Final Fantasy XII – International Zodiac Job System – PS2

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Cactoid dance!

It’s times like this that I have an entire novel to revise and just enough free time to glance at my work schedule that I think, “You know what I should do now? Play a 100+ hour game and then write about it. So I played Final Fantasy XII instead of doing anything useful or productive. I haven’t quite made it to the end, yet, but before you point out that judging something before you try it is only useful when hiring prostitutes and getting out of jury duty, I have played the game before. As such, I know that my characters are currently strong enough that if any of them have so much as an exceptionally strong bowel movement, the final boss will drop dead from the shock wave.

The point of playing through the game, though is to try the International Zodiac Job System, which is “international” in the same way that Dr. Pepper is medically qualified to treat your diabetes. Noting problems with the original release, such as the fact that each character can learn every skill in the game and still have enough skill points left over that they’d have to bury them in a hole somewhere in the desert just to be rid of them, the game underwent a few revisions. Then, presumably seeing how George Lucas went from God of Nerds to Discount Pauly Shore for doing just that, they hid their new Zodiac Job System from the rest of the world with an irony that would make a climate change denier’s head spin. Naming a Japan-exclusive release International is like naming a girl “Brandie Delight” and then shipping her off to a convent three states away from the nearest strip club.

Since Final Fantasy acts like the bastard love child of Star Wars and the Lord of the Rings, the story opens with the age-old “Empire-bad-kingdom-good scenario.” The Archadian Empire has been conquering the kingdoms like a 5-year-old diving into a pile of Christmas presents, and murdered the king of Dalmasca in a plot to seize power forcefully by interrupting a treaty signing that would give them that power peacefully, and then framing a Dalmascan captain by using his Archadian twin brother to do the actual killing. Then they blow the whole place up with the fantasy equivalent of a hydrogen bomb. Princess Ashe, who was announced dead but then got better, now leads a small resistance movement against the Empire who is now camped out in Dalmasca like the creepy college roommate who won’t ever leave the house.

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Final Fantasy’s bad-ass, revenge-seeking bride. I made her a samurai so she could kick Uma Thurman’s ass.

The story runs with a fascinating concept—a twist on the man-who-would-be-king archetype wherein the Empire freely offers Ashe her throne in exchange for her full cooperation. But it reads as though writers’ prescriptions of Adderall ran out the morning they started work. Early on, the game cycles through three potential protagonists, one supporting character who constantly calls himself the leading man, and a trusty hero who bravely faces the tutorial level only die as soon as he’s learned everything. Once the story finally settles on Ashe, a steep difficulty curve demands the story be broken up for more or less mandatory side-questing. But now that I’ve played through the game for the fourth or fifth time, I can appreciate Ashe’s dilemma, whether or not she’ll let herself be manipulated by the Empire or the Gods; serve her own Trumpish Id, throw a tantrum, and nuke the entire Empire because she’s mad; or throw out all ideas of revenge like a copy of Moby Dick, essentially un-invent the atomic bomb, and rescue her kingdom from the token villain who had to murder his own father (who was on his way out the door anyway) just so we’d know he was supposed to be evil.

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“And also, no wedding cakes for the gays!”

The combat system deviates from Final Fantasy’s traditional turn-based battles and instead plays like an introduction to computer programming course. After twenty years of publishing RPGs, someone at Square must have pointed out, “You know, all anyone ever does is use the basic attack.” So they finally programmed an AI that would pretty much just keep attacking unless you told it to stop. Each character has a programmable list of actions and conditions called gambits. From top to bottom, the game runs down each list of conditions until it finds one it can meet, then the character performs that specific action. This is a brilliant way to reshape the way we think about battle, save time inputting menu commands (not to mention there are no more random encounters), and to ensure that at some point you will cure an enemy, burn through all your MP by casting your highest spells on monsters with 10 HP, and beating the tar out of your allies until you learn exactly how to set up your gambits properly.

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Ashe and Co gang up on a defenseless tomato-monster.

This leads to the first glorious difference between the American release and the International version—the gambits are smarter. Somewhat. I always liked to set my characters to resurrect anyone who died, thus insuring the number one priority in battle was to prevent rigor mortis. However, with the necessity of setting everyone with the same gambit came the inevitable result that everyone else would immediately drop what they were doing and chuck every feather within eyesight at the fresh corpse as if someone had just declared a sorority slumber party pillow fight. Now I can equip the same gambits on everyone and my characters won’t set upon each other like medical zombies every time one of them stubs their toe. Not all gambits are smart, though. I found that I don’t need to set “Character Status: Blind – Esuna,” “Character Status: Petrify – Esuna” and “Character Status: Parkinson’s Syndrome – Esuna,” as “Any Ally – Esuna” will simply wait until the spell is needed before casting it. However, if I set a gambit for “Any Foe – Steal,” I’ll end up picking the enemy’s pocket, steal their pocket, take the rest of their clothes and a few layers of skin and my character will still try to pick through their bones trying to find one more potion.

The selling point for the international version, however, is as the title might suggest, the Zodiac Jobs System. All skills in the game, as well as the ability to equip weapons and armor, come from a license board, much like FFX’s sphere grid, except more rectangular and a little more free-flowing. However, it was rather small, and after building up license points for the first 30% of the game, after which, license points would just stack up uselessly–like Arby’s coupons, but without the impending threat of dysentery. By that point, each your characters have as much diversity as a box of Peeps, each one possessing both a trove of knowledge that would make Stephen Hawking obsolete and the physical prowess to win gold medals in the Olympic decathalon. When a fifteen-year-old girl can smash skulls with a war hammer and cause as much damage as the 30-year-old seasoned war veteran, the game tends to lose the element of strategy. All six characters equip an entire iron ore freighter, cast all the buffs on themselves, and simultaneously pulverize the monsters as though they were auditioning to be machinery at the Ocean Spray factory.

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This one’s shaped like a bow and arrow. Obviously, this is the Insurance Adjuster job class.

The Zodiac Jobs System fixes that by introducing a complex bureaucracy to the game, delaying some licenses until much of the game has passed and denying many licenses altogether based on eligibility requirements. Unlike real bureaucracy, though, this surprisingly makes the game easier. Originally, any time a character developed a mild cough, the entire party would forget completely about the enemies to cure it, thus allowing the monsters free reign to beat them down, causing yet more memory loss. Now, it’s likely that at least one character will lack restorative powers altogether and continue to stab enemies if for no other reason than to fend off sheer boredom. I also noticed that mixing and matching different characters tended to produce different battle strategies, so beating a particularly difficult boss only required a small change to my starting lineup rather than half a week of punching bats in a mine.

