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Dragon Questing V Part I [GO]
Jun 30th, 2009 by Dan

Like I said I might do before, here’s a rundown of a game I’m playing to try and encourage me to make significant progress. Unfortunately, even if there were commercial DS capture devices available, I don’t really have the cash to spare for them anyway, so we’ll start our look in with words and I might snap some ugly iPhone shots if I really want to hurt your eyes. As a final warning, I’m going to be getting into plot points. Leave if you don’t want to read SPOILERS

This game hammers home the theme of family pretty heavily and it makes me wonder what might have been going on in Yuji Horii’s life to inspire him to create this deeply touching game. DQV opens with a fairly standard black background name entry screen as you choose the name of your hero. The next scene is of a throne room. There’s only one conclusion you can draw at this point, the guy pacing in front of the throne is the king. He seems stressed and he’s pacing. His name is Pankraz. Sancho shows up and summons Pankraz down to see his wife, Madalena. Her son lies on the bed beside her and they deliberate over a name. Pankraz thinks Madason would be a brilliant name for the boy, because he’s not very creative and thinks that since he’s Madalena’s son, he should apparently be saddled with what sounds like a woman’s name. Madalena thinks that perhaps he should be named Dan. Pankraz reluctantly agrees and holds Dan up, Lion King-style, to proclaim that his son will henceforth be known as Dan. Crisis: Madalena begins to cough; something is wrong with her. The screen irises on Pankraz and the new baby boy. Dan begins to cry.

Cue heroic music and iconic Dragon Quest logo over a castle in the sky.

If you’re only just now getting to DQV, as I am, this opening is awfully remniscent of Fallout 3. Consider the identical elements: you are born in the opening scene, there is a name decision to be made, and some sort of tragic accident seems to befall your mother. I think there’s a pretty strong reason for both of these games to begin almost identically and it stems from simple human behavior. There are fairly established notions of the kind of relationship that a single parent, especially a single father has with his offspring. It’s either the whole abusive, resentful, alcoholic view, which would be useless in this case, or the close, caring setup that we get in both of these games. What it says to the player is: these men are your only strength left in this world. You’d better try to do right by them. In Fallout 3, your motivations are driven by your need to find your father and, once you do and he is killed, to continue his life’s work to restore water to the Capital Wastelands.

DQV does things a little differently. Immediately following the title splash, you see yourself in what looks like a bed in a ship. You can tell that it is you in the bed, because the man in the wild purple robes is the very same one portrayed on the Toriyama-drawn boxart. You tell your father that you dreamed he was a king and he laughs it off. As you walk around the ship, you learn a two things:

1. Your dad, Pankraz, is the man
2. You guys travel. A lot.

The ship lands in Littlehaven and you’re told to go play. At this point, you’re level 1 and you’re just supposed to go wander around and hit up the world map. Here’s where I’ll leave my observations for today and we’ll talk some more about stuff next time.

(NOTE: I’d be remiss in not mentioning that this feature was at least partially inspired by the ABDN DQV review by Tim Rogers)

Derivative Art, Japanese Rock, and the Coming Rock Revolution [You Can Quote Me On That]
May 21st, 2009 by Dan

From Tim Rogers’ article on Japanese music and Sambo Master (so good, but long!):

I told Sanyon, “Art is poison. The ‘art’ of the past — the words of the past set down for future generations to remember — was it not made or chosen with the best judgment, can only hinder the freedom of the future.”

“That’s a very Western philosophy.”

“No. It’s The Tale of Genji. Murasaki Shikibu. The world’s first novel. From your country — 998 AD.”

“Well!”

“If I write a novel, for example, about a girl in a religious community who is ostracized when she’s discovered to be an adultress, no matter how much I focus on the woman’s pining over the wonderful cookies at the weekly church bake sale, and no matter how clever I make the cookie motif — a metaphor for what, I don’t know — I can’t publish it without drawing comparisons to The Scarlet Letter.”

“I don’t know what that is.”

“It’s a book. Famous American literature. Anyway. Furthermore — if I were to, say, show The Scarlet Letter to a publishing company editor who had never read it, he’d look at it for ten minutes before telling me it was utter trash. Too long, too gloomy, paragraphs too big, too thick, setting details not fleshed out enough, needs too many footnotes, too prose-y.”

“Aha. You’re saying the judges aren’t competent, is what you’re saying.”

“No. I’m saying that some of the shit we regard as gospel is actually . . . not.”

Sanyon snapped his fingers, and pointed at me. His mouth opened, then closed.

