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The Last & Greatest

So in a few minutes I'll be signing out of Gamereactor for the last time, as today marks my last heading up the UK as its Editor in Chief. After 5 years of hammering the place into shape, as well as launching and running the print magazine, it's time for me to try something new (real reason: I've got to make some headway with my video game backlog. I've still to play Chrono Trigger, Final Fantasy VI, Metroid Prime... the list goes on).

I was asked recently what my all time favourite game was. I realised it was an impossible task, and fired back over a dozen titles that have made lasting impacts on me as a gamer and as a journalist. I've been in this game (ho ho) for over 25 years now, starting out on the C64 and partaking in every single console generation from the Mega Drive onwards. So my taste and 'best of' list is eclectic. Rather than bore with personalised accounts of each (and partly because I see my time's slipping away) here's the run down - one thing I noticed was a majority are from the PSOne days. As a long term Sega fan, it's weird saying my best memories were on a Sony machine, but there you go. One day I'll do a Twitch marathon and play through them all.

If you've been sticking with us over the years or just joined by seeing us on the PS4 or Smart TV Apps (shameless plug), then thank you. It's been a genuine pleasure seeing a growing number of people flock to join us in celebrating gaming. I'd like to think we've always been straight with you, and I hope we always will be, even if someone else is taking the helm and continuing to build on what I began a half decade ago. Keeping gaming, and I'll see you online.

And now, that list (get ready for the arguments!)

Panther (old C64 game that was a sci-fi Desert Strike).
The Last of Us
Halo Reach
Ridge Racer
Doom (PSOne version)
Streets of Rage 2
Castlevania: Symphony of the Night
Resident Evil 2
Mass Effect 2
Metal Gear Solid
Wipeout 2097
Half-Life 2
The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time
Red Dead Redemption
Final Fantasy VII
Outrun 2
Road Rash 2
Crazy Taxi
Street Fighter Alpha 2
Bust-A-Move 2
Sonic 2
Dragon's Fury
Secret of Mana
Star Fox
f-Zero N64
Parappa The Rappa
Gitaroo Man


Final Symphony

If you took a look at my YouTube VG playlist you'd note the majority of the tracks are pulled from before the turn of the millennium. It could be the heightened awareness of youth soaking in every piece of stimuli, or simply today's orchestral-heavy soundtracks lacking the catchy punch of yesteryear's iconic gaming moments, but it's far easier for the older musical accompaniments to stir the emotions.

I think about this because I took delivery of a vinyl version of Final Symphony, the orchestral and heavily rearranged recording of some iconic pieces from the Final Fantasy series. It led me to think question a couple of things: can game music still resonate with the player if it's restructured? And can orchestral pieces offer emotional impact? Offhand the last piece of game music that proved everlasting in my memory was O'Donnell's Halo suite (though his main Destiny theme also raises hairs on the back of the neck).

But Final Symphony proves a good discussion point over the recording of classic video game scores. Because it forces us to ask the question as to what we should expect from rendering familiar themes into live orchestral performances: do we want the music untouched, or altered?

The Symphonic Game Music Concerts, originating out of Germany, have taken a different, grander approach to popular pieces by rearranging tracks, restructuring and merging themes into suites that pay homage to the essence of a game's music, rather than playing the original score note for note.

I was in the audience for one of their most recent concerts last year in London, as the London Symphony Orchestra tackled The Legend of Zelda series as part of the Symphonic Legends tour. My ear struggled to pick up familiar pieces, as these were interwoven into contemporary-styled arrangements. Very different to the likes of Video Games Live which focused on key tracks near identical to how they're played in-game. I was no less swept along by the music, but emotional connection to franchise story beats were for the most, however, set aside. To put it another way: a few seconds of Final Fantasy VII music played during the E3 reveal was enough to bring tears to my eyes and for my stomach to twist. At the Zelda concert I was enthralled, but detached.

And initially, for the opening track Fantasy Overture, that's how I felt with Final Symphony, a new studio recording of Final Fantasy music rearranged and played on tour, with a few extra encores tossed in. Fantastically produced, but I struggled to pick out recognisable themes that keyed in with our memories of the series. That is, until the second track - the 18 minute-long Final Fantasy VI Symphonic Poem.