Espers are…well, espers are still pretty fucking useless. The original release of the game gave you summoned monsters that died so quickly after summoning that they may as well have developed a DVT on the flight to the battlefield. Calling an esper never served as anything but a momentary diversion for people who feel the “menu” button takes all the challenge out of pausing a game. In IZJS, espers still enter the battlefield with all the vim and vigor of an asthmatic guinea pig, but now you get to control them in their few seconds of life on this plane of existence. Basically, that amounts to permission to pull off their major attack once, realizing it doesn’t have the strength to dent your car, and barely missing the opportunity to say goodbye to your esper, who takes off for the ICU as soon as he’s done.

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Looks almost dead, right? Guess again. See those dots below the health bar? Those are extra health bars. Or as I like to think of them, 1% of your total play time.

At the risk of running too long, the game is worth playing. More so than the original. In fact, not only do I feel like forever discarding the original release like last year’s iPhone, but I’m tempted to play through it a second time to use the six jobs I couldn’t use this time. Fortunately, that’s not out of the realm of possibility. Despite the fact that writing a weekly blog often rushes me through games, they’ve introduced what I call yakkety sax mode, which doubles the speed of traveling and battling. I managed to shave over thirty hours off the game. Round two, here I come!

Final Fantasy Explorers – 3DS

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With this elaborate and detailed box art consisting of…the logo against a white background…you know this is going to be good! No, wait, the other thing. A minimal effort on Square’s part to blandly cash in on the nostalgia that should be driving their major titles.

The Final Fantasy series has always carried a lot of charm. They use colorful characters, fantastic creatures, and surprisingly deep stories that make them fun to play. Unfortunately, the last main series game I played, FFXIII, has all the charm of a conversation with that angry uncle at Thanksgiving—it’s overtly racist, you know it will only go in one direction, and after fifteen minutes everyone is pretty sure they’d rather be doing something else. FFXV isn’t shaping up to look much better, what with replacing chocobos with cars, castles and kingdoms with modern urban landscapes, and women with a strongly worded letter to the fans about how girls are icky and should probably put down the PS4 controller and go back to making them a sandwich. Since the main series of late seems afraid to use all the assets that made Final Fantasy a hit—such as the job system, iconic creatures, exploration and estrogen—the only place I can look for that classic charm is in spin-off titles.

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Dress up as or transform into your favorite FF protagonist! Or just go play that game instead!

Final Fantasy Explorers certainly doesn’t shy away from the classics. The game starts as your personally designed character is looking for a crystal and is instead attacked by a tutorial level. However before you can press Y to attack, they realize that Bahamut, Legendary King of the Dragons, Recurring Series Icon, and Khaleesi of the Great Grass Sea, might not be a great monster to start you out on. So you run away, find yourself in the lone town on the continent of Amostra, and sit there and read an instruction manual as some NPC tells you all about the battle system. It won’t likely win any awards for most cleverly designed tutorial level, but fortunately the combat never strays from “Press a button to attack, press two buttons to use a special attack and press three buttons to use a super special attack.” You push the control stick in the direction you want to move and the D-pad swings the camera. Again, it doesn’t intend to train anyone for brain surgery (save that for Trauma Center), but too many games I’ve played act so desperate for innovation that the characters can only move in a straight line if you hold R while alternating between B and Select while reciting the Pledge of Allegiance to a nude photograph of Betty White.

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Be our guest, be our guest. Fight a castle. Feel impressed!

The plot of Explorers is a Neo-Orwellian examination of the deepest parts of the human psyche as told through archetypal representations of fantasy beasts. Just kidding! You’re on an island looking for shit. Crystals, eidolons, random junk you find on the ground, pathways to find more junk on the ground: it doesn’t matter! It’s all good. Naturally, like many quest-based RPGs, exploration always entails a decent amount of of violent slaughter. Video games tend to follow the philosophy of British Colonialism in that if they haven’t murdered something wherever they go, they can’t say they’ve truly been there. So once you’ve traveled around, rolling up an island’s worth of random shit in your Final Fantasy Katamari, you return to town, buy abilities you’ve upgraded from v1.01 to v1.02, forge yourself some new armor with a few extra coconut fibers over the vital areas, upgrade the small chocobo feather scotch-taped to your sword to a large feather with duct-tape, and then set out into the world to upgrade to v1.03, replenish your coconut supplies, and hunt around for an exceptionally fluffy black chocobo.

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Of course, considering the rarity of items required to forge job-specific armor, we’re probably looking at a white mage.

Most of the story takes place off-camera, with NPCs reporting missions and events that sound way more exciting than “Quest: Defeat 5 Malboros.” Even the big, climactic break-into-the-final(re: only)-dungeon scene happened while I was out sparring round 4 with the same eidolons I’d been fighting since my very first stroll to the end of the block. So much happened outside of my direct involvement, that when the NPCs started singing my praises as though I’d just single-handedly sacked the city of Troy, I started wondering if they only dubbed me the Great Hero so I’d be flattered enough to accept a quest named “Coal Miner’s Canary,” so they could judge how strong of a hose they’d need to wash explorers’ innards off their prize crystal.

Ex Gyrados

Save yourself the time leveling up your Magikarp and go straight for the Gyrados.

Yes, the game gets pretty repetitive after a while, and the endless, pointless quests seem to continue Square’s latest trend of having no confidence in themselves if they can’t make their games at least partially resemble MMOs. But here I should point out that I didn’t play the game as intended, multiplayer via internet connection. Maybe I ruined the game with my stubborn refusal to play with 11-year-olds who are convinced that misogyny and racial slurs are terms of endearment. Explorers comes with a travel phrasebook full of things to say to other players, and much like a foreign language phrasebook, you can’t say anything else. Personally, though, I’ve seen people act like jerks playing Journey, where the only method of communication is honking at each other. Still, the socially averse can still fill out a party by taking a break from Katamari junk collecting and spend some time playing Pokemon. Sometimes instead of the regular item, a monster will drop an “atmalith,” which I presume to mean you drag their bloated corpse back to the Poke-hospital in town in order to revive them to fight for you, or Frankenstein them onto another monster to make them stronger. Fighting with monsters has some advantages, as they revive themselves after being defeated and can occupy enemies long enough for you to recharge some AP. On the other hand, I couldn’t use anything larger than a cactuar since demons and malboros in my party kept photobombing the camera, blocking the view of my character.

