Friday, July 31, 2009

Like Tears

In the dream, I lay dying on a hospital bed. The doctors could not treat nor even explain it, but my entire body was shutting down and failing me.

Before the end came, I was met in the middle of the night by one final unauthorized visitor. It was another me.

This other me explained that he was the real Henry, and I his clone.

At some point, he had decided he could no longer handle the pressure of his/my life, so he decided to "fake" his death by creating me in a test tube, accelerating my growth to match his age, implanting me with a selection of his memories, and finally programming me to die prematurely at a set time. Once the world saw and believed that he was dead, he would have a fresh start and the freedom at last to live as we dreamed. Naturally, this all made perfect sense to me.

Hearing these things, I felt at first a strange sort of pride, because it was the greatest thing I had ever done, a final affirmation of my cleverness. Except that I wasn't really the one doing it. Rather, it was being done to me.

On second thought, I found it impossible to respect him. I did not know at what point our existences had diverged, but we seemed to have a different appreciation for what I had achieved, and I lacked his confidence that the life he would live would be worth more than the one I was being forced to give up.

All those moments...

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The Price is Wrong

Last year, I posted about Microsoft's deceptive pricing of the Xbox 360, noting that, although its initial cost was cheaper than the PS3, in order to enjoy the features that all but defined the system (i.e. Xbox Live), you needed to invest, not only in an annual $50 Gold subscription, but also potentially in a $100 wi-fi dongle, since the system possessed no wireless capability by default. Add in the cost of a hard drive if you wanted to download anything, and the cost of the 360 soared into the same extravagent range as the PS3.

Some months later, Sony itself made a much more transparently slanted version of the same argument. Sony did go further, however, to target also the Wii, which, while cheaper, lacked even the options for many of the features basic to the PS3 (e.g. HDMI, movie playback, hard drive).

I thought this was the wrong direction for Sony to take its case, because I seriously doubted that anybody bought a Wii looking for those things. On the contrary, it was apparent to me that, for less than the $399.99 cost of a PS3 80GB, you could get the Wii console ($249.99) together with its best-selling signature titles, Wii Play ($49.99 and includes all-important second Wii Remote) and Wii Fit ($89.99 and includes Balance Board).

But that doesn't mean that Nintendo has been entirely clean. The Wii Remote retails for $39.99. Add in the cost of a $19.99 Nunchuk, and already you have the most expensive first-party controller across the three consoles. For comparison, the DualShock 3 retails for $54.99, while the 360 wireless controller goes for $49.99. To be fair, the Wii system does come with one Nunchuk, and there have been very few multiplayer games that have justified investing in a second.

But now I really want to try the new Wii MotionPlus with Wii Sports Resort. It seems to me, however, that, as was the case with the original Wii Sports, and, indeed, most of my gaming on the Wii, the preferred way to enjoy Wii Sports Resort is as a multiplayer party game. Unfortunately, I'm unwilling to purchase the additional MotionPlus dongles at $19.99 apiece to make that happen. I understand these are sophisticated pieces of technology that I'm getting for my money, but that's still a lot of dough to play one game the way it was intended.

For now, I'm likely stuck waiting until Nintendo sees fit to bundle its accessory with some other games I'm interested in.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

It is now okay to watch FMA: Brotherhood

For anyone who still cares, Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood is now finally into the "new" material. Funimation is presently streaming up to episode 16, while Hulu is on a two-week delay.

Episode 13 was the introduction of Greed, and my own memory of the first series from that point is quite hazy. But the arc concludes rather differently in Brotherhood, as I definitely do not recall Führer King Bradley busting out the twin blades last time. Then, with episode 15, the story fully diverges from the 2003 series.

Kind of an odd feeling watching this show. I was surprised at how pleased I was to see Ed and company back for more adventures. On the other hand, this second take more or less renders the entire latter half of the first series meaningless, which can be difficult to come to terms with, since there was some good stuff in those episodes.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Will the real G-Force please stand up?

I'm sure I'm not the first person to whine about this, but, on this matter, I think there can be no objection too loud.

This is NOT

THIS is G-Force:

AKA Battle of the Planets AKA Gatchaman

One of Tatsunoko's finest, Gatchaman was a 1972 television anime that was adapted for American audiences in 1978 as Battle of the Planets. For many American children of the time, this fondly remembered series was their introduction to anime. In 1986, the same material was then adapted into English a second time as the lesser-known G-Force.

Battle of the Planets was well before my time, and I only ever saw a handful of G-Force episodes, which I did not enjoy. But I did always find the costumes to be some of the coolest and most original in any cartoon or comic. Seeing some more recent Alex Ross interpretations, I was amazed at how well the designs had aged, how well-suited they seemed to Ross's realistic style, which has often made the spandex-wearing DC and Marvel superheroes look sad and ridiculous.

I don't know where Disney gets off trying to take over a title that was already attached these last twenty-three years to an established and well-liked property. But this isn't about Disney stealing the hardly protectable least known, least necessary of Gatchaman's three names. It's about that first time I had to hear some marketing hype about some mysterious "G-Force" trailer, leading me to excitedly picture a new theatrical Gatchaman production, only to find myself subjected to lame jokes about CG gerbils defecating on live-action humans. Unforgivable.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

The Essentials #39: Final Fantasy IX / Final Fantasy X


Final Fantasy IX

Conceived and produced by Hironobu Sakaguchi, and directed by Hiroyuki Ito, 2000's Final Fantasy IX for the Sony PlayStation was to be the culmination of all that had come before, and more specifically the celebratory return to the ways of the classics. The game arrived about a year before Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within practically ruined Sakaguchi's career, along with the old Square that he built, and it's hard to say to what extent he planned FFIX's significance as the end of an era. Perhaps he seriously believed he would become a filmmaker after this. Regardless, as a fond farewell to the preeminent role-playing game series of three console generations, Final Fantasy IX could not have turned out any better.

A rare ninth installment in a numbered series, Final Fantasy IX evoked titles past in its story, aesthetics, and gameplay. It dug back especially to the pre-Yoshinori Kitase entries, trading the urban grit and bleak storylines for a more fanciful narrative and a massive, largely uncharted medieval world full of colorful characters and eccentric non-human cultures.

Combat, still operating on the old Active Time Battle system, would have been instantly familiar to players of VII and VIII, but longtime veterans would have recognized it as a return to the 16-bit titles, restoring the four-man party, slowing down the pace, and removing all the button-tapping that VIII had added. Character classes were also the most distinct they had been since V, and, as in IV, party members had fixed classes.

The main innovation of FFIX came in the form of the "Active Time Events." Clearly inspired by the "Private Actions" of Star Ocean, the ATE system had party members splitting up upon entering a new town. Then, as the player roamed the town as main character Zidane, button prompts would periodically appear, allowing you to cut to scenes of some of the other characters doing their own things, either alone or interacting in small groups. Similar also to the skits of Tales or the dining conversations of Grandia, the ATE system added much to character development by offering usually humorous glimpses of the party members just being themselves outside the serious matters of the main quest. It also solved the problem of how to keep supporting party members involved after their introductory subplots were resolved. Thus, while Freya and Amarant were woefully underutilized in the main thread, their clear and consistent personalities still showed occasionally in the ATE scenes. Indeed, due largely to the ATE system, Final Fantasy IX possessed probably the most lovable and well-defined cast of characters in a Final Fantasy game. I can vividly recall the existentially anguished Vivi, the single-mindedly gluttonous Quina, and the smooth yet genuine Zidane. They were perhaps not the most complex or realistic characters, but I would rank them among gaming's most endearing.

