Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Video Game History - Ultima VIII: Pagan

I've decided to start excerpting bits and pieces of my book on the history of video gaming in the 1990s on this blog. In honor of Turkey Day, here's one of the biggest turkeys in gaming history - Ultima VIII: Pagan.

The golden age of computer RPGs from the mid-1980s through the early 1990s had gone hand-in-hand with Origin's Ultima series. Starting from Ultima III in 1983, each successive Ultima raised the bar for the series, the genre, and video games overall. Ultima VIII: Pagan was no exception – unfortunately, it represented the sudden and disastrous end to the PC RPG golden age.
The RPG collapse of the mid-1990s was certainly not Pagan's fault, but many aspects of the game parallel the problems of the genre overall. The first and most important problem was time. Pagan was rushed out the door in an incomplete state. This was a more and more common occurrence as the industry grew bigger in the CD-ROM era. Origin Systems had been purchased by Electronic Arts, a company famous for applying pressure on their developers to reach release dates. Pagan was buggy and unpolished from the start, and everything about it felt smaller and less interesting than previous Ultima games.

It went against previous games in the series by changing worlds and focus. Although Ultima VII: Serpent Isle took place outside of the normal setting of Britannia, it still had strong connections to the homeland, with several characters traveling to and from the different lands. Pagan had virtually no connection, other than the Guardian as a villain and the ever-silent Avatar. This included the loss of the Avatar's companions, most of whom had worked with you for several different games. The move towards a single character instead of a party of characters wasn't obvious at the time, but as the decade progressed, it became a clear trend, with many of the most famous and best games of the late 1990s being based primarily around a single player character (Daggerfall, Diablo, and Fallout, to name a few).

Pagan also totally upended the Ultima series' commitment to an ethical system. The Avatar of Pagan is trapped in a dying world, and desperate to return to Britannia in order to prevent the Guardian from conquering it. So the game forces you to try to return home by any means necessary. This turns the Avatar from a righteous hero into a murderous psychopath, who essentially destroys one world in order to try to save another. 

Yet Ultima VIII: Pagan could have survived all these flaws if it had been a good game. It had good ideas, like a magic system which had different kinds of spells and rituals, which gave spellcasting a more procedural, satisfying feel. Its game engine was one of the very first fully three-dimensional games, using polygonal constructs instead of sprites.

But it wasn't a good game. Somewhere along the line, the designers decided to introduce platformer-style jumping puzzles, with floating and moving platforms. This was a huge mistake. First of all, RPG fans of that era were used to their genre expanding into other genres, not the other way around. Moreover, the divide between PC gamers and console gamers was arguably at its peak at this point. Console games were still a few years away from respectability, and some genres, like platform action games, were almost exclusively reserved for consoles. 

It must be said that it wasn't very good platforming. The mouse control combined with an otherwise fairly slow-paced RPG made it an exercise in frustration. A later patch eliminated the moving platforms and simplified the interface, but the damage had been done. Now the incredibly frustrating jumping puzzles were replaced by incredibly pointless hanging platforms which provide you with no challenge, but must be navigated nonetheless. 

There were more problems. Combat was equally frustrating, as you spent most of your fights hoping that you wouldn't be knocked down, which triggered a too-long getting up animation, during which the Avatar was defenseless and could easily be knocked down again. The graphics lacked the personality and charm of Ultima VI & VII. Likewise, the music, so excellent in previous Ultimas, was almost a non-entity here. It seemed like nothing went right with Ultima VIII, and for the next few years, like nothing went right for the PC RPG genre.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Video Game History - Suikoden

I've decided to start excerpting bits and pieces of my book on the history of video gaming in the 1990's on this blog. First up: Suikoden.

With Square in general and Final Fantasy in particular on top of the JRPG world, expectation for the next game in the series drove interest in JRPGs on the PlayStation. However, as they took their time releasing the next Final Fantasy, Konami snuck a little game called Suikoden under the radar.

Suikoden is “little” in many ways. As JRPGs transitioned from the 16-bit era to the PlayStation, they tended to get bigger, more complex, more graphics-intensive and longer. Suikoden was proudly 2D, fast-paced and simple: combat was turn-based, like the original Final Fantasy, and built around the player choosing commands for their party between turns, and then pressing “Fight” to send them on their way. Suikoden made it even easier with a “Free Will” mode where every character in the party simply attacks, the player doesn't even select opponents to attack. A decent player can finish most of the game using Free Will, even including the final enemy! And yet, oddly, the game is still fun to play in spite of its simplicity. The designers may have realized that the player played the entire RPG world, not just the combat system.

Suikoden does two especially interesting things. Its only concession to the hardcore, completist gamers is the wide range of characters to recruit – 108 in all. A third or so are automatically added in the course of the storyline, another third or so are optional and can fight in your party, and the last batch of characters aren't usable in combat – but they are usable in your castle. Suikoden has a castle in the middle of a lake used by the hero as headquarters, which provides a sense of place to the game. The more characters the player recruits, the larger the castle grows. Some characters add fun and functionality to the castle, such as one who lets the player gamble on a shell game, or others who open up shops in the castle.

By letting the player build the castle, recruit its occupants, and explore it during downtime, Suikoden provides the player with a sense of place that most games don't. The plot, as in all games, gives the player an answer to the question “What are we fighting for?” but the castle and the range of characters inside it allow the player to create their own emotional connection and investment to answer that question.

