Saturday, February 28, 2009

The Essentials #18: The Legend of Zelda: Four Swords Adventures

I must confess that I've never been a huge fan of the Zelda series. If that invalidates everything I've ever had to say about video games, then so be it, and please move along. Personally, I've always found them too open-ended for my tastes. Getting to the fun of them requires that the player be adventurous and self-motivated, and that's really not the sort of experience I look for when I play video games. I usually turn to video games as an escape, not just from the setting of real life, but from the listlessness of the everyday, and, for relief, I tend to prefer more structured and linear affairs, where the goal is specified before the journey even begins. That said, I still have a lot of respect for the series and how consistently well it succeeds according to its own aims. I keep telling myself that, one of these days, I'm going to marathon all of the main installments, since, despite not having played most of them, I do have access to all of them, in one form or another.

The one installment that I did play all the way through and thoroughly enjoy was The Legend of Zelda: Four Swords Adventures for the Nintendo GameCube. Released in 2004, Four Swords Adventures was the sequel to 2002's Four Swords, which had originally been a bonus game bundled on the Game Boy Advance on the same cartridge as the GBA port of A Link to the Past. Like the first Four Swords, Four Swords Adventures was a cooperative multiplayer take on the conventional 2-D top-down formula of the classic Zelda titles.

The game was aesthetically evocative of the 16-bit A Link to the Past, the most celebrated of the 2-D Zelda titles, but it actually featured a redone Link sprite, with smoother animations, moves, and sound effects inspired by the character's then current The Wind Waker GameCube incarnation. On his quest through such familiar locales as Death Mountain and the Lost Woods, Link could collect the usual Zelda items, such as the bow and arrow, bombs, and the boomerang to help him combat the various Octoroks and Tektites.

In terms of structure, it was, to my delight, a much more directed affair than previous Zelda titles. Rather than supplying a unified overworld, the episodic "Hyrulean Adventure" campaign was divided into a linear series of self-contained stages. The change in format was surely necessitated by the new multiplayer focus, as, while the more open-world design of the traditional titles could provide intensely personal experiences of exploration, shorter segments of action tend to be better-suited for multiplayer sessions.

The multiplayer mode utilized the same unlikely hardware setup as Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles, requiring each of up to four players to have a GBA and a GameCube-Game Boy Advance Cable allowing the handheld to function as a controller with a built-in second screen. Most of the action took place on the GameCube screen, and players would only turn to the GBA when they ventured off the main map, such as when they entered a cave or traveled into the Dark World.

This two-screen setup formed the basis of many of the game's more inspired puzzles. Most memorably, I recall one clever arrangement that required a player to hit an off-screen target using the bow and arrow. From the shooter's position, the target could not actually be seen, so another player would have to separately enter an adjacent cave that provided a side view of the target and shot on the GBA screen. From there, the "spotter," as it were, would then have to direct the sniper's aim, telling them to move to a higher or lower position as needed.

Moments like that made a far more compelling case for connectivity than anything in Crystal Chronicles, but they were arguably still just tricks, and the co-op gameplay of Four Swords Adventures, rooted as it was in the fundamentally brilliant single-player Zelda design, would have been superb even without them.

Far from being a hack-and-slash, Hyrulean Adventure featured remarkably varied gameplay and objectives. There was a stealth stage, for example, where the Links had to avoid spotlights while infiltrating Hyrule Castle. As a Metal Gear veteran, I felt confident in my sneaking abilities, but, I must confess, my lust for treasure made me easy prey for one particular trap, as, in my careless pursuit of a normal-looking but conspicuously placed chest, I ended up triggering an alarm that, aside from screwing over my team, earned me the ire of my fellow Links. The game also brought the always popular horseback riding to 2-D, and players would eventually come upon "Tingle's Tower," where the creepy fairy-like man would invite them to participate in races, among other amusing mini-games. Finally, there were the fantastic boss battles, including the last fight, which, in multiplayer, played out like a cooperative variation on "hot potato."

As much as it emphasized cooperation, however, the campaign also encouraged a somewhat cutthroat competitive aspect, as, at the end of every stage, the game would calculate who collected the most Force Gems, who defeated the most enemies, and who died the most. In games with three or four players, players would also be asked to vote for which of their friends had been the most helpful and which had been the least, and those secret ballots could factor crucially into the final tally. As a basic rule, players who greedily hogged all the Force Gems during the stage were not likely to win a lot of votes in their favor from their comrades at the end of the stage.

Unlike the original Four Swords, the campaign in Four Swords Adventure could still be enjoyed in single-player, in the likely event that one couldn't wrangle up any friends with GBAs and connectivity cables. Regardless of the number of players, there would always be four Links, and the extra Links could be directed to form up for combat or to get in position for puzzles of the typical multi-switch variety. For the trickier puzzles, such as the aforementioned bow and arrow one, the single player would have to switch off between Links.

In addition to the main campaign, Four Swords Adventure also included "Shadow Battle," a competitive arena mode, where up to four players battled one another to the last man, or until time expired. Items would pop up to spice things up, but the still simple mechanics of the combat didn't lend the mode much longevity.

While I more fondly remember Crystal Chronicles for being a much weightier and more epic experience, I would argue that Four Swords Adventures was more mechanically inventive and elegantly designed. But the two were not really competitors. Rather, they together made the case for Nintendo's connectivity experiment, though, evidently, not strongly enough, as Four Swords Adventures would end up being the last of only three titles to be specifically built around use of the GC-GBA Cable, the other one being Pac-Man vs., a much smaller affair that required only one GBA. While Four Swords Adventures and Crystal Chronicles were excellent games, both among my best experiences on the GameCube, a mere two titles perhaps could not justify for most players the steep expense of the complicated setup. I can't imagine a DS port or sequel would be too difficult to produce, however, and I'd personally rather play that over most of the co-op games available on that or any system.

Additional Information

In addition to Hyrulean Adventure and Shadow Battle, the Japanese release also included a third mode, "Navi's Trackers," which was originally slated to appear in the English versions as "Tetra's Trackers." In the mode, players apparently competed in a timed treasure hunt, while Tetra from The Wind Waker narrated the action.

Supposedly, the mode was cut from the English releases due to difficulties in translating the play-by-play audio, which could identify players by the two-character names they themselves provided. Since the Japanese language is based on a syllabary, with each hiragana or katakana character representing one vowel or consonant-vowel syllable, the game's real-time speech generator could pronounce players' names with little difficulty. The more complex phonetic structures of English would probably have required an impossibly more sophisticated input mechanism to avoid mangling renderings and pronunciations of names. A common name like "Henry," for example, while only two syllables, would require three characters ("he" + "n" + "ri") to render in Japanese script, making it impossible to input via the two-character system of the game.

I don't see why they couldn't have just switched to generic references, such as "Player 1" and "Player 2," but, without having played the mode, I don't know how much of a draw the feature was. Perhaps it was the main and only attraction of the mode. Still, I personally suspect it was more likely a case of Nintendo being conservative as usual when it comes to the localization budget.

Friday, February 27, 2009

The Score

About a year ago at work, I happened to overhear a pair of gamer co-workers excitedly discussing then upcoming releases. They were young guys about my age, and, from their dialogue, I was able to determine that they were fairly informed hobbyists, who spent a lot of time playing video games, but maybe didn't play a large number or variety of titles. One of them was telling the other of his intention to pick up EA's Army of Two during lunch break. He had been anticipating the game's release for some time, and it had just arrived in stores that very day. As it turned out, I was not the only one listening in; at that point, a female co-worker, mid-thirties, apparently felt compelled to toss her hat into the ring.

