I typically like to write about older games. Games that were made in the heyday of the medium, before it became a cashcow that had decisions being made by bearucratic publishers rather than by trained game developers. (not to cast too negative a light on the state of modern gaming) I feel that there's usually more.... Soul. More love, more passion, more tiny details put into the games of old. Little things that don't really contribute to the gameplay at all, but are there just because someone cared about the game enough to throw in a little something extra.
The game we're featuring today, however, is from this century. More notably, this decade! (at time of writing) Even MORE heinous than that, it was released late 2011! (November 1 2011, if I must be precise.)
But you know how it is with these retro-themed games. Some of them manage to capture that ol' classic gaming spirit so well that they could easily go alongside anything made for the SNES, Genesis, DOS or NES or whatever fancy dangle you kids play these days.
So here I am talking about something that's probably even newer than your last haircut. Today's focus is; To The Moon.
On the great slideshow of consoles and their cliques, To The Moon would probably fit somewhere in the 'Obscure Sega CD RPG' camp best. (alongside such titles as Lunar: The Silver Star) But since it's a game made in this century, it would ostensibly be more along the likes of Pier Solar. I say ostensibly since it doesn't have any kind of console port, nor plans for one.
Part and parcel of why it fits in this niche camp would be the fact that it was constructed in RPG Maker, and all the custom sprites and tilesets are made to be highly (if not perfectly) reminiscent of ye olde cartridge consoles and their limited colour spectrum and small size of the sprites. While the visuals may not be outright awe-inspiring or mind-blowing, they certainly fit the mood and perfectly display what has to be displayed. Often, their minimalism works to its advantage, as a person's imagination can easily envision a wider gamut of emotions from general sprite poses than what a good pixel artist could hope to convery.
One thing I noticed about the sprites compared to a lot of older games is that they... How to describe it... They're acted better? The sprites zip around when the mood demands, making little hops down stairs when excitement happens, and make small movements to display some small emotion that normally would be lost had the sprite been standing still. For instance, the children in the game believably act the part by running around excitedly, bounding on the spot, and sometimes spinning. Even if they weren't given smaller sized sprites, one could easily tell that they were children. Just by movement! From sprites! Geez!
Backgrounds, likewise, are crisp and clean, sometimes beautiful, and never cause confusion as to what they're displaying. They were all clearly made by talented artists who knew just how to take a picture in their heads and turn them into pixels. Most of the backgrounds serve their purpose well enough, getting the location across without much fanfare, but there's some that are just so well made that their simple-yet-impressive nature works just perfectly.
Which is good, since the music makes for perfect accompaniment. For every scene, background, motif, mood, part and portion of the game, the music fits alongside perfectly. Some tunes are extremely stand-out, but most are there to complete the piece they're assigned to. In this aim, they succeed flawlessly, but when listening to the songs by themselves, without the game behind it, only a few seemed to be listenable on their own.
The controls, admittedly, can get a bit awkward. Hearkening to the old Point and Click adventure games popularized by Sierra and Lucasarts back in the day [i](or whoever's day it was)[/i], one notices after a bit that the RPG Maker engine isn't exactly the prime choice for this control scheme. As your cursor lands on objects worth inspecting, it changes into an icon that shows what you ca do to it. Sometimes, the range of which this change occurs is off slightly, sometimes just above the object in question. On a couple occasions, the icon didn't change at all, so finding the one last thing needed to proceed turned into an exercise of clicking on every square in the tiny room until it was found. Sadly, pure keyboard controls aren't an option most of the time, and I feel like the experience as a whole would have been improved a bit by allowing such usage. (But then, finding a lot of the things in the game is made a lot easier by the fact that you have a mouse, and that the cursor changing helps you to notice something you typically wouldn't originally. On the whole, if given the chance, I would only change a couple of the bugs, since overall it works quite fine, though I personally would have tweaked things a little for pure keyboard/gamepad controls as well.)
All considered, it functions as a game perfectly fine. Goodness knows there have been spottier RPG's, in or out of RPG Maker. Looking at what you've read about To The Moon so far, if it sounds like a neat rip-roarin' good ol' time in a retro package, with great visuals and music, well... This might sound awkward, but... It's not exactly a good game.
Now, please please oh please don't take that the wrong way. To spoil a tiny bit, To The Moon is simply the most fantastic virtual experience I've yet and am likely to have in my life.
It's just not exactly a 'game'. There's no random battles, no stats, and no true physical struggles between any kind of antagonist. There's a little puzzle mini-game between each 'chapter' of the game, but these don't exactly push the overall game experience forward. Sometimes the walking speed feels slow, the entirety of it all amounts to one big fetch quest when looked at objectively, and it can be played through, even when taking your time, in about four hours. As said previously, it's not much of a 'game'.
I would still, however, herald it as the greatest example of "Video Games as Art" for one simple aspect of the game: The writing.
