{notes from FFDog #16}:
'wow them in the end, and you've got a [videogame].'
by tim rogers
08172003

 



My brother Roy came over today. He was sitting in my room, on the floor, with his now one-year-old baby daughter Isabella. They were listening to me play the guitar. I kind of wrote up a little bluesy number. It's not bad. You'd have to hear it. If my digital camera weren't still broken as all hell, I'd make a video of it and post it here. As is, I can't do that. Oh, well. The world will keep turning.

So at some point, my guitar hand starts to get tired, so my brother says, "Hey, let me see that Virtua Fighter 4 Evolution shit," and I say, "Right on." I ask him if he wants to play. He says naw, he's too busy holding the baby. So I fire up my PlayStation2, and I load up Arcade Mode on Very Hard, and I pick my custom mack-pimping Lion, and I take to bashing the hell out of some people. I perfect two out of three rounds. I'm smoking the game. Roy is letting out shouts of excitement when I smack someone down with a vicious combo. He "Oohs" when I sidestep Pai and then throw her. He inquires with a martial artist's curiosity as to the fighting style of each character, and I reply.

Then I get to Dural. I'm so hardcore, I beat her in two rounds, the second one a perfect. I scream at the game, and then press Start to skip the credits. I figure I'll show him the 10th Anniversary Mode, now. Before I can do that, I have to skip through the "Game Over" screen. My brother sees this, and says, "What the hell? 'Game Over'?"

"Yeah."

"That's the ending?"

"Yeah."

"Shit," he says. "Games used to have awesome endings."

And I say, "Well, they . . . did."

Do I really believe that?

I'm honestly not sure.

What defines a good ending in a videogame? Why does there have to be an ending at all?

Let's face it -- playing old videogames was sometimes a kind of chore. Taking up where pinball left off, the earliest games were tests of wits that often aspired to perpetuity. The goal of Pac-Man is, for all intents and purposes, to keep playing. "Beating" a game often resulted in a "Game Over" screen, followed by a longer, harder version of the same game.

Our good friend Chris Kohler -- all kidding aside, an expert in the narratives of videogames -- tells me that Atari's Missile Command, released to arcades in 1979, was the first game to have an "ending." Rather than a simple "Game Over" followed by a repetition of level one, Missile Command showed us the entire world explode, and the words "THE END" flashing on a field of red.

"It wasn't much a story ending," he says, yet, "it was a change."

Kohler is quick to point out that 1981's Donkey Kong was the first game with a narrative "story." The game demonstrates its story through graphics: we see, at the beginning of the game, a giant ape with a captive girl, at the top of a construction site. The ape, Donkey Kong, manages to grab the girl and escape to another part of the construction site whenever Mario, our hero, gets to his goal. In the final level, we send Donkey Kong crashing to his doom. He lands on his head on pavement, and Mario and his woman, Pauline, are united at last.

The game then repeats from the beginning. You're playing for points, after all.

Shigeru Miyamoto's Donkey Kong is -- even today -- a rare synergy of play-focus and narrative. I call Donkey Kong a "play-focused" game because of all the technicalities involved in the various ways points are awarded. The game loops to aspired perpetuity as a means of giving the player opportunities to score more points, and so engrave their initials on the high-score page. It can be said, then, that in games like Pac-Man or Donkey Kong, the true ending involved bringing our friends around the local pizza joint and watching them try to beat our high scores.

Home consoles changed this. Miyamoto's Super Mario Bros. was a game you played on your own, or with friends you brought into your house. You didn't share your scores or times with every patron of the local game center -- you shared them with a select few who were invited to sit in on the experience. Doing well at Super Mario Bros. meant playing well, and playing well was a kind of performance art in and of itself. The story of the game was not entirely self-contained; rather than focus on narrative, Super Mario Bros. focused on the content and execution of its gameplay: you begin the game as Mario, facing right, slightly left of the center of the screen. You move to the right, you encounter an enemy. You jump on or over it. You hit a block. It produces a mushroom. You take the mushroom. You grow.

