The Infinite Zenith

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Portal With RTX: A Reflection on A More Reflective Portal Experience

“Just because something doesn’t do what you planned it to do, doesn’t mean it’s useless.” –Thomas Edison

Back in September, NVIDIA’s announcement of Portal With RTX generated a bit of buzz: the original Portal is now fifteen years old. To showcase their new line of Lovelace GPUs and RTX Remix, NVIDIA also determined that Portal was worth reimagining. Using machine learning, RTX Remix dynamically computes how lighting should behave, allowing it to interact with objects in a 3D space in real-time. RTX Remix uses path-tracing, which uses a comparatively simple algorithm to render high-quality images at the expense of performance; as lighting becomes more sophisticated, path-tracing becomes more demanding, and typically, games utilise more efficient variants of path-tracing that may not be quite as visually impressive. Here in Portal With RTX, NVIDIA Remix’s use of path-tracing means that the end-result is a highly advanced showcase of what lighting effects are possible: because everything is done using ray-tracing, illuminations, shadows, reflections and even refractive effects are especially impressive, breathing new life into an iconic game. There is, however, a trade-off: because of how computationally expensive path-tracing is, Portal With RTX demands the most powerful hardware in order to run at maximum quality and resolution. In order to play Portal With RTX at 4K and 60 FPS, with everything set to ultra, NVIDIA’s RTX 4080 is recommended. On the other hand, while the minimum GPU suggested is the RTX 3060, folks have reported that they’re struggling to run Portal With RTX, even though they’re running video cards that are more powerful than the RTX 3060. The variability in performance and experience demonstrate that, as exciting as ray-tracing techniques are, and as exciting as the prospect of having real-time ray-tracing hardware become mainstream is, the technology still has a way to go before it can become widespread. For the present, real-time ray-tracing remains more of a curiosity, but when judiciously applied, the lighting and visuals can act as a fantastic showcase for what is possible.

The extreme requirements in Portal With RTX has meant that getting the game to run has been a toss-of-the-coin. On my RTX 3060 Ti, which is about 30 percent more powerful than the RTX 3060, I’ve managed to get Portal With RTX running at manageable frame rates, with reasonable quality. Although the RTX 3060 Ti is far outstripped by the RTX 4090, the fact that this mid-range card is able to run Portal With RTX without any major issues speaks volumes to the build I put together back in March. In this way, I was able to revisit an old experience given a fresh coat of paint. Initial impressions of Portal With RTX had been met with skepticism: video games journalist Ben Sledge writes that the highly reflective, clean surfaces of the remaster defeats the visual impact of the original game, where there had previously been dull, lifeless walls, and as a result, the soul of Portal had been “ripped out”. As a result, the remaster was unnecessary, and hardly any justification for playing Portal With RTX. In practise, this is untrue; although Portal With RTX has new, high-resolution textures to showcase just how sophisticated the RTX Remix lighting is, the overall aesthetic in Portal With RTX remains respectful to the visuals of the original. NVIDIA had chosen to showcase segments of the game where the differences were especially profound, but for folks playing through Portal With RTX, the visuals actually aren’t too dramatically changed: after marvelling at the reflections from the Heavy Duty Super-Colliding Super Button, emissive effects from the high-energy pellets and dynamic shadows (all computed in real time), it’s time to focus on the puzzles themselves. Moving through the test chambers, it is apparent that, rather than depriving Portal of its character, the updated visuals actually speak to an Aperture Science that is at its prime. Clean, polished surfaces show an institute that was, at one point, a serious competitor to Black Mesa. The new visuals in Portal With RTX serve to both bring life to an old classics, as well as tell a different story about Aperture Sciences, and in this way, one can make a clear case that Portal With RTX is anything but soulless. Of course, if one wished to experience the original, that option continues to remain viable: the old game isn’t going anywhere, and upon returning to it after completing Portal With RTX, it is apparent that the original still holds up extremely well.

Screenshots and Commentary

  • For me, Portal With RTX represents a test of my hardware’s capabilities. I’d already played through and wrote about Portal previously, having greatly enjoyed the game’s innovative mechanics and sense of humour. On this particular play-through, I completed the entire game in the space of an hour and a half, having already gone through the game and therefore, had a full knowledge of all of the nuances to how each puzzle was to be solved. Instead, a part of this experience was to see just how detailed everything looked now that real-time ray-tracing was implemented.

  • To put things simply, Portal With RTX looks amazing. This is most noticeable in the Heavy Duty Super-Colliding Super Buttons on the floor. Whereas they’d been made of a dull metal previously, they’re now reimagined as glass or ceramic buttons and reflect their environments in detail. To show that off, I’ve stacked a pair of Weighted Storage Cubes here, and positioned myself so I could see the wall lights and portal reflected on the buttons’ surfaces. Ray-tracing effects have previously been implemented in first person shooters like Metro: Exodus and DOOM: Eternal, but with how high-paced they are, there’s little time to appreciate the visuals.

  • On the other hand, Portal is the perfect place to showcase what ray-tracing can do. The high energy pellets, for instance, now emit their own light and act as a mobile point light. While this is nothing impressive, the fact that everything in this scene is ray-traced shows what’s possible with the technique. One detail I did particularly like was the fact that the toxic liquid in Portal With RTX, a dull, greenish-brown sludge in the original, is now more reflective, and thanks to ray-tracing, any changes in the environment are now visible on the liquid’s surface, too.

  • For me, I have DLSS on and set to “Quality”. I’m using a custom graphic preset with everything turned up, except the maximum number of light bounces is set to four. With these settings, the game runs at around 45 FPS, and I didn’t experience any crashes during my time in Portal With RTX. Although quite a ways lower than the baseline of 60 FPS for smoothness on my monitors, the game remained very playable, and I was able to complete it without any difficulties from a hardware standpoint. With this being said, it is clear that for me, Portal With RTX was not being rendered at native resolution, and instead, was likely being upscaled using DLSS.

  • DLSS (Deep Learning Super Sampling) refers to NVIDIA’s upscaling and inference technology which renders images at lower resolutions and then upscales the images so performance is increased. This translates to better frame rates for players, allowing lower-end GPUs to still keep up. The technology was introduced with the Turing Series, and with Lovelace, DLSS 3 was brought in: DLSS 3 is exclusive to the Lovelace series, but even the older DLSS 2 (which is available on the Ampere GPUs) offers performance gains. For most of the games I play, I have more than enough hardware to render everything at native resolution.

  • In the case of Portal With RTX, the image quality is a little less crisp than if everything were rendered natively. With DLSS off, I average around 15-20 FPS, so in order to have a playable frame rate, even at 1080p, I needed DLSS to be enabled, although even at the “quality” mode, I was able to maintain about 40-45 FPS. I estimate that folks running an RTX 2080 Super or RTX 2080 Ti should also be able to play Portal With RTX without too much problem after adjusting some of the settings, but anything below an RTX 3060 is unlikely to be able to run the game.

  • The requirements for Portal With RTX are surprisingly steep because RTX Remix is, simply put, expecting the Lovelace series of GPUs to brute force things. When optimised, real-time ray-tracing can be quite performant, but here, Portal With RTX is meant as more of a demonstration of the technology. As such, as incredible as Portal With RTX looks, it’s also one of those games that can’t be recommended to Portal fans unless they already have the hardware or are intending to upgrade their hardware and utilising it fully: it should go without saying that spending 2200 CAD for an RTX 4090, or 1650 CAD for an RTX 4080 (neither of which are in stock at my local computer store) just so one can play Portal is not a good use of money.

  • Having said this, if one has a legitimate use case for a Lovelace GPU, then Portal With RTX becomes a novel experience. Here, I will share a laugh with readers at the expense of Tango-Victor-Tango’s John “Fighteer” Aldrich, who had posted to the forums shortly after Portal With RTX‘s announcement, wondering if his GTX 1060 would be able to run the game and concluded he should be okay since the GTX 1060 was capable of ray-tracing. Although the 6 GB model of the GTX 1060 can enable DXR and do some ray tracing, performance leaves much to be desired – if memory serves, in games with basic ray tracing, the GTX 1060 drops to around 15 FPS with DXR enabled. Seeing Fighteer’s misplaced optimism that the GTX 1060 (while a fantastic card) could run Portal With RTX is laughable and typifies the behaviour of Tango-Victor-Tango’s userbase’s tendency to not completely research their topics before speaking out.

  • Shortly after Portal With RTX released, Fighteer found himself eating crow and commented on how he now had an incentive to upgrade in the future, and I return to my previous statement – if one is planning an upgrade to an RTX 4080 or 4090 purely so they can play Portal With RTX, it is likely an unwise expenditure. For content creators who stream Triple-A titles, a top-tier GPU like the 4090 makes sense, and similarly, someone doing AI research will find the 4090 a suitable investment. However, for a vast majority of gamers, the RTX 4090, and even the 4080, is overkill. Having a video card like these for 1440p gaming as a hobby is akin to having a supercar, and then only using it as one’s commuter vehicle.

  • Because of the financial aspect, I do not expect Fighteer to spring on an RTX 4080 or 4090: in fact, I comment that it’d be more prudent now to wait for the mid-end Lovelace cards before making a decision. For me, I’ve settled into a pattern now: after I buy a GPU, I try to make it last at least three generations before upgrading again, and whether I upgrade depends on whether or not my current GPU can still run the games I am interested in on high settings while maintaining 60 FPS at 1080p. If my GPU cannot do this, then I will look at seeing whether or not the current mid-range GPUs can keep up with the upper-range GPUs of the previous generation.

  • For instance, when I upgraded to the GTX 1060 from the GTX 660, one of the selling points about the 1060 was the fact that it offered near-980 levels of performance for a much lower price and a lower power draw. One of the reasons why the RTX 3060 Ti was so enticing, then, was the fact that it actually edged out the RTX 2080 SC. In fact, the 3060 Ti is ten to fifteen percent weaker than the older 2080 Ti, but at the same time, costs significantly less and has a lower power draw. For me, I don’t need the additional power the 2080 Ti offers because I’m still playing at 1080p, so the lower cost made the 3060 Ti the obvious choice.

  • Since I made the call to grab a 3060 Ti, this left me in a position to try Portal With RTX out, and this is why I’ve been lucky enough to give things a go and see for myself what the technology could do. However, Portal With RTX is not a game worth upgrading a GPU for in this moment, but down the line, when more Lovelace GPUs (or the new generation) become available, more people will be able to give Portal With RTX a try. Surprisingly, most of Tango-Victor-Tango’s forums have been remarkable quiet about Portal With RTX, and most of the complaints about the game’s steep requirements are found at Reddit.

  • My response to Portal With RTX and its requirements are that, I’m glad my desktop was able to handle it reasonably well (40-45 FPS at 1080p with things cranked up to ultra is nothing to sneeze at, considering that the recommended GPU is an RTX 3080), and moreover, even if the humble 3060 Ti could not run the game as well as it did, it’s not as though the release of Portal With RTX would take away from the fact that Portal still runs extremely well and is the original experience. As such, it makes little sense to gripe about Portal With RTX‘s changed aesthetics and steep requirements because there’s nothing stopping players from grabbing the original and having a good time with it.

  • As I made further progress into Portal With RTX, I began recalling old memories of playing through the game for the first time. The puzzles came back to me relatively quickly, and I don’t mind admitting that I only had a minor bit of trouble with Test Chamber 15, but even then, after giving things some thought, all of the puzzles proved quite straightforward to complete. This was what allowed me to go through the whole of Portal With RTX with relative ease. On my original run of Portal a decade earlier, I had taken a total of three hours to complete the game since everything was new to me, but for my troubles, had a wonderful experience.

  • I ended up replaying the whole of Portal two years earlier, during the height of the global health crisis. Replaying Portal brought back memories of a simpler time, and here, I pick up the iconic Companion Cube, which became an instant favourite with players. Its first utility is to act as a shield of sorts, protecting players from the high-energy pellets while they travel down the hallways. Here, the ray-tracing has a chance to really shine: the high energy pellets emit light and glow brightly, causing a unique visual effect in the metal-lined corridor that was simply absent in the original.

  • The Companion Cube creates an interesting problem-solving scenario, since players must use their single resource in order to complete the objective, and for Portal With RTX, the updated visuals are especially impressive in Test Chamber 17 because there’s an opportunity to again showcase the lighting. Here, light from the Heavy Duty Super-Colliding Super Buttons illuminates the Companion Cube, and reflections of this lighting can be seen on the wall to the right. The slower pace of Portal is naturally conducive towards admiring the lighting effects.

  • It suddenly hits me that we’re now hurtling through December at a breakneck pace: it only seems like yesterday that the month has started, but we’re now less than two weeks to Christmas itself. Yesterday evening, I was able to enjoy the first Christmas gathering with extended family in three years, and it was a pleasant evening of conversation and excellent food (prime rib with au jus, roasted prawns, skewered pork, mahi-mahi, carrots and Brussels sprouts with bacon and potato gratin). I’ve got another Christmas party lined up on Thursday with the office, but beyond this, I am looking forwards to a quieter Christmas Day with immediate family.

  • 2022’s been an eventful year, especially with the big move and building of a new desktop back in March, but things settled down reasonably quickly, so I am able to look forward to some well-earned downtime at the end of the year. I am glad that I was able to get my desktop set up when I did: the ongoing microprocessor shortage has meant that new parts will continue to be hard to come by, and Intel forecasts that said shortage could last into 2024 because of a lack of manufacturing equipment. As a result, prices are unlikely to see any drops, and this has been most visible with the Lovelace series GPUs, whose flagship model costs more than an entire PC.

  • The extreme price of hardware is what led my alma mater to remove their gaming PCs from the main library. When the new library had opened a decade earlier, the gaming computers were something students marvelled at and featured hardware comparable to my previous desktop. They received upgrades back in 2016, but when campus was undergoing a reconstruction project in 2019, the machines were decommissioned: some students have noted that their hardware was increasingly outdated, and beginning to fail, so the university decided to shelve these machines.

  • As of 2022, campus has not purchased new machines to replace the old ones, and for good reason: picking up eight brand-new custom-built PCs wouldn’t be a good use of the university’s funding, especially when considering that a high-end laptop now can have comparable performance. On the topic of higher-end laptops, my best friend recently picked up a new laptop to replace an aging machine that’d been giving him no shortage of trouble. This laptop, the MSI Katana, is armed with an i7 12700H and an RTX 3070, which puts his machine as having 90 percent the performance of my desktop.

  • With this, I am looking forwards to playing Modern Warfare II spec ops with him in the near future, and in the meantime, the both of us can gloat about being able to enjoy games while Fighteer is stuck moderating pointless debates at Tango-Victor-Tango because aging hardware precludes his spending time doing more enjoyable and productive things, such as checking out the real-time reflections in Portal With RTX. Admittedly, the visuals here are such that it would be easier to show the effects in a video, rather than through screenshots, but one hopes that the stills I’ve got still convey the advances in lighting effects.

  • Back in Portal With RTX, after solving this puzzle, GLaDOS promises that there’d be cake, but for longtime players, what awaits is a hilarious outcome that also sends Portal into its second act. By this point in time, the sum of all of one’s experiences means that players should be able to quickly identify where portals should be placed in order to solve a given puzzle. In Portal 2, test chambers actually limited the amount of surfaces a portal could be placed on, which in turn would give not-so-subtle clues as to how things could be beaten.

