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Conversation 009: Shooting the Shit and E-mails

It may take us six months, but we eventually hit you back with a show…!

When we realized (upon gorging on pizza and beer) that the core group was actually all together at the same time and had a free evening, we decided we may as well just go ahead and record a show! Episode nine of the podcast is the embodiment of everything the show aims to be — a bunch of friends sitting around pontificating about video games. Sometimes we say stupid things and sometimes we say brilliant things, but the end result is a good time, and hopefully with a few guys you want to hear from.

Andrew told us about playing everything from DJ Hero and Civilization IV. Jeff has been playing everything from Angry Birds to Boom Blox. Mike has been playing everything from Heavenly Sword to Final Fantasy 1. You all had e-mails with some top ten lists, and questions about everything ranging from English translation ambivalence to relationship advice.

For your amazing convenience, here are some of the iPhone and PC games we spoke about during the show, as well as one article:

Special thanks to all the folks who hung out with us the other night during the live recording of the episode! After you listen to the show to let us know what you think (and chime in on any of the opinions or questions), let us know how you best want to be notified about new posts and live recordings. Does the site warrant its own Twitter feed? A Facebook fan page? What do you think?

Enjoy! Hopefully we’ll see you again sooner than six months’ time! Expect some blog posts from all of us in the meantime, of course!

“Final Fantasy” (Yeah, That First Game!) Design Choices

So I finished up Chrono Trigger about a week ago. I have written at length about it already, and am wavering on whether or not I want to write any kind of “final thoughts” on the game. I do not have much more to add to the conversation, really — nothing particularly blew me away in the final five hours or so. I did start up a New Game+ and beat it again the instant I showed up at the End of Time. For the record, I received “Ending 5” on that go-’round, which is the one with the Nu critters sleeping over top the credits. How enthralling…!

But this is not about Chrono Trigger, so now for something completely different.

I use the phrase “fall off the wagon” when I talk about Pokémon. While I am far from a super-fan (I do not EV train, and I do not follow every single last bit of news and community events), I do get pretty heavily “into” the games when I play them every few years. Back in October 2008 I wrote about my experience with the games — right now I have ~180 hours logged in FireRed and ~120 hours logged in Pearl (and maybe a negligible ~10 hours sunk into Emerald before I got bored). Other than downloading event critters at GameStop and such, I have not actually “played” any of the games in something like a year and a half, though.

Here is where the drinking analogy comes in: I pre-ordered SoulSilver.

That will be a topic for another post in the future, but it was important information to set up the rest of this post. How it relates to right now is the fact that I have a couple weeks before I pick up the game. I was looking for a shorter RPG to take up my lunch breaks in the meantime.

I decided to go with the very first Final Fantasy. I picked up the Dawn of Souls version on GameBoy Advance a few years ago, but I have never actually played the game before. I played maybe 10 minutes or so on the NES as a kid, but all I remembered was running into the castle and starting an adventure. I know the general story thanks to the GameTrailers retrospective series, but I still wanted to have a game play experience with it all on my own. It just felt like something I should probably do one day.

For those who are curious (because you know you are), my team is as follows: Mike (warrior), Julian (monk), Meri (white mage), Deluxe (black mage).

I am not here to talk about ancient design decisions from Square’s first game in a long-running franchise. To some degree, that would not be fair coming from someone like me. It certainly warrants discussion, but it is not something I am interested in doing and probably would not be able to talk about with the most authority in the world. I know some things are changed, such as the way magic is handled, but I do not know all of the little intricacies. I felt like I could talk about Chrono Trigger in a different light, which is why I gave it so much attention.

Instead, I would like to bring up one of the most ridiculous and misleading design choices in this particular re-release. It is something that should never have been done the way it was, but I will save my own thoughts on the matter for a little bit later.

Let me explain.

I had just made my way through the Cavern of Earth and defeated Lich. I knew what areas of the map I had access to at the moment (by foot and with my pirate ship), and was not sure where I would be heading next. After touching the crystal prize, the game broke away to show a prior location. Oh, OK! I remember the Earthgift Shrine! That was that cave right by Corneria at the beginning of the game. There was a weird demon-looking thing blocking a path. He just faded away. Gotcha! I will head there next!

I headed on in. I grabbed some of the treasure along the way. The next area was a desert. Oh, no! I never like desert areas in Final Fantasy games! After wandering around for a while and catching on to the looping going on, I found my way to the center oasis and the staircase to the next area. I fought and guided my way through yet another area with the additional treasure chests and monsters.

Everything seemed totally fine. The monsters were a somewhat-appropriate level for my characters to fight against, and since I knew I was over-leveled, my triumphs against them did not make me question a single thing about my journey.