The sense of place is increased by Suikoden's other point of interest, its plot. Although it still involves a spiky-haired young man leading a rebellion against an evil empire and an ancient evil, Suikoden tweaks the formula slightly in that the player is a high-ranking member of the evil empire, and its corruption is far more relevant to the plot than the evil magic. The empire also does not control the entirety of the world – it's contained, and other political entities are mentioned but not actually part of the game.

This may sound quite minor – and in many ways it is – but it opened a door that JRPGs hadn't yet opened in terms of storytelling. In virtually every JRPG, the goal of the game was to prevent a big bad guy from enslaving or destroying the world. The player knows, that should they succeed in the game, the bad guy's plot will be totally foiled, and the world will return to normal. In a sense, this paralyzes the emotional impact of the story, as the stakes are so high that minor setbacks and tragedies are irrelevant. By making the scope of the story smaller, Suikoden allowed for human conflicts and human tragedies. It was not a trend followed by most JRPGs in the future, but it did yield marvelous results with the sequel, Suikoden II.

Sunday, November 07, 2010

Great Migrations

I got to review the new National Geographic show Great Migrations for The A.V. Club this week. Check it out here:,47294/

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

The Best Buffy the Vampire Slayer Episodes

The Worst Buffy the Vampire Slayer Episodes

The Rest of the Buffy Episodes

What makes for a great Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode? I think there are four important indicators, listed here in decreasing order of glibness:

  • The best episodes are written by Joss Whedon. 11 of my top 13 are Joss-penned episodes. Those two, interestingly, are Spike-centered episodes. Whedon seems to have a better grasp of every character on the show (especially Dawn and Tara) than the other writers, except for Spike.
  • The best episodes are often the most important episodes. Season finales, major character deaths or changes, and two-parters are overrepresented in my top 25. One would think that this would be obvious, but it's not always true – Battlestar Galactica, for example, was at its weakest in the big episodes.
  • Buffy was often at its most successful when applying gimmicks. One of the gimmicks was to have something which caused the characters to behave much differently than normal, usually using magic. These “alternate reality” episodes include “The Wish” and “Superstar” for changing every character, or “Dopplegangland” and “The Replacement” for single characters.
  • The show was even better when experimenting with television episode forms. Its very best episodes were formal experiments like “Hush” and “Once More With Feeling” using different mechanisms of communication, or “The Zeppo” with its focus outside of the main characters and apocalyptic plot. And the very best episode, “The Body,” utilized several formal mechanisms to disorient the viewer to approximate Buffy's grief.

The Excellent-if-Flawed Episodes

25) #716 "Storyteller" – Sometimes I wonder just how terrible Season Seven would have been without Andrew. Then I realize that I really don't want to think about it - the concept is just that frightening.

24) #511 "Triangle" – In the midst of the increasing doom-and-gloom of the fifth season, and after the unfortunate self-destructive Riley subplot, comes this gem of an episode, when Anya's Troll-God ex-boyfriend comes to town. “That's insane troll logic!” is the high point, but it's got competition.

23) #617 "Normal Again" – I was surprised to see that this episode is hated in some circles. I can see why from a characterization point of view: if you hated that depressed Buffy was a major plot point, then depressed Buffy as a schizophrenic in the “real world” isn't going to win you over. I like it for three reasons: it takes Buffy's depression and flips it into a good old-fashioned metaphor/monster-of-the-week episode, it starts to resolve the larger plotline of the depression, and the meta-commentary is clever without being too overdone. Wait, make that four reasons – doesn't Dawn get beat up in it?

22) #314 "Bad Girls" – It's kinda like “Inca Mummy Girl” in that you can figure out the plot from the title with a decent accuracy rate. It's very much unlike “Inca Mummy Girl” in that it's a really good episode. Leather pants seem to do that for Buffy and Angel.

21) #219 "I Only Have Eyes for You" – What initially appears to be a pretty standard, even weak, monster-of-the-week episode turns into something incredible when the ghosts haunting Sunnydale High bring Buffy and Angel into their world. It's excessive, but it works.

20) #306 "Band Candy" – Jane Espenson's first episode is also one of the first great comic Buffy episodes. And Giles and Joyce hooking up is the gift that keeps on giving.

19) #621 "Two to Go" (Part 1) - “Back off, superbitch!” is a pretty major misstep for an otherwise riveting hour. Giles' welcome entry at the end starts the process of redeeming the entire season.

18) #408 "Pangs" – Quite possibly the funniest single episode of the show's run. Spike's indignant “You made a bear!” is the line that made me laugh the hardest of any. Willow's foray into white liberal guilt rang true as well. And everyone loves syphilis!

17) #320 "The Prom– In order to make an episode this schlocky work, a show has to earn an incredible amount of emotional goodwill. By the end of the third season, Buffy had indeed earned it, and against all odds, it works.

The Exceptional Episodes

16) #707 "Conversations with Dead People" – The First Evil is a great idea for a villain, but the things that give it such potential also make it dangerous to use. “Conversations with Dead People” utilizes its potential in superb fashion, but it's the high point for The First as a villain.

