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Tag: rpgs

Dipping Into the Classics: Suikoden

I have always meant to go back and play more of the 16-bit and 32-bit RPGs that I missed during their prime. It may take me years upon years on end, but I do eventually hit up what many consider the “classics” (even when I don’t finish them — hello, Final Fantasy VI — I want to give them at least a little bit of the attention they are supposedly worth).

Many personal friends have recommended Suikoden II as one of these games to go back to. It continues to be one of the genuinely “rare” games, though — one that reaches that fantastic $200 price tag on eBay, shared by a few of its peers like Panzer Dragoon Saga. If I were to play a Suikoden game (or series of games), I would likely start with the first. The barrier to entry is far less with the original, particularly when you take the PlayStation Store into account, where it goes for a semi-ridiculous $6.

As a part of their 15th anniversary celebration, Sony offered the first game for half-price back in September 2010. Yes, the game cost $3. At that price, who could pass it up? I sure couldn’t.

I did not get to the game right away, though, having plenty of other things to occupy my time (such as still wading through Dragon Quest IX). Thanks to the remembrative (that’s a word, right?) power of Twitter, I know that I started the game on January 18th — we had a delayed opening at the office, but due to car pooling and train schedules, I ended up heading in at my regular time and hanging out at Starbucks with the PSP.

(Side note: I have reached the point where my tolerance for Japanese RPGs requires that they be portable. If I cannot bring it with me and play in short bursts, I cannot and will not dedicate the time to it. Therefore, Suikoden ended up getting played on the PSP courtesy of Sony’s somewhat gracious option of PSOne Classics being both PS3 & PSP compatible/transferable.)

Having just completed the game yesterday, and at the suggestion of some friends and Twitter followers, I figured I would share a few thoughts on the game. A long entry like this makes up for a drought in terms of articles and podcasts, right…? Try not to think of this as a review, though — it is far too casual for that.

My overall experience with the game was a hugely pleasant one. The game has, in fact, spoiled me in terms of playing current Japanese RPGs (yes, a game that came out 1995/1996 has plenty of leg-ups on today’s games, much like the amazing Chrono Trigger, which I detailed in two pieces). I will analyze some of these, but I would be remiss not to mention some of the annoyances I experienced with the game, too.

Right off the bat, I was extremely impressed with the presentation of the game. I specifically noted areas of the sound design, such as noise from the water fountain panning across the speakers as you walked past.

If I suffer any amount of data loss with a game, it is likely that I will immediately drop it in disgust, never returning to it again. About a week into my playthrough, and directly upon starting up the first major battle in the game (not a boss fight, but rather a special rock-paper-scissors army battle), the PSP froze for a few seconds and turned itself off. Thankfully (more for the game’s sake rather than my own!), my prior save point was only a few minutes prior, which meant returning to the same spot was not a major ordeal — the worst part was simply re-reading a ton of non-skippable dialogue.

Despite completing the game now (and under the 30 hour mark), I do not feel as if I ever fully “got” the magic system. In fact, I did not even use magic for approximately twenty of those hours…! I understood that there were these “runes” and that I was collecting “crystals”… but for the life of me, and even after reading through the instruction manual (which is included in the digital version of the game), I do not think I actually know how I got some of those magic abilities. The town-by-town basis of where certain types of merchants were (those that sold items, attached crystals, sharpened weapons, etc.) did not reinforce any of the concepts to me through normal game play, so it was up to individual experimentation to find what worked with what. Some crystals even specifically noted they were for certain characters (the “Boar” rune being for Pahn…?), but I would collect a dozen of them from defeating enemies, leaving me scratching my head. In addition to not fully comprehending the system, I found that my physical attacks were always strong enough to take on any enemy I came up against, essentially turning magic into a completely irrelevant concept in my mind — I was all about sharpening those weapons, and nothing else!

So how do I feel about that? Part of me thinks back to the days of the original Legend of Zelda, where exploration was left up to the player without holding their hand — I enjoy that quite a bit. On the other hand, this was not just about combining certain items and finding cool uses for them on your own, a la the Materia system in Final Fantasy VII (which, as a 15-year-old kid, I also had trouble understanding right off the bat, but eventually through my own experimentation was able to not only fully understand, but exploit!). I guess I am conflicted — I understand the basics of it, but never felt as if I was in enough control of the progression. Perhaps I’m wrong. I may just be stupid. Were I to replay the game, I would likely start messing around with crystals and such far sooner in the story and do so far more often, rather than just relegating it to a side thing to occasionally use.

One of my favorite aspects of Dragon Quest IX (and from what I understand, is a large part of prior games, as well) was the little story vignettes. The larger story was there to push you along, sure, but the real heart and charm would lay in each individual town and its smaller, compact, tightly-knit group of characters. There is certainly a town system in the first Suikoden, but the heart of the story was not with the townsfolk — it was with your own rag-tag group of friends. Even with a staggering amount of available characters, and even knowing that some of them would be woefully extraneous and near-irrelevant, I still found myself engaged by nearly all of them and genuinely curious about their plights. The game has a couple instances of short, sequential cut-aways to various areas of your castle with certain groups of characters having conversations with each other, reminding you of their own struggles with loyalty, self-discovery, revenge, and loss. It brought a wonderful sense of camaraderie to the group, which is one of my favorite tropes (did the shonen anime love not give that away?).