At the end of stage 1-4, you defeat a giant dragon, and rescue a little mushroom-headed thing. It tells you: sorry -- the princess is in another castle, man. Until this point, you'd not even known there was a princess -- unless you'd read the instruction manual, which detailed Mario's fateful trek from Brooklyn to the Mushroom Kingdom. In the case of Super Mario Bros. or The Legend of Zelda, where seventy-five-percent of the story lies within the pages of the instruction manual, impressive performance takes the place of a high score; to show off when playing Mario or Zelda, we have to play well at a series of preset obstacles. In order for our performance to hold the audience's attention, the obstacles have to be constantly changing (of course, this is not to mention the many players so skilled at Centipede as to draw giant, captive crowds) from moment-to-moment and level-to-level.

In other words: in the Would-be Perpetual Game (or, "the play-oriented game") one screen, one map, is all that is necessary. In the Game with an Ending (or, "the completion-oriented game") the play has to change, growing progressively more and more difficult, in turn rendering the most skilled player's performance more and more impressive.

It has ever been the natural practice that, as the game gets more difficult and the player's performance becomes more impressive, the game itself begins to look more impressive. Witness Super Mario Bros.'s level 8-3, in which Mario avoids dozens of Hammer Bros. -- the most visually impressive enemies of the game, by far, what with the hammers they're constantly throwing -- while running before a background showing numerous high castle walls. Up until this point of the game, we've only seen one castle at the end of every level; to see so many castles, perhaps all connected as one big castle, is more than cool. To see our good friend dodging hundreds of hammers over such a background is cooler than cool. To play so skillfully ourselves is an adrenaline rush.

To this day, I can't beat level 8-4 of Super Mario Bros. I don't know why. Perhaps the sanctity of the act has been built up too much.

I remember when my neighbor, a rich Indian kid named Rohit, used to treat me to his exploits at the game. He'd announce early on that I had "to be Luigi," and then proceed to play all the way to the end of the game without dying once. If I was lucky, for that year before I got a Nintendo Entertainment System of my own, Rohit would die on 8-3, and I'd be able to play 1-1 through 1-3 and die on a particular jump. My skills never had the room to grow, and I don't fault Rohit for it. Watching him play was a religious experience, something like a bell going off in my head, telling me I'd be playing videogames -- or else . . . watching people play them (or maybe writing about them?) for the rest of my years.

At first, Rohit's only perfected method for defeating the final boss, Bowser, involved being Super Mario, and taking a hit, utilizing the seconds of invincibility upon turning into Small Mario to reach the other side of the bridge, and the princess. The princess thanked Mario for rescuing her, and told him to push B to select a world. Then the game started over. Rohit was running toward the beginning of 1-1 -- only the standard, easily killable Goombas had been replaced with impervious-to-fire Buzzy Beetles. This strange sight impressed me as much as the part in the 8-4 castle -- the first true videogame maze, as far as I'm concerned -- where Mario ducks into a gray pipe on a black background, and emerges into blue water spiked with dangerous whirling chains of fire.

To me, Super Mario Bros. is the way videogames should end. Miracle of miracles, Miyamoto got it right on his first real big ambitious try. Rather than end with a crash of something impressive, Super Mario Bros. winds down. Its winding-down begins with the staircase in world 8-1 -- normally, the end-of-level staircases are straightforward and complete; this one is missing many steps, perhaps warning the player that there be rough times ahead -- crescendos with 8-3's castle-backed landscape, climaxes with the player discovering a water stage within the final castle maze, and resolves with the princess thanking a hero who has just slain the dragon.

It is in its final stages that Super Mario Bros. prepares the player, visually and challenge-wise, for its climax and resolution. Its climax, as laid-out above, is a climax of concept (embedding a stage of one type inside a stage of another type), and even one that points toward the future of its genre (Super Mario Bros. 3 is a virtuoso when it comes to mixing gameplay styles within stages). Its resolution involves a woman thanking a man for his help getting rid of a monster. The game then rewards us with slightly fresher content where challenge is concerned; for what does the game offer, if not an increasing challenge?

It took me many years to realize that Super Mario Bros. is so perfect with regard to climax. It took me many years to realize that, because shortly after I first played Super Mario Bros., Super Mario Bros. 2 came along to screw everything up.

**

When I first played it, I loved Super Mario Bros. 2 above all other videogames. I was a kid. I was an embarrassing little kid. I didn't know jack shit. I didn't know how it was really supposed to be. The reason I got into Super Mario Bros. 2 was best described by my friend Rohit, the day he got the game:

"Dude, this game's ending is awesome!!"

Yes, he used two exclamation points. I was certain to count them.

He went on to assert:

"It has animation. Like a cartoon!!"

