The Year of Final Fantasy

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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.

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Hugh Likes Video Games: Final Fantasy X Remaster

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Final Fantasy X Remaster
Published by Square Enix
Played on the Nintendo Switch


The Skinny: The classic PS2 JRPG returns for the Switch, packaged with its quirky sequel

Final Fantasy X is one of the big high watermark JRPGs, the sort of game that doesn’t get made anymore, but is consistently being remastered and made available for digital rerelease. So when it came out for the Switch packaged with its sequel, I picked up a copy, to see how well it holds up nearly twenty years later.
Final Fantasy X is the story of Tidus, a star athlete magically transported from his utopian city of Zanarkand, and Yuna, a young summoner embarking on a pilgrimage. Ten years ago, Yuna and Tidus’s fathers fought and defeated a giant monster called ‘Sin,’ which constantly destroys the world, and cannot be killed by conventional means. Sin has returned, and the two youths find themselves on the same path their father’s took ten years before. Can they find a way to break the cycle, or will they be just another sacrifice?
The game plays without problems on the Switch, and looks gorgeous. I noticed some slowdown during cutscenes, and the sharp HD display makes the transition between pre-rendered and real-time rendered graphics more pronounced an jarring. I played almost exclusively in handheld mode, and it worked great.
The gameplay is just as strategic and engaging as I remembered, and while some of the voice acting and animation have noticeably aged, It’s still notable as the first steps Square took with this level of production.
The game also includes a code for the complete edition of Final Fantasy X-2, the games goofy, power-pop inspired sequel. I may review it later in a second blog post, but for now, I’ll say that it loads fine, and plays about as well as I remember, but after pouring eighty hours into the first installment, I am ready for a break.
You can find Final Fantasy X / X-2 Remaster from your local electronics shop, or digitally from the Playstation, Switch or X-Box online stores.
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Hugh Likes Comics: Ascender

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Ascender #1
Written by Jeff Lemire
Art by Dustin Nguyen
Lettered by Steve Wands
Published by image


The Skinny: In a galaxy ruled by a despotic witch, a young girl dreams of freedom.

Even though I’ve never read Descender, the long-running science fiction series to which this book serves as a sequel, I’m still intrigued by the premise. In a galaxy where technology is outlawed, the universe is under the control of a powerful witch. Raised in isolation by her father, a girl
Most of the first issue of Lemire and Nguyen’s Ascender is table-setting. As someone coming in fresh, I was captivated by the world building, with hints of a growing rebellion and a compelling space fantasy premise. We spend most of the episode with the authoritarian Mother and her cronies and henchmen as she plots to keep her iron grip on the universe in the face of a mysterious opposition. The mystery here is strong enough to make up for the lack of movement in the plot, and we get a good look at how bad life is under this regime.
Nguyen’s art is the real star of the show, though. Everything is done in a beautiful watercolor style. it’s more intimate and graceful than your average story about space magic, and it lends something unique and resonant to the book. It contrasts the brutality of the regime by painting it in soft blues and grays. Each page has something surprising and gorgeous in the midst of horror.
Much like Star Wars, Ascender #1 starts at the lowest point of an ongoing story, but invites the audience in on a new adventure to save the galaxy from the forces of darkness. I’m 100% on board. You can find it in floppies at your local comics shop, or digitally from Comixology.
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Hugh Likes Video Games-Final Fantasy V

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Final Fantasy V
Published by Square (1999)
Played on PS Vita