Son. Of. A. Bitch.

I was apparently wandering around a re-release-exclusive bonus dungeon, the end of which housed four bosses making cameos from Final Fantasy III. It had absolutely nothing to do with the general progression of the regular game. This cave area does not even exist on the original NES/Famicom-version game map:

Why on Earth would they break away to show me this area so early in the game if it was a bonus dungeon that had nothing to do with the current story progress (especially if I was no match for the bosses)?

I can only chock it up to the fact that the programmers and intended audience (those who had already played the game before, perhaps many times over) were so drastically familiar with the source material that they overlooked such a major presentation flaw. The last time the game cut away to show me a new area opening up was when the bridge to the north was built — there was absolutely no reason to show this bonus cave area at this particular time. It was misleading and time-wasting.

Thankfully, after losing to the first boss I encountered, the game brought me back right outside the cave. Everyone was alive and down to 1 HP, but I was not kicked back to the title screen, and I did not lose all of the experience and items I had gained along the way. That was, perhaps, the only “smart” design decision in this entire game so far.

Let it be known that I still actually have no clue where it is I am going next in the game. The dancing girl in Corneria even told me she has nothing let to say to me right now. Really? You are the single helpful NPC in the game that I thought I could always rely on, and you have nothing else to say to me? Sheesh! Thankfully, I have a bit of help in the form of a blast-from-the-past. Rather than looking up any FAQs, I have an item that I accidentally borrowed from a friend in high school something like ten years ago. I used it to find my way to Lich a little faster, and I suppose I can refer to it one more time. It is absolutely fascinating to look back at the way the characters are depicted (traditional high-fantasty style as opposed to referencing Yoshitaka Amano’s designs) and the verbiage differences between the far-too-few-letter-namings in the NES version as opposed to the re-translated and modern-consistency namings in the GBA re-release.

While I have a huge issue with that one aspect of the game (and one that is only related to the re-release, no less), do not misunderstand — I am having a really fun time exploring this first game. It is crazy that I never got around to playing it.

Will it be one that I complete (III, IV, VII), or one that I ultimately drop (VI, VIII, X)…? I have a good feeling about this one…!

Seven Things That Have Blown Me Away In The Second 10 Hours Of “Chrono Trigger”

I was very concerned as I crossed the 10-hour mark in Chrono Trigger. Those first ten hours were amazingly good on so many different levels. The game had actually managed to deliver everything I wanted and anticipated. I loved the characters, the story, and all of the artistic elements that brought the package together. I commented that after sequences like the raiding of the Fiendlord’s Keep, I was afraid it had blown its proverbial load already, and while the rest of the game would probably be “good”… it would whimper on to the end like many RPGs of the day, hindered by an ever-growing cast of characters, poor pacing, and extraneous side-quests.

Thankfully, my fears were completely unjustified.

(OK, minus this “Inner Sanctum” area which was apparently new for the DS version. That’s pretty awful.)

To be fair, the second ten hours are not as good as the first ten. The game introduces so many of its iconic styles and mannerisms that even when variations on them are introduced with perfect execution later on, they do not have the same impact as the first go ’round. Do not misunderstand — like I said, the game has been amazing, and a “Not Jaw-Droppingly Amazing Chrono Trigger Sequence” is still leaps and bounds above most of the other garbage I have tried before.

It is with this game that I continue to question my gaming habits and supposed preferences. I have dabbled into so many different genres and play styles in the last two years that I no longer feel like I have any particular allegiance to a type of game, or even specific franchises. I joke to the wife how there was a monkey bridge in Link’s Awakening… lo and behold, monkeys come to the rescue as I watch her replay Twilight Princess. I look around in shock, wondering if I’m the crazy one that does not love the play style of New Super Mario Bros. with its floaty-controls. I compare the two above examples, coming down harshly on one series for recycling an old trope, while simultaneously criticizing another for not being familiar enough, and wonder how I can be so hypocritical.

That may be the subject matter for another article in the future, though. For now, Chrono Trigger is the sole subject of my attention.  I sit wide-eyed on the train, during lunch, and on the couch at home as I clutch my DS. A game from 15 years ago — a game that I should have played and yet continuously overlooked — is one of the reasons I have been questioning my supposed gaming affiliations. With 20 hours now sunk into the game, here is a list of things that have blown me away in those second 10 hours. Spoilers are in full effect.

