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Four Job Fiesta Part Two: Ahead on our Way

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I’ve been playing “Final Fantasy V” as a part of this year’s Four Job Fiesta, an online challenge that benefits Child’s Play. I wrote about approaching the challenge here, and now that I’m a bit farther in the game, here are some things that I’ve learned.
Final Fantasy V is amazingly well designed. Over the course of the game, I received my full roster of classes: Thief, Time Mage, Ranger, and Chemist. While these aren’t impossible classes to play with, they’re hardly powerhouses. Ranger gets a very good ability, Rapid Fire, if you level them for a while, and Chemist can combine items to exploit some enemy weaknesses, but they require using up rare items. But while this team is challenging, it is hardly impossible. The Four Job Fiesta works with FFV because the game can be navigated with any classes as long as you’re patient and think strategically. There aren’t any choke points that require a certain party to proceed.
The game itself feels like a farewell to the style of the early games. The crystals themselves shatter to give you your jobs. Although the franchise would return to the job system in spin-offs like Final Fantasy Tactics and the crystals would come back in later games like Bravely Default, Final Fantasy V feels like a sea change for the series. The next game in the series in Final Fantasy VI, which took the games in a very different direction. Even though it was only much later released in the United States, it still feels somewhat nostalgic.
But for now the Fiesta continues as I make my way through the middle of the game with my motley crew of back row hooligans. You have until the end of August to sign up for your run, or to support Child’s Play!

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Four Job Fiesta: Part One

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This summer I’m taking part in a unique gaming challenge for a worthy charity, and so can you! Four Job Fiesta is an annual gaming marathon that raises money and awareness for Child’s Play.
From June 19th to August 31st, participants play classic RPG Final Fantasy V, with one twist: Players are limited to four jobs, which are randomly selected by a bot on Twitter. I heard about it from a friend that participates every year, and dismissed the difficulty, but five hours into the game, I’m finding it an eye-opening challenge.
I wrote way back about my love of Final Fantasy V, but Four Job Fiesta is giving me a new perspective on the game. I’m playing the PS1 version of the game, which has its own translation, so that is also giving me fresh thoughts on the game. For those who haven’t played, Final Fantasy V uses a Job system that allows players to switch between your typical RPG classes. you can play as a magician for a while, and then turn into a warrior, keeping some of the benefits or skills from previous jobs. This lets the player make a party of versatile and powerful characters using various combinations. The challenge severely limits the versatility of these characters. It also forces me to make choices I wouldn’t in an open play of the game.
My first job was ‘Thief,’ a low-powered job that can steal items and gets some other useful skills. But they can’t use magic, and they have very limited equipment. This made the first few dungeons a lot more difficult. In normal play, I was able to breeze through using magic. I had to think a bit more tactically to get past some bosses that were suddenly far more difficult when I couldn’t exploit their weaknesses.
Four Job Fiesta isn’t just about beating an old game with new tricks. It’s also a fundraiser for Child’s Play, a charity which provides games and toys to pediatric hospitals. Visit FourJobFiesta.com to learn more about the project, start your own run, or donate to help sick kids.

The Gamer’s Guide to Writing: An Introduction

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IMG courtesy of Gamefaqs.com

IMG courtesy of Gamefaqs.com

Like many genre writers, I enjoy playing video games, and I often complain that my gaming addiction is taking time away from my writing, and vice-versa.  But I’ve found that in some ways, my love of gaming has had a great impact on my writing.  Even in a genre that is generally panned for its presentation of script and plot, an observant writer can still pick up pointers about what to do, and what to avoid.  This blog is a look at some of the lessons I’ve picked up in my many years behind a game pad.
A game I’d like to look at first is “Final Fantasy IX.”  Launched in the U.S. in November of 2000, it is often overlooked because of the timing of its release.  It came out at the tail end of the Sony Playstation’s lifecycle, a full month after the blockbusting premier of the Playstation 2.  Even though the game pushed the console to its limits, it was competing against more dazzling technology.  It also has an awkward place in the franchise, between the panned “Final Fantasy VIII” the next year’s revolutionary “Final Fantasy X” for the PS2.
None the less, FFIX is an excellent source for writers looking at plot, structure, character, and theme.  Over the next series of posts, I’ll be drilling deep into the plot of the game, examining the presentation and hunting for literary gold, as Dave Robision would say.  Think of this like a very different sort of walkthrough.  Instead of looking for secrets to success in the game, I’ll be looking for hints to improve writing craft.  Spoilers obviously will be a part of this project.  So if you have an old set of discs gathering dust, or a few bucks of Playstation Network credit lying around, come join me as we examine how a classic game tells a great story.
Next week, we’ll look at compact character introductions, and what we can learn from the title screen!
Final Fantasy IX was originally released for the Sony Playstation and is also available as a digital download on Playstation Network.
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Hugh Likes Video Games: Castlevania, Circle of the Moon