15) #313 "The Zeppo" – While “Innocence” is the episode that made it clear that Buffy could be excellent, “The Zeppo” is the episode that demonstrated that Buffy could be genius. This Xander-centered episode is the first of the formal experiments that would give us “The Body,” “Hush”, and more. It plays a little bit better in concept than on-screen, but only a little – it's still great.

14) #622 "Grave" (Part 2) – After all the melodrama of the sixth season – most of which has occurred without Giles present – it seems to come to a culmination when Buffy confesses all the seemingly terrible issues to Giles. Who promptly breaks out laughing. For moment alone, “Grave” deserves a high rating that it mostly earns. Xander being the world-saving hero is a wonderful touch, as are Buffy's interactions with Dawn. The only really unfortunate aspect of it is the cheap threat of the world ending – it looks even less ominous than the second season's basement apocalypse.

13) #701 "Lessons" – The seventh and final season of Buffy starts with easily its best premiere (although that's not a category with much competition). The introduction of Principal Wood and reintroduction of Sunnydale High are both promising beginnings, and Joss Whedon demonstrates once against that he's the only writer who can really make Dawn likable. The throwback high school vibe is referenced by Principal Wood when he tells Buffy that clearly she shouldn't have left, and the ending with all the previous villains as The First shows that the seventh season had a great deal of, ah, potential. Oh well.

12) #214 "Innocence" (Part 2) – Many genre shows struggle to get started, and it's usually about halfway through the second season when everything starts to click. That's “Innocence,” as Buffy discovers the consequences of premarital sex. With a cursed vampire. The latter part may be more relevant than the former.

11) #308 "Lovers Walk" – After Spike joined the main cast, it became harder and harder to remember how excellent he was before being neutered. In this episode, he shows up and demolishes the Buffy-Angel relationship with wisdom, bitterness, and malice. He's also really funny, especially when fake-threatening Joyce.

10) #522 "The Gift" – Although the end of “The Gift” may be the most memorable aspect of the episode for most, I find myself more drawn to the opening. Its a scene which is designed to be iconic, with Buffy the Vampire Slayer acting out her role, while indicating just how much has changed. It's beautiful, and combined with the end of the episode, makes for one of the series' best. Unfortunately, far too much of “The Gift” hinges on the awkward Glory/Ben “argument” for me to say that it's the absolute apex of the show. Still, it's not far away.

9) #507 "Fool for Love" – As with “Lover's Walk,” this episode shows a side of Spike that becomes rarer and rarer as the series progresses. This is among the last batch of episodes before his crush on Buffy nearly ruins him as a character, and it's simply superb. Buffy wants to know how he killed previous Slayers, so Spike describes the process. They're excellent stories, along with flashbacks that show the vampire foursome together for the first time. But more than that, it describes the themes of the fifth season, with Spike telling Buffy all the reasons she has to live – reasons which are taken away over the course of the season.

The Classic Episodes

8) #607 "Once More, With Feeling" – I'll admit that I was a little disappointed the first time I saw the musical episode. I'd just finished Season Three and was checking out the special episodes. Out of context, it's entertaining, but not the classic, best-ever that many claim. However, watching it in context makes it far more emotionally affecting, in addition to surprisingly catchy.

7) #222 "Becoming (Part 2)" – The only real weakness with “Becoming” is its low-budget apocalypse-in-a-basement. Other than that, this is the most emotionally affecting of any finale, thanks to Buffy taking on Angel. The swordfight is especially wonderful, with the action and stunts matching the drama.

6) #321 "Graduation Day (Part 1)"
5) #322 "Graduation Day (Part 2)" – The graduation episodes were among the first Buffy episodes that I watched, and as such, I felt disappointed. After several hours of good build-up, I felt like the climax was tacky and cheap. I was wrong. They're marvelous culminations of the entire high school experience, in addition to tying up the storylines from the third season. I couldn't pick which one I liked better – the first has the epic martial arts fight between the two Slayers, and the second has the magnificent scene when the students of Sunnydale High stop being victims and actually fight back. It's no surprise that the show's best season ends with the show's best climax.

4) #316 "Doppelgangland" – I will admit to some bias here - “Doppelgangland” was the second Buffy episode I ever saw, and the first that wasn't in my bottom 10 (“Empty Places,” I believe, though it could have been “Touched”). It's an excellent introduction to the show, but even better in context. Buffy helped to define that fine line between comedy and horror, and although “Dopplegangland” is firmly on the side of comedy, there's enough horror to allow the comedy to build up to great heights.

3) #422 "Restless" – I would argue that “Restless” is the only episode that combines both the alternate reality and formal experimentation of Buffy's best episodes, which unsurprisingly, makes it one of Buffy's absolute best episodes. Putting characters into a dreamscape is always risky, doing it for an entire episode even more so. “Restless” succeeds beyond expectations – it's filled with humor and excellent odd character moments (“I'm cowboy guy!”) with a successful expansion of the show's mythology.

The Hall of Fame Episodes

2) #410 “Hush" – Combines some of the creepiest Monsters of the Week with some of the show's funniest moments and a fantastic gimmick. Giles' overhead presentation is a tour de force – possibly the best scene in the show's run.

1) #516 "The Body" – Taken on its own, “The Body” is a superb depiction of the grief of losing a loved one. Joss Whedon's intentionally disorienting direction works perfectly with the characters' sadness. What makes it even better is that he manages to tie together most of the frayed strands of the fifth season that hadn't been working. “The Body” covers Anya's inability to relate to humans, Tara's apparent uselessness, and Dawn's annoyingness, and it makes every one of those aspects better. It is transcendent television.