"Army of Two?" she inquired. "My boyfriend said he's not getting that one because it only got a 7. He only gets games that are rated 9 or above."

From previous conversations, I had gathered that the woman's boyfriend was a younger man, about ten years her junior, and a fairly avid gamer. She herself was less so, but she was trying, and, on more than one occasion, she had mentioned enjoying co-op Lego Star Wars on the Wii. During the tense moment of silence that followed her interjection, I pondered the circumstances under which she would have been discussing with her boyfriend what random games he wasn't going to buy and the reasons why not. I concluded that theirs must have been indeed a strong and healthy relationship.

Her comment having drained the conversation of its energy, the man being addressed (accused?) seemed a little taken aback before, at last, he calmly responded, "I've been waiting for this one for a while."

"Oh, no, I didn't mean--," she stammered out apologetically. "I'm sorry. I hope you have fun with it."

But the discussion was not over.

"A lot of games don't get 9s," the man pointed out, his normally collected tone just barely lapsing toward audible defensiveness.

"Yeah, please, let me know if it's good," she said. "My boyfriend's getting Super Smash Bros. That one got a 9. Are you getting it?"


Then the discussion was over.

From my perspective, it was a comically awkward moment that I didn't think too deeply about until, many months later, I myself became engaged in a similarly stupid discussion about video game review scores.

It was around the time that Tecmo released Rygar: The Battle of Argus for the Wii. Reading the reviews, I was disappointed to find that it was merely a port of the PS2 Rygar: The Legendary Adventure from six years ago, with the only obvious changes being, in my opinion, for the worse.

Discussing the sad news with someone who had never played the PS2 Rygar, I pointed out that the original was "actually a really good game." For some reason, I then felt compelled to clarify by calling it a "solid 6/10," which, as it turned out, was a lower score than Nintendo Power's for the Wii release.

Perhaps my statements appeared in contradiction with one another, and one conclusion was that I simply enjoyed crap games. I preferred to think that I had a finer appreciation for titles that had good qualities but that, for various reasons, fell outside the "9 or above" must-play range. It was also likely that I used a different scale than my accuser. I hadn't yet drawn my baseline, so it was presumptuous to assume that a 6/10 to me meant the same as a 6 to Nintendo Power or anyone else. Maybe another player could have liked the game to the same degree, but then given it an 8 instead.

The issue is larger, however, than my two silly anecdotes. On the day of Killzone 2's release on the PS3, there's little escaping the tumult over the game's scores, which, thus far, have been very high, with the notable exception of Edge's 7/10, which has incurred the wrath of legions of PS3 fanboys who seemingly need it to be canonized as the best shooter ever. It may be the most contentious case yet, but this is not the first time the press and the mob have butted heads over game review scores. Concerns over the meaning and value of the standard graduated scoring system have been brewing for a while now, and one would certainly be justified in thinking that a reckoning is in order.

As a mere consumer, albeit a hardcore one, who owns all of the current-gen platforms, I thought I'd give my perspective on the matter. I won't be discussing Killzone 2, because I frankly don't care about the game, nor do I intend to address the Edge review specifically, since I, like most people, haven't actually read it. Rather, I'm just going to record a few thoughts on scores in general.

I personally don't think attaching a number score to a review is a problem in itself. The enthusiast press may resent having to do so, since it potentially encourages busy readers to skip the actual content of the reviews, but, then again, I generally don't think video game reviews should be mistaken for award-winning journalism. People like my female co-worker and her boyfriend, informed but not quite hardcore consumers, just want to know whether they should spend their hard-earned cash on a new game. If a game gets a 9 or above, then that's a strong recommendation. If it gets a 7 or an 8, then more research may be in order, but, for the aforementioned couple, the sensible course is just to go for the 9s first, then worry about the 8s if there is still money left to burn. Of course, other factors, such as genre and age-appropriateness, also play a part, but, generally, for people who don't spend a lot of money or time on games, scores help direct them to the must-have titles which will probably provide as much gaming as they need.

That's what the numbers mean to "informed but not quite hardcore consumers." What do they mean to a "hardcore consumer" like me? Well, scores can affect my buying habits as well, but only under certain conditions. When a game scores significantly higher than I expect, which doesn't happen often, then I become intrigued. Otherwise, I usually know whether or not I want to play a game long before the scores come out. And, yes, sometimes I do knowingly go for the mediocre ones.

Yet it is precisely the extreme hardcore gamers, the ones least likely to actually base their purchases on reviews, who are typically the ones most invested in the scores. It is usually the case that these fans really just want some sort of "official" grade to validate their own opinions about games they may or may not have even played but have, at any rate, committed to paying good money for.

While reviews are inherently subjective, enthusiast channels such as IGN and GameSpot don't clearly convey that, instead often presenting them as objective and authoritative. Most readers don't even seem to recognize that these websites employ a number of different staff and freelance reviewers, and the sites themselves must take some of the blame for that, as, beyond the tiny bylines, they make little effort to connect the reviews to any individual personalities. Print publications like Nintendo Power are actually a little better in this regard, but that medium grows increasingly irrelevant.

Another issue, upon which reviewers and fans seem to agree, is that, while the number-based system is helpful for consumers, it can devalue gaming as an art form. Considering how expensive a hobby gaming is, it's fair enough for many consumers to limit themselves to the "9 or above" titles. But adherence to such a harsh standard can rob a player of many of gaming's finer experiences in those 6-to-8 titles that are less polished but sometimes more inspired. Some may feel that it is the reviewers' responsibility to cultivate a higher class of gamer by promoting these flawed but noteworthy titles, but simple numbers cannot convey their subtler qualities to those many consumers that don't have time to read the full reviews.

I've at times thought that it might make sense to reform the system into something more akin to the current scoring system for figure skating, which assigns a specific base value to a routine before judging its execution. So, then, Rygar's 6 might be out of a total of 8 possible points, while, hypothetically, a similar but more ambitious title like Devil May Cry might be an 8/10 from the same reviewer. After all, does it really make sense to judge an annual sports title like MLB: The Show according to the same scale as Metal Gear Solid 4, which aims so much higher? Of course, my own bias is showing, and, ultimately, there's no objective way to determine a game's base value.

No, changing the scoring system would only confuse people, while doing away with scores altogether, as some have suggested, would defeat the purpose of the reviews for most consumers. It would just realign the audience to an ever more hardcore slant.

The commonly used ten-point scale is fine by me, though I think reviewers should more actively make efforts to clarify what the numbers mean, maybe attaching some sort of stock explanation and disclaimer to every score, because, while most fans ought to understand that the final score is subjective, it's less often recognized that so is the scale itself, as became evident to me with my Rygar anecdote.

By my scale, for example, a 7 would not be an average game. An average game would be a 5, right in the middle of the scale. The thing is, however, that a savvy gamer, though better-informed, is actually less likely to be exposed to bad games than a casual gamer, because the really bad games are things most discriminating players have likely never even heard of, let alone played. In my personal collection of hundreds of titles, I can't think of more than two or three titles that I would score below 5, but that's because, even though I may buy a lot, I try not to buy garbage.

Among games that actually get press, 7 might seem like an average score, but it's important not to let that skewed perspective make us less appreciative of what are actually very fine titles, with fair scores that reflect that. There are other games that I would rate higher than Rygar by as many as four grades, but I still think it's a good game.

For reference, the worst game in my collection, Stunt Race FX, would probably be about a 2/10 on my scale, and here's how it might break down:

Can the game be played? No.
Does it have graphics? Not really.
Anything else? Some good tunes.

Thus, I grant Stunt Race FX a 2/10.