This was the first Final Fantasy where I did not bother even trying to get everything out of it. I stayed away from the poorly explained Tetra Master card game as much as I could, did not engage in the globetrotting chocobo side quest, and never faced the hidden boss, who was supposedly one of the most challenging in the series. I would blame my lack of enthusiasm mainly on my getting older and having less time, but it may also have been that I was getting tired of the formula. The game played very much like VII and VIII, but, in recalling the 16-bit titles, it felt actually even a step back in an exhausted engine. The new growth system, attaching spells and abilities to characters' equipment, did not offer the depth or flexibility of the materia or junction systems. Combat was slower, and the random encounter rate far too high, so it wasn't much fun to play. I was in it entirely for the story, which was thankfully one of the best.

I would again insist that FFIX's implementation of the ATE system was narratively groundbreaking, far more so than anything the series has done since. The plot, on the other hand, was, for better or worse, more straightforward and classical than the Kitase titles. I personally appreciated that the story could be epic in scale without being convoluted, and the lucidity of the writing helped to keep it engaging.

A throwback to the crystals plots of the pre-FFVI Hironobu games, FFIX included tons of crowd-pleasing references to past stories, and, for older fans, trying to spot them all became one of the most diverting parts of the experience. The "stage within the stage," which had become a minor tradition ever since the FFVI opera scene, was taken further than ever by having Zidane and his fellow Tantalus thieves posing as actors, even putting on full shows as a cover for their behind-the-scenes law-bending. In surely the weakest twist, however, FFIX even returned the series to its roots in tossing in an ultimate enemy who just showed up out of nowhere in the final moments and seriously started spouting Yoda lines. Well, okay, Ultimecia wasn't much different, but at least she had better dialogue.

Final Fantasy IX did not sell quite as well as VII and VIII. For whatever reason, the characters never attracted the manic fan following of Nomura's designs, and, even among the longtime players it was intended as a celebration for, the game is not often remembered in those great debates over which is the finest numbered Final Fantasy. There are those who do cherish it, however, and Hironobu Sakaguchi and Nobuo Uematsu have themselves each identified FFIX as their favorite entry, the one nearest to Sakaguchi's ideal for what Final Fantasy should be. Personally, I find it hard to argue with them. On the strengths of its characters and story--ever the best aspects of the series--FFIX may very well be the greatest Final Fantasy.

Final Fantasy X

After Final Fantasy IX closed out one era by looking fondly back at the past, 2001's Final Fantasy X for the PlayStation 2 was to signify a move forward for the series on new hardware. With Final Fantasy XI also having already been announced at this point as an MMORPG, the franchise was entering its next phase, as multiple teams were being given the go-ahead to take the series in new and different directions.

To start with, FFX finally did away with the old Active Time Battle system. Toshiro Tsuchida of the Front Mission series was brought on to devise a more strategic engine. The resulting "Conditional Turn-Based Battle" system was actually rather similar to Final Fantasy Tactics, the previous turn-based strategy take on the series. Characters still received turns based on their speed, but all real-time elements were removed, and the time gauge was replaced by a graphical display that showed the order for the next several moves, adjusting dynamically to indicate how the order might be altered depending on the player's next action.

Although only three characters could be on the field, players could switch active party members on the fly during combat. Players would need to do so constantly as well, because these were the most distinctly specialized characters the series had seen since at least FFIV. Even in V and IX, you could often make do with whatever party you liked, but in FFX there was clearly a right character for every job. Tidus's quickness made him the go-to against nimble monsters, Wakka's range and accuracy were invaluable versus winged targets, and Auron's powerful slashes cut through armored enemies. This, combined with the CTB system, made for the most strategic battles in the series.

Characters developed via the "Sphere Grid," which was set up a bit like a board game, where the party members progressed along winding roads of connected spheres, earning stat upgrades and skills along the way. Although all characters shared the same grid, they started at remote ends of it, surrounded most closely by the spheres bestowing the skills appropriate to their default "classes." By the end of my playthrough, I still hadn't gotten any of the characters to their own highest-level techniques, so it would have taken an impractical investment to subvert their innate designs. The exception was Kimahri, who started in the middle of the grid with no clear identity, leaving the player to choose which of the other characters' paths to steer him toward. Because I sensed that Lulu's poor speed would eventually make her too great a liability even when her black magic was called for, I opted to train Kimahri as a mixed mage to take her place, with disastrous results.

As was the case with FFIX, I no longer had the energy by this point to fully explore it all, but hardcore players had plenty more to occupy them in FFX. The major subgame was "blitzball," the most popular (and only) sport in the game's world of Spira. Playing like underwater water polo crossed with a menu-based JRPG, it was badly designed and unintuitive. It didn't help that, right off the bat, the game expected you to lead the worst players in the league to victory against the number one team. I'll admit, though, after forcing myself to play a few more matches, I managed to grasp the exploits, and it afterward became almost addictive. The other minigame challenges--catching butterflies, dodging lightning strikes, steering uncooperative chocobos--were far more horrendous.

The most significant addition in Final Fantasy X was the introduction of voice acting into the series. Pretty decent overall, it had its rough moments, with Tidus's annoying voice and Yuna's insane stop-and-go inflections being particularly unfortunate. The absolute worst thing about FFX, however, was that, for whatever misguided reason, Square decided to allow the player to rename main character Tidus. I had always felt that renaming the strictly defined characters of JRPGs was stupid anyway, but in FFX, there was the additional problem that the voice acting obviously could not adjust to suit whatever bizarre name the player might possibly input. To get around this, the game just never had his name spoken aloud. This led to all manner of transparently awkward dialogues where characters would avoid referring to him by name. As a result, characters would often unintentionally sound as though they were trying to disguise the fact that they were talking about Tidus. Worst of all was when Yuna would refer to him as simply "the newest member of the blitzball team," which was apparently the best they could come up with. (I think even calling him just "guv" would have been preferable.) After committing to this mistake, Square even had to carry it over into the sequel. At least they spoke his name in the Kingdom Hearts series, albeit they pronounced it differently with each game. *sigh*

Elsewhere on the audio side, Nobuo Uematsu had perhaps finally reached his limit after composing about five CDs worth of music for FFIX. For FFX, Square gave him some help by adding in-house composers Masashi Hamauzu and Junya Nakano to the team. I was familiar with each man's past work, so it struck me as a rather odd combination to put them on the same game together along with Nobuo. Hamauzu's SaGa Frontier 2 work had a very distinct sound. He was one of the only Square composers to make heavy use of piano, and while half of the time it was beautiful, I found the other half to be self-indulgent discordant chaos. FFX sadly showed off the uglier side of Hamauzu. Nakano's work on Threads of Fate was more atmospheric, and his FFX contributions were competent but forgettable. Don't get me wrong, I'm not calling these guys hacks, and Nobuo himself still managed to sneak in some of his best work, but if you were a longtime fan, you would definitely have felt that something was off with this game. Not only did FFX sound jarringly inconsistent at times due to the different styles, but it really drove home just how integral Nobuo's music had been to past Final Fantasy experiences. No matter how accomplished his replacement, you could never expect to fool a player who had grown up listening to his melodies.