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Judging distance for ranged attacks is not easy. If ONLY there were some way they could have used the 3DS hardware to make it easier to gauge depth…

Even if it might be nice to have one or two other aspects to the game, the combat itself works pretty well. You change freely between classic Final Fantasy jobs, purchasing skills to perform in combat. By evoking the super-special abilities in combat, you can permanently enhance these skills, although these enhancements tend to feel like gluing tea candles to the Bat Signal. Combat skills and dashing use AP, which regenerates slowly over time or quickly when using the basic physical attacks. This mechanic works well when using physical fighters, but my Time Mage felt a bit like a ponce running up to Bahamut in the heat of battle and slapping him with a book—the sort of thing I imagine fundamentalist Christians dare each other to do as teenagers. Even in less dire situations, such as traveling from one side of the island to the other, it sometimes gets bothersome to stop periodically and mercilessly beat unsuspecting animals to death just for the privilege of running instead of walking. Use of an “airship” allows you to start each quest from strategic points around the island, but once you’ve begun there is no fast travel option, so you pretty much have to settle in for the long haul and pretend you’re watching the Boston Marathon with cosplay.

Final Fantasy Explorers wins points for reviving the feel of earlier Final Fantasy games—even while FFXV promises to revive the feel of Cloud’s Group Room adventure at the Honey Bee Inn—but loses them again for designing a game that churns out quests on an assembly line, repetitively performed by a character with the growth rate of a pine tree.

Final Fantasy Tactics (War of the Lions) – PS1, PSP

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God kept you distracted while I stole the princess! He also drives the getaway chocobo and is the patsy taking the fall for the caper.

As I begrudgingly abandoned Cross Edge and moved it from my shelf of “games I play again” to my shelf of “things I can slide under a barfing cat to protect the carpet,” I thought I’d look back at why I feel the need to slog waste-deep through trails of shit just to get to the end so I can verify, “Yes, indeed, I’m covered head to toe in fecal matter!” as if somehow upon completing the journey it would magically turn into whipped cream and the breasts of strippers. See, every time I encounter a game with a horrendous learning curve and I wind up with so many game overs during the early game that it looks like Jack Kevorkian threw a party in a nursing home, I think, “I’m just playing it wrong! This will probably get really fun once I figure out how to play it! After all, I loved Final Fantasy Tactics!”

Final Fantasy Tactics is that one good moment in a bad relationship with the JRPG genre when she fawns over you like a school girl, but hasn’t yet devolved into constant mind games and psychological torture. It’s where she hooks you with just a sweet enough personality that you think, “I know she loves me deep down inside! She did before” Meanwhile your friends make reservations for you on the psyche ward for the moment the truth finally hits and the local Perkins kicks you out at 3:00 in the morning for blubbering over the waitress and not ordering anything. FFT is an amazing game, probably one of the best in the series, but when I got it in 9th grade, I hated it and getting from the beginning to the end was a complete pain. But that’s because the only tactical game I had ever played was chess, and I had as much talent for chess as Stephen Hawking has for competitive Lindy-Hop. I tried to get through the game by power leveling and brute force, which loses its effect against an artificial intelligence with even a modicum more computing power than your average kumquat.

But I digress. The story follows Ramza Beoulve, which only on my most recent playthrough did I realize is supposed to be pronounced like “Beowulf.” Ramza is the youngest son of a high ranking noble, enrolled in an academy that trains knights to keep the peace in the kingdom. Also present is Delita Heiral, a commoner protected and sponsored by Ramza’s father. Together, they tactically romp their way through the Ivalice countryside, strategizing their way through nobles and peasants alike, hunting down rebellious metaphors, rogue themes, and other literary concepts escaped from a high school English class. The two come into conflict when Ramza decides to help rescue Delita’s sister, and Delita decides that noblemen view commoners with the same lusty gaze they’d give a box of condoms; they’re something they’d really like to get the chance to use. Without giving much more away, because the story truly is one of the strongest features of the game, FF Tactics tells a more complete, concise, and less pornographic version of Game of Thrones.

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Davos? I think George Martin was a Final Fantasy Fanboy.

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Fools! Step a few meters to the side and then attack!

While the story is better than almost all of the main series games, it truly shines when it comes to the combat system. Of course it’s a tactics game, which means some standards apply. Grid-based combat. Strategies dependent on enemy formations and terrain and a host of other features.  More characters to train, maintain, and manage than the U.S. Department of Defense. But the job system from Final Fantasy V received a sleek new upgrade. Characters change job class to learn different types of skills. Skills are purchased with accumulated job points, so there’s no need to learn them in any set order. Rather than allowing one skill from another class to be equipped, characters have their class’ action commands, a secondary set of action commands from any other class they’ve learned, one counter-skill from any class, one innate skill, and one move skill. Most people don’t have as much ability to customize themselves the way you get to mold and craft these characters. Dozens of different playthroughs have the potential to be unique experiences, which of course is why I always learn the dual wield skill from the ninja and equip it on a samurai, then teach all my characters to jump like a dragoon in order to survive that one boss battle in Riovanes castle.

The character customization, however, leads to the only two real flaws that I can see in this game (once I figured out all the other flaws were actually mine). The first is the crystallization of wounded combatants. Being a reasonably difficult game, your soldiers tend to drop like a flock of sea gulls flying through a particularly thick cloud of chlorine. From there, you have the standard Final Fantasy options for revival–phoenix down, raise spell, or wait until the end of battle and watch as a good night’s sleep cures an axe in the forehead–but they fail more often than a newly released Windows operating system. Only chemists can learn the item skill, and other classes that equip it need a second ability in order to administer items to characters more than a dick’s length away, so characters often spend several rounds of combat charging up the defibrillator while nearby enemies perform drum solos on their skulls. The big catch, though, is that if someone stays down for five rounds of combat, he’ll turn into a crystal, which can refill another character’s HP and MP, or on a good day randomly selects one of the hundreds of skills learned by the deceased and gives it to the living in a sad mockery of the half dozen hours spent training the now-rotting sack of meat.

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The church is the only character more likely to have “done it” than the butler.

Beyond an obnoxious gameplay mechanic that encourages me to regularly exercise the reset button and the nerfing of magic until it has the accuracy of trying to drop tennis balls in a glass of water from the international space station, nothing about this game feels worse than dismissing units. With a limit of 24 characters and a tendency to pick people up like a politician in a brothel, you’ll inevitably have to make room by kicking someone out of the group at some point, and each one of them–chocobos included–will lay a guilt trip on you that would make your mother proud. “I beg you, do not say these things! I swear I will prove my worth to you. I swear it!” “Are you certain of this? I thought us faster friends.” And even the non-human characters: “(It looks upset at being told to go home, mayhap because it has no home to go to.)” And the game won’t go easy on you–if you accept a monster into your party at all, soon you’ll notice an egg in your roster, and they’ll keep breeding until you have no choice but to look your beloved pet in the eye and tell it to fuck right off, then to pause the game for ten minutes and cry like your cat just died.