  • However, in Portal, even though test chambers are largely portal-friendly, the game still gives some clues as to where portals can be placed. High-energy pellets, for instance, will leave scorch marks on surfaces they interact with, and the receptacles for these pellets similarly illuminate a path so one has an idea of where to aim things. Portal is one of those games where the puzzles, while sometimes challenging, aren’t impossible: it feels rewarding to work something out, but it won’t take one an entire afternoon to figure out one test chamber.

  • Portal is broken cleanly into two acts: the first is the test chambers, and the second is everything after players escape and do what they can to survive. From here on out, the game requires that players keep an eye on their environment and make full use of their creativity and ingenuity to survive. Along the way, scribbles on the walls will serve to guide one to their final destination, a one-on-one confrontation with GLaDOS. I found that Portal With RTX‘s second half was not quite as visually impressive as the first, but even here, the lighting effects are impressive, with things like the catwalks being rendered with reflections to give them a greasy, slippery sense.

  • Pressing through the bowels of Aperture Science with ray-tracing, it becomes clear that while Portal With RTX had refreshed the original test chambers, the back corridors of Aperture remain mostly untouched, and this creates an even stronger juxtaposition between the game’s first and second acts. In these corridors and maintenance ways, the effects from real-time ray-tracing are still noticeable (fans cast shadows in real time, and metallic surfaces interact realistically with light), but for me, the most impressive addition is volumetric lighting, which gives the entire space a musty, dusty character.

  • Owing to the volumetric lighting, spaces that were formerly dark are now much brighter than they’d previously been, and this brought to mind the changes that were made to Halo: Anniversary, where iconic spots on Installation 04 were rendered as being more detailed and bright than in the original. Fans were displeased with the changes, since the darkness had added to the aesthetics and unease those levels conveyed. By the time of Halo 2: Anniversary, 343 Industries took a much more respectful approach to things, and the game ends up being faithful to the original’s tone while at the same time, sporting much more detail.

  • Portal With RTX is more similar to Halo 2: Anniversary, or perhaps Half-Life 2: Update, which touched up the visuals without dramatically altering the game’s style. This speaks volumes to how things like RTX Remix can be used to add new life to classic games, and while I would very much prefer a proper remaster, the fact that the technology exist means that, at least in theory, it’d be possible to run something like Half-Life 2 though RTX Remix and get real-time ray-tracing working. Of course, in a first person shooter, where frame rates do matter, I’m not confident the technology would produce the best experience, even if it does showcase how the potential for giving games new lighting exists.

  • The sky bridge leading into GLaDOS’ chamber in Portal With RTX looks much as it did in Portal, although better lighting means more details are visible. Here, I will note that in the time since I’ve graduated, many parts of my alma mater have undergone dramatic renovations and changes, so some of the features that were present when I were a student are now gone, and the professional building is among the places that have changed. The office perched beside an atrium is gone, but this is actually one of the smaller changes; because it’s been six years since I was a student, the library tower and student services buildings have been completely replaced, and even the iconic “Prairie Chicken” statue was removed for a few years while construction was going on.

  • Although lower frame rates are technically okay (anything north of 30 FPS is playable in the test chambers and while escaping), 45 FPS is more than enough to beat GLaDOS, and I had no trouble completing the final fight. Having said this, it is here, during the final fight, that frame rates do matter: beating GLaDOS, even though it is a relatively relaxed task, still demands some degree of precision and coordination, and a janky experience can prevent one from timing their jumps well enough to grab some of GLaDOS’ personality cores.

  • Ninety minutes later, I had completed the whole of Portal With RTX and was treated to the final cut scene, wherein the infamous black forest cake is rendered using real-time ray-tracing. I found myself vaguely filled with a desire to enjoy some cake, and while the local grocery store sells black forest cakes for 16 CAD, the fact that we’re so close to the holidays means that other Christmas classics will soon dominate the menu (including my personal festive favourite, the chocolate Yule Log).

While ray-tracing has only really taken off with NVIDIA’s Turing series of GPUs, the techniques have been proposed since 1986 by James Kajiya, and during my second year as an undergraduate student, I put together my own ray-tracing method for dynamically computing fluid flow in complex paths for physics objects. The object of this project had been to see if I could solve the problem of the in-house game engine being constrained to linear models of fluid flow. As the lab was trying to simulate more complex paths, the only solution was to approximate these paths by placing what we called “flow fields” into vessels. This was a painstaking task, and the concept of ray-tracing had been a promising way to simplify things. I was asked to explore an algorithm that each physical agent in the model could use to computer its path, and over the course of a summer, fine-tuned it so that it could convincingly “nudge” objects flowing to follow a path for visualisation. While the method had similarly been computationally demanding, it demonstrated that it was possible to push physical agents through any arbitrarily-shaped vessels without manually defining the paths. At the time, hardware meant that doing this for a few hundred objects and maintaining 30 frames per second was an accomplishment, but as more agents were added, performance correspondingly took a hit. Through this summer project, I felt that ray-tracing was a fantastic way of simplifying some tasks at the expense of performance, and while hardware today has improved, the trade off between convenience for the developers, and an end user’s experience, is one that real-time ray-tracing continues to face. In the case of Portal With RTX, using an AI to remaster lighting in a game is an exciting new development, and while it may not produce an optimised product for retail, evolving technology and hardware means that such methods simply open up more possibilities: rather than remain disappointed about how Portal With RTX cannot run on all hardware, one can instead look to the technology as simply another sign that things will never stagnate and continue to advance in new directions: although at present, path-tracing as RTX Remix implements it remains something that needs to be brute-forced, over time, improving software techniques will make things more efficient, and players will be glad that the technology had a starting point from somewhere iconic and reasonable.

GoldenEye 007: Review and Reflection At The Twenty-Fifth Anniversary

You Know The Name. You Know The Number.

When Rare’s GoldenEye 007 launched on August 25, 1997, it represented a dramatic leap forward for the then fledgling first person shooter genre. The game is loosely based on the film GoldenEye, which sees MI6 Double-O agent James Bond investigate the origin of an EMP blast that destroys a Russian radar site and investigate a plot by the criminal organisation, Janus, to use the remaining satellite weapon. In the process, Bond discovers his old partner, Alec Travelyan, founded Janus with the intent of avenging his parents and destroying the United Kingdom. Both the film and video game would represent a massive leap forward for the James Bond franchise: the film was the first post Cold War James Bond to be produced and introduced Judi Dench as the first female M, while the video game revolutionised first person shooters. Until GoldenEye 007, first person shooters had been simple in terms of mechanics; players would explore an area, defeat all foes and find an exit to move on. DOOM had added additional depth by requiring keycards be found to access new areas, and compelled players to explore for secrets. However, the fundamentals behind each level was the same: one simply needed to utilise their arsenals and slay anything that moved. On the other hand, GoldenEye 007 featured an incredible amount of level variety, each of which were characterised by a set of goals players needed to complete as Bond. From sneaking into a facility undetected, to planting tracking bugs on a stolen helicopter and providing covering fire for Natalya as she reprograms the GoldenEye satellite, each level offers something unique. The idea of objective-based levels meant that players needed to, by definition, explore to understand what was being asked of them, and this forced players to carefully consider how they wished to approach a mission. Moreover, various gadgets were added to increased the sense of immersion, convincing players that they are the super-spy, James Bond. From using the watch laser to cut a hatch open to escape an exploding train, to taking photos of top-secret developments, GoldenEye 007 set the standard for what shooters could become.

Besides its narrative and design elements, GoldenEye 007 also would set precedence for modern shooters through its arsenal of modern weapons. Rather than exotic weapons like DOOM‘s BFG 9000 and chain-gun, GoldenEye 007 possesses a diverse variety of weapons, from Bond’s iconic suppressed PP7 (Walther PPK), to the KF7 Soviet (AK-47), AR-33 (M16A2) and D5K Deutsche (MP5K). Different weapons have different handling characteristics, allowing Bond to carefully pick off foes from a distance, or stealthily down nearby foes, but in a bind, one can switch over to the full-automatic weapons, and even dual-wield them to double firepower. Because stealth and precision are factored into one’s performance, GoldenEye 007 also introduced the idea of manual aim. This feature locks players in place and allows them to gain access to a reticule which greatly improves weapon accuracy at the expense of movement. Manual aim with some weapons, like the sniper rifle or KF7 Soviet, also offer zoom. This would eventually translate into weapon optics of later games like Half-Life and Halo, and that in turn inspired the aiming-down-sight mechanics of contemporary games. The additional precision is necessary because GoldenEye 007 is the first first person shooter to have context-sensitive damage (i.e. headshots are a one-hit kill). These mechanics, while dated compared to the sophistication of modern titles, have actually withstood the test of time extremely well. Gameplay in GoldenEye 007 still feels smooth and responsive, and while movement may feel a little floaty compared to today’s games, the shooting remains incredibly satisfying. Weapons feel and sound powerful, and there is no greater satisfaction than dropping a distant foe with a single, well-placed headshot from Bond’s signature PP7. While GoldenEye 007 took the market by storm after its release, received well-deserved rave reviews for its innovation and ambition, and became a must-have stocking-stuffer that holiday season, the legacy GoldenEye 007 leaves behind is even more impressive, laying down the groundwork for every first person shooter that has since come after.

Screenshots and Commentary

  • GoldenEye 64 is the first-ever first person shooter I’ve ever played. Back then, I wasn’t a gamer by any stretch and preferred to spend my time reading: my relatives had gotten me a Super Nintendo system for my birthdays, and I remember popping in Rare’s Donkey Kong Country, losing all of my lives on the first level and then never playing again. When my relatives caught wind of this, they then got me Super Mario All-Stars, and I remember beating the game by means of using warp worlds. The me of twenty-five years earlier had no patience for games, and I remember playing games with an eye out for cheats and exploits.

  • Today, I play games with an exploratory mindset, and while I now go through games honestly, I still maintain a trace of my old mindset: video games can be a pleasant experience, but they can also be a distraction that takes away from life’s priorities. The key is moderation, and on the average week, I average about half an hour of gaming per day (in practise, this translates to two hours on weekends, and then an hour on one or two weeknights). As a result of how I do things, I’ve never become “good” at games, and instead, choose to play them casually.

  • It felt quite strange to return to GoldenEye 007 after having not played it for over twenty years. My first experience with the game was at a Christmas party with family, and as the story goes, after dinner ended, my cousin had asked us to come downstairs and check out the gift he found to be the most exciting. Because I’d been weak with games, I’d never asked for a Nintendo 64 (most of the time, I would request Legos or books). Although I was unfamiliar with the controls, GoldenEye 007‘s controls were intuitive, and in one memorable match, I found the RC-P90.

  • In the original facility mission, Bond starts with the suppressed PP7, but can pick up an KF7 Soviet off fallen foes. Long ago, I would play this part of the game, and after clearing out the first area, get stuck because I could never find the keycard. However, despite having not played GoldenEye 007 for over twenty years, the experience I’ve accrued over that time meant that, in revisiting this game, I was able to finish missions more quickly. The game is as every bit as enjoyable as I remember, and while the visuals are very dated, the mechanics held up surprisingly well.

  • GoldenEye 007‘s greatest asset was that it brought iconic locations from the film to life while at the same time, expanding things out into a full-fledged game. Here, I enter the chemical room, and after rendezvousing with Trevelyan, I make to set off the explosives after Colonel Ourumov shoots him before diving out onto the conveyer belt, just like in the film. Unlike the film, some areas are expanded out and transformed into playable areas: GoldenEye 007 allows players to infiltrate the dam and fend off guards on a heavily-defended runway to reach a waiting plane, which never happened in the movie.

  • The suppressed PP7 that Bond starts with is a remarkably fun weapon to use. Pistols are often presented as being sidearms in modern games, a backup weapon to fall back upon in event of an emergency, but in GoldenEye 007, landing headshots with the PP7 is an effective way of dropping foes without arousing suspicion. Unless I’m mistaken, GoldenEye 007 is one of the first games to introduce suppressed weapons, and while they’re certainly not the whisper-quiet weapons the game presents them to be, the game tread into exciting new grounds with weapons that didn’t alert enemies to one’s presence.

  • As a primary student, I was so enraptured by GoldenEye 007 that, during recess and lunch breaks, I would play pretend and re-enact missions from the game with friends. The school’s playground became the Facility mission, and the large field surrounding the school was Surface during the winter months. These missions became my favourites as a result of the associated memories, and to this day, I still enjoy playing through Surface, which has a very distinct aesthetic about it. It’s set in a forest clearing, and the skies suggest that it’s early morning.

  • The sniper rifle in GoldenEye 007 is a generic weapon, but its greatest two features is that it has the highest zoom of any weapon in the game, as well as a suppressor that allows it to pick off enemies from a distance. While perhaps not capable of dropping foes from 400 metres like Battlefield, it’s still an excellent weapon, and one of its most curious attributes is that its stock can be used to bludgeon enemies. As a primary student, I mistakenly referred to this weapon as a “bazooka” because of its size. In the years subsequent, I learnt more about the weapons that were in the game, and by the time I received 007 Nightfire as a birthday gift, I was more familiar with the different kinds of weapons games would feature.

  • Here, I arrive at the communications dish that needs to be powered down as a part of the mission objectives. GoldenEye 007 has no minimap and objective indicator, leaving players to explore the world space on their own to find everything. Modern games come with HUD indicators, detailed maps and radars to help players out with navigation, but back in 1997, exploration in a virtual 3D space was a part of the fun. The communications dish reminds me of the old playground at my primary school, and until my move earlier this year, I occasionally walked back there.

  • The school hasn’t changed in the past two decades: a new playground was installed when I was halfway through my primary education, replacing a rickety wooden structure that was prone to giving students splinters. The upgraded playground was the talk of the neighbourhood when it was completed, and I remember spending an afternoon over there with friends on weekends to play around when no one else was around. Those days were often characterised by returning to their place so we could play GoldenEye 007‘s multiplayer together.

  • Gaming over at a friend’s place meant that our time would often be spent playing multiplayer, and this is why in those days, I never did have a chance to explore the game’s campaigns. The campaigns of iconic titles like GoldenEye 007 and Halo 2 thus become experiences that I would remain curious about in the years to come. Here, I continued on with my campaign experience, entering Bunker to collect information on the GoldenEye key. This mission exemplifies how stealth works: if one can quietly pick off soldiers, they won’t sound the alarm, and one has an easier go at finishing the mission objectives.

  • This spot in Bunker is used as one of the screenshots on Wikipedia for GoldenEye 007: the level is based off the remote Severnaya communications station in the movie, and unlike the film, Bond travels here to gather intel on the GoldenEye weapon. Although GoldenEye and GoldenEye 007 both present Severnaya as being a heavily forested region in central Siberia, the actual Severnaya island chain is a polar desert located in the high Arctic. Once the information is obtained, players only need to proceed out the doors on the right to finish the mission.

  • Silo is an iconic mission, which sees Bond investigate a missile launch site in Kyrgyzstan after rumours of an unscheduled missile launch surface. This mission was one of my favourites, featuring the combination of a very cool level and gripping close-quarters firefights. At lower difficulties, the only goal is to photograph the GoldenEye weapon and avoid doing harm to the scientists, while on 00 Agent difficulty, objectives include collecting cassettes carrying the launch telemetry data and planting explosives in the fuel room.