I stuck the album on while working in the office, and maybe it was the structure, perhaps it's because FFVI has some of the best music of the franchise to date, but I simply had to stop what I was doing, and give this amazing piece my full attention as it built to its climax. And then skip back, and savour it all over again. Suddenly the concept behind this album clicked, and since then it's been on nearly non-stop on my player. Maybe it's due to my heavy emotional investment in the Final Fantasy titles chosen for this track-listing, but the work here is stellar. Powerful, yet deeply intimate.

Admittedly that's with well over a decade of memories and listening to the original soundtracks over and over. That stuff's ingrained on the brain and hotwired into my heart, but so Zelda, and the concert hadn't this effect on me. Perhaps it's the setting: sitting alone with a headset on is closer to the how and when I first heard this music. Concert halls offer a grandeur TV speakers or headphones can't, but you're also in a completely different situation from how you experienced that music to begin.

I'll just hope some DJ decides to do a Ridge Racer session at a local club, and test the theory.

(If you want to check out the Final Symphony piece, cock your ears to here.)


Clear Out

Returning from an extended sabbatical has been... odd. Given I'm someone that's spent there last twenty plus years hoarding every video game and console they've ever bought, I'd have never considered there'd be a day I'd willingly shed two-thirds of my collection. But living out a single backpack for three months gives you a different view of a home that you once would have called ‘cosy'.

So for the last fortnight, while I've readjusted to London temperatures and life, I took stock of my possessions and much-loved artefacts, and decided many could easily go. A bizarrely easy choice, but I'd finally accepted there were just some games I'm never going to get round breaking the seal on and playing, and others I simply haven't the wish to replay. What filled a room now barely pads out a bookcase, and even as I glance over at the catalogue as I type, I'm evaluating yet more that can go.

As a result though, I'm finding myself cracking open games I haven't in years, and making a concerted effort in playing those titles I wanted to get round to but somehow couldn't find the time for. The collection has stopped being an untouched monument of the past and is now a gateway to worlds I'm enjoying visiting (and returning to). The mountain's finally surmountable. I just had to adjust the scale.

On the Road

So in the not too distant future I'll be taking an extended trip away from Gamereactor to trek across the other side of the world for a couple of months. It's a backpacking trip, so space and weight is at a minimum. So that definitely means no monitors and consoles (even if I could get a power lead to stretch that far), and a stripped down approach to gaming on the move.

The deliberations have already begun in earnest. Do I take a 3DS with a case packed with games? Load up my travel laptop with indie titles to dabble with on evenings? Or do I finally see about making some headway in Persona 4 on PS Vita?

Were some people have the curse of a Steam stockpile, I have it with PS Plus. Great games that I still need to get through. That alone would be good reason to go Vita over 3DS, but then we enter the digital vs physical discussion. I spent the last six months trying to find my Super Mario 3D Land cartridge in an office measuring little more than eleven feet by twenty. The smallness means they'll be easy to lose on the road, doubly-so for the pill-sized PS Vita carts. But if I want to go digital, and have plenty of choice, I'm best paying extra and getting a 64GB card for the Vita (a colleague suggested I pick one up in Japan during my time there, but trying to download the extra titles on road will see me flying back home by the time I'm finished).

Cables and chargers factor in as well, as unique plug-ins mean extra space in my backpack. I can charge my iPhone through my laptop, but both handheld consoles need their own power supply. Unless I take the plunge and upgrade (downgrade?) to the PS Vita Slim with its universal charging cable, that I can also use for my portable speakers, and save some more space.

Of course, I could just drop the handhelds entirely and try a few months without gaming at all. A detox of sorts. But that means living without my TXK/Lumines fix, putting my Virtua Tennis career to one side, giving up on the perfect Star Fox 64 3DS run, or ignoring the perfect opportunity to final play Chrono Trigger. Doesn't matter if I'm in the middle of a new city or climbing a mountain in some distant country - sometimes the best escapism comes through a gaming screen. That's been the case for 24 years, and I doubt it's going to change.

At least several years of Tetris has given me the rudimentary skills to pack efficiently. I'll get there yet.