To The Moon was constructed first and foremost as an interactive storybook. It never assumes to be anything more than that. Unlike so many other games with strong stories, there isn't any other medium that To The Moon could have worked under other than a video game. Exploring each of the parts of the game, searching every nook for any tiny bit of information you can find, and even how the characters speak wouldn't be improved in any way had it been a movie, book, TV Show, or anything of the sort. It works purely and simply as a video game, and one made so simply and effectively that it can heartily be recommended to any non-gamer you know who might appreciate it. (In fact, some of my friends have full intentions of showing the game to their non-gamer parents)
Each and every character that you encounter in the game is memorable and leaves an impact. Even little NPC's you see for all of one text box have something special about them in such a subtle way that doesn't really hit you until so much later. This statement applies to the minor and nameless characters you sometimes run into, all the way up to the protagonists you control.
Speaking of; the characters that appear more often are very well written. I'm talking REALLY well. If someone who has played this game was given a piece of script from, say, a deleted scene that didn't make it in but still had all the same flawless writing and inflections of the rest of the game, then that person could recognize which character was speaking and to whom simply by the way they're written. Even if the game had the budget for getting voices for every line in the game, I'm still of the belief that even with the most perfect voice actors possible, it would still detract a bit from the experience. Everyone is written so dang well that you don't NEED voices. The mental sounds that come about from reading them serve the entire purpose flawlessly; any voice actor would still be imprinting their own impression of the scene in question, and the whole point of this being a simplistic video game is to make your own impression out of what's happening.
Heck, the entire game is masterfully written. When you get down to it, the name of the game here is To The Moon.
...Which somehow also can mean Subtlety.
Throughout the entire dialogue that occurs between the two protagonists, you can infer so much of their character, their backstory, their personalities, and their likes and wants, all indirectly. It's easy to spot when they mention something about themselves off-hand, yet if you aren't paying attention, it can be so easy to miss some crucial lines. So much detail is subtly inserted into the dialogue, and yet it still pushes the plot forward constantly. There isn't ever any filler moments; it's always progressing in some fashion. All of this applies to more than just the protagonists, of course. Every character that has any amount of screentime say so much with comparitively little. If only every RPG could be so succinct and so detailed. Heck, even if just Bioware could learn a couple lessons from this game, their games could become much more emotionally powerful.
And to loosely link this paragraph to the previous one; emotion is one of many things To The Moon has perfected. I admit absolutely no shame in saying that this game had me bawling like a baby at almost six different occasions throughout the story. There's so many beautiful scenes that can tug at the heartstrings. For as many serious moments to be had, there are just as many if not more humourous ones that had me laughing heartily. Sometimes, a funny bit would come up just after a heavy-hearted one, causing a bit of mood whiplash. And again, these moments are brought about entirely by the narrative. Sure, the backgrounds look nice and the sprites cause no confusion, but they aren't what brings the mood about. They work alongside the music and dialogue to create some stunning moments and genuine emotion. There's even moments of shock and tension, but these I DEFINITELY won't be talking about. You'll just have to play it yourself to see.
There is one more aspect of the game that I would like to talk about. You ever play a game, and everything that it mentions and brings up feels so right and realistic? Sure, it could be some kind of a fantastic setting with a general premise that's beyond realism, but many aspects of it are so well researched and realistically implemented that it feels just right? My usual go-to example of this sort of thing is the Deus Ex games, but in this case, To The Moon meets or even sometimes exceeds other games in this respect. In this case, it's mostly about the human body and mind. There is a character with a mental disorder, and the way that character talks, moves, expresses themself, and react to any given thing is absolutely exact to what a person of that condition would do in real life. (A friend of mine with the very same condition confirms it absolutely) The writer of the game most assuredly had someone close to them that they based the character on, and it shows. Even though it's never directly stated that this character even HAS a condition, let alone this specific one, there's no shadow of a doubt what the case is in this game.
Beyond that character, everything else in the game speaks volumes to the amount of research done into even small points throughout the game. Even something as simple and everyday as how the sense of smell works with a person is implemented creatively and accurately. There are many other aspects of the game that reflect such detailed levels of writer knowledge, but are often so subtly done that one scarcely notices unless you pay very close attention throughout the game.
Though I think I've gushed on enough about the bloody writing. But since it's the star of the show, what else is there to talk about?
Well..... The experience of the game as a whole. After spending a few hours to get to know the characters, their motivations, their needs and wants, their reactions, combined with the audio and visual presentation, it leaves a very distinct impact on a person. And thanks to it's minimalist design and ease of use, it can be recommended to nearly anyone you may think of with even a passing interest in a good story. Indeed, the very first people I told to play To The Moon are rather hardcore gamers, and they enjoyed it very highly, though for a number of personal reasons. (let's just say it struck fairly close to home for them) I then recommended the game to a much less devoted of a gamer, and she enjoyed highly as well. (and in fact purchased the soundtrack of her own accord. Good goin', gal!) Then I had another person play through it, a fairly recent convert to the nerd ways, and she as well heartily enjoyed it.
So what I'm getting at is that this game can be enjoyed by a wide range of people.
So what are you waiting for? Head on over to the game's site at www.freebirdgames.com and play it for yourself! You can try the game out for an hour for free, usually sampling a good solid quarter of the full game, but a mere purchase of ten dollars will net you the whole game. And, if if I may say, just in case this whole article didn't illustrate it clearly enough....
It's totally worth it.