Five of the Best is a weekly series about the bits of games we overlook. I’m talking about potions, hubs, bags, mountains, anything really – but things we ignore at the time. Then, years later, we find they’re cemented in our memory, inseparable from our experience of the game. Turns out they were important after all. So now we’re celebrating them.
Five of the Best works like this. Various Eurogamer writers will share their memories in the article and then you – probably outraged we didn’t include the thing you’re thinking of – can share the thing you’re thinking of in the comments below. We’ve had some great discussions in our other Five of the Best pieces. Some of you have memories like elephants!
Today’s Five of the Best…
Title screens – good one eh? But it’s so subjective. What a title screen means to each of you is probably entwined with how you feel about the game, and when you played it. Was it a formative part of your life? Was it a game you spent a lot of time with? I know I loved the Ultima Online title screen, that little chest opening to reveal log-in buttons shaped like gems. And the music – dada ding ding ding ding… Music is another thing. It is nigh-on inseparable from the memory of a title screen. How many games can you still hear in your head?
Title screens are our beautiful portals to other worlds, our in-character primers for what is about to come. So here’s to them and here are five of the best.
Secret of Mana
There aren’t many title screens that have the same effect on me as Secret of Mana’s. All it takes is for me to hear that first, echoey howl of the wolf pack when the game loads up and wham! I’m inside a warm blanket of nostalgia that’s so intense it almost feels like time travel.
Suddenly, Fear of the Heavens starts – an impossibly beautiful, dreamlike composition from Hiroki Kikuta that’s somehow full of joy and sorrow at the same time. Gentle piano is all you hear at first, but as the music swells, the once black title screen opens up to show our heroes standing at the base of the legendary Mana Tree. Then the lush forest greens are quickly overtaken by bright pinks as flamingos fly past, and all the while the theme tune continues to blossom until once again it fades away and the screen turns black.
It never fails to put a lump in my throat.
It may not be the flashiest title screen by today’s standards but it’s the one that lives vividly in my memories, and every time I watch it, I’m transported back to some of the happiest moments of gaming in my life.
When you sit down to play an RPG, typically you’re gearing up for an experience – a romp through a fictional world shoulder to shoulder with a cast of eclectic characters on their quest to save the world. In any such game, the title screen serves as a gateway to this world and your first port of call before jumping into the action. Yet few games use this fleeting moment as effectively as Xenoblade Chronicles. Its title screen beautifully sets the tone of what’s to follow.
With the camera angled low, clouds roll gently across the screen while somber piano notes play in the background. Yoko Shimomura’s title track is a powerful introduction to the world of Xenoblade – a track compelling enough that you linger on this screen disregarding the ‘Press Any Button’ text situated in the lower right corner.
By now, you may start to notice the time of day shifting as the sun sets and the clouds take on an orange hue. The grass blows lightly along the bottom of the screen as your gaze turns to the curious sword positioned right in the middle of the image. You’ll soon learn of this sword, the Monado, but for now, you wait as the music washes over you.
It’s a serene moment. To dwell on such a moment may seem strange but, for me, it’s one of those moments I remember well. If the title screen is truly a gateway to another world, this is perhaps one of the most compelling you’ll find.
I didn’t get into Hearthstone because of its World of Warcraft lore, but the Jumanji box of characters, creatures and lore has plenty to spare. And it’s all contained within that wooden case, the carved container which lies through the doors of Hearthstone’s tavern doorway title screen, bathed in the glowing amber light of a cosy fire beyond.
The magic of Hearthstone lies in its ability to convince you the cards carry actual weight, that these heroes and villains really are duking it out with minions and spells. It becomes easy to forget these characters aren’t fighting for real because there is already this layer of fiction in front of you – that the game is being played out amongst a bustling pub crowd, squawking goblins at the next table, muttering elves in the back.
All have passed through these doors into Heartstone’s pub to be greeted by its cherry innkeeper. And now they’re gathering round, just behind your shoulder, looking on with anticipation as you pull up a chair and ready your cards.
I had never seen a menu like this before – a living menu. And ho ho, no, I don’t mean I was in a restaurant and the menu was trimmed into a lawn or something. I mean a main menu with a live environment behind it. There look, City 17 with Combine troops walking around. Coooool.
And then – and I hadn’t seen this either – it changed. With every major new area I reached in the game, the main menu changed to reflect it. It cycled through City 17, that lakey area, Ravenholm – ooh, shudder – the bridge and so on, right up to the tower.
These days, of course, a lot of games do it. It’s considered very stylish. Life is Strange does it, as a way to tease each new episode, and The Witcher 3 has a live background with Geralt meditating, waiting for you to wake him up, which I’m sure he’s not pleased about but with his emotional range, how would you know? The expansions add new live menus, too. But Half-Life 2, as far as I’m concerned, did it first.
Detroit’s menu talked to me! I wasn’t ready for it, I have to say. I thought it was just a bit of presentational razzle-dazzle to open the game with, but I wasn’t prepared for the android to carry on chatting away. Chloe, that’s her name. She even started commenting on things I did in the game, tutting at choices I made. Did I let another android die? Tut, how could I.
Then she asked if we’re friends, and I’m like, gosh that’s bold – she’s asking me questions now? Then she had a survey for me. Then she started looking scared. Then she had something really big to ask me.
It’s as if Chloe was a part of the game itself, involved in the android uprising as it happened. I’m fairly sure I even met her in the game at one point, or versions of her, and I remember thinking ooh that’s cool – nice touch. (Though the appropriation of an anti-slavery song was icky after Quantic Dream’s protestations about the game not being about politics, but that’s a separate point…)
In other words, Detroit’s main menu was a character, and I’d never seen another game do that.