Why isn't it a zero if it's really the worst game I've ever played? Well, for me, a zero would be something that crashes on the title screen, while a 1 would be a game that makes it past the title screen but then crashes with the next button press. I don't have specific examples of such games, but I leave those slots open just in case.

Also, each number in the scale itself should be understood to represent a range, with a 10 being, not a perfect game, but a game of the highest caliber.

Of course, I acknowledge that Rygar and Stunt Race FX are really old games and, therefore, terrible examples. As I've said, reviews should be meant to help guide consumers, and that usually only matters while the games are new. Once history grants a title "classic" status, it doesn't really matter where specifically it ranks.

Finally, back to the matter of scores directing sales, things become more problematic when you factor in the aggregate review sites like Metacritic and GameRankings, which have become enormously influential within the industry. In collecting all the press reviews and distilling them down to a single combined score, these sites do great harm to the craft of criticism. While these aggregate scores are generally accurate, making them a useful and convenient resource for consumers, in making things so easy, they are also the biggest culprits when it comes to number scores cheapening the artistic depth of gaming.

Some publications have experimented with non-number-based scales, perhaps to undermine Metacritic's score conversion system, but that only makes the site less reliable, not less influential. Rather than trying vainly to combat the system, reviewers should just acknowledge that their job is essentially to tell people which games to buy. So, if a title is worth getting despite any flaws, it should get a high score that elevates its profile against competing titles.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

RE4: Wii Edition, Chapter 2

I'm now through Chapter 2 on my Wii playthrough of Resident Evil 4.

By now, I think it's safe to say that the pointer controls make the game significantly easier. The traditional controls of the RE5 demo, which I played again recently, feel comparatively archaic, and I'm not sure even adding the ability to move while shooting would affect the game balance as drastically. With the Wii remote, it's possible to snipe with the handgun from ranges that are highly impractical for the analog stick and laser sight. The sniper rifle, which does not take advantage of the remote, now feels unintuitive and inaccurate by comparison. Frankly, the new controls probably make the game too easy. RE4 obviously wasn't built with motion controls in mind, but the technology is definitely something to seriously consider for future shooters.

This chapter contained probably my two favorite parts of RE4. The first, the barricade cabin, was not nearly as intense this time, largely due to the controls making things easier, and also partly because I'd already been through it before. My second favorite scene was just a short bit where I had to snipe the crazed driver of an oncoming truck. In reality, there was no precision required in shooting down the truck, but it was still an extremely cool moment that felt very organic.

The chapter also included the first real boss encounter of the game. Going in, I didn't remember much about it from my GameCube playthrough, and, playing it again, it did feel pretty weak and uninspired.

Monday, February 23, 2009


I went to the movies yesterday to see Coraline in 3-D. Overall, I quite enjoyed it. I don't expect it to become a classic on a par with The Nightmare Before Christmas or James and the Giant Peach, but it was very charming. The story, about a girl who discovers a doorway to a creepy yet enticing mirror world, presented an intriguing idea, but it didn't really follow through and instead finished in rather generic fashion. The stop-motion characters were delightful, though the movie had its share of CG effects as well, and, to be honest, I couldn't guess to what extent the character animation was CG-assisted. Makes me wonder how much longer this art form can endure.

The 3-D was disappointing. The last picture I saw in 3-D was Beowulf on IMAX. I thought it was pretty amazing, and that experience was what encouraged me to view Coraline in 3-D. Beowulf's 3-D may have been gimmicky at times, but, on reflection, I don't think the technology can be subtly effective. I'm never going to stop noticing the color-dimming lenses, the eye-straining blurriness, or the freaking pair of glasses on my face, so the reward had better be spectacular. In Coraline, I barely noticed it most of the time, and the few moments where it worked weren't worth the headache. If Beowulf came back to theaters, I'd probably see it again, but I think 3-D has a long way to go still before we start casually asking for it for everything.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

The Essentials #17: Street Fighter EX3

Released in 2000 as a launch title for the Sony PlayStation 2, Street Fighter EX3 was the final installment in the unjustly maligned Street Fighter EX series.

Developed and co-produced by Arika, the EX games were the first attempt to translate Capcom's beloved 2-D fighter into 3-D. Rather than being the official successor to Street Fighter II for the polygon era, the series was more of an experimental spin-off, with installments released concurrently with Capcom's own Street Fighter Alpha and Street Fighter III titles, which continued the series in the traditional 2-D style.

Because the EX titles were not developed in-house, many considered them apocryphal, but the developer Arika was actually a studio founded by Akira Nishitani, one of the original creators of Street Fighter II. In some ways, therefore, it could have been considered the actual evolution of the series, or, at least, a divergent path no less legitimate than the one that continued on from Super Street Fighter II: The New Challengers.

Supporting its position as an alternate sequel, the EX series roster featured almost no post-World Warrior fighters, instead supplementing its selection of classic characters with brand new Arika-owned creations. The only exceptions were Akuma, who appeared in the first EX before supposedly being killed off by a bigger badass, and Sakura, the perennial fanservice favorite who was added in initially as a bonus for the Plus Alpha PS1 port of the first game.

The original Arika characters were a mixed bag. Among the better ones were Kairi, the troubled young man who allegedly killed Akuma, and his sister Hokuto, dressed like a Shinto priestess. Some more eccentric designs like Skullomania and Shadowgeist definitely gave the Street Fighter III cast a run for its money in terms of weirdness. Still others, such as Area, a little girl with a bionic arm and rocket-powered skates, and Vulcano Rosso, a glam King of Fighters reject, were plain bad. In terms of play style, however, it was a pretty good mix of characters that felt consistent with the Street Fighter II cast, generally favoring bigger, broader attacks, in contrast with the more technical Alpha fighters.

The first Street Fighter EX was a pure and impeccably solid fighting game that kept true to the Street Fighter II basics. There were no "custom combos," "parries," or "ISMs." Unlike Capcom's Rival Schools or SNK Playmore's The King of Fighters: Maximum Impact, other titles which attempted to translate 2-D fighting mechanics to 3-D technology, the EX series continued to operate strictly on a 2-D plane, offering no sidestepping of any sort. The only notable change from the original formula was the implementation of a much looser combo system, granting each character tons of link combos and introducing "Super Canceling," which allowed characters to cancel special moves into Super Combos, or even to cancel a Super Combo into a different Super Combo, provided the player had enough stocks stored in the three-level Super Combo gauge. Since, unlike the Alpha series, Super Combos in the EX games did not have multiple levels of power, Super Canceling multiple Super Combos into one another was the main method for dealing huge damage.

Street Fighter EX3 retained the core design of that first game, but with a major new emphasis on team-based combat. The game included King of Fighters-style elimination bouts and a "Dramatic Battle" mode based on the fan favorite two-on-one mode from the Alpha series, but now with support for as many as four simultaneous fighters. The real focus, however, was the "Tag Battle" mode, which was exactly what it sounded like.

The two-on-two mode allowed characters to tag in and out until one team was completely eliminated. The concept was not new to fighting games, as SNK's Kizuna Encounter and Capcom's Marvel vs. Capcom series had previously brought tag-team gameplay to 2-D fighting, while Namco's Tekken Tag Tournament and Tecmo's Dead or Alive 2, both released shortly before EX3, looked to be establishing it as a trend. But EX3 was the first, and, to this day, the only Street Fighter title to feature a tag-team mode of any sort, and that was a big deal for me, as a much bigger fan of Street Fighter than of Tekken or Dead or Alive.