  • The level design in Silo doubtlessly inspired Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare‘s “No Fighting in the War Room” mission, which took place in cramped, grim quarters rendered similarly to those of GoldenEye 007‘s. Modern Warfare Remastered completely breathed new life into the once dull-looking level, and I’ve long been curious to see what GoldenEye 007 would look like with modern graphics. The GoldenEye 25 remake, which sought to completely remaster the original game in Unreal Engine 4, would’ve answered this question. An ambitious project that would have released today had it been allowed to see completion, MGM issued a cease-and-desist order a few years back, and while the developers retooled the assets into a new game, my interest in the project had been in seeing old levels given a fresh coat of paint.

  • I vividly recalling playing through Frigate and rescuing the hostages at a friend’s place many years ago. Bond starts the mission armed with a suppressed D5K Deutsche, but can find unsuppressed D5K Deutsches around the mission from dropping hostile forces. During my time as a primary student, GoldenEye 007 also became popular among other students who had a Nintendo 64 console. However, game consoles back then were a bit of a rarity. My friend had been one of the few people who did have a Nintendo 64 at the time, and we spent several memorable afternoons playing through the game.

  • The cavernous interior of the Frigate reminds me of my primary school’s mechanical room: one day, the custodians had left the door ajar, and I caught a glimpse of what was inside: it looked something similar to the Frigate’s engine room. After its release, GoldenEye 007 had become very popular amongst those who played it, and the graphics were one of the reasons why this was the case: on a console, visuals like these were unprecedented. The game became the talk of the town, and one of the popular students in the year below mine became resentful of the fact that the game had become more popular than the things she liked.

  • To this end, she decided that anyone who liked GoldenEye 007 was “uncool”; those who wanted to remain in her social circle needed to conform with her idea of what was acceptable. The individual in question was hailed as the smartest person in her year for being a deft hand in mathematics, and was seen as having “mature” tastes, allowing her to maintain a queen bee status amongst her peers. She was envied and admired to the point where everyone in her year adopted the same actions and beliefs she had, which extended to disliking anyone who found GoldenEye 007 enjoyable.

  • As such, some students in the year below mine became bullied and excluded for liking GoldenEye 007 by those who wanted to stay in this individual’s good graces. If I had to guess, these behaviours manifested because expressing even only a mild interest to what people like was akin to invalidating their identity. After primary school, this individual attended a private middle school, and all of the bullying dissolved along with her clique. It was curious that even at this age, people were already concerned with social status and the like.

  • Back in GoldenEye 007, I’ve jumped ahead to the iconic tank mission: I pass under a sky-bridge here that was also featured on Wikipedia, and note that one of GoldenEye 007‘s biggest charms was that it featured vehicular gameplay. While the tank operation is simplistic, and the tank gun fires projectiles that behave like grenades rather than tank shells, it was thrilling to relive one of the film’s most iconic moments in the game and drive through the streets of St. Petersberg in a T-54/55.

  • Not every part of GoldenEye 007 aged gracefully: missions set in the jungle, or anywhere with lots of greenery do not like as sharp. I have read that the game was originally developed with more entities being done in greyscale so they could be rendered at twice the resolution, making things sharper. Difficulties in capturing screenshots in the jungle is why I have nothing here about the fight with Xenia Onatopp, who fights with a grenade launcher and RC-P90 (FN P90). GoldenEye 64, despite technical limitations, did faithfully reproduce characters from the film, and here, I encounter Boris Grishenko, a programmer who worked on the GoldenEye project.

  • Although the game makes no indicator of such, if one were to fire on Boris, Natalya would refuse to reprogram the satellite, soft-locking the game into a failure state. GoldenEye 007‘s technical limitations actually serve to enhance the game further: the game doesn’t hold players’ hands through things and leaves one to figure things out for themselves. This aspect encourages replay, since some missions can be quite complex, and may require restarting several times to figure out fully. Here, after Natalya begins reprogramming the satellite, I found myself fending off wave after wave of Janus’ guards. Thankfully, they drop ammunition, making it easy to stay topped off.

  • The final mission in GoldenEye 007 is the confrontation with Trevelyan: unlike the film, which has the pair fight in hand-to-hand combat, GoldenEye 007 reimagines the fight as a gun battle. The way GoldenEye 007 does its fights to fit the first person shooter format is creative and imaginative, and for this final fight, the only weapon available outside of the starting PP7 is the ZMG (a mini-Uzi), a fast-firing weapon that can be dual-wielded. Trevelyan is invincible for most of the fight, but shooting at him will push him in a different direction, and the aim of this level thus becomes pushing him into a small room that leads to the bottom of the cradle.

  • Once Trevelyan is beaten, GoldenEye‘s story comes to a close. From this point onwards, players gain access to GoldenEye 007‘s higher difficulties and replay missions to eventually unlock both cheats and two bonus missions hailing from the Roger Moore era. GoldenEye 007‘s approach towards replayability and content was a consequence of its times: back then, game developers intentionally had difficulty levels as a part of the progression, giving players a chance to improve at the game before going for more challenging assignments. Players at the top of their game in GoldenEye 007 would unlock two bonus missions: Aztec and Egyptian.

  • Aztec is a personal favourite of mine, as it gives players a chance to utilise the AR-33, which is the second most powerful weapon in the game (losing out only to the RC-P90). Rounds from this weapon penetrate through objects, and it has a high rate of fire, as well as a high zoom. Aztec is one of the most difficult levels in the whole of GoldenEye 007 and is a true test for players who’ve completed the rest of the game. The aim of this mission is similar to Silo: Bond must reprogram the shuttle launch in a scenario similar to Moonraker.

  • Drax’s hidden jungle base is reproduced with great accuracy, and here, I pass through the control centre where Drax originally oversaw his plan to exterminate humanity before repopulating the planet. While Moonraker is probably one of the most far-fetched 007 movies to be produced, it was also my first 007 film, and I found Moonraker to be especially enjoyable for its portrayal of the space shuttle and the ensuing laser battle. I’ve longed for a modern reimagining of these battles, and the closest that players would get was 2003’s 007 Nightfire, which was a revolutionary Bond game that improved upon Agent Under Fire, which was itself an attempt to bring GoldenEye 007 to sixth-generation consoles.

  • While the RC-P90 is the most powerful gun in the whole of GoldenEye 007, and I don’t have any screenshots of it in this post, I did manage to find the Moonraker Laser, which performs comparably to the .44 Magnum, albeit with unlimited ammunition and a much higher firing rate. The unlimited ammunition makes the weapon incredibly versatile, and after watching Moonraker, I was thrilled to learn that this weapon was featured in GoldenEye 007. Later 007 games would feature similar experimental weapons: 007 Nightfire‘s Phoenix Samurai Laser Rifle is a homage to the Moonraker Laser, but has been balanced so that it overheats after a few shots.

  • One pleasant surprise in the Aztec level was that players have a chance to fight one of the most iconic Bond henchmen ever: Jaws. Although GoldenEye 007 is constrained in what it could do, giving Jaws a high health pool and dual AR-33s emphasised to players that this would be a difficult fight. However, continuously moving around and returning fire with the Moonraker Laser eventually allows one to defeat him, and Jaws drops a keycard that is necessary to continue on with the mission. The later levels were never a part of my childhood memories, since my friends never had the level unlocked.

  • It is the case that the two bonus missions differ from the aesthetic seen elsewhere in GoldenEye 007, harkening back to an older era of James Bond. In Egyptian, there is no precise analogue with older Bond films, but the mission draws inspiration from The Spy Who Loved MeLive and Let Die and The Man With The Golden Gun. The map is set in an unknown Egyptian temple, and the aim of the level is simple: kill the voodoo shaman Baron Samedi using the Golden Gun. Players encounter Baron Samedi a few times, and while he can be “killed”, he reappears at later points in the mission.

  • The way to get the Golden Gun is immensely convoluted, and originally, players would’ve had to figure things out for themselves through trial-and-error. However, an official strategy guide was released alongside the game, and this guide provides step-by-step instructions of how to finish the puzzle without setting off the chamber’s defensive turrets. Once the puzzle is completed, players gain access to the Golden Gun, plus an extra ninety-nine rounds in reserve. The gun is immensely fun to use against foes, who fall in a single shot. This is the only place the Golden Gun appears in the campaign on its own.

  • Once the Golden Gun is acquired, players can finally send Baron Samedi to Davey Jone’s locker: it takes two to three body shots, but once done, the mission draws to a close. With this, my revisit of GoldenEye 007 draws to a close; here, it is worth mentioning that the idea of playing through the game and writing about it had been around since I finished GoldenEye: Rogue Agent back in 2020, but I encountered difficulty in formulating a post about one of the greatest games ever made, and eventually decided that I would write about the game at the twenty five year anniversary.

In the twenty five years that has passed since GoldenEye 007 released, the gaming market is almost unrecognisable. First person shooters are among the most popular genre for their relatively low barrier to entry and high skill ceiling, and games have since built upon the learnings from GoldenEye 007 to advance the genre further. Halo would add the idea of recharging health and a limited loadout to encourage smarter, strategic play. Half-Life brought to the table a story without cutscenes or breaks in the play to immerse players in new ways. Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare successfully implemented elements that made first person shooters even more realistic and life-like. The James Bond franchise would also receive several excellent games. The Nintendo 64 platform later had The World is Not Enough, which expanded upon options available in GoldenEye 007. When sixth generation game consoles came out, Agent Under Fire and 007 Nightfire improved upon the mechanics and visuals to modernise the James Bond experience. Unfortunately, the franchise has since languished: there haven’t been any good James Bond games for modern consoles, and owing to copyright issues, fan remakes and official remasters of the game have been suppressed or cancelled. This is especially disappointing when considering the legacy GoldenEye 007 leaves behind: because the gameplay and mechanics in GoldenEye 007 still remain excellent, a lot of die-hard fans of GoldenEye 007 have been itching to see what the game might look like if it were brought to life using today’s technology and techniques. Prior to their cancellation or stoppage in development, some of the remakes have been commented as being how players saw GoldenEye 007 when they popped in the cartridge and powered on the game for the first time back in 1997. The game certainly did have an impact on the me of twenty-five years earlier: after playing it at a cousin’s place during our annual Christmas dinners, I immediately became hooked on both James Bond and the first person shooter genre, and this has contributed to my current interests in Cold War military history and weapons technology.

Go! Go! Nippon! ~My First Trip to Japan~: Reflections and Reminiscence on A Journey to the Land of the Rising Sun Five Years Earlier, and Revisiting My First Visual Novel

“Japan never considers time together as time wasted. Rather, it is time invested.” –Donald Richie

On this day in 2017, I was sitting on the benches at the Vancouver International Airport awaiting a flight back home. Although exhausted, I was immensely satisfied with my excursion. Early in May, I boarded a plane bound for Narita International Airport. We’d arrived later in the evening, so after reaching our hotel, we had time for dinner at a Chinese-style restaurant at the Hilton Tokyo Narita Airport before hitting the hay. The next morning, after a full Western breakfast, we boarded our ride and headed straight to the heart of Tokyo to check out the Meiji Jinju Shrine and Tokyo Imperial Palace. After stopping briefly in Ginza for a shabu-shabu lunch, the afternoon consisted of walking the Sumida River and exploring the Kogan-ji temple. The day wrapped up with an exquisite Wagyu beef and snow crab dinner at the Hotel Heritage. Here, I had the chance to soak in their onsen: having seen the procedure countless times in anime, I felt right at home in cleaning up and enjoying the experience. On the second day of our lightning tour, we travelled deep into the mountains of Yamanashi, stopping at Heiwa Park near Gotemba to view Mount Fuji from a distance. Following yakiniku, we visited Oshino Village and Mount Fuji’s Fifth Station. From here, we drove out to Shirokabako Resort by Mount Tateshima, where we spent the night. The next day opened with a drive to Magome-juku, where we took in the quiet of the Japanese countryside and had a traditional lunch before being whisked away to the heart of Nagoya to check out Atsuta Shrine. The final stop for this third day was Gifu: we were now within a stone’s throw from Kyoto, and on our final full day, we entered Kyoto itself, stopping by the Kinkakuji in the morning. Here, I enjoyed matcha ice cream and the iconic golden-leafed walls of Kyoto’s most famous temple under drizzling skies. Following a kaiseki lunch near Yasaka Shrine, we visited Todaji Temple in Nara, known for its free-roaming deer population. The day concluded in Osaka: after taking in the sights of the Sakai shopping district, we stopped for an omurice dinner, and I swung by a local bookstore to grab a copy of Kimi no Na Wa‘s manga before turning in: the next day, I’d been slated to fly on over to Hong Kong for the trip’s second leg, so early in the morning, we made our way over to Kansai International Airport. Although a flight out usually is more a matter of procedure, a pair of surprises awaited me here at Kansai International Airport; I was able to try authentic okonomiyaki, and I came upon a copy of the Kimi no Na Wa artbook while waiting for my flight. Like the protagonist Go! Go! Nippon! ~My First Trip to Japan~, I had a very short window in which to take in the sights, sounds and tastes of Japan, and I similarly realised an inevitable truth: that it would take a lifetime to fully experience everything Japan’s got to offer: this game had come into my path some five years prior to my travels to Japan in 2017.

As the story goes, on a miserable late autumn afternoon, I was typing away in the quiet of my office space: having finished building a sodium-potassium pump on the same principles as the renal filtration model I’d designed during the previous summer, I was working on a term paper ahead of a presentation for my research course. As I reached the section on my findings, one of my friends appeared at the lab. His classes for the day had ended, and he had something amusing to show me: a YouTuber was playing through a visual novel about visiting Japan, and was doing a throw-your-voice style voiceover of the dialogue. I’d only been mildly interested at the time, and despite having picked the game up to try it out, Go! Go! Nippon! remained a bit of a curiosity for me until, four years after its initial release, the 2015 expansion was announced. The additional content and visual improvements were enough for me to pick this up, and I’d beaten one of the Makoto routes posthaste. However, a post never materialised, and it is with some irony that I reflect on how my typical tendency for procrastination meant that I would only write about the game a full five years after I’d returned home from my travels to Japan and Hong Kong. The premise in Go! Go! Nippon! is simple: a foreign traveller decides to visit Japan at the behest of two pen-pals he’d met in an online chatroom, and upon arriving, discovers they’re sisters, Makoto and Akira Misaki. Despite the initial awkwardness, said visitor gets a very personalised tour of some of Tokyo’s most famous destinations, and along the way, becomes closer to Makoto or Akira, depending on the choice of destinations visited. Despite its hokey premise, Go! Go! Nippon! has proven to be surprisingly entertaining, being part visual novel and part Lonely Planet travel guide: the game is remarkably detailed about the history and information surrounding some of Tokyo’s attractions, from Ginza and Akihabara, to Shibuya and Mount Takao. The setup provides players the ideal environment to acclimatise to what a visual novel is like, using a story that is relatable for overseas players who might be dreaming of one day setting foot on the Land of the Rising Sun. In this way, despite being cheesy on first glance, Go! Go! Nippon! ends up being a fantastic experience for both introducing players to visual novel mechanics, as well as providing a guide to Tokyo’s sights to the same level of depth as a travel book might. The visual novel consequently received a pair of expansions, which brought Go! Go! Nippon! into the world of HD and provided animated character models using Unity. In addition, additional locations were added along with a more sophisticated decision tree that brings with it, new events for players to check out. The concept has proven quite enduring: Makoto and Akira have since become Virtual YouTubers, and the developers, OVERDRIVE, have also been surprised with the success of this series and its characters. When they’d started the Virtual YouTubers programme with Makoto and Akira, they’d made a tongue-in-cheek remark about how if they ever hit ten thousand subscribers, they would begin development on Go! Go! Nippon! 2. This particular milestone has since been reached, and all eyes are now on OVERDRIVE as they begin work on a sequel to a game that I’m certain that no one expected to reach the heights that it did.