Continue reading

Final Fantasy VIII: The OTHER 9/9/09 Ten Year Anniversary

While the Sega Dreamcast‘s launch on 9/9/99 was a major event in North American entertainment history (and was the sole subject of episode eight of our podcast), there was another big item that came out that day. It came approximately two years after its predecessor, which itself opened up the North American gaming market in a new way. Sure, RPGs (and specifically Japanese-created RPGs) had been around for years and years, including ones from this same series, but it wasn’t until Final Fantasy VII and its immense marketing from Sony and Squaresoft that the North American market for the games blew wide open.

So how about that Final Fantasy VIII…?

ff8_cover

The game launched the same day as the Dreamcast in North America, and while it did not receive as major an advertising campaign as VII, and it may have primarily been the VII crowd (as opposed to the VI-and-prior crowd) looking forward to it, gamers certainly knew it was coming. VIII took things even further than its predecessor in a variety of ways, thanks to the lessons learned during development. Characters were portrayed as “full-scale” at all times (CG or otherwise), as opposed to VII‘s mix of “super-deformed” polygons and “realistic” cut-scenes. The ATB system was carried forward, but combined with the new “Draw” system for magic, it was an entirely new battle experience.

While I picked up VII at launch, I did not get around to picking up and playing VIII until PS1 games were just about gone from retailers. I grabbed the game for $15 at Best Buy (“Greatest Hits”, of course) whenever this was, and played the game shortly after moving into our apartment, which must have been 2004.

It ended up being one of the three Final Fantasy games I dropped midway through (VI, VIII, X; for reference’s sake, I’ve completed III, IV, VII). I don’t really know what about it caused me to drop it. Since it was at least five years ago, I remember very little about the game and my time with it. I remember enjoying it, but there must have been a reason I stopped.

I loaded up my save file to see just how much time I spent with the game and where I stopped playing.

ff8_screen_1

OK, so I put a bit over 15 hours into the game. Not too shabby. Definitely more than enough to get a good idea of how I feel about the game. Looks like I’m in “Galbadia – Dingo Desert”. I definitely remembered leaving off with some type of vehicle (that may or may not have run out of gas…?) and then not having any clue where to go. My other very specific memory was being down in some semi-maze-like sewers, but I have no idea where that was in relation to where I left it.

ff8_screen_2

How about you all? Have you ever played Final Fantasy VIII, and where do you fall in the argument? Was it one of the best love stories ever told, or was it a needlessly-complicated mess of game design? Did Faye Wong’s “Eyes On Me” move you to tears, or did you just want to punch Squall in the face to make him dance properly? Did Nomura’s character design evolution make you want to drop everything and learn how to sew in order to cosplay, or were you longing for the days of a simple knight in armor yearning to save his homeland?

The Old “Games Never Made Anyone Cry” Situation

We have all seen various blog posts and comments about this (usually tying in to uneducated nonsense spewed by the otherwise-well-educated Roger Ebert) whole dilemma: can video games make you cry?

Of course, the real question is do they need to make anyone cry? Would that be the gauge of cultural relevance and a move to “high art”? Is any of that even necessary?

I don’t actually want to answer any of those questions, because I find them silly. I did, however, find some incredibly thought-provoking points over in this article by Chris over on ihobo (as linked over on Kotaku).

I absolutely adore the idea/theory/proposition that there is nothing about it being a game that drives you to experiencing some type of emotion; it’s all about the narrative, itself. There is narrative in a movie, in a song, even in a painting. By taking the “cause” out of the game, you therefore actually place the game on the same level as everything else. I think that is a really important to step, and one that we will continue to make over time. I have heard the point made time and time again that the game industry is so young when compared to the other media industries that have moved us to tears with their products. It simply needs more time to continue evolving and for all the old people to die out who have no familiarity with the medium and various business models.

I do want to address one point in the article, and take slight exception to it. Here is the exact part:

So even though, for instance, many people report that they cried when they played Final Fantasy VII at the fateful scene (and indeed, several other cRPGs also show up in player studies as having provoked tears) the moment that actually brought the player to tears was a non-interactive cut scene. It wasn’t the game (in the systems view) that made them cry – it was the story – and there never was a question as to whether stories could make you cry.

Believe it or not, I am going to dispute this point with the same example! Well, somewhat. I am not talking about the original Final Fantasy VII, but actually Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII.

There are intense spoilers here (as if you didn’t know how it ended…), so if you have not played through to the very end of the game, keep in mind that I am going to describe not just what happens, but how it happens.