The best part of EX3 was that, like Tekken Tag Tournament and Dead or Alive 2, provided you possessed a PS2 multitap, the game could be played by up to four players. The Dramatic Battle mode, of course, would become a frenzied free-for-all, but that mode, regardless of the number of players, was never more than a novelty. The real attraction, once again, was the tag-team fighting, which was fun for parties, yes, but also retained all the competitive depth so fundamental to the genre. It was still essentially Street Fighter, a 2-D one-on-one game, but you were now in it together with a partner. The difference was a bit like comparing the doubles game in tennis to singles play.

Teammates might try to cover each other's weaknesses with complementary styles and characters. Knowing that your partner was counting on you placed new pressure on you to perform well, while having to rely on your partner required trust, an even more foreign sensation in the genre. Comebacks also became more exciting than ever, as you would have to reverse momentum after a timely tag to relieve a struggling partner, or you might even have to win the whole thing alone, after your partner got knocked out prematurely.

Over the years, the fighting game genre has been repeatedly criticized for a lack of innovation. I have never found this accusation fair, as my feeling has been that the basic design was perfected around the time of Street Fighter II': Hyper Fighting, and any subsequent titles could be the same or different, but not better. But support for more than two players represented, for me, the biggest addition ever to that design, and it continues to boggle my mind that the feature has not since become more popular and widespread.

The EX games were fairly successful, but they were never fully accepted within the fan community, and while the reasons may not have been fair, I could understand why many players might have dismissed the series without actually trying it.

First and foremost, the games were all extremely ugly for their times. The crude polygonal models of the EX series never did justice to the iconic hand-drawn character designs that contributed so much to Street Fighter's lasting appeal. More than any other genre, I would argue that 2-D fighting games have always relied upon the visual personality of their characters, and the primitive 3-D of the EX games just never cut it.

As a PS2 launch title, EX3 may have been expected to show off the power of the new generation, but it was not a flattering representation of the system's abilities, and the game did not look at all impressive next to Namco's SoulCalibur on the Dreamcast or Tekken Tag Tournament, which was also a PS2 launch title.

The feel of the game was also somewhat different from the 2-D games. Although the EX games still played in two dimensions, the move to 3-D had a subtle yet noticeable effect on the physics, most pronounced in the jumping mechanics. After inputting the command to jump, there would be a slight "lift-off" lag before characters took to the air. Once in the air, characters felt a tad floaty, and air-to-ground combat was less reliable. These were more just differences than actual flaws, but a typical complaint by veteran Street Fighter players, before they walked away, was that the game simply felt "off."

A bigger problem with EX3 specifically was a severe dearth of worthwhile single-player gameplay. While all fighting games are meant to be enjoyed in multiplayer, EX3 didn't even have a regular single-player arcade mode. Instead, "Original Mode" was a lame six-stage quest that forced the player to engage in annoying Dramatic Battle bouts in addition to the tag battles. The "Expert Mode" from previous home versions of the EX games, formerly the best challenge mode in fighting games, was turned into the "Character Edit" mode, a shorter, less structured series of trials based around Ace, a new character whose move set could be customized and expanded by using earned points to unlock more techniques.

Yes, Street Fighter EX was a good series, and EX3 a good installment in that series. If you had the equipment and the friends, the four-player tag battles provided a unique and immensely enjoyable take on the Street Fighter experience that, for my money, made it every bit as worthwhile as Super Turbo, Alpha 3, 3rd Strike, etc.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

To follow up on my last post...

I stopped by Target again today after work. To be honest, the whole "exclusive Udon comic" thing had been bothering me all day.

As it turns out, the comic is hidden inside the actual game case, which is itself indistinguishable from an ordinary copy, except that the bar code is different. As expected, the comic is very thin and insubstantial. Only a hardcore fan and collector would be interested, but I'm glad I got it. Unfortunately, I'll have to live without the Game Crazy exclusive token. Alas.

Online challengers can hit me up at omega_warzard on PSN. (Pretty much all of my fighting games will be PS3 versions, both for the free online and so I don't have to get a joystick for each system.)

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

I've been waiting for this...

After work today, I swung by the local Toys "R" Us to pick up Street Fighter IV. While I waited for the old lady to ring me up, I told her how, almost seventeen years ago, I had gotten Street Fighter II for the SNES from that very same store.

I still remember that day well. There was a banner proudly proclaiming that the store had that one specific title, the biggest in video games at the time. The $80 price on that cartridge made it the most expensive addition ever to my collection, and, taking inflation into account, I think it still owns that record. It was worth it, of course.

The cashier seemed to enjoy my story but pointed out that that was way before her time. Sure, old lady. See you in another seventeen.

Truthfully, however, I'm still waiting on my collector's edition copy to arrive at my door. I just went to Toys "R" Us to get their bonus Chun-Li statuette, but I don't intend to keep this copy of the game. I also stopped by Target, since I heard they had an exclusive Udon comic, but the employees knew nothing of it.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

"How convenient! I can use the same picture."

In an effort to give the workplace a friendlier atmosphere, the higher-ups last year decided to establish a free-use gallery on the wall of a high-traffic hallway. Employees can now make arrangements to set up displays that will last for a week or more, usually until someone else wants to use it, and there has been a surprising amount of enthusiasm for the idea.

Mostly, I find these displays to be pretty depressing. I've walked by the unrealized dream of the failed artist, now middle-aged working an unfulfilling job, in the form of some uninspired watercolors accompanied by an introductory note still declaring painting her passion. There has also been the stained glass of the lonely senior citizen with too much free time on his hands.

It surely takes some guts to share your private despair with all your co-workers, but mostly I think it takes despair. But I do see it, I appreciate it, and that in turn lets me appreciate my co-workers a little more as fellow human beings, stuck at the same place as me, though at different stages of their lives. So I suppose the gallery serves its purpose.

Sometimes, however, the company will select a theme and ask for submissions from the general population of the lab.

For the week before Valentine's Day, employees were asked for photos representing the "Loves of Our Lives." As an added incentive for participation, the display was tied to a raffle for a small restaurant gift certificate.

Today, the results were announced by a charmless, almost robotic voice over the loudspeaker (itself a recent addition, which would seem to have the opposite effect of the employee gallery): "The 'Loves of Our Lives' contest has ended. Congratulations to (names omitted). Please remove all pictures before the end of the day. Next week will be 'Our Pets.' Thank you."

"I thought 'Our Pets' was last week," I whispered to the lady next to me.

It was meant as a joke, but the woman, not a native English speaker, did not grasp the humor. Realizing that explaining such a joke would only sap it of all humor while accentuating the offensiveness of it, I just smiled and told her it was nothing.

Monday, February 16, 2009


Joss Whedon's long-awaited new series, Dollhouse, has finally arrived, and, while the first episode was pretty rough, I definitely feel it has promise.

The show stars Eliza Dushku as Echo, an "Active," basically a blank human doll that can be imprinted with knowledge and experience from a database of personalities. An underground group known as the "Dollhouse" rents out the Actives, sculpting their personae and skill sets on demand to meet their clients' varied needs.

The premise is vaguely similar to last fall's My Own Worst Enemy, the mercifully short-lived Christian Slater show where a regular husband and father was actually the unwitting government-programmed cover for a secret agent alter ego. The problem with that show was that it focused entirely too much on the constant struggle between the two lives sharing one body, and it quickly became as tiring for the viewer as it was for the characters. Dollhouse crucially differs in that, rather than having to fight her other selves for time, for Echo, becoming other people is her only function, and the tasks are always understood to be specific and finite, so there shouldn't be any worry that the viewer will start to root for one personality over the others.