After the sharp storytelling of FFIX, FFX was a return to the style of VII and VIII--a mix, in other words, of melodrama, metaphysics, and obfuscations. Set in a world ravaged for the last thousand years by "Sin"--more a force of nature than a traditional villain--it was the most epic tale yet, and, infuriatingly, much of the in-game mythology was barely "in-game" at all. Seemingly vital details on the story behind Sin and Spira could only by gleaned by optionally listening to the long-winded tales of the NPC Maechen.

That said, the story, still head and shoulders above nearly every contemporary JRPG, was the best reason to play the game. Yielding one of the most famous pre-rendered cut scenes in gaming, the bittersweet romance of Tidus and Yuna may have been a better realization of the "love" theme that was supposed to exist in FFVIII. But I was more intrigued by Tidus's daddy issues. Certainly, this was a new theme to video games. FFX's primary conflict was really one that had the protagonist struggling internally to reconcile his own memories of a negligent father with everyone else's image of a man celebrated as a star and hero. The transformative journey was one where Tidus and Yuna arrived to step out of their parents' shadows to become themselves, while also coming to terms with their mythic fathers who seemingly chose the world over them. Saving the world is always gratifying, but seeing Tidus and Yuna resolve their more personal arcs together was here the more vital experience.

Although Final Fantasy X may have been perceived originally as the start of a new era, after FFIX had given the older model a fitting sendoff, in hindsight it played out more like the end of one era followed by the end of another. It's hard to believe that it's been eight years since this game came out, because, truthfully, I don't think there's been a bigger JRPG release since.

Additional Information

Final Fantasy X was the first Final Fantasy to receive a true sequel, and, more than a cheap spinoff, there are even those who consider Final Fantasy X-2 to be equal in scale and standing to a proper numbered installment. Conceived partially to recoup Square's investment on the first game by recycling the assets, FFX-2 nevertheless brought back much of the key staff, minus Nobuo Uematsu. The story was apparently more lighthearted than usual, but I've heard good things about its take on the Active Time Battle system. Even so, I haven't been able to bring myself to play it, because, to me, FFX's was the perfect ending to that story.

Friday, July 24, 2009

BlazBlue: Calamity Trigger

I almost consider fighting games a separate hobby altogether from the rest of my gaming, which must be why I seem to end up collecting all of them despite the fact that I can't play most worth a damn.

BlazBlue: Calamity Trigger is the latest 2-D fighting game from Arc System Works, developer of the Guilty Gear series. Indeed, it is very much the successor to Guilty Gear, now that that series is mired in rights uncertainties.

As one should expect from this team, it's an extremely technical fighter full of weird hand-drawn characters. The twelve-character roster is on the small side, but this is the first installment in a new series, and, as in Guilty Gear, every fighter is distinct. And while it's a bit early (and I'm a bit underqualified) to be discussing game balance, BlazBlue probably includes more viable characters than the average Capcom or SNK title, as it attempts to equip each with some unique and powerful option to exploit, so that even weaker fighters can stand at least a puncher's chance. That's assuming you can figure out how to wield it, because this is still a good deal more complicated than your typical Street Fighter.

Distilled to its essential theory, Street Fighter is a game of "knock the other guy down, and keep knocking them down." I mean that literally. Experts will have more effective means of scoring the knockdown, but even novices will quickly realize that low roundhouse is a near-universal sweep, and they can consequently enter a match with a target around which to focus their game plan. Thus, even at low levels, rarely does Street Fighter ever truly devolve into button mashing. King of Fighters, like most Street Fighter clones, can be approached the same way, so a complete newcomer to KoF can play that game off Street Fighter experience. They may not play it well, but they'll at least grasp the theory. Marvel vs. Capcom 2, perhaps the only other fighting game I can play, comes down to "keep calling anti-air assist so that the other guy can't fight back."

Guilty Gear differs in that there is no obvious overarching tactic that applies at all levels and with all characters. It's closer to the 3-D fighting games in that, once you're in there, it's pretty much "have your combos down, or get mashing." The result is a technical showcase at high levels, and a pretty shallow experience at low levels, with a tremendous barrier between the two.

Arc clearly tried to make BlazBlue a little more accessible by including the "Drive" button, essentially a dedicated special button that provides instant access to each character's signature technique. In addition to showing off just how distinct the different fighters' styles are, it can give beginners a single button to center their game around, similar to the low roundhouse or the MvC2 assist. Within a few seconds of play, you can start to appreciate Noel's Kyo Kusanagi-esque branching offense, v-13's omnidirectional projectiles, or Taokaka's tremendous pouncing attacks. Other characters, however, such as Carl Clover and Hakumen are much harder to manipulate, and, overall, I'd say that BlazBlue is more Guilty Gear than Street Fighter. The Drive attacks give you some idea of each character's individual potential, but it still takes many matches to even begin to understand how to operate and execute within the frenzied dynamic of this game. At low levels, the action is visually exciting and offers enough feedback to input to be fun, but that kind of fun can't last. Then again, most games don't.

Aside from the competitive game, the console release also includes the requisite arcade, challenge (more like survival), and practice modes, as well as a fairly hefty story mode that almost feels like a visual novel, what with its branching paths and reliance on still images. Alas, the story itself is typical fighting game nonsense with a heavy dose of that convoluted Japanese claptrap. It feels like there's a lot of backstory that isn't covered within the game, nor anywhere else that I know of. Instead, dudes just walk around with no clear objectives, then run into other characters and decide to slug it out because that's what they do.

Every time I play one of these crap excuses for a story mode in a fighting game, I can only sigh and point to the PS1 version of Capcom's JoJo's Bizarre Adventure. You might glibly reply that fighting games are designed for versus play, and the single-player experience is purely incidental. But I wonder why that has to be the case. Why are fighting game developers content only to cater to the niche competitive audience? Why do we defend them when they decline to do more? I think also of GoldenEye 007, which is remembered equally for its single-player and versus modes. These days, FPS players pretty much demand, not only that top-tier titles like Halo and Call of Duty include both modes, but that they be superlative in both. It's not even as if it would be difficult to put together a compelling single-player mode in a fighting game. Granted, JoJo had a successful comic for source material, but it was the structure, rather than the plot, that made that story mode great. It was lengthy, varied, and traced a sensible arc that actually explained who the characters were and why they were fighting.

Perhaps even better than implementing a story into a fighter would be integrating the always solid mechanics of fighting games into more conventionally single-player genres. The closest things may be the Tales and Star Ocean JRPG series, with their clearly fighting game-inspired battle systems. But, exciting though those games may be, they are still RPGs first and foremost, with battles determined more by character stats and setups than by player skill.

I would propose a game that would be as story-focused as a JRPG, but which would cut to battles that would take the form of a good fighting game. Not only would I personally find this more satisfying than traditional RPG combat, but I think the dramatic structure of a story-based game would in turn provide a better way for players to learn the technical elements of fighting games. I can imagine the usually annoying beginning tutorial segments here serving to familiarize the player with all the arcane systems that are never adequately explained within fighting games.

The usual quibbles aside, BlazBlue is a deep and attractive fighter designed by and for fans of fighting games and Japanese anime. It's pure and elegant, featuring a sleek interface and with all characters unlocked right off the bat, saving players from wasting time needlessly. It's functional yet full of nice touches and extras, including both Japanese and English audio tracks, a gallery of unlockable artwork, and some bizarre, barely animated bonus stories where super deformed characters explain the world of BlazBlue. They even thoughtfully included the option to switch the confirm and cancel buttons, for those accustomed to the old SNES config. You can't save multiple button configurations like you could in Guilty Gear XX Accent Core Plus, but it's only a four-button game anyway.