“I’m not sure I follow you.”

I shook my head. “I’m not sure I follow myself, sometimes. Anyway, what I’m saying is that it’s probable — highly possible that a lot of the punk-rock music people like you and me listen to now would still exist, in some way, shape or form, if Ramones had never existed.”

“I’m not sure about that.”

“I’m only mostly sure, myself. All I . . . know is that it feels criminally wrong to believe that only one man can ever hold the power to change the world. It’s like this — I believe in something we’ll call an ‘aesthetic god.’ I also believe in music theory, though that’s for another day. The ‘aesthetic god’ applies to, well, it’s a belief that certain things look and/or sound pleasing. Good sights, good sounds. Jennifer Aniston’s ‘Friends’ hairstyle; the computerized shine on Britney Spears’ voice. With popular music all you’re doing is throwing things at a wall, and seeing what sticks. Well, I don’t know. I guess that’s how it was in the beginning. Now people — they know what sticks and what doesn’t. This is because there are little . . . laws in aesthetics. Some kind of a supreme presence.

“Yet, see — here’s what I believe. There are infinite avenues to pleasant sights and sounds. Infinite ways of playing a guitar. It’s just that Kurt Cobain comes in and plays these four chords in this order and everybody gets hooked up on it. Art isn’t a ‘poison’ in that it rots and kills; it’s a poison in that it slows down and hinders. Our eyes and ears are attracted to shiny sights and sounds, and we dare not look away. That’s how Murasaki Shikibu would probably put it if she were around today. I take it she’d agree with me when I say (and you know old Japanese poetry was my major in college) that we stand, now, at an era where the ignorant are set to inherit the earth. When a guy who comes across a guitar for the first time in his life and sits down and plays it for an hour until he ‘discovers’ power chords, yeah, he’s got a chance of doing something great. He can change the world.”

Sanyon shook his head. “That sounds like some religious bullshit, man. A rock and roll messiah or some shit.” He shrugged. “It’s not like things — the current rock and roll situation — are so bad. People listen to music on the train. People get paid to make the music. As long as the CDs sell copies — hey. I may be just a kid — people like it that way — and my grasp of the whole industry dynamic might be one-dimensional, though at least I feel like I understand it. Japan treats its musicians right, at least when it comes to securing them a future. And that’s what it’s about for me. A person-to-person basis. Not changing the fucking world. I feel sorry for the bastard who ends up having to do that.”

I wagged my finger. “He won’t even know he’s doing it, is the thing. He’ll just be another guy like you, maybe a kid, thinking he’s just having fun. Then he realizes what he’s doing, and he either rises to it or he blows the fuck up. If he rises to it, then he’s suddenly a hero to people. That’s how it happens. You kids overthink things sometimes, even more than I do, and I’m the one doing all of the talking. See — hell. It’s like . . . shit. I don’t know. What I mean to say is — go back to the Scarlet Letter analogy. The fact that there’s so much literature backed-up in the historical pipeline pisses a lot of writers off. They know that they can’t write such-and-such a novel without being compared to so-and-so. The same goes for music. This makes writers and musicians a bunch of ironic assholes. That’s the problem here, is irony. People get all bitter and jaded before they’re even twenty years old. They turn into a bunch of cocks. I was reading an old interview with The Pixies in this little book of rock interviews my friend had. I think the interview was from 1989 or some shit, and yeah, it was like — I kept thinking what an asshole Frank Black sounded like. He sounded like a total fuckhole. It’s like — this way he’s talking, his opinions, this is exactly the shit I hated on kids who thought they were rockers in high school. I totally understood a whole bunch of shit. They got it . . . from the music. I mean, nothing against The Pixies or anything.”

Sanyon shrugged. “They’re alright.”

“Alright. Yeah, they’re alright. They’re alright.”

“Anyway, man, like — like I said. I’m just having fun. That’s all. I’m not the hero in a comic book about punk-rockers in Tokyo. I’m not collecting all the fucking Pokemon. I’m just singing in a band — hell, I can’t even sing as well as Ito, and that fucker’s playing the guitar now — though I guess I have the personality. I can be on television. I can play the little Japanese television game. Perfect. They’ll like me. [Sanyons manager and ex-Blue Hearts bassist Junnosuke Kawaguchi] says we’ll be fine. People will like our style, and all that. That’s what’s important.”

Game Overview: ABDN Reviews MGS4
Aug 29th, 2008 by Dan

Insert another credit, because it’s time for your weekly video game news and you’ve just hit the Game Overview screen.