The Rest of the Buffy Episodes

The Worst Buffy the Vampire Slayer Episodes

The Best Buffy the Vampire Slayer Episodes

If there's one thing that Buffy fans on online forums like to do, it's ranking seasons. According to averages of my episode rankings, I'd rank the seasons as such:

  • Season One: 112.66 – No surprise here.
  • Season Two: 78.863 – The emotional impact of the main plot of Season Two masks the fact that it's still pretty weak in the first half of the season.
  • Season Seven: 74.36 – Too many bad episodes drag S7's average way down.
  • Season Six: 69.18 – This season's episodes are all over the place, but it adds up to be much better than its worst episodes would indicate. That's both the math and my gut feeling.
  • Season Five: 68.681 – It's got no really bad episodes, a few excellent episodes, but very few really good episodes. So its average is also probably fairly close to its median and mode.
  • Season Four: 66.81 – I'm not surprised that it's my second favorite mathematically, because it's also my second-favorite when I list the seasons directly.
  • Season Three: 46.863 – I'm certainly not surprised that Season Three is mathematically my favorite, but the math is pretty astounding to me, and I'm the one who rated the episodes! Its episodes are an average of 20 points higher than every other season's average, and the other five seasons are grouped closely together. It only has one episode in the bottom 30. Eight of my top 25 are from the third season – no other season has more than four.

Early-Season Placeholder Episodes

129) #201 "When She Was Bad" – Angsty Buffy is a key component of the show, but it only works when it's well-balanced. Here, it's not.

128) #205 "Reptile Boy" - This is the anti-drinking PSA-style episode that “Beer Bad” usually gets mistaken for.

127) #202 "Some Assembly Required" – Do you remember this episode? Because if so, you're one up on me.

126) #103 "Witch" – I'm glad they got the Buffy-as-a-cheerleader plot out of the way early.

Could Have Been Good Episodes, but Weren't

125) #606 "All the Way" – It's a Dawn-centered episode. A romantic Dawn-centered episode. 'Nuff said.

124) #110 "Nightmares" – One of the first season's most ambitious episodes. But Buffy didn't have the budget – or the characterization, honestly – to really do it well.

123) #710 "Bring on the Night" – Potentials arrive, Buffy starts speechifying. An inauspicious beginning to the main storyline of the seventh season.

122) #508 "Shadow" – The escalation of the Joyce illness isn't bad, but a terrible Season One-quality special effect with a snake monster makes this hard to take seriously. And to make it worse, it starts off the rather silly “Dark Riley” storyline.

121) #502 "Real Me" – Let's all welcome Dawn to the show with a thoroughly mediocre episode. The best thing that can be said about “Real Me” is that Dawn gets so much worse.

120) #406 "Wild at Heart" – Oz's time on the show comes to a quick and forced ending. It all feels a little perfunctory, which is too bad.
Mediocre Monsters-of-the-Week

119) #220 "Go Fish" – Remember when all the baseball bigwigs complained that “nobody could have known how prevalent steroid use was?” Well, Buffy knew, and it showed it in a horribly awkward metaphor. I've still rated this episode as better than the main plot, because the subplot with Willow as an interrogator finding out Jonathan peed in the pool is both entertaining and ironic in light of later events.

118) #111 "Out of Mind, Out of Sight" – Possibly the most straightforward of the metaphor episodes, and fairly memorable for that, at least. An odd ending could be viewed as foreshadowing the Initiative...or it could be X-Files wanna-be conspiracy stuff.

117) #212 "Bad Eggs" – Has any real school class ever done the taking-care-of-eggs thing? Or is that just a trope that TV shows use in order to show that its characters are whatever needs to be shown at that point?

Nice Try Episodes

116) #715 "Get It Done" - Chloe's suicide is a decent raising of the stakes with the mostly-inert Potential Slayer storyline. Buffy chasing down the shamans who started the Slayer line is a nice touch as well. On the other hand, Buffy's speech problem is getting worse and worse.

115) #708 "Sleeper" – Spike as The First's sleeper agent isn't a terrible premise, but the show doesn't do much more than go through the motions with it. On the bright side, Aimee Mann is probably the Bronze's best musical guest.

114) #611 "Gone" – Making Buffy invisible probably seemed like a good idea at the time. But it's hard to do invisibility in a visual medium. Having Buffy narrate everything she does in a sing-song voice? Not the best way to handle it.

113) #709 "Never Leave Me" – Andrew returns – good! The Turok-Han is raised – very bad.

112) #208 "The Dark Age" – Ethan Rayne's return isn't as strong as some of his other appearances, but this is a good episode for adding some depth to Giles - the first time his "Ripper" past is referred to.

111) #210 "What's My Line (Part 2)" – I really don't like Kendra. She's just a terribly awkward character. That's most of what I remember out of this one, which is probably the most likely to change spots if I ever rewatch the series (and redo this list).

Guilty Pleasure Episodes

110) #613 "Dead Things" – The Trio storyline escalates dramatically in this episode, when their attempts to get girls ends in the death of Warren's ex, Katrina. Conceptually, I like the depiction of Warren's increasing corruption, but this episode doesn't do the best job at portraying it - and it's the most important in that process.

