Insert another credit, because it’s time for your weekly video game news and you’ve just hit the Game Overview screen.
Due to some poor life decisions, I find myself stranded for five weeks without any video games. What’s a guy to do, right? Well, rather than just giving you some of the headlines from the week’s video game news in lieu of what I was planning to be gameplay impressions, reviews, and the like, I’ve instead started a five week “All-Stars” feature. Each week we’re going to look at a video game era and spotlight my top three games from that era. Each of these games will also receive a place setting at the prestigious “Table of Honor” feature that I’m working on. Here’s the weekly plan:
Week 1: 8-bit Console Era
Week 2: 16-bit Console Era
Week 3: Post-16-bit Console Era, Pre-Current Generation
Week 4: Pre-Current Generation PC Games
Week 5: Current Generation
Yeah, the categories are broad, particularly weeks three and four, but it’s how I want to do them, so get off my back!
I like to think of the 16-bit era as the age when video games truly began to blossom into the glorious medium we enjoy consuming today. I suppose if i were to fully apply that metaphor, it would make the first and second generations the ugly infancy and childhood of gaming and the third generation rather like the puberty of gaming, also encompassing those difficult growing pains of the teen years. This, naturally, places the fourth generation in the sexy 18-24 demographic that, ironically, most video games are marketed to today.
Now that we’ve wrapped our minds around that rather interesting image, let’s talk about what was happening around this time in the industry. The big systems that I care about, the Super Nintendo and the Sega Genesis, were launched, along with their hand held counterparts, the Game Boy and the Game Gear. Although we reaped the massive benefits of the competition, we were unfortunately subjected a whole slew of marketing buzzword crap about “blast processing” on the Sega Genesis, not to mention those obnoxious “Genesis does what Nintendon’t” commercials (sensing a bias?).
Yeah, there’s a wee bit of a chip on my shoulder. You see, as a kid, I remember wanting the Super Nintendo for Christmas a lot. I don’t even know how I knew about it or anything, but I knew I wanted one. Instead, my aunt gave us a Sega Genesis, which my older brother wanted. It was indeed a bitter pill to swallow that Christmas, but we did have a breakthrough the next year when I got Super Mario Kart on Christmas Eve, but no SNES, signaling that I just might be getting a Super Nintendo from my parents the next morning on Christmas Day. Nintendo fanboyism aside, I did give a fair shake to both Sega and Nintendo games, but no Sega games made my top three.
(If you didn’t get it, past was bolded and there was a link to a past post…yeah, I’m that clever)
#3 The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past
I’ll tell you what, I didn’t play the number three game nor did I play the game that lost (by a tiny sliver) to LttP during the lifetime of the SNES. I played the #4 game (to be revealed soon!) on a ROM once the Gamecube was already released and I played Zelda on a Player’s Choice (I think that’s what it was called?) cart I bought from the store once the N64 was already Nintendo’s dominant platform. I’m super saddened by the fact that I lost the cart (damn you Evan…you “already returned” it, did you?), but it truly was Shigeru Miyamoto’s masterpiece on the console.
Link to the Past did a few things right of the bat to re-endear Zelda fans to the update with its return to the overhead view and abandonment of the more RPG-centric gameplay that was central to Zelda II. The new overworld was beautiful with vibrant colors and amazingly detailed sprites. It seemed like Link could travel forever through the maps and that secrets were hidden at every corner. The quest was also an epic affair as Link collected three pendants to prove his worthiness to wield the Master Sword to confront the evil wizard Agahnim and save Zelda. Once I’d finally done all this and confronted Agahnim, I thought, surely this is the final boss, this game is almost over, that stinks. Then the most surprising thing happened, I was sucked into the Dark World. My goal was now to save the seven maidens descended from the seven sages. Holy crap! I had seven more plot coupons to collect, which meant seven more dungeons, and a whole new world to explore before I would be able to confront the real bad guy, Ganon.