Super Mario Bros. 2 begins with an easily identifiable fake piano playing over a still screen. We see the words "SUPER MARIO BROS. 2", and if we let it sit long enough, we are treated to a few words detailing the game's story. Mario climbs to the top of a staircase in a dream, and finds people in a Dream-World who want to be freed from a giant evil frog named Wart. So Mario's quest begins.

By the last of Super Mario Bros. 2, we've seen one grassland world, two desert worlds, one ice world, and two waterfall-cave worlds (one of the daylight variant, one shrouded in night). We've fought one boss thirteen times, and each of three other bosses twice. The final world brings us into a castle, where we fight a boss that looks nothing like the other bosses. We kill him, enter the final door, and see our four heroes standing atop pedestals. The game then tells us which character we used the most, labeling him or her as the "Contributor." We see the final boss being crowd-surfed against his will atop the spears of the dream-citizens. We then see a lush view of Mario, lying in bed, snoring animatedly, treated by the words "The End."

It's the big, animated Mario head that did it to the kids. This is where the path to the dark side begins.

Everyone wanted to see something like that -- something like an animated, snoring Mario -- at the end of their game. It was just something so giant, so unexpected, so precious, so inimitable. Every game then began this sometimes-overbearing rush to capture something precious in the closing seconds. As screenwriter Robert McKee says, it doesn't matter what the story's about, or what direction it takes -- "Wow them in the end, and you've got a [videogame]." This axiom is responsible for many a dull game with a spectacular ending.

So it was that all over the schoolyard, stories of "Bart vs. the Space Mutants kind of sucks -- yet it's got a really bitchin' ending, with, like, animation and shit" began to spread faster than the skinny kid's chicken pox. Ninja Gaiden, a game I otherwise respect for its bold-headed risk-taking regarding level design and implementation of "mature" story content, is guilty of killing three NES controllers in my youth homestead. Abovementioned brother Roy was the one who killed those controllers; he killed them in frustration, and with pounding against the basement floor. Here Roy was, defeated again and again by the horrendous difficulty (and raining knock-you-off-platforms birds) of a game that he loved for its ninjas and drop-dead intriguing plot. The halfway-animated graphical cut-scenes inserted between insanely difficult stages were a clever device meant to keep players playing long after their frustration had begun and peaked. The ending was widely rumored to be so awesome you'd throw up with joy; these rumors fueled the fire of the passion with which every red-blooded gamer played the game.

Ninja Gaiden shook the roots of the game-ending world. By offering storyline sequences between stages, it split up and interspersed the "cool stuff" that gamers wanted from games. We were very visual-based back then; we wanted to "see" the cool stuff, and you can't even blame us semantically -- were these not videogames? Was not the basis of the game hand-eye coordination? We were many years from Parappa the Rapper, with its hand-ear coordination, and by then, games would have grown into something wholly different from what they originally set out to be.

Yet they'd all still be ending the same damned way.

***

End-heavy game-design is a scourge. I, for one, prefer a game to evenly level out in tone while peaking in difficulty. I like games to, like Super Mario Bros., wind down rather than end.

Of course, I only think this way now, after having played the hell out of Metroid Prime, which defies the conventions Super Mario Bros. defied before they were even conventions.

Back in the day, yeah, I was an ending whore. I was the bitch of videogame endings, along with everyone else who was a little kid in the nineties. I kept a mental catalog of games I'd beaten, and an even more mental catalog of game's I'd say I'd beaten just so I didn't look like more of a loser than I already was.

By 1993, I was able to tell you how any game ended. I was able to rattle off final boss names and statistics, and/or how quickly I could beat them. Final Fantasy II had the best ending of all time. Final Fantasy's ending was important to the story. Contra was still a classic, and I could even get all the way to Red Falcon without the thirty-lives code. The final boss of Gaiares was, indeed, totally huge.

Street Fighter II livened up the scene with eight selectable characters, each of which had his or her own specialized ending. A five-minute run-through of the game on the easiest difficulty would tell you to try a harder difficulty. Play it on level four of seven, and you get to see a small, character-specific animated sequence. Beat it on level seven of seven, and you get the fully, uncut, gloriously animated ending. That the graphics sometimes portray our heroes in poses they cannot assume during the game -- who can forget Ken, with his back turned, carrying his new bride toward the sunset -- or show them in locations that do not appear in the game, doing things they can do in the game -- Ryu dragon-punches a waterfall, the only opponent too "strong" for him to defeat -- was nearly too much awesome. It was so much awesome that it ignited a crazed lust for multiple endings in videogames. Every fighting game had to have them; even up Tekken 2 on PlayStation, many years later -- hell, even until Tekken 4 on PlayStation2 -- inspired kids to trade tips at high-school lunch: "Dude, put the life bars on the smallest size possible, and the round count to one, and you can beat the game as anyone in, like, thirty seconds."