On that note, digging into the key config menu revealed the existence of a handy shortcut mode that allows pad players to perform special moves just with the right analog stick. We've seen this in past games, usually in unsuccessful attempts to compensate for inadequate Wii or GameCube control options. In BlazBlue, it's still not to be considered by serious players, but it is a nice option to let casual players in on some quick fun. What especially impresses me is that Aksys doesn't even list it as a selling point on the back of the box. It just sneaks it in there as though it were a standard feature, which it really ought to be.

The value of the package is further increased by what may be the best limited edition treatment I've yet seen. Atlus often includes a sampler music CD with its releases, but, for BlazBlue, publisher Aksys Games gave us the complete two-disc soundtrack. Keep in mind, the music in this game was done by Daisuke Ishiwatari, whose rocking Guilty Gear compositions were one of the best things about that series.

Not stopping with the soundtrack, Aksys also included an instructional video disc. It's an idea that makes a lot of sense, and while I didn't think it was as informative as it could have been--it would have been better to demonstrate tactics by recreating actual match situations--the gesture is greatly appreciated in lieu of any in-game tutorial, which BlazBlue, like just about every other fighting game, still lacks.

Without a doubt, this is the year of the fighting game, and some have positioned BlazBlue as a potential rival for Street Fighter IV, but I have to believe that, on the contrary, it actually gained a significant boost thanks to Capcom reviving mainstream enthusiasm for the genre. At least, I hope that will be the case, both for this and the soon-to-be-released King of Fighters XII. As excited as I was for the return of Street Fighter, I was also well aware that it was only so big a deal because its absence had been so long, and I've since worried that, once people grew tired of the same experience, it would be just as long before another fighting game mattered again, and then only for the nostalgia factor. I'm starting to believe now that maybe these fighting game developers and publishers will be able to keep future releases regular enough, but also dispersed enough and, of course, good enough and distinct enough, to establish the genre as a staple without burning it out before the next major mainstream fighter (Street Fighter IV: Championship Edition for 2010?).

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Perfect Dark Zero

Speaking of mediocre shooters that probably would not have impressed on the GameCube, I recently completed Perfect Dark Zero for the Xbox 360.

Where do I even begin in discussing this game? I'd heard plenty of negativity toward it, but I suppose I played it anyway out of a lingering affection for the N64 original. Alas, playing the 360 prequel just made me sad.

There are two good things in Perfect Dark Zero. The first is the melee combat. In truth, it's typical clumsy and ugly FPS melee combat. But on the easiest difficulty, it was actually the most exciting AND most efficient way to tear through the regular grunts. There were moments when I found myself alone as Joanna Dark, "ViBlade" in hand, facing dozens of gun-toting soldiers, and I liked to imagine the bloody dance that ensued as being reminiscent of Uma Thurman's swordplay in Kill Bill. Pretty satisfying, and that's all there is to be said on the melee combat.

More legitimately interesting were the hacking mini-games. Periodically, the game would present the player with a locked door or crate that would have to be opened electronically by hacking it (or sometimes blowing it up) via one of a few different short and simple puzzle mini-games. These brought to mind the treasure chest puzzles from the Onimusha series, and I guess BioShock and other games have included similar elements. Where Perfect Dark Zero got cool, however, was in the very few instances when, in the co-op mode, the game would instruct a player to begin hacking even while enemies were still present. That would leave the other player to take on all the fighting and cover their partner long enough for them to get through the puzzle uninterrupted. I think this happened three times, and none of them quite worked properly--my partner and I seemed to always exterminate the enemies before even figuring out what to hack--but it was a cool idea nonetheless.

In fact, I had a similar idea for my dream take on Resident Evil Outbreak. I envisioned that, within a cooperative team arrangement, certain characters would be limited to non-combat skills like lock picking or computer hacking, which would take the form of short puzzles. I imagined a scenario where the team would be backed up against an electronically locked door, leaving one player to hack the lock while the others fended off hordes of zombies. They would have to buy as much time as possible for the hacker to figure out the puzzle, but they would not be able to hold back the infinite zombies indefinitely, so the puzzle specialist would likewise have to work quickly. It would introduce a thrilling element of absolute co-dependency, while also allowing players of different genres and enthusiasm levels to play together. A casual player having little experience with action games, but who occasionally enjoyed idling away at something like Bejeweled, could still fill a crucial role within this dynamic alongside their more hardcore friends. I digress, of course, as Perfect Dark Zero is definitely not that dream game of mine.

The saddest thing about Perfect Dark Zero is, not that it looks like crap next to true (post-Gears of War) current-gen shooters, but that, in so many ways, it feels like a step back from the N64 game. Perfect Dark Zero's improvements include mid-mission checkpoints, the ability to revive your partner in co-op play, and a far more reasonable endgame. In almost every other respect, it is a lesser title.

GoldenEye 007 and the original Perfect Dark were among the first shooters to blend stealth elements into the design, but the mission variety in this game is far more limited. Gone are the silent assassinations and undercover ops. The soft approach never works in this game. Even if you manage to get the jump on a single frustratingly helmeted foe, his death will always alert all other guards to your presence. Ultimately, it comes down to stage after stage of guns blazing, and the game struggles to keep that interesting. The weapon selection in Perfect Dark Zero is very limited, with even basic grenades only showing up late in the campaign. While the first game's story was nothing amazing, Perfect Dark Zero's seems like a complete afterthought, full of loose ends while barely explaining how characters get from one location to the next.

Despite having been warned about Perfect Dark Zero's mediocrity, I still came away disappointed. I expected more, but it seemed like Rare actually lost a few steps in those five years between the first game and its followup. It will take a lot for me to care about any future Perfect Dark titles.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Who cares about The Conduit?

High Voltage Software's Wii first-person shooter, The Conduit, was released just under a month ago, and early word has it that sales have been mediocre at best. Some Wii fans see this as the distressing final proof that original, enthusiast-oriented IP cannot succeed on the platform. As an enthusiast gamer myself, I am here to say that I am not at all distressed. Let it be known that this was NEVER the sort of game I wanted on the Wii.

No, I haven't played it. I haven't played it because it looks irredeemably generic. Enduring endless previews every single month in Nintendo Power leading up to the game's release, not only did I feel it looked unimpressive next to current PS3/360 shooters, but I didn't think it would have stood out even back on the GameCube. The art, characters, story--everything about the game just seemed so utterly uninspired.

As far as I could tell, any attention it received was only because it was a first-person shooter designed for the Wii. This perceived hole in the Wii library is meaningless, in my opinion, because anyone remotely interested in this kind of game, whether or not they have a Wii, should own a PS3 or 360 (or stick to PC). Maybe The Conduit does boast better control than any PS3/360 shooter, but that wouldn't come close to making up for all that the game lacks. I own all three consoles, and I can honestly say that I never find myself wishing that more of the PS3/360 shooters I play had been designed for the Wii instead.