(SPOILER NOTE: Tim’s review, my review, and some of this post have MGS spoilers. Read at your own risk)

I’ve taken a few excerpts from Tim Rogers’ brilliant review of Metal Gear Solid 4 and I’m going to talk about them a bit. He totally threw us for a loop, revealing the game that is NOT ABDN’s best game of all-time, but revealing a game he firmly believes not to be. Let’s get started:

“If it’s a fact that Metal Gear Solid 4 sucks on purpose, we can hardly blame Kojima for that, either. Given his previously well-documented disinterest in the series, its having been promoted as his “opus” must have turned his stomach. It’s clear that Kojima’s priority was the game’s plot, and making sure it “satisfied” fans: like the world’s fattest kid circa 1989 winning a Toys R Us shopping spree, Kojima struts zombie-like into the warehouse of his past work and proceeds to remove absolutely everything from the shelf, dropping one item at a time into his bottomless shopping cart. He eventually gets up to the cash register, leaves the cart unattended, pulls his smokes out of his jacket, and steps outside.”

In this point I can’t help but hope that Kojima was in fact making a disappointing game on purpose. Sure, MGS4 wasn’t terrible, but after all the hype, after Metal Gear fucking Solid 3, I found myself thinking “Really? After that, this is what you bring to the table?” MGS3 was so good that I suppose surpassing it was either impossible for Kojima or, as Rogers says, not even the point of what he was doing. He made MGS4 because he had to. He made MGS4 basically a checklist for unanswered plot points because he ultimately wanted to be DONE. May Hideo Kojima never have to have as much control over or make another MGS game. The man, despite what Rogers thinks, is brilliant. I like to think it’s just a question of him finding a project that truly interests him again.

“By act three, the game has abandoned its neat little idea in favor of a far neater one: we are now following a guy through a European city. Snake is wearing a trenchcoat, looking like Gillian Seed from Snatcher (the fans swoon), and it’s quaintly foggy. Ironically, this proved to be our Absolute Favorite Part of the Game. Since age nine, we have wanted to wander a European metropolis after curfew, letting a shady man obliviously lead us to his shady headquarters. This is the reason we studied Russian and Chinese in elementary school while everyone else was busy pretending they knew something about sex. We carried this dream in the palm of our hand until college, when it dawned upon us that we could Actually Die from doing Stuff Like This, so we started writing about videogames in the first-person plural instead. Metal Gear Solid 4 manages to get the mood and the pace of Euro-man-stalking just right. Our target is “Side A”, and the enemy troops enforcing the curfew are “Side B”. We are “Side C”. The level design in this part of the game is ferociously cute: both we and Side A are in violation of Side B’s rules; while avoiding Side A’s detection, we have to ensure that Side A avoids Side C’s detection. This ends up pretty fascinating, whether you have watched the opening cut scene or not. Eventually, you get to the goal, and suddenly you’re riding shotgun on a motorcycle in yet another ropey on-rails shooting sequence. It’s like waking up from a dream about the Bahamas to find out you’re actually in Bermuda. Instead of intimately sharing military secrets with a woman you picked up at a poker table, you’ve got your mother asking you to shoot a helicopter down.”

I feel the need to interject that, despite Europe being compelling to Rogers and the ABDN crew, it’s rather dull compared to the actual MGS gameplay that I wanted. The gameplay of MGS3 was not about following a dude, although it’s also not too far. The dynamic of hiding from two forces is decently interesting, but its perhaps marred by the game itself. You CAN just take off the trench coat and continue running around in your octo-camo. You can just stun all the guards instead of sneaking around. Hell, you can just kill all the guards, so long as your mark doesn’t see it happen. The gameplay isn’t quite as compelling as the other sections, to me, even if the locale IS. Wandering throughout a European city in actual MGS fashion would be quite fun and worth exploring in the inevitable, but hopefully not Kojima-directed, MGS5.