Having completed this summer’s Four Job Fiesta, It’s time to take a last look at Final Fantasy V.
V represents a turning point in the series from the design of the early entries, which were much more guided experiences, to more complex strategic systems. It is the last main series game to feature the four crystals as a major plot element, and its the first games since Final Fantasy II with a really crunchy mechanical system underlying the story.
Final Fantasy’s Job System, which was refined and expanded from Final Fantasy III, gives the player freedom to plan and combine skills to overcome obstacles. This is a contrast to Final Fantasy IV, which was much more managed. The goal of that game was to defeat challenges using the resources at hand. This strategic element becomes more important going forward in the series.
V also heralds a shift from the melodramatic, adventurous tone of early games to a darker tone. While there is still a lot of levity in the game, it does deal with some thematic elements such as an inevitable end of the world head on. This clears the way for the more operatic Final Fantasy VI, and the diesel-punk dystopia of Final Fantasy VII. It’s also the last time we are going to see a main cast of just four playable characters until last year’s Final Fantasy XV. While the larger casts in later games provide more flexibility, I don’t know if we get to know the characters as well as we do this last iteration of the Light Warriors. The cast of Final Fantasy V is really charming, and includes one of the first transgender characters in gaming with Faris, who is awesome.
The game itself is somewhat forgotten in the west, as it didn’t come out here until after the fact, and its sound and graphics lack the oomph of IV and VI. But it is exquisitely balanced, and remains fun to play, as can be seen by the Four Job Fiesta challenge. If you haven’t given it a try, You can find the game in the PS1 Classics section of the Playstation store for PS3, PS Vita, and PSP. You can also track down the Game Boy Advance port, which is probably the best version of the game, or check out the mobile port. If you are a JRPG aficionado, give it a try.
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The Gamer’s Guide To Writing: Final Fantasy VII and 3 Act Structure Part I

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Three act structure is a form of plot found very commonly in film, but which can be used in just about every kind of story. As the name suggests, it consists of three parts: The Setup, the Confrontation, and the Resolution.
Final Fantasy VII was released by Square Soft for Sony Playstation in 1997. A breakout hit for the system, the game had a very cinematic style, and its clear narrative makes it a great example of a game with a classical three act structure. This might be at least partially due to the technological limitations of the system. FF7 originally came on three CD-Rom discs. We can look at each disc roughly equating to one ‘act’ of the three-act structure. Today let’s take a look at the first disc and how it introduces the story and characters. From here on in, we’re cutting right to spoiler territory


Disc one is the the Setup. We are introduced to ex-SOLDIER Cloud Stryfe, mercenary and former guard for the ruthless and world-controlling Shinra Electric Power Company, and Avalanche, the small band of eco-terrorists fighting against them. We meet them in Midgar, Shinra’s grimy, dystopian capital city, built in such a way that the poor are denied even sunlight.
The first act contains the Inciting Incident, the event in the story which changes the direction of the characters. In Final Fantasy VII, this is the murder of President Shinra. As the head of Shinra corporation, he serves as the main antagonist for Cloud and the others. They break into Shinra headquarters to confront him, only to discover he has already been killed by Sephiroth, a powerful SOLDIER thought to be dead. Sephiroth’s appearance as antagonist, and Shinra’s death, the trajectory of the story changes. Cloud and party escape the confines of the City of Midgar and follow Sephiroth’s trail across the expanse of the world, while they are pursued by the Turks, Shinra’s elite unit of special forces.
The first act ends with a plot point that again changes the direction of the story and propels the action into plot two. In Final Fantasy VII, this is of course another confrontation with Sephiroth and another murder. This is the infamous death of Aeris, a healer with an ancient lineage who may hold the key to stopping Sephiroth. Depending on the player, she is also probably Cloud’s primary love interest at this point. Aeris’s murder serves a dual purpose in the story. It is a setback which removes a potential solution to Sephiroth’s mysterious goals. It also raises the stakes by killing a party member and Cloud’s love interest, assuming the player chose her through his actions. This elevates the journey to find Sephiroth from a search for answers to one of revenge.
Next time, we’ll look at disc two, and discuss Rising Action as Sephiroth’s plan is put into motion, and Cloud comes face to face with who he really is.
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The Gamer’s Guide To Writing #2-Selling your Story from the Title Screen! (FFIX)