It’s pretty old hat nowadays for Nintendo to have two worlds in a Zelda game. Ocarina of Time had present and future Hyrule, The Minish Cap had the normal-sized and minish worlds, and Twilight Princess had twilight and normal worlds. Back then though, this was a completely new concept to me that I had only seen done once before (see #2 on my list) and it just totally blew my mind. The puzzles that dealt with this gameplay mechanic were also superb, with changes in the dark world affecting the light world somehow. I remember feeling like I was totally at a loss for what to do to uncover the many secrets that would require me to cleverly swap between dark and light worlds.
Link’s expanded inventory was also pretty sweet. There were all sorts of little Easter eggs within the different enemy types dependent on what equipment you used to attack them with. I distinctly remember that some of the buggers could be completely emasculated with a dash of magic powder, for example. While boss fights still weren’t that challenging (an issue I’ve been having with Nintendo for quite some time now), I thought it was innovative back then how you had to figure out how to use the new equipment you found in the dungeon to attack the boss monster.
A Link to the Past was just a well put together game. The story was way more epic than any Zelda game that preceded it, there were countless secrets lying in wait for the diligent explorer (remember the guy who “curses” your magic bar?), and you had not just one, but two giant worlds to wander around, vanquishing evil. Some don’t think the game has aged very well, but I’d still recommend LttP for a Virtual Console purchase, it’s one of the best games from the era.
In keeping with the funny commercial kick I’m feeling, check out this Japanese Link to the Past commercial:
Makes me laugh how girls always make the best live-action Links…
The next game on the list actually was just edged out of the #1 spot, but I’m gonna blame number confusion during localization for that one. That’s a pretty obscure hint, so I’m just gonna come out and say it. #2 on my list of 16-bit All-Stars is Final Fantasy III…erm…Final Fantasy VI!
#2 Final Fantasy VI
I don’t remember precisely where I heard or read this, but very recently I digested some media regarding one guy’s initial reaction to playing Final Fantasy VI. What he said was “I remember renting this game and being about an hour or so in thinking ‘There’s no way I’m gonna be able to finish this in three days…’” The reason I put that quote in there is because the very same thing happened to my brothers and I. After re-renting the game a few times and finding our save files deleted each time, we decided that we would bite the bullet and just hold on to the game until we were done, effectively renting it multiple, consecutive times. At the end of the first three days, we were about halfway done. At the end of the second, we had reached 3/4 completion. Finally, in the third rental period, after about a days worth of grinding, we completed the greatest Final Fantasy game that has ever been made and, with the departure of Sakaguchi to form Mistwalker in 2001, possibly the greatest they will ever make.
I can already feel the FF VII fanboys chomping at the bit to tell me how wrong I am, but it is they who are wrong. You see, right before Final Fantasy was about androgynous emo-kids with big swords whose dialog consists of “…” more often than not, it was about an epic cast of characters fighting against an evil empire in what was, admittedly, a rip-off of the Star Wars story. Yet, it does just about EVERYTHING right and I the closest I’ve seen a Final Fantasy game come since would be a bastard child of the characters from XII and the superb storytelling elements of X.
One of the features of Final Fantasy VI I’ve most enjoyed is the mostly non-central character in the game. You start as Terra, but, halfway through the game, you’re mostly controlling Celes and Terra even refuses to join your party again until maybe halfway through the second half (that’s 3/4 of the way through the game for the math incapable). While some of the 14 (!) characters in the cast are mostly tangential and unrelated to the story or other characters (I’m looking at you Mog, Gogo, Umaro), only two really have no real emotional connection to the story (Mog and Umaro) with every other character getting a chance in the spotlight either directly or indirectly (Gogo is Daryll, I won’t accept any other conclusion). Most every character has touching and revealing sidequests that go beyond the typical “dodge lightning” or “chocobo racing” nonsense that modern-day Final Fantasy games have us do to get ultimate weapons or techniques. Some of the back stories are even so cleverly hidden that you can play the game through multiple times and never see the details (by cleverly, I mean annoyingly…why did I have to learn Shadow’s backstory through fanfics?), but when you learn about the characters, find out how they’re interrelated, find out what makes them tick, these guys all find a place in that warm, fuzzy little part of your brain. I can still feel Locke’s anguish as he tries and fails to revive Rachel, still understand Terra’s feelings of alienation, fear, and confusion as she learns what it is to be human from the first people to treat her like one, and I can still tear up a bit as I learn about Gau’s insane father throwing him out into the wild and rejecting his son as he comes back in a more “civilized” manner.