“We will disclaim, right here, that we have, for the past decade of jacked-into-the-netness, chuckled and rolled our eyes whenever anyone complained about the length of the cut-scenes in a Metal Gear Solid game. Some people said they just wanted to enjoy the “gameplay” (like that’s a real word); some people said they just wanted to enjoy the “atmosphere”. It puzzled us, to the point of rubbing our bellies in amusement, that someone would dare to want to play Metal Gear Solid with absolutely no invested interest in the characters. It’s not that the story and the characters are necessarily great literature so much as they’re insperable from the game’s progression and atmosphere. If you only like the game mechanics, you’d be better off playing Pac-Man — it’s basically the same thing. Conversely, if you only like the story, you’d be better off reading a book. (Crucial: notice how we recommended Pac-Man for players who only like Metal Gear Solid as a game, whereas we recommended any book in existence for those who enjoy it as a story.) If nothing else, the original Metal Gear Solid had a dignified flow to it: the characters were all rough sketches, all vaguely likable. Conceptual Bullshit was kept to a minimum, and by minimum, we mean “Maximum, in Hindsight”. There was a fucking “boss” who you didn’t fight, who you instead met and talked to, and he died six hours before you even knew he was a boss. The game shows you this level of virtuosity for a while without once flexing its muscles in the mirror; at a certain point, it starts delivering soliloquies about love blooming on the battlefield; by this time, we are so into it that we can’t give up now. The game has worked its spell on us.”

Rogers brings up a vital point about the REASON people play a Metal Gear Solid game. It makes sense that a blockbuster like the MGS series is not only attract people who firmly agree with the gameplay environment, but I too marvel at the people who complain about cutscene length, but claim to be fans. The game IS about long cutscenes. The game certainly has a specific aesthetic created by its controls and actually interactive portions (ie: the parts where there aren’t cutscenes), but without the context, I would think it’s quite boring. Then again, I’d say I’m a person who is mostly motivated by story. I’ve played abysmal games just to see their endings in the past and I continue to play mediocre and great games, like MGS4, just to see what happens at the end. It’s absolutely true that divorcing MGS from its cinematics is divorcing the entire reason for playing from the game. It just makes no sense otherwise.

“Hindsight will tell us that, in concept and execution and everything in between, Metal Gear Solid is better than Metal Gear Solid 4, though this hardly matters. What matters is that we have grown up, and Metal Gear Solid has grown down.”

This is absolutely true. I would have to take a second to very firmly point out that MGS4 is, by no means, a bad game, it does suffer from something no other Metal Gear game does: sequelitis. It tries too hard to be what is iconic Metal Gear for its fans as a conclusion to such a degree that it is less Metal Gear for doing so. Think of the Solid games starting with MGS. Sure, that wasn’t much more than a rehash of the elements of MG2 (in fact, elements of the MG games continually repeat, but that’s actually a major theme of the game (how brilliant is Kojima to make “laziness” translate into “artistic purpose”?)), but getting serious, it’s plain that MGS2 is radically different from MGS. You have a totally new protagonist running around through an environment that is fundamentally different from Shadow Moses. The game felt different enough to warrant significant fan backlash causing low sales of the third, also fundamentally different Metal Gear Solid 3, where you, the player, are now in the past, the tech is old and different, changing the game from Pac-Man to something slightly different. Snake is not the same Snake (although he arguably/genetically) is, you now have a camouflage system, you have to eat to maintain stamina, and you have to treat your injuries.

Meanwhile, here comes MGS4. There are some slight gameplay tweaks here and there with octo-camo and the Drebin weapon system, but you’re not doing anything fundamentally different from the past games. You even have a stage where you revisit an old locale. MGS4 suffers because it is too much like the MGS games of the past. Kojima should have continued to grow as he did with MGS3 instead of regressing to the asinine and stupid with monkeys in diapers and god-awful stupid cutscenes. See Rogers’ treatment of the fried egg dilemma in the same review for more on that.

“…the (seemingly) hour-long sequence in which Ninja Raiden Riverdance-Duels a gay vampire in order to buy Snake, Otacon, and their pet robot enough time to escape from the hell of South America via helicopter is a chief offender: look at those moves! The moment we, as a “player”, behold a scene in a “videogame” and think “Man, someone should make a videogame out of that”, the ghost is essentially given up.”

Also (mostly) a first for MGS4 is the sequence where we cannot control Snake’s (or Raiden’s) bad-assery. The only notably awesome action sequences outside of MGS4 I can think of that we did not, in fact, get to control happen in Twin Snakes (this was widely hated) and in MGS3 in one scene. There is ONE scene in MGS3 where Snake beats up on the Ocelots with CQC. Every other time Snake tries to be fancy with CQC in a cutscene, The Boss, Volgin, whomever, seriously kicks his ass and makes him look like a moron. EVERY OTHER TIME. The player should not ever wish to control a cutscene in a game. Games are created to allow us to control the cutscenes. This is the failure of Quick Time Events too, in my opinion. Too much abstraction involved with making the protagonist look amazing.