Me, I was something of an elitist from the beginning: I could get all of the full endings for Street Fighter II.

It was around 1993 that this ending-heavy trend in game-making started to bore the "big kids." It was around this time that my brother Roy, once a fan of Final Fantasy II, gave up playing the majority of videogames upon breaking a controller while trying to get Guile's long ending in Street Fighter II. Games were stagnating, sort of, when it came to conclusions. An "if you beat one, you beat them all" mentality swept over the masses, and many lost their desires to play. The kids shied away from the games, and it's a shame that they did, because it was in 1994 that Squaresoft brought the Videogame Ending to a whole new plane.

*****

Final Fantasy VI was the revolution of the Videogame Ending. Its final dungeon -- the sprawling, three-party-cooperative Kefka's Tower -- is constructed almost entirely of objects we've seen throughout the game. The enemies all look similar. However, bringing back the tactical party-switching gameplay in a dungeon is remarkable. Some parties hold down switches, allowing other parties to pass. At the end, all three parties must stand on a switch to open the final chamber. The game has successfully combined its dungeon layouts with the tactical style of its two central story battles, and even scattered three new-sprite-endowed bosses -- the Goddess Statues -- throughout.

The final boss, Kefka, is fought in four parts. The battle style is unique to this segment, and used only once in the game. Before the battle, each party member speaks final words of contempt for Kefka -- the more party members you took the time to acquire, the more words of contempt are spoken. You then have to assign your maximum of fourteen characters into an order of preference. During the battle, as characters die, the next character in line replaces them. It's new to us, and it works, all the same.

And the music is beautiful -- all music we've never heard before. The operatic "Dancing Mad" climaxes with a new mix of the "Kefka" theme, as we fight the now-demonic form of our villain in a place wreathed in golden clouds. When Kefka is dead, the ending begins in earnest. As our characters flee the dungeon, we see scenes of near-digitized quality, portraying a symbol of each character. A two-headed coin represents the brothers Edgar and Sabin; a samurai sword represents the noble Cyan; a bandanna and a bouquet of roses symbolize the love of Locke and Celes. If we've acquired these party members, we see their escape from the fortress in detail. If we haven't acquired the party member, we hear his or her theme music play while the camera scrolls around that character's last known location. And the music is beautiful -- all music we've heard before, remixed, all flowing together.

At the end of the procession of characters, as a sweetness beyond all sweetness, the game reveals the final credit: "And You." Aww, thanks.

Then it's back to the story -- we see the airship exiting Kefka's Tower. We hear the airship theme music blaring. The credits begin. This eventually climaxes in the playing of the Final Fantasy theme music and then the familiar sight of the words "THE END" over a cycling star field.

At the time I first witnessed it, this was the best videogame ending of all time.

A year later, I witnessed the ending of Earthbound -- nee Mother 2 -- for the first time. It didn't impress me as much as the ending of Final Fantasy VI. Yet, it is remarkable: in Mother 2's ending, you control the hero Ness as he heads back for his hometown, and to his mother. You are permitted to roam wherever you please. What is notable is that every character in the game, no matter how insignificant, now has something new to say.

What's even more notable -- and even kind of creepy -- is the amount of forethought that went into this ending. When you get home and talk to your mom, she'll suggest you get some sleep, and that's when the credits roll. However, odd little things can and will come back to haunt you. For example, at one point in the game, your characters are stranded in a rainforest. There is a doctor near a patch of land who will heal your wounds. There is not, however, an ATM, so you have no money. This is where the moneylender comes into play. See -- there's a guy wandering in the water with a snorkel. You talk to him, and he tells you he'll loan you some money, at the cost of $500 per transaction -- the typical ATM in the game charges a fee of one dollar. This guy is quick to note that, at some point, you're going to have to come back and pay him the money you owe him -- the amount of the withdrawal, and the transaction fee. You tell him sure, you'll be back, and then go on with your adventure.