All of those memorable scenes and characters and I still haven’t even mentioned the masterful opera scene that I’m sure you’ve heard about. There are some things that get me positively salivating at the thought of a 3D remake of Final Fantasy VI like the remakes of III and IV, but few add up to how much I’d love to see and hear the opera scene unpixelated and processed with better sound tech.
I haven’t even gotten to the gameplay yet either. 14 characters, all with unique technique systems (something we wouldn’t really see again until FF IX), my favorite magic system, Espers, and a general non-reliance on summons that was negated with FF VII and ended, fortunately, with FF X (XI doesn’t count). Armor was still lovingly complex, with multiple equipment options beyond the oversimplified “Weapon, Armor, Accessory” systems of future Final Fantasy games and we had two “Accessory” slots with the awesome “Relic” system, which was used to not only give characters neat abilities, but accentuate their inborn character abilities.
I can’t believe I’ve gone this long without even mentioning the most evil and incredibly awesome antagonist in a Final Fantasy game, heck in just about any game: Kefka. Tapping into everyone’s already morbid fear of clowns (or is it just me who finds them vaguely unsettling?) Kefka brings a whole new level of insane to the job of final boss. The man starts off as comic relief. He’s got that funny processed laugh that the SNES chip throws out at you, he looks ridiculous, and he’s hilariously mean to his underlings. Any fight you ever get into with him, he runs away from or uses illiusions. How evil could he be? That’s when the shit starts to hit the fan. The first act of defiance that the player knows of against Kefka by an ally to the Emperor leads to an attempt to burn the entire castle down and destroy the monarchy. Another rebel nation has its entire water supply poisoned by the psychopath. At the insane encounter (that I thought to be the end of the game when I initially played it) on the Floating Continent, Kefka not only murders the Emperor and throws him off the continent, he shuffles around the statues that hold the world in balance, effectively ending the world as we all know it. With new godly powers at his command taken from murdering Espers and the statues, Kefka reshapes the world, smiting any town that refuses to obey him with the “Light of Judgement.” The mad clown even has a cult of followers devoted to his cause and is an absolute nihilist, claiming that life is meaningless and aiming to destroy everything. All this from a man who looks like a clown. It’s chilling and he’s never been matched since (don’t even mention Sephiroth in the same sentence, he’s an absolute tool compared to Kefka).
Let’s just end it with this, and this is a major spoiler, but how many other games have you ever played where halfway through the game, the world ends, you’re potentially the only survivor in the drastically modified desolate wasteland of the world map, and you’ve got the choice to either save or kill a man who looks like a hot dog before you leave the island? I thought so.
Since we’ve got a good thing going with these ridiculous commercials, let’s keep it up with a US FF III (IV) commercial that I actually never saw on TV:
The Japanese commercial was a lot more epic, I think:
Wow, that FF VI blurb was really long, I might be running out of time to tell you about the #1 game. If you still need another hint, according to the game, the world “ended” in September of 1999 at 1324. That’s right, the best game of the 16-bit era is the Squaresoft/Enix collaboration: Chrono Trigger
#1 Chrono Trigger
There’s a long, storied history between Chrono Trigger and myself. I’m pretty sure the year was 1996 or 1997. My family was living out in Oregon and our electronics store of choice was Incredible Universe. IU, as we liked to call it, had a nifty little area where you could leave the kids to play video games while you shopped for consumer electronics. My older brother was too old for it and I was just hitting the cusp, but my parents were still able to leave my younger brother and I in there to hang out. IU provided many a video gaming experience that we didn’t have at home, since we couldn’t just be out buying everything, plus we didn’t know about all the systems. It was at IU that I played the Sega Saturn the only two or three times I ever have in my life and the only place I’ve ever even seen a Philips CD-I and Mario Hotel (so awful…). It’s also the place that introduced me to the console RPG, forever changing my life.