Dushku is best remembered for having played the recurring rogue vampire slayer, Faith, in Whedon's own most famous work, Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Faith was never one of my favorite characters from the Buffy-verse; as Buffy's "tough chick" rival, I found her to be rather one-note, and a little abrasive at that. There was one memorable episode, however, where Faith and Buffy switched bodies, giving the actresses behind those roles the opportunity to switch places along with their characters. Frankly, Sarah Michelle Gellar's psychotic turn as a self-loathing Faith stole the show, but Dushku didn't do a bad job either capturing the smoldering conviction of the Buffy character. The premise of Dollhouse would seem to ask much greater range than that from Dushku, as she could potentially be playing a drastically different personality with each episode. On the first episode alone, Echo had to play first the fun-loving girlfriend to one client, then a steely hostage negotiator for another.

The sci-fi elements are not that hard to grasp, but the first episode ran into problems early on while trying to set up the subplot of an FBI investigation into the rumors of the Dollhouse's illegal existence. I couldn't help rolling my eyes as the detectives rushed to explain the out-there concepts to one another through vapid dialogue. In fact, what seemed to be missing throughout the entire episode was Whedon's trademark wit. This may reflect a deliberate decision to show off Whedon's own range, and, certainly, I would not ask that every one of his shows sound and feel the same. Right now, the trouble is that Dollhouse does not ease the viewer into its strange world as gracefully as Buffy did.

Nevertheless, the show is, so far, intriguing and unlike anything else on my current TV viewing schedule. With its built-in ability to cross genres from week to week, the format should offer a nice change of pace from more involved serials while also being more resistant to formula than typical procedurals. And, while it may be difficult to develop an attachment to Echo as a character, since she's not supposed to have a personality of her own, I think it's a safe bet that her programming will start to show "irregularities" down the line that will slowly change that.

Of course, with the show having been consigned by Fox to a Friday night slot right off, it's hard to stay optimistic that it will survive long enough to realize its potential. Then again, The X-Files was a Friday night success, and, with any luck, Dollhouse may be able to cultivate a similarly strong cult audience.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

The Essentials #16: Suikoden III


Released in 2002 for the PlayStation 2, Konami's Suikoden III was the last Suikoden title worked on by series creator Yoshitaka Murayama. With the first two titles both ranking among my favorite Japanese role-playing games, my anticipation for the third installment was high, my expectations perhaps unrealistically so. Despite some controversial changes, however, Suikoden III actually exceeded those expectations by providing a narrative that managed to be engaging without ever rehashing previous storylines.

The first two games on the PS1 became classics primarily on the merits of their stories, which, feeling more like novels than films, were linear tales told in a straightforward fashion typical of JRPGs from the 16-bit era and probably even earlier. Suikoden III, however, matched the quality drama of the earlier stories with a more sophisticated narrative that unfolded via the "Trinity Sight System," which allowed the player to view the story from the alternating perspectives of three different protagonists.

Gone were the silent heroes of the first two titles, replaced by three fully fleshed-out protagonists, who all possessed enough charisma that each could have carried a forty-hour JRPG on their own. Hugo, a young boy of the Karaya Clan, was the clearest successor to the wide-eyed heroes of the first two games. Kindhearted by nature, he would find himself grappling with his emotions, struggling to comprehend war, as tragedy forced him to grow up too quickly. The shrewd and enigmatic Geddoe, a veteran who had seen his share (and maybe more), worked as a mercenary for Harmonia, the reigning superpower of the Suikoden world, but his interests seemed to lie elsewhere, and uncovering his stake in the events would be one of the game's compelling mysteries. Finally, my personal favorite, Chris Lightfellow, was the acting captain of the Zexen Knights. Thoughtful and pragmatic, yet fierce in her convictions, Chris's greatest conflict was internal, as she balanced her responsibilities as a leader against her weariness at the Zexen council's obvious attempts to cast her as their nation's beloved "Silver Maiden" in order to rally public support for a cause she herself questioned. She gets my vote as the greatest heroine in video games.

Suikoden III, like its predecessors, was a war story with a huge cast of characters, including the requisite 108 Stars of Destiny, but it otherwise deviated significantly from the Water Margin-inspired formula of the first two titles. Rather than having the player unite the Stars of Destiny to free the world from a tyrannical empire, the narrative let the player see both sides of the conflict between the Six Clans of the Grasslands, represented by Hugo, and the ambitious merchant nation of Zexen, represented by Chris. The Trinity Sight System allowed the player, in some cases, to see the exact same scene from opposite angles, and the player was free to choose the order in which they were presented.

Chris, as a Zexen knight, might appear in Hugo's story as the villainous bringer of much suffering to the Karayan people, but, at the end of that act, the player could then switch over to Chris's version of the same events and see that things were not as black-and-white as they appeared to Hugo's young eyes. The suspiciously well-informed Geddoe, meanwhile, observed events from a third, more neutral perspective. Working in the background, his team's presence would not figure into the other protagonists' scenes, but it would be through his perspective that the player would uncover and investigate the more devious machinations lurking behind the scenes.

One of the best side effects of the Trinity Sight System was that it allowed for a more developed secondary cast, since each protagonist also brought along a team of supporting characters. Rather than slapping a different stupid accent on each character and attempting to pass that off as personality, the Suikoden games had always tried to provide most of the 108 Stars of Destiny with distinct backstories, or at least hints at them. Still, with such a massive roster, it was never possible to go in depth with any but the characters most involved with the main plot, so, typically, players would be treated to just enough personality to make them wonder who these people really were. Between Sgt. Joe's wry life lessons to Hugo, the playful rapport of Geddoe's ragtag band, and the devotion of Chris's knights to their captain, Suikoden III was the finest realization of the promise of a huge cast.

Since the three protagonists did not share one army as in previous installments, recruiting of the 108 Stars of Destiny was mostly handled by a fourth player character, the humble Thomas, who inherited the previous protagonists' unlikely role as the young castle master. Lighter on story and more open-ended than the others' perspectives, his segments retained much of the old Suikoden joy of meeting strange and varied personalities. With most of the game's true warriors attached to the three main characters, the subplot of Thomas and his colorful assemblage of misfits' clumsy defense of the home they had built for themselves, less a fort than a bustling town that happened to be located at the center of an emerging war, provided a welcome reprieve from the heavier content of the main story.

The first two installments stuck to a 2-D style with sprites that, though charming, would not have looked far out of place on a 16-bit console. Suikoden III finally brought the series into 3-D, and, while series fans might have been justifiably anxious about this apparent departure from the franchise's roots, the result was a resounding success.

While the character models were far from being the most sophisticated on the PS2, the game definitely took advantage of the higher graphical fidelity of the hardware which finally allowed for characters with actual faces, as opposed to the blurry messes that were the norm on the PS1. Rather than focusing on pyrotechnics and stunt work, the game's new visual style used exaggerated proportions and facial features to better emphasize character personality. The reserved Chris, for example, conveyed a full spectrum of emotions through just her eyebrows.

Pre-rendered cut scenes were extremely few and far between, but the real-time sequences exhibited a subtle maturity beyond even many bigger-budget, more eagerly cinematic games of the time. Deliberate use of multiple cameras, closeups, and reverse angle shots added a new dimension to simple exchanges of dialogue.

On the downside, the 3-D environments were, by their nature, more cumbersome to navigate. This included the player's castle, which, while still charming, felt a little less inviting than in previous installments, despite also being smaller. This was more due to the fact that, for most of the game, the castle was really not the base for the three main characters and their respective parties. After all, the three represented separate, even opposing interests. Furthermore, there was no longer a traditional overworld, and the game instead progressed through five chapters of fairly restricted movement, so there was less of a sense of a home base to return to.