109) #403 "The Harsh Light of Day" – Spike's return is usually cause for celebration, but this episode is far too concerned with being a crossover for Angel's new series. Still, he and Harmony make for some excellent comedy.

108) #509 "Listening to Fear" – A perfectly serviceable monster-of-the-week episode, featuring a Queller demon that preys on the mentally ill. The major point of interest with “Listening to Fear” is that it starts to connect Ben with Glory. Ben's uneven characterization is one of the weakest aspects of the Glory storyline. In this episode, he's a flunky villain. In the rest of the season, he's a good guy, then in the finale, a villain again. Bleh.

107) #405 "Beer Bad" – I like “Beer Bad.” I really do. It takes the overserious metaphor of the worst episodes and almost parodies it. How does the villain get his comeuppance? Xander calls him a “bad, bad man.” And CaveBuffy is all kinds of adorable. “Foamy!”

Really Good Episodes with Really, Really Big Problems

106) #310 "Amends" – How to rate this episode? The good: the First Evil is a good villain; it's great to see Jenny Calendar back; and it marks a turning point in the Buffy/Angel relationship. The bad? An absolutely ghastly deus ex machina with a Christmas theme.

105) #514 "Crush" – How to rate this episode? The good: It's well-written and consistently funny; Drusilla is creepier than she ever was in Season Two; and it ties up several loose ends with the Spike crush storyline. The bad? It's focused on the Spike crush storyline. I liked what it did, but I really didn't like that it had to do it.

These Episodes Have Problems

104) #215 "Phases"
103) #419 "New Moon Rising" – Hooray for Oz as a character! But you know, in retrospect, I'm not sure much good ever came from Oz as a werewolf.

102) #302 "Dead Man's Party" – The main episode isn't that good, but the Scoobie fight about Buffy's return from LA is gold.

101) #510 "Into the Woods" – Riley and Buffy break up, finally. Buffy's single most badass moment occurs in this episode, when she tears through a group of vampires in record time using a pool cue. Xander's transition to the party member who sees and understands things begins in this episode, although his advice to Buffy to run back to Riley is somewhat problematic.

100) #303 "Faith, Hope & Trick" – I'm a big Faith fan, but this episode is pretty perfunctory.

99) #504 "Out of My Mind" – The introduction of Spike's crush on Buffy, which is not a plot I'm a fan of, as you may have noticed.

Important for the Plot, but Not Much Else Episodes

98) #112 "Prophecy Girl" – The Season One finale is a fitting coda to the weakest season of the series. It hits all the important bits, but there's not enough of an emotional core – yet – to make it anywhere near as meaningful as the future finales.

97) #413 "The I in Team"
96) #414 "Goodbye Iowa" – The main storyline of the fourth season starts going off the rails with the introduction of its villain, Adam.

95) #717 "Lies My Parents Told Me" – This episode is one of the few that feels like it's driven more by plot requirements than character development. Buffy has to break with her mentor, so a conspiracy is devised. The follow-through isn't well thought-out, though. The Freudian flashbacks with Spike's mother are also a bit over-the-top.

94) #614 "Older and Far Away" – Trapping everyone in the house is a good idea for an episode, and it generally works. But this may be Dawn at her absolute worst: “GET OUT GET OUT GET OUT!”

93) #505 "No Place Like Home" – The big reveal episode of the fifth season, with Dawn finally explained and Glory introduced. It gets the job done without being especially notable other than its story – a problem for much of the fifth season, unfortunately.

92) #101 "Welcome to the Hellmouth"
91) #102 "The Harvest" – Buffy is introduced in a fairly straightforward fashion. It's very artificial in a basic television form kind of way, but you can see the potential here.

90) #209 "What's My Line (Part 1)" – A fairly effective early look at Buffy's angst over her future as a Slayer. Side note – it was never clear to me whether the assassin Buffy kills at the ice rink is a scarred human or a demon. If it's the former, well, more ammo against Buffy's argument at the end of Season Six.

89) #513 "Blood Ties" – It's an odd thing about the fifth season. The two most annoying characters, Dawn and Spike, manage to come together and form an oddly affecting friendship.

88) #305 "Homecoming" – Some good things going on in this episode. It's the introduction of everyone's favorite villain, the Mayor, and Slayerfest '99 is good fun. The Buffy/Cordelia rivalry is a little bit too forced.

87) #107 "Angel" – The Buffy-Angel roller coaster begins here! Also, Darla is killed, which in retrospect is a pretty bad move from a storytelling point of view, her being Angel's sire and companion and all. Pity that's not something that could ever be reversed.

Fun One-Shots

86) #603 "After Life" – A demon attaches itself to resurrected Buffy. It's a good monster-of-the-week episode, with some even better character-building for Buffy.

85) #411 "Doomed" – Riley's first episode as one of the gang, kind of. Also includes Spike at his funniest, and the traditional Apocalypse-in-a-basement is spoofed.

84) #501 "Buffy vs. Dracula" – A pretty weak premise is salvaged and even turned to good by consistently funny writing. “Dark Master” indeed.

83) #218 "Killed by Death" – Although I don't really like this episode's retcon of Buffy's childhood, the hospital-based monster of the week is one of the creepiest the show has ever done.