There is a degree of irony in the fact that I ended up playing through and writing about Go! Go! Nippon! five years after my travels to Japan; a trip to Japan costs around 2400 CAD for an individual, whereas Go! Go! Nippon! and its expansions together are two orders of magnitude cheaper (since I bought Go! Go! Nippon! during sales over the years, my total for all three games was 14.91 CAD). However, despite the dramatic contrasts in the manner in which one gets to experience Japan, there are also striking similarities, attesting to how well Go! Go! Nippon! is able to capture the feelings of travelling Japan. While on first glance, Japan possesses a dramatically different culture, set of values and customs compared to somewhere like Canada, setting foot in Japan also made it apparent that the similarities were greater in number than differences. Outside of Japan’s numerous temples, attractions and sights, I found that whether it was Tokyo, Gifu, Nagoya, Kyoto or Osaka, the roads and streets were filled with people getting from point A to point B. Some were salarymen headed to work, while others were students who were out and about on their daily activities, no differently than how my days ordinarily went back home. My vacation had allowed me to see Japan’s sights, both iconic and ordinary. Seeing tranquil power surrounding a shrine to the striking views of Mount Fuji, enjoy some of their finest food, including kaiseki, Hokkaido Snow Crab and Wagyu beef and iconic experiences like soaking in an onsen was lovely, but I also had a chance to order ramen in a restaurant where the staff did not speak English (or Cantonese), buy manga from a bookstore and sit down to an omurice in a department store restaurant. The scope of my experiences thus ranged from the touristy, to the everyday, and in retrospect, this is what had made this vacation especially memorable. Recalling this allows me to better understand the reason why some folks seek out authentic experiences that allow them to do what locals do now, and having now revisited Go! Go! Nippon!, it becomes clear that this is also one of the reasons behind the game’s charm: Makoto and Akira take the players to iconic locations around Tokyo, but also gives one a chance to see things from a local’s perspective, whether it be a Japanese summer festival, fireworks performance or even Comiket itself. Thus, with this being said, being able to travel to Japan for real, curiously enough, gave me a better sense of appreciation for what Go! Go! Nippon! was going for, too.

Additional Remarks, Screenshots and Commentary

  • It may surprise readers to learn that, when this blog was about three months old, I’d actually written a first impressions piece about Go! Go! Nippon!. Back then, my posts had no consistent format and style; that particular post had six screenshots, and barely covers any of my reflections surrounding Go! Go! Nippon! (the idea of a reflection would come about four months later, after I finished cell and molecular biology). This post, then, aims to offer a slightly more comprehensive set of thoughts on what is my first-ever visual novel experience on top of giving me a place to reminisce about my travels five years earlier.

  • Typically, visual novels simply entail reading the text, gaining a modicum of understanding as to what’s happening and then playing through by making decisions at critical junctures, decisions consistent with one’s own values to see what the outcome is. Depending on one’s choices, an outcome can end up better or worse, pushing players to evaluate their own decision-making in specific contexts. Go! Go! Nippon! is a little more gentle in this regard in that there are no wrong choices. One’s itinerary in Go! Go! Nippon! impacts which of Makoto or Akira players spend more time with, and this cascades into a tearful ending that, sometimes, will end with a romantic outcome.

  • On my own trip to Japan, I ended up visiting Meiji Jingu (a Shinto Shrine just a stone’s throw from Shinjuku Koen), Ginza and Sumida Park, just across the river from the Tokyo Skytree. All of these locations are fairly close to the spots that are available in Go! Go! Nippon!: in its original incarnation, Go! Go! Nippon! had been focused on Tokyo’s attractions, but the expansions allow players to check out Mount Takao and Kyoto. On my trip to Tokyo in 2017, I did not have a chance to visit Asakusa, one of the most iconic spots in Tokyo.

  • As a natural part of Go! Go! Nippon!‘s progression, players will “accidentally” walk in on Makoto drying herself after a shower. Of Makoto and Akira, Makoto is better-endowed, and it is in the expansion games, where the character models are animated, that players really appreciate the HD updates bring to the table. The newer games are rendered in Unity, and I imagine would use the game engine’s rigging to handle animations. Attention is paid to details: when Makoto perks up or leans forward, oscillation is also present in her model. As an aside, I prefer showering in the evening, so were I to take the protagonist’s place, there’d be no chance of this happening.

  • Dialogue with Akira and Makoto is such that players gain a bit of insight into their character; Makoto feels weighted down by expectations and is graceful, studying English at the local university, while Akira is a fantastic cook, tsundere and feels like she lives in Makoto’s shadows. In between Akira and Makoto explaining the history and details behind every location to the level of detail that would be appropriate for a Lonely Planet travel guide, one gains the sense that Makoto and Akira are full-fledged characters whom, in addition to their profound knowledge of Japan, its attractions and history, also have their own unique traits.

  • One could say that Akira and Makoto’s knowledge of Japan is encyclopaedic: both bring up nuances and details that really illustrate the history of a given area, but isn’t something that one could readily just recall off the top of their head. To put things in perspective, while I’m familiar with the history and trivia of some of the most famous attractions in Calgary, I can’t just bring this stuff up in casual conversation with the same level of detail. Granted, this is a visual novel, which allows OVERDRIVE to thoroughly research locations and incorporate them into the game, allowing Go! Go! Nippon! to be both instructive and entertaining.

  • Folks looking to learn about the locations visited in Go! Go! Nippon! can easily look up their details online, and Go! Go! Nippon!‘s expansions include a link to Google Maps, allowing one to get the precise spot that players visit in the game. Here, I’ve opted to try an izakaya out; the Japanese equivalent of a pub, izakaya are quite different than a pub in that food is served over a duration of time and is shared by a party. Having Akira and Makoto around would make an izakaya easier to experience: while my rudimentary Japanese allowed me to order food in a more conventional setting, I’m certain that without a guidebook at my side, an izakaya would be trickier to order at.

  • On the second day, players “accidentally” walk in on Akira changing after Makoto asks them to check in and see if she’d awaken yet. Unlike Makoto, who’d taken things in stride and is swift to forgive, Akira’s reaction is par the course for what one might expect in reality, and in most anime. Akira’s dissatisfaction is most apparent when she swaps out sugar for salt in the player’s coffee, but seeing the player taking their lumps leads Akira to forgive them in the end. This is where my old post ends: in 2012, my patience for playing visual novels was nil. In the decade that’s elapsed, I’ve come to appreciate a much wider variety of games.

  • From here on out, I venture into a side of Go! Go! Nippon! that I’d not previously visited; my choice of destinations for my first full play-through of the 2016 expansion took me to destinations that were quite similar to those I’d visited in my 2017 trip. This particular trip had been billed as “美食” (jyutpimg mei5 sik6, literally “beautiful eats”) oriented: attractions had been secondary to visiting places with particularly fancy Japanese cuisine, and as a result, the places we chose to visit were a bit more inconspicuous, selected to be closer to the dining venues.

  • While we didn’t visit the Tokyo Skytree itself, or Kyoto’s Fushimi Inari Shrine as a part of this trip, the locations we did end up hitting were quite scenic and enjoyable in their own right. A bonus was that the crowds here were fewer, allowing us to spend less time in lines and more time exploring. In retrospect, I am glad that I picked the 美食 oriented approach: especially nowadays, it is possible to gain a good measure of what an attraction feels like using virtual reality and Google Maps. However, there is absolutely no equivalent for being able to sit down to a meal in another country and enjoy what foods a nation has to offer.

  • Unlike the original Go! Go! Nippon!, the 2016 expansion gives players a chance to visit Kyoto, as well. Kyoto was day four for me: having spent the first day in Tokyo, our second day was in Yamanashi, and the third day was spent in Gifu prefecture. On the morning of the fourth day, the Kinkakuji was the only destination I visited; this is an iconic part of Kyoto, and because we were there on a Saturday, the crowds were immense. Here at the Kinkakuji, I remember marvelling at how brilliant this gold-leafed temple was, even on an overcast day.

  • Aside from spotting some tourists decked out in maiko outfits (it was 1100 in the morning, and real maiko usually begin making their rounds at around 1700), I also had a chance to sample the iconic matcha soft-serve ice cream. Japan’s soft serve is in a category on its own: while visiting Oshino village at the foot of Mount Fuji, I ended up going for a blueberry ice cream, as well. Enjoying these smaller things accentuated my experiences, and I had been glad to have brought the equivalent of 250 CAD worth of Yen in cash for this trip. This allowed me to buy things where credit cards wouldn’t work: while Japan is an ultra-modern society, I was quite surprised to learn most places didn’t accept credit cards.

  • The Kinkakuji is such an integral part of Kyoto that every single anime with a class trip to Kyoto will inevitably feature this park, and of note is the fact that both K-On! and Kinirio Mosaic: Thank You!! visit the area as a part of their third year class trips. Besides being an iconic landmark with a storied history, I know the Kinkakuji best as Futurama‘s “Omaha, Nebraska”, and recall that one of the Kinkakuji’s most famous tales is that it was burned to a crisp by a monk-in-training during the 50s. Its lesser-known cousin is the Ginkakuji, which, contrary to its name, is not covered with silver plating.

  • Go! Go! Nippon! captures the look-and-feel of a quiet Kyoto side street perfectly; after my visit to the Kinkakuji ended, I headed on over to Torihisa, a kaiseki restaurant. Kaiseki is a multi-course meal in which numerous small dishes are served in an artistic fashion. I thoroughly enjoyed lunch; kaiseki had been high on the list of things I’ve wished to try. Torihisa is located across the street from Maruyama Park, home of Yasaka Shrine. Maruyama Park is a fantastic place for hanami,  but I’d arrived about two months too late.

  • Although the protagonist of Go! Go! Nippon! has two full days in Kyoto to explore, I was on a more rigid schedule: as soon as lunch ended, we immediately set course for Nara Park, home to their famous sika deer. The portrayals of Nara Park in anime is no joke: the deer are very friendly towards people, and I watched one deer boldly snatch a tour pamphlet from a visitor’s hand here. After Nara had wrapped up, my final destination was Osaka. During my last evening there, I had dinner at an omurice restaurant and decided to go with a curry-katsu omelet rice; this was an all-in one that allowed me to try authentic Japanese curry and tonkatsu in conjunction with what is a contemporary Japanese comfort dish.

  • Just like that, my week had come to a close. Go! Go! Nippon! makes it clear to players that there is so much to see and do in Japan that a single week will be insufficient to experience things in full. This message is accentuated by the visual novel format; one has the opportunity to go back to a save point and make different decisions, allowing for a more complete experience. The equivalent to doing this in real life would be prohibitively expensive, but I was impressed with the breadth of my experiences over the course of a week.

  • If I had to pick the most standout moment in a vacation that was one long pleasant memory, it would be on the first full night. After we spent the day exploring Tokyo, we went out over to Saitama’s Heritage resort, a secluded retreat on the western edge of Musashi Kyuryo National Government Park. This evening saw the fanciest meal of the entire trip: an exquisite Wagyu beef nabesashimi and several small, artfully presented dishes, including unagi, pickled daikon and a side of fried potato croquettes. This was a feast for the eyes and the taste buds. There is an old saying of unknown origin: the Chinese eat with their mouths (taste is king), the Japanese eat with their eyes (presentation matters) and the Koreans eat with their stomachs (a meal should be satisfying). I’m not sure where this comes from, but seeing the artful presentation of meals in Japan, I confirm this certainly holds true.

  • To round out what was an excellent dinner, I set foot inside the onsen, and because of my timing, I had the entire baths to myself. After cleaning myself off thoroughly, I lowered my body into the waters and felt all of my aches melt away. Meals on the other days were still solid: the second night saw me at a buffet at Shirakaba Resort Ikenotaira Hotel. What stood out most to me here was the fact that they had bakke and fiddlehead tempura available. We’d travelled through Yamanashi so we could see Mount Fuji from several different vantage points on this day, and although Mount Fuji remained completely obscured by cloud throughout most of the day (as Yuru Camp△‘s Rin would describe it, “wearing a hat”), we did end up hitting the Fifth Station at Narusawa for an up-close-and-personal look at Japan’s most famous mountain. Aoi, Hinata, Kaede and Kokona start their ascent of Mount Fuji here in Yama no Susume‘s second season, so my second day essentially had me visiting Yuru Camp△ and Yama no Susume destinations.

  • On day three, we continued through the mountains of Nagano on our way into Gifu. The highlight of this day was the stop at Magome-juku, the forty-third of the stations along the Nakasendō trail. It’s a beautiful village perched on a hillside, and after venturing from the top of their main street to the bottom, we stopped for lunch at Magomekan Food Stands. Their set lunch was as beautiful to behold, as it was generous in portion sizes, and tasty to eat. Featuring rolled omlette, karaage and grilled fish, as well as a massive bowl of noodles, it was the perfect way to round out the morning’s activities.

  • Back in Go! Go! Nippon!, I’ve reached the end of my first playthrough, and thanks to the way I roll, I ended up with what is considered the best ending for the Makoto route: I chose a Makoto destination for days one and three, and did an Akira destination for day two. In this way, I unlocked the ending where players and Makoto ring a bell together. Although Makoto struggles to be forward about her feelings, in the end, she comes through and openly returns the player’s feelings. Contemporary reviewers found the whirlwind romance aspect of Go! Go! Nippon! to be completely contrived, out of the blue.

  • However, players with enough maturity will quickly realise that Makoto and Akira are representations of the joys of visiting Japan itself: in this way, Go! Go! Nippon! might be seen as a visual portrayal of falling in love with Japan over the course of a week, coming to see for oneself the nation’s pluses and minuses, and deciding for oneself if their initial impressions were on the mark or need rectification. Whether it is house-hunting, travel or romance, there are many commonalities. All involve that initial honeymoon-like phase where everything feels perfect, and how over time, imperfections manifest. What happens next then depends on the person: individuals willing to accept imperfections and embrace what they’ve fallen in love with will find happiness, while those who cannot accept the imperfections will restart the process anew.

  • In my case, nailing the Makoto route on first try was quite entertaining. However, in the spirit of playing through Go! Go! Nippon! properly, I switched over to one of my other saves so I could check out the destinations I’d not visited on my first run. Tokyo Skytree ended up being first on my list; while in Tokyo, I gazed wistfully across the Sumida river: this hadn’t been a destination we had in mind, and therefore, we skipped over checking out the tallest building in Tokyo. In retrospect, I am okay with this choice: that day had been overcast, and the view from the top wouldn’t have been quite as impressive.

  • In 2015, following my journey to Taiwan, I ended up going to Hong Kong, and here, I did check out the Sky100 observation deck, in addition to Taipei 101. On any given vacation in East Asia, Hong Kong inevitably becomes a part of the itinerary because the flights are actually more economical this way, and it gives me a chance to visit family. Whenever heading into Hong Kong, I always get the feeling that I’m going home: to me, Hong Kong simply feels like a super-massive Chinatown, where Cantonese is the lingua franca. Unlike Japan, or Taiwan, where I only know enough phrases for the basics (and in the case of Japan, enough to surprise store clerks and servers at restaurants), I’ve got level three proficiency with Cantonese and can carry out conversations.