Should you forget to pay this guy back -- he's going to call your house.

AFTER THE CREDITS.

Perhaps even odder still is the fact that you earn a bicycle early in the game, slightly before you meet your first party member, Paula. Once Paula joins the party, you can never use the bicycle again. The only time you can use the bicycle again is in the ending, when all the party members leave for their respective homes. Should you take the bicycle to the rainforest and pedal through the river, you'll hear a wet-bicycle sound-effect that can be heard at no other point in the game.

This kind of brilliance is perhaps lost on the American design sensibilities that can and do frequently bring into being such ugly games as Oddworld: Abe's Oddysee. As such, Americans didn't quite "get" the ending of Earthbound -- hell, I'll admit even I didn't, until I was nineteen years old -- when it first debuted, mostly because most of them didn't play the game. No, no, if you wanted to survive a meeting of your Dungeons and Dragons club without getting limp-wrist-punched by your Dungeon Master, you were expected to be equipped with the knowledge that the best videogame ending ever was, hands-down, Final Fantasy VI. If you were cool enough, you could say it was Lunar: The Silver Star a game 90% of people hadn't played at that point, yet they'd all nod and agree with you: yeah, it's better, because it has full-motion video. No matter that it's in a square window half the size of your television -- it's animated, and it's got voice-acting. Full-motion video is full-motion video.

*******

And full-motion video is also the gimmick that brought the kids back to videogames. It was the endings in the abovementioned Tekken 2 that got people like my brother Roy to buy a PlayStation and turn down the difficultly levels. It was the solid, beginning-to-end movie-like look and feel of Resident Evil that got some big kids buying the games and inviting over friends again. My brother's friend used to amaze people with a quick beating of Resident Evil, and I'll admit that the first time I ever came close to being scared by any form of entertainment was that first night he showed me the game.

My brother's friend's brother, a captain of his high school wrestling team who insisted that videogames were, in addition to "baby toys," both "gay" and "homosexual," saw three commercials for Squaresoft's Final Fantasy VII, and knew he had to have it. Final Fantasy VII, in addition to being purported to have cost some $35 million to produce, was the next level of the Ninja Gaiden Effect. Interspersed throughout the game were cinematic, computer-animated full-motion-video sequences some gaming publications described as "breathtaking." In a departure from Ninja Gaiden, which rewarded players with increasingly long storyline sequences when they tackled its insanely tough stages, Final Fantasy VII strived to be a game everyone could finish. Even my brother's friend's friend, who'd played not a single RPG before Final Fantasy VII, played the game to completion and wailed philosophical about the awesomeness of the ending.

I was not pleased. This was around when my awareness as The Enlightened Gamer began to shine. Just two years prior, I had played Chrono Trigger, in which the fighting staple of "Multiple Endings" is exploited in a genius fashion. Rather than reward the player with a different ending for traveling down each of several immediately perceivable linear paths, Chrono Trigger awards the endings for replaying the game with the "New Game +" mode, in which all character statistics and weapons are retained. Since you're as strong as you were at the end of your last save, you can likely take on the final boss at any time. After you've looped through the game enough times, you can even take on and defeat the final boss right at the beginning of the game, resulting in a candid ending in which you talk with all the producers, who claim to have not been able to make an ending, because you beat the game too quickly.

Only one of Chrono Trigger's endings is visually and aurally spectacular in its own right -- and it's the ending you'll most likely get if you beat the game straight through. The rest of them are odd little things -- witness all the people of the game's capital city with . . . frog tongues? -- witness the taciturn main character, Crono, actually speak a line of dialogue! -- and absolutely essential for the true connoisseur of RPGs. A "bad" ending results when you fail to beat the final boss. There is a variant of the "good" ending, which occurs if you choose to kill a certain character: Frog, the amphibious knight who joins your party early in the game, appears briefly in his uncursed, human form.

Chrono Trigger's formula for ending is unique in that it allows the player to choose where and when -- and sometimes how -- the game ends. Choosing to pilot the ship, Epoch, into the future to fight the final boss results in using the ship to break inside of the enemy, completely bypassing the first form -- and removing the ship from the ending. So it is that when the game winds down, it is winding down within the player, as he equips his armor and thinks: yeah, let's hit the button, let's fight that final boss.

