Welcome to another week of Five of the Best, a series where we celebrate the overlooked parts of video games. They're the kind of things you don't pay much attention to at the time, but which spring readily to mind years later, proving just how memorable they were. So far we've had potions, hands, and dinosaurs - an eclectic bunch! - and we've enjoyed reading your suggestions as much as sharing ours. Today, then, another batch, another five. And the theme...
Shops! Oh, how many virtual registers we've rung over the years. Imagine a role-playing game without one - you can't. It would be sacrilege. You simply must visit a new shop in every town and have their wares be slightly more powerful than they were where you came from. Everyone knows that. But there are so many shops, it's often hard to remember a single one.
It's not just RPGs. I remember ogling the superbikes for sale in Road Rash and then crashing them when I eventually saved up enough money to buy them. I remember spending ages shopping for shorts and T-shirts in a knock-off GAP in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. And I've probably spent more money than I should have on costumes in Fortnite, which is hardly my fault when they sell such silly costumes, is it?!
Oh, and all the hours I spent looking through the Auction House in World of Warcraft, particularly when lavishing rare gifts on my muck-about character. I wish I could do the same now WOW Classic has launched.
A spot of retail therapy for a Friday, then. Here are Five of the Best shops in games, according to me. I want to hear yours below.
Secret of Mana
What do you call a cat with a huge sack of goodies slung over his back? Santa Claws! Ha ha ha! No, don't be silly, he was called Neko and he might be the first merchant I really remember from video games. Helped that he kept turning up all through the game. Discovered a new cave? No problem - here's Neko. Lost in an obscure new part of the world? Don't worry, Neko's here.
I loved his wares, too. I played Mana quite recently but even before then, I could picture the little radial menu of items spinning around - the giant walnut, the jar of honey, the Cup of Wishes. Mana didn't have a lot of items to choose between and maybe that's why they're so memorable - maybe today we're spoilt by choice. That or it was such a formative experience in my game-playing life it's seared into my mind.
Or, perhaps, it was Neko's brilliantly awful wordplay. "Purrfectly priceless items available!" Oh to be back in the '90s. Simpler times.
In Ultima Online, you actually had to talk to merchants for them to interact with you. As in, you had to type "vendor buy" to trigger them opening their selling inventories, and you had to do similar for the bank and summoning guards. It inevitably led to macros. "Vendor buy guards bank," was the gist of it but people got very creative riffing around the key words. "Vendor, buy me some guards for the bank!"
I also got a great pang of excitement checking vendors for surprise magical equipment because you could turn up amazing stuff there. The merchant next to Trinsic bank, in particular, used to be a great spot for finding unidentified magic weapons. Sometimes they turned out to be the very best: weapons of vanquishing, the strongest damage bonus around.
Torment: Tides of Numenera
I wish more people played Torment: Tides of Numenera. It's a bit rough but there's such imagination there. Case in point: Jernaugh's implant shop, where you could have things implanted into your body, and the descriptions of it happening were so grisly. There were claws like Wolverine's, artificial eyes like Mad-Eye Moody's, but my favourite was Encroaching Darkness. It was a kind of tattoo, a black ink blot spread over your hand and wrist, and it was alive.
"When the wearer is asleep," The description reads, "the Dark crawls over the skin, changing into new patterns as it finds a new place on the body to rest. When it has found a suitable spot, its tendrils dig deep into the flesh, providing some form of a restorative boon."
The pitch is so delightful: What if Zelda had supply and demand? In Moonlighter you wander into procedurally scrambled dungeons, battling monsters and gathering loot. So far, so traditional. But then you take that loot and bring it home and set up a shop and try to sell everything.
Crucially, you try to sell it for the best price, and this means relying on negative feedback. Price something high to start and see if the market rejects it. If they do, lower the price. If they don't, maybe you've given it away for too little: set the price higher!
This, weirdly enough, is the way that a lot of central heating systems work, I think. But in Moonlighter, it's enormously fun and satisfying and even rather exciting. When you get exactly the right price for something the first time, it's the Moonlighter equivalent of a single-hit critical kill. But you're not killing anyone, you're just giving them what they want, for the amount that they will tolerate.
One of my favourite facts about Spelunky - about how finely made it is - is that you'll never see a shop in world 1-1. This is because a shop might have something great, or more importantly it might not have something great. A shop in the first level would be too tempting, then, for players to simply quit and restart, churn away at until they got the optimal item.
Spelunky's about making do and about taking your chances. So it is with its shops, which pop up after 1-1 and may sell exactly what you want, or exactly what you don't want.
Crucially, Spelunky's shops slide neatly into the rest of the game's clockwork. Rob a shop and the shopkeeper will try and kill you - and all his fellow shopkeepers will try and kill you too, waiting in each level with a shotgun at the ready. Kill the shopkeeper and you can take their gun - but at what price?
Even better, the shopkeepers are at the mercy of the environment just as much as you are. So if a man-eating plant wanders in, it will eat them. The game will register their death and you'll be in the frame for it.
Greatest of all Spelunky risk/rewards, then, is the Black Market - an entire level of shops and shopkeepers. Almost everything you could ask for. But can you keep them alive enough to get the deal done?