The Ultimate All-in-One

Comixology was my go-to-app for digital comics for the past couple of years. Escalating prices on Marvel's graphics on real-world store shelves finally stretched beyond my budget (skirting nearly twenty quid for six-issue collections when other publishers offered similar for nearly half that). The digital comic retailer's pricing was within my fun money bracket, and it even saved me space at home. One tablet replacing multiple bookcases.

Then last week, the company initiated its first change since being bought by Amazon; it removed the ability to purchase comics within the App. We're now redirected to a browser-powered store to browse, choose and pay, then back to the App to download and read.

You can see why they're doing it - effectively wiping out any commission percentage that'd go to Apple. And a couple of extra swipes with your finger? Any complaint to the change seems born of laziness.

But: convenience. Making it as simple as possible to get the consumer to part their cash for your wares. Amazing how even an extra step can be an immediate turn off. It did with me. I know it's only a matter of an extra few flicks with my fingers, yet still...

This sectioning off of content is nothing new. Music, films, books and games are linked and synced with different providers. At most, you'll go through one per medium, but more likely you'll stick to one, maybe two. And with that choice comes the understanding you mightn't have access to everything out there.

Content is fragmented across multiple companies. Of course, everyone wants your dollar. There's a power struggle to claim your allegiance by way of offering more, new, and exclusive content. As corporations clash, we bare the brunt of lines drawn, divisions made. And we got to live with the bumps.

I pay Sky's Now TV monthly subscription, not because I'm fully happy with the service (the video quality on my Xbox 360 ranges from decent to abysmal, and I've had numerous issues just streaming) but because I know this is what I need to catch up with the latest Game of Thrones, Modern Family and True Detective.

The clash between Amazon, Apple, Sky, Netflix is little different than the console wars waged in the 90s. Except then, you had a sense of pride in your choice of platform holder. Now you just feel abused.

We're not going to get a all-in-one system, unless every media corporation bar one drop dead of a financial heart attack. But it'd be great to have the services we want on the machines we have. I get better quality on my Xbox One Netflix, but stick with Xbox 360 because Not Tv's available for it. I'm impressed by Sony's Music Unlimited service, but I've a half-decade's worth of songs on my iTunes account.

Movie streaming services are great for random finds and decent suggestions, but if I'm after a particular film, I usually have to skip between four different services to see if the flick's on it (one thing to give thanks to Microsoft's Bing for, which compiles a search through every App). But I usually have to stop and swop between devices to get the content I need. Wouldn't it be great if we could have everything in one place?

I saw an argument on Facebook just earlier about the range of indies coming to PS4 and PS Vita being poor because they were already available elsewhere. So what? As a PS Vita owner and non-PC one, I'm happy to get some of the indies I've heard so much about on my handheld.

We may have different games, music and films cropping up under different services, but we're getting used to the idea of a homogenised machine under the TV. Microsoft's push for the all-in-one multimedia setup was never a bad idea in my eyes. But no matter what console we pick up now, we're going to get fairly similar options - across games, movies and TV. But the closer we get to that ultimate all-in-one, the more the smaller inconsistencies grate.

Music's a big one. Microsoft have their own service, as do Sony. You're on their machine and they want you using their own brand. I get that. But as I stated, I've got five-year old iTunes library giving me my older favourites, and a Spotify Premium account to check out new stuff. Both are synced to my laptop and mobile. I'm working or I'm walking, I've got access to the content I want, no fuss. I'd love to be able to include the living room as well. As it is, I've got another set of cables, another set of devices if I want to run the music I've bought anywhere other than my home office.

I remember when Microsoft quietly dropped a blandly-labelled App for Xbox 360 early into the console's life. That small download allowed you to stream your iPod music through the machine. What's that? Convenience. We'll never see iTunes support for Xbox One or PS4 (just getting regular music going outside their branded apps is tough enough). But I want that convenience.

Exclusive first-party games aside, I want to have one console hooked up to my TV and sound system. I want to have the Apps I use on my laptop and mobile also available on it. I want to run the music I have on the services I subscribe to, watch or rent movies and shows on one service provider - not jump between four trying to find the film I want to watch. I want things synced. I want things convenient to me. I want the all-in-one system.

Maybe what I really need is to buy a PC. But I'd love to see my consoles do the job.