Then Final Fantasy VII came along, and confused me. The game occasionally shifts visual focus from tiny, Popeye-armed character models on prerendered backgrounds, and shows us smooth-shaded polygonal characters on moving rendered backgrounds. Sometimes, the characters become full-sized, and with a shine like plastic. The "awesome" ending shows only the big, shiny-like-plastic characters. During this ending, following a "hold on to my arm" scene in which large-breasted girl Tifa's upper half flops around, something mostly incomprehensible happens. We get to see a subtitle as the silent airship captain Cid says "Shit!" while midi music vibrates our old television speakers. Some light comes up out of holes in the ground. We see the face of Aeris, the priestess-woman, rise up over the earth. We then see the credits, pillowed by a midi bastardization of the Final Fantasy Theme. We then cut to some hundreds of years later, as these tiger-creatures run through a valley, and we see "The End."

None of this makes any sense. Just as Final Fantasy VI's semi-customizable ending spawned Chrono Trigger's all-out orgy of a multiple-ending fest, I was hoping Squaresoft would learn something else in Final Fantasy VII. They didn't. The ending remained what it was. You couldn't change it; no matter how you beat Final Fantasy VII, you're going to see the same ending.

No matter how you beat Final Fantasy VIII, you see the same ending, too. However, this is wholly different: Final Fantasy VIII's ending, while heavy on symbolism and starring mostly characters I don't give half of two shits about, is a beautiful little work of CG art. The music that plays over this perfect scene is fully digital, with a theme song -- "Eyes on Me," which I do not hate -- voiced by Faye Wong. In addition to marking the first time a voice appears in a Final Fantasy game, and the first time my college roommate ever looked at my television for any reason that didn't include the letters "N-A-S-C-A-R," this ending is significant in that it put full-motion video in its right place, and said to the world: if you're going to put stuff like this in your videogames, if you're going to end the game with a visual style that differs so drastically from the rest of your content, you damn well better make it look good. And it sounds good, too -- the orchestral Final Fantasy theme that plays during the credits is weep-worthy. I'm even listening to it right now.

What I realize right now, years later, is that, if we would have seen an ending in 1990 that used graphics even half as sharp as the lowest-quality in Final Fantasy VII, we would have totally freaked out.

***********

Final Fantasy IX's ending consists mostly of character models as they appear in the normal game. While I have issues with Final Fantasy IX as a game, I'll not take them out on its ending. Its ending is, if nothing else, a joyous symbol that the Videogame Ending is dying.

We don't need the Videogame Ending anymore. We've probably known this for more than a few years, I'd wager. It's just that no one wants to admit that it's dying.

I loved Soul Edge's endings like a brother; a fighting game set in a historical period, each of Soul Edge's multiple characters' multiple endings is in full polygonal 3D the quality of which is forgiven for its glorious music and full voice-acting. That you can even control some of these endings -- duck as Seung Mina's father swings his sword at her as a training exercise; control Mitsurugi as he dashes ahead to take out the gun-wielding Tanegashima -- adds icing to the cake. That, in its day, the average gamer didn't care for Soul Edge because Tekken 2's endings featured full-motion video is one thing. That Soul Calibur instantly converted anyone who didn't "like weapon fighters" by the virtue of its sparkling graphics alone is something gloriously else. Remarked one kid in my college dorm: "This game looks better than the ending of Final Fantasy VII!" Indeed.

Games are looking better and better. The trend of wowing the player most in the end dies, as the means of wowing a gamer from the very start become more varied and easier to implement. Sega AM2's Shenmue is able to implement a full-motion-video-like atmosphere throughout. Final Fantasy X's graphics are, in truth, better than the ending full-motion video of Final Fantasy VII. While Final Fantasy X does, at times, still utilize full-motion video, I hold a small hope that Final Fantasy XII will not.

Soul Calibur, with its better-than-full-motion-video graphics, forsakes the authentic historical setting gimmick that had carried its predecessor past Tekken 2 in my book. In so doing, its endings are mere still drawings with plain text; if you ask the average gamer, he probably doesn't care. I know I don't. In fact, I skip the endings of Soul Calibur II, for the same reason I skip the credits of Virtua Figher 4 Evolution: I just want to keep playing. The play is the thing. I've grown up with videogames, thrown up with joy at the ending of Ninja Gaiden, and fallen at the feet of Hironobu Sakaguchi enough times to now be most at peace when I'm holding a controller, pressing buttons, and making things move.

