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About a week into January of 2010 Eric found and installed one of the best wordpress plugins I’ve ever seen, WordPress.com Stats. Thanks to that, I’ve got some performance numbers for the site to share.
Remixed Objection, No Yakuza 3?, L4D2 (Again), and Pokémon Cosplay [Game Overview] (1,182)
I know precisely why this link is top of the list. It features a stunning picture of Jessica Nigri very liberally cosplaying a Pikachu. It seems sex sells. Surprise!
Great Dwarf Fortress Stories [PC] (412)
There’s a rather large gap between #1 and #2, but it’s thanks to Dwarf Fortress’ niche status that anything Eric or I post on the topic gets consistent hits. It seems not many other sites cover it, but people regularly look for info.
The Villains of Final Fantasy Week 11 [Game Overview] (404)
My most popular villain feature isn’t FF VII it’s an MMO that I never played and did a rather half-hearted job writing about? Weird.
The Villains of Final Fantasy Week 10 [Game Overview] (355)
Considering how popular FF X is, I’m not that surprised.
Mother 3 Review [Big N] (313)
This is my proudest part of the top five. I spent a lot of time on this review and I’m glad so many are finding it.
Otakon gets high on the list thanks to its cosplay pictures (some of which also feature hotties) while Scott Pilgrim benefits from internet popularity.
Now for the big announcement:
2010 Hit Totals By Month
I honestly never expected so many people to see my random ramblings and I’m quite proud. I think October stands out as hit leader thanks to all of the cosplay pictures being used for costume ideas. Wow, 32k hits. The gauntlet has been thrown, 2011. Can you beat this?
You may notice some games that are missing from this list and are on every other list. Well, I didn’t play everything because I didn’t have the time or the money, so that accounts for some of the big misses like Pyschonauts or Resident Evil 4. Other games are deliberately omitted :cough: HALO :cough:
This list is also way long, but I didn’t want to limit myself to an arbitrary number like 10 or 20, so here it is:
Half-Life 2 (2004, 2006 – Episode 1, 2007 – Episode 2)
There are two divergent paths for shooters in the aughts. Halo and Half-Life. In the first corner you’ve got everything on the consoles since then: Regenerating health, aim assist, silly physics, and general jackassery. In the better corner you’ve got everything that’s come out of Half-Life and the Source engine: more realistic weaponry, realistic physics, and a much better legacy. Say what you will about the future of shooters and the PC market being antiquated, but this is a damn good shooter. I’d call it the best I’ve ever played. Valve has completely mastered the art of environmental storytelling and player manipulation. They can make you look where they want you to look and feel what they want you to feel all without ever wresting control from the player or relying on cutscenes. This game has brilliant pacing and amazing characters that you actually care about. Who’s ever heard of an NPC sidekick that you don’t hate? H-L 2 and its episodes are among the greatest gaming experiences I’ve ever had.
Rock Band 2 (2008)
Ok, so rhythm games are kind of saturated now, but Rock Band 2 is the pinnacle (only because The Beatles: Rock Band doesn’t let players bring their dlc in) of music gaming. It hits at just the right sweet spot, four players, and its filled with music from all kinds of genres. Better yet, the interface and note tracking isn’t sloppy like that other franchise and it’s a fantastic way to get people together for a fun time and even grow as a person. It’s probably the game I’ve played the most since 2008 and a ridiculously fun time.
Left 4 Dead (2008) and Left 4 Dead 2 (2009)
There are a lot of Valve games on this list. The Left 4 Dead series is on it because it has done cooperative, first-person multiplayer right in a way I’ve yet to see done better elsewhere. Everything about these games is top notch, tons of fun, and worth returning to time and time again. Beyond the mechanics, the games also feature great environmental storytelling and fantastic voice acting putting it at the top of my list for the best games of the past two years. Zombies may be getting old, but this series will always feel fresh.
Jonathan Blow didn’t revolutionize video gaming when he released Braid last summer. What he did do was bring indie games (and XBL games, in general) firmly into the spotlight for consideration. A self-funded and self-made game, Braid proved that one man (and one hired artist) could still create a top-notch, professional caliber game. Braid is deep and complex and tons of fun to play, especially when you’ve figured out a tricky puzzle.
Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney (2005)
OBJECTION! This game should be higher on the list. Overruled, this list has no numerical ordering.
