All this talk about the new console generation has got me thinking about beginnings. It’s always an exciting time when a bunch of new tech gets into the hands of people. Standing at the beginning of an exciting journey is an exhilarating feeling because all you can see is possibility.
This feeling extends to games themselves. There aren’t very many strong video game endings, but beginnings are equally troublesome these days. It’s a real skill for a game to set a proper tone by introducing the characters, environments, abilities, and mechanics. Many are able to capture a few of these attributes, but it’s a rare occasion when a video game pulls you in right off the bat and gets you engaged. Because graphical capabilities are so high these days, even smaller developers can render movie-level cutscenes. While that’s all good and fine, I’m more impressed by a game starting off as a game and not just a carbon copy of ground that movies have already covered. So, let’s talk about a few games that I think really nail it with their beginning levels.
Final Fantasy VII
Considering how it took something like 15-20 hours before Final Fantasy XIII took the training wheels off and let you play, it’s easy to forget how quickly Final Fantasy VII lets you dive right into the action. After a brief cinematic introducing Aeris and an overhead view of the Midgar, you zoom in onto a train coming into a station, Cloud jumps off of it, and dives right into a battle.
Granted, the first mission to blow up Reactor Number One is not the most detailed or thrilling in the game, but it’s rare these days for an epic JRPG to hit the ground running and get you invested in it right away. There are a lot of reasons why Final Fantasy VII is so highly regarded — timing in that console generation, plot twists, Sephiroth as an iconic villain — and I’ll argue that its opening sequence is a big part of why because it just grabs you from the start and doesn’t let go.
The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King
Right from the credits you move into Gandalf taking on Helm’s Deep. The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King is one of the forgotten licensed games that is actually pretty fantastic. This and The Two Towers are very short and are nothing more than beat-em-ups which recreate scenes from the films, but they are done really, really well. The first game covers the first two films and opens with you playing as Isildur as you defeat Sauron and set the ring on its fateful course. It’s pretty fun, but it’s nothing compared to the follow-up.
It begins with the scene from the film where sunlight beams upon Helm’s Deep; Gandalf standing with the Riders of Rohan. He leads the charge into the valley to rescue Aragorn, Legolas, Gimli, and the other survivors. Suddenly, the closeup of the White Wizard changes to in-game graphics, and before you know it you’re knee-deep in Uruk-Kai. This all happens with no start screen, no level select, nothing. The first time I played it, it completely caught me off guard. This level not only serves as a great tutorial, but it makes you snap to attention from the first frame.
It may be over 25 years old, but Contra might just be the perfect video game. There’s no pretense, no putting on airs. It’s just you and your buddy mowing down enemies both human and alien alike. The first mission is one of the more iconic ones from the NES era; likely because that’s all a lot of people ever saw of the game. Jumping into it. Everything you need to know about Contra is here; an intense jungle battle with enemies in all directions, an exploding bridge, platforming, crazy weapons, and a boss fight which climaxes in a massive explosion. I don’t know what it is that Konami did better than everyone else back then, but I don’t think anybody in the history of games has made blowing up a doorway more satisfying.
The standard Bethesda approach to a character creation scenario is to have you wake up in a jail cell, on a boat, or in some other type of confinement. Fallout 3 begins with your birth. This sequence cuts to vignettes of your life as a toddler, child, teen, and finally an adult. Bethesda gets a lot of (mostly deserved) flack for its less-than-stellar main quests, but they absolutely nailed the opening for Fallout 3. A standard characteristic of RPGs is the character selection area. It’s usually masked behind a character asking you a bunch of questions about yourself — generally because you have amnesia or something.
Throughout the opening sequence, your character is playable as you explore a playpen, talk to people at your 10th birthday party, etc. The purpose of all of it is to choose your attributes and character type. I’m a big fan of the first two Fallout games, and I’ll admit I was skeptical of this one going into it. After playing through this extended sequence in the vault, culminating in me having to escape to the harsh world after inadvertently killing its leader, it became clear to me that Bethesda knew what they were doing.
Batman: Arkham City
This one was tough, because I think the opening section of Arkham Asylum, escorting the Joker right into his trap, is one of the more iconic beginnings of this past generation. The opening of the sequel didn’t quite have the same ‘wow’ factor, but that was partly because, unlike its predecessor, people were actually expecting this game to be excellent. The thing that made the beginning of Arkham City amazing to me was that you got to start out as Bruce Wayne.
One of my favorite things about superhero games is the idea of being able to change back into your identity. This is unfortunately something most games from this genre rarely do. With this game, walking the gauntlet of thugs, beating up the Penguin and his goons, and climbing a building to get to my costume, right up to getting suited up and earning the ‘I’m Batman’ achievement was one of my favorite moments of 2011, hands down.
Super Mario 64
Just looking at this image makes me want to hook up my N64 again and replay this game. It’s hard to articulate just how revolutionary Super Mario 64 was to players when it was released. I remember first seeing it through a window of a game store. I glanced at it, walked about 10 steps, and then stopped and went into the store to see what that was. I distinctly remember thinking to myself upon watching a demo of it that I could never figure out the complexity of controlling a 3D Mario.
Thankfully, Nintendo anticipated that response and made sure to ease you into playing. You start on the grounds of Princess Peach’s castle where you can run around and practice running, jumping, and swimming. It took a little getting used to at first, but it was a masterful design choice to let you start by just figuring it out. This approach to gameplay; giving you all the tools you need and letting you play with them, is something most games seem to have forgotten as they hammer you with tutorials for every little thing.
Please leave a comment and talk about your favorite openings to a video game.