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What better role for a leading man than a secret character cameo?

Originally called just Final Fantasy Tactics–before they released two “advanced” games that were, quite honestly, a step backward–the game had a re-release on the PSP, given the subtitle “The War of the Lions,” probably to make it sound all Medieval-y like the historical War of the Roses. The remake ramps up the difficulty, which isn’t bad unless you aren’t prepared for it, but it might force you to spend a few hours more than usual looking for random battles to build up job points–level means nothing in FF Tactics, but skills make or break an assault party. The remake adds some extra hidden characters, such as Balthier from FFXII, who I assume is there to make up for the fact that Cloud, hidden in the original as well, starts off with less prowess in combat than your average toddler with down syndrome, and it takes at least a half dozen hours to improve him to the point where he can get close enough to the enemy to be slaughtered without a fight.

The remake also includes animated cut scenes with voice actors, as well as a new translation that makes the story less like poring over historical journals and a little more like an immersive Medieval fantasy world, where no one can run to the privy without flowery language, as if Shakespeare were describing their bowel movements.

Final Fantasy VI – SNES, GBA, Playstation, Android/iOS

The original Insane Clown Posse

The original Insane Clown Posse

Like most people over the age of thirty–at least, those who play video games–Super Mario Bros hooked me. I took one dose, one afternoon at a friend’s house, and that spiraled into a life-long addiction and tens of thousands of dollars I had to scrounge up and commit to feeding my problem. But Mario only acted as a gateway drug. I didn’t really settle into a specific class…er, genre…until the early nineties, when my cousins, on their annual visit to Northern Michigan, brought their Super Nintendo with them along with a little unheard of gem called “Final Fantasy VI.” Er…Final Fantasy III. Whatever. The one with Terra and the espers. I didn’t realize that Square had raised the bar on RPGs forever with this game. I just knew I could play it over and over until the chocobos come home. So, like those in my age range, FFVI became the standard against which I will judge all other RPGs. But how, pray tell, does it stack up as a game by itself?

Well, it turns out that when you use a game as a standard to measure itself, it comes out rather well.  In fact, I couldn’t find anything in which it failed to perform. There. End of article. I can’t remember having an easier time reviewing a game! But…I suppose for the sake of filling out some reading material, I should elaborate.

1/1200 of nothing! Give me the next two minutes of my life back!

1/1200 of nothing! Give me the next two minutes of my life back!

Final Fantasy VI follows a long-term trend in FF games to update technology and streamline design until eventually they’ll have as much in common with the fantasy genre as “The Jetsons,” and instead of riding around on flying boats like in FFIV, the characters will travel on the S.S. Enterprise or the Millennium Falcon. Wait…what? Anyway, FFVI falls in a steampunk-ish world where a power-hungry emperor has discovered the lost power of magic and couldn’t think of any better use for it than building mech armor that protects everything from the waist down, leaving all the soft, vital organs exposed to the swords, lances, and crossbows used by the rebels. Coming out of a magical apocalypse, scholars warn the emperor about using magic, as it might repeat the global destruction from a millennium ago. This makes as much sense as a comet passing over the White House and calling off the raid on Osama bin Laden because we don’t want to repeat the horrible tragedy at the Battle of Hastings.

Just slowly replace the entire script with Star Wars references, and pretty soon you'll have a game as popular as Star Wars.

Just slowly replace the entire script with Star Wars references, and pretty soon you’ll have a game as popular as Star Wars.

Anyway, the Empire uses Terra, a half-human, half-esper, half-protagonist, for her innate magical power. Then the Returners, a group of rebels, rescues her and hopes to use her for her innate magical power. But we don’t mind, because the Empire used a mind-control device to enslave her, whereas the Returners just used good, old fashioned, natural guilt. Because Tolkien taught us that kings always have our best interests at heart, while Star Wars shows us that emperors only want to blow up our planets and strike us dead with lightning. The Empire wages war to collect magic and subdue nations until the Emperor’s “court mage,” Kefka decides to destroy the world and rule the rubble heap as a god. The heroes rush to stop him. Then they lose. Failing to avert the apocalypse, the second act of the game takes off in a non-linear direction in which the player must find all the lost characters, then hunt down side quests that give them each a reason for living.

This game, as I’ve mentioned, defines “good RPG” for me. The story provides fourteen fully unique characters, each with a single unique special skill. Except for two, none of them learn magic naturally or in a pre-programmed order.  All spells are taught by equipping magicite (the petrified corpses of fairy-tale monsters, the Espers) in whatever configuration or order the player chooses. Each character has a certain configuration of base stats, suggesting a use for the character (The old mage, Strago, has higher magic power than physical power, while if you try to teach magic to your ninja, Shadow, you’ll find he has about as much aptitude for casting as a one-armed, epileptic fly fisherman…so about the same as every other ninja that Square tried to improve by giving low-level black magic powers), but magicite often grants stat bonuses when a character levels up, so the player can also customize these. I’ve only played two RPGs that have better character customization mechanics than FFVI: Final Fantasy V and Final Fantasy Tactics. So with all these fabulously creative systems, naturally Square moved on to FFVII, where you forge your characters with as much care as it takes to put books on a shelf, and who have all the unique features of an NES with a sticker on the top.

So I know we have to fight an epic battle to save all of existence in about three minutes, but this seems like the best time to tell Relm I'm her father.

So I know we have to fight an epic battle to save all of existence in about three minutes, but this seems like the best time to tell Relm I’m her father.

So when I joked about comparing FFVI to itself earlier, I may have lied somewhat, as it actually does exceed the standards it set. While the SNES version reigns supreme in the hearts of those who played it, I actually recommend playing the Game Boy Advanced version, which gives the game an upgrade akin to using a chainsaw to cut down a tree instead of a pocket knife. While Ted Woolsey’s original translation may have won the hearts and minds of 14-year-old boys who listened to the Pimsleur Japanese free sample so they can criticize the subtitles of Sailor Moon episodes, the GBA translation reads as though people actually speak the language used in the story.  It corrects mistakes such as “Lete River,” “Fenix Down” and “Gradius” (Lethe, Phoenix, and Gladius), it allows Cyan and Doma to exercise a Japanese culture rather than bleaching them whiter than a Disney Princess, and it un-censors a lot of the original story.  It also turns some of Woolsey’s garbled nonsense into meaningful dialog. “This kid’s loaded for bear” now reads as “When you showed up, I thought you were one of Vargas’s bears.” (After which, the game humorously speculates on Sabin’s sexual orientation.) Furthermore, Shadow, who learns of his relationship with Relm through a series of dreams, no longer drops that bomb on her just before the final battle, instead suggesting it more subtly.