The Japanese sensation that brought visual novels and a resurgence in adventure games to America may have a niche audience and play real loose with the legal system of the real world, but it’s tons of fun. Just think quirky anime and you’ll get the idea of what playing this game is like. It just feels right to present a damning piece of evidence while Phoenix screams OBJECTION!
Shadow of the Colossus (2005)
I have yet to beat Shadow of the Colossus, but I absolutely love what I’ve played so far. Ueda is among the genius game designers in how well he understands presentation. The game world feels absolutely empty, as it should. All you come across, as the player, are the giant Colossi and man, they are wild. Each one is a dungeon/level to itself and the player is tasked with taking them down to save his love. But what have these giants done to you? Each one I take down makes me feel sad inside and a little empty. I usually find myself thinking What have I done? What did he ever do to me? The best art makes you think.
Final Fantasy XII (2006)
I had my choice of any Final Fantasy game between 9 and 12 for this spot, but I really couldn’t go with anything but the best. X was definitely a close second, but there are just so many things that XII did right in its evolution of the series that I couldn’t pick anything else. Maybe it’s because I’m in love with the world of Ivalice, but everything about this game just grabs me in a way I hadn’t been grabbed since VI. Maybe it was because I wasn’t being assaulted by too many belt buckles and leather by Nomura. It was probably because the story was mature, the characters way less annoying than before, and the battle system was finally revamped and moved into the 21st century. In any case, the best FF game of the decade.
Portal really does everything right. The game gets you acquainted with its mechanics quickly, gets you doing neat things with them right away, and then finishes up with a climactic and cool boss fight all comfortably within the span of 5-8 hours, if you’re slow. With mechanics and dialogue that are beyond brilliant, the only thing that could make this great game better would be to give it a hilarious end credit song penned by Jonathan Coulton. Oh wait, you’ve gone and done that already, haven’t you Valve? Bravo.
Burnout Paradise (2008)
Realistic racing games are kind of boring to me. Until Burnout Paradise, I would have said that I only enjoyed Mario Kart games, and those were starting to wear on me too. Then Criterion put out the first open-world racing game (that I can think of). Burnout Paradise would be tons of fun if all we had to do was run into walls and other cars. The fact that the game is so easy to get online and play (and purchasable as a digital download on the PSN) is brilliant and makes for tons of fun.
Mass Effect (2007)
Shepard. Wrex. It’s brilliant. It really is. Hard science fiction is always tons of fun to me, but when you go and flesh out this world to the nth degree, you’ve got me drooling already. Add in characters I genuinely cared about and enjoyed having in my party and a morality system that was finally free of cheap moral choices and I’d say that Bioware had a genuine hit on their hands. I anxiously await the sequel in January.
Eternal Darkness (2002)
I’m really not a big scary games guy. It’s simple: I’m too jumpy and I’ve got an overactive imagination. Those things don’t combine to make a pleasant gaming experience. Now you want me to play a game that’s actively trying to mess with my head to freak me the hell out? I’d normally say “No thanks,” but I was eventually convinced to try this Lovecraftian horror game and I found myself loving it. The plot is interesting and the characters are neat, but the insanity effects are what stick with me to this day. I can still see that image of Alex lying dead in a bathtub filled with her own blood when I think about it and it still gives me the chills.
New Super Mario Bros. Wii (2009)
You know what? I really loved the old-school Mario games. Those 3D ones are way too easy. This game does it right. What makes it even more awesome is that you can play it with four dudes, making it both infinitely harder and easier while also making it more fun and frustrating. Use the multiplayer mode at your own risk, it may start fights.
Rhythm Heaven (2009)
Scratch-O, HA! The Rhythm Heaven (Paradise in Europe) series is loosely based on the bizarre Wario world, which is totally obvious after three minutes of play, which is great, because that series is brilliant (if stale by now) too. This game features simple rhythm mini-games, but man are they fun AND catchy. As I write this I’ve got the Moai statue song stuck in my head. Go play this.
Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater (2004, Subsistence – 2006)
I love this game. MGS 2 may be the biggest practical joke (and most significant of the four), but this is undoubtedly the best. The epic cycle of the Metal Gear universe is made clear in this game that does its best to subvert war in every way possible. I do truly find it significant that in a Cold War game focused on stealth action, you can make it through from start to finish without killing one person. Well, almost. Metal Gear Solid 3 is almost heartbreaking when you play it non-violently and the ending still has a strong effect on me to this day. Definitely Kojima’s finest work.