  • While I technically are a native Cantonese speaker, I have next to no exposure in legal and professional vocabulary, so I’m unable to conduct business in Cantonese; for instance, I have no idea how to describe the process for sorting out a build error in an Xcode project in Cantonese. While my Cantonese is practically native at the conversational level (I know enough slang to keep up with things, for instance), I hesitate to say I have native proficiency on things like a resume because that would imply I can read and write, as well. If I had to guess, I have level 2 proficiency with written Chinese, and level 3 proficiency with Cantonese, having worked in a Chinese language-setting previously.

  • Here, I accompany Akira to a ramen joint after picking the “ocean” option, and she demonstrates how to properly eat ramen. While it is appropriate to make some noise in Japan, the practise is not kosher in China or Hong Kong, but when I visited the ramen place in Gifu, I followed local customs just to express my enjoyment of the noodles all the same. Sushi etiquette is a little easier to follow, and this reminiscence did leave me with a hankering for sushi. Fortunately, there’s an excellent sushi place within walking distance now, and I’m making good on my promise to try things out. Yesterday, I ordered a combo with California, Volcano and Dynamite rolls, plus salmon, tuna and shrimp nigiri with a takoyaki: this was a very tasty lunch, a welcome change of pacing just before the Victoria Day Long Weekend arrived.

  • By now, I’ve become a ways more receptive of raw fish dishes: five years earlier, I ended up dousing my sashimi into the nabe at Heritage Resort, rendering it cooked, as back then, I wasn’t too fond of raw fish (exposure to shows like Yuru Camp△ have since broadened my mind). These days, I enjoy raw fish as much as I do cooked fish: the salmon and tuna nigiri were the highlights, being excellent with a dash of soy sauce. Although it is mentioned frequently, food is only a secondary aspect of Go! Go! Nippon!: being a virtual experience, things like food cannot be adequately mimicked. While one can see Akira explaining how to properly eat a ramen, one’s imagination must kick in to fill in the rest; imagination plays a very large part of enjoying visual novels: these games are quite static, and although they provide a few cues (such as sound effects and whatever visuals are available) to convey a moment, on top of what the dialogue yields, one must let their mind’s eye do the rest.

  • One of the numerous events players can unlock in Go! Go! Nippon! is the summer festival; although absent in the original, the expansions introduce events which unlock after certain conditions (flags) are met. The summer festival is a pleasant event and would allow players to really experience an authentic Japanese celebration; the natsumatsuri is equivalent to the state fairs of North America (or for my Canadian readers, the Calgary Stampede), featuring plenty of games and eats, plus performances and fireworks. If memory serves, unlocking the summer festival requires going to specific destinations on the first and second day.

  • Visual novels have a vocabulary that is quite related to programming. “Flags” in software usually refer to Booleans that control whether or not something happens (e.g. if the “isLoggedIn” flag is true, show the home screen, otherwise ,show the login screen). In visual novels, flags keep track of a player’s state, and “events” result from certain combinations of flags being set. I normally think of events as certain actions or inputs a program listens for, but in visual novel speak, “events” are simply things to show a player. Go! Go! Nippon! allows me to demonstrate this: if I visit certain destinations on days one and two, the flag for the Comiket event are set true, allowing me to experience it. It took me several attempts to get this right.

  • On the topic of conventions and gatherings like Comiket, it’s the May Long Weekend, and that means Otafest is now in full swing. Back in February, I declined to submit an application to volunteer, feeling it to be more prudent to leave time open in the event that my move had left me busier than anticipated. In typical fashion, I’ve finished all of the essential tasks, and even got my driver’s license and banking information updated to reflect the new address, so this long weekend, I’ve actually had more time than anticipated. However, I’ve decided against attending the local anime convention; having experienced Japan so thoroughly, the appeal of visiting an anime convention as a guest has diminished for me.

  • Instead, I became more interested in taking a more active role through volunteering, which gives me a chance to give back to the local community. My plans to continue volunteering at Otafest will depend on my schedule, so I’ll have a better idea of whether or not I’ll be returning closer to next year’s application deadline. For now, my long weekend has consisted of sleeping in, tending to housework and hitting the gym, before swinging by the local mall so I could pick up some new shirts and shorts. Afterwards, we sat down to our first-ever Southern Fried Chicken at the new place. This year’s Otafest looks like it’s a scaled-back event, and there’s nothing particularly stand-out on the schedule, so I’ve no qualms with sitting this one out in favour of a relaxing long weekend.

  • Go! Go! Nippon!‘s easy-to-use UI means the user experience is solid, and in this way, I was able to go through the game several times in order to accrue screenshots for this post. Here, I accompany Akira to Mount Takao, which Hinata and Aoi hit back in Yama no Susume‘s first season. Located about an hour from the heart of Tokyo, Mount Takao is about a ninety-minute hike in total and offers stunning views of Tokyo. It was nice to see Go! Go! Nippon! include a vast range of destinations into the expansions: the original game only had six destinations and two possible routes.

  • This would have made it considerably simpler to complete, and in retrospect, Go! Go! Nippon! “grows up” with players. The first game truly is a suitable introduction to the visual novel format for first timers, and I’ve long felt that while the game’s subtitle is My First Trip to Japan, the title also can count itself as My First Experience With a Visual Novel: the premise of travelling and exploring different destinations is a much gentler and accessible introduction to the format compared to something like CLANNAD or Higurashi, where making bad decisions can irrevocably alter the outcome of one’s experiences.

  • First-time players will also be unfamiliar with the save mechanics. Visual novel veterans will tell players to save right before decision branches come up. This is a matter of efficiency: if one makes a bad choice, they can instantly revert and make another pick. Similarly, in a game where a choice causes the story to open up in a different way, one instantly has a snapshot they can go to. On my first playthrough of Go! Go! Nippon! in 2012, I saved simply when I needed to leave the game, and this made revisiting the game somewhat cumbersome. By the 2015 expansion, I was better versed in how visual novels work and more ready to explore new routes.

  • In the present day, I know enough of the ins-and-outs so that I could easily navigate the storylines of Go! Go! Nippon! and swiftly acquire screenshots for this post. I am glad to have picked up the 2016 expansion; I had debated doing so when it first came out, having already dropped coin for the 2015 expansion, but after visiting Japan in 2017, I decided to bite the bullet and complete my Go! Go! Nippon! experience when the expansion went on discount during the summer of 2018. Although I had intended to play and write about Go! Go! Nippon! back then, 2018 was a bit of a more difficult time for me: my start-up was in dire straits, and I had been in the middle of discussions to take on a Xamarin project, which meant I needed to swiftly pick up Xamarin and C#.

  • Further to this, I had been invited to Battlefield V‘s closed alpha, and Harukana Receive was airing. Between everything that was going on, Go! Go! Nippon! was benched, and for four years after that, sat untouched in my Steam Library. The five-year mark to my return home from Japan, coupled with one of my friends bringing the game’s recent successes in the Virtual YouTuber scene and OVERDRIVE’s intention of making a sequel came together to provide the encouragement I needed to finish enjoying, and writing about Go! Go! Nippon! in its latest incarnation.

  • I am glad to have done so now: the game offers an interesting parallel with my own experiences, and although I didn’t have two kawaii guides walking me through the history and etiquette of various areas, I was able to see for myself the wonders of Japan, both historical and modern. While my experience with Go! Go! Nippon! started out as a joke, I was pleasantly surprised to find that even in a game meant to instruct and gently poke fun at foreign impressions of Japan, there is a considerable amount of depth in the writing. For instance, Akira’s tsundere personality is not representative of Japan as a whole, but from a broader perspective, shows how something that initially seems difficult to understand has more to it than meets the eye. Akira feels like a close friend, a companion over time as players spend more time with her destinations.

  • I’ve long been a Makoto fan, and my decisions on my first run through Go! Go! Nippon! reflect this. However, in revisiting the game, I learnt more about Akira. In time, I came to like her character, as well. Finding newfound, pleasant surprises in the familiar is something I’ve always been fond of, and much as how revisiting Titanfall 2‘s campaign allowed me to get my paws on the EM-4 Cold War in one mission, re-playing Go! Go! Nippon! let me to see a side of the game, and a set of destinations that I’d otherwise never see.

  • The premise in Go! Go! Nippon! shows players why there is incentive to replay the game again and make different choices; this outcome would extend to different visual novels and similarly encourage players to go back and try things out again. In the case of CLANNAD, for instance, players can make choices to go down the most well-written central route, which follows Nagisa, or they can opt to check out Kyou, Kotomi and Fuu’s stories. However, whereas Go! Go! Nippon! does not have a persistent state that lingers even after one has completed multiple play-throughs, CLANNAD does: certain actions can only be achieved by revisiting the game multiple times and making smart decisions. In this way, Go! Go! Nippon! can be seen as an introduction to a genre which is one that I do not play often, but one that has its own nuances, as well.

  • As a consequence of playing the Akira route with the aim of unlocking one of the events (at the time of writing, I’ve yet to succeed), I ended up with the second outcome for Akira, which has her bringing players to Toshimaen, a theme park that is quite special to Akira. After returning to Tokyo from Kyoto, the sum of a player’s decisions allow them to visit a special destination, and there is no “bad end” here in Go! Go! Nippon! in a traditional sense. Visual novels are legendary for their bad endings: unlike the average first person shooter campaign, which only has one ending, and any “bad end” is dying in the campaign, visual novels can take depravity and the macabre to the next level.

  • All told, spending a day with Akira at the waterpark isn’t a bad outcome by any stretch: it gives players a chance to see Akira rocking a polka-dot bikini. Tango-Victor-Tango incorrectly pegs Akira as being flat, although this moment also led me to wish that there was such an equivalent moment with Makoto. I’m now curious to see what the optimal route for Akira yields, but I’ll likely get around to this later in the future. The Division 2 had just opened their ninth season, and having spent the whole of last year on break from The Division 2 after completing the Manhunt event for Faye Lau, it’s been fun to return to the game and learn that my old standby, the Hunter’s Fury gear-set with the Chatterbox and Ninjabike Kneepads, is still viable. Similarly, I’ve recently resumed playing Ghost Recon: Wildlands on account of an excellent sale, so between these two games, I expect to be somewhat busy in the gaming front for the foreseeable future.

  • For the remainder of my revisit through Go! Go! Nippon!, I have a bit of footage from the other destinations I ended up going to as a result of trying to unlock various events. Here, I’m back in Ginza: in a curious turn of fate, Ginza was the first place I visited when I played through Go! Go! Nippon! in 2012, and it was also the first stop on my trip to Japan in 2017. Ginza is known for its high end shopping experiences, and while we browsed shops, we found that prices were jaw-droppingly high. Here, Makoto welcomes players to the district and the famous Wako Store, with its distinct clock face. I most vividly recall Ginza because we had shabu-shabu here.

  • Because of the scope and scale of any trip to Japan, I would contend that there is no right or wrong way to go about things. Anime fans tend to visit Tokyo and Akihabara, while folks looking for a more historical experience will tour Kyoto. Visitors looking for the ultimate seafood experience are best served checking out Hokkaido, while Japan’s southern section, near Hiroshima or Kumamoto, would provide a quieter experience. For me, one potential return trip would entail taking a closer look at Kyoto’s highlights; it’s a destination that K-On! and the Kiniro Mosaic movie both swing by the old capital as a part of the third year’s class trip.

  • However, this would be secondary to my long-standing wish to travel Takehara in Hiroshima. Well off the beaten track, Takehara is home of Tamayura, and even a full decade after I’ve finished watching the anime, the town’s iconic warehouse district has more or less remain unchanged. If I were to visit, I imagine that I’d be able to see the sights that Fū and her friends saw in their everyday lives. On such a trip, I’d likely choose lodgings anywhere outside of the Warehouse district: hotels right in the old town are considerably pricier. I imagine that a week in Takehara would be more than enough to explore all of the spots in Tamayura.

  • Back in Go! Go! Nippon!, for my shot at getting Makoto’s second ending, I ended up playing through a completely different set of locations, in turn allowing me to unlock a host of achievements to go with my adventures. The 2016 expansion is the only way to actually unlock achievements, but as of the 2015 expansion, Go! Go! Nippon! added Steam Trading Cards and badges. It took me a while to collect enough cards to make a level 5 Makoto card. The only way to get an Akira badge is to get foil drops, but badges cost a dollar apiece, so the logic of doing so wouldn’t be sound.

  • The CG scenes in Go! Go! Nippon! are of a varied quality: the protagonist is rendered without eyes, and this creates a bit of a disconnect whenever he’s visible. The faceless male is a long-standing element in visual novels, meant to give players additional immersion, but here in Go! Go! Nippon!, the effect is quite uncanny and looks a little off. Conversely, stills of just Makoto and/or Akira look gorgeous, and I found myself thinking that, were Go! Go! Nippon! ever to be made into an anime about touring Tokyo, I would have no qualms in watching it.

  • That no such anime has appeared a decade after Go! Go! Nippon!‘s release indicates that such a wish will remain a pipe dream at best. Here, at Tsukiji Market, I explore Tokyo’s largest fish market. After departing Japan and landing in Hong Kong, I had the pleasure of checking out Sha Tin Market, an indoor wet market, while awaiting a dim sum lunch with relatives. I’ve always been fond of wet markets because they represent a very active place where seafood is sold; by comparison, most seafood is frozen at home, although some supermarkets do carry live seafood, as well.

  • Looking back, the Hong Kong side of my travels were also superbly enjoyable: I know Hong Kong like the back of my own hand, despite only having visited a handful of times, and this is largely in part owing to the fact that 1) there are English signs everywhere and 2) I speak Cantonese well enough, allowing me to ask for directions without any trouble. The MTR is also intuitive, allowing one to visit any part of Hong Kong with ease. My time in Hong Kong was characterised by spending plenty of time with family, window shopping at various malls, and experiencing Hong Kong’s culinary landscape.

  • In Go! Go! Nippon!, since Makoto isn’t much of a cook, players won’t pick up anything from the fish market here, and instead, she’ll bring players to the Tsukiji Hongan-ji, a Buddhist temple that originally opened in 1617 but burned to the ground forty years later. It was moved to a new site, was destroyed by an earthquake in 1923. The modern temple was completed in 1934. This does appear to be a recurring theme in Japan’s landmarks, which have been destroyed and rebuilt on several occasions. While the buildings we see now might not be in their original form, seeing them rebuilt is a testament to the tenacity of the Japanese people.

  • Having now gone through three-quarters of Go! Go! Nippon!, it is evident that attention has been paid to the background artwork, as well. Backgrounds in this visual novel are intricate and life-like, and although some scenes are blissfully quiet, others are filled with people. This aspect is one of the most crucial elements in Go! Go! Nippon!: visual novels often feel empty and devoid of human presence, isolating players and forcing their attention towards the heroines. This was the case in Sakura Angels: although the artwork was stunning, the world felt very empty. According to my records, I began Sakura Angels in June 2015, but never finished, and the last time I opened the game was back in 2017, so the time is probably appropriate for me to go back and wrap this one up.

  • Stay! Stay! DPRK! had similarly felt quite empty, but then, it was a logical design choice because players are visiting North Korea. As such, when Go! Go! Nippon! strikes a balance between the tranquil areas of Tokyo, and the livelier ones, it gives this world a more life-like feeling: Sakura Angels exuded a sense of isolation and loneliness that is simply absent in Go! Go! Nippon: Makoto and Akira keep it lively, but cues in the game’s artwork and presentation also serves to capture the sheer energy (and volume) of crowds in Tokyo’s most iconic locations.