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Courtesy gamefaqs.com

Welcome back to The Gamer’s Guide to Writing!  Last week, we introduced the game Final Fantasy IX and talked a bit about where it fits into the franchise of the series.  Let’s start up the game and have a look, shall we?
The first thing that appears on the screen are logos for the publishers and developers.  But the Squaresoft logo fades in to a short cinematic, while soft, medieval-sounding flute music plays.  This is the audience’s first real look at the style and tone of the game, and FFIX goes for an epic tone out of the gate.  We see images of a vast city, its sky teeming with airships, grand castles, and sweeping landscapes, all superimposed with a map detailing their locations.  The screen finally crossfades to the title screen, with the Final Fantasy IX logo over the background of a glowing crystal.
The thing I find interesting is that nowhere in the clip do we see a character, or get any close ups of a human figure at all.  This is the setting and art on display.  It is a promise of a wide scope, of a game that stretches across global proportions.  This is a promise of where you’ll be going.  But if we leave the controller alone for a moment, something else happens.
If left to run by itself, the game will run through a series of still images of the protagonists.  Each of the eight playable characters appears in close up, with a single word description above them and a line of text below.  Nowhere in each picture do we find the character’s name, but each is an efficient little description of who each one is, and what their motivations are in the story.  Each of these is a still shot from a FMV cutscene.
For instance, Zidane, the main character, is an image of him with a horrified expression standing against a bank of dark storm clouds.  It reads “Virtue” at the top and “You don’t need a reason to help people.”  In this single frame, the game tells us that this is the hero of the game.  He’s a good guy, and he is motivated by a strong sense of justice.  Now, this isn’t all there is to the character, of course.  This is especially true of some of his actions during disc one, but when it comes down to brass tacks, he isn’t motivated by greed or status.  He is motivated out of a desire to do good.  Vivi, on the other hand, is motivated very differently.  The text on his image reads “Despair,” and the line underneath says, “How do you know you exist?  Maybe we don’t exist…” While Quina’s states “I do what I want!  You have problem?”  This shows the reader that Vivi’s motives stem from his need to understand and establish his own identity, while Quina’s actions stem from their own simple desires.
But what purpose does putting the movie and character portraits serve?  Much like the text and quotes on a dust jacket, they are there to sell the product.  If you went into a game store in 2000, you might have seen a monitor on the counter with the opening to Final Fantasy IX playing in a loop.  Prospective players could watch and get an idea of what the story of the game was like, without being spoiled by it.
This little opening section is an excellent example for writers coming up with description copy for their books.  Whether you go epic, or personal with your characters, your goal is to present your story as evocatively as possible in the fewest words.  And notice that none of them have to necessarily be your characters’ names!
This could also be an excellent character building exercise.  Think about the protagonist  of your work in progress.  What is one word to describe them?  Can you summarize their motivations in a single line?
Next week, we’ll press start and explore Alexandria from the point of view of a little Black Mage in a big city!
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The Gamer’s Guide to Writing: An Introduction


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.

Final Fantasy IV, Part two: The Fifth Man

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Being the first Final Fantasy game for the Super Nintendo, Final Fantasy IV featured several technical advancements over the previous incarnations.  The graphical tile set shares some similarity with FF III, but 16-bit graphics and an expanded color palate give the objects more depth.  Everything feels a bit more real.  The added power of the hardware also allowed for two key graphical improvements.  The first is layering, which created better visual effects, filling the screen with fog or smoke, and lending atmosphere to the dungeons and other locations.  The second is Mode 7 graphics.  Mode 7 was an ability that the Super Nintendo had which allowed the background plane to be rotated against another object in a variety of ways.  This was used by the Super Nintendo to create the illusion of a 3D environment with 2D backgrounds.  FF IV uses the effect for airship sequences in the game.  As the airship takes off, the ground literally tilts and shrinks away, creating an appearance of altitude.  Square continued to refine and experiment with these effects in later games for the Super Nintendo.
The real thing that makes FF IV stand out in the series, however, is the battle system.  Final Fantasy IV is the origin of the Active Time Battle System.  In previous games, your characters would line up on one side of the screen, the monsters would take the other side, and you’d take turns hitting each other with swords and magic.  IV introduced a system where the speed at which your characters acted was actually based on their speed stats.  So faster characters wouldn’t just land more blows on their opponents, they acted more often.  This was another break-out moment for the series, and was a key part of the game for years, although players could still set the controls so that monsters would politely wait if you were called away during a fight.
The other unique feature was a five-person party over the previous games’ four.  This is the largest they ever got, and challenged the player with a difficult choice. Like in II and III, players could set characters in the front row to do more physical damage, or the back to boost defense.  But in IV, some slots were reserved for the front, and others for the back, letting the players choose, but preventing them from putting everyone up front or in back.  Again, the player had to familiarize themselves with the characters, and learn their strengths and weaknesses.  Usually this wasn’t particularly difficult with knights up front and wizards in the back.  However, some sections of the game gave you a party that favored one style over the the other, and left you with more vulnerable characters, or with choosing who to stick in the back for a while.
Final Fantasy IV is a game that focused on delivering one story, and challenging players to master it with very little of the customization offered by previous and later installments.  Still, it delivers it so well, and the mechanics are so deep, that it still remains one of my favorites in the series.