World of Warcraft (2004)
I would give anything to get the time I spent playing this game back, but I definitely can’t deny how truly great it is. We’re talking about a bona fide phenomenon here. The absolute refinement of social engineering to such a degree that escape is nearly futile. Blizzard has truly outdone itself with this one.
Team Fortress 2 (2007)
What a surprise, more Valve. The Orange Box was a groundbreaking offering in value and Team Fortress 2 continues to be a huge part of that. I bought this game at launch back in 2007. Since then they have added achievements for nearly every class, new weapons for nearly every class, new game types and maps, hats, and an item crafting system. I’ve never seen so much free support for a game in my life. It’s no reason that Valve is my favorite developer of all time. They really know how to treat their customers and put out a great game.
The Sims 2 (2004)
Yes, I did create Sims of my friends and family. You’d better believe I killed some of them, turned one into a vampire, another into a werewolf, one into a zombie, and bargained with death to revive another. The Sims certainly don’t feel as relevant as they did at the start of this decade, but man were they a success and tons of fun. Sure, I should feel a little guilty that I spent so much time in what amounts to a digital dollhouse, but I really don’t. It was fun.
Super Smash Bros. Brawl (2008)
If you don’t think that this is the best in the series, you’re wrong and you’re clinging to the past. Tons of characters, great level design, fantastic music, and all the right refinements to the battle system are what makes this great. The fact that I can listen to Snake Eater or the Love Theme from Mother 3 is just icing on the cake.
The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker (2003)
Insert another credit, because it’s time for your weekly video game news and you’ve just hit the Game Overview screen.
With every Final Fantasy game there exists great (and not so great) teams of heroes bent on saving the world from some sort of evil force. While we could take a look at those heroes, let’s instead take a look at the evils that motivate these heroes to do what they do.
It should be noted that this feature will be full of spoilers.
Week 1 – Garland
Week 2 – Emperor Mateus of Palamecia
Week 3 – The Cloud of Darkness
Week 4 – Zeromus
Week 5 – Exdeath
Week 6 – Kefka
Week 7 – Sephiroth
Week 8 – Ultimecia
Week 9 – Necron
Week 10 – Yu Yevon/Jecht/Sin
Week 10-2 – Shuyin
Week 11 – Shadow Lord, Eald’narche, Promathia, and Alexander
Well, we’re finally here at the last after 27 weeks, just a few more than I intended to have pass while working on this feature. We’ve seen demented, sociopathic evil itself in the form of a clown and we’ve seen evil just seeming to throw a tantrum for no good reason. Witches, effeminate men, and one too many generic forces of evil have made up this motley crew and at last we arrive at the last of them: The Undying.
The story of XII is a complex fabric of political intrigue and manipulations. Of kingdoms ruined by backstabbings, heroes whose names are sullied, and, pretty much, a David vs. Goliath story underlying the whole thing.
The antagonist, although not really an antagonist, is a mixture of Venat and Vayne Solidor. The former an Occurian who believed that the races of Ivalice should choose their own fate, while the latter was a power hungry Hume seeking to control the world. Venat’s manipulations might have been in the world’s best interests, but he often caused death and destruction to meet his goals. Once they were fulfilled, he seemed to dissipate, but the residual energy merged with Vayne to create an enemy of extreme power that had to be dispatched.
Defeating The Undying allowed peace to finally return to Ivalice, at least until the events leading up to FF Tactics start to unfold…
Caused death and destruction on a worldwide scale, but half of him was doing it for the good of the races of Ivalice. +7 for trying, -4 for wanting to be a good guy.
Vayne’s kind of a girly man, so -2, but Venat’s title is Venat the Heretic! That’s pretty darn cool. Plus he just wanted us to have control of our destiny +8.
Images and Video:
Venat the Heretic
Final Boss Sequence:
Week 1 – Garland
Week 2 – Emperor Mateus of Palamecia
Week 3 – The Cloud of Darkness
Week 4 – Zeromus
Week 5 – Exdeath
Week 6 – Kefka
Week 7 – Sephiroth
Week 8 – Ultimecia
Week 9 – Necron
Week 10 – Yu Yevon/Jecht/Sin
Last game was the first to bring voice acting to the series, but it also had another important distinction: the first direct sequel. Love it or hate it, the J-Pop fueled, girl power infused Final Fantasy X-2 will always be an important milestone in Final Fantasy history. In fact, one could claim that its success directly led to the Japanese sequel to Final Fantasy IV, creatively titled Final Fantasy IV the After: Tsuki no Kikan and other story continuing side games for Final Fantasy VII and Final Fantasy XII.