The castle was still home to a few mini-games, though nothing as compelling as the cooking side quest from Suikoden II. The most amusing diversion was the theater, where the player could stage plays, casting members of the army in roles from a selection of short scripts, then leaving a show running to automatically accumulate admissions money while the player moved on with the game. Some characters were more natural performers than others, and a favorable reception from the audience could actually provide a modest income, though it was often more fun to watch the truly disastrous performances. A rather cool bonus allowed veterans to import their Suikoden II save data to unlock an extra play that humorously misrepresented a certain scene from the last game. And if that save data in turn contained imported data from the first Suikoden, the player would be rewarded with another bonus script that reenacted events from that game.

The move to 3-D affected combat as well, as the battle system was completely overhauled. The now 3-D battlefield introduced spatial considerations, as, even though the system was still turn-based and menu-based, characters would have to actually move around to get at targets, and friendly fire on spells forced the player to note their areas of effect before casting. The traditional six-man party was broken up into three pairs, and the player could only give a single command to each pair. Many fans were frustrated by the lack of total control, but I found the system fresh and interesting, which combat had never been in the previous games.

The strategic battles of the first two games returned in a new form. Units were now moved about a board of connecting vertices, while the actual engagements were handled by the AI using the game's regular battle engine. Also returning, the newly enhanced duel mode was as complex as it would ever become, replacing the old health meters with a sort of tug-of-war bar that shifted momentum as one side scored more hits.

Less controversial than the changes to the battle system but more significant, in my opinion, was the report of series creator Yoshitaka Murayama's departure from Konami midway through the game's development. Murayama, who wrote and directed the first two installments, is believed to have written the entire Suikoden III scenario as well, but we'll probably never know for sure how closely the finished product adhered to his vision. Although he is not listed anywhere in the credits, GameSpot interviewed him, naming him as Suikoden III's producer, less than a year before the game's Japanese release, so he was clearly still in charge for most of production.

Some fans have tried to pinpoint the moment of his departure from development, usually pointing to the last two chapters, where the narrative did admittedly falter somewhat. Dispensing with the groundbreaking Trinity Sight System, the final chapters shifted focus away from the war, as the ultimate villain was revealed to have had decidedly more godlike motivations than previous series antagonists. After a ponderous lecture on dharma and chaos, the final battle led into an ending that left the land with still a precarious peace. If not quite in quality, the ending was still consistent with the story's logic up to that point, however, so I'm inclined to believe that Konami was following Murayama's script even after his exit.

As is typically the case with these matters (and it's a distressingly common story), at least with the Japanese companies, details remain scarce as to why things turned out the way they did, but the general belief is that Murayama had a falling out with Konami over restrictions on his creative control. Before things got that bad, he had at times alluded to a master plan detailing the complete history of the Suikoden universe, and his titles were known for teasing at a larger world that opened up just a bit more with each installment. Perhaps, rather than such an exhaustible scheme, Konami favored a more open-ended future that could allow the series to continue for as long as it remained profitable, hence why all of the post-Murayama titles have been prequels that have gone nowhere. That's all speculation, of course. All we really know is that, as a result, we are left with questions raised in the first three titles that have yet to be answered, and threads that will likely never be resolved, at least not as originally intended. For the fans, it's one of the frustrating realities of the industry that defines gaming as more of a business than an art form.

As the followup to my favorite RPG of all time, Suikoden III faced ridiculous expectations, but, astoundingly, it managed to live up to its heritage and did not disappoint at all. Was it a better game than its immediate predecessor? No, but it remains second only to Suikoden II on my list.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Raymond Benson's Metal Gear Solid

The official novelization of the original Metal Gear Solid came out shortly before Konami's release of Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots. Written by Raymond Benson, author of the Splinter Cell novelizations, as well as several James Bond books, it's terrible stuff, as one would expect. Here's just a taste:
Snake thought Mei Ling resembled a manga character come to life. He shook her hand. "I didn't expect a designer of world-class military technology to be so cute."

"Merry Christmas," Snake said as he delivered two powerhouse punches, left and then right, into the guards' faces. The soldiers plopped to the floor. "I forgot to tell you--Christmas is early this year."

And another:
She signed off, and Snake shook his head. Of course she was Roy Campbell's niece. She was just as stubborn and full of herself as the colonel had always been. But even though she was green, Snake had to admit she had a lot of balls. He'd never encountered a young woman who was as brave and determined as she.

One more:
Those thoughts might have demoralized an ordinary person, but for Snake they were incentives to stay the course. Master Miller had a saying, "When the going gets tough, the tough beat the shit out of everyone else." Snake lived by that adage, and he hated to lose. He would finish the mission--successfully--or there would be no use returning to his home in the Alaskan wilderness.

Before you rush to the bookstore thinking that this actually sounds pretty good, I should warn you that these snippets represent Benson's writing at its very best. The rest of the book's 300+ pages is mostly a faithful but bland and amateurish chronicle of Solid Snake's journey through Shadow Moses. Between stretches of dialogue often taken verbatim from the game script, Snake sneaks around and takes guys out with his Socom pistol, the "Snake Stranglehold," and his trademark "one-two-three punch-punch-kick combination." It's almost as if Benson wrote it while watching some guy play through the entire game in front of him.

To be fair to Benson, it's possible that Konami kept him on a tighter leash than he's used to (though, based on his other works, this is more likely exactly his domain). While they evidently didn't care enough to keep the book from turning out awful, the hand of Kojima Productions is definitely felt.

The opening chapter focuses entirely around the enigmatic Dr. Clark, the person responsible for Gray Fox's transformation into the cyborg ninja. Taking place at the birth of Les Enfants Terribles, this prologue mostly exists to establish that, contrary to the original game dialogue, Dr. Clark was female. The supposed "mistranslation" from the English game script created a continuity error when the character was brought up again ten years later in Guns of the Patriots, and, though I never saw it as a big deal, the problem apparently tormented MGS4's assistant producer, Ryan Payton, who is named in Benson's acknowledgments.

The novelization must have seemed a rare chance to fix this error, and to further drive it home, the doctor's gender is clarified again when Naomi later points it out to Snake, even though the detail has no relevance to their discussion. By the third time, however, Snake seems to forget and goes back to referring to Dr. Clark as male. Oh well.

Other items of note:
  • The book establishes Johnny Sasaki's background as a tech expert.
  • In an awkward addition to the script, Psycho Mantis uses his powers to foretell the graveyard image from MGS4.
  • The final, final confrontation follows the apocryphal Twin Snakes ending, rather than the original PS1 version.
  • Benson repeatedly insists that Snake hates name-brand cigarettes and only smokes them during the mission because he doesn't have access to his own special tobacco blend. Huh?

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Runaways Vol.3 #6

For some time now, Runaways has been the only Marvel comic that I pick up on a regular basis. The original eighteen-issue arc by writer Brian K. Vaughan and artist Adrian Alphona was a near-perfect story that, in some ways, reminded me of the Bronze Age Uncanny X-Men or New Teen Titans books, which mixed character-based drama with team superheroics. But Vaughan's writing brought the adolescent metaphor into the modern era, adding sophistication and humor to the formula, and, together with Alphona, he managed to create a cast of truly three-dimensional teenage protagonists.

Even after Vaughan and Alphona left the series, leaving others to take it over at Marvel, I was so attached to the characters that I never considered dropping the book. Joss Whedon's six-issue arc, closing out the second volume, felt like a drawn-out filler episode, but his style was a perfect fit on a title that had clearly drawn much from his own Buffy the Vampire Slayer. In fact, insubstantial though they may have been, his issues were still better than any of his recent Buffy comics. Artist Michael Ryan, meanwhile, was an able successor to Alphona, employing a similarly understated realism. Overall, it was a good run that kept very true to the spirit of Runaways, and I remained highly optimistic for the title's future.