Look away children! The Goddess statue will steal your soul way if you see her without those extra blue pixels covering her legs!

Look away children! The Goddess statue will steal your soul way if you see her without those extra blue pixels covering her legs!

This most recent playthrough, I decided to watch Star Trek on Netflix while I worked on some side quests. In easily the weirdest moment I’ve ever had playing video games, I look up from FFVI to hear Kirk talking about espers. The term “esper” refers to someone with the ability to practice ESP at will. That, I suppose, clarifies the connection with magical monsters about as well as a six-year-old with cholera clarifies a public swimming pool.

This...might take a little more strategy than "Stick him with the pointy end."

This…might take a little more strategy than “Stick him with the pointy end.”

While the second act glorifies non-linear side quests, RPGs always contain the flaw of running out of stuff to do as soon as all the highest-level weapons, armor and magic becomes available. Like the other GBA ports of the SNES FF games, FFVI adds bonus dungeons to the end. The major dungeon, the Dragon’s Den, resurrects the eight dragons, presumably with a mixture of phoenix down, high doses of caffeine, and anabolic steroids. After making your way past these new challenges, you fight the Kaiser dragon. With even a moderate attention toward leveling up, the game’s final boss will drop faster than a politician’s pants in a truck stop bathroom, and I have literally destroyed him in a single attack on more than one occasion. The Kaiser dragon, on the other hand, puts up more of a fight than a triple-amputee undergoing chemotherapy, so his addition not once, but twice, spruces up gameplay by a healthy amount. He appears a second time in the other bonus dungeon, a 100-battle fight through various enemies and bosses encountered throughout the game.

Also, nostalgic lenses can successfully make the Three Stooges funny.

Also, nostalgic lenses can successfully make the Three Stooges funny.

Yes, I’ll fully admit I may see the game through nostalgic lenses, an unfortunate pair of glasses that look back on high school without the crippling social anxiety or need for anti-depressants, but I’ll also gladly confess to all the standard RPG schlock that comes along with the package. For instance, disposable tents (“I put it up, damn it! What more do you want? You don’t actually expect we’ll need to heal or sleep ever again, do you?”), a comically large cast, thus ensuring you spend half the game trying to decide which four characters to put in your party and denying any of them a significantly flushed out back story and personality, and some carelessly written scenarios, in which the game wants us to question the loyalties of a character who never even hints at ulterior motives, at one point having Kefka place a sword in her hands. At that point, expecting her to do anything but stab him with it would make less sense than dumping a pizza on your lawn every night and expecting the raccoons to not build tiny condominiums under your deck.

This most recent playthrough, I decided to watch Star Trek on Netflix while I worked on some side quests. In easily the weirdest moment I’ve ever had playing video games, I look up from FFVI to hear Kirk talking about espers. The term “esper” refers to someone with the ability to practice ESP at will. That, I suppose, clarifies the connection with magical monsters about as well as a six-year-old with cholera clarifies a public swimming pool.

With extra weapons, armor, espers, spells, and dungeons, plus with a translation that suggests at least one person on the development staff spoke more than one language, the GBA version clearly surpasses the original. However, even the original holds high standards that many games developed recently still fail to live up to. Square filled FFVI with as many options for customizing characters and exploring the worlds as possible, as well as a level of detail and culture into their world that gives even the post-apocalyptic landscape a more appealing atmosphere than our car-exhaust-choked Earth. If you happen to fall into an age range that didn’t hit this game’s popularity at its peak, go out and find a copy. You shouldn’t have trouble; they ported it to just about every system imaginable. Why? Well…I guess the more ports they make, the easier they can hide from the fact that THEY STILL HAVE NO PLANS FOR A 3D REMAKE!! Get your act together Squeenix!

And just for fun, let's add in some cactus juice. Only mildly hallucinogenic!

And just for fun, let’s add in some cactus juice. Only mildly hallucinogenic!

Final Fantasy Legend (SaGa) II – Game Boy

1991: Discouraged from invading real countries, the Axis powers reunite to invade fantasy characters' digestive tracts.

1991: Discouraged from invading real countries, the Axis powers reunite to invade fantasy characters’ digestive tracts.

Let’s talk gun control. I don’t like living in a world full of guns and bombs and drones. I never had. Ever since…fourth grade, why not?…I’ve dreamed up method after method that humanity could adopt in order to rid the planet of high tech weaponry. And then replace them with swords, spears, and bows. As a kid, swords fascinated me. No one ever considered me angry, or aggressive, and I don’t think I ever once played soldier.  I didn’t even play pretend in the Middle Ages. I just liked the idea of a fantasy world with magic and dragons and heroes. Heroes, of course, who always wielded a legendary sword, enchanted by some wizard or possessed by the spirits of nature. I lusted for fantasy combat, adventures, traveling long distances and sleeping on the ground. I had a hero’s soul. I needed to live a hero’s life! Of course, two decades later I realize that yearning for a medieval lifestyle requires a fondness for poverty, war, plague, dysentery, and a government that hands out tortures and executions like speeding tickets, and I now consider myself a hero if I can leave a comment on Facebook without igniting a flame war.

And their grammar grades lost by 20. Hopefully they won't receive too many damages.

And their grammar grades lost by 20. Hopefully they won’t receive too many damages.

But, of course, any excuse to pick up a sword and fight evil would do for childhood Jake, and I suspect that early video game RPGs owe their success to that phenomenon. In retrospect, Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest play as well as children suffering from polio and severe brain trauma, but with no other kids in town they must have seemed agile and imaginative by lack of comparison. But take the aforementioned kid, then add a raging hemophilia and an angry pet hedgehog, and you’ve got the perfect metaphor for Final Fantasy Legend II, a sluggish, bland, poorly translated, glitch-ridden little weevil for the game boy that somehow has garnered high reviews in the 20+ years since it came to the U.S.

"Any distinguishing features?"  "Well, he had a hat."

“Any distinguishing features?”
“Well, he had a hat.”

The second installment of the SaGa series–renamed to FF Legend as a marketing scheme–shares the same inbred genetics of other RPGs at the time. For starters, sometime in the late 1980s, Japan leased out the room full of monkeys trying to reproduce Shakespeare, and instead of waiting for the huge payoff, simply took the coherent shreds of text and built games around that. One particular monkey hammered out the word “magi,” which Squaresoft executives looked at and agreed it resembled the word “magic.” Thus, FF Legend II tells the story of a generic hero character with a human father no matter what race you choose, who has to collect magi from the nine worlds in order to kick evil’s ass. The game chucks a decent number of macguffins at you to keep you moving with little or no explanation–as any early RPG should–and any claims elsewhere that praise the game’s character development have clearly confused “dynamic character with a complex personality altered in a significant way by the events of the story” with “forceful, repetitive combat to simultaneous grind your level up and the buttons on your game boy down.”