More broadly, who even still cares about getting "hardcore" games on the Wii? Sure, we all want new installments in Nintendo's own franchises, but why does the system really need hardcore third-party exclusives? Mind you, I bought No More Heroes, MadWorld, and even The House of the Dead: Overkill. I'm not sure at what point rail shooters became hardcore, but, as for the other two, there frankly isn't any compelling argument that can be made for why those games should have been Wii exclusives. I'm not saying that they suffered as a result, but I no longer see the sense in judging Wii titles just by Wii standards.

With even Final Fantasy and Metal Gear going multiplatform, the PS3 vs. 360 war has become inane. But the Wii does not exist in a bubble, because, I say again, no true hardcore gamer would limit themselves to only owning a Wii. I look at my library and I no longer perceive it in three divisions. It is all one collection now, and The Conduit competes for a place on that wall, not against Wii fare like Petz: Horse Club and Imagine Fashion Party, but against eminent first-person shooters like Halo, Killzone, and Call of Duty.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

The Essentials #38: Final Fantasy VII


This was the one that changed everything. Developed by Square and originally published by Sony Computer Entertainment in 1997 for the Sony PlayStation, Final Fantasy VII was the game that established both companies as powerhouses in the industry. Following the arrival of this one title, PlayStation would go undisputed as the leading platform through two console generations, while Square's Final Fantasy series would be one of the system's key exclusives through those years of dominance.

Although the transition to Sony's hardware meant a shift for the series from 2-D sprites to polygons, Final Fantasy VII barely qualified as 3-D. In truth, it was not really any spectacular processing power of the PlayStation that the game took advantage of, but rather the CD-ROM media format, which Square used to store the tons of pre-rendered background graphics and cut scenes. Although the polygonal characters were generated in real time, the environments they navigated were actually all flat 2-D images, only occasionally offering depth by allowing players to move their characters toward the horizon line. It was a style that Square and many other companies utilized to produce visually impressive games that were deceptively far beyond where real-time graphics were actually at.

The pre-rendered movie sequences were still being used fairly sparingly. Like its predecessors, FFVII relied primarily on text and limited animation to tell its story, usually cutting to the movies for action sequences that were beyond the PS1's power to generate in real time. It could be jarring to have the characters constantly alternating between the squat, blocky models during exploration mode, the more realistically proportioned characters during battle, and the yet more detailed and smoother pre-rendered characters of the movie sequences. Perhaps because the project was so large, requiring the contracting of multiple outside teams to provide assistance at the expense of consistency, there were even a few cases where the pre-rendered characters were inexplicably super deformed. Subtler but more impressive were the inclusions of frequent smaller background cinematics that were more organically integrated into the experience, resulting in some stunning sequences where pre-rendered environments would seamlessly transition into pre-rendered animated movies, while the player remained able to move the character around.

The true 3-D elements were primarily in the battle graphics, which is where, over a decade later, the game looks really rough and dated. Not only did Tetsuya Nomura take over as character designer, but he was also credited as "Battle Visual Director." I'm not sure what that means, but the game did feature some intense battle visuals that may have been an early precursor to the Nomura action style as seen in such projects as Kingdom Hearts II and Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children. Rather than just cutting directly to different angles and closeups as characters attacked, the dynamic camera would rapidly swing around and zoom into the next shot. Such tricks would not be possible working with actual cameras in live action, and I was pleased to see a video game exceeding the limits of its cinematic inspirations instead of merely imitating them.

It's not the gameplay that most people remember Final Fantasy VII for, but its mechanics may have been one of its strongest aspects. Combat still operated on the Active Time Battle system, although the pace had been sped up considerably. Character development differed from previous installments in that, while party members still gained experience and levels, magic and skills were actually attached to equipped "materia," which grew independently and could be swapped among characters. Different materia could be fit onto weapons and armor to endow their holders with various traditional spells, techniques, and other abilities, allowing the player to transform nondescript characters into the mages, knights, thieves, etc. of past installments. But the real meat of the system lay with the "support" materia.

These had no effect on their own, but, depending on the number and nature of materia slots on a character's equipment, they could be linked with magic or command materia. In order for the "Ice" magic materia to target multiple foes, for example, it needed to be linked with the "All" support materia. Alternatively, linking "Ice" with the "Elemental" materia and attaching both to a weapon would infuse a fighter's basic attacks with the ice element, thereby removing the necessity for an actual "Ice Brand" sword as in previous games. But the combinations could get a lot crazier than that. If you linked "Ice" with the "Added Cut" materia, a character would attack with their weapon after each casting of Ice. If you further linked an additional "Ice" each to the "Steal as well," "HP Absorb," and "MB Absorb" materia, the character could cast the spell, follow with an attack, and then attempt to steal from the enemy, also absorbing a bit of health and MP out of the damage inflicted. But why stop there? Add in a "W Magic" command materia, and the character would go through the entire process twice in one turn. With plenty more materia to experiment with, the game surpassed even Final Fantasy V in offering the deepest and most flexible system yet. On the other hand, you really didn't have to get that devious just to make it through the game, which is probably why the materia system doesn't quite get due credit these days for having been so ingenious.

While most of the power lay in the materia, the characters themselves were distinguished by their "Limit Break" desperation attacks, which sometimes differed considerably across characters. Vincent's, for example, essentially transformed him for the rest of the battle into the berserker class of previous installments, while Cait Sith's were basically Setzer's old gambler tricks from Final Fantasy VI. For the other characters, the Limit Breaks were usually just big attacks. One of the irritating failings of the system was that the game never clearly explained how to acquire new Limit Break skills.

FFVII is perhaps better remembered for its infamous translation, which was sometimes hilarious, often embarrassing. It was far from the worst Japanese-to-English work, nor anywhere close to Square's worst translation, but there were some blatant errors, as well as some confusing phrasing that could legitimately interfere with the player's understanding. For example, during the very first boss fight, Cloud would warn Barret to watch out for the scorpion mech's tail: "Attack while it's tail's up! It's gonna counterattack with its laser." Ignoring any technical errors, it's hard to tell what Cloud is actually saying. He seems at first to suggest attacking the beast, but then the second line warns that the boss will counterattack. So is attacking while its tail is up a good idea or not? (It's not.) These problems would crop up throughout the game, and they would not be isolated to instructional dialogue.

It's difficult to say to what extent the spotty translation compromised the story, which would have been confusing in any case. While I'm sure the sloppy work didn't help, this was the beginning of a new period of deliberately confounding plots and storytelling in Final Fantasy. Kazushige Nojima and Yoshinori Kitase were credited with the story, but the opening credits elaborate that it was "Based on the story" by Hironobu Sakaguchi and Tetsuya Nomura. My rough understanding, based on reading interviews with the key men involved, is that Sakaguchi, with input from Nomura, provided the early concepts and the first script that basically comprised the Midgar episode. Kitase, receiving vague instruction from Sakaguchi to focus on the theme of "life," then heavily revised and expanded it into the core "Cloud vs. Sephiroth" plot, which Nojima then fleshed out into a proper JRPG-length script. Given that this was Kitase's first project as sole director, as well as the first time Nomura held so prominent a position, it's easy to attribute the mind-bending direction to the new blood. But consider the Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within movie, which was Sakaguchi's pet project, with a metaphysical plot bearing myriad similarities to FFVII. If Final Fantasy had morphed into something different from what longtime fans were accustomed to, it's likely that all of these men were collectively culpable.

That said, the story was the very reason that so many players fell in love with Final Fantasy VII. Massive in scope and scale, yet intimate in its focused presentation and haunting ambiance, there was more to FFVII's story that I've forgotten than most games in their entireties ever have to say. But there are some moments that I'll probably always remember.