That being said, as relatively interesting as the greater cast was, the fact that the main party consists of six characters led to a lot of favoritism. When you consider the party’s formation (short, medium, and long-range attack capabilities), you can see how this would happen. I found myself returning time and time again to Cleo, Vikor, and Flik. Kirkis wound up as a long-range fighter and healer toward the end of the game, and somehow Tai Ho ended up in there, too.

(Oh, and hey… did anyone else not know Cleo was a woman until 20 hours in when she is actually referred to with gender information? Anyone? Anyone at all?)

That also being said, I was incredibly impressed with how easy the game made it to bring other characters back into the fold. Any characters forced into the party for certain situations were usually ones that had been along for the ride and were equipped already, but in the instances they were not, it did not take long for them to get up to snuff. The game dishes out experience not at a flat rate, but somewhat exponentially based on the level of the character — a character at level forty may only get 3 EXP from a monster, but a character down at level five may actually jump straight up to level ten from the match (the numbers not being accurate, but a generalization). Therefore, so long as you kept that forced character alive, they would likely be on par with the rest of your group in just a couple fights along the way.

Without spoiling things too heavily for those that have not played, major character deaths are a semi-recurring trend in the game. Each one was obviously coming by the nature of those forced party members and certain quips, but they all at least brought a twinge of emotion in me. I am sorry to say that I did not gather all 107 (yes, minus a certain one…) characters, which sounds like it would have resulted in a nice “Awww…!” out of me toward the end of the game. On a second play through, I would certainly go for this.

So far, I have only hinted at the story and my feelings toward it. I noted the cast of characters, enjoying the time I spent with them, etc. What about the larger story, though? There is a villain and main plot, right? Well… I suppose so. I hate to keep doing comparisons with Dragon Quest IX, but I think it is an apt one to make in this case — where as Dragon Quest IX smartly held back the main “villain” and its respective goals/plot/interactions until later in the story (and yet still providing that overarching narrative that tied things together and led you along so that it all still felt like it truly was one giant story), Suikoden attempts to do the same thing at times, but misses the boat. It was as if the game designers and writers wanted to show me how the hero’s story was relating to the larger world and the villain’s plot, and those bits shined at key points, but I still felt far more disconnected than they probably would have liked. This “Windy” lady…? Who is she, again? Oh, and this other cloaked figure that shows up from time to time talking about runes…? One particular story where the team is sent into the past to witness a key event really helps set things up, but without reinforcing those story ideas just a little more often, I was far more concerned with my party’s own turmoil than with the world’s. Maybe that is OK. I definitely liked my characters, so if I got enjoyment out of them, isn’t that enough? It was clear that the writers wanted me to care more about the world, though — but I just didn’t.

(Speaking of villains, what the Hell was that last boss I fought…?)

Moving back to game mechanics and design, I had one incident where I spent the majority of play time over the course of two days completely unable to advance the story. I was told on Twitter by a few folks that the game is very heavily “check-pointed” (for lack of a better phrase) at times, where these event flags indeed prevent you from continuing the story unless you complete a very specific action. I thought I had encountered something like this during the poison rose scenario, but it turned out I simply had not walked out a door on the top floor of a building to find Milich. This is a recurring thing with me and video games (not seeing the obvious), but I like to think that this was the game’s fault, rather than my own — many of the “doors” in the game are, frankly, not obvious as anything other than a plain ol’ wall unless you know what to look for.

The castle (which I named “Grayskul”, by the way) was something I had never experienced before in a game like this. Having a central hideout/base was intriguing to me, especially with all the other games I have played being so linear (not that Suikoden isn’t) in terms of “this town, then this town”. There was always a place to go back to which grew along with you over the course of the game. Even as I began recruiting characters, I had no idea that some of them would actually embellish the castle and put themselves to work! Coming back to my own blacksmiths, armor dealer, elevator, and even my own (free!) inn made me want to go out and seek the full 108 characters. The first time I wandered my (barren) castle I was extremely apprehensive about it, but the game quickly took care of those fears for me.

Something that I never truly struggled with but still found a nice challenge in was the limited inventory system. While you could store items in your vault back at the castle with Rock, each character can only hold a certain number of items, which includes their equipped armor and accessories. Maybe this was a nice prelude to when I eventually get around to playing Final Fantasy: 4 Heroes of Light. Item drops from monsters would occasionally force me back to a town to appraise and then back at the castle to drop, but there were no instances where I was fighting with the system to bring the necessary number of items on the road with me.

I noted earlier that a couple aspects of the game’s design have spoiled me — those would be (1) “Free Will”, and (2) resting at inns.

