. You’re supposed to kill bad guys, solve puzzles. I don’t play “Kingdom Hearts” because I’m interested in a story about a boy who gets to hang out with Disney characters. I play “Kingdom Hearts” because I want to play a fun game.

Worst of all, I have absolutely no idea what’s going on. I played “Kingdom Hearts” about four years ago. I remember the basics: Sora, Donald, Goofy. Go to distant worlds, fight the bad guys and beat up on bosses. Save the day.

It’s petty cool to hear Christopher Lee playing someone who might be the villain in “Kingdom Hearts 2,” but his talents are wasted on an incoherent script. If they’re going to hire A-list talent to voice these games, how about some A-list writers to adapt the material from Japanese into something coherent? Neil Gaiman did a top-notch translation on the anime “Princess Mononoke.” Why not something similar on these games?

Video games are becoming more cinematic. That’s a good thing. Peter Travers of Rolling Stone called Grand Theft Auto 4 one of the best and most morally complex stories of the year. I understand that Japanese storytelling conventions are different than American, but there’s a way to do this kind of storytelling without compromising the emotional payoff at the end. I don’t need 10 minute music video montages of characters from the first game, long dream sequences and redundant mini-games. Give me a tutorial mission, a few scenes to develop the relationships between the characters and send me on my quest. Or, take a cue from Spielberg’s “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and just drop me right in the thick of the action. I’ll figure it out as I go along.

It could be worse. I bought “Final Fantasy X” for nostalgia more than anything else. I gave up after about 7 hours of prologue.

Staff writer Josh Eiserike can be reached at 703-878-8072 or jeiserike@insidenova.com.

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