Unfortunately for gamers, FF X-2 was a strange take on Final Fantasy X, with a mission structure and an all-girl cast that just oozed fan service, especially when changing “dress spheres.” It also featured many directly recycled assets from Final Fantasy X, making the game seem like a tired retread of ground already coverred. However, the lame sounding, but fun dress sphere system along with a new Active Time Battle system made for a game that was fun to play, at the very least.
The events of X-2 are set in motion by a sphere containing video that just might be of Tidus. Yuna can’t let this go, so the game’s main questline begins. It turns out that this video is not Tidus, but a dude from the past by the name of Shuyin who Tidus was based on in that whole confusing Zanarkand dream world created by the Fayth. Shuyin had a bit of a problem, he was dating a girl who was a summoner, which wouldn’t be all that bad if his country wasn’t at war and she wasn’t called to the front lines. It gets even worse when she gets captured as a POW and he’s gotta figure out something to do to save her.
Shuyin’s brilliant idea, the Vegnagun, the even more brilliant weapon of the opposing forces designed, for some ingenious reason, to attack indiscriminately, killing friend and foe alike. Turns out this weapon has an even more intelligent weapon attached to it as well, one capable of destorying the entire world. His girlfriend, Lenne, convinces him not to destroy the world and they both get shot.
We get to the present and Shuyin’s possessed some modern dude and he’s trying to destroy Spira with the Vegnagun cause he’s sad. That’s pretty much it.
Emo != Evil. Never managed to kill anyone, but rather to get himself and his girlfriend killed.
He looks just like Tidus (-5). He plays Blitzball (-2). He got his girlfriend killed (-3). I can’t go negative (-0)
SPOILER ALERT: This review may contain story spoilers. Read at your own risk!
Sakaguchi’s new company Mistwalker has had its share of problems. For very perplexing reasons they chose to chiefly develop for the Xbox 360 with side development on the Nintendo DS. As a result, nothing they make for the home console, no matter how good, will ever sell all that well in their home country. His first 360 game, Blue Dragon, sold 200,000 copies in Japan, which may sound good at first, but when you look at Final Fantasy XII’s two million sales in Japan, a whole order of magnitude more, it suddenly doesn’t seem like Sakaguchi is getting a fair shake. In fact, both Blue Dragon and Lost Odyssey are no better or worse than a typical Square Enix game, but their sales are typically much lower, with Lost Odyssey only selling around 100,000 in the Land of the Rising Sun.
So now that I’ve more or less made it clear that LO is about as good as any Final Fantasy game, lets delve a bit deeper into it, because there are some differentiating aspects that actually out-Final-Fantasy Final Fantasy.
Some of the greatest buzz about the release of Lost Odyssey revolved around the fact that its story was penned by the famed novelist Kiyoshi Shigematsu. You’d be correct to be skeptical about this, bringing in outside, famous talent does not make a great story by default. So, does it fall flat on its face? Yes and no. The actual, plot-driven story is nothing you haven’t seen before. It’s about as Final Fantasy, clichéd of a story as you can find with an evil retainer, sorcerer dude who takes over a country, blah blah blah. I was able to predict most of the twists, which was disappointing, but there the real allure to the story comes from two things: the permise and the short stories.
Let’s start with the premise:
The main character, Kaim, is an immortal. He’s been around, as of the start of the game, for a thousand years. This factors into gameplay in a rather neat way, but also makes Kaim and his fellow immortals very compelling characters (unfortunately the only ones of the bunch). Kaim also suffers from amnesia (ugh…RPG cliché #1), but this actually informs and enhances our brand new gameplay mechanic: short stories.
What happens when you have an author write your story? You end up with short stories in your game. Depending on what part of the game you are in and what part of the map you walk by, you will trigger one of Kaim’s lost memories. These play out as breaks in gameplay as you read these expertly written short stories illustrating the various themes of the game. This is basically hell for gamers like my buddy Phil who hate gameplay interruptions like cutscenes, but for me these great little stories really flesh out the characters that would otherwise be pretty generic.