Perhaps surprisingly in retrospect, the wheelchair cinematic notwithstanding, all of Final Fantasy VII's greatest moments were enacted by the crude, pudgy real-time models, seen as shrimpish Lego people from the same distant angles that were usually meant to facilitate map exploration. To me, the greatest scene in FFVII came midway during the first of its three discs, when Cloud and party stopped at Aeris's house to inform her mother, Elmyra, that Aeris had been taken by the enemy. Elmyra, who saw this coming, would then proceed to tell the story of who her daughter really was.

I consider this episode to have been this game's equivalent to the opera scene from Final Fantasy VI. Though perhaps dissimilar in content, the sequence exhibited the same all-encompassing mastery in constructing a moment. Evoking pages of a storybook more so than a film reel, images would dissolve into light, and spaces--interiors suspended in limitless black expanses, just like in the 2-D games--would slide across the screen as years flashed by and Elmyra narrated her daughter's growth from a helpless orphan into the willful flower girl that would force her way into Cloud's party.

Years before they considered implementing voice acting in a Final Fantasy, Hironobu and team turned as always to Square's resident maestro, Nobuo Uematsu, to carry the scene with his music. And, just as he had in FFVI delayed the first in-game occurrence of Celes's theme, opting not to have it accompany her introduction, as had been the case with the other characters' leitmotifs, in order to attach it more meaningfully to her defining moment in the opera, it was now this FFVII scene, and not Aeris's introduction, that would first feature the track titled "Aeris's Theme."

It's always been hard with these Final Fantasy games to tell whether the adventures transpire over months, weeks, or even just days. We get the sense that we are sharing in the lives of these characters briefly, but for their most vital periods. With Final Fantasy VII, Square invited players to observe a character's life in stages, from its beginning to its premature end, and then had the gall to carry on. Aeris's death remains probably the most famous in gaming, and it had become common knowledge years before I played the game. Sometimes I envy those who were able to go into FFVII unspoiled, to have known Aeris without having to always think about her fate. On the other hand, it can be even more affecting to return to a story, experiencing scenes in a new context with knowledge beforehand of how things will turn out. And so it was that, from the first few notes of Nobuo's composition--in fact, the same three notes that began "Aria di Mezzo Caraterre"--I got the sense that I was witnessing something special.

I remember reading an interview many years ago where Hironobu Sakaguchi summarized his position on gaming's potential by insisting that you could put a movie in a game, but you could not put a game in a movie. Skeptics would likely scoff at such pretentiousness, while self-proclaimed purists might echo Shigeru Miyamoto's sentiment that video games must be about having fun. While I have enormous respect for Miyamoto's skill as a game designer, I would take issue with any one man defining for others what video games are or ought to be. Technically, Sakaguchi was right in that you can make a movie and then build a game around it. That is essentially the very ambition that his former series still carries even after his departure. Final Fantasy VII reached further than any game before it toward that vision, for, although it could never be mistaken for a film, it did feature a story and storytelling that engaged players, arousing emotions as good films are expected to, yet even good games rarely do.

Additional Information

Perhaps because it ended in such an unsatisfying manner, but more likely because there was more milk to be had, post-Hironobu Square Enix would expand FFVII into its own series, first announcing the Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children movie in 2003.

Helmed by Nomura and Kitase, the movie also brought back Nojima, Uematsu, and art director Yusuke Naora for a direct sequel to the game. It's debatable whether Advent Children actually provided a better conclusion to the story than FFVII's own cryptic ending, but I enjoyed how the movie managed to adapt the overblown yet curiously protracted combat of video game battles to establish a new style of action. For obvious reasons, it was a far less substantial experience than the game, however, and despite the involvement of so many of the original creators, I had a hard time buying it as canonical. Perhaps it was my idealized memory of FFVII, and not the reality of the game, that the movie failed to live up to.

In addition to the movie, the "Compilation of Final Fantasy VII" has included several minor video games, the relevant ones for North America being Dirge of Cerberus (2006) for the PlayStation 2 and Crisis Core (2008) for the PlayStation Portable.

I haven't personally played either of the games, but Dirge of Cerberus looked like a pretty wretched Japanese take on the first-person shooter. A semi-sequel/prequel, it did flesh out Vincent's story, which had always seemed incomplete in the original game, but, although the flashbacks impressively managed not to contradict the old material, the new stuff seemed loonier by far than FFVII ever had been.

The secret ending to Dirge of Cerberus seemed to point toward another sequel, but there doesn't seem to be anything more in the works right now.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Who is watching 07-Ghost?

Earlier this week, while perusing the anime torrent trackers, I noticed that fansub groub Dattebayo's release of episode fifteen of 07-Ghost was reporting over four thousand simultaneous downloads, along with close to seven thousand seeds. For reference, the average semi-popular new anime usually peaks at less than two thousand simultaneous downloads. 07-Ghost's numbers were by far greater than any other spring show, significantly higher than new episodes in the "phenomenon" that is The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya. Based on my crudely assembled data, total transfers have been more comparable to but still slightly higher than for the season premiere of TNT's Leverage, one of cable's highest rated shows and presently the most torrented mainstream television program. The only show I could find that ranked higher was fansubbed Bleach. (New Naruto is freely available on almost every streaming site now, so it's no longer a factor in the torrent scene.)

Naturally, I was curious about this 07-Ghost, about which I had heard almost nothing. After watching the first two episodes, what did I get? The show's really not that great. In fact, it kinda sucks. Featuring a cast of generic prettyboy cliches of the very sort that Ouran High School Host Club effortlessly lampooned, student uniforms ripped straight out of Code Geass (along with the flowing robes that were already obnoxious in Trinity Blood), and a typically nonsensical fantasy plot pitting an emotionally damaged young hero against unabashedly evil shadow men, it doesn't even look or sound good. Complete garbage, there doesn't seem to be a speck of originality in it. Is it possible that it gets progressively better, to the point that episode fifteen might actually be the best anime of the year? I don't expect I'll hang around to find out, but, anyway, the answer is no.

These torrent numbers can be interesting to watch as a way to track the pulse of the anime fan community in the English-speaking world, where it remains so niche that, unless you're depraved enough to frequent the otaku forums, it's hard to get recommendations for what's worth viewing among shows that are still current. You could wait for series to get officially licensed to see which ones are more heavily promoted, but the domestic market has crashed, in my opinion, not because the fad has passed, but because the digital-age fans have grown savvier. These days, the anime fan is not the kid getting his parents to buy Dragonball or Naruto DVDs. Provided you know what you want, a motivated individual can and will find ways to keep up with the latest out of Japan, and even if you steer clear of forums, there's an excitement and a near-tangible energy that builds week-after-week as you wait in sync with other fans to see a show like Gundam 00 march toward its conclusion. By the time the series officially makes it to America, most of that energy will have dissipated.

In practice, I don't know that the download numbers are particularly meaningful, especially since many of the bigger shows these days get licensed immediately for online streaming through more official channels, thereby rendering fansubs somewhat obsolete. Still, that's a lot of downloads for a show of no redeeming qualities that I could see. I have to ask, who the hell are these people that are watching 07-Ghost?