Having just gotten through the sixth issue of Terry Moore and Humberto Ramos's run, however, I don't know how much more I can take.

The third volume showed warning signs from the start. Gone were the painted covers of Jo Chen, whose work Runaways introduced me to, replaced instead by the cartoonish proportions and repulsively exaggerated facial expressions of Humberto Ramos, who also provided the artwork within the book. I would not have been a fan of Ramos's obnoxious style even if I weren't already accustomed to Alphona and Ryan's takes, but the new look is such a needlessly drastic departure from the elegant realism that so defined the characters and series. It's as though your buddy came back from the war with his face completely mangled, and, though you tell yourself he's still the same guy, it shocks you every time to look at him.

With the art being so distracting, it's been hard to judge the writing on its own merits, but, six issues in, it's clear enough that Moore's Runaways possesses none of the introspection or wit of Vaughan and Whedon. His characters, quite frankly, are all idiots, and his first six issues have been little more than a protracted slugfest between the kids and a group of superpowered aliens. It's a bit like if your pal came back from the war with his mind completely shattered by the atrocities he witnessed there, and, as much as you still might care for him, the old friendship is gone along with his soul that died on the battlefield.

I've heard some fans argue that it's somehow unfair to judge Moore and Ramos's run just by how it stacks up against their predecessors' stellar work, but that legacy is the only thing that's kept me reading this far, and I'm beginning to feel like a fool. I've come to realize, as a result of this travesty, that loyalty to a title in the revolving-door industry of superhero comics is as silly and arbitrary as loyalty to a team sports franchise. I imagine how I feel now must resemble what it was like to be a Chicago Bulls fan going into the post-Jordan era. It is folly to become invested in the property rather than the intellect behind it. Vaughan and Alphona got me believing in these characters of theirs, but now, in the hands of Moore and Ramos, Runaways is all but dead to me.

Even so, a part of me just can't let it go that easily. Knowing that the end is near for this current team, I suppose I'll ride it out. With issue #6, Ramos is now done as the penciller, though he'll still be doing covers. Moore has another three issues, and then he'll be done too. Hopefully, their successors can bring it back.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

RE4: Wii Edition, Chapter 1

So far, I'm through to the end of Chapter 1 on my playthrough of Resident Evil 4: Wii Edition.

I must say, the visceral satisfaction of kneecapping Ganados is much greater than any mere memory, though I never really noticed before how freaky it was to face just the same four villagers over and over again.

The best part of Chapter 1 was probably a fight against some dynamite-hurling enemies outside a bombed-out shed. While it was possible to explode the dynamite by shooting it, it was more fun to shoot an enemy to stall him until the timed fuse blew it up in his hand.

As far as this version's main selling point, the new controls, are concerned, I wasn't initially entirely sold. I was perfectly comfortable with the original GameCube controls, to the extent that, by the end of my first playthrough, I did not feel overmatched going one-on-five with just the handgun and melee attacks. While the Wii's pointing controls worked well from the start, my memory insisted that the traditional controls still felt more natural. Just to make sure, however, I plugged in my GameCube pad for a quick spin. (Wii Edition, by the way, is impressively accommodating, allowing use of the GameCube pad or Classic Controller, making it for sure the definitive edition.)

The old controls were instantly familiar, but I did notice quirks that I'd largely forgotten. For one thing, Leon's aim is actually not perfectly steady, and the shaking is more or less pronounced depending on the equipped gun. Although the shaking is still there while using the remote, it is barely noticeable and, regardless of the gun, has no practical effect on your accuracy. While manually steadying the remote, those fine, real-time adjustments occur instantly with no thought at all. Even more significantly, use of the remote replaces the guns' laser sights with a floating reticle, which is far easier to spot, especially on long shots. So, on the whole, it's definitely easier to fire with accuracy while aiming with the remote.

On the other hand, the separation between shooting and moving is more pronounced than ever through the physical arrangement of the remote and Nunchuk, with each half being mostly functionless while the other is in use. This makes for a somewhat jarring transition from remote to Nunchuk if I'm forced to start running mid-fight. In higher-pressure situations, I still find the traditional controls to be more comfortable, though I suppose I'll get used to it.

My favorite part of the Wii experience, to my surprise, is actually the remote's built-in speaker. It makes little noises every time Leon radios Hunnigan. In practical terms, it's a minor addition, but, for some reason, I find it immensely satisfying whenever it happens. To be honest, I think I like it better than vibration in some ways, and I hope, moving forward, that every stock controller includes a speaker.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

The Essentials #15: Suikoden II


While I enjoyed the original Suikoden, I did not have enough experience at the time with Japanese RPGs to know what elements of it were distinctively "Suikoden." As a result, I had no particular expectations for the sequel, and, by the time of its 1999 release (1998 in Japan), with Square having since changed the industry with its seminal Final Fantasy VII, there were any number of fantasy-themed JRPGs that simply looked and sounded better. My foolishness back then nearly kept me from experiencing possibly the greatest JRPG of all time, but, thankfully, my brother picked it up as a Christmas present for me, and it has been the prize of my PS1 collection ever since.

Suikoden II
, while retaining the 2-D style of the first game, sported many graphical improvements over the original, including a deeper color palette, a greater range of animations, and even a few short pre-rendered cut scenes. But, whereas the original predated Final Fantasy VII by about a year, Konami's ill-timed North American release of Suikoden II came out a few weeks after Final Fantasy VIII. Though reasonably attractive for a 2-D game, it was not exactly technically impressive for its time, and, to a casual observer, it would have been largely indistinguishable from the first game.

The turn-based combat was practically the same as in the first game. The one major improvement was that, whereas the original allowed only one magic-bestowing rune per character, Suikoden II included characters with as many as three rune slots, giving the player much greater flexibility in customizing the party. This made fighting considerably more fun and also helped to better distinguish the many playable characters from one another, but it was still a very old-fashioned design, and, unless you really liked numbers, the combat and character-building would not have been the main attraction of the game.

The game still included the additional duel and war battle modes. The duels played out identically to the first game, but the war battles were completely revamped, replacing the shallow rock-paper-scissors design of the first game with a more tactical Fire Emblem-style grid-based system.

Of course, the real fun still lay in the character recruitment and castle-building. Suikoden II was about three times the length of its predecessor, but that time could be increased significantly by enjoying the many mini-games offered in the better-than-ever castle. The most memorable of these was the Iron Chef-style cooking game that had the castle's cook competing against another chef while a panel of critics drawn from the player's army served to judge.

Suikoden II was actually a direct story sequel, something of a rarity in the genre back then. Taking place about a decade after and situated somewhere north of the first game's setting, it brought back a number of key characters for a story that, while it stood perfectly well on its own, was extra rewarding for veterans. The greatest reward was the option for players of the first game to import their save data over to unlock an additional side quest, one which allowed the player to enlist the aid of McDohl, the original protagonist.

Again loosely based on Water Margin, the sequel reused the premise of the 108 Stars of Destiny banding together to take on the threat of an invading military nation. In broad strokes, the story was much the same as in the original Suikoden, but the beauty of the series never lay in its high concepts, but in the authenticity of its narrative and the complexities of its characters.

Suikoden II was the story of an unnamed silent protagonist and his best friend, Jowy Atreides. As teenage members of the Highland Army's Unicorn Brigade, the two would narrowly survive an insidious Highland plot to justify its aggressive military actions by faking an enemy attack on its own border guard. Forced to flee their home along with the protagonist's sister, Nanami, the friends, awakened to the corruption of their homeland, resolved to bring down the current regime.