82) #703 "Same Time, Same Place" – A fairly straightforward monster-of-the-week episode made fair more interesting by Gnarl, another one of the creepiest monsters in the show's run.

Trying Hard, Not Quite Succeeding

81) #517 "Forever" – Some poignant stuff here, as the mourning for Joyce continues. It's a Dawn-centered episode, though it's largely redeemed by the increasingly interesting Dawn/Spike relationship.

80) #616 "Hell's Bells" – I was pleasantly surprised by this episode after several warnings about its crappiness. There's a lot of good comedy here, and it's not like Xander's cold feet weren't foreshadowed.

79) #213 "Surprise" (Part 1) – The ending is the most memorable aspect of this episode, but the rest of it doesn't hold up to the Buffy-Angel changes. The Judge just isn't effective enough of a threat to hold the rest together. It's not bad, but it could – and will – be so much better.

78) #519 "Tough Love" – Willow attacks Glory, in the first indication that she's become far more powerful than anyone else realizes.

77) #307 "Revelations" – The fake Watcher Gwendolyn Post shows up and ruins Faith's, ah, faith. There's also another good Scoobie fight about Angel's resurrection – with the pretty massive caveat that nobody ever mentions the fact that he didn't have a soul when he was evil and now he does. That tidbit seems like it should be relevant.

76) #421 "Primeval" (Part 2) – The conclusion of the Initiative storyline has its marks to hit, and it does so. Nothing less, but sadly, nothing more either.

75) #604 "Flooded" – The two most distinctive aspects of the sixth season are introduced here: the horror of mundane life, and the Trio as the apparent Big Bad of the season. Neither of them seem like very big deals at first, but it all adds up. I like the concept of Buffy having money problems, but the way the show glides over people who could help her - like Giles, Willow, and Tara - is pretty stupid.

74) #712 "Potential" – This is by far the best Dawn-themed episode in the three years of her time on Buffy. Plus seeing Millie from Freaks & Geeks as a badass? Good stuff – if only there were more like this in the seventh season, then the Potential Slayer storyline wouldn't have seemed like such a waste.

73) #515 "I Was Made to Love You" – I like Warren. I mean, I don't like him, but I think he's a character that the show handled quite well (though it could have been even better). His introduction here is comic with a good tragic core, which fits.

72) #520 "Spiral" – Buffy's speeches about how it's wrong to kill humans in Season Six kind of ring hollow after she spends the best part of this episode throwing axes at the human Knights of Byzantium, huh? It's an effective tension builder, and I think that Ben and Glory may have some kind of connection.

71) #106 "The Pack" - “The Pack” introduces a level of creepiness that the show hadn't had, and with the death of the principal, also said that it was willing to raise the stakes. I may be overrating it, but it's really the only first season episode I have a clear memory of.

70) #720 "Touched"
69) #721 "End of Days" – Season Seven begins to recover from the terribly vote, but it's not enough. There are some good emotions beats to hit, and the most blatant orgasm face of the series, but it's not spectacular enough to place the season among the series' best.

68) #506 "Family" – Almost a year after her introduction, Tara finally gets her own episode. Despite being Whedon-penned, it's straightforward and doesn't do a huge amount to develop her character. He'd do better in “The Body.”

67) #713 "The Killer in Me" – Since most of Willow's recovery from the end of Season Six occurred off-screen, between seasons, it was good to have this episode to show her working through it. Warren remains a dynamic character as well. But something about it seems just a little off.

66) #301 "Anne" - “Anne” is an odd little episode, taking place primarily in L.A. as Buffy recovers from the events of Season Two. It has some iconic moments, but it's still too disjointed to be really great.

Eminently Watchable Episodes

65) #605 "Life Serial" – The Trio's tests for the Slayer show their potential for entertainment.

64) #512 "Checkpoint" - The arrival of the Watchers in Sunnydale leads to some funny moments, and some great Buffy ass-kicking as she redefines the power dynamic between Watcher and Slayer.

63) #412 "A New Man" – Ethan Rayne's last appearance leads to some good comedy when Giles is turned into a demon, but not a great deal of depth.

62) #409 "Something Blue" – Willow's having trouble controlling her magic. Spike and Buffy are an item. Which season is this? It's played for temporary laughs here, and it works well, but it's an eerie premonition of the dark sections of Season Six.

61) #518 "Intervention" – Everyone loves the Buffybot. Vision quest? Not so interesting.

Effective, if not quite Excellent Episodes

60) #521 "The Weight of the World" – With Dawn captured, Buffy retreats into her own mind. It's a good examination of Buffy's growing helplessness, but perhaps a not enough happening for a single episode.

59) #618 "Entropy" – The melodrama of the sixth season peaks here, with sex used as a weapon against others, or as a way to heal what was broken, or both. The comedy and pathos of Spike and Anya doing it is almost equally matched by the tenderness of Willow and Tara reconnecting.

58) #311 "Gingerbread" – For a while, I thought that this episode was Buffy's response to Columbine, due to its damnation of mob mentality and jumping to conclusions. It's a somewhat muddled episode, though it has some interesting application of folklore to the Buffy mythology, with Hansel and Gretel as evil and the witches as good.

57) #315 "Consequences" – Alyson Hannigan may be the best crying actress in the universe. She breaks it out for the first (and best) time this episode.

