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

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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.

Shogi

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Last night my husband and I played shogi for the first time in a long while.  We did fairly well, although we did have to look up the wiki to double-check all the piece starting positions and movements.  I picked up the board as a gift for Jeremy when I was living in Japan, and we used to spend afternoons playing in the park behind the house.  Breaking the board out again was a pleasant end to our anniversary weekend.

Shogi is a Japanese chess variant, and I prefer it over the European game.  In Shogi, captured pieces are retained “In Hand.”  That is to say instead of being dead once they are taken off the board, your opponent can place captured pieces in their army and use them against you.  I’ve always really liked this mechanic.  It makes me a lot less willing to rush ahead and sacrifice a piece for an attack.  I play more defensively.  Defense is really the name of the game.  Shogi doesn’t have a queen piece, but rather two pairs of generals, gold and silver.  These pieces can move one space in any direction forward, as well as a few other spaces.  Gold generals move one space orthogonally.  Silvers move diagonally.  They basically serve as a set of guards for the king.

The writer in me really likes the thematic elements of shogi.  The defensive game, and the idea that nothing really ends when a piece is cleared of the game board is intriguing to me.  The game is a bit difficult to find in the US, but if you are a fan of chess and other strategy games. you should try and find a set.

Final Fantasy: This is what happens after we save the princess.

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Release Date: 1987

Original System: Nintendo Famicom/Nintendo Entertainment System

This is the first in a series of blog essays examining the games in the Final Fantasy Series. We’ll be considering plot, mechanics, design and other aspects of each game, and how they work together as an experience. As a far bit of warning, these essays are going to be chock full of spoilers.

This is the one that started it all, and it did something cool right out of the gate. At first glance, Final Fantasy doesn’t have much of a story or plot. A slowly crawling text screen, almost an 8-bit equivalent of the “Star Wars” opening text crawl reveals that the world is ending, and only four brave youths, each carrying an orb, aim to stop it. Next, you choose the names and jobs of your characters, making them fighters or mages. This is the only game in the series where you choose your characters’ jobs at the beginning and have to stick with your decision. Once you’ve picked out your favorite team of Fighters and Mages, the game unceremoniously deposits your party on the map screen, in a forest ringing a huge castle town.

“Final Fantasy” and the other well known Japanese RPG of the era “Dragon Quest” both stick very close to the mold of computerized Dungeons and Dragons clones. Although there are some interesting twists in the first installment, and later games create more of an identity for themselves. The first game was chock full of giants, hordes of D & D style undead, and even beholders! And much like the style of tabletop RPGs at the time, Final Fantasy did not hold your hand or give much in the way of hints, aside from pointing you in the direction of evil and demanding that you ‘Rekindle the Orbs.’

At the start of the game, the major problem is that Garland, a formerly gallant knight, has kidnapped Princess Sara and is hiding out in the creepy ruined shrine to the north. No one in the kingdom is a match for him, so it’s up to you to go knock him down. So your characters march through the goblin-haunted forest, fighting monsters and hopefully leveling up a bit before meeting your heroic destiny and saving the princess. At the time, of course, saving the princess or other damsel in distress was so common that just about every game (except for Metroid, Samus Aran is a self-rescuing princess.) featured an end goal of freeing some captive lady from a dastardly villain who set a few hours of obstacles in your path and waited patiently on the last screen. But here’s where “Final Fantasy” does things a little differently.

Slaying Garland and rescuing Sara isn’t the end goal of your long and perilous quest. It’s just your first step on a much wider and grander adventure. This may not seem like much today, but from the mindset of 1987, it was huge. Final Fantasy didn’t just present a challenge, it creates an arc.

This is a common literary device, and I wish games used it more often. Like the opening sequence to a summer blockbuster, the audience is given a compact introduction based on action rather than exposition. In the 8-bit era, the story for a game was something often left for the instruction booklet. Final Fantasy embraces a more literary aspect, while at the same time creating a ‘newbie area’ for the player to learn the gameplay without wandering into a fight they aren’t ready for.

The reason this really works is that the player doesn’t even know this until they return the princess, collect their reward, a lute that seems to be important, but has no known purpose, and leaves town.

When the player reaches the new bridge, filled with a new purpose to discover what is ill in the world, something very different happens. Credits roll. Final Fantasy might be the first game to include credits at the front of the game, much like a film.

Things get more difficult for the player on the other side of that bridge, but the game has a pretty balanced difficulty curve. Final Fantasy is essentially a huge map, and the player is invited to explore more and more of it as he overcomes challenges. These are not merely physical challenges in terms of having stronger enemies in new areas, either. The narrative functions extremely well here. As with the bridge at the beginning of the game, new methods of exploration become available and obstacles are removed from your path as you complete the story. In some cases this could feel artificial or illogical, but Final Fantasy is rather elegant about it.

The player helps a blind seer recover her crystal ball, and receives vital information about the quest. The player frees a harbor town from invading pirates, and takes their boat as a reward. The player feeds a hungry monster and opens the path it blocked. This not only progresses the story and keeps the player invested, but it gives the player a sense of agency in the game world.