Lost Odyssey succeeds because its storytelling methods are so innovative and far-reaching. While the plot itself and its resolution is more or less mundane, the idea that these characters have literally been around for a thousand years and bring with them maturity and characterization to go with it makes for a satisfying experience.
Something should be said about the non-immortal cast though. Aside from Jansen, the rogue-ish comic relief (in personality, not in class. He’s a black mage), the mortal characters range from lame to downright irritating. The wonder twins, clear ripoffs of Palom and Porom from Final Fantasy IV, are the spunky girl that we’ve seen way too often and the shy, quiet, ANNOYING boy that comes from anime. Tolten is the whiny, un-confident, whiny (it needs to be said twice) king-in-training and Sed is just the uninspired grizzled old guy, although he’s the best of the riffraff.
This isn’t anything that radically different from any other turn-based RPG. You have the usual spells and techniques, with two small wrinkles.
The first of these gameplay differences comes from equippable rings. These rings that you equip can add effects to your attacks, from added effectiveness to enemy types to elements or status effects. In order to activate these effects, you must hold a trigger and time the intersection of two rings. Perfect alignment leads to higher damage or more probable status effects.
Immortals make up the next significant gameplay change. Since none of the immortals can die, according to the story, none of them can really die in battle either. If an enemy manages to fell one of your immortal characters, they will go down for about two turns, then automatically resurrect with close to half of their health. If everyone in your party happens to be down at the same time, you do lose the battle, but it’s a pretty nice to know that if an immortal goes down you can just wait it out. Tied into the immortal system is the way that skills are allocated to immortals. Partying with mortals allows immortals to “Skill Link” and learn the specialty skills of the rest of their party. These skills can then be implemented by the immortals at any time once learned, even if the mortals aren’t in the battle with them.
Like I said earlier, everything else is what you’d expect from a turn-based RPG, no surprises there.
If you thought that Sakaguchi did some beautiful work on the PS2, you ain’t seen nothing yet. The second of his 360 RPGs and the first to feature more realistic characters (Blue Dragon’s characters were more anime-like, created by Akira Toriyama), Lost Odyssey is about the most gorgeous game I’ve ever seen. I just got a hold of a new, large, 1080p-capable television, and let me tell you, it looks fantastic. Let me also say that it’s not perfect, especially due to the Unreal engine that’s so in vogue nowadays.
As an Unreal engine game, Lost Odyssey suffers from most of the same shortcomings of other games of its type. Load times are long, framerates are far, FAR from stable. The game frequently stutters and is sometimes unstable. In my 60 to 70 hours of gameplay, I had the game freeze on me at least twice. The beauty and flexibility of the Unreal engine comes at a real price, but at least its not like the typical dark, drab, brown shooters mostly put on the Unreal engine, there are some genuinely bright and colorful vistas and locales.
A close friend of Sakaguchi, Nobuo Uematsu composed the themes and music of Lost Odyssey, but he doesn’t do anything super-special in the score for this game. In fact, it’s more or less a forgettable soundtrack that I mostly kept turned down in favor of listening to my own music. Everything else is pretty crisp and clear, but the English voice cast is pretty boring and annoying. Lucky for you and anyone in auditory range, you can elect to listen to the Japanese voice cast, but you end up with odd lip syncing and subtitling since they are aligned to the English vocal track, not the Japanese one. This is disappointing to be in both video games and anime, since it means the subs cater to the dubs, meaning they aren’t translations, but transcriptions. The difference is subtle, but, like I said, disappointing.
Final Fantasy XII was a pretty far departure from the typical Final Fantasy fare, with real-time combat, a different loot system, and a shift away from the more recent Final Fantasy narrative style. In a sense, Lost Odyssey is the true Final Fantasy XI. If that’s what you’re looking for, pick this game up. The concept and characterization of the immortals is spot on and the short stories really do flesh out the game’s story and make it stand apart. Lost Odyssey isn’t going to blow you away with its gameplay and story, it’s just gonna fill that RPG-shaped hole in your heart, especially if you only own an Xbox. While a bit lengthy for a rental, it’s more or less a one-playthrough event, so rent or buy used if this sounds appealing. It’s definitely a good game that’s worth playing if you can get your hands on it and love JRPGS.
Our continuing examination of the best games of the post 16-bit, pre-current gen, we will be looking at two PS2 RPGs that I particularly enjoyed.
