Home

The Year of Final Fantasy

Leave a comment

Final_Fantasy_logo

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about THIS ARTICLE by Aidan Moher. I think it resonates with me because it echoes my own path into nerd-dom and ultimately to becoming a writer.
I didn’t read much of the Canon sci-fi and fantasy growing up. I loved Fantasy and Science Fiction movies and TV, but by the time I could pick my own books from the library, I was already reading thrillers and bestsellers. Once I reached high school I started really getting into anime, and my real nerdy gateway drug: JRPGs.
I didn’t have much of a game collection as a kid. We had an NES, and a much-loved game boy. What I did have was a burning jealousy of my friends’ adventures, starting from Dragon Quest and moving straight through Final Fantasy VII. I would hang out with them as they traversed huge worlds and fought monsters and robots in weird, strategy combat that seemed strange and wonderful to me.
So When my family got a computer, a friend gave me a floppy disc full of NES roms. I knew just where I wanted to start: With the original NES Final Fantasy and its two Japan-only sequels. True, the graphics weren’t as sharp as a PS1’s, and there wasn’t anything so eye-popping as watching Sephiroth descend from the sky to assassinate Aerith, (spoiler alert!) but the illicit glee of knowing that these were lost relics. These were a pair of games that had never (at the time) reached American shores, been digitally smuggled out and translated in the dark corners of the internet. It started an obsession, and I had to play more of them. I burned through the NES library of Dragon Warrior games, and played through Final Fantasy Legend and Pokemon on Game Boy. I sought out roms of stranger provience, and as the technology improved, upgraded from Nesticle, the most Nineties name for an emulator, to SNES9x. I burned through Final Fantasy IV: Hardtype like it was a fever, and got every ending in Chrono Trigger. I fought the Sinestriasl in Lufia and remade the world in Actraiser. I was full-on obsessed.
And that obsession pushed me to seek out other avenues to explore my geekery. Dungeons and Dragons, and other table top games, cheesy 80’s fantasy movies, and thick tomes of epic fantasy, both classic, and best forgotten. It was all great, but there was irritation there, things I saw on the page and screen that didn’t quite match the things I loved about the digital versions. Eventually, I picked up my pen and started writing my own stories, borne out of my own need to fill in the gaps.
It’s the distant future year 2020. And it’s a good time to look back as well as forward. So this year, I’ve decided to go back and play as much Final Fantasy as my time allows, and to write about it here. I’ve reviewed and written about a few of these games on my blog before, but this is something a bit deeper. I’m not sure what the final forms will be, probably a mixture of critical essays, reviews, creative non-fiction, and other strange beasts. Will my love of these early games still be there? Do these games hold up in 2020? Have things gotten better, or will I simply become an old fogey, complaining that these blasted kids with their three-dee graphics and full voice acting won’t get off my dang lawn? Will I discover hidden truths, or just some misplaced nostalgia that doesn’t bear anything to who I am as a writer today? Let’s find out.
As ever, the Crystals shed their light silently, waiting for us to embark on our adventure.

Support Me on Ko-fi

Hugh Likes Video Games: SteamWorld Quest

Leave a comment

O_D53W0M

Steamworld Quest: Hand of Gilgamech
Developed by Image and Form Games
Published by Thunderful
Played on Nintendo Switch

The Skinny: A lighthearted but mechanically deep card-RPG sort of set in the SteamWorld Universe.