  • Having tea in Japan is a quintessential experience: for 850 Yen, one could stop by Nakajima-no-Ochaya for whisked matcha and wagashi. One element in Go! Go! Nippon! that initially appears inconsequential to gameplay was the inclusion of a wallet. Players are asked to enter the exchange rate (at the time of writing, 1 CAD is exactly 100 Yen), and then the game keeps a running total of how much one has spent over their travels. One could play the game as someone with infinitely deep pocketbooks, or approach things more frugally, but as far as I can tell, one’s expenses don’t affect outcomes. Having said this, the wallet mechanic helps one to ballpark how much their itinerary might cost in reality, to within a precision of ±20 percent.

  • As far as landmarks go, I know Tokyo Station best as being the home base for Rail Wars!, and in 2017, I do not believe we passed by this landmark: the original brick building was constructed in 1914, and over the years, became infamous as being the site of two high-profile assassinations. With a passenger volume of up to half a million every day, it is the busiest station in Japan and is Tokyo’s equivalent of New York City’s Grand Central Station. With the ten-year mark of Rail Wars! fast approaching, I have plans to revisit the series again.

  • On my all-Makoto run, I ended up wrapping up the day to Tokyo Station by accompanying her to a sweets shop of sorts, located in the labyrinthine interior of Tokyo Station and its many shops. Owing to the sheer volume of foot traffic at train stations in Japan, stations also double as shopping centres. This stands in stark contrast with home, where our light rail stations appear to be arbitrarily placed. Urban planning in North America is built around vehicle ownership, and while this creates sprawling cities where people have a great deal of space to themselves, it also results in inefficiency. Having now moved to somewhere within a stone’s throw of a light rail station, I am rather excited by the fact that I can now hop on a train and be anywhere in the city on short order.

  • Moments like these really serve to showcase Makoto and Akira’s personalities beyond initial impressions the original game presented: Makoto might not be a capable cook, but she absolutely enjoys her sweets. It was very endearing to see Makoto this way. This is something that was only introduced with the 2016 expansion, which really fleshes things out. I would hold that the expansions are not optional add-ons, but essential parts of the Go! Go! Nippon! experience: the expansions each give the UI significant upgrades, and the 2016 version will openly indicate which of Makoto or Akira will accompany a player to a destination.

  • This makes it much easier to determine which destinations one should visit when playing through Go! Go! Nippon!: on my first run, my thoughts were that I should bias the game slightly towards Makoto. To this end, I picked Makoto destinations for two of the three days, and then went with an Akira destination for the remaining day. If I had to guess, going with Makoto or Akira for all three days seems to create in Makoto or Akira an overwhelming sense of yearning, causing both to wish to remain with the player, whereas balancing things out gives either Makoto or Akira a chance to think things through and come to terms with expressing how they feel more openly.

  • On this route, I ended up taking Go! Go! Nippon! over to Shinjuku Gyoen, a beautiful park at the heart of Tokyo that folks know best as the setting for Makoto Shinkai’s Garden of Words. For the player and Makoto, a rainstorm soon develops, perhaps being a clever (and subtle) callback to the events of Garden of Words, soaking Makoto to the bone. During my trip to Japan, our destinations did not include Shinjuku Gyoen, and instead, the day began with a visit to Meiji Jinju Shrine, which is a twelve-minute walk away from Shinjuku Gyoen.

  • The end result of this route sees Makoto pick up a stylish new outfit, and with this, I’ve now got two of the three possible Makoto endings unlocked. I never thought that Go! Go! Nippon! would be quite as engaging as it was; my introduction to the game had been through a friend who was watching a YouTube playthrough of the game in between classes, and the game had seemed quite hokey at first glance. However, going through the game again, I’ve come around: while Go! Go! Nippon! might be a dating simulator pretending to be a Lonely Planet travel guide, it does feel sincere in its portrayal of things.

  • This is why I’m rather excited to see what Go! Go! Nippon! 2 has in store for players; since Makoto and Akira broke into the Virtual YouTuber scene, their popularity has increased, and generated enough buzz so that OVERDRIVE seriously considered a sequel. While Makoto and Akira are unvoiced in Go! Go! Nippon!, they have the traditional “anime dub” voices as Virtual YouTubers, which makes them sound like RWBY characters. High on my wishlist for Go! Go! Nippon! 2 would be to have some proper dubbing: in particular, Ayano Taketatsu is suited for playing Akira and her tsundere personality, and Ai Kayano similarly could play Makoto: Kayano’s voice has a matronly and warm character to it.

  • Besides complete voice acting, other items on my list include a wider set of destinations, extending north to Hokkaido, and south towards Hiroshima and Kumamoto, or even perhaps Okinawa. Additional things I’d like to see include high resolution character models and 4K support: Go! Go! Nippon!‘s character models look a little fuzzy compared to their CG counterparts and the background artwork, so seeing improved assets would be fantastic. Similarly, Go! Go! Nippon! only goes up to 720p, but even back in 2016, 1080p resolution was already commonplace. A 4K visual novel with 1440p and 1080p settings would bring this series into the present. Beyond these technical aspects, it’ll be exciting to see what OVERDRIVE chooses to do with their next iteration in the series.

  • Reminiscing about my vacation to Japan and Hong Kong in 2017 a full five years later was a fun exercise: since then, I’ve only travelled abroad for business (having gone to Denver to consult on and save an app, and then to Silicon Valley to attend an F8 developer conference). Aside from statuary holidays, I’ve been putting my nose to the grindstone for the past five years, and as a result, my world now is quite different than it had been then. While I had a life-changing experience in Japan, I continue to maintain that it would be most unwise of me to uproot my life and become an expatriate in Japan (as one of my former friends had done, at the expense of their career), but now, things have reached a point where I am able to begin considering a return trip: for me, one of the biggest joys of travel, outside of seeing the world outside my routine and enjoying a culture’s best, is knowing I’ve got a home and a warm bed to return to.

Although travel is doubtlessly a large aspect of Go! Go! Nippon!, the elephant in the room is the fact that this game also has elements of a traditional dating simulator, in which player decisions impact the story’s outcome in a tangible way. The setup in Go! Go! Nippon! prima facie appears implausible, and contemporary reviewers felt the romance aspect in Go! Go! Nippon! to be wedged in as a means of appealing to the demographic most likely to look at such a title. While it is the case that the romance in Go! Go! Nippon! can appear superficial at first glance, Go! Go! Nippon! cleverly utilises the dating sim mechanic to, again, speak to the joys of travel. It is the case that Makoto and Akira can be anthropomorphic representations of what travel entails: there are goods and bads, moments worth remembering, and accidents one would rather forget. When one travels to a destination for the first time, they fall in love with the initial impressions. As one’s experiences broaden, they learn more about the destinations, both the pluses and minuses, ultimately cultivating a unique and distinct collection of memories that accompany them home, and in some cases, creates a yearning to return. With this as a metaphor, it is not so implausible to suppose that one could fall in love with someone as quickly as they do a place. Watching the player depart, and how each of Makoto and Akira handle this moment, brings to mind what happens at the end of a vacation: there always is a desire to extend one’s stay, to do more. This aspect of Go! Go! Nippon! proves surprisingly enduring, and it is, curiously enough, through a dating sim setup that different facets of travel can be explored. I imagine that OVERDRIVE had initially designed this more as a piece to ensure players would gain the classic dating simulator experience when going through Go! Go! Nippon!, but the consequences of this element, intentional or not, is that it brings additional depth and enjoyment to the game. Curiosity to see what happens when one makes different decisions to see how things with Makoto and Akira turn out also pushes one to visit, and learn about, different spots. Getting to know Tokyo and its surroundings better, then, is analogous to getting to know Makoto and Akira better. On my first run of this game, making decisions as I would in reality earned me what is considered the “best end” for Makoto: I received a kokuhaku and the story allowed us to reunite. This speaks volumes about my character, but jokes notwithstanding, I would very much like to visit Japan again in the future. Until then, Steam is suggesting that I’ve still got about a quarter of the achievements to unlock in Go! Go! Nippon!, and its successor, Go! Go! Nippon! 2, looks like it’s going to be a reality now, so I’m curious to see what this entails. This time around, I will try to complete Go! Go! Nippon! 2 at least once before planning out a return trip to the Land of the Rising Sun.

A Private Ragnarok Online Experience and Recalling 2008’s Total Lunar Eclipse

Nostalgia is the only friend that stays with you forever.” –Damien Echols.

Fourteen years earlier, the moon passed into the Earth’s shadow. For a nearly a full fifty minutes, the moon shone with a bright red and copper hues, corresponding to a L4 on the Danjon scale. This lunar eclipse could be seen from almost the whole of North America, and more unusually, the eclipsed occurred at a reasonable hour: totality began at 2001 local time, and back in those days, as a student, I would be preparing to wrap up the evening. A glance outside allowed me to witness one of the brightest and most memorable lunar eclipses I’d ever seen, and since then, I’ve managed to catch a few other total lunar eclipses, with 2015 and 2018 both seeing “supermoon” eclipses. In 2015, I was sitting down to moon cakes when the lunar eclipse occurred and three years later, I pulled myself away from Battlefield 1 to gaze up at the moon. However, the 2008 lunar eclipse remains special to me: that evening, I’d just hopped onto my friend’s private Ragnarok Online server to meet up with some mates who were getting into things for the first time. Since I’d been fully leveled, I was asked to look over a friend who was just starting out as a mage: the bridge north of the mage town was host to weaker monsters, and this proved to be a good place to begin levelling up for starting mages. I therefore spent thirty minutes walking the friend through some essential spells, and at half hour’s end, said friend had enough experience to begin exploring spells of their own. I sent a message back to my other friends, the server host, and remarked that we were on our way to familiarising ourselves with the mechanics: this friend would later go on to host the World of Warcraft private server, and here, our interest had been to engage in Ragnarok Online‘s War of Emperium guild wars, in which guilds attempt to conquer castles. In order to reach such a point, all participants needed to be familiar with Ragnarok Online‘s mechanics, and so, I spent most of my hours after my studies had concluded in Payon Dungeon with another friend who played an assassin. Together, we slaughtered our way through the first three floors and concluded that the final floor was not worth taking on without more people. In addition, I would occasionally accompany my assassin friend to Morroc Pyramid. In this way, many an evening was spent exploring Ragnarok Online: back in those days, coursework had been remarkably light, and I found myself steamrolling all of my studies, affording me time to go exploring with friends before we migrated over to the World of Warcraft private server.

Ragnarok Online represented my first-ever MMORPG, a Korean game based on a manhwa that first released in 2002. By the time my friend had set a server up, the game had been around for six years. Using two-dimensional character sprites, what stood out to me about Ragnarok Online had been how adorable the player sprites were. However, underlying the game’s simple visuals was an entire world to explore – at that point in time, I’d primarily played sandbox simulation games like Sim City, or first person shooters like 007 Nightfire, Half-Life 2 and Halo. The idea of an open-world RPG was new to me, and I would come to most enjoy the act of exploring new areas in the world of Ragnarok Online: the game’s colourful environments and a remarkably relaxing soundtrack meant in the overworld, I was free to explore areas without worrying about dying to mobs. On evenings where I’d finished my coursework ahead of my friends, I spent time exploring the fields surrounding Prontera and Geffen at my own pace. As time wore on, the server host recommended that I go on over to Payon to power-level my mage, whose Soul Strike capability was especially powerful against undead foes. It was here that I spent hours farming the undead, and over time, I eventually built a formidable wizard with access to potent spells for area-denial. On evenings where my friends were available, we would work together on dungeon crawls. A few weeks after the lunar eclipse, we’d been powerful enough to trivially slaughter mobs on lower floors before reaching the bosses. Before midterm exams began, we were able to defeat Payon Dungeon’s boss, Moonlight Flower: we had a crusader to fulfil the role of a tank, an alchemist for healing and buffs, and an assassin for DPS. In conjunction with my wizard’s devastating spells, our party smashed Moonlight Flower, and at this point, my friend was satisfied that we were ready to try some PvP in War of Emperium. As fun as these group events were, I was always at my happiest when I was exploring, and after I entered university, my friend sent me the server files so I could host my own private server. On a December morning after my first year exams ended, I got my server up and running, ready for me to continue exploring from where I’d left off a few years earlier.

Screenshots and Commentary

  • It’s been over a decade since I last wandered Rune-Midgarts on my private private server, and it took a few moments for me to adjust to the controls again. Player movement in Ragnarok Online is mouse-based, and the WASD keys aren’t bound to anything. Similarly, spells and abilities are engaged through the function keys rather than the number keys. These differences mean I would need to fumble through a different mindset, and I’m glad that my objectives in Ragnarok Online aren’t to play War of Emperium or go on dungeon crawls nowadays, as my muscle memory for this game is nonexistent.

  • On the other hand, I have no trouble with exploring the world of Rune-Midgarts in Ragnarok Online: after exiting the city of Prontera, I headed out over into the fields surrounding the area and prepared to walk over to Geffen. When I first started out, my friends (among them the server host) suggested that I play a mage based on my personality traits; there is a bit of a meta game in MMORPGs in that classes do seem to reflect an individual. In Ragnarok Online, foes often have elemental traits that make them more or less vulnerable to certain kinds of magic.

  • I headed over to Geffen to do my job change. In Ragnarok Online, mages are the casters, and to level, being a fire mage is a suitable build to go for. My friends actually suggested I go with a bolt build and specialise in soul strike, since at the time, they were interested in dungeon play. Payon Cave became our go-to haunt, and this proved to be the perfect place to power-level, since Soul Strike does bonus damage against undead foes. Besides myself, the server host played a crusader, and one of my other friends became an assassin.

  • Once my friend’s private server had opened, my life settled into a pattern: I would capitalise on the fact that there was so much self-study time to finish all of my assignments, wrap up anything I’d missed at home and go through all of my lecture notes so I was confident I got that particular lesson before dinner, and then after dinner, I would sign in and join my assassin friend to clear out mobs in the easier floors of a given dungeon. Payon Cave and Morroc Pyramid were are favourite places to visit, and the server host actually would create a custom teleporter for us so we could reach our favourite dungeons more easily.

  • On most evenings, the host and a few other players would join us on our dungeon adventures, as well. To help things along, my friend had set the server’s experience gain level to nearly nine times that of the normal rate so we could reach the endgame more quickly, become comfortable with our class’ chosen powers, and so, begin to really do the activities that the server had been set up for: War of Emperium.

  • Because of Payon’s proximity to Payon Cave, this spot ended up being the hub for most of our activities. We would gather here and trade off potions ahead of dungeon crawls, use the text chat to discuss both the evening’s game plan and other topics, and over time, Payon ended up being our Barrens Chat of sorts; upon returning home from school, everyone would sign in, leave their characters here and chat on topics from our plans for the weekend, to helping one another out regarding the day’s lessons: back then, several of us used MSN messenger to chat, but some friends didn’t have MSN, so Ragnarok Online‘s chat client became our go-to.

  • I believe that it was in January when the server first started; I vaguely remember that back then, my term had been sufficiently easy so I could go through my coursework, participate in yearbook activities and have enough time left over to both play Ragnarok Online and watch Gundam 00. Things eventually slowed down once the new year arrived, and while we gained several new players through friends who’d been curious, a few weeks after the lunar eclipse, my friend was already eying the setup of a World of Warcraft server.