Our first game was a groundbreaking collaboration between two entirely unrelated, gigantic companies that were leaders in their industry. What resulted was a great game that wasn’t quite simple or clean, but was surprisingly interesting and fun despite its flaws. That’s right, the game is the multi-million-selling Squaresoft and Disney collaboration, Kingdom Hearts.
Runner-Up: Kingdom Hearts
Let’s get the cons out of the way right off the bat. Kingdom Hearts has a flawed camera system, the Disney planets and story sections are particularly uninteresting, and the Gummi Ship missions are pretty lame. Two of the three of these issues were addressed in the sequel (I’ll let you guess which ones), but the sequel just lacked the charm and appeal of the first release.
So what was good about Kingdom Hearts? Surprisingly enough, the formula works really well. Who could have EVER imagined that teaming up a Nomura-designed character with Donald Duck and Goofy would result in a game worth playing? The game is essentially constructed to make fanboys squeal with delight, with cameos from Final Fantasy VII, VIII, and X, moogles, and a bevy of popular Disney characters. Again, for some odd reason, the fact that these characters interact with each other like nothing was strange about meeting each other just works.
Gameplay revolves around solving, more or less, the plots of several Disney movies as you visit each planet. In many cases, the planet you visit will have a Disney protagonist like Aladdin or Beast to join your party. These guys are usually pretty strong, but using them is kind of a waste since Goofy and Donald are part of your party for more of the game, so leveling them up should take precedence. Battle is handled in real-time, with Goofy and Donald being controlled by the game’s AI, while Sora’s attacks and magic are handled by you.
The story is actually somewhat basic. Great evil is consuming the worlds that each of the characters are from. The Heartless (beings who have no heart, makes sense, no?) are the planet destroyers and they manage to reach Sora’s world. Sora’s girlfriend of sorts, Kairi, is kidnapped by this evil and Riku seems to join the Heartless.
At the end of the day, Sora’s story is way more interesting than the Disney stories and it left one of those “Wow, that was cool” impressions on me back four years ago when I first played it.
If you’ve never gotten around to beating Kingdom Hearts, get to it!
Here are the intros to the first and second game in the languages I prefer them in:
The last game we will be examining today actually had characters in Kingdom Hearts. If you’ve been paying any attention to which Final Fantasy games I like and dislike, then you already know, by process of elimination, that we’re about to talk about Final Fantasy X.
Runner-Up: Final Fantasy X
A lot of firsts hit when Final Fantasy X landed on US shores. It was the first Final Fantasy on the PS2, first Final Fantasy without a world map to traverse, and, most importantly, the first voice-acted Final Fantasy game. I don’t think anyone’s gonna argue with me that the voice they chose for Tidus does kind of wear on you a little bit. Some of the acting is a little wooden too (See the “laughing” scene…that one hurts to this day. Also see “I hate you” at the end. There was supposed to be emotion there, but I just found myself laughing my ass off.), but, overall, the voice actors they chose were top notch and quite good. My favorite of the bunch was Wakka, but that might be because he’s essentially a water polo player…
A lot of what I particularly like about FFX comes from the small things they did to revitalize the series. Squaresoft eschewed the active time battle system in this iteration in favor of a pure, turn-based system that, awesomely, allowed you to swap in party members on the fly during any turn of battle with no turn penalty. Since every party member who completed at least one action in battle received experience points for the battle, this little system allowed me to swap in a whole party in each battle, prolonging the battle, to be sure, but also ensuring that my party remained balanced and usable in any situation where a swap was required.
Coupled in with the radical new way to earn XP was a radical new way to level, the Sphere Grid. Each party member started on a particular spot of an epic, sprawling array of stat bonuses, new moves, and locked paths. While each path initially shoehorned your character into a set “class” of the olden Final Fantasy days, you were able to use those locked paths to branch your characters out and increase the variety present in each of the characters. In fact, a devoted enough player could have a full cast of characters with all of the Sphere Grid slots unlocked with the only real differences between characters being Overdrive attacks (like Limit Breaks or Desperation Moves).
The Sphere Grid far trumps the License Board of Final Fantasy XII, IMHO, solely because it forced more differences among your party, at least at the start of the game, instead of the homogeneous party of adventurers that I ended up with in FF XII. Turn-based battles are also strategically more fun than ATB battles, but can sometimes be more boring since there is no pressing need to complete an action.