It was an unassuming day out in the Pacific Northwest when I popped Chrono Trigger into one of the SNES consoles in the play area. I was attracted by the cool seeming box art featuring a red-haired dude with a sword, a blonde girl shooting fire, and a frog man fighting some giant lizard thing. Cool, right? So I boot up the game, select New Game, and then I get to name my character. This was nothing special, I’d done the same with Link in the original Legend of Zelda, but boy was I surprised when some character was telling me to wake up. I had named the main character. The red-haired guy was me! I was told to go to the fair and I don’t remember if I went straight there or not, but once I got there I ran around, watched some races and just marveled at how much was going on in this Millennial Fair. Then I ran into a new character, the blonde from the cover, and, holy cow, I could name her too! We fought Gato (Gonzalez in the Japanese version?) in my first ever RPG battle and I’m pretty sure we lost too, but it was so cool. I had to select these attacks from a menu. I’m pretty sure I only just got sent into the past at Lucca’s exhibit before my parents showed up to pick me up, but a already a change was brewing within me. As I told my older brother about the game and piqued some of his interest, I started my evolution as a gamer.
That night I dreamed of Chrono Trigger. I was in the game then too and we wandered around fighting bad guys. Shortly thereafter, my older brother (you’ll have to clarify what about this game attracted you to it and made you buy into my propaganda. did we rent it before this event happened?) spotted it at the video game rental place for a pricey (for us) $20. The three brothers banded together to fund the purchase of the game (try to find a SNES CT cartridge for that cheap on Ebay nowadays!) with each of us paying a little less than the older sibling and we brought our prize home.
Honestly, aside from action RPGs like Zelda or, randomly, the Illusion of Gaia, I’d never played an RPG before in any form. This first exposure would motivate a good chunk of our game rentals for the SNES (like FF VI and FF IV), cause mass disappointment when Square sided with the PSX after that tantalizing N64 FF VI demo, lead to me purchasing FF VII for the PC and basically forcing it to work on our piece of junk PC, and eventually lead to me buying a refurbished PS2 so that I could enjoy the PSX and PS2 JRPGs that I’d missed in my years of owning an N64 and Gamecube instead of the premier RPG systems. The JRPG remains my absolute favorite video game genre, if you couldn’t tell from all the Persona 3: FES and Persona 4 coverage in this blog. I even picked up a PS3 more or less in preparation for the continuation of the Final Fantasy and Kingdom Hearts series. On this front alone, Chrono Trigger holds a prime spot in my all-time video game shortlist, but this doesn’t even count the amazing gameplay to be experienced.
CT is just about perfect on all fronts. This is why it barely edged out my favorite FF game for the top spot on this list. When I sat down and thought carefully about it, I couldn’t think of any reason for FF VI to top CT or for CT to not be the number one game. It’s that good. For starters, it’s got one of the more innovative Active Time Battle systems present in any of the Final Fantasy games to date. Now, on top of the monsters and characters taking turns based on a time gauge, there was the added dimension of attack range and splash damage. Some of your attacks could damage multiple monsters depending on where they were placed on the screen. Also dependent on the monster and character placement were Technique combos. Your characters all had their own techniques, but they also had set attacks that could be used in unison with other members of your party, creating interesting party composition choices depending on the battle situation. The monsters were also viewable on the screen and, in some cases, avoidable. This has always been a hallmark of a good RPG for my older brother who’s not so much a fan of the random encounter. I’m a bit more tolerant of RPG grind, so I don’t mind it so much, but it was creative for the time for you to be able to see your enemies on screen, but for the game to not be an action RPG.