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.

Final Fantasy III: An RPG with Class

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After FF2’s dramatic departures, Final Fantasy III is a return and refinement to the style of the original Final Fantasy. While there is a bit of hand waving to establish the four unnamed children of destiny as orphans living in a remote village, We’re pretty much back to the non-character party of Final Fantasy. Later remakes worked a bit harder at this, but for the NES era, we have four tabula rasa, which actually fits the premise well. This time, you they aren’t stuck in the same job for the whole game. This is the game where Square introduced the popular Job change mechanic.

How it works is players receive Job Points as they progress through the game along with experience and gold. As the game progresses, the story unlocks more available jobs to change into, allowing new classes for the characters. This gives the player a chance to experiment with different abilities without being corralled by the game.

Although it was originally released in Japan in 1990, the rest of the world didn’t get to (legally) play Final Fantasy III until 2006. The game was a late addition to the Nintendo Famicom library, and Square chose to release its 16-bit successor in the US as Final Fantasy II instead. For being released so late in the console’s life, the game takes better advantage of the hardware than the two previous entries. The game’s palette is brighter, the sprites are more detailed, and the game world is larger and more complex. Many of the games textures and sprites would be upcycled and reused in the Super Nintendo release of Final Fantasy IV.

The basic plot of Final Fantasy III combines the mechanics and exploration based gameplay of the first game with the more dramatic elements of the second. The player characters are four orphans in silly helmets who fall into a cavern after an earthquake. There, they discover a magical crystal, and are charged with solving the mystery of what caused the elemental macguffin to be sealed away in the first place, along with the other three, of course. The crystal gives them the ability to have and switch between a variety of different jobs. Each one has its own strengths and weaknesses, and gives the characters benefits when they level up. Fighters use swords and give more HP when leveling up, White Mages use magic and give better Magic Defense. As with the other entries in the series, These are old hat ideas now, but were excitingly innovative at the time.

As the game progresses, and the player explores more and more of the game world, each new crystal discovered grants new jobs. A colorful cast of NPCs provide the plot, and drive the story forward. This is where Final Fantasy III shines, expanding on the job-based gameplay from FF I and the drama-laden narrative from FF II.

This drama comes in the form of NPC characters who join up with the Light Warriors as they traverse the fields, forests, caves and ruins of the world. The party’s driving goal at any one time is determined by the needs of the tag-along characters, even if they don’t ride shotgun in battle the way they did in FF II. The party helps Cid get home safely, rescues the Prince of a war-torn kingdom from his possessed father, and more. Each of these episodic diversions feels like more than a simple side quest. They breathe life into the game world, and provide a welcome break from the 8-bit formula of now go to this dungeon and get the next crystal formula. And at the climax of the game, it is the good the player did in the world that proves more powerful than the arcane jewelry they spent the last 20 hours focusing on.

Final Fantasy III is the height of RPG craft in the NES era, and it is a shame that fans never got to play it in the days of its 8-bit glory. The game doesn’t hold up so well today, even with graphics and story updates. Much like the Disney film version of “John Carter of Mars,” this is something we’ve seen expanded and perfected in the years since it was originally devised. Going back to it is a fun history lesson, but only the hard-core need apply. Also, avoid the mobile versions. The control scheme is unworkably terrible.

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