Uh, as per California state law, I'll require positive verbal consent before this level.

Uh, as per California state law, I’ll require positive verbal consent before this level.

Final Fantasy Legend II doesn’t really have characters. They have text to tell you what to do next, but they really emphasize combat above all else. I would complain that the extremely high rate of random encounters sends me into battle on a single step away from my previous battle, but two or three times I finished fighting monsters, then without moving I hit the menu button, only to immediately get sucked into another battle. Again, as fits the style of the time, characters fall drastically short of effective combat stats, and the groups of monsters often more than 10 at a time regularly pose a risk of slaughtering your party. Upon death, Odin will appear and offer you the opportunity to repeat the fatal battle as often as necessary, but except for once or twice, but often the cause of my demise hinged on the size of the enemy hoard preventing any chance of victory, so I’d take up Odin on his offer only to run from the monsters when I could.

...can I politely decline to receive the Rhino's meat? That sounds painful.

…can I politely decline to receive the Rhino’s meat? That sounds painful.

As if wading through a world filled elbow-deep with enemies like a claw crane machine didn’t slow down the pacing enough, characters don’t earn experience or level up in a traditional sense. The best I can determine, the game awards stat bonuses based on actions in battle, like in Final Fantasy II (NES). However, you select your party from a list of humans, mutants, robots and monsters, and only the humans and mutants seem to get these stat bonuses. The robots improve states based on equipment–as one might expect a robot to do–and the monsters transform into other monsters by devouring the corpses of your fallen foes. So after hours of grinding, I had a human who could deal formidable damage at a reasonable speed, a mutant who could sometimes pick off a few enemies if he lasted long enough, and a robot and a monster who only contributed to the battle by presenting themselves as targets.

Each item even more elixier than the last!

Each item even more elixier than the last!

If you ever suspected yourself of having a trace of OCD, avoid this game for its menus. Characters can equip a set number of weapons, magic or items, but as many as they want of each. Except for armor. And certain spells which seem character specific. And a few abilities that don’t seem to do anything. Oh, and the monster can’t equip anything, which limits how much your party can carry. Once again as usual for this era of RPGs, the game treats healing items and spells like novelty trinkets, dropping them here and there when it thinks you might have some cash to spare, and kindly exiting the menu after a single use. How much did you heal, 30 HP? That should easily get you through the next dozen battles with 15 monsters apiece, each holding fully automatic rifles and a belt made from the thumbs of previously defeated players.  But apparently Square felt they needed to make the game just a little harder, so the equipment degrades with each use.

Now, I’ve seen equipment degradation done right. Well, maybe “well enough,” would more accurately describe it. I mostly worked in Fallout, although I did get tired of lugging around a half dozen suits of power armor as spare parts. Here, I can understand how combat might reduce the strength of a sword over time. I can even picture a shield, dented beyond use. However, when merely raising the shield in front of you reduces its life span, I have to wonder whether a material that degrades in a slight breeze would effectively block so much as an angry butterfly, let alone any potential enemy attacks.

After days of grinding, I finally have the stats to...what the hell? Five?

After days of grinding, I finally have the stats to…what the hell? Five?

For all its faults, I would have slogged through this all the way. I did finish all the main-series Final Fantasy games, as well as both Dragon Quest games I’ve played. And I could see how a hand-held level grinder might have some value on a long car trip with a family you’d much rather ignore. However, the game has glitches. Fatal glitches. For instance, if a character runs out of viable options for use in battle, the other characters, apparently not wanting him to feel bad, will stop doing damage to enemies with their own attacks. I did pick up two items marked “power,” but can’t tell you what they do since using them freezes the game upon exiting the menu. However, most fun of all the glitches, somehow I triggered one that resets the game as you attempt to open a passage leading to the next area of the story. I’ve respectfully gone through games that I didn’t want to play after a little while, but I’ve never played a game so rude that it didn’t want me to play it. Maybe now I can find the FF game boy game that spawned the Seiken Densetsu (Secret of Mana) series.

(NOTE: A remastered edition of this game exists for the NDS. It probably has worked out the glitches; however to play it in English you’d have to find the fan-translated ROM hack, as they never released the game outside of Japan)

Final Fantasy X-2 – PS2, PS Vita

yuna gun

Yesterday I discovered RPG Maker, and now I have to use all my focus and concentration to not trash all my reading and lesson planning in order to fulfill a long-time dream of mine: make an RPG that accurately follows the events in the Iliad and the Odyssey. Stop looking at me like that. As a reader of a retro video game blog, you tell me: would you rather read the books or play through it in game format? Yeah. I thought so. Anyway, I bring this up because both the Iliad and the Odyssey not only find their way into literature classes, but also in pop culture, what with movies and TV miniseries, references in songs and stories and even in video games. An early example of a sequel, the Odyssey proves that continued storytelling doesn’t have to suck Donkey Kong Jr, so long as you do it right. Hollywood sequels have a tendency just to shove the original stories into an industrial blender, pour the contents into a plastic bag, mark it with a two (or if the original had a number in the title, increase that number by one like they invented clever) and demand your money: Austin Powers: Goldmember, Batman Forever, and any horror movie with a number on it will fall into this category.

A picture of Lulu...nine months pregnant. Seriously, did you guys even try?

A picture of Lulu…nine months pregnant. Seriously, did you guys even try?

However, Final Fantasy X-2, despite having a sequential numbering problem worse than the Metroid franchise, took the story in a worthwhile direction. They didn’t try to reveal a bigger evil than Sin, or someone who had secretly controlled Yu Yevon the whole time, or make a brand new threat somehow more threatening than a 1000-year-old sea monster. They didn’t retcon character deaths, bringing back Auron or Blitzy McThunderpants. They didn’t even need to send Yuna on some new kind of pseudo-pilgrimage. Instead, they did what the original–er, tenth installment–did. They focused on character. Final Fantasy X told the story of an obnoxious, extroverted, meat-headed jock, who Square somehow thought would appeal to the crowd playing console games in 2001. Highly literary nevertheless, the dipshit protagonist, referred to as Tidus in all material relating to the games and not at all throughout two entire games, served as a catalyst for changes in the story’s characters as well as the traditions of Spira, especially showing us themes of sacrifice. Final Fantasy X-2 starts with the most interesting thing about him–his girlfriend–and asks some heavy-hitting questions about peace, recovery, and trying to fit back into a generally happy world after dramatically rescuing it from death while contracting probably a pretty severe case of PTSD in the process. But while it doesn’t take a genius to pick up on the metaphor in the original–“Let’s go on a quest to defeat Sin and confront our issues with our fathers!”–you might need a master’s degree in literature to figure out the sequel.