The story is truly where this game shines, with its epic trips spanning throughout time as you witness how your actions change the modern world and future for the better or worse. Sure, the good ‘ol future apocalypse switcheroo seems a bit clichéd given that all three games on this list have some sort of similar plot twist, but a well-crafted plot device still gets me every time. I still remember uncovering the video of the Day of Lavos on a seemingly benign quest to recover some food for some poor survivors in Arris Dome. The shock as I saw the world as they knew it destroyed in 1999 (a mere two or three years away for me) told me, if you’ll excuse the lame expression, that I wasn’t in Kansas any more. The plot is so expertly handled in this game, it really does achieve the lofty storytelling goals that I think the medium aspires to hit, all without being campy or lame in the very slightest. The disappearance of Marle when you get to the castle in AD 600, your trial and incarceration in AD 1000, the escape to post-apocalyptic AD 2300, discovery of the fate of the world as it slowly dies and mankind goes extinct, your epic foray to fight Magus and prevent the advent of Lavos in AD 600 only to discover that he was, in fact, working against the ancient evil, the discovery that Lavos had been around as early as 65,000,000 BC, and the amazing socially-divided kingdom of 12,000 BC that Magus himself hails from. It’s all so expertly crafted.
Just like FF VI, every character has a meaningful and worthwhile backstory/sidequest to complete. You can bring about the recovery of a forest and save Lucca’s mother from being handicapped, discover the secret about Robo’s line of robots, ensure the evolution of man by defeating sentient reptiles, and you can even choose to either forgive the warlock Magus for his sins or pass judgment upon him and rid the world of his influence. That last one was of particular importance, because Magus was a powerful ally, but his life ensured that Frog would remain forever cursed to remain, well, a frog.
A particularly powerful moment in the story, for me, I believe follows your second trip to 12,000 BC and the kingdom of Zeal. The group, intent on ending the threat of Lavos right then and there, confronts the beast with killing intent. It all goes sour (“Oh crap! When did I last save? This fight is so damn unfair, it had better be one you’re supposed to lose…”), but then the unthinkable happens. Lavos kills Crono. At this point, still new to RPGs (which still don’t feature all that much permanent death) I was floored. They truly did everything right with this story, as I was there with the characters as they mourned the death of Crono and soldiered on with their burden to destroy Lavos. His revival was also particularly awesome. I can still picture the cutscene of his revival. I can see him sitting against that scraggly old, leafless tree and I can remember Marle lunging at him, her embrace full of joy at his return to life atop Death’s Peak.
From then on, it was sidequest time as I truly connected with the denizens of the Chrono Trigger timeline, fixing the past, present, and future and making the world a better place. I then went on to fight Lavos himself to free the world of his taint and ensure a future for all the people of the world I had come to love. Once I had secured a future for Crono and Marle’s strongly implied inevitable progeny and I returned to the title screen, I was greeted with an interesting new feature, the New Game +. I could start the game all over again at the same levels, with the same equipment, and just have another go at the story. This was a time in my life when I didn’t have access to as many games as I do nowadays, so I had the leisure time available to beat Chrono Trigger the close to ten or so times that I did while I owned the cartridge. Admittedly, some of the later wins were due to wanting to see the multiple endings that I discovered existed. I had not known that there were thirteen whole endings, but once I did I tried to get as many as I had the patience for, including the super-difficult special ending that you can only get if you can take on Lavos 1-on-1 with Crono in the beginning of the game.
I don’t know what else there is to say about such an epic and truly amazing game. I hope that one day Square Enix finally decides to make a true sequel to what is arguably their magnum opus (I don’t count Chrono Cross). I guess it would be tough to come up with a reason for there to be a sequel in that world, but, in that case, a more loyal spiritual sequel would even suffice. So much about that game is perfect and I know that the talent isn’t totally gone from that company. Lightning can strike twice and here’s to hoping that it does some day.
By the way, if you don’t think my opinion is enough, check out Tim Rogers‘ review of this spectacular game. He does a much better job of analyzing why the story is awesome.
I can’t find a great commercial for this game, but here’s what I have found:
Here’s the opening of the PSX re-release, complete with animations by Toriyama’s studio to complement the already excellent Akira Toriyama designs in game:
“Hey Masa, I’m the wind…woosh!”
Nothing short of absolute excellence. I’m gonna have to get my hands on that soundtrack one of these days. It is incredible.
There you go, those are the top three games of the 16-bit era. Play those and you’re all set, you’ve got a taste for the best the period has to offer. Just like last week, keep on tuning in to see what other games I feel deserve mention from this era and feel free to let me know if I’ve missed something.