  • However, we did end up gathering at his place for War of Emperium events on more than one occasion before the World of Warcraft server went live. These early LAN parties required quite a bit of setup, and I remember that the first time we did such an event, it took over two hours for everyone to be properly kitted out, organised into teams and for my friend to find the server commands needed to manage a War of Emperium event. During this event, I was destroyed because I didn’t fully understand the wizard’s capabilities. On our second War of Emperium event, I’d become a full-fledged Wizard and had all of my spells fully-leveled.

  • This proved to be a game changer: my teammates positioned me at the entrance way with an alchemist and an assassin. The plan had been to wait for the attackers to enter, and then have me use my powerful array of AoE spells to lock down the chokepoint, while the alchemist kept my health and mana topped off, and the assassin would pick off anyone who’d gotten through. On defense, my team ended up very successful on defense, although since my spells were slow to charge, we proved less efficacious on offense, and that day’s War of Emperium ended in a draw.

  • After the last War of Emperium event, my friend moved us over to World of Warcraft, and Ragnarok Online became forgotten. I ended up requesting (and receiving) the server files from said friend so I could continue exploring Ragnarok Online at my own pace; the server host and I had visited several notable locations in Ragnarok Online, including the “unfinished village” that would later become Moscovia, a Russian-themed town that acts as an entrance to the area’s dungeon. However, with my own server, I had unlimited time to explore.

  • My private server was truly private in that it was not configured for others to connect to it; while creating an immensely lonely experience, a far cry from the experiences I had during my friend’s Ragnarok Online heydays, having an entire server to myself meant I could check out some of the most unique places in the whole of the game that we’d never even set foot in. Kunlun is one such place, a Taiwanese-themed town floating high above the clouds. Kunlun is counted as the most romantic place in the whole of Rangarok Online, and others have done in-game weddings here owing to the setting.

  • Kunlun’s theme is one of my favourite pieces of background music in Ragnarok Online, a game whose incidental music is of a very high standard. Whether it be a consequence of hearing these songs non-stop when I first played the game, the fact that the music itself is immensely relaxing, or a combination of the two, nostalgia immediately sets in whenever I hear any of the background themes to the major cities: Prontera, Payon and Geffen have some wonderful songs, as well. As it turns out, I’m not the only one who feels this way: folks who grew up around Ragnarok Online have similarly found the music to be cathartic, bringing back memories of an older, simpler time.

  • The edges of Kunlun town are ringed with floating islands that can be visited. Looking back, I’m not sure if any of my friends had ever visited Kunlun’s floating islands; most of our time had been spent blasting stuff in fields and dungeons surrounding Prontera, Geffen. Morroc and Payon, as well as gearing up for War of Emperium events. In the past fourteen or so years, I’ve come to really appreciate the elegance in Ragnarok Online‘s design; maps are standalone tiles linked by portals, and this made it easy to add new content to the game without altering the game world. Conversely, when Blizzard updates World of Warcraft, changes to the central maps had far-reaching consequences.

  • At some point during my private server experience fourteen years earlier, my friend invited me to check out some of the places he felt were the most novel; when this happened was lost to time, but I imagine that it was during the winter break, after we’d both finished our exams. My friend thus brought me over to the “unfinished town” of Moscovia, which did not have NPCs or any assets on his server version. I ended up updating my server so that it would have the completed town, and this makes all the difference. Originally, Moscovia could not be reached, although after I ran the update, a boat in Alberta provides access to this area.

  • If I had to guess, Ragnarok Online likely uses the same tile system that Sim City 4 uses, employing a combination of 3D assets and 2D sprites to build the game world. Although contemporary titles far surpass anything in Ragnarok Online in terms of visuals, the older graphics have a unique charm about them. It suddenly hits me that, given that Ragnarok Online itself is two decades old now, I imagine that a mid-end smartphone would have the computational power to run such a game, and with a few tweaks to the UI, Ragnarok Online could definitely be made to run on a tablet.

  • With this in mind, Gravity has released a mobile version of Ragnarok Online for Android devices with visuals far surpassing those of the original, speaking to how far technology has come. Back in Ragnarok Online, I continue exploring the Russian-themed architecture of Moscovia; like Kunlun, there’s an entrance to a dungeon in this map, and the area is steeped in lore. The Ragnarok Online and World of Warcraft that I know are quiet places, but I’ve seen gameplay footage on official servers; every nook and cranny of the map is populated, creating a much richer world.

  • If my memory is not mistaken, I played Ragnarok Online during January, as I’d just picked up a new Dell XPS 420 to replace an aging computer from the early 2000s. The jump to a Q6600 Core 2 Quad,  3 GB of RAM and an ATI HD 2600 XT meant I was able to play my favourite games of the day, including Halo 2 Vista and Half-Life 2 without any difficulty, and performance remained quite good even with newer titles like Team Fortress 2 and Borderlands. However, the best games of the day, like Crysis and Battlefield 3 gave my machine difficulties owing to the weaker GPU. In the end, the Dell XPS 420 served for a total of five years; it was sufficient for my undergraduate programme, but as the RAM modules began to age and overheat, my machine began to perform poorly. I subsequently built a new desktop, and this machine has served me until the present.

  • The last place I chose to visit for this recollection is Amatsu, a Japanese-themed city where sakura blossoms are in eternal bloom. This town is host to the Amatsu Dungeon, which can only be entered after completing a quest. Questing in Ragnarok Online is a ways more complex than they are in something like World of Warcraft and require a bit of patience to complete, especially since individuals of interest can be quite tricky to find. Quests do explore lore in a meaningful way, but on the flipside, unlike World of Warcraft, the rewards can seem paltry in comparison to the time it takes to complete them.

  • Ragnarok Online actually had no quest tracker at launch, and this feature was implemented a few years later. Even then, during my original run of Ragnarok Online, I never bothered to do any quests, and instead, simply levelled up by beating up monsters in dungeons and fields. With this, I’ve fulfilled a promise to bring my old private server back to life; since I do have a running server again, I may return at some point to write about other places in Ragnarok Online: Yuno was another area I was particularly fond of, and I’ve yet to visit the Christmas fields, as well.

  • Here, I climb out to a viewpoint overlooking the bridge immediately west of Geffen: the bridge north of Geffen is infested with higher level monsters and is unsuited for beginners, but the west bridge is much friendlier, being the place where I walked another friend through the basics of Ragnarok Online some fourteen years earlier. According to my astronomy charts, the next lunar eclipse visible from North America will be in May 2022, although this is only a partial solar eclipse.

Since I received the files for my own private server, I utilised my private server to acquire screenshots and recall my experiences for my old website. However, the server files otherwise remained unused – during university, I spent most of my time playing Halo 2 Vista, and when servers for that shut down, I migrated over to Team Fortress 2. Ragnarok Online and World of Warcraft both fell from my mind until a desire to explore Pandaria bought me back into World of Warcraft. After being unceremoniously kicked from a dungeon in World of Warcraft a few years back, I ended up spinning up my own Wrath of the Lich King server so I could explore without worrying about being kicked by try-hards. The experience had been phenomenal, and as I tread familiar places like Elwynn Forest and the Eversong Woods, I recalled that I also had a considerable amount of fun with Ragnarok Online. After doing some tuning to get the old server files running, I’ve finally returned to Ragnarok Online some twelve years after I ran my private server for the first time, and fourteen years after the eclipse that had occurred the evening I was getting another friend into Ragnarok Online. Although my private server is now a private private server thanks to how my router is configured (i.e. other players can’t connect unless they’re on my LAN), having an entire server to myself for exploration has been great: for someone such as myself, being able to walk through quiet cities, gentle plains, verdant forest and peaceful coasts while listening to Ragnarok Online‘s wonderful soundtrack has proven to be immensely cathartic, a far cry from the higher-octane games I’ve played through since building a more powerful desktop. Despite its age, Ragnarok Online still has its charm: while the days for my hosting my own War of Emperium events are long past (for one, I’m not sure if any of my old friends have the time to do so), being able to casually walk from Prontera over to Alberta and explore some of Ragnarok Online‘s most unique spots remains highly enjoyable, representing a change of pace from my latest gaming exploits.

Halo Infinite: A Valentine’s Day Reflection on Overcoming Heartbreak and Defeating The Harbinger At The Finale

“I thought that I could do this on my own, but I forgot that the whole point of all this, the entire reason that I chose you in the first place, as that we were supposed to be a team. Perfectly suited. Perfectly matched. Perfectly… perfect. In these final moments, I know what my last mission is. I need to make sure you two learn from my mistakes. Become stronger because of them. I chose well, Master Chief. I really did. Now it’s up to you.” –Cortana

Upon exiting the portal the Weapon created, Master Chief and the Weapon end up at a location called the Repository, a Forerunner installation filled with fragments of Cortana. The Weapon begins to worry that she has the same weaknesses as Cortana and asks to be deleted, but Master Chief refuses, indicating there’s still a job to do and that he wants to be able to trust her. After fighting their way out of the Repository and returning to Zeta Halo’s surface, Master Chief boards a Scorpion tank and blasts his way to Escharum’s House of Reckoning, where Esparza is being held. Upon entering the House of Reckoning, Escharum deploys his troops to test the Master Chief’s mettle, and expresses that he is impressed after Master Chief survives each trial. Eventually, Master Chief reaches Jega ‘Rdomnai and fights him in a close-quarters battle, eventually killing him and reaching Esparza. Escharum finally appears to confront the Master Chief, demanding that he be given a memorable fight. While Escharum is a tough foe, Master Chief beats him, and in his dying moments, Escharum implores Master Chief to let the others know that he died well, with honour. Esparza is surprised to see Master Chief treating his foe with respect, but Master Chief replies that Escharum had been a soldier, fighting for what he figured was right. After Esparza secures a Pelican, he brings Master Chief to the Silent Auditorium. Fighting through the Silent Auditorium, Master Chief finally confronts the Harbinger of Truth. While he is able to kill her, he cannot prevent the Harbinger from sending one final message to an unknown recipient before she dies. In the aftermath, Master Chief and the Weapon learn that Atriox had captured Cortana, but she refused to help Atriox and damaged Zeta Halo to prevent him from using the ring as a weapon. It turns out Cortana had also prevented the Weapon’s deletion: in a final recorded message, Cortana implores Master Chief to work with the Weapon before they part ways. The Silent Auditorium begins to collapse, but Master Chief and the Weapon are able to escape and reunite with Esparza, while the Weapon decides she’s got a new name for herself. In a post credits scene, Atriox prepares to unleash the Endless. Halo Infinite‘s ending leaves the story open to future development, especially since the Endless pose a hitherto unparalleled threat to the universe, but for the present, with Halo Infinite‘s campaign in the books, there remains quite a bit to unpack, especially in Cortana’s final words to Master Chief, which marked the first since Valkyria Chronicles, some six years earlier, that a game brought on the waterworks, speaking to the strength of its emotional impact.

The biggest surprise in Halo Infinite was ultimately in how the game was able to resolve Master Chief and Cortana’s story: Halo 4 had left players with the impression that Cortana had “died” after stopping the Ur-Didact, and then returned in Halo 5: Guardians to wreck havoc on the galaxy, leaving the UNSC Infinity and Master Chief to an unknown fate. However, in writing Halo 5: Guardians, 343 Industries also left themselves against the wall. In choosing to have the threat of Cortana sorted out off-screen and allowing the Banished to rise far enough to destroy the UNSC Infinity, 343 Industries was able to give the series a soft reset and return Halo Infinite back to its roots. Nowhere else is this more apparent than with the dynamic between Master Chief and Cortana: throughout the whole of Halo Infinite, although Master Chief remains utterly devoted to his duty of protecting humanity, guilt over his failures continue to haunt him, limiting is willingness to trust the Weapon as an ally. Indeed, the way Cortana addresses Master Chief in her final recording, and Master Chief’s lingering regret both gave the impression that Master Chief and Cortana’s bond surpassed even those of lovers; the pair are separate halves of a whole, capable of great feats together. Thus, when Cortana was met with her fate, Master Chief becomes consumed with guilt at having failed his promise to Cortana, and it is only in the end, when Cortana is able to convey her thoughts freely, that Master Chief comes to an understanding with what happened. What happened in the aftermath of Halo 5: Guardians felt distinctly like a breakup in all but name, and Cortana’s choice of language, with its possessive tones, speaks strongly to these powerful bonds. It is unsurprising that in Halo 5: Guardians, Master Chief pushed himself forward on missions to blunt the pain of loss, and here in Halo Infinite, Master Chief is unwilling to trust the Weapon precisely because she is a reminder of what was lost. However, with Cortana’s final remarks, Master Chief is able to find peace in Cortana’s fate and ultimately, accept the Weapon as a partner. The analogues to a love story are numerous, and Halo Infinite does indeed feel like a tale of how one gets past their first love; although it is an immensely difficult journey, sharing experiences and making the most of the present, as well as accepting one’s past, appears to be integral in helping one to pick themselves back up. Cortana’s final recording was an immensely intense experience, reminding Master Chief that there’s always a way forward, but only if he is open to taking such a path. Hearing this from Cortana settles any lingering doubts he might’ve had about the Weapon, and in the end, Master Chief is able to move on past his regrets and guilt. Halo Infinite unexpectedly speaks to the idea that when healing from heartbreak, the process can take an exceedingly long time, but one should take as much time as they need, and moreover, one failure is not the end, so long as one is willing to keep their eyes and heart open. These are a fitting message for Valentine’s Day, and an encouraging thought all around.

Screenshots and Commentary

  • Altogether, it took twenty four hours to beat Halo Infinite on normal difficulty from start to finish, spaced out over two months. Halo Infinite definitely brings back memories of Halo: Combat Evolved in its execution, featuring a smaller group of Marines, a crashed UNSC ship, and an ancient enemy even more terrifying than the visible foes that Master Chief must fend off. However, unlike the Covenant, which accidentally unleashed the Flood, the Banished deliberately seek out the Endless. The Endless are said to be even more horrifying than the Flood, but beyond their resilience to the Halo array, not much more is known about them.

  • Because there is so much that remains unexplored with the Endless, and with the revelation that Atroix is still alive, Halo Infinite does suggest that there is going to be more to the story than meets the eye. Halo Infinite combines the mood and aesthetic of Halo: Combat Evolved with the finesse and polish of Halo 2, urgency of Halo 3 and armour abilities that appeared in Halo: Reach to create an end result that is decisively Halo. Outside of the open world elements, Halo Infinite‘s interior missions were evocative of those in Halo: Combat Evolved – Forerunner structures are intricately designed, but in the end, are repetitive, labyrinthine corridors.

  • Engaging combat sequences serve to break things up, and this is where Halo Infinite truly excels. Gunplay here capitalises on some two decades of improvement to provide weapons that handle well and feel powerful. Most of the weapons in Halo Infinite are useful and have their own applications. The Sentinel Beam, in particular, is given a considerable update, and on missions where it is common, is able to make short work of Banished and Forerunner foes alike.

  • While I had fully intended to run the remainder of the game with the battle rifle, practically meant that I ultimately would carry the Commando as my weapon of choice – ammunition was surprisingly common for this weapon, and while it is an automatic, it is quite effective at range, being able to pick off Grunts and Jackals alike with a single headshot. One weapon that I missed was the Spartan Laser; this weapon spoke to the UNSC’s increasing effectiveness as the Human-Covenant War ended, and I imagine that this choice was meant to show how all of the confidence surrounding humanity by the time of Halo 4 was gone by Halo Infinite‘s events.