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Published by Konami for Game Boy Advance (2001) and Wii U Virtual Console (2014)

Happy Halloween!
In honor of this dark and terrible holiday, I’m writing a bit about one of my favorite games, recently re-released.  “Castlevania: Circle of the Moon” was a launch title for the Game Boy Advance.  Although well received, it quickly came and went into relative obscurity as later installments in the series came out for the GBA and later Nintendo DS.  But it’s still a classic in my book.
Considered a side-story at best, the game’s protagonist is Nathan Graves, an earnest young man in possession of Vampire Killer, the famous Dracula-slaying weapon of the Belmont clan, whose noticeable absence is never actually addressed.  He’s out to stop the Vampire Carmilla from resurrecting Dracula and killing his mentor.
Like most of the franchise, the actual story is mostly just an excuse to show you the castle, and this is a good one.  Like Symphony of the Night, this is a sprawling open castle which grants you access to new areas as you gain abilities.  While it is a bit smaller than the Playstation’s sprawling ruin, there is a nice variety and scope to the castle, which is perfect for a portable adventure.
The gameplay is fun and feels nicely balanced.  Nathan has a neat ability to twirl the whip like a shield and block some projectiles.  He also has the DSS Cards.  These cards, which you collect throughout the castle from certain enemies, act as the game’s magic system.  Each effect and element card grants a different ability,  giving you one hundred different ones, if you collect them all.  These range from shooting fire balls to summoning angels to directly increasing your stats.  These abilities are my favorite aspect of the game.
Not everything about the game has aged gracefully, however.  The sound in particular has a low-res, monophonic quality that doesn’t do justice to the classic Castlevania music.  As a launch title for the GBA, the color palate for the game is a bit dark and muddy.  While this is thematically appropriate for the ruin of a European castle, it made the game difficult to see, particularly on the original screen, which was not backlit.  More modern devices such as the DS and Wii U tablet handle the display better, but it was a clear step backwards from Symphony of the Night’s beautiful sprites and backgrounds.
If you’re looking for some classic vampire-slaying action without the punishing difficulty of the original Castlevania, I recommend picking up “Circle of the Moon.”
Castlevania: Circle of the Moon is available as a GBA Cartridge (amazon,) or digitally from the Wii U store.

Welcome Back to Mario Kart!

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Although I’ve had a Wii U console since February, I haven’t seen a game that made me keep the system powered until now. After a soft launch, and a library of ports like “The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker HD” and sequels like New Super Mario Bros. U, I’ve been ignoring it. Mario Kart 8 is the game my Wii U has been waiting for, though.

To be fair, MK8 is as familiar as Nintendo’s other offerings. It is the next iteration in the beloved kart racer with a few new innovations and enhanced graphics. But man, what polish that enhancement brings.

MK8 returns with a lot of the improvements from Mario Kart Wii and Mario Kart 7 intact. Players still race for coins, can control their characters with a variety of control schemes from the Wii U classic controller to the Wiimote racing wheel. Flying and underwater track sections also return, and have never looked or played better.

If there is anything I find disheartening about Mario Kart 8, is that it signifies the final nail in the coffin of the F-Zero series. In the Super Nintendo era, F-Zero was that fast, spectacular racing game, while Mario Kart focused on lower speed, cartoonish battle races. While MK8 still maintains the series’ whimsy, upped its game for spectacle to new heights.

This game is fast! Between the flight sections and the new ability to drive along walls and vertical surfaces, there is a real sense of speed this time around. Even the process for falling off the track has been streamlined. Instead of a lengthy sequence that robs you of precious seconds, Lakitu just takes three coins from your reserve.

The graphics this time around are this most highly polished yet. HD polish agrees with Mario Kart. One of the classic tracks, “Moomoo Meadows,” really showcases the difference between the Wii and the Wii U. The new tracks look great as well, and are filled with dazzling moments, from driving up a waterfall to a track inside of a Mushroom Kingdom Disco.

There are a few nitpicks in all the polish, though. There are fewer customization options for setup, including split-screen multiplayer that is only vertical. Annoying, but not a deal breaker. Also, rather than being set in closed arenas, battles now take place on the racing tracks, which are too big to accommodate a two player match.

Mario Kart 8 is both a return to form and a surprising elevation of the familiar racing franchise. For a console that has been languishing, this is a much-needed “must have’ game.