The story opens with a flashy pop-dance number that literally has no bearing on the game and serves no purpose other than to start the show with a bang and establish the possibility that maybe Yuna can sing like a pop diva. Two years after Yuna sent Sin to the Farplane in a burst of pyreflies that looked coincidentally like a celebratory fireworks display, Spira has discovered an interest in history. No longer under the oppressive rule of old white men whose hearts have long stopped beating (no, not the GOP), citizens find the freedom to hunt spheres. *Looks around at sphere-themed world: “Another job well done!”* No, specifically they want old spheres with recorded scenes, with a quality much like a crappy VHS tape left on a car dashboard for a year. These spheres have the storage capacity somewhere between a vine film and a youtube video. But, apparently people will pay big bucks for the historical data on them, even though we follow a team of sphere hunters who never once sells a sphere for profit.

Line up, guys...each girl has her own unique set. Of costumes. A unique set of breasts. Costumes!

Line up, guys…each girl has her own unique set. Of costumes. A unique set of breasts. Costumes!

Enter Yuna and the Gullwings. Spira no longer needs summoners, as they don’t have to worry about Sin and apparently choose not to worry about the need to send their deceased to the farplane lest they turn into monsters, and Yuna has teamed up with Rikku to hunt spheres with the Gullwings. Led by Rikku’s brother, Brother, the team tools around Spira in an airship tricked out to resemble something of a cross between a low-rider, a muscle car, and a Freudian compensation for a small penis. Yuna and Rikku have tuned up their appearance as well. Rikku has stripped down to a bikini top and hot pants, and now sports a Jack Sparrow hairstyle (because nothing makes a 17-year-old girl more attractive than looking vaguely like Johnny Depp). Yuna’s costume, while it doesn’t scream “conservative apparel” any more than Rikku’s, hints at her character’s hang ups over losing Tidus Androgynous: she wears a hoodie, her warrior costume uses his sword, and the piece of bling holding the two halves of her top together look an awful lot like…uh…Jecht’s chest hair pattern. …Yuna, I love you, but you just ruined it. If you’ll excuse me, I have to go shave my eyes. The two of them picked up a new friend, Paine, a taciturn, gothic warrior with the personality of a girl Auron may have dated in high school. She has a mysterious history that would have made an interesting story, but with all the focus on Yuna and characterization, Square sort of forgot to develop a plot, so Paine and the new leaders of Spira fit into the story about as well as Sin would fit into Rikku’s hot pants.

Apparently people love the HD re-release on the PS-Vita. Go figure. Also, send me cash so I can buy one.

Apparently people love the HD re-release on the PS-Vita. Go figure. Also, send me cash so I can buy one.

The battle system relies on dresspheres, special items that allow Yuna, Rikku and Paine to adopt job classes from classic Final Fantasy games. Jobs learn abilities, much in the same way as in Final Fantasy V or Tactics. For the most part, this works well. Abilities make characters stronger more than leveling up, which gives the player a more active control over the game. They even encourage job changing in battle, including some…tantalizing, let’s say…animations of the girls changing costumes. Battles adopt a faster pace than previous games, which almost makes up for a random enemy encounter rate higher than Willie Nelson. Unfortunately, as the game progresses, the job system fizzles out. You don’t find too many dresspheres, and the classes the game offers seem left over from the jobs no one used in other games–bard, blue mage, whatever “Lady Luck” does. I used white and black mages frequently. The physical classes–gunner, warrior, samurai, berserker, dark knight–all had slightly different stats for when, as usual for an RPG, I spammed the basic attack during regular battles.

Ripped off from IGN, but hey...I can't take screenshots on my PS2, and don't you feel better for having seen this?

Ripped off from IGN, but hey…I can’t take screenshots on my PS2, and don’t you feel better for having seen this?

Game play follows a non-linear pattern, in theory. You’ll still have to progress from chapter 1 to 5 in the usual order, but you can tackle any events in those chapters in whatever order you feel like. Really, I’d describe it as more of a rectangle than a line. Many of the missions–surprise!–find excuses to send Yuna through areas with random enemy encounters–because why wouldn’t your rival sphere hunter have wild, electric tigers roaming free in her booby-trapped home? I personally keep a few bears in my living room in case any upstart fantasy protagonists stumble through here (they have a weakness to fire…as does my living room in general). Some of the missions involve mini-games, like “Gunner’s Gauntlet,” which lets Yuna pop caps in fantasy monster asses (fucking tonberries!) to her little heart’s content. The game takes place during the blitzball off-season (praise Yevon!), so they’ve replaced it with a game called sphere break; what can give you more hours of fun than blitzball? A math game with an extremely long tutorial! Oh, how I wish I could say that with sarcasm!

I feel better for having seen this.

I feel better for having seen this.

The main events of the story when Yuna discovers one of her dresspheres has a 1000-year-old consciousness attached to it–yup, apparently dresspheres can do that, but only this one and only when Yuna uses it–belonging to a girl in love with a guy who looks like Loudmouth J. Ballkicker. And somehow that guy–Shuyin–has come to life on the farplane. And somehow the new leaders of Spira fit into that. I don’t know. The game has a lot of goofy moments, Charlie’s Angels poses, and a tall, slant-eyed Alan Rickman impersonator, but I like to tell myself that all this absurdity belies Yuna’s insecurities about her role in the new–yet still endangered–world she helped create. And then I google Rikku cosplayers and forget my school work, lesson planning, and RPG Maker for a good solid afternoon.

Really? People want to marginalize women who play video games? ...assholes! (ripped off from deviantart)

Really? People want to marginalize women who play video games? …assholes! (ripped off from deviantart)

Final Fantasy Fables: Chocobo Tales – NDS

This Thanksgiving, enjoy a bird and a story that won't put you to sleep.

This Thanksgiving, enjoy a bird and a story that won’t put you to sleep.

Give any television show long enough and one of two things will happen. Either they’ll make a Rashomon-style episode where every character gives a different recounting of a certain event, or they’ll parody a famous story using their own characters in place of the original. The latter usually only happens with cartoons and almost exclusively with comedy, but apparently it doesn’t require anything more than a long-running series running out of ideas, because that basically sums up Square Enix’s Final Fantasy Fables: Chocobo Tales. And in their eternal struggle to out-epic everyone else on the planet, they have redone not just one story, but sixteen, rewriting classic fables and fairy tales around their main series summon monsters and recurring fauna.