After a series of stories that I will only go so far as to call disappointing in the four preceding Final Fantasy games, Final Fantasy X made major leaps in storyline maturity. Gone were the silent, emo protagonists of VII and VIII, back was someone who wasn’t super-damn depressing to control, even if his voice actor was obnoxious. The party was pretty varied and mostly fleshed out (I’m looking at you Lulu and Kimahri…who the hell are you guys and why don’t your stories really matter?) and rather interesting all at the same time, particularly Rikku, Auron, and Wakka. The drama of the summoner’s quest and the ultimate sacrifice they must make to stop Sin, coupled with the intrigue of just how Tidus ended up in Spira really carry this story and make it really interesting. So interesting that it garnered a rather…lackluster sequel, but still a first for a Final Fantasy game.
Final Fantasy X isn’t the best of the series nor is it second best (I like VI and IV more), but something about it just clicked for me when I played it. XII, while I do believe it has a more interesting cast and even more interesting story, just doesn’t execute either well and just falls short of PS2 greatness, in my opinion. Let’s hope that XIII brings back some of that VI spirit to revive a series that has been in somewhat of a same-y slump in its more recent outings. They’re already making some efforts to differentiate with what seems to be a female protagonist, so my hopes are already higher than usual for a Final Fantasy game.
Watching some of these FF X videos I also noticed that Final Fantasy characters, at least in X, look a lot more realistic and also a lot more Asian than they used to.
Anyway, tune in Thursday for the exciting conclusion to this category’s runner-ups!
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.
You’re playing through an RPG. You’ve gained five levels, found some sweet equipment drops, minimized the use of your precious items, and then it happens. You come up against a behemoth of a monster. Your party is decimated, your progress lost, your controller tossed through the screen.
Does this even begin to sound familiar to anyone? It’s like modern gaming, in an effort to bring in an even broader audience, has started to dumb down our video game experience. Think back to the last four, at the very least, Final Fantasy games (not counting XI). Aside from side quest bosses who are geared to be a challenge, how often did you even find yourself remotely challenged in these games? I honestly don’t think I worried much about save points in any of these games (aside from when I was hunting the harder mobs in XII) at all. There was none of that between-save-point stress and worry that a game with any difficulty might throw at me. I just go on through the game, breezing through the fights and find myself at the final boss, sometimes taking more than one try to kill him, but, more often than not, just breezing through him too.
It’s not just RPGs either. Think back to Mario Galaxy. The only challenge in that game came from the green stars where the developers were given free range to punish players into some of the toughest, most fun challenges possible. Even The Legend of Zelda isn’t safe. The last two console installments, The Wind Waker and Twilight Princess, were among the easiest games I have ever played. Sure, their stories were epic and fun, but the bosses were jokes compared to past Zelda games. They dealt close to no heart damage, they had hyper-predictable patterns, and they were just plain not challenging. I don’t think that I’ve evolved much in skill as a gamer since about the sixth grade and I definitely remember more challenge in both Link’s Awakening and A Link to the Past when I played them (late to the game, I know).
There is hope. Mistwalker’s latest RPG for the Xbox 360, Lost Odyssey, will actually make you hope that a save point is imminent. The enemies will brutalize you if you mess up. It seems odd that I’m actually hoping for a game to punish me for screwing up or not leveling up, but I just can’t take a game that doesn’t even challenge me in the slightest. I consume games mainly for story, this is true, but I don’t want the story-telling to come so easily that I might as well be watching a movie or reading a book. It can get frustrating when a game is difficult because it’s broken or the computer cheats :cough: Mario Kart Wii :cough:, but it’s also tremendously satisfying to spend an hour bashing your head against the wall trying to defeat a boss only to finally get it down and win with just a sliver of health left.
This is why I look forward to the day when I will be able to devote more time to Persona 3: FES. The short time I spent with the game already almost beat me in a random encounter and I’m sure that an actual boss will own me several times. I fully believe that a game should punish you for making a mistake and I already know from experience that Persona will wail on me for being an idiot.
There’s certainly a market for casual games and casual gamers out there, one only needs to look to the Wii to see that fact with obvious clarity, but surely it wouldn’t be too difficult for developers to go out and actually make a game tough for players. The inclusion of difficulty levels, even with the fact that it means more work, will satisfy me. Here’s hoping that we see harder games in the future.