 

The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds

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The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds

 

It has been said that Nintendo is a company stuck in the past. That they retread old ideas and characters, plying on nostalgia rather than innovation. And while there’s truth there, when they get it right, OH MAN do they get it right.

“The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds” is a 3DS sequel to the Super Nintendo’s “A Link to the Past.” Old School fans of the series will find the maps, designs and plot familiar. Mysterious figure arrives in Hyrule, is immediately revealed to be a bad guy, Link has to collect three pendants and the Master Sword to follow him to the other half of the game.

While it looks like “A Link to the Past’s” Dark World, the other section of the game takes place in Lorule, a more developed mirror kingdom complete with its own Princess and villagers. And Lorule is, for reasons that remain unclear until the end of the game, being torn apart.

Link can travel between the two dimensions using the game’s key new ability. Thanks to a magical bracelet he acquires early in the adventure, Link can change himself into a painting, and walk along walls. It’s a strange ability, and not particularly intuitive at first, but it is masterfully executed in the game, and provides a whole new set of puzzles to solve.

The other major change is that Link’s tools lack ammunition. Instead, Link has a stamina bar that slowly refills, and is shared by all of his rods, bombs, and ranged weapons. Link has access to most of his standard equipment very early in the game as well. This makes “A Link Between Worlds” a much less linear affair than previous games. Link has the ability to tackle dungeons in any order he likes.

The design of the dungeons is quite good, although some of the puzzle solutions felt a bit easy. Since the player has to do a lot less hunting for rupees and equipment, the game seems a bit short.

The artistic elements are reminiscent of the super nintendo, but trades sprites for nicely rendered 3d models. Although most of the game is seen from the top down, a few cut scenes switch to a perspective closer to the ground, and show off the 3DS’s horsepower. The actual 3d is possibly the best I’ve seen on the system. The terrain of Hyrule sinks into the screen, and enemies leap out. This is the first game where I honestly preferred to keep the 3d turned up the whole time.

“A Link Between Worlds” is a great game for players who are new to Zelda, and it rewards fans of the series with plenty of easter eggs, like Majora’s Mask, which can be found on the wall of Link’s House, but unfortunately, can’t be worn.

The game is a wonderful update on a classic, with an amazing twist ending. I highly recommend it.

Megaman I: Elegance in Design

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System: Nintendo NES/Famicom

Release Date: 1987

Megaman’s creator, Keiji Inafune recently funded a kickstarter for his new independent project, Mighty Number 9. Inspired by the buzz surrounding the new project, I went back and looked at the Blue Bomber’s original adventure with new eyes.

I didn’t have “Megaman” for my NES, but lots of my friends did, and I remember the games fondly from the early nineties. I also recall them being controller-threateningly difficult. I was curious to see how the first outing would stack up to my memories.

First of all, it is worth noting that the first game lacks the graphical and musical polish of the sequels. There are only six stages, and once the player determines the proper order for playing them, they fall rather quickly. Especially if you use the well-known ‘pause trick.’ Likewise, there’s not much of a story besides ‘You’re a good robot, they’re evil robots, go fight them.’ It’s the sort of fare from the era that is simple, but has been expanded upon greatly in the years since. For example, in the much-praised Megaman comic, put out by Archie Comics.

While I will agree that Megaman is hard, it was not quite so bad as I remember. Aside from a few of the end stage bosses, (and I am looking squarely at you, one-eyed rock monster) the deaths don’t feel cheap. Unlike other 8-bit era platformers, there is no countdown clock. The game gives you plenty of time to observe and experiment. Megaman really is the start of what later-generation indie developers would call ‘puzzle platformers.’ Most of the game can be best progressed by observing the challenge and discovering the pattern, or choosing the best Robot Master’s subweapon for the situation. For example, the flying torpedo enemies can often knock you into a pit when they explode, but freezing them rather than shooting them with your regular gun solves the dilemma. Most of the jumping puzzles can likewise be bypassed with the Magnet Beam.

This creates an odd challenge curve as the game actually gets EASIER as you gain new powers. The game’s non-linear nature lets you play the stages in any order, but the real challenge is figuring out an optimal path. each Robot Master has a weakness, and some levels, such as Fire Man’s stage, are practically impassable without the right weapon.

All in all, Megaman I is a solid entry in the NES’s roster of games. While its sprites and textures are a little less eye-popping than its successors, it is at the very least noteworthy for being the progenitor of something great, and a whole lot of fun. You don’t need to play it to get into the series, as there isn’t much of a story aside from the window-dressing standard to that generation, but it is certainly worth your time. Just watch out for those disappearing block puzzles.

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