I believe the gamers of 2000 who complained about the removal of the cheerleader-endowed halftime show in John Madden Football came to realize, at some point, that they were, at heart, playing the game all along because of the football, not because of digitized cheerleaders.

I have come to appreciate curves in games. I am at joy when I feel a game winding down the way I feel Metroid Prime wind down. That the game ends without the escape sequence that has become the series' trademark alarmed more than one gamer; I myself find it a genius, risky way of turning the convention on its head. Back in 1994, many gamers defended Super Metroid's ending by saying that the escape sequence that followed the defeat of Mother Brain is, in itself, part of the ending. And what a glorious part it is -- you'll have to run and Space-Jump and Screw-Attack through a giant room full of Space Pirates, all the way until blowing open a wall -- which takes you into that same vertical shaft you dropped down at the beginning of this game, also the same vertical shaft you climbed at the end of the first game. And it's filling with lava.

Once you board Samus' ship, your reward is seeing it leave Zebes as the planet explodes. Then the credits. Then "The End." And if you're lucky -- and if you were quick -- you'll see the hero Samus in a bikini. If you took a detour during the ending and freed some animal creatures, you'll just barely see them escaping on a tiny ship.

Super Metroid, no doubt one of the greatest games of all time, did well in alerting people to the idea that the "ending" of a videogame didn't have to be something an FAQ would preface with "Sit back, relax, and enjoy the ending." The ending of Super Metroid is far from sit-back-and-relaxing. In fact, one might say you work your ass off in those closing minutes, your only reward of the "relaxing" variety being a potentially bikini-clad heroine.

I stand here, now, and defend the ending of Metroid Prime. Though lacking in an escape sequence, and though concluding very abruptly, I contend that the game winds down in a state of perfection. From the moment Samus returns the last artifact to the temple, when the giant flying predator Ridley swoops down into view, beginning the second-to-last boss, the game is very gently letting us down by throwing us against very giant, angry creatures. The end of the game is a quick, fierce clash of challenges that can amaze onlookers and players equally. I urge the gamers of today who hunger for an ending to consider the entire closing phases of Metroid Prime, as many points of gameplay come together, in and of itself an ending.

*************

In closing, why should an ending be a time to "relax"? Why should an ending be something long, and complicated? Why should an action game, really, even have a final "boss"? Do we need these conventions anymore? I say no.

Just recently, a minor debate flamed up in my LiveJournal. Some punkass kid who says Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction are better movies than Jackie Brown told me that he thought so because "Jackie Brown doesn't have anything near as good as the Ear scene or the Christopher Walken monologue." I retorted: "Oh, so you're a big fan of small moments that shock either with violence and/or profane hiccups and/or dream sequences? I see."

The kid then defended himself:

"I'm a fan of moments. I think moments make a movie. The best movies have the best moments. In addition to overall ass-kicking ness."

And I see this, and think: well. That's good enough, isn't it?

Robert McKee says, "Wow them in the end."

"Wow them in the end."

Do movies, really, need to wow people in the end? In my temporarily optimistic-little world, I'll say: No. Movies do not -- at least, not in the same way the games of yesteryear did -- climax and resolve entirely in ways that depend on enhanced visuals that differ completely in style from the rest of the film.

Yet they can still wow us. Movies like The Sixth Sense (easy example, I know) wow us in the end not with aesthetics -- though aesthetics are certainly an element -- they wow us with content. Execution is a close second to content when examining the "wow" factor of a film's conclusion.

A movie requires very little effort to watch for anyone who isn't a mongoloid. A videogame requires effort to see through to completion. It's the element of "effort," primarily, that separates today's videogames from everyday's movies. Movies continue without our input. Games do not.

If games require effort, maybe, then, we do need a moment to relax at the end? Maybe we do need something to watch when we're done, to calm our nerves, to pat us on the back? We need to feel like we accomplished something, don't we?

I, for one, say to you who feel this way: play good games. When you finally beat that final boss, or work up a perfect custom monster chain combo, head down to the local pizza joint, sit down at the Donkey Kong cabinet, and talk to someone else who plays videogames, too. Bring up Metroid Prime. Mention the hard mode. See if he digs what you're saying.

"I beat it last night."

You know you've got something special if you get a reply like this:

"That's awesome, man."

--tim rogers is the contributor in your Mario Madness, baby -- 20 / 0 / 0 / 0 / 0

[witness: the hot eleven: videogame endings]

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