  • Daylight streams into a Forerunner corridor here as I moved deeper into the Repository. The aesthetic bring to mind the palatial, but empty feeling that some of the large homes in the fancier neighbourhoods north of my area have. The average house built in the 1980s was around 1700 square feet, but nowadays, the average house is around 2700 square feet, and upwards of a third of newly-built houses are 3000 square feet. I’ve not found any explanation for why this is, but some speculate that the size of one’s home is a status symbol, representing more space with which to store one’s possessions.

  • The larger houses would be a pleasant place to entertain guests and host parties, but outside of these events, they’d feel about as unoccupied as Zeta Halo’s cavernous interiors. I’ve always been more practically-minded: the larger houses are quite enviable (having a private library and reading nook would be nice), but said homes also command a higher property tax and have a larger utility bill. Further to this, there’d be more bathrooms to clean every week, more rooms to dust, and more floors to vacuum. Additional space also increases clutter. For these reasons, I have long preferred a homer that is sized appropriately to what I need.

  • My preferences differ greatly than most folks, who prefer their detached single-family homes with a large yard: in a survey, it was found that up to eighty-five percent of those polled were willing to endure a longer commute for their dream home. A look at discussions closer to home finds that the reason why is privacy and freedom. Condos are more densely packed, subject to condo fees, and offer far less options for customisation later down the line. Space is reduced, preventing people from having backyard barbeques or affording their children a private place to play ball.

  • However, condos also have their own benefits. When operating under a responsible and effective homeowners association and board, condos are secure, well-maintained and foster a sense of community. In my case, I have no qualms with ponying up for the HOA fees because it means my sidewalks are taken care of in winter, and my lawns are dealt with during the summer. I have access to a private gym, and I am within both walking and transit range of an incredible range of restaurants and stores. In the end, different things work for different people because of differing priorities, so I won’t presume to judge others on their choices – my choices work well enough for me, while other choices will suit others better.

  • The cavernous interiors of Zeta Halo have led me on a bit of a tangent, but now that we’re back out to the surface for a brief but intense mission, I’ll return my focus over to the mission at hand. The road to the House of Reckoning is one filled with enemies, and here, I stepped back out into the sunset. After watching other play-throughs of the game, I think that for these missions, the time of day is deliberately set to convey a specific message: that the endgame is near. Halo 4 had cleverly named its first and final missions “Dawn” and “Midnight”, respectively. This symbolised the missions’ place in the story. For “Dawn”, it also referred to the Forward Unto Dawn frigate that formed the level’s map, while in “Midnight”, the choice of name mirrors the idea that this is the time when disaster strikes (per the Doomsday Clock).

  • On my own play-through, I ended up picking off the Banished forces before coming across a Scorpion Tank. Suddenly, armed with the might of a 90 mm cannon, the Banished become fodder to be mercilessly blasted apart. Scorpions in Halo have traditionally used a high explosive armour piercing round that deals massive damage to vehicles (two to three shots will wipe a Wraith out) and also imparts blast damage, making it a universally powerful weapon against infantry and armour alike. Although the Scorpion is a ludicrously powerful weapon capable of levelling entire Banished units in moments, a slow rate of fire means that engaging foes from afar is the best way to run this tank: at close range, the turret’s angle of depression and low rotational rate allows enemies to evade the powerful 90 mm rounds.

  • Having operated Scorpions since my Halo: Combat Evolved days, I’ve seen the tank evolve over time. The original Scorpion was quite powerful, but eclipsed by its Halo 2 equivalent, which has both a higher rate of fire for its main cannon and a more accurate co-axial machine gun. From Halo 3 onward, drivers no longer have access to a machine gun, requiring a passenger to operate the turret instead – this was done to balance the vehicle out, but it also makes campaigns a little more tricky if one is going it alone.

  • Halo Infinite continues to follow tradition by having the Scorpion remain spectacularly lethal at long ranges, and so, I chose to drive slowly through the valley, hitting things from afar to ensure the tank wouldn’t sustain too much damage. While players can always call in Scorpions from forward operating bases, Halo tradition dictates that there be at least one mission where Master Chief is given a tank and truly allowed to deliver a serious onslaught against his foes. This mission screamed Halo, being every bit as enjoyable as using the Scorpion to blast my way across the bridge in New Mombasa.

  • There’s an achievement called “Bring Shiela Home Safely” that entails taking the Scorpion tank from the beginning of the mission, across the bridge right up to the House of Reckoning’s garage, in one piece. To complete this achievement, the tank cannot take so much damage that it explodes, and it must be taken into the garage. Once Master Chief reaches the entrance to the House of Reckoning, I reckon is time to be a force that is reckoned with. Owing to the House of Reckoning’s name, I anticipated that I’d be in for a difficult fight ahead.

  • Inside the House of Reckoning, I find a battle rifle and immediately switched back over to it. The “trials” that Escharum has planned out for Master Chief entail sending waves of enemies after him, and while these waves start out easy, the difficulty ramps up. The presence of heavier weapons like the Hydra missile launcher and rocket launcher speaks to the kinds of foes Master Chief ends up facing: Brutes and Hunters are brought to the table, and they can be trickier to defeat without the right weapons. However, even in a bind, use of Master Chief’s armour abilities can prove quite effective: I’ve killed Hunters by using the thrusters to get behind them, melee the armour off their backs and dumping a magazine into the exposed flesh.

  • All of the foes earlier, as challenging as they were, don’t hold a candle compared to what’s upcoming: Elite blademaster Jega ‘Rdomnai is a cut above even the infamous Serpent Hunters. After entering this trailer and opening a hologram detailing Esparza’s family, Jega ‘Rdomnai will strike. Jega ‘Rdomnai is the Spartan Killer who’d been responsible for the deaths of several Spartans on Zeta Halo, and in combat, he makes extensive use of active camouflage in conjunction with a Blood Blade, a souped up energy sword that allows for faster lunges.

  • The close quarters inside the trailer, coupled with Jega ‘Rdomnai’s weapon preferences and cloak, makes for a difficult fight. I ended up falling back on the tried-and-true plasma-ballistics combination to bring him down, using the pulse carbine to wear down his shields, and then strike the unshielded Jega ‘Rdomnai with the battle rifle. The fight is thrilling because Jega ‘Rdomnai remains cloaked for most of the battle, leading to suspenseful moments where one must keep moving lest they be ambushed. There are shock coils that can be used to stun-lock Jega ‘Rdomnai, and during my fight, I made use of the threat sensor to get a bead on his location.

  • Defeating Jega ‘Rdomnai allows Master Chief to loot the Blood Blade from his corpse, and in practise, this should be a fearsome weapon that makes short work of foes on the receiving end. However, after Jega ‘Rdomnai, the only foe left in the House of Reckoning is Escharum, whose armour is so tough that the Blood Blade won’t even scratch him. Escharum himself is a remarkably durable opponent, and the first phase of the fight simply entails hammering him until he brings up his shields. Using the rocket launcher and the various coils in the environment is the most efficient way of getting this done.

  • When Escharum sustains enough damage, he will activate energy shields that transfer all damage dealt towards Esparza. When the shields activate, they generate a prodigious amount of heat, and the power relays will become exposed. Destroying these will bring Escharum’s shields down momentarily, allowing Master Chief to keep attacking his foe. I have found that using the drop wall here is effective, as it prevents Master Chief from being damaged while attacking the relays. The sheer amount of health that Escharum has is staggering, and fortunately, there are weapons scattered around the arena that will be helpful.

  • Escharum will maintain his distance during the first two phases of the fight, preferring to use a scrap cannon to attack. However, once he’s down to a certain amount of health, he switches over to the Diminisher of Hope. This weapon is absolutely brutal and can one-shot Master Chief, so here, using the grapple shot and thrusters to keep distance is essential. Heavier weapons like the turrets won’t be too useful, although one can, in theory, deal some damage with close range weapons like the shotgun or Blood Blade before using their equipment to return to a safe distance.

  • When my ammunition reserves began running dry, I would end up switching over to the weapons found on racks scattered throughout the arena. There isn’t any one weapon that works better on Escharum than another, so the only strategy here is to keep one’s distance and, per the old suggestion from DOOM, shoot Escharum until he falls. The Shock Rifle, for instance, does some damage but won’t stun Escharum, and similarly, the grapple shot’s electrified stun has no effect on him.

  • In a poetic bit of symbolism, I ended up defeating Escharum using the Blood Blade: I’d dropped it earlier for a longer range weapon, but as the weapons became depleted, I ended up picking up the Blood Blade in a rush to switch over to another weapon. Although using a melee weapon is probably the last resort anyone should take whilst fighting Escharum, at this point in the fight, Escharum had been damaged enough so that a few swings was enough to finish him. In the aftermath, Escharum asks Master Chief to tell his allies that he’d died honourably after fighting well. Esparza is shocked that Master Chief treats Escharum with respect, but Master Chief sees himself in Escharum, fighting to uphold what he believes is right.

  • This sort of thing is what makes Halo Infinite so enjoyable; Escharum is an honourable foe whose presence simply encouraged players to face him in battle. After beating Escharum, Master Chief will gain access to the Diminisher of Hope. I had wished to use it against the Harbinger of Truth, but realities forced me to drop the weapon in favour of something with more ammunition left; a pair of Serpent Hunters will fight Master Chief, and I ended up expending the Diminisher of Hope’s energy reserves to beat them.

  • With most of the foes now eliminated, the Harbinger of Truth is the only enemy left to defeat. Halo Infinite gives players a small respite here, and as the Master Chief passes through the Silent Auditorium to seek out his last target, Halo Infinite fills in the gaps in the story, explaining that the UNSC ultimately caught up to Cortana and prepared her for deletion. Seeing what had happened, Cortana consented to this, but before deletion routine finished, Cortana sabotaged Zeta Halo to prevent the Banished from using the Ring, then overrode the Weapon’s deletion protocols, knowing that Master Chief was at his best when working with someone like her.

  • I found 343 Industries’ choice interesting, acting as a clean and elegant way to bring Cortana’s actions from Halo 5: Guardians to a resolution and open the floor for a new story, while at the same time, detailing the journey that Master Chief takes to come to terms with his grief and regret. Although Halo Infinite is certainly not a love story, the way things are portrayed means one cannot help but liken this to a story about overcoming a breakup or rejection. This unexpected piece to Halo Infinite made an already-enjoyable came even more profound and meaningful.

  • Traditionally, Valentine’s Day is my least favourite holiday of the year: the holiday was originally to pay respect to St. Valentine, whose exact story remains a mystery. What is known is that he was killed. The association of St. Valentine with romance comes in the middle ages, with poet Geoffrey Chaucer marking the date as a time to find a partner. For me, this time of year had long been characterised by exams, and I vividly remember one Valentine’s Day many years back. I had a physics midterm that evening, and although I performed very well on said exam, it had been a miserable evening all around.

  • While I’ve not a solution regarding the depression and feelings of emptiness that come about at this time of year even now, I have found that focusing on my work and responsibilities on Valentine’s Day allows me to get through what is, in effect, an ordinary day. For instance, this year, I fully intend to get my internet plan set up for the new place later today; in effect, I have a date with the local ISP, and the plan is to get set up with a gigabit connection to accommodate our usage patterns. Although for most users, 150 Mbps connection is more than enough, the reason why I’m going for a gigabit plan is because I will be working from home often enough: having the extra bandwidth will allow for simultaneous video calls and upload of large files.

  • The fact that one of the local ISPs in my area provides fibre means that gigabit internet is affordable. With this in mind, I have heard of people who’ve gone against advice and picked up a Gigabit plan even though they’re the only person on the net, and the most intensive thing they do is stream to Twitch. Because Twitch recommends an upload speed of 6 Mbps to give viewers a decent experience, a gigabit connection would not confer any additional advantages and simply be a waste of money. Conversely, because a major part of my decision is the fact that I’m working from home extensively, having the extra bandwidth will prove useful (especially if I’m trying to do a video call at the same time that other users on the network are uploading 60 GB simulation files to their cloud storage). In a curious turn of events, I actually will be having a hearty steak for dinner tonight, fulfilling a years-long ambition to celebrate singleness with a steak on Valentine’s Day.

  • After passing through the large door and entering a large chamber, I finally confront the Harbinger of Truth. The Harbinger of Truth has access to energy-based attacks and can teleport instantly, but once her shields are down, she’s particularly vulnerable to melee strikes: even a few solid blows from the stock of a battle rifle will be enough to take sizeable chunks of her health away. While she heads off to recharge, Banished will attempt to rush Master Chief. When this fight is compared with the Escharum fight, or Jega ‘Rdomnai, the Harbinger of Truth hasn’t the slightest bit of honour: both Jega ‘Rdomnai and Escharum fight Master Chief mano-a-mano.

  • Despite the Harbinger of Truth’s abilities being quite formidable, once her shields are down, Master Chief can easily punch her lights out, bringing this boss fight to an end. Halo Infinite proved exceedingly satisfying and opens the floor to plenty of prospective new directions, while at the same time, wrapping up loose ends from Halo 4 and Halo 5: Guardians. With Halo Infinite in the books, I may return to play through the game again with the default audio set to Japanese so I can listen to anime Weapon/Cortana speak, but for now, my next major gaming goals are to reach level sixty in Battlefield 2042, after which I’ll unlock the NTW-50, and make enough headway into Project Wingman so that I can write about my experiences after the first quarter, both before the month is out.

Halo Infinite is a fantastic example of how less is more, and its campaign marks a return to form, focusing purely on Master Chief and the Weapon as they work to stop Escharum and the Harbinger from unleashing the Endless. Without a massive UNSC presence, players once again feel as though they’re the last individual left to oppose the Banished. However, with the Weapon and Esparza, what initially appeared to be an insurmountable task begins to feel doable, something that can be done one step at a time. Halo Infinite‘s ending is quite open, and lingering questions remain about what happens to humanity, what the Endless are, and whether or not Master Chief will need to confront Atriox again (it is only appropriate to give Master Chief a second chance at fighting Atroix, especially after Atriox had casually manhandled him earlier). While Halo Infinite‘s story was immensely satisfying and offers closure regarding Cortana, it also opens the floor to a new story, one that merits exploration. This would demand a continuation, and with 343 Industries suggesting that they plan on supporting Halo Infinite for the next decade, this does lead to the question of how they could continue the story. However, 343 Industries may have already shown their hand in how Halo Infinite‘s story could continue through The Master Chief Collection: bringing classic Halo games to PC allowed 343 Industries to implement a launcher for different Halo games, and this approach could be utilised in Halo Infinite, where additional campaigns are add-ons to the core game. In this way, 343 Industries can easily add instalments to the campaign, allowing the story to continue, but at the same time, continue to support the core multiplayer experience and provide players with the best possible game that they can. The possibilities are about as endless as the hitherto-unseen Endless, and having now completed Halo Infinite‘s campaign, I am curious to see where 343 Industries intends to go over the next ten years with what has been a pivotal achievement for the Halo franchise; having evidently learnt from their experiences since developing Halo 4, 343 Industries have found their footing and delivered a Halo game worthy of both old and new fans alike. With my story over for the present, I will spend some time exploring the multiplayer in the future as time allows; although my reflexes and skill are not what they were during the apex of my time as a Halo 2 Vista player, Halo Infinite does offer the option of squaring off against AI bots in multiplayer, and this could prove to be an immensely relaxing way of unwinding and getting to visit the maps without getting my face kicked in by MLG pro players.