While many games have experimented, even within the confines of random battles, with how to speed things up (particularly toward the end of the game when you are over-powered), Suikoden provides a battle option called “Free Will” throughout the entire game, by which your entire party will just automatically target opponents and physically attack them — no magic or items will be used, and they will not necessarily target opponents in conjunction with each other. Despite (or because of?) those limitations, the excessive “Press A To Win” (or in this case, “Press X To Win”) game is not necessarily removed, but at least toned down. The minor tedium of those random battles is still there, but at least with a way to speed up the process and still reap the rewards (cash, experience, and dropped items). “Free Will” also beefs things up in the visual department, zooming in a little more with multiple characters attacking at once, which also helps speed through the round.

Perhaps my favorite aspect of the entire game (boy, am I easy to impress…) was how lightning-fast resting at an inn is. Seriously. There’s no excessive “watch the characters walk to their beds” scene. No musical cue to wait through. Pay the innkeeper, screen fades down, screen fades up, no more dialogue to read, go ahead on your way. I simply cannot overstate how impressive this is.

It may go without saying, but were Suikoden II to hit the PlayStation Store, I would grab it in a heartbeat. I am more than ready to dive into what is said to be the best of the series, especially with the first impressing me so much. With a few things cleaned up here and there, a few cameos from the first game… how could I not be interested? It has also made me curious to check out Water Margin, one of the four classic novels of Chinese literature which it is (very loosely!) based on. With Journey to the West also under my belt (which I am coincidentally also about to finish a very loose video game adaptation of!), why not?

Until then, I still have plenty of other classics and cult favorites to get through. Xenogears is finally up on the PlayStation Store now, and you likely won’t see me for a month after the new Pokemon hits this weekend…

“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.

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

Longtime Akira Toriyama fan. Playing Chrono Trigger fifteen years late. Check. In theory, I like Japanese role-playing games, but ultimately do not finish the vast majority of ones that I actually start. Gotcha. All caught up? Let’s talk about the game, now!

The following discussion will be filed under “Video Game Club” and placed behind a cut to prevent inadvertently spoiling the game for those who have not yet played it. You would think there would have to be a statute of limitations for games this old and discussions like this, but since someone like me is only just now getting to the game, I will be kind to the others who also hold their heads in shame!

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It’s True! I Started “Chrono Trigger”

Alert the presses! Headline of the year, right here: “Toriyama Fanboy Plays Acclaimed Game 15 Years Late“.

Despite running a DragonBall fansite since 1998 (and being a fan of the series for a few years before that), I have many embarrassing stories to tell. While I have read a good chunk of Dr. Slump and own things like Kajika, I have never played a Dragon Quest game, and even worse… I have never played Chrono Trigger.

Despite being a huge fan of its character designer, and despite knowing that it had a “dream-team” of producers working on it, I never played the game back during the SNES days. I had only begun to dabble into RPGs at the time, and would not make any real commitment to one until Final Fantasy VII in 1997. Despite its re-release on the PS1 years later, no matter how many times I told myself to check it out, I never got around to it. Despite receiving it as a Christmas gift from the wife a year ago, it has not had an opportunity to jump into my DS. (Hey, the system saw plenty of action over the last twelve months — Retro Game Challenge was one of my favorite games of the last year.)

Well, that all changed last night. Mike, a.k.a. “VegettoEX”, a.k.a. “Supposed Toriyama Fanboy”, has played half an hour into Chrono Trigger.

Last night the wife and I got home from work, then the gym, and then dinner… and decided we were just too exhausted to do anything. I was planning on playing some more Uncharted 2, but that seemed like it would require more of an attention span than I was willing to give. After putzing around for a while, I decided that an RPG would fill the gaming itch perfectly. I could lounge around and play a game without needing to aim at someone’s head with a tranquilizer gun in an action game, or pull off a frame-perfect counter attack in a fighting game.

I am already enjoying it immensely. Things happen almost immediately from the get-go, giving you a sense of both scale, as well as cause and effect. I dig the music a whole lot, some of which I already know from listening to the included bonus CD a few times over the last year. I have only just reached the point where Lucca meets up with Crono back where Marle had disappeared to (is that vague enough to not spoil any of the first damn thirty minutes?), but that was more than enough to solidify my interest. I am sure you will hear my thoughts on the battle system, character motifs, art style direction, and more as I make my way further into the game.

More than anything else, I am happy to say that I have discovered why I kept accidentally referring to the RPG in Retro Game Challenge as “Guardia Quest” instead of “Guadia Quest” — the kingdom that Chrono Crono (hehe!) comes from is called “Guardia”, which I must have inadvertently run into and unconsciously absorbed over the years.

How about you all? So many of you have playfully criticized me for never playing the game. Without spoiling anything for me, what is it about the game that makes you hold it in such high regard? If you are in the same boat as me, what are your excuses (valid or otherwise!) for never playing it? This is your one chance to give me Hell!

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…

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