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Agony and Ecstasy

I previously mentioned that the company had set up an exhibit wall in the laboratory for employee use. At the time, I perceived most of the displays as the unrealized dreams of my ground down fellow humans. In the months since then, I've grown personally more enthusiastic. I've seen some pretty great stuff--paintings, knickknack collections, even musical compositions--that has left me thoroughly convinced that these people are far more than their jobs. No lie, it really does bring a smile to my face to think that, when their shifts end, they go off to spend the bulk of their days living as they ought to.

This week brought an especially intriguing exhibit, initially announced as a "cake gallery." As it turned out, it was just a wall of photographs of cakes baked and designed by a few of my co-workers. Cute, but I was honestly a little disappointed by the tease, until I received an interoffice e-mail from the gallery organizer, promising edible cake from contributors throughout the week. Sure enough, the first batch of cupcakes arrived in less than an hour. It may have been a bad idea to consume cake so early in the morning, as I crashed pretty quickly, and the already long Monday dragged more than usual. Tuesday was possibly even longer, however, because I was left waiting in anticipation of cake that never manifested.

I had all along thought it foolishness to promise cakes "throughout the week." Were these fine ladies really going to work eight hours of a thankless job, then go home and work some more on baking for a gang of ungrateful cake-eaters who had hardly any appreciation for the subtleties of the craft? The project was born out of a wide-eyed optimism that these dilettantes might be coaxed to recognize and share in the obscure passion. But the folly of it should have become evident on the first day of freeloaders passing by to collect treats while offering little in the way of insightful commentary on the collected albums of designs. Surely, I thought as I sat there disappointed, the poor women had learned their lesson and lost their enthusiasm.

Yes, I must have been suffering from withdrawal; such is the power of sweets over one's mood. Fortunately, today one of those wonderful ladies swung it back in the other direction by unveiling a full-blown three-tier cake. And the world seems so beautiful...

Goodness! It seems I've gone on and on only to brag about having eaten cake! My apologies. But I wonder what tomorrow will bring...

Saturday, July 11, 2009

The Essentials #37: Final Fantasy IV / V / VI

Square's Final Fantasy IV was the first of three 16-bit installments in the series. Released in North America in 1991 as "Final Fantasy II" for the Super Nintendo Entertainment System, this marked what many fans still consider to have been the series's prime. I played about halfway through the SNES version, only later finishing the game when Square released a port as one-half (the other half being Chrono Trigger) of Final Fantasy Chronicles for the Sony PlayStation in 2001.

Development was led by Hironobu Sakaguchi and Takashi Tokita, while Nobuo Uematsu and Yoshitaka Amano filled their usual respective music and art roles. In charge of battle design, Hiroyuki Ito debuted his "Active Time Battle" system.

A departure from the turn-based battling common among Japanese RPGs of the time, the ATB system lent combat an action-oriented twist. Rather than having the player set all actions at the beginning of a round, individual characters' turns were determined by their speed rating, with faster party members (and enemies) able to act sooner and more frequently. Battles felt more dynamic, and the system also tested the player's decisiveness in inputting actions quickly, since the ATB clock did not stop while they deliberated.

Final Fantasy IV's gameplay has been accused of being the simplest of any Final Fantasy to date. Not only would the player have zero control over the party's constantly changing composition, but characters also developed in a completely linear fashion. This left the player little freedom and almost no input, aside from taking on enough fights to keep the party at the proper level. The complaints are valid, but these design decisions had benefits as well. Making the characters distinct and consistent in battle lent them greater personality out of combat. You got the sense that, as warriors, Cecil and Kain were as powerful as their subordinates claimed, while Rydia, a little girl, would be far less so. The adventure was driven by its tightly woven script, rather than by a compulsion to provide balance or flexibility, allowing the narrative and gameplay to complement one another as no other Final Fantasy ever had or would. Meanwhile, the five-character party, still the largest in a numbered installment, yielded some layered strategy, with each member assigned a role against probably the series's toughest bosses.

The story, about the technologically dominant kingdom of Baron's ruthless pursuit of four magical crystals, was not the deepest or most original. The crystals were already a series staple, and the plot otherwise borrowed liberally from Star Wars. But gaming had never witnessed such a grand, riveting story full of betrayals, redemption, and noble sacrifices, as well as some of the most complex heroes yet proposed in gaming. The dark knight Cecil was the conflicted protagonist, who had done cruel deeds under orders that he was beginning to question. Even more troubled was his best friend, the dragoon Kain, one of the series's most iconic characters, whose envy of Cecil's life was a private torment. As the story began, they made for a pretty menacing pair. Their faces were even concealed beneath some mean headgear. And the player's very first mission led to them burning down a village that offered little resistance. Granted they were tricked into doing so against their wills, but there was little doubt that they were on the wrong side. This was some dark and unprecedented stuff.

In a lot of ways, Final Fantasy IV may have been my favorite in the series. Its linearity and simplicity, which some might call weaknesses, actually made it the most playable and replayable installment, consequently the easiest to like.

Additional Information

The original North American release was actually modified to be easier than the Japanese release. I've played enough of both to say that the differences were negligible. Mostly, the SNES edition dispensed with a bunch of largely useless abilities, such as dark knight Cecil's "Dark Wave."

The PS1 port appended crude, roughly Final Fantasy VII-quality CG movie sequences to the beginning and end. The opening depicted the Red Wings taking off before the game's proper beginning, while the ending sequence was a music video of sorts, showcasing some of the highlights in pre-rendered 3-D.

Another port (pictured above) arrived on the Game Boy Advance in 2005, adding slightly enhanced graphics, new optional dungeons, and the ability to swap in old party members for the final dungeon.

In 2008, Final Fantasy IV got the full 3-D remake treatment for the Nintendo DS. Players also finally got some customization options for character development in the form of the "Augment" system. I haven't played much of it, but, new graphics aside, the maps seem much the same.

Most recently, there was an actual sequel called Final Fantasy IV: The After Years released in installments to Japanese mobile phones in 2008. I don't know much more, but it's still in the process of being released via WiiWare to North America.

Originally released in 1992 for the Super Famicom, Final Fantasy V would not see release in North America until 1999, when Square compiled it with Final Fantasy VI as part of Final Fantasy Anthology for the Sony PlayStation. That was the version that I played.

Perhaps because it missed its own prime release window, FFV has never been as celebrated in the West as its 16-bit siblings. But that reasoning might suggest that the fans' love of those titles is driven by nostalgia, which they would not have for FFV.

In its own time, the game was deemed "too difficult" for Western audiences, which was why it was passed over for localization until many years later. FFV was not really a harder game than FFIV, but it was for sure less intuitive than its incredibly straightforward predecessor. Combat was much the same as before, only adding the "ATB Bar" to allow the player to actually see when a character's turn was coming up. But the key feature of FFV was Hiroyuki Ito's "Job" system, which allowed party members to switch between different character classes unlocked during the course of the game. It had roots in the class system of the original Final Fantasy, which had been further expanded upon in Final Fantasy III. But FFV, while retaining many of the same classes, was a massive upgrade over its predecessors.

Through winning battles, characters would earn Ability Points to unlock new skills in their current jobs. The true beauty of the system, however, was that, when characters changed jobs and took on the abilities inherent to the class, they could also still equip any previously earned ability as a secondary skill. Thus, whereas FFIII had basically just provided progressively more powerful classes over the course of its quest, FFV encouraged players to spend some time with every job in order to amass a healthy mix of stats and skills for combining. The ranger's "Rapid Fire" command, for example, was a nifty technique allowing the character to attack four times per turn with the mediocre bow and arrow. But adapted to a much more powerful sword-wielding warrior class like the mystic knight, the skill was several times more potent.