Yes, there was a bit of genuine gameplay during the ending of Crisis Core that made me cry. It was not a cut-scene; I was in full control of Zack during the point where I broke down. In between lots of events going on, and before the full-on CG ending sequence, Zack is being hunted down by the Shinra army. He has very little energy left in him, but he continues to fight back with everything he has (occasionally flashing back to memories from the course of the game along the way). There finally comes one last stand-off where Zack fights off against a (literally) endless stream of soldiers. No, really… it is infinite. You will die. You may be strong enough to hold them off for a pretty long time (especially if you have done some grinding in the side missions), but the point of the sequence is that Zack is shot down. You cannot avoid it. You progress the game by dying.

I am choking up as I write this, because this is the part that made me break down. I was in full control of Zack, but I had absolutely no control over the situation. I knew where it was heading. I knew I was going to die. There was nothing I could do about it. It was not fun. It was not enjoyable in any way. It hurt. It hurt a lot. The point where I had to take my fingers off of the buttons and let them kill me in a situation where I was otherwise in complete control was what did me in. I had to sit there and watch my character be gunned down.

And I cried.

Town Names In RPGs

I figured it out! I know what my biggest problem with RPGs is; despite wanting to love them so much and continue picking them up time and time again, I have so many issues!

Town names!

I have a hard enough time remembering all of the character names (something I’ve always had a problem with in TV shows, movies, and even around the office!). When you toss magic attacks, items, and enemies on top of all that, and then ask me to remember where all the towns are so I can backtrack to them? I’ve got issues.

Today Final Fantasy VI asked me to fly back to Narshe. OK, no problem. I recognize that town name. I don’t really remember what it looked like, but I know I’ve been there a few times and it’s important to the story. I should be able to find it no problem. Then I realized I had absolutely no idea where it was or what it looked like. I hopped onto Google Image Search on the iPhone, looked at a world map, and still flew around for about fifteen minutes completely unable to find the stupid town. Finally I just landed in the general area of what all the maps said, and I finally walked into a mountain and put it all together again in my head (you know what I’m talking about if you’ve played the game).

So what was the real problem? Since I’ve already recognized that I have a difficult time in life remembering names (it takes me FOREVER), I can only assume that it’s a huge factor here. Final Fantasy VI probably makes it even worse by throwing so many characters and towns at you without ever slowing down. I’m trying to think back to other RPGs I’ve played in the past to find some parallels, but I’m drawing a blank. I initially thought that Final Fantasy VII did it perfectly by baby-feeding you with one town at first (Midgar), but even then, there were all of the separate areas within in (Sector 7 slums, Aerith’s house, Shinra Headquarters, etc.). Zelda II had a wonderfully small amount of towns that I could probably recite in order, but that is such a different type of game and from so much longer ago.

What do you all think? Do you have the same problem in games? Are the terrible world maps also to blame (seriously, these GBA games’ maps are impossible to see)? Is it the outlandish names of these towns, that almost always seem to be neither English nor Japanese in origin? At least those two languages I’m familiar with…

Games We’re Finally Playing: Final Fantasy VI

OK, so technically Jeff has already played it (and you heard all about it back on episode two). However, I had never actually played beyond the first five minutes (I thought a full hour, but no, not even…) of Final Fantasy VI, considered by many to be the pinnacle of the series. I’ve had Anthology (PS1) since it came out, and I’ve had Advance (GBA) since it came out… but… never played…

This post is actually two-fold in purpose. The first is like the title says; I started playing the game. However, in order to be playing this game, I had to do one other thing.

I dropped the Pokemon habit.

That’s right, I’m done (again… for now). Despite putting the majority of time these days into Pearl, just the fact that Pearl was in Slot 1 and FireRed was in Slot 2 was enough to keep me from playing anything else on-the-go. Once I started up my new job and had an hour lunch to go off and do whatever I wanted, I was all about starting up a new game.

Final Fantasy VI

I decided to make that game Final Fantasy VI, and I’ve been quite enjoying it. That’s not to say that I’m falling all over myself with how amazing it is, but it’s totally perfect for what I need it to be right now. The distance between save points is always just right for a lunch break (something III on DS did amazingly well, might I add). The characters are quirky and hilarious. The music is… well, I haven’t really hit anything yet that’s flooring me, to be honest (yes, I’m playing with headphones so I don’t miss anything). I also understand that the GBA audio isn’t quite up to the level of the SNES, but it has nothing to do with the audio quality; I’m talking strictly composition and arrangement.

I’m just under seven hours into the game, and I just did my second round of split-up-the-team and fight-lots-of-oncoming-soldiers, concluding with Kefka at the end (that shouldn’t be all that spoilerific, I think).

So while I’m enjoying it, there’s nothing knocking my socks off just yet. I know I still need to wait for the inevitable “world beyond the world” realization, and something about an opera scene…

I’m quite petrified of Pokemon: Platinum coming out in the US, because I’m kinda enjoying playing other games for a change…

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