“Eventually, the game turned us off to the concept of entertainment in general. Eventually, the game makes us start drinking.”

While MGS4 was, by and large, a disappointment to me as I became a victim to hype and high expectations resulting from playing MGS3, it is not this bad. It’s got its rough edges and, as Rogers loves to state in his review, the cutscenes are a train wreck of awkward acting and dialogue that would make almost anyone embarrassed to be seen playing the game (I’m looking at you Johnny…while I’m at it, you too stupid monkey in diapers), but I still stand by my review stating that you should play it. I’m pretty sure that my review was full of disappointment over finishing a great series off with less of a bang, but more than a whimper, it’s definitely worth a play.

(Just when you thought they were over, welcome to another MGS-full post)

You Can Quote Me On That: Tim Rogers
Aug 23rd, 2008 by Dan

If you know me or read this site regularly, you know that I’m a huge fan of Tim Rogers of ActionButton.net. I don’t universally agree with him, but I do universally love how the things he says about game design and video games in general make me think critically about games both as entertainment, as examples of good design, and even as an art form. Today’s quote isn’t really all that thought-provoking, but it does bring up a rather good point:

It’s a lot like the iron boots in modern 3D Zelda games: you have these 200kg boots in your inventory; you’re swimming in water; you open the menu and choose to put the boots “on”; you sink to the bottom of the water. Are the boots only heavy when they’re on your feet? (Maybe they’re magical.) It’s not a puzzle; it’s not “thinking”. It’s just “there”.

-Tim Rogers in his Ikaruga review.

Sure, video games do require immense suspension of disbelief and Rogers does harp a lot on modern Zelda and Nintendo design in general, but it’s true when you think about it and pretty funny.

Game Overview: Editorial: Instruction Manuals and In-Game Tutorials
Jun 8th, 2008 by Dan

“It used to be, if you found a key in a Zelda game and you didn’t know what a key did, you were either mentally handicapped or you reached for the instruction manual. I suppose, eventually, someone in Nintendo’s R&D did a big Powerpoint presentation, with the cooperation of a local psychiatrist, proving — quite logically — that people absent-minded enough to forget what a key does have probably also lost both the box and instruction manual of the game they’re playing. As an employee in a videogame company’s marketing division myself, I could put up a convincing presentation to explain that we should probably just explain once what a key does, and then leave it up to these instruction-manual misplacers to either remember that, or figure it out anew. If anyone attacked my views and said that we can’t shut out the morons and the idiots just because most people — not to mention most gamers — aren’t either, I would jump up onto the boardroom table and scream, what the fuck do you do if the person loses the fucking cartridge, huh? What the fuck do you do then! Would you give out a free game and console to a shaky kid who showed up at a game shop and said that first he lost the manual, then the box, then he forgot what keys did, then he lost his lunch money, then he lost the game cartridge, and then his DS? There’s a certain line, separating the place where enough is enough and the place where enough is more than enough, and incessant “You got a key!” messages, as a habit, is at least a couple steps into “more than enough” country.”

-Tim Rogers in his review of The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass

The time: Thanksgiving 2007
The place: My parent’s house out in Florida
The game: Super Mario Galaxy

I may have some of the details wrong, of course, but I distinctly remember the conversation. Shortly after receiving a new game and liberating it from its plastic prison, I immediately popped that sucker into my Wii and started playing the game, eager to see if this was as good as all the critics claimed. Eric saw this and then he asked me a question. “You’re not gonna read the instruction manual first like we always used to?”

I don’t remember if I told him my reasoning or not at that point, but it all boils down to the fact that, after the opening cutscenes have ended, the game explicitly tells me that I can jump by pushing the “A” button. Why should I bother trying to pick up and read the manual to a game when I’m gonna have to learn how to play the game in the opening zone anyway?

Video games weren’t always in such dire straits when it came to hand-holding (I addressed a similar topic, difficulty, not too long ago here). Blame it on the limitations of the medium, but the video games of the past had neither the time nor the desire to try and clue you into the mechanics of the game. Take Tim Rogers’ example of the key in Zelda. Graphics had evolved far enough from the Atari days that we could recognize that Link was picking up keys. They had also evolved enough that a door blocking our path had a keyhole in it, something that most people have the schema in place to understand requires a key to open. There was a counter in the bottom left of the screen and when you used a key on a door, the door permanently opened and the counter performed a little n– (although this may have predated C++…).