56) #615 "As You Were" – How surprising is it that Riley's return marks the point of improvement in the sixth season? Crazy.

55) #312 "Helpless" – The Watchers' test for Buffy leads to a painful realization that even her teacher can betray her.

54) #319 "Choices" – The stakes are raised as Willow is captured, and her magical escape shows her growing power as a sidekick for Buffy.

Good For (Several) Laughs Episodes

53) #401 "The Freshman" – A decent introduction to Buffy: The College Years made better by the vampire Sunday. A pity she's killed in this episode, but it would be tough to have a show named after a vampire slayer who never slays.

52) #503 "The Replacement" – I really wish I liked this episode more. It has all the trappings of a classic Buffy episode, but somehow it lands a little bit flatter than it should.

51) #407 "The Initiative" – Spike's return is magnificent, and the Initiative arc hasn't yet gone awry.

50) #216 "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered" – Although not quite the first “alternate reality” episode, it really demonstrated the potential excitement and comedy of putting the characters into different situations. Along with "Halloween" it started a trend. “Band Candy,” “Superstar,” “Tabula Rasa,” and more all descend from Xander's little love spell.

Serious/Seriously Good Episodes

49) #702 "Beneath You" – Insane Spike has one of the most riveting acting moments in the entire series. This episode is by-the-numbers until James Marsters turns it on for a bizarre, dark, excellent ending.

48) #718 "Dirty Girls" – The introduction of Caleb and reintroduction of Faith are well-handled in “Dirty Girls,” which promises a fantastic conclusion to the series.

47) #217 "Passion" – Shit just got real. The death of a major character says that this show isn't quite what you had expected.

46) #704 "Help" – Cassie is a fascinating character, and watching Buffy abuse her power as a counselor is pretty entertaining.

45) #221 "Becoming (Part 1)" – Effective as preparation for its stunning second part, but spends a little bit too much time getting ready without enough release. Also, Kendra.

44) #601 "Bargaining (Part 1)"
43) #602 "Bargaining (Part 2)" – A string of poor-to-competent season premieres comes to a halt with this intense, dramatic two-parter.

42) #203 "School Hard" – Spike arrives, and Joyce shows she's more than just a wet blanket as a mother.

41) #317 "Enemies" – Angel faking his soul's removal is excellently done. Faith's resentment and antagonism is just a little bit too over-the-top for me to really call this episode a classic, though.

40) #207 "Lie to Me" - “Lie to Me” is the first episode that really gets at the increasing emotional complexity of the series, when Buffy has an old friend arrive from LA who wants to become a vampire. Prior to this, the central metaphor of the show dominated. After this, the metaphor and characters worked together for more intense and more personal storylines.

39) #619 "Seeing Red" – Joss Whedon is an asshole. This is the only conclusion that can be drawn from putting Tara in the opening credits at the start of the episode, then killing her off in the end. The main storyline of this episode is a little weak, with the Trio getting some magic orbs that make Warren invincible. But the ending is a shocker, and Andrew really starts coming into his own as a character in this episode. His drink at the bar is magnificent.
The Thoroughly Entertaining Episodes

38) #206 "Halloween" – An early alternate reality Buffy, and probably the first really successful one. Xander as Army Guy is great, and Ethan Rayne is an excellent guest star.

37) #420 "The Yoko Factor" (Part 1) – While technically a tension-building episode, in keeping the fourth season's general comedy, it's also one of the funniest episodes of any two-parter. Angel and Riley finally meeting is excellent, especially with everyone's insistence that Angel had turned evil. The Scoobie fight at the end is also amazing. And Giles sings “Free Bird.”

36) #318 "Earshot" – It doesn't always make sense (why would you need a sniper scope to commit suicide?) but there are good laughs and drama to be found when Buffy becomes telepathic. Cordelia stating whatever pops into her mind is classic.

35) #705 "Selfless" – Two things make this episode stand out: the opening scene of Anya's origin, with the superb subtitles, and second, the first and only mention of Xander's lie to Buffy in the second season finale. Other than that, it's an effective end to the vengeance storyline – although Anya is ill-used for the rest of the season.

34) #608 "Tabula Rasa" – A spell of forgetfulness causes expected laughs and drama. It's a good, solid alternate reality episode.

33) #714 "First Date" – By the time “First Date” rolled around, I was able to tell Jane Espenson-written episodes apart from anyone else's. First question: are you laughing much more often than normal? Second question: are there references to little things from previous episodes? Coming after a string of disappointing-to-mediocre episodes, “First Date” was a breath of fresh air.

32) #404 "Fear, Itself" – Giles' “opening spell” is one of the funniest moments in the series. It's the best moment of an episode filled with good character development and better humor.

The Overambitious Episodes

31) #415 "This Year's Girl" (Part 1)
30) #416 "Who Are You" (Part 2) – For those who question Eliza Dushku's acting abilities, this two-parter should be exhibit A that she can do well in the right circumstances. Sarah Michelle Gellar's limitations are a bit more apparent, but she doesn't blow it. Bringing Faith back seemed like it could be a gimmick, but these two episodes more than justify it – and the continuation of the story on Angel is the icing on the cake.

29) #309 - "The Wish" – Buffy goes “Yesterday's Enterprise” or Age of Apocalypse in its most alternate of all the alternate reality episodes. It's fun to see all-business Buffy, evil Xander and Willow, and the return of the underutilized Master, in addition to Anya's introduction.