Their plans hit an unexpected divide, however, when destiny handed the two boys opposing halves of the Rune of Beginning, one of the twenty-seven True Runes responsible for all that existed in the world of Suikoden. Shortly thereafter, Jowy would inexplicably betray the resistance and his friends by murdering Anabelle, one of the leaders of the shaky alliance opposed to Highland. And so, as the war escalated in the aftermath of Anabelle's death, and the protagonist found himself cast as the leader of the resistance, the enemy found its own rising young hero in the form of his best friend, who alone knew why he chose the path he did.

Jowy was as compelling an adversary as you would find in any JRPG, but, in Suikoden II, his story was nearly overshadowed by the presence of the greatest video game villain of all time. The major antagonist of the game, Luca Blight, the "Mad Prince" of Highland, was a man who, not only remorselessly ordered the exterminations of whole villages, but personally partook in the slaughter, reveling in the bloodshed as he cut down those he deemed to be swine with his own sword.

The frightening thing about Luca Blight was that he had no defined goal, no endgame in mind as he engaged in the murders of thousands. There was never anything his victims could offer him that he wanted. He had nothing to gain, no point to make except that he was stronger than those he slew. He sought neither domination nor destruction of the world. Whereas most other villains are finite in that regard, Luca was a monster of seemingly infinite scope. He would terrorize the world for as long as he existed, and that was more than fine with him.

In a take-it-or-leave-it backstory that was only vaguely hinted at in the game itself, Luca, as a child, was forced to witness helplessly as his mother was raped repeatedly by bandits while his father fled for his own life. It was not a crime that could ever be adequately avenged. Although he would kill the bandits and eventually execute his own father for the old man's history of cowardice, these were never acts intended to satisfy. The traumatizing scene from his childhood ultimately left him with, not a quest for vengeance, but an incomparable will to eradicate his own weakness by becoming power itself, and, no matter how strong he became, it would never be enough.

More than anything, however, it was Luca Blight's death scene, the greatest in video game history, that truly cemented him as a legendary figure in the JRPG canon.

Tipped off to Luca's nighttime movements by an apparent traitor from within Highland, the resistance set a trap that basically involved deploying all troops to ambush and kill him. After the player's army surrounded his convoy in the forest and cut him off from the rest of his forces, archers unleashed a volley of arrows to soften him up. A six-man party led by Flik, one of the player's returning lieutenants from the first game, then moved in for the kill. But Flik's team would not be enough, and Viktor, the other returning lieutenant, would have to lead a second party to attack. Still Luca Blight would not fall, and so the hero himself led one final six-on-one battle to hopefully finish him off.

I'd often felt that the traditional party-based combat of most JRPGs undermined the character conflicts that many games tried to convey. After all, how could the tension between Cloud and Sephiroth possibly be resolved through a three-on-one fight? Regardless of the outcome, wasn't Cloud basically conceding that he was weaker than his nemesis, since he required two extra guys at his side? That was one of the reasons, I'm sure, that Suikoden included the one-on-one duels. But, in the face of Luca Blight's immeasurable might, such tactics did not seem excessive. Sure enough, even after three successive battles against the player's eighteen best warriors, he managed to rise to his feet and escape deeper into the woods.

What followed was an oddly affecting image as the lone dying man, drawn to a blinking light, staggered toward a solitary tree. The light turned out to be a wooden amulet hanging from the tree, and, sounding almost reflective as he grasped it in his hand, the fading Luca cursed the uselessness of the object and the stupidity of the world. Fireflies emerged as he opened up the amulet, and, alerted by the lights to his position, archers fired another volley of arrows into his body. The resistance forces rushed to surround him, and, though the outcome was by now undeniable, he still had enough vigor to challenge the hero to one last duel.

The duel was a mere formality. Luca, beginning the fight with an already nearly empty life bar, was now horribly outmatched. Yet, rather than feeling the thrill of victory, I almost felt a sense of loss as I witnessed the fall of this giant who, without the aid of a True Rune, had managed to become the most terrifying man in the world through sheer will and spite. He had exhibited such vitality through this whole protracted affair that it really made me appreciate the gravity of life and the taking of it. And, though it was never clear if even he himself knew why he was fighting, his conviction did not waver one bit as he gasped his final breaths. Showing not a hint of remorse, he instead sounded boastful as he uttered his final words: "It took hundreds to kill me, but I killed humans by the thousands! Look at me! I am sublime! I am the true face of evil!"

The North American release was unfortunately riddled with issues. While perfectly comprehensible, the translation lacked polish and was afflicted with frequent typos, inconsistent spellings of major character names, and blown references to the first game. In addition, when importing the name of the player character from the first Suikoden, the game only carried over the capital letters and placed them on top of the letters in "McDohl." So, if, say, the player had named him "Tir" in the first game, his name in Suikoden II would have been "TcDohl."

Worst of all, however, the North American release was missing most of the vocal tracks, including the ending anthem. Or, rather, the tracks were in there but, due to some idiotic technical issue, did not play when they were supposed to. The absence was not immediately obvious, and, in fact, if you didn't already know better, you probably would have just found the game to be full of peculiar silences. At one point, one of my potential recruits nervously asked that I listen to her sing. After I agreed to listen, what followed was a few minutes of silence as the girl's mouth animated voicelessly. Many of the recruitment quests posed bizarre conditions, so I actually convinced myself that this was some sort of strange test of my patience and tact.

The original Suikoden was a fantastic game, but its sequel managed to better it in every respect, rightly becoming one of the most beloved titles among JRPG enthusiasts. It even made me better appreciate the first game by encouraging me to go back and take a deeper look at things. To date, no other video game has ever moved me so profoundly as Suikoden II did with its gripping tale culminating in an exquisitely cathartic ending. It remains my personal favorite RPG, securely one of my top five video games in any genre.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Disc 2

Looking back through my archives, I found these old comments of mine from June 2005:
After playing Resident Evil 4 intermittently for several months now, I have finally reached Disc 2. Apparently, Disc 2 contains only the final of the game's five chapters, so I'm actually quite close to polishing this one off. And it's certainly about time, I say, because this game has tormented me long enough. Mind you, that is not to suggest that I haven't enjoyed it.

The most recent boss was a disappointingly uninspired design and, moreover, suffered from a rather enormous blind spot that rendered the fight more farcical than anything else, but, otherwise, the game is very fresh and finely-polished. RE4 departs so significantly from previous installments, however, that it's hard to say whether it's my favorite. It definitely provides more and better action content than the others.

My primary complaint is concerning the story, which scarcely connects to the mythos established by the earlier games. This wouldn't bother me so much, if only RE4 provided an engrossing narrative of its own. Unfortunately, it's a pretty lightweight affair, with cut scenes being short and infrequent. To be fair, such has been the standard for the series. But RE4 is a much longer game than its predecessors. Compelling though the gameplay may be, I find it hard to stick with a mediocre plot for more than twenty hours. Finally, Leon himself, for all his newfound cool, lacks the youthful passion of his RE2 self.

That said, there's still some game left to be had before I shelve this one, so I can only hope that the best is yet to come.
Crazy, eh? When I think about Resident Evil 4 now, I seem able to remember only the good things. Did the game indeed turn me around with that final act? Or have the intervening years granted me a larger perspective of gaming history, allowing me to better appreciate what an achievement it really was? I honestly don't know. I can't even recall what boss I was referring to in that second paragraph.

My main complaint seemed to be regarding the length of the game. Was it really a twenty-hour game? Or was I just really slow? As much as I lament my lack of time for gaming now, it appears things weren't really that much different in 2005, when I was a college senior preparing for graduation.

Four years later, as I embark on my second playthrough of RE4, this time on the Wii, I'll be interested to see how my views may have changed.