As games approach “photo-realism” you can be damn sure that keys look a hell of a lot more like keys. Zelda games are also not shy about the locks they put on their doors: behemoth masses of chains linked to a lock whose size is approximately 1/2 the height of Link himself. As far as I’m concerned, you don’t even need the game to tell you that you’ve picked up a key. Whenever you walk over one for the first time or you get one from a chest, you’re always treated to a scene where Link holds it high over his head. An explanation may be necessary to understand just what a bombchu or hookshot is, but a key? It’s trivial.

Back to game-starting tutorials: it’s not a mystery as to why they have superseded the instruction manual. You think gamers bitch enough about having to read in-game text? Imagine forcing them to :gasp: read a booklet to understand how to move around the map. I can also see the compelling argument that, as a kinetic medium, gameplay is best learned kinetically. It’s one thing to read that to aim in first-person in Metal Gear Solid 3 all I have to do is hold R1 to enter first-person mode, hold L1 (I think) to pull out your weapon in aim mode, and then push Square to fire, all while using L2 and R2 separately to lean left or right, respectively, or both simultaneously to move your first-person view up. It’s another thing entirely to do this properly in the game (I should know…I got my ass handed to me by Olga Gurlukovich the first time I fought her in MGS2). If you think about it, teaching you how to do it while the game is running is brilliant. You not only are learning how to play the game so you don’t throw down the controller and quit in frustration, you’re also getting some practice in.

So, as soon as they could start to fit them in the game, the (oftentimes mandatory) in-game tutorial was born. This was a real bummer for me for two entirely selfish reasons:

1. If I knew how to play a game already (I read the manual, for Christ’s sake, I know how to jump!) I was stuck playing something that counted as a level for the designers that was mega boring and unskippable. Final Fantasy games as early as FF VII mercifully allowed you to skip their materia tutorials and whatnot, but their modern day equivalents like FF X have fully scripted, unskippable tutorial battles! Ten games in and only now do they feel the need to teach me how I should be battling. Really?

2. I loved reading instruction manuals. I can still still remember the (asinine) story of Donkey Kong Country as told by its instruction manual. The epic tale featured a frightened Diddy Kong guarding a treasure trove of bananas before he is beaten up and stuffed in a barrel. That’s all without mentioning the hilarious asides that Cranky Kong tossed into the margins of the manual as he complained about the complexity of modern day games compared to games of his day.

The problem is that I’m in the majority for #1 and the minority for #2. I know too much about games and love stuff like Final Fantasy too much for them to care about annoying me with tutorial battles. They just don’t want to scare away that tiny market fragment that’s never played a Final Fantasy game. As for the second problem, well I like to read and that’s kind of rare in the video game audience. For every one of my friends who loves an epic storyline that you have to read or listen to, I can think of two or three other friends who shudder at the thought cutscenes in general (“Why am I not killing stuff yet?”). Even friends of mine who love reading in their spare time make the distinction that they don’t love to read when they’re playing a video game. Just try and get one of them to have to read an instruction manual before they understand what’s going on in a game and you’ll find yourself minus one game sale.

We mustn’t forget that the instruction manual quality has also been dropping, since no one reads them any more. Why spend extra bucks on a good writer for something that most people aren’t gonna even take out of the game case? Heck, many of them aren’t even in color anymore to cut costs.

I recognize that I’m a part of a dying breed of gamers who used to enjoy instruction manuals. Tim Rogers (boy I bet you’re sick of hearing that name in this blog by now?) is just about the only non-family member I know who loves them too, as evidenced by his spending a whopping three paragraphs and 561 words reminiscing (although some commentors would say droning on) about how much he loves and misses them in his review of Blue Dragon and that’s just the intro; I’m pretty sure he talks about them more in that review. Still, I can’t let go of them and I hope they one day return to their former glory.

Unfortunately, with the advent of digital distribution, I’m pretty sure we can kiss the instruction manual goodbye. When your game doesn’t even have to be physically put into a box, you can be damn sure that most won’t even bother with a .pdf to explain game mechanics when they can just do it in-game. Here’s to hoping that in-game tutorials stop sucking some day soon. Whether they’re just too damn long like GTA IV (5-10 hours in and STILL doing tutorial missions) or too damn boring like Super Mario Galaxy (“Press A to jump!”), they can still use some major tweaking.

Game Overview: 16-Bit All-Stars
Jun 6th, 2008 by Dan

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.

In keeping with past conventions, you’ve just received your hint as to what my number three game is: The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past.

(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.

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