Although the characters were the most versatile in battle, outside of combat they offered nothing close to the depth of Cecil and Kain. The hero, Bartz, a traveling adventurer, was really little more than a simple country bumpkin who became accidentally entangled in world-shattering events. If the story lacked the pathos of its 16-bit siblings, it was nevertheless a well-paced and involved adventure that, like the earlier titles, treated the player to exotic cultures and fantastic sights, most notably the battles on the intercontinental Big Bridge. This would be the last installment where Hironobu Sakaguchi himself assumed the position of director, and it would also be the last Final Fantasy for quite some time to use the crystals plot.

Its champions would argue that Final Fantasy V was the deepest of the 16-bit installments, and, from a gameplay standpoint, I don't think there can be much disputing that claim. With the immensely rewarding Job system, it played better than almost any JRPG before or after. However, it was weaker in the areas for which Final Fantasy titles are traditionally best remembered, and I suspect that is why it is not now more fondly recalled.

Additional Information

As with the PS1 port of FFIV, the Anthology release of Final Fantasy V included new opening and ending cinematics, the former being a short prelude scene, the latter a highlight reel. These were closer to Final Fantasy VIII's movies in CG quality, though not quite there.

It also received a Game Boy Advance makeover in 2006, featuring some upgraded background graphics and a few extra jobs and optional battles. The GBA release also sported a brand new translation that greatly improved upon the sloppy work on the Anthology edition.

Square's final 16-bit installment, Final Fantasy VI arrived in North America in 1994 as "Final Fantasy III" for the Super Nintendo Entertainment System. Again, I did not play it until the PS1 port.

This was the first installment to feature Yoshinori Kitase in the director's chair, alongside Hiroyuki Ito. In many ways, it felt like a transitional game between the Sakaguchi and Kitase titles. While the 2-D graphics were still superficially similar to the older titles, no longer was it a swashbuckling adventure. It traded the wild frontier quality of the earlier games for a grittier, more sophisticated world in conflict.

FFVI's cast of playable characters remains the largest of any numbered installment, and, in a departure from the series, they were all about equally prominent. Instead of one protagonist and a crew of supporting characters, FFVI essentially had eleven main characters. This was not exactly an ensemble cast, however, as characters would simply take turns in the lead. At its best, the story felt massive and infinitely more layered than FFIV, shifting effortlessly from one perspective to the next in episodes that might only subtly intersect. While the official credits obscured this fact, the development team apparently included multiple writers scripting the plots for different characters. Soraya Saga, later an integral contributor to Xenogears and Xenosaga, for example, wrote the stories of the brothers Edgar and Sabin.

Striking a balance between FFIV and FFV, VI returned to giving each character a preset class, but also allowed for some customization via the "Magicite" system. Equipped Magicite crystals taught characters spells and sometimes enhanced specific stats at level-up, allowing a fighter to transform pretty easily into an effective mage. Magic aside, each character possessed one unique ability, although for some characters this encompassed multiple skills.

There was a definite degree of homogeneity to the characters, not only because every party member could learn every spell, but because their special techniques were not all that distinct. Sabin and Edgar had slightly different stats and equipment, but, in practice, their "Blitz" and "Tools" commands allowed them to fill the same heavy-hitter role in a party. Cyan and Shadow offered lesser versions of the same thing. The more unusual abilities, such as Relm's "Sketch" or Mog's "Dance," simply weren't that good. The only uniquely useful ability was Celes's "Runic" command, which could nullify any magic, rendering some spell-casting bosses impotent. It probably didn't help that this was definitely the easiest Final Fantasy yet, and, no matter the party, you could simply "Fight" your way through most battles. And even before working the Magicite system to subvert character classes, there would be an abundance of jack-of-all-trades types, compared to only two bona fide mage characters.

In all previous installments, the player's party at any given time would be determined by the script. That was true for much of FFVI's early portions, but eventually the story would gather the full cast together, allowing the player complete freedom to rotate any out of up to fourteen characters into the four-man party. In lieu of the FFV Job system, this added another element of customization, but it came at great cost to the narrative. Once character swapping became an option, the script could no longer know which specific characters would be present for a particular scene, so it would resort to either generic dialogue or none at all. This meant that characters didn't really say or do much outside of their own subplots. When Cyan joined up with Sabin for a multi-part adventure early on, the partnership provided some amusing interplay. What was their relationship after that quest? There wasn't one.

The story took a rather stunning turn halfway through, when the characters actually failed to stop a cataclysmic event that would leave the world in ruins. Unfortunately, it could be said that the game as a whole went to hell at that point. The entire second half of the game proceeded in an experimental non-linear design. Once the player gained access to the airship, it became possible to head directly to the final dungeon with as few as only three party members. Actually beating the game so soon would be impractical, but the game offered little impetus in any other direction, instead encouraging the player to roam freely around the map in search of old allies. This mechanic may have paved the way for my favorite JRPG series, Suikoden, but, in FFVI, it really stalled the narrative. Not only did I not feel like I was making any headway in the campaign against the main antagonist, but the open-ended progression also made the "personalities on holiday" problem most apparent.

And when characters did progress, I found myself disappointed by the turns, most notably in the case of the reserved and mysterious Terra. The girl riding the mech in the logo, she was the closest the game had to a single main character. The amnesiac daughter of a human and an esper, much of the first half of the game focused on her struggle to discover herself--not only her past, but her future as well. When you met her again in the world of ruin, she had finally found her place as the surrogate mother to a village of children orphaned by disaster. From my perspective, she was walking a path I could no longer understand or follow. I just couldn't relate to it, nor did I wish to. I still can't relate, but I suppose it was brave in a way to stay this course and carry the adolescent protagonist into adulthood that the players might not themselves know for years.

While I personally believe Final Fantasy VI was a more heavily flawed title than its 16-bit predecessors, I can certainly understand why many still hail it as the greatest Final Fantasy. The game was bold. This was never clearer than in the legendary opera sequence. Looking at it now, it's a technically primitive scene--the simple sprites and synthetic voice may not be terribly convincing for a lot of players who didn't see it the first time around. It actually featured crude bits of interactivity. I don't know that the scene benefited from their inclusion, but neither could the clumsy dance mechanics ruin the moment--a moment that was somehow bigger than the story that contained it. This was not an interstitial movie sequence between dungeon excursions. So complete was it that you had to believe that the creators must have conceived of a scene first before building a game around it. When Celes took the stage, all thoughts of empires and espers faded away. There was only the image and the vital instant. Moments like this showed why Square and Final Fantasy were the best. No pretenders building their games to formula could ever have constructed such a scene.

Additional Information

Again, the PS1 version included extra movie sequences, which were roughly of the same quality as FFV's. Pretty cool, but perhaps disappointing in that the scope of the original game meant many characters and scenes could not be represented during the ending highlights.

2007's Final Fantasy VI Advance was probably the most controversial of the GBA releases. Featuring no graphical enhancements, arguably because it didn't need them, the only minor additions were a few new items and battles. More questionable was the apparent softening of some content in deference to a more sensitive Japanese ratings board, while there was some disagreement over how well Tom Slattery's new translation compared against Ted Woolsey's original.