Each SteamWorld title is a little different. From the dungeon diving of SteamWorld Dig to the Tactical gunplay of SteamWorld Heist, each is a charming and innovative little gem of a game. The latest game in the series, SteamWorld Quest: Hand of Gilgamech, builds on that reputation.
A fantasy RPG, SteamWorld Quest is framed as a storybook being read in the main SteamWorld post-post-apocalypse setting. Like its predecessors, this game is short but deeply engaging. The hand-drawn art style and the snarky writing work well. There are lots of little sight gags and clever bits that only really work if as a fantasy story told in a world of steampunk robots. This seems counter intuitive until you meet the first mini-boss, a black knight with a birdcage for a head.
The card-based RPG combat, which are stylized punchcards, naturally, has a good balance of randomness as strategy. Each character has a deck of eight cards which represent attacks, spells, buffs, and healing. Characters also manage items, weapons, and equipment. In combat, you have a hand of cards pulled from all three decks, and play three cards a turn. Three cards from the same character creates a combo, with a variety of special effects. During combat, you have to build up steam by playing low level cards. More powerful abilities cost steam, so you have to balance your decks to be able to play better cards. As a veteran RPG player, I found it pretty intuitive, with a lot of depth and options over the five playable characters.
At around twenty hours, the game isn’t very long for an RPG but you can go back to previous chapters to grind for items, experience, and money, or to find hidden secrets. The story isn’t very complicated, but it is filled with charm and clever little references to games like Final Fantasy IV and other old-school RPGs.
SteamWorld Quest is a lighthearted but perfectly executed take on the card RPG. It’s available for PC and from the Nintendo Switch eshop.
Support Me on Ko-fi

Four Job Fiesta Part Two: Ahead on our Way

Leave a comment

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!

Four Job Fiesta: Part One

Leave a comment

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

2 Comments

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.
Patreon

Hugh Likes Video Games: Castlevania, Circle of the Moon

1 Comment

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!

Leave a comment

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

Leave a comment

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

Leave a comment

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.

Final Fantasy IV: Part One: Marrying the Personal and the Epic

1 Comment

Picking back up in my look at the Final Fantasy series, let’s take a look at the first entry into the Super Nintendo era, Final Fantasy IV.  Leaving aside the technical and nerdy depths of the game’s various versions and releases, today I want to talk about the game’s plot, and the huge step forward it represented for the series.

Final Fantasy IV is the story of Cecil, a Dark Knight of Baron, and the commander of the kingdom’s dreaded airship corps, the Red Wings.  The game opens with a lengthy cut scene of Cecil flying to the country of Mysidia, attacking, and stealing their crystal.  This is a unique opening for the series, as there is almost no game-play as the player is introduced to Cecil, his friends and subordinates, and his inner turmoil.  Cecil is caught between his loyalty to the king and his desire to do what is right.

When he questions why the kingdom is committing such horrible crimes, the king strips him of his rank and demands he deliver a message to a nearby village, alone and on foot.  Cecil’s best friend and Dragoon Kain stands with him.  This is where the adventure, and the game, really begin.  The first few hours of the game chronicle Cecil’s journey as he gains and loses allies, and fights to make sense of the world and his place in it.  Finally, he washes up alone and broken on the shores of Mysidia, coming face to face with the horror of what he did at the start of the narrative.

The only way for Cecil to atone for his crime is to climb Mt. Ordeals and become a Paladin, shedding the darkness of his past.  And in doing so, the greater motion of the plot is revealed, as he is opposed by fiends serving Golbez, a powerful, shadowy figure gathering crystals to himself for some purpose.  And in becoming a Paladin, he transcends his quest to save himself, and takes on a mission to save the world.

Final Fantasy IV marked a turning point for the series.  The quartet of tabula rasas with blank spaces for names were replaced by more fully formed characters that had a place and stake in the world.  They had their own drive and agency, and drew the story forward as they wove in and out of the adventure tale’s intricate story.  IV didn’t give the player any choice as to who was in the party at any given time.  It was dictated by the story and the actions of the characters rather than the player.  And all the characters had a reason to be there, be it a sense of obligation, a desire for revenge, or just a desire to keep the other characters safe.  Square eased up on the narrative drive in later games, giving the player a bit more control, but this is the game when the party really became characters.  It was a remarkable step forward, and it had a lasting impression on the series.

Next time:  The technical innovations of the 16 bit era, and the five person party.

Older Entries