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January 12, 2012

Number Munchers

So let me tell you about this game 999: Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors.

(equips Hat of Infinite Gushing)

Dude, this game is straight-up dope!  Like you wouldn't believe, man!  It's like, have you ever seen any of the Saw movies?  Well imagine that, but -- get this -- on a boat!  A damn boat, dude!  And there are these nine guys who get forced to play a game with math and puzzles and huge 80s wristwatches and the Titanic, and they've all got bombs in their stomach and they'll all go BOOM if they don't play right!  And if they don't get off the boat in nine hours, that boat'll be all like, "Dude, I'm so outta this piece," and it'll go straight to the bottom of the ocean!  Weak!  So you gotta scan in your watch and go in a door and do puzzles and find digital roots, and -- dude, did I tell you already?  It's just so damn legit, dude.  Like you don't even KNOW.

(unequips Hat of Infinite Gushing, uses Hi-Potion to heal ruptured brain cells)

Oh, I'm gonna be feeling that one for the next seventeen years...but enough of that.  Now, I'll be the first to admit that I haven't seen any of the movies in the Saw franchise, and I have no intention to; even so, I'm pretty confident that 999 is several dozen times better than all the movies put together.  But before I get ahead of myself, I should probably start by saying it's not really much of a game; yeah, it's a DS cartridge that you plug into your Nintendo DS, and if you press buttons things go bloop-bloop-bloop and deetly-deetly, but anyone looking for bombastic action or explosive output for each input had best look elsewhere.

Fans of Marty McFly's fashion sense are quite welcome, however.

999 is what they call a "visual novel," and it's a viable genre in good old Japan.  Think of it as more like a book stored on a disk, or a file, or in this case a DS cart.  Plug it in to the console/handheld of your choice, then jump into the story for a real magical ride.  It's less of a chance to shoot aliens or bop robots on the head as it is a chance to read along, making choices and motions that will lead the narrative's hero(es) to a final conclusion.  So yeah, not much "game" in there; the most strenuous work you'll have to do in 999, for example, is mash the A button to scroll through text, press the shoulder buttons to look at your items, start to save your game, and occasionally move the directional pad up or down to highlight choices.  And use the bottom screen to solve math-based puzzles, of course.

In fact, 999's greatest weaknesses lie in the trappings of its genre.  The primary complaint I have is that -- even if you are some kind of number ace -- you HAVE to fail the game at least once in order to get the true ending.  On my first playthrough, I actually managed to get a pretty good ending (at least one that, despite ending on a ciffhanger, left most of the cast alive).  After that?  Everyone got slaughtered; two bad endings, one of which I got twice merely because I was trying to get the true ending.  Know what that means?  Yes indeed; often you have no choice but to play through the same puzzles again, and again, and again, triggering the same conversations and scenes once more in order to progress.  Fortunately not every puzzle -- by virtue of being behind different, one-time-entry doors -- can be accessed in a single playthrough, so there's some relief there.  There IS no relief, however, from the first puzzle in the game, or from repeating certain puzzles on your way to unlocking the true ending.  Compounding the problem is the fact that, while you can fast-forward through dialogue in later playthroughs, you still can't skip it entirely...and trust me, the sheer amount of text will make you WISH you could jump past.  Combine that with the guesswork involved in getting to the true ending (not much, but it's still there), and you've got a guaranteed date with frustration...and you're paying for dinner.

To put all that in perspective, here's a scenario for you: imagine you just bought a sweet-ass new novel, one that's been critically acclaimed, recommended by your friends, and is becoming a cultural phenomenon that threatens to turn you into an outcast if you can't recite every line verbatim.  So you split it open, and you read, and you think, "Wow, so THIS is what all the hype is about," smiling as you flip through page after page.  And then, suddenly, you get to a big red page that says "EVERYONE DIES.  START OVER."  And then the book clamps shut, slamming your fingers in the process.  So you get frustrated, but you decide it's worth it to see the ending; you start over, reading and reading and reading, but this time you decide to read one page upside down.  That changes everything.  Suddenly, you can skip past the big red page and read on to some new content.  And you enjoy it...until you reach a big black page that says "NOT EVERYONE DIES.  YOU GOT A CLUE.  START OVER."  And the book slams itself on your toe.  That's what 999 feels like sometimes.

At least, at its worst.  But for all its annoyances, 999 is a must-play if you have the means.  I was tempted to call it a "must-play game" just a moment ago, but I think I'll hold off on that; it's barely a game.  The tradeoff, of course, is that it's got a story that has to be seen to be believed.  Nine characters (more or less, depending on your opinion) that are as varied and deep as they come.  Tension and stakes that threaten to reach out of the DS and strangle you -- starting with one character blowing the hell up in the first thirty minutes.  Drama and revelations by the cubic ton...which end up being balanced by innuendo-laced conversations ("It's really hard" and "I'm afraid of getting wet" -- trust me, it makes sense in context) and characters bouncing jokes off another.  Science -- or pseudoscience, if you're of the cynical sort -- that deepens the mystery besides just bombs on a boat.  And that true path/ending that can be a pain to get?  Worth it.  I won't spoil anything, but I will say this: you'll never look at sudoku the same way again.

You could argue that 999 isn't a game, and I'd agree with you.  It's for the thinking man, requiring plenty of reading and an ability to problem-solve; all it takes to solve most puzzles is exploring rooms, tapping on items that catch your interest, combining items (say, a whetstone and a rusted knife to create a sharp knife, or a water bottle, dry ice, rope, and water to create a dry ice bomb), and some math.  It's nothing too strenuous, with your teammates giving you hints if you struggle too much.  Still, there's a sense of accomplishment when you solve a puzzle, and the game makes sure to praise you when you do well through some encouraging words from your partners -- and of course, the meme-tastic "YOU FOUND IT" whenever you finish.  But the puzzles are only a small piece of the equation (hur hur).  999 isn't really a game.  It's an experience.

Something like 999 doesn't come along too often, at least in the States.  True, we have games like the Ace Attorney series (also awesome), and old-timey adventure games on antiquated PC tech (presumably awesome), and there's been a slight resurgence with the semi-recent release of L.A. Noire (sufficiently awesome...in 3D!).  But visual novels, I presume, aren't a real money maker in America -- not in the era of Master Chief and Marcus Fenix and enough virtual guns to ransack the Mushroom Kingdom.  So when they do come, be sure to appreciate them; if you have a DS, buy 999...if you can find it, at least.  If you don't, go to YouTube; there's probably a playthrough there.

As for me?  Well, I hear that a sequel is coming.  Extreme Escape Adventure: Good People Die.  So I'm gonna go climb a mountain and squeal like a schoolgirl until it comes out.  IF it comes to America.  If it doesn't?  Well...I guess I'll just have to take a little trip to Japan, won't I?

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