Focusing on challenge and exploration does come at a cost, however. While NPC’s are are interactive and change to some degree as the story goes on, the player is piloting a barber shop quartet of tabula-rasas across the game. The Light Warriors themselves don’t have any personality at all, and their accomplishments nest very simply on the shoulders of the player. The game is much more a power fantasy than an epic.

The plot still has the ability to surprise the player, however. Late in the game, after saving the world from three arch-fiends, and firmly entrenching the world of swords and magic, the plot throws a spanner in the works.

Late in the game, something falls to earth and is buried in a cave. The player explores the cave full of monsters and discovers… a robot. It seems the last archfiend has hidden herself in the last remnants of an advanced civilization’s technology, and you’ll have to go up into space to fight her. This isn’t a medieval fantasy, it’s a post-apocalyptic one. This is a really cool twist, and one of the mainstays of the series. It is reinforced in the final dungeon, when all four now lit orbs are brought back to the Chaos Shrine from the start of the game. The real plot of the game’s villains is to use the orbs to create a time-loop which makes them immortal, at the expense of the rest of the world, and the agent responsible is of course the original princess-kidnapping knight, Garland.

Final Fantasy’s plot is bare bones, but it presents the player as an agent of change, and the antagonists as bringers of a terrible status quo. This is a refreshing standout in a medium where heroes usually served as Princess retrieval services. Final Fantasy is a game about breaking out of damaging patterns and changing the world for the better, and it certainly changed the face of electronic entertainment.

Next up: Final Fantasy II, the black sheep of the family.

Hugh supports Gaymercon and rants a bit

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I just supported a kickstarter for Gaymercon.  I doubt that I will be able to make it to the actual event next year, but I am amazed by the courage and awesomeness of the organizers. This is an incredible idea, an incredible convention. It is something that makes me proud to be a geek. And there are people who are complaining about it. They are complaining that it is being EXCLUSIVE and FRACTURING THE GAMING COMMUNITY NEEDLESSLY. I’ll let you read those big old capslock letters again. Welcome to privilege town, ladies and gentlemen.

I am a gamer. Two months ago, I married my wonderful partner of eleven years. We wore matching red and blue waistcoats, and we exited the ceremony to a version of the Final Fantasy Prelude. I was very happy that I could include gaming in our wedding, because we finally got our good ending.

I have never set foot in X-box live, and I steer clear of gamin message boards. Some of the hate spewed in those places is ignorance, some is childishness, and some is a tactic. But it lessens my experience. It reminds me that I’m different. That I’m unwelcome. Gaymercon is an event that is going to bring the gaming community together, to support our identities and our hobbies, and to say that the two are not mutually exclusive. I’ll be damned if some hetero-normative bully is going to tell me to sit down and shut up about it. Gaymercon is important and it is necessary because of this, and this, and let’s not forget this.  Gay, lesbian, transgender, hell, even FEMALE and NON-WHITE gamers have had to fight for their seat at the table in this community.

There is a lot of support for diversity in the gaming community, but there is a lot of hate, too. And that hate has one hell of a large bullhorn. Things are changing, if slowly for the LGBTQA community in gaming. Gaymer con is going to be a great step in making gaming a safe place for everyone. I’m supporting them, and if you feel the same way I do, regardless of your gender identity or sexual orientation, I urge you to do the same.

Final Fantasy Origin

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This year is the 25th anniversary of Final Fantasy, which is to say that Final Fantasy was originally released in Japan in 1987.  I learned of the series ten years later, as an awkward high school student.  My best friend gave me a 3.5 floppy disc (kids, ask your parents) with a DOS NES emulator and a rom of Final Fantasy.  This was the same time when Final Fantasy 7, with its CGI videos and polygonal graphics was tearing up the PlayStation, but I didn’t care.  It was something amazing.  It was a game that changed my whole outlook.

Playing Final Fantasy games brought be back to fantasy and science fiction as a reader.  They were genres I had abandoned in favor of horror and thriller paperbacks.  But these games brought me back to them, and showed me that there was something great in those stories.  And I fell in love with fantasy so hard that I started writing it myself.  It’s funny to think that a video game could be the reason I became a writer, but it’s true.

In the fifteen years since I made my first party (Lugh, Bobo, Bill and Maev) the series has had its ups and downs, sequels, spin-offs, mergers and MMOs.  I’ve traveled and journeyed as well, from school to the working world, to living overseas and coming home, and getting married.  And I’ve been playing and loving Final Fantasy throughout everything.  A lot of writers, myself included, have literary heroes they admire and seek to emulate.  For me, Hironobu Sakaguchi, the designer of Final Fantasy is just as much in my pantheon of legends.

Each Final Fantasy game is different, and each one has its own flaws and strengths.  And each one has something to teach about its design, even to writers.  I am going to spend a few weeks looking at the story and plot of each Final Fantasy, to see what makes it tick, and why the game works, or doesn’t.  It’s going to be quite a ride, and I hope you stick with me on it.

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