28) #417 "Superstar" – Conceptually, “Superstar” should be a transcendent Buffy episode, and adjusting the credits to be Jonathan-centered is a great touch. In practice, it's a very good episode that never quite manages to be great.

27) #722 "Chosen" – Although “Chosen” isn't the transcendent experience that a series finale can be at its best, that's mostly the fault of a wobbly seventh season. The little moments that Whedon and only Whedon brings as a writer are what stands out here. Dawn is as likeable as she ever gets in the series. So is Anya, who had been largely wasted after the first few episodes of the season. The game that Andrew runs is kind of the best thing ever. Angel's face when Buffy mentions the word “grandkids.” And, to be honest, Buffy's final plan is genius in the way that it flips both the show's premise and the Buffyverse's balance of power.

26) #620 "Villains" – With Tara dead, Willow seeks vengeance against Warren. Too much of the episode hinges on Buffy's argument that law enforcement should deal with Warren, and that the good guys can't kill humans. This is not advice that Buffy has followed (and it's certainly not true for Angel) but that's never mentioned. Still, Willow's conversion into Darth Rosenberg is riveting stuff.

The Worst Buffy the Vampire Slayer Episodes

The Best Buffy the Vampire Slayer Episodes

The Rest of the Buffy Episodes

Notes on Methodology: I have only watched the vast majority of these episodes once, over the past two years. This means two things: my memory of the later episodes is much stronger, and if or when I go back and rewatch the series, the list could change dramatically.

The Bottom 15

144) #211 "Ted" – Is it really the worst Buffy episode of all time? It's more competently produced than most of the first season, yes. The guest star is certainly capable. But the tonal shifts, from annoyed Buffy to murderous Buffy and back again are whiplash-inducing. The central metaphor, with something horrific threatening Buffy's life with her mom, is especially frustrating since it handles something real so ham-handedly. It's the most frustrating episode I can think of in the entire series, and that's enough to put it at the bottom of the list.

143) #108 "I, Robot... You, Jane" – We'll start with the good stuff: Miss Calendar is introduced. That's it! It's rare for the show to feel dated, but its use of computers in early episodes certainly puts it in a time and place. About the only other close-to-nice thing I can say is that it's a little friendlier to online relationships than The X-Files' “2shy.”

142) #711 "Showtime" – To this episode's credit, it manages to do the nearly impossible and have characters who are even more annoying than Dawn: the whining gaggle of Potential Slayers, panicking about the Turok-Han. In addition to annoying, it's also dour and humorless. Not even Andrew can make it entertaining.

141) #610 "Wrecked" – The nadir of the infamous addiction storyline. Amy the witch is a good character, who is totally wasted by the most excruciatingly forced (and extended) metaphor of magic-as-heroin.

140) #719 "Empty Places" – An otherwise perfectly competent stakes-raising episode leading up to the series finale, “Empty Places” totally falls apart in its final scene, when everyone turns on Buffy. Arguing with her leadership, sure, but kicking her out is mind-bogglingly stupid and out of character for all involved. Anya's speech is particularly annoying, making no sense and ignoring the entire history of the show – quite the opposite of her famous monologue in “The Body.”

139) #304 "Beauty and the Beasts" – There's a theme here with these worst-ever episodes. The central metaphor is taken too far, to the point where it's obvious and not interesting. Such is the case with this episode, which is basically an hour-long public service announcement that abusive relationships are bad.

138) #706 "Him" - “Him” seems like an old idea from Season Two that never got implemented, and the return to high school of the seventh season gave the show the opportunity to do it. It has two major problems though. First, it's Dawn-centered. Second, it's too late. It really does feel like a second-season episode, ignoring the character growth from the previous five years. It's too bad, really, as there's some funny stuff, especially once Anya and Willow get involved. But still much more frustrating than not.

137) #402 "Living Conditions" – Buffy goes to college. College is weird for her. Something bad is happening that she attributes to the supernatural. Her friends try to convince her that's it's normal adjustment, but hey! Buffy's actually right and it is supernatural! This would have been a completely serviceable storyline...had the exact same thing not been done the previous week with “The Freshman.” There are a couple good ideas here, but they're almost totally wasted.

136) #612 "Doublemeat Palace" - Tries to be a comedy about the drudgery of work, which isn't a bad idea. Unfortunately, it fails. There's some humor here, but you have a little bit too hard to get to it.

135) #104 "Teacher's Pet"
134) #105 "Never Kill a Boy on the First Date"
133) #109 "The Puppet Show" – The first season of Buffy just isn't very good. These episodes aren't bad, they just all follow the central “High School as horror” metaphor too closely to be considered as effective as those which come later in the series, when it's more comfortable with its world and its characters.

132) #204 "Inca Mummy Girl" – An episode so generic you can pretty much figure out the storyline from the title.

131) #609 "Smashed" - The Great Addiction Debacle begins here. It's bad, but boy does it ever get worse.

130) #418 "Where the Wild Things Are" – No, really, thinking about Buffy and Riley having constant wild monkey love orgasms isn't really that appealing, thanks. I do understand that the show needed to demonstrate a little more sex positivity after some previous storylines, but this is just a bad premise. There's some funny stuff in it, but not enough to salvage it all.