After turning on the game, the title screen greets you with two eyes, a beak, and the questionably euphemistic command to “touch the chocobo,” without giving you a doll to show you where to touch it. Touching said chocobo launches it upward into the title, bringing you to the main menu. A new game opens on a small farm where the young priestess, Shirma, has gathered three or four of her favorite chocobos to read them a story, which they apparently appreciate more than when I perform Shakespeare for my cats. Soon the black mage, Croma, arrives with a wagon full of newly acquired tomes, including one special-looking one that locks with a tile sliding puzzle. Having dexterous, prehensile digits, the humans naturally request help opening the lock from one of the giant birds with only wings incapable of flight. Enter the player-character, a young, silent, yellow chocobo. You undo the book, naturally unleashing all hell upon the world because, after all…Final Fantasy. The book eats all your chocobo friends leaving you alone with the mammals, and the villainess, Irma, struts out with her chocobo lackeys to taunt everyone about restoring the book to its true form….yada yada.

Who needs a hungry, big bad wolf when you have an angry little tonberry with a knife and a grudge?

Who needs a hungry, big bad wolf when you have an angry little tonberry with a knife and a grudge?

None of that really matters. The real game lies in three areas: pop-up book mini-games, microgames, and of course, Square wouldn’t pass up the opportunity to design an addictive yet time-consuming card game that wouldn’t actually work if you played it outside of the game. The main story only carts you between these games like a rickshaw with plot. The chocobo enters pop-up storybooks scattered around a small world like a Raccoon City library. Each one consists of a story loosely based off a real-life fable or fairy tale. Depending on the difficulty setting, winning the mini-game based on the story will earn you either one of three epilogues, a card that rescues a chocobo from the book that ate it, or a summon card for the card game. The epilogues offer some of the most bizarre prizes in the game. In re-writing these classic stories, Square may have missed the point. While some still sound moralistic, other resolutions wander so far off from the original plots so quickly that I wonder if the game shouldn’t go out to refill its Ritalin prescription instead of telling me stories. Others yet just offer tragedy, such as tonberries who cut off, stomp, and burn the three little pigs’ tails, or how the ugliest chocoling left home to live with the blind mole people and never became a beautiful phoenix. Each epilogue effects one change in the natural world–in addition to effecting a depression in the player–which tends to progress the story, open access to a card, or give the player access to a microgame. Rescuing chocobos will usually open a microgame or the grateful bird will give you a card. Beating the microgames will always give you a card.

Three-star rarity! That would impress me more if every single card didn't have only one copy in the entire game.

Three-star rarity! That would impress me more if every single card didn’t have only one copy in the entire game.

So really, the game should come to a head at the card game, right? You’d expect plenty of clever card duels with clever designs and challenging deck building strategies, right? You’d also recognize the sarcastic tone and have figured out by now that you shouldn’t expect those things, right? The card game works depressingly simply, but not simple and brilliant like the card game in Final Fantasy VIII and IX. More just plain-old simple. Each card has four zones, each one representing one of the four elements, Fire, Water, Earth and Cobalt-Thorium G. Each zone might attack, defend, or just sit with a gaping opening hoping someone will impale it. During each round, each player selects a card, which summons a classic Final Fantasy monster, and the game compares zones. An attack zone needs to match with an empty zone of the same element to hit, a guard zone of the same element to miss, and an attack zone of the same element for half damage. For successful attacks or blocks, instructions on the card determine damage and effects. The first player to reach zero HP wins the shame of losing the duel.

Yeah, I've spent a lot of time on newer systems, but this one tries to look retro!

Yeah, I’ve spent a lot of time on newer systems, but this one tries to look retro!

While the card game has addicting qualities, the simplicity often means that several rounds will pass with no damage. Occasionally I suspect a video game at cheating. Here, it seems like your opponents know what cards you’ve selected and will adjust their selection accordingly, a luxury you don’t have. Add to that unskippable animations for summoning, attacking, guarding, counterattacking, and unsummoning, and you can sometimes spend twenty minutes or more in a duel you know you won’t win. Moments like that made me wonder why Square included a “quit game” feature for the pop-up books, but not the microgames or the card game. Also, one pop-up book offers the option to skip the opening animation, but not the other fifteen or the card game. So while the game takes about 16 hours to finish and complete, you can use a good chunk of that time for reading, homework, preparing dinner, and telling those people from the congressman’s office that no, you don’t want to help out his campaign by calling people and trying to persuade them. The card game, though, doesn’t actually head the game; Square just needed some seemingly useful prize to give for the mini- and micro-games, and they just happened to have a plentiful supply of cards.

Whack-a-Malboro. Easily the most addicting, and surprisingly the least likely to inspire violence.

Whack-a-Malboro. Easily the most addicting, and surprisingly the least likely to inspire violence.

I found that I enjoyed the micro-games more than pop-up games or the card games. These games work like flash games or iPhone games–simple objective, simple rules, fast-paced game play, and difficult enough that you should probably pad your walls with rubber so as not to smash your DS when you chuck it away in frustration. Fortunately, unlike flash games, they offer prizes–cards, of course–which may not benefit you at all, but at least provide a point at which you can say, “Fuck this! I never want to play this game again!” with at least a modicum of dignity still intact. Getting that prize puts a reasonable limit on your need to sit there for hours because you think you can do just a little bit better next time.

Some games make use of the DS microphone, like this one simulating a blow gun. When I regained consciousness, I found I had won the gold prize!

Some games make use of the DS microphone, like this one simulating a blow gun. When I regained consciousness, I found I had won the gold prize!

This light-hearted spinoff doesn’t take much time, and it doesn’t pile on heavy themes of death and sacrifice and identity that the main series does with enough melodrama to sicken even the most self-absorbed teenage girls. The plot never really twists or complicates, and only thickens like a mild curry sauce. It pretty much consists of the humans sending you to the front lines, while they hang back and work as dialogue-spewing machines every so often. Most of the game recycles main series music in a move done either to reminisce on familiar series elements or to capitalize off having a Nobuo Uematsu score years after he left Square-Enix for greener pastures and blacker mages. The chocobo fights card battles to either the FF1 battle music or the FFVI boss music. The boss fight plays “The Battle on the Big Bridge,” one of my all-time favorite battle themes…unfortunately the modified air-hockey game doesn’t quite live up to the music. Still though, the game works, works well, and feels like all those addicting minigames you play when you know you should read or prepare for class instead…except, with more of a point. Other than getting out of work….I have to go play Whack-a-Malboro now.